Two unexpected encounters with stones.

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It is snowing again. Not fluffy big flakes, but soggy wet horizontal stuff blown by a strong wind from the North. Spring has been a fragile thing this year, more so since the Snowdrops and all that excitement have faded. Bluebells are not really Spring flowers this far North even though their leaves have been up for weeks. Wild Garlic is everywhere, but that is more of a smell than visual.

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Spring has been every bit as unreliable as Arsenal. One moment brilliant, the next on the receiving end of a three goal thrashing. It is hard on the nerves, and I have put away my padded walking trousers twice already. And yet there have been great days and I have enough of a tan for people to be asking if I have been away.

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There are several calculations concerning when Spring begins. But as far as I can tell, the one with most validity is the vernal Equinox. The sun has now passed the equator and will spend the next months in our hemisphere. Well hurrah indeed.

We have had two amazing visits to some of the many neolithic sites near to us. One of which was an invitation to visit Cairn Holy chambered Cairns for the setting sun on the evening of the vernal equinox. I looked up the sunset times and off we went.

We were almost late as the significant sunset is when the sun first clips the edge and then disappears behind a hill. Some of the most significant moments are when you have low expectations and this is just a quite small structure and warrants just a 4 car parking place. Our neighbour John was there and so was Joe, so we made a crowd of just four.

Joe is passionate about this place and lives just a quarter of a miles away. He has missed few sunrises here in the nine years he has lived here and is the font of all knowledge on this group of stones. He has the energy and enthusiasm of a spaniel.

The sun touched the crest of the hill. Which is when things became magical as several hundred tons of rock placed by people in the 4th millennium BC came into a perfect alignment. How did they do that? Joe had several answers, the most plausible being ” I don’t know “.

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Then it was into the car and up half a mile of sump ripping track to watch the sun set for a second time. What a moment. The Spring weather delivered a perfect clear sky and as the first stars became visible we looked for further alignments back at the cairn.

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The second small adventure came about quite by chance. If you go into the search engine called BING and click on maps, you get in the version for the UK – Road, Aerial, Streetside and Ordnance Survey. Few people seem to know that the OS is there. As you zoom in on OS it becomes an exceptionally detailed OS map that we all know and love.

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I had it zoomed in putting together bike routes and strayed across a bit of the map – STONE CIRCLE. I asked around and no one knew much about it. Easter is a good time to walk to a stone circle, and so we did.

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It is not easy walking, not helped by the path only going half way there. Straight away it is obvious that the whole glen has only recently faded from knowledge. Field patterns and abandoned crofts and forts are scattered across the landscape next to Loch Mannoch. The map shows just a single standing stone, but there are half a dozen or more. We splashed our way across the burn and tried to find the circle.

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To get a better view we climbed a small hill. So focused on finding the circle, it was not until the top that we realised we were climbing a man made cairn. Thousands of small melon sized stones had been sourced and piled up. I have no idea if it is a chambered cairn with a tomb or not, but the size and the effort of work is staggering.

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We have a wonderful landscape here in Galloway, so often remote – perhaps more now than for thousands of years. History here is touchable an experience just a walk or bike ride away. Anywhere else both of these sites would have hundreds of visitors and here they are waiting for us.

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Thornhill a Spring Day Loop.

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The Jackdaws have been inspecting our chimney this week. The land is still winter bleached, but we have seen the first Primrose in flower. Today the clouds are white and bold against a deep blue. It is the start of the Simpsons in the sky and best of all, we have nothing to do today but ride our bikes.

Today’s ride starts in Thornhill and quickly takes us into a Highland landscape. The first thing I noticed when planning the route is just how many Thornhills there are in the world. I mention this as we came close to accidentally booking a hotel in the wrong country once, so I would be a bit careful with Thornhill if you plan to stay.

 

We are early and the town is not yet awake as we ride around the roundabout.  With a tall column topped with Pegasus, the Queensberry family emblem it is all rather grand. The Queensberry family will be with us all through the ride. We ride by the new school and then under the railway bridge. As we head for the hills the quiet road starts to gain height quickly. We have a suggestion, if you drop much under 4 mph, it is best to walk. You will thank me for that advice and you may even hear Skylarks.

