I wasn’t sure whether to undertake our planned Borders cycle trip because I woke up feeling under the weather but with a longing for a wee adventure, knowledge of an outbound 20mph tailwind and a negative lateral flow test under my belt, I set out into the bright sunshine from west to east through the Southern Uplands from Moffat to Melrose (starting with a slice of immune-boosting chocolate cake 😉).
The road from Moffat to Selkirk is a Scottish Forestry timber route through the wide valley of Moffat Water. In broad brush strokes it leads you on a moderate climb past the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall before a gentler descent towards Selkirk. The landscape feels rugged enough with its heathland and heather moor, but it also bears the scars of timber forestry, with bald patches pock marked with the stumps of harvested trees. Particularly well-suited to this open habitat is the golden eagle; their numbers had been dwindling but the population has been boosted in genetic diversity thanks to the efforts of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project. A solitary bird, soaring effortlessly in the flows, made any effort to get out on the bike today more than worthwhile.
The gradual rolling descent to St Mary’s Loch is undemanding and any notion of headache or malaise dissolves like aspirin with every pedal stroke as the sun and light exertion warms my bones better than a hot bath. The day feels hopeful, like spring might be approaching, though the snow-capped peaks to the north remind us that February and March can be cruel and deceptive months. The gradual drip-drip-melt of the ice gullies down into the valley through ravines, nooks and crannies, perfect for filling up a bidon that was quickly emptied in a bid to quench an intense thirst from a night of mouth-breathing in my sleep. Hubs tells me I shouldn’t drink from the run-off of a grazed hillside (he’s probably right) but I’m channelling my fellow countryman Robert Burns (even less of a good reason to do it, really).
Eventually the countryside becomes more closed, framed with tall native woodland. Many borders towns would be described as ‘nestled’ into the hills so it is with some surprise that we are faced with a steep climb into Selkirk, passing rows of houses stacked almost vertically on a hillside topped with what appears to be a castle, though it turns out to be a holiday let. The main square is worth stopping at for the architecture – and a breather – but has the feel of a town just past closing time.
We think we must be in for an easy few miles out of Selkirk but the route takes a more sinister turn and cranks up the ante with a severe gradient up and over rolling hills with almost panoramic views of Upper Tweeddale. The light hangs low and amber and hares cast long shadows in yellow grass. We overshoot our destination for a mile-long detour past a donkey sanctuary to Dryburgh Abbey, which is barely appreciable without paying the entry fee (we arrived past closing time) but is accessed via its very own modern day drawbridge over a majestic oxbowing of the River Tweed and succeeds two other monuments of interest: the Temple of the Muses and the William Wallace statue.
We arrive at our lodging and I am cold to my bones (too much stopping to pet donkeys and take photographs). Even though I’d be better off getting a shower and changing out of my sweaty clothes, I fall asleep on the sofa for an hour before we dine on a picnic of stuff from the Co-op in the bar downstairs. The bartender brings a hot toddy for the sore throat and that’s enough to send me into a solid 10 hour pseudo-coma.
The return leg. I wake up feeling groggy, achy of head and scratchy of throat. I pull the curtains aside without getting out of bed and it’s lightly raining outside. I can’t quite muster up the enthusiasm for the ride back. Luckily I have to be out of the room by 10am and I’m hungry so I begrudgingly pull on my cagoule and head the three miles up the road to Melrose for a breakfast of fruit and porridge. I add sugar for an extra boost of energy but then I taste the porridge and regret it because they cooked it salty (turns out that only works with popcorn). By then it’s stopped raining though, and with only a mile to Tweedbank station where I can decide whether to abandon the cycle and hop on the train, I soldier on out of Melrose and past another magnificent abbey.
Following the signs for the Cycle Route 1 brings back joyful memories of cycling-by-numbers in the Belgian Flanders region so, when my Tweedbank get-out clause rolls around I gleefully cycle on past it, along dedicated cycleways lined with still-senenscent trees heavily adorned with baubles of lichen and the song of a thrush or warbler and the first whiffs of wild garlic that herald the start of my foraging season.
I have high hopes of restocking on high-density snacks in Selkirk (home of the famous SELKIRK BANNOCK, which is much like a fruity scone loaf, there’s a recipe for it at the bottom of the article) but most of the cafes are – once again – disappointingly closed. Salvation is found a few miles further down the road at the Waterwheel Cafe where a chewier-than-chewy golden syrup flapjack gives me jaw claudication and supercharged leg stamina in equal measure.
Ploughing on through the miles alone I find myself singing out loud to pass the time and shore up some self-encouragement. George Michael’s Faith, Lady Gaga’s Rain on Me (with Ariana Grande) and Free Woman keep my spirits up and shatter any illusion of a peaceful afternoon for nearby grazing animals, but it is DJ Luck & MC Neat’s A Little Bit of Luck that really tests my lung function – try maintaining a cadence while riding uphill singing ‘tah-na-ning-tah-na-ning-tah-na-ning-ta-na-ning-ting-boy-hoy’ and then tell me my karaoke/spinning class hybrid concept won’t be a fitness smash hit. 🎤
As I gain height I enter a low mist which lends depth to the otherwise impenetrable density of a monocrop of fir forest up ahead. As I summit the hill I am greeted with the Doonhame civic welcome ‘FIRST IN SCOTLAND’ (the county border sits almost exactly at the top of the long climb) and am suddenly hit with a blast of wet wind, a beautiful breathful of nebulised nature to complement the laboured-breathing chest physio I’d endured on the way up.
From then on, in spite of the headwind I munch through the miles of grass and mist, past plucky crows fending off a persistent buzzard from some carrion they’d claimed; past sheep with perma-peaceable, Buddha-like facial expressions; past AN AWFUL LOT OF ROADSIDE LITTER! (I did pick some of it up), and into Moffat and home. The journey left me feeling more fresh and energised than I had all week.
~ Selkirk Bannock Recipe ~
7g fast-acting yeast
1 tsp caster sugar
500g strong white bread flour (or half-and-half strong white bread flour and ‘000’ white flour, if you can get hold of it)
140g vegetable fat, softened
400g sultanas (slightly less is fine – this is a very fruity loaf!)
50g light brown sugar
plant milk, for glazing
1. In a large bowl, mix the yeast and caster sugar with 250mL warm water. Leave to stand for 10 minutes until it becomes frothy.
2. Tip in the flour and 125g of the fat and mix to form a smooth, soft dough. Knead for 5 minutes in the bowl then cover with an oiled teatowel and leave in a warm place until approximately doubled in size (around 1 hour).
3. Knock back the dough by kneading it for a minute then add the sultanas and brown sugar, kneading them in until well incorporated (if you don’t do this properly, you’ll end up with many burnt sultanas on the outside of the dough).
4. To make a classic Bannock, which is loaf-like, grease a deep cake tin or oven dish with the rest of the fat and shape the dough into the dish. I prefer my Bannocks to be like individual scones, so to make these, instead grease a large shallow round dish or flan tin with the fat and separate your dough into 8 or 9 balls, each weighing approximately 150g, and arrange them in the tin in a circle with one in the middle. Whichever aesthetic you choose, allow the dough to rise for a further 30 minutes, or until roughly doubled in size again.
5. Heat the oven to 180°/160° fan. Brush the dough with the plant milk to glaze then bake for 45-50 minutes until risen and browned. The bread should sound hollow when removed from the tin and the base tapped.
6. Cool for 10 minutes then remove from the tin and continue cooling on a wire rack, or eat warm.
28 February, 2022