The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

Wednesday it rained most of the day, Thursday it was dreich, today I would have to make the effort. I caught the early bus into Leven and there I was deposited, along with my bike, at the bus station. It is not much of a climb out of Leven and onto the main road into Lundin Links. I used the wide footpath/cycle track since it was empty of jogger, walkers, pushchair pushers and cyclists. This is a busy main road, and more or less, a long straight road hugging the Links golf course.

These links had always been common land, where locals could graze their animals then came farmers and the golf clubs. They happily put in pegs a yard into and along the boundaries of the common land and if no one objected within a year they could clam that strip – well sort off – they had no legal papers to say they actually owned it. Each year they would put the pegs out a little further until they had all the common land under their control, (you will also see this taking place at houses along the shore at Elie, pegs being put in, on what had always been the dunes).

One day a woman was exercising her dog along the side of the fairway at Lundin Links golf club. When she was approached by one of the high heid yins at the club, he had taken exception to her being there and told her to get off the golf course. He had inadvertently picked on the wrong woman, she knew much more about local law then our man. She gathered a few local housewives, and after calling the newspaper, marched her troops down to the first green, and there, right outside the clubhouse, they proceeded to spread out their sheets, for bleaching. And the apology was accepted, whereupon the women decided it was not the best weather for bleaching after all, so removed their sheets and headed home.

Lundin Links The small village, in the parish of Largo, was largely built in the 19th century to accommodate the growing number of tourist coming to the area by train, Lower Largo, now bursting at he seams, Lundin would take the overspill. The name Lundin was that of the former landowners in the area, Lundin House was demolished in 1876 however the Tower is still remaining.

Lower Largo (or Seatown of Largo)

One of the small villages that grow up around fishing, like many along the north shore of the River Forth. What put Lower Largo on the map was the book ‘Robinson Crusoe’ written by Daniel Defoe, his real life hero was Alexander Selkirk born in the village and put ashore (at his own request) on Juan Fernandez Island where Selkirk lived for more than four years as a castaway. Juan Fernandes Island lies some 7,500 miles distant from the small Fife village.

The closure of the Fife Coast Railway line that serviced Lower Largo in 1960 under the Dr Richard Beeching Plan, saw a decline in visitors to the area, all that remains is the impressive viaduct that dominates the village.

Nigel Tranter, in his book ‘Lion let loose’ tells the tale of the boy James, later to become James 1st of Scotland. James was under the care of Bishop Wardlaw when a plot was uncovered, how the Duke of Albany would take the young lad into his care and use him as a puppet to rule Scotland. The boy must be spirited away from the castle at St Andrews and take the road for France, where he would stay until he was of an age to rule as king of Scotland, in his own right. One stormy February night in 1406, he leaves with his escort the Earl of Oakley and Sir David Fleming of Cumbernauld, taking the road in the dark of night for Lower Largo where a boat would await they’re coming to take them across the Forth and the safety of the Bass Rock, where he would await passage to France. We are told how the sailors were unwilling to sail so bad was the storm and only after they felt the broad edge of Flemings sword were they induce to set sail. This is Real Boys Own stuff.

Today It was a bit of a puff up the short, sharp hill from where you will find the statue of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ then on to the main road and another little climb into Upper largo. When I had the dog we would walkout along the Coastal Path from Elie, and before the village of Lower Largo, we would turn up through the wood for Upper Largo, there to catch the bus back home.

At the school our geography teacher mentioned this coastline as an example of how when the ice disappeared after the Ice Age, how the land bounced up like a cork, causing such sharp falls here and further up the river at Methil. Maybe that was a little simplistic.

Nearing Elie, there is a signpost directing you to Shell Bay, before salmon fishing was banned in the river, fishermen from the village of Elie would climb up over Kingcraig Hill and drop down to Shell Bay to set their nets, hanging them like a curtain from poles well out into the river. The fish would come to the net and would be guided along its length into the trap at the shore.

The fishing must have been lucrative for when the Second World War broke out and the Army commandeered the hill for the setting up of two large guns placements, using guns salvaged from a First World War battleship. The object of the exercise was to guard and defend the Forth against any German ships, trying to sail up the river and attacking the important Royal Naval dockyard of Rosyth.

There was a great story of how when the guns were being dragged up the hill and into position. One broke loose and trundled back down the hill at high speed. It finally came to rest in the garden of a large house down by the old hospice, only yards short of demolishing the house.

