In Search of Galloway Gravel
Galloway. That bit of Scotland that everyone ignores as they drive North in a rush for Glasgow, Edinburgh or the Highlands. Get to Gretna, take a sharp left and Galloway’s quiet hills reveal themselves in the distance. Hills covered with grassy livestock fields and towering coniferous forests. The rolling landscape beneath criss-crossed by an abundance of logging tracks of a forestry industry forming the Galloway Gravel.
In September and October, due to the starting of the sugar beet campaign, I traditionally cannot get away. Once things have settled down again it’s often a bit late in the year for trips away. A late season start this year offered the opportunity for one last early September trip. An opportunity to grab the last of the good weather (haha, or not). A few days off at the back-end of the week; the chance to visit a friend nearby; it had to be Scotland and Galloway.
Breakfast and Bothies
On my first morning in Scotland I trundle gently downhill from my friends house, we sit having coffee and breakfast roll outside the local bakery. I’m reliably informed that, for the Scots, a good breakfast roll is important. I munch on the evidence in satiated agreement. In the chilly temperatures I realise my shoe covers are still in my car. I sit deliberating whether I will need them. One of the best choices I made on the trip was to turn back to find them. After an initial wrong turn, I was soon rolling West past farmhouses and fields, the Galloway hills rising quietly ahead.
After 10 miles on peaceful rural roads, tarmac abruptly ends, my Galloway gravel has started. The first of my logging tracks climbing steadily amongst the trees for 5 miles of gravel-bike perfection. The river splashing merrily over rocks beside my path. This first climb of the day started a pattern of many climbs over the coming days: clothing steadily ejected into bags as I heat up from the effort on the way up, stopping at the top to layer up again ready for the chill on the descent.
On the descent I grab the drops and cover the brakes, gravel spraying behind me. If I whooped with enjoyment, would anyone out here hear me? At the bottom I pass Polskeoch bothy. I have never seen a bothy in the wild, so I take a quick look around. A basic building with a few comfy leather chairs, a wood stove for heating and space to throw a sleeping bag down. Midday being a bit early to stop for the night, I write in the logbook and carry on.
Hike-a-bike and losing it
One of the standards of a good bikepacking trip is that of the hike-a-bike. When the ground conditions deteriorate beyond the point of rideability and you are left pushing your bike through bog, up hill or across ruts and rocks. As I leave the bothy this trip soon delivers. The small Lorg path signposted using rags tied to branches, guiding the unknowing traveller around the worst of the boggy mess beneath. Once the ground below eventually dries, my route remains sufficiently difficult to limit riding. For an hour I push my bike alongside, smiling the entire way, this is all part of the adventure.
Eventually I can climb back on to the bike to descend the valley. I once again put layers back on, but my gloves are missing. Checking in every bag, they’re not with me. I think back, where did I take them off? The only likely scenario being when I wrote in the bothy logbook. I don’t fancy walking back for an hour each way to retrieve them, so will have to make do without. Losing them was a blow, but 2 hours lost and I would have some serious riding to do later. A short gravel track soon leads back to smooth tarmac. The varying conditions heightening the sense of adventure as hands fall to the drops and I zip along at pace.
After rolling easily along surfaced roads, Galloway gravel eventually returns as I peel off and into the forest once more. A winding climbing track where I see no others until dropping back down to the Raiders Road 4 miles later. The Raiders Road is 10 miles long and open to cars, so the gravel is well bedded in. Halfway along I make a stop at the Otter Pool, a scenic car park with benches by the river with the sound of water rushing over the rocks. I sit and relax in the tranquility of the spot, cooking dinner at a bench before searching for somewhere to pitch my tent. Unfortunately no Otters were spotted, though I’m unsure if the name is even a hint at their presence anyway!?
Soon after a motorcycle pulls up further along and in the distance I see the rider setting up camp. I finish my rehydrated pasta before wandering over to say “Hello” to Andrew, enjoying some time off between jobs and before the birth of twins later this year. Weight being a non-issue for the motorcycle engine, his cooking is radically different to my lightweight meal. A fold out fire pit comes out, is topped by a grate which is soon supporting a steak, asparagus and potatoes. We take humorous reflection on the difference in our trips as we share a drink around the fire in the dying light.
Rainy Day Parade
In the morning grey clouds hang in the air as I continue my way along the Raiders Road. The gravel track repeatedly rising slowly from the river before diving back down to it again in a rush of cool morning air. At the far end I turn right for the Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre and café. Unfortunately, the café is closed at this time in the morning so I top up my water from the outside tap and make a coffee on my stove. A few camper-van-trippers asking my advice on where I think they should go, clearly a loaded up bike tourer should know their way around Scotland. Their mileage being somewhat unlimited I recommend the beauty from my Outer Hebrides trip.
