Coastwalk #21 – St. Abbs to Cove

START: St Abbs, Borders

FINISH: Cove, Borders

DISTANCE: 12.7 miles (Total – 238.4 miles)

APPROXIMATE TIME: 6 hours

MAPS: OS Explorer 346

ACCOMMODATION: Tweed View Guest House, Berwick-upon-Tweed 

Day two of my mini introduction to the Scottish coast arrived and the weather forecast was awful. Like really awful. Even the weatherman on the TV looked scared when he pointed to the big swathe of blue that would cover much of Scotland throughout the day. Whilst watching the weather report, I thought to myself that perhaps I should postpone the walk by a day as the next day’s weather actually looked rather nice. Then I thought “well he said that it would be like this yesterday and it turned out to be a really nice day” so I decided to push on anyway. 

It was absolutely chucking it down as I left Berwick on the bus to St Abbs. About halfway to St Abbs it suddenly became really foggy and this fog pretty much stayed with me for most of the day. When I got to St Abbs 40 minutes later the beautiful sun-drenched harbour I had seen the previous day was now covered in murk and gloom. St Abbs Head, which also looked tantalizing the previous day, was now a huge brooding hulk swamped by fog. Not the great start I was expecting.

ST. ABBS HEAD

Anyway, still thinking that the weather would improve, I set off walking away from the harbour and back out of the village. I was following the Berwickshire Coast Path (BCP) again, and about a quarter of a mile outside the village there was a BCP sign nailed to a wall pointing towards St Abbs Head. I followed a footpath lined on the right hand side by a stone wall which had trees arching overhead, dripping huge raindrops on my head. Still determined to push on I continued following the path which began to gradually climb as it headed around the edge of a small cove. 

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The fog was quite low so it wasn’t long before I headed into the murky gloom. I occasionally got glimpses of rocky formations out in the sea when the fog parted just a little. One silver lining to all the foggy cloud was that it seemed to absorb some of the rainfall so I wasn’t getting completely soaked. However, I was starting to notice that the big toe on my right foot was starting to hurt every time I put too much pressure on it. It wasn’t causing me too much concern though at this point so I didn’t pay much attention to it. Big mistake!

The path continued to climb for a little longer and then plateaued off before dropping down into a secluded valley. It was actually quite pleasant (as murky days go) as I had dropped out of the fog for a little bit and the rain wasn’t too bad. The path continued alongside a fenced-off field which had cows in it, dotted amongst the rain-soaked grass. The cows were probably wondering which daft idiot had decided to go for a walk in the awful weather. 

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After passing underneath a rocky escarpment, the path continued to climb once again, and so I headed back into the fog once more. As the path continued to climb higher I only got occasional vague glimpses of the sea below me. I could clearly hear the waves crashing against the rocky headland, but for the time being this walk was more of an audio-based journey rather than a visual one. 

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A short while later I could see a couple of white buildings coming into focus out of the gloom. On closer inspection this turned out to be the lighthouse on St Abbs Head. The lighthouse itself (right) was just about visible and it didn’t seem to be doing its job protecting ships from crashing into the dangerous rocks as the lights seemed not to be working.

Sitting 150m above the North Sea, St Abbs Head is one of Scotland’s National Nature Reserves and is home to thousands of seabirds including 33,000 guillemots, 1600 razorbills and 5000 kittiwakes. I couldn’t actually see any of these seabirds due to the fog but I could hear their cries echoing up from the cliff faces below. They too were probably wondering why some numpty was out for a walk in horrible weather and were having a good laugh at my expense.

The headland itself takes its name from the 7th century Northumbrian saint, Aebbe. The daughter of a Northumbrian King, Aethelfrith, Aebbe was the abbess of a monastery on Kirk Hill (which I had crossed just before reaching the lighthouse) from 643AD to her death c. 680AD. After her death, the monastery was accidentally burnt down and only slight traces of it remain today. St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne visited the abbey at Kirk Hill and was said to spend many a night immersed in the sea contemplating life and death (rather him than me). Aebbe was later made a saint as a result of her efforts to help spread Christianity throughout pagan Northumbria.

I skirted the lighthouse and its buildings which are walled off due to being private property. The lighthouse was first constructed in 1862, first being powered by oil and coal and only converted to electricity in 1966. Until 1994 when the lighthouse was fully automated, the lighthouse was manned by three full-time keepers who grew their own food in the walled garden. It must have been a beautiful but bleak place to live, especially on foggy days like that the one I was experiencing.

The path descended down into a small car park before following a narrow road away from the lighthouse. I passed the first person on the walk who looked like he was there to repair the lighthouse (his van said light repairer on it). He also looked at me as if I was completely mad to be out walking. The road snaked its way from the headland back down towards the coast. I passed near Mire Loch which was nestled in its own little misty valley (below).

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At the bottom of the headland the road leveled out and passed by Pettico Wick Bay (above). In normal lovely weather I would have seen one of the best sights on the east coast of Scotland from this point, with the magnificent cliffs of Tun Law just in the distance (just look at this place on Google Street View and you’ll know what I’m talking about), however today it was just covered in mist and murk and wasn’t really very nice. In fact this whole walk was a missed opportunity scenically. 

THE PATH TO DOWLAW

I’m going to be a bit vague with the directions for the next few miles to Dowlaw as to this day I have absolutely no clue where I walked. Passing Pettico Wick Bay, the road crossed a cattle grid and then I immediately had to go through a gate on the right hand side. It was at this point I realised just how tough this walk was going to be. I had to climb through a field, up the side of a steep hill and back into the fog. It was also at this point that my big toe started hurting once again and it didn’t let up for the rest of the walk. I looked back downhill and took one last look at the coast. I wouldn’t see the coast again until towards the end of the walk.

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At the top of the hill there was what looked like a phone mast poking up into the fog. This was in fact the first of four distance poles put in place one nautical mile apart which enabled shipping companies to test the speed of their ocean liners. In 1907 the RMS Mauretania (seen below right sailing past St Abbs Head) steamed past the measured mile at a speed of 25.73 knots making her the fastest ship in the world. 

Moving past the distance pole, the path hugged a fence which itself hugged the top of the cliffs. It’s a good thing that this fence was in place as not only was it a good reference point to stop myself getting too lost but it also stopped me cliff diving off the edge. A little further on I crossed a narrow stream and continued to edge along the clifftops.

I soon reached Tun Law, which sitting at 500 metres above sea levelm are the highest cliffs on the Berwickshire coast and home to the remains of two Iron Age forts. Shortly after Tun Law the path descended steeply into a valley called Westerside Dean. For a short time I was able to get out of the fog and I also got a small glimpse of the sea. 

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I had a quick breather on a footbridge which crossed Moor Burn whilst listening to the trickle of the water flowing below me. As I watched the surrounding scenery I could see the fog start to rapidly descend down the valley towards me which was really unnerving. Almost immediately I was on my way again and I wasn’t looking forward to the steep climb back up the other side of the valley. My big toe continued to be painful and I had to hobble up the hill. I had another quick breather at the top before continuing on. I pretty much kept to the fence line for the next couple of miles, hoping that I was on the right track. The occasional post with the Berwickshire Coast Path marker on kept pointing me roughly in the right direction but as I couldn’t see more than 30 or 40 metres ahead of me, I was largely relying on guesswork. I kept thinking to myself that I really should have turned back after St Abbs Head and called it a day. 

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Onwards I battled (yes I’m being over-dramatic) for another mile or so passing through fields which had the odd cow and sheep lurking out of the mist (which was quite spooky). Soon the coastal path headed away from the clifftops and towards a small wood. Just before the wood the path veered off to the right, passing through a gate and then following another fence around the edge of a large field. A short while later I reached a rough grassy track-way which was actually the remains of the Old Post Road (also known by the more familiar Great North Road) which was built in the 18th century. It has now been surpassed by the more modern A1 road much further to the west. 

20170606_132248.jpgI followed the track downhill, crossing over Dowlaw Burn next to an old stone bridge (left) which must have once carried the Old Post Road across the stream. I was getting hungry at this point and so decided to have my lunch underneath an old tree to keep the mizzly rain away from me. 

DOWLAW TO PEASE BAY

Being ever so slightly rested after a short break, I pressed on and continued following the track uphill. Just before I got to Dowlaw, a BCP sign pointed me across a field around the edge of Dowlaw Farm. Ahead was a cluster of trees which the path snaked through. The trees were covered in mist and provided a spooky scene to walk through (below). 

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Rounding the edge of Dowlaw Farm, I reached another BCP sign which said I needed to do another six-and-three-quarter miles to get to Cove (and then another mile from there inland to get the bus at Cockburnspath). My heart sank. I was really tired at this point, my big toe was really starting to trouble me, plus my walking boots were pretty much waterlogged from having to walk through rain-soaked grass.

I started to way up my options.

To my right was the path to Fast Castle which I had wanted to visit before starting this walk, however it would add another mile-and-a-half to my walk. Also as the approach to the ruins of the castle involved walking along exposed cliffs through thick fog, the last thing I wanted to do was accidentally dive bomb off the edge of the cliff into the North Sea. So that option was closed to me. To my left was Dowlaw Road which led to the main coastal road between Coldingham and Cockburnsparth. There were no bus stops along this stretch of road so I couldn’t exactly flag down a passing bus and head home. Nor could I really hitch hike as it would involve waiting next to a busy road in the fog where my chances of getting mown down were pretty high. This left me no option but to continue on with the walk.

According to the map the BCP diverged away from Dowlaw Road about three quarters of a mile down the road. I did come to a sign which pointed across some heather and bracken, however as the path disappeared into the mist I didn’t want to risk getting lost and adding further miles to my walk. As a result I kept on Dowlaw Road until it reached the main coastal road (I also passed by a Royal Mail van who was dropping off the post at Dowlaw Farm – the driver too looked at me as if I was completely mental to be walking in this weather). Halfway down Dowlaw Road the heavens well and truly opened and my waterproof clothes gave up the ghost.

I followed the coast road for a couple of hundred meters, concentrating really hard for the sound of any cars approaching out of the fog. Luckily there was only the one, which I moved put of the way of in plenty of time, however I wouldn’t recommend doing this as a hobby. A short while later, I followed a farm track which led away from the coastal road towards Redheugh Farm. The rain was bucketing down and I started to contemplate sitting down in the middle of the track and just having a good cry, however that would have been very silly so I kept pushing on.

A short while later I reached Redheugh Farm and then followed a narrow road which headed westwards. I passed a woman in her car who joined the long line of people who looked at me as if I was insane but I just ignored her and walked on. About half a mile later I came to another BCP sign next to a farmhouse which said I had done three-and-a-quarter miles from Dowlaw, and nine from St Abbs. I knew I was getting close to the end and that kept me going, although I was now pretty much running on empty. 

The coastal path edged around the farmhouse and then entered the farmyard before disappearing under a pile of chopped logs. After a little bit of confusion I asked the farmer who was hiding in his shed out of the rain (and looking at me like I was daft) where the path went to. He pointed me back through the pile of logs and said the path went through a gate at the other side and followed a track downhill. So that’s where I went. 

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Looking across towards where I thought the coast should be, I noticed an old ruined building (above). At the bottom of the hill there was a sign pointing towards the ruin which said it was called St Helen’s Church. Erected in the 12th century, the church served the old parish of Aldcambus which merged with the parish of Cockburnspath following the Scottish Reformation in 1560. By the mid 18th century (and possibly long before that) the church was a ruin, and now it looks forlornly out to sea.

