the John Muir Way
NORTH BERWICK TO PRESTONPANS
North Berwick to Prestonpans
March 11 2018
Part 2 of the walk and the bus plan was working. The technicalities of parking the car and catching the bus involved fighting though timetables and bus route maps and were time-consuming, but we were getting where we wanted to be and it was free!
We worked out that the Dunbar route and the North Berwick route met in Prestonpans which meant we should leve the car there or thereabouts, To be safe, we left the car in Musselburgh High Street (it was a Sunday) which was ambitious in terms of the walk, but doable. That John Muir fella knew his buses. 16.5 miles, 26km. One of the longer legs. The upshot was that we left the car in Musselburgh, and caught the bus out to North Berwick. So we had a nice journey wending our way through the East Lothian countryside on the sunny upper deck of the bus, taking note of where we would be walking through later in the day. Oh dear. But the weather was great. The bus chugged up to North Berwick, picking up a couple of people on the way to the bus stop in North Berwick. Or stance. Whatever. We decided to be civilised, so we had bacon rolls and coffee with the newspaper in a café in the main street. Served by a lassie that the bus had picked up on the way. And usage of the facilities was required. (see Part 1 “civilised toilets”. Good start).
North Berwick is on a shoulder, a bulge into the Firth of Forth. The main road, the A1, goes from Edinburgh to London via Dunbar and misses that bulge. Unless you are a golfer, North Berwick is way out of the way, but it does do golf courses. Lots of them. End to end golf courses: this piece of Scotland is indeed the Golf Coast. It is a pleasant landscape broken by small groups of (mostly) men, playing golf in the middle distance. The saying is that golf is a good walk spoiled. A bit harsh perhaps. In this land golf offers a purpose no worse and no better than others. It does little harm, offers a reason for getting up and an excuse for being with other people.
Walking along the Golf Coast there is a sense that you are venturing into a kind of white laager, with a coastal border and the green interior being patrolled by groups of monied men with clubs.
There was a North Sea haar as we left North Berwick. As the sun went about the slow business of clearing away the clouds there were plenty of people on their Sunday morning constitutional, wrapped warmly against the weather, hoping for sun to break through.
The Way runs along a grassy area bordered on one side by the sea and on the other a row of substantial houses, houses with sea views jostling to see classic sunrises, sunsets, squalls in the Firth, and ships and boats passing, As North Berwick is left behind, the houses view golf courses as well as the sea . Here, there are separate golf links, linked but separated. Here, the houses are more spread, sparser, more substantial and more secluded. There is money here and with it the ability to buy degrees of seclusion. We crave privacy, and no longer recognise the need for community in survival. I am reminded of Robert Frost and his neighbour, mending walls. “Walls make good neighbours”. I don’t mention this to Neil. He’d think I was daft, or rather, it would confirm his view that I am odd. But you do see a lot of walls on the walk.
Here the Way is an interloper: a good walk refusing to be spoiled, a conveyor belt of proles cutting through the grassy swards. The pair of us certainly felt that this was a place we didn’t belong in, and that permission to pass through was grudging.
As I may have mentioned, the walk was most conveniently offering toilet facilities on a regular basis. Clearly this indicates hospitality. Not here mate. The path mostly wanders by the side of the links, separated by a decent fence. At one point the path crosses the fairway. There is a shack. It is a toilet shack. Padlocked. With notices “Toilets for use of golf club members only”. It is nowhere. You can hardly see day trippers making a special effort to use the facilities , but we get the message. Whatever your need, you are unwelcome, don’t belong. But I was able to rescue a dead, headless putter which is now a walking stick.
After crossing the fairway, the path splits: a path leads along the edge of the sea but the Way doesn’t do that: it follows round the Yellow Craigs Plantation and the caravan site therein. The plantation has great trees, bent and twisted by the winds; it has rocks and is a real contrast to the manicured links left behind. And there were toilets that one could use if one needed to.
