Backhill of Bush – legends of

There have been several false starts to spring here in Galloway. The weekend before last temperatures were in double celsius figures and there was a 1cm gap of bare leg between the top of my bike socks and the bottom of the knee warmers. Once only as since then temperatures dropped and we bought in more logs for evening fires and again we are dressing  for a cold ride of just above freezing.

Still there are signs of Galloway tilting more towards the warmth of the sun. Daylight is stretching out beyond 6, and Jackdaws are searching every unguarded chimney pot. A winter storm may have taken the cowling away and in a couple of days you can have a dozen bin bags of sticks choking your fireplace and a fire refusing to draw and your house filled with thick smoke. Out working on the bikes and twice in an afternoon I hear a bee close by. I can tell from the sound it is big and heavy, the first and second of the year and they will both be large and very hairy female solitary bees. We end a morning ride with a quick forage of wild garlic, so despite the forecast for snow this weekend it is now SPRING and there are reports of frog spawn and Sand Martins.

There is no longer the rush to ride in that thin slither of light between dawn and dusk that limits winter rides to 6 hours. I remember a ride from last autumn beyond Clatteringshaws and an inviting left turn that headed away down the River Dee glen before it turned to the north on off our home patch into the high moors of the Galloway Forest. I looked it up on Bing Maps and made a note in ridewithgps of a possible track we could take. It looked like a wonderful route and gave access to the area under southern Scotland’s highest mountain – Merrick. It appeared to come to a dead end after 6 miles or so with a 600 meter gap until a track linked to the north. If you could close the loop it looked like I could make a world beating gravel day ride of 56 miles linking the lochs and hills of The Rhinns of Kells and Glentrool before turning for home. There were rumours of a way through and some even claimed you could drive through with a car. It was certainly worth a look.

We set off from the southern end of the Raiders Road with the Garmin telling me it was 1’c in the shadows. It was going to be a steady climb of 20 miles with enough workload to make you overheat and have frostnip fingers at one and the same time.  Not a soul around and possibly just a handful of people for dozens of miles in every direction. Birdsong the sound of burns full of storm waters and the sound of two riders on gravel bikes with wide tyres cutting into the loose track and climbing the Raiders Road.

Around the end of Clatteringshaws Loch on NR7 and we headed for Glentrool but take the southern upland way crossing of the River Dee – a point we could have missed as all the trees are now – GONE, but were kept on route by the Garmin. Over the bridge – where we had 11 o’clock second breakfast before turning left and entering new landscapes for us.

We rode along the Brishie Burn for a few miles with astonishing views ahead and off to the left. Snow, not much of it but enough to give a feeling of epic and Oregon but without the carbon footprint dump of getting there. 

 Ahead and just off the track to the left there is a white building. The lonely shepherd’s house of Backhill of Bush was one of the remotest cottages in southern Scotland, being 6 miles from the nearest road. Few places in Scotland are more remote. Everything had to be carried in and out, despite this it  was occupied up until around 1949. There are many tales, some more reliable than others but one of the former was of a pony that carried supplies to the cottage. He would be led part of the way and then left to find his own way towards Dalry with a shopping list. A shepherd would buy the provisions and then pack the ponies bags and turn it for home. Bigger trips required the pony to pull a sledge over the high moors from Dalry.

Another story goes, that during the 1930’s there was a Shepherd and his wife who lived there with their toddler. One day the child came rushing into the house screaming with terror that there was a ‘big beastie’ coming up the burn. The big beastie turned out to be another human being! To this child in this remote location, there was only his mum and dad in his universe.

Yet another story was told to me by a forester and told before that by an even older forester, Robbie to him. Once a shepherd’s wife died at the Backhill of the Bush and she was taken by coffin to the Forrest estate by horse sled . As it was crossing over the 2000ft ridge of the Kells range it was caught in a blizzard and the sledge and coffin had to be abandoned for the people  to get off the hill quickly. It was a very cold winter that year and it was early spring before the coffin and body was recovered.

