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Five of St Andrews’ Hidden Gems

Former student Craig Cockburn tells us about his St Andrews.

I’ve lived in St Andrews for the last 4 years as a student and in this time I have learnt that there is considerably more than golf in our humble little town. Some things – such as the castle, cathedral, or a walk on West Sands – are something that everyone does, so what would I recommend to those who fancy going a little off the (well-beaten) track?

1. St Mary’s Quad

This is not the University’s most famous quadrangle, however, this slightly quieter variation has a much more personal feel to it. The entrance – located on South Street (next to Parliament Hall) – bears the legend “IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBVM” [In the beginning there was the word] and so it’s no surprise that this is the home of the divinity faculty.

The first thing you will see upon wandering into St Mary’s is the huge Holm Oak – native to the Mediterranean – that dominates the quad, and to the left of this is St Mary’s College, the University’s divinity faculty. On your right is Parliament Hall, the temporary seat of the Scottish Parliament in 1645 when the plague hit Edinburgh. It is now home to the University’s debating society – the oldest in the English-speaking world.

The remaining sides of the quad hold the School of Psychology and the rear end of the Bute buildings which, until recently was home to the medicine faculty, and still houses some of the biology facilities.

Most of the time those people who do find this sheltered spot use it just to wander round, take in the architecture, and think of the thousands of students who have passed between its walls. Many students and staff use St Mary’s Quad as a place to sit out at lunchtime and eat, relax, or even have a quick game of frisbee.

St Mary’s Quad is the perfect spot for a sit down while eating an ice cream from B. Janetta’s up the road. I walked through this quad almost every day during my time here; as students, we always rushed through the quad (probably late for a class) and it’s only when taking a step back that I’ve realised just how special it is.

2. The Botanic Garden

The Botanic Garden is on its second site in St Andrews. Originally built in 1889 by the Biology department for teaching and research, the garden moved to their current location on the Canongate in the 1960s. Up until the late ’80s the gardens were still run by the University, but they are now managed by Fife Council. However, most St Andrews biologists will visit at least a couple of times during their undergraduate days.

Open 10am-7pm, from April until September, the garden is definitely well worth a stroll around (last time I checked entry was £2). There are large herbaceous borders, a beautiful rock garden (complete with mini-waterfall), herb and vegetable gardens, as well as more sheltered walks through the pine trees.

My favourite part, however, has to be the glasshouses. They play host to an enormous array of plants, none of which would be naturally suited to the St Andrews climate. I think the last time I was there I spotted the Arabica coffee plant, some mini venus flytraps, and pineapples, to name but a few.

So whether you are crazy about flowers, a budding botanist, or (like me) just a fan of a pleasant wander around a nice garden, I would strongly recommend that you take in the Botanics whilst you are in St Andrews.

3. St Andrews Museum, Kinburn Park

Personally, I think that it is a shame that so few people venture out to Kinburn Park to visit the St Andrews Museum (open 10-5 during the summer months). This Victorian mansion, set in the centre of the park, houses two major exhibition halls.

The ground-floor gallery is dedicated to St Andrews itself, giving a brief glimpse into the somewhat turbulent history of the town through pictures and objects of interest. The upstairs gallery is home to temporary exhibitions. The current one is McTaggart’s Scottish Shorelines – Paintings from East and West, which will run until the 4th September 2011.

The museum also houses a gift shop and tearoom, so all of your needs are covered. Something that other museums do lack, however, is the extensive surrounding gardens; Kinburn Park is another great place to sit on a lawn, eat a picnic, or have a quick game of catch with a frisbee.

4. Walking Down Lade Braes

If walked in its entirety (out and back again) the Lade Braes walk is approximately 2.5 miles and is not particularly taxing, so suitable for all. It runs alongside the Kinnesburn as it snakes its way East into St Andrews. This is the walk I would recommend if you fancy an afternoon or early evening stroll, especially if you’re trying to avoid getting sand in your shoes.

I suggest you join the Lade Braes walk just down from the West Port, on Bridge Street. This part passes a few houses before coming out and running along the top of the park. After this, the tree-lined path meanders its way along the riverside. At this time of year in the Lade Braes is in a brilliant blaze of green, interspersed by bursts of colour from wildflowers and the like.

At several points the path will split in two: all these junctures come back together shortly afterwards, so don’t worry. These also give you the opportunity to walk a slightly different route on the way out and on your way back again.

I’m including Lade Braes in my top five because it is such a treasured preserve of the local community: some lucky peoples’ walk to work, part of a standard running route for many local joggers (myself included); but above all it is not a path you stumble across unless you know it is there – I’ve known students who have lived in the town for four years and never explored it!

By far and away, though, my favourite thing about the Lade Braes is that it is always changing. I’ve wandered down with friends and a cup of coffee for a catch up whilst the place is covered in snow with people sledging down the hill, and I’ve been down for frisbee in the park, disrupting the peace of those there to sunbathe: it’s never the same walk twice.

So if you are looking for something a little off the beaten track for that post-dinner constitutional or afternoon stroll, something not involving copious amounts of sand, then Lade Braes is exactly the walk for you.

5. The Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History

Of the 5 places I’ve profiled, this is my favourite by a mile, if you were going to take the remotest heed of any of the suggestions that I have made this would be the one I would most urge you to visit. This is also probably the point at which to disclose that I am more than just a little bit biased on this one – I spent the majority of my academic life in the Bute Buildings, and therefore passed through the Bell Pettigrew Museum on a near-daily basis. I also happen to love natural history museums, so this is a bit of a no-brainer for me.

The ‘Bell Pett’, as the students affectionately refer to it, is one of the University’s best-kept secrets. From humble origins with the Literary and Philosophical Society (who amassed the large collection of ‘objects of interest from the natural world’) the Bell Pett is now used throughout the school year as a teaching museum. One of the charms of the Bell Pett is that it is a museum of a museum: there have been very few changes to the collection or its cases since its origins in the Victorian era, so it’s an insight into how specimen were arranged and displayed in the 19th century.

Amongst the huge array of species there is a particularly large selection of birds on display. These range from the exotic – hummingbirds and a penguin – to birds we might find closer to home, such as a pheasant. The collection also boasts a fine selection of Moa bones and a quetzal (once belonging to Alfred Russell Wallace) amongst its treasures.

The Bell Pettigrew Museum is open to the public from early June to mid September, every Tuesday and Friday afternoon (2-5pm) free of charge. On days on which the museum is open, a board is placed on South Street to remind passers-by. If you have an interest in the natural world, or you are just looking for something to do on a damp afternoon, do pop in to the Bell Pettigrew Museum.

Do you have a favourite hidden gem in St Andrews? Tell us about it in the comments section below!