START: Dunbar, East Lothian
FINISH: North Berwick, East Lothian
DISTANCE: 16 miles (Total – 265.3 miles)
APPROXIMATE TIME: 7 hours
OS MAPS: Explorer 351
ACCOMMODATION: Springfield Guest House, Dunbar
As the song goes, “What a difference a day makes”. This was certainly true on this walk as the bright sunshine of the previous day (see Coastwalk #22) was replaced with dark, somber clouds and plenty of rain. This meant that, on this day at least, Dunbar wasn’t living up to its nickname of “Sunny Dunny”. I wasn’t too downcast though as the weather said the sun might just make an appearance by lunchtime. With that in mind, along with a hearty breakfast courtesy of the Springfield Guest House , I jumped on the bus outside the B&B to make the short journey into Dunbar town centre where I could stock up on supplies for the day.
Heading down Dunbar’s high street I passed a statue dedicated to the town’s most famous son, John Muir (below). Muir was born in a house on Dunbar’s high street (which is now a museum dedicated to showcasing his life) on 21st April 1838. Whilst growing up in Dunbar, Muir developed a love for all things natural, most likely obtained from walking throughout East Lothian with his grandfather, and scaling the ruins of Dunbar Castle.
In 1849, Muir emigrated to Wisconsin, USA with his father and brother, where he lived and worked on a farm for 10 years. He never forgot about his love of nature though and following an accident where he temporarily lost his sight whilst working at a mill, he embarked on a 1000 mile walk from Wisconsin to Cuba, devoting his time to the study of nature.
Feeling at home in the wild, he made countless expeditions up mountains, through forests and along glaciers, often taken many esteemed visitors with him. Muir often wrote about his travels and his writings inspired thousands of people and contributed towards a conservation movement in the United States. He influenced the creation of Yosemite National Park, the first National Park in the United States after spending a four day camping trip at Yosemite with the then US President, Franklin Roosevelt. John Muir was one of the founding members of the Sierra Club, which campaigned for the protection of wilderness areas in North America. These wilderness areas were often under threat from commercial interests.
John Muir strongly believed that it was not just enough for people to be sympathetic with the natural world’s plight, but that they should actively become involved in conservation efforts, including campaigning, researching, writing, painting and practical work. By the time of Muir’s death on Christmas Eve 1914, the US government had designated 230 million acres of land as protected national parks thanks to Muir’s passionate campaigning. Unsurprisingly, John Muir is known as the “Father of the National Park Service” which was founded two years after his death in 1916.
Continuing down the High Street, I passed John Muir’s Birthplace Museum (which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit on this trip) and took a right turn at the end of the street down towards Victoria Harbour where I started off the walk proper. After a false start, where I took a wrong turn and ended up around the back of Dunbar Castle, I realised that the John Muir Way (which I would be mainly following that day) actually headed uphill towards the town’s swimming pool. From the pool, the John Muir Way (hereafter known as the JMW) headed down a set of stairs towards a small red-sandstone cove. An interpretation panel noted that this was a popular destination for the young John Muir who would spend hours exploring amongst the rocks which no doubt contributed towards his love of nature.
There also used to be a popular outdoor pool in this cove (pictures of which can be found here) first built in the 1880’s, with promenades and pavilions added in the decades after. The pool was very popular during the summer (unsurprisingly) when thousands would flock from the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The pool saw visitor numbers drop sharply during the 1970’s as a result of the rising popularity of overseas holidays. The bulldozers moved in during November 1984 and a month later the pool was gone forever.
The path edged around the cove, climbing up a set of steps to pass underneath a stone archway, before continuing around the edge of another red sandstone cove. A short while later I joined a wide stone-paved promenade which I followed along the clifftops around the edge of Winterfield Golf Course. This was a rather attractive section of the walk, and would have been much improved if it hadn’t been raining. Bass Rock could be made out laying like a smudge on the horizon.
Half-a-mile-later, the promenade came to an end as the path continued down a set of steps and alongside the golf course. Even though it was raining quite heavily, there were a few brave (possibly foolish) souls playing golf in the rain and so I had to stop a couple of times to allow people to tee off. This wasn’t too troublesome though, and it was more than made up by the view across Belhaven Bay, where I could see a good number of people walking across the sands.
Leaving the golf course behind, I walked through a car park and noticed out on the sands a bridge laid across Biel Water which seemingly led to nowhere (below). This bridge is passable at low tide and allows worker to cross Biel Water and head on to the sands of Belhaven Bay. However, at high tide the bridge becomes partially submerged and looks really unusual as it appears to serve no obvious purpose.
Dunbar’s first harbour was located here at the mouth of Biel Water in 1370, when the town was designated a Free Burgh by a Royal Charter. The harbour was a very important one during the Middle Ages and would have been teeming with ships from all over the country and beyond, until a new harbour was opened further east in the mid-16th century near Dunbar Castle.
