Some days are special, when a number of different factors come together just perfectly. And today, Sunday the 6th March, was one of those special days. The weather forecast was for a cold and frosty start to the day with clear blue skies but warming as the morning progressed. Low tide at Aberlady Bay was ideal at around 10.30 am, the car was available for use and my trusty Surly Pugsley was ready for battle following a recent refresh. My plan today was to cycle to the wrecks of the midget submarines out in the bay, then head along the coast to grab a few new unique zones around Gullane.
A 7.00 am start from home had me parking in the lay-by at Gala Law, on the A198 between Aberlady and Gullane, beside an old quarry on Luffness Links, around 7.45 am. It’s my preferred spot for accessing Aberlady Bay, taking the access road to the water treatment plant then out to the saltmarsh. I start here mainly because it’s never busy and there’s little chance of the car getting damaged by some idiot with an oversized SUV who struggles to reverse even with all the reversing aids cars have these days. The car park at the entrance to Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve is usually heaving with visitors on days like today, as is the parking area at Gullane. Both best avoided, I feel.
The access road is tarmac and crosses the golf course. However, at this time in the morning the golfers are still either tucked up in bed or reading the Sunday papers with their breakfast. You only need to keep your eyes peeled later in the day when golfers are on the course. It’s just the green keeping staff who are active early on. The air was crisp and frost still covered the ground with a silvery sheen. I’d dressed in plenty of thin layers as I knew from experience that within an hour or so I’d be stripping of a layers or two as the temperature increased. At the moment, though, as I cycled down the sight rise to the saltmarsh, it was bloody nippy cold. Lots of welders wandering about looking for brass monkeys.
The tarmac soon changed to grass and loose sand, the Pugsley easily floating across both, the big fat balloon-like tyres are like riding on air. My first zone would be SandySocks, a tidal zone only accessible when the tide is out. There’s not much to see at this zone, just wide open sand-flats, lots of fresh sand ripples and the occasional timber post sticking out of the sand. These are the remains of anti-glider poles from WW2 set in concrete to foil gliders landings during a potential invasion. I’m not sure about the placing of this zone, perhaps placing it on the nearby sand-spit might be much more interesting. The sand-spit is growing year by year but I like sand-related things so I’m probably biased.
The sand here is always changing, and mindful of the new signage about sinking sands, I aimed straight for the furthest away sub and zone SubWreckTwo. When you’ve cycle here many times, you notice the changes. A lot more anti-glider pole stumps seemed visible today. Just goes to show how wind and tide can move vast quantities of sand over time. Same with the midget-sub wrecks. Sometimes a lot showing, less at other times. SubWreckOne was next, a short distance away. The large concrete blocks between them was a mooring point as the subs were used by the RAF for target practice.
Cycling back towards the dunes, I sought out the hard-packed areas. Much easier to cycle on. The sand might look much the same but an experienced eye knows where the tide packs the sand harder is certain areas. The sand at the end of the beach, in an area known as Jophies Neuk – located between the two rock outcrops – is an area where the tide does not compact the sand. Even on the Surly Pugsley the tyres sink about 150 mm into the soft sand and any forward motion is next to impossible. You can actually step off the bike and it remains upright and stationary. The only option is to get off and push.
By now I was getting too hot and stopped to remove a layer. I was also conscious I was passing close to another zone, PillBoxWW2, just out of sight across the main dunes. But I was leaving that for the return part of the trip. Next stop, zone TheOldMan, at Gullane Point. Then onwards again for the first unique of the day, zone HummelRocks. There are two options here for fat biking, along the beach, which is a mixture of sandy stretches, gravel beds with some good-sized boulders and exposed sandstone rock outcrops. There is also a footpath above the high tide line and this was my choice for today. More for a change than anything else. The small bay here is called Ironstone Cove, the name taken from an old ironstone mine nearby. You can still see the quarry where the mine entrance was once located, now long since buried.
I propped the Pugsley against the Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve sign and stopped for a Kit-Kat. No coffee this time as I’d decided to travel light but was wishing I had brought coffee. Cold water is a poor substitute. But what a day is was turning out to be. Azure blue skies, the sun beginning to warm my chilly parts and even some brave souls out swimming in the bay. Each and every time I come here I think we are so lucky to have this. The East Lothian coast is something to be cherished and kept secret for ourselves. Don’t want too many visitors spoiling the place.
