Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Mountain Biking in the Southern Uplands

I'm determined to get last year's major trips written up before we get too far into this year. Here goes...

Fresh form the Moor to Sea for me and Way of the Roses for Hilary, we set off on the following Thursday night in the campervan headed for the Lowther Hills. We pitched up at the side of the road about 11.30 at night, somewhere between Elvanfoot and Leadhills. It was flat and quiet and after 5-6 hours driving, that was good enough. In fact it turned out to be rather better than good enough the next morning.  When we looked out of the window, the sun was shining and we were surrounded by some rather fine scenery and an inviting track heading off up the hill opposite

Roadside overnight camp near Elvanfoot

Wanlockhead and the Southern Upland Way

With a complete disregard for spontaneity, we resisted the temptation of instant gratification in favour of sticking to the master plan and drove through Wanlockhead and down the Mennock Pass to the start of the day's route. Well it would have been the start of the route, if I'd thought to check the grid reference in the Scottish Mountain Trails book instead of just guessing it.  So rather than park up on a broad, flat expanse of land at the bottom of the pass, we tucked into a narrow, sloping lay-by halfway down the hill.  It made little difference, since it was a circular route taking in the aforementioned pass, then north to pick up a section of the Southern Upland Way into Wanlockhead and back via Green Lowther.

By the time we set off down the road, it had started to cloud over.  We lost the remaining height very quickly and then regained it rather more slowly via lowland farm roads and, higher up, rufty-tufty tracks across open moorland.  The views opened out around us in way the picture below almost totally fails to capture (but my bike looks good, doesn't it?)

(Almost) views of the hills north of Sanquar-ish

This next section was actually a bit hard going, by which I mean soft-going and in places, downright boggy.  The final approach to the S. Uplands Way involved a long push up some quite closely spaced contours. Attempts to cycle it were short-lived and brutal and resulted in lung shredding gasps for air.  Once this was overcome however, there was a stretch of satisfying singletrack interspersed by a few wooden bridges with increasingly more technical approaches and exits. 

'North Shore', Southern Uplands style

We made a poor fist of most of them, by which I mean we got off and walked across, but there was nobody around to see.  It felt a bit scrappy until we reached the high point and the descent to Wanlock Water, a kilometre of fast, flowing doubletrack. 

Fast, twisty doubletrack down to Wanlock Water

At the bottom you can chose to cross the river by bridge or ford.  With memories of the Geldie Burn incident still fresh, Hilary opted for the bridge.  I cycled through the ford, misjudged the depth and got wet feet.

Wanlockhead is Scotland's highest village (1531' above sea level) and a former lead mining community. Wikipeadia notes that the lead was first exploited by the Romans.  This is well north of Hadrian's vallum, though south of the short lived one built by Antonine, so I wonder just how much exploiting of it they did.  Perhaps they did it under cover of darkness, like we used to do sometimes, when we were digging in Notts Pot. It isn't just lead in them there hills either.  There's zinc, copper and silver to be dug up and if you've got a wok, you can try panning for some of the world's (allegedly) purest gold.  It's a pretty little village, in a post-industrial kind of way. We paused to look at the preserved beam engine, dating back to 1745, which lifted water 100' up from the mine level, the last example of a water bucket pumping engine in the UK.  The horse gin (only the circular track remains) was a horse drawn windlass, used to raise the mined ore to the surface.   There's a few of these to be seen in Derbyshire, including one on the old Mam Tor road out of Castleton.

Wanlockhead beam engine and horse gin

But the real attraction of Wanlockhead on a day of Scottish drizzle is the Mining Museum tea shop and we felt obliged to sample its delights, which were delightful and welcome.  There are a lot of old black and white prints on the walls showing life in the days when there was an active mining community.  The people in them looked well 'ard and that was just the women.

We came out of the tea shop to find the Scottish drizzle had become a determined, heavy rain and Green Lowther had been stolen by the cloud, which now brushed the tops of our heads.  The guide book noted (in bold type) that the track beyond Green Lowther was indistinct and across a featureless hillside, whilst it described the Dempster Road back to the Pass as skinny ribbons of singletrack requiring balance, finesse and concentration.  Bravely hiding her disappointment at missing out on the skinny ribbons, Hilary accepted my suggestion that we should bale and come back when the sun was shining.  I've never seen the point in going high if you can't see.  We took the road back to the Mennock Pass and had a screaming descent back to the campervan

After peeling off sodden clothes (even the best quality Goretex seems to struggle against Scottish rain), we dunked our uneaten cheese sarnies into some of Ainsley's finest Chicken and Leek packet soup left over from the Challenge and it couldn't have tasted better.  Then we drove to Innerleithen.

