START: Cove, Borders
FINISH: Dunbar, East Lothian
DISTANCE: 10.9 miles (Total – 249.3 miles)
APPROXIMATE TIME: 4 hours
MAPS: OS Explorer 351
ACCOMMODATION: Springfield Guest House, Dunbar
After the memorable rain-soaked, fog-laden and spirit-crushing walk which I had endured in the previous coastal walk (see Coastwalk #21), I was keen to return to the small village of Cove in the Scottish Borders to show that the Scottish weather hadn’t broken my determination to walk the UK coastline, and that I was back to show it who was boss. This of course came after having to replace pretty much all of my walking gear including new walking boots, an actual waterproof coat (unlike the last “waterproof” coat which completely failed to keep out the rain) and a waterproof bag to put all my gear in to stop it from getting soaking wet.
As I hadn’t managed to get all the way to Dunbar as originally planned on the previous batch of coastal walking, I booked myself into a B&B in Dunbar (Springfield Guest House) for three nights over an extended weekend in July 2017 so that I could walk to Dunbar from Cove one on day and then continue on to North Berwick on the next (and hope the weather stayed nice enough for me to enjoy the walking this time).
So after a hearty full cooked breakfast courtesy of Springfield Guest House, I headed off on the bus from Dunbar to the village of Cockburnspath where I would have to follow the Southern Upland Way for a mile until I reached the coastline where I had left off last time. I had managed to embarrass myself on the bus by not realising the locals pronounced Cockburnspath as “Co-path” which led to me shouting “cock” numerous times at the confused bus driver when telling him where I wanted to go, thinking that this was how you pronounced it. Fortunately my embarrassment didn’t last long as it was a gloriously sunny Friday morning when I stepped off the bus in Cockburnspath and my spirits were high.
After a short journey from “Co-path” I reached the shoreline and already was feeling in a much better frame of mind then when I had last been here, soaked to the skin and thoroughly miserable. I followed a grassy track along the clifftops for a short distance until I came across a group of houses which was Cove village itself. To my right a gated narrow road led down to the old harbour which I decided to follow so I could have a quick look as it had looked very picturesque from the clifftops. Halfway down the road there was a narrow tunnel cut into the cliff face which led to the other side of the harbour, however I kept on the road until I reached a couple of old fishing cottages (above).
The tide was out so the few fishing boats that were in the harbour were listing low in what little water there was left remaining. I watched one fishermen climb down a set of steps cut into the side of the harbour wall and walk across the sands at the bottom of the harbour to the other side. So I decided to follow him.
The natural harbour at Cove has been used by fishermen since the early 1600s, however the harbour as it is today wasn’t put in place until 1828 after a number of previous failed attempts to improve it. The harbour soon became an important herring port and the houses on the pier were built around this time and later extended to accommodate the ever increasing number of fishermen employed here A haddock house was also built at the other side of the harbour, which is still in place today.
Like most ports along this part of the coast, Cove was hugely impacted by the Great Storm of October 1881 which wrecked fishing boats and killed 189 fishermen in total. Of the twenty-one men employed at Cove at this time, eleven lost their lives and three out of the four fishing boats at the harbour were lost to the storm. A poignant statue of the fishermen’s wives and children looking out to sea for any sign of their loved ones stands at the top of the hill in Cove village.
The harbour has been in the hands of Cove Harbour Conservation Ltd since 1991, who maintain the harbour to allow it to continue as a working fishing port whilst still retaining its historical charm.
Walking to the other side of the harbour I looked back across to the old fishing cottages before following the path through the tunnel which led back to the road up to the village. The tunnel was built in 1752 to allow access to the southern side of the harbour, and was built wide enough to allow horse-drawn vehicles to use it. Side chambers were also cut into the rock which were used to store freshly caught fish and also any smuggled goods, a common activity along the coast. Up until the 1980’s the side chambers were used by bathers to change in until they were sealed up in 1981 (the chambers, not the bathers).
Retracing my steps back to Cove itself I followed a road which led round the edge of the small village towards a roundabout on the A1. Just before I got to this busy roundabout there was a much quieter lane leading away to the right which headed for the tiny hamlet of Dunglass. I followed a grassy path over an old bridge high above Dunglass Burn and into a pleasant wooded area, the shade of the trees blocking out the heat of the July sun.
At the other side of the bridge was a sign for the John Muir Link which I would follow almost all of the way to Dunbar. John Muir was a Dunbar-born naturalist and conservationist who emigrated to the USA and helped to found the National Park Service (but more about him in my next post). The sign pointed me along another track which headed down towards the shoreline. As I rounded a small wooded headland I came out onto a rocky beach. In the distance I could make out the brooding shape of Torness Nuclear Power Station, which I would pass later on in the walk.
The path followed the beach for a short while before climbing back up the side of a small steep-sided valley. At the top the path continued along the clifftops where I got great views up and down the coast. Torness Power Station was getting closer but before I reached there the coastal path dropped down on to beautiful Thorntonloch Beach (above) which was once the scene of a strange tragedy.
