Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Three Lochs Way - The old ways

Sometimes the old ways are best. Like creating a handwritten letter and despatching it by post, instead of firing off an impersonal email. Or eating chips from newspaper instead of those horrible polystyrene trays. And when you’re wandering the gentle hills around Helensburgh on a winter weekend, the best way to explore is by the ancient tracks and trails that make up the old ways. So last weekend, with walking friends Graham and Andrew, I spent two days trekking some of the Three Lochs Way which passes through Helensburgh and links it with nearby villages on old roads and ancient paths.

We jumped off the bus at the sleepy village of Garelochhead into a brisk morning with blue skies above and dollops of snow on the hills. Our route immediately started to climb steeply above the waters of the Gare Loch, at first on a new path that wound its way up through sparse birch wood alive with the twitter of tits and then latterly on a thin trail following the undulating line of an old drystane dyke. As we’d made a late start, it was already lunchtime so we sat in warm sunshine munching a picnic with our backs against the dyke and our feet pointing down to Faslane, Scotland’s nuclear submarine base, that nestles on the shores of the loch below. 

When Andrew pointed out that we were in the worst possible spot if nuclear war erupted at that moment, we finished lunch quickly and got moving again. Or perhaps it was just that the sun disappeared behind a cloud and the temperature changed to chilly. The muddy trail under our feet gave way to firm tarmac as we joined one of the old roads in the area, the American Road. It was built during the Second World War as part of the Americans’ land lease agreements and today gives access to the military training area that covers the upper slopes here. The road also gave us lovely views over the snow-capped, rocky hills of Argyll.

Where the American Road ends, the Three Lochs Way markers point you down into Glen Fruin on a quiet back road but we decided to stay high and walk over the ridge of hills above Rhu and Helensburgh called The Fruin. Very quickly we wished we had taken the road. There seemed to be no firm ground as we plodded with heavy packs through bog and water, climbed over barbed wire fences and jumped over a series of deep trenches that had been dug for forestry but never planted. By the time we were at the end of the ridge, we felt like we’d gone through one of those military style training workouts. 

Andrew was less than pleased. Graham was complaining about wet feet. And I think I swore. However it was worth the effort to be up high in the open air, the empty landscape and the big skies as a late afternoon sun created patterns of light on the snow-covered hills. Despite being quite close to civilisation, there was a surprisingly wild feel to this place, perhaps heightened by the patches of snow that we crossed or the lateness of the day. At the far end of the ridge, we gratefully found a path down the other side and rejoined the Three Lochs Way.

We started to descend towards Helensburgh on one of the old ways on our journey, the Highlandman’s Road. The road is an old pack horse track that once provided a link for the people of Glen Fruin to the nearest church at Rhu, on the shores of the Gare Loch. The muddy track entered the darkening Highlandman’s Wood and passed close to a cup-marked boulder. This old rock is a glacial erratic, picked up and then deposited here by retreating glaciers in the last ice age. Bronze Age people carved out the cup shapes which may have been boundary signs or way markers. And modern man added his own graffiti and plastic litter. We found a camp spot by crossing two bendy, precarious planks over the burn and got the tents up as the last light faded and the wood descended into darkness.

Next morning we woke to a light shower of snowflakes drifting gently through the trees to the forest floor. We made hot breakfasts before returning to the Highlandman’s Road via the planks which had acquired a thin coating of ice overnight. By now the sun was up, casting long tree shadows across our track. The Three Lochs Way enters Helensburgh at the Hill House, a stately home at the top of the town designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. It’s not open at this time of year so we had to peer over the walls and through the gates for a peek.  Even if it was open, I'm sure they wouldn’t admit mud-splattered walkers into the fine interiors. The route continued down to the waterfront at Helensburgh passing large, expensive Victorian villas. I imagined people munching triangles of toast, sipping lashings of tea and pouring over the Sunday papers in their big, bay windows, oblivious to the three unwashed walkers passing who’d spent the night in the woods nearby.

