Our precious and precarious world

Numerous events went on in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference including demonstrations, protests and various get-togethers. I had hoped to take join some pilgrims who were walking from Dunbar to Glasgow on the John Muir Way. They were arriving in North Berwick and being accommodated in our church for the night. We had been given the option of joining them for the next stretch from North Berwick to Aberlady. I had my rucksack packed ready but did not sleep at all well the previous night and had to opt out. Most of the big events are a concern because of the pandemic: so many people are heading to Glasgow from all over the world. Hence the only thing I have been to is the art exhibition hosted by St Cuthbert’s Parish Church in Edinburgh. They hoped it would raise awareness of climate concerns, stimulate creative thinking and influence policy makers to act decisively in defence of our precious planet. Anyone could submit works for the exhibition and had we not been quite so busy recently; I might have had time to think about it. Drawings, paintings, sculptures, textiles, photographs or calligraphy were requested on the themes of

  • Climate change
  • Pollution
  • Recycling
  • The beauty and fragility of nature

Fortunately, we were in Edinburgh during the five days the exhibition was on and on the day we visited it was relatively quiet. Many local schools have contributed works including a couple of Polish ones, in addition to local artists, photographers and crafters. I did not take my camera as most exhibitions don’t allow you to take photographs but it turned out that this one did; so I used my phone. St Cuthbert’s church sits at the north end of Lothian Road on a site said to be on one of the earliest Christian sites in the city. The current building was designed by Hippolyte Blanc and constructed in 1894.

Various musical events have been held to open, during the evenings and to close the exhibition but we could not make any of those. Back home we have an electric car on order which we hope will arrive in the New Year and we are also awaiting the installation of solar panels and a power wall. Having moved from the countryside where we were several miles from the nearest shop and public transport to a town where many services are in walking distance and buses and trains are close by. I have joined the local Wildlife Gardening group and we are working towards linking up the Glen conservation area and the equivalent at Yellowcraigs on the other side of town with a network of gardens and wildlife-friendly areas.  

Exploring Eyemouth

Eyemouth is Scotland’s most south-eastern port, only five miles from the English Border. James had a vestry away-day meeting at St Ebba’s church there last week, so I used the time to explore the town. It lies where the Eye Water runs down from the Lammermuir Hills and meets the sea. The current population is around 5,000. In the 17th century it was one of the major Scottish centres of witchcraft. At least two dozen women and one man were found guilty. There was no jail in town, so they were kept in the ‘common pit’ until they were burnt at the stake. I began by walking down to the harbour

and then on to the beach. It was quiet with a few dog walkers and one birdwatcher. The tide was out leaving patterns on the wet sand.

I followed a section of the Coastal Path which runs from Berwick to St Abbs up to the headland where Eyemouth Fort was situated.

The first Trace Italienne Fortification in Britain was constructed by the English in 1547 as part of the Rough Wooing campaign which tried to force a marriage between Prince Edward and the infant Mary Queen of Scots. After the Treaty of Boulogne in 1550 the English troops withdrew from Scotland and the fort was demolished. In 1557 the Scots and their French allies began to rebuild it. However, a treaty in 1559 led to it being demolished. Today all that remains are some earthworks and these cannons.

There were views over Killiedraught Bay towards St Abbs Head.

After a coffee, I wandered over to the other side of town. The harbour was busy with boats bringing in their catches and repair works going on.

There is a regeneration project underway on the waterfront which should be complete by 2023. There was also a seal-feeding stall where children can buy fish to throw to them.

I crossed the swing bridge and walked along the other side of the harbour and up the slope to Gunsgreen House.

The house was designed by Robert Adam for a local merchant, John Nisbet who was also a smuggler. It contains the Smugglers’ House of Secrets Museum but this was closed on my visit. Nearby is Nisbet’s Tower which was a dove cote for Gunsgreen House that was restored in 2005 and is now a holiday cottage.

There is also the memorial to the 189 fishermen who died in the fishing disaster of 1881 when boats went out despite weather warnings. They encountered hurricane force winds which destroyed 26 of the town’s 46 fishing boats. Incoming tides washed wreckage, bodies and personal effects ashore for days afterwards. It took around 80 years for the population to return to the levels of 1881.

