Saturday, 23 September 2017

Dumfries, Galloway and the Borders - Southern Cross

September is one of my favourite months and I usually stick a week's leave in the diary to get away cycling to catch the tail end of summer. At this time, there are the last of the rich greens in the landscape and blue skies filled with clouds of swallows and martins, about to embark on their own September journey. This year I cycled in the south of Scotland, starting at Ayr and crossed Galloway, Dumfries and the Borders to end back home in Portobello. It was a journey through rich farmland and rolling hills, along meandering back roads that dipped regularly into pleasant wee towns with numerous cafes serving up coffee and gluten free cakes.

The start of the cycle looked very much like the end! This photo of the bike on the first day at Ayr promenade on the west coast could as easily pass for Portobello in the east on the last day as I rolled up to my front door.

Soon out of Ayr, I cycled to a place I'd always wanted to see - Electric Brae. It's famous for its optical illusion so when I was pedalling uphill, my legs knew it was up but my eyes were sure the road was going downhill! The coast road here also gave lovely views across a shimmering sea to the rock of Ailsa Craig.

Beyond Electric Brae the road left the coast to climb through the Galloway hills to Newton Stewart. I was using national cycle route 7 here and every now and then would pass a marker. The back road that the route uses was beautiful, especially as it passed through the Wood of Cree, still green and fresh like early summer. The road popped out eventually into Newton Stewart, a busy wee town with a lovely clock tower.

Beyond here I cycled onto the Machars, a peninsula south of Newton Stewart that dips into the Solway Firth. It has a special character all of its own and standing stones at Duntroddan. There were great little back roads that all seemed to lead to Wigtown, famous for its numerous book stores and annual book festival. 

Back on route 7, I cycled eastwards now using a helpful stretch of disused railway line. The line itself was flat of course but, as you'll see below, the access was not! The route then climbed back into the hills and more rugged landscape above Gatehouse of Fleet. It's a smart little town with neat rows of cottages and a working water mill.

Beyond Gatehouse the route passed closer to the seas of the Solway Firth again as it dipped into Kirkcudbright, a lively town with a working harbour and vibrant arts culture. It'll be most memorable to me though for the huge slice of gluten free carrot cake that it served up.

It was time to head inland again on a high road to Castle Douglas before following an old military road into Dumfries. As you might expect of a military road, it was poker straight on the map but what that didn't reveal of course, was that it was a real roller-coaster of a ride.

From Dumfries my route followed the waters of the River Nith before turning east again along the Solway coast to Annan. I camped a night near here and listened to the geese coming in at dusk to roost on the salt flats and I listened again to them leave in the morning. It's such an evocative sound that heralds the change of seasons.

At Annan I left the coast for the final time and cycled inland to pass into the Borders at the town of Langholm before cycling a high pass into the Ettrick Valley. It was a beautiful slice of pastoral life in this quiet nook of the country. In the morning golden sunshine bathed the landscape as I set out on my final day cycling home to Portobello.

There were four climbs to take me to Innerleithen and then through the Moorfoot Hills. The final pass closed in around me before opening up again to a view of Edinburgh and the Pentland Hills. I was on national cycle route 1 now and followed its winding course until I came upon familiar trails and the final run home. 

It's nice to cycle all the way home from a trip, eventually coming upon routes that you use each day in normal life. It makes you see things in a new light as you approach them from a different angle, both physically and metaphorically. And it's nice to have crossed from one side of the country to the other, soaking up everything in between.

Fact File
Start: Ayr Train Station
Finish: Portobello, Edinburgh
Route: From the train station I headed straight to the promenade to pick up national cycle route 7. It uses some bike path but mostly back roads to Maybole and then passes through the Galloway Hills to Newton Stewart. I left the route to cycle round the Machars for a half day - there are brilliant, empty single track roads here. From Newton Stewart route 7 uses a bike path on a disused railway line to Creetown then continues on mostly back roads to Dumfries and along the Solway Coast to Annan. Quirky and cheap camping at Mossdale on the route before Powfoot - right at the beach with birds all around. From Annan, I used back roads to Langholm, then passed into the Ettrick Valley from Eskdalemuir (which now has a fabby cafe with gluten free caramel apple cake) and then over to Innerleithen on back roads. From Innerleithen to Porty I followed national cycle route 1 on back roads to Bonnyrigg and then on cycle paths. I used two wild camps then formal campsites at Creetown, Mossdale and Wardlaw in the Ettrick Valley. The Mossdale and Wardlaw sites were lovely - highly recommended.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Borders - Cove, Coldingham and chickpea chapatis

This was a wee cycle tour in the southeast corner of Scotland, starting at Tweedbank railway station. Since the Borders Railway opened, I've scribbled often enough about the joy of exploring this area by bike. So suffice to say that the ride away from Tweedbank and then beyond Kelso was a dream of quiet back roads and leafy avenues, far from the madding crowd.