Out to sea there were rocks, small islands, sitting inviting. You could almost imagine Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Islands, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven. I suggested this to Neil. Wasn’t his kind of literature apparently. I think I’ve mentioned Neil’s a Geordie? My suspicion was that his childhood reading didn’t go much past the snappily entitled “United” (Newcastle “The Toon” United Programme) and the Whippet pages of the Racing Times.
I am being unfair. On the Way (somewhere on John M’s Way) we had a long conversation about ancient history, and specifically the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall. Turns out that Neil started a school project on the Hadrian’s Wall and was able to persuade his Dad to take him on runs out to Hadrian’s Wall so he could research it, take photo’s etc. There was a sense of the young Neil getting swept up by historic discovery. I was surprised, but shouldn’t be: joking apart and in fairness, Neil’s impression of being a philistine is sometimes wafer thin.
Point of Information
I should point out that at the start of the whole walk, Neil and I had discussed whether we would walk in miles or kilometres. After a 2 hour discussion, we agreed that walking in kilometres would probably be easier than miles, although for this leg, because the path was roughly south-west, we noted that the way would be more downhill. Apparently Naismith’s rule accommodates the uphill/downhill calculation in metric meter contours better than in foot/inch contours. So walking in km was sensible.
Of course, Naismith has its limitations, and it is worthwhile taking cognisance of Langmuir’s corrections, while of course Tobler’s hiking function is worth examining. Alternatively you could always put one foot in front of the other and wear a watch.
(I originally thought I'd like to be silly here. It turns out that the Wikipedia version is truly magnificently silly. Bearing in mind that the rule attempts to enable walkers to work out how long roughly it's going to take from A to B, the result is something that knocks my effort into the rough. Look it up.)
I suppose I should also fess up and admit that writing this I am having to deal with a bit of fiction. I have a fictional view of myself as a walker - see below, left. The dreadful reality is the picture, right.
Quite apart from the illusion that I have been impaled by the famous walking golf club stick, there is just a sense of, well, huggery. None of your streamlined minimalist kit and clothing covering a lithe and athletic figure. Nope. There is the reality Edwards. Kid yourself not. Reality. Who needs it?
Passing by Yellow Craigs was to leave golfing behind, at least for a short while. The path from the caravans and picnickers leads to Dirleton. It runs alongside a wooded area behind a ten foot fence, protecting a housing development of new and exclusive housing beyond which is…. The golf course. There is more golf around here than you can shake a stick at. To the left of the path is agricultural land and there is a very popular “Sunday walk the dog/s to Yellowcraigs” feel. And dogs there are in plenty, a good excuse for a bit of a chat with the dog walkers, usually beginning with a compliment of “that’s a bouncy/fluffy/lively/braw/big/little dog you have there”. It inevitably gets a response, even if we are in the deepest reaches of the Golf Coast, much monied and not sure about talking to walkers passing through. Both Neil and I like dogs and fuss them at the drop of a hat: it’s very difficult to shun folks fussing your dog, even if you haven’t been formally introduced.
Neil currently posseses a huge German Shepherd (dog, not person: he can’t speak German) called Zeus. Zeus is a big softie, owner of two large teddy bears which he carries in his king-sized gob. Zeus is a God amongst dogs. I have no dog. I don’t like losing dogs, and have lost two. That’s enough. However, I am/was sharing a house with a psychotic ShiTzu (such an apt name) called Archie.
Archie. Sweet looking creature. Absolutely hates the sound, sight or smell of any other dog. Will go bananas in response to all other dogs. Has been known to eat tins of dog meat, meaning the tin of the dog meat. Hates being left on his own and shakes uncontrollably when he is being left. Anything at floor level is moved but still manages to get up on the table. His owner the (mother-in-law: soft as get out) speaks to him at length and explains to him the error of his ways: he appears not to understand which means she still drives 200 meters up the road to the walk, thus avoiding meeting any other dogs. Archie will not be visiting Yellow Craigs.