The town museum has a moving exhibition about the disaster and lots of other information about the town. It is in the Auld Kirk – the bell still rang on the hours while I was in it. Afterwards, I re-joined James and the others for lunch.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

We have been members of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for several years and visit it frequently. It began in 1670 when two doctors, Andrew Balfour and Robert Sibbald set up a small 180 square yard plot containing 800-900 plants as a physic garden near Holyrood. This became too small after a few years and in 1682 an area at the end of the Nor Loch where Waverley Station is now situated, was planted with 2,000 plants and shrubs. It was close to Trinity Hospital and was later extended into Trinity College Kirkyard.

In 1763 a new site for the Botanic Garden was found in Leith Walk. It moved to its present home in Inverleith in 1820; a process taking two years to transfer all the plants and trees. The Botanical Society of Edinburgh was instituted in 1836. Over the next century and more, the garden evolved into the one we know today with plants from all over the world and buildings which house the visitors centre, exhibition spaces and places for the staff to work.

Events are organised and in 2017 we visited the Christmas Lights display they have most years in December.

The glasshouses are currently closed for refurbishment. An article in yesterday’s Times Scotland said that they were having to cut down a 220-year-old sabal palm tree which had to be moved in order to do the work and as it was 50 feet high, could not be moved intact. It had been in the Leith Walk garden before being moved to its current place. They have grown some seedlings.

The garden has the largest collection of Chinese plants outside China including many wild ones from mountains. The RGBE botanists are working with the Kuming Institute of Botany to develop a botanical garden and a mountain field station.

I enjoyed looking at some of the interesting trees

and the alpine garden.

As it is early autumn, some leaves were beginning to turn and seed heads were appearing.

Autumn crocuses are in bloom.

After wandering around the grounds we visited the exhibition of botanical photography of Levison Biss which covered fruits and seeds from the Herbarium Collection. I must try and get the book which was sold out in the botanic garden shop. It might inspire me to do some more macro photography.

An afternoon on the Antrim Coast

It rained for most of our time in Northern Ireland last week but our last full day there was dry, so we headed to the coast. Portballantrae is a small community with a population of 734 in the 2001 census.

The harbour was very busy with lots of paddle boarders and several people taking turns at jumping off the harbour wall into the water.

There were a few people sitting at the back of the beach but no-one else walking on it. There was an incredible amount of plastic waste among the rocks and on the sand, some of it very small. It made me feel very grateful for all the people who pick up the rubbish on the beaches of our home town. I did manage to find a few very small pieces of sea glass.

At the other end of the relatively small beach we walked up the pier and back to the road we had parked the car on.

The next stop was the more familiar Whitepark Bay, a three-mile beach we have visited on numerous occasions. It has been under the care of the National Trust since 1938.

There is a Youth Hostel there and a farmer is allowed to graze his animals on the land. Apparently, the cows and sheep can sometimes be seen on the beach although there were none there on our visit. The National Trust says that they are the most-photographed cows in Northern Ireland and that they appear in numerous selfies.

Fossils of creatures called Belemnites can be found here in the rocks. They were marine animals belonging to the phylum Mollusca and the class Cephalopoda. Their closest living relatives are squids and cuttlefish. I have a small collection from previous visits.

The beach was much busier than we have ever seen it before. As I was walking back up to the car park, I met a wedding party heading down to the beach for photographs. A long wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses, stiletto heels and smart suits for the men did not look as if they would cope with the sand. They were struggling a little with the steep steps down to the dunes. Some of their elderly relatives or friends were struggling with the steps so I did wonder how they would manage the path through the dunes where the others were heading.

It was time for us to head back for our last evening with James’s parents and prepare for our departure the following morning.

Street Art

Our first trip to Northern Ireland to visit my husband’s parents in almost two years coincided with an art project on the North Coast which it was hoped, would increase footfall to the area again. It began in early August and involved street artists from the UK and Ireland to add murals to towns on the coast between Limavady to Ballycastle.  On our visit, not all were completed but we managed to see some. In James’s hometown of Ballymoney which is also known as ‘cow town’ there is a cow on the gable end of a building

and another by Shane O’Driscoll elsewhere in the town.

Queen Street, Coleraine has a large work by artist EMIC.

Port Stewart has two; a Sea Eagle by Danleo adorns one building

and a monochrome one by JMK sits below the Dominican College.

There are five works in Limavady, off Market Street but we did not have chance to see them. Two more are due to be unveiled there. There is also one in Castle Street, Ballycastle but we missed that also.

We have seen a lot of street art on our journeys including a mural of Amelia Earhart in Cuba.

The Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas on Route 66 has regular updates from the public.

This is in Lisbon, Ohio on the Lincoln Highway which we drove in 2016.

Here is a side street in Melbourne, Australia which we found on our journey round Highway One in 2018.

