At its base runs the Dowlaw Burn, a tiny stream for such a deep and dramatic gorge. In past times, when the ice sheet melted at the end of the ice age it must have been a fearsome torrent of water cutting away at the rock and transporting it out to sea, leaving the spectacular gorge which we have today. The present day Dowlaw Burn drains Dowlaw Moss and Long Moss on Coldingham Moor.
The south facing slopes of the dean are very steep and drop straight into the burn, parts are sheer cliff the rest a mixture of rock outcrops and almost vertical grassy banks. The rocks and ground are hot and dry as it is a sun trap.
The north facing slopes also have cliffs and steep grassy slopes with a steep stone scree at their base.
In the bottom of the dean there is a jumble of large, sharp angled boulders, often covered with bracken and brambles and a place where it would be very easy to slip and break a leg. The north facing slopes are much cooler and damper and the vegetation is more rank and green.
On a recent mini expedition with some friends we went to explore the dean in search of its wildlife. Along the top on the north side, near where the dean enters the sea, there was a colourful display of wild flowers on the hot dry rocks, purple bell heather, yellow rock rose and pink thyme were the most showy, sea pink and small amounts of kidney vetch were just past flowering.
This was a great spot for butterflies with good numbers of the small, dark, almost black Northern Brown Argus whose caterpillars rely on the rock rose as their food plant. The grayling was also frequent as it favours dry rock places, and fast flying dark green fritillary were also present. 14 species of butterfly were encountered on our walk. At one point a very fast flying insect dashed past us in search of flowers - a hummingbird hawkmoth, a migrant from the European mainland.
To descend here is perilous and is not recommended, one slip and you will not stop until you hit the bottom! On the screes at the far side are fine plants of roseroot, this has succulent glaucous green leaves, yellow flowers followed by attractive orange-red seed capsules it grows about 30cm tall. Its name is derived from the scent of roses from its damaged roots but we did not dig up any to find out if this was true.
Heading inland up the base of the dean there is a thin strip of native ash and oak woodland and here we found tall spikes of the giant bellflower, this campanula has showy pale pinkish-blue flowers. There is enough woodland at the top of the dean for tawny owls, which was a surprise as this is not the sort of place you would expect to encounter a woodland species.
This is a savage place and should be treated with respect as it would be very easy to have a serious accident in Dowlaw Dean.