Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

Feel free to leave comments.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Protracted Farewells

Re-organising my life around a move north carries on apace. In the meantime, I've been looking at the calendar and wondering how I can fit in Augusts bivvy-a-month. It was clear it would have to be a time-constrained effort and that really meant local. As a bonus,that would give me a chance to  try somewhere that's been on my mind for some time. So, after dinner on Sunday night, I threw a sleeping bag, bivvy bag, a couple of snack bars and the ubiquitous hipflask into the Viscacha saddle pack and headed off up the Pentlands.

As I rode along, the evening sun was just setting behind me so I stopped for a quick photo. 

Sun setting over Bonaly

I arrived at my destination, Allermuir Hill, just before 9pm and found an ideal little spot where a semi-circular ring of stones had been formed into a low, crude shelter. The centre was still grassy so I knew I'd be comfy enough even without a sleeping mat. Having arrived slightly sweaty, I was now beginning to cool down so, spreading out the bivvy, I slipped into it and started to warm up while watching the street lights below. 

Sharing my adventure with 500,000 other folk. I had the best view though

Before long, i began to see the sea haar spreading in off the Forth, casting a weird spell on the capital city, gradually extinguishing the lights and leaving a glow instead.

Haar enveloping Edinburgh Castle
Those who decry the use of a bivvy, preferring a tent (I was one of them) are missing something. How often have you sat in one place for three hours, just watching nature takes its course? While I sat here, the moon rose, the haar waxed and waned and gradually the stars popped out. 

Moon over East Lothian

Eventually, tiredness caught up with me and I nodded off to a lovely sleep. I woke up a couple of times in the night, to turn over or adjust my body "just so" to avoid a rough patch of ground and I was aware of the mist having slid up the side of the hills to wrap me in damp air. When I woke to find the sky a bit lighter, I decided to get ready to head off and managed to catch the first rays of the sun as it rose through the mist. 

Early sun over Caerketton

Bike packed ready to head home

Thankfully, the mist also started to recede off the hill tops, leaving me with some stunning views of Edinburghs high points poking out. 

The distinctive "sleeping lion" of Arthurs Seat
As I turned away for home, I was aware that I was gradually letting go of Edinburgh and the Pentlands, where I've done so much riding these past few years. It's still pretty amazing that we are blessed with an area of relative wilderness so close to the city and that it has survived the explosion in recreational use. Here's hoping it stays like that and that I'll be back to enjoy it before too long. 

Thursday 22 August 2013

Still exploring


As the countdown to our move north carries on, I find myself looking even more intently at maps of the local area, identifying routes and trails I've never quite got round to following. It's a remarkable testimony to both the Scottish land access laws and the flexibility shown by the land managers that the network of trails continues to expand. 

Some fairly recent additions can be found at the Southern Uplands Partnership website. These trails have been marked and delineated primarily for horses and riders but they are also suitable for walkers and cyclists. Using some of their maps I was able to piece together a mostly off-road route between my home in Balerno and Peebles in the Borders so I thought it would be fun to use this as a way of visiting the 7 Stanes centre at Glentress. 

The first part of the route was completely familiar as it took me over the Pentland Hills to Ninemileburn, Carlops and then to West Linton. From here, it took a bit more map-reading and signpost-spotting to locate the preferred route to Newlands on the Edinburgh-Moffat Road. Truth is, some of the route hereabouts is downright awkward and I had to avoid one small section as it was shoulder-deep in brambles and nettles. The other issue is that it often follows field margins and so has lots of gates involving constant dismounting of the bike. 

After Newlands the route enters the Cloich Hills. This was all new terrain to me and despite a couple of questionable route choices - where the signposts didn't seem to match the map - I was soon in some very lonely glens. It occurred to me that these were, in their way, even more wild than some of the areas up north on account of the very low number of visitors and that a fall or injury might leave me lying here for days, or even weeks, before being discovered. 

Despite a few route alterations, I was soon overlooking Peebles from a very unfamiliar position. 


I then decided to take in a little of the Glentress MTB trails so headed up Janets Brae to the Buzzards Nest area and down the red/blue descent. The El Mariachi felt pretty good on these fast trails with a bit of gravity to help it gain speed.

Sitting in the Peel cafe at Glentress, enjoying the macaroni cheese, milkshake and coffee I'd ordered I was struck by how late in the day it had become and by how far I'd now have to travel home. With that in mind, I didn't hang about long and opted for what I thought would be a faster route. With a little road work up the A703 and then on to some minor roads it wasn't long before I was back in the Cloich Forest, with a whole different set of views. 

I've always thought that one type of riding we were lacking near Edinburgh was these long forest roads, and now I'd found loads of them in this small area.

