Sunday, 13 November 2016

Colmonell Ultra

Rare views of the Galloway hills from the Western Arecleoch Forest

38 Miles through Ayrshire & Galloway's 'Quiet Corner', the Colmonell Ultra is a highly varied multi-terrain undertaking posing unique navigational challenges.

Not an Ultra for the first-timer, but certainly a highly memorable route, should experience & navigational skills be sufficient.

Most have never heard of the Arecleoch, let alone entered it.  Highly surprising, given it covers an area almost equal to Arrochar/every hill & piece of land in the Arrochar Alps.  

A little-known runner's paradise... but it's a maze....

The track to Lagafater is a moorland masterpiece.  Beautiful landscape, rarely visited.  

One for lovers of silence.




The route will be divided into logical sections, described accordingly (also refer to photo captions for details).

Video overview Here.

Stage 1: Colmonell - Leffin Donald/Western Arecleoch

Colmonell - Heronsford - Leffin Donald - Western Arecleoch (via Dunnack Burn entrance)

Stage 1 is a very pleasant, typically rural introduction to the Ultra.  Dominating throughout are stunning views of Knockdolian.  

Start just across from the community centre

Take a L on to Cragneil Road, heading for the bridge over the Stinchar

Yip - follow the sign

River Stinchar

Quick look back to Colmonell

Knockdolian, "Schiehallion of Ayrshire", soon comes into view.  It's a fine feature

Perfect rural road running en route to Heronsford

Knockdolian dominates.  It's difficult to believe the hill is under 1000ft high!  Proof positive, if required, that height is just a number.

In Heronsford, heading uphill just after the bridge over the Water of Tig.  This is a steep climb of a few hundred feet 

Balkissock.  Beautiful building

Collie keeps guard at Leffin Donald.  I trust he holds a full license

At Leffin Donald, enter the farm grounds, soon turning R to follow the obvious track heading up Leffin Donald Hill (Leffin Donald is the name given to the NE spur of Big Fell).

Head along the farm track

Take a R at this building to head uphill

Yip - up here

Great track.  The farmer clearly had the power of foresight, building the track for future exploratory ultramarathoners.  Kind fellow indeed

The pylon line is a conspicuous feature in these parts.  You'll also pass it when descending from Beneraird.  Hillwalkers: Millmore makes a fine ascent from here (as does Big Fell).

Glenapp and Galloway Moors.  Now managed by suit-wearing city-dwelling Belgians.  Well, it's good for a laugh.  I believe the important question is "How many Belgians own welly boots?"

The gently meandering, rarely-seen Dunnack Burn (tributary of the Water of Tig)

Pulling up to the Dunnack entrance to the Western Arecleoch.  Now things get interesting....


Stage 2: Western Arecleoch - Barrhill Train Station

In short, no.

I mean no - I'm not putting the route up.  

Forestry travel is potentially very dangerous.

It's highly committing.  

On most hills a direct beeline can be made to a road, should you get injured.  This just isn't possible in a forest.  

You're forced to travel on the roads.  

The roads can be very confusing; there are no roadsigns, LOS isn't an option due to treeline, roads look very similar, new roads are constructed before the OS even get the chance to deliver their maps to the shops, don't expect a phone signal...

Navigation is unique in forests.  Only those highly experienced should consider passing through a forest such as this.

Consider your own skill/experience very carefully before entering the depths of our forests.

Aside from workers, I've only ever seen other individuals within the first 1/2 mile of forestry entrances.  

Personally, I don't want someone's partner trying to sue me when the ice cube formerly known as their one true love is passed to them by the Forestry Commission in a few months, after being inspired by this blog piece...  

The options I'd suggest are:

1)  Do short routes through the Arecleoch and become familiar with it on your own before committing to major through-travel.  Also create your own maps, as some roads aren't mapped correctly
2)  Create your own route from the Dunnack Burn entrance - Barrhill, and accept responsibility for your own route creation
3) Contact me, list your experience (I don't mean how many races you've been part of; I mean genuine navigational experience), and if adequate, I'll email you the route
4)  Ask me nicely and I'll guide you on the course.  We can cuddle up if it gets really cold.

Selection of images below to illustrate the sheer beauty & unique nature of our forests.

