Singletrack Magazine issue 123 : In Praise Of The Trail Less Travelled

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Sanny heads off the beaten path to Glasgow’s Campsie Fells and discovers that the best rides don’t always need the best trails.

Words & Photography sanny

What makes the perfect trail? If you were to put crayon to paper, what features would you consider an absolute must? Buff, sun-dried singletrack? Summer evening sunshine dappling through the trees? Steep and tight man-made constructions that snake down the hillside in a breathless ‘Oh ambassador, you are spoiling me’ unrelenting push for trail legend glory? Or perhaps it’s the surroundings that matter? The soaring peaks of the Alps and Dolomites that command awe and respect in equal measure? The desolate monochrome beauty of the Cairngorm plateau? Or the sound of the sea gently lapping against the shore as you spin along on your now no longer fashionable fat bike? Perfection is not an absolute, but varies as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It all comes down to perspective. 

By now, you are probably wondering what the bloody hell I’m yammering on about? Well, dear reader, let me introduce you to riding in the Campsie Fells, a 20-minute drive north of Glasgow. If you have ever approached Glasgow from the south or the west en route to a midge-infested adventure, you must have seen them. At one end is the rounded lump of a volcanic plug that is Dumgoyne standing sentinel watch over all who pass beneath its flanks. In my head, every time I see it I think ‘woolly mammoth’. When it looms large through the windscreen, it is a welcome sight that I am approaching home. On the scale of one to trail perfection, you will never find the Campsies anywhere near one of those clickbait style ‘You won’t believe these awesome trails exist and number seven will literally make your head melt! Literally!’ top ten lists. Truth be told, they are so far off the radar of even red-socked walkers that they barely merit a mention on Google. They can kindly be described as the rounded lumps that mark the start of the Highlands. Take a wrong turn and they are an object lesson in peat bogs of despond. In the mist, they can be the Devil’s own work to navigate as trails flit in and out of existence on some strange quantum level. As for buff singletrack, fagedaboudit! And yet for all that, they keep drawing me back. 

Beware the curse!

After a glorious summer of foreign adventure (some of which you might see elsewhere in this issue), I had a yearning for something familiar and closer to home. It had been a while since I had last hauled myself up the brutal climb that jealously guards the summit plateau but as chance would have it, my good friends Mark and Lyndsey were up for joining me. Solo missions are good for the soul but sometimes you just cannae beat the company of friends to make a good ride great. 

Rendezvousing in the well-heeled village of Killearn (think Barbour-jacketed, green wellied wearing nouveau-riche in comedy big houses – grounds, not gardens, darling! – who drive Chelsea Tractors to take Hugo, Henry and Hector to their place of entitled learning), the sun was out and the sky uncharacteristically blue on a crisp autumnal day. As we readied ourselves, I clumsily put my thumb right through the seam of my glove. Doh! Would this be our one mechanical of the day? The Campsies and I have history and over the years I have experienced a disproportionate number of incidents. A broken frame, ripped tyres and a mashed freehub (at, of course, the very furthest point from home) have all happened at one point or another. Was my glove the sacrifice that would appease the trail gods? I hoped this would be the case, although as Mark proudly showed me the Heath Robinson-esque repair that he had made to his cracked carbon swingarm, I wasn’t entirely convinced.

Stopping at the local Co-op (don’t worry, it will be probably be a Fortnum and Masons before you finish reading this), we stocked up on Gold bars and mince pies – in early October. Seriously, October! Halloween was still weeks away, yet I found myself drawn to those little parcels of puff pastry and sweet gooeyness like a moth to the flame. As you read this, they’ll doubtless have the Easter eggs in stock.

A gentle introduction.

The ride proper starts by cutting through an old stone gate. It feels slightly naughty to be going through the entrance to some stately pile, but the woodland is very much public so no toffs were offended in the making of this ride. A dark canopy of conifer and broad leaf normally makes for a slightly claustrophobic feel, but with the warming morning sun glinting through the leaves, there was a spring in our step as we twisted and turned our way up the trail, ducking down to avoid the odd low branch or hopping over the gently rotting trunk of a long since fallen tree. Popping over a stone dyke, our target for the day revealed itself for the first time. 

