The smell of the pine forest in the damp air is all pervading, fresh and clear to the nose; trees in long regimented ranks march out into the distance close packed like phalanx upon phalanx of soldiers, a wall impenetrable and dark. Trunks arrow straight stand sentinel stand guard above the track, and from above comes the gentle rustle of pine needles in the wind. Ahead the fire road, a river of grey at the bottom of a canyon of green and brown winds it’s way off into the distance before bending round and out of site.
The road vanishes behind, devoured beneath the wheels of the bike which flows gracefully over the packed gravel as pedals beat out and easy rhythmic cadence. Above the trees and higher still the hills of Galloway tower above the forest.
I’d had my eye on biking in Galloway for a while, particularly the Glentrool Tour one of the standout routes in Phil McKane’s Scotland Mountain Biking. A monster on the legs, and clocking in at about 90 km it ranges between Loch Doon in the north of the forest and Minnigaff in the south. Not quite fancying that distance in one bite and not having the time to split it over two days I decide to ride the northern section and chop the loop just below half hight by using a good track between Loch Trool and Loch Dee bringing the distance down to about 70km.
Using the Glentrool car park as a starting point the route follows the road up the valley until the tarmac fades and deteriorates into a good forest road which slowly climbs up the hillside. Arriving at a coll the track drops away and the view opens out to reveal Loch Dee shining in the mist and the great post war forestry plantations of pine in the valley of the Silver Flowe.
Later the route goes passed the now abandoned MBA both of Backhill of Bush, it’s occupied with smoke coming from the chimney and a van parked up outside, symptomatic of the problems with vandals and antisocial behaviour which sadly forced the MBA to stop looking after this bothy.
There are a lot of forest opperations going on at the moment with large areas being harvested and replanted and new roads being constructed to facilitate this. A few miles past the bothy a new track not shown on the map leads off into the trees freshly buldosed into the forest. It heads in the direction I want and looks heavily used compared to my chose route but not knowing if it goes all the way through to Loch Doon I stick with the guidebook, although considering the upcoming difficulties it may have been worth a try!
I follow the guidebook route which is described simply as a short “off-peiste” section through the fire brakes. It soon becomes clear few if any riders have passed this way recently, the brakes are a mass of thick tussocky grass and soft sucking bog, challenging even to walk through with a bike and certainly unrideable. It soon gets worse with a small river crossing followed by the piste de resistance, the fire brake is completely blocked by fallen trees forcing me to push through the thickly packed limbs and mass of dead lower branches.
I hope the new road does go all the way through the forest, this off road section is just nasty; it’s completely out of character for the ride which apart from this short section is a glorious (if long) route for mountain bikers of almost any ability. Frustratingly taking almost an hour to cover about 1.5km whilst carrying a bike pushed my sense of humour to the limit and could completely put off occasional bikers or beginners from moving from trail centres to somewhere a little wilder.
Back on solid trail and a few kilometres later I emerge from the forest on the shore of Loch Doon, which under overcast skies appears forbidding and barren. Lunch is taken inside the stout walls of the ruined Loch Doon Castle. As time passed, and I began to think about the castle and its surroundings the more nothing made any sense, something about the castle was wrong; it sits on the side of a hill easily overlooked by surrounding land and with its main door opening straight out into a steep slope.
Brian Joyce [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Such eccentric positioning, and orientation suggests the builders paid little or no attention to the finer points of siege warfare, which would therefore not have allowed the castle to last very long in the turbulent history of the Borders. Later it transpired all was not what it had seemed, this castle has migrated! The strange positioning is not the result of a particularly mad local laird but the conscientious decision of the Board of Works in the 1930’s who upon raising the water level of the Loch took the castle from it’s old soon submerged island home and reassembled it in it’s current location.
From Loch Doon the ride follows the Forest Drive, closed to traffic at this time of year up through more open woodland of pine, fern, and lochan until it emerges from the forest and back onto tarmac and public roads practically at the high point of the ride. From here it’s a last joyous 20km downhill along quite country roads the gradient taking on the work leaving me with little to do other than enjoy the great views across to the Merrick. With almost six hours on the bike my legs are beginning to let me know they are in need of a rest and this is the perfect way to finish, all I need now is to fire up the stove back at the car and enjoy a well earned cup of tea.