East Lothian enjoys an abundance of beautiful beaches & quite charming coastlines. The jewel of the crown, perhaps, are North Berwick’s West & East Bays, a popular holiday destination for the past couple of centuries at least. In 1824, the Scotsman reported a spring fair of exhibitions & amusements, including swine & ass races, attended by 5,000 peopled including Lord Elcho; his grace the Duc of Guige, peer of France; & Major General Dalrymple.
North Berwick first came to prominence as a ferry-port for pilgrims heading to check out the relics of Saint Andrew held in sacred posterity up in Fife. Eventually the Poshfolk moved in, stopping the London-Edinburgh train at Drem with angry, panting brusqueness, pallavaring all over the shop as they unloaded their baggage; which included golf clubs, dogs, guns, fishing tackle & all the other detritus of the Poshfolks’ regimented holidays. Here Tatler-photographed cabinet ministers brushed shoulders with the highest socialites, & destinies of entire peoples were determined over smoky suppers – Lord Balfour creating Israel & that decision’s endless interational aggravations are a classic example of a drunken scheme cooked up on too much brandy down the ‘Club.’
Up sprang the mansions; then after the World Wars, when in the twilight of empire the Poshfolk realised the higher taxes on their big holiday homes & the increased wages they were being forced now to pay their servants meant a fourth home in North Berwick was simply out of the question, financially. So they decided en masse to cut their losses, split the mansions into apartments and maisonettes, investing the cashflow into some kind of African, end-of-empire gunrunning ring instead. With their sea-air & sea-views, their proximity to a commutable-via-train Edinburgh, & of course their lovely beaches, these piecemeal properties are costing about a million pounds each, so the town’s former exclusivity remains, somewhat.
For the rest of us, North Berwick remains an excellent place to visit, the veritable, ‘Biaritz of the North.’ It had been a few weeks since Daisy & I had hit the road. We’d grown too lazy in the balmy fortnight, prefering to potter with my lettuce-patch instead. Then, as that body of walm air had pass’d over the North Sea, an epic haar rush’d into the vacuum & sat obscuring all sight for a few days. Next came a wild and moody gale which ravaged my lettuces, & it was only when that had pass’d, & tickled into action by a wee smidgeon of sunshine one morning, that I felt ready to hit East Lothian.
Our excursion to North Berwick’s pristine beachland & excuisite aesthetic began in a gusty but unabrasive breeze, parking up at a free car park near the library, a wee 50 meter dash to the East Bay. Crossing the coast road, we reached the beach through a gateway just off to our left, and found a lovely curve of flat, soft sand, pepper’d with seaweedy rocks & crowned by a grassy headland to our right. Our mood was good, North Berwick is a friendly place, but not quite Biaritz. I’ve been to Biaritz, actually, on my ‘Chanson Du Roland’ tour, & I think North Berwick more of a Tunbridge-Wells-by-Sea.
Heading left along the sands, we found ourselves a proper part of the vangaurd of the Middle Class Morning – it was 7:30 AM – where dog-walkers & joggers readied themselves for another day of pleasant perfections. Strolling the beach, we pass’d a great big lido-like saltwater pool, which was originally a pond for model yachts. A few decades ago, young boys & girls & their white-sailed model yachts would flock to the lido like gannets at Bass Rock. Yachts would be examined & floated; judgements would be made, & every competitor would get at least a sweet from the town council.
The headland which divides North Berwick Beach is a busy wee place. Standing sentinel on guard over the approach is a modern Celtic Cross to mark the bravery of Catherine Watson. In 1889 she had swam out to sea to rescue two boys and a girl, the sons and daughter of a solicitor of Melrose (Mr Curle), who had been swept out by the tide. She had just been bathing herself and was dressing when she tried to rescue the children, but died in the attempt.
The children were saved by the coastguard. Rev. W. Lee Ker, Minister of Kilwinning, saw the event unfold. ‘Miss Watson had only returned from bathing and was dressing when she saw from her house the danger in which the young persons were. Without hesitation, and simply with the clothes she had on, she hastened into the water. I saw her, quietly but determinedly, making her way through what was really an angry sea towards the boy.’ Catherine’s father, Henry Watson, was informed that: ‘… practiced swimmers who were here on Saturday informed me that few strong swimmers would have ventured out in such a sea.’
On the headland there’s a harbour full of little boats, whose sail ropes rattl’d in the early morning silence – the tide was out when I was there, so they were all resting in the mud while a seagull stomp’d about around them. There’s St Andrew’s old Kirk, with just a chapel left standing, but the foundations still marking out the site & structure. There’s the Scottish Sea Bird centre, for those who like that kind of thing; & the Lobster Shack which does a tasty fish & chips, actually.
Just to the right of the shack one can wander along a brutally beautiful section of rockland, with fantastic views of the archipelago that hugs North Berwick. This seems to be the ultimate romantic port of call for the daytripper from Edinburgh, using the branch railway line established in 1850 which still terminates in North Berwick; I’ve actually seen wealthy middle-aged business men I recognize from the capital, hand-in-hand with extremely attractive 20 year-old Russian looking ladies, pottering along the path to admire the view. The islands one admires from the many mellow viewpoints can all be reached by tour-boats, but with some of them costing £50 a pop, I cannot help but lament the decline of Christian Civilisation in the West, where the presence of pilgrims ensures the prices are kept down – trekking the Camino de Santiago on my Chansons du Roland Tour is a prime case in point.
