John Muir Way Coast to Coast: South Queensferry to Linlithgow

This section marked both the halfway point of the walk - 67 miles - and the boundary of the Edinburgh/Dunbar (East Lothian)/Linlithgow (West Lothian) triangle within which the majority of our lives take place, having good friends in each as we do.

Most of the walk is along the Forth shore. This memorial commemorates the deaths of 73 men and boys who died building the Forth Bridge.

Hopefully nobody building the third Forth bridge will meet the same fate.

Leaving the shore for the grounds of Hopetoun House was a lovely surprise. I'd been to the stately home before - with my mum, in-laws and best friend, who all like that sort of tedium - but, as I told my son, it's in the woods that our people belong, poaching with our ferrets. I saw more jays.

With its oaks and deer, it reminded me of London's Richmond Park, near where I grew up.

The path comes back to the Forth at Blackness Castle,

 from where the bridges look gratifyingly far (unless you're walking west to east...)

The tide was out which was handy as there was a section of path being rebuilt which necessitated a detour onto the beach.

The route swings inland next to the Bo'ness and Kinneil steam railway line

and by Hadrian's Wall's lesser known sibling, the Antonine Wall,

then through the coniferous, planted, Kinneil Woods.

At this point it started to rain and we hurried, rustling in our waterproofs, over the hill to Linlithgow to be met by a delightful afternoon tea that included miniature scones, Empire biscuits and a beautiful hiking boot Victoria Sponge.

Unfortunately I cannot guarantee this reception for all comers and must strongly urge you to make your own lovely friends who can bake.

Wildlife Hospital - Owls and Raptors

After a wonderful day

feeding chicks to a blind buzzard,

learning how to strap a sparrow hawk's broken wing, ring the legs of baby tawny owls, hold a featherweight barn owl

and a heavyweight eagle owl 

with impressive feets,

then dissecting owl pellets to look for tiny vole and shrew skulls,

the wildlife hospital asked if we could take some hedgehogs back with us to rerelease. OF COURSE WE COULD! I was only noting the other day how I had never seen a live hedgehog in Scotland. Unfortunately my garden is walled (as my frog can attest) so unsuitable, but my friend's was perfect and we took both the world's biggest hog (pictured) and a refugee from Uist back in the car with us to their new lives. Best party favours ever.

John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Edinburgh to South Queensferry

Technical issues mean that the usually poor standard of photography on this blog has sunk to an all time low in this post. I forgot my phone and had to yank my younger son's ipod off him whenever I wanted to take a picture. As a result you have been spared illustration of the following dead animals: a flat hedgehog, a partially decomposed rook and an adorable mouse that looked like it had been posed for a Beatrix Potter stop-motion animation.

For this section, my son and I rechristened the path the JM-Dub because I think ornery, old mountain men might spin in their graves if you put their names to busy urban routes like this.

But these routes might be the most important of all. They are the ones that present the opportunity for huge numbers of city dwellings to get off the road and walk; to see plants and animals, hills and water; to carry on to the West Highland Way; to keep going until they get to the wild places.

Always making time to stop and eat, of course. We had squidgy cakes from the Water of Leith Visitor Centre under Slateford Aqueduct where the canal crosses the river and the path descends.

The route continues along the river, past many examples of that wonderful British shanty garden: the allotment. I searched for the Budgie Graveyard I found nearby, when my son and I were walking the whole Water of Leith Walkway some years ago, but couldn't find it. 

After a slushie in Slateford skatepark we went up Corstorphine Hill for lunch.

Apparently Corstorphine Hill is Edinburgh's largest public woodland. This is where they hide all the trees that are painfully absent on my side of town. And, consequently, the badgers. I've never seen a badger in the wild. I did see three jays on the hill though - like hedgehogs, they were relatively common where I grew up, but I hadn't seen one since I moved to Scotland.

Also zebra and antelope. Ok, those were on the other side of the zoo fence...

There is a walled garden that I had no idea existed, which are the best kind.

Then it was back to the tarmac until the River Almond at Cramond.

