Life’s a beach… in North Berwick

Last weekend we took a pedal-and-rail trip to North Berwick in East Lothian.

What’s North Berwick famous for? Golf courses mainly, and lovely beaches which together make it a popular upmarket holiday resort. Its third big attraction, and our reason for visiting, was the aquatic birdlife and a trip to the Isle of May to spot some puffins.

In true Two Pedals style we left the car at home and opted to get the train between Lockerbie and Edinburgh, pedalling the circa. 30 miles either side. There are a few ways to get from Dumfries to Lockerbie but by far the most accessible one is the flat coastal and fairly mundane route to Clarencefield and Dalton via the Brow Well, which Robert Burns famously drank from seeking its fabled healing properties just two days before his death. A more contemporary watering hole for the highwayman in need of liquid healing exists just a few miles down the road in Dalton, where the garden bar of the Oro Distillery serves sublime cocktails and has a super gift shop; unfortunately with temperatures exceeding 24° just after noon and a train to catch, we cracked straight on through.

Out of Dalton we took a new road, taking a turn off the road signed for Lochmaben, which we followed the remaining five miles into Lockerbie. We entered into the delicious shade of a thicket of trees, dragonflies keeping pace with us as they hovered through the soupy hot air. We detoured to a beautiful chapel built for Ukrainian prisoners of war brought to Scotland, perfectly preserved.

A 70 minute train journey later we stepped off the train at Waverley and straight onto National Cycle Network Route 1. What a delightful piece of infrastructure! We were off the bustling George IV Bridge Street in no time, past the Hunterian Museum and a rear-end view of Arthur’s Seat into traffic-free housing estates, through a kooky tunnel that advertised risk of rockfall but was still moderately trafficked by unconcerned pedestrians, cyclists and runners.

A canny cyclist’s dynamic risk assessment

A hop onto Cycle Route 76 took us, entirely traffic-free, along a river full of swans and geese and a brave young girl coaxing them with bird seed and trying to pet them, into Musselburgh. For some reason, from name alone I guess, I had expected Musselburgh to be an upmarket high street full of clam shacks and lobster bistros. Think Glasgow’s South Side but with cafe names like Newcastle’s iconic ‘Big Mussel’. I was more than a little disappointed that this wasn’t the case but we DID enjoy an hour at a lovely coffee shop there, sipping iced coffees and tucking into cake on the kerbside while we watched tempers flare between the inebriated patrons of the pub opposite.

After Musselburgh we continued on Cycle Route 76 as it followed the coast east but I have to admit, I was less impressed with it from here. At Prestonpans a spectacular amount of faffing was required to remain on the route as it hopped on and off the road, sometimes at bust intersections and sometimes up steep kerbs onto narrow footpaths on the wrong side of the highway. The cycle route leaves the coast altogether at Seton Sands but we carried on towards Gullane and were not welcomed by the traffic that had to pile up behind us on the busy carriageway. I think next time I would take the quieter back roads that wind their way through acres of manicured fields stretching as far as the eye can see.

View across the sea and East Lothian from the whale bone replica atop Berwick Hill

Most of the traffic had eased by Gullane and as we coasted past Dirleton Castle we were surprised to spot… a 7-foot hare! The first in a series of ten urban artworks entitled The Big Hare Trail, which will eventually be auctioned off for a local charity, this beautifully decorated behemoth leporid brought fresh joy to our remaining miles.

After almost 60 miles of monotonous flat cycling (it’s a killer for the sitting bones) in sweltering heat with a brisk coastal headwind at the end that burned even more than the sun did, we were ready for a day off the bike. Luckily there are ample lounging around opportunities to be had in this picture-postcard seaside village. You can lounge in nature at the beautiful Lodge Park and gardens (ticking two more Hare Trail exhibits off the list in the process). Lounge-with-flat-white at any of a dizzying number of high street cafes (our favourite is Steampunk coffee, who at present are only serving coffee and cake rather than their full scrumptious menu, but check their page for updates). Lounge-and-sozzle at an equally extraordinary choice of posh bar/eateries (our favourite was The Herringbone). Lounge with a view at the harbour while watching kids practice flips into the water to the chagrin of the harbourmaster, or lounge-with-sand-between-the-toes at one of two sandy beaches. The latter option interested us most, particularly East Beach which has a tidal lido for the weans and the best views out to Bass Rock.

