Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Don't do the southern Upland Way

A suggestion from my Mum that I might like to pop down to see them as they were renting a holiday cottage on the Solway coast (and we know what parental 'suggestions' mean) saw me pitch up at Moffat on Friday eve with a vague plan to do the SUW to Dalry and then head south via various back roads and forest tracks to Portling and then back to Moffat via Mabie and Ae forest. Minimal web research and a quick map appraisal suggested it would be hilly but given the dry weather should be OK... OK?? er maybe not. In any case I needed a hard ride with a camp thrown in as part of my highland trail training. I got it....

I got the first intimation of doom within half a mile of hitting the first trail in the forest above Moffat - I had 2 hours of daylight to get to a suitable stopping point and this 2 hours took me all of 10 miles. The trail was a mess - odd bits of made up path, mostly overgrown, with regular sections where it had sunk into the swamp. Thereafter a brutal climb straight up a hillside with a lot of the track covered in windblow and a vague new line through tussocky, boggy grass beside it. After two hours darkness was falling and I was on the top of a substantial hill. There was no wind but it was chilly and I had doubts about how warm my sleeping bag would be. Further ont he trail seemed to descend and climb and the terrain looked rough as. Oh well nowt for it but to camp where I was. I wore all of the clothes I had with me and snuggled into my bag, exhausted after the hard hike-a-bike climb.

The morning after a cold night at 500m.... 

I woke at first light shivering looking at frost on the inside of the tent. I dozed fitfully for a while longer and then decided that getting up and getting going was the only way to get warm. Tea and breakfast helped.

The Sunrise was the only good news of the day. First up was a boggy and tussocky trail with more climbing and a poor descent. There was a brief respite on a section of fire road and a (rare) nice bit of gravel trail and then it was into the crux of the day. Lowther hill at 725m is the high point of the whole Southern upland Way. The climb up it was horrendous - 2 hours of maximum effort pushing and carrying up a horrible rollercoaster climb on a vague, bog and tussock infested death march. Just when you thought you were near the top, there was another dip and then a further gruesome hike-a-bike. Still, the sun was shining, the views were fab and it was excellent training. Or something.

This is the recently establish Lowther Ski CLub tow. As it happens I used this tow for several ski seasons in its previous location above Teasdale in the North Pennines when it was run by the now defunct Harwood Ski Club.

View down to Wanlockhead - the highest village in Scotland.

The descent was a dissapointment, a chunk of it being on the radar station access road and the rest being pretty wet.... Wanlockhead was just waking up as I cycled through and onto another easy section of track. The SUW dives over a moor here but it was (thankfully) closed and diverted further round the forest track. Not to worry as another horrible moor section followed with more pushing and a further rubbish descent though cattle poached fields with stiles every 100 yards.... Now feeling thoroughly fed up with this horrible trail, I missed out the next section and instead followed a quiet back road to Sanquar.

In the excellent Burnside Cafe in Sanquar (which made the whole day) I sussed out an alternative road and forest track route which re-joined the SUW at Polskeoch Bothy. Thereafter an hour of hard uphill swamp surfing got me to the top of Ben Brack and this ace sculpture...

The Fat bike was a life and humour saver over this stuff, enabling relatively easy riding over the wet ground. This was the point I made the decision to ride this beast on the forthcoming Highland Trail.
The ensuing descent was the best bit of the whole route but once I hit the road I was done with the SUW and followed roads to Dalry rather than the two further boggy climbs. Thereafter it was back road into the vast Galloway Forest Park and then the Riaders road down to Loch Ken. The easy pedalling was a huge relief after the struggle of the first 50 miles but I was pleased to still be in good shape and (relatively) good humour. The fatbike rolled well on the forest tracks and the sun still shone. A few tracks and roads and I reached my folks' holiday cottage 12 1/2 hours and 90 miles after I'd set off early that frosty morning. Definitely a strong contender for the hardest bike ride I've ever done. 

Sunday saw more forest roads (albeit with 2 big climbs and a quick blast round mabie forest trail centre complete with bags on bike!) a quick call in a the Scottish Enduro series round 1 at Ae and 60 miles.

I think the Southern Upland Way has had its day in its current form. Its a hell of a distance to walk and a lot of it west of Moffat is either featureless moors, forestry or both. Usage must be very low and the section of the route I did is getting zero maintenance and generally looks well past its sell by date. Its a pity as the basic concept is sound and the scenery is great in D&G. Since getting back I've been doing further map appraisal and I reckon you could string up a much better route using a variation of my return trip. The capital trail does a fair bit of the eastern section which is far nicer so there is a good route in there somewhere....