The JMW headed along Shore Road, round the edge of Belhaven village before heading westwards along a path next to a sea wall. The rain still hadn’t let up, but I was starting to see the sun making a brave attempt to poke its face through the clouds, so I was hoping that the bad weather wasn’t going to last much longer.
After crossing Biel Water via a footbridge, the path continued through the remains of ancient dunes. I was paying close attention to my new walking boots as this was their first real ‘waterproof’ test, especially as I was heading through long grass which was soaked with rainwater. My previous walking boots had failed miserably back on the St Abbs to Cove leg of the Coastwalk (see Coastwalk #21), leading me to having soggy feet for the majority of the walk. Fortunately my new boots passed with flying colours and I’m pleased to report that my feet remained dry for the rest of the walk.
I soon reached John Muir Country Park, which despite the weather was fairly popular with walkers and day trippers. Just after I passed a toilet block, the path forked in two. The path on the right continued on along the coast, however I decided not to take this route as it would mean doubling back on myself later on, so I decided to take the path on the left which took a short cut through a wood towards the River Tyne.
Heading through the trees I got a little surprise when I could hear a train whistle tooting in the distance. A short while later there was a clearing to my left and I saw a little diesel train pulling a couple of open-sided carriages along a narrow gauged track (above). The carriages were only half full and the passengers were looking out as the train pulled them through a weird farmland/zoo littered with a variety of animals including sheep and llamas. Whilst walking past I was treat to the surreal sight of children lobbing pieces of bread at a bemused llama from a tiny train.
The train chugged around a bend and away from me as I continued to follow the path along the edge of the wood. I soon reached the Tyne estuary and even though the temptation was there to cross the estuary whilst the tide was out thus saving me many miles, the fact that it was raining put me off as I would have to cross the River Tyne which could dangerously surge at any moment. As a result, I had to continue to follow the JMW as it edged around the scenic Tyne estuary.
Following the path I noticed two long lines of giant concrete blocks running parallel to the shoreline (below). These were the remains of anti-tank blocks placed during World War II to prevent enemy tanks from landing on Tyne Sands as part of an invasion. The low lying lands surrounding the estuary meant that Tyne Sands would have been a good site for the enemy to gain a foothold and move inland, potentially towards Edinburgh. Like many places I’ve come across along the coast, Tyne Sands is littered with relics from the Second World War designed to prevent an invasion that thankfully never came.
I soon had to come away from the water’s edge as the path headed further inland along a track towards the village of Tyninghame. If I was doing this walk 200 years ago I would been trekking through marshland, however a raised bank was put in place to stop the estuary waters from flooding the marshland so that it could be converted into farmland.
At the end of the track the JMW continued to the right along the A198 towards Tyninghame. At this point I had to leave the JMW behind as it continues much further inland towards East Linton and doesn’t reach the coast again until North Berwick. It was also at this point that the rain thankfully stopped and I was able to remove my waterproofs which had been causing me to overheat as it was still a warm day despite the rain. The sun still refused to come out from behind the dark clouds though as I made my way across the River Tyne into Tyninghame.
Tyninghame has a long history, however it has only been in its present location since 1761. The original village was located just over half a mile to the north-east where Tyninghame House now stands. Back in the mid 8th century a man called Baldred founded a religious community on the banks of the Tyne. This man later went on to be sainted and his name crops up in various places along this section of the coast. Unfortunately, the monastery was sacked by the Danes in 941 AD and disappeared from history.
By 1100 a new church had been built, dedicated to St Baldred, around which a community grew called Tyninghame (meaning “village of the dwellers by the Tyne”). The lands where the village lay had been in the hands of the Bishops of St Andrews since the 13th century and a manor had existed on the site since the late 11th century, however in 1628 they came into the ownership of the Earls of Haddington. From 1700 the 6th Earl and his wife extensively re-modeled the landscape surrounding Tyninghame House by planting many trees and creating avenues and plantations, the majority of which still remain to this day.
His son, the 7th Earl went one step further and demolished the 600 year village of Tyninghame, moving the entire village and its inhabitants to new houses built half a mile to the west where the village currently stands. The old church was stripped of much of its stonework and became an ornament in the flower gardens. Tyninghame House was sold when the 12th Earl died in 1986 and has since become converted into luxury flats.
I was hoping to walk through the grounds of Tyninghame House as it would take a little time off my journey, however I’m still a bit wary of walking through people’s property even if I do have a right to roam in Scotland (within reason of course). As a result I continued on through the village, and had to follow the road for another half-mile as it climbed steeply out of Tyninghame. At the top of the hill I turned right along Limetree Walk, which would take me towards the coast at Tyninghame Links, along the northern tip of the Tyninghame Estate. I was able to get a glimpse of Tyninghame House in the distance through some railings.
