For this stage, the good rail local links into Edinburgh from east and west meant I could base myself in the city and undertake the two long central days with only a daypack. The plan worked well, and the walking went well too, despite walking into a wind that was never less than breezy, and sometimes much more, throughout every single day.
East Lothian and into the city
Stage 5, Monday 20 October 2008: Gifford to Longniddry, 10 miles
Despite a fairly fraught journey up from London, I was still in Gifford in time for a pint and a sandwich back at the Goblin Ha’. From here, my route on this very blustery day took the Pedlars Way by Colstoun Water to Bolton, then field paths before lanes through the Lennoxlove estate. The Pedlars Way was not shown on my 1:50,000 map, but this and other hints and tips for East Lothian walking came from the local Council’s ever-helpful outdoor access team.
I had spent some time between buses last year in the county town of Haddington, and found its centre rather grim, but entering by the River Tyne is a better way, and the square by the courthouse feels tranquil despite the main road. From Haddington, one last view of the Lammermuirs, and then the walk along the town’s old branch line took me easily to the big village of Longniddry, and the train to my B&B.
Stage 6, Tuesday 21 October 2008: Longniddry to Edinburgh, 16 miles
Longniddry is a comfortable little place, it seems, and a favoured commuter village these days. The main feature for today was to be the John Muir Way, East Lothian’s coastal trail, to near the Edinburgh boundary. From the map, it looked like a road walk, so I was surprised to join it at Longniddry Bents, a pretty little place of low dunes, deserving of its ‘rural seaside’ award.
The caravan park at Port Seton shatters any idyll, but the small harbour just along from here is one of those ‘turn points’ that form the heartbeat of any long walk: behind, the hills above Haddington: in front, the panorama of Pentlands, Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh itself – with just Cockenzie power station to distract. How proud they must have been when it opened in 1968: local coal for local power. How different now, pre-carbon capture. (Indeed, the power station closed down in 2013, an early victim of the move away from coal.)
Loos highly recommended in Prestonpans. After a quick coffee, around the sea wall slowly, slippy and battling the still-rough wind. Beyond the industrial heritage of Prestongrange lies an unrewarding stretch past ash lagoons, reclamation work very much in progress, before entering the pleasant little town of Mussleburgh.
The town’s High Street has little to recommend it, to be honest, though it was an important place for me; my father had spent an inspirational year, late in life, at the now sadly-lost Newbattle Abbey College, and he often told me of the town. Its Esk bank was a good place for sandwiches, and the John Muir Way ends at the wide green of Fisherrow, a few yards from the Edinburgh boundary.
A path leads away from the main road past exclusive and not unattractive modern housing, climbing beside a little burn, later with the last fields for some while on the left. Beyond Brunstane station, the first of Edinburgh’s cycle paths brings you near the historic village of Duddingston and its loch. Rather than continue on the cycle path – the Innocent Railway – I turned right to climb the rocky landmark of Arthur’s Seat.
The side effect of brisk winds can be excellent visibility, and as well as the city below me, it was easy to make out hill groups as far away as Ben Lomond, north of Glasgow. But it was chilly, and a guy in a red cagoule was hogging the trig point, so I did not stay long, crossing the city through Meadows Park and by Edinburgh Quays, terminus of the Union Canal that I would be picking up later, to my B&B in the Haymarket district.
Onto the Union Canal
Stage 7, Wednesday 22 October 2008: Edinburgh to Polmont, 22 miles
The weather forecast for today was good – light winds, lots of sunshine, maybe showers later. The forecast for tomorrow was dire: storm force wind across me and driving rain. So soon after setting out, on the Roseburn path, the old rail line to Granton docks, and later the Blackhall path to Cramond Bridge, I wondered: could I get beyond my 17-mile target of Linlithgow the extra five miles to the next place with a station, Polmont? I decided yes, and threw away hours of careful planning. No problems at the start: old rail lines took me to the city limits.
(This is, by the way, a measure of how my walking confidence has changed over the years. Revisiting these notes ten years later, I would no longer see a 17-mile day as the limit of my endurance in simple country like this. Doubt if I will feel the same in another ten years though.)
To avoid the road walk to Kirkliston, I had thought of following the embankment of the River Almond opposite Edinburgh airport – it had looked feasible from Google Bird’s Eye, and long straight roads can have very fast cars. But the inherent uncertainty – one wire fence could have forced a lengthy detour – meant that the road would have to be risked.
So, taking care past a couple of blind corners and using yet another old rail line, I was in Kirkliston in no time, and much too early for my planned pint. I was even more worried about the B road on to Winchburgh, but amazingly it had a pavement throughout its length. And Winchburgh’s pub, the Tally Ho, was simple but impeccably kept.
Here at last I joined the Union Canal. One can take it direct from Edinburgh of course, but it makes a loop by Ratho that adds six miles compared to my route. And though it’s a nice enough canal, it’s dead level, not a single lock, which could bring its own tedium after several hours. The stretch after Winchburgh is ravishing, on a carpet of autumn leaves, trees enclosing the waterscape to leave one enfolded in quiet greenery.
Spoil heaps intrude at Fawnspark, but after Philpstoun it’s more open, slopes dropping away to the north with hills beyond. I was in Linlithgow, birth place of Mary Queen of Scots, by mid-afternoon, with time for a little explore. It’s a fine place, with a palace, several interesting shops, and a loch just the right size for a stroll, worth a return should I be this way again. It’s even a Fairtrade town, bless it.
Beyond the town, the canal takes a little loop southish to cross the River Avon by a stunning aqueduct.
I was pleased to see I was still reeling off sub-16 minute miles, and if it had not been for impending dusk, might even have thought about finishing the whole thing there and then. Rain set in soon after the aqueduct, so in the end it was no hard decision to settle for Polmont. And after an eight-hour day I stepped right on to a non-stop train and was back in Haymarket eighteen minutes later.
Stage 8, Thursday 23 October 2008: Polmont to Falkirk, four miles
It rained, heavily. Wind not quite the horror that was promised, however. Out of Polmont you have bits of industry and the joy of razor-wired Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution for company, but just before Falkirk there is the (rather dark, but more or less dry) highlight of the Falkirk Tunnel to enjoy. Great spooky place. I thought I could hear voices at the far end, and wondered who I might meet, but it was only water draining through a hole from the hill.
Falkirk High station is just round the corner from the tunnel exit, but with time to spare I went for a cup of tea at Callendar House, one of the town’s two main attractions. The other, the Falkirk Wheel, where canals meet, will be an early highlight next year. Wet walker tip: Falkirk High waiting room has (or at least had) a strategically-positioned fan heater, with passenger-operated switch, that’s just right for drying off under.
I stayed at the mid-priced St Valery B&B for all three nights.
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