START: Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland
FINISH: St. Abbs, Borders
DISTANCE: 16.1 miles
APPROXIMATE TIME: 7 hours
MAPS: OS Explorer 346
With the North-East coastline all but over and done with, I was keen to finish the last few miles of Northumberland’s coastline and then head into Scotland to start on its magnificent coast. Having really enjoyed my stay at the Tweed View Guest House in Berwick when I was doing the remainder of the Northumberland Coast Path in April (see Coastwalk #15, #16 and #17) I decided to book myself into the same place once again for four nights as it was a lovely place to stay.
I had three days walking planned on this trip. On the first day I would walk from Berwick to St Abbs along the Berwickshire Coast Path (BCP), then on the second day I would finish off the rest of the BCP from St Abbs to Cove and then finally on the last day extend my coastal walk to the East Lothian town of Dunbar, birthplace of the famous Scottish naturalist John Muir. This plan didn’t quite come into full which I will talk about in the next couple of posts.
So the first day’s walking arrived and as I woke up on the Monday morning the weather had decided that it would be best if I did the walk in pouring rain. Not the start that I wanted. Dressed in layers of waterproofs I headed down to the end of the 17th century-built Berwick Bridge where I had finished the last walk in this part of the world. I hoped that the rain would stop before I got to the start of the walk but if anything it had become worse by the time I got to the bridge.
From the bridge I headed south-eastwards towards the coast along the town’s Elizabethan walls which gave a great reminder of Berwick’s turbulent past. Berwick (from the Old English name meaning ‘corn farm’) had its origins as a small settlement in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. In 1018 following the Battle of Carham the settlement was captured by the Scots and remained in Scottish hands until 1174 when it was retaken by the English in a ransom following the failure of an incursion into Northumberland by the Scottish king William the Lion. Other the next three hundred years the town would change hands between England and Scotland thirteen times including as part of a sale to raise money for the Crusades. Eventually in 1482 the town was captured by the English and has remained part of England ever since.
Being located right on the border between two countries who had historically been antagonists towards each other, it is unsurprising that Berwick became a hugely important and strategic town. The town had been surrounded with defensive walls during King Edward I’s reign in the 14th century, however with the development of gunpowder artillery two centuries later the old medieval walls became redundant and so a whole new fortification system was built during the Elizabethan era which walled in an area of the town half the size of the old walls. The Elizabethan walls are very well preserved and were a pleasure to walk on (even if it was raining). As I walked along the wet paving stones I got a great view of the River Tweed’s estuary and the North Sea.
I passed attractive 18th century townhouses which highlighted the posterity that Berwick enjoyed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Berwick had been a prosperous trading town ever since medieval times despite the instability of the Border region. Such was Berwick’s importance that the local residents still to this day refer to themselves as ‘Tweedsiders’ or ‘Berwickers’ rather than being English or Scottish. The town also managed to have a certain degree of independence until the late 19th century as a ‘Free Burgh’ which meant it had to be mentioned separately in Acts of Parliament.
This also extended to acts of war. When war was declared by Britain at the start of the country’s involvement in the Crimean War in 1854, it had to be done so in the name of Great Britain, Ireland and Berwick-upon-Tweed. This led to one of my favourite historical quirks as when the Treaty of Paris was signed following the cessation of hostilities in 1856, ‘Berwick-upon-Tweed’ was missed off and so technically remained in a state of war with Russia long after the war had ended. In 1966 to end all doubt about Berwick’s supposed hostilities with Russia (then the Soviet Union), a Soviet official visited the town and signed a ‘peace treaty’ with the Mayor of Berwick, Robert Knox. The Mayor was supposed to have remarked to the Soviet official on signing the treaty, “Please tell the Russian people that they can sleep peacefully in their beds”.
I continued along the Elizabethan walls for a short while, passing by replica cannons pointing out towards the sea for an enemy that no longer exists (unless the Russians suddenly realise that Robert Knox’s mayoral powers probably didn’t extend to signing peace treaties with foreign nations and decide to continue the Crimean War). I had to leave the walls behind to make my way down to the shoreline so I headed down onto Pier Road and followed the road through an archway in the town walls and then continued along the riverside.
