King of the castle
Situated in the heart of 7Stanes country, Drumlanrig stands alone. Its natural, rooty trails prove there’s life outside the Forestry Commission bubble.
Drumlanrig: the trail guide
- Green: The Riverside 3km — 30min
- Green: Alton Rigg 11km — 1 hour
- Green: The Three Lochs 5km — 30min
- Green: The Castle Round 8.5km — 1 hour
- Blue: Copy Cat 9km — 1 hour
- Red: The Old School 15km — 2 hours
- Black: Magic Eight Ball 8km (20km when added to red) — 2 hours
Sleeping and eating
There isn’t a huge amount of accommodation in the immediate area around the trails, but Thornhill, just three miles down the road, has a few options, including the excellent Buccleuch and Queensberry Arms Hotel (bqahotel.com).
The Castle Tearoom is open 10-5pm (same opening hours as the castle) and is situated in the old castle kitchens, so you are surrounded by old kitchen ranges and copper pots — a great place to end your ride with a good coffee and selection of lunches and cakes.
Fixing your bike
Rik’s Bike Shed (01848 330080) is right at the trailhead in the castle outbuildings. A well-stocked shop is backed up by service and repairs, plus bike hire available for all the family should you have the troops in tow. Rik is a fountain of mtb knowledge, so do sound him out. He doesn’t have a website, but (drumlanrigcastle.co.uk/outdoor-activities/bike-shed-services/) gives more info.
What bike to ride
Best of the rest
A longer ride taking in the Drumlanrig trails then extending out over the local hills to Lowther Hill is an absolute cracker with remote singletrack and some of the best descents in the country. Rik himself took us over that, so pop into the shop with your map at the ready and he is happy to help.
Pick of the trails
If you want to sharpen up your rooty and fast riding, ride The Old School. Challenging in the wet, fast in the dry, there are many options to stitch in some black grade if you fancy it.
Drumlanrig, Scotland trail centre guide
Article originally appeared in MBR July 2016 | Words & photos: Andy McCandlish
As Rik Allsop closes up his shop in the old Drumlanrig Castle outbuildings, Magnus Smyth, Julie Cartner and I sit with a coffee on the cobbled courtyard bench, ready to roll. Ivor the trail dog is building to a frenzy of excitement as he sees the bikes being prepared and his owner clearly readying for a ride.
All experienced riders, I ask them what makes Drumlanrig top of their trail centre list, as it most assuredly is. Magnus thinks for a moment, then sips his coffee again. Among the usual descriptions of fun and challenge, he says something you don’t often hear in conversation over trail centres.
“You can feel the love that’s gone into the trail when you ride here.”
It takes me about an hour to understand completely what he means.
Shop closed, we clip packs and set off up the red route. Straight away we are swallowed up by the gorgeous mixed woodland feel — bright and airy yet sheltered from the elements. The trail narrows to singletrack and drops through the trees, with the occasional root to rattle over. We have it dry, but in the wet I get the feeling this could be a little different.
The red route we are on had an interesting start in life, dating back to the dark days of the foot and mouth crisis of 2001. With massive restrictions in place for public access to the countryside, Rik was unable to stage his round of the Scottish Cross Country race series at Mabie or Ae Forests, so he had to get creative. Drumlanrig, where he already had a bike hire business in addition to
his shop at Mabie, was willing to stage the race in its grounds.
As we pause in the forest to gather ourselves together, Rik remembers those early days.
“The estate already had some bike trails, but they were awful… forest roads or grassy rides over hills and through bogs — not very pleasant. Myself and a bunch of volunteers brashed out a loop and cut trail by hand [for the SXC race]. The event put a great flowing line on the ground, which was refined, and over the next 10 years we hardly missed an SXC, had two national races and the Singlespeed UK champs in 2008. Every year, we’d build a bit more trail.”
Ticket to ride
Without a pot of cash to hand, as he might have had in the heady days of those early Forestry Commission 7Stanes projects, the trail has developed organically ever since, with the help of volunteers, estate rangers and Rik himself as both volunteer and contractor. Any money comes from the gate at the castle — it costs £6 per adult to get in and park to use the trails, although a £20 season ticket is available — and it has become a great example of a self-sustaining centre.
“Don’t forget that the trail maintenance and development all depends on the business case to the estate.” Rik is quick to point out. “It’s based solely on income from season tickets or entry at the gate. If you are buying a ticket please insist that the ticket is a cycling ticket so that this information counts in our favour.”
It all gives a bit of perspective; so this red route we are currently cranking round is basically a refined version of that early, handbuilt race route. And it still shows.