Next zone is TheBleaching. Now, a wee tip should you be fat biking here. To get from zone HummelRocks down to the sandy beach, head straight there from the signpost, aiming across the flat beds of bare rock. You will soon notice a neat wee route across the rock slabs onto the sand. Zone TheBleaching takes a little thought to reach. Don’t wait until opposite the zone, you need to head towards the shore before that. Look for where the sand reaches unbroken from the shore to the sea and head inland, then ride to the left. The zone is awkward to reach from further along the shore, from the Murder Hill side.
Zone GullaneEnd was the next unique on my list, an easy ride across the hard-packed sand of Gullane Bay. The beach was getting busy. People out for their Sunday walk, paddle-boarders chancing their luck with the Great White Sharks in the Firth of Forth (global warming has seen them hunting further north than ever before) and dogs running crazy all over the place. Wouldn’t mind being a dog in the next life. While taking zone GullaneEnd, I chatted with a woman who enquired about the Pugsley’s fat tyres. It was nice to meet someone who recognised a Surly bike – she mentioned her girlfriend had cycled across the USA on a Surly bike.
With Gullane Bay being so popular, paths along the shore are plentiful, though some are better than others. And time and tide also change the paths over time. In the past, I recall there being much more sand at the end of the beach, today its mostly rocks. But no doubt, in time, sand with return again. I passed a group out walking and one chap commented about bloody annoying bikers as I passed. I was sorely tempted to stop and put him right but contented myself with muttering a few choice words under my breath as I passed the rest of the group. The words were “land reform act 2003”, but I was really thinking something entirely different and not so nice.
TheBlackRocks zone was another unique to me. A good target to aim for is the dry stone wall where it ends towards the rocky shore, not the ruins of Red House. Gets you bang in the zone for an easy take. Next, I considered heading further along the coast taking a few more (non-unique) zones but my back was telling be otherwise and enough was enough. However, all was not lost and after a wee rest and some careful stretching, I about turned and followed the trails through the conifer plantation emerging onto the dune system behind the beach. I’ve not cycled in this section before so it was nice to explore new trails. After a steep, but thankfully short, climb, I emerged at the main parking area to be confronted with hordes of visitors all heading for the beach. The zone, GullaneBents, was where the path down to the beach begins.
One final zone left to visit, PillBoxWW2. Again, more choices of trail to follow. You can either drop down to the beach and head west, or climb up the cliff path, by Corby Craigs and Maggie’s Loup, and follow the edge of the golf course. I opted for the former then made my way towards the concrete anti-tank blocks where I would pick up a path through the dunes towards the zone. When I say path, I’m being a bit optimistic, it’s really little more than a game trail, made by the local animal population, mostly Roe deer but also fox and badger, going by the tracks I spotted. The trail is not much more than 200 mm wide in places, through deep tussock grass and stunted blackthorn, so takes a bit of skill to ride without the tussock grass bringing you to a full dead stop. My tip is to keep up forward momentum, look and plan ahead, and watch you don’t catch your pedals on a tussock and take a tumble.
The pill box isn’t all that obvious but I would recommend taking the time to find it. You can also go inside but watch out for the resident sand-troll* who has a bit of a temper. You might be interested to know that when this was constructed the dunes towards the shore would not have been so extensive. The wind has shifted a lot of sand over the past 70 years or so and built the dune system you see today. I wonder what sparked off the change? Perhaps the anti-glider poles altered the natural sand-balance of the area. With the zone taken, a short cycle brought me back to the main path and I was soon back at the car.
Overall a most enjoyable morning, a few more uniques added to the tally and a great time on the Surly Pugsley fat bike. Before heading back to base, I cleaned some of the sand from the Pugsley. I’d brought a small pressure sprayer along with me. It’s only about 1.25 litres capacity and you pressurise it by hand but it does the job just fine. I was trying out a new chain lubricant called Squirt, a wax based lubricant recommended by a fellow Surly Pugsley owner. And it proved as good as I hoped. The chain had picked up very little sand. On my previous visit, using an oil-based chain lubricant, it was thick with sand and sounded horrible when pedalling. Squirt takes a little bit more time to prepare and use but will be my standard lube now for all my bikes. Until the next time.
- I’ve taken to calling him Sandy as his sand-troll name is unpronounceable.
P.S. Only kidding about the Great White’s, probably. The sand-troll is real. Yes, really.
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