Soon the road diverged away from the riverside and headed up into a car park which overlooked a cricket pitch. The coastal path continued along the tops, skirting the edge of a golf course. Fortunately there weren’t any daft golfers braving the rain so I was able to walk around the edge of the course without worrying about getting my face smashed in by a wayward golf ball. A little further on I passed a coastguard lookout tower, before eventually reaching another car park at the far end of the golf course. A Berwickshire Coast Path sign pointed along the seaward side of a large caravan park (which I have actually stayed in as part of a university trip – unfortunately I can’t remember much of the trip as I spent most of it drunk!) which said that the Scottish border was just three short miles away.
As I walked around the edge of the caravan park whilst trying to dredge up hazy drink-filled memories of my stay in the caravan park, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Straightaway my waterproof coat came off as I was absolutely boiling.
I passed by an attractive beach below as the path started to climb away from Berwick. It was at this point that I realised my walking boots weren’t entirely waterproof as the path headed through tall grass which were soaking wet with the recent rain. Within minutes my boots were soaked and I spent the rest of the day with wet feet. I couldn’t complain too much though as the views up the coast towards Scotland were spectacular. I also passed by many attractive tiny coves, some of which were lined with caves (right) worn into the rocks by the constant erosive actions of the waves. A little further along the coast I just happened to glance back down towards Berwick and caught sight of a beautiful natural archway just sitting next to the cliff (below). It was a beautiful thing to see and one that could have so easily missed if I’d continued looking ahead.
MARSHALL MEADOWS BAY – THE SCOTTISH BORDER
I soon came to another caravan park, this time at Marshall Meadows Bay. I was now very close to the Scottish Border. A short walk through the caravan park led me to a sign which pointed me down a recently mown grassy path towards the border, now only half a mile away. I was quite excited for the next ten minutes as not only was I going to complete another county (Northumberland) but I was going to start on a whole new country.
A large sign clad in the Scottish saltire stood at the border – Failte gu Alba it said which was handily translated on the same sign in English as Welcome to Scotland. A gated fence marked the border with Scotland and I leant on it while I looked back down the Northumberland coast. I was at the northernmost point in England. There was no-one further north than me in the entire country.
The border between England and Scotland has fluctuated during the centuries depending on which side had been the most successful in battle. In the early 10th century the border of England and Scotland was at the Humber and Ribble rivers, much further south than it is now (if the border had stayed like that anybody currently living from Hull upwards would be Scottish – including myself). When Anglo-Saxon England was unified with the Kingdom of Northumbria in the mid 10th century, the border moved a couple of hundred miles north to the River Forth at Edinburgh. Following the Battle of Carham in 1018, the English lost control of the Lothian region and the border moved south to the River Tweed at Berwick. When the English finally seized Berwick in 1482 the border was established at Marshall Meadows Bay in the Treaty of Fotheringhay.
I walked through the gate and crossed into Scotland for the first time on this coast walk. I even decided to take a photo of my first footstep in Scotland for some reason. I stopped on the Scottish side for a short while to eat a bag of crisps and watch the trains go by on the East Coast Main Line which had been almost a constant companion since I left Berwick (and would continue to be for the next few miles into Burnmouth).
THE SMUGGLER’S BOTHY
The coastal path continued alongside the railway line, passing by a border sign next to the tracks (above), which had the ‘Scotland’ part of it missing. The path and the railway line passed through a culvert and I occasionally got glimpses of the sea far below me. A little further on there was a gap in the culvert and I noticed an old ruined house on the shoreline down below. A short while later there was an sign pointing down the cliff towards the ruin and an interpretation panel which explained that the ruin was in fact the remains of a smuggler’s bothy.
The bothy was built in the 1760s by a wealthy smuggler called John Robertson. In partnership with a Swedish shipping company he smuggled contraband tea into the area under the guise of a fishing operation and was able to get pretty rich off it. As a result Robertson was able to buy Gunsgreen House in nearby Eyemouth with his takings which was used as a bigger base for his nefarious operations. I followed the path as it wound its way down to the bothy and had a quick look round the old ruin. There was a cracking view down the coast so I had another short break just to take in the scenery before retracing my steps back up to the coastal path.
The next mile and a half was fairly nondescript as I continued to walk alongside the East Coast Main Line. A short while later I reached a farmer’s track which I followed past a farm away from the clifftops. Just before the track headed underneath the railway line, a Berwickshire Coast Path sign pointed to the right across some fields back towards the clifftops. It had started to rain again as I followed the path which zigzagged down the side of the cliffs into the lovely village of Burnmouth.
