Sunday, December 28, 2008

St Andrews

Hello all,
I'm not travelling much these days (nothing on the schedule until March), so here's another from the Pre-Blog Archives.

I can’t believe I missed the airport shuttle this morning. What was I thinking? Just strolling down the hill, I figured I had plenty of time. Time enough to stop for a pain au chocolate if I passed a bakery open already. The shuttle leaves the bus station at 5:45, and it’s only 5:30.
Hey, what’s that van going the other way?
At the bus station two minutes later - yeah, shuttle to the airport, leaving at 5:30. what had I been thinking?? And I could have caught it too, with a little hustle.
My flight is at 6:35, but how to get there? There’s not a taxi in sight. The city is nearly deserted at this time of the morning. I could phone for a taxi, but it takes ages for one to actually show up. Ah, the train station! There should be taxis at the train station.
And so there are. Three. Three nice, empty taxis. Zero taxi drivers in sight. In the station, out again, nobody seems to be interested in a fare. So I go inside again and shout TAXI! Surprisingly loudly. My experience of shouting usually involves a barely audible squeak. This time I get it out, and it echos in the tall space of the station where the train to Paris is just about to leave.
My shout seems to have provoked nothing. I go outside again, starting to panic. How much time do I have left before they close check-in? Three guys with cigarettes stroll out of the station. I ask one - où sont les taxis ? And he kind of smiles and laughs at my anguish. They’re the drivers, the three of them. Let them have their breakfast in peace.
It’s a small town. Ten minutes later I’m paying my 15€ and hurrying into the airport. They’re not even boarding my flight yet. I’ve got plenty of time - a technical problem means we’re 20 minutes late. Take a breath.
And next time, get out of the house ten minutes earlier.

On the bus to into Edinburgh I’m struck with a sense of urgency to get outside immediately and go walk around. The sun is out and it’s low on the horizon already and the day is wasting away. But the imminent disappearance of the sun is an illusion. It’s being so far north in January. Really, it’s only noon. This is the best it gets for sun here.
Yes, noon and I’m famished. The roasted vegetable and cream cheese sandwich served on the plane ranked among the nastiest airline food experiences ever. Even the bread was inedible. In the food court in the mall next to the train station I decide on a baked potato stuffed with chicken tikka. Mmmm. Fresh and hot and spicy.
As I’m tucking in, I think - what if my train to Leuchars is leaving even now, and there isn’t another one for hours? That would suck. That would be me sacrificing daylight on the coast for a tasty and appreciated but quite ordinary lunch. I finish up and go over to the station proper. Next train in 45 minutes. Ok. Note to self: discover that first next time and eat in peace.
Leuchars is very small. It has a medieval church at its center, set in a brilliantly sunlit lawn with old tombstones standing about. That’s about it. Most everything else is 20th century. It’s neat and clean and nice, with a fish & chip & pizza shop, a single grocery, and lots and lots and lots of middle-class housing. Plus a couple of old mansions cozy behind their high walls.
The sign for cars says the nature reserve and beach are 3.5km that way. I can’t seem to find a footpath, though I remember from my internet research that the coastal trail around here actually follows the road. So I go down the road.
It’s pretty, and green except for the trees. The town quickly fades for farmland. I pass an old manor house. They have three pheasants hanging together from a tree, like something from a novel. I liked the pheasants I saw from the train better, even if I couldn’t get so close, or watch them for as long as I wanted.
More farmland, flat, large fields. My feet are slipping in my boots, walking along the asphalt. The shoulder is too soggy and overgrown for walking. I should put on another pair of socks, or turn back. I’ll have blisters at this rate, and the big hiking day (cross my fingers it doesn’t rain much) is tomorrow. The countryside here, with no view of the sea forthcoming, is really rather boring, so I turn back and catch the bus to St Andrews.
Now the sun really is getting low. I’ve got about an hour of light left, so it’s off to explore the town before finding my hotel. Much as my backpack is getting heavy, four of five weather reports predicted rain for tomorrow, and I’d like to get out in the sun while I can.
I glorified Leuchars by calling it a town. St. Andrews is a town. It has a lot to brag about, too - oldest university, oldest & most famous golf course, biggest cathedral of its time (now in ruins), maybe some other stuff too but the rerun the Big Three so often I can’t think of what the others are. Ruined castles, of course, but everyone’s got ruined castles.
It’s sale season in Scotland today, and I do peek into windows along the high street. If those prices were in euros I still wouldn’t be impressed. But with a pound to 1.5 euros, even stuff on sale is incredibly expensive. 70% off! It’d better be!
Happily, I come to the end of the street and catch a glimpse of something tall and old in the distance. That’s more like it. All around are very old buildings, usually three stories, shops on the bottom, homes on top; larger buildings for the university, some very impressive, all in a massively stony gothic style. Except for a few. Except for the 20th century steel and glass and concrete boxes plopped here and there like alien spaceships. Thank goodness there aren’t very many of them.
The old tall thing turns out to be the remains of the cathedral. I have just time for a few pictures before it’s too dark. As I said, when it was built it was the largest cathedral in Scotland. Its footprint is huge. You could practically fit central Leuchars inside. But it didn’t last long. Protestantism arrived and put an end to local popery. For centuries the cathedral was used as a convenient quarry, and I’m surprised that so much of it is left (though it isn’t much), until I consider that perhaps you really could build the entire high street from a structure this massive, and still have bits left over.

