Coastwalk #24 – North Berwick to Port Seton

START: North Berwick, East Lothian

FINISH: Port Seton, East Lothian

DISTANCE: 16 miles (Total: 281.3 miles)

APPROXIMATE TIME: 6.5 hours

OS MAPS: OS Explorer 351

ACCOMMODATION: Arden Guest House, Musselburgh 

September 2017 arrived and that meant the next lot of coastal walking could be done (hooray!). Over the summer the B&B had been booked (I stayed at the fantastic Arden Guest House in Musselburgh in case you were wondering), the train tickets had been ordered, my bags had been packed and I couldn’t wait to get started on the next section of the coast – the Firth of Forth’s southern bank. This involved a 40 mile wander over three stages from North Berwick (where I had left off last time – see Coastwalk #23), through Edinburgh, and finally crossing the Firth of Forth at South Queensferry to set myself up nicely for the Fife coast in 2018.

The first day’s journey involved a walk from North Berwick to Port Seton and the weather could not have been more perfect when I woke up that morning. I wolfed down a delicious full cooked breakfast courtesy of Arden Guest House, before jumping on the 124 bus to North Berwick, which fortunately stopped right opposite the B&B. A forty minute trip later, which visited most of the towns and villages I would be walking through later that day, I arrived in the beautiful coastal town of North Berwick.

NORTH BERWICK

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I decided to have a quick look round North Berwick before I started the walk as I hadn’t really seen much of it the last time I was here, being in a rush to catch the bus back home. I then headed towards the town’s harbour. There has been a harbour in North Berwick since the 11th century, however there is evidence of a ferry port for pilgrims being in existence as early as the eighth century. Thousands of pilgrims used the ferry at North Berwick to cross the Firth of Forth to Earlsferry in Fife, where they would then continue their journey towards the shrine of St Andrew at (unsurprisingly) St Andrews. The ferry saved the pilgrims a great deal of time, as previously they would have had to continue along the Firth of Forth and cross at Queensferry before continuing back along the north bank of the Forth. The ferry was discontinued after the 1600’s as pilgrim numbers rapidly dropped off, largely as a result of the Scottish Reformation.

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Just before I got to the harbour I stopped to look at the ruins of an old church (above) dedicated to St Andrew which was in existence for a 1000 years until half of it was dramatically swept into the sea in 1656 following a storm. The first church on the site was most likely made of wood and was probably constructed by the monks of Lindisfarne from Northumberland. By the mid 12th century this wooden church was replaced by a simple white stone church which would not only have served the local community, but also the steady stream of pilgrims making their way to St. Andrews.

North_Berwick_Witches
Suspected witches kneeling before King James (from Daemonologie written by the King himself in 1597)

A rather gruesome story is attached to the old church. During the reign of King James VI (who later became King James I of England and managed to avoid being blown up in the Gunpowder Plot) in the late 16th century, between 70 and 200 “witches” from North Berwick and the surrounding area were put on trial, gruesomely tortured and then executed. Why? You can blame King James. In 1589 King James was travelling to Denmark to collect his new bride, Anne of Denmark when he was forced to turn back by severe storms. For some reason the King became convinced that so-called witches from North Berwick were intent on ruining him (the King had developed a somewhat keen interest in the dark arts throughout his reign) and so set about trying to destroy them.

Under torture the victims confessed that they had met the Devil himself in St Andrew’s Kirk churchyard on the night of Halloween in 1590.  The Devil had ordered them to dig up some of the bodies from the graveyard, cut off random joints or organs and attach them to a dead cat. The deceased cat was then chucked into the sea which somehow created a storm that nearly shipwrecked the King’s boat. For this “crime” dozens of innocent people were brutally murdered, which must have a big impact on such a small place as North Berwick was at the time.

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Leaving the ruined church behind with its gruesome history (fortunately there were no witches or devils about) I continued on towards the harbour, passing by the Scottish Seabird Centre. Following a quick visit to the harbour, I doubled back on myself and headed down a set of steps which led me on to the town’s western beach (below). I could see why this place was (and still is) popular with tourists. The town grew as a resort in the latter half of the 19th century largely due to its two beautiful beaches. Golf also drew many people to the growing town, and it is still a popular pastime with North Berwick having two golf courses within its boundaries.