Helensburgh surprised me. As we walked the wide avenues we had spectacular views along the streets to the snow-covered mountains further west. I had never placed Helensburgh as a mountain town. Secondly, it was larger than I had imagined. It took quite a time to cross before we popped out on the other side on a farm track that climbed back up into the hills. As we climbed, the Clyde Estuary was at our backs, its southern shore obliterated from view by vast sheets of rain while we stayed in beautiful sunshine on the northern shore. The Three Lochs Way was heading now to Balloch over a high pass that opened up spectacular views to Loch Lomond and its snow-plastered namesake, Ben Lomond.

As we began the descent from the pass, the underfoot conditions changed from mud to a stony track, in places bounded by an old, moss-covered drystane dyke and in other places by an avenue of tall beech trees illuminated by soft afternoon sun. These final few miles were following another old route, the Stoneymollan Road. The road is an ancient coffin route that people used for carrying coffins from Balloch on Loch Lomond to consecrated ground in Cardross on the Clyde. At 7km long and with a bit of climbing, that’s quite a way to carry the deadweight of a coffin. Mind you, after two days on a walking route that might have been easy but for bog and mud, our rucksacks also felt like deadweights.

At the bottom of the Stoneymollan Road, our boots returned to tarmac as we crossed a flyover above the screaming traffic on the A82, entered Balloch and left behind the old ways.

More photos -click here or on the Flickr logo.

Fact File
Start: Garelochhead. Trains on the West Highland Line stop at Garelochhead but as there's a limited number, we took a train to Helensburgh (direct from Edinburgh or connections in Glasgow) and then a short bus ride to Garelochhead (around the corner from the station, take buses to Garelochhead or Coulport).
Finish: Balloch. Trains/buses to Glasgow.
Maps: We used printouts from the Three Lochs Way website - click here. They also gave some background snippets of information. Most of the route is on OS Landranger 56.
Route: The route is mostly well signed with Three Lochs Way markers. In Garelochhead the link path to the Three Lochs Way leaves from Station Road just below the station and is well signed. Instead of following the official route on the unclassified road through Glen Fruin, we walked over the Fruin. I can't really recommend this route - it was wet, boggy, rough and really hard going. At the far end of the ridge there is a bit of path that takes you back down to rejoin the official route on the Highlandman's Road. We followed a large firebreak in the forestry here and found a camp spot in the old wood. Signs take you along a path into Helensburgh called the Upland Way then along the main Glasgow road. The route leaves Helensburgh just before the new high school. Look carefully for the sign as we missed it and maps are a little confusing because of building work. A clear, if muddy, well-signed route takes you up to the pass below Ben Bowie then into forestry. You enter the forestry on a path which joins a track - turn right when you join the track (there's no sign here). The forest track ends at a turning circle and a faint path continues straight on into the trees. You now have to follow red and white tape tied to the trees through dense forestry. The route is steep and slippy in places. The tape takes you to a point deep in the forestry so that you have no idea where you are ... and then stops! At this point head north along a faint gap in the trees and you'll soon leave the forestry and come onto a track. Turn right and pick up Three Lochs Way markers again all the way into Balloch.
Tip: There is a website dedicated to old routes and drove roads in Scotland called Heritage Paths - click here.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Spey Valley – The weather best guess

Most of my spare time last week was spent scouring the weather forecasts in the slim hope of finding a bit of the country, just a corner or even a sliver, offering some better fare than the wind and rain that’s dominated of late. On Friday evening, the Spey Valley looked promising with a forecast of light winds, no rain and even a few chinks of sunshine. So bike buddy Graham and I headed to Newtonmore for a mini tour on loaded bicycles. However, the advertised weather never materialised and the forecast might have been more aptly named the “weather wishful thinking” or the “weather best guess”.

Extending northeast from Newtonmore, the Spey Valley is a green swathe forging a way between the Cairngorm Mountains to the south and the Monadhliath to the north and straddling one of Scotland’s great rivers, the Spey. It's dotted with attractive villages, woodlands and wetlands, and some great mountain landscapes. Despite the storm fronts that were always at our heels, there were some pockets of sunshine on our cycle through the glen. 

