Maybole. 53 miles and 4,000 ft climbed.

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I have said this before, I am map mad. If there is one thing I would shoplift, it would be OS maps. But if you are in the UK there is a way to get your fix that is free. You read that right. My pal Kenny showed me this for which I am eternally grateful. Go along to Bing Maps on the WWW. and up in the right hand corner you will see an oblong small box – click on it. It says ‘ ROAD’ and when it opens out, down at the bottom of the list, there it is ‘ORDNANCE SURVEY’.

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You just clicked on it and nothing happened. Well no, not until you zoom in a bit, and there you are, those familiar contour lines and cartographical beauty that will make your heart race. So, why am I telling you this? Well I use this system, along with Ride With GPS to plan rides and walks and often just to daydream.

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I was immersed in map daydreaming at the kitchen table during the dark weeks of the world of pain that were my days following the operation. I think I was looking for stone circles or cup & ring marked stones in the Glentrool area. Then I noticed a road. This is where it is useful to click on Aerial and zoom in to check what type of surface it has. We used this often when we rode around the world and it worked a treat.

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The road heads North from Glentrool and is marked route 7 on the OS Map. Up through Glentrool Forest and out onto open land with views up to Merrick. At Carrick Forest route 7 takes a left kink and starts to climb Nick of the Balloch. It became obvious that you could use the road you just left as a way of making a loop. Using Ride With GPS I put together a route of just over 50 miles with 4,000 ft of climbing.

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The map has more than enough wonderful names to get you out on your bike Loch Riecawr and Loch Macaterick, Big Meowl, Nick of Carclach all within a few grid squares. Maybole promised an open cafe at the half way point. It linked together a whole area that we have no knowledge of but had seen from the top of Merrick on our recent climb.

Any winter day you plan to ride will go through a set series of weather patterns. Perfect forecast to get you to circle that day in the desk diary and ask pals if they want to ride. From that point on the day’s weather will deteriorate, often requiring a lot of rescheduling. This is where a small number of people on the start list is an advantage. We had 3, which is 2 too many.

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The days are getting lighter. noticeably so if it is a sunny afternoon, and a sheltered spot can make you think you feel some warmth in the air. Rooks are starting to take more interest in the Rook Tree and Blackbirds are calling at first light as they wait for porridge scraps in the garden.

We parked at the visitor car park in Glentrool with the car showing a temperature of 4’c. More importantly there was no wind at all and a red squirrel was on hand to greet us as we put the bikes together. Bags were bulging with coffee flasks and reduced price Christmas cake. We were on the gravel bikes as I still did not trust the surfaces.

What a route, stunning. I use that word too much, but only because if I use the word epic you will close the page and go elsewhere. The best time to take a photo of a mountain is when you can see it. I am glad I did as Merrick was looking 1,000 ft higher as clouds curled around it.

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There are some days when you find a long ride easy. This was not one of those days. It could be the weight of the flask, the cake or the wider Panaracer Gravel King rubber, but I was struggling. My pal Jimmy would always describe a hard ride as ” I was going like an old coo “, well that was it exactly.

Maybole I think is a lovely name. We had arrived during school lunch time which today was a treat for the kids. To a man and girl they gave us menacing stares as they looked up from their bags of chips. We found a cafe. We carry what in the peloton we call a ‘ cafe lock ‘. It’s purpose is to buy you 20 seconds of time if someone is wanting to walk away with your bike. The trade-off is that it weighs almost nothing. We needed a D LOCK today and not a flimsy one either.

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We rode on, closing the top of the loop and heading for Straiton which has a wonderful but firmly closed cafe. It was a great plan and we even found a bench on which to sit and eat cake.

Straiton is beautiful. Everything except Maybole is beautiful, which makes it quite strange and quite abrupt that they are so close together. There are long views of big houses and estates up driveways with big gates. You get a lot of Scotland for your money here I guess.

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Up we climbed. It was one of those circular routes that do that MC Escher thing of always climbing yet returning to the start point. The weather was closing in, which is when you need to be cheered up by a Christmas Tree miles from anywhere. Merrick was now shrouded and had lost all of the height it had gained. It started to rain. Not enough to need a coat but too much not to wear one.