I didn’t stay on the beach too long, instead choosing to follow the shoreline via the John Muir Way (JMW). The path edged around the inner side of a golf course, which was starting to fill up with golfers. I got fantastic views across the Firth of Forth, including some of the islands that lie in the waters. The small islands of Craigleith and Lamb were clearly in view, and I could also make out the island of Fidra a little further along the coast. Fidra was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island. 

YELLOWCRAIGS

Soon the JMW came away from the golf course and the coast and headed along streets in the west of North Berwick. I passed by some beautiful houses and so spent the next quarter of an hour deciding which house would suit me best if I ever made my fortune and could afford to live here. The road I was following came to an end, however the JMW continued along a well-worn track which edged around the same golf course I had been walking by earlier. A little later the path crossed a field and entered a small woodland which formed part of Yellowcraigs Nature Reserve. 

On the other side of the woodland, the path followed the edge of the trees before coming to a junction. The JMW headed left to take a more inland route, however I chose the path to the right towards the beach. Right ahead of me I could make out the island of Fidra very clearly (below). I could see how easily Robert Louis Stevenson could have got his inspiration for Treasure Island as he made regular visits to the beach at Yellowcraigs. He must have spent countless hours looking across the same view that I was. 

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I followed the beach for the next half-mile, whilst occasionally have to clamber across low lying rocks. I passed a line of newly built luxurious houses which must have an excellent view of the sea. Following a quick detour onshore around the edge of a luxurious villa, I dropped back on to another small beach. I passed a couple of old women who asked me to take a photo of them with Fidra in the background. I had a quick chat with them and they told me they used to regularly visit this place in their youth in the 1950’s and hadn’t been back since. It was an attractive place and I wish I could have stayed a bit longer to talk, however the rain had started and so we bid our farewells and set off in opposite directions. 

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Another half-mile ramble through dunes at the end of the beach led me through to the start of another curved golden beach (below). The rain had fortunately stopped by this point although the skies were still dark with heavy clouds. At the other end of the beach I had to climb back up on to shore once again near a small wood in a place known as Black Rocks. 

ST PATRICK’S CHAPEL

20170911_131810.jpgI passed a small ruin which at the time I thought was the remains of a chapel dedicated to St Patrick (right). However since I started researching this walk to write this blog post, it turns out this wasn’t the ruin of St Patrick’s Chapel, which instead actually lies a couple of hundred metres to the south hidden behind some trees. As a result I ended up missing the chapel and took some photos of some other unknown ruin instead.

The chapel was in use in the early 1500’s, but as the centuries passed the chapel fell into ruin and disappeared amongst sand and vegetation, becoming lost to the world. By fortune, an old estate map was discovered in the 1900’s which had the old chapel marked on it. Attempts were soon made to find the ruins which led to the excavation of the old chapel. It is, however, still a bit of a challenge to find the ruin as I found out on that day!

The path continued alongside the wood for a short while. According to the map the world famous Muirfield Golf Course lay on the other side of the wood although I didn’t get to see it. The course belonging to The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers opened in 1891, with the Company having been previously based in nearby Musselburgh since 1744. The course has hosted the prestigious British Open sixteen times and the Ryder Cup once in 1973, which saw the victorious US team retain the trophy against a British and Irish team of golfers.

A short walk along some more dunes led me to yet another glorious beach, this time at Gullane Bents

GULLANE BENTS

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I was starting to get a little tired at this point of the walk. Since leaving North Berwick there hadn’t been much chance to stop and rest so Gullane Bents provided my first real opportunity to break on the walk. About halfway along the beach was a path leading up to a car park which had a viewpoint and a seating area. I had a quick bite to eat, which I was hoping would be longer but due to a very sharp and heavy shower had to be cut short as I had to dash to the nearby toilet block for shelter. Once the shower had passed I returned to the seating area but naturally the bench was now soaking wet so I just stood and leant against a fence next to the viewpoint.

