Though we’ve reached the Equinox, it surely feels like a long road to the end of winter. Normally dry East Lothian is underwater with its roads and fields flooded after a week of intermittent rain, capped by two days of Easterlies constantly lashing the place with sleety snow. This has driven anyone with sense indoors and farmers scrambling into difficult corners to help their sheltering ewes with lambing.
But I’m already thinking of summer.
With barely a week to Easter and the dawn breaking ever earlier, optimistic hearts are convinced this can’t last—the signs are all there: snowdrops in Binning Wood are almost past; crocus are nodding to each other in colourful crowds; winter wheat greening the otherwise mud-and-puddle fields; the first scouts of Spring’s great battalions of daffodils is already nodding to you. I gave a lift in from Tantallon Castle to a Malaysian and a Turkish German, so the visitors are already among us.
So, I’ve been thinking of the coming season and hoping against hope this summer is more than the miserable effort of the last couple of years. Because the North Berwick area really is getting its tourist act together. Quite apart from its year-round appeal to golfers and casual shoppers to its diverse and flourishing High Street, we’re getting to a nice critical mass of different reasons that bring people here. So it’s time to do a sales job on why the North Berwick area is a great place to visit—and not just because I’m setting up a business that hopes to capitalise on that.
Top attraction is the hugely successful Scottish Seabird Centre. Its remote cameras, displays/events and its boat trips out to the islands have brought over a million visitors and spread their visits through the year. Less popular but only because it is less easily accessible is the Museum of Flight, with its Concorde and the best aircraft collection North of Doncaster. Moving up in the popularity stakes are our two magnificent but very different medieval castles: beetling cliff-top Tantallon and stately, civilised Dirleton, both less than 5 km away. And if you like your vintage cars and thirties roadside memorabilia, it’s hard to whack the Myreton Motor Museum (if you can find it!). Not far away is the backdrop for your upstairs/downstairs fantasy to showcase them is Gosford House, the magnificent Palladian pile of the Earl of March & Wemyss.
All those are good value for the entry charge but a slew of other attractions in the area are free, like the garden centres at Merryhatton (bright & new, with a very popular cafe) or Smeaton (in old-fashioned greenhouses and walled garden, with a vegetarian cafe that is a delight for twitchers). Another Walled Garden is opening at Archerfield on Friday 22nd touting excellent food and a microbrewery to go with views of deer grazing by the lake. Archerfield itself, along with the Renaissance have been doing a splendid job of puncturing the fuddy-duddy image of golf, so loved at Muirfield, and bringing top-notch golf into the county year-round. But we’re all looking forward to both the US Kids Golf coming again in May and the Open itself in July. And if you don’t aspire to such championship courses, there are 16 others in the area to choose from.
But also hidden away around the area are a number of other destinations that, just because they don’t charge admission, don’t get the same degree of promotion or, as a result, the same number of visitors. The Flag Heritage Centre is tastefully housed in a classic old doocot behind Athelstaneford church. Tantallon Studios at Halflandbarns is always alive with classes, the stunningly creative pottery of David Cohen or the brilliantly atmospheric oils of his daughter, Kirsty. You can see some of their work in the local galleries, such as Westgate or Greens and Blues in North Berwick as well as lively ones in the neighbouring Gullane and Dirleton villages.
John Muir Country Park offers a variety of draws from family-oriented East Links Family Park, through a fun-to-get-wet time at Fox Lake Wakeboarding on the south side of the Tyne estuary to the peace of Fir Links Woods and the endless beach at Ravensheugh. There is similar scope for exploration at Yellowcraig on the Nature Trail there and if you don’t want to laze on the beach gazing at Fidra, try Broadsands to the East or Stevenson’s ‘Hidden Coast’ to the West. In the middle of nowhere the former RAF buildings of Drem airfield are home to a wonderful collection of unique outlets, including solid furniture, an archery range, a model shop, carpet outlet and so on at Fenton Barns.
Want something more adventurous? Go watch for deer in Binning Wood or spot waders like grey heron in Balgone Loch or take a good pair of binoculars to Gin Head to watch 150,000 gannets have a good time careening around Bass Rock (best seen from one of the boats out of NB Harbour). In between there are plenty of spectacular houses to goggle at, including Tyninghame, with its immaculate and quaint planned village, restored Fenton Tower or Ballencrieff and the eerier ruins of Hailes or Redhouse.
In between, you’re bound to get peckish or need a cuppa. While North Berwick itself has a real range of cafes and restaurants, you won’t go hungry out in the country. The larger attractions have their own cafes (although castles don’t). That leaves you stuck at Tantallon or Hailes but Dirleton’s cafe is in its gallery (see above) and is popular with locals. There’s great food for such a small village at both the Castle Inn and the Open Arms literally a stone’s throw distant and both also do comfortable accommodation.
Aberlady boasts a good restaurant in Ducks at the Kilspindie but, apart from a couple of pubs, there is no cafe in the village. In Gullane, on the other hand, the choice is broad and evenly good. From the cosy Village Tearoom through the cheery good food of the Old Clubhouse, through the Golf Inn‘s fine hospitality offerings and Falko’s magnificently authentic German Konditorei to Greywalls with its superb Chez Roux dining. Its main culinary rival is the tiny La Potiniere, opposite the Golf Inn.
And, if you’re caught short out amidst the rolling greenery of our countryside, don’t panic: we have outposts of good food in the most unlikely places at least providing afternoon tea and hot soup. Whitekirk Golf Club does such a good lunch that the non-golfers outnumber the original purpose. Or try the Tyninghame Smithy (especially on a sunny day when you can sit outside) or the Fenton Barns Farm Shop (potato skins with salad is superb) and try not to buy too much of the wonderful fare in the shop itself. And for an especially healthy repast, try the cafe in the new Core Health facility just east of Drem. Once you get as far as East Linton or Haddington you are again spoiled for choice.
Because of the high desirability of living in the ‘North Neuk’, house prices haven’t suffered from the recession as much as elsewhere and this has meant we’ve lost a number of hotels and B&Bs because it’s hard to make a business case if you can sell for the thick end of £1m. North Berwick itself has lost the Blenheim House, Beach Lodge, Point Garry, Belhaven and Golf Hotels in the last decade. Other than what’s mentioned above in the villages, what’s still on offer (in rough order of price) are:
- Macdonald Marine Hotel Cromwell Road
- Nether Abbey Hotel Dirleton Avenue
- No 12 Quality Street
- Canty Bay House Canty Bay
- Golf Lodge Dirleton Avenue
- Glebe House Law Road
- Kaimend Hamilton Road
- Number 10 Dirleton Avenue
- Seaholm Melbourne Road
- The Wing Marine Parade
- Glengair St Margaret’s Road
- Devine St Baldred’s Road
- Woodlea Byre Rhodes Smallholdings
For a website that focuses on North Berwick, rather than the general surrounding area of the North Neuk, try the town website. And anyone reading this far who wants to get to know the area better might try the new area specialist tours being offered by my new business venture GoForth Tours.