The Pentlands (Part III)

How I love those hills.

I went to them again on Saturday. I had to get our of my room, my flat, this city. I cycled out with a flask of rooibois and plenty of warm clothing. It was a wonderfully clear day, and I felt like I was making the most of it. The canal had frozen over, it’s near edges dented with bricks, stones, cans and heavy rubbish, thrown to test the strength of the ice. Someone had cleared the slip but overnight it had frozen again, the large chunks of ice had settled atop one another, forming a small glacial landscape over the water. The ducks frolicked in the unfrozen water under the bridges.

I’d considered the cold, but not it’s effect on the landscape. I hadn’t given any thought to the conditions in the Pentlands, that it may still be covered in snow and ice. As I cycled over the pedestrian bridge towards the hills, I saw them then. Fierce and frosty. I paused for breath at Bonaly Tower – an old farmhouse built in the 1800’s, now turned castle – and had a much needed tea break at the foot of the hills. The ground was blobbed with stale snow, it was a week old perhaps, and its initial softness had weathered into harsh ice. This was going to be harder than I thought.

I climbed back on my bicycle, and immediately went in the completely wrong direction. I had a general route planned in my head before I left the house. I’d been to the hills many times before, and often cycled the same route around it – through the reservoirs (Torduff, Clubbiedean, Harlaw, and then my personal favourite, Threipmuir) and then up through the hills via Bavelaw Castle and down to Loganlea Reservoir. I’d return by the through Phantom’s Cleugh, past Bonaly Reservoir, then back home through Bonaly and along the canal. Here’s a map – it’ll give you a clearer sense of my intentions.

Pentland_Map_2011 bw
Click for larger image.


I realised what I had done when I first hit Torduff. What was I doing? I was going to go straight through the hills, not around them? Why had I gone this way? I was running on automatic. My feet found the pedals after my cup of tea, and I’d launched myself onto a familiar path, simply content to be in the countryside.

Torduff was thick and leathery, the ice firmly spread across it’s entirety. The hills kept me sheltered from a cutting westerly, and the sun glinted off of everything. Spring sunshine, like that of the Autumn, positively dazzles. It seems to reflect off all things, even the dull – turning frowns to smiles. Clubbiedean was in a similar state. Frozen solid, its surface a kind of musty grey. Patches in places. I wondered if there was a gap between the ice and the water. Did that ever happen? Could that happen? The path from Clubbiedean had been torn up by farming vehicles, what little snow there was had been pushed to the grass. Everything was mud and puddles, but the route from there down to Kinleith is a lovely one to cycle, the track offers views of the gentle lolling of the hills and the fields are packed with sheep and cattle. It’s a downward slope too, you can really gather some speed. I was covered in mud within minutes but kept riding. Mud didn’t matter, getting wet didn’t matter. I was outside and it wasn’t raining, and it wasn’t dark. Spring was coming.

The road from Kinleith to Harlaw Reservoir is boring. It offers some views of the hills just north of Glasgow, and Loch Lomond can be picked out in the distance on a clear day. It reminds me of the roads back home – long, flat, straight Romanesque roads, boring.

Harlaw is always busy. The car park was packed with dog walkers and families, little children in woolly hats and big puffer jackets. People gathered round the tea and coffee stall by the reservoir and drank heavily from steaming cups. The track here had been chewed to mud by footsteps, and whilst others tiptoed past on the dry fringes of grass I rode straight through. My gears grinding with muck and soil. I paused for more tea at Threipmuir and watched the walkers play with the ice. A young woman held her daughters hand as the little girl poked curiously at the ice with her boot. Nothing. She tried harder. Nothing. She turned to her mother and chirped something inaudible, then tried again with force. The ice gave, and the woman expertly pulled her away, both in light, giggly, shock.

Reading 'Wild Places' in a somewhat wild place made it all the more enjoyable.
Reading ‘Wild Places’ in a somewhat wild place made it all the more enjoyable.

The road up from Bavelaw Marsh towards the castle is a harsh one for cyclists. What starts as a gentle slope turns into a steep ascent. Going down the road is enormous fun! I really cannot emphasise that enough – a perfectly straight road through a line of well aged trees into marshland, it’s glorious. Cycling up is a different story though. I’d done it before, so I did it again, and here the real journey began.

I’m used to taking a left here, across the field of sheep and along the dusty rocky trap through Green Cleugh. The sloping nature of the path makes for comfortable riding, though rockfall from the side of Black Hill always makes me grit my teeth. These are sharp rocks, and I always fear the worst for my tyres and inner tubes! You roll down into a mossy glen, through the two rivers (by through I mean through, last time I was there they were just over ankle deep whilst on my bike. That’s knee height for walkers – though there are ways around the edge for walkers), and towards the farmhouse at the end of the reservoir. I went right, and a sign by the road told me I would be cycling towards Nine Mile Burn.

On the other side of the gate I encountered my first problem. Snow.

More than enough to cause trouble for a cyclist. The path was knotty and furrowed too, which made it all the harder. A slight incline weighed on the mind and made progress all the harder. I welcome steep slopes because you can burn up them and pause at the top. Slight inclines grind through your legs. I’d never seen this side of the hills before, and looked out over towards the East Cairn and West Cairn hills for the first time. There were a number of walkers on the route with packs and maps. An orienteering exercise, perhaps. They eyed my curiously, now doubt thinking me crazy for bringing a two-wheeled vehicle up this high this early in the year.

From right; West Kip, East Kip, Carnethy and Turnhouse.
From right; West Kip, East Kip, Carnethy and Turnhouse.

I collapsed, exhausted, at the foot of West Kip. Here the paths break into a number of different strands, some heading towards Nine Mile Burn, others over the hills themselves. I lay in the snow, my legs tired and wet from the mud, my back protected by my coat. I closed my eyes and listened to the walkers around me, the wind whistling through the gap between the hills, and felt the sun tickle my face like a warm feather. ‘Are you alright?’ I looked up, a man in a thick wool coat looked down on me, his nose dribbling. He wiped it away. ‘Yeah,’ I said, and explained how I’d come up from Bavelaw. ‘I thought you might have broken your leg or something,’ he said before leaving. ‘Not yet.’ I replied.

I’d wanted to cycle along the hills, but there was no way I’d get up West Kip on such a heavy bike. It had less snow than the path I’d just covered, but it was steeper than I’d anticipated. If it were summer and I had a lighter pack I may well have tried, but not that day. I took the path down to the A702, and what a beauty it was, offering views of the hills around Peebles.

Looking out towards Leadhills.
Looking out towards Leadhills.

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