Gypsy Glen

The Gypsy Glen descent: why natural trails are vital to mountain biking

The Gypsy Glen descent: why natural trails are vital to mountain biking

(part 2 of 2)

Read part 1 here

Having ignored two of Britain’s best trail centres and grovelled my way up a massive climb, I’d seen not a soul for hours and was knackered. Was the Gypsy Glen descent going to be worth it?

Can we do the fun bit now?

I felt much more chipper about things after a pasty and some fruit. From my lunch spot I couldn’t see very far as I’d opted to stay out of the wind. But the peace and quiet were remarkable. There were no birds, no large animals and no people. The only people I’d seen since leaving the road were in aeroplanes high above. There was a real sense of placidness about this place. However, I wasn’t here to indulge a need for mindfulness. I was here to ride my bike, to experience the famed Gypsy Glen descent. Time to do that.

Lets get on with this

Lets get on with this

One of the fears of a ride like this is that you spend ages climbing to the top and then the descent is rubbish.

I remember riding Hawkcombe in Exmoor a few years back and had a similar feeling then. Phil had blown a gasket and had to be towed the last few miles to the top with promises of a great descent. I had no idea, other than the articles I’d read in praise of it, how good it really was. Phil was toasted and unconvinced. The top was unprepossessing but, about twenty yards in, all doubts were brushed aside as we whooped our way towards the sea.

I was hoping for the same here. No pressure. There’s a reason why it’s a classic, and it’s not the climb.

Good things come to those who wait, naturally

There was still a little more climbing to do, and that took me above the wind shadow of the ridge. I was suddenly confronted with the aftermath of storm Ali and glad I’d chosen to put a coat on. This did not bode well…

…But slowly, and almost imperceptibly, the gradient eased off and then began to point downhill. Not hugely, but enough to drop the saddle and stand up, grateful just to stop pedalling for the moment. Then it got steeper, it was loose and rocky, reminiscent again of Exmoor. Just enough for the wheels to start to pick up speed, then just enough to pop the front wheel off little lips in the trail. This was fun. It wasn’t flowy, and required constant concentration to ride onsight but it was definitely fun. Rocks began to fly up from under my wheels as I contoured down the hillside. The sweeping curve of the hill tightened into a left-right chicane that plunged me down to a rocky ford and spat me out of the other side, slightly unsure how it had happened and that I hadn’t been thrown off somewhere.

The top at last

The top at last

I was actually smiling.

Now the Gypsy Glen descent begins

This is why I love natural trails: there’s no knowing what’s just around the corner.

Inevitably, what was just around the corner was the slight climb up to the top of Kirkhope Law. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. Just a gentle rise to the rounded summit. Looking back, I could see the path I’d climbed up out of the forestry on, past my lunch stop and down to the ford.

Looking ahead, finally, the vista opened up in front of me. And what a view! I could see denture-like tops away in the distance, the rolling hills of the borders in between, Peebles nestled down in the valley floor.

Gypsy Glen all downhill from here

Gypsy Glen all downhill from here

Oh, wow! Snaking its way down the spine of the ridge was what appeared to be miles of downhill singletrack: the famed Gypsy Glen descent. All the climbing was behind me, laid out in front was the rest of the day. I was on top of the World!

The only thing missing was someone to share being lost for words with. Actually, it was pretty chilly, and the wind was biting. So, I didn’t hang round any longer than needed to take a few photos and got on with it.

The natural way down

It took about twenty yards for the pain, the disgruntlement and the potential tantrum-throwing to be washed away.

The trail braided into three or four interwoven paths, some a bit rocky, others smooth. They changed all the time forcing me to choose my line with care to avoid running into the occasional larger chunk of rock. It never felt like I was going to slam into something and launch over the bars, but there was enough going on to keep me from letting go of the brakes entirely this time round.

It swung back and forth as the gradient fell away in front of me, letting me launch of the lips that occurred every now and again. I was having fun. Right up until I whammed the anchors on to stop me plunging into a bog. I stopped inches short.

Danger: Bog!

Danger: Bog!

Then it was a little more climbing up to Kailzie Hill followed my more descending. Flying along the ridge, I was absorbed but never terrified by the trail. There was enough going on, and enough hidden from view that rocketing along that I never felt completely comfortable just plummeting. This time.

