To hill and back

Jane-Ann Purdy reports from the Cairngorms, where primary pupils are reaping the rewards of pedal power

At Robert Gordon's College in the centre of Aberdeen, pupils have a typical 21st century urban lifestyle. They are ferried to school by car and have little chance to get out and about unsupervised.

Not one pupil cycles to school although, as primary deputy head Gavin Calder reports, most have their own bikes. So once a year the school does something to redress the balance for primary 5, 6 and 7 classes: they take them on a field trip to the wilds of the Cairngorms, just outside Aviemore.

"The school has been coming here for 12 years," says Calder at the Alltnacriche centre where the teachers and pupils stay for a week in late spring.

"We do numerous activities, all outdoor-based, but one of the most popular is mountain biking."

Robert Gordon's hires its bikes from Inverdruie Mountain Bikes at Rothiemurchus, an ancient Highland estate which now specialises in outdoor activities.

Mountain Bikes can cope with groups of up to 35. They supply new bikes starting at pound;8 a half-day and include helmets, waterproofs, trail maps, rucksacks and repair kits. The premises are just 100 yards from the Rothiemurchas tracks which pass through spectacular woodlands and loch-side paths.

"It really has to be the most scenic route in Britain going up to Loch an Eilein and Loch Morlich, especially with the sun shining and the snow on the hills," says Adam Gordon, Mountain Bikes' proprietor.

The trail to Loch an Eilein, with its mysterious 13th-century island castle, is a fun route of just three miles and easy going for even young children. Older pupils will cover up to 15 miles in a day at a gentle pace. Mountain Bikes offers more difficult routes for more able bikers.

Gavin Calder, who cycles the eight miles to and from school every day, is in no doubt about the benefit to his pupils: "First of all there's the safety aspect, then there's enjoying the great outdoors and the fresh air. There's working together as a team - making sure the group is not riding away from the weakest member. And they also learn cycling proficiency and environmental awareness."

He also says his city-dwelling pupils who can't just get on their bikes and cycle at will around their own neighbourhoods enjoy the freedom that the tracks offer. "It's just another world to them," he says.

Rothiemurchus is rich in plants and wildlife including red squirrels, red deer, pine martens and capercaille, not to mention a wealth of stunning geological features.

"Mention mountain biking to the kids and they think 'Brilliant - we'll do that' and they are willing to stop and look at the loch and all the rest of it, but when we suggest doing the same trips on foot they'll try their best to persuade us to do something else," says Gavin Calder.

Adam Gordon approves of this approach and is keen to see more groups using the bikes to get around. "More often than not these pupils are just ferried around in bus or Land Rover with brief stops along the way," he says. "They would see so much more if they went out on a bike for the day."

And of course there are the added health benefits, says Gavin Calder who sees the effect of exercise on pupil's academic work: "In my previous school I took a mountain biking group every week and it made them a lot more focused in the classroom. I'm definitely of the opinion that an active body leads to an active mind."

Inverdruie Mountain Bikes Tel: 01479 810787

Bikes are pound;8 per half day, pound;14 per full day. Children under nine half price. Discounts for school parties. Trail guides pound;75 per day.

Robert Gordon's College stayed at Alltnacriche Christian Centre. contact: Katherine Scarffe Tel: 01479 810237

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