Saturday, 20 February 2016

Montrose - Sea, land, mud, sand

Boundaries are always rich places where the fauna and flora of one habitat meet and mix with that of another. Montrose Basin on the Angus coast is a tidal basin with a narrow neck of river connecting it to the sea. Washed twice daily by the tides, it's neither land nor sea but a place of shifting boundaries.

I arrived by train - the railway spans the river and you can get off right on the edge of the basin. It was low tide so mud flats, shingle beds and the fast-flowing waters of the River South Esk were fully exposed. Mud covering an area equal to 1500 football pitches was picked over by curlews, oystercatchers, redshanks, greenshanks and godwits. Set against a range of snow-covered hills to the north, it was a beautiful scene.

I cycled to the far side of the basin under big blue skies and along tracks that cut across fields still flooded from the storms at the turn of the year. A pair of little grebes bobbed and dived on the river while shelducks gathered on the salt marsh. By the time I cycled back to Montrose, the tide was high and the basin had become a little loop of lassoed North Sea. Huge flotillas of eider ducks clustered on the water and sleek, long-necked cormorants fished below.

At the boundaries of the basin are watery reed beds. I watched a kingfisher here for ages. It hovered above a pool, dived, came up with a fish, whacked it on a log then manouvered it the right way around so the scales would slide easily down its gullet.

If the basin at Montrose is a fluid, ephemeral boundary then the beach at St Cyrus, a few miles cycle up the coast, is a more defined one. Here the land gives way suddenly to the sea in a line of tall, rocky outcrops. With low tide again, there were miles of pristine sandy beach to wander along. The sun shone, the gorse showed some early yellow flowers and seabirds were forming pairs on ledges in the crags above. It might have been spring but for the deep, steely-blue clouds that passed over in waves sending down flurries of wind-driven snow.

At the far end of the beach, I found a grassy path that meandered back through an area of rough scrubland between the beach and the crags. Old huts here were the remains of fishing stations and ancient paths zig-zagged up where the crags relented to the village above. 

Further along, it was a surprise to come across a quaint old cemetery at the foot of the crags, its gravestones weather by the elements and camouflaged by coats of lichen. I stopped a while with the sun on my face and screwed up my eyes, trying to imagine this place in days of old when people might have hauled in nets or laboriously climbed the steep paths carrying huge creels of fish. It was easy to imagine because the links to the past could still be seen today and I felt like I was standing on another boundary. The boundary of time between my modern life and an older, harder existence. 

Fact File
More photos on Flickr - click here.
Transport: Edinburgh/Glasgow to Aberdeen trains stop at Montrose. The station is right on the edge of the basin and the bridge over the platfoms is a great viewing spot.
Map: OS Landranger 54
Montrose Basin - On exiting the station head straight across the small roundabout with geese sculptures and swing right to the Tesco store. Opposite it is a park with a cycle path through it. Follow the cycle signs/path south over the bridge to Ferryden and then along the side of the A92. In about 1km is the Scottish Wildlife Trust centre with outdoor hide, indoor panoramic viewing window, telescopes and hot drinks. From here I continued along the cycle path beside the A92 (bit narrow in spots) then turned off at Maryton and followed lovely quiet back roads to Bridge of Dun. Take a right immediately after crossing the railway and you soon come to a SWT car park. You can cycle along the wide path and then tracks out to the two hides here - follow the signs. It's a decent walk if you're on foot with great open views. I returned via the same route.
St Cyrus Beach - Pick up national cycle route no. 1 at the bridge over the estuary in Montrose. It follows a lovely traffic-free route round the edge of town. Immediately after the amateur football ground don't take the signed route left as there is currently a diversion in place but continue straight on along the concrete airstrip (now closed to air traffic!). It eventually swings left and picks up the cycle route again after the closed section. Follow the signed cycle route through lovely pine woods and over a viaduct then along a quiet B road to the visitor centre for St Cyrus beach. I chained the bike up here. Set out along the main path and cross a bridge over marshy pools to get to the beach. At the top end of the beach a steep path comes down from the village. Here you'll find the start of a grassy path back to the start through the scrub below the crags. It's a delightful walk.