Since September the 1st, it has been officially Autumn, and yes indeed the evenings are now chilly and morning can have a nip to it. Yesterday evening I went to the central heating controls with every intention of turning on the heating for the first time. It was only 0.5’c under our ambient temperature lower limit, so I went and put on a pullover instead of switching on. A change in the seasons is not all bad news. A walk along the River Esk this morning had all of the key signs of the very best of the new season.
The still air held a thin veil of mist close to the water. Trees still full of leaf, but on the turn. Three species of Hirondelle are lined out on cables; Swift, Swallows and Martin. Each checking the tension of the pull from the south. I could see my breath, but in an hour or so, it will be a gloriously perfect blue sky day.
You can still hit a weekend just as perfect as any of the year, which is what we managed recently. There is still a lot of daylight to play with. Which is just as well, as packing was the usual nightmare, no matter how methodical the system there will always be a late start. We took the bikes and bivvy stuff down to Innerleithen to cut some distance and save the effort a couple of horrid climbs.
We drop down into the town from rolling hills covered in a purple fire of heather bloom. This is the very heart of shooting country and managed strips of Grouse Moorland. But the town is now best known as the heart of mountain bike country. Fancy bikes roll by in every direction and vibrant cafes are full of baggy short wearing folks. Over the River Tweed we ride and follow the road right and along the bank of the river. This is the main river that drains most of the border country as it flows to the sea at Berwick. It is one of the main Salmon rivers of the world and about the most expensive to cast a fly into.
Traquair House is on our right as we start to climb out of the river valley. It is the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland. It is huge, and would bankrupt an oligarch in a single hard winter. This is the first time we have been reliant on our new gps, having left behind all of the paper maps. It sits out in front of the handlebars, beeping occasionally. I have programmed in the route for today, a process requiring a steady nerve and attention to detail. I want to be on beautiful small roads. So small, that you need to get things big on the computer screen and click zoom for all you are worth. Where you want to go disappears long before the road you want to use even show up. I know the route goes where we want to end up, and I half know the roads, but this is a leap of faith in all things Garmin. I scroll to the left with my index finger, leaving a snotty smudge on the screen. We are the black dot at the start of a deep saw-tooth profile. This is going to be a bugger of a day.
Mountbenger, I almost moved here many years ago when a remote cottage was on the market and I went through my first midlife crisis at the age of 25. Blackface sheep graze the round topped hills here, and now the ewe lambs are down in the in-by fields by the road. Many are sprayed up unlikely shades of yellow and orange ready for sale. Each farm has a unique colour, brewed from a mix of dye and sheep dip. This is big business. Prize tups ( the Ram ), can fetch many thousands of pounds. We take a left onto the main road along the Yarrow valley. In a field off to the side is an isolated standing stone. The gps beeps and we have found one of todays easiest to miss turns.
Up we climb, steep enough for ears to go deaf and then pop. This is the joy of light-weight touring. It is hard, but would be a horrid walk on normal loaded touring bikes. Up and over the watershed between the Yarrow and Ettrick, high enough and certainly bleak enough to be home to Mountain Hare, Britain’s only truly arctic animal. A long descent left, and then the dive down to the village of Ettrick Bridge. We sit by the bridge over the Ettrick Water at the far end of the village and eat sandwiches. Already we have done a whole load of climbing.
The navigation becomes tricky as we need to link together roads over to Ashkirk. There is a phantom road, and the gps has picked it. For over 20 years cars have been drawn to this spot and guided onto this rough and near vertical track by satnavs. I lived near here, and know the correct way around. We drop, and pick up the next valley and the minor road that runs through it and back into the hills. We are making good time and drop in for tea at a friends, which is the sort of thing that you can still do in the country.
The sun is now low as we gain height before the drop to Roberton. We are falling in love once more with the Scottish Borders and would move here in a heartbeat. As we get closer to Craik, the hills are greener, rounder, the land more soft. There are Beech trees running next to the road in small woodlands. We reach the final turn that will bring us to Craik Forest along 8 miles of dead-end road. The gps stops shortly after as I guessed we could not get lost now. I have not been to Craik for the best part of 25 years, it all looks unfamiliar with large areas of tree felling.
I am looking for a waterfall. I must say, I expected some signs to point us in the direction of Wolfcleuch Waterfall, and there are none. If you Google Craik forest it is the star image that comes up, and yet it is hidden. It is a beautiful evening, and not much hardship to pedal up and down a few forest tracks bathed in golden light. There is no one here, which of course was part of the reason for biking here. But with no one to ask and not a paper map between us, we give up the search and look for a bivvy pitch back near the main car park.