It becomes too dark for photography, so I make for my hotel. My host for Monday’s meeting has a deal with this place, and he’d better because I could never afford it on my own. Or I could, just, but it would bother me as being too wasteful.
This place is luxurious. St. Andrews is the home of golf, and the people who travel to Scotland on golf vacations are not usually budget travelers like me. My hotel is the number-two golf hotel in town (number one being an enormous castle-like affair that I have no urge to set foot in it’s so hideous). Golf decor is everywhere. The Big Golf Course is just out the back.
I have a sitting room. I have bath salts. I have cookies and tea things. The towels are the thick, oversized ones I buy for myself, and they smell fresh - not of mildew or the burnt smell of a too-hot dryer. Perhaps if I knew a little better about better hotels I’d be not so impressed, but it’s the nicest I’ve ever stayed in. I have the Sir Anthony Room, number nineteen, decorated with photos of Sir Anthony teeing off, Sir Anthony meeting the Prime Minister on the green, Sir Anthony in various golf and golf-related activities.
After a hot bath and a bit of BBC tv while I unpack and settle in, I wander around the hotel, just to see. It has class, and grandeur, but both, it appears, are a little passed. I visit the reading room, with its huge windows looking out at Castle Golf or whatever it’s called, and out over the bay, and am glad there’s nobody there reading because the floor, under a nice carpet, hasn’t been refinished in who knows how many centuries. There’s a whole topo map under this carpet, with hills and valleys and mountain ranges, and they all make the most interesting creaking noises when you step on them. I peek into the bar, and the restaurant, and I can’t do so discretely because I am announced at every step. You could play tunes with this floor.
The restaurant is a little too Old Money for me, very starched and formal; I didn’t bring clothes for that. The bar, though, is inviting. High ceilings, windows overlooking the bay, no smoke (no people), deep comfy armchairs. I could sip a small glass of something over ice there. Easily.
But I don’t. I’m off for an evening stroll along the seaside perimeter of the town, which will take me past the illuminated castle ruins and the cathedral again. It’s not nearly as cold as I thought it would be from the weather reports, which is nice. The castle is almost as ruined as the cathedral. Monday morning I’ll take the scheduled tour and find out why.
At one vantage point along the rocky shore I pause to listen to the surf, which is quite loud. But there aren’t any waves. It’s just the rocks breaking up the passing swells. From here I can see the castle and cathedral both. And I realize the religious structure was bigger. Or at least it was longer. I suppose the more squarish castle would win for square footage, but add in the grounds, and the cathedral wins hands down.
It’s almost too bad they’ve lit the cathedral. The moon is full tonight and shining ferociously over the sea. It would be beautiful to see the ruins lit only from this celestial source.
The town was lively with shoppers the afternoon, but now they have all gone in somewhere. Perhaps it is still too early for dinner at a quarter to eight. Thinking of dinner. Earlier there were many shops open for sandwiches and coffee and pastries, and it was looking like the college-town third of St. Andrews would contribute casual, cheap dining possibilities.
But now, walking down the quiet streets on a Saturday night, I can get Chinese or pizza to go, or have something fried in a smoke-filled bar, or I can go into a nice restaurant with fresh flowers and multiple wine glasses. Alas, when I try a couple of the more reasonable-looking establishments, they’re all booked up. They’re half empty still, but every last table is reserved.
Eventually I discover a huge restaurant serving the usual burgers and pseudo-mexican and a variety of ‘international’ things that has room. Lots of room; so much that it makes me wonder if people know something I don’t. but it’s this or take-out.
I was hoping for a nice local brew, but all they have is Guinness and a selection of continental lagers. The thing that’s in vogue now is wine by the glass. A ‘small’ glass is 175 ml, and a ‘large’ is much bigger. They’re serious about this wine - a standard glass in France is 125 ml of liquid, no matter the size of the container.
Not in the mood for wine, I order an MGD (my god, ordering American beer in Scotland. For shame! But all the pubs are full of smoke and all the good restaurants are full. What’s a girl to do?) and a steak, rare.
They take a very long time with my food, such that even with lots of writing to occupy me, my beer is about gone by the time it arrives. Ahh, at last. How long does it take to make a rare steak, anyway?
I think they just forgot it there on the grill while somebody went on break. This thing is shoe leather. It isn’t even pink inside, let along bleeding. And the mushrooms it’s topped with have seen better days. The pepper sauce, however, is excellent, so I amuse myself with peppersauce fries while trying to catch somebody’s, anybody’s attention so I can send this back.
It takes a while. People have come in and filled the place a bit. It’s not exactly full, but it no longer has that emptiness that shouts -Everybody else knows better- any more.
Once I do flag down my waiter, (I actually have to stand up to get his attention; waving my arms as if I had an urgent correct answer has no effect but to make other diners look at me strangely), my evening is transformed. He whisks my plate away like a good boy. A moment later the manager approaches, tsking, oh, my, that was truly horrible that steak, I don’t know what happened. We’re making you another; may I bring you a complimentary beverage?
Um, a glass of red wine would be nice. The merlot looks good.
The manager would really like to bring me the large, tankard size, but I insist on “small”. That will be fine. Honest.
It is in fact a very nice Merlot, and I regret my earlier vote for beer. It just seemed like a beer night. And I am informed that 10 % has been taken off my bill, too. That’s fair, though I hadn’t expected more than the complementary wine and a new, properly cooked steak. Though they see me writing, then looking around, then writing. Could be I’m a reviewer.
The replacement steak is excellent. It’s obviously larger and thicker, and it is rare. My fries have been replaced with fresh, hot ones, my mushrooms are new and nice. Everybody wants to know if it’s okay. Yes, it’s very nice. Yes, honestly. And the idea of dessert is tempting, but I’m stuffed. Couldn’t eat another bite. Afterward I weave my way back to the hotel. 175 ml is “small”? Not for wine.

