Thursday, 27 August 2015

Over the hills and far away: Galashiels to Innerleithen

A couple of days ago I took an early morning bus down to Galashiels and walked a section of the Southern Uplands Way to Innerleithen. Summer's days are numbered and although it was warm and sunny, there was a morning coolness that lingered and a subtle lack of edge to the sun's strength: though in shorts and a t-shirt and not applying sunscreen until later in the day, I didn't burn at all.

The willowherb and heather blazed, the final act of summer, and the air was often thick with the scent. There was still enough light and warmth to stir up an abundance of butterflies and bumblebees.

This is a wonderful section of the Southern Uplands Way. It follows old drove routes over the spine of the hills, culminating at Minch Moor and a descent between two old drystone walls, guiding the drove road through cultivated lands, down to Traquair. The views are immense, the skies wide, and the broad flanks of the hills are huge canvases for the sun and the clouds. The trail is ancient and and skillfully routed, being mostly dry and stony. Over the centuries it has seen drovers, monks and medieval armies come and go. Frontier country: Romanised like no other part of Scotland (look out for the 'Chester' place name throughout the Borders), with many place names betraying old cultural and linguistic links to Northumbria.

Overall, the Southern Uplands Way has a reputation as a tough route and although this section was easy going today, I could understand why. Though not quite reaching 2,000 feet, it's exposed. There are other similarly long, committing sections over wild moorland, serious undertakings in poor weather or under snow.

Here's a selection of pictures from the walk, in chronological order.

Looking back to Galashiels

Bridge over the Tweed at Fairnilee

Emperor moth caterpillar


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The gold coast

Last week I finally found a day to myself to investigate the new back yard. A couple of weeks before we'd had a family day out at wonderful North Berwick rounded off with fish and chips, and rolled drowsily back into Edinburgh on the train with our ears full of the sound of surf and shoes full of sand. I'd not been out that way since childhood and had only vague memories of expansive wild beaches, marram-covered dunes, crashing breakers, and huge skies. I wasn't disappointed and devised a coastal route from Seton Sands to North Berwick taking in a litany of half-remembered bays and beaches - Gosford, Aberlady, Gullane.

A few days later an early morning Edinburgh city bus dropped me at the end of the line outside Seton Sands holiday park, beyond the coastal towns that string out along the coast from the city into East Lothian. I crossed the road and went down to the beach which curved away eastwards from the soon-to-fall chimneys of Cockenzie power station.

Looking back towards Edinburgh, it's hard to tell with the naked eye that there's a city of half a million there. It's lost in the landscape, dominated by Arthur's Seat and the Pentlands beyond, and by the sea and the sky. I can just make out the castle and some large white industrial buildings at Leith.

Parts of the beach were littered with what looked like oyster shells.

I lingered for a while here, wandering between the surf and the dunes, soaking up the openness and peace of it all, not quite believing that all this is now so accessible via a short ride on a double decker bus. A few dog walkers ambled by and there was a solitary tent pitched on the dunes.

The sun's heat was building though, and this was only the beginning. Time to move on, round the headland to Gosford Sands. The high shoreline is rocky here, but the tide had retreated about a mile out over rippled sand and seaweed-festooned and barnacled boulders.

These seem to be largely shell beaches - that is, composed of the broken-down shells of countless sea molluscs. In a time of mass extinction and vanishing biodiversity it's easy to forget that gross abundance is nature's default setting, but these beaches reminded me of that fact, as I crunched over unnumbered razorshells, mussels, limpets and cockles.

World War II tank traps are also abundant on this coastline, the wide shelving beaches deemed vulnerable to landing craft.

At the far end of Gosford Bay some tank traps are lost in the woods, being slowly enveloped by trees and undergrowth. Perhaps the sand dunes have shifted so much in the intervening decades that tank traps that were once on the coast are now stranded much farther inland.

I've been on the John Muir Way until now but disappointingly it curves away inland taking a direct route to Aberlady village rather than sticking to the coast. Whilst I appreciate the huge logistical undertaking involved in developing a long distance trail, including gaining permissions and buy-in of landowners, it's a shame that the Way misses out so much of the East Lothian coast. Still, this is Scotland, so the coast is accessible, official trail or no. I traverse crunchy coves and scramble slithery rocks around Aberlady Point, glad the tide is out. Civilised games of golf are underway to my right, the sea booms away to my left. I find a bright yellow golf ball embedded in the wet sand and stick it in my pocket as a gift for my youngest daughter. Fife is slipping by across the water; a big oil tanker sits far out in the firth across the glittering blue.

Aberlady is a pretty, rather chocolate-box place, a far cry from the urban end of East Lothian I've come from. Chomping an ice lolly, I wander round to the entrance to the Aberlady Bay nature reserve, the UK's oldest, established in 1952. It's reached by a long, wooden footbridge across a briny creek on the edge of the salt marsh.

Beyond is a magical realm of machair-like meadows of grasses and flowers inhabited by butterflies and bumble bees.

It's perfect habitat for the common blue, Britain's most widespread butterfly, but yet another species in decline thanks to prairie-style industrial farming. Some of its strongholds are now on the coast in dune lands like these where there is still a diversity of wild flowers. Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count is focusing on the common blue this year in light of these recent declines. Let them know if you see it.

Common Blue at Aberlady
After lunch by little Marl Loch I continued deeper into the reserve towards Gullane Point. The rich grasslands gave way to marram and dunes. The sea stayed out of sight until the last minute...

Then up and over a final dune, I'm stopped in my tracks by what lies beyond.

It's a long walk along Gullane Sands. Two jellyfish pulse listlessly in a rockpool at the end of the beach and I scramble over rocks and back on to the dunes and a faint path. My camera battery has died and I've forgotten the spare, I discover as I arrive on the edge of Gullane Bay and its golden crescent of a beach. No matter, I'll be back with the family, and I'm secretly glad there'll be no more distractions. I take off my shoes and socks and walk the mile or so round the bay in bare feet through the surf.

From here the coast becomes wilder and more remote-feeling, the coves and beaches smaller, the waves bigger. Fidra island and lighthouse appears; a small group are taking the plunge at the sheltered end of a cove; their screams cut through the boom and roar of the waves. Many peacock butterflies are sunning themselves on the sandy path lined with viper's bugloss, knapweed and thistles, too quick for a lumbering human with a phone camera.

Then it's back on the John Muir Way and a dull couple of miles around a golf course and along empty roads of big reclusive houses to the train station, and home to Edinburgh to empty the sand out of my shoes.