Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Galloway Forest Trails

The smell of the pine forest in the damp air is all pervading, fresh and clear; trees in long regimented ranks march out into the distance close packed phalanx upon phalanx, impenetrable and dark. Trunks arrow straight stand sentinel, and from above comes the gentle rustle of pine needles in the wind. Ahead the fire road, a river of grey at the bottom of a canyon of green and brown winds it's way off into the distance before bending round and out of site.

The road vanishes behind, devoured beneath the wheels of the bike which flow over the packed gravel as pedals beat out and easy cadence. Above the trees and in the distance the hills of Galloway tower above the forest a role reversal from yesterday when I looked down on these trails from the high ridge of the Rhinns of Kells.

I had had my eye on biking in Galloway for a while, particularly the Glentrool Tour one of the standout routes in Phil McKane's Scotland Mountain Biking. A monster on the legs, and clocking in at about 90 km it ranges between Loch Doon in the north of the forest and Minnigaff in the south. Not quite fancying that distance in one bite just a few days before embarking on a coast to coast ride and not having the time to split it over two days I decide to ride the northern section and chop the loop just below half hight by using a good track between Loch Trool and Loch Dee.

Using the Glentrool car park as a starting point the route follows the road up the valley until it fades into a good forest road which slowly climbs up the hillside. Arriving at a coll the track drops away and the view opens out to reveal Loch Dee shining in the mist and the great forestry plantations in the valley of the Silver Flowe.

Later the route goes passed the now abandoned MBA both of Backhill of Bush, it's occupied with smoke coming from the chimney and a van parked up outside. Knowing the problems with vandals and antisocial behaviour which sadly forced the MBA to stop looking after this bothy I decide not to risk popping in to say hello.

The ride runs through the valley from left to right

There are a lot of forest opperations going on at the moment with large areas being harvested and replanted and new roads being constructed to facilitate this.  A few miles past the bothy a new track leads off into the trees freshly buldosed into the forest, apparently this will (does?) go all the way through to Loch Doon which I have to say is a good thing concidering what happened next.

Not knowing if the new link is complete I follow the guidebook route which is described simply as a short "off-peiste" section through the fire brakes. It soon becomes clear few bikers if any have passed this way recently, the brakes are a mass of tussocky grass and sucking bog, unrideable and with little if any hint of a trail; it gets worse with a small river crossing and then the piste de resistance the fire brake is completely blocked by fallen trees forcing me to push through the thickly packed trees and their mass of dead lower branches. 

I hope the new road does go all the way through the forest, this off road section is just nasty; it's completely out of character for the ride which apart from this short section is a glorious (if long) route for mountain bikers of almost any ability. Frustratingly taking 40 min to cover about 1.5km whilst carrying a bike pushed my sense of humour to the limit and could completely put off occasional bikers or beginners from moving from trail centres to somewhere a little wilder.

Back on solid trail and a few kilometres I emerge from the forest on the shore of Loch Doon. Lunch is taken inside the stout walls of Loch Doon Castle, which the more you think about it is all wrong; it sits on the side of a hill easily overlooked by surrounding land and with its main door opening straight out into a steep slope. 

Loch Doon Castle - geograph.org.uk - 95470
Brian Joyce [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Such eccentric positioning, and approach to the finer points of siege warfare would not have allowed the castle to last very long in the turbulent history of the Borders, but all is not what is seams and this castle has migrated! The strange positioning is not the result of a particularly mad local laird but the conscientious decision of the Board of Works in the 1930's who upon raising the water level of the Loch took the castle from it's old soon submerged island home and reassembled it in it's current location.

From Loch Doon the ride follows the Forest Drive, closed to traffic at this time of year up through more open woodland of pine, fern, and lochan until it emerges from the forest  practically at the high point of the ride. From here it's a last joyous 20km downhill along quite country roads with great views across to the Merrick before the Glentrool car park and the promise of a hot drink swing into view.

Ride info
Total Distance 72km
Time on bike 5:40
Total time 6:30
Map to follow (probably!)

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Unexpected View

It's been a bit quite on the blog front recently as I've been trying to buy a house which with the best will in the world sort of knocks trips to the wilds onto the back burner. However as Easter weekend arrived with a quarter of the year already spent and too little ticked off my to do list I had to get away somewhere. 

The weather forecast for the highlands looked a bit grotty with lots of low cloud and drizzle bothering the west coast where I had been hoping to do a few days biking. Also with  finances in the forefront of my mind at the moment I'm dubious about spending £100 on petrol to go plod to the top of a cloud bound hill. A happy compromise was to go to the Southern Uplands an area I know less well and where less clag was predicted. 

I only been to the Galloway hills once in the middle of winter 2009/2010 when the whole country was in the middle of a big freeze and conditions were brutal to say the least. I managed to get up The Merrick in a blizzard, but in a big "lesson learned" day found myself as close to exhaustion as I can ever remember in the hills.

Today there is no snow on the ground and I'm heading up onto Corserine a broad rounded hill whose lower slopes are covered with thick forestry commission plantations of almost impenetrable Norwegian Pines. The plantation does make access easy as hight and distance can be quickly gained on the broad forest roads. Even this early in the year the forest feels dry and the air is surprisingly warm.

Leaving the forest behind the route leads into a large open corie and then up onto one of the ridges framing it's edge. Cloud hangs around the top of the ridge line and as I climb the temperature falls off a cliff, and soon I find myself enveloped in cloud.

 Looking west towards The Merrick

From the broad summit plateau there is little to be seen; a sea of short mossy yellow green grass extending away in all directions with a broad path leading off into the mist; after a few minutes the summit trig point comes into view, morphing into solidity from a sea of grey. 

Marching off the summit on a baring towards the Rhinns of Kells either the cloud base lifts slightly or I begin to drop out of it as suddenly through the murk I catch glimpses of hills and  hints of valleys never clear and always transient. Then suddenly through a hole in the mist two craggy peaks stand clear across the valley and appear shining silver in the sun. It's one of the moments where the image is so strong, so sudden, and so stark that gets right inside you and floors you for a minute or two.

Now with a big smile on my face I drop lower and the view opens out across the valley the cloud continues to lift to expose a quite fantastic view over the forest to The Merrick brooding over the far side of the valley. The two peaks I had initially seen form guardians to the lair of there big neighbour neatly framing a broad notch filled with shining blue lochans.

The walk over The Rhinns of Kells is fantastic, the views west and south are particularly superb, its only a short section from Corserine to Meikla Millyea but its a walk to linger over and enjoy. I love the contrast between the dark green  of the forest, the blue of the lochans, and the yellow brown of the high hills. Looking west and south it feels really wild and empty a big remote country to explore.

Looking south towards Loch Dee

From the top of Meikla Millyea I turn east away from the vast space and begin a sharp decent back to the forest followed by a quick jaunt down the forest roads to the car, but the memory is of the interior that lingers, I've got the bike, thats where I will go tomorrow.

There is some excellent biking round the forest including an epic 72km circuit I put the legs through on Sunday of which more in a week or so. Talking of bikes, tomorrow I head up to the Lake District for a leisurely coast to coast cycle, bring it on.