Wanderlust

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This photograph was taken a couple of weeks ago when I was in the John Muir Country Park, near Dunbar. It stars in the post Ingrained but I wanted to post it again for this week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge, which is on the subject of ‘Wanderlust’. This particular scene shows a path in a woodland but to me it conjures up walking that bit further, crossing the next horizon, because it is there. John Muir, for whom the Country Park was named, wrote that so many people are scared of the woods when really they are places full of wonder and interest. I walked through these particular woods a lot when I was a kid and I was there again recently. I still could have walked them with my eyes shut. I live many miles away now and I have been to many other places in these islands. But my wanderlust started there.

If you haven’t been to my particular corner of the Internet before, welcome! I post fairly often about any number of different things. Recent posts have included What the…?Writing about autismThe Battery and Notes From Walnut Tree Farm.

Impulses

I’m not very impulsive. I usually think on things then never act on them. Occasionally I do but there’s usually a day trip involved somewhere along the line. A few weeks ago, I was in East Lothian for the day, a fine visit to my home county on a pleasant sunny Sunday afternoon. We had just been to Tantallon Castle, possibly one of the finest castles on this great planet of ours, and were driving to Pressmennan Wood when on impulse I asked my dad to stop the car at a place called Pitcox, not far from Dunbar. The reason I did was because of an old signpost that stood at the road junction there, produced by East Lothian County Council at least before 1974. The signpost marked four directions, towards Stenton, Garvald, Gifford, Pathhead Farm, Halls Farm, Bourhouse, Spott and Dunbar. I can’t quite explain the attraction of the signpost beyond I just like the link to the old-fashioned way of doing things. East Lothian is still a very old-fashioned sort of place and there are a few of these signposts dotted around the county, including one in the very heart of Haddington on the junction of Station Road and West Road. In this age of sat-nav and Google Maps, navigation by instinct, knowledge and simple guiding seems to have gone by the wayside. The world is deeply complex and all we can do as people is find something to relate to, even if it might not be totally obvious. It’s the psychogeographer in me that made me stop. There are wonders to be found in the unlikeliest of places. The Impressionist Camille Pissarro said it best:

‘Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where others see nothing’.

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I realise I haven’t written so much here about psychogeography. I became interested in it a few years ago after reading some articles on the subject by the novelist Will Self who walked from his house in west London to New York, or at least from his house to Heathrow then from JFK into Manhattan. I think Will Self is up his own arse – he tends to throw spanners into the dictionary and use a polysyllabic word when a decent, shorter one might do – but psychogeography struck a chord with me. It is a French Situationist concept come up with by a philosopher called Guy Debord, who sought to make sense of the anonymous big city by getting lost in it on what he called a derive or aimless drift. His big city was Paris. Mine was Edinburgh.

The capital of Scotland is a city I know very well. I was born there, I went to primary school there. I’m even going there tomorrow to see Hibs. One of the reasons I know it so well is because when I used to go on day trips, all I could often afford was to go to Edinburgh and explore. I often went on derives around the New Town, often starting on Dublin Street by the Portrait Gallery and seeing where I ended up. Waverley Station was inevitably my final destination but it was the getting there that made it interesting, following psychogeographical concepts and taking random left and right turns. I haven’t been on such a walk for a while but I still turn off on a tangent from time to time even when I supposedly have a fixed route in mind to follow. The other week I was heading to Easter Road and walked up Leith Walk since I was running early. I ended up taking a diversion through the New Kirkgate shopping centre (less said the better) and found Trinity House museum then ducked through the very fine and springlike South Leith kirkyard.

The project I started a few weeks ago, Streets of Glasgow, has a psychogeographical dimension to it. I’ve lived in Glasgow for nearly four years but I still haven’t scratched the surface of it yet. Far from it. The walk on Buchanan Street was brilliant, a few snatched minutes in a lunchbreak from a training course, and I hope to get out some more in the coming weeks. In the meantime, there are always new things to spot when looking the right way, like the ghost sign I spotted on Nelson Mandela Place walking back from the bus station the other week.

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Just shy of a year ago, I went to York, one of my favourite cities. One of the highlights was the National Railway Museum, which I always refer to affectionately as the most autistic place on Earth. In the Station Hall was a signpost which tickled me when I saw it then and sums up much of my outlook on life. One direction points ‘To the glorious and unknown’. It might be just a little bit impulsive but that’s all good with me.

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Before I forget, very soon, probably some time in June, will be the 300th post on this here blog. I like to mark these things, as with The things I love are not at home and Post 101: Talking, so for the first time, I am going to crowdsource what I write about for the 300th post. So, if there are any suggestions, based around what tends to appear here, please do let me know, either through the comments section or by other means if you know them.

