Running around 25 miles from the centre of a bustling city, through sleepy country villages to the sea, Scotland's East Lothian line may not be one of the greatest railway journeys of the world, but it's an easy and practical way to get out of the city and into the hidden gem that is lowland Scotland.
A Little History
Richard Beeching (1913-85) was the government appointed Chairman of the British Railways Board 1963-5. He authored the Beeching Plan, which aimed to make the railway network more cost effective by closing down many of the smaller railway lines. This plan, and the continuation of its ethos, has led to the countryside of Britain being littered with small abandoned stations and grassed over railway lines, many of which have become walkways and cycle paths. The Beeching closures are still lamented today, as the growth of commuting and the rise of environmental awareness leads people to appreciate the potential of railways more than ever. His legacy included the closure of the last of the branch lines through East Lothian in the early 1970s, but in 1993-4 this line was opened up at minimal cost to the suppliers to serve the increasing commuter population. Supported by EU money, old rolling stock was commandeered and six tiny stations were created, each just two platforms linked by a bridge, and supplied with a carpark, a few benches and a shelter. To the surprise of many people the lines thrived, business was brisk and the car parks extended. In 2002 a second line coming east from Edinburgh was opened. This is a much shorter line with only two stations: Brunstane (on the edge of the suburb of Joppa) and New Craighall, on the southern edge of Musselburgh, near the out of town shopping sprawl of Fort Kinnaird. If you are looking at coming into Edinburgh from the Musselburgh or Wallyford area, you can take your pick between the two railway lines, but please note: you have to pay money to park at Brunstane and New Craighall.
Who Use It
Commuters - East Lothian is a haven for city workers who wish to escape. The environmental and historical characteristics of East Lothian save it from becoming featureless dormitory suburbs, and the cost of the journey is easily offset when compared to the extortionate property prices within the city. The train is, on the whole, quicker than travelling by either bus or private car1
Locals - Especially retired people and young families who take advantage of off-peak fares to go shopping in the city centre.
Tourists and visitors - Most of the guest houses in Edinburgh are a 20-minute walk from the centre, along exhaust-laden streets. In less time you can be out in the fresh air of East Lothian, often in better accommodation at half the price! The train is also a great way for walkers and cyclists to take day-trips and explore this corner of the country.2
Trains, Times and Fares
Trains run hourly3 in each direction throughout the main part of the day, seven days a week. Extra trains run during the rush hour periods from Monday to Friday, but in the evenings trains run at around two hours apart. Unlike the equivalent bus service, the train service is not disrupted by the many local and national Monday holidays.
The service was started with a fleet of Class 304 trains, some dating from the late 1950s. These trains have been popular as they seat a large number of passengers for their size (there are no tables) and have doors between each set of seats, allowing crowds of commuters to disembark quickly. However, these trains became increasingly unreliable as they aged, and a number of safety incidents with the slam-doors led to over half the doors being locked closed. Scotrail gradually phased them out and replaced them with newer, though less capacious, Class 318 trains formerly owned by Strathclyde Passenger Transport.
It is important to realise that none of the East Lothian stations are manned, and this can make a big difference to how - and indeed whether - you pay for your journey. Getting on the train at any of the East Lothian stations is easy: just jump straight on. There should be a conductor who makes periodic forays up and down the train shouting for passengers from the last station to pay. Of course, if you are deep in your book, or if he doesn't notice you waving your fiver, then you travel for free. However no-one is recommending that you deliberately avoid paying: sometimes they do check tickets as you leave the train at Edinburgh. Best of all is when the conductor is too busy chatting to the guard to get along the train, or if the train is so full that he can't walk through: then you travel for free with a clear conscience. If you are getting on at Waverley then in theory you should buy a ticket from the ticket office. However, there is usually no difference in cost if you buy it on the train, so if you are short of time go straight to the platform. At busy times the conductor will stand at the platform gate, so you will have to pay before getting aboard. Season tickets and reductions for other cardholders are available.
The Route and the Stations - East from Edinburgh
Some of the rush-hour trains start and end their journey at Edinburgh Haymarket, the smaller station which serves the west end of Edinburgh's city centre, the home of many company offices, and visitor attractions such as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. For most, however, the journey starts at the city's main station, Edinburgh Waverley. Waverley is a 21-platform behemoth, over half a mile long, and nestling in the valley between Edinburgh's Old and New Towns.
