A Guide to Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve in East Lothian

Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve

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Table of Contents

Summary

Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve is a small but exceptionally picturesque stretch of East Lothian coastline situated between the coastal villages of Longniddry and Gullane.

The reserve is a popular destination for walkers and photographers who go there to enjoy the wildlife and stunning views that can be found from the tops of windswept dunes that look across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh.

Amongst the habitats of wild grasses and tidal salt marshes, visitors will see a wide variety of animal species from pink-footed geese to frogs and caterpillars while keen-eyed observers have a good chance of spotting pods of dolphins swimming in the waters of the bay.

Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve
Address:Longniddry,
EH32 0QB
Opening Hours:Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve is open 24/7, 365 days a year.
Admission Price:Entry is free.
Parking:There is a small car parking area at the entrance to the bay on the A198. The car parking area is tarmacked and has space for a maximum 20 cars. There is no car parking charge.
Contact:NA
Facilities:There are public toilets and bike lock points at the car park. The nearest shops and places to eat are in Aberlady village.

The highlights

1: This is one of the most scenic areas on East Lothian’s coastline. The views across the Firth of Forth towards Edinburgh and Fife are spectacular, as are the views across the marshland that’s crowded with numerous wildfowl throughout the year.

2: Anyone looking to escape the noise of Edinburgh needs to go no further than Aberlady Bay. It can be driven to in just 40 minutes from Princes Street yet it feels a million miles from the city centre. Walkers will have a wonderful time following the coastline which joins the equally attractive Gullane Bay to the north.

3: Aberlady Bay is a great place to visit no matter the season, but it’s especially beautiful in the summer.

The nature reserve offers some of the best bird-spotting opportunities in the county (don’t forget to take binoculars* with you) and the beach is wide and secluded enough that you’ll always be able to find a spot well away from the crowds that flock to nearby Yellowcraig and Gullane beaches.

*Link to binocular reviews.

Aberlady Bay

Visiting tips

1: The car park is always busy at the weekend if the weather is warm so I recommend getting there as early as possible.

Although some people choose to park on the pavement, this should be avoided as it’s frequently used by cyclists and people on foot. Note that the A198 next to the reserve is now double-yellow lined.

2: The area immediately north of the nature reserve is part of Gullane Golf Club which is a very popular course. With that in mind, it’s advisable to keep a good distance away as golf balls have been known to blow off course due to the strong gusts that blow in from the Firth of Forth.

3: If the Aberlady Bay car park is full, try driving west along the B1348 to Longniddry Bents. This is another East Lothian beach that’s a real stunner and has superb car parking with plenty of spaces, toilets, and a fish-and-chip van.

Visitors who aren’t interested in sitting on the beach can walk 2.5 miles on an enjoyable coastal trail from Longniddry Bents to Port Seton.


Overview

East Lothian is an underappreciated gem in Scotland as not only is it a stone’s throw from Edinburgh but it’s also home to one of the nicest stretches of coastline in the country.

While Yellowcraig and Gullane attract the majority of visitors looking for a relaxing beach day, Aberlady Bay is a favourite with wildlife lovers due to the many bird and insect species that live there.

The bay lies around 13 miles east of Edinburgh, pretty much midway between the two towns of Musselburgh and North Berwick.

Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve

Getting there involves following the scenic A198 which passes through rolling fields and along the coastline, with the drive from Musselburgh taking around 20 minutes and North Berwick taking around 15 minutes.

There’s no fixed point of entry but the main way to visit the site is via the car park on the A198, although anyone on foot or bike can access the reserve either from Gullane Beach or Gosford Bay, as well as from Gullane Golf Club which backs the reserve along its northern edge.

Aberlady Bay is noteworthy for being designated as the first local nature reserve in Britain – an accolade it received in 1952 – due to the diverse range of habitats within its 1,439 acres which include salt marshes, beaches, dunes, grassland, and even a freshwater lochan.

Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve

These habitats attract a range of wildlife so the reserve is a great place to take children who will no doubt love hunting around the verges for caterpillars, frogs and all manner of creepy crawlies, while birdwatchers have a good chance to see wheateaters, blackcaps, redshanks and lapwings, amongst others.

Rare Aberlady Bay bird sightings, meanwhile, include Egyptian Geese, king eider, Caspian plovers and Western sandpipers.

In addition to the wildlife, Aberlady Bay is a good option for beach days as it tends to be quieter than other beaches in the area, possibly because getting there involves a 1.5-mile walk as opposed to other beaches which have car parks right at the edges of the dunes.

The beach is wide and clean with soft sand and is fairly well sheltered from the breezes coming off the Forth, especially on the northern end at Gullane Point.

Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve

Tourist information

Once at the car park, visitors enter the site across a wooden bridge known as the ‘footbridge to enchantment’, made famous by Scottish author Nigel Tranter in his autobiographical book of the same name.

The bridge offers the first sight of the wide sandflats that attract the flocks of birds that live on the reserve and it’s one of the best locations for birdwatching – though it’s quite narrow so it’s not an ideal place to stand on busy days.

From the bridge, a narrow grass track winds its way past the pretty Marl Loch and along the border of farmland before reaching the edge of the golf club. The grassland to the south is off-limits as it’s the site of nesting birds, but there are several places to watch wildfowl flying in and out.