The path skirts around the Dalmeny Estate of wheat fields, woodland and shoreline.

It was a beautiful day so there were a few families at the little beaches but we had the path largely to ourselves.

This is Eagle Rock though there doesn't seem to be a wealth of evidence to suggest the Roman eagle carving is actually Roman. Or even an eagle.

South Queensferry was packed with people taking the boat trip to Inchcolm Abbey. My son consumed his requisite double-scoop ice-cream and we caught the train home, exhausted. This section was sixteen miles or so, the same as the others, but seemed much longer. I'm not sure if this was because so much of it is through busy areas, which feel draining, or because my legs were still recovering from Ben Nevis with my other son three days ago. We have a couple of days rest before the next sixteen miles to Linlithgow.

Ben Nevis

I'm certainly no mountaineer and I'm not interested in bagging Munros for the sake of it. Ever since I injured my knee in a particularly savage netball match at the age of fifteen, my left patella has slipped around a bit. The physiotherapist told me I could walk uphill as much as I liked, just not down again. My natural inclination is to skirt around mountains anyway - like a river - and stick to below the tree line, but unfortunately nearly all of the forest that once covered the British Isles is long gone and only impossibly high ground remains wild. There is no option but to run for the hills. I love hiking in the nearby Pentlands, and on Arthur's Seat in the middle of my city, but - in terms of actual mountains - medical advice would have confined me to Snowdon, Cairn Gorm and other such peaks with funicular railways for the return journey and cafes and gift shops on the top. Call me a filthy savage but such facilities do not exactly scream 'Wilderness!' to me.

Since I finished my degree last month, I have been trying to leave my comfort zone more often. I gave myself a lot of slack in other areas while I was studying and now it's time to stop making excuses, even slipping patella excuses, because surely that's what walking poles are for, after all? And, whilst it might be nice to have an actual pack pony to carry me down, I've learnt that any route labelled 'Pony Track' is a fairly safe bet for my knee and also less likely to give my poor head for heights an attack of the vapours. Thusly I approached Britain's highest mountain: Ben Nevis, which - topically - is owned by the John Muir Trust. I didn't see the point in starting with anything smaller - Britain's mountains are all relatively tiny anyway.

My elder son went up Nevis years ago with the Scouts, is confident with a compass and can physically carry me, so I selected him as my guide and we booked a couple of beds at Glen Nevis Youth Hostel right at the foot of the Ben. Before we left I spent a lowlander's sleepless night worrying about visibility and two thousand foot gullies and unstable snow cornices but when we arrived at the hostel and I witnessed the trickle of walkers thirty years older and younger than me coming down the trail unscathed, my fears were assuaged. The forecast was also 'Visibility: excellent to superb.'

I like to think the mountain appreciated the night's rest I sacrificed to it out of respect, and that's why it rewarded us with a parting of the clouds as we summitted. My son informed me this was unscientific. 'Complete bollocks' was what he actually said. I feel I should point out that I was not impudent enough to go up Ben Nevis in a tea dress and trail runners either. Whilst I find gaiters and walking poles to be hilarious on the almost entirely flat and often tarmacked John Muir Way, mountains are their spiritual home. I didn't actually bring either but I was, of course, in waterproofs and walking boots. Although it was high season, we went on a Tuesday and started at 8.30am and only passed a couple of other walkers on the way up. At the top there were half a dozen earlier risers but there can be hundreds of charity walkers at weekends. A clear summer's day on the pony track did not present anything in the way of danger or difficulty - nor romantic solitude - but it wasn't hard to imagine either. We were up and down in five and a half hours and my knee was completely unfazed. Thus the rest of the slightly lower - and a lot less touristy - Highlands are now my Loch Harport oyster.

 The hostel did not entertain the notion of telly or free wi-fi and we forgot our pack of cards, so the previous evening my son had occupied himself calculating the calorific value of the emergency provisions I had procured for the walk, which was an impressive 4774 kcals. All we actually ended up eating was a sandwich, a banana and a chocolate bar at the top, then fell face-down upon the hostel's three course dinner that night. I still maintain it is unwise to feed so many beans to people sleeping in shared rooms. That aside, I went to bed at 8pm and slept soundly all night long, underneath the benevolent Ben.