Entering the Arecleoch.  Some find forests very claustrophobia-inducing due to how enclosed everything is  

Scale soon becomes apparent.  Pro-tip: forests are normally a few degrees cooler than the surrounding countryside

...If narrow roads, they're FC (Forestry Commission)

...If wide, they're windfarm

Junctions such as this are often omitted from the maps.  Local knowledge essential when in our forests

The Arecleoch turbines are true monsters!  I'm sure this big fellow featured in the 2005 release War of The Worlds 

The word 'vast' is often loosely used, but for the Arecleoch it's certainly appropriate

Another extra from War of The Worlds.  Well, it's a tough gig in Hollywood these days

Navigation is generally via Array zones & turbine numbers.  Very unique

Occasional glimpses of distant hills

Nice little lochans

Really beautiful.  Trail-running paradise.  I had to pull myself Joe-Simpson style along a track very similar to this in a snowstorm one time after a bad injury.  Not so nice under those circumstances.  It was the weekend, so, no workers present.  And no phone signal.  Beware even a twisted ankle in a forest: it could quickly become a survival situation

Lesser-frequented tracks

Very similar to the logging landscapes of Canada/Alaska.  This could be a small-scale Tongass

Fallen trees are common in certain forestry areas.  Be very careful of Widowmakers.  Also consider the last time anyone travelled these parts

Out the forest, back to the real world

Forest section over.  Back to roads


Stage 3: Barrhill Train Station - Beneraird Summit

Stage 3 passes along one of Scotland's finest running roads, the Glenwhilly Road.  

You're also spoiled with the moor track to Lagafater, which is a privilege to run.  

Take a R when leaving the train station, then follow the road all the way to the bridge over the Cross Water of Luce, from where you'll turn R off the main road.  

Details below.  

Views such as this abound throughout

The rather grandiose Cross Water Bridge

One of the best views in Ayrshire

The Glenwhilly Road cuts a line through the Arecleoch

Curious cows at Chirmorrie

On to the high moors.  Shortly after Chirmorrie you'll cross a cattle grid; this grid marks the boundary between Ayrshire & Galloway.  There's now a windfarm off to the L here (have a look at the Glenwhilly Road Marathon vid and you'll see it)

Heading along the opposite bank of the Cross Water of Luce after the bridge.  Straight ahead is the Glenwhilly Signal Box, a very obvious landmark for miles around

Head under the railway line to join the Lagafater moor track

You're now on one of the finest moor tracks in the land.  

Forget the likes of Rannoch Moor; come here if you want a stunning trail-running experience.  It's totally unique.  

Crossing the moor, Beneraird dominates.  But you'll be aware of how far you've to go before even reaching it.

It's a long way...

Hillwalkers familiar with the landscape of the Tarf hills (i.e. Southern Cairngorms) will feel at home on this track.  

PS during wild weather, this is a forbidding place to be.  There's no shelter.

Swing L.  There's a track heading straight ahead (not indicated on map), going up The Stranoch; ignore it

Fine track indeed.  Truly brilliant!

Gate/bridge over the Davenholme

Brilliant.  Fringes of the Arecleoch can be seen far distant, on Bennan Hill

Bridge over the Main Water of Luce.  This is a toll bridge; be sure to bring £5

En route to Lagafater.  Beneraird directly ahead.  Yes, still quite a way to go

On the hard stuff en route to Lagafater

Lagafater Lodge.  Beautiful.

Lagafater is one of the remotest dwellings in Scotland.  

There's no phone signal here.  It's also over 40 minutes to the nearest civilisation.  By car.

That's the equivalent of West Kilbride - Glasgow.....

The track from Lagafater - Beneraird is great.

But after marathon distance, it isn't easy....

On to the Beneraird hill track

Great track.  Zero navigational problems.  The only likely issue will be exploding lungs!  

Getting there

Looking back to the Glenapp & Galloway Moor.  If this image doesn't sell you the route, nothing will.  The small plantations in the middle distance are at Lagafater

Final approach to the summit

Beneraird cairn/trig point

Ailsa Craig from the summit of Beneraird.  Possibly the finest view of the island from the mainland.


Stage 4: Beneraird Summit - Colmonell

Beneraird - Crailoch - Heronsford - Colmonell

Beneraird summit is just in Galloway.  The fence marks the Ayrshire/Galloway boundary.  

Drop off Beneraird through the kissing gate, heading W into Ayrshire.

Benawhirter/Smyrton Hill from the Beneraird descent

Swinging N.  Ailsa Craig clearly visible - as is Arran (especially Holy Island) on a clear day.  Knockdolian off to the far R

Ailsa Craig, Knockdolian, and Arran's Holy Island.  Note the pylon: this is the same line running from Leffin Donald

Ailsa Craig & Knockdolian.  The snow-covered main Arran peaks can just be seen beyond the sea storm.  The white building at the base of Knockdolian is Macherquhat

Descending to Crailoch Avenue

Follow the sign for Heronsford & Colmonell

Crailoch Avenue.  Probably the finest example in Ayrshire.  Really special running through here.  Unforgettable


Ailsa Craig & Knockdolian from Crailoch's private tennis court

Heading back to Heronsford

Knockdolian again dominates on the swift descent to Heronsford

In Heronsford, at the bridge over the Water of Tig

Heronsford - Colmonell.  Great road running

Craigneil Castle.  If you're a photographer, head here for a great shot of Knockdolian

Back at Colmonell.  Job done

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