It also should be pointed out that near to St Helen’s Church is Siccar Point, a rocky promontory which is a world famous site for geologists. Back in 1788 three geologists – James Hutton, James Hall and John Playfair – took a boat to Siccar Point where they found horizontal layers of red sandstone overlying much older, almost vertical, sedimentary rocks known as greywacke. This confirmed Hutton’s theory that the Earth was vastly older than the widely-believed 6000 year age as computed from the Bible. This view of a 6000 year old Earth was disproved by Hutton’s “unconformity” and led to a massive change as to how we view the history of the planet. I would have loved to go and see Siccar Point, having studied Hutton’s Unconformity at university, however the weather was still not great so I pressed on.

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PEASE BAY TO COVE

Two-thirds of the way around the field the path led steeply down into Pease Bay and its large caravan park. The place was eerily quiet as I passed through. Presumably the owners of the caravans had more sense than me and were sat inside in the warm and dry of their caravans. Crossing Pease Burn on a wooden footbridge, I joined up with the Southern Upland Way. I followed a road through Pease Bay which climbed up the other side of the valley. This put further pressure on my injured toe and I was now having to walk differently to accommodate it. The rain, which had eased off a little earlier, had also started ramping up again which further added to my misery.

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At the top of the hill, the coastal path diverged from the road and followed the edge of the clifftops for the remainder of the walk to Cove. Just before the finish of the walk all the pent up frustration at the weather and my injured big toe exploded out of me and I ended up yelling at the cloudy sky, “Give over with the fecking rain will you?!!”. Thankfully no one was about to hear or see my mental breakdown so I kept on walking the rest of the short distance to Cove.

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My walk didn’t take me all of the way into Cove village. I had to follow the Southern Upland Way for another mile inland to Cockburnspath where I could get the bus to Berwick. Before I left for Cockburnspath I took one last look at Cove’s old harbour (above) down below me which was doing its best to look picturesque in the foul weather. On the walk to Cockburnspath I swore to myself that I would do this walk once again when the weather is much better. I felt that I had missed out on world-class scenery because of the foul, grey weather. 

After a short trudge I finally made it into Cockburnspath where I had nearly an hour’s wait for the bus. Fortunately I had been prepared enough to bring a change of clothes with me so I had a quick change of clothing in the bus stop. Fortunately  there was nobody about and even more luckily my waterproof trousers had actually managed to keep my legs dry so I didn’t need to change my walking trousers underneath. Everything else though was soaked through. My “waterproof” coat had completely failed to understand the concept of being waterproof and had let every bit of rainwater in, meaning that not only my hoodie top was soaked through, but so was my t-shirt underneath. My walking boots were in on the “fun” too. I had to tip a load of water out of my boots which were now just completely ruined and had to be thrown out when I got back home.

In addition to the wet clothes, my big toe was now so painful that I could no longer put pressure on it. I actually thought I had broken it, but it just turned out to be badly bruised. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the bus to Berwick arrived and once I got back to the B&B I decided that I wouldn’t be able to do the next day’s walk to Dunbar. I needed to re-group, buy new walking boots and a coat, heal my big toe, and do the trip to Dunbar and beyond another time. I was determined to not let this walk beat me though. Instead I treat it as a learning experience, as in future I would pay attention to the weatherman and make sure I was prepared for any type of weather. I suppose that’s the whole point of this Coastwalk though – it is one big learning experience after all!

REFERENCES

St Abbs Head

http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/st-abbs-head/nature-and-culture/

http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/designatedareas/St%20Abbs%20Leaflet.pdf 

The Path to Dowlaw

https://www.scotborders.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/1672/eyemouth.pdf

http://www.heritagepaths.co.uk/pathdetails.php?path=11

Dowlaw to Pease Bay

http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/site/3735/ 

http://edinburghgeolsoc.org/downloads/lbgcleaflet_siccarpoint.pdf

3 thoughts on “Coastwalk #21 – St. Abbs to Cove

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