Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Speyside Way

On the glorious autumnal morning of the 19th of September, myself and my best friend Pauline, started a journey by mountain bike following the Speyside Way. Although the guidebook that you can purchase is written north to south, the maps are numbered south to north, and it is this direction that we took. To me it is the logical way to do the route, be that it is naturally downhill as the Spey flows toward the sea.

We start the route in Aviemore. Recently, plans have been put into practice to extend the route to Newtonmore, but on this journey we are starting at the original place. The route follows excellent cycle track and it twists its way through sun-dappled woods, now on the turn from green to gold. The first village is Boat of Garten, and if there was ever a small village I could see myself retiring to in Scotland, then this has to be it. A beautiful little place with many individual and unique houses, unfortunately peppered with circa 1960's constructions as well, though this does not detract from it's charm.

We carry on following a disused railway path, a sad remnant of Beeching's cutbacks of the railways in the 1960's. The route links up many whisky distilleries, as was the railway's purpose to transport the hops, and then the finished product in barrels.

What is charming, and a complete surprise, is that many of the old railway stations have been restored and preserved for all time, even down to some of the original advertising signs. The best example of this was after Grantown-on-Spey, and a little hamlet called Cromdale. Here was by far the best example of a restored station.

Thanks to the Scottish Rights of Way Act just a few years ago, we can now enjoy many routes on our mountain bikes that were once the preserve of the person on foot. That is, however, except for the Hills of Cromdale on the Speyside Way. For about five miles the powers-that-be have seen fit to install what must be one of the most ludicrous designs of a gate ever invented.

It consists of two L-shaped galvanised steel posts, seen here on the right, leaning against each other, which you pull apart at the top, which then reveals a V-shaped opening that you pass through, but impossible with a bike and panniers!. Now, one or two of these would have been tolerable, but on one occasion we counted 14 in a one mile stretch! And in the oddest of places. For example, we came upon a two-metre-wide, twenty-five metre-long, enclosed section, with one of these gates at either end . . . smack bang in the middle of a field! Bizarre. It became so irritating, and threatened to spoil the experience of the trip, that we decided to detour the remaining section.

That night we found a spot just before the settlement of Ballindalloch, on the banks of the Spey, to camp. The patch we chose was very neatly mown, and we suspected it was part of the fishing embankment for the nearby estate, but as it was already getting dark when we arrived, and we would be away very early, we decided to pitch our tents.

The next day our route took us to Fochabers. Once again we were following old railway paths or quiet back roads, but we also had some fairly stiff climbs to do. These would ordinarily have been fine, but with heavy panniers strapped to the back of the bikes it made the effort doubly hard.

At one point we passed through the restored station of Blacksboat. This little station wasn't quite in the league of Cromdale, but it was still a joy to see. I did notice, however, that some of the twelve-inch-high pointed pieces of white picket fence along the edge of the platform, had come away. I asked Pauline for her screwdriver from the tool kit, and those that know me well will not be surprised to hear that I set about doing a little of my own restoration.

The route then took us past the Tamdhu distillery at Nockando and finally onto Fochabers. This was forecast to be the best day, weather-wise, and in the most part this proved to be correct. It was so relaxing and enjoyable, powering the bikes along, past numerous golden fields of freshly cut wheat and through woods with early autumn sunlight streaming through.

At Fochabers we decided to camp in an actual campsite, with access to showers, but it was on the very busy main road from Aberdeen to Inverness. However, we were so tired from the days cycle up the many climbs, that we were both out for the count very quickly in our own one-man tents.

We had left a very short day for the last push, and as such enjoyed a long-lie and a late start out.

After just twenty minutes we were privileged to pass very close to a large buzzard bird of prey sat atop a wooden post. We tried to glide to a silent halt but it was too late, and it took flight, though this was a spectacular sight, and so very close. The route was very quick and straightforward out to the Spey estuary, where it spills into the north sea, past tens of corpses of trees, strewn about the river banks, ripped up and brought here by the recent violent floods.

I had thought beforehand, that this is where the route would end, but it swings due east and continues a few miles along the coast to officially end at Buckie. After such a fantastic and picturesque journey, the final stretch was in some disrepair, and was a disappointing end to the trip. We both assume the route starts, or ends, at Buckie for transport links.

Our route complete we headed back to the nature visitor centre at the mouth of the Spey for lunch. Then, to the backdrop of RAF jet fighters out of Kinloss thundering around the sky, we push onwards the final ten miles to Elgin, and the train that will take us to Inverness and then Edinburgh.

Both Pauline and I have completed many hiking routes and cycle routes over the years, some in far off places such as northern Italy and North America, but mostly in Scotland. My top trip in Scotland to date is the Great Glen route, from Fort William to Inverness, in glorious summer sunshine.

However, the Speyside Way, on a beautiful autumn weekend, I would say is a close contender for the top spot.

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