Hedging in the Borders

Try two contrasting bike rides in the Borders.

View over Tweed valley from Glentress

View over Tweed valley from Glentress

I was in the Borders with a bicycle and a day to spare but I couldn’t make up my mind which route to take. Should I do what I usually do and go for a gentle on-road tour of the countryside or be a bit different and try mountain-biking for the first time? After all, I was just a few miles away from the Glentress which forms part of one of southern Scotland’s ‘7stanes’ mountain biking centres.

Originally operated by the Forestry Commission, the centres are known as the 7stanes because there are seven of them and each features a ‘stane’ (Scots for stone) somewhere in the forest. At Glentress there are over 30 miles of trails, all well waymarked and graded to suit different levels of ability and experience rather like ski runs. Blues are easy, reds are intermediate and blacks are difficult. Soon after setting off I was glad I had played it safe and chosen a blue route as I was soon out of puff – and pushing – up a hell of a hill. Only when there were gaps between the pines on my left could I admire the view over the Tweed valley – and see how high I’d climbed. Buzzards Nest turned out to be another car park; a mere base camp, certainly not a summit.

Mountain bikers in Glentress

Mountain bikers in Glentress

Still the track went up. The last time I’d encountered hairpin bends in such quick succession was from the comfort of a coach as I neared an Alpine ski resort. All I could hear was the breeze in the trees and, as I rested in a log shelter, the distant scrunch of approaching tyres. Suddenly, a mountain biker pulled up in front of me at the end of a descent. “That was amazing!” he announced, beaming, later commenting on the “great switchbacks” to his companion as he joined him.

Peppery Boletus mushrooms in Glentress forestMountain biking has lots in common with snowboarding. They are all about downhills, gear, lifestyle and lingo. I’d earlier passed a sign for a black run called Andy’s Flume and the map pointed out locations for the Worm Hole, Mustard Snake and Redemption Climb. For my part I was bound for Betty Blue which, if my map reading was accurate, was the name of a swooping descent in a spooky wood. The corners were banked enabling me to keep going at a fairly steady – and, by now speedy – pace.

I re-encountered the experts at a red skills area and watched them leaping and zooming around a series of ramps and bends. All very cool. The final section of my route was along Electric Blue which the map describes as a “swoopy singletrack with whoop-de-doos”. I don’t quite know what whoop-de-doos are but they felt good to me.

My fingers were almost aching from gripping my brakes so tightly but were still capable of grasping a mug of tea. I drank it while wolfing down a lunchtime breakfast with haggis back at the café which, along with the Osprey car park, forms part of The Hub. The facilities are comprehensive. There’s also a large bike shop and hire centre plus shower and changing facilities. Nearby is a one-mile, green-graded skills trail suitable for young children mountain biking for the first time while slightly older children can try Trailquest, a mix of cycling and orienteering which leads them to various checkpoints of interest hidden within the forest.

Footbridge over Tweed in Peebles

Footbridge over Tweed in Peebles

It was time for me to move on to part two of my day out. I headed off to Peebles to start a more familiar sort of bike ride: a scenic circuit on a road to nowhere south of the town. At the end of the first climb at the top of Manor Hill I spotted way down below a fisherman up to his thighs in the River Tweed and as alone as me. I was almost starting to miss my mountain biking mates – but equally enjoying the expansive views that had been for the most part concealed on my morning trails. Clear soft river water flowing from these peaty hills was used for washing processes in the woollen industry and its power was harnessed to drive mills.

The outward part of my route was along the lush wooded river valley but the vista changed dramatically after turning the corner around Cademuir Hill. I was then in a broad, flat-bottomed valley, the heather clad slopes providing a contrast with what had gone before and reminiscent of England’s Lake District. The clump of trees on the hillside above me stood out like a bristles that had been missed by the razor.

View across Glensax Burn valley

View across Glensax Burn valley

I returned to Peebles and then headed back out to Glentress, this time along the Tweed Valley Cycleway. To my right was Cademuir again, its trees looking like fur from this distance. On the opposite side of the valley and below an aerial that marks the top of a hill I spotted a large clearing in the plantation that I’d passed in the morning. Several hours after going there I found out where I’d been.