Continuing along Limetree Walk I passed an abandoned farm, before reaching a car park which was quite full with vehicles. I headed through a gate at the end of the car park and followed track into Links Wood (above). The wood was a pleasant place to walk through and a short time later I reached the beach. I decided to break for lunch, haven’t not had much chance to stop and rest since leaving Dunbar because of the poor weather. I sat down to eat on a giant log which had been washed up on the shore, and watched as the sun broke out of the clouds over Dunbar across the over side of the River Tyne. The sunshine hadn’t quite reached where I was sat though so I had to imagine that the sun was shining on me.
After finishing my lunch, I headed off once again. I followed the beach for a short while before continuing my walk through Links Wood. In the wood was some more anti-tank defences left over from the Second World War along with the remains of a roadblock. The path through the woods took me towards St Baldred’s Cradle, a small semi-circular spit of land which poked out into the North Sea. I didn’t walk all the way around the ‘Cradle’ instead I cut across it, before clambering down onto Ravensheugh Sands.
THE WAY TO SEACLIFF
I had a choice of two routes on this section of the walk. Either I could walk long Ravensheugh Sands and then on to Peffer Sands (below) before cutting inland at Scoughall and continuing towards Seacliff on ‘dry land’, or I could keep on the beach as long as possible until I had to clamber across Scoughall Rocks and Car Rocks until I reached Seacliff along the shore (whilst hoping that the tide didn’t come in to cut me off). I chose the latter option, mainly because I had seen so little of the coast so far on the walk.
In the end I was pleased with my choice, especially when the sun finally decided to make an appearance. I could begin to make out Bass Rock more clearer now which began to dominate the view the closer I got to North Berwick. There were also plenty of people about on the beach considering it is quite isolated.
A short while after crossing Peffer Burn, I ran out of beach and had to walk across stones at first, then large boulders, before finally having to scramble over large rock formations. It was amongst these rocks that the infamous ‘Pagans of Scoughall’ carried out their nefarious activities. The ‘Pagans’ were a gang of wreckers who worked the coast between Berwick and Cockenzie. Their trick was to tie a horse’s neck to its knee and attach a lantern to the rope and then walk the horse along the clifftops. Ships out at sea would see the lantern bobbing along and think it was another boat safely anchored at shore and so head towards it themselves thinking they would reach a safe harbour. In reality the ship would crash and wreck itself on to the rocks and the ‘Pagans’ would plunder the stranded boat for goods. The ‘Pagans of Scoughall’ inspired author Robert Louis Stevenson to write his 1892 novel The Wrecker.
Fortunately there were no ‘Pagans’ up to no good as I scrambled along the rocks, and it wasn’t long before I reached the beautiful beach at Seacliff, home to a variety of historical artifacts.
What I hadn’t realised whilst scrambling across the rocks towards Seacliff was that I had passed underneath the remains of a 16th century stone tower, which is now crumbling into the sea from its exposed location on top of the cliffs.
The tower is not the only ruined building along this section of beach. Standing just off the shore is the dramatic ruin of Seacliff House, which I could just about make out hidden behind a group of trees (right). The original house was built in 1750 by Robert Colt, before being bought by George Sligo in 1841 who employed the famous Scottish architect, David Bryce, to build a new house (in the baronial style that was very much in fashion at that time) around the core of the old one. The house was gutted in a fire in 1907, killing the then owner Andrew Laidlay. During the First World War the house was taken over by the Royal Navy, who established a top secret military base (called HMS Scottish Seacliff) here which was mainly used for U-boat defence and navigation training. Since then the house has been left to ruin and Mother Nature is slowly reclaiming what was once hers.
Also nearby Seacliff beach are a couple of features named after St Baldred. Away to my right was a rock formation jutting out into the North Sea which had a stone cross stood on top of it. This is known as St Baldred’s Boat. Further along the beach is a cave (which admittedly I completely missed) which St Baldred was said to have lived in from time to time. Unsurprisingly this is known as St Baldred’s Cave.
I continued along the beach, looking out to sea where Bass Rock was clearly visible. The beach itself is privately owned and visitors must pay £3 to park up which tends to put people off. As a result the beach tends to be much quieter than other beaches nearby, although on this day there were a fair few people taking advantage of the peace and quiet. I do suppose £3 is not a lot to pay to visit one of the jewels on East Lothian’s coast.
Time was getting on, plus my legs were tired, so I didn’t want to stay too long at Seacliff despite all its attractions. Before I left though, there was one place on the beach that I had to take time out and visit. This was Seacliff’s tiny man-made harbour (above) which is the smallest in the United Kingdom and can only fit in two small fishing boats at a push. The harbour was constructed in 1890 by the then laird, Andrew Laidley (he who got burnt in the fire at Seacliff), who used a steam engine and compressed air to cut out the stone. The harbour was beautifully framed by the brooding ruins of Tantallon Castle standing on the clifftops about half a mile away (below).