Burnmouth is split into two halves – Upper Burnmouth which sits on tops of the cliffs next to the East Coast Main Line and Lower Burnmouth which consists of four hamlets (Ross, Partanhall, Cowdrait and Lower Burnmouth) strung along the shoreline. The coastal path started off in Ross and followed the coastal road through Cowdrait towards the harbour at Lower Burnmouth.
The 19th-century built harbour was dotted with fishing boats, one of which was being unloaded when I walked past. I stopped to look at a memorial which paid tribute to the 24 fishermen from Burnmouth who lost lives during the Great Storm of October 1881. On Friday 14th October 1881 a huge storm battered the shore whilst most fishermen from along the Berwickshire and Lothian coast were out trying to get the daily catch. They tried to make it back to port but the fierce winds and waves drove the fishing boats onto the rocky foreshore. In total 189 lives were tragically lost that day from various villages along the this part of the coast. 93 wives were widowed and 267 children were left without a father. The women and children of the fishermen watched on helplessly as the fishing boats were smashed against the rocks and capsized and the memorial paid note to this as there was a sculpture of the bereaved families looking out to sea. I would see this memorial repeated along the coast as I worked my way through the many fishing villages on the Berwickshire Coast.
I continued to follow the road as it climbed uphill away from the harbour. Just before I reached a small grey church a coastal path sign pointed me along a path past the church, through a small wooded section and then across the burn which gives the village its name. At the other side of the valley I followed a road which climbed away from the hamlet of Partanhall towards Upper Burnmouth. There was a bench halfway up the hill which had a great view of Burmmouth’s harbour so I stopped for five minutes whilst I watched a fishing boat head out to sea.
Continuing uphill I soon reached Upper Burnmouth where the coastal path headed alongside the road through the upper part of the village before turning right between the village hall and a disused primary school. A brief walk through trees led me around the edge of a field and back out on to the cliffs where I got a tremendous view down into Lower Burnmouth (below).
The next few miles northwards along the cliffs to Eyemouth were spectacular, and with the sun starting to beat down it made for a great walk. Just over half an hour later the coastal path reached a golf course, the first of many coastal golf courses I will have to negotiate in Scotland. The path skirted around the edge of the golf course, lined by a wooden fence to the left and a crumbling stone wall to the right.
A short while later another coastal path sign pointed me down a stonewall-lined track which split the golf course in two. Making sure to keep an eye out for any wayward golf balls from wannabe Rory McIlroy’s, I followed the track which led me to the main road down into Eyemouth’s harbour. I was getting a little tired at this stage so was hoping to have a good rest whilst in Eyemouth.
Following the road as it wound its way down into the harbour I was hit by a concoction of smells. The pungent scent of recently caught fish brought into Eyemouth by the plethora of fishing boats mixed in with the smell of the diesel from large lorries being loaded up with the day’s catch. There was also a cacophony of noise – the roar of the diesel engines, the harsh cries of the sea birds and the busy chatter of the hundreds of tourists and fishermen added to the spectacle of Eyemouth.
Poetic descriptions aside, I walked along the harbour edge passing by Gunsgreen House (above). This ‘smuggler’s palace’ was built in 1753 for the notorious local smuggler, John Nisbet. By day Mr Nisbet was a respected merchant but by night he was smuggling a variety of contraband goods including tea (which was taxed highly by the government) into the house which had large cellars connected to the sea by underground tunnels. John Nisbet became bankrupt in 1789 due to one too many seizures of his stolen goods by custom officials and so the house went up for sale. One of Nisbet’s competitors, Alexander Robertson who had built the smuggler’s bothy I had passed earlier in the day snapped up the house and continued to run his nefarious operations from Gunsgreen.
Just after Gunsgreen House I crossed a small footbridge over Eye Water and then headed alongside another part of the harbour. I then had to double back on myself and follow Harbour Road past a number of warehouses which were being filled up with freshly caught fish. Fishing has been the mainstream of the local economy since the 13th century. Unlike most places I’ve come across along the coast which have seen traditional industries decline to the detriment of the local area, Eyemouth continues to flourish as a fishing port and at the turn of the 21st century benefited from a brand new harbour and a fish market. 20 fishing boats use the harbour and I suspect the vast majority of them were unloading their catches as I walked by that day as it was a very noisy place. Eyemouth was hit massively in the Great Storm of October 1881 (also known as the Eyemouth Disaster) as 129 men from the town were killed in the storm.
