The Merrick Circular

The Merrick Circular - 75 kilomteres, one day route around the one of the quietest corner of the Scottish Borders.

The Background

The Merrick, the highest hill in the borders is the jewel in the crown of Galloway Forest Park. If you venture to the summit the elevation of 843 metres gives outstanding views of the whole area. In the south east Criffel stands before the distant lakeland mountains and to the west, Ireland and Goat Fell on Arran can be seen.... on a clear day anyway.

This time it was not the hills that drew Andy Green and myself but the prospect of a bike route seen by Andy in a book (sorry, don't know which title.) The idea was to meet in the carpark of Stockport station. Here Andy would pile his bike and gear into my car and 3 and a half hours later we would be pitching our tents in Glen Trool.

So far, so good. I must point out at this stage that Andy is a young, fit, determined mountain biker. On the other hand I am nowadays a deskbound, overweight, unfit editor of BlueDome. The thought of 75 klicks through the area I knew from 20 years of walking and visits with SARDA, who use Loch Doon for training terrified me!. More than the physical aspects of the trip were the technical. Andy is riding a £1000 piece of bike that weighs about as much as my wrist watch. I am proudly astride a Concept Leader, bought in the 1997 Xmas sales for £100 and weighing slightly less than the Forth Rail Bridge. (I happen to love my bike, it is heavy, only has 18 gears, but its mine!)

Added to this was my insistence that when we go for this day out, we go well prepared.

Galloway Forest Park is a beautiful area, even with the growing number of people heading to explore the outdoors it is still quite, remote, vast and uninhabited.
Dumfries MR and the local SARDA handlers dread rescues in the Galloway Forest Park. You can be lost here in the worst way and it is only the fact that few walkers use the area that results in the low number of call-outs for the rescue teams. I now work closely with Mike Parsons, ex MD of Karrimor and he agrees that the KIMM held in Galloway was the toughest for years.

My panniers, Yes panniers, had a big first aid kit, strobe, duvet jacket, two man bivi bag, stove and two huge tins of rice pudding.

Back to the Chase.....

Camping at Glen Trool is a dream. The only minor drawback is the presence of the biggest midge population in southern scotland. We were there during the last week of September (the campsite closes officially in early October) so the midge problem was lessening, they were still around in the evening though. This is one of the best campsites in scotland, spotless and with enough hot water to ease the severest pains.

The Merrick Circular itself is straightforward, just big. To be on the safe side take both the OS outdoor leisure map no 32 and the Harveys Galloway map. The OS map covers a bigger area but does not have any of the Forestry Commision fire breaks mapped, the Harvey map has all the fire breaks and you may need them, we did.

The Route

You need an early start. 6.30 to 7.00 should do the trick. Out of the campsite and turn right on the metalled road to Bruces Stone, a memorial to a 'wee scrap' when the scots turned the tide against the English. Past the visitors car park and on to the unmade farm track for about 1K towards Glen Head Farm, if you reach the farm you have gone too far. A small track turns right at 428801, we missed it. Possibly because of the stunning sunrise or the Red Deer that we had seen breakfasting on the fellside.

A muddy trudge now ensues, the track is being chewed by bikes, no apology, it is marked 'no cycling'. After about half a K the track turns steeply uphill following Glenhead Burn, try and ride if you can but be warned the ground is as slippy as Friday night kebab. Being the 'sensible one', with panniers I soon got off and pushed, one of the best pushes in the area by my reckoning.

At the point where the forestry road is found the going is easier, but still climbing. If you have that premonition that a great view is in prospect then keep going, you are correct. As you crest at about 250 metres, Loch Dee and the vista of the Rhinns of Kells and Corserine (814 m) greets you. Follow the forestry road, the downhill section here is a taste of things to come. A short climb out of the White Laggen valley passes a remote fishermans shelter, and who should we meet, right, a fisherman, complete with fly rod and waders. Steam was now rising from his waders, we had cycled for 90 minutes, he had walked for an hour, and it was getting warm. He was the only other person we spoke to for 11 hours.