As we set out from Newtonmore on Saturday morning, early sun broke through gunmetal grey clouds and drenched the valley in a soft, peachy light. Then as we lingered at the Falls of Tromie a few thin rays picked out the lichen-covered branches of the bare winter birch that hung above the foaming waters. Even on a grim day there are plenty of distractions from the weather along this route such as the dramatic ruins of Ruthven Barracks. The barracks are the remains of a fortification from the Jacobite days of the 18th century and sit atop a grassy knoll with a commanding view down the valley. And if you want to get out of the rain you can hide yourself away in one of the bird hides that overlook the wetlands of Insh Marshes nature reserve. In grey weather, the flashes of colour in the blue tits that eagerly pecked at nuts hanging outside the hide really brightened the day.

It stayed dry a little longer as we pulled off the back road to make a cycle-through visit to the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail, tucked in the trees near Feshiebridge. Born in 1931, Frank Bruce was an Aberdeenshire labourer before turning his hands from manual work to sculpture. The pieces interspersed through the woods are all hewn from local trees and rock, and the idea of his sculptures is that one day the elements will eventually return them to the soil. Though some of the sculptures are mildly eerie, it made an interesting distraction from our bike ride. 

The Spey Valley is liberally forested with birch woods and Scots pines, and we hugged those forests as much as possible as we cycled, trying to glean some protection against the gales that almost blew us off the road. At Rothiemurchus, where rolling folds of land are home to one of the biggest native pine forests in Scotland, we voluntarily left the road to cycle around the rough, grey waters of Loch an Eilean and deeper into the woods below snow-covered, stormbound mountains. We nervously pitched the tents under the shelter of a copse of grand granny pines, trusting that trees that had stood here for hundreds of years would survive upright for another night of storms. In the end, we needn’t have worried. The winds eased in the evening, the sky cleared and a gibbous moon illuminated our campsite with enough silvery light that we cast shadows in the darkness.

Sunday morning kicked off with another pocket of sunshine as we kept company with the Spey to Boat of Garten and crossed to its north bank for our return journey to Newtonmore. As we cycled along the Speyside Way, morning light filtered through the birch trees and the forest trail was crosshatched with their long shadows. On our left the snow-covered Cairngorms brooded under a blanket of cloud. We lingered only long enough in Aviemore for Graham to buy a pork pie for lunch and then cycled on passed sulking skiers forced off the slopes by the storms. Spots of wind-driven rain amalgamated into a shower then organised themselves into a downpour. The pork pie was consumed with the rest of the picnic lunch sitting on the cold, concrete floor of a bus shelter at Kincraig, the only protection to hand from the now torrential rain. Whilst its nutritional benefits may be dubious, the pork pie at least provided some calorific value for the battle with headwinds on the last few miles back to Newtonmore.

By the end of the weekend, bad weather and punctures and distractions meant that we hadn't covered much distance on our bikes but it was fun and invigorating and challenging to be out in the wild, winter elements. If you asked me how many miles we cycled then quite a few wet ones would probably be my best guess. 

For all the photos click here or on the Flickr logo.

Fact File
Start/finish: Newtonmore served by Glasgow/Edinburgh to Inverness trains
Maps: OS Landranger 35 and 36
Route: From the main street in Newtonmore cycle northeast towards Kingussie, picking up the bike path/National Cycle Route 7 signs at the folk museum. Follow NCN 7 signs to Kingussie and towards Aviemore along the B970. Just after Kingussie you'll see Ruthven Barracks then the RSPB Reserve at Insh Marshes on your left. Then south of Feshiebridge the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail is signed to the left. Access to the forest trails of Rothiemurchus is via Loch an Eilean which is signed to the right about 3km before Inverdruie or via the start of the Lairig Ghru route which is signposted at Coylumbridge. The main trails in the Loch an Eilean and Loch Morlich areas are very well made/good surfaces. From Rothiemurchus/Coylumbridge stay on the B970, eventually taking the turn-off for Boat Garten. Turn left in Boat of Garten opposite the shop to pick up the Speyside Way trail to Aviemore. The trail surface is again very good. From Aviemore you can return to Kingussie via the B9152 on the opposite side of the valley to your outward route. We found this road was a bit too busy and switched back to the outward route on the B970 at Loch Insh.  
Tip: If you need any spares or repairs (we needed for Graham a new tire, tube and rim tape) then Mike's Bikes in Aviemore are very helpful - on the main drag, just after the Rohan and Mountain Spirit shops, below the Skiing Dooh bar.