Crow with Injured Leg

I swear I don't go looking for them.

It's just:
1. I walk everywhere
2. I watch birds.
This combination means I notice injured ones. Add to this:
3. I am willing to handle them
and you have a scenario whereby I collect more injured birds than most people.

The circumstances of this one were a little strange though. The previous day I had walked the third leg of the John Muir Way and seen a crow that I had, at first, thought to be injured due to its continued proximity to me. When it eventually flew away I forgot all about it

until the following evening. We had a hire car and were driving to North Berwick for fish and chips and to see if the dolphins sighted earlier were still around. I remembered the crow as we drove past the spot and I started telling my husband about it. Then, a few metres away from where I had seen him the day before, there was a crow on the kerb, looking bedraggled. I informed my husband that if he were still there on our return journey we would be Doing Something About It. And, of course, two hours later he was still there and my husband had to park while I stood in the middle of the road trying to shepherd the crow out of it. He could fly short distances but he didn't seem able to stand and was soaked from the rain, obviously unable to perch in a tree. I managed to catch him and confirm he couldn't use one leg but he was gratifyingly pecky - not at death's door like the magpie - so we bundled him up to go to the SSPCA hospital for an x-ray. 

Here is where my husband goes from being tolerant to downright saintly: I was only wearing a dress and my North Face jacket which I needed for Ben Nevis soon after and wouldn't have time to wash and reproof should there be a major explosion of angry crow shit. 
This is why I married him, of course. 
'Willingness to put up with bird shit' goes both ways.

John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Prestonpans to Edinburgh

Actually it's Seton Sands to Edinburgh since we curtailed our previous leg a couple of miles short to deliver the injured magpie.

This section of the walk is, predicably, far less rural and more of a tour of industry.




coal-powered energy...

I hate this sign almost as much as the one where the car is tipping over the edge.

But there is also art. Prestonpans has a trail of 25 murals including the beautiful Witches Experience, commemorating 81 people executed under the Witchcraft Act, but I thought the John Muir one was most appropriate here. There is also a mural of three generations of the Burns' family outside their legendary second-hand yard, from where half the furniture in my house came.

Spot Arthur's Seat on the horizon: that's your destination.

Ash dumped from the Cockenzie power station has been used to create bird reserve lagoons at Levenhall Links though, as usual, humans and their animals dominate everything else. It infuriates me when dog are not walked on the lead during ground nesting season - I see it everywhere.

But the gulls of Musselburgh have learnt to work people to their advantage and we stopped here for lunch. (There is a much prettier Roman bridge behind us, off route.)

Musselburgh is also home to both Luca and di Rollo (pictured) ice-creams, in flavours you don't see outside Scotland.

From Musselburgh the path leaves the coast and heads into the city along the Brunstane Burn, which reminds me of the stream I grew up next to - where Millais painted 'Ophelia' - complete with litter (though no motorbikes or shopping trolleys on this occasion).

Wild raspberries were just starting to ripen.

The Innocent Railway was a horse-drawn railway carrying coal into the city, whose route is now a footpath including a half kilometre tunnel. That it is possible to walk across the city in pretty much any direction via a network of parks and river paths - like the 20km Water of Leith Walkway - or disused railway lines is a source of great happiness and sanity to me.

The route skirts Arthur's Seat and emerges in the city centre where we stopped at the Meadows for second lunch. I think this leg was about 12 miles, since we started from Seton Sands, but we forgot to time it because we're old school mountain men now and such things have ceased to be relevant. (And - unlike John Muir, I suspect - we're preoccupied with eating the maximum number of lunches possible.)

At one point in the morning, I had rounded a corner and come face to face with a crow sitting on a concrete block. He didn't move and my heart sank at the thought of a repeat of the corvid incident on the last leg of the walk, but as soon as I raised my phone to take a photo he flew off and I cheered inside. Bizarrely, this  was not to be the end of it...