Stretching from Helensburgh to Dunbar, the John Muir Way traverses countryside, cities and coastal towns. It’s 215km/134 miles in all, but with train stations at regular intervals along the route it’s easy to split up into shorter stretches if you only fancy a day in the saddle. We did just that, and cycled a small segment of the route from Edinburgh to North Berwick a couple of weekends ago.
Note: Green Action Trust manage and maintain the John Muir Way, and their website (www.johnmuirway.org) is a handy resource for planning your trip. They strongly recommend ‘using a mountain bike, hybrid, sturdy tourer or gravel bike’, but if (like me) a road bike’s your only option, you’ll be fine on this stretch as there are just a handful of gravelly tracks.
We rolled the bikes onto the road, and set off towards St. John’s Road. A right turn onto Pinkhill followed swiftly by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it left tipped us onto the John Muir Way. This leafy stretch of the John Muir Way loops round Carrick Knowe Golf Course, before linking up with the Water of Leith.
The Water of Leith runs all the way from the Pentland Hills Regional Park to – as its name suggests – Leith. This section of the route is pretty higgledy-piggledy, as the dirt track follows every twist and turn in the waterway. A bell and a good dollop of patience is needed here, and you may need to stop to let walkers pass.
We took a left turn immediately before Slateford Aqueduct, and pushed our bikes up the ramp beside the steps to join the Union Canal towpath. (If you pass the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, you’ve gone too far; turn back, pass under Slateford Aqueduct and take the first right to rejoin the route.) From here, it’s a pleasant, if slightly busy, ride into the city centre. We zipped through Bruntsfield, Marchmont and Newington, and turned onto Holyrood Park Road.
We then took a left onto East Parkside, where the John Muir Way continues along the route of the Innocent Railway. Completed in 1831, the Innocent Railway – known at the time as the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway – started out as a horse-drawn goods line, transporting coal from the collieries at Dalkeith to St. Leonard’s in the heart of the city. Branch lines to Leith and Fisherrow subsequently opened, and the latter became a popular passenger route to the coast.
A little over a decade later, in 1845, the North British Railway acquired the line, converted it for use by steam engines and built various other connecting lines around Edinburgh. Passengers found the new North Bridge station (now, Edinburgh Waverley) more convenient, and passenger numbers at St. Leonard’s declined. When the coal depot at St. Leonard’s closed in 1968, so too did the Innocent Railway. These days, the only way to ride Edinburgh’s first railway line is on your bike, or by Shanks’s pony. I’ve crossed Holyrood Park Road a handful of times and, until this trip, had no idea a disused railway line lay beneath it.
With the Innocent Railway behind us, the John Muir Way took us along Niddrie Burn and through Bingham. I’ll be frank: this area, though green and leafy, wasn’t the nicest. We pedalled a fair bit faster after a guy walking past us punched Laurence’s rucksack.
We crossed a bridge over the railway line at Brunstane, pausing on the other side for a well-earned snack break. We turned left onto Gilberstoun, and then immediately right onto Brunstane Road South. Whizzing downhill at speed, it’s easy to miss the turn – so keep your eyes peeled for the John Muir Way sign and a small gap in the wall that leads onto the Brunstane Burn Path. (Laurence sped off and missed it, and I had to call him back. Sometimes cycling at a slower pace pays off.) We followed the burn for a mile or so, stopping only to hook my chain back on when it fell off, and emerged a bit after midday on the A199 into Musselburgh.
I laughed when Laurence said it at the time, but as it turns out Musselburgh’s name does indeed derive from ‘mussel’ (and ‘burgh’, meaning ‘town’ in Old English). I guess the enormous mussel sculpture on the seafront should’ve been enough of a clue…
We made a couple of stops in Musselburgh: Lidl (for essential supplies, including pains au chocolat and bananas) and East Coast (for a portion of fish and chips to share, off the back of an Edinburgh Live article my dad had sent me the night before). We opted for take-away, which worked out at about £8.50, and tucked into our box of fish and chips on a bench by the sea. Stomachs filled, we set off again. We spotted a flowerbed filled with painted pebbles from a local nursery: some decorated with animals; others with amusing messages.