14 miles and 2700' ascent

Innerleithen and Minch Moor
We'd booked ourselves in at the caravan park at Innerleithen.  It was the nearest to where we wanted to be next, which was just across the river, and it boasted an on site bar with hot food open at weekends, which this now was. We were quite excited about this, though our suspicions were aroused when we learnt its name.   It's called, wait for it..., "The Tow-Bar" (groan). The menu isn't extensive and the Friday night specials are heavy on the batter: battered haddock supper, battered sausage supper, battered burger supper, battered haggis supper, battered chicken curry - oh no, wait, that one came naked.  All of these can be rounded off by a cherry surprise dessert, described as vanilla ice cream with a cherry Vimto sauce.  Mmmmm. Yum.  Be still my beating heart - it certainly would have been after all that batter.  Our earlier excitement was quickly dampened like a Scottish drizzle and Hilary decided she'd recce the main street for take-aways. It's quite a long main street, typical of this part of Scotland but she came back with news of a curry house (The Saffron) that would deliver to the camp site. Woohoo! We rang through our order and with dinner sorted, we cracked open a Leffe and cranked up the music.  It had stopped raining.  The curry arrived (we had to collect it from the gate).  It was eaten.  It tasted good.  Things were back on track.

It was till dry the next morning but a large breakfast and a bit of bike fettling meant that we didn't have an especially early start.  Innerleithen is home to one of the 7 Stanes MTB trail centres.  At one level it's the poor relation, in that it has no facilities.  At another, it's got hardcore downhill runs.  We weren't going to get involved with any of that nonsense but we did intend to make use of the trail up to the top of Minch Moor, described on the website as a "leg burning, lung busting climb".  The bottom section from the road, through the forest is a very steep and twisty affair, after which it breaks out onto to a forest access road with views across to the hills I'd traversed on Mike's Peeb-Moffling adventures.  Then back into the trees again, along some man-made rooty, rocky singletrack sections before coming out onto open moorland and an unseasonally cold wind.  It took us about an hour to reach the summit, where we sheltered behind a pile of rocks and snacked - but only briefly.

Finally above the tree line on Minch Moor

Minch Moor summit looking east along Southern Uplands Way

The descent from the top was fast and satisfyingly technical without scaring us too much.  We dropped about 500' and met our old friend the Southern Uplands Way.  Turning east we fought our way along an extremely boggy section of track, down and then up, exiting the forest on the old drove road to Brown Knowe and Broomy Law.  This was good riding supplemented by good views.

The Old Drove Road and Southern Uplands Way looking back to Minch Moor

The Old Drove Road looking east towards Broomy Law

So far we had been following a route in the Scottish Mountain Biking - Wild Trails book.  This continued east as far as the Three Brethren  then dropped down into the valley and came back up to the point in the picture, along a track on Hilary's right.  It would then retrace the boggy forest track and return to Innerleithen down the red route, billed as being quite technical.  Whilst we felt that would be very nice, apart from the boggy bit, we had another plan.  This was to head down a track on the far side of Broomy Law and meet up with a road running along the edge of a forest as far as Peel.  From there we would follow the minor road running along the southern bank of the River Tweed back to the camp site.  The flaw in this plan was that the track shown on the 1;50,000, running north from the Drove Road no longer exists.  This presented us with a predicament.  We could revert to the route in the book, which would mean more ascent than we wanted to do or we could continue past the Three Brethren and try to pick up some forest trails, which would mean more distance or, taadaa!, we could following the inviting forest track that we currently stood at the top off, which whilst not marked on the map, was going in almost exactly the right direction. 

The battery level indicator on the MemoryMap GPS was down to its last bar and I would have preferred to be navigating unmarked forest trails knowing we could accurately locate our position.  On the other hand how long could it take to descend through the forest, assuming this track went somewhere and wasn't just a dead end?  We decided to take a chance and waved goodbye to the Brethren looking down on us.  It started steep - bum over the back of the saddle steep - and was fast and a bit rutty in places but as I watched the red line on the GPS trace out our route I could see that we were in fact going to intersect terra cognita or at least a forest road shown on the map.  And that's exactly what happened. From there we flew down through the forest at thigh aching speeds for 3 miles and losing 800' in under 10 minutes.  We only play this game of snakes and ladders for the downhill bits, you know.

The road from Peel to Innerleithen was quiet but went on a bit too long for my liking,  Hilary's the road biker and always takes the lead in these situations.  I think she's got a magic technique.  Either that or my tyres are just wrong for tarmac.  I did eventually get a second wind a little before Innerleithen, which was probably just as well or she would have missed the bridge back into the camp site and ended up in Peebles.

Despite the lengthy road section, it was a fine ride.  On a warmer day and when the going below Minch Moor is less boggy, it would be good to do the route from the book and check out the Innerleithen red.

20.5 miles and 2750' ascent

Glentress - 7 Stanes

On the Sunday, we drove down the road to Glentress, another of the 7 Stanes centres, just outside Peebles, and did the Blue Route.  I'd done some of this about 10 years earlier but had little recollection of it.  In any case, it has recently been extended to go higher up the mountain (above the Buzzard's Nest car park) and some fine technical sections added.  Berm Baby Berm is just gorgeous twisty riding.  We're not huge trail centre fans but this was a pure hedonistic delight.  

Although graded blue, it shares sections with the red route and offers some optional technical features on which to try out your skills.  Among these are the particularly evil 'log skinnies'.  Take a mature pine tree about 8" in diameter, and saw it in half down the length of the trunk.  Then mount the two halves, end to end and flat side up, about a foot off the ground.  Then try and cycle along it without falling off.    

9.5 miles

All in all a great three days and an area with so much more to explore by mountain bike, if we can find the time between all the other trips planned for this year.

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