Velo Club Moulin

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Cycling the Southern Upland Way - Melrose to Cockburnspath

Scotland's Best Signposted Field

It's been a while since I've written anything for this blog.  I missed most of the 2015 cyclocross season through illness and I spend the first 4 months of 2016 training for the London Marathon.  I haven't got any racing planned in the immediate future so I thought I should come up with something else to blog about.

Over the last month I've managed to fit quite a few long rides in and have started to feel a bit like a cyclist again.  Inspired by the dusty trails and perfect conditions that Graeme Warren and I enjoyed riding Glen Tilt and Glenfeshie I was keen to get out for more of the same the following weekend.

My plan was to take advantage of the dry trails to ride the final quarter of the Southern Upland Way from Melrose to Cockburnspath.  I really struggled to find any information online about riding this section so I thought it would be worth making some notes on what I found.  This might be a bit dry but hopefully it'll be useful to someone planning a similar ride.

Unfortunately the long dry spell had broken in the last few days.  After looking through lots of forecasts I finally found one that looked good enough and decided to go with it.

Newcraighall to Tweedbank

This ride was made much simpler thanks to the newly opened Borders Railway.  50 minutes after getting on the train at Newcraighall I was underway.  Until the line was re-instated the Southern Upland Way followed a path along the old line so the route starts from the end of the platform.

Space for 8 bikes according to Scotrail.
Dusty trails looking less than likely.

Melrose to Lauder

Almost straight from the train station the route dropped into a nice little singletrack section down to the bank of the River Tweed.  After crossing the river the route turned back west along a fun rooty path.

Unfortunately the good riding didn't last too long and the route swung north to follow what was shown on the map as doubletrack.  The Southern Upland Way is obviously not a heavily used trail.  Most of this section was heavily overgrown and it was hard to see an obvious path in a lot of places.  It didn't take long riding in this terrain before I was completely soaked.

As the route headed north it was dominated by the sheer number of gates.  Some fairly uninspiring riding on tracks, over fields and through muddy farmyards punctuated by dozens of ropey old gates.  Everyone seemed to have a different style of latch and be broken in a slightly different way.  In the end it was easier just to lift my bike over and climb over.

As I approached Lauder the route turned into a field of knee high grass with no sign of any path.  Fortunately there was a route-post randomly sited in the middle of the field.  It was a actually quite a fun descent but by the end of it I was thoroughly soaked.  This sums up the Southern Upland Way pretty well, it's essentially Scotland's best signposted field.

A quick blast off Staunchly Hill in the pouring raining and I was in Lauder.

In need of a bit of respite from the weather I headed straight for the Flat Cat Gallery.  Despite the fact I was plastered in mud the staff couldn't have been more friendly.  After attempting (and failing) to make make myself look vaguely presentable I realised that the only person who was worried about the mess was me.  Two slices of cake and a coffee later and I was feeling far more positive about the rest of the day.

Chain Bridge over the Tweed in Melrose.
There's a path under there somewhere.

Lauder to Longformacus

From Lauder an odd mix of great paths and sheep tracks took me through the grounds of Thirlestane Castle to the A697.

A tarmac farm road turned into nice doubletrack as I quickly gained height.  Just as I was starting to think this section might be better the route promptly turned left into a field.  The next hour was back to fields and gates.  An unexpected descent down a fast bumpy section helped to break the tedium of the gates.

As I climbed into the mist the character of the ride had begun to change.  I was onto fast flowing tracks uninterrupted by gates and able to make some progress, albeit hindered slightly by a stiff easterly wind.

The last part of the climb up to Twin Law was on a great path although a look at my Garmin left me alarmed at my relative lack of progress over the first part of the ride.

The descent from Twin Law was the highlight of the day.  3 minutes of bumps and natural doubles.  Maybe not the best return for all the climbing but as fun as it was unexpected.

From there a mix of doubletrack and minor roads allowed some fast progress to Longformacus.

Crossing Blythe Water.
Twin Law.

Longformacus to Cockburnspath

Riding on the minor road towards Ellemford Bridge brought back painfully memories of suffering on my road bike.  Today's pace was more sedate and as you can see a 29er is probably more suited to this road than a road bike.

Painful memories of the Tour of the Lammermuirs.
The route turned off this road and struck up the hill on the right.  From the road it didn't look like the path would go as it was so overgrown.  It turned out to be ok, albeit a slog up a steep field of sheep.  A nice path over the top of the hill was short lived and I soon found myself slogging up a churned up muddy sheep track.  This was probably the least enjoyable section of the day but it was all ridable.

Crossing the Whiteadder at Abbey St Bathans.

A blast down some fast doubletrack brought me out on Duns road just south of Ellemford Bridge.     Over the road a steep gravel climb was waiting followed by a more gentle climb.  A lovely looking singletrack descent was ruined by 3 or 4 gates in the space of a few hundred meters.

Some muddy miles brought me fairly quickly to Abbey St Bathans where it was time to sit down for 10 minutes to have something to eat.  One problem with this route is a lack of water.  By this point I was even looking for an outside tap on a house but I didn't see anything.  In the end I didn't find any decent water source after Lauder.

A nice riverside path got the final stretch underway.  It wasn't long until the route descended back into fields and gates, pretty wearing by this stage of a ride.  An hour of easy, if uninspiring, riding brought me to a fast tarmac descent to the A1.

A really nice track through Penmanshiel Wood would have made a good finish to the ride but there was a sting in the tail.  The Southern Upland Way goes through Pease Dean Nature Reserve.  It would be a good place to walk but not when you are carrying a bike.  20 minute of temptingly good singletrack constantly interrupted by steep slippy steps and treacherously wet duckboards was immensely frustrating.  It would probably be more fun in the dry but in the wet it was by far the least ridable section of the day.  A quick spin round the coastal path at Cove brought me to the finish at Cockburnspath.

A tricky ride to sum up.  Only a few genuinely good sections but I don't think that is what this sort of ride is about.  It's much more a big day out and a bit of an adventure.  But even on that measure it's hard to reach a judgement.  It's a remote route with only one town on route and it barely crosses any roads but it doesn't feel that remote.  The landscape is agricultural and heavily shaped by farming and feels far less wild than other areas of the Lammermuirs.  It would be a good route but for me there are just too many gates to let it flow.

By far the best section of the route is through the Lammermuirs from above Lauder to Longformacus and it's the only bit I'm likely to repeat.