South by South West – Bikepacking from Peebles

Over the last few weeks if the weather forecast had put me off riding I’d never have left my front door! Luckily I’ve learnt to ignore it because there was rain and more rain scheduled for Friday as I set out to explore a gravel and road based bikepacking route straight out of Peebles. I intended to pick up where I had left off on my last borders bikepacking trip a few weeks ago and vaguely follow the Southern Upland way further west and this time detour into Ae forest. I packed up my new Kinesis Tripster ATR with the larger dry series Apidura bags and headed out from Peebles at a leisurely 11.30am, I was excited to see where I ended up over the next two days.

It seems there are way more bothys in the Southern Uplands/Scottish Border hills than I realised and I’m slowly marking them up on my paper maps as I discover them. There’s a certain satisfaction and simplicity about having your own annotated paper OS map, a reliable and reassuring planning tool that’s been lost in the digital age of small screens. This also brings me to the recent popularity of producing online or published guide books of bothys with accurate maps and easy access instructions, to me and to other bothy users I speak too, it goes against what these shelters are about. I appreciate I could be hypocritical here as I blog about a bothy trip, but sharing experiences and enjoyment from a trip is different from creating an easy to identify list of these shelters whether in a book or on a website. Hopefully the ever easier access and locating of bothys won’t jeopardize access by the kind landowners to these facilities.

Anyway winter is a great time to bikepack in the Southern Uplands because it’s very accessible to many including myself living in the central belt, which helps when daylight is limited and the bothys here help when wild camping’s not a great option. Across this wild, hilly and sometimes bleak stretch of the UK there are endless miles of forestry tracks and ancient moor roads making gravel bikes the perfect way to explore when the footpaths are boggy.

From Peebles I head south over the famous Paddy Slacks climb, straight over at the Gordon’s Arms pub, I then follow the bleak but peaceful road as it winds uphill into what feels like and is the middle of nowhere, it’s a fantastic climb especially for those that don’t like traffic:

From the Berry Bush summit it’s off the road and into the forest, it’s also up into the cloud. Here the gravel tracks are newly surfaced and it’s fast riding. At the far end of the forest I will link up with the southern upland way for an moorland descent into Ettrick Valley.

I love these rides into the heart of the borders precisely because you get away from civilisation, I glide alongside a red kite, just yards away I see a roe deer jump out through the misty spruce forest, both in the space of a few minutes. Seeing another person in these forests is unexpected and treated with some suspicion, “why are they here? Perhaps they’ve buried a body, yes, that would explain it, I think to myself” The weather might be grey but it adds a certain atmosphere and heightens the sense of isolation.

As I get higher I hit the snowline, the remnants from last weeks blizzards. It makes progress slower but at least if I get lost I could find my way back…

Finally the forest fell away and the moors emerge, cloaked in cloud it’s not the best day to get a view of the fells. This section of trail was completely new to me so it was fun discovering where it went and how much I could actually ride. The fun stopped sharply when a innocuous muddy puddle sucks my front wheel, I’m straight over the bars and a fully loaded Tripster crashes beside my. My camera is OK so that’s good, I am covered in mud on one side and the bike has latex sealant splaying from the rear tyre. These WTB Nano’s really are made of cheese it seems. After a while the sealant plugs the hole and I repump the tyre up to full pressure. Tubeless tyres are fantastic, just maybe something stronger, oh and the mud stinks!

After the open moor double track it’s fun singletrack before dropping into a field and the Ettrick valley road, this really is another great section of the Souterhn Upland way to cycle, I’ll be back in the summer for this in the dry on the MTB.

The trail joins a back road in Ettrick valley and then a gravel track that I rode on my last trip here eventually I carry on further than before and ride some epic singletrack above a gorge among some surprisingly dramatic and high hills. After a forestry section on gravel roads I drop down between the towns of Beattock and Moffat, along with some really unexpectedly stunning scenery:

Then it’s over the M74 towards the far side of Ae forest.

Ae forest is huge, however there’s a handy national cycle route sign posted through the maze of tracks, ending at the Ae forest visitor centre where the mountain bike trails start. I follow this marked route through the vast new wind farm, one of many that dot the hills in each direction. It’s great gravel riding on these smoothish tracks and the miles quickly clocked up.

