Why I Love St Andrews
This post appeared in November 2009 on the blog www.ayewonder.com and was written by one of the owners of Monarchs House. Given the spirit of our giveaway, we thought you might enjoy its reprint here:
On Wednesday morning when I arrived in Scotland’s Edinburgh Airport slightly knackered from my overnight 2-legged journey, I privately sighed. I was now back in a country that I not so privately love. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, I love America too. But if America owns my heart, for some reason, and one I can’t truly articulate, Scotland owns my soul.
The purpose of my visit was to meet up with the Monarchs House (our home in St Andrews) team of Angus and Kevin. Kevin has been the chef at the house since we bought it in 2001. If well over a thousand visitors to Monarchs House can be trusted, Kevin is St Andrews’ best chef. I wholeheartedly concur but his demeanor, in addition to his cooking, make Kevin a treat to be around. Angus Mitchell, our general manager since taking over from his daughter Amanda six years ago, is the best go-to-guy one could ever dream up. He has lived in St Andrews for his entire life and knows where all the bones are buried, no small feat in medieval St Andrews. Angus is knowledgeable, thorough, trustworthy, loyal and hard working. If you’re an absentee homeowner and this fellow was looking after your interests, you could sleep at night. He is also retiring at the end of November. Figuring out what to do without Angus in the mix was the meaning behind the trip. BUT it was far more than that.
Waiting for me as I came around the corner signage proclaiming Edinburgh’s beauty was Club Cars, the taxi company Angus had sent to retrieve me. The driver was a familiar, friendly face that was keen to know how long it had been since I last visited. After a few comments about the fate of Hamilton Hall, the iconic red sandstone building I was involved with, the conversation turned light, warm and breezy just like the weather that day. As much as I talked and listened, my eyes searched the rolling hills of Fife as we made our hour’s journey into St Andrews. Farms, distant ruins, and a steam billowing train running vein-like through the middle of the county made everything seem so familiar. It was familiar because not much had changed since I last made this journey 2+ years ago and 33+ years ago. Would St Andrews be the same? I had very little time ahead of me to before I could bear witness.
As we circled the Guardbridge roundabout for the final leg of the ride, I noticed my breathing. It was shallow. Once I saw the Eden Estuary, I knew it would be moments before I saw the church spires and the Hamilton Hall dominated St Andrews skyline. And then, there it was, in the distance, the building that was my dream project, Hamilton Hall. I shook my head in a final indignation at how unceremoniously the restoration had abruptly ended for everyone but it was right there in the taxi that I decided to put this disaster behind me once and for all. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy because everyone I saw in the ensuing 4 days had questions and lots of them. But it was a starting point.
Monarchs House was the final destination and as always, Kevin was there to greet me with a toothy smile and a warm welcome. Though I wanted to crawl into bed for a short nap, I also wanted a Monarchs House French press coffee. I was exhausted and I knew that if you are over tired, you can forget about getting sleep. (There’s your special bonus travel tip du jour.) Shortly afterwards, Angus walked in displaying the warm Scottish hospitality that Monarchs House is known for. Both Angus and Kevin looked precisely as they did when I last saw them. It was like my ride into town. Nothing changes. We agreed to meet at 1 PM and Kevin would join us at 3 PM. We needed to get Angus outfitted with the sloped shoulders that retirement would bring him but we needed a plan for Monarchs House. I went upstairs to the Robert the Bruce bedroom and quickly released myself into the arms of Morpheus. Visions of Scotland danced through my head.
After meeting with Angus and Kevin, I decided to go for a walk around the town. It was a cracking day and unseasonably warm, perfect for exploring. Directly to the left of our house is Lade Braes Lane, a ten-foot walled in passageway into the town. On occasion, it is used as a smoking outpost and hideaway for the young students of the next-door Madras College. The really great thing about the lane is that it starts in town, runs by our house and ends 2.5 miles down the road at the Botanical Gardens.
Town is exactly like I remembered it, which is not to say there wasn’t changes, it is just that the changes were small and subtle. Things move glacially at St Andrews on purpose. If it went any other way, you’d see a McDonald’s on the corner. I noticed that many shops had closed and more storefronts than ever before were now available for let. After much resistance, the town has parking meters now. They installed the tower system, which serve multiple parking spots replacing the archaic voucher system. Another change I noticed is that it appears like St Andrews has become the coffee-drinking epicenter of the free world. There are coffee shops everywhere. In a town of over 7,500 university students, you can now get coffee or beer at multiple locations on any street in town. One pub that did close was the ubiquitous Aikman’s on Bell St. KT Tunstall used to gig there in the early 2000s but after 20+ years, it seems shuttered. On a further look around, I did see a couple of new buildings but all in all time stands still in St Andrews.
All of that walking made me a bit thirsty myself. I could have stopped at any of the many pubs that I passed on my way around town but I wanted to put in an appearance at the St Andrews Golf Club where I am a member. I knew that I would be interrogated at the Club but I wanted to drop in and say hello to my inquisitors. After entering the club with a swipe card, I walked into the main room where there is usually epic socializing taking place. I glanced down at the blue couch to my left and sitting there, as expected, were the four horsemen of the apocalypse, my drinking mates for that early evening. I will spare you their names only because they would hate to get a reputation for being nice to me. But being nice to anyone without a couple of well-considered and good-natured digs is the modus operandi of this group. After greeting me with “we were just talking about you 10 minutes ago,” I was then told that my (new) haircut was “poufy” and that the “extra weight looks good on you.” Welcome back.
Later that evening, I met up with an old friend and one that I have kept in touch with for years. Since he had something else on his diary that evening, our best option was for drinks at 9 PM at the Russell Hotel. My friend suggested it, though he knew it was my favorite local place, in order that we could be in the company of the lovely and friendly manageress there, Helen. Later in the evening, my friend’s wife popped in for a final drink and some final laughs. What a great way to spend my first day back in St Andrews.
Rather than bore you with a day by day accounting of my travails, I will leave it at this. My trip was everything I expected and more, just as it always is. When I paid my final visit to the St Andrews club on Saturday, one of my friends there, the most curmudgeonly of the lot, came over to me and hugged me as he was leaving for the day. He leaned over and quietly said so that no one else could hear, “next time, don’t be as long, lad.” It was like the first time I had been to St Andrews 33 years ago, when a total stranger invited me off the street and into his house to have supper with he and his wife. Nothing changes. And I like it like that.