If the North Berwick train has arrived from Haymarket it will have come in on one of Waverley's few through-platforms. The East Lothian train is small - usually just four carriages - and so it tends to be allocated one of the 'problem' platforms at the furthest reaches of the station which contain bends unsuitable for a large Intercity train. Platform 1 is a dark and gloomy site, and platforms 20 and 21, the last ones at the station, can only be accessed by going up on to the elevated walkway and then down again. This is worth bearing in mind before you leave the main concourse to wait for your train: you won't be able to nip back to the shops and the toilet, so make sure you're prepared! If it's not a Haymarket route, then the train will almost invariably leave from platform 7, still a good way from the main concourse, but much less isolated.
Waverley to Musselburgh
As you set out from Waverley you will almost immediately disappear into a few reaches of tunnel: Edinburgh is built upon the remains of an ancient volcano, and the train is obliged to go under these outcroppings. Immediately that the train comes out of the tunnel, look right (assuming you're facing the direction of travel) to catch a glimpse of the Palace of Holyroodhouse4, the white-tented roof of Our Dynamic Earth, and the new Scottish Parliament Building. Beyond all these is Arthur's Seat, a 250 metre (823 feet) high hill in a 650 acre (260 hectare) park. Arthur's Seat is a great free-access facility for both residents and visitors, and the view from the top is well worth the climb!
The train travels on through the Eastern suburbs of the City of Edinburgh, passing the stands and floodlights of the Commonwealth stadium at Meadowbank and running through the many sidings of the Craigintenny depot, then a brief stretch of countryside until it reaches Musselburgh station after just eight minutes.
Musselburgh straddles the boundary between the City of Edinburgh and the County of East Lothian at the point where the River Esk meets the sea. It's a small town with a few historic buildings nestling between busy modern shops (including a great ice cream shop called Luca's). If you're disembarking here, why not visit:
The Church of St Michael - a 17th Century church on a hill above the town, once used by Oliver Cromwelll as a campaign base5.
The Brunton Theatre - East Lothian's only professional theatre.
Levenhall Links and Bird Reserve - sea lagoons, dunes and bird hides - a surprisingly peaceful place.
Musselburgh Racecourse - a premier horse-racing venue, and patronised by royalty!
Inveresk Lodge Garden - A beautiful, peaceful place in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
Be aware however, that the line of the railway meant that Musselburgh station was built some 15 minutes' walk away from the centre of Musselburgh, in the middle of a modern housing estate. There are a few buses that go past, but do not expect to find any taxis.
Musselburgh station is sign posted as an interchange on the 'Coasts and Castles' National Cycle Network, which runs from Newcastle, up the Northumberland coast to Edinburgh. If you want to cycle some of the route, but don't want to fight the Edinburgh traffic, then this is the service to use.
Musselburgh to Wallyford
From Musselburgh, the train runs alongside the A1 Edinburgh-London road, and out into the rolling farmlands typical of East Lothian. Look out for the first of the many East Lothian golf courses. Hold your nose as the train passes the small but pungent sewage treatment plant, and then you'll be in Wallyford, just two minutes after leaving Musselburgh.
Wallyford was a 19th Century mining and farming community whose only claim to fame was as the birthplace of pioneering female novelist - Margaret Oliphant. Now the mining has gone, and Wallyford is left as a tiny town with no particular focus.
As well as serving Wallyford itself, the station serves the eastern side of Musselburgh, including the racecourse, and a number of inland towns and villages, including Tranent, Macmerry, New Winton and Ormiston.
As the train pulls into Wallyford station it cuts across the edge of site of the Battle of Pinkie, 1547, for which there is a simple stone memorial at the opposite end of the town.
Wallyford to Prestonpans
A long straight stretch of track as the train pushes directly on to the coastal town of Prestonpans: the total journey time from Edinburgh is now 14 minutes.
Prestonpans was another mining community, although it takes its name from the salt pans which were worked along the shore here in the Middle Ages. The town's industrial history is commemorated in Prestongrange Museum on the western side of the Prestonpans, but it is perhaps as a battle site that Prestonpans is best known.