The trails on the first part of the ride had taken longer than I thought, so it’s now getting dark already and I’m way off what I intended. Feeling tired out I make the call to ride a short distance to the north, to a bothy I always wanted to investigate. The weather had been dry and not unpleasant but it’s raining pretty hard by now and the track to the bothy is flowing like a river.

After what feels like an age I see a flicker of candle light in the distance. If there’s candles there’s bound to be a fire I think. I’m not disappointed. I was originally heading for a bothy without a fire so I have no fuel with me, therefore the warm cosy room I step into is a hugely welcome bonus. A friendly couple from Lancashire are already well at home with wine and whisky flowing after their dinner. I’m feeling a bit rough having not eaten or drunk much all day, so their leftovers are much appreciated before I get my stove out to cook up a second course! My wet clothes visibly steaming in the candle light as we chat and put the world to rights!

In the morning I wake after a good nights sleep, the bothy snorer had struck but ear plugs had saved the day (or night). The rain has passed and the hills are dusted white on the tops. The mist is still lingering but it’s higher than yesterday. Having arrived in the dark it’s good to get a feel for the setting of where I actually am.
The trademark bothy condensation on the windows means my kit has dried overnight! With some porridge on the go it’s already a better start to the day than anticipated. It’s pleasant inside the bothy, a fire helps any bothy feel cosy but so do some chairs to sit on and a clean space:

This particular bothy is in a pretty beautiful spot tucked away up the end of a valley, not the plushest place but dry and clean and a welcome roof.

The bike is kitted up again and I’m good to go for the return leg.

The hike out to get back on the access track was incredibly boggy and I’m ankle deep in places but there’s not a bad view back up the valley with the track on the right of the picutre:

I retrace my steps back through Ae forest with only a slight detour to the cafe for some cake, I am soon back near Moffat after a fast head down blast. From here I followed the M74 north (not on the motorway itself)
I then cross over on the first bridge I see and follow a forest track to climb away from civilisation again and up and up towards the bizarrely named Devils Beef Tub. A beautiful part of the country, the height and drama of the hills here is so often overlooked. To be fair even the M74 I passed earlier has a scenic view for the drivers:

The forest is huge and very much a commercial operation there’s a lot of machinery and felling out in the surrounding hills, the track was muddy in places but I enjoyed the riding along sweeping gravel corners and fast ups and downs. Aroind one corner a Rotweiler charges me.

It’s then back to Tweedsmuir on the A road, then Broughton for a stop at the fantastic cafe and the well stocked local shop there.
The Dreva climb out of Broughton is a favourite of mine and offers one final challenge before it is back past Stobo Castle and in to Peebles via the back road around Cademuir hill.

Altogether a fantastic trip of exploring paths and tracks almost all entirely new to me. The weather wasn’t great but as ever it was better than forecast so it was awesome to be out and getting some miles under my belt, especially with some long races coming up soon. It was also another cosy and enjoyable night in a new bothy crossed off my list in the Southern Uplands. Next time I’ll get a bit further west to the next bothy or it might be dry enough and I can use my bivvy bag!

When i got home I hosed the bike down with the Apidura bags still strapped on, my kit was still bone dry inside without any liner, I was pretty impressed!

4 Comments
  1. Nice write up. Enjoyed it. I usually come over foul brig to pick up the trails you mentioned. I may try your route on my new bike (Genesis Vagabond). Get a few mixed miles in for The Dirt Reiver.

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    • Thanks Mike. Surprising how few people ride these sections when they’re not too far from Peebles. Same idea here, this was my training for the Dirty Reiver, trying to up the weekly mileage! The Vagabond should be good bike for Reiver how wide tyres will you run?

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      • I have a set of Surly Knards 41mm. A lot narrower than I’m used to coming from mountain bikes. The knards were pretty comfy, through some recent fire road rides.

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        • Sorry not used them, but they strike me as good comfy option if not the fastest most sophisticated tread pattern out there in this sizing.

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Any thoughts or questions?