Kilminning Coast Nature Reserve to Leuchars
Saturday 7 May 2022
29.43km • 10h (including breaks, with a long one in St Andrews)
lowest: -2m • highest: 41m • total ascent 792m
When I got up in the middle of the night, it had gone a bit misty so there was no big reveal of stars, but I could see the signals of multiple lighthouses. Fife Ness off to my left, plus the Isle of May, Bass Rock, and St Abbs Head. They all flash different signals, some of which I could see faintly through my tent when I got back in. I hadn’t really considered this so far, but now I’ll be looking out for the lighthouses overnight as I go. I don’t think there’s another place where I’ll be able to see this many at once til the west coast, or possibly John O’Groats.
In the space of 7 hours, I probably got around 4 or 5 of not-great sleep. This isn’t too bad, but I was having a lot of weird, anxious, waking dreams. The wind picked up sometime around 11.30ish so the tent was making a ton of noise for a while, which kept freaking me out. After my lighthouse discovery, the total lack of wind meant getting back to sleep was also difficult because it was SO quiet that every tiny noise seemed massive. I should say that I was really comfortable throughout all this. My hips hurt from the walk and the weight, but my sleep setup is pretty solid, my tent is amazing, and I was on a very flat bit of ground. So no problems there, just the stuff in my head to deal with.
I woke up at about 5 and tried to go back to sleep for another 30 minutes, but the light and the sounds of the birds and the odd fishing boat motoring out from Crail prevented it, so I just gave in, got up, and got the coffee on. I learned that 600 calories of Thai style rice and veggies first thing in the morning, while delicious, is still too much. It took me quite a while to eat it all because I wasn’t gonna NOT eat it all, but it was nice to laze about eating breakfast with a view. Then I broke everything down, packed up, and headed for Fife Ness around 7.
I know that I have technically turned a big corner already when I crossed the Forth Road Bridge, but this was the first time the view changed completely. I spent the majority of the walk so far looking at the Firth of Forth from various angles. When I got to Fife Ness, it was the Firth of Tay ahead, and the wide open North Sea. It felt like a different kind of progress. The lighthouse here is pretty tiny. It almost looks like a shack. I guess it doesn’t really need to be high up. But the rocks around it are cool, and I put my bag down and poked around them for a bit while I could see both sides of this corner. The weather had come in overnight though so I couldn’t see very far.
After that, it was on to walking through and around golf courses again. Lots of nice beaches right up against all these courses and it was early so they weren’t busy yet, so at least I didn’t have to fear any stray shots. The course at Cambo Sands had a very nice toilet block that’s pretty much right on the path, so that put them in my good graces. And along with the signs warning walkers to be aware of the golf going on, they also had a sign asking the golfers to respect coastal walkers for once! Thanks, Cambo Sands. You’re a pal.
The beach there was also really lovely. I took my shoes off to get my feet in the water for a bit and watched all the dogs running around loving life. I set up a little second breakfast picnic on the rocks in front of Kingsbarns parking area and made myself a cup of tea. Then it started raining pretty heavily, so I quickly chucked everything in my bag and hid under the little shelter to sort myself out.
The rain lightened up and I headed back out again, only to be held up by a group of golfers about to tee off near the path. I can never tell which way play is happening so I just asked if I should wait and they said that would probably be safest and they wouldn’t be long. There were about 7 of them, but only 3 were actually golfing. When they were done, they thanked me for waiting and one of them with a heavy southern American accent asked where I was going with that big bag and where I’d come from. So I explained I’d camped the night before near Crail and was heading to St Andrews today. He asked how far that was, and I said about another 10k. The man I assume was in charge of looking after them translated that into miles for them. The guy then said ‘You’re going all that way just on this path?! You know there’s a shuttle!’ Which is the most American thing I’ve ever heard. I had to stop myself laughing too hard and assured him I was ok and actually wanted to walk. They wished me luck and I was off. I hope I generated some interesting conversation among them.
After this, the path goes ‘remote’ according to the signs and the guidebook. But I have to say, it didn’t feel terribly remote to me. It’s mostly farmland, but the path itself is pretty well defined, and it’s not long til you get to Kenly Water where you have to cut inland along the river towards Boarhills. I always like getting the brief change of being in the trees along a river, and there were some really cool gnarled and twisted trees along this one. There was also a ruined old house with all sorts of things growing through and around it which reminded me of Cambodia. There’s the temple at Angkor Wat that’s famous because of Tomb Raider, but there were also slightly more modern abandoned buildings in other places with trees taking over. So if you want the same vibe but can’t afford going to Southeast Asia, I’m telling you now, go to Fife. I didn’t go in because it was definitely unstable, but I looked around from the outside for a while.
