A runners perspective

I hope this blog is of use/interest to walkers, runners and cyclists living in or intending to visit Scotland. Most of my entries below are described as long-distance runs - just because that's currently what I enjoy doing...

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Speyside Way - Part 1

Distance: 50miles (80km) Ascent/Descent: 1260m/1070m  
Start/Finish: Buckie to Grantown on Spey  
Terrain: Mostly easy river-side rail-trail, some long stretches of tarmac, boggy hillside for 7 miles after Cragganmore 
Transport: train to Elgin then good early bus service to Buckie, train and  citylink bus services at Aviemore Route Map1/2 | Route Map2/2


There's plenty great info on the Speyside Way online, but I struggled to find many blogs covering exploration of the whole thing.  Most blogs that I did find were runners race reports from the Speyside Way Race, which covers the original 36mile length of the route (before it got extended to Aviemore and Buckie).  Being low level and never too far from civilisation it feels like a good Winter option.  The public transport at either end worked out well, allowing a 7am start from Buckie in spite of catching the train to Elgin late on Friday and staying the night there (plenty buses, and not so many trains South from Aviemore in the afternoon/evening).


It's still dark, not long past 7am on a Saturday morning, three of us running briskly along a frosty railway path directly towards a full moon, sound of waves crashing against the nearby shore, and the whole day ahead to look forward to - just brilliant!  For one day at least, we had become part of those annoying morning people who get up and "do stuff" before everyone else wakes up.  (And then post about it on Facebook).

We left the square in Buckie and with some success followed the waymarkers along the coast, squashed between the road and shingle.  It was dark and I'd never been here before so can't really describe what we were missing, but we weren't missing lots of puddles and stones!

Daylight was imminent as we entered the woods near the mouth of the River Spey - this bit of singletrack was a blast, then out of the trees and past the old empty hotel and along tarmac to the wildlife centre.  Dolphins are a common sight from here.  This morning we just had to make do with a cloudy sunrise and the sounds of breakers somewhere behind the dunes.

From here we were finally heading more S along the bank of the river, starting the journey upstream towards the Aviemore and the Cairngorm National Park.  At first the scene was very flat, farmtrack beside fields of stubble and muddy woodland, then after a few miles of this we were running under the A96 road bridge and into a park on the edge of Fochabers, where the first of many forested hills roll up above the Spey.  The river was always closeby on our right.
Earth Pillars Viewpoint (after Fochabers)

You don't see much of Fochabers from the Speyside Way itself, which heads away from the river along a burn then routes you back S past and around the school to join a singetrack tarmac road.  The next few miles of the route are along this, which from the few other blogs I've read can be a disappointment for walkers, but for runners/cyclists its pleasant enough I thought - climbing immediately up onto hillside, traffic rare, views opening out.  On top of the first rise is a sign for "the Earth Pillars", and curiosity got the better of us so we followed the narrow path into the trees in search of them.  What we found was a nice viewpoint above the river, but no pillars.  It was only after returning to the Speyside Way road and following it down into a deep gully and steeply up the otherside that we understood.  Looking back across to where we'd been, the steep hillside itself was composed of pillars of earth rising above the Spey.  The road here would make for great cycling - challenging but pretty.  Today we had to be very careful with black ice.  Knowing we still had a long journey ahead of us, we took a brief walking break on this hill (its a great excuse) then enjoyed some relaxing downhill tarmac through thick pine forest before emerging onto open hillside that allowed inspiring views over the Spey and to the higher hills cloaked in haze beyond.  That's where we were heading!

The road drops down to Boat o' Brig, an impressive structure, but rather than crossing the river here the route zig-zags offroad up into the trees and so begins the climb onto the shoulders of Beinn Aigan.  I really enjoyed this bit - again other blogs have understandably groaned about the forestry and lack of views, but there was something really nice about the track up through the trees here, really peaceful running country.  And after climbing to 200m altitude we were rewarded with another just-off-trail viewpoint back downstream towards the coast - looking very distant now!

The forest track starts descending, occasionally threatening to climb again but generally allowing downhill coasting, back off the sides of Beinn Aigan to meet another country road by the river.  This is followed to the A94 just N of Craigellachie, where a sign said "Bar" and I so started talking about Guinness, and would continue doing so for the next 25 miles.

Here we made our rendezvous with Norrie, who would join us for an out-and-back run along the Speyside Way (he ended up clocking a marathon!).  Again the way doesn't really enter town, but I needed some water or sports drink so went in search for some, ending up at a garage on the road to Dufftown before I found any so owed an apology to the others by the time I rushed back down.