We crossed the border over the River Tweed on the first day and passed into England to camp for the night. The campsite was a strange place on a lonely rise with a patch of grass beyond the permanent trailer homes. The shower was cold, the nearby road was noisy but it was only £5 and we ate well at the adjacent inn.

Next day, in golden early sunlight, we cycled onto Eyemouth and visited the very moving sculpture there that commemorates the fishing disaster of October 1881 when Berwickshire lost 189 men at sea in a terrible storm. The scultpure on the waterfront faces out to sea and depicts the widows and children left behind. Incredibly, each bronze figure represents a real person. On a sunny morning with a gentle breeze and people walking their dogs along the promenade, it was hard to imagine that the elements in a different mood could be so vicious.

Cycling north from Eyemouth we pedalled along quiet farm roads that crossed fields of golden corn going under the harvester. A sign of the turning of the year. The farm roads took us to the pretty village of Coldingham where we spent a lovely afternoon in the green oasis of our friends' garden. There were homegrown potatoes, plums fresh from the tree and a never-ending supply of hot chickpea chapatis. As we left Coldingham, we were sure to pass through the "lucky arch" at Coldingham Priory.

Beyond Coldingham the road took us to a wild camp spot in the woods near Cockburnspath. Next morning a fiery sunrise set the woods alight as we retraced our steps a little to Cove, an idyllic hidden harbour tucked away at the bottom of the cliffs. It's barely changed since the 1800s. But the real delight was having to pass through a tunnel built through the cliffs to get there. The cellars accessed from the tunnel were once used by smugglers. After we wandered along the beach and the old piers, it was a stiff cycle back up the grassy track on a loaded bike but it won me the title of "King of the Mountains" from a bystander.

North of Cove we passed through the bustling town of Dunbar then lingered over gluten free clementine cake at the pretty coffee shop at Tyninghame Smithy as spots of rain started to fall. We made for North Berwick over hills that you wouldn't think possible in East Lothian and caught a train home.  

Fact File
Start: Tweedbank rail station
Finish: North Berwick train station
Route: From Tweedbank we followed cycle route 1 as far as Paxton, having left it at Norham, just over the border, to camp at the Salutation Inn, a couple of miles beyond. It was actually quite an enjoyable stopover with really good food at the inn. At Paxton we left route 1 and followed the Borders Loop/76 cycle route to Coldingham. Then we followed cycle route 76 up to North Berwick.
Tips: Tyninghame Smithy is well worth a visit for coffee and cake.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Central Belt - The Kelpies

In Scottish folklore, the Kelpies were shape-changing water spirits that emerged from rivers and lakes, often taking the form of horses. This old name has been beautifully embodied in modern times in two stunning metal sculptures of horses' heads located at the end of the Forth and Clyde Canal. The sculptures are made of steel, are 30 metres high and are known as just "The Kelpies". They pay homage to the work horses that made the canals possible by pulling the barges in days gone by. Since the Kelpies were completed in 2014, they have quickly achieved iconic status and have no doubt worked their way into the hearts of everybody who has visited them. They are so full of character and movement and seem so incredibly alive. I made my first visit to the Kelpies a couple of weeks ago. I felt oddly emotional standing there gazing up at them, in the same way as I do when I gaze adoringly at the Forth Rail Bridge, another Scottish icon.  My friend Graham and I had cycled there from home in Portobello along the Union Canal and then the Forth and Clyde Canal. Here's a few pictures from our journey.

We cycled across the city on the Union Canal, mixing with the morning cycle-commuters on the tow-path until we were free of the city.

The canal crossed two tall aqueducts. Firstly at Slateford where we looked down on city traffic and then above the River Avon where we looked down on the foaming waters below.

The verges were lush with grasses and wildflowers on a hot summer's day. People were walking, cycling, drinking coffee in outdoor cafes and tending their barges.

