St Andrews’ rich history makes it one of the glittering jewels in Scotland’s crown.
This ancient ecclesiastical city attracted global interest when Prince William and his then-girlfriend Kate Middleton studied at its university.
Its ruined castle, the old cathedral, perched above a picturesque harbour, and the historic 15th Century university make this a great place for a relaxing weekend break.
Journey through time
After the crowds and chaos of last week’s Edinburgh Festival, this historic city provided a great respite with its laid-back atmosphere, golden sands and world-class leisure attractions.
St Andrews is steeped in history from the Romans and the Picts to the Reformation. You can dig deeper into this rich heritage on the fascinating walk down to the cathedral, adjacent harbour and castle.
The cathedral was an important place of pilgrimage and the most impressive religious building in Scotland in medieval times.
Built around 1160 it took around 150 years to complete – and you can see why when you wander around its extensive grounds.
Sadly the cathedral was destroyed during the Reformation following the roaring sermons of John Knox in the town.
Today the ruins occupy an impressive site which includes St Rule’s Tower, built around 1130.
As you leave the cathedral you’ll arrive at the top of the harbour with its small fishing boats.
Take a walk along the harbour wall and climb the small ladder at its furthest point to see great views along the beaches – but watch your step as it can be slippy.
The castle is located a little further back up the hill and was built around 1200 although today’s ruins largely date from the 16th Century.
There are good views of the castle ruins from the adjacent coastal path but history lovers should venture inside to see what’s left of the fortifications and infamous solid stone dungeon.
The Home of Golf
St Andrew is most famous, of course, for its historic golf courses which stretch along the coastline like giant green lungs with their lush and manicured fairways.
Golf has been played at St Andrews since 1400 AD.
The sport’s popularity grew so quickly that King James I of Scotland tried to ban it in 1457 because it was distracting the young men from their archery practice!
Today it’s the largest golfing complex in Europe, something that my feet could have told you after walking around only a small part of the links.
The world famous Old Course has played host to golfing legends like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros.
Even those super stars must have shuddered as they walked the fairways and caught a glimpse of the terrifying Hell Bunker.
Amateur golfers can only dream of coming close to the 63 which Rory McIlroy scored in the 2010 Open Golf Championships.
On my trip there weren’t any seasoned golf pros but there were a lot of foreign golfers, mostly Americans, on tourist packages. But I was impressed that absolutely anyone can play here – you don’t have to be a member of a stuffy, elitist club.
OK, you need a handicap to play on the Old Course, which counts me out, but the other fairways are open to anybody. It’s a very accessible golfing experience, largely because it’s run by a trust.
Life’s a beach
St Andrews’ golf courses lie cheek-by-jowl with the town’s beaches. Skew your golf shot too far right on the Old Course and it could end up on the sand dunes!
It comes as a surprise when you see the huge golden expanse of sand extending far beyond the horizon for the first time.
The shimmering beach featured in the unforgettable opening scene of Chariots of Fire in which athletes are seen running along the sands like sporting gods, lit in gold by the sun’s rays.
Today it’s a more prosaic scene.
Unfortunately, we arrive in the middle of a huge downpour with lashing rain sending beach combers scurrying for cover as the cloud burst threatens to turn into a full-blown storm.
After cowering under the Old Course club house for 20 minutes (and talking to the old green keeper in his hut), we were soon back on the beach and managed to recreate a short reconstruction of the Chariots of Fire movie scene.
After lapping up the peace of the sandy shore I was surprised to hear the thunderous roar of a fighter plane shooting overhead.
The RAF Leuchars air base is just up the road so their pilots were practicing touch-and-goes, flying in and out over the coastal strip just north of the town.
It was an awesome show with brilliant view of the Typhoons zipping across the skies. I could have stayed on the beach watching the planes all day but an even wilder experience beckoned.
A couple of miles up the road, Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve is a treat for lovers of the great outdoors with glorious, pristine sandy beaches, colourful wild flowers and interesting wildlife.
We cycled to Great Slack and Abertay Sands through the forest plantation and parked the bikes by the start of the walk to the dunes.
My first glimpse of the beach was slightly surreal. I was puzzled to see cattle sitting on the sand in the summer sun, the first time I’ve seen cows enjoying a lie-down next to lapping waves.