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There were brilliant views up, down and across the Firth of Forth (above) and I could also see that another heavy shower was making its way across from the other side of the Forth. I decided to take cover once again until this new shower had passed, before making my way along a track which led back down to the beach. 

Before I leave Gullane Bents behind I’ll talk about Gullane village itself which I had only got a glimpse of as I walked along the beach. The village’s history goes back a long way and by the 9th century a church was in existence. This church was replaced in the 1100’s by a stone church dedicated to St Andrew, which too was abandoned in 1612 when a new church in nearby Dirleton was opened, although the old church’s substantial ruins still remain in the west end of Gullane. In 1446 the old church became a collegiate church which meant it was home to a “college” of priors paid for by the lord of the land, Sir Walter de Haliburton, to pray for his soul and the souls of his family so that they would be guaranteed a place in heaven. 

Gullane is also famous for its golf courses. Not only is there Muirfield to the east, but in the village itself is Gullane Golf Course which has three courses. Fortunately I managed to avoid all of these courses by sticking to the beach until I was well out of sight of any golfers. 

A short wander along the remainder of Gullane Bents led me to a track which headed back through the dunes towards Gullane Point. It was from here that I got one of the best views of the walk – Gullane Sands (below). It was also at this point that the sun decided to come out and for a while it felt like I was viewing a scene from a tropical paradise rather than sunny Scotland. 

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I followed the golden sands for a good while until disappointingly I ran out of beach. A footpath sign pointed me back inland towards the bottom end of another golf course. The path didn’t go through the golf course, instead edging its way round the perimeter of the course whilst also edging around the edge of scenic Aberlady Bay (below).

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ABERLADY BAY

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The Bay is home to Britain’s first ever designated Nature Reserve which was opened back in 1952. The reserve is managed in a way to promote the welfare of wildfowl, waders and breeding birds, along with 550 species of plant. It was certainly an attractive place to walk through and as I crossed a long and rickety wooden footbridge across Peffer Burn, I stopped to look back across the Bay to take in the scenery. I continued along the bridge and headed into the Nature Reserve’s Car Park where there was a handy bench for me to sit down and rest my weary legs.

Unfortunately the weather decided to improve things by bringing yet another heavy shower across the Firth on Forth right on top of me, so I had to go running for cover. Once the shower had passed I went back to the bench hoping to continue my break, however unsurprisingly the bench was soaking wet so I decided to continue on alongside the A198, rejoining the John Muir Way, towards the village of Aberlady.

ABERLADY

Aberlady is a wonderful village to walk through which was once over an important port. There was already an active harbour in place by the 12th century, and due to it being one of the few places along this section of the coast where vessels could get close enough to shore to load and unload, it quickly became a vital port. As such, in 1633, Aberlady was formally designated in an Act of Parliament as the port of the county town of Haddington, which lies some five miles inland to the south.

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In the early 18th century, Aberlady also became an important centre for weaving, however by the mid 19th century the village was in decline as the harbour became redundant due to being unable to accommodate the larger ships that piled the waves at this time.  The port of Leith further up the coast became the preferred destination for ships, plus the arrival of railways in the area meant that goods didn’t have to come through Aberlady’s port no longer. As the port’s fortunes declined, the weavers along with other industries followed suit and Aberlady became a much quieter place, although the arrival of the Aberlady and Gullane Railway in 1898 brought much needed visitors to the village.

I had a choice of routes on reaching Aberlady. I could either continue to follow the shoreline around the edge of Aberlady Point, or continue on a more direct route through Aberlady village along the John Muir Way. I ended up choosing the latter for a couple of reasons. Firstly my legs were starting to get really tired as I hadn’t had much opportunity to stop on the walk so far, and following the John Muir Way would allow me to shave off a mile or so. Plus the coastal route would involve negotiating my way around a golf course, followed by a walk along the shore whilst the tide was rushing in. In the end common sense won and I followed the JMW out of Aberlady, passing by the village’s beautiful church (below). 

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The JMW ran along its own path parallel to the tree-lined A198, before entering a wooded section. Here the path was lined with many WW2 anti-tank concrete blocks. A little further ahead the path came out of the wood and back onto the shoreline at Gosford Bay. I was right to have chosen the more inland route as looking back down the coast towards Aberlady Point I could see that the tide had come right in, making a walk along the beach impossible. 