 

What the…?

First, a disclaimer. This post is mildly sweary. It is part of the story to be sweary this time and I have a policy of not using asterisks as the world doesn’t need to be bowdlerised.

That being out of the way. Last weekend Hibs won the Championship. We will be promoted to the Scottish Premiership next season, which is brilliant. We won the league with a 3-0 win against Queen of the South, after Falkirk drew with St Mirren. When we won the Scottish Cup last year, there was an epic pitch invasion which is still being investigated by Police Scotland. Near the end of the Queen of the South game, the stewards started putting up barriers separated by flimsy red and white tape right in front of the East Stand, which is where the rowdier elements of the Hibs support sit and also where I sit. The absurdity of this made me laugh but what made me howl was the response of the singing section, which was the chant ‘What the fucking hell is that?’ to the tune of ‘You’re Not Singing Anymore’. Class.

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Why I’m telling you this is I had a similar response to this when I was in Dunbar the other day. In fact, twice. When I was at high school, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I often went out for a walk at lunchtime and ended up in one of two places, on the Prom or if I felt like walking further, to the bottom of a park called the Glebe, on a point jutting out into the sea. I walked along there to find a fence a good ten feet from where the cliff dropped and right in front of where I used to sit. My response was ‘What the fucking hell is that?’ Seriously, East Lothian Council! Without sounding like the Daily Mail, health and safety gone mad. Indeed whenever I am in Dunbar I make a point of sitting there for a while. I did this time too, by climbing through the fence and plonking myself on the grass and eating my pieces, on the wrong side closest to the sea. It was brilliant as the sun came out and I sat in my T-shirt as I ate and looked over to the harbour and to the folk climbing on the rocks nearby.

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Time number two was when I walked on the Prom. As long as I have been alive, the Prom path has always been cracked. Indeed when I was a kid I used to walk along the cracks for much of the route. But a small part, as it passes the Pin, has been tarred. No idea why. No other part of the path, which runs to about half a mile, has been tarred. It was very recent, not recent enough to draw your name in it or anything but only a week or two old. Even newer was a John Muir quote chalked onto the tarmac, namely:

‘These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.’ (The Yosemite by John Muir, Chapter 15, http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/the_yosemite/chapter_15.aspx)

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I spend a lot of my life thinking thoughts along the lines of ‘What the fucking hell is that?’ One of the ways I keep sane is marvelling at how absurd the world is, in how people think and what people think is a good idea. I don’t normally sing it, though, but I might just have to start, even just to be absurd myself for a bit.

Ingrained

The very first post on this blog, way back in August 2015, was a dwam about vivid memories of places that occur to you seemingly without warning:

‘I was just thinking about a place near where I grew up in East Lothian. Just outside Dunbar is the John Muir Country Park, stretching from Dunbar Castle to Tyninghame. It is a very varied place, encompassing golf courses, beaches and an animal park. I spent a lot of time there as a kid. Anyway, the particular part of the park that came to mind a few minutes ago is at the far end of the dump road, where it meets the Biel Burn near West Barns. There is a bridge there, leading towards the sand dunes or the firs, what is locally known as ‘John Muir’, and I was just thinking of walking there. It is nearly always muddy and usually smells rank (there is a water treatment works nearby) but the path leads to good places, whichever way you take.’

I hadn’t been there in years, in fact well before I moved to Glasgow. When I was in Dunbar recently, I hadn’t planned to be out there at all but when I was walking around the Prom, I looked across Belhaven Bay and saw the trees. I didn’t plan to walk so far, though, across what the map calls the Hedderwick Plantation but what I know as ‘John Muir’. I did because I was just enjoying setting one foot before another. I haven’t been there in quite a few years – I now live at the other side of the country, I have done many jobs since – but as soon as I got past the Linkfield car park, my feet guided me through the woods as if I had just been there the day before, feeling utterly at home, recognising paths leading this way and that. Even the smells were familiar, tree smells and from the beach across the dunes. There were a few folk in the woods but not nearly as many as were across the way in the East Links farm park looking at llamas and that. It was their loss. After a few minutes, I was alone and I felt utterly content, thrilled to be in a place where I spent a lot of time as a kid and finding it had changed not a bit in the intervening decade.