In 2017 we saw a Banksy at Jökulsárlón, Iceland.

St John’s church at the west end of Princes St in Edinburgh has a group of artists who regularly paint a mural on the side of the building, often commenting on current issues. This one was done in December 2016 after a small child migrant’s body was washed up on a shore in the Mediterranean.

I always enjoy spotting some new street art wherever I am, even though it is not something I have tried myself.

A night by the canal

Our first trip to England since moving back to Scotland in the autumn of 2020 was back to South Cheshire and was our first night in the van since autumn 2019. We are members of Britstops; a list of places which allow you to park a campervan overnight for free. No facilities have to be provided but many are public houses or cafes and benefit from the custom. The Broughton Arms in Rode Heath is one of such venues and sits on the Trent & Mersey Canal. It was close enough to where our son and his partner live so we had arranged to meet them for a meal that evening.

The Trent and Mersey Canal is 93 miles long, has 76 locks and opened in 1771; engineered by James Brindley. The canal runs from Preston Brook and the connection to the Bridgewater Canal down to Trent Lock at Derwent Mouth where it joins the River Trent. The Broughton Arms is situated between Bridge 140

and lock 54. The towpath is accessible from the side of the bridge in front of the pub.

It abuts Rode Heath Rise which used to be the site of a salt works. Brine was pumped up from underground and heated in large pans until the water had evaporated. The salt was transported to the rest of the country via the canal. The salt works were abandoned in 1930 and the land reclaimed for public use in 1980. There are open areas, woodland

and plenty of wildflowers.

Each year on 5th November, a large bonfire is held here. I did wonder if the pile of old beer garden furniture in the corner of the car park was being saved for that. Further east, past the junction with the Macclesfield Canal is the Harecastle Tunnel, constructed to carry coal to the kilns in the Potteries and was one of the longest in the country.

The Macclesfield canal was very close to our home when we first moved down to England. We had to find a building that could house the surgery for my husband’s GP practice and accommodation for us. After four years we could afford to move out to let the practice expand and find our own home. Living so close to the canal was great for a walk but also meant that I made sure that our son learnt to swim. I had just thought ‘what if he runs out of the garden and down to the canal and falls in?’ The gates were open much of the time to provide access to the surgery parking. A few years later, when I was working at the Parent and Baby Day Unit, we had a staff outing which was a day trip on a narrow boat on the Macclesfield canal. We hired it and drove it up towards Congleton, stopping before the locks to have a pub lunch and then returning to base. I have known and still do, several people who love narrow boats and even live on them by choice but that is not for me. I did enjoy seeing some of the Mallard ducks and ducklings.

The following morning we drove to Shropshire to give my Dad his Fathers’ Day present and then headed back north to Scotland.

A wander around Dunbar

Having to leave the campervan to be cleaned meant that we had three hours to kill in Dunbar. Following Spott Road in towards the town centre we first had a short walk on the East Beach although the tide was in. There were a few dog walkers out but otherwise it was very quiet.

Cromwell harbour had a few people working on boats. The first harbour was constructed in 1100 at what is now known as Belhaven. The next was stone-built nearer to the castle in the 16th century. After storm damage in the 1650s, Cromwell repaired it to enable English ships to supply his army. Herring fishing was important; In 1819, 280 boats with 2000 men and in bumper years some 700-800 boats would arrive. In the 18th century merchants traded with Europe and in 1828, 203,276 gallons of whisky were exported from Dunbar. The heyday for oyster fishing was from 1770 to 1790 and whaling was undertaken from 1751 to 1802.

The Castle ruins stand beside the harbour. It was built on the site of a Pictish fortress, the first stone castle being constructed in 1071. There were numerous attacks and rebuilding over the centuries and Mary Queen of Scots visited on several occasions. The ruins now provide a cliff-like place for gulls to nest on.

In 1844 a new harbour entrance was blasted through the remaining castle ruins and Victoria Harbour was built by the engineer David Stevenson. We walked around the walls watched by a pair of gulls.

In the 19th century potatoes were taken to London by sea. This continued until 1914 when Lincolnshire began to grow large crops of potatoes. In the 20th century lobster and crab catching increased to supply the demand from local, Edinburgh and London hotels. More recent work on the harbour in 1988 revealed the Harbour Vaults. From the items found in the underground passages, it is assumed they were related to the whaling industry.

In the High Street we found a coffee shop with comfortable sofas and had our first coffee in a cafe for several months. Opposite was the town house museum – the first home of John Muir.

