I am still unsure if summer was early or late this year, a bit of both perhaps and possibly neither. I made a note – by March 21st I have seen my second bumblebee. Both were huge, and it is likely they were females and of a type I can not now find the name of, but they are very hairy and can cope with a cold start.
The days when we can not venture into the high roads because of ice are now mostly behind us. Daylight, ever since the clocks went forward is already pushing the hours of darkness to the fingers of one hand. In a few weeks time you can ride the night and only put lights on for a couple of hours. Last week I did my first 200 mile week on the bikes. There is a smell of WD40 in the air as bikes are prepped for longer rides and small adventures.
Friday, it is still early, just late afternoon but the traffic has done that Friday thing and left early leaving the roads quiet. We are on the Yates’ touring bikes, our Trans World bikes with just lightly packed rear bags and we are climbing Carberry hill. We have got used to road bikes with racing pedigrees and even this weight comes as a shock. How the hell did we do 32,500 miles?
One place we do not go with our road bikes is along the old Pencaitland Railway track. Today we have thicker rubber under us and steel frames, we turn onto the trail. In 1901 the local landowners spent £100,000 in extending the line these few miles East under the grand title ‘ The Gifford and Garvald light railway company ‘. This area had a thriving coal mining industry and the landowners hopped to bring their agricultural products and the coal quickly to markets along the railway. Conceived too late, poorly planned and badly run it closed in the early 60’s.
It is a joy to ride when the weather is dry. Looking back there are views of Edinburgh and the waters of the Forth and up ahead the dark blue-black smudge of the Lammermuir hills. I had pumped up the tyres for road use and we rattle along the gravel track with the smell of wild garlic held in the air by the steep banks of the railway cutting.
6.45pm the sun is not yet low but already casts a golden evening light. The end of what has been a string of fine and very warm days that have bought out the first of the leaves on the trees. Wood Anemone and starlight bursts of Celandine go buy our wheels.
The path ends and we link together minor roads to Gifford. The first hill, an alleyway through a stand of old Beech trees. The winter gales this year have taken a few of these out. We grab a handful of the lower gears and start the climb our bikes punching long bike shaped shadows along the road ahead of us. A left turn brings the wind full behind us and we have an easy time of things till the junction. We take a right towards Stenton and we are bought to a near stop by a brutal hill. Climbing is always hard. I prefer it to a headwind, but only just.
We fork to the right to run up into the hills for the first time. There is a thin mist hanging in the folds. The last few weeks the keepers of the Grouse estates have been doing there annual strip burns almost every day. You can smell the smoke from miles away as we have biked the East Lothian lanes. Stoneypath Tower is off to our right as the narrow road twists left and away from the moor. There are s a series of short hard climbs and sharp turns through isolated groups of houses and small farms.
The light is failing now, turning to gold. It is the time of day for bold young lambs to form into crèche gangs to run the fences next to the road. We have entered the red soil and pan tile area of the coastal strip. Off to our left a little out to sea is the Bass Rock. The island plays host to 150,000 Gannets, making it the largest single rock Gannetry in the world ( Sir David Attenborough is credited with describing it as ‘ one of the wildlife wonders of the world ‘ ).
A right turn signed Pressmenan Wood and we walk the first bit of the rough track. The light is turning blue now that the sun has set. We have only just made it in time to set camp and we know that finding a good pitch will not be easy here. We ride along the main track keeping the lake to our left. A curious fact that this is a lake and not a loch, and only one of four named so in Scotland.
We can see a flat bit of land, but will have to push our bikes along the track that skirts the water. This would be a sod in wet weather or with heavy touring bikes. There is a bench and a bit of space to set up the bivvy. Tonight the forecast is for heavy rain and strong to gale force winds. We will need to use the micro tarp and make a good choice. We are amongst some very old Oaks and wind could bring down ‘ a widow maker ‘, but there is few options.
A big plus is a bench to sit and cook on. The light has gone and we get into our sleeping bags with head torches on. There was the final calls from Pheasants on their way to roost in the Oaks on the far bank and a few calls from Jackdaw. They are probably responsible for the health of the forest here. Jackdaws like all of the corvids are very clever and have a brilliant memory. They need it, as they bury or stash many hundreds of Acorns for the hard times of winter. They remember where many of them are, but there will be that car key-moment. Corvids are responsible for planting more trees than any forestry worker has ever done.
The first Owl calls. There is a second and I think it is a Barn Owl and now the bats are out. These are big and I am sure they are doing ultra sound clicks, but there is also a chiruping that we can hear. 8.30 and now that really is the last of the afterglow, it is pitch black night and not a sound.
The trees creak in the darkness. The wind picks up but the rain is not as heavy as we had feared. At about 3.00am the temperature drops suddenly as the weather front comes in, it is back to winter temperatures of just above freezing as dawn breaks. We do not want to get out into the cold at all. The Pheasants are up and calling. This is the very heart of shooting country, a sort of Downton Abbey with Range Rovers and guns. Every year the wealthy landowners of Britain release 35 million – yes that is right, Pheasants. This non native bird from the wetlands of Asia is part of a multimillion industry.
I am far from sure how it all works as this Victorian country saying goes ‘ up goes a Guinea-bang goes sixpence and down comes half-a-crown. The cost of rearing a Pheasant is over £30, so go work it out. I get up and start to make breakfast whilst wearing just about every item of clothing I have bought with me. Next to the path is one of the creaking Oaks from the night. It is split in two and would have killed us for sure if it had come down. Best not to think too much.
It is wonderful to sit in the early morning and eat and drink. Less brilliant is the changing into bike clothing and we keep on as much of the overnight gear as possible underneath. The bikes are packed and we push along the track. The Woodland Trust looks after things here and in a moment of inspired genius have enlisted the help of mythical creatures called Glingblobs. Their homes and places where they play can be found throughout the wood.
Cold legs and steep hills as we drop down into Stenton and start towards Gifford. You know we always like to have a second breakfast and today we are at our favorite cafe – ‘ love coffee & food’ in the square in Gifford. We are treated like family and somehow spend almost 2 hours trying to stay whilst angry showers of hail and rain rush by. It is a cycling cafe often with thousands of £’s worth of bikes lent against the wall and window. We know most of the people and it is our second home.
A strong headwind when we finally set off towards home. We catch the edge of a storm but we are mostly lucky. The rain is very localised the road wet and then suddenly dry as a line is crossed. You could throw down a picnic blanket today and half could stay dry and the other soaked.
Some how the panniers are catching the wind or I just do not have the legs today. In total we did less than 100K, but once again had a bit of an adventure close to home. A hot shower never feels quite so good as one taken after a bike ride. Already we have plans for the next microadventure. We are going to use the light road bikes and fit some Tubus ultralight racks that we have. We are getting the hang of our bivvying gear, getting confident we can use less and less kit. We will go to the West coast and a few island hops next.