Berwickshire Coastal Path Day 2 (Part 1) – St Abbs to Dowlaw

Published 17 April 2022

Outlee Hill – on the Berwickshire Coastal Path

The Berwickshire Coastal Path is 30mile/48km walk along the dramatic coastline of the historic county of Berwickshire, in the Scottish Borders.From just within England at Berwick-upon-Tweed, the trail weaves north through fishing villages, resorts, and nature reserves before meeting with the Southern Upland Way at Cockburnspath. My first day had taken me through villages and towns, explored smugglers and golf courses. Day two promised to be a lot quieter, although no less eventful.

My train home left Berwick minutes before 6pm. It sounded reasonable when I booked it. Given my original plan was to walk the trail north to south and end in Berwick, it would have been fine.

But following my irrational last-minute change of mind to walk it south to north, things had gotten complicated. To get back to Berwick-upon-Tweed I’d need to get the 16:34 bus from Cockburnspath. That sounded okay too. Well, until I worked out that it was 15 miles from St Abbs and that an early start would be needed.

And that would have been okay if I’d managed to find accommodation near St Abbs. But I hadn’t. I’d had to spend the night in Eyemouth some miles away. Still, at least there was a bus. The bus would get me back, yes?

Haste Ye Back to St Abbs

Yes it would, in a fifteen minute journey. There was one at 07:20, and another at 08:40. But studying the timetable in detail, I noted one fundamental flaw. The 08:40 stopped a mile short at nearby Coldingham. Chances were that it would be half nine by the time I got to St Abbs. And that coupled with a fifteen mile walk and a need to get a bus at 16:34… Well it would be cutting it a bit fine. It would have to be the 07:20.

Thankfully, these days I’m quite an early riser, even on holiday. This can be annoying when you wake up at 7am and have to hang around until 8am for the B&B to do you breakfast. But that was okay as the only accommodation I’d been able to find in Eyemouth didn’t offer any food. This had been annoying when I’d booked it a few months earlier. I like a good cooked breakfast, and Eyemouth didn’t look like the kind of place that would offer any early morning breakfast cafes. But now it felt like a big win. I had flexibility. Before going to bed I popped to the nearby Co-op, stocked up on few provisions, and prepared for an early alarm call.

So it was that I was awake by 6am, and was scoffing on cheese and salami on a bread roll, not long after. After slurping the remains of an instant coffee, I packed up and walked to the bus stop. I checked my watch. 7:10. Half an hour later I was back at St Abbs Harbour once more.

I could think of few times I’d started walking that early. But at least it would stand me in good stead to get the bus at Cockburnspath.

Grassy paths over St Abbs Head

My first port of call was to walk to St Abbs Head. If you’ve never been, it’s worth a visit. It’s a nature reserve, and it’s magnificent. It’s full of those dramatic coastlines and cliffs that define the Berwickshire coastline.

And then there were the birds. To say there were thousands of gulls and guillemots squawking from the cliffs, may sound like an over-exaggeration. But there were a lot of them. All making a cacophony of sound that I hadn’t heard since, ooh, at least 5am. That was the time when a fishing boat had chugged in Eyemouth Harbour, laden with fish. By the sound of it, many thousands of very interested birds accompanied it home.

St Abbs would no doubt be heaving later in the day, but my early start meant I had it to myself. Well me and the birds. To be walking through this wonderful landscape, surrounded by nature, and to be completely alone, was something. It’s a special feeling, and one I enjoyed very much.

St Abbs Lighthouse and the old fog signal

I walked on, smile on my face, to the end of the nature reserve to St Abbs Lighthouse. It stands there, providing a much-needed service. It provides a warning light to keep boats and ships away from the sharp rocks of this stretch of the coastline.

These days the lighthouse is – inevitably – automated. The keepers’ cottages have been sold off. But at one time a lighthouse keeper, assistants, and all their families would have lived here.

