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Pushing the boundaries

By John Davidson

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Approaching the Bedford Bridge at Falls of Tarf.
Approaching the Bedford Bridge at Falls of Tarf.

"The interesting bike routes are the ones that you can barely manage on a bike,” Harry Henniker says in his excellent collection of 101 Mountain Bike Routes in Scotland.

I’m inclined to agree with him, and this through route which links two classic mountain bike outings in a long, hard day in and out of the saddle certainly fits the assertion.

My plan was to go from Blair Atholl to Feshiebridge near Kincraig, going through two famous glens, the Tilt and the Feshie. Starting at the Old Bridge of Tilt car park, the route is all off road apart from a few miles at the very end to reach the Feshiebridge car park.

That makes it a tough proposition, especially because for a large proportion the going is rough and in large parts must be walked. There are two long stretches on the map which show there is no track – one between the Falls of Tarf and the ruin of Bynack Lodge and the other from near Geldie Lodge to Upper Glen Feshie.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect in these path sections, so set my mind that I’d have to walk both stretches – a total of around 12km or 7 miles. I didn’t take into account the extra walking I’d have to do in Upper Glen Feshie where the OS map suggests a continuous track that no longer exists on the ground. The Harvey map gives a better indication of the sometimes intricate tracks and paths that criss-cross this beautiful glen.

John riding through Glen Tilt.
John riding through Glen Tilt.

Peter and I set off from the Old Bridge of Tilt – having left one car at Feshiebridge – and took the Atholl Estates track towards Marble and Forest lodges. There’s a little bit of climbing involved but Glen Tilt is rideable all the way to half a kilometre short of the Falls of Tarf. Watch out for a fork in the track about 2.5 miles beyond Forest Lodge, where the right fork keeps you on course. From the point where you can see the Bedford Bridge, it’s easy enough to freewheel down and over the crossing, which was built in 1886 to commemorate the death of Francis John Bedford, an 18-year-old who drowned near here in 1879.

It’s a beautiful bridge and a stunning location. As I arrived, a group of five mountain bikers were taking a break there en route from Braemar to Blair Atholl. They had come through the shorter of the rough sections we were heading for next and were glad to have it behind them. It was going to be a long day.

Peter arrived behind me and was forced to turn back after accepting that a niggling foot injury was only getting worse. There was no sense getting out into the wilds where any problems would be exacerbated, so now I was on my own.

A slip and a bang of the knee as I fought with the bike – now being pushed – for space on the narrow path reminded me of the dangers of even a twisted ankle from now on. There was no phone signal and few people pass this way. Refocused, I continued through a beautiful gorge with precious little opportunity to get back on the bike.

Beyond the gorge, boggy ground lay ahead but the track began a little before the map suggested, so I was happy to get pedalling again, albeit slowly. Approaching the ruin of Bynack Lodge, the magnificent Cairngorm massif rose above the lower confines of the glens. If you do venture out here, don’t be tempted to cross the tributary where the track leads to a ford before the lodge – keep the water on your right and you soon meet the obvious track that leads past the now decrepit building.

There are a few river crossings ahead – the first is a burn where I was able to keep above water going rock to rock and using the bike to steady myself; the second I took off my shoes and socks and plodded, ankle deep, through the water; the third was a different matter altogether.

The Geldie Burn is the one major obstacle on this outing – though, as I discovered, there were many more obstacles to come – and if in spate it can mean turning back. It wasn’t so bad today so I took the shoes off again and went for it.

Drying feet after the cold crossing of the Geldie Burn.
Drying feet after the cold crossing of the Geldie Burn.

This was a much harder crossing – the water came to just below my knees and the boulders that lined the bottom of the burn were slippery. I got a quarter of the way across the 10-metre width before realising the seriousness of the effort required... the cold water was taking my breath away and I had to concentrate, thankful for the bike to act as a balance again.

Finally out the other side, I stopped and got my towel out of the rucksack to dry and warm my feet, had a hot drink from my flask and enjoyed a brief stop for lunch, conscious that time was getting on and darkness could make the latter part of the route very difficult if I didn’t keep moving.

* Find out how John got on as he headed for Glen Feshie and Feshiebridge in next week’s Active Outdoors - in our newspapers week beginning November 11th.

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