The east coast of the UK is often regarded as less of a wild proposition, when compared say, to the rugged west coast of course. There are fields in East Anglia where the land is actually below that of mean sea level! Wild Times has cycled the stretch of Northumbrian coast known as the Coast & Castles, which featured in our 2017 journal. A stunning route punctuated by huge brooding castles and vast stretches of pristine sand. The going is largely straight-forward until, that is, you approach Berwick-upon-Tweed and the border with Scotland.
Having hiked the Berwickshire coast path in 2019 – published in Trail Magazine in April 2019 – I can confirm that the stretch of coast from Berwick to it's northern namesake of North Berwick Is indeed packed full of up and down, fossils and piles of history. While compiling this route, I traversed the intriguingly named 'Fast Castle' - but on a mission to finish the route in-hand, I made a mental note to return. So it was, on 2 January I decided to make the trip. Armed with a sparkling sunny day and eager to blow the festive cobwebs, Bertie and I set-off to discover this most dramatic niche of easterly coastline. Driving along the Berwickshire coast road to Dowlaw (NT856702) there is a lay-by adjacent to the farm. Fast Castle is sign-posted from the summit of Telegraph Hill (570ft) through a coppice of pine trees and following a steep heather clad path downhill for 2km. It is an exposed route with a 180 degree wall of sea in front of you.
According to legend, the hapless Mary, Queen of Scots visited here in 1566 en-route to England. I'm truussed-up in Gore-Tex, my trusty old Raichle 3-season boots and stabilised with a pair of adjustable Easton walking poles. Bertie is in his handy Mountain Paws harness as we make our fast descent, my thoughts juggling with the idea of the young queen undertaking this journey clad in bodice and skirt! Perhaps she came by boat? I somehow doubt it looking at the sheer-sided peninsula jutting out to sea in front of us.
The grassy hummock on which the castle stood was originally accessed via a wooden drawbridge. Today a stone bridge spans the gap. The rusting iron supports and chain-link railings, dating from 1921, offer a sense of security from the sheer drops either side. Care is needed as the consequences of a slip could be severe and possibly fatal. At the far end of the bridge there is what in mountain speak is known as a 'bad step' – a smooth slab of rock some three feet high. There is though, a worn foot-hold halfway up which helps straddle the void onto the steps above. Bertie slipped back twice in his eagerness, which is why his harness which features a handy grab-handle along the top – is an essential piece of kit for days likes these.
Once you reach the rocky knoll, the surface is far more uneven than appears from a distance. According to archive drawings, the entire peninsula would have been surrounded by a curtain wall to accommodate sufficient living space inside. Accounts differ as to whether access could have been gained from the sea, though this may have required a precarious mooring alongside the rocks below and most certainly a ladder too.
There is little left of the original keep aside from a pristine section of wall along the northern edge with an apparent seamless join to the rocks below. A pleasing stone lintel and a carved drainage gulley below it, give an insight into the quality of the original build of what must have been a diminutive castle keep.
Apparently, it was badly damaged by lightening in 1871. I can report however, that perched there on a rock with coffee and Christmas cake in hand – a gust of wind spraying my drink from inside the cup – it is easy to imagine that time and tide gradually ate away at this long forgotten place. With increasing gusts we take our leave back up the cliffs to the summit of Telegraph Hill. To a modern slab of rock featuring a brass-rubbing sculpture by local artist Jill Watson who happens to be the spouse of celebrated local architect Ben Tindall who owns the nearby conservation fishing harbour of Cove.
The full feature will appear in the 2020 issue...
#fastcastle #berwickshire #raichle #mountainpaws #easton