Kailzie Gardens

Kailzie Gardens

I couldn’t resist calling in at Kailzie Gardens which originally belonged to a Georgian house that was demolished in 1962. Renowned for its fuschias and geraniums, Kailzie today consists of a walled garden, 15 acres of wild garden with woodland and burnside walks, a duckpond and children’s area. The cafe was the main attraction for me, though. I could not have wished for a more tranquil end to a hectic day. What would those mountain bikers make of me now, I wondered? They were probably heading off to the pub to recount the day’s heroics while I was taking tea and smelling the roses. Still, each to his own – and mine’s a bit of both.

Fact file

Distance: 8 miles for the mountain bike trail and 14 miles for the on-road route.

Parking: Osprey car park (charge), Glentress. (Glentress is three miles east of Peebles on the A72).

Directions:

Setting off from The Hub

Setting off from The Hub

For the mountain bike trail pick up a leaflet from cycle shop beside the Osprey car park in Glentress and follow the blue route.
For the on-road route turn left out of Glentress and into Peebles via the A72. Pick up the leaflet on ‘Peebles local cycling trails’ from the Tourist Information Centre and follow the Cademuir circuit. Half way round the route you start following the signed Tweed Valley Cycle Way. Once back in Peebles continue to follow the Cycle Way out of town eastwards and past Kailzie Gardens. Take next left, then left at first mini-roundabout, right at the second and left onto A72 to return to Glentress.

Eating: Excellent café at The Hub and plenty of pubs and restaurants in Peebles.

Information:
Download a map of mountain bike trails from here. Kailzie Gardens are open seven days a week all year round during daylight hours. Tea room and restaurant open from late March to late October, 11am-5.30pm. Tel: 01721 720007.

Skills circuit  - man and dog)

The pedalling pilgrim

Paul Kirkwood traces the origins of the bicycle in Dumfriesshire.

Birthplace of the bike: Courthill Smithy

Birthplace of the bike: Courthill Smithy

The principal defies logic but is the basis of my favourite invention: it’s easier to balance on two wheels if you’re moving along than it is standing still. I no more believed it to be so when I was being pushed around the garden on my first bike by my father than my children believe me now when I’m the one providing reassurance amidst the wobbling.

Since those days I’ve learned to love the bike. I’ve cycled to schools, colleges and jobs and on expeditions to all corners of the British Isles. Now I was cycling to the place where it all began. I suppose you could call it a pilgrimage of sorts – to the home in Dumfriesshire of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the man that invented the pedal-powered bicycle in 1840.

Burns statue, Dumfries

Burns statue, Dumfries

I began in Dumfries by cycling from the station towards the River Nith via Shakespeare Street. For a town so strongly associated with Robbie Burns and close to the border such a street name seems magnanimous to the English to say the least.

I was bound for the start of the Kirkpatrick Macmillan Trail. The route initially weaves its way along traffic-free cycle paths beside the river, over the main roads and through suburbia then, suddenly, you’re among the rolling hills.

My previous ride was in Perthshire at Easter when everything was brown and wild. In contrast, Dumfriesshire in late spring was gentle and bushy green. The landscape looks like Wales and often sounds like England (many of the locals are from round the corner in Cumbria) but is, of course, a corner of Scotland – and an undiscovered one at that. Most people blast up the A74 bound for Glasgow and on to the Highlands but a trip out west is a treat. Scotland for softies, I call it.

I stopped for my first rest in the sunshine outside the village stores in Dunscore. The postman had a conversation with someone in an upstairs window as I read an account in the local paper of a visit to The Stewartry (as the region is known) by Prince Charles and Camilla. I had been in Castle Douglas – one of the towns they had visited – at the same time but, unknowingly, was queuing in the Post Office while the walkabout took place literally 100 yards away. The only royalty I saw was the Queen’s head on the stamps I bought. Ah, well. Still ruing the missed opportunity I pressed onwards.

Lag Tower

Lag Tower

I next passed the ruins of Lag Tower which was home to the Grierson clan from the early 16th century. The tower was burnt down by a fire in the 18th century and never lived in again. The only beings that pass through it today are the sheep from the neighbouring farmyard.

The Trail follows the bottom of a valley and then edges out into the open again towards Keir Mill, my main objective. Just outside the village is the Courthill Smithy, home to Kirkpatrick Macmillan. As it happens, he was living and working in Glasgow at the time of his invention but he learnt his trade here and at nearby Drumlanrig Castle. Two plaques on the gable ends of the smithy record his achievements. One says “He builded better than he knew”, referring to the fact that Macmillan didn’t seek any commercial gain from his invention and it wasn’t even fully developed and marketed by anyone until some 60 years later.