I'd thought about using the roads to get me back to West Linton again rather than suffer the interminable series of gates I'd endured on the outward route but I persevered. It was supposed to be moutain biking after all! In West Linton itself, the little Co-Op was still open and that proved the perfect opportunity to pop in and get some cold drinks before the longer off-road section ahead. 

Popping back onto the roman road towards Carlops I was once again on familiar territory. On the climb up Monks Rig the combination of slope and headwind proved too much for me and I resorted to pushing for a little while until the gradient eased and I could get back into pedalling mode.  


Overall, a great day out and that lovely sensation of returning home just as the sun sets - a sure sign you've made the most of the day.

As for the trails, I thoroughly recommend them. Take a map,  be prepared for a few diversions and don't be afraid to wander and explore. Who knows what you'll find.


Monday 22 July 2013

Pushing the envelope

Kirkudbright - one of the many lovely coastal villages on the route
This seems to be my year for trying out new ways of enjoying the outdoors. This time I found myself wanting to see how my endurance and stamina were doing. This was all brought about when I started to follow an "event" called the Highland Trail 400. This is a self-supported mountain bike route through Scotland. The theory is that anyone can set off to do it anytime they want, but in May this year a couple of dozen riders set off to do it as a race. I was initially very sceptical about this; something about racing through the lonely gems just jarred with me. However, as the start day approached I found myself getting increasingly caught up in it. What made it even more fascinating was that the competitors were carrying Spot Tracker devices so that their progress could be followed by folks at home. For the 5 or so days it took, I found I was constantly updating the website, keen to see how they were getting on. What became very apparent is that most of the riders were surviving on very little sleep, riding well into the night and getting up at dawn. What's more, they were obviously pitching up in all sorts of unplanned locations. 

Now, to me, this is a complete anathema. My various trips are planned out in military fashion. Ride times are calculated, maps are studied, overnight locations are carefully chosen and very, very seldom does it involve riding after dark. Another difference is that these folks were going out much, much less laden than I would with kit stripped back to the minimum.

With a few days of warm, dry weather promised I thought this was the perfect time to try out this more unplanned approach. I'd already started to consider some of the challenges. I thought I'd stick to the roads for this first attempt and instantly had a route in mind. I bolted on an extra water bottle cage (nowhere to fill up overnight) and took enough food to get me through the 12 hours or so between opportunities to shop. My overnight kit was basically reduced to a bivvy bag and a sleeping bag. I reckoned I'd be too warm and dirty for the latter but at least it might provide a cosy mattress. 

Heading out of the station at Carlisle I was once again into the land of NCN signs. It seems that every spare sign Sustrans had ended up here and they point everywhere. This'll be the third time if cycled from Carlisle and I'm still no clearer as to the best route out of the station. However, I soon locate the route North and arrive at Gretna, safely back in Scotland.

Last time I was here I headed East across the borders, this time it was all the way West and I opted to follow NCN 7 as it ducked and dived through various stretches of farmland and campsites. It's slower than sticking to one main route but I reckoned my planned overall average of 15kph wasn't going to be affected, despite the occasional missed turning and short back-track. The day was heating up too. I was aware of a mild tailwind that made pedalling slightly easier but this also served to keep me warmer than I'd have liked and it was with some relief that I reached Dumfries for a quick food/drink stop. The only problem was finding somewhere cool to eat and I eventually plonked myself under a tree in a car park.

The section to Dalbeattie is one I'd cycled previously as part of a sportive. The major change in the scenery here is that Criffel, having been the commanding landscape feature all day, is now hidden and the road meanders more following the coast. I was happy to see the campsite at Sandyhills for an ice cream, a cold drink and a water-bottle top-up before carrying on into more unfamiliar territory again. Just before Dundrennan, I spotted some going on in a field. It turned out to be preparations for the annual Wickerman festival.

Passing through Kirkudbright I was beginning to think about food again. I didn't want to miss an opportunity for a decent meal but I didn't see anything that really took my fancy and as I set off West again I was dreaming of a country pub. As luck would have it, that's exactly what I discovered in the little hamlet of Borgue so I was able to kick my feet up for a little while and enjoy some chat with the owner over a spot of food. 

