Sunday, 27 June 2004

Happiness is a Filthy Bicycle


It's been one of those weekends. Saturday the weather was too horrible
to go sailing, so in the end I worked all morning and half the
afternoon. And then the weather was still horrible so I stated playing
a computer game, as you do. And, as you do, I went on playing it late
into the night (and then it crashed just as I was about to achieve
something), and the consequence of that was I overslept my tide this
morning. Although in all probability I'd have got down to the marina,
looked at the weather and thought, nah... It was gey dreich. So I was
determined to get a bike out but what with one thing and another the
day was getting by. Finally about four o'clock I stuck the Mantra on
the back of the truck and headed up country.


I left the truck at Stroan Loch and cycled up the Raiders' Road. The
wind, which had been easily force six down on the coast, was pretty
blustery out of the west but not too bad because it was at right angles
to my direction. By the time I got to the Otter Pool it was raining
quite sturdily, so I stopped, peeled off my jersey and pulled on my
waterproof. Then on up the Raider's Road. I've cycled it before; it's
an interesting but not altogether pleasant surface to ride on being
essentially a dirt road but much better graded than most dirt roads, so
the surface finish where it hasn't been chewed up is almost as smooth
as tarmac. Unfortunately it had been chewed up a bit by the Galloway
Hills Rally which was through there a couple of weeks ago... It's a
filthy surface, though, and the bike was covered in a fine dark grey
grit.

You're also climbing steadily but noticeably along the whole length of
the Raiders' Road, mostly running close alongside the Black Water. And
it's pretty scenic. The Black Water is gorgeous, particularly in the
long sections where it runs over beds of flat rock. Towards the
Clatteringshaws end the road swings away from the water quite steeply
up the hillside, and as the sun had now come out (the weather improved
steadily) I stopped at the top to change my waterproof back for my
jersey. Then a blast back down almost to river level and another short
climb and I turned left onto the tarmac of the A712... for all of fifty
yards. And then left again onto the track up to Loch Grannoch, which is
signposted as part of NCN7.

Somewhere in Galloway this summer there is an osprey nesting. The RSPB
are, very carefully, not saying where. It's probably on one of the
really inaccessible lochs up in upper Galloway, but short of going into
serious wilderness the most remote lochs are Loch Grannoch and Loch
Skerrow, so I was half hoping to see one. Unfortunately you see very
little of Loch Grannoch because of the trees, although in one section
of clear fell there was a marvelous view out over it. It's typical of
Galloway, really. Here's a loch about the size of Coniston and at least
as scenic as Coniston and there's actually no public road which is even
in the same glen - has even a view of it.

The track up to Loch Grannoch was mostly cycling down corridors of
spruce forest. Initially the track was uphill for two or three miles
and sort of average landrover track quality, but halfway down the loch
it was being used by harvesters and forwarders and was a bit chewed up,
and as it started to descend past the lower end of the loch it was very
loose and rough indeed. My Mantra has an enormous amount of good smooth
travel at the back, and four inches of not-very-good suspension at the
front, and it was just about able to cope with going down that track at
a reasonable pace, although it was a jarring experience. I would hate
to try it on a fully laden touring bike, or even a hardtail mountain
bike. And this is THE SAME national cycle route - NCN7 - which meanders
down gentle country lanes not five miles from my home. Sustrans are
crazy. A bike that could cope with the track down from Loch Grannoch to
the Big Water of Fleet Viaduct is not going to be suitable for gentle
country lanes, and vice versa. Still, it was a glorious, fast, bumpy
bash down to the viaduct, and there the first minor problem with my
plan manifested itself.

I hadn't known for certain whether you could get up from NCN 7 onto the
old railway line, but I'd assumed I'd find a way when the time came.
When I got there, there I was on the west bank of the Fleet. And there,
leading up from NCN7, was a nice landrover track up onto the railway at
the west end of the massively sturdy viaduct. And there, neatly across
the viaduct was an eight foot high barbed-wire-entanglement-topped
barrier.