It has been a hard winter with a cold late spring. There are lambs in the fields, but some are wearing plastic mac overcoats. I remember a local farmer used to save up all his bread wrappers for lambing. New born lambs wore designer coats by Sunblest and Mother’s Pride.P1300377

We take a minor left along a potholed tree lined narrow road. Time to stop and take some photos of the clouds chasing shadows across the hills. There are Curlews calling their watery song. The surface improves after a quarter of a mile or so and you get your first glimpse of Morton Castle. There are few more beautiful ruined castles in Scotland and not many with such a long and complicated history. There is an artificial loch on three sides which is a quite recent addition. Approach quietly, and you just may be in luck and spot an otter. I did a few months ago and it made my day.

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This is some of the finest scenery in Southern Scotland with most of the peaks still hanging onto snow. The highest road in Scotland goes up to that white pimple, the radar for air traffic control. I am standing by the gate to the castle when hounds come running out of the woodland. They are working hard, breathing and slobbering and full of canine intensity. Two go left and one goes right. A Raven calls, Kraa.

On we go and we have an option. Straight on to drop down to Drumlanrig or right and a slightly longer route. This is easy cycling now, and quiet with the main road over to your left with the first of the years motorcyclists thundering along. The first right is the road we are after. It is a dead-end now, but was once the main road through the hills to Edinburgh. It pops up all through Dumfries & Galloway, often marked on OS maps as it goes. Here it also follows the line of a Roman road, so the area has never been so quiet.

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Durisdeer Kirk is worth this detour out and back, particularly if you time your ride with the Sunday tea in the church, served from the 3rd Sunday in July till last in September. There are many things worth seeing across our land that are unsigned and here is one of these pearls. A small sign points you to a back door – The Queensberry Marbles. The Aisle predates the current church and houses the spectacular marbles of the 2nd Duke of Queensberry and his Duchess. Outside there is a perfectly placed bench to sit and listen to one of the most active Rookeries I have ever come across. A walk around the gravestones includes amongst the notables, William Lukup the master of works during the building of Drumlanrig Castle.

Retrace the route a couple of miles and now take the right turn to drop into the valley. Drumlanrig is straight ahead and signed all the way as you cross first the A702 and then the A76. Once again you have a route option as you enter the grounds and ride over the bridge. Turn right first, if you are staying at Drumlanrig you will love the grand entrance along the alleyway of trees. You get the finest view of the castle as you follow the signs for the tearoom. If you want a longer ride, take a right for a loop along National Cycle Route 7.

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You could dive into the cafe and then continue, but check openings as this has a very short season. The final stop is the village of Penpont. Again, check the opening of the tearoom here to save tears, tantrums and bouts of Hangry. Again, you can drop here at just the right moment and take advantage of ‘ tea & lite bites ‘ at the church hall and you will be made most welcome.

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Just a short ride now to close the loop. In the field to your right, just before the tight bridge over the River Nith is the 9th century cross in the field to your right. It is the only Dark Age cross in Dumfries and Galloway still standing in its original position. It is one of those times when moving slowly and perched just above the hedges, you get to see things you will miss in a car.

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Thornhill has a dizzying array of places to eat. If you have managed to turn up to the three or so on the long route you will now need a plan. Main food is at The Buccleuch & Queensberry and the finest coffee & cake venue for miles around is Thomas Tosh tucked at the side of Morton’s Street. There are several other great places, so you will find a seat.

The route is as little as 6 miles, and as long as 24 miles if you follow all the options. Only the first part is steep enough that you may need to walk and all of it is on beautiful and quiet roads.

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A short ride, and it looks like spring.

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We are teaming up with Dumfries and Galloways What’s Going On to try to get people out on their bikes. The concept is to start with a stunning but short ride just to get the confidence. All the rides will feature a stop for coffee & cake in the finest tradition of all the best rides. I had a vague idea of the route but as ever when we went exploring dead-end roads we found some fantastic open views that were more than worth having to turn and come back. We started and ended in Gatehouse of Fleet.

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Gatehouse of Fleet itself only dates back to the mid-1700s. Initially just a staging post on the route to Ireland, the town developed after the entrepreneur James Murray of Broughton built his mansion, Cally House, in 1765. However, there is evidence that the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, with the sites at Cairnholy and Trusty’s Hill Fort providing fascinating glimpses into the past. The Pictish stone carvings known as the De’il’s Specs (Devil’s Spectacles) at Trusty’s Hill Fort are particularly unusual.