Eventually, I got to a bridge over the river where the path turns out into farmland to head back to the coast. I met an older man here who was taking a break from his walk out from St Andrews. He was mourning the state of the river, which he said used to be full of fish but was now pretty much dead from farm runoff. I hadn’t even considered this because I had been looking more at the surrounding trees, but this is a good reminder that even fairly close to home, if you only pass through a place for a day, you see it very differently than if you spend a significant period of time there.
When I got back to the coast there was a long stretch of up and down along the cliffs with St Andrews coming in and out of view in the distance. This bit felt a lot longer than it probably was, mainly because I was getting tired and hungry and sunburnt as well as rained on at the same time (the song in my head at this point was ‘Mahna Mahna‘). But it was possibly the most interesting bit of path all day.
It’s been over a decade since I’ve been in St Andrews, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was there for a semester as an undergrad and I never loved the university, but it obviously hooked me on Scotland, and I also met my former partner there. I don’t feel any real connection to the place though, and it turns out I remember very little about it in terms of feeling any sense of familiarity when I walked around. I guess it’s just been too long.
East Sands was looking brilliant and enticing in any case, and I always did like living there. It’s where my student accommodation was and I loved walking along beach in the wind to get to class. The wind was very, very up this time too, so unfortunately there would be no swimming. But I was just happy to sit for a while. There was a cheese toastie shack, so I got a mushroom and Camembert and sat on a bench looking at the sea while I inhaled it. Then I wandered down towards the pier where there were students dumping random food on each others’ heads. I remember this being a thing when I was there, but I really don’t remember why it’s a thing.
I didn’t fancy walking out the pier with my bag as I was still in break mode, so I decided to head into town for my next treat. This is when I found that I didn’t remember the layout of the streets to get to South Street, which is surprising because St Andrews is not terribly complicated or big, particularly around the centre part.
As I had been approaching town along the cliffs earlier, I sent a message to a certain esteemed former president of the St Andrews Real Ale Society asking what pub he reckoned I should go to, because I couldn’t remember many of the 30-something of them there were to choose from. He said forget pubs, obviously the important thing was ice cream at Janetta’s!
This was very sensible advice. And Janetta’s was actually always in the plan, but when I got there, I had not expected the queue to rival the Mary’s Milk Bar queues in Edinburgh. I did not have the patience or stamina to wait well over 20 minutes for a cone, so I chugged along South Street and parked myself in the Whey Pat, which was his suggestion after the business of ice cream. There I had a delicious pint I did not have to wait for, and the bartender also refilled my water and offered to add some ice as well. Hooray!
I was feeling a bit weird at that point. I had no desire to hang around and remind myself of the rest of town. It was really crowded and I was tired and I kind of just wanted to get out. My options were to take a bus to Leuchars to get the train, which would mean next time having to come back and walk that bit, or else just walk it now. Keeping in mind I’d just done 20k already on very little sleep. But the idea of coming all the way back to St Andrews just to do a road walk out made me angry. So I said fuck it, and if I went fast enough, I could make it to the express train back to Edinburgh. I would not recommend making this decision unless you are a bizarre completist like me.
On the way out of town, I walked past the Old Course and all the associated golf business. They were setting up for The Open, so there was a lot of constructing extra things and golf logistics going on. And here, I spotted my first ever remote control golf bag cart. It was rolling along in front of its owner. I wasn’t aware this was a thing, and I can’t understand how it is in any way necessary, but there you go.
After that, I learned that there is really no reason to walk along the road between St Andrews and Leuchars. This was also the first time I’ve done a longer second day, and this part made it significantly so. I’d like to say this was good for building stamina, but it also felt a bit like self-punishment – in my notebook, I called it ‘brutal and kind of moronic’. Particularly due to the decision to do it immediately after having a pint when the roadside footpath was completely exposed with no cover for an off-path pee halfway to Leuchars. I was very happy to find the toilets open when I practically ran up the stairs over the tracks that stick out so oddly and always looked out of place to me. But I’ve now done those 8.5k, and I never have to do them again! So it was worth it. And I made it onto the train, where I promptly inhaled a Cadbury Picnic bar and zoned out for the next hour, quite happy that next time I can walk off the train at Leuchars and charge onward north to Tentsmuir.