Last month on the 21st April, the John Muir Way opened. The same day is also the anniversary of John Muir's birthday. I thought I'd mark the occasion in hindsight by mentioning a place that isn't on the Way, but is close by – the new long distance trail passes within 1km of it. It’s also very close to my heart.
Aberlady Bay was the UK’s very first LNR, or local nature reserve, established in 1952, 3 years after the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed. This act allowed the formation of National Parks – the putting aside of areas of land for the care of flora and fauna, and for public access, enjoyment and study of nature. But I’m not thinking about legislation or bureaucracy, as I cross the Peffer burn on the rickety wooden structure that local author Nigel Tranter once called ‘the bridge to enchantment’.
As I cross the river I shed my city skin and enter a world of wild birds, sea breezes, and maram grass in perpetual motion atop rolling sand dunes. I’m diving into an ocean of sound too – birds that chatter, chirp, quip and parp, the lapping of waves where fresh water meets salt, and the crunch of sand underfoot – a sonic tonic. To be honest, I’d come for the sound of those curlews alone. It takes a while to walk across the marsh to the sea, and I like that it’s not just a two-minute stroll from the car. It’s easy going, but you have to want to go.
At the beach, the sands seem to stretch out forever, and there are skies to match. A feeling of space, openness to the elements, and on a fine spring day a light that saturates the landscape. Mostly I stay above the beach and walk through the dunes, where the swish and sway of sea and grasses makes the best music. I’m often heading for the rocky point at the head of the beach, the fortifications and then the track home. This place is balm for the soul.
Whilst it’s the sea, sky and sounds that draw me back, for me as a city boy, easy access to a local nature reserve has provided my first tentative steps into understanding more than just the scenery. It was here that I first identified those ducks who give up their feathers for bedspreads, sheltering in the rock gardens by Gullane point. Here I first discovered the difference between a Shag and a Shank (quiet at the back), began to differentiate Terns, spied a Lapwing, came across Burnet Moths, was privy to a private pairing of Toads, shared pensive standoffs with Roe Deer in the gloaming, and was strafed by two Short Eared Owls as they jousted together over the marsh. I’ve been back often enough since to know where their killing posts are. It’s a far cry from the brickdust and creosote of the South London suburbs where I grew up. These wildlife encounters are probably two-a-penny to experts, but they’re a blessing to me.
However, Aberlady isn’t a one-dimensional picture postcard place. There’s conflict just below the surface, and to my mind these tensions don’t detract, they add depth and character, even demonstrating nature’s ability to self-repair when given a helping hand.
The reserve shares its position on the east side of the bay with a golf course, which in turn is built on an ancient hill fort. This was one of a network of fortifications belonging to the Gododdin tribes. The fertile Lothian plains were desirable real estate after the Romans left, and Aberlady along with Din Eidyn (castle rock, or Edinburgh) were their strongholds. Scotland’s oldest poem ‘Y Gododdin’ talks of the heroism of these east coasters in battle as they fought to defend their homeland – from the Angles to the south, Picts to the north and the Irish Scotti in the west. Once Anglo Saxons dominated the region, Aberlady became an important stopping off point for Gaelic monks on the way from Iona to Lindisfarne.
There are more recent signs of conflict too – the Forth estuary was a key strategic landmark in World War Two and the coastline here is dotted with the debris of that more recent war. Long lines of concrete tank traps wearing flat caps of green moss slowly rot away in amongst the dunes, and if you visit at low tide, it’s possible to see the eroded carcasses of two midget submarines stranded far out on the sands, beached whales with metal ribs on show. These are early prototypes of the X-craft that attacked the German battleship Tirpitz in1942 under Operation Source. After the war they were used as target practice for the RAF. Each of these tiny tin cans held four submariners. They look impossibly claustrophobic.
Back on dry land, and just a few metres from the manicured turf of the golf green, there’s a new battle for territory. Invasive species like Giant Hogweed and Japanese Rose have a habit of taking over if left unchecked, as does Sea Buckthorn, which was used in nearby Gullane in the 1960s to stabilise shifting sands. It provides good food and shelter for some birds and mammals, but suffocates plant species that would normally thrive on dune marshland. Since I’ve been visiting, huge amounts have been removed. It would seem that the volunteers who graft here are more than a match for the so-called ‘baked bean bush’! They’ve also drafted in some extra help. In winter, a flock of sheep is shipped in to graze the more dominant species and encourage a wider range of plants.
I love the fact that Aberlady is both nature reserve and military graveyard, that it contains these contradictions successfully. It makes it an interesting place to try to document with photos. I hope that John Muir would have loved his Local Nature Reserve as much as I do, just up the beach from his home in Dunbar. He might have appreciated its dual purpose as a sanctuary for wild life and people together, a place of restoration and exploration. It’s not what some American visitors might call ‘Big Wilderness’ – a vast area devoid of modern human infrastructure. Instead, it’s a negotiated space managed for wildlife by humans, less than 2kms across. However, it is an essential part of the same continuum, and shows what can be done over time in a place that’s local to a big urban area. It can feel every bit as wild as a remote highland glen or mountaintop, and the surrounding culture and history only serves to make it more unique. I’d argue we need all shapes, sizes and types of wildness for us and our fellow earthlings to flourish.