Then it got steeper. And steeper. A blind crest ridden at walking pace. Probably for the best as it fell away on the other side. Then another blind crest. Steeper again. Another blind crest, falling away steeply. This time I could see the bottom and could let go of the brakes. Which is for the best as it was steep enough that they’d have had little effect. Bum on mudguard, drop in.

And fly out of the other side of the hollow.


Just came down that!

Just came down that!

It’s only natural: a sting in the tail

I stopped at the gate. The main Gypsy Glen descent trail went straight on, heading for the end of the ridge.

I wasn’t going that way: I’d had a tip-off that there was good riding to be had just off the main droveway. As long as I was prepared for a little more climbing.

I was, but pushing rather than riding.

On top of Craig Head, Peebles was laid out before me. A small scuff in the long grass indicated the way ahead.

The edge of the world

The edge of the world

Rolling along the path steepened suddenly, repeated blind crests meant that I could only five or ten yards in front of me. Beyond that, who knew? Apart from increasing steepness, probably. Blind crests were now accompanied by blind corners too. I dared myself to go faster, then reeled it in again when the consequences of a mistake were remembered. Then I allowed myself to pick up speed again, only to be met with another blind, off camber, corner. Everything was different to the drove road. Everything was brilliant. Taking my eyes off it for a moment was asking for a disaster.

Hitting the main droveway again, everything changed again. Now it was steep grassy lane, swinging sinuously left and right. I was right at home on this, allowing the bike to move back and forth, testing the limits of traction on the damp grass, manualling off the small humps and bumps in the trail.

Steep and grassy

Steep and grassy

It was breathless fun, daring myself closer and closer to warp speed. Duck under the tree, pick a terrace line round the bend. Stop before the gate.



Nearly There

Through the gate and into a tree lined lane. The gradient was more benign, there were fewer curves. For the first time in abut an hour, I could just roll along, relaxed. Carrying enough speed that pedalling was unnecessary.

Then back into the trees, and it suddenly steepened again. This time with steps. I briefly thought about rolling through and braking afterwards. Then I realised that the run-out at the bottom was a river. I had no idea how deep the river was.

I braked.


I stopped six inches short of the river bank.

And got off.

Time for a break. And what a place for it: a beautiful little glen, filled with trees and a bridge over the river that I could dangle my feet off. This was the perfect place for a second lunch. Warm, dry and gorgeous.

Does this rider look happy?

Does this rider look happy?

Then to see if the river really was fordable. Important for a return trip. It was. Mostly.

From here, it was a case of finding y way back to the river and rolling along the other half of the tweed Valley Cycle Path. A couple of detours onto sweet singletrack reminded me why I love Scotland’s access laws. Especially one bit where a mistake meant plunging into the Tweed.

Tiredness was setting in now. My legs were jaded, my arms were feeling the pummelling from the descent. I needed cake.

Why is the Gypsy Glen descent famous? Because it’s like this

Having eschewed the delights of the trail centre earlier, I was not going to resist the charms of its cake and hot chocolate if I rolled past the gate.

Earned: chocolate and cake

Earned: chocolate and cake

What a way to finish a magic ride. Classic is a word that gets bandied about a lot, especially in mountain biking. But the Gypsy Glen descent is a stone-cold classic natural ride. You’ll be out on your own most of the day and it’s a long way to help if anything goes wrong. It’s hard work to get up there, and it keeps you working the whole way down. But I guarantee, you’ll be smiling when you reach the ford.

You should go there.

Read part 1 here

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides
Gypsy Glen: why natural trails are an important part of mountain biking

Gypsy Glen: why natural trails are an important part of mountain biking

(Part 1 of 2)

Read part 2 here

I enjoy riding trail centres with their all-weather surfaces and their guaranteed quality riding. But there is a part of me that will always love natural trails with their uncertainty and sense of adventure. That, and a big contrary streak, is why I recently rode right past two of the biggest and best trail centres in the country to get to Gypsy Glen’s natural delights.

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The plan was beautiful in its genius. Mel needed to attend a work conference at a hotel in Cardrona, halfway between Peebles and Innerleithen. In fact, it’s barely a mile from Glentress Forest, home of one of the biggest, oldest and best trail centres in Scotland. So, the plan was this: after seeing family and friends in Edinburgh & Glasgow we would head to Glentress with for a day’s riding, and I would go out with an old friend the following day and do the natural classic Gypsy Glen.

That was the plan.