As you start another bone crunching descent, only because the roads are newly remade, mainly of 6 inch square lumps of rock. (It must have taken the builders ages to sort out those lumps, just for us.) There is an obvious left turn to a bridge at 496795. Here we were granted our own low level flypast by an american airforce Tomcat, impressive or what? Continue left across the bridge and start the long climb North, heading along the track for Loch Doon.

It was at this point that I came to realise that I am 46 not 26, time is catching up with me, for now anyway. The track keeps on climbing through thick forest for about 10K, glimpses of the hills are welcome and the silence is impresive, Here the track endeth....

A small cairn by the side of the track was Andy's clue that we had reach the correct exit point. The forestry track stops here and you need to go through the plantation to continue. Although the track is friendly, the forest is not. It represents an impenitrable maze with everything looking like everything else, this is where the Harveys map comes into its own. Our 2 to 3K trip through the forest would have been difficult with just the OS map.

Leaving the track (481884) brings you into the forest proper for the first time. The ground is awful, tussock, boulder and bog, not always in that order. Andy tried to ride, much to my amusement, as a few yards of pedalling resulted in an abrupt stop where I had a much needed chance to laugh! We crossed a stream, Kirreoch Burn, a river by my standards, the stones are slick and if you track upstream for an easier crossing you will find man-traps created by the grass overgrowing deep cracks in the boulders, leg breaking country if ever I saw it.

Pursue the forest lanes north/north west until you rejoin the Loch Doon forestry track system, you should see a bridge about 250 metres south (478902), our route goes North. a steady climb leads to a long and tempting downhill. I was tempted, we both flew along until Andy slowed and stopped at a sweeping bend. I decided that I would show this young upstart how to attack a good bend. I glanced at Andy's bemused expression as I swept past. The forestry gate was open, no problemo! Wrong, big problemo!

The sweeeping bend turned rapidly into a T junction in the track, too rapidly for me anyway! After I had done a full on, hit the brakes, feet on the pedals and lean away from death, handbrake turn, I heard Andy's laughter. The option was make the turn or vanish over a 50 ft drop onto rocks.....I made the turn. Some people have a strange sense of humour.

From here on the route follows a forest track with great views of the valley to the point where tarmac rejoins the track just past the bridge over Carrick Lane, a river, running to Loch Doon. From this point on the route follows the 'forest drive' marked on the OS Galloway map. Take the turn at (416960) onto tarmac. This track leads to a B road, the OS map has decided not to tell you which B road it is and so have I. The Stinchar Falls, a stream which eventually becomes a great salmon river reaching the sea at Ballantrae, is the turning point for home. A short climb, I was so tired that I pushed, leads to the high point of the route at (what does that sign say?). There followed the deep, deep joy of freewheeling for the best part of 14 miles, at great speed.

In spite of rain, sun, age and a desire for rest I had a great time on the Merrick circular. The Cree Bridge Hotel in Newton Stewart provided superb food and ale, camp cooking was out of the equation. However, the Glen Trool campsite does provide a great attraction for 'real' campers. Concrete and boulder fire pits are situated around the site and we could not resist clearing about two hundred weight of wood from the forest and setting light to it.

Extending the route

There are two good bothies along the route, White Laggen, near of Loch Dee and Backhill of Bush, between Loch Dee and Loch Doon. These two bothies give rise to possible two day routes in the area with a wide range of easy or seriously hard routes.

Best Advice

Be aware that the area is large and uninhabited, even on the fringes, communications are not guaranteed. Travel in a self sufficient way and be prepared to take longer than it looks on paper (map).

Top Tip

Travel quietly, from Glen Trool to Loch Doon we saw deer, foxes and many birds. Deer are often seen grazing along the tracks and with care we were able to freewhell to within 15 yards of them. A few K's further on and Andy saw something trotting along the track. We slowed down and the tawny shape turned out to be a Fox. They vanish without a sound into the dense forest leaving you wondering if they were there at all.