Saturday 21st May 2022
From around 9 am an otherwise empty Douglas Square, in the sprawling Scottish village of Newcastleton (also known as Copshaw Holm if this sort of thing interests you), began echoing to the sound of cars arriving, doors slamming, boots and tailgates opening, bikes being removed from racks, cassettes being spun and shoes being fastened as over a dozen chattering cyclists readied themselves for a day exploring the hills and dales of the Scottish Border.
Fourteen Durham City Velo members had signed up for the club’s first ‘Away-Day’ of 2022. Ride leaders as usual were Dave and Chris together with club stalwarts Stuart, Ben, Tim, Nigel, Peter, Adam, Carl, Graeme and Neville, new members Neil and Nik as well as myself, all prepared for what 74-miles of uncertain weather might bring. After a short briefing from Chris which I can’t say I caught a word of, being wholly absorbed with documenting the event (this would have its repercussions) we left Newcastleton (0 miles/101 m) around 9.30 am, as planned, heading for the market town of Hawick. An anticlockwise circuit would provide the all-important tailwind at the end of the ride. The forecast was changeable and everyone was packing a jacket in anticipation of being wet at some point in the day.
Amidst plenty of early banter, the first few miles were relaxed as we rode through darkly historic Liddesdale alongside the Hermitage Water – the first of many watercourses we’d encounter that day – and warmed gently by a weak morning sun. However, by the time we reached the hamlet of Hermitage itself (5 miles/148 m) the group was starting to break up into familiar speed-based factions.
As self-appointed photographer I often find myself trying to make up distance from the back and by the time I’d rejoined on this occasion the ‘break’ had gone. I tried to ease across to the front group – just as the route began to climb gently to the watershed. Not wanting to work too hard too early I opted instead to concentrate on photographing the guys towards the back thinking I could change things around when we got to Hawick.
The magnificent views from the ridge towards Hawick offered the opportunity to assess the massing clouds as I waited on the descent for the boys to whoosh past, which they did in style, each giving an impressively aerodynamic account of themselves. At that speed they were quickly out of sight and I spent the next couple of miles with only the Slitrig Water for company before I eventually caught up, just before another long descent into Hawick.
The disadvantage of not listening to a briefing is that you miss important stuff like “we’ll probably not be stopping in Hawick and will push on to the lunch stop at Old School House Hub and Cafe in Eskdalemuir”. This revelation scuppered my plans and I waited, somewhat disconsolately, with Nik, by the old bridge in Hawick, for the rest of what would remain a five-man group – Dave, Neil and Stuart – to catch up. As we wound our way slowly through a busy town beset by diversions any lingering hopes I might have had of regaining the front group were dashed ruthlessly when Stuart and Nik decided to replenish supplies at the town’s Lidl. After what, to me, seemed like an eternity we finally extricated ourselves from the urban chaos via a quiet lane alongside the River Teviot.
Turning west on the B711 we began to feel the effect of the wind which was now blowing strongly from our left. Being in a group would undoubtedly make it easier from here on. On the other hand, one of the really nice things about riding in this part of the UK (Scotland’s still part of the UK, isn’t it?) is that not only are the minor roads quiet but they’re generally very well surfaced which – as Dave pointed out on a couple of occasions – appears to be due to the country’s Strategic Timber Transport Scheme which operates around the heavily forested areas that comprised much of our route.
We’d been on the pedals since we left Hawick but on reaching Roberton (25 miles/168 m) began a stiff climb to Firestane Edge (27 miles/332 m). Although it was clear that Neil was feeling it on the hills he persisted doggedly and was always ready for the next challenge. On the flip-side he wasn’t hanging about on descents like the one to Alemoor Reservoir (28 miles/277 m) where the wind was whipping the grey water spitefully towards us as we crossed the bridge.
We rode on, past Buccleuch and through a magnificent, steep-sided valley alongside the Rankle Burn, to the junction with the B709 at Tushielaw. The left turn here opened us up fully to the ravages of the wind which would persist for the next 15 miles or so. When we reached Ettrick (39 miles/232 m), birthplace of another celebrated Scottish poet – James Hogg – I decided to push on with a view to scouting the Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre for a photo opportunity.
This entailed a shallow but remorseless ascent to a col on the regional boundary of Scottish Borders with Dumfries & Galloway – just after Loch Tima (44 miles/344 m). While the road and wind continued with the ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine the rain became more persistent and I pushed the pedals a little harder, not only for warmth but to shorten the time to whatever opportunities for shelter I might be able to take advantage of should the need arise. Over the ridge the wind was really able to get a grip, retarding progress on what would otherwise have been a fast, relaxed descent, and driving the rain harder and harder until I finally caved and stopped to put on my jacket.
Instantly warmer but no less moist, I ploughed on down the 2 mile descent until I reached the Buddhist Centre (50 miles/200 m). Looking somewhat incongruous in the sparsely populated dale, the centre was apparently the first of its kind in the west when it was established in 1967. Near the entrance, a golden buddha sits serenely in the middle of a tranquil pond and it was here I was hoping to take a photograph with the guys. Being cold, wet and uncomfortable changed that and I decided to make do with a selfie before pushing on.
The lunch stop was only a mile down the road and I hadn’t yet given up on finding the front group. Knowing I’d be able to see the bikes parked behind the cafe, I cycled slowly past and – much to my surprise – there they were! Had they not been there I’d planned to carry on in the hope of catching some back-markers – if there were any. Making a quick turn in the road I returned to the cafe which I found dominated by reassuringly familiar red, white and black jerseys. Pleasantries and news exchanged, and noting that some hadn’t yet finished their meal, I grabbed a quick coffee so that I was ready to go when they were.
