Tuesday, 15 February 2011

St Andrews

At this time of year - the first day of spring for some - thoughts turn to love. For me, ever since a mid-February family wedding in St Andrews, thoughts turn to that grey town on its low cliff between two fine beaches.

East Sands on a sunny day:


I have always liked St Andrews: it has strong childhood memories of family holidays, of playing on the East Sands, investigating rock pools, eating chips and ice cream from the harbour cafe, clambering over the castle walls, peering over the vertiginous edge of St Rule's tower, of ducks in the park, rabbits in the campsite, and snuggling up in a sleeping bag after another long summer day spent outdoors.

Cathedral from harbour wall:


And I am not the only one fond of St Andrews: The university is celebrating its 600th anniversary this month. Prince William and Kate Middleton, who met at the university, are to return to kick off the anniversary celebrations on 25 February.

However the St Andrews of February is a town of scarf-wrapped students rather than the summer St Andrews I know of golfers and tourists. And although the East Neuk of Fife, just about the driest and sunniest spot in Scotland, is a great place to go to catch some winter sunshine (as I mentioned earlier), when we woke on this visit the town was gripped in haar, a cold sea-fog that limits visibility and permeates the bones.

Town Hall, South Street:


But this made the town more atmospheric: my memories of St Andrews are all sunny. For the couple of thousand students who graduate each year their memories must be of the haar, of a pinched cold, the weathered stones of the streets and dark coats contrasting with the lively indoor boisterousness of student social life. We took a wander around the town.

The first thing I noticed, outside the main university quadrangle on North Street, were stones spelling the letters 'P.H.' on the street. A plaque nearby explained. This was the very spot, in 1528, that the Archbishop of St Andrews burned the popular young priest Patrick Hamilton for promoting the ideas of the Protestant reformers. Although he was not the first heretic burned at the stake in Scotland, his death was the first to cause a ripple of revulsion amongst the Scots. As an advisor to the archbishop said: if he planned to make any more martyrs, it were best he did it indoors, as "the reek of Maister Patrick Hamyltoun infected as many as it blew on."

Town wall with statue missing from niche:


We wandered down North Street, dominated by the old university building, then took a side lane down to the Scores. The buildings here are stone-walled and pantiled and date from the 17th century. At the end of the lane is the Bishop's Castle and another set of letters set into the street - 'G.W.' This was where George Wishart, another Protestant martyr, was burned in 1546. This act was the trigger for the reformation in Scotland, which triumphed when Protestants took over Parliament in 1560. The nearby cathedral, the largest in Scotland and second longest in Britain, was dismantled. Not for nothing have the early reformers been nicknamed the 'Tartan Taliban'.

Now this history is in ruins and stumps, largely forgotten, sitting on its foggy headland.

Castle from N Castle Street


We wandered from the Castle on a bracing clifftop walk to the harbour, the tide up, the cathdral ruins dominant on its low hill, then through the medieval portal of The Pends to broad South Street, site of the parish church of St Andrews and the ruined Blackfriars monastery.

The Pends:


St Andrews has four 1km-long medieval streets that finger west from the cathedral. Each street, to me, is redolent of each of the four pillars of St Andrews life: South Street for St Andrews' ecclesiastical role, Market Street for the local people and commerce, North Street for the university, and the Scores - which runs from the castle to the West Sands - for golf.

Cathedral ruins:


No other town in Scotland packs so much history and interest into such a small space. I think it is one of the most romantic towns in Scotland. I like St Andrews a lot and, if you visit, perhaps you will too - but if you go in February, take a scarf!

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