On a Sunday morning, this part of the walk is hooching with people. Dirleton Castle is a bit of an attraction although it’s probably more about weekenders enjoying the Green in the shade of the castle and an easy walk out to Yellow Craigs. As we are walking backwards along the Way, the castle was glimpsed from the green: for us, the Way took a dive west across country, passing Archerfield House. This is a dead posh hotel, 5 star of course (or is that “off-course”). It has a walled garden and garden centre, cups of tea etc. It is a tidy bit of countryside, manicured and pleasant (although the woods were a work in progress). It was March. They had an excuse.
We headed towards Gullane on the A198. One of those walking things is noticing detail, although not necessarily processing it. Neil and I were puzzled about the wire fence bordering the path. It looked double, and removable. Couldn’t work it out. It was only when I was later drawing up the map below that I worked it out (call me Sherlock if you will): the field backs on to the Muirfield Club, and the fence can be moved aside to allow car parking in times of big competitions in the area of the clubhouse. Should have been obvious. Neil and I are noted for our roughtie-toughtiness rather than brains. Can’t have everything.
The village itself looked basically late Victorian: big houses and rows of tarted-up workers cottages, with manic waves of development stuck on top. There seemed to have been a lack of housing plans during the intervening years, so the general feel was very, well, Golf Coast.
We consulted the map and noted we needed to turn left at a gap in the houses. Turns out to be quite a big gap, and to all intents and purposes looking every inch a golf fairway albeit a bit rough. It was flanked by houses, particularly to the East, and these houses looked like seaside houses, posh of course. But the sea was in the opposite direction: best guess is that they were good for looking at golf, with or without binoculars. Pretty soon we came to the track of a disused railway: disused railways always get me excited about the thought of Victorian travellers alighting from trains, and traffic jams being two horse and cart jobbies hitting a narrow part of the road at the same time. I took it all in, commented on the size of the track bed. Neil? Meh. OK Russ (the “Russ” with a Geordie “u”, sounds like Austrailian Roos without the Z. If you see what I mean).
The John Muir Way diverts off the rail route and requires passing through a gate. Approaching the gate we hit a caterpillar armed with bags. A bunch of late teens early twenties, walking (but not the Way as such): they were doing a walk and litter pick, which impressed us somewhat. Seemed a fine bunch… “hi” “John Muir Way?” “no” “how’s it going?” “litter pick? “Great job” “Why aye, pet”. But definitely walking going on. And as it happens, cycling.
Both of us are as eagle-eyed as bats and struggled to make out a building in the middle distance. It seemed an odd shape and is:
We caught up with cyclists who had stopped for a chat with each other. This time we went beyond the usual pleasantries, and spoke about the John Muir Way which they asked about; they thought the whole John Muir Way thing excellent, and were reassured we weren’t trying to do it in one continuous walk. Which was pleasing, because in a total of a day and half of walking against the current we hadn’t met anyone who was walking the way. So it was rewarding to be congratulated on our efforts, and interest taken. In fact, we had a conversation and not just a one or two syllable mutter. Bucked us both up.
There were signs of water management alongside the path, with banks not appearing to have any water to deal with. Couldn’t work out was going on, although someone with a brain may have worked out that the mill marked on the map may have something to do with it all. The real sneaky bit was the Castle being Saltcoats Castle. Doh. It entertained me for a while. Neil nodded and smiled. Well, grunted.
We came to the road, I suppose “the coast road”, and ate our sandwiches. We sat on the Luffness Golf Course Wall and viewed the nice men in slacks taking it in turns to hit or watch the little white ball fly. Restful. The Clubhouse looked interesting, worth a look. But we are rugged walkers and should have no truck with the 19th hole, especially one occurring midway through a walk. Midway would be generous. We were both aware that Prestonpans was a good walk yet and Neil is aware that, despite my longer legs and snappy dress sense, my weary days in the soft South, Albion’s Plain, have inclined me to slip occasionally into Southern softie mode. Neil is not necessarily too sympathetic, and steadfastly refuses to carry me at all.
