‘Neuk’ is a Scottish word for nook or corner, and if you take a look at the map opposite, you’ll see that the East Neuk of Fife is the bit that juts out into the North Sea at the end of the Firth of Forth.
Along this coastline are a string of attractive fishing villages, the most interesting being St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther (including Cellardyke) and Crail.
If you’ve travelled to Fife over the Forth Bridge, then the first of these villages is St. Monans, about an hour’s drive away. There are several theories as to who St. Monan was, but the church that is dedicated to him is often described as Scotland’s nearest church to the sea, which is only around 20 metres away. It’s been here since the 14th century so whether it’s been that close since it was built, I wouldn’t like to say.
A half-hour train journey from Waverley along the East Lothian coast will bring you to the smashing little seaside town of North Berwick.
The first time I came here I immediately fell in love with it. Little did I know at the time that it was one of the most expensive seaside towns to live in Scotland.
It doesn’t have an outward appearance of wealth or anything like that, in fact it’s quite an unassuming sort of place in many ways.
It doesn’t have much in the way of seaside attractions in the conventional sense, but more in the way of natural attractions. A conical volcanic hill known as North Berwick Law overlooks the town, its beaches and small harbour, but its location overlooking a handful of small islands in the Firth of Forth is what makes it a bit special.
Like so many travellers, I’ve often been guilty of rushing past this quiet corner of Scotland in search of the country’s more celebrated attractions further north, but several years ago I decided that it was about time we turned left at the Scottish border to take a steady drive along the Solway Coast to the Rhins of Galloway and find out what we’ve been missing.
From what I can see of it nothing much has changed around here since we visited, but one thing I’d better mention is that we didn’t drive along here all in one day, as the route I’ve described would take at least four hours without stops; and although it might be possible, I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to enjoy the area properly.
Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the same jaw-dropping scenery that the Highlands can offer, but I already knew from experiences elsewhere, that the Lowlands of Scotland have an appeal of their own, but in a much more subtle way.
Immediately after crossing the border into Scotland is Gretna Green, the famous runaway wedding location, where most first-time visitors will want to stop – even if they don’t intend getting spliced. Having been here before, I was keen to move on because I think it’s one of those places that, unless your name’s Henry VIII, you only want to visit once, and so we carried on along the ‘B’ roads towards Caerlaverock instead.
In my introduction to Bude I mentioned that the opening of the canal was the first big thing to happen to this tiny, nondescript village at the mouth of the equally nondescript River Neet.
The reason that I’m calling it nondescript is because there was nothing here; no harbour to land fish, no minerals to mine, and it didn’t even lead to anywhere. All that was here were rocks, sand and water, so why build a canal? The answer was because of all three.
The rocks and sea cliffs around Bude are unique for Cornwall in as much as that they are made up of carboniferous limestone. Nowhere else in the county has rocks like these, and geologists have even found a special name for them – the Bude Formation. To mere mortals like me it makes for an interesting coastline and a nice sandy beach, but to people interested in making a living it meant that these cliffs produced sand containing calcium carbonate which could be used to neutralise the acidic land of the inland farms.
The first person to dream up the idea of transporting this sand inland by canal was a Cornishman who went by the name of John Edyvean back in 1774. His idea was to build a 95 mile waterway from Bude to the navigable part of the River Tamar, thereby connecting the Bristol Channel with the English Channel. This would have allowed, not just the transportation of sand, but other goods as well, such as coal, slate and timber. It also meant that ships didn’t have to take the hazardous journey around Land’s End.
It never ceases to amaze me how saints of old had powers that would put David Blaine and Uri Geller to shame, and St Ia is yet another one.
St. Ia was a 5th century Irish princess who, after being converted to Christianity, decided that it was her duty to join a missionary party that was planning to cross the Celtic Sea in order to convert the good people of Cerniw.
The story goes that the boat left without her, but undeterred, she set about making her own arrangements – so what did she do? she sailed over on a leaf of course! Now, I have to admit I am partaking in a glass of fruit cider while I’m writing this, but I can assure you that the story is true, it must be, I’ve read the same story from several different sources just to confirm that I haven’t been hallucinating.
Call me an old cynic if you like, but I don’t believe a word of it. Having said that, it seems pretty likely that the Irish princess did make it across to the shores of Cornwall one way or another, and it also seems likely that she landed at Pendinas, or ‘The Island’ as it’s called today.
I have to confess that I’m not one for lying around on a beach, but I also have to confess that I do like seeing them, and with all this good weather around at the moment it seems as good a time as any to mention a few.
St. Ives is one of those places that is blessed with some lovely sandy beaches, but for this article I’m excluding the large expanses of sand at Carbis Bay and Hayle and just concentrating on the town beaches.
There’s not a lot that can be written about them except to say that they are all ideal for just lying around on, and taking a casual dip every so often into the shallow turquoise sea; perfect for kids and sun-worshippers alike, weather permitting of course.
Consequently, this post is mainly a pictorial one to show where the beaches are and what they look like.
Porthcurno lies in a valley that reaches down to the sea on the south coast of the Penwith Peninsula.