The weather had other ideas. Sometimes, as Paul Simon said, “It just don’t work out that way

A few days before we were due to ride, it was announced that the first storm of the winter, Ali, was due to blow through Scotland on the day we were due to ride Glentress. “It’ll be fine, it’ll blow through” “We’ll hang fire until the morning, and make the call then” “It’ll probably be less severe by then.” Such platitudes bounced back and forth across Scotland.

On the morning in question, it was hosing down and blowing a hoolie in Edinburgh. The forecast for Peebles was winds of 68mph with gusts and higher. A bad day to be in forestry plantation. With heavy hearts we called the whole thing off and did other things instead.

It was probably for the best given how many bits of Edinburgh were closed by falling…stuff. The rain battering off the windows when we arrived at the hotel confirmed we’d taken the right decision. Still, it was disappointing. Glentress is a lot of fun, as I reminded myself when I was there a couple of years ago.

Second time lucky

Luckily for me, I had another ride in my back pocket: I planned to take on the Gypsy Glen natural classic. Just me and an old mate, out in the hills for the day. In a nutshell Gypsy Glen is a 30km triangular ride. One side is flat, one side is pretty much all downhill. The other? Ah, that’s all uphill. It’s not epic, but it’s definitely a significant undertaking. While never far from civilisation, it’s a long way from help should anything go wrong, so it’s not to be taken lightly. Especially the day after the first storm of autumn.

Or, at least, that was the plan.

Sadly, Andy realised he couldn’t make it at the last minute. So, I was on my own. I wasn’t entirely convinced it was a good plan.

On the other hand, I’d brought the bikes a very long way so I was definitely going for a ride. It was time to indulge my inner Wainwright. And take a large bag, filled with everything I could conceivably need, including a portable shelter.

Off for some Gypsy Glen adventure, naturally

The sun was shining as I unloaded the bike from the car and set off along the Tweed. From the Hotel in Cardrona, I was starting about halfway along that flat side of the triangle, so could expect several km to get my legs in order before the hills started. As a start to a ride, it’s pretty good: traffic-free flat tarmac on the banks of the river. I found myself rolling along, relaxed and sitting up while the world passed me by. Part of the world that passed me by was a pump track on the edge of Cardrona. Wary of how my legs might feel later in the day, I eschewed the chance for a play. Maybe on the way home?

Tweed Valley Railway Path

Tweed Valley Railway Path

The other thing I saw was he couple I met in a Peebles bike shop earlier in the morning hiring bikes. They clearly planned to ride to Innerleithen and back, a nice day out. They seemed very surprised to see me again. The Tweed Valley Railway Path is a lovely way to see this part of the world as well as a way of commuting between these towns without dicing with traffic along the main road. Credit to Sustrans for making this happen.

Whilst I was having fun, I was increasingly uncomfortably aware of the size of the hills looming over my right shoulder. This was all lovely but, at some point I was going to have to get up there.

Head down, tarmac up

Eventually, the path popped me out on the outskirts of Innerleithen and it was time to get some road miles in. One of the nice things about trail centre riding is that it’s designed to be ridden and has few “linking sections”. Natural rides, by contrast, often require riding on roads and other unlikely places to get from one bit of good stuff to the next. This was no different, with a 6km road section between me and the first proper trails.

There was a part of me that took great, if perverse, delight in riding straight past the car park for the Innerleithen trails. While people were unloading bikes for a fun day of sending the steep trails in the woods, I was off for an adventure in the wilds of nature.

It didn’t take long for that to seem like a really bad idea. The road went steadily, but relentlessly, uphill. Each slight ramp made me curse the fat tyres and the slow bike as well as my legs. It didn’t bode well for when the real climbing started.

Orchard Mains

Orchard Mains

Turning right off the B road onto the minor road that ran up to the Glen Estate, I found myself plunged into a beautiful little valley. I made a mental note, as I crossed the small bridge at Orchard Mains, that every yard from here was going to be uphill until I got to the ridge. It was not an appealing thought. The prettiness of my surroundings helped ease the pain, as did the company of a buzzard that flew low over my head from perch to perch ahead of me. It will come as no surprise to people who know me that I shouted “buzzard!” at it every time it took off, even though no one else was listening.

Time to hit natural dirt

The gentle but insistent climb through the glen bottom had to come to an end at some point. I turned off the tarmac onto an estate road, then turned right onto a track to be confronted with the first proper evidence of Ali’s passing: a large sycamore had come down across the track. Off I hopped and, not for the last time I suspected, shouldered the bike as I climbed through the foliage.