After Luffness Links, the John Muir Way follows the road for a while, which was okay but hard paths generally take a toll with feet. Neil continues to walk in boots, I have taken to wearing trainers, initially to go up An Sidhean, the rounded hill above Strathyre. I have have felt walking boots to be heavy, and have often wondered whether trainers aren’t a better option.
I blame John Hillaby. Part of my walking history has been enjoying the outdoors in a limited way as a teenager, and being inspired by Hillaby’s “Journey Through Britain”. As a teenager, my fantasies involved walking across lands and mountains, camping out, seeing places. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings also had a lot to do with that. A young man in a landscape. Funny kind of fantasy really.
Feet, walking for the purpose of
John Hillaby’s book (he did a few, but this is the Britain one) gave substance to that thought. Oddly, he walked in trainers which stuck with me, although not to the extent that subsequently I habitually walked in trainers. But I do now. And its fine, although maybe not for the long-distance overnight stuff. The jury is out. The book stuck a chord that continues to reverberate. It must have been good, because it still lives with me. When I started walking John Muir I decided to wear my trainers, which reminded me of Hillaby. As a result of the trainer experiment, I looked him up and found an obituary from the Independent .
The obit describes a man of many parts, and it feels fitting for a man who had that effect on me in my teenage years to have the power to haunt me 50 years later. There are lines from T S Eliot from Four Quartets that have also stuck with me from years ago, lines which echoed and which I googled a few years back:
“We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time”
I never understood much of Eliot, but those lines had meaning. Tolkien’s “Not all those who wander are lost” and “The Road Goes Ever On” have for long come into my head as I walk.
As roads go the road past Luffness to Aberlady was quite interesting. There is a mill, not working but which seems to have been a water-driven saw-mill. The Way throws a right at the crossroads, with a straight ahead option for the car museum. The route runs along the roadside path which is bordered by a lengthy beech hedge. We chatted about this, to and fro also about Luffness House sitting behind its wall and appearing to have a peculiar arrangement for embarking or disembarking people.
Leaving Luffness, the pathway runs past a small car park which appears to attract tennis balls and dogs. At the end of the car park is a monument to Nigel Tranter, a long-time inhabitant of Aberlady and a writer of historic novels. When I arrived in Scotland, my boss introduced me to Tranter’s novels, which opened a history of Scotland that mixed fiction with history, and which brought the country alive. Living and working in Scotland, up the Braes and in the Bog, brought me face to face with the culture. Marrying a Scot meant marrying into a different culture. I come from Bedford. Nobody writes novels about Bedfordshire let alone historic novels.
Walking into Aberlady, we met with a fellow walker with clear serious intent as he was well loaded: main pack aft, small pack to the fore. We asked whether he was doing the John Muir. Turns out he was a man on a mission: he’d recently retired early, left his son in the flat and taken to the road. Starting from the Scottish/English Border north of Berwick he was walking the entire Scottish Coastline, seeing friends on the way and aiming to take six months at it. He was divorced, footloose and fancy free and aiming to do something incredible. And he was wearing boots. This guys efforts dwarf the SNT. I was impressed and slightly envious; I suspect Neil was also impressed. I think we both saw ourselves maybe giving it a shot, if our lives were otherwise. I should mention that for the last year or so Neil has been working his way up the Scottish National Trail bit by bit, and is currently up to Cluanie area. He has plans for me to join him which I probably will; his suggestion that I catch up by starting the route from scratch was not positively received, and physically challenging.
Passing through Aberlady, the Duck Inn offered us some liquid refreshment in the Bar. The Bar is festooned with golfing memorabilia, signed pictures and so on. The names were recognisable, and suggested (even under new management) a root of choice for some significant golfers. The walking memorabilia was less prominent. Refreshed, we moved on.
