Lapierre - Galloway Gravel

To think of Scotland, the Highlands are normally the first thing that enters most peoples minds. Maybe Loch Ness, The Isle of Skye or the Cairngorms. Such iconic places, famed around the world for their folklore, landscapes and ever changing and at times harsh weather.

There is; however, a place in Scotland of equal beauty but far less trodden. A land of Lochs, forests and endless gravel trails. This place is called the Galloway Forest National Park. And this remote and wild land is where I headed for my next Lapierre cycling adventure.

My bike of choice for the trip was the all new Lapierre Crosshill 5.0. A bike purpose built for tackling rugged gravel trails. With its robust frame, Shimano GRX groupset and multiple attachment points for racks and bike packing kit its perfectly suited for my trip to Galloway. So with some careful route planning, it was time to grab my bike and kit, pack my van and head North to the hills.

After a long drive and many snacks and coffees I finally pulled off the seemingly endless M6 and headed East through Dumfries towards Galloway. Not long after this the landscape starts to roll and undulate. Cities turn to towns, towns turn to villages and things become a lot greener and the air much fresher. In the distance I can see the dark, rugged outline of a mountain range. My first sign of the National Park. At once I get a rush of excitement, knowing that just up ahead are a network of trails that offer some of the finest gravel cycling in the UK.

My plan for the trip was to be a two day ride exploring some of the 90km of trails through the park, with a stay in a stunning stone Bothy in a remote corner of the Forest. So after eventually finding a spot to leave my van, I get kitted up for the ride. I have never been to this part of Scotland before. Only viewing photos from Google Earth and internet searches back at home. So although I am aware of roughly what's in store with regards to distances and geography, the whole place is new to me. So the time comes to get the Crossbill out of the van. I pack my bike bags with a sleeping bag, some spare clothes, food and a few pots and pans and my water bottles. Then just simply clip in and cycle into the unknown.

On my first morning I spent the time exploring the outer edge of the park. Visiting the famous Murray’s Monument, perched up high on a rugged outcrop, and then along the stunning Clatteringshaws Loch. Cycling along an A road which skirts the Southern end of Galloway. With this part done in a few hours, it was time to do what I really came to do. Gravel cycling. So I headed around the Western side of the Loch along a remote single track tarmac road, towards the heart of the National Park. Eventually the black top turned to gravel and the bike started to come into it’s own.

One thing I notice quite quickly as I sped along the crunchy, dusty trails was the distinct the lack of people. This is definitely a much less visited part of Scotland. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the mountains are not as high as they are further North, and the Munro baggers tend to head past Galloway and on up to the highlands to get their mountain fix. But for whatever reason, the lack of humans makes the place feel very remote and wild. More than anywhere else in the UK that I have experienced. I felt like I had the whole place to myself.

As I ventured deeper into the park, along perfect gravel tracks, I was treated to incredible endless vistas. One minute I cycled up through densely forested trails, for the route to then take me out into wide open landscapes with lochs to one side and rugged mountains to the other. I took time to relax, and to take it all in, stopping here and there to eat some snacks, including a beautiful stream which cascaded down over rocks that had been worn smooth by crystal clear water over the thousands of years. The only down side to stopping for any length of time is that the pesky midges will soon find you. The only negative to being in such an amazing environment.

As the afternoon started to give way to the subtle tones of dusk, my thoughts turned to the Bothy I had planned to stay in overnight. So I pressed on further into the heart of the park as the evening sun finally started to set, with the light turning flat and the air getting cooler. As I came down a fast, curving track to reach a huge loch, I got my first glimpse of the old stone hut laying at the top of a hill to the Northern side of the huge body of water. I dismounted from the bike and hiked up the boggy, grassy hillside, now starting to relishing the thought of a fire, hot meal and a warm dry place to rest.

For anyone who doesn’t know what a Bothy is, or hasn’t stayed in one, they are basically a fairly basic stone or timber hut, located in various places in the UK such as the Highlands, the Lake District or Snowdonia in North Wales. They are free to use, but owned and maintained by the MBA (Mountain Bothy Association). Generally they are just places to stay for a night when out on hikes, instead of camping. But can also be used as emergency shelters if the weather conditions are bad. But be warned, because you can’t book a place in a most Bothies, there is a chance you may turn up to find it’s full up with no room for anyone else, so be prepared for this by taking a tent or Bivy bag just in case. Luckily the `bothy was empty when I arrived.

This Bothy, built from the nearby stone, sits perfectly in it’s surroundings, looking down a steep hill towards the loch in the distance. Inside it is kitted out with timber sleeping benches, a wood burning stove and some basic chairs and table. I find some wood outside and make myself a fire so as I can cook myself some noodles and a hot drink before I settle down for the night. I sleep like a log, after the long journey up plus a days gravel riding. The only noise I hear during the night is the trickle of the stream that flows down past the Bothy towards the loch and the distant, haunting cries of owls as they head off for their nightly hunting spree.

In the morning as the days first light floods through the window of the rustic old hut, I stir from a peaceful sleep, and start to think about another full day of riding ahead of me. So with a quick freshen up in the icy waters of the babbling stream, and after a quick coffee I’m back on the bike and away from more exploring of this amazing landscape.

For my last I day venture further into the National Park, with still not a soul in sight. It feels like it’s just one big gravel playground I have to myself. And the bike is so much fun to ride. It seems to soak up even the more gnarlier of gravel trails, eating up big stones and pot holes with ease. The fact that the bike is more than capable of this type of rugged terrain leaves you to just concentrate on enjoying the ride and soaking up the views, without worrying if the frame or mechs are going to cope. That’s what cycling should be about. Just enjoying the ride, enjoying the bike and taking it all in.

Eventually after another thrilling full day of riding in the achingly beautiful Galloway National Forest, I make it back to my trusty camper van which waits patiently for me at the outer edge of the park. I de-rig, pop the bike in the van and get back on the road. As I head away from this stunning place, with the mountains turning to rolling hills and pasture land, my head is filled with memories of an incredible gravel cycling adventure on an amazing bike in truly one of the most breath taking areas of the UK. Galloway I shall return….

Kevin Merrey

Photography: @ospreyimagery