In the car, they barely merit a sideways glance but up close and personal these hills have an imposing presence that belies their relative lack of height. Beckoning us ever forward was a micro track of a trail. Barely discernible through the enveloping heather, even after you have ridden it, looking back, you would struggle to pick it out. But exists it does. Wending its way up to a farm track high above, it is as close to riding using ‘the Force’ as you are ever likely to get.

As Mark and Lyndsey pressed on I snapped a few shots and breathed in my surroundings, a skylark’s song making a late season appearance. Even this close to civilisation, there is a strange and ethereal remoteness to the Campsies that is hard to explain. The makers of Scottish horror flick Matriarch used them to suitably creepy effect, while, a number of years ago, there were reported sightings of a lion. They aren’t what you would call scary, but there is a definite edge to them that can easily capture an overactive imagination. Caught up in my thoughts, I snapped back into ride mode as I realised that I was being left behind so pressed on to catch them. 

“Bloody hell! We’re not climbing that, are we?”

Climbing gently round the hillside there is little indication of the pain to come. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. How hard can it be to get up such a relatively small range of hills? Having ridden the climb many times before, the first being on my now positively antique Ibis Silk Ti with Suntour Microdrive gearing (with a granny gear of 20–28!), I knew what to expect and how to pace myself. The first section starts steeply, then gets steeper. It is a test of even the most determined climber. It is, truth be told, a bit of a bastard. Every time I ride it, I remember just how much of an unalloyed brute it is. Think the Stairs of Cirith Ungol taken by Sam and Frodo to enter Mordor to get an idea of just how steep I mean. Go out hard and it punishes you, but too slow and your wavering front end will soon see you off and walking. Every spin of the pedals feels like a bit of a Hail Mary pass. You never quite know when traction or puff will leave you, while getting started again is an object lesson in not stopping in the first place. Hmm, I’m not really selling it, am I? That is probably unfair of me; clean it and you will feel like a hero. 

Before long, Mark and Lyndsey were off and pushing while I pressed on regardless in my usual bloody-minded manner. Cresting the first of three rises and giving us a chance to go sub-anaerobic for the first time in a while, the trail became more distinct as it continued its ascent. Better drainage made for less of a chore while a look around revealed the distinctive peaks of Dumgoyne, Goat Fell on Arran and Ailsa Craig way out west. Progress felt slow (because it was…), but a brief glance at the watch revealed that we were in fact gaining height quickly. The brute was being tamed.

Achieving biscuit nirvana.

Two more test-piece steep rises remained – the first on gravel-strewn bedrock, the second on neatly trimmed grass that just required us to get our heads down and get on with it. Our reward came in the shape of a summit cairn and a handful of quite possibly the finest biscuits known to man – the McVitie’s Gold bar. Ah yes, the perfect mix of biscuit base and golden Caramac-style chocolate. Your opinion may vary but let’s be frank, you are clearly wrong. There are none of your unwelcome interventions when it comes to these puppies – no adding of chocolate and caramel to a Hob Nob or making a Kit Kat taste minty – the Gold bar has remained unsullied over the years and long may it reign! Chomping down on biscuit nirvana, the view we enjoyed wasn’t too shabby either. The whole of the southern Highlands revealed themselves to us in true Cinemascope glory. Every peak held the promise of future adventure while, for my inner map chimp, it was an opportunity to play ‘Name that peak’. “I think that one over there may be Ben Kingsley and just beyond it the Isle of St Clair,” I said with the requisite degree of straight-faced seriousness and conviction to just about sell it. Just about but not quite, as both my companions cast me a look that says in that quintessentially Glaswegian way: “Shut it, ya diddy!”

Views writ large.

Replete, we set off only to stop to talk to a walker heading in the same direction. Like us, he was a regular visitor to the fells and clearly relishing his day out. Bidding him bon voyage, we then engaged in that socially awkward game of ‘pass the walker’. I wonder how many times you can say hello then wish someone an enjoyable walk before they start to think that you are a two-wheeled stalker? I reckon seven must be getting pretty close. 

