Sunday, 12 November 2017

Great Glen - Monster ride

The idea had been brewing in my head for some time to cycle a circuit of the Great Glen. October holidays came round and the weather was settled. The route was well wooded so the autumn colours would be at their best. It was the perfect moment to go.

The Great Glen is a long, straight valley that runs between Fort William and Inverness. Formed along the course of an old fault line, it has filled with water over the millenia to create a series of lochs. The most famous of these is Loch Ness whose murky depths harbour the mystery of the Loch Ness monster. Man has added to the water in the Great Glen by building the Caledonian Canal which links the lochs together to create a navigable route that joins the east coast with the west. 

I started my cycle around the Great Glen at Fort William, stepping off a late afternoon train. With a couple of hours of light left in the day, I set out along the tow-path of the Caledonian Canal. I felt a real sense of adventure and excitement for the five days ahead. I'd really anticipated this trip for some time and somehow I knew it would be a memorable ride.

The first section of canal was easy cycling and mostly flat except for the slight inclines at the locks. The margins of the canal here were lined by beech trees whose autumn leaves added rich, russet tones to the scene. As I pedalled north, the mountains were soon crowding in, providing a rugged backdrop to the gentle atmosphere of the canal.

As dusk descended, I pitched the tent in the woods at Gairlochy, right at the edge of the waters of Loch Lochy. Through the evening,  I pondered how a loch came to be called "lochy". The still waters reflected a grainy, grey light while the lighthouse winked on and off through the long October night. 

Next day, on a wet  morning, I continued cycling north, along the canal and forest tracks. Some of the route here followed a disused railway, part of a grand plan in the 19th century to run trains through the glen. It was a dream to drift along here, deep in the woods, on a carpet of golden birch leaves. The place was in its own world, and so peaceful and still without a soul around. It was a contrast to then emerge from this into bustling Fort Augustus, at the south end of Loch Ness. 

To continue north, I cycled the quiet back roads along the south shore of Loch Ness. It was a monster of a climb out of Fort August here but the reward was to be in a magical landscape, dotted with sapphire lochs and autumn woods that shimmered gold in the low October sun. This network of single track roads stayed high above the waters of Loch Ness before dropping eventually into Inverness on a skinny ribbon of tarmac that corkscrewed down through the trees. 

On the outskirts of the city, I turned tail and started my journey back by picking up the Great Glen Way, a long distance footpath that runs along the north side of the loch. Although it's a walking route, I knew that it could be cycled for most of its length. I couldn't cycle the first part out of Inverness however and had to push up a steep, hot hill. I had company though as I chatted with a local walker heading my way. We talked about the hills and how the city had changed in the years we'd both known it. 

Back on the bike, I cycled a little further that evening before pitching the tent in pinewoods at a beautiful high place in the company of old trees. Grouse gargled close by at dusk and after dark, the clouds glowed orange from the lights of Inverness below.

The grouse welcomed in the new day as I watched the sun rise and gradually flood the tent with light and weak warmth. The route continued south that day on forest tracks and footpaths through the woods. It climbed high again above the blue waters of Loch Ness. It was a tough ride for a wee lass on a loaded bike but the sun shone between showers and made rainbows above my route to cheer me along. 

I was happy to eventually be pulling back into Fort Augustus to repeat the easy cycle to Fort William of my outward leg. In the late afternoon, I found myself back on the wonderful old railway line and said out loud "I could ride up and down here forever". 

I didn't ride forever but lingered for another night out in the tent.  Near the old ruin at Leitirfearn, I pitched at the edge of Loch Oich under the canopy of big, old beech trees. In the inky darkness out on the loch, I could see the lights and faint form of a large sea-going fishing boat that I'd watched earlier, navigating the locks. It passed by silently, pushing its wake to shore and ruffling an otherwise still loch.

As I took the tent down on my final morning to cycle the remaining miles back to Fort William, I couldn't believe the size of the enormous slug that had attached itself during the night to the underside of my flysheet. It was determined not to leave and I had to detach it with a tent peg. As it slunk away, I smiled to myself. I reckoned I'd encountered the true monster of these parts.