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I soon reached the bridge. I had seen a photo of it a few days ago on Facebook and it must have stuck in my brain. I have long thought that if ever I get a memorial bench, by that bridge would be where it would go. It is a very secluded place, at the back of Hedderwick, right by the mouth of the river Tyne, looking across towards Tyninghame Links and up into East Lothian, with Traprain Law, Pencraig Hill and the Hopetoun Monument. It was remarkably still when I was there, save some runners and a guy walking his dogs, and I loved being there, especially because they have plonked a bench there, randomly as part of the Legacy 2014 project following the Commonwealth Games. I live in the big city and there are times when I feel overwhelmed by that, the noise, hustle, bustle and all round madness. Sitting right there I felt very far from all that, with the bird noises and the Isle of May out in the distance across the dunes. I rested my feet and looked at my OS map, wondering for a moment about whether I could walk the 4 miles more to East Linton. In the end, I decided against it, wanting to enjoy the rest of the long loop around the edge of the trees and walk back along the dump road to the Prom and back to the train. Eventually, I set off again, once more letting my feet guide me, stopping to look at the tank traps and old huts from the Second World War and generally letting my mind wander further.

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I walked back to Dunbar station, another few miles, some of them rainy, naturally smack dab in the middle of the golf course at Winterfield. The dump road I wrote about in this blog’s first post was on the route and I stopped a minute looking across Seafield Pond towards the old Battleblent Hotel and West Barns. On the way along, there was a heron on the pond. As I was reaching for my phone to get a photo, the heron got up and flew over the wall, a clear lesson as to why sometimes you should just capture the scene in your mind’s eye. When I reached the Prom it was wet but I didn’t really care. I had loved the walk, with not so many thoughts but a song going through my head (‘Clash Of The Ash’ by Runrig, incidentally, which I have just learned is about shinty) and stopping now and then for a photo.

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Sometimes memories are difficult to live up to. Places you once liked, that had resonance, don’t rise to the expectations placed on them. I was glad just to be there, for a step out of my life and for the walk to be so deeply familiar, those paths ingrained in my memory, not just in my mind but almost in my feet as I was led on almost without conscious thought into a place I knew so well.

The Battery

Dunbar has two harbours: the Cromwell or Old Harbour and the Victoria Harbour, otherwise known as the New Harbour. Each has its own history – the New hewn from the rock of the Castle, watched by a young John Muir before he went off to America, the Old where Charles Edward Stuart landed around the time of the Battle of Prestonpans. I grew up not far from them both so they’re familiar to me as places where I would walk or even go on a boat from time to time. I remember being at the Old Harbour a few times as the sun was going up, around 5 in the morning, the sky lightening and broadening as all around was still.

Recently Dunbar was witness to the Aurora Borealis or the northern lights. I’ve never seen them though I’ve seen many fine solar displays there in my time, including a total eclipse as I walked along the High Street. I saw a photograph on Facebook of the end of the Aurora over Lamer Island, part of the New harbour, and it reminded me of being there as a kid. Lamer Island, or the Battery as I knew it, has the harbour wall and a derelict military hospital on it. The derelict military hospital is a ruin, a gateway leading to a grassy bit bounded by walls that rise higher over the sea beyond. I always liked to imagine it defending against naval sieges and barrages, even while it never actually saw anything of the kind. I liked to walk around it and just imagine.

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The Victoria Harbour, Dunbar, with Lamer Island behind

It’s interesting that since I moved away, I’ve written more about Dunbar and East Lothian. I was lucky to grow up where I did, even if I didn’t always think it at the time. Writing helps bring out thoughts and recollections almost without realising it. It also leads to actively looking out for new ideas, especially when writing a blog like this, and sometimes they just come to you, with a glance or a swipe on social media. Whatever works. The best ideas come completely unexpectedly in my experience, as with the best things in life at large.

A week or so after this post was originally written, back in March, I was in touch with the Dunbar Shore and Harbour Neighbourhood Group who provided some intriguing information about Lamer Island. They have a project to use the now ruined space where the hospital was to bring together a new visitor centre, coastal garden and interpretation space, making the most of its fine setting with views across the Forth, to the North Sea and both of the harbours. Good luck to them – I’ll look forward to seeing what they do.

Creels

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A few months ago, I posted about a new sculpture on Victoria Street in Dunbar called the Creel Loaders. I wrote the post, posted it again because I liked it, then promptly forgot about it, writing lengthy blethers about other things in the meantime. This morning, I heard from the Dunbar Shore and Harbour Neighbourhood Group. They weren’t enclosing a defamation writ or anything, thankfully, instead complementing the post and providing more information about the Dunbar Harbour Gateway Project they are currently undertaking. The Group have laid waymarker stones leading to the sculptures just to finish off the landscaping. I look forward to seeing them when next in Dunbar in a week or so.

