THE CAPITAL TRAIL – A JOURNEY
I first learned of The Capital Trail through the posts of its creator Marcus Stitz on social media. At that time, early this year, The Trail was in fact still in embryo form and not yet a completed entity. I was immediately taken with the idea of this long distance Bikepacking route based on Scotland’s capital and so I started out doing bits and pieces of it in the Pentland Hills and around East Lothian, mainly on my CX bike and was delighted to be exploring some areas and trails that were new to me.
When the Capital trail was completed by Marcus I was faced with, what was for me, the daunting task of learning about GPS technology, not so simple in your sixties, which finally enabled me to transfer the GPX route map onto my newly acquired Garmin device. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I had mastered this because I was still experiencing some glitches, more of which later!
Marcus, on learning of my interest, invited me to take part in the inaugural event on 13th – 14th June. I told him that, after reading his description,I was very keen but at 63 I was a bit concerned about whether or not I was being realistic. At this point he kindly offered to keep a place open for me until I had done a bit more of a recce.
The next day I realised that I would be involved at the POC Scottish Enduro Series at Glenlivet that weekend with my son and so would not be able to ride the inaugural event whatever the outcome of my further route explorations. It was that very clash of interests however, combined with a settled spell of weather, which led to me deciding to just get out of the door and give it a go.
The Trail began gently enough as I rolled away from the starting point at The Tide Cafe along the promenade at Portobello towards Musselburgh with views out over the Firth of Forth.
Then it was down to following the little arrow on my handlebars as I cut to and fro through backstreets and woodland paths to Wallyford. The first steep rutted climb of the day followed what was basically a deep trench brought about by water flow and illicit motor cycle use however, this section has thankfully now been superseded by a pleasant riverside path along the River Esk and a loop through the grounds of Carberry Estate.
A fast singletrack descent from the village of Elphinstone leads to the Old Pencaitland Railway path associated with the long closed pits in the area but instead of following the path to its end a turn is taken into the Winton Estate and onto the banks of the Tyne. There are not too many road sections on The Trail but, where necessary, they are mainly on quiet roads and lanes, many of the – grass growing in the middle – variety. After a woodland track through the grounds of Saltoun Hall one such section follows, up through the village of West Saltoun and in short course back on to a single track climb through Saltoun Big Wood after which a long fast descent on farm tracks leads by way of traffic free -apart from the odd tractor- lanes to the hamlet of Longyester.
Longyester marks a distinct change in the terrain to be traversed, an antiquated signpost gives the clue, ‘Impassable for motors’ warns the pointing finger.
I’ve realised that if I continue to give a blow by blow account this article will a) Become a bit boring and b) I might not live long enough to finish it! – So, suffice to say that the departure from Longyester heralds the first of many up and downy bumpy bits over hillside and open moor with a couple of burn fordings thrown in for good measure. I was lucky in that I was able to choose a fairly settled spell of weather for my attempt unlike participants on the inaugural ride who will just have to take what the weather Gods provide – Let Us Pray! – The hills in the Border country, while being nowhere near as high as those in the Highlands are, nonetheless, very exposed in places.
Skirting the town of Lauder, which provides the opportunity to refuel, hill tracks lead on towards Melrose and the banks of the River Tweed and so it goes rolling on, taking in parts of The Borders Abbey Way, St Cuthberts Way and of course, a feature of much of the route, The Southern Upland Way.
The first Hikeabike section I encountered was a steep forest track after The Trail passes near the town of Selkirk and as darkness was beginning to fall I chose to bivi there on a very comfy bed of pine needles. That said, as most of the Capital Trail participants will probably be half my age and will have the additional benefit of the extra daylight available to them in June, most will choose to press on to the high moors past the Three Brethern leading by The Southern Upland Way and the Minch Moor Road to the first of the two 7 Stanes Mountain Bike loops to be encountered. This one above the town of Innerleithen. The more suitably sited, at least in terms of The Trail event, Minch Moor Bothy is to be found on the descent off these trails towards Traquair and I’m sure this will prove to be an overnighting target for many as the next section, the ascent up to Dun Rig and onwards to Peebles, involves rather more in the way of routefinding/hiking, is very exposed and would not be the most pleasant of prospects in the dark.
The second Trail Centre Loop is taken at Glentress on the outskirts of Peebles and at this stage I still had a fond notion of completing the whole route without a second bivi. However some steep climbing and an incident involving a Carradice saddlebag (Now replaced with Apidura) a favourite Gilet and the drive side of a Hope Hub put paid to that and found me once again bedding down for the night in the lee of a stone wall on the Old Drove Road through the Meldons. I was in the open this time and although comfortable on a bed of moss rather than pine needles, even the canopy of stars did not quite make up for the drop in temperature compared to my previous abode.
Onwards now by way of mostly grassy tracks with the odd bit of hiking towards West Linton. There is a remoteness to these hills that surprises given their proximity to Edinburgh and the only person I encountered was a shepherd on foot with his dogs.
A welcome coffee and Bacon rolls, taken Al fresco on the pavement outside the Deli in West Linton, revived me before the final push through and then over The Pentland Hills and on towards the finish.
Descending to the col below West Kip, it was a welcome sight to get a glimpse of Edinburgh in the distance and finally feel able to be pretty sure I was going to complete this wonderful and challenging journey. All that remained was the gently downward trending Water of Leith and the Union Canal , a trip through the city, including a final climb round Arthur’s Seat and the last singletrack descent of the Brunstane Path to take me back to my starting point at The Tide cafe.
There is much variation in the territory traversed on this memorable journey, from railway paths and canal banks, through woodland singletrack, quiet lanes and historic drove roads to the wildest of heathery hike a bike hills. In its span of 150 miles or so, for those of you dealing in old money, you will ford streams, pass or visit bothies or perhaps bivi under the stars on wooded hillsides. It is without doubt a challenging ride, where head will be just as important as legs, and is definitely one not to be undertaken lightly – I packed my Bus Pass just in case 🙂 – Enjoy.