Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Northeast - Coasting

At the height of midgie season in Scotland there's only one place to escape to where you can enjoy unhurried picnics and relaxed evenings at the tent - the east coast. Here's a wee cycle tour I did with bike buddy Graham a couple of weekends ago that hugs the northeast coast between Stonehaven and Dundee.

Straight out of Stonehaven there was a wee climb that provided a great view back over the town's picturesque harbour with its crescent of fisher cottages.

Just around the next corner were the atmospheric ruins of Dunnottar Castle, sitting on a rocky promontory poking out into the North Sea. Perhaps it wasn't atmospheric on this occasion at the height of summer with screaming bairns and a hot food van! The castle dates from medieval times and was the hiding place of the Scottish crown jewels from Oliver Cromwell's invading army in the 17th century.

The road south from here picked its way along quiet country back roads that cut across the golden fields of late summer and through little hamlets before it dropped to the beach again at Inverbervie. 

From here we bumped along the coast on a grassy track to the old fishing village of Gourdon. Some miles further on we parked up the bikes and ambled down to the beautiful, wild beach at St Cyrus. The dunes were dotted with wildflowers and seabirds wheeled above in the crags.

The bike route from here was a pleasant pootle to Montrose through woods filled with the aroma of pine trees warmed by the sun. We cycled across the links at Montrose on an old military airstrip before detouring up to Montrose Basin, a vast tidal basin picked over by waders at low tides. We watched an osprey eating a fish, terns nesting on platforms in the water and sand martins flitting in and out of their nesting holes. 

We returned to town for a sit-in chippy then found a gorgeous wild camp spot out on the links. It was close to an old fishing station and the lines for drying nets were silhoutted against a fiery sunset. There were no midgies.

Next morning more quiet back roads took us south to Arbroath and we nosed around its busy harbour looking for a morning coffee but the only place open was a kiosk selling the famous Arbroath smokies. 

On the south side of town, we paused at the beautiful sculpture marking the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. This was a declaration of Scottish indepenence made in 1320. It was said to be one of the earliest declarations in the world of popular sovereignty, that is the idea that government is a contract and kings can be appointed by the community rather than god. 

The cycle onwards from Arbroath to Dundee followed miles of traffic-free bike paths, lined by the wildflowers of summer, before entering the city through its industrial port.

Fact File
Start: Stonehaven by Edinburgh/Glasgow to Aberdeen train.
Finish: Dundee for trains to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and Stirling.
Map: Sustrans NCN1 Edinburgh to Aberdeen
Route: From the train station in Stonehaven cycle to the waterfront and pick up signs for National Cycle Route 1 south. We followed the route south all the way to Dundee. Dunottar Castle is right on the route. Montrose Basin is a short detour to the right as you pass the viaduct that brings the train line into Montrose. The statue of the Declaration of Arbroath is another short detour from the route - where the route enters an amusement park turn right and follow the road round to the left and under the railway line - the statue is straight ahead.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Minchmoor - Another Borders bike ride

The Minchmoor is a high moorland track in the Border hills between Innerleithen and Selkirk. Said to be one of the oldest paths in the country, it possibly dates back to Pictish times and was a main east-west crossing into medieval times. Befitting of its ancient heritage, it's a place of atmosphere and mystery, and a place of puffing and sweating, as I discovered traversing it by bike.

The track begins with a steep cycle above Traquair and passes through a gap in an old drystane dyke where there are mysterious plaques covered with random words and unfathomable sayings. The track tops out from the climb at the Point of Resolution where a modern art feature has created patterns in the heather that look like the crop circles of an alien landing.

From here the old route undulates eastwards along the spine of the ridge, at times on a good cyclable surface and at other times on a rutted, muddy, narrow trail. It stays high for miles and it felt like I was on the roof of the Borders up here with views stretching across green, rolling hills. The old route soon passes the mysterious Cheese Well, a mountain spring where in days gone by travellers would make an offering of cheese to the fairies to ensure a safe passage. These days the offerings are made in coins - times are harder for fairies.

The climax of the Minchmoor comes as it nears it's high point at the eastern end above Selkirk. Three tall, stone cairns dating from the 16th century dominate the skyline ahead. They're called the Three Brethren and traditionally mark the boundaries of the three burghs that meet at this point. 

It's a magical spot up here with big open skies and a real sense of the age and significance of the place. It makes your skin tingle and on a fine day you're not want to move on. But what goes up, comes down and the steep descent can't be resisted for long.

Fact File
Start: Innerleithen accessible from the Borders railway at Galashiels.
Finish: Selkirk, also accessible for the Borders railway at Galashiels.
Route: Cross the bridge over the Tweed to the south side and turn left towards Traquair. At a four way road split with a cross turn left uphill and follow the signs for the Minchmoor which is also the Southern Upland Way. Keep on the main track east until reaching the Three Brethren. We took the trail southwards from the cairns then turned left at a split to follow the Long Philip Burn and then the road into Selkirk.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Borders - Brilliant bitesize Borders bicycle bimble

I’m fair getting to know my way around the Borders these days on account of two things – the new Borders railway opening and the new boyfriend living near the end of it! I do feel like I’ve discovered a whole different world down there and its quiet roads, long distance trails and disused railway lines make for some brilliant cycling. Here’s a bitesize tour that takes in a few highlights.
The route starts at the end of the Waverley line at Tweedbank where a purpose-built bike path whisks you away from the station and on to the pretty town of Melrose. Be warned that it’s a stiff pull out of Melrose as the road south climbs over the shoulder of the Eildon Hills. 

