Coast 2 Coast
Inspired by nothing in particular, we'd planned Yet Another Scottish C2C and set aside a few days to do it in August 2009. There are a number of possible routes and sometimes the decision comes down to ease of transport. In the end, we opted for a somewhat convoluted journey from Fort William to Montrose...
As well as booking B&Bs/hostels, it seems that you really need to book trains these days - a sign of the times I suppose, but on this occasion it proved essential. So Day 1 saw the three of us heading out from Glasgow Queen Street on a train, part of which was going to Oban and the other half was to take us to Fort William before continuing to Mallaig. Rule 1: make sure you're in the right half of the train because it splits in two at Crianlarich! Rule 2: it's not always obvious which is the 'front' of the train because when it pulls up to the buffers at Queen Street, what might appear to be the front suddenly becomes the back as it leaves the same way it came in...
It was a Sunday and this train was packed - just as well we'd booked not only seats but also the bikes. Crowded or not, it's a super journey as the train rumbles along the side of Gare Loch and then Loch Long before nipping through the gap at Tarbet to hug the northern end of Loch Lomond. As we went further, a few people got off but more got on. There wasn't a seat to be had.
The train splits and we now trundle past the lofty Ben Dorain and far away from any road to head across the splendid isolation of Rannoch Moor. And even more folk joined the train at Rannoch and at Corrour, the most isolated station of all. It was now well into the afternoon and these folk, mostly walkers, were just happy to get on the train at all because there wouldn't be another. Rucksacs piled wherever they would go.
Can it always be like this? Of course, confusion marketing is the norm now and no one knows who runs what and/or who you might complain to...
In due course most of us spew out onto the platform in Fort William; some are staying on for the equally - if not more - scenic trip to Mallaig.
Rule 3: check your brakes. Nobody's fault but the spring that keeps the pads apart chooses now to shuffle off its immortal - but not indestructible - coil. We're not going to be near a bike shop for two days and Iain is not happy. With minutes to spare before they close at 5 he makes it to Off Beat Bikes. No apologies for giving them a plug because they took on the challenge and were still there half an hour later - of course, simple jobs are just never that simple... thanks again guys!
We'd booked in at Spean Bridge and had planned a route through the forest past the Aonach Mor slopes. Time was now getting on, however, so we thought we'd best just get the head down and blast along the main road. This is not a pleasant road, though, and so we were delighted to find a fairly newish purpose-built cycle route running alongside it; at least for a few miles and away from the worst of the traffic.
Ah well, Spean Bridge at last! Of course, we could have got off the train here when we passed through earlier but...
Day 2 and it's dry but overcast. Day 2 is the Big Unknown because we're heading up Glen Roy. It's going to be a long way from anywhere and we have no idea what kind of terrain we're going to find there.
So it's a short way along the road to Roy Bridge where we turn off. Eight miles up the glen by an access road to Brae Roy Lodge and then a good way beyond that by jeep track just to get to the watershed. What happens after that is anyone's guess - path, bog heather...
On the way up the glen you can't fail to spot horizontal lines running along quite high up the hillsides either side of the valley. These are marked on the map as "parallel roads". In fact they're not roads at all but three different shorelines of what were glacier-plugged lakes. The glacial dam melts and the lake empties to the new level and forms a new shoreline...
No lake there now but there was no shortage of boggy ground. There comes a point where any suggestion that your feet are going to stay dry becomes pure fantasy. Once that point is reached, then it all gets much easier. There's no point in looking for stepping stones across streams; just walk through them. No point in trying to work your way round an obviously boggy patch; save time and effort and just go straight on...
We passed Luib Chonnal bothy to reach the watershed at the head of Glen Roy. Crossing it, we get our first glimpse of the headwaters of the mighty Spey, though you'd never know it as Loch Spey - the source - looks anything but mighty.
Moving on and gazing down the next expanse of the valley you'll be able to see your next target, Shesgnan, a stone building set over to the left of the river near some trees. Don't be tempted to go in a straight line towards it; we think it'd be better to stay closer to the river until you're pretty well level with it... from which you might correctly deduce that we took the direct route. Not that we could really get any wetter.
Shesgnan is well padlocked so don't expect any shelter. It was clearly being renovated and there's a jeep track from here on.
Corrieyairack Pass comes over from Glen Tarf and drops down to join the valley. A little further on there's a tarred road which leads right down to Laggan Bridge. We can recommend the hostel here. The nearby pub seems a tad soul-less but does do evening meals.
Day 3 dawns. Was there some rain in the air? We take the road towards Newtonmore for a while and then leave it for a good track up Srath an Eilich which leads to Dallnashallag bothy in the upper reaches of Glen Banchor. An opportunity for a snack and breather.
The good track ends here, though, and there doesn't seem to be an easy way to make progress down the glen. We crossed the river and worked our way along the bank; sometimes close to it, and sometimes further away. There's a very vague and intermittent trail but you'll be pushing for a fair way down here. Stick with it - not that you've got much choice - and the path does improve to give some quite good rideable sections further on.
At Glenballoch you'll join a 'proper' track and eventually a tarred road leading directly down into Newtonmore. We can recommend the Golf Club here for a reasonable snack.
NCR7 leads easily alongside the main road towards Kingussie and then turns right to cross the Spey which, at this point, is a tad more than the trickle we followed yesterday! You can stay with NCR7 all the way to Aviemore, although there are options to explore trails around Loch an Eilein.