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Also in the local area are Cardoness Castle, the 15th century, six storey tower house of the McCullochs, and the roofless old kirk at Anwoth. Cardoness Castle is remarkably well preserved, and visitors are able to climb the narrow staircase within the tower.The views out over the Fleet Bay from the battlements are well worth the climb.

The OS map of Gatehouse of Fleet has enough exotic symbols hinting at the hand of man over the ages to keep a dozen or more archaeologists busy for their entire careers and beyond.Off we go to discover more. We start by turning left up Castramont Road and pass the church, just for the sheer joy of shortly turning right at Memory Lane. You are now on the road to Laurieston. The climb up onto the moorland is one of the great cycling routes in Scotland, but that’s for some day very soon as you now take the first left.

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Already you have some fantastic views, and In the valley of the Waters of Fleet below there are the remains of a Roman fort, a standing stone and a settlement and you have cycled just a mile so far. Galloway has possibly a thousand miles of quiet road and lanes, which is what makes it such a wonderful place to ride a bike. I can’t help thinking that this narrow lane is one of the most wonderful.

Lagg Burn drops from the moorland above and passes under the road and it’s worth just stopping to listen to it. In anything but a drought, It has a little too much purpose about it to be called babbling. There is a footpath signed to explore another day.

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Castramon Wood ( just one of the three ways to spell the word that you can find on the map ),  is one of the largest semi-natural broadleaved woodlands in the area. The oak trees were once used for making charcoal and supplying the local mill with wood to make bobbins. There will be some snow drops from the end of January but the real treat are the Bluebells of May and early June..

Most local people have a strong opinion on which beach is the best, or even which butcher you should use. Some may also have a short list of the best places to go to see bluebells, and this is one that is on most people’s list when you ask. You will want to have a camera with you to catch them and the Beech trees coming into leaf. 

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There are more walking routes to return to, but for now continue along through this beautiful woodland to the junction. You will be taking the left turn, but if you have time go straight on. First there is Castramon House to your right and our favorite tree is in a clearing on the left. Straight out of central casting for Lord of the Rings, it is a wonderful moss covered specimen. You pass into open country now, with  a great view right up the glen to the open moorland and one of the three hills in the area called  Cairnsmore. Not sure which is the highest? This may help.

There’s Cairnsmore of Fleet,

And there’s Cairnsmore of Dee;

But Cairnsmore of Carsphairn’s

The highest of the three.

At 2,333ft the one in front of you is the most southerly Graham in Scotland and it’s position overlooking the coast, makes it look even higher. A photo taken pointing into the hills here could be mistaken for one taken in the highlands. Time to turn and go back to the other track you noticed and explore it. Again it goes nowhere, but is a stunning ride along the river. Now turn back and continue your route over the bridge to Nether Rusko, checking for dippers and lazy fish as you go over.

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To your right now is Rusko Castle, dating from 1565 it stood unloved and unlived in for a 100 years. But in 1972 it was bought by Graham Carson an entrepreneur and community champion with an ambition to restore a castle and the means to do it. He would drive around the countryside at the weekends looking for his dream castle.

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You turn left now after the climb to return to Gatehouse on the old military road, with the Waters of Fleet down in the valley to your left. The biking here is easy and the views stunning. With time on your hands you could take a right to visit Anworth old Kirk. Dating from the 12th century, the kirk sits in a peaceful spot and has some fascinating tomb stones.Fans of The Wickerman will recognise the kirk from some of the most iconic scenes in the film, and the schoolhouse from the film also sits just across the road.

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On the hill between here and Gatehouse is Trusty’s Hill hillfort.In 2012 an archaeological dig here proved that the local fort had once been a major centre of Dark Ages Scotland “The archeological evidence suggests that Trusty’s Hill was not just a settlement but was also an important metalworking centre with access to significant resources and craftworkers for the production of high-status jewellery.” So well worth a visit sometime soon.

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Back to the route and you follow National Bike Route 7 into town and across the wooden bridge at The Mill on the Fleet. A converted mill and now the place to eat the finest scones in the area. On a sunny day you can sit outside and watch the river flow by. Often there are craft exhibitions and there is a second hand bookshop vast enough to swallow you for a couple of carefree hours.

Out onto the main street and you have closed the circle after as little as just over 6 miles.If you took all the detours you could bring this up to more than double that. There are galleries, crafts and some of the best second hand shops to visit now after what should have been a most enjoyable introduction to the joys of small adventures on a bike. You may have biked a little over 6 miles or as much as twice that.