Abbey St. Bathens, Carberry Hill, Cranshaw, cycle touring East Lothian, cycle touring Scottish Borders, cycling East Lothian, Gifford, Lammermuirs, Micro Adventure, Redstone Rigg, Whietadder Reservoir, Whiteadder Valley
Last week I was expecting two parcels. A camera battery charger from our friends at Amazon. But more exciting still, a tent, a sleeping mat and two sleeping bags from my WWW. friends at Above & Beyond. They arrived on the same day, but the point that I am getting around to is that they arrived in almost identically sized parcels. I can only imagine that some way down the line, and certainly before Amazon starts to deliver by drone they are going to have to get over their bad habit of grabbing the next box and stuffing fourteen of those inflatable pillow things in to send something the size of a pack of cards.
The contents of the outdoor things box was full of the stuff of dreams. You would think that awarding a prize based on weight would be simple. Put the thing on a scale and there you have it, you have your answer. So, I can not work out how two tents can claim to be the lightest in the world. All large things are compared with The Blue Whale ( a thing with which few of us are overly familiar ). All small or ultra-light things on the other hand are compared with apples. If they are a bit bigger then this is substituted for oranges. The new sleeping bags from OMM are two apples and the tent, a little bigger at four oranges or possibly three oranges and an apple if you squash it a bit. A few years ago this stuff was science fiction and now it is here on my kitchen floor. It looks sexy, for heavens sake, it even smells sexy. We had plans for the weekend. Now, what we used to call ‘ going away for the weekend ‘, is called ‘ a micro adventure ‘. Thanks to Alister Humphreys who looks as if he may have coined the term, we have a name for it. It does look to be popular, so why not join in, we were going anyway.
All outdoor things in Scotland require the cooperation of the weather. From painting the house, cutting the grass to getting married, the BBC 5-day forecast will wring every possible emotion from you as your day draws near. To go camping in early March is asking for trouble. Gale force winds, storm force at times were the deal. It should be mostly from the side or even behind and there on Sunday morning a lull, and just 6mph. You can talk yourself out of doing anything outside of June up here, we had to do it. Lots of nice and very light technical bits and pieces went into just two panniers per bike. The route we knew already and its many steep hills we had done before. This was almost cheating, which is just fine by me. Listening to the wind trying to peel the tiles off as the storm came in on the night before, it is hard to stay optimistic for our Micro Adventure. The bags are ready, we eat breakfast and get going before we have time to think too much.
It is warm. The first truly warm morning of the year and a bit of a panic about what to wear. I pick a jersey that I last wore at the very tail end of Autumn and hope it will be warm enough. I can always grab my rain coat and it is better than overheating. Off we go, and an early climb of over 500ft gives us a view of the hills we will be biking through. Two days ago these were rimmed with snow. Carberry Hill, where in 1567 Mary Queen of Scots surrendered herself after the stalemate of the Battle of Carberry Hill. As you climb, you enter fertile rolling country that fringes the Lammermuir Hills, running down to the coast between here and the border with England. It is a beautiful part of the world, a place we know well and where we do the majority of our cycling.
Already we have a tailwind. To our right fields of autumn sown corn is pushing through the soil with mole hills of rich dark soil spread out at field wall boundaries. The winds, floods and snow of winter have scraped the countryside clean, ready for a new year. The moles think it is time to begin and so do Skylarks. Every 50 metres along the road there is one hanging on beating wings and singing for all they are worth. It is time to claim a territory, to stake a claim. We pass a ‘ Trig Point ‘, those white oboliscs of trigonometry that dot the British countryside. This one is on low ground where more usually they mark a summit. The rule is that you must be able to see by line of sight, two other Trig points. I know that one is on top of Berwick Law but I have no idea where the second one is. Eaglescairnie, and we are already in the heart of the big estate area of fertile farming and shooting. Within a ten mile bike ride you could link two dozen castles, mansions and sporting estates and be passed by a dozen or more Range Rovers. Ahead, for a moment Traprain Law catches the sun, perhaps that is the second Trig?