There is one last feature to talk about before leaving Seacliff behind – Auldhame Castle. Now only a ruin, often overshadowed by its more famous neighbour Tantallon Castle (more on that in a bit), the castle was built during the 16th century by the Otterburn family. There was a small village near the castle which was a separate parish with its own church until it was united with nearby Whitekirk in the 17th century.
The church was said to be one of the burial sites of St Baldred following his death on Bass Rock. There was actually a bit of a ‘barney’ between the three parishes of Tyninghame, Auldhame and Prestonkirk over where the saint should be buried. According to legend it is said that following a night of prayer three identical bodies were miraculously found, each wrapped up ready for burial so that all three parishes could be truthful in claiming that St Baldred is buried on their lands. The church at Auldhame was demolished in 1770 and there are now no obvious clues that the church and village existed.
I took one last look along the beach before heading up a track which led through a small woodland. I soon reached a metalled track which I followed past Auldhame Farm to the main coastal road. I got a great view of Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock looking like they were standing side by side (below).
The climb up to Auldhame Farm had tired me greatly and I was starting to flag a little. I had to follow the A198 through to North Berwick as there appeared to be no viable route closer to the shoreline. Fortunately, although there was no path for a fair bit of the way to North Berwick, the grass verge next to the road was wide enough for me to walk along without any trouble. I soon came to the entrance to Tantallon Castle, however decided not to take time out and visit the castle as time was getting on.
Tantallon Castle was built in the mid-1300’s by the nobleman William Douglas, who became the Earl of Douglas in 1358. The Douglas family split into two branches in the 1380’s – the ‘Black’ and the ‘Red’. Tantallon passed to the ‘Red Douglasses’ who owned the castle for the next 300 years. The ‘Red Douglasses’ would often clash with the Crown, resulting in the castle being besieged three times, including by King James IV in 1491, King James V in 1528, and finally Oliver Cromwell in 1651. Cromwell’s siege caused so much destruction that the castle was abandoned shortly after the siege ended and left to ruin.
My tired feet kept me walking past Tantallon Castle and alongside the A198 road. With being up at such a height I got great views across the Firth of Forth and could clearly make out the Fife side of the coast. Now that the Firth of Forth was in clear view it felt like I had turned a corner. My walk up the east coast had so far taking me generally in a northerly to northwesterly direction, but now for the first time I would be heading westwards until I reached the Firth of Forth Bridge at Queensferry, some 45 miles away.
The miles rolled by as I headed towards North Berwick. The giant ‘hump’ of North Berwick Law was pretty close now and I felt tired just looking at its steep sides and imagining the effort of having to climb up it. It wasn’t too long before I reached a ‘North Berwick’ sign which asked me to ‘Please drive carefully’. As I wasn’t driving I thought this wouldn’t apply to me so I kept on walking (although I walked carefully so as not to upset the good people of North Berwick).
Just after passing a modern housing estate I reached a wooded area known as North Berwick Glen. This was an attractive woodland to walk through as it led me down towards North Berwick’s eastern beach. The path passed by the remains of three water mills which date back to the Middle Ages.
Ahead the path came out onto the car park belonging to the Golf Club. Immediately after was the coast. Rather than following the pavement next to the coastal road, I decided to walk along the beach as this was much easier on my tired feet. I can walk for miles and miles along soft ground such as grass and sand, but as soon as I have to walk on hard surfaces my feet become really tired as the constant impact is just too much for them.
My walk was coming to an end and whilst my body was happy about this, my head wasn’t as I wanted to continue to keep walking for as long as possible and see what was round the next corner. However, my body overruled my head and so I stopped at a bus stop just before I got to North Berwick’s small but beautiful harbour. I didn’t have long to wait for the bus as two minutes after I had plonked my weary backside down, the 120 to Dunbar came scootling round the corner to take me home.
It had been a pleasant two days of walking from Cove to North Berwick. I had taken a sizable thirty mile chunk out of the Scottish coast, had seen some beautiful scenery and visited one of my favourite places so far on the Coastwalk – Dunbar’s stunning Victoria Harbour which I will make every effort to return to one day. Plus I need to have a look round John Muir’s Birthplace Museum as I didn’t get chance to on my stay in Dunbar.
Next up for me in September 2017 was to continue along the southern bank of the Firth of Forth until I reached the nearest crossing point which would be at Queensferry. This would involve a forty mile journey over three days from North Berwick, through Edinburgh to Queensferry, with a short detour across to the tidal island of Cramond Island. I was really looking forward to this next stage of the Scottish coast, which I will talk to you about in the next post. Happy reading!
The Way to Seacliff