The Eildons are a real compass point in this part of the Borders despite being only 1300 feet high, as they are visible from almost every road and rise. There has been a population in this area since the Bronze Age and its significance continued into Roman times with the building of Trimontium, a large Roman fort set on the lower slopes close to the River Tweed.
A network of empty, undulating back roads and a quiet section of St Cuthbert’s Way that gets lost in the woods, take you over the Teviot and a little distance along its banks before heading for Jedburgh. It’s a gorgeous wee Borders town whose central Mercat Cross is decorated in summer with flowers and bunting. 

There’s another stiff climb out of Jedburgh on a single track road that’s a dream to cycle. It passes high above the fields and farms. The dark rise to the south is the Cheviots, across the border in England. In summer the wind sends waves of movement across swathes of golden green wheat. From its high point, the road meanders down back to the valley as goldfinches and yellowhammers flit back and forth amongst the hedgerows.
An old railway line heads east now. It’s a good if bumpy track at first but latterly becomes a thin, muddy line through dense, overgrown summer vegetation. You’ll be wishing for a machete on your bicycle multi-tool.  Eventually you’ll pop out into another lovely Borders town, Kelso. In the warm sunshine, it’s central cobbled square can pass for a Spanish piazza. 

Kelso’s other highlight is the stately pile of Floors Castle. It dates from 1726 and is the traditional seat of the Duke of Roxburgh. Common people and cyclists can enjoy a slice of the grandeur with coffee and cake in the terrace café that overlooks the walled garden.
The tour turns back now towards Tweedbank via a network of back roads and fairly ramps up the sightseeing spots. The first detour is to Wallace’s Statue, a larger than life and slightly clumsy statue of William Wallace that gazes out across the Tweed. It was erected in 1814 by the 11th Earl of Buchan, the local eccentric of the day.   

A short cycle further on is probably the most visited spot in the Borders, Scott’s View. It overlooks the Eildon Hills and the River Tweed and was said to be a favourite place of Sir Walter Scott who lived close by at Abbotsford. An old story tells that he stopped so often on his way home to enjoy the view here that his horses would pull up at the spot without even a command. Scott’s funeral cortege passed this way and legend has it that the horses stopped at the place to allow their master once last look at his favourite view.

The final stop on the tour is Leaderfoot Viaduct, a stately crossing of the Tweed that once carried the Berwickshire Railway. It was opened in 1863 and its 19 arches are 126 feet high. Close to Leaderfoot is the area of the old Roman fort, Trimontium. While there’s not much to see on the ground today, information boards help to bring the place to life. There’s great view of all this from the old Drygrange Bridge, a road bridge dating from 1776 that spans the Tweed here. And pasted on top of all the old stuff is the new A68 road with its busy, Edinburgh-bound traffic. This spot is amusingly referred to as “Tripontium”.
From here it’s a short bimble back to Tweedbank to catch a train home.
Fact File
All the photos on Flickr - click HERE.
Start/finish: Tweedbank Railway Station (regular trains from Edinburgh)
Map: Nicolsons Road 3, Southern Scotland and Northumberland, 1:250,000
Route: From Tweedbank station take the signposted bike path link to Melrose. Eventually pick up the main road into Melrose and follow it around its one-way system to pass the ruins Melrose Abbey. The road comes into the market square – go straight on up Dingleton Road which climbs out of Melrose over the shoulder of the Eildon Hills. This the B6359. Follow it south to a left turn at Cavers Carre signed for bike route 4. It crosses the Ale Water at a ford (there’s also a footbridge). Follow the track out the other side until joins the B6400, turn left and follow that road to Ancrum then across the A68. About 1km further on turn into the country estate at Harestanes where there’s a café. Pick up St Cuthbert’s Way here and follow it south through the woods and across the River Teviot. A lovely section here cycling alongside the river. Some steps take the route up to the A698 where you’ll have to left over the crash barrier. Take the non-classified road opposite into Jedburgh and be user to detour the gorgeous Mercat Cross in the centre.
Out of Jedburgh we took another non-classified road that leaves the town to the right just before the bridge over Jed Water. It climbs high to Ulston for some great views and really enjoyable sweeping descent to Crailing. Cross the A698 and take the wee road opposite to join the B6400 via Kirkmains. Turn north and immediately after the road crosses the Teviot Water take the track to the right signed for the Borders Abbeys Way. This is an old railway line. Stay on it until it emerges onto the road at Roxburgh. It’s quite overgrown towards the end. Turn right then follow this back road to the A699 and into Kelso. It’s a quiet A road and there’s a great view of Floors Castle from here across the Tweed. Cross the town and join the A6089 briefly before turning off west on the B6397. There’s a back entrance here if you want to just visit the Castle’s café and not pay the entrance fee.
Follow the national cycle network signs west to Clintmains and shortly after turn right signed for Wallace’s Statue and Scott’s View. The statue is a short detour from the road on a good surface. Continue north and pass Scott’s View. At a T junction turn left and descend to the Tweed. It’s tricky to spot but just after the road has crossed the bridge over Leader Water, it passes under the A68 and there’s a wee path to the left that takes you onto Drygrange Bridge for a great view of the Leaderfoot Viaduct. On the other side turn right up the hill and cycle through the area of Trimontium. The road emerges into Newstead and you can go right or left at the fork to return to Melrose to take the bike route back to Tweedbank.