DOWN GALLOWAY WAY ... AND DUMFRIES
Whether with mountain bike or tourer, with family or solo, Steve Dyster enjoys going west at Gretna. Here's why.
Yes, “Go West at Gretna.” Wiser than a few years ago when I began an article on Dumfries and Galloway with “Turn Left at Gretna” and was gently reprimanded by cyclists from Ayrshire, Northumberland, Caithness and Antrim, the point is that Dumfries and Galloway is not yet in many touring and leisure cyclists’ consciousness in the way the Borders are. It is easy to keep north for the Highlands or the cycle routes of the Forth and Clyde valleys, to head for the hills and glens of the Borders, or race to Stranraer or Cairnryan for the ferry.
Having said that, for the MTB rider five of the eight the 7Stanes centres are in Dumfries and Galloway. In fact, a rough stuff tourer, expedition bike or MTB rigged up for a bit of luggage, is an excellent vehicle for touring; be sensitive to the environment and the rights of landowners and take in some of the hill-tracks, camp out overnight and marvel at the stars - especially in Galloway Forest Park.
So, from the point of view of my approach, turning left at Gretna leads the cyclist into a land of peace and quiet with a magical mix of sea and hill, great estuaries and a fascinating history - both human and natural. Try it. Actually, it can easily a sort of half-left, to head for Lockerbie - initially on NCR74 - then through Lochmaben and the Forest of Ae to Thornhill and Drumlanrig Castle.
Generally avoid the A76 and you are unlikely to find much in the way of traffic. The same applies to the A75 when heading along the coast. Riding through the Forest of Ae provides a gentle precursor to what will be found in the expanse of Galloway Forest Park; the valleys of the Annan, Ae Water and the Nith may well sparkle in the sunshine - fingers crossed - and the hills will ease you in to a touring rhythm.
Drumlanrig Castle, has more to interest cyclists than the “Pink Palace” itself. Rik’s Bike Shed is the hub for a number of on and off-road rides and sells spares. There’s a much older link between Drumlanrig and cycling. Kirkpatrick Macmillan was an apprentice blacksmith there before taking on Courthill Smithy.
Those with a sense of cycling history will divert to Courthill and the nearby old cemetery at Keir Mill. Note that the much visited grave is not in the Kirkyard, rather in a pleasant burial ground reached by a short stroll along a footpath. The extent to which the claim that Macmillan invented the bicycle withstand serious examination of the historical evidence is a matter of debate. Start by defining “bicycle” and then delve into the rival claims and limited contemporary evidence and you’ll soon reach the conclusion that, amongst the rivals for the crown, apportioning credit with any certainty is fraught with difficulties, though other claims are little more deserving.
However, the Kirkpatrick Macmillan Rally, hosted by the Dumfries and Galloway section of the CTC - sorry, Cycling UK - would be a grand introduction the area in the company of people who know it and love it.
One thing will strike you very quickly. This is quiet country and it is best to be self-sufficient. Pubs and cafes there are, but not so frequent as those from more populous areas. You won’t get far if you avail yourself of every facility, but think carefully and check opening tomes in advance, if you need to be sure.
Heading west from the vicinity Keir Mill there’s no need to be concerned about too much traffic on the A702, though there are even quieter and more remote roads. I have always found St. John’s Town of Dalry a good stopover, but nearby New Galloway. both ideal for a circuit of the Glenkens via Castle Douglas.
When I first went west at Gretna, I had followed the coast road as opposed to the above, through Annan, past the unusual Caerlaverock Castle and into Dumfries - the Queen of the South. The flat Solway Coast has long views across the water to the English Lake District, on a clear day, and forward to the dome of Criffel.
On a recent trip we found that there was a very good coffee stop at Eastriggs, between Gretna and Annan. Gretna tends to be over-run, Annan has some good cafes, but Eastriggs was once at the heart of an enormous munitions complex. Pay a visit to the fascinating Devil’s Porridge - museum with cafe. Imagining a vast industrial complex that spread across the border and housed its 30,000 employees is not easy. The exhibition also features the story of the Quintinshill Railway Disaster, Britain’s worst train crash.
By far the biggest town in the area, Dumfries has some really good cycling infrastructure, and a railway station (as do Annan and Gretna) on the Carlisle-Kilmarnock-Glasgow line. A useful starting or finishing point for those keen to get further west more quickly.
From Dumfries, NCR7 makes a fine route. Having cycled it several times, however, the A710 provided a longer but very attractive alternative to reach Dalbeattie and Castle Douglas. In summer there’ll be more holiday traffic, but these things are relative.
Castle Douglas is one of those places it is hard not to pass through at some time. That is no hardship. modern branding as a "Food Town" has done nothing to diminish its attractions, indeed it seems to get better every visit. It is a sizeable town, a great place to stock up, whichever way you are heading. Then there's a quick trip to Threave Castle, via the rowing boat to its island.
Ever more popular at all levels, cycle shops seem to be doing well. Castle Douglas has more than its fair share, but most of the larger towns seem to manage either specialist cycling shops or spares and servicing incorporated into another business.
