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Walking the Course – a day on foot in St Andrews

Michael Hartigan is a freelance travel writer from Boston, Massachusetts, USA. From San Francisco to Scotland, he has explored and written about unique people, places and traditions around the world. Michael’s writing has been featured in the Arizona Republic newspaper, Literary Traveler magazine, USA Today and in his monthly travel column published in a series of local Massachusetts newspapers. He believes that you should go wherever it takes, but always come back with a good story. Follow his blog at www.whereverittakes.com and on Twitter @WhereverItTakes

I had been walking all day and yet I envied the four people strolling toward me.

There was a husband and wife, their grown son and his grandfather – three generations of one family, chatting and laughing as they sauntered down the low-cropped stretch of grass. One by one, each broke off and headed in a different direction. Then under the gaze of me and a dozen other onlookers, they made their final approach to the 18th green of St. Andrews Old Course.

They converged again near the pin. The son complimented his mother, who was closest to the hole. The grandfather took a turn with each giving his advice on the ball’s lie. Mom knocked hers in and got out of the way. Son and then dad finished up easily as well.

Grandpa went last, more out of deference than out of any time-honored rules of the game. He knocked in his ball with an effortless stroke, to the great applause of the spectators around me up along the terrace rail. He looked up apparently unaware people were watching, a wide smile emerged and he tipped his hat to the crowd.

The grandson scooped the ball out of the hole and placed it in his grandfather’s hand.

“I’m so glad we finally got over here to do this, Grandpa,” he said in his very American voice.

“Me too,” the grandfather said. “Better than I imagined. This was one for the history book.”

The family sauntered off the 18th green, mom and dad arm-in-arm, junior at their side laughing with his grandfather. Their caddies followed at a professional distance, respecting the moment as much for its individual athletic achievement as for its significance to this family.

The American family moved on, already recounting with excitement their unforgettable day on the links and leaving it to the next foursome teeing of in the distance. I envied them, getting to walk the course in the footsteps of golf’s greats. It was easy to see why the experience was so special, when you can add your own bit of history to an iconic world landmark. And how this iconic landmark adds to your own personal history.

But I had spent the previous few hours doing something similar and suddenly I realized that’s the thing about St. Andrews – not just the golf course but also the entire town itself. Here you don’t just walk past history, you step right into it.

A few hours prior, I was on the other side of St. Andrews, a couple miles and a few thousand years away starting my day on foot in this seaside town.

I’m not one to plan a route and if I do it is spotty at best. So I looked at a map and thought I would try to trek in something of a circle; I’d use the natural shape of the town to bring me to its landmarks and back again.

I debated my strategy over breakfast at Mitchell’s Deli on Market Street, one the three main thoroughfares running through the heart of the town. As I sipped a perfectly made cappuccino and fueled up with soft-boiled eggs and “buttered soldiers” (toast strips), I made the decision to stick with my original plan, which was that I had no plan, just a sense of direction. And that had already gotten me to Mitchell’s, so it was working so far.

St Andrews Cathedral

St Andrews Cathedral

I knew my next move was heading to the sea. I did not anticipate the wonder at its edge.

In Europe cathedrals are as plentiful as stripes on a tartan. Some are opulent and massive, others the site of major historical happenings. But none can place you in the midst of its time period as well as one with no roof.

The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral soared into a clear blue sky and I found the reason I came here: to experience Scotland, not just to see it. I knew in Scotland I would be able to walk through and over ruins and castles and churches. But I never expected to have such a vivid reaction to touching stone and walking in the shadow of crumbing walls.

In front of me was the west front entrance, a massive pointed arch that builds upon itself into a series of arches. Above it the left side of the cathedral front was falling away broken, while the right remained stubborn and erect, maintaining the integrity of some of the arches, the height and the swooping mason work that made this building magnificent.

I walked down the path, through the stone portal and into the now open-air nave. The bases of the cathedral’s original columns still sat sturdy in their spot. The stone south wall on the right rose into pointed arch windows.

Cathedral Graveyard

Cathedral Graveyard

My mind began to fit the remains with what might have been. I was able to recreate the structure in my mind and because of that, it became more real than just listening to some audio guide or looking in some pamphlet.

