Southern Upland Way Day 18: Abbey St Bathans to Cockburnspath

Published 8 March 2012

Cartoon of a walker sat on a bench at the end of the Southern Upland Way

And so it was the final stretch. I had just ten miles to walk, mostly over reasonably easy ground; it certainly wasn’t going to be the most taxing of walking days and I had a feeling I’d polish it off pretty quickly.

Startled to see me, a roe deer danced off as I passed through the small plantation that I’d camped near, and then the Southern Upland Way entered farmland, heading directly through the middle of a field of agitated cows and calves who seemed rather unnerved to see me.

The fields gave way to farm roads whilst trees lined the horizon. Somewhere down in the distance was the A1, the mighty dual carriage way that connects London and Scotland, and the East Coast railway mainline which did the same for the trains. But despite both being incredibly busy, I could hardly tell they were there until almost on top of them. The duo ran through the valley next to each other, meaning that I’d need to cross them both. The A1 didn’t even have a bridge but given its status as a main cross-country route the road was surprisingly quiet and I crossed its wide girth with ease.

Old bit of the A1

Over on the other side the path meandered through a patch of scrubland that sat between it and the railway. It quickly led on to a section of a disused road, the old cats eyes and road markings looking forlorn and unloved. It dated back to an accident in 1979 when a railway tunnel collapsed whilst it was being extended.

After the accident the railway line was moved and this required part of the road to be relocated as well. Somewhere nearby the old tunnels lay, and inside them, sadly, the remains of two workers who didn’t manage to escape when the roof fell. The tunnels were considered too dangerous for their bodies to be rescued and the land was consecrated and made their final resting place.

Penmanshiel Wood was the last plantation on the Southern Upland Way. A long, thin forest, it followed the curves of the road and the railway through the valley, containing more attractive woodland than commercial forestry. Near the edge was the large building of Penmanshiel Cottage. Now abandoned and its windows boarded up, it silently sat, slowly decaying amongst the trees.

The trail followed a forest access road through the trees, their trunks reaching high in the sky. Overgrown and covered in grass, ferns and flowers it seemed unlikely that many vehicles had driven up the road for some time. Just a few hundred metres away lorries and cars were thundering up a busy road, yet here I felt strangely alone, as if I was walking in some secret land that few ever set foot in.

Suddenly, and rather strangely, the Southern Upland Way doubles backed on itself, leaving the forest access road and heading sharply up hill on another, similar track. Why, I couldn’t tell and the map revealed few clues. Both tracks met up again after a mile or so, and the map offered me no reason why I was suddenly in for a steep climb. It just looked like I’d be walking through the same kind of dense forest but the Southern Upland Way clearly wanted to be on higher ground. When the path finally levelled out again, I was none the wiser. Seemingly the only change was the addition of wild toadstools; a plethora with red spotted tops lining the path. With little else to distract me I tried to remember if I’d ever actually seen a proper toadstool beyond the pages of childhood books and fairy-tales, but I could think of none. But here they were in abundance; some nibbled, some decaying and some bright and fresh.

Then, all of a sudden, the reason for the climb was revealed. The trees began to fall away showing a sign of how far I’d come. For the first time on the trip I could see the North Sea.

Yes, I must be near the coast.  I mean there's a caravan park and everything

Pease Woodland led to Pease Bay and from there I headed on to the cliffs with a spring in my step as the dramatic coastline gave me spectacular views. To the south, the caravan park. To the north, a power station and a cement works. Wow. What a finale this was going to be!

The previous day the owner of the Riverside restaurant in Abbey St Bathans had told me that she didn’t understand why the Southern Upland Way actually ended in Cockburnspath when the attractive fishing village of St Abbs was a few miles down the road. Looking at the local scenery it was hard not to share her confusion. This was hardly a glamorous or stunning ending to my journey.

But as I went on there was, perhaps, a slight indication as to why someone felt fit to send the walking route this direction. Down below, surrounded by the cliffs sat the quiet, isolated Cove Harbour. A small set of harbour walls with a handful of buildings and a couple of boats, it was achingly picturesque. It wasn’t hard to imagine the Southern Upland Way’s planners looking at it proclaiming “Here! The end of the route, it has to be here! We could put a nice sign next to the lobster pots and everything” but it was not to be. Whilst visitors were welcome, the Harbour was private land with a minimal access road. With no public right of way all the Southern Upland Way could do was peer at the Cove from above.

Cottages at Cove Harbour
Cottages at Cove Harbour

It had barely gone twelve and with plenty of time to spare I decided to head down to the harbour and take a look around. A set of steps lead down the hill but were blocked off with no explanatory sign. A short way away an access road was gated and locked off, the sign saying that the road was dangerous and that people should use the steps!

As I stood at the top of the road, staring at the two closed access routes in puzzlement, I saw another man walking up from a visit to the harbour and wondered just how he’d managed to get down there in the first place. As he approached I found the answer which was amazingly simple. He’d just climbed over the fence.

“It’s lovely down there. Well worth a visit,” he said, pointing me towards a short ledge that ran alongside the road, with a fence dividing the two.

The ledge was narrow and I held tight to the metal railings as I shuffled along it trying to avoid looking at the sharp cliff drop just centimetres behind me. As I got to the end of the railing, meaning I could join the road, I wondered how dangerous a state the access road would have to be in order for it to be any more life threatening. It didn’t seem to be particularly dodgy, with just a few pot holes here and there. As I walked down, managing it without injury, I could look up and realise why the steps were closed. Dangerous they certainly were, with the bottom part having collapsed and disintegrated, and by the look of them they’d been like that for a while. With the remains now buried in brambles, few would be using them for quite some time.

The effort though was well worth while. The harbour was lovely and tranquil and I pottered around admiring its beauty. Standing on the pier I looked across the harbour to a delightful beach and wondered just how on earth I was supposed to get there. There seemed to be no way at all, but there were buildings and even a boat. Clearly there must be a way. The answer lay in a well concealed tunnel, cut through the cliffs, and having made it through I stood on the bright, golden sand watching the North Sea water splash happily over my boots.

Lobstar pots in a small harbour
The lovely Cove Harbour

After Cove Harbour nothing else left on the Southern Upland Way could really compete. And given that all that was left was to go under a mainline railway and then below a busy dual carriageway, it was as if the route just didn’t really care any more. Even the official end point didn’t seem particularly amazing. A simple wooden shelter on a main road opposite a garage. With a car wash.

Still I’d reached the end and I stood sending statutory celebratory photographs before looking at my watch to find I’d done the final ten miles in under five hours.

So that was that. I was done. With no pub or accommodation in the village, Cockburnspath gave me little incentive to stay especially as I didn’t even have a car to be repaired or cleaned. It felt strange to be thinking of leaving almost as soon as I’d got there. It didn’t seem right at all.

My rucksack at the end of the Southern Upland Way

Never mind. I’ll celebrate later, I thought and headed to the bus stop to find myself just in time for the hourly service to Berwick. As it pulled up I got out my wallet.

“Sorry, but I can’t give change,” said the driver as I tried to pay a £4.30 fare with a five pound note. “Welcome back to the real world,” he might as well have added.

Foregoing the 70p change I found my way to a seat as the bus pulled away from the kerb and continued its journey to the English border. I sat and watched the world go by, before suddenly realising something important.

“STOP THE BUS!” I shouted. “I’ve missed the final kist! Let me off! I have to get it! “

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