Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Northeast - Coasting

At the height of midgie season in Scotland there's only one place to escape to where you can enjoy unhurried picnics and relaxed evenings at the tent - the east coast. Here's a wee cycle tour I did with bike buddy Graham a couple of weekends ago that hugs the northeast coast between Stonehaven and Dundee.

Straight out of Stonehaven there was a wee climb that provided a great view back over the town's picturesque harbour with its crescent of fisher cottages.

Just around the next corner were the atmospheric ruins of Dunnottar Castle, sitting on a rocky promontory poking out into the North Sea. Perhaps it wasn't atmospheric on this occasion at the height of summer with screaming bairns and a hot food van! The castle dates from medieval times and was the hiding place of the Scottish crown jewels from Oliver Cromwell's invading army in the 17th century.

The road south from here picked its way along quiet country back roads that cut across the golden fields of late summer and through little hamlets before it dropped to the beach again at Inverbervie. 

From here we bumped along the coast on a grassy track to the old fishing village of Gourdon. Some miles further on we parked up the bikes and ambled down to the beautiful, wild beach at St Cyrus. The dunes were dotted with wildflowers and seabirds wheeled above in the crags.

The bike route from here was a pleasant pootle to Montrose through woods filled with the aroma of pine trees warmed by the sun. We cycled across the links at Montrose on an old military airstrip before detouring up to Montrose Basin, a vast tidal basin picked over by waders at low tides. We watched an osprey eating a fish, terns nesting on platforms in the water and sand martins flitting in and out of their nesting holes. 

We returned to town for a sit-in chippy then found a gorgeous wild camp spot out on the links. It was close to an old fishing station and the lines for drying nets were silhoutted against a fiery sunset. There were no midgies.

Next morning more quiet back roads took us south to Arbroath and we nosed around its busy harbour looking for a morning coffee but the only place open was a kiosk selling the famous Arbroath smokies. 

On the south side of town, we paused at the beautiful sculpture marking the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. This was a declaration of Scottish indepenence made in 1320. It was said to be one of the earliest declarations in the world of popular sovereignty, that is the idea that government is a contract and kings can be appointed by the community rather than god. 

The cycle onwards from Arbroath to Dundee followed miles of traffic-free bike paths, lined by the wildflowers of summer, before entering the city through its industrial port.

Fact File
Start: Stonehaven by Edinburgh/Glasgow to Aberdeen train.
Finish: Dundee for trains to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and Stirling.
Map: Sustrans NCN1 Edinburgh to Aberdeen
Route: From the train station in Stonehaven cycle to the waterfront and pick up signs for National Cycle Route 1 south. We followed the route south all the way to Dundee. Dunottar Castle is right on the route. Montrose Basin is a short detour to the right as you pass the viaduct that brings the train line into Montrose. The statue of the Declaration of Arbroath is another short detour from the route - where the route enters an amusement park turn right and follow the road round to the left and under the railway line - the statue is straight ahead.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Minchmoor - Another Borders bike ride

The Minchmoor is a high moorland track in the Border hills between Innerleithen and Selkirk. Said to be one of the oldest paths in the country, it possibly dates back to Pictish times and was a main east-west crossing into medieval times. Befitting of its ancient heritage, it's a place of atmosphere and mystery, and a place of puffing and sweating, as I discovered traversing it by bike.

The track begins with a steep cycle above Traquair and passes through a gap in an old drystane dyke where there are mysterious plaques covered with random words and unfathomable sayings. The track tops out from the climb at the Point of Resolution where a modern art feature has created patterns in the heather that look like the crop circles of an alien landing.

From here the old route undulates eastwards along the spine of the ridge, at times on a good cyclable surface and at other times on a rutted, muddy, narrow trail. It stays high for miles and it felt like I was on the roof of the Borders up here with views stretching across green, rolling hills. The old route soon passes the mysterious Cheese Well, a mountain spring where in days gone by travellers would make an offering of cheese to the fairies to ensure a safe passage. These days the offerings are made in coins - times are harder for fairies.