Breakfast is in the dining room, and included in my rate, so I indulge. There’s a continental buffet with very tasty pastries, and hot things are ordered from the kitchen instead of being preserved on steam tables. I order porridge and coffee, and have pastry and yogurt while I’m waiting for slow-cooking oats. When it does come it’s delicious, but the sky has been lightening for some time now over the sea, and I want to get outside as early as possible. So half a bowl is enough.
It’s slightly cloudy out, and the walks and lawns are covered with frost, but it doesn’t feel too cold out. Though maybe that’s just because I’m dressed for minus ten and it’s all of zero. A few people are jogging, but once I’m away from town and the hotels I don’t see anyone for hours. The castle is all golden in the pre-dawn light, and the tide is way, way out.
With predictions of rain today and fair weather on Monday sticking in my head, I decide to take advantage of this fine morning by seeing as much of the coast and countryside as I can before scurrying back to shelter when it starts to cloud over. I can see the town of St Andrews in more depth on Monday morning.
And it is a wonderfully clear morning. The sun isn’t up yet, there are some pink clouds over the sea, and there isn’t much wind. Perfect.
Most of the coast is rocky, but there are a few stretches of beach. There are the cleverly named “West Beach” and “East Beach”, and here’s “Seaside Award Beach”. Seaside Award is the dog beach. Or maybe they all are, but only this one has dogs on it just now. I’m the only person without a dog. Not that there are all that many people or dogs out on this Sunday morning. It makes me reflect that the streets of St Andrews are scrupulously free of dog poo. As it is on this beach, in fact, at least so far.
At the southern end of the beach the Fife Coast Trail climbs up onto the bluff overlooking the shoreline all the way around to the Forth of Firth, across from Edinburgh. I’ll be doing miles 60 to 65 of the Coastal Path today, weather permitting. What I’d love to do is get all the way to the town of Crail, but I’m not sure how far that is, and even less sure there’d be bus service back to St Andrews if necessary.
Come to think of it, there’s probably nothing at all at the village of Boarhill, my turning around point. No lunch, in particular. Darn. I should have filled a little ziplock with those delicious apple-filled pastries at breakfast, and snagged a couple oranges. Whatever. I’ve got three orange tootsie pops if need be.
The path is sometimes up on the bluff, sometimes down on the rocky shore. It starts off skirting a mobile home park, abandoned for the season. Beyond that is a construction zone, extending for many acres. So far they’ve torn everything up into a vast area of bare dirt, but nothing is being built. They’re laying some large pipe down. Maybe it’s yet another golf course. To go with the one right next door, and the one on the other side of the road.
It’s pretty windy topside, but a few people are out golfing anyway. The club house is a modern building, square, with glass all around. Some distance away is a very big hotel, done in a very boring 1950’s reform-school style and painted a sort of ochre yellow. Definitely don’t want to go there. On one of the seaside greens a man is taking two children out for a Sunday morning walk. The boy, about three, is sniveling and bawling for his mummy. The girl, about six, is putting up a good show. She’d rather not be out here in the gale force wind, but she’ll not be a baby.
The view is great. To the south, shockingly green golf lands roll to the cliffs, which tumble down to a black rocky apron around the land, and then the calm blue sea. To the north St. Andrews is in sunlight, with the land edge curving past it in inlets and headlands until it fades over the horizon. The sky is half clouds, half sun, nothing very threatening.
Between the golf course in use and the one under construction is a field for cows, and their territory extends down to the water where the trail is. They like the trail too, and they’ve made it a muddy mess, sinking up to their bovine ankles. There are only a dozen or so, huge placid animals that let hikers go by without worry but for their boots.
For all there’s little to say about the coast, which is pretty but not spectacularly so, I do manage to take two rolls of film. I should start a special album just for rocks, the way I have one for trains and another for cows and one for famous landmarks under scaffolding. That would be a nice evening project when I’m between knitting projects.
Eventually the trail leaves the waterside and cuts across to the village of Boarhill. There are sheep in a fallow field, making a wonderfully subtle study in shades of brown and texture. Nobody much is about in the village. There’s no shop, not even a closed one. Just a quiet, closely packed cluster of houses out in the countryside.
I didn’t print out the next section of map, and with no signage in Boarhill it’s unclear how far it is to Crail, where there’s a harbor full of colorful little boats that figure largely on the local postcards. Nor is it obvious that the trail heads back to the water soon - it seems to be heading off into the interior, which is quite monotonous in the January cold. Probably 5 miles on the road, as many as ten on the trail.
I vaguely recall Crail being ten road miles from St Andrews, so a round trip there is a bit much for a Sunday with no guarantee of bus service. I probably said that before, but when you’re hiking along with just your thoughts and the pretty stones and the odd cow, things tend to go around in brain circles.
As I turn around I notice a bank of much darker clouds to the west, reminding me of another reason to not stay out too long. It may well start to rain soon. Though not just yet.
More people are outside on my way back. The golf course is busier, and I pass eight other hikers, mostly in pairs. Small boats are coming around to check buoys that are now in deep enough water to approach. The tide has come in, Far In.
And it’s probably going to be a very high tide, considering the moon is full.
This reminds me that there might be a hitch ahead. Coming south there was at one point a sign saying that the trail was often cut off by the high tide and that hikers should wait for it to go out again. There didn’t appear to be a convenient way around by scaling the unstable bluff, either, and the rude footholds hacked into the gentler but slick hillside farther back didn’t seem to offer a great alternative to waiting. It looked more like a good place for a fall and a soaking.
I’d thought about all that rather idly a few hours ago, with a good many yards between me and the water. And then I’d gone on to other musings and the trail up topside, and forgotten. The tide isn’t at its highest yet. The algae on the rocks and the flotsam limit attest to that. But how much time do I have? Where exactly was that place, with its crescent of sandy beach between jagged tongues of rock pointing to Scandinavia?
I remember taking a picture of a particularly nice black stone with a thin purple vein across it, and finding the perfect spot for a pee right about there. But was it past the cows? I think so. Past the cows and before the view of the hideous golf hotel/reform school. So it must be soon.
Well, not that soon, but the passage is still dry, the narrow strip that is left. Most of the landscape of fantastic rock formations and pools has been transformed into sea, with tiny islands.