And a final story from the same source is about an Ayrshire ceilidh band. They walked to the Back Hill of the Bush in the 1930’s to play a wee gig! A good number of Galloway shepherds , from all over were invited to attend. Each shepherd would have two or three working collie dogs with them. Robbie told me it was quite a site to witness – as the all male ceilidh  went on there was a collection of over thirty dogs patiently waiting outside…

The cottage is now a bothy under the care of Forestry Scotland and suffers more than a bit of equal measures neglect and misuse. This is one of the darkest skies in the UK and a night here under a clear sky must be a thing to witness. We continued along the track a short way to check the route for a future loop ride. Today the miles back to the car were quite enough for winter legs, but it had been a magical ride with so much to see in just 42 miles of riding.

Time in the Galloway Forest

Tradition demands that, as symbols of purity, snowdrops first appear on 2nd of February to coincide with Candlemas, the Christian Feast of Purification. Nothing suggests that snowdrops could be up before year’s end in Scotland. But our finger of rock sticks out into the Irish Sea, and is warmly embraced by the gulf stream. Signs of spring can be two months or more ahead of the calendar here, and already we are bewitched by these first signs of spring and a new year. The first to show are in the same spot every year, but three weeks on and now the wilder parts of our garden are speckled white with them. These small white flowers would not get a second look in July or August, but now they are rock stars.

A recent blast of ice cold northern air killed off the last of the spinach in the garden, and turned our local untreated roads to skating rings. We took out our gravel bikes and headed for forest tracks in search of some grip and shelter. Slippy is hard to judge until you are too late and a thaw and refreeze can turn perfect conditions to sheet ice. Too little snow where tree cover has held back the blizzard and you can be on ice again.

Get it right and get lucky too and you can have the perfect day, which is what we managed. Over the Stroan Viaduct we get the perfect view up the Dee Glen to the high hills beyond the Raiders Road. Stroan Loch is frozen over, the first time we have seen this and we stand there taking in this unique view of our playground. Now I would usually tell you that this is where the book 39 Steps has one of key scenes as the hero jumps from the train. But others say it is further along our route at Loch Skerrow. 

We plan a long ride, but further on forestry vehicles have compacted the snow into ice and the riding is beyond our skill set. We turn back, riding into a chattering cloud of Fieldfares in the trees along the track. A few days later we will have them visit our garden, forced down from the high ground. We have kept bags of windfall apples which we chop up for them, but they stay only until the weather breaks.

The weather warms, replaced by our usual warm and wet or temperate maritime as the books call it to make it sound interesting. We are back in Galloway Forest with Cooper the ‘ gravel dog ‘, flapjacks and our winter stove of choice – the Japanese Ti spirit stove from Evernew. Good coffee and the ritual of packing as light as possible and stopping to make perfect coffee are so important. It is just above freezing, so you need to get the details right. We go exploring tracks that the map calls a dead end. It comes tantalizing close to forming a loop, but forestry and land Scotland is in the tree business, growing timber and getting it out when ready. Just a couple of hundred meters short of a great but lumpy side ride.

We do a lot of climbing as we ride the road to nowhere, but there is no hurry today and we get some stunning views as payback. We have spent so much of the last months on gravel bikes learning the routes like a London cabbie gets ‘ the knowledge ‘.  We have the chance soon to put that work to good use – we are developing what we hope to be the first and best Gravel festival in the UK. A world class event over 4 days with 3 beautiful rides and the feel of an arts festival come folk festival. It has been an amazing experience to work with the world’s leading sports event company – Golazo to make this happen this October and every year after. Information about the Raiders Gravel Event can be got here when you sign up. We will be able to say more very soon – but we are just so excited. HAPPY 2021 to all of you throughout the world. If you would like to come and ride these wonderful tracks you can see our Gravel for Mortals holidays here.

November, where did the light go?

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees

No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds

November!