The Battle of Prestonpans was fought in 1745 between the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Jacobite claimant to the throne, and the Hanoverian army, although not simply a case of Scottish against English. Catholic versus Protestant, Episcopalian versus Presbyterianism, Highlands versus Lowlands plus any combination of historical, family, clan and political loyalties made each side a complex - and shifting - mass of allegiances. The Jacobite army had gathered behind Bonnie Prince Charlie after he had landed on the west coast of Scotland, and was making towards Edinburgh. The Hanoverian forces under General John Cope met him just outside Prestonpans, but were surprised and routed. The Jacobites marched on in triumph to Edinburgh, but their victory was short-lived and within 12 months they were forced into retreat and defeat themselves.
The railway station and line immediately beyond it cut through the battle site, and by leaving the station from the south side (over the bridge if you have come from Edinburgh) it's possible to cut sharp left onto a little path and view some of the landmarks associated with the battle. As you come down the steps out of the station, the little road before you is still known as 'Johnny Cope's Road' and marks the route along which the Hanoverian leader fled. Next you come to an obelisk on the right, in front of a fine old house. This is the monument to Colonel Gardiner, who fought on the Hanoverian side in the grounds of this, his own house, and was killed nearby. Further along you will reach the modern viewing platform for the battle site, a curious, shallow, pyramid-shaped mound with explanatory panels displayed at the top. An older stone memorial stands at the edge of the nearby main road, which will take you back to the railway station.
If you walk down from the station, through Prestonpans to the shore, watch out for the Mercat (market) cross, perhaps the finest in Scotland, and the dramatic ruins of Preston Tower.
A bed and breakfast immediately opposite the station entrance caters almost solely for escapees from the Edinburgh accommodation trap. About one mile back along the road towards Wallyford is Drummohr camping and caravan site, handily placed for tourists arriving by car or cycle.
Prestonpans to Longniddry
The journey from Prestonpans to Longniddry is six minutes, making a total journey time from Edinburgh of 20 minutes. Leaving Prestonpans Station, the two chimneys of Cockenzie coal-fired power station dominate the horizon to the left. A side line branches off towards them, and you may see the long lines of rusty coal wagons which shuttle to and from the coal silos.
The track continues, mostly straight, now running alongside the A198, quickly reaching Longniddry, a pretty little village, and very typical of East Lothian. The upper end of Longniddry, near the station, is firmly rooted in the countryside, but the lower half of the village - they are linked by the golf course - borders on Longniddry Bents, the first real beaches in East Lothian, and a pleasant place to go for a walk. If you have a bike, or don't mind a walk, there are a number of other options open to you:
Back along the A198 you will find Seton collegiate church, a beautiful elegant building in the care of Historic Scotland, set amidst beautiful grounds, complete with peacocks.
An abandoned railway line has been turned into a cycle way, and runs from Longniddry to Haddington, East Lothian's County town. A pleasant ride.
Three miles due east of Longniddry Station is Hopetoun Hill, and on the top is Hopetoun Monument, a chimney-like tower built in memory of the 4th Earl of Hopetoun in 1824. The tower stands open, and a long dark climb up the 132 steps of the spiral staircase (take a torch if you remember) will bring you out onto the balcony that runs around the top of the monument. There is a really good view, but it's always a bit windy!
Back on the train, and seven minutes further on will bring you to Drem, a tiny picture postcard village, complete with a village green, which feels almost English. Drem is some two miles north west of Hopetoun Monument, and could be used for the return journey. It almost makes a good stopping-off point for a few more attractions:
Myreton Motor Museum, about two miles east of Drem, is a privately-owned collection of vehicles dating from 1896 onwards.
The Museum of Flight is part of the National Museums of Scotland collection, based at a disused airfield some three miles east of Drem
The Flag Heritage Centre at Athelstaneford, two miles south west of Drem, commemorates the creation of Scotland's flag, the Saltire6
Travel three miles northwest of Drem and you will reach the coast once again. Aberlady Bay is the site of a fine nature reserve, with acres of dunes and sand flats which are the winter home of many thousands of migratory birds. The prolific historical fiction writer, Nigel Tranter, who died in 2000, lived in a beautiful house just across the road from the reserve, and wrote all of his novels while walking around the reserve, on library index cards.
If you walk all of the way through the nature reserve, or if you head east by road, you will reach Gullane Beach7. This long, sweeping crescent of sand has won many awards for cleanliness and general high standards (such as disabled access). The beach itself is a lovely walk, and provides a good chance to hunt for shells. It's bordered by wide dunes (some are closed off to help prevent erosion) and by rock pools at either end. A great place for kids, dogs, kites and windsurfers, and particularly fine on a clear winter's day.