The climax of the Minchmoor comes as it nears it's high point at the eastern end above Selkirk. Three tall, stone cairns dating from the 16th century dominate the skyline ahead. They're called the Three Brethren and traditionally mark the boundaries of the three burghs that meet at this point. 

It's a magical spot up here with big open skies and a real sense of the age and significance of the place. It makes your skin tingle and on a fine day you're not want to move on. But what goes up, comes down and the steep descent can't be resisted for long.

Fact File
Start: Innerleithen accessible from the Borders railway at Galashiels.
Finish: Selkirk, also accessible for the Borders railway at Galashiels.
Route: Cross the bridge over the Tweed to the south side and turn left towards Traquair. At a four way road split with a cross turn left uphill and follow the signs for the Minchmoor which is also the Southern Upland Way. Keep on the main track east until reaching the Three Brethren. We took the trail southwards from the cairns then turned left at a split to follow the Long Philip Burn and then the road into Selkirk.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Borders - Brilliant bitesize Borders bicycle bimble

I’m fair getting to know my way around the Borders these days on account of two things – the new Borders railway opening and the new boyfriend living near the end of it! I do feel like I’ve discovered a whole different world down there and its quiet roads, long distance trails and disused railway lines make for some brilliant cycling. Here’s a bitesize tour that takes in a few highlights.
The route starts at the end of the Waverley line at Tweedbank where a purpose-built bike path whisks you away from the station and on to the pretty town of Melrose. Be warned that it’s a stiff pull out of Melrose as the road south climbs over the shoulder of the Eildon Hills. 

The Eildons are a real compass point in this part of the Borders despite being only 1300 feet high, as they are visible from almost every road and rise. There has been a population in this area since the Bronze Age and its significance continued into Roman times with the building of Trimontium, a large Roman fort set on the lower slopes close to the River Tweed.
A network of empty, undulating back roads and a quiet section of St Cuthbert’s Way that gets lost in the woods, take you over the Teviot and a little distance along its banks before heading for Jedburgh. It’s a gorgeous wee Borders town whose central Mercat Cross is decorated in summer with flowers and bunting. 

There’s another stiff climb out of Jedburgh on a single track road that’s a dream to cycle. It passes high above the fields and farms. The dark rise to the south is the Cheviots, across the border in England. In summer the wind sends waves of movement across swathes of golden green wheat. From its high point, the road meanders down back to the valley as goldfinches and yellowhammers flit back and forth amongst the hedgerows.
An old railway line heads east now. It’s a good if bumpy track at first but latterly becomes a thin, muddy line through dense, overgrown summer vegetation. You’ll be wishing for a machete on your bicycle multi-tool.  Eventually you’ll pop out into another lovely Borders town, Kelso. In the warm sunshine, it’s central cobbled square can pass for a Spanish piazza. 

Kelso’s other highlight is the stately pile of Floors Castle. It dates from 1726 and is the traditional seat of the Duke of Roxburgh. Common people and cyclists can enjoy a slice of the grandeur with coffee and cake in the terrace café that overlooks the walled garden.
The tour turns back now towards Tweedbank via a network of back roads and fairly ramps up the sightseeing spots. The first detour is to Wallace’s Statue, a larger than life and slightly clumsy statue of William Wallace that gazes out across the Tweed. It was erected in 1814 by the 11th Earl of Buchan, the local eccentric of the day.   

A short cycle further on is probably the most visited spot in the Borders, Scott’s View. It overlooks the Eildon Hills and the River Tweed and was said to be a favourite place of Sir Walter Scott who lived close by at Abbotsford. An old story tells that he stopped so often on his way home to enjoy the view here that his horses would pull up at the spot without even a command. Scott’s funeral cortege passed this way and legend has it that the horses stopped at the place to allow their master once last look at his favourite view.

