“Once you split from the straightforward path, that’s where things get really stunning…”
Log burners, huh? Photogenic, cosy and thoroughly romantic. What could be more fun than sleeping in a kata (a sort of Nordic tipi) warmed at night by a jolly little log burner?
Well, it depends whether you back yourself to get the bloody thing lit or not, doesn’t it?
On my first night sleeping in one of the katas at Comrie Croft in Perthshire, I spent the first couple of hours consistently failing to get the log burner lit. It would flare for a few minutes then, as soon as I took my eye off it, quickly flicker and die out. It was getting cold in the kata. It was dark outside. I had a delicious packed dinner from the Comrie cafe to eat, but no means by which to warm it through. This is what you get for growing up in a house with a gas fire and quitting the Cub Scouts after three weeks.
The thought strayed into my mind that this could be it. Perhaps, finally, after tackling the hardest amateur bike race in world and riding across West Africa in the name of Mpora, this incredibly pleasant tent on a Scottish hill would be where I finally croaked. My last breaths condensing in front of my eyes – all for the want of a basic knowledge of how to light fires. Picture the headlines:
- ‘Inept Journalist Found Frozen To Death in Scotland’
- ‘English Numptie Perishes Near Perth’
Fortunately though, it was not to be. I was being overdramatic. I got the bugger lit after three hours of fruitless match-striking (and swearing), and eventually the kata warmed up nicely. I popped the wild venison stew with dumplings into the adjoining oven on the burner and cracked open a tin of craft beer, picked up in the supermarket on the drive from Perth station. Bliss. And I hadn’t even ridden a bike yet.
Comrie Croft won newcomer trail centre of the year in 2017, and best trail in 2016. Trail designer Richie Allsop is the man responsible, but to imagine that the trails at Comrie sprang up fully-formed at his say-so is to overlook the fervent DIY MTB scene in this part of Scotland. In the last couple of years the trails at Comrie have taken off, going from undiscovered backyard brilliance to a cherished gem for those in the know.
Scottish Cycling have used the Croft a fair bit in recent years, with the cream of the youth pool coming here fairly regularly for their cluster training camps. The 2014 Scottish Commonwealth Games team came here to do their pre-Games build up too.
Probably most notable though is “local rocket” (as he’s described by the guys in the Croft’s bike shop) Charlie Aldridge. He has been a member of the local group Strathearn Mountain Biking Club since it began when he was a mere nine years old. As a prodigiously talented XC rider he has progressed through the ranks and has been Scottish Series Winner, Scottish Champion, British Series Winner and most recently European Champion at under 17 level. He has since been brought into the British Cycling programme and has very real aspirations of making it to the Olympics, either Tokyo 2020 or Paris in 2024.
Despite the brushes with destiny and a booming development scene, the Croft remains a place for the passionate amateur. On weekend days when the weather is good, people from cities around Scotland fling their bikes onto the car and head to Comrie for a few hours of superb quality trail-riding. It’s easy to see why.
On the first morning of my stay I took a hire bike rented from the Comrie bike shop up onto the trails for a bit of a blast around. The ascent out of the Croft is quite pretty, but once you split from the straightforward blue path up, that’s where things get really stunning. The red route crisscrosses the area at the top of the land owned by Comrie, with an impressive variation in terrains and types of obstacle – and all the while you’re glimpsing the wild and desolate views back down into the valley.
I had the centre pretty much to myself – staying on-site means you get first run at the trails on a Saturday morning before the hordes descend later in the day. After a couple of hours bouncing about up top, I made my way back down via the blue route. While technically pretty simple, it’s one of the funnest, grinningest descents I’ve done on a mountain bike in years. At one point I caught myself laughing out loud like a kid who’s just discovered how to make fart noises with their hand in their armpit. Dumb, simple, but undeniably super-fun.
The community-owned Croft is like a little socialist paradise nestled in the Strathearn Valley. Rather than one business that comprises a bunch of services, it’s really a loose collection of small enterprises with different owners, all contributing to the whole and creating what is a genuinely wonderful place to spend a weekend.