The Falkirk Wheel, a very clever modern boat lift, joins the Union Canal with the Forth and Clyde Canal. Just before it, we passed through a long dark tunnel. In the minimal lighting you could just make out the giant gouges in the rock from making the tunnel and the drippy, slimy walls. It was like an early Star Trek set.

We cycled downhill now as we joined the Forth and Clyde Canal and cycled down to sea level towards the Carron Sea Lock that enables a watery connection between the east coast of Scotland and the west. There were many locks on this section as the canal dropped markedly.

A couple of miles later, we stopped dead in our tracks as we got our first sight of the Kelpies. How stunning they looked from here, sitting beautifully in their landscape with the Ochil Hills as backdrop.

But even that first view couldn't prepare us for the drama of getting up close. We stood below and gazed up at the beautifully sculpted heads, rising into the blue sky and reflecting back the sun.

The Kelpies face east. I don't know why that direction was chosen but I love the inscription on a wall behind them that reads ... "stretch up your long necks to face the sun".

Fact File
My route: Used the Union Canal towpath from Edinburgh city centre to its conclusion at the Falkirk Wheel. Nice cafes on the Union Canal at the Park Bistro, just before Linlithgow, and at the Bridge 49 Cafe, right on the canalside just after Linlithgow. At the Falkirk Wheel continued down the hill to join the Forth and Clyde Canal and turned right/east. From here it's about 4 miles down to the Kelpies. Of course, from Glasgow you could use the Forth and Clyde Canal all the way.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Bennachie - Connections

It's funny how, even after a lifetime of exploring Scotland, you can still discover new places. New to me, at least. Bennachie was such a place. A random photo on Facebook planted a seed and the name stuck in my head.

Bennachie is what you might describe as a small massif dotted by several distinctive tops. It truly marks the end of the Grampian Mountains, as here they give way to rolling farmland. Bennachie is a short hop from Inverurie train station and that hop takes in a magical stone circle at Easter Aquhorthies.

Stone circles in the northeast of Scotland are the recumbent variety which means they have the largest stone resting horizontally, towards the southwest of the circle. The Easter Aquhorthies circle has retained all of its stones since it was built in the Neolithic period, 4000 to 5000 years ago. How incredible that we can still see the intact stone circle here today. It sits on a grassy knoll with a veiw of the surrounding farmland and with woodland behind, rustled today by the west wind. It was lovely to linger there in the warm sun, using my imagination to try to conjure up a hint of the ancient past. 

Bennachie lies west of Easter Aquhorthies and its most distinctive top, Mither Tap, forms a backdrop to the stones such that ancient people must have made a connection between them. My connection to Bennachie was a wonderful series of quiet back roads linked by offroad trails that took me around Bennachie in a circle of my own. The trails were wrapped up in green, lush woodland that dripped after the rain but every now and then they would pop out to a view of fields and farms.

On my second day, I hid the bike and camping kit in the woods and explored Bennachie on foot. A narrow path climbed up through pine woods where every stem of heather had on it a big blob of cuckoo spit so that it looked as if it had been snowing. The path circled the rocky torrs and then climbed to the top of Mither Tap through the stone walls of an ancient Pictish fort. From the top, farmland stretched eastwards while behind me the bigger tops of the Grampians disappeared into low, dense cloud.

The highest top on Bennachie is Oxen Craig. As I walked there that low cloud now engulfed my hill. In this clagged-in world all I could see was the purple heather either side of the trail and all I could hear was the buzz of thousands of bees on the heather.

The low cloud brought a day of drizzle with it as I jumped back on the bike to explore further. I cycled more back roads through avenues of tall trees that kept the worst of the rain off. I pulled in at a Pictish symbol stone by the side of the road called the Maiden Stone. It marks the start of the Maiden Causeway, an ancient pathway that connects it to the Pictish fort on top of Mither Tap.  A little further on and I pulled up at another symbol stone, the Picardy Stone, one of the earliest Pictish stones ever found. Nobody knows for sure the purpose of these stones and they may have been grave markers or boundary posts. From the Picardy Stone I connected together more quiet farm roads to take me back towards Inverurie and came across another stone circle at Daviot, just a few miles away from Easter Aquhorthies.

It would be wonderful to see this landscape through the eyes of the people who lived here thousands of years ago to understand the connections they made between all of these places.