The final stop on the tour is Leaderfoot Viaduct, a stately crossing of the Tweed that once carried the Berwickshire Railway. It was opened in 1863 and its 19 arches are 126 feet high. Close to Leaderfoot is the area of the old Roman fort, Trimontium. While there’s not much to see on the ground today, information boards help to bring the place to life. There’s great view of all this from the old Drygrange Bridge, a road bridge dating from 1776 that spans the Tweed here. And pasted on top of all the old stuff is the new A68 road with its busy, Edinburgh-bound traffic. This spot is amusingly referred to as “Tripontium”.
From here it’s a short bimble back to Tweedbank to catch a train home.
Fact File
All the photos on Flickr - click HERE.
Start/finish: Tweedbank Railway Station (regular trains from Edinburgh)
Map: Nicolsons Road 3, Southern Scotland and Northumberland, 1:250,000
Route: From Tweedbank station take the signposted bike path link to Melrose. Eventually pick up the main road into Melrose and follow it around its one-way system to pass the ruins Melrose Abbey. The road comes into the market square – go straight on up Dingleton Road which climbs out of Melrose over the shoulder of the Eildon Hills. This the B6359. Follow it south to a left turn at Cavers Carre signed for bike route 4. It crosses the Ale Water at a ford (there’s also a footbridge). Follow the track out the other side until joins the B6400, turn left and follow that road to Ancrum then across the A68. About 1km further on turn into the country estate at Harestanes where there’s a café. Pick up St Cuthbert’s Way here and follow it south through the woods and across the River Teviot. A lovely section here cycling alongside the river. Some steps take the route up to the A698 where you’ll have to left over the crash barrier. Take the non-classified road opposite into Jedburgh and be user to detour the gorgeous Mercat Cross in the centre.
Out of Jedburgh we took another non-classified road that leaves the town to the right just before the bridge over Jed Water. It climbs high to Ulston for some great views and really enjoyable sweeping descent to Crailing. Cross the A698 and take the wee road opposite to join the B6400 via Kirkmains. Turn north and immediately after the road crosses the Teviot Water take the track to the right signed for the Borders Abbeys Way. This is an old railway line. Stay on it until it emerges onto the road at Roxburgh. It’s quite overgrown towards the end. Turn right then follow this back road to the A699 and into Kelso. It’s a quiet A road and there’s a great view of Floors Castle from here across the Tweed. Cross the town and join the A6089 briefly before turning off west on the B6397. There’s a back entrance here if you want to just visit the Castle’s café and not pay the entrance fee.
Follow the national cycle network signs west to Clintmains and shortly after turn right signed for Wallace’s Statue and Scott’s View. The statue is a short detour from the road on a good surface. Continue north and pass Scott’s View. At a T junction turn left and descend to the Tweed. It’s tricky to spot but just after the road has crossed the bridge over Leader Water, it passes under the A68 and there’s a wee path to the left that takes you onto Drygrange Bridge for a great view of the Leaderfoot Viaduct. On the other side turn right up the hill and cycle through the area of Trimontium. The road emerges into Newstead and you can go right or left at the fork to return to Melrose to take the bike route back to Tweedbank.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Speyside - The Burma Road

The Burma Road is a name to capture your imagination,  if ever there was one. Rob and I biked it a few weekends back. Unsurprisingly it doesn't lead to Burma but acquired its name due to having been laid by prisoners of war. Today it's a rough track over the hills above Aviemore and a big  climb by bike.

We started our ride at Kincraig and headed north towards Aviemore on a new stretch of the Speyside Way, a delightful undulating track through summer birch woods that dovetails with the railway.

The climb then started at Lynwilg, easy to begin with but quickly steepening.  The midges made us not want to stop to rest or take advantage of the goodies in the trackside honesty box.

The road topped out above the grey hills of the Monadhliath and was flat briefly before the long descent on its north side.

At the bottom of the descent, we followed the River Dulnain downriver and made a beautiful wild camp in the pine woods. The eyecatching black and white of oystercatchers flying by contrasted with the rich greens of the forest.

Next day we biked on along empty tracks through the summer woods and down quiet winding back roads to the forests of Abernethy for a second night out in the tent. There were detours to the old Sluggan Bridge, part of General Wade's military road north, and the nesting ospreys at Loch Garten.

From Abernethy we biked over Ryvoan Pass with the high tops of the Cairngorms to our left and paused in the bothy to escape a rain shower. We made a fast descent to Aviemore on the fabulous Old Logging Way before returning to our start at Kincraig.