Continuing along Harbour Road I came across a lovely Italian ice cream shop called Giacopazzi’s. A tub of chocolate ice cream was quickly ordered and I scoffed the lot as I headed towards Eyemouth’s lovely beach. I spent a good half an hour on the beach, resting for a little while and eating a sandwich whilst watching the waves gently lap at the shore. It was also a good chance to dry off my boots which were still wet from the rain-soaked grass from earlier in the walk. They were also stinking a bit so it was nice to air them out too.
It was starting to cloud over again and rain looked like it was on the cards so I decided to get on with the walk. I headed along the beach and then followed a path which climbed up to a caravan park nestled along the clifftops. An interpretation panel noted that the small headland to the west of Eyemouth beach was formerly the site of Fort Point, built during the 16th century to protect the important harbour at Eyemouth. The fort was fought over by the French, the Scots and the English during its short thirteen year history before it was destroyed on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I in 1560.
Eyemouth was the site of the unusually name “Battle of the Barefoots” which involved a clash between the English and the Scots. The Scots were said to have been woken early by the cries of the seabirds only to find the English attempting to sneak up on them whilst they were asleep. Fortunately the seabirds’ cries gave them enough time to defend themselves although they had no time to put their boots on and so fought in bare feet. A nearby estate in Eyemouth is called the Barefoots Estate.
The coastal path skirted past the site of the old Fort and headed around the edge of the caravan site. There was a fantastic view across the wonderfully named Killiedraught Bay (above), with the blue waters sparkling in the sun (fortunately the heavy rain clouds had just about passed over by this point). The path continued along the clifftops before climbing down a narrow valley to head along the shoreline for a little while. The place was deserted and I felt like I was the only person left on the planet, such was the peace and quiet.
A short while later the path headed up on to the top of the cliffs again and continued along the tops for another mile or so before heading down into a small inlet and then finally on to the beautiful Coldingham Sands.
There is a small hamlet at Coldingham Sands which takes its name from the much larger village about a mile inland at Coldingham. The village of Coldingham was the site of a prestigious abbey built c. 660AD. The Abbey burnt down in 679AD but was quickly rebuilt only to be burnt down again in 870AD by a party of marauding Danes (there’s just something about those early Scandinavians who loved to burn and pillage things on the east coast of Britain). The Abbey was eventually re-built in 1098, this time becoming a Priory until it was again partially destroyed in the 16th century during the Scottish Reformation. The remaining part of the Priory was able to continue as a religious building, also being used as a fortification in 1650 against Oliver Cromwell. Eventually in 1855 the remaining ruins of the Priory were reconstructed into a church which is still in use today.
Despite being a mile inland Coldingham was an important fishing village. Fishermen who worked their boats from nearby Fishers’ Brae had to carry their gear one and half miles between the village and the beach down a path which became known as Creel Path (‘Creel’ being the local word for a lobster pot). Eventually a small settlement grew up near Fishers Brae in the 18th century called Coldingham Shore which eventually became known as St Abbs – the final destination of today’s walk.
A short walk along Coldingham Bay with its colourful beach huts and another mile along the clifftops and I was in the beautiful village of St Abbs. The first building in the village was built in the middle of the 18th century, followed soon after by a row of five cottages. By 1832 sixteen families were living in the village who were no doubt overjoyed at not having to make the journey from Coldingham to St Abbs whilst lugging heavy fishing gear on a daily basis. The village gained the name of St Abbs at the end of the 19th century by the then Laird Mr Andrew Usher who named it after nearby St Abbs Head.
I walked along narrow lanes until I was eventually overlooking St Abbs’ beautiful harbour which is still in use as a fishing port to this day. I didn’t go right down into the harbour, I was just too tired, plus the bus stop to catch the bus back to Berwick was in the upper part of the village. Instead I just sat on a seat next to St Abbs Visitor Centre for a bit which overlooked the harbour and took in the calm scene. There was another memorial (right) to those from St Abbs who were killed in the Great Storm of October 1881. Three fishermen form the village lost their lives in the disaster.
From where I was sat I could see the brooding hulk of St Abbs Head, a place I would get to visit on the next day’s walk which I was really looking forward to. It had been a great first day’s walking along the Scottish coast. The stunning cliffs of Berwickshire continued to be a delight throughout the walk, as had the glorious weather which had made a appearance late in the day. I hoped there would be more of the same over the next couple of days, unfortunately this was not the case as you will see in my next post!
Marshall Meadows Bay
The Smuggler’s Bothy
Coldingham & St Abbs