David Allfrey MBE FRGS | Thursday 8th October 2020 12:00pm
When you are invited to write a 1000-word testimonial for East Lothian, setting out your love affair with the place, it carries a challenge similar in scale to selecting just eight recordings from a life time of music for Desert Island Discs!
With the prompt of innumerable grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the County, my family and I have naturally turned to East Lothian each year - for more than 50 years now - for our summer holidays and other breaks. East Lothian is unique in so many ways but above all, it offers an unparalleled menu of activities for anyone or a family seeking either a quiet time away or distractions for those with a short attention span.
The County is divided into two major chunks: an extraordinary and varied coastline (nearly 40 miles from Musselburgh in the west to Bilsdean in the east) and the ‘hinterland’ through woods and rolling farmland and the Lammermuir Hills, southwards towards Berwickshire. There are two good rivers: the River Tyne which flows eastwards and the River Esk which flows northwards into the Firth of Forth near Musselburgh. The county town of Haddington is pretty much in the middle of the county and with the A1 running east to west along the coastal strip and the A68 running south east out of Edinburgh towards The Borders, it is impossible - even for the most geographically challenged - to get lost!
So where to start? For me, the coastline is the real magic. Beaches, cliffs and hidden coves…they are all there. The Bass Rock (‘The Bass’) with its gannets have always been a major draw for me. You can travel out to the great volcanic plug by boat - if you desire the real sensory experience of the sea, the massed bird calls and the guano - or you can watch the biology of the rock from the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.
The harbour there has so much going on: The Lifeboat Station, a base for diving or sailing, a pause from shopping or just soaking up the people and the place. As a boy, I learned: to swim in the old saltwater lido (now gone), to sail a Drascombe lugger out of the harbour and to appreciate self-caught lobster and crab. Now, an enduring pleasure is a fish supper from Dino’s on Quality Street eaten on the harbour wall - in any weather and a pint afterwards in The Auld Hoose. The islands of Craigleith, The Lamb, Fidra (the ‘feather island’ which some say was the inspirational shape for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island ), tiny Eyebroughy and even the Isle of May far out on the horizon, they all have their own yarns and legends. Painters and writers: you are spoiled for choice in your inspiration - real or imagined!
For those with energy, the race each year from the harbour to the top of the North Berwick Law is a real lung-expander and tendon-stretch (followed by a dip in the Forth) while a walk or a bicycle along the coastal paths is a fine and easy way to spend the days. Most of the coastline can be walked and, provided you take care with the tides, the foreshore offers the mystery of flotsam, an unparalleled view of wildlife with seals, a rich variety of seabirds and all the fascinations to be found in rock pools - these broken up with matchless beaches for dogs and humans to run! And… and a bracing swim and surfing as well!
Dunbar is perhaps less well-known, but it too has a very special character. A much bigger working harbour, a good dive centre, a ‘grown up’ lifeboat, a fine swimming pool for those days when the weather is a bit challenging, its own 7th century castle ruins and a bridge on the beach in the middle of nowhere. For those requiring a proper challenge, Dunbar is one end of the 134-mile John Muir Way away to Helensburgh on the west coast. Beer, smoked fish and glorious bakeries to add to the mix!
In all this, there is a tremendous sense of history, at every turn, to colour any day out. Very close to the border with England, there are many castles to explore and to match them to the campaigns. The charismatic Tantallon on its clifftop perch but also the beautiful Hailes Castle in its magical riverside setting.
No visit to East Lothian would be complete without a bit of golf. Most courses offer sensible rates for beginners and the casual visitor. I am not a proficient golfer but have enjoyed some wonderful days with my young family learning how to hit the ball and find it when bashed into the rough. And, if you are any good, Muirfield and the links courses are without match anywhere in the world, grand views, a sea breeze and unusual course designs all make it fun and challenging.
No family holiday would be complete without a trip to the moors though the villages the like of Garvald and Gifford. A network of narrow roads with streams (‘burns’) running close by criss-cross the Lammermuirs. It is great to gather a simple picnic and just enjoy being away from it all. Heather, water, rock and the “Geback, Geback!” of grouse calling! The source of the Whiteaddder - which feeds the mighty reservoir - is for us an annual pilgrimage with guests ‘baptised’ in the ice cold spring and a glass of Glenkinchie whisky (from the distillery at Pencaitland) and water - perhaps with the odd sheep dropping - straight off the hill.
I am getting close to my word-limit and I have still failed to cover so much: the food (humble and foodie), monasteries, our own history at Whittinghame, the fishing, camping, the farming communities, Athelstaneford (the ‘birthplace’ of Scotland’s flag - the Saltire), The National Museum of Flight, the perfect racecourse and Mr Luca’s ice cream parlour in Musselburgh and of course a great welcome across the County.
I love East Lothian and it has provided a fabulous and constant home and holiday base for our itinerant Army family. We have had so many adventures - and these across all generations - and in quite a small space, easy to reach, at modest cost and with no hassle. Each year, we find something new and we can also return to known haunts. Just the job. I am looking forward very much to seeing you again soon. Thank you East Lothian.
David Allfrey has recently handed over (after nearly 10 years) as the Producer & Chief Executive of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. He took up this appointment following a varied 33-year military career which included command of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and 51st (Scottish) Brigade. Under David’s leadership, the Tattoo delivered over 235 shows in Edinburgh, Sydney, Melbourne and Wellington, entertaining live audiences totalling nearly 2.6 million!