The track then continues northwest to some rather steep dunes that border the golden Aberlady Beach which runs north-south from Gullane Point to Seton Sands Beach.

Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve

This stretch of sand is huge when the tide is out but when the tide returns it’s completely submerged, so if your intention is to walk around it you might like to check the Aberlady Bay tide times before leaving home.

Be aware that as nice as the walk around the nature reserve is, it’s not permitted to take dogs there due to potential disturbance to the wildlife, so if you have your pooch with you you’ll have to give Aberlady Bay a miss and head to Gullane Beach or Gosford Bay instead. That’s not a major inconvenience though as both beaches are only a 5-10 minute drive north or south.

While exploring Aberlady Bay, keep your eyes open for two corroded metal structures embedded in the sand. They may look like ship’s hulls but they are, in fact, submarines.

The story behind them is that they were anchored to concrete blocks in the bay in 1946 and were subsequently used by the RAF for target practice for a number of years before being abandoned.

The 52-foot vessels were a specialized type of ‘X-class’ submarine that was used for covert operations in WWII and had a crew of just 4 sailors, with successful missions that included surveying the Normandy coast for the Omaha Beach landings and planting charges on German battleships in Norway.

Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve

It’s possible to walk to the Aberlady Bay submarines when the tide is out but be aware that because the bay is very flat the sea rises extremely fast and it’s easy to get caught out if you don’t keep an eye on the time.

From the beach, there are two options for continuing the Aberlady Bay walk, which is to either return the way you came past Marl Loch and back to the wooden footbridge, or continue north to Gullane and walk into the village to return back to the car park via the A198 footpath (5 miles in total).

It may seem tempting to take a shortcut back to the car park across the sandflats where the birds nest, but the ground quickly transitions into thick mud as you near the bridge which is pretty much impassable, and potentially downright dangerous if the tide returns.

As far as facilities go, there’s a toilet block at the car park as well as bike anchor points, but that’s about it. That being said, Gullane is close enough to walk to which is a nice wee village (named among the 50 best places to live in the UK) and has a couple of quality restaurants as well as a few shops to stock up on picnic supplies.

Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve

Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:

Dunbar & North Berwick – 351 Explorer.

Edinburgh – 66 Landranger.

OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.


Things to do nearby

Yellowcraig Beach. Ware Road, North Berwick EH39. 12-minute drive.
One of the top beaches in East Lothian. This beach features clean golden sand and shallow water so it’s well-suited to families with young children.

The John Muir Way runs past the rear of the dunes. There’s a large car park, a children’s play area, toilets, and a snack van on-site.

Dirleton Castle. Dirleton, North Berwick EH39 5ER. 9-minute drive.
A medieval fortress that is largely intact and has several interesting features including one of Scotland’s best-preserved dovecots, surprisingly large subterranean storage vaults, and the world’s longest herbaceous border.

The Scottish Seabird Centre. The Harbour, North Berwick EH39 4SS. 16-minute drive.
An environmental visitor centre that aims to educate and entertain visitors with displays and exhibitions about Scotland’s coastal marine wildlife.

The centre features a viewing platform that overlooks the Bass Rock and a harbour that’s the departure point for pleasure cruises around the nearby islands which are home to thousands of seabirds.

North Berwick Law. North Berwick EH39 5NX. 14-minute drive.
A large volcanic plug that rises 187 metres above the coastal town of North Berwick.

Berwick Law has well-trodden paths that allow relatively easy access to a whalebone sculpture at the top. The summit is famed for the stunning views across East Lothian and the Firth of Forth.

Archerfield Walled Garden. Archerfield Estate, Dirleton EH39 5HQ. 9-minute drive.
An 18th-century walled garden that encompasses wildflowers, roses, a kitchen garden, and vegetable gardens.

Nearby Archerfield Wood has a fairy trail and a play park. There’s a quality local produce shop on-site that sells food, gifts, and features a garden café.


Frequently asked questions

Where is Aberlady Bay?

Aberlady Bay is located on the coastline of East Lothian between the villages of Gullane (north) and Longniddry (south). It is approximately 13.5 miles east of Princes Street in Edinburgh. The postcode of Aberlady Bay car park is EH32 0QB.

Are dogs allowed at Aberlady Bay?

Dogs are not allowed in Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve. Dogs are allowed on the beaches on either side of the reserve at Gullane and Longniddry.

How many people live in Aberlady?

The population of Aberlady in East Lothian is approximately 1,300 people.

Where is Gullane Beach?

Gullane is a glorious sandy beach located in East Lothian, 5 miles from North Berwick to the east and 20 miles from Edinburgh to the west. Access to the car park is via Sandy Loan, opposite the Gullane shops on the A198. The Gullane Beach postcode is EH31 2BE.

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By Craig Neil

Craig Neil is a travel writer from Edinburgh with a passion for exploring the hidden gems of Scotland. From the rugged Highlands to the bustling cities, he's dedicated years to touring the country and uncovering its many attractions. Join him as he shares insider tips and personal experiences to help visitors find the best things to do in Scotland. Follow him on Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.

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