There is no doubt that the north east coastline of England is one of the most beautiful in the whole country and fortunately not many people know that fact, so don’t tell anyone ok, lets not spoil it for ourselves.
What I didn’t realise until last Friday is that just across the border into Scotland, the Berwickshire, Borders and Lothian coast is also just as beautiful (ok, you have to screw your eyes up and ignore the cement factory and nuclear power station near Dunbar, but apart from that…).
It changes dramatically though almost right on the England/Scotland border, on the English side the coastline is low lying, sand dunes rather than cliffs and long never-ending beaches where people wander in ones and twos with dogs for company and hardly anyone else is visible for miles around, on the Scottish side of the border you find high land and cliffs that soar above the sea, no long stretches of beach but instead lots of tiny little bays and coves with narrow little roads and paths picking their way down into them – and the East Coast mainline railway to Edinburgh runs along all of this, sometimes right along the beach – and so does the Sustrans Coast and Castles bike route.
We left Dunbar railway station at around 3pm on the Friday afternoon, a steady 35 miles to cover down to Berwick on the border, it started well, a fairly flat route along a seaside promenade and then out of the town for the cycle path to pick its way around a huge cement works, an industrial wasteland that took us to Torness nuclear power station and then a long steady climb to a drinks stop and to look back on the first eight miles, everything was ok at this point, the only hill had been an easy climb, it was a nice sunny afternoon despite the forecasts of rain and the storm clouds would stay on the horizon fifty miles in front of us for the next 24 hours, we chased the storms but stayed in a little pool of sunshine for that first and most of the second day, life was good at this point.
The next section found us staring into the distance at a line of hills, what seemed like very high hills, the map was consulted, “We don’t go over them do we ?” seven concerned faces asked of me, “Erm, well, sort of” was the reply, truth is that the Sustrans maps don’t really show much in the way of contour lines, they grade the altitudes by colour coding and the map showed that we had to travel through at least three different colour zones, it looked like we were crossing at least some of those hills but from a distance they looked an awful lot higher than they did on the map.
No time for that though for we suddenly descended into Pease Bay, the most delightful little cove into which has been shoehorned a small holiday home development and suddenly we found ourselves wanting to stop, rent a caravan for the weekend, sit on its decking and open up some beers whilst staring out to sea with the sun going down at your back, its the sort of place that I could live in with a dog and some paints, eat shellfish from the beach, make clothes from fish skin and unbrellas from palm fronds, stroll along the beach on my own with the dog every day until one day, a Friday, I spy a footprint in the sand and embark on an adventure involving cannibals and the rescue of a native who becomes my man servant, and…
The climb out of Pease Bay was torture, the cliffs around here are quite high and a 30 second downhill on one side of the bay is always followed by a 30 minute climb back up the other side, its just not fair, this climb split us all up and caused H’s chain to throw itself off the sprockets at any opportunity, we had a long wait for the group to re-assemble at the top of the climb and those hills in the distance were getting closer.
By 5pm we’d covered 20 miles and were at our feeding point in Eyemouth, an unremarkable little seaside town, and then the hills started and the energy levels started to fall and without fail everyone started to wish we’d done a little bit more practice before setting off. The evening drew on and the road seemed to get longer and longer in front of us, Sustrans often have a habit of throwing you a curved ball and not taking the most obvious route but instead finding endless hills for you to enjoy, or not, and they surpassed themselves as we turned the wheels slowly through Berwickshire until finally passing the border on a nondescript back road.
Within one mile of entering England things turned a little weird, we suspect that a signpost had gone missing or been changed but we found ourselves descending into a very steep wooded valley – if you’ve ever seen the Burt Reynolds film “Deliverance” then you’ll get the idea. we had to stop at the bottom because the footpath stopped on the edge of the River Tweed, traditionally the old border ‘twixt England and Scotland our footpath didn’t seem to want to go any further.
It was a very strange place, the sun was disappearing very quickly over the hill, the woods were dark and foreboding, the river wide and obviously too deep to ford, we looked at the map and it didn’t look anything like this place that we had found ourselves in, there was nothing left for it, we had to push the bikes back to the top of the valley and start again and we’d nearly lost the daylight by this time.
More hills followed, rolling hills with little respite from constant climbing, you get to the top of one hill and there’s another in front of you, its getting a bit chilly and a bit dark and now you wish you were in your hotel with a beer and you curse the support vehicle drivers who you sent on in front to book the team into the hotel because you know for a fact that they will be sat in the bar now, freshly showered and changed and enjoying a beer, or more.
We did finally make it but we were all whacked by the time we struggled up the stairs in front of the Kings Arms in Berwick, that was one tough 35 miles and I didn’t sound very convincing when I tried to describe the much softer route that the morrow would bring – it would be double the length of the first day and I thought that I hid that fact very well from the party.