We steamed out of Aberlady heading for the long drag to Prestonpans. The Way passes a War Memorial, this one in the shape of a Celtic Cross. No time to have a good look. I have a need to look at War Memorials, which invariably touch me. There is one close to the beginning of the walk on the cliff top at Dunbar, another Celtic Cross. The Aberlady memorial sits in its own wee garden and iIt nestles next to the bowling club, neat and homely. Passed swiftly, I made a mental note to return, and hurried to catch up with Neil. Looking just now at the website, the notion of visiting the club was attractive: pictures of people, secure in their pastime, proud in their achievements. The traditions and roots of bowling contrast with those of golfing. No Muirfield this club, but infinitely more attractive in some ways.
The John Muir has its own path beyond the wall on the road out of Aberlady: the John Muir quite often gets its own walk/cycle way that wouldn’t otherwise exist. This was warming, recognising as it does the Walkers on the Way. From Aberlady, the Way leads East; as we walked, the early evening meant walking with the sun in our eyes, pleasantly. We passed by spruce woodland with the tall walls of Gosford House bordering the opposite side of the road, previously preserving the privacy of the great and the good. It was the seat of the Earl of Wemyss; not that Gosforth is anywhere near Wemyss (must be the draw of the golf courses).
The path moves into the edge of the wood, and you’re remined again of the shadow that covered Scotland during the war years. In the woodland are sets of dragons teeth set to prevent tanks getting ashore on the sheltered beaches of the Forth. Practically, an invasion would never have been tried in the North but the depth of the shadow was great; the place has an aura, and I’m reminded that Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings under the shadow of that war. Walking out of the trees we could see Arthur’s Seat just another point in the far distance. And as Tolkien says, the road goes ever on. And indeed, the road goes ever on between Aberlady and Prestonpans. I always reckoned that there were types of people: lake people and sea people although you would have to think about a third, river people. There’s something there about waters that move, waters that are still and waters that ebb and flow. The sea feels quite alien to me, possibly because I was brought up, 90 miles if you ignore the muddy bit of the Wash. So, I can like looking at it, but it feels like a barrier, something to keep you in. And there’s not a lot to see in the sea.
Because we’d been using the bus and were using the JM Way maps, we had a fair idea of the length we needed to walk back along Gosford Bay to Prestonpans. The weather by now was good with a good later winter sun giving that clarity in views that comes with it. So it was good walking, but it was also getting to the end of the day. The coast between Gosford House and Prestonpans has a lot of sand, some good sea beaches and regular toilets. Yay. The path is eminently walkable, and Neil set a brisk pace as we pushed past the Seton Sands holiday village and took the path round the back of Port Seton. Port Seton has obviously had better days but the place itself still smacks of past pride and character. The Pier and harbour seemed not to be busy places now, although the time of year probably make make that an unfair judgement. It’s harbour facilities are substantial, reflecting the past.
The mural on the wall portrays the view there was of the massive Port Seton power station chimney stacks that used to dominate the skyline, now demolished (the stacks not the skyline). There are pictures of the demolition on the web….
As we walked it become clear that walking back to Musselburgh was not practical. It had been a long day, and whilst the human dynamo was still revving, my batteries were somewhat depleted. We decided that we would get into the ‘Pans and catch the next available bus. This meant walking with half an eye on the road behind us. Passing the site of the demolished power station was, well, uninspiring. As we came up to the ‘Pans, the remains of a byng provided hours of happy amusement for three youths on a super-charged four-wheel sewing machine. They liked it.
As we got into ‘Pans we saw a bus coming. It came and slowed to stop at the bus stop after the cross-roads. We broke into a trot. Neil doesn’t do jogging and there was a cruel satisfaction in, after having endured following in Neil’s wake for most of the day, arriving first at the bus stop. There’s life in the old dog yet….
So we caught the bus to Musselburgh, had a preview of the next leg and agreed that it had been a good idea to finish at Prestonpans.