Whoops.

Oh well, not going to get across the viaduct. What now? I did think of
cycling down into Gatehouse and getting a taxi back to the truck, or
even cycling the long way round by the road. But it felt so wimpish.
Instead I turned round and cycled back up towards Loch Grannoch,
crossing the Fleet on a low bridge, to where I'd seen a track off to
the south east. I can't actually focus on a map without my reading
glasses, which I didn't have with me, but it seemed to sweep round and
run parallel to the railway. So I thought I'd try it. Initially there
was a long curving climb on an atrociously loose, rough surface -
although to be fair the Mantra coped with it fairly well and I was able
to keep up a reasonable speed. After a bit it levelled out and ran
straight and I could see by the sun I was riding in approximately the
right direction. I kept thinking that the railway couldn't be more than
a few hundred yards south of me, and kept looking down firebreaks to
see if I could see it. None of them looked ridable. And in any case the
track was now impressively straight and with a nice easy gradient -
impressively well engineered for a forestry road -- and then suddenly I
was in a cutting.

Oh, well, that's alright, then.

After a couple of miles or so of this well engineered (but still quite
rough) track, the track started to twist downhill and I realised I'd
come to the now demolished Little Water of Fleet viaduct. They've made
an impressive job cleaning up. I couldn't see any of the piers - it's
been dismantled completely, almost as if it had never been there. Only
the ends of the old embankment give it away.

In any case the track crossed the Little Water of Fleet and came to a
junction; one branch climbed back up towards the railway line. I
followed this, and to my surprise the second minor problem with my plan
appeared. The track went straight across the old line, and disappeared
off south down the glen. The old line itself was thickly overgrown with
broom and willow. It looked as though I would not be able to get the
bike through.

Whoops.

By the old line I was about five miles back to the truck. By the way I'd
come, about twenty. Down by the road and round, probably the same. I
pushed for fifty yards through thick vegetation, and then suddenly the
track cleared again, and was just the ballast of the railway track
exactly as it must have been when they lifted the sleepers. I got on
and started to ride.

Looking on the map it's about a mile from the Little Water of Fleet
viaduct to Loch Skerrow. However that mile was definitely the most
interesting and most adventurous of the whole trip, and it felt like
more. There were alternately sections of more or less bare clinker,
sections which were partly overgrown with mosses and grass, and
sections which were heavily overgrown (one or two more where I got off
and pushed through). Then (this is Galloway) there were two sharp
granite ridges that ran across the line. What has they done? Blasted
through, of course. Absolutely vertical sided cuttings. There must have
been no more than inches to spare on either side of a standard railway
carriage - it must have been spectacular when the railway was in use.
It's still pretty spectacular.

Then there was a short section where the track ran in a slight cutting,
and it had been flooded for some time. The trackbed was still there,
but under about 200mm of evil greeny-black ooze. I pedalled _very_
carefully through that. Then a quick lift over a gate that clearly
hadn't been opened for a very long time, and there was Loch Skerrow on
my left. The west end of Loch Skerrow - which I'd never seen before -
is even more spectacular than the east end. By this time my headset was
feeling decidedly loose and unhappy. I stopped to try to fix it, but
didn't achieve much. Part of the problem is that so long as you're
cycling the midges can't keep up, but as soon as you stop IT'S
DINNERTIME!

On, despite worries about the headset, through Loch Skerrow halt, and
then bombing down the last couple of miles with Stroan Loch glinting
ahead of me on my left and a rainbow (it was raining again, out of a
clear blue sky) ahead on my right. Brilliant.

Happiness is a filthy bike.

As an afterthought - in the whole trip I saw four cars moving, and two
cars parked. In the carpark at Stroan Loch where I left the truck there
were six people looking at the view; I didn't see any other people at
all. Not bad for one of the most scenic places in Britain, in the
middle of summer.
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