As rain drops start to fall I pedal off and find the next of my Galloway gravel, a route signposted for Glentrool along NCR7. Continuous rain for 40 miles of the day dampens everything bar my spirits. Even with the shoe covers I had retrieved, my shoes did not escape such treatment and my toes squelch inside. Views across Lochs are accentuated by the moody sky, the only downside to the endless precipitation is not getting as many photos. I stop for coffee, a sandwhich and a chat at the Glentrool café, only the fourth or fifth building i’ve seen all day. With the weather as it was, they were not doing a roaring trade. I’d like to assume the lady at the café enjoyed having someone to talk to for a while.
Three Lochs and Home (for the night)
From the visitor centre I begin a long steady climb up 1000ft on quiet roads. After what had felt a gruelling day the rain finally fades as I reach another section of Galloway Gravel. The sun begins to break through the clouds just as the track snakes past Lochs Bradan and Riecawr. It’s warming rays invigorating me, I charge onwards. With waterproofs removed I drop gently downwards with views opening up over Loch Doon, aptly named for this year. After stopping to take a look around Loch Doon Castle, it’s history unknown except for it’s relocation in the 1930’s, I search for a spot to camp. The sun now out in full with glorious blue skies above.
Soon I get chatting to my wild-camping neighbours for the evening; Caroline, Darrell and their dog Luna. Having driven, their cooking is also uninhibited by weight. Lamb sits cooking in a caserole dish over an open fire, there are potatoes, vegan sausages and gravy. They kindly share a beer with me and we sit laughing at our inability to get a fire going well enough once the cooking is done. Being in the fire service, they know how to put them out, starting them is not their area of expertise. I unfortunately do not have such an excuse, so we all agree that wet wood is to blame. As we hope the wood will dry out, rain arrives once more to really hinder any efforts and we retreat to our separate tents for the evening.
Things that go quicker in the wind: Me, Turbines.
In the morning light wispy clouds roll over the hills around the Loch, but blue skies are visible beyond. The wind has picked up, thankfully it should be on my back for the majority of the day. I roll off, the first 10 or so miles slipping by easily over smooth tarmac, the wind pushing me over easy gradients.
As tarmac ends and gravel starts, a newly built bridge sits to my right, but my GPS points me left along the gravel trail. Though after a short time I am presented with a fence blocking access to a failing bridge, that new bridge suddenly making sense. A quick risk assessment on my part, I assume the bridge is unsafe for large trucks, a bike (even loaded up) unlikely to stress it’s structure. I nip round the fence and rejoin the trail the other side. The gravel track here having been upgraded for the construction of the many turbines of the Windy Standard Windfarm (I’m not joking, that’s it’s name!).
My track winds peacfully through the deep green pine trees of forestry land or the barren emptiness of recently felled areas, the deep swoosh of wind turbine blade tips tracing huge arcs above. Eventually I see the next reservoir ahead with the track rising rapidly beyond. I get ever closer, yet I still have not started climbing, realising therefore how steep that track is going to get. Rounding the tip of the reservoir the climb starts, brutally ramping to 20% or more gradients on loose chunky gravel. I dismount. A laden bike, 35mm tyres and a 34 tooth cassette no match for that sort of climbing. Any point where the gradient lets up, my calfs are screaming too much from pushing to allow remounting. Half an hour, 1 mile and 600ft of elevation later and the wind whips across the saddle of the hills to carry me down the other side.
Time to recover and review
On the other side I soon realise my route will carry me within a mile of the bothy from two days earlier, so I make a detour to recover my gloves. Whilst there I take some respite and make a cup-a-soup for lunch, sheltered from the wind that continues to blow outside. Shortly after I wave goodbye to the Galloway Gravel as my trail picks up tarmac once more for a rapid tail wind fuelled descent down the side of a valley. Chasing the bumper of the car in front all the way down, legs spinning wildly (my front gear cable housing having broken at some point in the preceeding three days).
As I meet my friend once more for coffee I reflect on the relative crowds at the café in comparison to the serenity of the past few days. I also recall recently watching a video of someone bemoaning the explosion of gravel bikes in the UK, stating that there is no gravel. Galloway has gravel, lots of it. But it also has so much else which is best explained by what it does not have. It does not have many people, tourists just miss this area. There is not a lot of signal, so you can truly switch off from the ever connected world. It does not have a lot of buildings, so you feel remote and exposed. There is barely any lighting, it’s actually designated a dark skies park great for stargazing. It has beauty, it has peace, it has gravel, it has another future trip written all over it.