The Berwickshire Coastal Path stretches for some 30m / 48km, from Berwick to the south, over the border, through Burnmouth and Eyemouth, around St Abb’s Head Nature Reserve as far as Cockburnspath. The route provides some great hiking which includes dramatic cliff top scenery, stacks, picturesque fishing harbours, ancient geological formations, dark skies, a ruined smuggler’s bothy and St Abb’s Head nature reserve, which is well known for its birds. The northern end of the route links up with the Southern Upland Way near Cockburnspath.
I chose it as my first wild camping trail for several reasons; firstly because of Scotland’s more enlightened access laws, secondly some of it is familiar ground for me, thirdly, while it is very rugged, it is never too far from civilisation just in case anything went wrong, and most importantly, because it has some great scenery.
For the first time on a long distance trail, I didn’t have to adhere to a plan, except to ensure that I carried the right amount of food for the journey, which I almost succeeded in doing. I decided to take my time, as I had to re-acclimatize to the routines of pitching and breaking camp each day and looking after my own needs. I had hoped to complete the route in 3 days, but strenuous gradients, a broken tent pole and bad weather meant that I had a fourth short day.
- Berwick to Fancove Head. c. 9 miles
- Fancove Head to Pettico Wick. c. 9 miles
- Pettico Wick to X Farm. c. 9 miles
- X Farm to Cockburnspath. c. 3 miles
Berwick to Fancove Head (near Eyemouth)
Rather than painstakingly planning accommodation schedules, I made a spontaneous decision to do this walk, and set off the same day, once I had found a cheap train ticket to Berwick online. I spent a restful night at the YHA and headed off next morning from Berwick Pier, once I had secured a sandwich for my lunch and a large stash of water. Almost immediately the walker is confronted by an arrangement of amazing rock formations on the beach below the golf course, which sets the tone for the whole walk.
I find that covering even the most familiar routes on foot, rather than by car, is a much more intimate experience, and this walk was no exception. The route hugs the cliff tops for most of this part of the journey, and it is fascinating to watch the ever changing geology of the rocks and hues of the sea as you walk. After a few miles across the fields from the East Coast mainline, and a couple of ubiquitous caravan sites, I reached the Scottish border, marked in part by a broken sign on the nearby rail line, which seemed somehow symbolic.
This was my first coastal trail, apart from a failed attempt at the southern end of the Northumberland Coast Path. The cliffs along this part of the coast are among the most dramatic in the country, and it is quite a strenuous walk involving lots of ascents and descents. The walk heads along a precipitous track beside steep drops down to the sea and past the striking remains of Smugglers Bothy, just visible from the track.
The first ascent from the beach back up to the clifftops at Burnmouth (Scotlands first harbour) may be familiar to cyclists who compete in the Brae Cycle Race up the hill every May. I braced myself for what was to come after a fairly sedentary winter, and when someone stopped for a chat about the local history, I seized the opportunity to put off the inevitable climb.
I followed the clifftop path at a leisurely pace, leaving the railway behind until I reached Fancove Head a mile or so before Eyemouth. It was still winter time, so it began to get dark at about 6.00pm. Rather than continue behind a cliff edge wall to camp without any sea view, I pitched at Fancove Head between Burnmouth and Eyemouth on a field margin 90 or so metres above sea level, overlooking this attractive inlet.
The weather was mild as I worked through all my various chores for the evening. As my phone signal was still strong, I listened to a few podcasts while I made my dinner and gazed out at the small lights of fishing boats on the moonlit sea. Another strength of this trail is that there is very little light pollution up on the cliffs.
Some recent, small kit additions such as a long spoon, a windshield, a cosy and a cuben jetboil bag made these processes more enjoyable in many small but significant ways. I was still having tent pole problems of which more later, but I slept well and soundly listening to the waves below. On a nocturnal loo trip, I crawled out of my tent into a dome of bright stars, which was really overwhelming in spite of the hour.
Fancove Head to Pettico Wick (near St Abb’s Head).
I set my alarm for a quick glimpse at the sunrise, thinking that I would go back to sleep for another hour or so, but instead I found that I was ready to get up. I walked through brightly flowering gorse bushes in the grey morning light into Eyemouth for a quick stop for breakfast.
After breakfast on a seafront bench, I prepared for another climb back up to the cliffs to rejoin the path for my second day. Between Eyemouth and St. Abbs Head nature reserve is a very attractive section of coastline, which is very popular among day walkers. It is punctuated by deserted bays, such as the one below, and the broad white sandy beach at Coldingham.
