12th January 2019
The second highest cliffs on the east coast of Britain are to be found along this path.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
In the middle of winter I headed south on a train to Berwick-upon-Tweed along the coast of East Lothian with the sea on my left. It was just after 9am and I could see brown fields, a slate grey sea, even darker land on the other side of the Firth of Forth and the silhouettes of the trees without their leaves. As it lightened there was more detail: cows in coats; four-by-fours speeding between fields; ruined castles; and low, red-roofed farm buildings. The train was quiet.
I am hiking part of the Berwickshire Coastal Path (45.5 kms / 28.5 miles in total = a recommended 3 day walk). Berwick upon Tweed is technically in England (although their football team is Scottish!) and my destination is Eyemouth, 17km (11 miles) away.
The fields become green as I travel and on my left is the point of Berwick Law, the only high place in this flat landscape. Combine harvesters are frozen mid field; barrels of wrapped up straw lie waiting; there are borders of louring pines in the distance; and beyond, a complicated sky: wispy dark clouds against a bright blue though pale background and at the same time, little bands of cotton wool balls stretching from east to west.
Found photos of (from top left) Torness Nuclear Power Station, Dunbar Town House, St Abbs Head Lighthouse.
A few golden strips of corn have been left lying in the fields, birds are black shapes in the bright sky, the bare bones of the trees are like hardened and flattened seaweed fans. People were sniffing and blowing their noses all around me.
There were acres of half-built houses as I drew near to Dunbar, birthplace of John Muir, friend to all walkers and nature lovers. A small town with the arrow-head tower of the newly-painted-white, 16th century Town House; Saturday people with pushchairs; glimpsing the sea between buildings.
Then once more rolling by the deep chestnut loam, and a more varied landscape. We were edging further from the sea where the iconic Torness nuclear power station like children’s blocks which have been fitted together wrongly. Sheep grazed in miles of brussel sprouts fields; low, dry stone walls divided; and a solo bird perched, waiting for the morning to come. We skimmed past the St Abbs Lighthouse, where I was planning to walk to today (see below).
I could see the path I was going to be walking at the top of the cliffs as they tumbled down to the rocks and the white waves below. Men in red and blue were playing golf, their trolleys angled beside them, pools of sand dipped in the ocean of green turf.
As always, it was difficult to find the beginning of the walk, so, here are the directions for you: come out of the station, go up the little slope, turn left and then take the first right.
A man with 2 dogs stopped while I was taking a photograph of the Round Bell Tower , not knowing that I was waiting for him to come into shot so that I could include him! He told me that he used to work for the local newspaper and one April Fool’s Day he took a photo of it leaning, said it was toppling over, and published it with the caption, The Leaning Tower of Berwick. Crowds of people came to watch it, he said!
Next to the tower is Lord’s Mount, Henry VIII’s gun tower (completed in 1542). Its massive wall contains six gun positions and a latrine. The artillery included ‘the falconet’ which fired a solid ball 1000 yards (914 m).
Before I even got to the sea I lost my pole, which I went back for and luckily found, and a glove which I didn’t.
The Northumberland people I met were lovely and friendly and gave me directions out of the town and onto the path.
Oyster catchers were wading and ridges of diagonal rocks showed dark against the washed yellow sands. I went down the steps to a tiny cove, and along the well-trodden beach full of footprints and seaweed. There was the sound of trickling water as I made my way up at the other end.
Up above were ranks of holiday caravans where shells had been hung between railings. I could see a red and white lighthouse beacon at the end of the pier in the distance and hear the single, shrill whistle of a bird overhead – just as if he fancied me.
Immediately I came round to the next bay. It was larger this time with delightfully pig-pink cliffs and tufty tops. The wind was trying to blow the pale, beige stalks seaward. Once again it was just me and another man with his dog. Vestiges of yellow flowered gorse gleamed on the bank opposite.
The squawk of the train reminded me that the railway line matches the path to the left, and I was walking between that and the sea.
