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Route: Hawick – Will’s – Steele Road – Kielder reservoir – Falstone – Flittingford – Falstone – Will’s – Hawick.

Date: May 2017

Distance: 87 miles or 137 kilometres

Days: 2.5

After reading that the MBA had just opened a new bothy near Kielder in Northumberland, I sat down with the maps to try to figure out a route to it from Hawick. I was very excited to find that by stringing five off-road paths together we could travel almost all the way to it. The idea of travelling many miles off-road from our front door to a bothy in another country was an exciting one and had me very fired up to try the trip as soon as possible.

The first of these paths was the old border railway running south from Hawick to Carlisle (closed in 1969 as part of the Beeching cuts). Coming off this at Steele Road, a short road section would take us to the Old Coal Road which crosses the border at the evocatively named Bloody Bush. This would lead down to join the Kielder lakeside path. A short road section to Falstone would lead to the fourth track, a bridleway heading north. The very last few km would be on forestry tracks.

Google maps gave the distance to Falstone to be 55km, which sounded ok for us. As always though, this was an under-estimation. The total in the end was 70km each way, the furthest Joe had travelled in a single day.

The first stop was at the World War One POW camp at Stobs, just south of Hawick. This is the last remaining accomodation hut. Stobs is also probably the best place to join the old railway path if you are coming from Hawick and don’t know the area well. We did this anyway to avoid the young lambs on a section nearer to Hawick.

Riding the old border railway south. The trackbed is in surprisingly good condition and was remarkably obstacle-free.

We detoured round Shankend viaduct as the bridge is now unsafe and closed. We might have risked it and nipped across, but the little bridges we had ridden under already were very rotten so I didn’t fancy this one.

Joe, Imagining the steam trains crossing Shankend viaduct. There are moves afoot to re-open the railway, which would be fantastic for towns like Hawick, but would obviously take the path away from the likes of cyclists and walkers though.

The railway path again with a signal-box in the distance. The gate also looks to have been re-used from the railway. As a former archaeologist, I love things like this.

Approaching Whitrope tunnel for a closer look.  The tunnel is now closed off due to several internal collapses. It wasn’t sealed off til 2008 so I’m sad to have missed the chance to ride it.

Inside Whitrope tunnel, viewed from through the fence.  It is the forth longest railway tunnel in Scotland.

We detoured up and over Whitrope tunnel. We took the wrong route just before this photo and it cost us a lot of time and energy. Two of the three Trimontium Eildons are faintly visible in the notch between the hills and Ruberslaw can also be seen on the right.

We had a look around Whitrope heritage centre, where enthusiasts are restoring the trains.

Joe, wondering what on earth this strange red box is for.

An old train carriage at Whitrope heritage centre

An original railway mile-marker, seen in the undergrowth at the side of the old border railway.

We stopped off briefly at Wills bothy, opened as a memorial to a 26 year old climber Will Ramsbottam, who died in a climbing accident in 1993.

Inside Wills bothy. Sadly this is often abused as a party den with the result that it is no longer maintained by the MBA or The Friends of Wills Bothy. You can see from the chimney breast and fireplace that the chimney has begun to collapse, but that sort of repair work just isn’t happening any more. It was only relatively rubbish-free for our visit because the person before had cleared up the remains of the last party. It is stumbling along on the strength of this sort of goodwill, but threatened with demolition by the Forestry Commision who own it. It’s difficult to know what else can be done.

Joe’s best gangster pose. One of the great things about bothies is the wee treats people leave behind – you never quite know what you will find – in this case a box of cigars. We left them for someone else to find (only slightly sucked).

At the start of the old coal road, a cross-border cart-track which fell out of use with the coming of the railway. I am fascinated by this old network of drove roads and paths that were once as important as our roads now are to us.

Having made a few route errors and done a bit too much siteseeing, we were very late in heading up the old coal road. Joe got very hungry, so we had to stop and cook dinner. As it has been so dry here lately I had to use our wee woodburner in the middle of the track so as not to set the forest on fire. If it looks uncomfortable then you are right, but no matter as we had to eat and run. On the menu was spicy prawn noodles with fried corgette and halloumi – not because we are posh, but because it travels well and it is something that Mr Fusspot will eat.