Dinner was assimilated
I was now heading into more unknown territory. Not in a geographical sense so much as a psychological one. With the sun slowly setting and nowhere planned to stop I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable and started setting some interim goals in my head. The first of these was to decide on a route beyond Gatehouse of Fleet. There are three options here; the first is to stick to the coast as closely as possible. That means the A75 and with warnings from the owner of the pub in Borgue still in my head I decided that wasn't going to work. NCN 7 takes a leisurely diversion to Creetown, sticking to the valley on a quiet road. However, I had been intrigued by a middle way - the Corse of Slakes Road. This is an old military (though not Wade/Cauldfield) road that took to the higher ground. My curiosity being what it was, I opted for this and made my way uphill to Anwoth Church. I was then faced with a rapidly deteriorating surface, a sign saying "not suitable for motor vehicles" and a couple of gates, one of which required a lift over. This wasn't what I'd expected at all and as I made my way along I was already contemplating a strategic withdrawal. However, despite the lack of grip and suspension I teetered along until it eventually caught up with another tarmac road. I'd hoped for some great views up here but the surrounding hills were just a little close and I pressed on reaching the fast downhill into Creetown. 

I was relieved to have got this section over with just as the sun was finally setting and then NCN 7 then put in a re-appearance to provide a good route into Newton Stewart. I made it here at 10:15, just minutes before the filling station closed for the night. That made it possible to have another snack and a final take on of fluids. It also gave me the opportunity to fit the lights that would be needed until I decided to stop. This next, night-time, session was actually one of the most enjoyable of the whole trip. It was cooler - though I was still only wearing a short-sleeved top - and the roads were completely dead. That wonderful feeling of cutting through the night was with me all the way to Isle of Whithorn and then I knew I was heading North again, much closer to my original 300km goal. 

As the miles clicked by, I started to think about where I would stop for the night. The road started to hug the beach for a while and I began to see the occasional camper van. All I needed was somewhere I could hide the bike out of sight and then I finally saw a section of tall, grassy dunes that would be ideal. There wasn't much prepping to do. I hauled the bivvy bag out of the saddle bag and lay it on the beach, put some legwarmers and a jacket on - as much for cleanliness as for warmth - and crawled in to lie on top of the sleeping bag. It was around 1:30 and though I didn't actually feel that tired, I wanted to get a couple of hours of sleep so that I could be up to see the sunrise.

As it was, I slept fitfully, eventually being woken by an invasion of midges that I'd failed to prepare for by not zipping up the bivvy bag. No matter, a quick splash of Smidge and I got my few possessions packed away before starting off on the bike again. I was feeling pretty good too. The sun was just beginning to come up behind me and it was much cooler than it had been the day before. I watched 300km come up in 20.5 hours of riding and was pleased I'd managed to maintain a 15kph overall time. However, on the last, hilly, stretch to the Mull of Galloway I could feel my strength slowly ebbing away and I knew I really needed to get some food in me. I made it to the Lighthouse before having to stop. 

I figured that the optional Stranraer-Glasgow ride was not going to be enjoyable so settled in for a slow day round the Rhinns of Galloway instead. Although pleasant enough, the scenery here wasn't a patch on the previous day and, being so early, I was finding nowhere open for breakfast, or even a cup of coffee. It was therefore with some enthusiasm that I found myself hurtling down into Portpatrick. knowing I'd get a decent feed.

With a relaxing hour or so spent over breakfast I was eventually happy to progress round the final section of the Rhinns round to Stranraer. With 390km on the trip computer I thought I might round it off with a wee 10km loop but I arrived at the railway station just in time to catch a train and with a two hour wait for the next one declined this opportunity to round it up. Besides, that leaves a target for the next long trip.

390km and 26 hours of squiggly road
All in all, not a bad introduction to a bit more endurance riding. Not having done even one 100 mile ride this year I was happy that I managed almost 250 and I reckon I've picked up a few wee tips of how to cope with longer, multi-day trips of this kind too.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Sunset song

Astronomically, this has been quite an important part of the year. The summer solstice (in theory) marks out the mid-way point and it inevitably causes me to take a little time out for reflection. Fair to say that, as usual, many rides, walks and paddles I'd considered just haven't happened. Now, I know that June 21st doesn't actually mark the half-way point of summer, but there's still a feeling of it all being downhill from here to winter, so it's time I stepped up my activity level a bit.

That would be all well and good but I'm now caught up in the process of moving house. Selling, buying, packing, organising will all take time and, for the moment at least, I'm unable to commit to any longer trips. That means making the most of what's around me at short notice. The other advantage of this is that I'm re-visiting some places I maybe haven't been for a while and I'm finding that I'm starting to get quite emotional with the thought that I'll be leaving them behind. 

Balerno has been a fantastic place to live. Access to the Pentlands is from the door whether walking or mountain biking, the A71 provides a quick route into West Lothian and Lanarkshire for the road bike and the Water of Leith path is a brilliant corridor in to town with connections to an extensive cycle path network.

As if to illustrate this my last couple of mountain bike trips both featured a chase for a sunset...

