North Berwick to Leith
Saturday 20 November 2021
43.16km • 10h 30m (including breaks)
lowest: -2m • highest: 28m • total ascent 566m
You’re not reading those stats wrong. When I looked at the East Lothian coastline, my brain decided that the distance from Dunbar to North Berwick was pretty much the same as the distance from North Berwick to Leith, so I just assumed I’d do each in a day and that was that. And then I didn’t do Dunbar to North Berwick in a day so I had no idea what walking about 34k in one go would feel like, let alone the 43k we ended up covering on this day. That’s 26.8 miles – just over a marathon. I’ve certainly never run a marathon, and I think it’s probably safe to say I haven’t ever walked that far in one day. But we had even more distance to cover. This walk was not just about the next bit of the coast.
There is no guidebook for strange and difficult things that happen in a long-established friendship. Good relationships require tailored, thoughtful work. This takes time in person, which is something the past two years hasn’t really afforded us. I’ve said it before: Everything takes longer than you think. But getting back to our pal Douglas Adams, time is an illusion. Pandemic time perhaps infinitely so.
I don’t easily give up on something it took nearly a decade to build. But I’ve found there’s a thin line between repairing boundaries and building walls. Healthy boundaries are necessary, hard borders are detrimental. Walls do not solve problems, but we are inclined to build them anyway because it’s easier and faster than the real work you need. Walls also make you feel just as shitty as the initial problem.
In any case, I know a long walk is a good way to do some work.
It’s hard to see a person, physically and theoretically, when you’re angry at or disappointed in them. It’s also hard to see a person when the government tells you you shouldn’t be. If you can’t see someone, you only see the problem in your head. For me, this can become a skewed and unforgiving spiral, which is only amplified by the inability to see anyone at all. And it’s hard to fairly assess how you feel about anything in only one dimension. So I kept telling myself I needed to see the whole person rather than just the problem. That’s not really something you can do on an hour long walk around the neighbourhood.
Taking 10.5 hours to do a walk in winter means you have daylight issues. But it also means you see the weather changes over a whole day, and clear evidence of how long it takes the earth to move, You see the sun set and the moon rise and the stars appear, and even a few planets. You see stationery things in your field of view appear to move and change shape or activity. The constant presence of the sea to the right means you see all this in the open. You can see the light and the weather and the dark before it gets to you and after it leaves you and you can see how they all change a thing from every direction. You still don’t see everything. Not even close. But you maybe gain a bit of patience and curiosity for what you do see.
Part of this walking thing is an investigation of detail. It’s one of the reasons overland travel is more appealing. The quick way means you miss what’s in between. There is something here about life being more analogue than digital, despite how digital we’re trying to make it. We are one big ball of nuance trying to erase the curves for some bullshit, TL:DR, single points of packaged whatever. It doesn’t work. The same as measuring the effect of how someone has hurt you against some scale of how you should react doesn’t work. It’s easier to walk away, but then where are you? The challenge is to keep going.
One of the things we talked about on this walk was how I manage to read as much as I do, and it really is just enforcing the ‘at least one page a day’ rule. Over the past few years, this has very easily got me to my goal of ‘just read more books’. It has done me a world of good, and it has also shown me in a very accessible way the power of incremental progress. Even when I first thought, ‘Hmm, could I walk the whole Scottish coast?’ my almost immediate answer was ‘Obviously you can, a bit at a time, just like reading.’ It sounds stupidly simple, but I’ve only found it to be true in practice.
I haven’t told you much about the walk itself yet, and I don’t have as many pictures. Obviously having someone with me changes how I encounter and record something. I’m not sure I can recommend doing this entire distance in a day. There are lots of lovely parts. You see a lot of the coast, but you also walk near the road for a significant distance. Much of it includes places I’ve been multiple times, including the actual route we walked, so it may have been uncharted territory in other ways, but in walk terms it was also the most familiar to me.
We managed to stay away from the road from North Berwick until Aberlady just by picking around the beaches (and inevitable golf courses). That’s roughly a third of the walk, which is pretty good going. this is also probably the most recommendable part of the route for that reason. We had a very windy rain shower on the beach at Gullane around midday, but then we stopped in Duck’s Inn pub in Aberlady for a half and a warm lunch, which was another first for me on this trip. It’s good to have a pal as an excuse to sit in a pub for a while.
When we emerged, the sun had come out. There was a fair bit of walking along the road to get back next to the sea, and for a while you’re narrowly sandwiched between the two. At this point we were walking straight into a pretty strong wind and also the low winter sun, so while the early darkness is slightly oppressive, when the sun dipped enough that it wasn’t in our eyes anymore, it was a relief. We then had a sort of extended magic hour that took us through the string of little towns and harbours, although in some places we couldn’t walk directly on the water because the tide was right in by then.
The moon rose behind us sometime around 4.30 just as the sun was setting and it was absolutely enormous on the horizon. The sky had cleared up completely and I believe we were just a day or two past the full moon. I took a picture to remember it, but I knew it wouldn’t do the realty any justice. Jupiter and Venus popped into view soon after, and despite the glow of Edinburgh, the brighter stars appeared bit by bit, and were visible at least as long as we were in the very dark area around the lagoons east of Musselburgh.
When we came around the bend of the coast towards the Esk, we could see the lights of Portobello Promenade in the distance. That was still an hour away, and home (via the pub) was 40 minutes beyond that. This is where the walk became more of an exercise in endurance through mounting pain, although it did help that the weather was now clear, the moon was ridiculous, and the wind had dropped out completely.
As this was the first time I’ve had someone with me, I had been a bit worried about how I’d handle it, regardless of who it was, after having done it all on my own so far. But it was excellent. This may well be one of the longest days I do on the whole coast, but I’m not sure I’d have stuck it out without my friend there. He was very clearly in a lot more physical pain than I was in the last few hours, but he didn’t bail, and his presence meant that I didn’t really consider it myself. If I’d have been on my own it may have been a different story. Instead I ended up giving a string of mini motivational chats, mainly involving the pint we were aiming at, and gratefully collapsed for, at the Bullfinch around 7pm.
Walking almost always makes me feel better. Except for the part when my legs hurt so badly I’m not quite sure I can stand up from the table and there are jokes about calling a taxi at the pub 10 minutes’ walk from home. But even that feels pretty great.
Things have changed and will keep changing. Some things have broken. This was a sort of kintsugi on foot. Being in the same space for an entire day, and accomplishing a bonkers length walk, brought us back to a small piece of common ground. And one where we can still take the piss out of each other, thankfully. Incremental progress.