The Harbour Gateway Project strikes a chord with me, bringing the harbour and Dunbar’s maritime past to the fore to tempt visitors down to the shore as well as informing those from the town about what once happened there. The Cat’s Row tenements that once stood on Victoria Street, where fisherfolk lived in sight of the harbours, were replaced by terraced houses designed by Sir Basil Spence. I know there are quite a few folk who like brutalist architecture, of which Spence was a particular proponent, but I am really not one of them, thinking Spence more of an architectural vandal for his tower blocks that once dotted the skyline of this great city and the destruction of George Square in the heart of Edinburgh University. I digress. Victoria Street is fine, Spence’s houses are not at all bad, though the street is even nicer because of the Creel Loaders sculpture, which seeks to ‘connect people with place’, which is a great sentiment and one with which I heartily concur.

How do we connect with places? I have a deep and lasting connection with Dunbar that persists despite living now at the other side of the country. It stems from personal memories, good and bad, long walks, reading and living life. My adopted home, Glasgow, has been harder but I smile when I approach the city when I’ve been away, just as I used to when the train passed Belhaven Bay on the approach to Dunbar station. I have been lucky to have been able to form connections with all sorts of places in lots of different ways. I was just thinking there about Dublin, a city which I have visited quite a few times and like immensely for its history, walkability and all round charm. I think personal resonance has a part, memories, not to mention a wee bit of imagination to carry you through. The next time I walk down Victoria Street, I will chance a glance at the Creel Loaders and think back to what my ancestors might have been doing in centuries past, there and on distant shores too.

Shadow

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Shadows fall. This particular shadow is my own, taken on a freezing November afternoon on the Prom in Dunbar. It was about 3pm so in the midst of the golden hour as the light rapidly faded. I think this particular silhouette makes me look like the Stig from Top Gear, with the folded arms and that.

 

Golden Hour

Recently I saw a picture on Facebook taken during the ‘golden hour’, that bit of time this time of year between 3-4pm when the light is slowly fading and what there is of it is golden-yellow, casting just the right shade across whatever the surroundings are. It is a time of day I love and invariably I structure day trips in such a way to make sure I’m outside as it starts to get dark, to wring that last little bit of day before the night takes hold.

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Here are a few photos of the golden hour from various trips this winter so far, beginning in Northumberland and going through the city, Dunbar and a few other places besides.

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Embleton Bay
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Tynemouth
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Amble
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Amble
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Haddington
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Glasgow from Queen’s Park
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St. Bernard’s Well, by the Water of Leith
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North Berwick
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Prestongrange
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Dunbar
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Silver Street, Dunbar

Great British Railway Journeys

Invariably the programmes I want to watch on TV aren’t on when I can watch them. That used to be a problem but not so much when the iPlayer and other catch-up apps exist. I download programmes to watch either in dinner breaks or just in bed or on the move. While I was on holiday in Northumberland, I caught up with two episodes of the Great British Railway Journeys, the Michael Portillo train travelling yarn, travelling through my native East Lothian as well as County Durham and Edinburgh. Portillo was also in Craster about a mile from where I was sitting at the time. He is a ham actor par excellence and some of what he gets up to (and wears) makes you cringe. But they are compulsive viewing, especially when the places he’s in are so familiar. Indeed some of the people on them were familiar too, including my first boss, interviewed in the Glebe in Dunbar.

Craster was an unexpected surprise, one of the most beautiful places anywhere and seeing Portillo sitting on a bench looking across the harbour made me smile and want to be there. He went to visit the smokehouse across the road from where I had lunch on Monday. The smokehouse smelt beautiful, incidentally.

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Craster

Dunbar was the main interest. As well as learning about John Muir, he also fannied about on a coracle in the Biel Burn, just as it passes the dump road in its haste to join the sea in Belhaven Bay. He was assisted by Junior Rangers, teenagers who assist the park rangers, but not even they could stop him acting like a choob and nearly falling in.

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View from the Glebe

He also went to Haddington, East Lothian’s county town, and learned about Samuel Smiles, born in the High Street, who coined the term ‘self-help’ and wrote about it in the fine Victorian tradition. Portillo stood on the Victoria Bridge on the way to my dad’s house and then on the Nungate Bridge by St. Mary’s talking about Samuel Smiles. Luckily he got a beautiful day, showing off Haddington and the fine kirk of St. Mary’s to best effect.

