John Muir’s Long Shadow

Set off from Eóin’s about 11:30 to walk a section of the John Muir Way, said we’d meet him and the child at Smeatons for tea and scones at 2 o’clock. Surely we’d have the short distance covered by then.

From the end of the High Street, we bear west along the coast the high cliff path, the Glebe. The North Sea is calm and dark, the still day cradling sparrow song and the soft cheeping of robins and chaffinches. I see them bounce in, out and through the rosea rugosa hedges, all bare now but for an abundance of thorns and an almost equal abundance of fat orange-red rose hips. (Dad once told me that when he was a boy, they would pick them, break them, shove them down each other’s backs as itching powder.)

It seems that every hundred yards we come upon a cluster of summer seats looking out to sea, not a soul using them in November, save for ourselves when we stop early for hot squash from a flask, (later for a cheese roll, some dried apricots).

We skirt the side of the golf course (Winterfield), and I almost get whacked by a ball taking a fast course into the sea. Chance saved me, rather than the yells from above which I suppose are directed elsewhere, as the ball comets a few feet past my head. Further on, I watch one man chip his ball back onto the green from ten feet below, from the rocks, tide out. He must have hit a real blooper to put it there in the first place, but he corrects it with a blinder, a perfect chip back up onto the green. I stand beside his pal in in a golf buggy, who calls down, ‘You’ve delighted this lassie with your shot, made her day.’ Delighted I am, with the day, the live action, and being called a lassie!

On the Shore Road (just close to Belhaven Bridge–the one on the strand that’s surrounded by sea when the tide comes in) four small deer run in single file close to us, skittish and playful, heading along the side of the bushes by the Biel Water, acting like adolescents, noisily surreptitious, they have a bit to learn.

An abundance of birds as we walk on: bramblings with their winter flashes of yellow, a pair of curlews flying up from the estuary, their cry, a high whistle on the rise, bringing an edge of melancholy to the day, that imperious, impressive downward curling bill. Plenty of oystercatchers on the shore, and were those sanderlings? I’m not sure. Perhaps redshanks with those red legs.

Stop to pick and taste the buckthorn berries, small and delicate, so thin skinned they burst in the picking. I lick the tip of my thumb and forefinger, it tastes like bitter pineapple.

Now we’re passing through huge numbers of trees felled by storm Arwen last November. The woodsmen have been to work cutting and extracting, keeping the path open, but many lie where they fell: mighty Scots Pine, their roots exposed like old bones.

Walking up the estuary now and, although it’s not even mid-afternoon, the light is fading. A flock of geese lift from a field like a shaken blanket, honking furiously, then fly in formation over the estuary and all I can see is the lace of a corset being tightened and loosened as they switch positions moving in close and spreading out, flying low and high and apart in monochrome kaleidoscopic shapes.

Field after field of sprouts, almost blue in the winter light. Later Eóin is to tell me this part of East Lothian is the biggest sprout farm in Europe. So much for Brussels.

Two men emerge from an old Range Rover parked up in a ditch, hunting rifles broken over their shoulders, a lively springer diving about their feet. They walk towards us, fitted out in camouflage colours (even the dog’s coat is printed in camo). When I ask, they tell me they’re hoping for ducks, and, yes, this is a good time, as the light is fading, the birds roosting. Off they walk, casting long shadows.

Close to East Linton now, a buzzard chases a crow, the crow – despite the obvious disadvantage – chases back. David and Goliath battling in the air. Little dramas everywhere. A Kestrel swoops down from a telegraph pole onto… nothing. Close to our destination we lose the way. Come on, John Muir wouldn’t mind, my companion says as we take a muddy field flank that isn’t part of the trail. It is studded with three-legged feeders for scatty, skittish pheasants who flee when we come near.

Until now, the air of the day has been still and holding, but the wind arrives suddenly as though through an open door into a sheltered house, and we blow along our illicit path towards Smeaton’s, arriving a little late, from the wrong direction, scone-ready, nature-filled.

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