Passing piles of empty lobster creels, it was time to enter the West Bay, where some of North Berwick’s houses waddle right up to the beach itself. In one of the windows I saw a young couple having breakfast with their baby, a quite beautiful moment of post-modern realism for my walk. Daisy was quite oblivious of course, dizzying about on her helium balloon beach high, I just leave her to it.
A fine seacoast is always enthralling to the Human Soul, & North Berwick’s version is of the highest, award-winning standard. The rowing cobles are gone, the beach huts have vanished, & we moderns are given a more salubrious experience by the sea, far from the teeming crowds of the fifties & sixties, who are all down Benidorm or something similar these days. I also couldn’t help but notice how this twin crescent of golden sand, seperated by a rocky headland was an almost identical match to Om Beach in Gokarna, India.
Pursuing the beach to the west, a large slice of greenery eventually slides into the left – here be the West Links, from where a putting green bleeds into the famous golf course. Mounting the grass we walked as far as the First Tee, where at that moment in time there were more folk – five ladies of a certain age – than on the entire West Bay Beach.
North Berwick is the fourth oldest to make reference to golf, St Andrews (1552); Leith (1593); Perth (1604) and North Berwick (1611). In the Kirk Session Book for January 1611, Alex Lockart and Thomas Gowan were accused of playing golf on the Sabbath. For their punishment they were committed to sit at the front of the St Andrews Old Kirk on the Anchor Green on cuckstools (pillory stools), facing the congregation, as they listen to the ranting of the parish minister Thomas Bannatyne against them and their sins.
January 20th 1611: On quilk (which) day the repentance of Thomas Gowan and others was required by humbling themselves on their knees and craving god forgiveness for prophaning the Sabbath ye 6th January instant for playing at the goulf.
January 22nd 1611: The gudeman of North Berwick delatit (accused) Alex Lockart as a prophanor of the Sabbath for playing at the golf.
North Berwick golf club was founded in 1832, prompting George Fullerton Carnegie to exclaim in his Golfiada (1833);
Balls, clubs and men I sing, who just methinks,
made sport and bustle on North Berwick Links,
brought coin and fashion, betting and renown,
champagne and claret to a county town,
and lords and ladies, knights and squires to ground,
where washerwomen erst, and snobs were found!
The club’s most famous son has to be Ben Sayers. On entering his shop on the West Links over a century ago, Rosie Neuman wrote; ‘one’s whole existence seem’d to be transformed – worries were all forgotten. All that matters was golf, & to be on one’s game was utopia.’ The best description of Sayers I found was in the Public Ledger of Philadelphia, April 26th 1914.
Famous Scotch Golfer. Sayers, golf instructer of monarchs, at Merion. Professional who taught kings & queens.
Ben Sayers, Snr., the grand old man of golf & the insturctor of kings & queens, is paying a short visit to his son George, the professional of the Merion cricket club. With the exception of old Tom Morris, no golfer is better known than this famous player & club maker of North Berwick, Scotland. it would be a hard task to visit any country on the cvilized globe where golf is played & not found one of Ben Sayers clubs. The little Scotch seaport town has sent its cargo of golf clubs all over the world for the last twenty years.
He is perhaps best known to fame as the instructor of King Edward, King George & Queen Alexandria. He first met King Edward six years ago, when the late British monarch was visiting North Berwick. The King sent for him, & after Sayers had shaken hands with the King, the latter asked him how the Grand Duke of Michael of Russia, one of his pupils, was progressing, to which Sayers replied, ‘I am sorry to inform your majesty that he was one of the keenest & one of the worst.‘ whereupon the King stroked his beard & burst out laughing. As a result he was summoned to Windsor & told to make the King a set of clubs, which he did. Later he gave Sayers a beautiful tie pin, which is one of his prized possession.
While at Windsor he played with the then Prince of Wales & the present King George & gave him, as well as Queen Alexandraa & Princes Victoria, a number of lessons. He also played a number of matches with them at Chatsworth, the estate of the late Duke of Devonshire.
Back in my world, this was the furthest we’d be heading west, & subsequently spun round into rising sunshine & pottered back the way we came, but this time along the beach. Eventually we reached Melbourne Road, from where we quickly found ourselves back on the East Bay Beach. This we followed beyond our point of entry, reaching a great section of rocky outcrop, that happy hunting ground for kids & their shallow, tidal aquaria.
At this point, & to the right across the road rose Castle Mound, whose steep slopes we soon climbed. At the top there was a guy sat on a bench, his bike waiting to be ridden, & his dog delighted at Daisy’s arrival. After a few minutes, the guy & the dog left, followed soon afterwards by myself & Daisy, who dropped via a grass-path onto the Pitch ‘n’ Putt course that led back to the car.
As the greenery gave way to road, I simply tuned into Daisy, but without a leash. During my squatter days down London, I was always heavily impressed how the dread-locked hippy-types had hyper-train’d their dogs to handle the London traffic, & want Daisy to be able to do the same if she’s ever with me in a city.
In a world obsess’d with leashes, I’ve gone more down the homeopathic route, & am slowly but surely giving Daisy a savvy street sense controll’d by a psychic leash. She’s doing very well now, sensing when a car is in the vicinity & pausing accordingly, which is handy as for the first time in this series, our next walk will be utilising some of East Lothian’s roads…