As well as the trail centre, the cooperative contains a hostel, an event venue, and a market garden / produce shop called the 100 Mile Store (because everything they sell comes from within that distance from the Croft). The surplus is sold to locals interested in home grown fresh produce. How many trail centres have you visited where you can go for a thrash down the black route then leave with your arms full of tasty courgettes? It’s quickly obvious how the Croft has won awards for innovative tourism and its green credentials in the past couple of years.
In the afternoon it’s time to break free of the confines of the trail centre and explore some of the fire roads around Comrie and Crieff, the two nearest towns to the croft, which sit themselves within the Breadalbane tourism region. Breadalbane marks the beginning of the ‘proper’ Highlands in Scotland and comprises a couple of mountain ranges as well as a wealth of outdoorsy goodness.
“As we get a bit closer I see this bloke is stood among the corpses of five or six ducks, in varying states of disembowelment”
The scale of what’s on offer for a bike rider around Comrie is overwhelming, with mysterious and inviting gravel paths calling out in every direction. Luckily, I have a local guide called Tom to take me round – an enthusiastic mountain biker who works in the Croft’s bike shop. After a quick smash along the main road, we’re soon onto empty B roads, then off the road entirely and climbing steadily into the pine forests on the other side of the valley.
We climb gravelly fire roads before dropping into a fast and straight run down through dense pine forests. As we catapult along the forest floor on an access path cut through the trees, we flash past a bunch of confused looking walkers clustered round a map. It’s way too steep and I’m concentrating too hard on dodging ruts and tree roots to stop. As far as I know, they might still be there.
Next up is a cut across open farmland, frequently used for grazing. As such, the ‘path’ through moves about a bit, frequently disappearing entirely. As we’re ploughing on through the boggy fields, we reach the edge of some scrappy woodlands – then over to our left a man’s voice calls out. It’s a bloke in dark, woodlandy-coloured clothing stood in front of a large tarpaulin hung from five or six of the trees around it. It’s clear that Tom the guide knows the fella, so we go over.
As we get a bit closer I see that this bloke is stood among the corpses of five or six ducks, in varying states of disembowelment.
“It’s duck day today.” he says, jovially. It is the only explanation he offers, so it’ll have to do.
Tom and the Killer of Ducks chat amiably and it becomes clear they know each other from local backwoods trail rides in the hills around Crieff. Everyone round here is a rider it seems, because how could you not be with all this untapped natural wonder to play in?
Forging on, we head down through the Auchingarrich Wildlife Centre and back onto actual roads. We roll into Comrie, the teenie village after which the Croft is named, then head up onto the hillsides to the north. We climb steadily again on the road first, before leaving it for more gravel – eventually leaving that behind too as we ascend to the Melville Monument – a somewhat dilapidated commemorative obelisk to the memory of Henry Dundas, nicknamed ‘The Great Tyrant’ because of his machiavellian mastery of Scottish politics in the early 1800s.
From the Monument, it’s a pretty technical run back to the road, which starts off super-twisty with a couple of switchbacks and a sheer slope the reward if you stuff things up. After that it opens out and becomes a straight downhill blast over rough forest floor – it’s still super steep and sometimes used by dog walkers, so you need your wits about you.
From there we bushwhack it over some more heather-covered moorland, before rolling along beside the river Lednock to get back to the road to Comrie Croft. All-in, the ride takes about three hours and is a pretty stern technical test for me as a ‘crap-intermediate’ MTBer. As you can imagine though, I only get the chance to glimpse a small part of what’s on offer in the area in that short time. There are trails, mountains and mystery in every direction from the Croft – as well as plenty to keep you amused in the trail centre itself for at least a couple of sessions.
In fact, heading back to my kata for the second and final night at the Croft, I feel pretty gutted to be leaving in the morning. This time the fire lights first time.
Do It Yourself
We went to Comrie Croft and stayed in a Nordic Kata. Comrie Croft is a one hour 45 minute drive from Edinburgh and just over an hour from Glasgow. One night in a kata in Comrie costs £99 from Sunday-Thursday or it’s £229 for the kata for the weekend.
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