Caught between the North Sea and a dramatic backdrop of towering cliffs and crumbling crags, St Cyrus National Nature Reserve is a truly magical place where exquisite coastal scenery, bracing marine air and a proliferation of birds, insects and wild flowers await the walker.
This route is not a long one, but it packs plenty in. Paths through rustling dunes and sheltered heathland probe deep into the heart of wildlife country, while a long swathe of white sand, perfect for a relaxing stroll, culminates with a sea stack and caves that demand more adventurous exploration.
The walk starts at the reserve visitor centre and follows the sweeping Sands of St Cyrus north towards Milton Ness. As you approach the jutting headland, the shoreline narrows, the beach receding in favour of dark bluffs of rugged rock that prompt a short foray up on to the cliff top. This brief test of legs and lungs is rewarded with an elevated vista over the whole reserve, a sneak preview of country soon to be discovered.
Before you set off, pop into the visitor centre. Housed in a former lifeboat station, it is a mine of useful information on the area, its geological history and current day natural attractions. Then set a course for the wooden boardwalks and bridge offering safe passage across the soggy saltmarsh occupying a natural dip behind the sand dunes. It may look unsavoury, but this sheltered spot is a real safe haven for seabirds and there are plenty of low-growing plants, like sea campion and kidney vetch that just love the salty conditions.
The path rises through spiky marram grass on to the broad crest of the dunes, presenting you with your first sight of the beach, the deep blue ocean stretching unhindered from the frothy shoreline right out to the horizon. Head down on to the sand and bear left.
When the tide is low, the Sands of St Cyrus are so wide you can wander at will. Others may be out, but you can still enjoy the peace and quiet of your own space as you head north. Even on the hottest of summer days, when families pitch up with their windbreaks and cool boxes, the beach rarely feels crowded. Few sun seekers stray far from the area closest to the car park. Out of season, you could very well end up with the whole stretch to yourself.
Sadly, the glorious sand does not last forever and, as the route approaches the white house on the cliff top at Woodston, it starts to peter out. Dotted across the beach are jagged outcrops of rock, known locally as the hens’ teeth. Here too is a stocky wee stack, carved free from neighbouring crags by centuries of slow but steely erosion. If the tide is out, it is possible to skirt round to the next cove where there are a couple of small caves in the cliff-face to investigate.
Close to the stack, an obvious path climbs away from the beach, rising first to a viewpoint with a seat, and then to the top of the cliffs where a stone cairn marks the northern boundary of the nature reserve. There are fine views here, but the best ones are still to come.Bear left at the cairn and follow the path through the courtyard of the former Woodston Fishing Station. It is now a B&B, but there are plenty of reminders of the site’s maritime heritage, most notably a trail of lobster baskets lining the way.
Beyond a chain spanning the drive, the coastal path strikes left, rising gently alongside an open field to a small car park on the periphery of St Cyrus. This is the highest point on the route and worth attaining for the overview if presents of the nature reserve, setting the habitat in context with the surrounding landscape, the protective cliffs to the right, the exposed shoreline to the left. It also offers an aerial snapshot of one of the coastline’s oldest industries – salmon fishing.
On the foreshore below, whitewashed cottages and bothies lurk in the dunes. They are the domains of fishermen who anchor great nets to the beach at low tide, hoping to snare salmon as they head up the coast to their spawning grounds. When the tide recedes, trapped fish are retrieved. It is a waiting game and one that has gone on at St Cyrus since the 13th century, a traditional way of life untouched by advances elsewhere in the industry.
From the car park, a path and steps, constructed in 1882 and recently upgraded to repair damage caused by erosion, zigzag down to the cottages. Join a sandy track at the bottom and bear right, heading south through grassland dotted with thorny thickets of gorse, protective cover for the rabbits that burrow below.
Keep your eyes peeled for butterflies and moths flitting from flower to flower. Up on the cliffs, fulmars nest and breed on sheltered ledges, rearing chicks in the spring, while birds of prey like the buzzard are often to be seen circling overhead.
On a fine day the walking here is delightfully pleasant and serene, protected against anything the sea may throw ashore by the rolling battlement of dunes. The path is level, continuing to a walled cemetery at Nether Kirkyard and then, beyond a gate, a more substantial track leads back to the car park.
Distance: 3 miles/5km.
Time: 2-3 hours.
Map: Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50,000 sheet 45.
Start/parking: St Cyrus National Nature Reserve visitor centre, Nether Warberton, near St Cyrus (GR: NO 742634). Free car park.
Terrain: Sandy beach, path and track. This is an easy, low-level walk. There is a short section of ascent and a brief hike above cliffs – keep to the path here, as the drop is steep and long. Keep dogs on the lead within the nature reserve to avoid disrupting wildlife.
Information: St Cyrus NNR Visitor Centre (Tel: 01674 830736) and public toilets at start.