I just love Scotland, the topography, the history, the wildlife, okay perhaps not always the weather. But if you are a bit flexible and plan your visit to align with a weather window then all the better, particularly for an activity like bike-packing – you are exposed and properly ‘in-it’ if the weather is poor, and it’s not all that nice …especially if prolonged. Maybe I’m just getting soft..?
You say Scotland to most people and they usually think of the majestic Highlands, full of dramatic mountains, picturesque lochs and intriguing glens. The ‘Borders’ however is an area which is perhaps not quite so awe inspiring, but it does have big mountains, lochs and glens and also some lush ‘softer’ landscapes and natural forests.
You should add the Borders region to a visit one day and you’ll be pleasantly surprised, it does feel like it is the ‘forgotten’ bit of Scotland.
The Borders 350 ride, starts from the lovely market town of ‘Peebles’ on the beautiful River Tweed. It is quite accessible, but unfortunately no train line access, in fact the ride does not pass over an active train line or indeed near to a town that has a station. The whole region has quite a hidden away and inaccessible feel to it. The ride was devised by Raymond Young, living nearby he has gained a lot of trail knowledge and the route he has devised links up some impressive mountain and forest regions. It has not been around all that long and has a shorter companion ride ‘the 220’ an easier option.
I first came across it in 2018 after my first Highland Trail 550 ride – my first big bike-pack, infact first big bike-pack race. I was ‘hungry’ to do more of this sort of stuff and I had an affinity to the Southern Upland Way and the landscape through which it traverses, the Borders 350 was a circular and slightly extended variation – see map below:
There is ‘group ride’ at the August bank holiday, however I was unable to make it in either 2018 or 2019, then as for this year it’s all been a bit unknown and I had committed to the re-scheduled Dales Divide ride on that weekend. With lockdown rules easing in Scotland on the 14th July and with a long weekend opportunity, also with good weather forecast, I kicked into action a plan to give it a go… I was not sure which one (220 or 350) as I only had 2 and half days. I plugged for the 220 and thought I’d leave the option open to switch to the big brother if I felt like doing so.
I emailed Ray to let him know of my intentions and he sent me the latest GPX route files, I mentioned the ‘option’ and he kindly advised that the 350 is not just harder because it is longer, it is all ‘tougher’ going. I kept that thought in my head…
I asked if I could start the ride, further to the south, to save the drive and so pick up the route just north of Langholm, not far from Greensykes Bothy (which I have recently been appointed as Maintenance Officer ‘MO’ for). The set-off time was a little odd as it was straight off the back of a ‘family weekend’ away, I managed to get going at 16:10 on the Sunday – and as usual it felt lovely to just get rolling along!
I was on my ‘Fatster’ and had planned to go light ‘n’ fast, I was wanting this to get me out of my ‘lockdown slumber’, a ‘full-gas’ Independent Time Trial (ITT).
The first 100km were quick going mainly on forest gravel roads, up through Kielder and on to the Cheviots, I thought ‘hmm’ that’s okay 100km in just over 5hrs, I was deliberating the ‘option’, as the decision point would be coming up along the Borders Ridge further on in the Cheviots, it was now dark and the weather was calm, clear and cool. I kept doing some maths and was using the similar distanced ‘Dales Divide Ride’ as a comparator – that was 47hrs ride time for some 600km / 8000m and this was 540km / 11400m – should be pretty similar eh..?
The words of Ray were sort of forgotten. I made the decision to crack-on and do the big one, in for a penny, in for pound – why not..? if all did go badly wrong there were ‘escape route’ options to get me back to the start point.
The 350 has an extra 105km loop of the north Cheviots and then a couple of other extra loops to bump up the distance. I was breaking my ride down into 100km chunks, first chunk; around 5hrs, 2nd around 9hrs. Here the ride character would change from fast rolling ‘not so hilly gravel’ to hilly single track, some Hike-a-Bike (HaB), which all had to be worked at. Nothing much in the way of re-supply in those first 200km either, but I had plenty with me and some chaps at Hut 2 on the ridge afforded me a pie! The first town I would come to would be Jedburgh in the early afternoon, I had been riding non-stop for 22hrs and was ready for a cafe stop and to pick up some re-supplies. I then had about a further 100km to get to Peebles, which I thought would be a good point to aim for.
The food stop was great, I was flagging and I felt like I was struggling to eat the ‘junk’ bars that I had been previously devouring. After a wholesome Cafe feed, I stocked up on baby-bells and nuts and some lovely ‘jelly sweet’s as well as some more liquids. The 40min stop was good for me and I was pleased with progress, but somewhat concerned about the remainder lying ahead 240km down, about 300km to go…
With a ITT you go as quick as you please, do it as a ‘tour’ if you wish, however I was keen to go under 3 days (the current fastest ride time), in fact, it really had to be a lot less as I was due in work on Wednesday AM and did not fancy ‘ringing-in’ with another ‘cock-un-bull’ excuse – I do have a very good and understanding work boss though – very important on these occasions, similarly for the domestic boss situation as well, but I had earned significant ‘brownie points’ for this one!
