Finally, the latest lockdown had ended and I needed to sleep somewhere different. As usual my time was scarce, so I headed out on a Friday night to go to a nice spot I had been with the kids just a couple of weeks before, whilst keeping to the 5 mile limit from the Aberdeen City boundary. As I rolled west the skies looked gloomy and threatening, but I put my faith in the forecast that I might be able to dodge the rain on the way to my spot and possibly even see the sky in the morning!
I used the Deeside Way to get me to Drumoak and crossed the now pedestrian bridge and started climbing up to Durris. I’ve had a couple of bivvies round here in the past, but wanted to ride through the forest to reach the point where the Elsick Mounth route leaves the trees at the far side. I’d had a lovely picnic with the kids here and had been meaning to try it out for a good while.
I could have brought a bivy bag and slept on the grass outside the trees, but I’d gone for my hammock instead to keep me off the sodden ground, also opting to put the tarp up for once as rain was due overnight. I settled in with a cuppa and a cake before bed time, hoping to see some sort of sunrise in the morning.
With my winter bag and sleep mat in the hammock I was nice and cosy, bar the odd wrestling match to keep the mat in place, due to it being far too long to sit comfortably in the Exped hammock. I’m not sure if the rain ever showed up in earnest, but at least I had bothered to be prepared for it for once. When the sun started to rise, it was still a bit dull to be worth getting up for pictures, so it was a while before I ventured out of my bed for breakfast and packing up. Emerging from the trees for a proper look, I realised there had been a hard frost overnight, with the grass I would have bivvied on frozen solid. Feeling smug about my life choices, I packed up and took some pictures in the now beaming morning sun.
To get home, I just needed to drop down the Elsick Mounth towards Stonehaven before doubling back on the tarmac for a pleasantly quiet ride towards home over the Netherley Road. It was a short excursion, but much appreciated, as was second breakfast when I got in!
I couldn’t quite believe that this was coming round again, but here I was, kipping in the back garden as a poor substitute for a proper bivvy. I could have maybe squeezed in a New Year bivvy before the COVID restrictions came down again, but I missed that ship. As with last year I’m lumping the garden bivvies into one blog post.
I held on for a few weeks just in case a miracle occurred and I was allowed out, but no. On a stunning cold night, I went out for a late 11pm ride around the rapidly freezing roads nearby before coming home and settling down in my SOL bivy bag on the back step I had used for my last garden bivy in 2020.
Not quite down to the wire as usual, I even did my pre-bivy ride by daylight, thanks to having the Friday afternoon off. Another cold clear night required only a bivy bag as shelter.
March was a work night bivvy, which isn’t really a hassle when you’re sleeping in your back garden during Work From Home. Still, I fancied a decent ride so I did my out ride first thing in the morning, taking the mountain bike up and over Brimmond Hill just at dawn on a beautiful day. Payback was a ride through the mist the following morning!
The three months had dragged on a bit, especially with people only a few miles west having the whole of Aberdeenshire as their playground, but the garden BAMs helped a little. I still couldn’t wait for late April to roll around for the chance of a proper forest ditch bivvy!
September had been a busy month keeping the kids entertained and I left it as late as always, heading out on a Tuesday night with a plan to be back for the school run. I couldn’t go too far without needing to get up stupidly early, so I aimed for Kirkhill Forest, keeping to a mix of my usual offroad tracks and trails on the Amazon. I’d brought a proper camera with me so I could get some decent night time shots for once in the mild evening air.
Despite being as late as ever, it was a pleasant night to be out and about and I was through Kirkhill and doing the last climb to the Tappie Tower before I knew it. The wind was blowing hard here, so I set about scouting for a couple of decent trees off the summit with a bit of shelter after a few more long exposures.
I found a decent spot off the north side of the hill and got the hammock strung up. It still had the midge net attached from August, but I flipped it underneath as no midges would be flying in these winds! I also left the tarp in the bag, trusting the forecast and having my usual snack and a brew before bedtime.
The spot proved ideal – I could hear the wind roaring all night, but barely felt it in my little copse. I had an early alarm set and took a stroll up to the top of the hill for some sunrise pictures before breakfast.
A quick snack and the rest of my tea and I got packed and decided to follow the track I was on down the flank of the hill. It was much more suited to a mountain bike, but I slipped and slid my way down to the forestry track, where I could get cracking on my way home.
The ride home took me round the edge of Kirkhill Forest and over the AWPR, before dropping to the delights of Dyce industrial estate and the airport. A quicker ride home completed a loop and got me there in time to to walk Kerr to school before starting yet another day of home working, for once charged up with a healthy dose of outdoor exercise.