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The light was going and we pushed down on the pedals putting legs into the lactic hurt zone that usually ends with cramp in the evening. Down on the drops and fingers lifted to mop rain from lenses every mile or so. Bad weather can be such a thrill.

Back at the car we pulled on dry thermals and coats. We were buzzing. Buzzing hours later when I tried and failed to drop off to sleep. What a day. Now to dig over the veg patch, snow is on the way.

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Reasons to be cheerful.

P1340541I have just a passing fancy for Gin. In any list of things that I may be addicted to it will be way down the list, with McVities digestive at the top. I did once find myself checking the WWW. to see if it was possible to become addicted to digestives. Google claims it is not, but that did not fully put me at ease. Sloes are easier to say no to, being bitter and hard. The WWW. calls them tart acid and astringent, which is enough to stop any thought of including any in my 5 a day. One of those bog bodies that turn up after thousands of years had his stomach full of sloes, which is a curious thing.P1340562

Just like you would have neither sodium or chloride in your kitchen, something magical happens when you combine sloes with gin and add a whole load of sugar. You put the mix in an air tight container and place in a cool dark cupboard. Two or three months later you have something close to nectar of the gods. Well it is for me.

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Which brings me to two reasons to ride a bike at this time of year. One of which is to harvest sloes which you have been watching ripen to maturity over the summer and noted where the best bushes are. The second reason is a little more contrived. I have mentioned the Coffee Outside movement before, but you can think of it as a picnic designed by hipsters. It makes the perfect excuse to ride a bike and eat cake.

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We met up with our pal Nipper Varney in the harbour car park in Kirkcudbright a week or so ago. He describes himself as a keen but overweight and over-the-hill cyclist whose enthusiasm far outweighs his talent. His focus this year was to create a 300 mile in 24 hour charity ride around our bit of Scotland. He owns something that looks like a gravel bike and he likes both coffee and cake, so he was more than qualified to ride along the coast with us.

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We rode out along National Cycle Route 7 towards Gatehouse, but at Knockbrex took a left to the coast. You can do this section on a road bike, but something with a little more rubber makes it fun. You could pick any of the wonderful bays to stop in, but we stopped at the very first, Carrick Bay. In the height of summer you would not often get it to yourself. But 9.15 on a grey Sunday threatening heavy rain and you have one of the finest places in South West Scotland to have a picnic all to yourself.

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Part of the concept of Coffee Outside is to make the brew fresh and as close to barista standards as possible. We use a Titanium stove made in Japan by Evernew, warm milk and wooden cups made by hand in Finland. To complete our hipster credentials we use bioethanol in our stove.

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Ardwall Isle and it’s ruined chapel make a splendid middle distance thing to sit and contemplate with Cairnsmore of Fleet making the occasional appearance  as low cloud moves across Wigtown Bay. Too cool to sit for long, we pack the bikes and ride to Sandgreen and link tracks together to Cally Woods and into Gatehouse of Fleet.

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I wanted to show Nipper one of our significant trees. I had read somewhere about a tree close to Gatehouse that locals call ‘ the meeting tree ‘. I can not find any clear reference to which tree this is, but the one we want to ride to would be a candidate. History says that local people met at a tree to consider things of importance and to reach a collective answer to the troubles of the day. I think this tree would work.

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Every time we visit it, just off the road beyond Castramon Wood the light is perfect. It has the supermodel ability to look good for a camera. The light no matter what the day, is always perfect never less than flattering.

Back on the bikes we go exploring dead-end tracks which is probably when I lost a pair of stupidly expensive Oakley’s out of my back pocket. Which is why many hours later I am back here on my own in failing light retracing our wheel marks and scanning the ground. The glasses remain lost.

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Back to Kirkcudbright by the coast road to close the loop and end the Coffee Outside experience. I recommend the concept to you. The ride can be short or long the location of your choice, but the coffee has to be good.

 

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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