Gifford, and then a brief but nasty climb. We take a left, followed a couple of miles later by a right towards Garvald. This brings us to face the wind. It is grim climbing again and with a gale pushing us back at every pedal stroke. We have gone out of our way a bit to take in this stunning valley. It clefts the land between the high hill and the more fertile land of the coastal margin. Today the rounded folds of the low hills are caressed by fast moving clouds. It is a relief to turn left even though ahead we have the hardest climb of the day.
If you do a WWW. search for ‘ steepest climb near Edinburgh ‘ or ‘ worst climb on a bike ‘, the answer will be Redstone Rig. It goes on a little too long for comfort, it kicks up at a second summit and there is also a false flat. We walked a bit of it for fear of puking and spoiling a good day out.
The views back along the coast are amazing. Less wonderful is that we now have the full unabridged and unmitigated force of the storm hitting us. We descend with the bike trying to take flight sideways, lifted by the wind despite the heavy bikes and luggage. It is exhilarating stuff, and achingly beautiful in equal measure. On the hill to our left are two stone circles.
Another short but steep climb and then we drop down and the road crosses Whitadder Reservoir. The hills are funneling the wind, forcing waves into whitecaped frenzy towards the head of the dam wall. This is remote already despite being a short dash from Edinburgh. As we ride on into the valley and towards the Borders region it is another separate world as cut off as a Highland Glen and just as remote on a dark winters day.
The hamlet of Cranshaws is just a few cottages spread out along the road. It has a beautiful small church that is left open at the moment and worth a visit. Bleak would be a harsh word, possibly not. Lives have been lived without often leaving the valley and graves show a life of work on this land. Edinburgh may as well be on another continent.
We continue in the direction of Duns before we take a sharp left towards Abbey St. Bathans. A series of hard climbs that I had completely forgot about. Up through trees before we are again on high moorland before the final drop down to the valley and the village. It has rained here just ahead of us and the dark clouds are only now being pulled away to the south-east.
We know where we want to camp and take a quick look as we pass. There is a walk to an ancient Broch and we want to pitch as close in to the lee of the hill here. It takes just a moment to see that our plan will work, there are a few pitching spots, so we ride down the hill to the village. The cafe is open, which is a big surprise.
It is late when we return to the area near the Broch and we will only have light for half an hour or so. The best option looks like being in the field in front of the hill. There looks like a nice flat and quite sheltered spot down by the river. We push the bikes over to have a look. On a quiet night we would have a flat pitch, but that puts us too close to some old trees, widow makers that could fall in the night. The tent is up and we make tea and eat sandwiches. The spot is perfect.
Inside the tent later, we can hear the wind. It comes in gusts charging up the valley. The trees up on the exposed ridges are taking a hammering and we can hear them groaning. The tent is shaking like a dog trying to dry itself. Late in the night the storm drops enough for Owls to hunt. The screech of a Tawney and hoot of a Barn Owl. Not long after and a Pheasant joins in. All night a Robin has been calling a territorial claim in the shelter behind a nearby wall. Breakfast of porridge and tea and we are ready to face the world.
It is calm, a rest for all between storm fronts. We stash the bikes and climb up the hill to see Edin’s Hall Broch. There are well over 500 such structures in Scotland and this is the most southerly, lying far distant and alone from all of the others. It is a huge structure and over 2,000 years old. Around it are the fortifications of a large settlement and commanding views to the south.
Back to the bikes and change for the ride home. We cut through towards Longformacus, a brute of a climb, but views of the countryside that we rode through yesterday. There are Lapwings flying, another sign of the turn of seasons. They are poor flyers at the best of times and today they are as controlled as paper bags caught on the wind.
I had forgotten just how demanding this return road is and again the wind is growing into a full storm that is now in our face. This is going to be hard and there will be pushing involved. To our left the view opens down to the hills of the Border Country, The Eildons with their Roman Camp and on to the English Border. One final climb and we catch a hard shower of rain that is doing its very best to turn to ice. We drop into Gifford once more in a second drenching and sit in the cafe steaming and smelling like gun dogs.
The ride home was never once made easy, always the wind found us and tried to push us back along the road. It had been just over 24 hours since we left and only one night in the tent, but we were exhausted. It is a hard route with brutal hills to climb. We had a tea in our hand, red tired eyes and a shop bought pizza. How the hell did we do this for four years?