The 19th century poet Thomas Hood took a very dim view of the month of November. It is hard not to agree when you are still in  shock at the clocks going back and now darkness in what you have been calling afternoon. Anyone without a clear plan for the day that involves getting up and out early can find the day is run away from them. I know I keep on about the farming saying “ an hour before noon is worth two after “. Take too long over breakfast and you have lost the day from now on, and it is going to get worse. Get out and do stuff is my usual cry and to that you better add get up early.

The first of the winter gales have hit us but so far from the summer direction of south and west. After an early sharp frost that had us bringing the higher tog duvets out of storage the weather is still mild. It will not last, it can’t last.

Apples have been harvested, a glut this year with trees barren in living memory heavy with fruit. Migrant geese, northern guests in big skeins over the house in the morning and early evening. Fieldfares and Red Wings, the winter thrushes accompany us on our rides along the local lanes and tracks. They are slow to move and often fly along with us in small flocks. Starlings are starting to form flocks that will grow to many thousands if the weather turns cold and brings in birds from the continent. Biting cold winters always bring the spectacle of murmurations at dusk and dawn.

The garden is cleaned and dug over for the winter, leaves raked off the grass and put in the compost or dug into the beds with pony poo. Now, every night the fire is lit and curtains drawn by 5. All the books bought through the summer are stacked up ready for reading. The weather forecast is studied like a sacred text now that good days are a gift. We have the luxury of picking our riding days and work our week back from those best weather days. 

We have almost forgotten how to visit cafes this year, the year of the flask and now the year of the stove since we can stand around without being bothered by biting insects. A cold night with clear sky and no wind means that we are out on the gravel bikes in Galloway Forest. Flapjacks 2 cm thick are in the bags, coffee fresh ground and weighed to the gram is in the insulated French press. Mugs and a flask of heated milk is in the bags and a wood burning stove pre-loaded with fuel. One litre of water is in a Klean Kanteen stainless bottle in the second holder on the frame of the bike. Barista level coffee made on a wood burning stove lit with a fire steel is the high watermark of gravel biking culture.

It is perhaps the rarity of these perfect winter days that make them so special. The planning and attention to detail, the choice of clothing, footwear, tyre choice and pressure, the ultralight spare coat in the bag to grab during the coffee stop, the lack of summer crowds even at the honeypot locations. The joy of lighting a fire with a single strike of a steel. There is an art and craft to it and you can get it wrong if you do not pay attention. It is all very zen.

We have had a hard year – we own a cycling holiday company, so things have been difficult verging on impossible. We had to fight to get government help and appeal against being turned down twice. It all had an energy cost with few moments of joy. The chance came to spend a few days in a friends hut by the sea. Just a few miles away and a place we know well but far enough to feel like away. The weather was grim as storms chased across the Irish Sea having lost little of their fight since they crossed the Atlantic. We ate biscuits and watched the rain and clouds drain all colour from the landscape. It could not have been more perfect.

I have three thickness grades of socks and four of hats and five or six of gloves. We take winter riding seriously, you have to when you live in Scotland and never take a label that says waterproof at face value until tested and proved. A winter ride done well and enjoyed is a victory over the odds and there will be days ahead of pure meteorology misery. Is today bad, judge it against the worst. If you stop riding when the temperatures are just above freezing you will miss half of the year. 

It is easy to stuff the bikes back in the shed at the end of a muddy ride, but you will regret it. It is part of the deal of a winter ride to get the bike clean and lubed unless you are just about to die of hypothermia, it is a rule. Chains cleaned and lubed at the very least if you are at the very ragged edge of sensibility. You have been told.

There are days already that fail to get light that are hard on the spirit and you have to dig deep. Then there are days of unbearable light, hard edges and contrast with oil dark sky at our back door and the crisp band of the milky way. 

November is hard, an abrupt end to summer some years. But just wait till February and you will wish for days like these. Get out, get out now, get out and do stuff.