the Ayrshire Alps

Warning: this post contains shameless cheesy references to acid house classics from the 80s and 90s. If you’re not a fan of shameless cheesy references then I’d suggest tuning into an alternative blogger.

A cloudless sky. A sudden, foreboding drop in temperature. No-one to visit, and no-one coming to visit us.

Only one thing for it: an all-day journey of discovery heading deep into the Galloway Forest Park and taking on some of the meanest and greenest ascents in Ayrshire: the Ayrshire Alps. A journey of three parts: seaward, skyward and lochside.

The Ayrshire Alps are a collection of beautiful hill climbs lovingly curated by local cycling wizard Chris Johnson and chronicled in user-friendly format online. They consist of sixteen hill climbs of varying difficulty. We picked our way through a few* of them today.

*Hubs designed today’s route and, true to form, the number of Alps we were due to ride at the start of proceedings was dwarfed by a few orders of magnitude by the actual number that featured in the ride. (I always tell him his talents are wasted in his current job; his aptitude for creative accounting could make him millions in the corporate world.)

Seaward

Our ride started west of the village of Dalmellington. We started our ride feeling the chill air that marked the end of our summer in short sleeves and heralded the return of cold toes and early nights. We’d had the BBC Sounds ‘Ecstasy: The Battle of Rave’ podcast on the way up, and it jarred with the ambience of the countryside more than a little having ‘Voodoo Ray’ on repeat on my head for at least the first 15 miles. Ayrshire seems an unlikely location for a rave scene. BUT try singing along to the ‘ay-yo, a-HA, uhhua-uh-ohh yeah’ on your way down a smoothly tarmacked road dipping in and out of glades aglow with an autumn swansong of greenery, and tell me it didn’t put a smile on your face as big as that iconic acid house insignia.

We quickly warmed up as the route reeled up and down rolling hills with views of the coast beyond; of Ailsa Craig, that island rising like a muffin from the Firth of Clyde, and the jagged edges of the Goatfell peninsula of the isle of Arran. The Mull of Kintyre could be seen just beyond, through a thick haze of sun-warmed air that sizzled on the horizon of every summit we reached. The pièce de résistance of our seabound leg was a summit finish of the Wallacetown ‘Alp’ – an unrelenting hamstring-buster with a peak gradient of 14.2% and an average of 7.8. The website describes it as “a rather neglected, oft-forgotten suffer-fest”. Hubs assured me it was “not as bad as everyone makes out – I wouldn’t even give it a difficulty rating of 7/10”. See the asterix above for guidance on whose assessment was the more reliable.

Skyward

On with the hills. After a beautiful descent through pastures interjected with the geometric shadows of the wind farm came our next climb, out of Penkill and Knockgerran. The Blackies Brae. The road is currently officially closed to vehicles for resurfacing work but we were jammy enough to get there during a break in construction and could flounce (with permission) around the trucks, hitting tarmac that was set enough to glide over but new enough to be giving off a sweet chemical scent. A herd of curious cattle, black and tan, raced us to the gentle summit. The descent, made all-the-more joyous by the absence of traffic, is an ecstasy of technical bends enough to send the most strait-laced velophile on a ragga tip.

At the bottom of this descent, known colloquially as ‘the Screws’, is the quaint town of Barr. Unlikely to be the origin story of the soft drinks brand, this hamlet consisting of several whitewashed cottages, a community store and a couple of bridges over the lazy river Stinchar – home to a family of red-faced ducks – was the start of our next climb, up to Glengennet and into the forest park. Here the sheep idled boldly by or on the road; black of face, curly of horn and utterly undeterred by any manner of shouting and bellringing.

We began our ascent of the greatest Alp of our tour, the Nic O’ Balloch. The climb starts curtly enough, swinging sharply upward past signs for walking paths in the Galloway forest. The gradient breaks a little as one crawls up out of the tree line and the vista opens up to the right; a broad and deep glen with a winding, twinkling river fed by summit streams tumbling down the grassy slopes. A sparrowhawk glided silently across our path and became invisible in a nearby clump of trees. The sun beat down warmly and those initial feelings of glumness at the chill of the morning and what it portended melted away. Happiness is just a state of mind.

Our climb had taken us almost to 1,300 feet. But there was more height to be gained still on the Tairlaw ‘Alp’, a subtle yet never ending story of a climb. A fellow cyclist started closing the gap between us a mile or so from the top, but the road was full of false summits and my competitive bursts of speed soon attenuated and I summited exhausted but not triumphant.

Lochside

We took a right turn shortly after my blistering defeat onto the Forest Drive, a gravel road through the heart of the Galloway forest. Most of the way was newly deforested, giving rise to glimpses of emerald-blue lochans nestled enticingly into the heather-covered grassland. We stopped for coffee on a mossy rock and watched dragonflies flit by as the shadows lengthened and the fading light became amber. Skittering a few miles further down the track we smelt wood smoke on the air and sighted campers and campervanners, few and far between, setting up for an evening of bright flames and stargazing. Soon we picked up a river leading into Loch Doon, vast, gorgeous and brimming with opportunities for wholesome fun. A kayak expedition to a burial cairn marked with bright flags. Wading in the shallows; perhaps a wild swim. Watching for ospreys from a hide to the west of the loch.

We left the forest park and turned back onto the road to Dalmellington. ‘A village in the stars’ read the road sign on the approach. We were entering into the final five miles of our expedition but Hubs had one more Alp up his sleeve: Largs (albeit the other way up to the Alps guide) zapped any of the remaining creatine from these tired legs of mine, kicking and screaming as I tried to push myself faster against a queue of impatient vehicles behind. A cuckoo’s swoop welcomed us the finish line – they will be off on their winter migration soon – as the sun sunk down in the sky and the evening drew in. Ride on time.

26 September, 2020

Ⴕ This article was amended on 28 September 2020 to acknowledge the contribution of Scoobs to the Ayrshire rave scene.

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