Somewhere between Musselburgh and Prestonpans, it began to rain. A light, but persistent, drizzle for starters, followed by sheets of rain that seeped into my trainers (ugh!) and made it difficult to see through my glasses. Fortunately, it brightened up before too long and the grey clouds drifted away towards Edinburgh. We pedalled past Cockenzie, Longniddry and Aberlady, pausing only to inhale our pains au chocolat on a bench by the sea.
For a stretch, the John Muir Way follows the A198, which is also known as Scotland’s Golf Coast Road. We passed so many neatly-mown golf courses I lost count of them. (I later Googled this leg of the John Muir Way and discovered we’d passed nine golf courses, of which six were on Scotland’s Golf Coast Road.) Beyond Luffness, we picked up a gravel track to Gullane.
From Gullane, it was an easy ride through Dirleton and down to North Berwick. We locked our bikes on Law Road, and ambled round the corner to Steampunk Coffee. A handful of tables filled the small courtyard and, with the sun shining, it felt almost as though summer had arrived. Opposite Steampunk Coffee lay the ruins of St. Andrew’s Kirk Ports.
Rewind to the 12th century and North Berwick had a small church at Kirk Ness by the harbour, ideally located for pilgrims en route to St. Andrew’s. A storm in 1652 damaged the church, and it was then abandoned; its ruins can be seen beside the Scottish Seabird Centre. Twelve years later, St. Andrew’s Kirk Ports was built. To begin with, it was a modest rectangular building, but over the coming decades more features – lofts, burial aisles, a tower and vestry – were added, increasing the church’s footprint.
North Berwick’s population grew with the arrival of the railway line in 1850, and within a couple of decades it had outgrown St. Andrew’s Kirk Ports. A new church was needed. Enter, St. Andrew’s Blackadder, on the High Street. St Andrew’s Kirk Ports was partly dismantled and its contents sold, but the church heritors decided to leave the structure as it was to form a picturesque ruin. I think it’s safe to say they achieved that.
A little further on, on the corner of Kirk Ports and Quality Street (of no connection to the boxed chocs of the same name) we found Alandas Gelateria. I would happily go back to North Berwick just for another scoop of their gelato, it was that good. We took our cones to the nearby Lodge Grounds.
North Berwick is a ‘Britain in Bloom’ winner. Wandering through the town, it wasn’t hard to see why: it’s a riot of colour, with immaculate displays in the Lodge Grounds and barrels of flowers and hanging baskets along the streets.
North Berwick Law, another of Scotland’s extinct volcanoes, sits a short distance from the town centre. We decided to save it for another time, as our legs were spent and the afternoon was marching on.
We spent the rest of our time in North Berwick pottering around by the harbour, which commands stunning views of the beaches.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Getting there | We started to the west of the city centre, as that’s where we live, but you could just as easily start this chunk along The Meadows or beneath Salisbury Crags. Once in North Berwick, you can either cycle back the way you came or via a different route of your choice, or catch the train. Check the National Rail website (www.nationalrail.co.uk) for train times and prices. We paid £4.75 each for a single ticket from North Berwick to Edinburgh Waverley with a 16-25 railcard.
- Facilities | You’re never far from refreshments on this route. There’s an Aldi and a Lidl in Musselburgh (plus the aforementioned fish and chip shop), a Greggs and a Lidl in Prestonpans, and various independent shops and eateries in Gullane and North Berwick.
- Maps and guides | The John Muir Way is a waymarked cycle path; follow the round purple signs and blue NCN signs and you can’t go wrong. This section of the John Muir Way is covered by OS Landranger 66, or OS Explorer 350 and 351, and a suggested itinerary can be found at www.johnmuirway.org.
- Distance | 51.51km/32 miles; 241m of elevation gain.