Fact File
Start/finish: Kincraig
Route: In Kincraig take the Speyside Way track to Aviemore - you can pick it up on the right as you climb up through the village passed the shop. Follow this to its end when it crosses the B9152. Turn left on this road and cycle south for approx 1.5km, taking the right turn signed for the A9. Cross the A9 to Lynwilg and follow the wee road through the hamlet to the right. The Burma Road is signed from here after the bridge. It's a stiff climb, steep in places, but the long decsent is more gradual. At the bottom, cross the wooden bridge over the River Dulnain and turn right. Follow this track until it emerges at the hamlet of Inverlaidnan and swing to the right, cross the bridge and follow the track right where it soon joins the tarmac road into Carrbridge. A little way down here is the worthwhile short detour to the Sluggan Bridge, signed for the national cycle network. From Carrbridge (nice cafe a few doors down from shop) we followed the national cycle network offroad route to Boat of Garten which was really nice through the woods. After Boat of Garten we truned left on the B970 and then took a right to the RSPB centre at Loch Garten to see the ospreys. We retraced our tire tracks a little way back down the Loch Garten road and picked up the Speyside Way in the direction of Nethy Bridge. When it crossed the C class road south out of Nethybridge we followed that road, took the next left hand split and then the forest track up to Forest Lodge. We crossed the bridge over the River Nethy a few hundred metres northeast of the lodge and followed this track a long way out to camp. Next morning we returned to Forest Lodge and then took the signed track west for Ryvoan Pass. At Glen More we took the Old Logging Way down to Aviemore and picked up the Speyside Way back to Kincraig.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Assynt - The summer walkers

In Scotland "summer" is a loose term that defines the time of year rather than the weather which is more often driech and cold than hot and sunny. And so it was when Rob and I had an early summer holiday walking some hills in the far north.

Our first peak was Quinag, the "milking pail" in Gaelic. Like the other Assynt hills, it rises from the landscape in splendid isolation from its neighbours with a certain degree of drama. All the Assynt peaks have their own unique mountain character but common features are steep, plunging sides and bizarre rock arrangements. We set out for Quinag on a firm path that crossed the moor. The sunshine and the blue sky above might have fooled us into thinking it was summer had it not been for a chill breeze that kept the temperature down and the jackets on.

As we approached Quinag, it struck me how it was a mountain of two halves, cut in the middle by a shallow bealach. To the right of the bealach we climbed the rounded, whaleback top of Sail Garbh where our view stretched over the other Assynt peaks rising from a land studded with sparkling lochans that fell away to the blue of the Atlantic. To the left of the bealach we continued over Spidean Coinich, a much narrower and shaplier peak. We focussed our view on our feet more as we crossed airy, rocky places that plunged to a blue-green lochan nestled in the corrie below.

We moved further north from Quinag and on a grey evening lit by the occasional late ray of sun, we walked into a mountain called Arkle. The track passed an old, boarded-up cottage and I loved how the greys and browns of the walls and roof mirrored the colours in the hills behind. It was as if the cottage had grown with the landscape. Beyond the cottage the trail passed right through the middle of a huge erratic boulder, split into two by primeval elements, and entered a wood filled with the call of a cuckoo. We pitched the tent and named the place Cuckoo Wood.

Next morning the tent was unzipped to a grey, cold day with a stiff northwesterly blowing through. We plodded up Arkle. Mist thickened as heathery slopes gave way to a bizarre feature where we found ourselves walking across a huge plateau covered with small, round pebbles. In the mist we could see nothing else to give us a frame of reference so it was a surreal experience crossing that place. On the far side of this plateau, the ridge narrowed and our route crossed a series of rocky slabs with drops either side, helpfully hidden in the mist. An easy, broad walk then took us onto to the summit. 

In the dense clag there was only the slightest suggestion of a view and in the cold and wind, only the merest hint of summer.