The next sections followed a lot of Scotland’s existing long distance trails, I always like riding these as they take in lots of interesting points of interest (POIs). Like this odd door in the forest…
I passed by another bike-packer and stopped for a short chat, he was doing the Great North Trail, heading up to his hometown of Edinburgh, he was pretty well the first Mtber that I had seen so far on my journey – everywhere is so quiet in the Borders. This ‘softer’ section between the towns, was in fact quite tough, lots of smaller, but no less steep hills and some tough H-a-B, through a couple of overgrown sections. I was soon on the SUW again and heading up high on to the Three Brethren cairns – famous Mtb country again, but still no one seen, or passed in the early evening. The wind along Minch Moor was punchy and right in my face, it was cooler and time to layer up in readiness for the night shift, I was keen to get past Peebles, possibly a take-away too, however it was still 30kms off and another 400m climb and some mountain track.
The descent into Peebles is a ‘monster’ about 6km, some rough rocks and some screaming grass, lights on full as it was now past 10pm, it was a ‘hoot’ flying down into civilisation again. Spirits soon dropped when I found no take-away around or open, so I passed-on quietly through – the whole place had gone to bed! I also passed through the normal ‘start-point’ for the ride, which was just slightly off the road. I decided to head on into Cardrona Forest and look to find a bivvy location in there, hoping that there would be no midges! A spot soon came up, not as flat as I would have liked, but it had soft pine needles and a nice cosy feel to, it would be ideal. A routine of eating / degunging / getting set-up for sleepy ensured, after 20min and a quick teeth clean I was off to sleep – and no midges! I planned to sleep until first light light around 04:30; that is a pretty decent rest by race standards, but I deserved it as I had been on the go for 32hrs.
I awoke to the birdsong at 05:00, a bit later than planned, but not fussed, even though it was not a race, I had been managing to keep it ‘feeling that way’ – full-gass / no-faff / press-on! A big climb would warm me up and although a little jaded to start with I soon started to feel real good and the weather looked that way too!
About 200km lay between me and the finish, I was hoping that that would be 16-18hrs riding… After the big climb there was a techy decent and then the track gave way to heathery-nothing-ness – time to push, pace had dropped to about 3kmph and this is what chewed the time up, but I don’t mind HaB, in fact I rather like it as it stretches the legs and gives the big quads a rest. I was heading south to St Mary’s Loch, then it goes back north over the highest ground – just shy of 800m on a mountain called ‘Dollar’.
The River Tweed was crossed again after coming off the long mountain section of Dollar, it was tough going up there, lots of careful navigation needed and thankful of the clear conditions. Off Dollar was another ‘screaming’ grass decent for 600m – it was hard just holding on down here!
Moffat was my next objective at 55km, after that was just a further 45km to the end and it was around 1pm. The road signs to Moffat said 20 miles, but our route was not the line of least resistance, we climbed to a wind farm, followed a ‘mountain gravel motorway’ for some more km and then onto the ‘HaB of all HaBs’! I remember reading a bit in Ray’s route notes on the section before the Devils Beef Tub. I would be lying if I said it was not tough, it was trackless soft long grass pushing for 5km – a bit of a ‘low point’ for me came up, I was suffering with the heat and often had to shoulder the bike on the steep bits, I spent about 2hrs battling this 5km and felt ‘battered’ coming off the last top “Annandale’, even the descent to Moffat was painful, me feet were sore and I was keen to ‘air’ them off.
I got some more cheese, ice cream and coke, the crappy McColls there didn’t have much else. I stopped after town in a quiet spot and had a 20min rest and eat before the last push…
The route climbs high again following the SUW, over into Ettrick Valley, past the lovely Pawhope Bothy. I checked the map here and there was 10km of road and 25km of forest gravel – yippee. The forest soon appeared and I enjoyed the climb on the gravel and the re-appearance of lots of wildlife, I had not mentioned this but I had seen quite a few things and night time is often the best for the likes of owls, badgers and foxes.
It was now dark and the bugs were really annoying as the flew to the light of my head torch, an attack of the ‘sleepies’ also came so I decided to get on some hard house music to get me out of the never ending forest, the trail disappeared too
– it felt like a good ‘old school’ Adventure Race in the ‘Magic Forest’, were things ‘happen’ and people get lost…
I would pass near to Greensykes bothy, shortly before exiting, but it seemed to take an age and my ‘route-line’ was twisting around all-over the place, it seemed like a joke route in my spangled confused state, but I was loving it!
My car was at Km195 – so not far away now… I eventually exited the magic forest and headed down to the hamlet of Jamestown and so to the road-head and then a down-hill whizz to the car. My plan was to sleep for a couple of hours and then drive back, stopping again if necessary. I reached the car and another car was there, it was 12:30, I thought it the Police at first, then the voice said hello / well done / its Ray… It was so nice to see someone and I was really touched at the gesture of him driving down from Edinburgh to find me and better still provide a beer and some soup – so happy! he was too! – pleased that his route had been given a good solid ride. We chatted for a while and kept saying it was deserved of more attention and I commented on it being as hard as the HT550 mile-for-mile.
My ride time was confirmed as 2days 8hrs 29mins, I was more than happy with this, taking around 16hrs off the previous time. …And more importantly for me, it has helped get rid of my ‘bread belly’ – another bi-product of working from home and lockdown (you may laugh!!), I took to baking bread on a daily basis, and who can resist the smell of fresh bread..?
It felt good to press-on and ride hard during this outing as well as to be at one with nature and appreciating the wild landscapes that you pass through. This is all part of the attraction for me and draws me back to mountains and forests.
Post ride musings and the other ‘thing’ that happened just after the ride…. [I’ll add this in shortly…]