Fact File
Start/finish: Inverurie Train Station
My route:  From the train station I crossed the centre of town heading east and took the country road signed for Burnhervie. Just more than 1km out of town the road makes sharp lefthand bend - here I took the single track road that headed straight on to Easter Aquhorthies stone circle. I retreaced my route back to the road then turned left towards to Chapel of Garioch and continued west to the Maiden Stone. Just after here there is left turn for the Rowantree car park - I took this road and where it ended cycled straight on along a forest track. This pops out at a junction and I turned left to rejoin tarmac. Made a circle of Bennachie via the back road to Auchleven and then heading south on the B992 but turning east along the road called "My Lord's Throat". At the Don View car park I picked a forest trail that took me through to Greens of Afforsk and I cycled up the road to Woodend where I took the forest track into the hills to camp and then walk up Bennachie the following day. I retraced my rouye to the road and cycled up to the Bennachie visitor centre - the Turnpike Trail connects it with the Rowantree car oark and is a lovey route cycle, albeit a bit rough in the middle. I visited the Picardy Stone and the stone circle at Daviot by linking up the many quiet back roads in the area.
Tips: Bennachie visitor centre on the east side of the hill near Woodend has coffee and cake.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Monar - Cheesecake

Not being a car owner, I often have fun and a bit of a challenge getting to some Munros by bus and train. But the railway line between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh offers some rich pickings with good access to the hills on the south side of Glen Torridon and to the Monar Munros. It was to Monar I headed in May (yes, I'm a bit behind on trip reports) to bag several Munros, one with a beguiling but totally unpronounceable name. It's Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich and it's more commonly known as Cheesecake.

Achnashellach is the train station that's closest. It's a request stop so you have to be sure to tell the guard that you want off here or, if you're joining the train here, you have to wave madly at the driver as he approaches to get him to stop the train. 

From Achnashellach, a walk up the road and then a trudge along the track of the Pollan Buidhe put me by the banks of the Allt a'Chonais. There were good camp spots here that made a perfect basecamp for tackling the first few hills - Moruisg above the lonely cottage at Glenuaig and the cosy pair of Sgurr Choinnich and Sgurr a' Chaorachain on the opposite side of the glen.  

If you should get caught out in bad weather in this area, the owners of Glenuiag Lodge have converted a shed beside the lodge into a shelter for hillwalkers complete with bunk beds, lighting and an electric heater. Mind you, the mattresses looked like they could tell a story or two.

But it's Cheesecake that draws the eye and dominates the view in these parts. As I gazed south at its shapely lines, the afternoon sun illuminated the folds of its lower slopes while the pointed top was backed by gunmetal grey clouds.

A long walk over the remote Bealach Bhearnais put me on an ancient stalkers' path, its route marked out by cairns of stones, so old that they were now covered with moss and expertly camouflaged, contrary to their original purpose.

The quiet shores of Loch Calavie provided an easy ascent of Cheescake and its near neighbour, Lurg Mhor. This is the softer side of the hill and the ascent was straightforward, though the top was tight and pointed such that you wouldn't step back for that summit selfie for fear of falling off.

I walked out from Cheesecake to Attadale, another request stop on the Inverness to Kyle line that has a pretty little station right at the beach. I made a hot coffee in the shelter while I waited until it was time to wave madly at the driver to get him to stop the train.

Fact File
Start: Achashellach train station. Trains from Inverness.
Finish: Attadale train station. Trains from Kyle and Inverness.
My route: From Achnashellach I walked up the A890 (quiet out of season) to Craig and crossed the railway following a track that continues to Pollan Buidhe. Lots of camp spots further up the river and worth a wee detour to the Allt a' Chonais pinewood which is signposted. For Moruisg, I continued along the track to the cottage at Glenuiag and followed a stalkers' path above the cottage that zig-zagged up onto the plateau. The start was tricky to find but head up the left of the rockfall behind the cottage and there is a single rowan roughly where the path starts. Once on the plateau, it's a straightforward walk to Moruisg though you might take a bearing as the top itself is not visible at this point. The top is marked by a large, arty cairn.  For Sgurr Choinnich and Sgurr a' Chaorachain, I set out up the footpath to the Bealach Bhearnais which starts at the wire bridge at grid ref NH074466. It's a good path to the bealach. From the bealach the east ridge of Sgurr Choinnich is easily climbed - a path starts to the left of a strange stretch of drystone wall. The continuation to Sgurr a' Chaorachain is straightforward on an obvious path. I returned the bealach to descend as I'd left heavier kit there. I continued southwest over the bealach - the middle section is rough, boggy and pathless - then picked up an excellent old path that heads towards Loch an Laoigh and Bendronaig Lodge. Just before the lodge a path  branches to the left to Loch Calavie. An easy ascent can be made to the bealach between Lurg Mhor and Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich from the track here and likewise easy acsents of both peaks can be made from the bealach. To walk out to Attadale I continued passed Bendronaig Lodge and kept on the track ignoring branches to the left in the forestry. This area is currently undergoing hydro work and the devastation was horrific. It will take years to recover so, to be honest, I wouldn't recommend this route until then.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Northwest - The Lochalsh Trail