Now following a mix of quad bike and sheep track, we headed in the general direction of a substantial corrie, that of Ballikinrain. The trail came and went, but perfect visibility meant that we were in no danger of getting lost. Skirting round the edge, it was hard to resist peering over the edge. A relic of the last Ice Age, the steep sides drop away to the ground far below and demand respect as the rock isn’t exactly the most stable. With one eye on the trail and the other on the scenery, our riding was interspersed with regular scenery stops. We weren’t particularly high but we enjoyed uninterrupted views in almost every direction while the sky was big in that way you would see in a John Ford western. With nary a breath of wind to contend with, we were clearly in the right place at the right time. But how to improve upon it? With perfect timing, Lyndsey reached into her bag and produced a slab of home-made chocolate. It was little short of stunning. I could practically feel the enamel peeling off my teeth with each bite but I didn’t care. So as to hasten the onset of a diabetic coma, we followed it up with the mince pies. It was like a chimp’s tea party as we practically inhaled them. I guess we were hungrier than we thought.

Regaining the trail, we edged our way ever closer to the second corrie of the day. If Ballinkinrain is the appetiser, the Corrie of Balglass is definitely the main course. The best part of a kilometre wide, it is nothing short of enormous. While the trail flitted between distinct and vague and between firm and boggy, the view remained consistently impressive. Part of what makes it so worthy of a second (and third and fourth look) is that it feels completely at odds with its surroundings. Corries such as this should be the preserve of the Cairngorms and the North West Highlands, not a small range of hills just north of Glasgow. And yet here it was, geology writ large.

Dropping down a steep pathless section of hillside, a brief carry through tussocky heath followed that took us to our last high point of the ride. With the sun slowly dropping, we were on the final few kilometres of our ride. 

The curse strikes.

The last time I had ridden here, a clear line could be followed to the site of an old Roman hill fort above the sleepy village of Fintry. However, jump forward a couple of years to the present and the path had disappeared into the ether. We were back to riding that needed ‘the Force’. Nature wastes no time in reclaiming ground. A mix of tussocks, hidden holes and the odd section of sphagnum moss made for an interesting few minutes, although gravity was in our favour, meaning that we could just let go of the brakes and hope for the best as we headed in the right direction. It was all going swimmingly right until my pedal caught a deceptively stationary tussock and popped me off. At least the landing was soft! Clearly not wishing to be outdone, Mark’s pedal joined the party and separated from the axle. Ah yes, the dubious joys of old Crank Brothers pedals…

Gathered round Mark’s pedal, we pondered and scratched our chins. Even Gorilla Tape and cunning ingenuity couldn’t fix this on the trailside, meaning that he had no choice but to soldier on. Just as there is no show without Punch, my customary mechanical decided to join the party. In a change from normal programming, it wasn’t my bike that failed but my camera. Every second picture taken was accompanied by a camera error message. I tried every trick in the book albeit the very short book, pamphlet if you will, that suggests switching it off and back on again. Even freestyling it with ingenious cunning and taking the battery out didn’t cure it. In short, I was now the proud owner of an £800 camera-shaped doorstop. The Campsie Curse had struck once more!

Saving the best for last. 

With a shrug of shoulders, it wasn’t all bad news though. In our favour, we had reached proper trail again and what a trail it would prove to be. Not so much descending as plummeting, the trail off the side of the Roman fort is an absolute peach. A shallow descent between an escarpment of exposed bedrock narrows into a snaking gem of a grassy trail that begs to be ridden fast, but punishes even the most minor of errors. Hidden dips and concealed rocks lie in wait to catch out the unwary and catapault them to their doom. According to the sign in the village of Fintry below, it is about a mile long. If the sign is indeed correct then it is a bloody quick mile. In short, it’s ace!

 Throwing caution to the wind, in what felt like only a matter of seconds, we had hit the treeline at the bottom and were looking up at where we had just been. Somehow appearing even steeper from below, it’s a fitting end to the traverse although one made all the better by having the really rather excellent Fintry Inn at its foot. Owned and run by the local community, we couldn’t help but feel we had won a watch [Scots: "To have a piece of good luck” – Ed] as we tucked into Cullen Skink, chips and hot chocolate. Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner! Despite our travails, it had been another memorable ride through the Campsie Fells. They may not be the largest nor most imposing mountains but as Bill Waterson so eloquently put it, there’s treasure everywhere. 

This time round, they had only cost us a tumble, a broken pedal and a camera! What would normally be tantrum-inducing misfortunes didn’t seem to matter as we spun back to our cars along the back roads, our eyes to the hills. It had been another grand day out in the Campsies and I felt sure that we would soon return again for another adventure – What payment will the Gods claim next time? 

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