The links (golf course) was on my left; slippy mud down to a little wooden bridge over a trickle of water; the sweet tweet of a leaf shaped bird overhead, its wings fluttering fast. It was a very narrow, windy and uneven part so I was glad that I had found my pole to steady myself – it is definitely not accessible to wheelchairs or baby buggies.
It is an impressive landscape: thin horizontal layers of pink rock, tiny slices but massive boulders. My eyes were getting a welcome break from the computer as I gazed out to sea and admired the hues and cries of this stimulating view and the birds who live here.
The sky was opening up; I could identify the peeps of oyster catchers and see sparks of black ravens; I was scanning the sea for any sign of whales. My forehead was cold as I walked straight into the northerly wind. How I appreciated not heaving the heavy rucksack for once.
I only stopped for a couple of minutes for a comfort break and to put some chapstick on my lips, but I was already cold afterwards. There were single, brown birds with long curving beaks (curlews, probably), and others in huge crowds sweeping around in the sky above me, sticking together in formation, communicating wordlessly. I was entranced by these murmurations.
For a moment I wondered why I do this, especially in winter when it is so chilly. Then I looked out to the horizon and saw the world – so much bigger than me, and down at the rocks and the majestic sea stack – the land simply missing between it and the cliff; and it was good to be reminded how small I am.
I saw the people in their cars rushing between Edinburgh and Newcastle on the A1, and the high speed train making its way down south to London. Here I was being blown and buffeted by the wind, breathing the fresh air, listening to the natural sounds around, the brushing of my feet as they passed through the grasses, stumbling and toppling over uneven ground which is good for balancing my brain, and looking ahead. Things were coming into perspective.
Up a short wooden ladder, over a stone wall and I discovered I was in a caravan park called Marshall Meadows. Much to my disappointment it was not the pastures I had imagined!
Back onto concrete I immediately felt my sore feet and realised I hadn’t been aware of them since the pavements in Berwick.
By this time I was looking for a place to shelter and sit for a cup of tea and a banana to keep my sugar levels up. I didn’t want to lose my sense of proportion, which has happened in the past.
The Cuddy Trail is here. Cuddy is Scots for a donkey and the ‘beasts of burden’ were used to transport coal and fish from the shore to Lamberton and the Great North Road.
I had to climb over the gate as the farmer, in his wisdom, had padlocked it shut despite this being a public right of way and well-known footpath.
Then I curved back towards the wild cliff corner and the sound of the crashing water. The wind was causing shadows on the ocean. It had that look about it as if it was rising up to the horizon and down to the beach. It was heaving. The surface colour looked flat and even, until I really paid attention to it. Then I saw the variations of the olive, seaweed and sage green, with slate, business suit, and pewter grays, all edged with white lace and set against a peach sky.
There were lots of helpful signs indicating that badgers, yellow meadow ants and peregrine falcons can be seen here, but not by me. I did get glimpses of the fulmars on the ‘cliffes’, nesting in their flint and white plumage, so far away that all the photos were too blurred to be reproduced.
Twenty minutes earlier I had passed two men getting out of a car and preparing to surf, clad in black wetsuits with their white boards. I bet they had a good time in those rollers!
It was then that things started to go wrong.
But I did. I thought, ‘really?’ but I couldn’t see anywhere else to walk as the railway came so close to the edge, so I went anyway.
I skirted the steep slope first of all, grabbing handfuls of grass to stop myself slipping and edging my feet into the side, until it became too hard going. Then I dropped down onto the rocks. They didn’t look too bad from a distance, but they were – it was really hard scrambling over them. I could see a way out on the other side and I still assumed that was the right way. I pushed and tore through the brambly undergrowth, I fell down and got myself back up. I persevered. My pole kept collapsing itself and up at the top was a sheep’s face peering over at me. I could see hoof marks where they obviously managed fine, but I sure was struggling. Was there a way? What could I do?
Go back, that’s what! It was impossible. I was very hot and bothered and there was nothing for it but to retrace my steps, which was easier said than done and something I don’t enjoy. I traversed the rocks closer to the sea which were slippery as well as treacherously uneven.
I had completely lost my cool until I came across such a beautiful sight that I just had to stop and breathe.