I always said that I would never walk waymarked trails until I was too old and crusty for dragging myself up hills. Well, never say never. With a couple of spare days on holiday, I was looking for a wee wander in a quiet corner on the west coast and came up with the idea of the Lochalsh Trail, a 30-mile circuit from my starting point at Shiel Bridge.

I took a super path that starts beside the campsite at Shiel Bridge and climbs into the hills, zig-zagging over a wee pass before heading out to the pretty little bothy at Suardalan. It’s an aptly named spot, originating from the old Norse, Swarddale, combining sward (an expanse of grass) and dal (dale). It’s an open place with big views and winds that send waves of movement through the grasses.

Heading on from Suardalan, I followed a green, leafy track down into Gleann Beag. What might have been a wearisome few miles on tarmac was livened by the swathes of bluebells beside the road and the fascinating brochs, dotted through the glen. Brochs are stone roundhouses dating from approximately  2000 years ago. They are double-skinned and at Dun Troddan you can still climb the internal staircase.

At the bottom of Gleann Beag I popped out into the lovely wee seaside village of Glenelg and wandered round the coast to the Glenelg Ferry that crosses the narrows at Kyle Rhea to Skye. I wasn’t taking the ferry but I knew there was coffee and tablet at the honesty box at the slipway.

The Lochalsh Trail now enters one of the loveliest corners of the country as it follows the coast round to Totaig. A narrow path meandered through bluebell woods above the sea and above the woods I was excited to see my first sea eagle.

The trail dropped to the beach and crossed the shoreline at Camas nan Gall where the view opened up to the flat-topped peak of Dun Caan on Raasay to the north. I pitched the tent here, on a sward of green grass between the woods and the beach, and watched the sun sink, casting its peachy glow over the hills.

Next day the trail rounded Ardintoul Point and then climbed up briefly in deep forestry before emerging above Totaig where a grassy knoll opened up views from Skye to Kintail and the backside of Eilean Donan Castle. From the pretty little cottage at the road end at Totaig, it was a long plod along the road back to Shiel Bridge. Thank heavens again for the millions of bluebells that  lined the way and livened the walk.

Fact File
All the photos on Flickr: click HERE.
Start/finish: Shiel Bridge
Transport: Citylink Glasgow to Skye bus
My route: I took the path that heads south from the campsite following the Allt Undalainn and crossed the pass to the ruin at Bealachasan. Crossed the dear fence and then followed the edge of the fence to the south to join a forest track that goes to the bridge at NG889173. Immediately after the bridge on the right a small path heads to Suardalan. An obvious path continues south from Suardalan and then swings west into Gleann Beag (ignoring the path east to Kinloch Hourn). Walk down Gleann Beag and turn right at the bottom for Glenelg. Continue through the village and opposite the village hall a footpath heads to the left – follow this to the far side of the bay and continue along the road towards the Glenelg ferry. At the back of the car park above the ferry a gorgeous footpath starts and heads round the north coast of the peninsula to Totaig – where it enters dense forestry the route is marked by red and white tape. At Ardintoul Bay I followed the OS map which showed the route heading round to the last cottage and continuing as a footpath. I didn’t find that continuation but scrambled up through bushes and joined a path coming in from the right so I’m guessing the footpath actually starts from the main track that heads back over to Bernera. At Totaig it’s a walk along the road back to Shiel Bridge but it’s quite nice and there’s almost no traffic.
Tips: Campsite and wee shop at Shiel Bridge; wee shop and hotel at Glenelg; showers for a donation at the village hall in Glenelg. There is a local bus that goes up the Totaig road to Letterfearn on request which you could use to cut out the road walk at the end – run by Macrae Kintail.