Sunday, 7 December 2014

Trossachs - Seventh heaven

Dumbarton may not sound like the place for fun in the great outdoors but it was a convenient starting point for a short weekend bike trip to take advantage of the short winter days. Also, a couple of blogs ago, I was cycling National Cycle Route number 7 north of Callander and wanted to explore the more southerly section around Aberfoyle. 

I cycled out of the train station at Dumbarton and straight onto the bike route. I love it when things work like that. A lovely traffic-free cycle path then headed north alongside the fast-flowing waters of the River Leven. A look at the map suggested this was a heavily built up area but the river created a green corridor and trees obscured the concrete. The stench of wet manure hung in the damp country air and a profusion of fresh cowpats beside the trail focused the mind. 

A flotilla of small boats, all jammed up together on the river like a pile of flotsam, signalled arrival in Balloch. The bike route left the town quickly and climbed high on quiet farm roads. There were no views of over Loch Lomond on a murky day that barely seemed to get light. My lungs started working overtime in the cold, damp air as the route made a big pull up and over the hills from Drymen to Aberfoyle on a tiny road that you would more expect to find in the north Highlands. It crossed a barren landscape in mist so thick that I switched on the bike lights in the middle of the afternoon. I guess it might be busy here in summer but on a dim, drizzly day in late November, it was only me up there.

The Menteith Hills and the high ground of Achray Forest are the backdrop to the Trossachs village of Aberfoyle. The only breach through them is the steep Duke's Pass. The number seven route climbed out of Aberfoyle and quickly left the tarmac road to head up vertical forest trails. It was nice to begin with, until I hit the mud. Forest trucks had churned up a large section of the track near the top of the pass, turning it into a quagmire of thick, sticky mud. It was nearly impassable and I pushed for much of it as runny mud squelched into my trainers. On top of this, I missed one turning because trucks had obscured the sign and I missed another because I need glasses and didn't see it. By the end of it, the bike and I were caked in mud that started to set like concrete.

Once passed the Mud of Doom, the route down through the forest to Loch Venachar was pure joy on a great track that twisted through the trees and hugged the hidden shores of Loch Drunkie. There was not a breath of wind to ripple the inky black waters or shift the strands of mist that hung in the tall pines. My wrestle with the Mud of Doom had cost me precious daylight time and as I cycled beside Loch Venacher what little light there was had pretty much drained from the day. I quickly dunked the bike and my kit in the water to shift the worst of the mud and got the tent up in the woods. I sparked the stove into life as the dusktime honks of whooper swans on the loch were replaced in the advancing darkness by the hoots of an owl and the throaty bark of a deer. 

There are few things more enjoyable in life than unzipping your tent in the morning at a beautiful wild spot and sipping hot coffee from the snug comfort of your sleeping bag. This morning the sun dragged itself out of bed later than me as it threw a veil of peachy light over the surrounding hills. Canada geese talked quietly amongst themselves on the water and the faint voices of fishermen reached me from the far away shore. It's hard to get moving on beautiful mornings like this. You just want to drink it all in ... and stay cosy in your sleeping bag.

The number seven route headed east now, along the south shore of Loch Venachar on a forest path covered with larch needles and then entered Callander through its back door. The low winter sun hadn't managed to pull itself above the Menteith Hills so I needed a warming coffee in town to defrost cold hands. 

Beyond Callander the number seven turns north so we parted company as I continued cycling east to Doune where I picked up the Doune Trail for the last few miles to Dunblane and my train home. This old railway line has been turned into a car-free bike path. It cut across the winter fields and squeezed between bare hedgerows alive with the twitter of tits. Up ahead the sun drenched the steep flanks of the Ochil Hills in a rich winter light. The sky was blue and the air was crisp and clear. 

It was cycle route heaven rather than cycle route seven. 

Fact File
More photos on Flickr:click here.
Start: Dumbarton Central Rail Station. The direct Edinburgh to Helensburgh train stops here or you can pick up direct services from Glasgow.
Finish: Dunblane Rail Station. Inverness to Glasgow trains stop here and the direct Dunblane to Edinburgh and Dunblane to Glasgow services start here.
Map: Most of the route is on Sustrans National Cycle Route 7 map, Lochs and Glens North.
Route: You'll pick up the bike route right outside the station. Follow route 7 signs a short way through town to pick up the bike path to Balloch alongside the River Leven. Following route 7 signs take you onto Drymen via a traffic-free country park then tiny, quiet farm roads and a super section of off-road path that crosses fields and the quirky pipe bridge. The route in this area meets the West Highland Way, the John Muir Way and the Rob Roy Way. But just keep following the 7 signs over the hills to Aberfoyle. Beyond Aberfoyle route 7 crosses through Achray Forest. There are some steep off-road climbs here. The section that has been turned to mud is really, really bad. I'm not exaggerating. I suggest avoiding it by staying on the A821 road out of Aberfoyle which is not too busy to the top of the pass and then joining Forest Drive which is a section of forest trail that the public are allowed to drive along. The route from here is a good quality track. At the bottom, route 7 turns east for Callander. The section on the south shore of Loch Venachar is super cycling on a narrow, undulating woodland path then a private estate road. Leave the 7 at Callander and take the very quiet B8032 to Doune. Heading east through Doune, follow a sign to the left from the main street for bike route 765 which takes you onto the traffic-free Doune Trail into Dunblane. There's one very muddy, pot-holed section but it's quite short. When you arrive on the outskirts of Dunblane, just keep going straight ahead and you'll soon come to the railway station.
Tip: Neither of the train services I travelled on need you to book your bike on in advance if you use the local Edinburgh trains out of Dunblane, making this a handy last-minute option for a quick weekend bike tour. 

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