Rather than the traditional trail centre grey blaze, it is refreshing to be blasting along loam and roots, mud and stones, twisting and turning hard through trees that would otherwise have been impossible to build around if you were relying on a digger. As someone pointed out, you have to be awake just to stay upright.
Rik’s minimal digger work is in sympathy with the existing hand-cut trail. So much so, in fact, that I think he is pulling my leg when he points out sections created with a mini digger. Narrow and precise, they are a testament to his skill with the bucket, and now enveloped by the surroundings, almost invisible. One of the advantages of this native woodland is that nature recovers and thrives by the trailside, clawing back everything but the narrow ribbon of trail as its own.
Contouring round a small hill, we hit another junction with one of the, by now, familiar multi-coloured signposts. Red continues straight across the fire road, blue left and there are even a few green options. Rik describes the trails as a ‘stacked loop system,’ based around the red and blue routes. By this he means they are interlocking loops, so you can easily bolt on additional sections, and cater for groups of wide-ranging abilities. Choose a red climb, followed by a flowing blue or technical black descent, then pick up whichever one is heading in the direction you want to go next. Simple and effective.
We stick to the red and follow Rik as he gives an enthusiastic commentary on the trail direction, condition and surroundings. He is clearly a man who loves his job. Not just his job, but his surroundings and the people it brings to his back door on a daily basis. He knows every twist and turn of the winding route, and as we burst out the woods and onto a pump track area, known as the Farthingbank Loop, he takes off, working the bike and setting the pace for us all to try to latch onto.
The trails are dry today, and as such it is just fast, fast, fast. The challenge is in the corners, anticipating grip and carrying speed as much as possible. More roots, more corners and more fun.
I shout forward to Julie as we take in a series of berms through a shallow descent. Are these her favourite conditions to ride here?
“The trail always feels different in varying weather conditions, and keeps you working all the way round,” she shouts over her shoulder as she drops it into another corner. “Drumlanrig’s a good test of your skills — if you think it’s getting easier, go when it’s wet and see how the roots are then!”
I know what she means, as I have ridden here in the wet before — it is slippy and certainly keeps you on your technical toes. If you think you know it all in mountain biking, try doing a fast lap of a wet Drumlanrig on a hardtail.
A final few berms brings us out at Farthingbank Loch, where Ivor parks himself at the waterside, clearly suggesting a cover shot for Horse and Hound magazine. He almost looks disappointed when Rik calls him in for a winch up the forest road to the next singletrack section — a fast descent through Mini Me and on towards the riverside return loop. Even at this farthest out point from the castle, we are mingling blue, red and black as we spin through the sun-dappled forest.
We slam down through Commie corner (so called as it used to form a hammer and sickle shape) and I have to keep myself from wandering off this most picturesque section — my head just keeps craning to take in the sparkling river below, appearing briefly but tantalisingly through the trees as we contour around the hillside on yet more wafer-thin singletrack. If you are a singletrack fiend, you really must come here, and come soon.
We pass the gloriously named Palmtree Pool and Otter Pool, before Rik stops and points up the hill. This is a short and sharp black climb, known as the TTT climb. It is so-called because it has a very tricky switchback in the middle, built by an overenthusiastic digger driver when Rik was looking the other way. It goes, but only just. After buzzing up this, we are keen to keep to the riverside for the views, so we descend off-piste, sharply back down a knife-edge ridge to pick the red route up once again. It is nothing short of glorious.
I ask Rik if the lack of a large body, such as the Forestry Commission, makes trail building easier at the sharp end.
“We essentially have the same constraints as the FC; Health and Safety, busy working forestry, potential user conflicts, all that. It’s just that the process is a lot more conversational, rather than ‘meetings in triplicate’.
“I haven’t built trails for the FC for a long time now, but thankfully the estate let me get on with it and use my experience and knowledge to build the right trails.”
This is illustrated perfectly when we have a chance meeting with Kyle, the operations manager of the estate, shortly after. Rik chins him with some trail ideas, Kyle responds with an outline of their forestry plans for the next few years in Rik’s intended area and they agree to a quick meeting shortly after, out on the trail. A quick conversation that could lead to yet more singletrack — now that is the kind of sensible, good-natured bureaucracy that gets things done.
“It’s lack of budget that leads to innovation really,” Rik continues afterwards. “We certainly don’t have the money to haul a lot of stone on site, so I’ve ended up getting really good at building with the natural materials to hand.”
It’s this kind of involvement that has built a strong bond between these local riders and ‘their’ trail. These are trails that have been built by them, on a budget, with money they have raised and cajoled from gate takings, for their own fun; so they have been built and maintained with love.
Yep, these trails are loved alright, I reflect as a load my bike back onto the van, and it is only then I notice the coat of arms for the castle — a large, winged purple heart.