Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Trossachs - Riding the rails

Meandering north from Callander and flirting with the edges of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, is a wee gem of a cycle ride. It forms part of National Cycle Network route 7 and for much of the way follows the bed of the old Callander to Oban railway line. It's a real tragedy that we lost so many of these spectacular rail routes in Scotland, but at least you can still enjoy many of the old lines today by boot or bike. It was by bike that I explored this route a few days ago and, as most of it is wrapped up in woods, it was a perfect place at the end of October to catch autumn's swansong.

There is no railway line serving Callander these days, so my friend Graham and I rode the rails to Bridge of Allan and picked our way to Callander along rural back roads. The old railway line left Callander on a track through the woods carpeted with golden leaves and that's the way we cycled.

Morning rain cleared and weak sunshine drenched the woods in subtle autumn light.

The branches of this oak tree hung over the Falls of Leny which were swollen by the torrential rain of the last few days. This is one section where the bed of the old railway line is lost so the bike route here followed a woodland footpath that twists through the forest alongside the deafening rumble of the water.

North of the Pass of Leny, we rejoined the route of the old railway as it passed along the quiet west shore of Loch Lubnaig. The low afternoon sun didn't clear the top of Ben Ledi above, keeping us in chilly shade while the other shore was a blaze of colour and light.

The recent rains had flooded most of the valley and raised the loch waters, stranding this lone tree.

We cycled into Strathyre which was once a station on the old line and then picked up a section of brand new cycle path. It uses the old railway line to connect Strathyre directly with Kingshouse, cutting out the original big detour for bicycles via Balquidder. It's quite a low-lying section and on this trip, some of it was under water!

As we approached Kingshouse, the sun rounded the corner of Ben Sheann and cast a soft light over the swollen waters of Loch Voil and the flat top of Stob Binnein to the west.

Trailside bracken had a full spectrum of colour from green to yellow to brown.

You may think that a cycle route that follows an old railway line would be flat. Not this one! At Lochearnhead the route makes a big zig-zagging climb above the village. The reward is a great view along Loch Earn and more gorgeous autumn woods.

The route continues to climb up through Glen Ogle to the most iconic part of the old railway, the Glen Ogle Viaduct, and then on to the top of the pass.

This cycle route mixes asphalt with dirt trails and so it was a perfect test for my new trail bike, the Specialised Ariel Elite. The Ariel is designed as the "go anywhere" bike, equally at home on or off road. I was really happy with its performance and handling, and especially loved the smoooth braking power of the disc brakes in the wet and muddy conditions. And doesn't it just look lovely as well?

Near the top of the route a huge thorn somehow found its way through Graham's tire and there was a puncture to fix. It would have to be the rear one of course.

The day ended with a wild camp at the top of the pass. The gaps in the trees were windows to spectacular star-gazing on a cold, clear night. Next morning the camp site was visited by a robin who sang his sweet song above the tents as we packed for the cycle back to Callander and on to Bridge of Allan to catch the train home.

Fact File
Start/finish: Bridge of Allan (or Callander if you're not using the train).
Maps: OS Landranger 57 and 51 or Sustrans National Cycle Route 7 Lochs and Glens North.
Route: From the rail station in Bridge of Allan turn west on the main road then take the first left onto a farm road signed for Carse of Lecropt. Follow this delightful single track road which has some lovely views to the B824 and then into Doune. From there take the deserted B8032 towards Callander which joins the A81 (quiet). From Callander it's all pretty easy, just follow the signs for National Cycle Route 7 in the northerly direction. Until recently route 7 out of Strathyre followed the back road to Balquidder, a big detour. A new bike path now makes a direct link to Kingshouse. To pick it up, as you come into Strathyre from the forest road, follow the bike signs for the village centre, keep going straight and you'll find yourself on the new route.
Tip: We camped beside Lochan Lairig Cheile at the top of Glen Ogle. There are good spots in the trees if you follow the forest track to the left as you approach the loch.

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