Try two contrasting bike rides in the Borders.
I was in the Borders with a bicycle and a day to spare but I couldn’t make up my mind which route to take. Should I do what I usually do and go for a gentle on-road tour of the countryside or be a bit different and try mountain-biking for the first time? After all, I was just a few miles away from the Glentress which forms part of one of southern Scotland’s ‘7stanes’ mountain biking centres.
Originally operated by the Forestry Commission, the centres are known as the 7stanes because there are seven of them and each features a ‘stane’ (Scots for stone) somewhere in the forest. At Glentress there are over 30 miles of trails, all well waymarked and graded to suit different levels of ability and experience rather like ski runs. Blues are easy, reds are intermediate and blacks are difficult. Soon after setting off I was glad I had played it safe and chosen a blue route as I was soon out of puff – and pushing – up a hell of a hill. Only when there were gaps between the pines on my left could I admire the view over the Tweed valley – and see how high I’d climbed. Buzzards Nest turned out to be another car park; a mere base camp, certainly not a summit.
Still the track went up. The last time I’d encountered hairpin bends in such quick succession was from the comfort of a coach as I neared an Alpine ski resort. All I could hear was the breeze in the trees and, as I rested in a log shelter, the distant scrunch of approaching tyres. Suddenly, a mountain biker pulled up in front of me at the end of a descent. “That was amazing!” he announced, beaming, later commenting on the “great switchbacks” to his companion as he joined him.
Mountain biking has lots in common with snowboarding. They are all about downhills, gear, lifestyle and lingo. I’d earlier passed a sign for a black run called Andy’s Flume and the map pointed out locations for the Worm Hole, Mustard Snake and Redemption Climb. For my part I was bound for Betty Blue which, if my map reading was accurate, was the name of a swooping descent in a spooky wood. The corners were banked enabling me to keep going at a fairly steady – and, by now speedy – pace.
I re-encountered the experts at a red skills area and watched them leaping and zooming around a series of ramps and bends. All very cool. The final section of my route was along Electric Blue which the map describes as a “swoopy singletrack with whoop-de-doos”. I don’t quite know what whoop-de-doos are but they felt good to me.
My fingers were almost aching from gripping my brakes so tightly but were still capable of grasping a mug of tea. I drank it while wolfing down a lunchtime breakfast with haggis back at the café which, along with the Osprey car park, forms part of The Hub. The facilities are comprehensive. There’s also a large bike shop and hire centre plus shower and changing facilities. Nearby is a one-mile, green-graded skills trail suitable for young children mountain biking for the first time while slightly older children can try Trailquest, a mix of cycling and orienteering which leads them to various checkpoints of interest hidden within the forest.
It was time for me to move on to part two of my day out. I headed off to Peebles to start a more familiar sort of bike ride: a scenic circuit on a road to nowhere south of the town. At the end of the first climb at the top of Manor Hill I spotted way down below a fisherman up to his thighs in the River Tweed and as alone as me. I was almost starting to miss my mountain biking mates – but equally enjoying the expansive views that had been for the most part concealed on my morning trails. Clear soft river water flowing from these peaty hills was used for washing processes in the woollen industry and its power was harnessed to drive mills.
The outward part of my route was along the lush wooded river valley but the vista changed dramatically after turning the corner around Cademuir Hill. I was then in a broad, flat-bottomed valley, the heather clad slopes providing a contrast with what had gone before and reminiscent of England’s Lake District. The clump of trees on the hillside above me stood out like a bristles that had been missed by the razor.
I returned to Peebles and then headed back out to Glentress, this time along the Tweed Valley Cycleway. To my right was Cademuir again, its trees looking like fur from this distance. On the opposite side of the valley and below an aerial that marks the top of a hill I spotted a large clearing in the plantation that I’d passed in the morning. Several hours after going there I found out where I’d been.
I couldn’t resist calling in at Kailzie Gardens which originally belonged to a Georgian house that was demolished in 1962. Renowned for its fuschias and geraniums, Kailzie today consists of a walled garden, 15 acres of wild garden with woodland and burnside walks, a duckpond and children’s area. The cafe was the main attraction for me, though. I could not have wished for a more tranquil end to a hectic day. What would those mountain bikers make of me now, I wondered? They were probably heading off to the pub to recount the day’s heroics while I was taking tea and smelling the roses. Still, each to his own – and mine’s a bit of both.
Distance: 8 miles for the mountain bike trail and 14 miles for the on-road route.
Parking: Osprey car park (charge), Glentress. (Glentress is three miles east of Peebles on the A72).
For the mountain bike trail pick up a leaflet from cycle shop beside the Osprey car park in Glentress and follow the blue route.
For the on-road route turn left out of Glentress and into Peebles via the A72. Pick up the leaflet on ‘Peebles local cycling trails’ from the Tourist Information Centre and follow the Cademuir circuit. Half way round the route you start following the signed Tweed Valley Cycle Way. Once back in Peebles continue to follow the Cycle Way out of town eastwards and past Kailzie Gardens. Take next left, then left at first mini-roundabout, right at the second and left onto A72 to return to Glentress.
Eating: Excellent café at The Hub and plenty of pubs and restaurants in Peebles.
Download a map of mountain bike trails from here. Kailzie Gardens are open seven days a week all year round during daylight hours. Tea room and restaurant open from late March to late October, 11am-5.30pm. Tel: 01721 720007.