open country

Because of unfortunate circumstances, I had the pleasure of leading a walk on a section of the coastal path. Years ago I was meant to accompany my colleague Susan on the path while I was working at Bowhill. As a result of a communications breakdown we never met to walk above the cliffs of Berwickshire.

Euan Calvert, access ranger for Berwickshire, kindly led me along the route through Berwick town to Burnmouth a few days before the ranger-led walk. This day was headed by the most beautiful sky – giving great clarity and deep shadows along the cliff face.

The cold, though, was ever present, biting at any exposed flesh – face and hands, fingers through my hair was the wind. Oyster-catchers chattered excitedly down on the rocky shore and curlews called coor-coor over the fields that carpet the cliff tops up to their crumbling edges.

This was a quick walk survey, with no time to stand around. However, the intense light on the red sandstone verticals held my attention for the three hours. I found myself day-dreaming of walking along Orcadian sea-cliffs; many of these will fall into the category of “free faces”. The phrase refers to cliffs that are steep enough to prevent weathered material accumulating at their base.

Looking down along the 11km of coast between Berwick and Burnmouth there is a variety of beaches and shore platforms. Boulders and pebbles are created by the power of waves, eventually turning to sand. The latter can also be carried by ocean currents and deposited around the coast. Highly engineered coastal defences can interrupt this natural erosion and secretion, meaning sandy beaches can disappear, resorts vanishing along with them.

Are cliffs what our iconic image of them is? Are they only steep rock faces with waves smashing and spluttering on their folds and crevices? Cliffs, according to John Pethick, author of An Introduction to Coastal Geomorphology, cannot be defined absolutely as being vertical. Rather they are “implicitly defined as a marked break in slope between the hinterland and the shore.”

Cliffs are also not created purely as a result of the action of the sea. They are formed partly by sub-aerial processes, simply put, weathering. We would not see cliffs as they are if their fallen debris was not removed at the same rate as it falls. If the material was not taken by coastal currents it would pile up and obscure the cliff forms.

Another feature of some sea-cliffs, which can be observed along this part of the coast, is the shore platforms. Academics generally agree that these are the remnants of slopes that have been broken gradually into cliffs and have left only their footprint behind.

Also present in this area are folded rocks, whose full pattern is exposed at low tide. Not far from Berwick you can look down on Meadow Haven Rocks and Bucket Rocks. These formations, almost circular in pattern, are reminiscent of abstract art-work and have the added creativity of changing, depending on the time of day or the season.

I stood on the steep grassy slope at Lamberton Skerrs to tell the group about the derelict house that had once been part of the salmon fishery. The scene had changed dramatically from two days ago – when vibrant blues juxtaposed the amber of withered bracken – now it was more muted, pushed further back in time.

On reaching Burnmouth at lunchtime, I observed that the most southerly group of houses was now in the shadow of the cliffs above Ross Point. Continuing along the road with its new concrete coastal defence, I wondered how long it would be before the houses were part of the rubble on the shore.

Past the harbour the row of houses at Partanhall, photographed top of page, were also in the shadow. The rocks that creep out into the bay were black, peeking out of the shallows like crocodiles’ eyes in a still deep blue ooze – swelling gently. We turned our back on the whispering tide to take the steep road up hill back to our starting point. By the time I reached home darkness had fallen.