During one weekend in May 1950, 147 pilot whales were stranded on the beach in mysterious circumstances. News of the unusual scene quickly spread and the following day between 30,000 to 40,000 people descended on the beach, some of whom were from as far away as the north of England. Thousands of vehicles were parked the full length of the road from Skateraw to Dunglass, a distance of two-and-a-half miles. Unsurprisingly such a huge crowd was almost impossible to control especially as people didn’t want to obey the commands of the police who had been drafted in from all over the south-east of Scotland. Sadly none of the whales survived. Many were put out of their misery by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who would kill the whales with a bolt gun normally used to slaughter cattle. The carcasses were then loaded on to wagons by cranes and transported to slaughterhouses all over Scotland and northern England.
Fortunately on the day I was at Thorntonloch there were no stranded whales to worry about so I had a half hour stop to take in the beautiful scenery and have a bite to eat. There were a few people walking along the beach, many of whom were from the nearby caravan park. After my dinner was digested I continued along the beach but had to divert around Thornton Burn, before making my way around the edge of the caravan park.
At the other side of the caravan park I followed a roadway which took me to the edge of Torness Nuclear Power Station. To my left was the grey-white hulk of the power station, but my path took me to the right towards a large concrete walkway which headed around the edge of the site. The walkway was split into an upper and lower section so I decided to take the upper section as I got a better view of the sea.
The only problem with the upper walkway was that it was exposed to the elements. Whilst it was very sunny it was also quite windy and one gust of wind managed to blow my baseball cap off towards the sea. With a bit of a panic I looked over the edge of the walkway expecting to see my cap floating off into the sea. Fortunately it had landed on the lower walkway so I had to run to the next set of stairs down on to the walkway and then double back on myself to retrieve the cap.
I decided to continue walking on the lower walkway (left) As I continued to walk along I could hear a motor vehicle coming up behind me. I turned around and saw a Police 4 x 4 right behind me with the two Police men looking at me sternly. As the UK was on a high state of terror alert at this time, the Police from the nearby power plant would have been on the lookout for any potential troublemakers and were obviously just out on a regular patrol. For some reason I decided to not do the logical thing and move out the way to let them pass. Instead I was convinced that my little jog along the walkway to retrieve my cap had marked me out to the Police as a dangerous criminal and that they were here to either arrest me or shoot me, and so I kept on walking and blocking the road. After a few seconds the logical part of my brain over-ruled the panicked side and I moved out the way to let them pass. They gave me a friendly wave and I relaxed. That was until a couple of minutes later when they had turned around and come back. This time though I controlled the panic and stepped out of the way to allow them to pass again. This also got me another friendly wave from the Police.
The walkway continued to edge around the power station, at one point coming alongside one of the large outer buildings, before reaching a turning circle where presumably the Police had turned around at earlier. From here the coastal path continued up the side of a hill from which I got great views of Skateraw Harbour (below). A short while later I passed a disused lime kiln and it was interesting to see the contrast of traditional industry of the kiln with the ultra-modern industry of the power station behind it. The path descended down into a car park and I headed alongside Skateraw beach. At this point the Police had decided to show up at the car park again and I started to panic once more. Fortunately they were just doing another patrol and they didn’t bother me for the rest of the walk.
BARNS NESS LIGHTHOUSE
After Skateraw beach the path followed a grassy trackway through ancient dunes for just over a mile. A short time later I reached the beautiful stone-constructed lighthouse at Barns Ness. The lighthouse was first lit in 1901 and was manned by two lighthouse keepers until the summer of 1966. The lighthouse was machine gunned during the Second World War, however obtained no damage due to the strength of the stone used in the lighthouse’s construction. The lighthouse remained semi-automated until 1985 (requiring only one lighthouse keeper) when it was fully automated. Following a review in 2005 by the UK lighthouse authority, it was decided that the lighthouse at Barns Ness was no longer needed and so it was deactivated and sold off into private hands.
From Barns Ness I followed a narrow road which led away from the lighthouse and towards a car park. Rather than going through the car park, I headed off towards a beach where I took 15 minutes out just to take in the scenery and the quiet. The sun had gone in for a little while so it was a bit of a grey scene as I sat and watched the sea.
A short while later I was on my feet once again and I headed through a clump of gorse bushes before joining a well used track which led past an old disused lime kiln. Past the kiln the track descended down towards another car park, this time at Whitesands Bay Beach (below) . There were a number of cars here, and as the sun had just come out again a few people were leaving their vehicles to walk along the golden sands.
Just after Whitesands Bay the path edged around a spectacularly long golf course which kept me company almost all of the way to Dunbar. There were plenty of golfers about which meant I had to keep stopping to allow them to tee off. This got to be a bit annoying after a while, however fortunately the tide was out so I was able to walk along the shoreline without having to walk across the golf course. I had to come back in to the golf course to cross Brox Burn, however the rest of the journey around the course was pretty straightforward.
The end of the golf course came quite quickly and the path headed between a wall and the shoreline for a short distance until the outskirts of Dunbar. From there I walked along Dunbar’s beautiful eastern beach which was surprisingly almost empty. About halfway along the beach I followed set of stairs into a side street which then led me onto Lamer Street. This street took me almost all of the way to Dunbar’s beautiful Victoria Harbour where the day’s walk ended.
I had visited the harbour the previous evening after I had been out for a meal. It was certainly a very popular place with both tourists and locals alike and I’ve got to admit it is one of my favourite places I have visited along the coast so far. In fact I took every opportunity I could whilst staying in Dunbar over that extended weekend to head down to the harbour and just take in the beautiful scenery.
What makes it so special? Well at one end of the harbour you have the stunning ruins of Dunbar Castle (above). This site has been home to a defensive structure since Roman times when the Votadini tribe used this rocky outcrop as a stronghold to fight of Roman incursions into Scotland. By the 7th century it was a Northumbrian stronghold, before becoming a Pictish fortress which was then captured by the Scots in 849AD.
The first stone castle was built here in the 1070s by the Earl of Dunbar. The castle was attacked by the English twice in the 13th century, being briefly captured in 1333 which was then followed by a five month siege in 1338 after the castle was re-taken by the Scots. Thanks to the efforts of “Black Agnes” the English were unsuccessful in retaking the castle. The castle was slighted by the Scots in 1488 to prevent it being taken over by the English as it was such a key stronghold in southeastern Scotland. It was rebuilt again in 1515, underwent another attack by England in 1548 and was then further fortified by the French in 1550.
Perhaps the most famous visitor to the castle, Mary Queen of Scots, came here on the 24th April 1567 when she was brought to the castle after being abducted by the Earl of Bothwell. Presumably Mary liked being abducted as she agreed to marry the Earl on the 15th May that year. After Mary’s later abdication the Scottish Parliament ordered the destruction of the castle as they didn’t want it to fall into enemy hands, either foreign or domestic. A further downfall came when Victoria Harbour was built in 1844 which required part of the rocky headland the castle stands on to be blasted out of the way. All that remains of the castle is a few walls which are often littered with noisy kittiwakes. I welcomed the noise as it added to the atmosphere of the harbour.
Dunbar has been an active port since the 14th century when the first harbour was put in place at the mouth of Biel Water, to the west of Dunbar. In the 16th century the harbour had moved to the east of the castle in an area called Broadhaven. This was followed by Cromwell Harbour which was built between 1655 and 1730 to the east of Broadhaven. This harbour was used by Oliver Cromwell and his invasion force that defeated Scots loyal to the Crown at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. So pleased was Cromwell with the harbour’s role in his victory at the battle that he put £300 towards the construction of the East Pier. Cromwell Harbour ‘s construction led to Dunbar becoming an important fishing and whaling port during the 18th century, however by the 19th century the old harbour was in a state of disrepair which led to the construction of Victoria Harbour.
Victoria Harbour is still a very busy place and there were plenty of fishing boats coming in and out of the harbour as I finished my walk. It was here where I got to sample another of the harbour’s delights, namely the harbour’s resident seals. I had discovered these beautiful creatures on the previous night’s visit to the harbour when I had noticed a small crowd were looking down into the water near a fishing boat which had just returned from sea. In the water next to the boat was the head of a seal bobbing up and down. I watched as the fisherman leaned over the side of the boat and dangled a freshly caught fish over the head of the seal who jumped out of the water to gobble the fish down in one go. The fisherman and seal repeated this act a couple of more times to the delight of the crowd and myself, before the fishermen climbed off the boat and headed home, leaving the seal still bobbing up and down in the water, his eyes following the fisherman as if to say “Come back! I’m still hungry!” These seals were quite clever as I watched a couple of them swim to the entrance of the harbour to wait for the next fishing boat to come in and then follow the boat back into harbour, hoping for some more yummy fish.
After leaving the seals behind I headed to the eastern side of the harbour where the remains of an 18th century fort and battery stand. This was built on an island (known as Lamer Island) to protect the port from invasion and privateers who were particularly active during the American War of Independence. The battery was pretty much a white elephant from the beginning. Despite the threat from privateers the battery never fired a shot in anger and was dismantled at the end of the Peninsular War in 1814, with the island remaining empty.
When Victoria Harbour was built the island became connected to the mainland by a causeway and was incorporated into the port, however didn’t see any real use until an isolation hospital was built here in 1874. Ill people with infectious diseases were sent to the hospital for treatment and to keep them away from the general population. The hospital was always in poor condition and was shut before the outbreak of the First World War. During the War the isolation hospital was taken over by the British Red Cross who refurbished the building re-opened it as an Auxiliary hospital for wounded soldiers. Following the War the hospital was given up by the Red Cross but was immediately re-opened as a cottage hospital until this too closed in 1926. The hospital was then used as emergency housing for locals until degradation of the building led to the roof being blown off during a storm and the building was finally demolished in June 1937.
Nowadays the remains of the fort and battery are a pleasant space to walk around with many interpretation panels explaining the history of the place. There are also great views across Firth of Forth where I could make out the twin humps of Bass Rock and North Berwick Law (above), which was where I was aiming to walk on the next day, a walk I was greatly looking forward to. I would get to follow the John Muir Way and also learn about Dunbar’s most famous son, John Muir himself, but there will be much more about him in the next blog. Happy reading!
Barns Ness Lighthouse