Aviemore seems to be in the process of reinventing itself as a year-round 'resort'. Recent winters, however, have not been particularly helpful as far as skiing goes. At this point Keith's bottom bracket is starting to become a concern so it's a trip along to Bothy Bikes who were good enough to fit one on the spot - thanks guys!
Day 4 starts with blue skies - can it last? We take the cycle track along to Glenmore and then turn off to follow the trail past Fairy Lake and up to Ryvoan Bothy. This is a fine spot to gaze around towards the Cairngorms.
We're aiming for Tomintoul today and we leave Ryvoan along the track towards Nethy Bridge. Our route turns off to the right, goes downhill to cross the River Nethy and then heads east and uphill. As you round a corner approaching Loch a Chnuic you can see an obvious V-shaped gap cutting a notch through the hills ahead. You're aiming to go through this and need to leave the track at a point where it turns right. There isn't an obvious trail but after crossing the river you can pick up a vague path which improves fairly quickly.
Once through the gap there's a good run downhill before another river crossing. Pick up another faint path which takes you up towards the road at Ballintuim. You're not on tarmac for long though because you need to take the track from Dorback Lodge, easily at first but then quite steeply up and over to drop into Glen Brown.
This has been quite a long haul and if you thought the hard work was done then you're wrong. The trail leads awkwardly downstream for a few hundred yards to the end of the trees where you need to locate another track leading upwards, again quite steeply. The gradient eases after a while and gives you a chance to catch your breath. Surely now our work here is done...
...well almost, but not quite. The track spits you out on the main road at Bridge of Avon but it's still of a bit of an uphill trudge into Tomintoul; not really what you want at the end of a long day.
And problems always come in threes, don't they? So should I be surprised that it's my turn now as it seems that my rear tyre wall is about to blow? No bike shop for miles and this tyre's not going up any hills tomorrow. Could it limp round to Ballater by road?
Only one thing to do - sit down with a cold beer and consider the options...;-)
The village green in Tomintoul is a great place to sit and mull over these issues on a sunny day. And any other issues, for that matter. As sometimes happens, the Hand of Fate intervenes in unexpected ways. We spot a large white van with a bike trailer and cyclists sorting out their gear... hmmm, an organised group - that van is bound to carry spares... so I wander over to investigate...
The group is run by Saddle Skeddaddle and I'm happy to give them a plug as well because they couldn't have been more helpful. The group has a couple of leaders and the clients are French. It turns out they're doing a C2C as well; not quite the same as ours but we're all aiming for the same route tomorrow.
In any event, they're happy to sell me a knobbly tyre and I'm more than happy to add a generous tip as this is going to get us out of a difficult situation. Time for another beer!
Day 5 is sunny again and we're off reasonably early heading south up the long glen to Loch Builg. On the way we're overtaken by the Saddle Skedaddle group. Of course, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that they're young, fit and sprightly, but rather because we're burdened with panniers whereas their luggage goes by van...;-)
Once up at the loch our route turns east down the valley and follows the River Gairn. Eventually we hit the tarmac and it's just a few miles now into Ballater. The town is quite busy and we're in good time to have a wander round in the sunshine.
Day 6 was always going to be hard work but luckily we're blessed with blue skies again. We take the cycle route that follows the old railway and we go as far as Dinnet before hitting the road.
To get into Glan Tanar you have the option of an up and over or a longer flat route that goes round by Bridge o' Ess. Once past Glen Tanar House the road reverts to track and it's a fair way up the valley before you can see the slopes of Mount Keen, your next target.
There's a new bridge over the river so your feet can stay dry today. This is the Mounth Road and the route up to the flank of Mount Keen is obvious, but that doesn't make it any easier. The lower half is steep and loose in places; the upper half is steep and not so loose. Keep smiling!
The purist, of course, will continue up to the summit and at 939m this is a Munro. We are less than pure, though, and are not too proud to take the easier path that contours around the hillside. We don't stop long because there's zero breeze and the midges are out.
The route down into Glen Mark is nothing if not exhilarating. It's a bit loose and steep in places and it will take some wear on your brakes. A superb situation though and one to enjoy.
The track leads to Invermark Lodge and joins the road. This is now Glen Esk. We're aiming for Edzell tonight and it's still a long way along the valley, though generally downhill.
If you're up for a little more adventure then there's a really good section of singletrack just as you approach Edzell. Turn right at a T-junction and cross the North Esk. Look for a gap in the wall on your left at the far end of the bridge. This path follows the river for a couple of kilometers and emerges in the middle of town. Be warned, though, because there are serious drops off the path and you don't want to let your attention stray.
So today has been 70km with a serious push up the mountain. We're fairly whacked and feel that a decent meal out is in order and well deserved.
Day 7 dawns clear again and it's an easy run into Montrose to complete the C2C. It just remains to see if we could get all three bikes on the train to Edinburgh as we were only able to book for two. I cannot fathom why it seems such hard work to get bikes on trains. They go for free, but that's not much use if you can't get them on...
...in the event, of course, we just play innocent and pile aboard before anyone can say otherwise.
So, 7 days and about 310km. A memorable jaunt, but we were lucky with the weather - I guess it could all have been sooooo different....
john b, galashiels