Fact File
All the photos on Flickr - click HERE.
Start/finish: Fort William
Transport: Train to/from Fort William. 
My route:  North out of Fort William I cycled national cycle route 78, also known at the Caledonian Way, to Fort Augustus. It uses canal tow-path, a small stretch of back road, forest track and the fabulous old railway line. This route continues to Inverness along the quiet roads on the south side of Loch Ness although I used some different but similar roads here. At Inverness I picked up the Great Glen Way heading south - an easy place to pick it up is as it crosses the Ness Islands as the cycle route passes by here as well. The Great Glen Way is signposted back to Fort William. It uses footpaths and forest tracks and passes through Drumnadrochit and Invermoriston before heading into Fort Augustus. Where the route uses a path through the forests before Abriachan, you'll come across Abriachan Eco campsite and cafe. It's a quirky set up that's well worth a stop. From Fort Augustus the Great Glen Way uses the same route as the outward cycle route on the Caledonia Way back to Fort William. 

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Cairngorms - If you go down to the woods today

It's October and that means gorgeous autumn colours in the Scottish outdoors and that means I want to be down in the woods enjoying those colours. The north side of the Cairngorms, such as the Spey Valley, is peppered with woods linked by great off-road cycling trails so my friend Graham and I strung the trails and woods together into a three-day mini tour.

Arriving by train to Aviemore in mid-afternoon, we cycled north along the wonderful Speyside Way section to Boat of Garten. It swoops and undulates across heathery moor and open birch woods that were gold against a cobalt sky. 

A back road then took us to Carrbridge. Usually a quiet road, it was busy today as the village was hosting the world porridge making championships. We lingered a while at the precarious arch of the old pack horse bridge above the River Dulnain.

We followed the River Dulnain upstream on tarmac then track into a beautiful landscape of birch woods giving way to pine woods that themselves gave way to rolling hills. The tents were pitched by the river under the canopy of the granny pines above.

Next day we headed to Slochd Summit taking in the old Sluggan Bridge. The original bridge here was part of General Wade's military road but washed away by floods in 1829. The new bridge is still very old, built as replacement. The birch woods here were stunning, golds and greens that contrasted with the punchy reds of rowan and fly agaric. 

From Slochd, we turned back for Carrbridge and headed onwards for Boat of Garten, an off-road route this time, through the woods. We skirted the quiet waters of Loch Garten, quiet without its ospreys and attendant tourists, then cycled over the Ryvoan Pass through the forests of Abernethy.  

Another fine stand of pines provided another woodland camp spot in Rothiemurchus. Up early next morning, we cycled to Loch Insh and watched the rain pass over while nursing mugs of coffee. Then cycled another gorgeous section of the Speyside Way form Kincraig that took us back to Aviemore through the woods again.

Fact File
Start/Finish: Aviemore
Transport: Trains to Aviemore
Our route: we used the Speyside Way to Boat of Garten then turned left on the main street and followed the on-road bike route 7 to Carrbridge. At Carrbridge we turned left at the old bridge, still on bike route 7, and continued passed Sluggan Bridge to camp. There is road to the right a little further which becomes a dirt track then crosses a bridge. We took a trail to the left before the house which passes into the woods. Beautiful ride up this glen and great camp spots. Next day we followed the off-road bike route 7 to Slochd then on road route back to Carrbridge. We took the off-road route 7 to Boat of Garten then cycled on to Loch Garten and Forest Lodge before cycling over Ryvoan Pass. We took one of the many trails around Rothiemurchus to find a camp spot. Last day we cycled around Loch an Eilean then on the back road to Kincraig before returning to Aviemore off-road on the Speyside Way.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Trossachs - The green loch

Lochan Uaine is a common Gaelic name throughout the Scottish hills and means, the green loch. Perhaps the most famous Lochan Uaine is in Glen More in the Cairngorms. Surrounded by ancient pine woods, it's a dazzling aquamarine. Local folklore says it's that colour because the fairies wash their clothes in it. But I'm also going to re-name Loch Ard in the Trossachs and call it the green loch. On a day when the light of the sun, already low in the late September sky, reflected the lochside woods, the water appeared a vibrant pea green. How wonderful to be out on it in the packraft, my paddle cutting through the water with each stroke. I navigated little bays and rocky islets, and pulled into the woods to avoid a heavy downpour of rain. Each drop created a "plop" on the water and sent out concentric circles across the surface. The loch was not green then but the colour of the depths. However, the sun returned, Ben Lomond emerged from the clouds and I again floated on my green loch.

Fact File
Start: Aberfoyle
Transport: Train from Edinburgh to Stirling; bus from Stirling to Aberfoyle (a nice wee journey).
My route: From the bus stop in Aberfoyle turned left on the main street and continued to Milton. Crossed the bridge here and entered the Loch Ard Forest. The track soon split and I turned right. Just after the eagle sculpture is a small path heading down to the loch. There's a good space here for inflating the raft and putting it in.

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.