One feature dominates the landscape south of Drem. Trapain Law is a basalt plug creating a long rounded hill like a whale's back. It has been called the Ayer's Rock of East Lothian8. Trapain Law has long been a focus for life in East Lothian. Finds on the hill show that it was occupied at least 6000 years ago, then on through the Bronze Age, Iron Age and at least as far as the 5th Century. In the first century AD, when the Romans arrived in the area, it was the capital of the Votadini people, and two of the chief's family from that time are said to have gone on to become patron saints of Glasgow: St Enoch and St Mungo. In 1919, an excavation discovered a massive hoard of silver, hidden here when the site was abandoned in the 5th Century9. Even if the history does not interest you, then you will still find Trapain Law to provide a brisk climb, a great view and a truly fantastic site for kite-flying.
Drem to North Berwick
Beyond Drem the line swings suddenly northward. Up to this point your little train will have been sharing the track with the huge Intercity trains that provide the main East Coast service between London and Edinburgh. Here they cut off southwards for Dunbar and the English border, leaving you to enjoy the last few miles in peace.
As the train slips past the pretty little village of Dirleton, with its picturesque ruined castle, you will see on your right the looming outline of North Berwick Law as you approach North Berwick. You should arrive in North Berwick 35 minutes after leaving Edinburgh Waverley.
North Berwick is the end of the line for this journey. A pretty little seaside town, it's become popular with rich retirees and very rich commuters as well as with holiday-makers - house prices are now the highest in the county.
The train will drop you just on the edge of the town centre, where the suburbs and the shops meet. Walk downhill towards the sea and you will find a quintessential Scottish coastal town plan: a main street of shops parallel to the coast, set one block back from the sea front. A row of (mostly) charming properties backs onto the shops and look out across the sands and north to Fife.
North Berwick's newest and biggest visitor attraction is the Scottish Seabird Centre, a rather beautifully-shaped building right on the shore which uses all sorts of low and high tech ways in order to explain the bird life which throngs the shoreline both on the mainland and on the islands that lie off the coast near North Berwick.
Other than the Seabird Centre, the best amusements at North Berwick are to:
Go for a walk along the lovely beach
Climb North Berwick Law
North Berwick Law is a conical hill which rises incongruously from the surrounding landscape (indeed, this is the definition of the Scots word 'law'). It's 613 feet high, but seems much higher because of the contrast with the flat coastal land all around. Geologically, the law is a volcanic plug of hard basalt rock which survived the scraping glaciers of the ice age, and is now neatly rounded off.
If you're in North Berwick you won't be able to miss the Law, but for those who get lost easily, it's about two thirds of a mile due south of the town centre, off the B1346/7 - the Law Road, which then becomes Haddington Road. There are many paths up the hill, and the walk though short is steep, so take the time to look out for remnants of an iron age hill fort, signs that the hill was used as a lookout in the Napoleonic Wars, and the arch, made from the jawbone of a whale, which was placed on the summit in 1936.
But the true reward for the climb is that the top is one of the most dramatic and varied viewpoints you can enjoy: make sure you've got your binoculars! Inland you look across rolling farmland and forest to the hills that mark the beginning of the borders. Look to the southeast and you will see the fantastic clifftop ruins of Tantallon Castle, some three miles away (a Historic Scotland property and well worth a visit) and then on, over John Muir Country Park. John Muir, the Father of America's National Parks, was born and brought up in Dunbar, until he emigrated as a youth. His love of his nature first showed itself in his interest in his East Lothian surroundings. This park, named in his honour, contains a lovely and unusual mix of forest bordering on the sea, and is a great place for beachcombing for driftwood. Look out to sea and you will see the Bass Rock off the coast to the north-east, a fantastic lump of rock adorned with a lighthouse and decorated with the guano of centuries of seabird visitations. Out beyond the Bass Rock, if the weather is clear, you'll see the Isle of May, some 15 miles out to sea, and looking due north you'll find that you are facing the charming fishing villages of Fife's East Neuk10. West along the coast line you can see a string of other islets, including Craigleith, Lamb and Fidra as your eye sweeps over the bays at Gullane, Aberlady and Gosford onto the unmistakable skyline of Edinburgh, where your journey began.