The west end and Belhaven Bay will need to be explored on another day as our three hours had gone and it was time to collect the van.

Discovering North Berwick

Having moved last autumn before the last lockdown and only recently been able to go beyond our local council area meant that in addition to settling into our new home, we have at least had time to explore the area. East Lothian is relatively flat, mostly arable land with the Lammermuir Hills and Traprain Law to the south and the Pentlands to the west. Like Edinburgh, there are volcanic mounds including the Law

the Bass Rock.

Fidra,

Criagleith

And the Lamb.

There is evidence of early settlers in the area to the south of the Law including 18 hut circles, middens and a field system dating back 2,000 years. The first record of the town being referred to as North Berwick (to distinguish it from South Berwick as Berwick on Tweed was known as) was in 1250. The town developed a place on the pilgrim trail much earlier; a ferry to Earlsferry in Fife being established in 950AD for those heading to St Andrews. The pilgrimages continued until the mid-16th century. St Andrew’s Auld Kirk is situated down by the harbour on what was a tidal island. It was reduced to ruins by a storm in 1656.

Our house is situated alongside the southern edge of the Glen. There was originally a Mill Pond at the entrance to the Glen and now a culvert passes under the road. Lochbridge Road got its name from the bridge over the reservoir. The water was controlled by a sluice gate and provided power for the three mills which were situated there. Now only the ruins remain. The first path through the Glen was opened in 1856.

The burn flows into what was known as the Mill Sea which later became Milsey Bay and is our nearest beach.

I have been looking at Canmore maps online. The 19th century ones show an iron foundry established in 1821 in the East Bay. Coo’s Green or the East Links where golf was played before 1798 was where the burgesses could graze their animals for a fee until the popularity of golf increased.

Our house is situated on what was part of Rhodes Farm. It also had limekilns and employed several men. In 1904, Abbot’s Croft House was built along with the lodge. In the 1930s Lime Grove social housing was built on some of the land to the east. In 1993 some of the land surrounding Abbot’s Croft was sold to build two houses on each side. Ours is one of the two on the west side, abutting the Glen. Two further housing estates were built on the farmland: Rhodes Park and Ben Sayers Park.  The Lochridge Toll bar at the foot of Heugh Road was installed in 1805 but townspeople did not have to pay tolls. There is now a small roundabout there at the junction with Tantallon Road.

I have also been looking at some of the older buildings in town. St Andrew’s Kirk sits behind the High Street. It was built between 1665 and 1664 to replace the older church.

By 1873 the congregation had overgrown it and in the 1880s moved to St Andrew Blackadder’s Church in the High Street. The Lodge, a group of whitewashed buildings sit in grounds at the bottom of Quality Street.

They were built in the 17th century and originally owned by the Dalrymple family. The tower behind is said to be where St Andrew’s well was. The buildings are now apartments, and the grounds are a public park and gardens.

In 1889 the first reference to the town being called ‘The Biarritz of the North’ was by Edmund Yates, editor of ‘The World’ a weekly society journal. By this time, large numbers of people were visiting on the trains including golfers. Robert Stevenson’s family, including his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson used to spend summers in North Berwick in the 1860s. During the pandemic the town has been very quiet but no doubt that will change when it is over.

Memories of the Himalayas

The recent floods arising from the collapse of a dam in northeast India reminded me of an experience with floods in the Western Himalayas over ten years ago. My son and I had arranged to go trekking in Ladakh in Kashmir with some people I had met the previous year on a fundraising trek in southern India. We had a few days in Delhi before flying to Srinagar. Here we began our high-altitude acclimatisation. Srinagar is at 1585m and while staying on a houseboat on Lake Dal

we visited three Mughal Gardens and had a walk up to 2,000m.

Time had come for us to leave and travel overland in a bus to Kargil and then onward to Leh.

We passed the High Altitude Warfare School and drove over the Zojila pass at 3,528m. En route we stopped at Sonnamarg, an alpine meadow at 2615m with glacier and had to wait for a convoy before we could leave.

We were not far from the line of control. Near Dras the bus had a puncture.

We eventually arrived in Kargil for the night. Kashmir is predominantly Muslim so the muezzin is a reliable early morning alarm and we set off over the highest point on the Srinagar to Leh road: the Fotu Lah pass at 4,108m.