Back in St Andrews my feet declare they’ve had enough. And it’s definitely time for a bite. Fortunately, the Scots are very big on eating in the middle of the afternoon, and at 2:30 lots of places are open for sandwiches and pastry and coffee, or wine if you’d prefer. I have a delicious sandwich with smoked salmon and greens and chutney, but the spiced apple crumble gets erased from the chalkboard while I’m waiting for my waitress to come ask me if I want some. The gingerbread is not good, alas.
I’ve wandered about enough for one day, and check out Brit TV once the sun goes down. They’ve got Deal or No Deal, a stupid game show we’ve got in France. The BBC does it slightly better by condensing it down to half an hour. The French wring an excruciating extra quarter hour out of the same thing. Better is a show where the brits got word of the annual Punkin Chuck contest in Delaware. In two days they cobbed together a centrifuge-based pumpkin thrower from old junk, including a bus engine and heavy iron scaffolding. They ship it over and take second place in their class (of 3), and have a grand old time of it.
I don’t search very hard for dinner. The pasta with salmon just up the street sounded good, so I don’t go any farther. I should have, alas. Then I try looking for some live music. Unlike nightlife I experienced in Ireland, there doesn’t seem to be much traditional live music on offer here in St Andrews. There might be some ascertainment bias on my part, because music was certainly going on in a number of bars, and bars these days are extra-full of smoke now that restaurants are strictly non-smoking, so I avoid the ones with unbreathable air. But I have been looking, all over town, in bars, and there just seems to be nothing but noisy modern stuff for the college crowd. Not what I’m looking for.
That’s fine. I’m happy to spend a quiet hour reading after dinner and turn in early. I didn’t speed-walk today, but I did go pretty far and it’s catching up with me. It’s raining lightly when I leave the restaurant. The wet weather has arrived at last, and it’s time to make use of the cheap fold-up umbrella I’ve been hauling everywhere.

