58km through the forests of Galloway
23.08.2010 19 °C
It seemed to have rained for days but not today - the sun shone warmly and we'd made a good start along the forest road. With little effort we maintained something over 40 km/h as the summer breeze brought out the scents from the surrounding woodland and meadow. The gradient was a gentle downhill with our momentum carrying us over the small uphill sections of the single track lane as we sped from light to shade under the trees. I was glad of our good start because it wasn't always going to be this easy.
The Big Country Trail is a 58km circular mountain bike trail from Glen Trool in the Galloway Forest Park of south west Scotland and I was riding it today with Josh, my 11 year old son. The route is maintained by the Forestry Commission as one of their "7 Stanes" mountain bike trails and follows partly off road trails with some sections on quiet roads such as the one we were on now. The main challenge of riding the Big Country Track is one of hills and distance rather than technical sections.
Our first challenge came not with a climb or rough descent though but in the small town of Minnigaff just outside Gatehouse of Fleet. If there was a sign for the Big Country Route - marked in purple here - we missed it and ended up on a busier road - the B7079. at least it had a cycle path at the side and we soon were able to take a left onto the A712 signposted New Galloway which was again quiet and began to climb steadily into the Galloway Hills which rose invitingly ahead. A look at the map revealed that we could rejoin our route a little further on. I wanted to get to grips with the off road but Josh preferred the road if it wasn't busy. It would mean that we would end up doing extra distance but it would be less difficult riding.
Gatehouse of Fleet was now left well behind and the forest pressed in on both sides of the road. We had been climbing steadily though not at a hard gradient and after we passed one of the entrances to Kirroughtree Forest on the right we were able to leave the road. A track led off into the woods on our left and climbed steeply upwards bending briefly back to the left - the way we'd come - before turning back on course through the trees. Here we met another track the came up from the left to join us.
This was where we'd have come out if we'd not gone wrong at Minnigaff where we should have turned left at the end of the forest road. Here we passed a sign declaring this to be the Old Edinburgh Road. I found it quite fascinating that before the tarmac road, this track was the main route north through these mountains. The horse drawn coaches would rattle along here presumably persued by the odd highwayman! It would have been remote country to travel through in those days.
We stopped for an early lunch in a wide clearing with a view of the hill called Cairnsmore of Fleet. We sat on a pile of logs that had been felled and apart from the stony track and signs of logging there was no other sign of human activity here. I'd have thought that on a day like this there would have been other cyclists or walkers but no - we had it all to ourselves.
Onwards again and past the tiny isolated Loch of the Lowes bordered by heather and patches of trees overhanging the still water. The rough track surfaced with stones had been mainly downhill since lunch but now it climbed again in a couple of short but steep ascents. The bumpy track is harder to get any momentum going so these hills were harder than a similar climb on the road and my lower gears were tested for the first time.
Josh decided after falling off again - more due to lack of speed than obstacles - that he'd rather be on the road so we decided to return to it instead of the short cut over Poultrybuie Hill and visit Clatteringshaws Loch. For now though it was the track which wound through some wonderfully remote country - no sign of houses or cars just a vastness of heather and trees through which we rode steadily.
The track went down again and became a little less rough and we were able to make a little more speed as we reached a second small lake - The Black Loch - where the short steep way turned off to the left. That's the proper route for the Big Country Track but Josh still preferred to head for the road. Besides we had some unavoidable mountain bike tracks to finish off with. Another couple of miles past the Black Loch on relatively level track brought us within sight of the A712 once again and we rejoined the smooth tarmac. There was hardly any traffic so I didn't object to leaving the track and we at once doubled our speed. A gentle gradient took us higher before a 60 km/h descent nearly made us overshoot the turn off to the left. The signpost was for National Cycle Route 7 again and the Glen Trool Off Road Route. Here a narrow tarmac lane passed the Clatteringshaws Dam and set off back towards the hills.
The fox hadn't spotted us - he trotted along the side of the road ahead occasionally stopping to sniff the grassy verge in the same way that a dog would. Then he must have scented or heard us as he was off into the bushes by the roadside as we approached.
The road which had been gradually gaining height since leaving Clatteringshaws Dam soon descended a long hill to meet the track coming over Poultrybuie Hill from the Black Loch where a right hander at the bottom took us off the tarmac again. The rough gravel and stones of the mountain bike track led on through the heather and trees into the wilderness that lay between here and the end of the Big Country Track at Glen Trool.
Steep climbs that tested our strength - it's best to keep going rather than stop on this rough ground - were followed by quick bone jarring descents though always we climbed higher until at something over 1000 feet - the map shows 318 metres - we came within sight of the remote Loch Dee. Away beyond the mountains rose in lines above a vast upland plateau. The very names of the hills and rivers here fired the imagination - Rig of the Jarkness, Curleywee Hill, the Rhinns of Kells, Silver Flowe - they sounded like places in a fairy tale and the landscape suited them. It was a wonderful spot.
The pass to Glen Trool could be seen clearly ahead not too far off and we set off again. The going was a bit easier now first heading down past a bothy (hut) built for fishermen on Loch Dee before a fairly easy climb to the pass itself. Here we ate the rest of our food by the Stane which is a large polished stone bearing carved runes - not ancient but placed by the Forestry Commission to mark one of their 7 mountain bike areas in Southern Scotland known as the 7 Stanes.
We now rode through open heathery country below rough crags as we began our desent to Glen Trool. Josh went ahead at a furious pace - his bike is more suited to the off road tracks than mine and for all his claiming to prefer the road he made a good descent of the track back into the forest. That was until he stopped at a turn off, looked round and fell off his bike again! I think I was unkind to laugh but descending the rough trail at speed uncscathed then falling off a stationary bike - I ask you!
At a more leisurely pace we completed the steep forest trail to cross the bridge at the bottom. Here we were passed by 2 mountain bikers - surprisingly the first we had seen on the whole route. We followed them along the roughest section of the route so far. Large rocks and tree roots joined the effort to unseat us and the mountain bikers - their machines more suited to such terrain - disappeared ahead into the trees.
The Big country Route had a sting in the tail. The track now climbed back up at the steepest gradient we'd met all day staying rough so it was hard to get going. With the last of our strength we reached Bruce's Stone which is one of the monuments around here to Scottish hero Robert the Bruce and also the start point for the route to Merrick - Galloway's highest summit - which we'd climbed the year before.
Once back on tarmac our speed picked up and soon we saw the mountain bikers ahead. Part competitive spirit and part desire to be eating an ice cream in the cafe saw us overtake them in a kind of team persuit postion completing the last 3 miles of single track road to the car park in just over 8 minutes.
The Big Country Trail must rank as one of the best days out I've had on the bike - certainly in recent times - and I'll look forward to re visiting the area and trying a few more of the bike routes. A big well done to the Forestry Commission for creating such good routes for cyclists!
Pete Buckley August 2009