For such a small village it attracts many visitors, some would say too many at times, but it’s understandable why people find Porthcurno such a magnet.
Lying about half way between Lamorna Cove and Land’s End, Porthcurno would be an obvious stopping off point for people walking along this section of the South-West Coast Path without its own attractions.
The white shell beach sits in a small bay that is sometimes called Porthcurno Bay. The colour of the sea depends on the weather, state of the tide and the time of the day, but when the sun’s shining the white sand is reflected by the sun to make the sea a perfect aquamarine colour.
The bay is protected to the east by a headland that is renowned for its ‘Logan Rock’ and to the west by Pedn-men-an-mere, or WirelessPoint as it’s sometimes called.
It gets its name of Wireless Point from the receiving station that was set up here to eavesdrop on Marconi’s successful wireless telegraphy operation which was in direct competition with Porthcurno’s underground and submarine cable communications.
If someone unfamiliar with Cornwall were to ask me to take them to a picturesque Cornish fishing village, I would have to take them to Polperro. It has everything you would expect – from a lovely harbour, narrow streets with quaint cottages, coastal walks and some great pubs to finish off with; what more could you ask for?
The only problem is that I’m not the only one who thinks it has everything, and so if you choose to come at the same time as everyone else then Polperro might not live up to expectations. I know this applies to any popular destination, but if you can come on a pleasant day out of season (preferably with an overnight stop) then you will be rewarded with a much better experience.
You can reach Polperro from Looe by a bus service that suits the company more than it does the passengers (remember everything down here operates on Cornish Mean Time), but if you have your own transport you will have to park at the top of the village near the Crumplehorn Inn where the local highwayman used to masquerade as the car park attendant. These days he’s been replaced by his metal mickey equivalent whose advanced technology doesn’t seem to stretch as far as being able to dish out any change.
The sweeping arc of coastline between the mouth of the River Dart and Start Point is known as Start Bay, and includes a two-mile-long beach that extends from Blackpool Sands to Hallsands.
The most easily accessible part of the beach is between Strete Gate and Torcross, where a road just manages to separate the freshwater lake of Slapton Ley from the sea, but for how much longer I wouldn’t like to say.
Slapton Sands, as this part of the beach is called, gets its name from the small village of the same name which lies just about a mile inland: Why the beach is called Slapton Sands I have no idea because it consists mainly of shingle and pebbles.
People who come to Torbay don’t think of it as somewhere with much history, and it’s true in some respects, but search a bit deeper and you’ll find that the area’s history goes back a long way – about 400 million years in fact – give or take a few million.
Explaining the planet’s history is really best left to the experts, but as one of the geological time periods is named after the county of Devon, I think it’s worth knowing how this occurred and how it all fits into the grand scheme of things.
To put it into some sort of perspective, geologists tell us that the earth was formed some 4,600 million years ago, with the oldest rocks in Britain being about 3,000 million years old (and found in North-Western Scotland).
From this we can see that Devon’s beginnings don’t go back quite as far back as they might first appear, so why was the Devonian Period so named?
We only need to go back to the 1830s to find the answer. Up until that point, scientists from the early 18th century onwards were trying to map and categorize different geological time periods, and Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick, two eminent members of the Geographical Society in London, had identified two separate eras which they called the Silurian and Carboniferous Periods.
This neat classification was thrown into some disarray when a colleague, Henry De la Beche, who was categorizing rocks himself in Devon, suggested there was also likely to be an intermediate period: The disagreement between the two parties led to the debate becoming known as the ‘Great Devonian Controversy’.
Paradoxically, it was Murchison who made the discoveries to prove that De la Beche was right all along. This intermediate era was determined to be between 359 and 419 million years ago, and was subsequently called the Devonian Period. (See the chart below).
The coastal footpath between Beacon Cove and Daddyhole Plain is known as Rock Walk and only about a mile long, but it affords some of the best views in the bay, and if you continue downhill for a short distance you will then come to the impressive Hesketh Crescent and Meadfoot Beach.
This is a walk that people who don’t know it could easily miss, but even though it starts from just behind the Harbour it’s not long before you leave the crowds behind.
Beacon Cove lies next to Living Coasts which is a coastal zoo and aquarium belonging to Paignton Zoo. You can’t miss the ‘Hairnet’, as locals call it, and to find the footpath walk along the Victoria Parade side of the harbour and at the end turn up Beacon Hill, where on the right hand side is a brown tourist sign pointing the way to Beacon Cove.
Visitors to Torquay have probably come to enjoy the sea air as much as anything, and a short walk from Torre Abbey through Abbey Park will bring you to the seafront and Torre Abbey Sands.
Abbey Park lies in front of the Riviera Centre and has some low-key sporting facilities such as tennis and crazy golf if you like that sort of thing, but the gardens, with their sub-tropical plants and water features are what I like, and in particular, the Italian Garden which is a riot of colour during the summer.
If you’re not in any rush to get the sand between your toes, you might also want to check out the One World Café and Bistro which is the ideal place for doing absolutely nothing for an hour or so.