The fishermen faced with the loss of their livelihood paid a local blacksmith the princely sum of £150.00 to make and hang chains around Kingcraig Point, so that they could reach their fishing grounds. The route is still there (The Chain Walk) the original chain having been replaced by new stainless steel ones, curtsy of the local government. It is an interesting scramble, and not at all difficult, but can only be achieved at low tide, and if you intend to try it give yourself an hour. As you traverse the chain walk you will visit the ‘Organ Pipes’ tall columns of hexagonal rock formation (not unlike the Giant Causeway or Finagles Caves) stretching vertically up the cliff face.

I was on home territory once more peddling freely along the beautiful coast road, only ever a handful of meters from the sea, that would take me all the way to Crail before turning north for St Andrews.

The music buzzing in my head today was from Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro. It was the aria where Cherubino (the trouser role) sings his poem about love to the two ladies. It is a lovely little aria often overlooked. I do not speak Italian so I just make strange noises along with the music in my head. I can’t understand, why I receive so many queer looks from passing cyclists, (I suspect it’s because they have never heard the aria).

During the summer I cycled along the coast giving a comprehensive report in my blog and I see no good reason to repeat it here, but I did visit the harbour at St Monancs this time round. Like all the villages of the Eat Neuk, fishing was the main industry and I certainly remember boat building and repair taking place here at St Monancs.

On now to Pittenweem, which is now the harbour of the Fife In-shore fishing fleet.

The statue at the harbour is dedicated to the fishing families that worked and died fishing from the harbour here.

They tell us, that after mining, fishing was a most hazardous occupation, yet looking at many of the grave markers in the cemetery of the Parish Kirk here at Pittenweem, and many such graveyards all along the coast, you will find even as early as the 18-19 centuries people lived well into old age.

The abbey on the ‘Island of May’, was constantly being raided by those pesky marauding Vikings, so the monks wisely decided to up sticks and moved their quarters here to Pittenweem.

I visited St. Fillan’s Cave but did not bother to go find a key to venture inside. There are all sorts of stories attached to the cave, and St Fillan, but as you see from the fancy new entrance it is more about tourism that St Fillan.

I peddled on to Anstruther, but did not go down to the harbour this time round. I pressed on to Cellardyke, Kilrenny and Crail, where did all these cyclists come from? It had been such a pleasant day out, (although sticky) I decided to visit Fife Ness. And Constantine’s Cave.

The East Neuk of Fife (according to my old geography teacher) was called the ‘Back Garden of Fife’. And it seems that the well-drained land around the Neuk suits the growing of such vegetable crops.

Back into Crail and turning north for St Andrews, around 8 miles, again easy cycling, passing through the beautiful little village of Kingsbarns. At the summit near Brownhills, I stopped to take a picture of the town bellow, (long distant shots don’t seem to come out well with my wee camera) then went zooming off at a great rate of knots for the cathedral.

St Rule’s dates from the 10th or early 11th century, certainly the oldest remaining church in Fife. It was built for the then Bishop of St Andrews and served by a group of Augustinian canons, brought to St Andrews by Bishop Robert in 1127. St Rule’s now lies in ruin, roofless, all that remains, more or less intact, is the tall square tower standing at a height of 33 meters.

St Rule’s was superseded by the much grander St Andrews Cathedral, work started in 1160 and was completed and consecrated in 1318 and in the presence of King Robert the Bruce. Close inspection of the east gabble will reveal the triple windows, there to light the relics of St Andrew, housed behind the high altar.

Travelling up from Anstruther on the B9131 and on reaching Brownhills you look down upon St Andrews, no matter how many times I have seen this sight I’m still in awe of how beautiful it is. How much more would the first pilgrims have been on first seeing St Andrews, and its great cathedral, standing there on the headland of the bay? It is not hard to imagine the sheer elation that pilgrims would have felt at seeing this magnificent building, that would have shone in splendour, shining like a beacon of hope. The sheer size, the largest building anywhere in northern Europe, its stonework still clean and fresh, catching every ray of the sun’s light.

If you consider the date of its consecration you will understand better the reason for it to have been built at all. Scotland was fighting for its very existence, the cathedral was not just about religion. The cathedral along with the relics of one of Christ’s apostles, reinforced Scotland’s claim to be an independent European state.

After the reformation in Scotland, the cathedral would have fallen out of favour and been abandoned, it would not have taken long before it became a ready source of stone for the up and coming town of St Andrews and presbyterial churches that sprung up around the university. This is a problem that England will have to grapple with in the future, large cathedral-like York Minster, Ely, Durham, to name but three, that have no real purpose in modern society, other than as museums, and/or visitor centres. How many cathedrals will the taxpayer be willing to pay to keep when the bills for each run into million each and every year? 

If the weather holds I will be off on faze three, leaving only the two island abbeys. Keep well.

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