On 21st June I'd decided I would pop up Allermuir to catch the sunset on the longest day. With plenty of time to spare I was able to ride from Balerno, up over Maidens Cleugh, down to Glencorse Reservoir then right up over the Castellaw track before the final wee push up to the trig point on Allermuir. It's always a great view up here, with the city lying at the foot of the hill and a panorama stretching from as far as Arran in the west, past Fife and East Lothian and round to the hills above Peebles in the south. It's also always windy - and so it proved that night. I was able to get a little shelter and hunkered down for a bit awaiting the official time of sunset. As I waited, a few other hardy souls also arrived for the same reason. I like when this happens.  It's always reassuring to know you're not completely bonkers. However, the weather just didn't want to play ball and even though the threatening rain clouds came to nought, the time for sunset came and went with nary a sign of its importance. 

Edinburgh, here's to you!!
With any warmth of the day fast disappearing, it was time to make my exit quickly off Allermuir, along the front of Capelaw, down to Bonaly and then past Clubbiedean Reservoir and Harlaw Farm. 

Fast forward to the evening of the 24th and I was again getting ready to go out for a wee ride. I'd not really planned much but I did at least have the foresight to take lights with me. Heading down the water of Leith, I picked up the cycle track from Roseburn and thence to Barnton. That led me nicely around Dalmeny Estate out to South Queensferry just as the sun was setting. Although again cloudy, it was just high enough that the sun could dip down below cloud level prior to setting, lighting up the clouds in the process. 

Satisfied that I'd made up for the earlier nights disappointment I headed home through Dalmeny, Kirkliston and Newbridge before picking up the canal through Ratho to Hermiston and back through Heriot Watt University to Currie and a final leg back up the Water of Leith for 56km in total.  

As I rode, it was getting steadily darker and I eventually gave in on the wooded banks of the canal and switched the lights on. It's a while since I've ridden in the dark like that and I'd forgotten just how much of a buzz it can be. It seems like everything around you is switching off and you concentrate on a small world defined by the pool of light from your headlamp. It's like all your senses are magnified and the endorphins start flowing. Man, I must do this more often!!

So, as I await news on the relocation, I'll be drawing up other little mini-adventures and making the most of what's on my current doorstep, pleased that there is so much available in such a small area of what appears to be industrial, urban, Central Scotland.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Another one off the bucket list

For the past couple of years I've been completing little adventures that I'd had in my head for some time. One would think that this mental list would be growing smaller. However, I keep managing to come up with new ideas and after being introduced to packrafting last year, a whole new category of routes in Scotland has been taking shape in my plans. A descent of the River Spey has been right up there in the priority list so when the guys at BackCountryBiking were putting together a trip I was all over it like a rash. Part of my enthusiasm is a reluctance I have to take my raft down any sort of rough water on my own - at least until I've added a few skills. As we'd also be getting some skills coaching over the course of the three days, this just added to my desire to be there.

Early Friday morning saw me heading up the A9 in the van with the raft and camping gear all ready to roll. Weather forecasts had been somewhat mixed so my final selection of clothing was a bit up in the air. However, it was looking increasingly bright and warm as I approached Aviemore so I was hopeful. 

We all met up outside the Bridge Inn in Aviemore and after a quick gear check threw everything into my van before heading off to collect Iona from home, taking the opportunity to stock up on some food from Tescos en route. Rob had already made the decision to start at Cromdale. That would bypass one of the slower, more boring sections of river and would mean that we could make the sea in a leisurely three days. 

Setting up the rafts, it was clear that there were a few approaches to how much gear was ideal. I'd managed to squeeze everything into one 50 litre rucksack whereas Sanny seemed to have the equivalent of a small mule train with him. 

One thing we'd all noticed was that the water, even this far upriver, was fairly belting past and we could feel that as soon as we entered the water. At this point, all us learners were a bit jittery on anything resembling rough water. It was taking a little while to get used to the feel of the raft moving over waves and Rob was helping us to assess potential hazards like rocks in the water. There was a definite feeling of being under way though and it was great to see the Cairngorms gradually receding as a sign of our progress.

Our first stop was to be at Ballindalloch. There's not much there - a bridge, a few houses and a little informal campsite set up for the Speyside Way walkers that we took full advantage of. Gary decided he'd camp a little away from the rest of us in order to avoid snoring. His plans were thwarted when two walkers arrived and set up their tents close on either side of his! Meanwhile,  I'd opted for just the tarp and bivvy bag so felt a little "exposed" being in such a public spot right next to a car park.

