Monday, 8 August 2011

Trainspotting: Prestonpans to North Berwick

This train trip is way beyond my Freedom Pass, but Scotland still has the Railcard reduction, so a short train trip was made picking up the North Berwick line at Prestonpans, which is in East Lothian.  Prestonpans is well worth a day trip if you are based in Edinburgh as there is a lot to visit within a short walk of the station.  As well as the site for the Battle of Prestonpans (a win for Bonnie Prince Charlie) there is the Mercat Cross which stands out quite well on my peripheral vision.  The Mercat Cross in Edinburgh is quite famous, but Prestonpans also has an attractive Mercat Cross situated in the conservation area. 

Mercat Cross - Prestonpans

Not far away is a park with the ruins of Preston Tower.  Though no access is possible, the shell and the height of the building are quite impressive, as are the gardens of the park. “Features include a laburnum arch, topiary, a herb garden and a number of old-fashioned species of rose.” (p99, Statistical Account for East Lothian 1945-2000) 

There is also a National Trust for Scotland property at Hamilton House, though this is not open without an appointment.  The exterior lines are quite impressive and on Friday when I went it was a good day with blue skies I could pick up the colour of the pantile roofs in the village.  There is also an attractive dovecot called The Northfield Doocot between Hamilton House and the station. 

We stopped for a very late lunch at The Gothenburg (The Goth) which is a Prestonpans institution based on ‘sensible drinking’ with food, as opposed to some of the more traditional senseless drinking, which allegedly goes on in Scotland.  As their beer mat says: “Since 1908 we’ve been proud to use ‘Gothenburg Principles’ – originally established in Sweden!  They ensure that 95% of our profits go back into our community.  They sponsor arts projects that honour our community and help create a yet brighter future in Prestonpans.”  Across the road from The Goth is a real totem pole. 

Prestonpans is really in two parts.  Near the station is the conservation area, while the more industrial part of the town is on the shore line.  Previous industries included mining, salt works, glass and pottery, and a brewery (Fowler’s “wee heavy” was brewed here and was a traditional final shot to top up a pint when the pubs used to close at 10pm.).  Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum is a little outside the centre and off the main road going towards Musselburgh/Edinburgh and can be reached by bus.  This is well worth a visit with many interesting exhibits, trains and a beam engine. 

Prestonpans has taken a while to regenerate and during my childhood we used to pass through on either the coast road or the A198 to get to Gullane, North Berwick and Dunbar.  We didn’t stop in either direction, though there was always a stop at Musselburgh on the way back to buy ice-cream from Luca’s!  (They still do vanilla and strawberry.)

These three towns form the ‘Forth Riviera’!  Gullane was viewed as a golf paradise, North Berwick had a Bohemian reputation, and Dunbar claims to have both the sunshine record and probably windy record in Scotland.  These three towns could not be more different even today.  I remember recently when the Open was at Muirfield and the weather was really bad, Tiger Woods was complaining about the Scottish weather.  But we had gone a few miles across to  Dunbar where the weather was beautiful with blue skies and sunshine.  The weather in these Forth Estuary North Sea areas changes rapidly. 

The train journey from Prestonpans follows the Edinburgh to London mainline and if you’re travelling at over 100mph you’re not going to see very much at all.  Travelling on the new electric trains is a bit slower and the train stops at Longniddry, Drem and then the branch line to North Berwick itself.  Traprain Law can be made out on my peripheral vision, but the most striking feature on the landside of the journey is the approach to North Berwick, with North Berwick Law (the locals get really hacked off if you call it Berwick Law) appearing as a pyramid.  From memory, there is a whale bone arch on the top and I can vaguely remember having climbed it. 

At the station, there is a pedestrian crossing from the car park with tactile lights and a walkway down to the town centre.  North Berwick is a popular place and traditionally people have taken houses here for a week, so it’s always quite busy during the summer season.  There is quite a rivalry between North Berwick and Dunbar.  While Dunbar is more interesting with its museums, castle, harbours and sandy beaches; North Berwick has its attractions with its marina, the seabird centre and the possibility of good views of the Bass Rock. 

View of Bass Rock from North Berwick

Again I was fairly lucky and could make out the Bass Rock, which is usually covered in guano.  There was a bit of synchronicity as the Radio 4 play on Saturday was Dr No, which is based on a guano-rich island in the Caribbean.  (Thanks to Dino Goldie for an inspirational tweet!)  Near the marina are the remains of a very old Scottish church called St Andrews, which has been excavated over the years.  There are information boards inside which someone could read to you and there is usually an ice-cream van parked next to it. 

North Berwick has many restaurants, tearooms and the RNLI has an attractive gift shop near the marina.  The tide was out when we were there, though there were quite a few people on one of the beaches.  On the trip back to Prestonpans, we passed by Seton Collegiate Church and there are views across the River Forth to Fife, which I couldn’t make out, but you will have to believe me. 

There was a treat as usual on this trip.  When I was boarding the train at Prestonpans the sound of the bagpipes could be heard.  It wasn’t a lament, but it was probably for a team of golfers who may have been staying at Prestongrange House which is now home to the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club.  I don’t think ScotRail normally greet their customers this way, but a nice thought nonetheless.  The  stations were unmanned and the ticket machines at North Berwick do not accept cash, so buying a ticket beforehand is virtually impossible if you’re blind.  There was, however, a ticket collector on the way back, so tickets could be bought on the train.  (ScotRail is operated by First Group.)   An off-peak day return from Prestonpans to North Berwick costs £3.85 with a Railcard.

Prestonpans can also be reached by frequent bus services from various parts of Edinburgh using Lothian buses or First Group.  The train service from Edinburgh is hourly.  There is a separate service using the mainline trains which stop at Dunbar.

If you have transport I can recommend Tantallon Castle, Dirleton Castle, East Fortune Museum, East Linton Waterfalls and nice pubs, Preston Mill (a working water mill on River Tyne), Gullane and Aberlady for beaches and golf, depending on your handicap.

Useful links:

Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum