It is the middle of June and we are still in the middle of Scotland. Our vague plan to hit the Northern wilderness of the Highlands was derailed by something not so common around here in the Backwards Van, something called ‘sense’. As we rolled away from Falkirk the lines on the map parted and left us with options, we could go north and join the famous NC500 route to the very top of mainland Scotland which was tempting, very tempting. But that wayward daughter down in York requires Dixies participation in her house move a whole week earlier than originally planned and that would leave us only 16 days to cover the entire 500 miles…York is 250 miles away from us already, is there any point putting it even further away? Why not stay around here instead, explore Fife, save the money at the diesel pump and go up north when we have enough time to really get to know the place and give each mile of the NC500 the time it deserves later?
The other day we drove that beautiful new bridge The Queensferry Crossing, remember we wrote about it a couple of months ago? The huge white specimen that resembles three sails side by side? The view from the deck of the bridge right down the estuary was incredible and driving across it the sails steel rails seemed to go on forever. In reality it is only a 1.7 mile (2.7km) stretch and the urge to slam on the breaks was real, to stop the zig-zagging lines of obedient traffic and get out to take a photo over the edge. We settled for safely dawdling along in the slow lane instead. Fife awaited us on the other side of the bridge.
The Kingdom of Fife has been inhabited as early as the Late Iron Age by the Pics, thought to be Celtish, and the place is soaked in pre-Christian history, from ancient churches, stones and holy wells and medieval rock carvings. Theres no Gallic spoken here, but Fife is where the Scottish druids and pagans of old met and worshipped, a special place, a sacred spot. After the bridge we swung a sharp right and followed the Fife coastal route, the sun splitting the sky and the road ahead curiously empty for an afternoon. It turns out ‘just taking the next right’ is actually a decent plan sometimes and we found ourselves coasting the long driveway into Silver Strand, Aberdour, with its large flat carpark and sweeping views right from the big red Forth bridge down the wide river to Edinburgh. The park was busy with Fifers (yes, thats what the locals are called) and a couple of vans had set up camp just opposite us, their deck chairs arranged neatly on the hill facing the sun and the obligatory BBQ sat nearby smoking away. Across the water, through the low mist we could see the green mound of Arthurs Seat and the few high rise buildings of Edinburgh city poking out of the clouds. Dixie parked up by the lighthouse and we spent a very quiet evening watching the sun sail slowly across the big blue sky. Trawlers, yachts and huge cruise ships made their way past as did the massive red refuelling vessel that lives under the bridges by the depot and rushes out to meet and fill the boats too big to navigate the shallow Firth to the pumps themselves.
Recently we have been reading a lot of travel blogs and adventurers tales, and one recurring theme amongst career travellers, wanderers and nomads is an infliction known as ‘Travel Slump’. Apparently, it is quite common to suffer from a certain kind of boredom or malaise brought on by continuous travel…well that just makes no sense to us whatsoever. I’m not sure how people can get bored at all, such is my mile-a-minute mind, but to get bored while travelling? It simply can’t happen in a campervan. If we were to get ‘bored’ (however it is you define that) or tired we can just go home, to the van, where all of our things are, including our bed, and stay there until some more time passes and we have had enough of that. Boredom just isn’t something either of us struggles with. There isn’t time.
Just over the hill from the lighthouse is Lady’s Tower, built in 1760 for Lady Janet Anstruthers. A local and beautiful rich girl known for her flirtatiousness, apparently she needed her privacy up there on the cliff to change every morning into her birthday suit before her daily naked swim. Take from that what you will, people are strange creatures, interesting and strange.
Fife is the land that lies low between the Forth of Tay and Forth of Firth but this chunk of Scotland, from Earlsferry to St Andrews to Wormiston and everything in between that is called the East Neuk of Fife. Neuk translates as corner or nook and this sort-of peninsula is like Scotlands little back pocket, quiet, sparsely populated, beautiful and relaxed and we liked it here already. Just one turn off any main road leads to fields of grain and green, rusty brown beaches and acres and acres of yellow rapeseed and little white daisies, peace and quiet is never too far away in East Neuk.
We spent our second night in Fife in Kingsbarns, in a large public picnic area by the sea. Having arrived at our spot at exactly the same time as the evening rain was turned on, instead of carpark socialising with the other vanners we cooked burgers and ate with the door open long into the night, our flip flopped feet tucked under warm blankets. We could open all the doors and still not get wet inside Dixie, if the rain cooperates and falls down in straight lines and we do when we can, during a candid cloudburst, just downwards rain, rain without any kind of motive. Its rare.
The Backwards Van has been a little quiet on Facebook of late, for at least three reasons I can think of offhand. The internet signal around this part of the world is not exactly great and my Irish SIM card won’t always connect. This leads to a lot less being online, which in turn leads to a lot less trying to be online, and as we have learned, life is significantly quieter this way. Add to that the fact my only internet-capable device is full to capacity of photos and videos it has become an annoying, sluggish nightmare to navigate. Another reason we have not been updating is that nothing has really happened, and as a result of that we genuinely have nothing to say. We are getting really good at slowing down and we seem to stay longer now where we feel comfortable. I could describe the two warm days spent around the lighthouse (lighthouses really, we spent a night at both Ha and Elie Ness) and all the lovely people we spoke to but you weren’t there to hear the exchange of stories, the heartfelt wishes of good luck and advice or to see the wink-and-nod exchange of local knowledge shared, insider information passed on to a stranger, it might be a lovely quiet parkup with a great view maybe, or an interesting site not in the guidebooks. Older people have the best travel stories, especially the old-time vanners from the 60s and 70s, we’ve met so many people who lived this life before it was “cool”, before the rules and the laws and the parking notices, before the hashtags and the gadgets and all the modern conveniences we enjoy today. I set a bowl of water in the shade under Dixies wheel, the ultimate friendly/selfish attempt to catch some canine entertainment and it worked, all day long. I ask again how anybody could ever get bored of travel?
Just up the coast road from Kingsbarns is the historic town of St. Andrews, the self-proclaimed home of golf.
The beaches at St. Andrews boast that rich terracotta sand, reminescint of the south coast of England and we reversed up as close as safely possible to the sea to open the back doors and watch the waves lick the shore from between the curtains. Dixies back doors act like our TV now in the warm weather, real TV is not something we miss in life. We moved no further in through town that night, we had no need to go anywhere with a view like that so we hung up the keys and got settled down. Wherever we hang our keys, that’s our home, for the night at least. Slowing down is becoming like a second nature to us.
Storm Hector was asserting himself across the west of Scotland and all throughout Ireland that night but Fife escaped with barely a blow, the wind did come in high over the sea for about an hour around midnight but died down as quickly as it started and we both slept peacefully. In the morning after a quick breakfast of banana sandwiches and coffee we set out to walk the pretty cobbled streets of St Andrews.
The old town of St. Andrews was founded around 1413 but proof exists of a church here dating back to 747AD. The university was established alongside the town and now attracts all the usual urban additions of copious cute cafes and indie stores and local producers but St. Andrews is a fair trade town, it will never be commercialised like a city even as term time sees the population swell threefold. The cathedral was the largest building in Scotland for centures, the university campus and surrounds are very grand and beautiful and the town is small, quaint and quirky, definitely worth a visit.
Travel can get expensive, especially on airlines and so much can be out of your control. My pet peeve is being required to jettison your bottled water just to pay again for a new one on the other side of the gate. Planning, booking and the actual travelling itself can be quite stressful and if you throw into that mix some noisy children, a destination you’re not entirely sure of or any other discomfort and the idea seems daunting to say the least.
If Fife is Scotlands back pocket, St. Andrews is where she keeps her money.
The lovely winding streets took us through the town, passed sudden rows of countless little shops flogging seemingly identical golf garb and accessories, down past the 18th hole and pavilion, to the gorgeous West Sands beach and the big blue North Sea.
As we braced ourselves against the persistent afternoon wind to traverse the miles and miles of flat sand, William told me there was a very famous movie scene filmed on this beach and I already knew I probably have not seen it. It’s called Chariots of Fire, a historical drama, released in 1981 and featuring a cast of actors ‘before they made it’. He reeled out plenty of names I’ve never heard of and even carried out a solo re-enactment of the famous beach running scene, much to my amusement but nope, I can’t recall. Memories of the day we sat on Curracloe Strand saying wow, remember Saving Private Ryan, the dreadfully powerful opening scene was filmed right here… No, I’ve not seen that either.
After our brisk walk we retired to our tiny home and moved her 5 short minutes up the road and onto the famous St Andrews golf course! Golf is not my thing, much to my fathers endless disappointment as I walk this world bearing the last name of and being directly related to Irelands own Harry Bradshaw, a well-known professional golfer who took home all kinds of trophies for Ireland in the 1940s and 50s. He is most famous for dropping a shot in the 1949 Open Championship against Bobby Locke when his drive at the 5th hole landed on a broken beer bottle and he stubbornly elected to take the shot and in turn lost the game. My father tells me the broken bottle from this extraordinary moment in sport is on display in an English town called Sandwich and I think we should roll down to see it someday. It’s the very least I can do, I don’t see myself ever being bored enough to play golf, sorry Dad.
After talking all about Chariots of Fire (its not just about running, William said, it’s much deeper than that) and walking all that way along that stunning beach we could have kicked off our boots, snuggled down under the blankets and watched the movie together. We didn’t, but we could have, that is the beauty of living and travelling in a campervan. We made our own entertainment instead by preparing an overly elaborate dinner and at 11pm with the days light refusing to leave the sky, we moved to our next spot a little drive further up the northern Fife coast in Tayport.
We have become masters of passing time agreeably. Writing The Unconventional Oven has been so amusing and rewarding and as cheap a source of entertainment as we can imagine as each recipe can take a few hours to think out, discuss and write. At least an hour a day is spent pouring over maps, looking for beautiful places to stay and at places of interest to visit. Eating, reading aloud to each other, washing, writing, looking, brushing our teeth, singing, all these things take up our time. Everything is different every single time we stop, I can’t see how that could ever get tiring.
We drove the little towns and villages of northern and mid Fife the next few days but something drew us back to the Neuk, back into the quiet, sandy, easternmost pocket. Crail is a cute little town but its hidden gem is the HMS Jackdaw, the derelict ruins of the Royal Air Force base. One of the navys busiest airfields in its hayday, the base is a listed and protected area, remarkably well preserved and we walked through the abandoned buildings and over broken glass and in and out of the ruined structures, the hospital, the dormitories, the huge empty spaces between. Dixie waited patiently for us at the end of an ex-landing strip.
Creepy, abandoned industrial buildings and warehouses, offices and housing units and wide open space. Something metal was banging and clattering in the breeze and a rusty hinge screeched over and over as we walked the huge deserted lot, kicking stones and listening to the tin, empty echoes.
If derelict was a crayon colour, it would be the colour of the Petty Officers club door.
Some of the buildings have been used recently, this chalet was stuffed full of fishing paraphernalia and junk. We came to learn a traders fayre takes place here monthly and part of the bases miles of concrete is used for speedway racing, bikes and cars. Driving fast makes Dixie nervous.
We didn’t see a single other person the entire time on the base. I wondered outloud, is this idea of suffering a ‘travel slump’ brought about by the chosen method of travel rather than travel itself? Airports are noisy, fast and confusing and airplanes are notoriously cramped and uncomfortable and the whole process can often be rather stressful and may take a few days to recover from. Ferries are bigger and easier to move around but they come with their own set of problems, most noticeable to those of us with gentle dispositions. Lately we have taken to driving an average of about 15-20 miles a day, hardly enough sitting to cause discomfort of any kind, and some days we don’t start the engine at all. Travelling by van cuts out the stresses of crowded places, limited luggage, waiting in long queues. We can wait, if ever necessary, in Dixie instead.
Crail RAF base is a great place for an afternoon wander (read the history of the site before you go, its full of mystery and espionage 😉) and we left as the sun was falling behind the old buildings and a distinct chill crept into the air, it was time to get cozy. The perfect spot to sleep in Kilrenny just beside the sea and overlooking the Isle of May presented itself without any effort whatsoever on our part, proving once again that Scotland is a vanners playground and the East Neuk of Fife is no exception. Later, pinpointing our map of overnight stops we learned that in St. Andrews we had stayed on the most expensive street in Scotland, the average price of just one of those houses (the big fancy ones just behind the dirty white van 🤣) is £2.1 million. Parking your house outside those houses however, is inexplicably free.
Tomorrow we plan on seeing Fifes best-kept standing stones, the Orwell Stones. There is Duninos Den to visit, an ancient hidden pagan worship site and druids den, complete with medieval rock carvings. We’ve been here a week and although Fife is hardly world-renowned for its wealth of tourist attractions we always manage to find something worth seeing, we’ve not even set foot in Glenrothes, capital town of Fife and one of Scotland’s first to hold official post-war new town status after its completion in the early 1950s. The whole town is mostly indoors in a large shopping centre. Then there is St. Fillans cave to explore…
If we ever end up suffering from this affliction called ‘travel slump’, if we do get bedridden with boredom, if there comes a time when every map in the van is so well-thumbed and every novel read and reread and there are no more songs to memorise or new roads to drive and nothing nearby of interest to see or learn about, if we ever get sick and tired of moving on all the time, I suppose we could just stop for a while and watch Chariots of Fire. Saving Private Ryan wasn’t my kind of film. Or we could watch something else I have not seen yet.
I could write a book about all the things I have not seen yet. I just wouldn’t know where to start 🤔💭