The smithy is private and unassuming, a museum waiting to happen. For now, though, bicycle historians can find out more by travelling a few miles further north to the Scottish Cycling Museum within the grounds of Drumlanrig Castle. On the final approach sheep scuttled along in the road in front of me, their dirty bottoms bobbing ever more vigorously up and down as I sped up.

The museum houses a collection of bicycles through the ages including a reproduction of Macmillan’s prototype. The feet of cyclists didn’t rotate as they pedalled but went from side to side on treadles hanging from the front which were connected by steel rods to the rear wheel which drove the contraption. Another exhibit is a Swedish bike from the eighties made entirely from plastic. The unusual material was supposed to help with maintenance but it also made the bike unrigid and the concept never caught on.

Drumlanrig Castle

Drumlanrig Castle

Set within acres of gardens, nature trails and mountain bike routes, the castle is home to the ninth Duke of Baccleugh and eleventh of Queensbury, the largest private land owner in Europe. Built in 1690, it contains paintings by Holstein, Gainsborough and Rembrandt. There’s also the bedroom where Bonnie Prince Charlie and Neil Armstrong spent the night – more than 200 years apart, I hasten to add. The astronaut had been researching his family history in the area and stayed at Drumlanrig as a guest of the Duke. Prince Margaret was another former guest.

Soon after setting off from Drumlanrig the views open up and the Lowther Hills, one of the ranges that put the ‘up’ in Southern Uplands, come into view. A golf ball-shaped crown that encloses a Civil Aviation Authority radar station appears pimple-like at the end of a ridge. In a field in the foreground of the scene I spotted my first Galloway cow or “Beltie” as the breed is nicknamed. The name comes from the white belt that wraps around the girth of their otherwise black bodies. While indigenous to the region, they are found as far afield as Alaska and Australia.

Cattle in front of Lowther Hills

Cattle in front of Lowther Hills

The road then threads its way along a wooded valley shared by the River Nith, main road and railway until it reaches Sanquhar (pronounced ‘Sank-er’ and meaning ‘old fort’). Isolated and surrounded by bare, smooth hills with neatly delineated forests, the town from a distance looks like something from a railway set.

It’s notable for three features: its castle, the oldest post office in the world and the Tolbooth Museum. The latter’s grandeur reflects the breadth of its role – which was much more than just collecting tolls. Originally it served as council chamber, library, public meeting room, school room and records office. The museum it houses today includes samples of the geometrical patterns that characterised the town’s knitting industry in the 18th century. Knitters made the patterns complex to make them hard to copy and protect their livelihood. One of the most popular was named ‘The Duke’ after the town’s castle-owning neighbour.

Macmillan regularly used to cycle to Dumfries. I’d enjoyed following in his tread marks in the other direction as well as the extension to Sanquhar but, as I dismounted at the station, a train seat back to where I started was suddenly more appealing than a saddle. Even for me.

Reproduction of Macmillan's bike in cycling museum at Drumlanrig Castle

Reproduction of Macmillan’s bike in cycling museum at Drumlanrig Castle

Fact file

Distance: The Kirkpatrick Macmillan Trail is 24 miles from Dumfries to Drumlanrig. The extension from Drumlanrig to Sandquhar is 12 miles.

Example of Sanquhar knitting pattern in Tolbooth Museum

Example of Sanquhar knitting pattern in Tolbooth Museum

Directions: Pick up a leaflet on the Kirkpatrick Macmillan Trail from any Tourist Information Centre such as the Centre at the start of the Trail located by the main bridge over the River Nith. From Drumlanrig you can either return the same way or continue north to Sanquhar and catch the train back. For this option, leave the Drumlanrig via the main drive and turn left signed ‘Baccleugh Estates Works Department’. At first t-junction turn right at a home-made sign to Sanquhar. Twice the minor road approaches the A76 but on each occasion turn left to continue in same direction and on the left side of the river. At t-junction on outskirts of Sanquhar turn right over bridge and right again for town centre or sign to station.

Bike hire: Grierson & Graham Cycle Centre, Dumfries, 01387 259483. Nithsdale Cycling Centre, Dumfries, tel 01387 254870.

Inside cycling museum at Drumlanrig_5_1

Inside cycling museum at Drumlanrig