New Abbey, some eight miles south of Dumfries, is home to the romantically names Sweetheart Abbey, founded in 1273 by Lady Devorgilla Balliol as a home for the embalmed heart of her husband, John, founder of Balliol College, Oxford. The village was also the birthplace of William Patterson, founder of the Bank of England. It is beautifully situated by a stream that powered a mill, amongst woods on the slopes of Criffel and a little way from the shores of the Nith estuary. Still, the touring cyclist will press on.
The main road continues round the coast, passing close to the birthplace of John Paul Jones, founder of the USA navy, whose exploits embarrassed the Royal Navy during the American Revolution - or War of Independence, if you prefer to look at it that way. The whole route is delightful. From Dumfries there are shorter ways to Dalbeattie, but none, in my opinion, so attractive.
There is a very well-stocked store at Colvend, just by the village hall.(Shops like this are well-worth availing oneself of - indeed, spending in shops such as this is vital for their survival and, thus, important to cycle touring.) In the Kirkyard is a fabulously touching memorial, portraying two dolphins. On the wall of the Kirk a panel lists those parishioners who served int eh Great War. This is not unique, but is relatively unusual. A remarkable number of men, incongruous with the sparse population of today - and the number of holiday homes. For the Second World War only those who were killed are listed. There’s a more traditional war memorial by the entrance to the yard, too.
A signed track, suitable for tourers and cross-bikes, runs along the edge of Dalbeattie Forest to the eponymous town. However, the main road, in my experience, carries little traffic. Do not ignore the cul de sacs that run down to Rockliffe and Kippford. Both are beautiful spots for idling, or at low tide a walk or ride (fat bike or MTB probably) out to Rough Island. You can get a useful little map from Tourist Information which shows cycle and walking trails through the woods. In fact, one could spend a good deal of time riding back and forth along dead-end roads; try a few and see what they bring you too. you’ll be unlucky indeed if it is not worth the few extra miles.
Staying in Kippford for a couple of nights, a short eight-miler there-and-back took us to Dalbeattie one morning, for brunch in one of the cafes and a good couple of hours in the tremendous Dalbeattie Museum. Run by volunteers and dependent on donations, there are cabinets full of displays, but many of the exhibits are there to touch; turn the handle of the barrel organ (I did sing along, but son felt embarrassed, so I was eventually persuaded to quieten down); radio hams occasionally come and operate the collection of, well, radios; one can literally bang the drum for this museum.
Staffed by locals, happy to share their knowledge, having a chat is de rigeur. I was shown round by the son of a former quality controller at one of the granite quarries for which Dalbeattie was famous. Cyclists may appreciate the surfacing of the main street through the town, but, I am told, below that skein of macadam are hundreds of thousands of granite setts - a symbol of the towns fame. There’s even a lovely photo of a kilted cyclist leading the carnival procession in days long gone. Quiet now, Dalbeattie once saw three-masted sailing ships coming up the river, had a busy little railway station, seven granite quarries and all that was needed to serve a busy industrial community and its rural hinterland.
Dalbeattie Forest is one of the 7Stanes centres. I am no MTBer. Anyone who has seen me on a trail will recognise all the faults of the road cyclist when faced with fairly minor obstacles. I do have some idea what to do, but it is so far from instinctive that it happens rather like a rusty derailleur when pushed across too many cogs on a shortened chain. So, I admire the 7Satnes. At Dalbeattie there are gentle routes - though I find cycling through conifer forests far from inspiring - a taster route for more challenging off-roading and even a skills trail, on which information boards outline basic MTB riding skills before you enter a section to rehearse them. Then there are more challenging routes. Cyclists with cut knees or makeshift slings may not be the most likely sights to entice me onto the red route, but credit to the 7Stanes for making the effort. Actually, I did blast around a bit of the red route - “blast” may be interpreted generously - one night, though my nocturnal excursions generally stuck to the forest tracks. Great stuff. Something for most cyclists!
Looking across the valley of the River Urr to the hills beyond was beautiful on a pleasant day, but in the light of a full moon is glorious. And, yes, there are gaps in the trees to allow such visions.
A night excursion should be on your list on this area, especially if you are around Clatteringshaws Loch or Glen Trool in Galloway Forest Park. Get some good lights on, pick a clear night. Here is the UK’s first Dark Sky Park. The star-filled firmament is breathtaking - one local astronomer told me that even the Aurora Borealis was occasionally visible. The stars were enough for me.
Avoiding the A75 is the key to travelling along the coast. NCR7 is a grand route through Castle Douglas and on to Gatehouse of Fleet. After that neat little town, NCR7 climbs steadily up to the old Gatehouse Station. Just before that point the route a traffic free alternative for NCR7 runs down a narrow road to Dromore, a settlement and nature reserve dominated by the cliffs of the Clints of Dromore and the epic Big Water of Fleet Viaduct. Sadly the old railway line across the viaduct is not a cycle route - what a route that would be. Passing beneath it, signs warning of falling masonry, NCR7 goes on towards Catteringshaws Loch and, eventually, Glentrool. Don’t take your racer, but a tourer or trekking bike suchlike is fine. Alternatively NCR7 takes you down to Creetown - infrastructure avoiding the A75, and a lower level route close to river and sea. Each is admirable in its own way. The coastal route reaches Newton Stewart and then head north to Glentrool and away over the hills into Ayrshire. That was my route on previous visits.