After another puncture and the bus getting stuck on hairpin bend and having to be dug out, we arrived in Leh at 10pm. Ladakh is 80% Tibetan Buddhist and before we left on our trek, we spent a day exploring Thikse Monastery, Leh Palace, Stokna Gompa and Shanti Stupa.The following morning, we visited Spituk Monastery and then walked to the pony meet at Spituk Bridge to join up with the pony train which transported our tents and all our camping equipment. Spituk Bridge is at 3,214m.

The first part of the Markha Valley trek was a hot walk in the sun.

After lunch we descended into Zingchen Gorge which was more sheltered and camped at Zingchen at 3,396m.  The following day we walked to Yurutse and I began to suffer from altitude sickness and central cyanosis so I rode on the horse for the last part of the day. We camped at 4,150m. Our third day was a very hot climb up to the Ganda La pass at 4,900m. I crossed this on the horse and sat at the top admiring the view before the others arrived.

After a long, slow descent we arrived at Skiu, a small village at 3,500m. We had a relatively lazy day with some yoga and a short walk to the local gompa.

Heavy rain the next morning flooded one tent and delayed our start. The following night there was a major storm and a mudslide. Getting to Markha was impossible as the river was now too deep to cross so we returned to Skiu. Storms continued and we had to evacuate our tent at 3am because the river flooded due to a flash flood coming down the gorge.

This swept part of the village away and some trekkers died in the gorge. We spent the next few days trying to keep a supply of fresh sterilised water when the spring was accessible, treating injured people and giving a hygiene talk to the assembled 150 foreign youth and 40 Kashmiri support staff living in very basic conditions which meant that any infection would spread quickly. One of the villages had a radio and we heard an English Indian News broadcast which said that flooding and landslides were widespread in Ladakh and that 150 had been killed and 800 were missing. We should have left the National Park but could not so would be counted among the missing. An attempt was made to cross the landslide to the next village where there was a satellite phone to make contact with our relatives. Many lines were down but contact was made with a couple of people. Later, contact was only with Leh and Srinagar but they could not call internationally. The floods had become much more widespread and Jammu and Kashmir had declared a state of emergency. Pakistan had over 10,000 dead. We were promised a food and medicine drop (we had enough for seven days in our group and had started rationing). One of the Romanians had died but we could not bury the body as one day was inauspicious according to the locals and there was not enough depth of soil in the valley to dig a grave. Air burials are the norm in Ladakh: the Muslim person in the village will cut the body up and it is placed on a stone altar in the mountains and left to the birds. This was not acceptable to the person’s companions. There were more storms and a further flash flood. At 5am one morning we were woken by the sound of a helicopter. It was too small to be a food and medicine drop and turned out to be a stripped-down Puma helicopter which could fly at high altitudes belonging to the Indian Air Force. It had come to rescue us. It took three of us at a time and we could only take a small rucksack. We got back to Leh; caught a plane to Srinagar and then to Delhi and managed to make our booked flight back home.

East Lothian Beaches: Seacliff

Only three miles from our house, Seacliff Beach is accessible via a private road. Car drivers must pay £3 to open the barrier. On the path down to the west end of the beach, the ruins of Auldhame Castle, 16th century tower house are visible through the trees.

At low tide it is possible to walk around the cliffs to see Tantallon castle which is a little further along the coast.

The harbour, known as the Gegan was carved from the Ghegan Rock (which means Churchman’s Haven) and constructed in 1890. It is said to be the smallest harbour in Scotland but was empty when we visited on a cold January day. In summer the beach is popular with dog walkers, riders (there are a number of horses on the estate) surfers and picnickers.

The rocky outcrop which projects into the bay is known as St Baldred’s Boat and has a stone beacon with a cross on at the end.

St Baldred’s Cave is at the foot of the cliffs. He is said to have lived there from time to time. In 1831 a stone altar and bones of both humans and animals were discovered. They were thought to date from the Iron Age and to be the remnants of a sect which undertook human sacrifice.

At low tide there is an expanse of sandy beach to walk along. It was completely deserted on our winter visit.

The exit road out climbs up past the ruins of Seacliff House, a mid-19th century building constructed on the site of an earlier 18th century house and was destroyed by a fire in 1907. The owner did not survive. The road passes through an arch in the surrounding wall.

Various outbuildings on the estate were used as a secret naval base in World War II which focussed on navigation training and U-boat defence. They are now private homes. Troops were also stationed here to prevent landings during the Napoleonic War in 1798. Like most of the beaches on this portion of the coast, there are views towards the Bass Rock.

It is said that the rocks and the coastline here were the inspiration for Robert Stevenson’s story ‘The Wreckers’. Our first trip here for many years will not be our last now that we are living close by.