Bloody Bush road is part of the cross-border trail cycle route, though I didn’t find anything about this online before we left.

Flittingford bothy the next morning. We didn’t reach the bothy til 1am the night before. Joe was completely knackered and I had to ride pushing him and carrying all his luggage to get him the final few km. I won’t win Mum of the Year for that one. We had a tarp to sleep under, so we could have stopped earlier, but we both wanted to keep going to get to the warmth of the bothy. It was a tough journey though, but had the consolation of being a new daily record for Joe – 70km, smashing his old record of 64km.

Admittedly it was a full-moon, but I still think I deserve some sort of specially struck medal for finding the bothy in the dark from this forest track (she said, modestly). It is in the middle of this photo, just in front of the trees. In the moonlight I thought I could see a slightly darker bit against the dark forest which I reckoned might be the bothy, and managed to find the only footpath to it on the first go. I had a very knackered child with me and it was 1am so it could easily have turned into a stressful nightmare so we were very lucky really. In a few years the new planting will have grown around it and it will be really hard to find.

The path to the bothy, the gable end against the moonlight the night before was a very welcome sight as it was the first confirmation that we were definitely on the right path and weren’t just stumbling around in the dark.

No, not a bottle of pee – the water was rather peaty.

The bothy is tiny, but unoccupied when we arrived, so we brought our bikes in and made the place look very untidy with all our gear.

The recently-opened Flittingford bothy – it would sleep four if you were friendly and possibly two more on the floor in a push. We had it to ourselves though which was great.

My French mime artiste son writing in the bothy book. Joe would like me to point out that these are his Merino wool pyjamas and not a onesie.

Heading back down from the bothy towards Kielder water.

Although we had breakfast at the bothy there was plenty of room for a second ‘Breakfast of Champions’ in Falstone at the Old School cafe.

The Stell in Falstone, an odd but endearing stone and metal artwork.

The Stell, Falstone, sofas and cushions in stone, anticamassars in steel. Just because.

Kielder Water. I had wanted to incorporate a ferry trip into our route which would have been fun, but unfortunately things just didn’t work out with the departure times.

Riding the forest path round Kielder water. It’s a bit like Glentress, but less scary and with grannies and dogs. So nothing like it at all really.

Looking back at the start of the old coal road and a fence to lift the bikes over. In the dark the night before we had taken a slightly different route that was a lot easier than this one.

A tired boy climbing up on the old coal road away from Kielder.

Joe is not happy with my route-selection. It got worse, then unexpectedly better, as we stumbled upon an old long-abandoned cycle route that swooped us off the hill and out of the fankle of fallen trees we had found ourselves caught up in.

Midges, on their holidays in Northumberland.

Joe’s bike is in Scotland, mine is in England.

Half in England, half in Scotland. The border toll stone at Bloody Bush, so-called as it was the scene of an ambush of an English raiding party.
The stone gives rates for carts of coal and distances to various towns in the area. It says 21 miles to Hawick, so it sits roughly the half-way point.

Riding in Scotland again on the old coal road. I think this is my favourite photo of the trip.

The evening sunlight through the trees, golden light on the hills, and my boy and I out on our bikes. Happy place. Its great to be carrying everything you need to spend the night outside so that you don’t have to worry when it starts getting dark, but can just enjoy the gorgeous light and the uplifting thrill of just being there.

We reached Will’s bothy at dusk at 9.30pm and I called it a day there, although we only had 25km left to get home. Joe wanted to carry on, but I could see how tired he was and I was worried that our bike-light batteries which had taken quite a caning the night before, wouldn’t last the journey. It took us three hours to get home the next day in daylight so I am sure this was the right call. Will’s bothy sadly has quite an unkempt air, so I didn’t really enjoy sleeping there, though Joe didn’t seem to notice and slept very well on the sofa.

The track up over Whitrope tunnel. The route of the tunnel is marked by huge notched mounds of earth. The path over used to follow the course of the tunnel, but now zigzags back and forth to avoid the collapsed bits and hopefully prevent it collapsing further.

A hielan’ coo posing for the camera. We were home again not long after lunch on the third day.

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