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It was back in the 14th century that the borderlands we were riding through gained their Reiver name. ‘Reive’ is an early English word for ‘to rob’ and was the name given to the bandits that operated in this no-man's land that lacked any sort of law and order, given the continuous warring between England and Scotland. Theft, arson, kidnapping and extortion were all an accepted way of life; reiving was simply a way of earning a living. Raids were anything between a short night ride with a quick plunder from a farm, followed by a dash home for breakfast, to a planned few days with large Reiver gangs. The five of us were on our own Reiver Raid, bikepacking over the border to a good ol’ Scottish bothy, plundering the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) for all they had – a place to stay somewhere cosy and dry. 

With the exception of the Scottish Highlands, the Borders were the last part of Britain to be brought under the rule of law, following the Union between England and Scotland in 1603. Within a decade or so, peace had arrived, possibly for the first time ever.

Today, this Reiver region is still a largely empty no-mans land, home to a military range, vast managed forests, quarries, and occasional farm - all of which we discovered on our stunning 95km circular route (1628m ^) in and out of Kielder village. We were not there to ride the official 200km Dirty Reiver route quickly; it’s the wrong mind-set at 15kph. We stopped to throw snowballs, to look around, to snack, to take photos, and to check out military checkpoints - all the time loaded with our standard overnight bikepacking kit and the odd luxury: Mat was carrying his standard couple o’ kilos of sweet potatoes, and we had some Vin Santo, Port and Jamaican Ginger Cake for the Bothy evening…

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Dusk loomed by the time we spotted Kershopehead Bothy, tucked away on the bend of a chilly gravel descent just over the Border. It got dark in this neck of the forest - this was the third largest protected Dark Sky Reserve in the world - and this week happened to be some sort of official stargazing week. The nocturnal stargazing club members were already gathered at Kielder village with their big telescopes out, to gaze into the darkness night after night. So, with no electric as standard at a Bothy we were keen to make ourselves at home before this super-darkness took hold. We were also cold and wet through, which hurried us along. Bikes leant against the outside stone wall, all of us took part in the ‘poke our heads in’ recce and, sure enough, Kershopehead lived up to the Bothy stereotype: a repurposed simple stone-walled building made up of a couple of communal spaces, namely a main room with stove/open-fire, table and few scattered chairs. Creaky front door – check; side storage room – check; firewood – check; sleeping space/platforms – check; loo spade – check…

One-by-one, we wheeled our bikes through the narrow doorway into the side storage room for them to drip dry overnight, before unpacking and starting the process of warming the stone-cold room by collecting handfuls of kindling and a few small chunks of firewood from the store next door. Once the wood-burning stove was lit, we changed into drier clothes, each forming piles of wet kit to be dryed, and put a brew on; the unwritten start to a Bothy evening. Sat around on wooden sleeping platforms and chairs, we tucked feet and hands amongst down sleeping bags in an early attempt to warm extremities as the fire took. The platforms here weren’t uncommon - a relative luxury for Bothy kipping, enabling us to sleep off the cold stone floor. Paul took the main one, next to the stove, early doors – clearly no Bothy amateur - as we gathered the table and remaining chairs closer around the now crackling fire to warm our hands and feet up properly, and begin the dark art of drying our wet kit (pretty much every decent technical piece of cycling and outdoors kit is uber-flammable).

During the early trials of drying kit directly on the hot stove, a watchperson is a good idea for when hot wet socks hiss and the smell of early-onset wool charring filters through the wood smoke. Steam from each of us and the warming clothes filled the room and condensed over the sole single-glazed window as we took the more sensible option of hanging larger items on the clothes pegs away from the stove, or on the makeshift line above it instead. But, soon enough, classic props like wood-chunks and old cans began to appear on the stove surface for the least patient to balance or drape kit as close to the heat as possible. It wasn’t until the fire began to kick out a sustainable heat that we worked out the small brick recess behind the stove, next to where the flue began, was the best drying place to jostle for. All our shoes sat around the base of the stove; no newspaper around this time to pack in and absorb the wet.

BOTHYPACKING NOTES I

Check whether any other travellers are in the Bothy already, and snoop around to see what is available for use - you might find the axe you could’ve done with, spare candle, or match you needed hidden away in another room.

Take a German towel-on-sunbed approach to securing a bedding down spot, preferably near the stove/fire.

Take spare shorts, base layer, socks, and jacket to change into. And, a pair of Bothy slippers, if you can fit them in.

Don’t burn your kit. It stinks.

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The last of the daylight from the small draughty window was helpful until about 19:00, at which point Matt and Dan spotted the candle chandelier above our heads and set about lighting what short candle stumps were left, stood on the rickety old chairs. Once the natural light faded, the warm candlelight began to highlight all the cookware and food supplies on the table ready and waiting for our evening meal; the flickering glow reflecting in the glass bottles of drink we’d brought with us. If ever there was a better time to crack them open, as we gathered  a decent amount of firewood to keep us warm into the night. There was only real chunky long dry sections about, so we found the Bothy bow saw to cut the wood small enough to fit in the stove. Andy’s sawing efforts echoed around the bare stone room as the rest of us supped drinks out of camping mugs and began to prep dinner.