Looking back to the coast from Ben Aigan (not picnic time of year though)
So now there were four of us heading along the bank of the Spey along old railway trail, the river always near.  Again Aberlour was bypassed closeby on the left.  It was really nice, easy running along the rail path, very enjoyable even on tiring legs.  The Spey wound its way through the hills, quite closed-in at times, and the scene was of damp winter colours (reds, golds, browns of the trees and bracken, green fields with sheep, grey river and sky!). 

I can't describe the speyside way without mentioning distilleries, we passed a fair few, some right against the path.  There were also "preserved" railway stations that I recognised from photographs - Blacksboat being one.  Surprisingly not very many other people about along the way today, I guess it is early January, but I can only remember seeing two groups of cyclists, and I can't recall seeing any backpackers!  We had been very lucky with the weather.  When I'd planned this weeks ago I had kind of hoped for a crisp winters' day with a coating of snow, but what we had was fine - a cool cloudy day and a light wind from the S, which we were sheltered from in the valley and trees most of the time.

After what seemed like miles and miles along leafy railway path by the river, we crossed the Spey and arrived at Cragganmore where Fionna's dad was waiting to take her back home after a 34mile morning's run!  Dad's are great.  We took photos, said goodbyes, then it was just me, Carrie and Norrie for the next bit, heading W along the river.  Norrie had ran more than he planned but was fair chuffed when he realised after another kilometer he'd have covered half a marathon, which meant a marathon by the time he got back to his car at Craigellachie!  So shortly he was saying goodbye to and it was just two of us left to continue the journey along the Spey.
Bridge by Cragganmore

Its not long after Cragganmore where the scenery changes quite a bit - mostly because the route departs the railway and river bank and heads S up onto boggy hillside, and so the enclosed river-side is left behind and quickly we found ourselves surrounded by an open landscape of rolling heathery hills, the Cairngorm National Park was getting very close!  Again I found it quite inspiring - the flat farmlands and coast felt a long way away now.

This was the start of what's described as the "toughest" section of the way.  Its all relative of course - the Speyside Way is generally very easy, but after running 36 miles the  boggy ups and downs along hillsides are never going to feel like a stroll in the park!  The route climbs to cross the A95 road then climbs some more up through birch and onto muddy forest track.  I commented to Carrie how chuffed I was that we had got this far in daylight.  We'd covered the ground a lot quicker than I anticipated having assumed we'd be in darkness now, navigating by headtorch, which other than the obvious "training benefit" really defeats the most of the purpose of doing this stuff, for me anyway.  Neither of us had been along the Speyside way before (well the bit as far as Nethy Bridge anyway) which was much of the appeal of doing this route.

We were now traversing the NW slopes of the Hills of Cromdale, the Spey lost somewhere below on our right, the hilltops lost above grey murk above on our left.  And then the drizzle started.  The next few miles were up and down, forest track interspersed with sections of mud, tufty grass, bog, often enclosed by fences, lots of gates, lots of stepping stones which were hazardous due to a coating of icy moss, and more often than not I opted for the safer if unpleasant cold-wet-feet option!

Some more gates, fences, mud.  Yes I was tired now, and I had enjoyed my day but by this point I was counting down the kilometers to a warm hotel in Grantown and never mind one pint of guinness I was now thinking more a "sesh" of guinness.  Maybe the bar would have some Cairngorm Brewery beers too.  Carrie was after fish an chips, then beer.  It all felt like fantasy here on the cold damp hillsides.

"10km to go!" I announced, somewhere on a steep uphill section which entered thick spruce forest ahead.  I had my phone with the route on it so generally knew exactly how far was left.  We'd recently just passed a stone plaque with the Cairngorm National Park logo on it.  And it was still daylight - although the sky was darkening very, very slowly.  And having not eaten much today I was feeling the cold a bit more now!

I knew we were on the "penultimate" hill of the day before dropping back down to the Spey, the A95 and the railway path again.  When we got there, it really did feel like the final stretch, just 3 miles to town, and mostly easy going.  Back to flat fields, with the village of Cromdale on our left.  We crossed the Spey for the final time today via a tarmac road, and then onto a really nice woodland path which took us into Anagach Woods - pine trees and carpet of heather.  We clocked the "50mile" mark somewhere in here.  It was near-dark in the woods, but we could still just about manage without headtorches, and soon I was able to announce "Civilisation!  I can see a street light!"

We emerged from the woods at a Speyside Way info sign at the bottom of a lane, and agreed to stop running there.  The hotel was found, eventually, and I made contact with the folks who were up exploring the area too, and so it wasn't too long before we were enjoying the beer, food, warm clothes and great feeling of satisfaction in the pub.