I walked down the aisle, now covered in grass, toward the far end where a double-spired wall still reached up like arms to heaven.

The small markers scattered around gave me enough information to piece together why this was the most important church in Scotland.

The accessibility was what helped me place myself literally in spots where history unfolded, more so than in any other historic or religious landmark I had ever seen. To touch and walk amongst the ruins, as opposed to obeying velvet ropes and curators, makes you a part of the place, rather than just a visitor.

I spent over an hour walking through the ruined cathedral, the abbey and the substantial graveyard that is home to some elaborate graves and stonework. The entire site had an eerie, unique beauty that begged reverence.

I found myself wandering through the monastic walls toward the water and within minutes was walking past the small remains of St. Mary’s Chapel. I headed for the breaker wall jutting out into the water, framing East Sands and promising me a different view of St. Andrews.

From the point of the breaker wall I turned to take in the spectacular sight of the cathedral’s crumbing skyline, with the roofs of St. Andrews popping beyond and St. Andrews Caste standing guard castle further up the shoreline.

A few more information signs led me back up to the cliff walk, providing excellent historical information and grounding this whimsical seaside locale in fact. I stopped at a street vendor selling local mussels cooked-to-order in creamy broth from his green cart right along the cliff walk. The waves crashed behind him and I enjoyed the best yet simplest meal I had in Scotland.

Hunger gone, I took my time ambling along the cliff walk, to the castle that stood as a broken stone sentinel above the sea. Before entering I stood on a marker in the road where a man was executed and looked down upon the ruins of the man-made sea pool where the upper class played.

Further along the walk became a road – The Scores – and spread out into the lower campus of St. Andrews University.

Lavish buildings with flowers popping in color dotted the coastline and I stopped once or twice to peek into a garden or investigate a University building. The cathedral and castle had dropped me into a medieval daydream, where bishops and kings struggle for power inside great stone structures by the sea. But this road dragged me forward through time with every step.

I emerged with the golf course on my left, the beach on my right. I continued down to West Sands.

Just like the breaker wall, being out on the beach showed a different angle of the town. Unlike the breaker wall, I enjoyed this view with my toes curled up in the soft sand. It didn’t take much for the iconic movie music associated with the spot to start chiming in my head, especially after a group of school children ran past at top speed.

West Sands

West Sands

I made the sensible choice not to drop everything and jog giddily along with them, humming the tune in stride. Don’t think I didn’t want to. Sitting in the sand, munching on some snacks from my backpack was enough for me, though.

Rounding back I exited the sand and followed the walkway along the golf course. After a stop at the clubhouse, I found myself in the middle of the hilly putting greens.

A golf ball skittered down from the grass across my path. I debated stopping it but golf etiquette stayed my foot.

“You could’ve helped me out,” yelled a woman from ten yards away. She was holding her putter like a war club above her head. The man with her was laughing, cautiously.

I smiled and kicked the back onto the grass.

“Yes. Thank you,” she yelled to me, before turning to the man and saying, “see, it was a good shot.”

I skirted along the first hole before arriving without fanfare at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Inside the grand building several men sat by the window in their finery, sipping glasses of what I could only assume was expensive liquor. In my hiking boots and t-shirt I felt underdressed just standing outside the window. So I moved along, pausing for a group to tee off on 1.

In the distance I saw a foursome snapping photos on Swilcan Bridge. Next to me several people were lined up along the rail overlooking the last green of the Old Course, awaiting the arrival of the latest group.

The American family foursome came and went. I was left to continue on in one direction or the other. I wanted somehow to share in the joy they had clearly received from golfing in St. Andrews. I thought about walking along the far side of the course and scurrying out between groups for my own photo on the historic Swilcan Bridge.

Then again, I could have headed back into the town and zigzag between the shops and restaurants along the old medieval streets.

It became a difficult decision, like whether to use an iron or a fairway wood.

I looked down at my feet, which were sore from walking all day. But that was no reason to stop. I’d just do both.

It would be a little extra walking, but that was a good thing. As I had seen in St. Andrews, you can make history with every step.