Saturday, 17 May 2014

A day out from Edinburgh: North Berwick

Living as we do in a stunningly beautiful city, we sometimes forget that there are equally beautiful but very different places to visit just on our doorstep. North Berwick is one of those places - not to be confused with (South) Berwick, just across the English border. Even that statement is controversial, given the shifting national allegiances in this part of the world of which the numerous local castles and fortifications are evidence.
So, it is North Berwick which is the subject of this post, half an hour along the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. We were lucky to visit on a glorious spring day in April, but have also experienced its pleasures in biting winter cold and damp and misty autumn. The Bass Rock, one of the area's numerous volcanic plugs, hovered on the horizon beyond the long stretches of pale golden sand to the east of the town. The Rock was too far away for us to see the lighthouse, ruined chapel or thousands of gannets which have made it home, but near enough to tempt us towards a boat trip next time we are out this way.

In previous centuries the gannets - nowadays, at 100,000 birds, the single largest population of the species on any island in the world -  were a significant source of income to the local population. Their livelihoods were dependent on the birds for food and as a source of oil. Nothing was wasted, including the feathers.

Nowadays, the birds are protected and the town's prosperity depends on visitors and its status as a highly desirable dormitory town for Edinburgh. The visitors have been coming for years, however. Stuart has vivid memories of holidays spent swimming in the open-air pool. An information board describes the experience as 'bracing'. The pool closed in the mid-nineties but you can just make out its shape at low tide. Ritchie holidays were not just spent swimming, of course. Golf was equally, if not more, important.

On our visit, the tide was out and the boats were still in their winter moorings, some even occupying what appeared to be a large car park by the side of the harbour. Originally built in the twelfth century, the harbour has been added to and modified on various occasions since then, often after violent storms threatened to break it down altogether.

The people of North Berwick make the best of their attractive town. Sculptures draw the eye and lead the visitor towards the Seabird Centre, one of North Berwick's justified claims to fame. Here remote cameras let fascinated visitors watch baby birds on Bass Rock peck their way out of their eggs and learn the hard-won skills of launching themselves into space and coming into land again. The puffins are particularly popular.

Looking back along the way, we caught sight of Berwick Law, another volcanic plug and the site of ancient settlements going back well over two thousand years. We can see Berwick Law from various parts of Edinburgh's Holyrood Park but spectacularly from Arthur's Seat, itself another volcanic plug. (See an earlier post, To begin at the beginning.)

However, the ancient has not been lost among the modern structures and technology. The tiny old harbour chapel, St Andrew's Auld Kirk, is still there, though now a restaurant. In 1590, however, it was the scene of vicious accusations of witchcraft and high treason. Seventy people were eventually tortured and convicted in Edinburgh, principally for cooking up a storm to sink the ship in which James VI had sailed to bring home his bride, Princess Anne of Denmark. The Danes were just as ruthless as the Scots in pursuing the 'guilty', and witchcraft trials were held in both countries.

More positively, the towering Celtic Cross commemorates the heroism of a young woman more than a century ago. Erected by public subscription in memory of Catherine Watson of Glasgow aged 19 who was drowned in the East Bay 27th July 1889 while rescuing a drowning boy. The child was saved but the brave girl was taken.

Across the other side of the Firth of Forth, we could just make out the low hills of Fife. For centuries, pilgrims made their way to North Berwick in order to take the ferry to Earlsferry in Fife, from where they could continue their walk to St Andrews. Well, I say we 'saw' the shores of Fife, but when we examined the photos, the shores seemed to be spectacularly absent. Easier to see at low tide were the inland islands strung along the East Lothian coastline.

Leaving the harbour behind us, we strolled back through the centre and towards the golf course on the western edge of the town.
Some of the houses have the steep stepped roofs so typical of East Lothian, reminding us of the Low Countries where this architectural style originated. Other buildings are low workers' cottages, now often converted into bijou residences, for North Berwick is a highly desirable place to live. Good quality butchers and bakers are evidence of that. One can lunch out very pleasantly in North Berwick.

As the Ritchies can testify, North Berwick has its fair share of excellent dunes golf courses, one at each end of the town and others within an easy drive. A t the west end of the town, the visitor is welcomed by a stony-faced golfer - young Tom Morris. In 1875, Tom, who was playing in a team match alongside his equally famous father (also Tom Morris), received a telegram asking him to go home as his wife was in labour and it was proving to be a difficult delivery. In true golfing spirit, Morris decided to finish the last two holes before he left. He then sailed across the Firth of Forth and round the coast to St Andrews, where he discovered that both his wife and his newborn child were dead. He himself died four months later, at the age of 24. You can see his gravestone in the graveyard at St Andrews Cathedral.

No doubt a good living may be made by youngsters who spend their afternoons retrieving golf balls from the sandy beach below the links.

However, for the rest of us a gentle amble along the shoreline was quite enough, every so often glancing back to gaze at the town spread out behind us. 

Before us rose the grand Scottish Baronial pile of The Marine Hotel, within easy reach of the golf links and with its glorious views across the water to Fife.

The sun continued to shine as we sauntered back to the car park. It had been a lovely day, so lovely, in fact, that North Berwick even tried to fool us into thinking it had been positively tropical.

Not quite, however. The spindly palm trees were evidence of a climate far distant from the Equator. It had been a beautifully warm day in North Berwick, but not that warm! Still it had been very pleasant, pleasant enough to tempt us back for that boat trip - another day, perhaps.

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