The long months of lockdown had left myself and Jon hankering for some kind of adventure to make up for it and constant chatter on WhatsApp wasn’t doing anything to assuage that craving. Eventually we got ourselves organised for a kind of lads’ weekend which consisted of a half day Friday and whole Saturday to go and play. My brief for the route was “A ride where we don’t have to kill ourselves for once”, which was a struggle for me as I like to get my money’s worth!
So it was, we hatched a plan which seems to be becoming our standard setup, whereby Jon chills out on the train from Edinburgh to Blair Atholl, whilst I race down there in the car to pick him up and deposit him somewhere for a magical mystery tour. Talking of the Beatles, I also doubled our Scouse contingent by persuading Brian to pop up to Scotland for the weekend and join us on a nice easy ride for once…
Traffic was ridiculous on the way down, but Jon was happy enough to wait for his pickup after lunch and a pint in the Atholl Arms. We only had to drive a few minutes to Dalnaspidal Lodge, where we ditched the car and got rolling up Glen Garry. Much later than was ideal, but optimistic of reaching Loch Ossian before nightfall, where I had scoped an ideal bivy spot on a previous passage.
I had guaranteed an ideal ride for gravel style bikes with one short walking section, but the whinging about the gravel diameter started after about 5 minutes, when they went beyond pebble size to very small rocks. I happily ignored the complaints, knowing a treat was in store…
The watershed was surprisingly firm in places, given the rain that had fallen recently and we reached the hydro tracks near Duinish bothy in no time, with a chance to enjoy a long downhill to Loch Rannoch.
The shores of Loch Rannoch were busy, with every single layby or picnic area inundated with cars, campers, tents and even caravans, along with mandatory loud music. This was also accompanied by the first sightings of midge swarms, which got me worried about the night ahead, as I had seen too many horror show pictures from people over the last few weeks. As it was, we were able to pass through unscathed, though I didn’t fancy the car campers’ chances.
We turned right before reaching Rannoch Station to head up and over the Road to the Isles, which has become an extremely popular route in recent years and with good reason. The quality of light and the view along there never seems to disappoint at any time of year.
As the long climb began, Brian was beginning to flag a little, with various mutterings about being quicker on his fat bike. I could see where he was coming from, as you lose the ability to just sit and spin like you can on a mountain bike when you go offroad with gravel bike gearing, especially loaded. A few more of these trips and he’ll never notice though! As it was, we all just continued at our own speed until the track levelled out slightly, where Jon and I stopped to chat with a cycling photographer set up to get some shots across towards Rannoch Moor in the evening light. We had time to kill whilst we waited on Brian, so had a pleasant chat – it turns out he was from a film crew that had been shooting the GBduro a few weeks previous. With the tight time schedule, he’d come back to get more scenery footage along the route for the final film.
Reunited, we continued along and started to think of food for the night. Although we had food to cook and eat, what we really wanted was to reach Corrour Station in time to get dinner at the restaurant. Jon had been keeping in touch to see when they would stop serving and they had kindly said they’d hang on for us for a bit if we were late. With time pressing and not wanting to take advantage of their patience, we sent Jon on ahead to get there handy and order us something nice, which he did!
After lovely food and hospitality as always, we reluctantly put all our kit back on and headed out into the dark to head for the bivy spot I had memorised the last time I rode through here. I was looking for a spur that jutted out into the loch, which I’d seen on a hot summer’s day and figured would be good for getting us into whatever breeze was available to avoid a midge-fest. After about 15 minutes, we were there and pushing our bikes into position, checking for trees with the right spacing for mine and Jon’s hammocks. Brian had gone for ignoring my advice to bring a hammock and had his bivy bag instead, to lay on the rooty lumpy ground below.
There wasn’t rain in the forecast, but the showers that had caught us on the way down to the station made it worth putting up the tarps and shortly after getting set up, another light shower passed over, prompting us to overlap them to provide a large dry area and Brian to attempt a comedy upright caterpillar hop manoeuvre to get himself underneath it. A mostly dry midge-free sleep was had by all, with just enough wind to keep the beasts down without making the hammock sleepers cold.
Morning came bright and breezy, so we decided to pack up and get out of the wind a little for brewing up and breakfast. Re-joining the main track and setting up our stoves to the side showed us how effective the breezy camp spot had been, as the midges came out in earnest, though they could be mostly avoided by just walking around whilst the water was boiling.
