Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Across Scotland by Mountain Bike - The Full Story: Day 5

Day 5: Braemar to Glen Tanar (33 miles)

We were now over half way with all the major obstacles behind us other than Mt Keen, tomorrow.  OK, the contours looked a bit close together but we weren't planning to go to the top, so how hard could it be?

The sun was shining and there no midges and we sat on the grass to eat breakfast. Well, we ate a breakfast bar, so I suppose you could say that we flirted with the concept of breakfast.  Hilary shared hers with one of the many ducks which seem to own the site.


Today's route to Ballater would largely stick to the valley, through forests and minor roads.  Rather than take the road out of Braemar to Invercauld Bridge, there was a track shown on the map which runs under something a feature known as the Lion's Face.  Seasoned Challengers will  be familiar with this but I'd not been that way before.  We asked the camp site lady if she knew what it was like.  Yes, she said, she sometimes went running that way but it was a bit steep and rocky and she preferred the road.  She thought it would be too rough to cycle.  It didn't look that steep on the map and if you could run it, we reasoned, it was unlikely be that rocky.  So we ignored her advice and turned right out of the camp site to pick up the cycle track across the road.  It was a bit of a steep pull to begin with but it quickly settled down into a reasonable gradient, on a mostly grassy track sprinkled with the occasional tree root or rock for added interest.

Lion's Face track

A level section through sun dappled woods gives way, on the corner, to views west along the River Dee and north over to Braemar Castle.

Braemar Castle

From here the track descends below the rocky outcrop of the Lion's Face (hard to see the likeness from close quarters) before plunging more steeply downhill over an increasingly rocky, rooty, loose surface out to the road.  We couldn't imagine why anyone would prefer the road to this little gem of a route.

The next 2 miles of road to Invercauld Bridge (aka the old Brig of Deeeee) were quiet.  The coach parties would have still been tucking into their full Scottish breakfasts but we set all thoughts of bacon, sausages, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, fried bread (oh, just stop it) to one side and carried on pedalling.

The Brig of Dee

I could sound knowledgeable and write about the history of the bridge but I'd only be plagiarising Historic Scotland's info panel.  So here it is.  It's fascinating stuff.

We passed through the deer gate into Ballochbuie Forest.  The last time I came this way, I was hungover from a 'wild night' at Mar Lodge. 

Deer gate into Ballochbuie Forest

No hangover today and we cruised along easy forest trails

Ballochbuie Forest
 past the bridge with no name

The bridge with no name

offering fine views up and down the Dee.

River Dee from the bridge with no name

We rode past Connachat Cottage and after more forest trails the track turned to a road leading up to the gates into the grounds of Balmoral Castle.  Hilary was adamant that we were booked in for morning tea with you know who (I would have just settled for a tea shop.)  As it was, the gates were locked and we had an unexpected Norbert to cycle over to Easter Balmoral (passing between various points on the map indicating cairns named after Queen Victoria's children.)  No sign of the Easter Bunny so we continued along the B976, which was dull and after a few miles of dullness, we turned into some woods, circumnavigating a small hill called The Knock (355m - told you it was small.)  I wasn't sure about bothering with this - it seemed like 2km of off-road just for the sake of it but it was actually quite a pleasant little track, which followed the river and then back out to the road. 

We rode over the bridge into Ballater, thorough throngs of people, who I assumed had heard about our trip and had come out to cheer us on our way.  (I say, can you cheer a bit louder?  Anyone?)

We cruised the main drag eyeing up possible tea shops and then the other main drag and found one opposite the green with two empty tables outside and purveying pies from inside.  The tables were a bit wobbly and close to the road, so we decamped to the green and ate under a tree.  Sloth took hold and, after clearing aside the dog-ends dozed in the sun for a while.

It was early afternoon and Ballater was full of tourists and we didn't take to it, so we agreed to head for Glen Tanar.  The Halfway Hut was another 12 miles but there were no steep gradients.  We called in at the Cycle Highlands bike shop.  It always good to have a mooch around and see what's on offer but we also wanted to find out if we should phone any estate offices to check up on possible deer stalking or grouse shooting that might be happening over the next two days.  The young lad behind the counter thought any stalking would be in one of the neighbouring valleys but suggested we call in at the tourist office at Millfield, where we would be able to get more accurate advice.  We mentioned we were going over the Mounth Road tomorrow, across the shoulder of Mt Keen and he said we would be looking at a two hour push.  I thought he was just saying that because we looked old and left the shop feeling slightly insulted!

We stopped for a final brew in another tea shop near the old station.  I went in to order a pot for two while Hilary sat at a table outside, guarding the bikes.  I came out to find some old bloke chatting to her about bikes!

We took the Deeside Way out of Ballater, which is the track bed of the old Deeside Railway,  opened in 1853, the investment for it coming largely as a result of Price Albert bought Balmoral Castle a few years earlier.  When the royal train went through, the level crossing gates were locked and the stations closed.

On The Deeside Way

The Deeside Way makes for pleasant, fast but otherwise unexciting riding, much like the High Peak or Monsal Trails in Derbyshire (but without the tunnels.)  There are some good views of heather moorland, solitary or small stands of Silver Birch and distant hills.  It was already starting to feel like the highlands were fading to a distant memory.

We left the Deeside Way at Dinnet and followed minor roads and farm tracks to the tourist information centre at Millfield, where we called in to ask about the likelihood of meeting men with guns.  The place seemed empty but a student volunteer appeared from upstairs.  The ranger was out and she wasn't able to give us a definitive or even convincing prediction as to our safety.  She did show some concern when we said that we would be wild camping in the glen and checked that we wouldn't be lighting any fires.  We assured here we wouldn't (if you ignore the gas stoves) and went on our way.

Further down the valley, we passed St Lesmo's Chapel

St Lesmo's Chapel
 Built by Sir William Cunliffe Brooks, "an eccentric banker and MP from Manchester", the pointing in the walls is quite unusual.

Pointing in walls of St Lesmo's Chapel

We turned south west into Glen Tanar and passed a group of teenage backpackers.  And then some more.  And then still more, all the way up to the Halfway Hut.

The Halfway Hut turned out to be a garden shed, so any ideas of another cosy night in a bothy were put to one side.

The Halfway Hut
 We rode on up the glen for another few hundred yards and shortly before the forest gave way to open moor, we found a comfortable looking spot for a wild camp, in the trees, more of less out of sight of the track and just by the river.

Wild camp in Glen Tanar

It had been a great day's riding.  We'd covered 33miles and were 12 miles into tomorrow's ride.  As the midges started to close in, we disappeared into our tents and I settled into another evening with Babylon Circus and thoughts of just how much pushing we might have to look forward to in the morning.

Time to stretch your vocal chords again...

Back to Day 4  /  Forward to Day 6

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