A couple of hundred metres further along the JMW I came across an attractive gatehouse which guarded an entrance to Gosford House. Set in 5000 acres of parkland, the house is the seat of the Earl of Wemyss and March and was built in 1800 for the 7th Earl of Wemyss. I couldn’t actually see Gosford House from where I was stood as it was hidden behind some trees.

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The path continued to run between A189 and the shoreline. Gosford Bay (above) was very scenic, especially more so as the sun had made a re-appearance. At the other side of the bay the JMW entered a small clump of trees, before coming out onto a car park, which marked the start of Longniddry Bents.

LONGNIDDRY BENTS

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I was now on the look out for somewhere to sit for a while before making the final push into Port Seton. Fortunately there were plenty of seats dotted along the shoreline so I sat down on one and had a half-hour break, whilst watching half-a-dozen kite surfers swoop and ebb with the wind and waves. It was certainly a lovely sight to see and I wanted to stay there much longer, however I was starting to get hungry and I had no food left. I knew there to be a good fish and chip shop in Port Seton at the end of the walk so I decided to push on.

The long break had given me a second wind and I was able to pick up the pace a little. The JMW followed a sandy path along the shoreline for a while before coming away from the sea as it headed through a couple of more car parks and a small wooded area, followed by a short stretch back on the shoreline.

The sun was starting to get low in the sky as I joined the main road which led into Port Seton. I was hoping to continue along the beach for the remainder of the walk, however the tide was lapping up against the sea wall so I had to join the path next to the road. I passed by Seton Sands Holiday Village which ordinarily would have been packed with holidaymakers, but for this time of year was pretty quiet. 

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PORT SETON

As I got to the edge of Port Seton the path diverged away from the road and followed a nice promenade into the village (above). The promenade headed around the back of some houses before finally reaching Port Seton’s attractive harbour (below) where today’s coastal walk finished. 

It is hard to distinguish between Port Seton and the neighbouring village of Cockenzie, especially as the two places merged many years ago. In fact most maps refer to the place as “Cockenzie and Port Seton”. Both villages have harbours, with Cockenzie’s being the first to be built, with Port Seton following in the mid 17th century. Port Seton owes its existence to the Seton family who owned Seton Hall, located a mile inland. The 11th Lord Seton built a harbour on his estate which obviously became known as Port Seton. The new harbour developed primarily as a fishing port, whilst the neighbouring harbour at Cockenzie serviced the burgeoning coal industry which was predominant in the area. 

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Port Seton’s harbour was expanded in the late 1800’s during the herring boom. Cockenzie’s harbour was too small to accommodate the large boats used in the herring industry, so a group of local fishermen cobbled enough money together to build Port Seton’s expanded harbour, which opened in 1880. Port Seton, along with Cockenzie still maintains a fishing fleet to this day and are one of only a few harbours on the East Lothian coast to do so.

It was a fitting end to the day’s walking and after getting my fish supper from Bene’s Fish and Chip Shop (which apparently is one of the most popular for miles around), I returned to the harbour and watched the waves lap against the boats as I chomped down on some tasty battered cod. It had been a really good day’s first walk and I was really looking forward to the next day’s ramble which would take me further along East Lothian’s coast and into Edinburgh and Leith. I couldn’t wait to get started!

REFERENCES

NORTH BERWICK

http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/northberwick/northberwick/index.html 

http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_127/127_659_675.pdf

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/North-Berwick-Witch-Trials/ 

http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_north_berwick.html 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fidra

ST PATRICK’S CHAPEL

http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/gullane/stpatricks/index.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muirfield

GULLANE BENTS

http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/gullane/gullane/index.html 

http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/gullane/standrews/index.html 

ABERLADY BAY

http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/aberlady/aberladybay/index.html 

ABERLADY

http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/aberlady/aberlady/index.html

http://www.aberlady.net/history.php 

http://www.gosfordhouse.co.uk/about-us/ 

PORT SETON

http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/seton/portseton/index.html 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/landscapes/port_seton/

 

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