This heaven-sent loop of Galloway’s eastern frontier takes in the very best of Southwest Scotland cycling, skirting Clatteringshaws, Loch Ken, Newton Stewart and Mossdale. We left from New Galloway but you could emulate the route starting from Clatteringshaws, Newton Stewart, Creetown or the Raider’s Road car park.
Although we’re approaching the end of spring there was still a chill in the air which made it difficult to dress for a day blessed with short spells of hospitable beaming sunshine interspersed with dark and foreboding clouds that put wrinkles on the forehead and make for cracking photographs.
After leaving the west bank of Loch Ken we took in some easy miles through the woods, turning off just prior to the A75 onto a steep little mother that made the ribcage ache, lungs labour and thighs burn. The gradient eased soon but not soon enough, and we battled on for another half mile of quiet suburban lane lined with the ostentacious trumpets of daffodils, their petals turned lucent by the low sun shining thinly through tree foliage. And coconut gorse, an explosion of violent yellow bursting forth from the hillside, its’ scent not yet in the full throes of heady intoxication, its’ cloying sweetness rather floating in waves on the breeze. This lane is surely British cycling at its’ most quintessential: gentle rolling roads (apart from the first bit) lined with spring flowers and quaint brick cottages with friendly folk outside them doing DIY or washing their cars and waving hello as you pedal past*. The road descends along the perimeter of the Kirroughtree Forest Park, framing the road with luscious green.
The lane eventually bisected some remnants of the ‘Paddy Line’, a disused railway that links Portpatrick Harbour to Castle Douglas and eventually Dumfries. Historically an important transport link for both goods and people between Dumfries and Northern Ireland, the majority of the service ceased to operate in 1965 leaving a legacy of beautiful viaduct structures scattered throughout the region. Much of the track is now overgrown with grass or has been turned into walkways and cycle paths and it was one of these that we followed for the next few miles of our trip. The path was tucked away in countryside and lined with hedgerows and brambles awash with the shuffle of rabbits and the chirps and swoops of blackbirds. It terminated with a frivolous little obstacle course: a steep descent with an anti-motorcycle bollard chicane followed swiftly by a cattle grid – eat your heart out Danny MacAskill – then we were off along an empty B-road which tracked the A75 and the wide mouth of the river Cree until we hit Creetown.
What is there to do in Creetown? Ranked #1 on TripAdvisor is a gemstone museum which looks like it might have featured as one of the destinations in Sightseers. The best reviews commend the “genial and interesting proprietor”; it has one ‘terrible’ review (why are they the ones I always read first though?) but the comments below suggest it was a malicious act of sabotage in deference to the gemstone and fossil shop in nearby Castle Douglas. Rural politics eh?
We followed the road past straw-yellow grassland lined with trees. The managed forest cuts a dark and beautiful profile, but of wildness made neat: uniformly tall pines, firs and spruces, stood up tall and narrow like limbless soldiers or sardines in manicured lines which start and end sharply, cutting slabs in the skyline as dense as Christmas cake.
Big Water of Fleet is an imposing brick viaduct** (but with a name like that you’d be forgiven for assuming it was an early-90s folk-rock band influenced heavily by Jimmy Nail) straddling a wide valley in the Cairnsmore of Fleet Natural Nature Reserve. The track leading to it is a helter-skelter of sweeping bends with a cracking line of sight. You’d be wise to reel in your confidence and to keep a hand hovered over the brake though – you can pick up some serious speed on this slide, and the gravel on the surface makes for some sketchy turns. Hold your nerve though and your mettle will be rewarded with a bench within a sheepfold-as-windbreak and unrivalled views over the valley. House martins dive over and under the channels through the viaduct while herons soar overhead with slow and rhythmical wing beats. Follow the heron’s example and take your time here.
We departed the viaduct valley, taking a turn signed for Mossdale and a very straight track that tunnelled through more old Paddy Line architecture, and almost missed our next turn signed for Stroan Viaduct. The road surface deteriorated here into bedrocks of gravel topped with loose stones that threaten to usurp the unsuspecting rider if hit at the wrong angle, and grass verges running up the centre which avert any rock-strewn peril but completely sap your momentum. Sometimes the gravel became small boulders that took all your concentration and handlebar dexterity to navigate; sometimes it disintegrated into mud and sand which makes your back wheels skid unexpectedly yet never completely threatening you with loss of control; it leads to an intoxicating feeling of adrenaline alertness mixed with exhilarating giddiness. Riding on gravel is not for the faint of heart but I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys riding their bike: it completely consumes your attention, makes you feel fearless and vulnerable all at the same time, and is so completely engaging that you can lose hours and hours exploring the forest and feel like you’ve barely been out for ten minutes.
The only trouble with cycling on a road surface like this is that we were surrounded by a vast and incredible landscape which we had completely to ourselves but I spent so much time with my focus glued to the road a metre-or-so ahead of my wheel that much of it barely registered. Hubs needs a wee every 20 minutes or so of riding though (I’m only exaggerating a little there 😉) so presently we stopped by a raised concrete platform at the edge of Loch Skerrow so he could lighten his load. The platform was the remnant of a train station, sat right there in the middle of the grassy wilderness, with not a human soul or habitation in sight. The structure had a channel to collect water from the stream that fed the loch and it was here that steam trains would refill mid-journey. We followed the stream to the pool’s edge and discovered a number of artefacts half-buried in the silt: these included an old porcelain cup that might have held the stationmaster’s tea and a jug that might have held his milk. Our location was so remote and our minds so present that we fancied we might complete our ride only to discover we’d been transported back to that age when the train was still in operation and the stationmaster might emerge to enquire as to the whereabouts of his cup of tea.
More gravel led us to Loch Stroan where we crossed a bridge and turned off onto the Raider’s Road, I felt tense all over, slightly concussed and Roubaix-ready.
Having threatened us all day with fleeting spits of rain, finally the Gods became impatient with our dawdling and the Heavens opened, kitchen sink and all, during the last five miles of our return leg through the forest park and back to New Galloway, past a castle that once hosted Mary Queen of Scots and Robert Burns (though not at the same time; I’m not trying to start a rumour here). Now I’m not one for hyperbole, and Hubs and I have a running joke that any ride he designates as the Route of the Year is usually just the most recent one he’s ridden. But even the onslaught of rain at the end couldn’t stop me from crowning today’s route « THE BEST RIDE EVER! «
13 April, 2021
*Unless you dare to pass by without ringing your bell AND raising your voice to warn that you’re passing, in which case you’re likely to come against a torrent of thinly-veiled passive-aggression. But that’s another quintessentially British story for another day…
**Big Water of Fleet viaduct would have made a great alternative location for the final scene in Sightseers. Does the fact that we seek out the sort of places visited by a couple of homicidal anoraks make us (homicidal) anoraks too?