Bass Rock looks from the postcards like an island covered in salt or dandruff. Imperceptible to the naked eye from the shore, that dandruff is actually MOVING – it’s the largest colony of northern gannets in the world. We boarded a boat from the harbour which took us first to this white isle, its every nook and sea-facing cranny occupied by those bright-eyed jesters and their hungry fluffy offspring. We spent a magical afternoon marvelling at how easily they overtook our motorboat, landing on the Isle of May, being dive-bombed by protective Arctic terns as we treaded carefully in the vicinity of their young and watching puffins stand and watch and swoop and dive from the tops of cliffs in their comical orange galoshes. The birds on the island outnumbered us thousands-to-one and we were given a glimpse into what life might look like if humans weren’t around. Later that evening, from the top of Berwick Law, a volcanic remnant of the Paleozoic era and the same phenomenon that created Bass Rock, we wondered whether we’d ever again have such an overwhelmingly special encounter with nature.

Tread carefully – there’s hundreds of puffins on the cliffs!
Gannets, nests and guano. An experience to overwhelm at least three senses. Bass Rock

Day three we had an early start to take a dip in the ocean. Early because there’s no better way to start the day than with a cold shock to the system, a few moments of dissociation of brain from life’s grind as one bobs effortlessly, in control but at the edge of being out of control. A moment of weightlessness in the midst of a grey, calm sea and a thick sea fret which all but obscured Bass Rock like it were a pirate ghost-ship. Being goaded by cormorants on a nearby rocky outcrop, taking turns to dive in and resurface to dry off like those kids at the harbour, but with a determined menace about them like Long John Silver’s parrot. We also had to start early to be back and packed before Airbnb kicking-out time. This time we took the back roads through Drem and over an eNORmous hill called Skid Hill, into Haddington where we picked up Cycle Route 196 and the delightful Pencaitland Railway Path. This eventually joined us back up to Cycle Route 1, back through the dangerous tunnel (where luckily no rockfall, phew) and, with a quick detour to the Holy Cow restaurant in Edinburgh’s New Town district, landed back on our train where the sun, the motion of the train and the weekend’s activities caught up with us and lulled us into a snooze all the way back.

Like any toddler who’s been removed from a car seat that they’ve fallen asleep in and thrust into the arms of the excited auntie they’ve been delivered to visit will tell you, waking up and having to get right back on it is a tough gig. While no hysterical cries of anguish were emitted on the return ride home, it was a distinctly moodier party that cycled back to Dumfries. The elation of the puffins, the sunsets, the beach, the sea mist, the spooky gannet island, the whirlwind of beautiful nature were all forgotten until I put my head on the pillow and they entered my dreams. And let me tell you, it was one of the deepest, most nourishing sleeps I’ve had in years.

Carbon footprint from Dumfries to North Berwick for two people, cycling from home to Lockerbie and Edinburgh to North Berwick, and getting the train in between: 8.22 kgCO2e1

Carbon footprint from Dumfries to North Berwick, for two people sharing a car: 20 kgCO2e2

Calories burned by cycling: 5,859 kcal3 (that’s equivalent to almost 30 margaritas4 – perhaps we could have stopped at the cocktail bar on the way after all…)

Monday 2 August, 2021

[1] https://www.lner.co.uk/tickets-savings/the-best-way-to-travel/our-commitment-to-the-environment/#calculator#calculator

[2] https://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx

[3] https://www.omnicalculator.com/sports/calories-burned-biking

[4] Google ‘calorie content of margarita cocktail

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