There wasn’t anybody in sight and the local seal colony was lazily basking on the exposed sand banks at low tide. We were warned not to get too close to the seals because they can get freaked out so we kept our distance.
When Tony stripped off and went for a paddle in the sea, the seals got mighty curious – and came closer and closer.
Tony has just been reading a book about wild swimming and had hoped to have a swim in the waters of the Firth of Tay.
But he was looking increasingly distracted and nervous.
Every time Tony looked back towards me, the bobbing seals behind him grew nearer. Soon he was surrounded by a posse of 30 curious animals. When their numbers swelled again, it was time for Tony to retreat to the beach.
So much for the wild swimming…
I was standing safely on the shoreline and couldn’t help thinking what might have happened if one of the larger seals had decided to play ‘bounce-the-swimmer’ with him.
After all, these creatures can weigh as much as 130 kg – they’re unpredictable wild animals and they can swim at a pacey 35 mph.
But I’m told that they are curious and generally have a reputation for being playful with swimmers. Some will even nibble your toes in a friendly way.
Back on dry land we cycled back through the woods, taking in the South Beach, still unable to believe the lack of people.
Our verdict on St Andrews?
This is definitely a place we’ll be coming back to although next time we’ll bring our wet suits and flippers for the ultimate wild swimming experience!
Tammy’s top golfing tips
St Andrews Links is a must for all golf addicts but a game isn’t cheap on the most popular and prestigious courses. The Old Course costs around £150 per person in the high season. If this seems a little steep, it’s worth noting that the price drops to £75 in the low season, a real bargain if you can catch a window in the weather.
It’s also cheaper to play on one of St Andrew’s newer, but equally impressive, courses including the Castle, Jubilee, Eden, the Strathtyrum and The New Course. The Strathtyrum and smaller Balgove courses are the cheapest – a round will set you back between £18-£25. I’m told that the latter is brilliant for beginners.
The famous Old Course requires a handicap restriction which rules me out but if you’re a decent golfer, this could be your chance to walk in the footsteps of your golfing heroes.
Book golfing trips ahead, if possible. The advanced reservations process begins in September for the next year. But you can also try booking when you arrive. There is a 24/48 hour daily ballot for play on the following day. Single golfers can also ask the starter on the day if they can be slotted in with a group.
Aspiring golfers can polish their skills at the St Andrews Links Golf Academy where you’ll find coaching, practice areas and even replica bunkers.
Non-sporty types like myself should head to the British Golf Museum to see a jolly nice display about the history of the game.
Alternatively, amateur golfers can enjoy a short round on the 18 hole putting green for £1 per person, a true bargain. This is located next to the Old Course club house – and the quality of the green is excellent.
The Old Course is closed for golf on Sundays when tourists and local people can walk along the fairways and get a flavour of a great sporting arena.
Tammy’s tourism tips
St Andrews lies within a couple of hours reach of Edinburgh by car or train (Leuchars Station is 6 miles away). Visit the St Andrews tourism website to plan your itinerary.
St Andrews has a compact town centre but the further flung coastal sites require a bit of walking. Buy a joint ticket for the Cathedral and Castle – and enjoy the coastal walk between them before heading up to the golf courses to watch the players tee-off from the first hole on the Old Course.
Don’t miss St Rule’s Tower at the Cathedral which affords breathtaking views over the town.
At St Andrews Cathedral look out for the Pictish graves and intriguing historic artefacts in the visitor centre’s museum.
Look out for RAF aircraft whizzing overhead on training missions. They’re best seen from the beach or drive up to nearby Leuchars (6 miles away) where you’ll get hair-raising, close-up views from the road next to the runway. If you’re lucky, the Typhoon Display Team might be practising their manoeuvres.
Don’t miss a drive up to Tentsmuir Nature Reserve. Park at the South Beach car park and walk a short distance to the dunes. Better still, cycle or walk two miles to the remote Great Slack and Tayport Heath beaches which are great for watching common and grey seals, coastal birds and winter waders.
If you’re staying longer, drive down the coast to one of the many charming fishing villages and small towns such as Anstruther, Crail, Lower Largo and East Wemyss.