On the menu was a Tallegio cheese and chorizo sharing platter (Titan Kettle lid) followed by veggie-chilli burritos and Jamaica Ginger cake, washed down with Vin Santo, warm port, and single-malt whisky. Matt was saving his sweet potatoes for breakfast, obviously. Paul sat juggling kit-watchman duties with cooking the chilli up in a pan on the hot stove surface, until the Bothy room took on a fragrant mix of wet kit steam, wood smoke, bubbling chilli, and Mat's warming port fumes > bottled and coming to a store near you. At which point, Andy and I started cooking the rice on the gas stoves, placing the wraps over the boiling rice pans to heat them up. It’s these small subtleties that make bike-camping life a bit easier - either because you don’t have anything else for a specific job or because, without the luxury of running water, less stuff means less cleaning. We even used the hot rice water to wash out the used cups, pans and cutlery, which both saved collecting more water and heating it up.

Gathered around the table and hot stove, we dished out the chilli mix, wraps, grated cheese and drinks. The room fell silent but for the rain against the corrugated roof over us, as we all tucked into a well-deserved meal, having fuelled ourselves pretty much just on trail-mix since breakfast. Geez, the Bothy burritos were good!

The rain continued. Slipping wet shoes and stepping out the now warm Bothy room into the cold wet night for loo breaks was a tough ask, and even more disappointing not to see any of the spectacular Dark Skies. Instead we chatted around the table, picking at the last of the food and drink, under our dimmed head-torch beams and fading candlelight, until there was nothing left but breakfast rations and an unopened Ginger cake we held back. A first yawn, one last nightcap and it was time to chuck one last lump of firewood in the stove, push back of any kit that might burn, and move jackets onto the backs of chairs nearer the stove, before all jumping into our sleeping bags…

BOTHYPACKING NOTES II

Take a lighter / dry matches, kindling, and a couple of candles for a more authentic, homely light.

Split wood chunks with an axe outside, if you have one. Sawing the larger stuff is a mission.

Take a luxury food / drink item or two to spice up the bothy basics.

Bring something you can wipe a pan with, and a water filter unless you are happy boiling all the water you drink…

Treat a bothy night as camping without a tent – you’ll still need a warm sleeping mat, bag, and warm socks.

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Daylight was flooding through the window again, waking us up by 07.30 the next morning. Some of us stayed put, knowing the effort needed to leave the comfort and warmth of a sleeping bag (the room had now slipped back to BothyRoom Temperature), but we had work to do: Mat was up first to get the stove going again for his fire-roasted sweet potato breakfast, we filtered a few litres of the water rushing off the sodden hillsides, and fired up the camping stoves for porridge and hot drinks – I could tell everyone was dying for a 3-in-1 sachet coffee made with the fresh peaty water (the posh coffee kit hadn’t made the reduced kit list). Breakfast on the go, we were restless and either made headway cleaning-up from the night before, or packing up our kit. Needless to say, Mat stayed sat by the modest stove fire, prodding his sweet potato foil packs…

BOTHYPACKING NOTES III

Tidy and leave as you’d like to find it. Maybe even leave something useful item behind for the next guys who use it.

Take a spare bag or two to carry out and pack any rubbish.

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The morning’s ride from the Bothy back into England was a cracker, so we arrived back into Kielder village in high-spirits, choosing to settle in at the café in the castle as the stargazers woke and readied themselves for the clear night ahead. After beans on toast (#soaudax) there was one last mission on the bikes for Mat, Dan and I: to check out the Kielder Observatory, a project I’d been keen to see since it’s completion back in 2008. Visiting the Observatory doesn’t form part of the official Dirty Reiver route, but the climb up through the forest to it's vantage point high upon Black Fell is well worth a detour for the expansive views back over Kielder Water, and the building itself. All shut-up securely given our out-of-hours timings, the observatory was a minimalist but functional structure; slowly forming part of the landscape as the camo timber cladding continues to age. The building is open for public access several evenings a year but be warned, booking in advance is required. If you need any sort of testimonial as to how intriguing a place it was, Dan has already booked to go back later in the year…

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Speaking to a few of the excited stargazers as they uncovered their big telescopes for the day ahead, one of the guys came out his caravan to power his up, laptop in hand -

"Venus should be visible in the next few minutes" he boasted.

"But it's bright daylight?" I said, taking some photos.

“Yeah, that's the thing. Most amateurs don't expect to be able see the skies during the day, but with this you can see everything…”

Ouch - an amateur stargazer? I could live with that though, I was another night closer to bothypacking pro. Paul, I’m taking that sleeping spot next time.


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We look forward to seeing some of you up in Kielder for the Dirty Reiver event over the 21-23 April weekend...

 

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