On my latest trip, turned south at Newton Stewart. Wigtown, The Isle of Whithorn, a run round Luce Bay and down the cul-de-sac to the Mull of Galloway promised. Some family cycling to explore the area is a bit of a happy compromise, but I will be back to cycle it all.
The roads are generally quiet and there are plenty of minor ones which are sometimes indistinguishable from more major arteries. You may get lost around here, but you won’t go too far wrong. Bear in mind, that you are approaching what is really, the end of the road, and prepare accordingly. Pubs and cafes are easily found, but fewer in number.
Yet, this area was once in the centre of a sea-going community that stretched to the Isle of Man, Ireland, across the Solway and up into the Clyde. When travelling by sea was easier than travelling by land, in those dark benighted days before the bicycle was invented (slight exaggeration), Whithorn was where the leprous Robert the Bruce came in the knowledge that he was dying. Here was a great abbey, the shrine of Saint Ninian. Oft overshadowed by St. Columba and the fame of Iona, Ninian established the first Christian Community in Scotland in the early fifth century, a hundred years before Columba arrived.
At the tip of the peninsula, at the Isle of Whithorn, is the ruin of a chapel where pilgrims arriving by sea, and presumably, departing, too, offered either thanks for a safe crossing or begged for safe passage. Looking across the dull storm-tossed waves, one could sympathise.
This was, actually, the only dirty day of the trip. Others were frosty-morninged, sunny affairs, typical of good autumn weather.
Luce Bay is much bigger than one might imagine. Proceeding around it in gathering gloom, one could just make out the appropriately named Scares, rocky little outcrops in the mouth of the bay. There are good beaches along here and plenty of villages with accommodation. Our goal, though, was the Mull of Galloway lighthouse, still a long way off.
We passed through Drummore, to arrive at the lighthouse as the only sunshine of the day filtered through. A fabulous sunset and strengthening wind. One of those magical moments when you realise that a day of rain has its compensations. Amongst the latter was the especially warm feeling when tucking into home-made steak and kidney pudding and chips while sitting by the fire in the amiable Queens Hotel, back in Drummore.
The lighthouse is run by the Northern Lights Board and is open to the public, for the price of the entrance fee. The headland is now owned by the community, who work with the RSPB to conserve the area. There’s a visitors centre in the old cottages next to the lighthouse. Seen the ALK - Association of Lighthouse Keepers - passport scheme? Just a booklet with a participating lighthouse on each page; collect the stamps. Perfect for cyclists who like to head for the sea and keep a record of it.
Amongst the joys of cycling on the Mull of Galloway is trying to find a point where one can see the sea on both sides. Clearly one can do this at the lighthouse, but it would be fun to spend a day seeing if it was possible from other points. There are numerous roads and tracks, many leading to isolated coves and peaceful beaches. What a way to idle away a day or two!
It seems to me that wherever one might wander one will always find beauty and interest in Dumfries and Galloway. it should be kept secret. Rather like the Borders - if the latter had such an extensive coast - there is lots and lots and lots to do for cyclists of all ambitions and abilities. And you’ll be riding amongst scenery to rival anything the British Isles can offer you; and one of the darkest night-skies in Europe …. except during the day when the sun always shines … mostly.
An Apology; erudite cycling tourist who knows something of this area will note the serious omission of Kirkcudbright and the beautiful ride round the coast from that fine little town with its quayside and castle to gatehouse through Borgue. Please accept my apologies for this and go and explore it anyway. Follow NCR7 all the way from Castle Douglas to Gatehouse of Fleet. There are shorter routes, but keeping to the coast after Kirkcudbright is definitely worth it, even in a westerly gale - it’ll just take you longer.
General tourist information https://www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/dumfries-galloway/
Kirkpatrick Macmillan Rally 2017 http://www.dandgcycling.org.uk/images/Event%20Info%20KM177%20May%2026%20-%2029%20%202017.pdf
The Devil’s Porridge Exhibition, Eastriggs www.devilsporridge.org.uk/
Dalbeattie Museum http://www.dalbeattiemuseum.co.uk
7Stanes MTB centres http://www.7stanes.com
Queen’s Hotel, Drummore http://www.queenshotel-drummore.co.uk
ALK Passport http://www.alk.org.uk/passport/passport.html
Mull of Galloway information http://www.mull-of-galloway.co.uk
Though there is no railway line linking the towns of Dumfries and Galloway together, thee are stations at Gretna, Annan and Dumfries, in the east of the region and, in the west, at Stranraer, where there are also ferries to Ireland. Ferries also sail from nearby Cairnryan. Train travel from Stranraer will generally involve a change at Kilmarnock or Glasgow, depending on where you wish to go. Some trains link with ferry arrivals and are likely to be particularly busy. Book your bike on the train in advance, if you can.
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2016