And then I saw it.

It was like a bracken covered wall

It was like a bracken covered wall

So far, the climb had been treating me with kid gloves, now the Gypsy Glen ride started for real. As soon as I passed through the gate onto the moor, it threw the gloves down in challenge and punched me in the stomach. It was like a wall, a bracken covered, grassy wall, but a wall nonetheless.

Let’s see how we get on with this, shall we? The path turned straight up the slope and made for the bealach in the ridge line. It was brutally steep, and went all the way to the horizon. Downshift, downshift again, downshift another time, downshift again…oh. It was about a hundred yards in that I ran out of gears. No spinning for me, I couldn’t keep the front end down. I was reduced to stepping slowly on the pedals, inching my way slowly up the grassy path. Constantly praying that I didn’t hoop out the front wheel or spin out the back or, worse, both at the same time. I never looked more than ten yards from my front wheel as I grovelled my way up, expecting at any minute to lose my battle with the hill.

Initially, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But, the further I got up the thing, the more important it became to get there without dabbing. It wasn’t desperately technical, but there was enough going on to make it a test of skill as well as raw power.

It's a long way up here.

It’s a long way up here.

Eventually I made it to the bealach and got off to take a photo of where I’d come from before turning round to see the view ahead of me…Oh, you’re joking! Really?

It's even further to go to the top

It’s even further to go to the top

What lay ahead was more of the same, snaking its way up towards the ridgeline. Not all as brutally steep as the first section, but with nasty little ramps and more technical difficulty. (I remembered something from the Lord of the Rings about a steep stair followed by a winding one, but dismissed it) Oh, for pity’s sake.

Onwards and upwards

Right. Let’s do this.

I saddled up and got on with it. I settled into a steady rhythm standing on the pedals like on of those Tour de France riders in the Pyrenees who is virtually stationary as the leaders shoot by. Still, the scenery was impressive. Whenever I could lift my head long enough to look at it.

I grovelled my way up, winching slowly towards the gate on the ridgeline. By this time, I’d been climbing for the best part of 2km since climbing over the tree back in the valley so the sight of the gate coming towards me was welcome. I was very pleased with myself when I got there: I’d gained 160 vertical metres since the tree. I allowed myself an imaginary pat on the back for having done so well. All I had to do now was go through the gate and turn left to run along the edge of the plantation…

…oh. It’s like that is it.

The path along the edge of the plantation appeared to be the steepest bit of trail I’d encountered all morning. Not only that, but my predictions of how fast I’d get here had been blown out of the water. I was hoping to make up some time along the “fun singletrack under the trees”. Nae such luck. To add to my joy, the area had been clear felled since the aerial photos had been taken.

Still no point complaining. Gypsy Glen is supposed to be a classic, I’ve got to earn the good bits. Off we go.

This is hard work

This is hard work

I got twenty yards before I was off and pushing.

I got another ten yards before I realised that the trail was too narrow and the undergrowth too thick to stand beside my bike.

On the shoulders it went.

This had better be worth it.

Are we nearly there yet?

After an eternity, but probably about ten minutes, I got to terrain flat enough to ride. My legs were rubbery from the climb and I struggled to maintain a straight line, which was troublesome on singletrack eight inches across.

One of the route descriptions I’d read before setting off described the last bit in the forestry as being a “steep drop” which could mean anything from a gentle slope through to an unrideable cliff face. It started fairly benignly enough, but the trail consisted of a narrow slot about eight inches across and the same deep. So, it wouldn’t take much of a mistake to pitch me over the bars.

Soon enough, my bum was hovering just above the back wheel as the slot steepened. The best part of an hour’s climbing had prepared me poorly for this drop. Just ride it out, it’ll be fine. Then it steepened again and I saw the drift of detritus washed down the previous day. This far from help, discretion was the better part of valour, so I brought the bike to a halt and hopped off before pushing the last ten yards of the descent.

Part of me was cross for not just battering through, a little speed would have seen me through, surely. A slightly more grown-up part pointed out that I had no idea what the bottom of the drop was like from where I got off and that I’d have been much crosser if I’d gone out through the front door at the furthest point on the ride from assistance.

I got on the bike again as the trail pointed uphill again. Then, when the gradient proved too much for my tired legs.

It was clearly time for lunch.

I've earned my lunch today

I’ve earned my lunch today

Click here to read part 2

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, Uncategorised