The first time I rode my bike down a Scottish mountain I felt like I was 10 again. It was at Newcastleton, just a little way north of the Border, and I had just begun a journey to discover the 7Stanes, Scotland’s series of world-class mountain biking centres.
The plan was to join up all seven with a driving route that would take in the best scenery and roads we could find. The result turned out to be a perfect figure of eight.
At Newcastleton, we followed a forestry road high up into the hills before heading back down on the single track that took us down through forestry plantations and native woodlands, over tree roots, around sharp berms and over little jumps.
In those moments, all that mattered was the air in my lungs, the branches touching my bare legs and the feeling of the air on my face as I hurtled downhill like I was a kid again and riding my bike around the woods near my house. I was on the verge of being out of control and I absolutely loved it.
Anyone who rides a mountain bike will know the feeling. It’s a great way of seeing the countryside too. In Scotland, thankfully, you have open space, fabulous landscapes and plenty of places to spend the summer in isolation.
I loved researching the routes for my Take The Slow Road books as it gave me a chance to immerse myself in Scotland, a place that I had visited only a few times before.
On those trips I had bypassed the south in favour of surfing at Thurso or in the Hebrides. Seeing the Borders for the first time, instead of whizzing by on the M74, I had clearly missed out.
Scotland was the first country I covered for the book series and I was lucky enough to travel all over in a series of campervans and motorhomes. If I am honest it was easy. Finding beautiful roads to drive isn’t exactly hard in Scotland. Just point the campervan in any direction and you’ll find somewhere that’s stunning, eventually.
The route I put together for the 7Stanes takes you from junction 17 of the A74 (M) at Lockerbie along the beautiful Liddesdale to Newcastleton, along the border on the B6357 towards Jedburgh and then on the spectacular A68 to Melrose, on to the A701 to the centres at Glentress and Innerleithen.
After you’ve cycled and scoffed cake at the Glentress café you head off upstream along the Yarrow Water to St Mary’s Loch and a spectacular pass through the Moffat Water Valley on the A708. It’s one of those roads that gives moments of utter joy as you pass through boulder-strewn, steep-sided valleys with tumbling falls adjoining every few metres. After the A708 hits Moffat and the A74(M), the route heads west towards the Forest of Ae on the A701.
Once through Dumfries, the route follows the Nith Estuary around the coast to the west, offering views over the Solway Firth to Cumbria. Every bend in the road brings new riches. Kirroughtree, the penultimate 7Stanes stop-off offers a fantastic downhill finish to the red, black and blue runs, followed by a hot shower, a jet wash to clean off the bikes and a slice of cake with a cup of tea in the café. From Kirroughtree it’s a jaunt up the eastern shore of Wigtown Bay, following the River Cree into the Galloway Forest Park to the final centre, Glentrool, before heading back to the M74.
The Galloway Forest Park is Britain’s first Dark Sky Park. There is very little light pollution in the centre of the park so the chances of seeing the starriest of skies is high. If you get a clear night. But, of course, this being Scotland, you may well find it’s not. Even so, to be in such wide open space is very special. Visit the Robert the Bruce Memorial Stone at Glen Trool where it is said Bruce commanded an ambush of English troops in the narrow glen. The Scots dislodged boulders on the slopes above the path and sent them down the steep-sided valley to rout the English force. Southern Scotland’s highest peak, Merrick (2,764 ft), can be scaled from here.
There are places to camp along the way, which is very handy when you spread the journey over a few days, including the Caravan and Motorhome Club Site in Newcastleton and at Melrose. Helpfully, all pitches are six metres apart and check-in is contactless. The Garlieston Lodge Caravan Park near Wigtown is perfectly placed for a pint by the waterside and an early start to ride the trails. They employ an interesting traffic light system to inform the site when the shower is being used, which considering the issues of isolation we now face, seems sensible indeed.
Taking a motorhome or campervan to the Borders also seems like a wise plan this summer. Campervans, as we know, are self-contained, which means you can enjoy perfect isolation, wherever you are.
If you like riding your bike – or fancy renting one – then you could do a lot worse than heading for the 7Stanes. All the routes are one-way, which means you are almost always alone while you ride, unless you are very fast or very slow. Consider renting an electric mountain bike if the uphill stretches worry you.
Most of the 7Stanes centres have bike hire. When you get to the top of some of the routes you’ll be glad of it. Stop for a moment to catch your breath and enjoy the views.
And after you’ve whooshed back down the hill and have changed into your civvies back in the motorhome you’ll find yourself in another lovely, safe and warm bubble with your lockdown buddies, somewhere in Scotland, in perfect isolation.
Take The Slow Road: Scotland features routes around Scotland for motorhome and campervans and includes places to stay, things to see and things to do.
Martin Dorey is the bestselling author of The Camper Van Bible and the Take The Slow Road campervanning guides including Take the Slow Road: Scotland, Take the Slow Road: England and Wales and Take the Slow Road: Ireland, all out now.
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