It must have been an isolated existence, living in houses on the cliff tops miles from anywhere. The only company your colleagues, a large bulb, and a foghorn. An occupant of the cottages – now holiday accommodation – can leap in a car and ten minutes later be standing in a shop holding a bottle of milk. When the lighthouse opened, it would have been a six-mile round trip on foot. Much as I loved walking in these peaceful, tranquil settings, actually living here would be completely different. A few days away from civilisation and with no road transport, would not be conducive to my sanity.

Pettico Wick – a natural harbour with stunning views.

At least these days there’s a nice tarmacked road. Beyond the lighthouse, the Coastal Path followed it for a while. It took me past Pettico Wick, a tranquil looking cove that I’m told is popular with divers. I can’t prove or disprove this assertion for you as it wasn’t even 9am, and there wasn’t a soul to be seen.

The map informed me there had once been a fort on the hill I was now climbing. But like Eyemouth fort that I’d “explored” the day before, there was little – if anything – to see. More noticeable were the sets of wooden poles standing tall and proud on the hillside.

Admiralty Distance Pole.

These are Admiralty Distance Poles and there’s two sets; the first of which I was passing now. Spaced a mile apart, with one pole closer to the cliffs than the other, the poles enabled shipping companies to test the speed of their vessels. All they needed to do was start the clock ticking when they could see the first two poles line up together, and then head towards the second set. Once the other two poles there lined up, the clock could be stopped, and the vessel’s speed calculated. Sorted, and big benefit in the era before GPS and satellite navigation.

I stumbled over the gorse filled Tun Law. At 151m, it’s the highest cliffs on the Coastal Path. It was also home to another fort. And like the other, there was no sign of it either. Still, it seemed a good enough for a short rest, and I heaved myself down to admire the display of rocks down in the sea below. Some of them were red. Others, beige. Some were spiked. Others worn smooth. All of them enticing to look at and admire.

Heading inland to avoid Dowlow Dean.

And then the Berwickshire Coastal Path headed away from the sea. The reason was Dowlaw Dean. It’s a sizeable gorge and major problem if you want a path to follow the cliffs closely. Had the path followed the coastline, it would have needed to follow the gorge inland, then double back and head back to the coast. It would likely have added an extra hour on to the walk, all to get a few metres further along the coast. Not that there’s actually a path to follow.

That didn’t explain why the Berwickshire Coastal Path would now spend the next few miles well away from the sea. So far away that I couldn’t even see it. But it did. Instead of dramatic cliffs, stunning rock formations, and the sound of crashing waves, I got to walk through fields. Fields with cows in them. Some with sheep.

Not that it would matter that I was away from the sea. Because I couldn’t see much ahead of me at all. I was approaching Dowlaw Farm when it happened. When the whole area was suddenly and abruptly, covered in fog.

All of a sudden, fog arrived.

This was no light sea mist. This was a proper pea souper. Fog so dense that I could see little more than 20m ahead of me.

On the other side the farm buildings, the Coastal Path joined the farm’s access road. But a little way on it turned off and took a track that ran roughly parallel to the road. And it was next to invisible in the fog. I took one look at it and became convinced I’d lose the path and no doubt end up falling down a cliff edge instead. So what if I was about a mile away from the cliffs. I was sure I’d manage it somehow.

Safety came in following the road and that’s exactly what I did. It’s hard to get lost on tarmac, and I resolved to keep to it for as long as I could.

The path is… somewhere?

There was one point that I definitely needed to leave the road and join the side path. It was a point when the path turned off at an angle and began a slow meandering wander north. It did so near a transmitter. A nice, big transmitter. Impossible to miss. Unless you’re in as much fog as I was in. At one point I was stood only a few metres away from it. Yet I couldn’t see it at all.

Thankfully the path itself was noticeable. But weary of the conditions, and finding my feet throbbing a little too much, I plonked myself down on the grass and rested instead. Ten minute later, the fog had cleared behind me. The transmitter was suddenly revealed. As abruptly as it had arrived, the fog had gone.

Next time: spooky goings on, a ruined church, and an arrival in Cockburnspath.

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