There are wooden picnic benches, and we pull the bikes up and start to unpack. A couple of minutes later and we are repacking the bags. Midges!!! the Piranha of Scotland and the ruination of holidays. They are finding their way out of the grass around the benches and are swarming in clouds around our heads. Madness would be less than an hour away if we stay here. We push further into the forest. We have an almost scientific method to finding the best spot. You stand and see how long it takes for the first midges to find you and the longest time wins. We pick the winning bench, get things out and begin cooking and at the same time search for a bivvy spot under the trees.
Even in the madness that was packing in the early morning, we had retained enough good sense to pack two head nets. Smug would be understating things. We make food and eat by a method of raising the net and quickly posting a spoonful of food at a time. The bivvy is ready and we take ourselves off for a brisk walk into the depths of the forest. The clean air means that Lichen drip in profusion from branches and the damp climate means that ferns and moss cover most of the surfaces. This is remote, dark sky remote. It is easy to see why the waterfall is named after a Wolf and to remember that Scotland was one of the major sources of Bear for the Gladiator contests of the empire just 2,000 years ago. Craik may now be a dead-end, but it was one of the three main routes north for Roman legions.
The last light. Blue tinged and known in the past as owl-light and just on time a Tawny Owl of surprisingly large size, ghosts across the clearing. We get into our lightweight bags and pull the bivvy up. There is no wind, none at all. As the temperatures drop the air becomes damp. Dew is forming on every surface. It is impossible for the membrane of the bivvy bag to pull away any moisture from inside. We are both using man-made fiber ultralight bags and they stay comfortable. The night is black as pitch and just visible in narrow slits in the canopy that show pin sharp stars. It is the first winter cold night of the year.
Getting the pillow right is the trick to camping as far as I am concerned. Early morning is too cold to venture out of the bags, but a full bladder waits for no man. The cold means that porridge making is completed without head nets. Once again, we have had a wonderful experience sleeping in a forest, under a canopy of stars and pine. This morning the air is again still and the scent of mushrooms hangs on every breath you take. We pack, with the first cold nip of the year on our fingers. Now to find Wolfcleuch.
My memory really can not help us. We walk around for a while and then conclude that I do not have a clue. Luckily someone is at one of the old forestry houses and more importantly, they have a good map. Even with a great map, finding the falls is not easy. Just the previous week the Forestry Commission have taken down all the signs as they prepare to sell the forest. We set out following instructions and a very large scale map. The walk is wonderful and follows fern fringed paths and a stream.
We have been told to ignore the No Entry signs as we near the falls. The valley is steep. Cleuch means a steep valley or ravine, and the definition is spot on. Finally we can see the top and water cascading over the lip of the falls. We have worked harder to get to see this small waterfall than we did for Niagara, and the effort is worth it. It may not be grand and it is never going to be over run with cagoule wearing Japanese tourists any time soon. It is small, hidden and both of those are part of the intimate joy of being there.
I know there is a good photo just waiting to be found, and I am dancing from stone to stone at the base of the falls, quite aware that it would be a dumb place to turn an ankle. Esther is doing a sketch, both of us trying to hold onto these special moments as much as possible. The water is already cold and fast running after a wet summer. We turn and head back to the bikes, possibly the only people who will visit the falls for many days.
There is a slight variation in the return route. An early left before Roberton picks up a lumpy road to further up the Ettrick valley. Again this is remote but wonderful borders cycling. These are round hills, with the profile of Bowler Hats rather than the peaks of highland landscapes. It is magical, and we have the perfect day and the quiet roads all to ourselves.
We drop into the Ettrick valley at the Tushielaw Inn, and expect to pick up a Shandy and sandwhich. We are too late, it is closed and up for sale after first opening in 1830. I have eaten at this historic inn many times. The last time we were here, we were on a bike tour. We stuffed mountains of food down in an effort to carbo-load. On the next table a boy of about 10 was being treated by his granny. We watched, almost speechless as the small, but rather round boy ate about twice what we had eaten.
It is back up and once more a crossing of the watersheds between the Yarrow and Ettrick, but this road is less steep. There is not a cloud in the sky and somehow without them the scale of the landscape is lost. One more steep climb, and we begin the descent to Innerleithen and the car. The bike cafes are slightly less busy today and we take a seat for a well earned coffee and cake. Our pannier laden bikes are lent against the wall outside. Exotic mountain bikes are pulled up to right and left, but we talk to the only fellow road cyclist in the cafe as we do not know the first thing about flat bar culture and feel rather out of place. Back home the weekend requires three loads of washing and the back green of the flats look like a yard-sale at a outdoor retailer. We have had another great weekend microadventure, and would encourage you to get out and do something similar very soon.