As is so often the case I could have spared myself the stress as we were still sitting there when Dave, Stuart, Neil and Nik walked in looking damp but cheerful. They were in no hurry however, with at least two of them eagerly anticipating the speciality haggis-burger, so after pics in the cafe I left – happy again – with the front group.
The final twenty four miles or so were the opposite of what had gone before. It’s much more difficult to take and plan photos when you’re focused on the wheel of the guy ahead, the normal state of affairs when Chris and Ben are on the front and you can always rely on Graeme to keep the pressure on if the momentum drops.
Carl, Adam and Peter had slipped away a couple of minutes earlier and, by coincidence, we caught them at the bottom of the mile-long, 100 m ascent of Saugh Hill (54 miles/290 m). If no-one else was putting in an effort I certainly was and it was a relief to reach the summit. After that, things calmed down a bit on a long, undulating descent to cross the River Esk for the first time at Enzieholme (57 miles/136 m).
Thankfully, between flurries of frantic pedalling, I was able to grab a few pics being particularly grateful of a brief opportunity for a group shot when we stopped to remove jackets as the rain clouds moved on and the temperature began to climb. By the time we arrived in Langholm (64 miles/77 m) the group had split again so I opted to let the front guys go and photograph the others crossing the River Esk for the second time (a sign on the bridge proudly claims its association with the apprentice stonemason Thomas Telford – born near Eskdalemuir – before he went to England to become the most eminent bridge-builder in Britain if not the world).
Telford aside I’d also hoped to photograph the guys on the tough climb that starts from the main road on the outskirts of Langholm (20% at the base) up to Whita Hill (66 miles/271 m) where the ‘Malcolm Monument’ overlooks the town (‘Muckle Toon’ as it’s known locally). You may not know this but Langholm is the ancestral home of all who bear the surname ‘Armstrong’ to the extent that Neil – the astronaut – was made a freeman of the city because of his heritage rather than the fact he volunteered to sit on top of a massive bomb and be launched into space (whether or not he actually set foot on another planet is his business).
Thinking that several of them would be miles away, I was delighted to come around the corner, off the bridge, and find every one of my club-mates lined up at the side of the road with a ready-made photo opportunity behind them. After capturing the moment amid the usual heckles I rode on to establish myself on the climb hardly daring to believe it was going so well, still hoping to finish the day with images of gritted teeth, heaving lungs and sweating, furrowed brows. Alas, the expressions when they came were far too composed for my liking – perhaps I should have gone further up the climb?
On reaching the top there was a long, fast and narrow descent – quite sketchy in places – with dangerously distracting views (if you’re anything like me) but where it was possible to get your breath back. Contouring around Tarras Rig (67 miles/242 m) – above Middlemoss Head – there followed a kamikaze drop to a worryingly gravelly hairpin over the little stone bridge (68 miles/185 m) above Tarras Water (c16th cattle rustlers known as ‘Reivers’, chief amongst whom were the aforementioned Armstrongs, used to hide stolen cattle in this neck of the woods). Immediately off the bridge the road went straight upwards, ascending for one and a half miles to the regional boundary, where we left Dumfries & Galloway for Scottish Borders, on Burrowstown Moss (70 miles/339 m), the second-highest and final summit on the route.
Here I found Chris, Ben and Graeme waiting – a chilly place to hang around for most of the year I’d imagine. I was pleased to see them though, knowing that I’d be able to get finishing shots of everyone to round the day off nicely. As I was being heckled for my failure as a photographic model a guy rode past me out of nowhere. His was an electric bike but he was demonstrably impressed by the lads pedalling the gradient without the assistance of a motor. After a bit of banter he set off downhill towards Newcastleton and, with the guys now starting to regroup, I followed shortly after so that I could get into position.
It’s a truly awesome descent with a beautiful panorama towards England: four miles of steep downhill on a well-surfaced, mostly empty – so potentially dangerous – road where you need to be aware of the very real possibility of encountering a vehicle at speed, with little space to pass. The steepest part – just before you enter the village – includes a couple of tight hairpins which have to be treated with respect. This is where I stationed myself and where I encountered our friendly guy again. It turned out he was a local from Newcastleton who had plenty of interesting stuff to say but not enough time as my concentration was increasingly focused on the arrival of our first riders.
Sensing my distraction he departed amicably as Graeme appeared at speed, coolly contemplating the bend before sweeping round in a graceful arc and disappearing rapidly in the direction of Newcastleton which was spread out below us. He was quickly followed by Chris and Ben – descending together – who caught a couple of unsuspecting walkers by surprise as their bikes hissed towards the bend.
Seconds after they’d gone the rest of the group came swishing down (in order): Nigel, Adam, Neville, Carl, Tim and finally Peter all without incident, looking relaxed and fluid on what is a tricky descent by any standard. By the time I’d accounted for everyone, jumped back on my bike, and rolled back into Douglas Square, stripping of all types was in full swing. Some were keen to head off on the long journey home while others were just as keen to head to the bar of the Grapes Hotel, one of two in the square, conveniently next door to each other (though I’m not sure if the Liddesdale Hotel was actually open).
Lagging as usual, by the time I arrived at the bar everyone was sitting down with drinks. The travails of the day were being noticeably ignored in favour of the implications of the Sunderland result as well as other topics like Neville and Peter’s critical assessment of Lindisfarne and other groups of the seventies and eighties. Just as a few more were about to leave, Dave, Nik and Stuart strolled in (I’m not sure where Neil was but apparently they’d all arrived together so he must have been somewhere nearby). Although I’ve currently no idea how their afternoon went, everyone seemed in good spirits so I’ve no doubt it was as enjoyable as ours (if someone wants to send me the details I’ll add it to this report).
Because of the unique way in which the day was broken up for me, this has been a rather personal account of a day out with DCV but if you’d like to join us for the next one you’ll be more than welcome… Scott