It was about this point that Sanny proceeded to cover the little picnic table with the contents of his extensive luggage collection as it turned out to be almost all food and drink. Personally, I was happy with my little dehydrated meal. Honest I was. Still, at least I had a little hipflask to relax with and we enjoyed the local cabaret which seemed to involve some sort of synchronised car parking.

A fairly early night saw me wake up around 5.00 to a thick mist. Still, it appeared to be midge free despite the tree cover and I was able to roll down the bivvy bag and sleeping bag to enjoy the new day arriving. 

Before long we were back on the water and were soon facing one of the Speys more fun spots - the Washing Machine. Rob was careful to explain what was required to us and then set off downstream, soon disappearing over the watery horizon. Taking that as a signal we each set off, giving each other sufficient time to clear the rapids. I was a bit tentative, trying to stick to a less wild looking right-hand line. This proved to be a bit rocky though. Once we were all clear there was a bit of discussion and we opted to try it again. That meant dragging the raft upstream  over some slippy rocks before launching back in. By the third attempt I reckon I had it nailed!

Some other tricky rapids were to follow before we found a good spot for a bit of lunch and relaxed in the pleasant sunshine. Gradually, we were all starting to enjoy the faster water and gaining confidence when faced with obstacles. 

Rob explains the route options. Sanny gives him the thumbs up.
After lunch we headed downstream to meet up with Andy who'd parked down at Spey Bay and cycled up to Carron Bridge. There we also discovered a little present from David of Spey Valley Brewery - a mini-cask of Davids Not So Bitter. 

Carefully leaving the tricky opening of this to Andy meant that it was him that got sprayed with beer and not me and while it would have been best left to settle for a while it still went down a treat. Another few miles under our belt took us to Aberlour where we enjoyed an ice cream and cold drink. Before long though,we'd arrived at Craigellachie, our stop for the second night in another Speyside Way campsite and a chance to sample more of Davids lovely ale. 

Rather than cook, tonight we all headed for the Craigellachie Hotel and, despite Andy winding up the barmaid, had some lovely food and a couple of beers before setting off for the famous Fiddichside Inn for a couple more - topped up with a dram or two of course. By the time we made it back to the campsite I was well ready for bed and didn't really care that my wee bivvy and tarp looked a bit incongruous. It was warm, comfy and midge-free so I was a very happy paddler. 

Day 3 started dry and sunny and after breakfast we all set off down to the river to re-inflate the boats and pack everything back on. By now, it was becoming second nature and I'd worked out the best clothing options, what to keep in pockets and what to stash in the rucksack. 

The flotilla passing Ben Aigan
It was mostly a more relaxed day of paddling despite the faster water. One particular bend did cause a little concern though as the strong current would have led us straight into some fallen trees. A bit of discretion saw us walk past this bit giving me a chance to make full use of my self-made "water-boots". 

I've been looking around to find a good solution to footwear for packrafting. Neoprene shoes such as used for drysuits look to be OK but the grip can be pretty dire (Gary would attest to this) and they're not robust or supportive enough for backpacking. Ordinary hiking boots would fill up with water and then be both uncomfortable and wet. I'd therefore taken a 10mm drill to an old pair of Salomon boots, creating 10 drain holes in each. Pairing these with Sealskinz socks would, I reckon, be a good (and cheap) option. As it turned out, they worked pretty well. The biggest issue was trying to let as much water as possible drain out before putting my feet back into the raft. I'll still be looking for alternatives but for cheap they win.

Cheap. Functional. Maybe not pretty.

The landscape was changing much quicker now, with little to see beyond the immediate river banks and once we passed Fochabers it was getting increasingly difficult to determine which of the many braided water channels would be best. Still, we all made it through easily enough until we started to hit an increasingly stiff headwind coming off the Moray Firth. That made the last few hundred metres a struggle and also meant that any plans to head out into the surf were firmly put on the shelf. When we got to the point that the rafts were bobbing up that was, to me at least, proof enough we'd arrived at the sea.

Entering the tidal section

Ready for packing
Packing the rafts away for the last time on this trip I felt a wonderful sense of achievement  as well as not a little tiredness. I felt I'd learned so much on the trip and it was much more rewarding than a simple skills weekend would have been as we still made a journey. From here, I'm keen to keep up some momentum by getting out on more moving water and getting that confidence up. Routes in the far North West beckon.

I'd like to say a massive thanks to Rob  and Andy of BackCountryBiking. Their enthusiasm, encouragement and companionship made the whole trip a success and they deserve more plaudits as packrafting in Scotland becomes more mainstream. 

I'd also like to thank David at Spey Valley Brewery. I know he was gutted at not being able to join us on the trip but his gift was well received and it's almost worth a trip to the area just to try his superb beers.