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Haddington

I am hardly a fan of Michael Portillo’s politics. His programmes, though, are easy watching and don’t delve too much into specifics but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If they encourage people to look beyond the end of their noses and go out into the world then I’m a happy guy. So, go watch them. They are on the iPlayer for the next three weeks or so. Then get out a map or a computer and plan a trip someplace. If you want to go to East Lothian, wonderful. Ask for recommendations. Right after this, I’m going to plan a trip myself. Not sure where, all I know is a train will be involved, if not a galoot in pink breeks and a yellow blazer.

North Berwick

Sometimes I just have a notion to go somewhere. It doesn’t always happen, however, depending on the time I’ve had said notion or where the desired destination is. Someone I know has just been on holiday in Cambodia but Angkor Wat is sadly not a day trip possibility from Glasgow. Thankfully there are some places I want to go to within reach and one of them happened to be North Berwick. I woke up and thought ‘I want to go to North Berwick today’. So, I had a shower, breakfasted and left with all due haste. Having a notion to go to North Berwick in particular is unlike me. Being from Dunbar, a mere 12 miles away, means I have a deeply ingrained dislike of North Berwick. It’s a local rivalry thing born of parochialism and narrow-mindedness. Now living in Glasgow, however, has changed my outlook on many things, including North Berwick. When I’m in need of a sea view, I do one of two things. On Twitter I follow an account called Sea Window Craster, which has a new picture each day taken oot the windae in Craster, a village in a beautiful part of Northumberland. Or I look up the website of the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, which features webcams from the Bass Rock, Fidra, the Isle of May and North Berwick itself, looking towards the Law and to the harbour. Every few days I take another look, getting my fix of the sea and the eastward perspective I still firmly believe is the only way to see the world.

Interestingly, a return ticket from Glasgow to North Berwick on the train is dearer than it is to Dunbar, nearly three quid dearer in fact. The hourly train service that graces North Berwick combined with the half-hourly bus service to Edinburgh always made me suspicious that some senior First Group manager lived in North Berwick but since Dunbar is now quicker and cheaper to get to, I suspect things have changed since Abellio took over the trains and Lothian took over the buses.

I sat facing backwards on the train out to North Berwick, not something that massively bothers me, luckily. As the train edged out of Edinburgh, I was struck by how big Arthur’s Seat seemed, some six miles away at that point, how it utterly dominates the landscape and the cityscape. From just about any point around the city, even in the fields near Dirleton and Gullane, Arthur’s Seat is clearly visible, sometimes looking like a lion, to the west more like an elephant. I am so used to travelling to Dunbar on the East Coast mainline that it is still a novelty to branch off at Drem towards North Berwick, with views towards Gullane and Dirleton with its castle.

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I walked down Station Hill towards the beach, stopping by the anchor to look towards Fidra, the harbour and the Bass. It was cool, cloudy but getting brighter as I walked along the sand towards the harbour. It was quite busy with folks out enjoying the day, like me staving off the worst effects of cabin fever that Christmas brings. That particular stretch of sand with the houses backing onto the beach always evokes a rather grey painting of the scene in Kirkcaldy Art Gallery but every time I seem to be there the sun’s shining. I reached the harbour and immediately got in the road of some photographer with a tripod. My own camera was getting well-used, I should point out, though I was working hard to be unobstrusive and not get other folk in my photos. I walked to the back of the harbour, nearer to Fidra now, so close I could just about swim to it, and looked across to the Bass Rock, always more like an island from that angle than the cliffs you see from Dunbar.

I sat nearer the Glen Golf Club and ate lunch, watching people walking along the beach, some walking dogs, others putting the world to rights. It was sunnier now, the cliffs on the Bass slightly golden and a nice foamy colour reflected in the waves. Back in the town, folk still sat outside on benches eating fish and chips despite the time of year. Strangely, though, the first I really felt cold was a wee while later back in Waverley Station in Edinburgh, no doubt a result of cooling down after walking for two hours straight.

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On the way back into Edinburgh, the train was full. I looked out the window, this time sitting on the left-hand-side, the shore side, which in that bit of East Lothian is just more interesting. I looked across the fields towards the Chesters hill fort and the Hopetoun Monument. I began to plan a trip to each, stopping at Drem then walking up to Chesters while the Hopetoun Monument will be more work, a bus to Haddington then a decent walk up the Ballencrieff road. The advice for Hopetoun is to bring a torch so I’ll need to invest in one. There’s so many places in East Lothian that I haven’t been to, in the place I spent 24 years of my life, so what hope do I have getting anywhere else? That’s for another day, another time. Before I left North Berwick, I sat on a bench near the anchor and it was hard to leave, the view to the islands, to Fife, the May and the Bass just what I needed to see and I dared not blink in case I missed the rapidly diminishing light upon the scene unfolding before my eyes.

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