The West

The clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.
The clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

Despite being the storied home of golf and finding itself smack in the middle of Scotland's east coast, St Andrews feels inexplicably English.

Perhaps it is the white sweep of beach that borders the Old Course, which could just as easily belong in Norfolk or the sandier parts of the Cornish coast as Fife. Or it could be the town's inevitable association with Prince William, who studied art history at its venerable university.

Or maybe it's just the way the high street looks like any other in Britain, with its Tesco and Boots, a Waterstone's, a WH Smith and the ubiquitous Greggs the Baker.

But while St Andrews feels English and is Scottish, the town is full of people from elsewhere in the world. The university attracts students from all over, both for its academic prestige and the Wills factor, I should think.

But the vast majority are tourists of the golfing variety. Most are American, confident and wealthy, with cigars clamped between their molars and pristine polo shirts stretched across well-fed bellies - although there is a fair scattering of visitors from Asia, especially from Japan and Malaysia, where golf is particularly popular.

Unlike me, perhaps, they wouldn't have been surprised to discover just how accessible golf is in St Andrews. The course itself is publicly owned by the town and run on its behalf by the club, so visitors are free to wander its well-tended expanses, keeping an eye out for flying golf balls.

For those who don't have the wherewithal to play the course proper - and it's not cheap, even if you don't pay the premium to purchase a guaranteed tee-off and chance it on the cheaper lottery allocation instead - there is plenty on offer.

For a few pounds, we play on the sweetly named Himalayas putting green, where a group of cheerful Texans cheer me on to victory. For a few more, we buy a bucket of balls at the driving range where I am declared to have a "natural stroke".

The famous Swilken Burn is the only water hazard on the Old Course at St Andrews. Picture: Gemma Nisbet

There are others in town, too, perhaps not for 18 holes but to visit the historical sights such as the ruined cathedral and the remains of the castle. Late one evening, as we're climbing into our dormitory bunk beds, a pair of girls arrive, saying hello before they set about preparing for bed. They are the first women I have seen staying in a hostel and wearing the hijab.

It's perhaps an incongruous combination - the value of privacy and modesty suggested by the headscarf and the forced intimacy with strangers of the hostel dorms - but both the girls and the other inhabitants of the dorm are decidedly unfazed.

They leave early the next morning and a few hours later we do the same, heading off to catch a bus back to Edinburgh. As we leave, we run into a big Afro-British family coming up the staircase, seven women and five children ranging in age from infants to about 10. As we pass them, they give us cheerful smiles and continue to chat to each other in a language I can't place with occasional asides in English.

In the vibrant multiculturalism we've encountered, it seems that this quintessentially English town perched on the Scottish coast shares something else in common with British cities other than a parade of chain stores and a scattering of wide-eyed American tourists.

The West Australian

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