It was another mild Spring day with only a gentle breeze, which was the kind of weather I had hoped for. This is a familiar piece of the borders coastline which passes through some favourite spots. The sounds of crows, larks and some gulls around the harbours mingled with the gentle rushing of the waves as I walked. St Abbs is another pretty coastal village with a small harbour and a popular short walk up to St Abb’s Head.
I had hoped that I might see an early puffin or two, but the birds which the reserve is famous for hadn’t arrived yet. Even without them, it is a stunning and unique area which is one of the highlights of this trail. Alongside the cliffs are large rocky stacks which attract nesting birds during the season. I slowed down to enjoy the stroll through the undulating hills where the walk gradually turns westwards to follow the dramatic coastline towards the finish at Cockburnspath.
I soon realised that I was now walking into the wind which had become colder, so once I emerged from the hills, I began looking for a place to pitch my tent and the corner of a field by another lovely cove called Pettico Wick presented itself.
It was here that my tent pole finally gave way to the strain of being levered into position and snapped because of what turned out to be a problem with the tensioning. I was grateful when another person pitched nearby helped me to repair it for the night. His much more daring pitch, down in the cove, would not look out of place on the cover of a magazine, but I suspected it might be noisy with the waves crashing nearby.
I was feeling the chill of the cold wind so I put on my down jacket to warm up. This enabled me to tackle my chores in a happier frame of mind. I managed to achieve everything I needed to before spending a quiet night, without any signal to distract me from the beauty of my surroundings.
Pettico Wick to X Farm.
I was woken early next morning by the sounds of the other hiker using his drone to get what I’m sure were very dramatic shots of the location we were in. When I emerged an hour later all was quiet as I packed up and headed up another long, slow uphill climb to a point which felt like it was the highest on the trail.
When I finally reached the top of the hill, I was hit by a blast of chilly wind which signalled the beginnings of a whole day of light but wetting rain. I only stopped briefly by a stream to filter some water. By the afternoon I realised that I was becoming a bit hypothermic as the chill reached my insides. When I realised that I had walked in a time wasting circle because I wasn’t focussing properly on my map, I finally put my down jacket back on under my waterproof jacket, which I realised that I should have done earlier. I then continued on my way.
After a few miles the route turns inland across farmland. After a mile or two a farmer, who was out in the fields for lambing, stopped to say hello. When I explained about my broken tent pole, he said that heavy rain was expected overnight, so I accepted his offer of an old caravan on the farm for the night. He does not routinely offer this to walkers which is why I haven’t identified the farm. That whole day seemed to be a signal black hole for me, which was a good reason to have an early night. In the caravan I could hear the rain lashing down onto the metal roof during the night, so I think I made the right decision to stay there, rather than risk my tent collapsing in the rain. Not many photos were taken that day I’m afraid.
X Farm to Cockburnspath
This final morning had not been provisioned for, so I stopped at Pease Bay caravan park for a hearty breakfast from the shop to revive my spirits. When I realised how waterlogged the ground had become after the day and night of rain, I realised how lucky I was to have been in a dry caravan instead of a leaking tent. When I left Pease Bay I realised I had lost the map I had been clutching for most of the journey, so I resorted to the download I had as a back up. This turned out to have too few waymarks, and took me up some risky and exhausting scrambles on very wet ground.
As I walked around the superb but muddy path above Cove Harbour the inevitable happened and I slipped, covering my trousers in mud. Although it was a slightly dreich day, Cove harbour is a great finish before the trail turns inland and through an underpass into Cockburnspath.
It was only when I arrived back into civilisation that I realised what a windswept, mud spattered visage I was presenting to the world, so I immediately dived into the public loo to change out of my muddy clothes and make myself more presentable for the village shop and the bus home.
Note: Luckily I was able to find a replacement tent pole for the Force Ten tent so it is back in action.
Impressions of the trail
- 46.7 Km (29.0 miles)
- 1,716 m (5,630 ft) ascent
- 181 m (594 ft) maximum height
Although it is only 30 miles long, this is quite a strenuous route with some excellent wild camping opportunities, dramatic scenery and dark skies. Unless you are hill fit, I wouldn’t under estimate the ascents involved and allow time for them. There are shops at Berwick, Upper Burnmouth, Eyemouth, St Abbs, Pease Bay caravan park and Cockburnspath, but beware that my phone signal and facilities were thin on the ground between St Abbs and Pease Bay. In all I noticed about three streams feeding into the sea where it looked possible to use a filter, although I only took water from one of them. The route is easily accessible at either end on public transport.
I used the Harvey strip map, which also includes the Northumberland Coast Path. It was only when I changed over from the map to a digital download, that I realised that the two routes didn’t agree. The Harvey map follows the well signed, official route, whereas my download followed a more adventurous route along the cliffs towards the end.