Breakfast done with, Jon and I lingered for a while talking about life and bikes – okay, just bikes. This gave Brian a chance to get a nice gap without feeling like he had to push himself too hard as he was feeling the previous afternoon’s exertions a bit. There’s only a slight rise up from the loch when you are heading towards Laggan, so it took a fair while to catch him up. We carried on as a group into the headwind, with the odd shower flying through.
A whole load of perfect gravel bike riding took us on a slowly downward trend to the end of Loch Laggan, where we doubled back on ourselves to hit the end of the lochside track towards Ardverikie.
The ride along the loch was pleasant and before long we passed the beach and were deposited onto the A86. Now I dislike riding on this stretch of road intensely, so I had decided to take the track over to Glen Shirra which would also be a handy recce for the next time I get to do the HT550, whenever that might be. We had less than a mile of tarmac to deal with and yet still three morons managed to put our lives at risk by all trying to overtake on a blind bend, with the third driving alongside us with nowhere to go as a van rounded the corner in the opposite direction. We gladly left the road at the first turn off to the right and started up the short steep push above the tree line.
I had planned to be in Laggan just before lunch time, but as usual had been wildly optimistic. We got a move on and whizzed down the upper Spey with coffee and cakes on our mind at the old Laggan Stores. Our tardiness saw us arrive in the midst of a lunch scrum, with cars and motorbikes everywhere, but it was all very civilised and we scored ourselves an outside table in the alternating hot sun/light showers.
Suitably fed, we rejoined the road and started making our way towards Glentruim. Brian was still feeling goosed from the effects of no granny gears coupled with no sleep on his rooty bed and I gave him an escape option as we reached Catlodge. Instead of doing the planned out and back along the old military road past Phones, he could just carry on along the main road to the south at his own speed to rejoin the A9 cycle path much earlier than we would reach it. In addition, if he got to the car first he could have a sleep before heading down the road.
We had a lovely chilled out section ahead of us, with great views across the Spey valley as we made our way to Milton of Nuide. Here we would scoot across the A9 to join General Wade’s Military Road heading south, finally gaining that elusive tailwind.
I’m not sure why, but I love this track that parallels the A9 for a few miles. Despite the proximity of the road, you’d never know it was just behind the hills to the west of you. It was looking particularly fine today surrounded by a sea of purple heather and was one of the stretches I’d been looking forward to introducing Jon too (Luckily Brian had seen it the year before!).
I had wanted to add in a bonus climb up to Loch Cuaich to string out our return to the A9, but we both figured we wouldn’t be riding much of the climb and also didn’t want to leave Brian hanging on too long for us. The sensible option was taken and we rolled down to the road at Etteridge for another A9 scuttle, followed by a hop over the barrier to drop onto the cycle path. We fired along towards Dalnaspidal, to make sure Brian got as short a nap as possible.
We returned to the cars triumphant and woke Brian from his slumber to set him on his way back to Liverpool. I dropped Jon off at Pitlochry train station to save him a 3 hour wait for the next train from Blair Atholl and made my way home in time for the kids bedtime. I think my brief not to kill ourselves was mostly fulfilled – we actually finished in daylight! The almost weekend away was just what we needed after all that time dreaming of going somewhere, hopefully not the last time this year. It was also an an opportunity to give my new Alpkit Stingray frame bag a proper run out, which it passed with flying colours. I only wish I hadn’t prevaricated for years about getting one, as the accessible convenience of the pockets is a total winner for me. I only added both the bar bag and seatpack so the others wouldn’t get too angry at my lightweight setup!
Not much to say for these three months. The COVID-19 lockdown was in effect and I was complying with the rules, regardless of the complete lack of risk to others my sleeping in a ditch in the middle of nowhere would constitute. Luckily, there was a temporary relaxing of the rules on the Bearbones forums, allowing for a ride from the house followed by a bivy in your own back garden.
For April, I made a pretence of packing my bike and going for a ride late on the last day of the month, before slinging up the hammock at the bottom of the garden.
After weeks of sickeningly good weather and no sign of the lockdown easing, I reluctantly set out on my May bivy as late as possible on the last day of the month. I rode a bit further on yet another balmy pleasant night and slept in the tent that I had set up as a bird hide distraction for the kids in the garden.
I couldn’t quite believe I was going to have to do another garden bivy for June, but I don’t think I’m special, so I stuck to the rules. I strung this one out a bit, with a late night ride round the forests, followed by riding to work in the morning to deal with an emergency and then an extended ride home.
Thinking back, I realised I was getting closer to the house each month as the lockdown continued. If I wasn’t allowed out in July, I would end up on the couch and my run would be over!