Fact File
Route for Quinag: We parked in a car park on the A894 at NC232273 and on the opposite side of the road followed an obvious path towards the bealach on Quinag. From the bealach a clear path led up to Sail Garbh. We returned to the bealach and continued east along Spidean Coinich, descending its east slabby ridge to pick up the outward route.
Route for Arkle: We parked off the A838 at NC297402, just south of Loch Stack. We followed the track to the cottage marked at Lone and on into the forestry beyond where we pitched the tent. We continued along the path beside the Allt Horn and turned off to climb Arkle's southeast flank to the point marked at 758m. We then followed the curving ridge round to the northwest top marked at 787m. We returned the same way.
Tip: You can hear "The Summer Walkers" by Runrig at this link - click here.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Wester Ross - Coco-nuttie

The old coffin road climbed steeply above Corrie Hallie in hot afternoon sunshine. It was a wonderful place to walk. One of those ancient paths that had been well built to stand the test of time and the passage of feet, hooves and the two fat-bikes that rolled passed me.

The colour scheme was yellow with pale primroses dotted around the woodland floor and rampant gorse in the open areas. I love the gorse at this time of year as it fills the early summer air with its heady, intense scent of coconuts. 

The old road climbed higher into the hills and as it did so the view opened up behind me to the jagged outline of An Teallach. I'd been up there earlier that day. Though my long walk had started the day before at Loch a Bhraoin after I'd wrestled my rucsack from a taxi driver who didn't want to give it up. Taxi? The Inverness train had been very, very late so the last Ullapool bus had left so Scotrail put me in a taxi to the start of my walk. It was well into the evening and a desolate spot so the taxi driver couldn't quite believe that somebody would walk out into the hills there and then.

A meandering walk from there had enabled me to eye up An Teallach on its gentler south side from a wild camp near Shenavall. A beautiful spot in golden evening sunshine as house martins swooped around the tent, cuckoos called in the hills and the warm evening air wafted the coconut scent from a large stand of gorse. The sun had sank behind the mountain on a peaceful evening but next day a blasting gale-force wind had forced me back from the second peak on the narrow ridge. 

As I pulled up and over the highest point of the coffin road that evening, the wind had subsided and I pitched the tent by Loch an Tiompain which reflected back An Teallach in its gently rippled water. The evening was balmy and caddis flies danced above the water, leaving behind on the rocks their beautifully crafted cases that protected them as larvae in the loch. It's a little wonder of nature.

Next day the coffin road dropped steeply to farmland at the head of Loch Broom. Further up the loch a Calmac ferry in its distinctive black, red and white livery slipped away from the cluster of white buildings on the shore that marked the town of Ullapool. It was heading for Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. I was heading for a cluster of Munros at Beinn Dearg.

Plans to camp high were abandonned in the gale force winds and instead I made a lower basecamp in Glen Sguaib. It was a charming wee spot beside a ruined cottage. The house was surrounded by the drystone wall of a small enclosure and inside the gate the first of the bluebells poked up through rampant bracken. Two big old sycamores had grown through the wall in one corner and provided shade. A couple of wooden pallets made a table and chair for alfresco dining. I poked around the old place. The roof of the cottage had partially collapsed and there was little left of the interior except the old fire grate. It's decaying state contrasted with the new spring growth and bird activity all around in the woods.  Despite the state of the ruin, it wasn't a sad place but had a happy atmosphere, full of life and warmth.

With the tent and heavy kit left below, I climbed Beinn Dearg and its adjacent neighbours, barely able to stand at times in the gales. Beinn Dearg has a bizarre drystone wall all along its summit ridge. It's a blot on the landscape but I was grateful for its shelter. The sun shone but higher up the lochans still held floating blocks of ice. There was some lingering snow which melted as the day passed, making the stream crossings on the descent tricky.

On my final day the winds eased and I made the long trek to an outlying mountain called Seanna Bhraigh, the "old height". My route skirted the Cadha Dearg, a huge bite out of the hillside with deep crags and cliffs. Then it climbed up the broad flank of Seanna Bhraigh before revealing the sudden, plunging cliffs on the north side. Westwards the view stretched to the isolated peaks of Assynt, hazy in the summer shimmer, while northwards was an empty place of mile after mile of moor.

I turned my back on the old height and trekked out to Inverlael. At the hillwalkers' car park, I scrounged a lift into Ullapool. Strange to be moving so quickly and easily after a week on foot. The miles passed fast with chat of the hills but the whole while stuck in the car, I missed the smell of coconuts.