It took a lot of time (perhaps three quarters of an hour) and I used up a great deal of my available energy. And it took quite a bit of serious tramping to get over the anger and frustration of the experience. On the back of the BCP map it says: It may seem unnecessary to provide directions other than saying – walk north or south keeping the sea on your right or left!’ Am I the only person to have missed the most straightforward path?
Slowly I realised I had to relax and get back onto the right path. I had to let it go or I couldn’t enjoy the remainder of the walk, so I focused on anything but my feelings and picked up pace.
In my recording I said that I chose not to walk where two others were, around a field when I could clearly see a short-cut straight across the top of it. I saw the trampled down barbed wire and said to myself, I’m not falling into that trap again!
Next was a straight and concrete side road to Homestead, and I spotted a brightly coloured lifeboat chugging along. When I turned round, there was a deer lolloping in the undergrowth very close by with its beacon of a white tail. It seemed to be rather a special sight. The Medicine Cards say that when deer appears, ‘apply gentleness to your situation.
At 1.50pm, my phone battery was already down to 32% and I quickly came across another conundrum. I took a second wrong turn. This time I crossed a field to the left because it looked as if the alternative went over the edge. It was not clear, so I stood and debated and as the gate was open I chose to go through.
Right to the end of that green field I went, past all the sheep who may well have been watching wisely for all I knew! And then I didn’t know where to go but back – it was a dead end. Never again will I walk without an ordnance survey map, I declare to the sheep!
So I went through the other field (not in a straight line), climbed over a stile, and doubled back (presumably the path avoids the farm land).
There was the village of Burnmouth below me at last, tucked under the heights. I zigzagged steeply down in the opposite direction from the yellow arrows, behind the gardens and at last found a BCP sign. Amazing how this often happens at a time when there is absolutely no other possible way anyway! For some reason the walk is not as enjoyable if I am not going in the right direction.
Apparently Burnmouth was ‘once a hotbed of smuggling’ (tea, brandy, silks etc) engendering lively stories from 1780. A pretty but secluded village, it is divided into two halves with a harbour inbetween. Candy coloured cottages seemed to be for visitors. The tide was out leaving streaks of low rocks, as if someone had painted on a glassy surface and the paint had separated unevenly.
A man stopped to do up the zip of the woman he was with and my black mood meant I could barely manage to say a friendly hello. My knees hurt going down and my insteps going up. The sign pointed in the direction of two roads, one to the right and the other uphill. I took the path which ran to the right of a dour chapel, curving through woods, over a planked boardwalk, then up a steep hillside with a horrible groaning noise going on – something to do with the fishing in the harbour.
There was a handy bench ‘Dedicated to William Telford, born Burnmouth 1925’ for resting my weary feet and admiring the vista but I was very stiff when I got up. I hadn’t been walking for a month of so and it was showing. I thought I wouldn’t need the chocolate I bought yesterday and wished I hadn’t left it at home.
Blue tits played in the briars, zipping in front of me; silvery green lichen covered the branches. Humbled and cut down, I did not recover quickly. I was reduced to little more than zero miles an hour.
Once up high again and back into the windy onslaught, I needed a hat and two hoods – it was a mere two weeks after the winter solstice.
Then, halleluja! the sun started to show its lovely self. 3.15pm. What a wonderful light.
I had to ask for directions from a group of teenagers heading out for some fun, giggling. I wound my way along the jetty and around the end remembering that I was here for my birthday with Lesley in 2016. The wandering geese took no notice. I was aiming for the co-op store at the centre (ye cannae miss the co-op, it’s the biggest building in the toun I was told) and the most helpful girl who checked the bus times on her phone for me – my fingers were too cold to work mine and it was threatening to run out of battery.
I was focused now on getting warm and fed as I always am after a long day’s hike. I had to spend a great deal of time in a Wetherspoons in Berwick until my return train to Edinburgh, but I warmed up and rested my weary limbs.
I didn’t make it to St Abbs so I will have to start next time at Eyemouth and cover that stretch on day 2.
Train: Edinburgh to Berwick upon Tweed (Scotrail £14.60)