In the morning it’s still raining and the tide is again way out to sea. The beach is huge. This morning’s plan was to stroll about photographing the town. I don’t much feel like getting my camera wet, so after coffee and porridge and a yogurt I go for a walk on the beach.
Almost as soon as I get out there, the rain tapers off to wet air. The beach is so flat there are pools 50 yards from the water. Shore birds and seagulls are having their breakfast. Two people jog, separately. Several others are walking their dogs. It’s quiet.
I work in the mud on my boots by playing chicken with the arriving wavelets. Water 3 inches deep is perfect, but any higher it’ll come in through the eyelets for the laces. So I go back and forth, back and forth like the little crowds of birds.
Back at the hotel there’s just time to change into decent clothes and take a turn around the now dry town before meeting up with my colleagues at noon. Most tempting are the cashmere or lambswool sweaters, 50 % off all over town. But the numbers lie. They only look affordable for such a beautiful item, until you do the math converting to euros.
So I tell myself - later. Let it stew a while, and if you really want it you can come back. Clever strategy. I find the post office and send my packet of cards, and take a few pictures of the beautiful old town, and it’s time to head back. And after that, I never really have time to hang around shopping.
And that’s it for the journal entry. My colleagues are a great bunch and I’m very pleased to meet them in this informal, 10 people around a table meeting (and dinner together, heavenly curry), where you really connect with people and discover each other. At big meetings I don’t get to know anybody at all.
Tuesday my boss decides he’d rather spend an extra hour hanging out at the airport, rather than taking our 2:30 taxi as planned, thus my wallet is spared a tour of the cashmere stores for good. I spend the time instead wandering about the airport, working off our copious and delicious buffet lunch.

Till next time!

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