Updated: Sep 24
Life in St. Andrews Through the Seasons
Rarely have beauty and squalor existed in so equal a measure as in St. Andrews. And I don’t mean this purely in an aesthetic sense: having been to Russia, I am well aware that the contrast between St Mary’s Quad and the dystopian prison that is Andrew Melville is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to architectural juxtapositions. I refer also to the unique blend of picturesqueness and refinement on the one hand, and bleakness and debauchery on the other that characterises student life here. On a cool September night you might find yourself gazing wistfully at the setting sun, bleeding lilac into the bonnie hills and casting ethereal light upon the craggy cliffs as the North Atlantic waves lick the exquisite shoreline. After ten minutes of quiet, Byronesque contemplation, you might then hear some distant moans from the direction of the cathedral and wonder what strange beasts could be producing such an esoteric noise. Then you might recall last night’s alcohol-fuelled conversation in which the question arose of whether you had completed the so-called Holy Trinity (“no, I’m atheist actually”). And it suddenly clicks. The romance fades like the colour from your face, and you find you can never look at the 12th century ruin in the same way again. On your way back home, the admiration you hold for your beautiful environs might be rekindled as you pass the magnificent facade of St Salvator's Quad, imagining quaint scenes of mediaeval bishops entering the chapel for morning prayer – only for it to be extinguished again by the overpowering odour of vomit wafting from the armpits of the Union. And so the contrasts go on, with each season heralding a new bittersweet symphony of renaissance and decay.
The very thought of winter returning as I enjoy the last golden rays of the year sends shivers down my spine. It is one of the sad facts of life that a large proportion of the world’s top universities are situated in the northern hemisphere – and an even sadder one that the best university in the UK (Haven’t you heard?) should have been founded on an isolated, wind-battered, provincial corner of North-East Fife. On the one hand, it’s a blessing in disguise: suffice it to say that if St. Andrews, by some quirk of fate, were located on St Kitts & Nevis, the library would be as vacant as a strip club in a Tibetan monastery. On the other hand, whilst I’d sooner spend the winter wrapped up in a blanket in St Andrews than charging at a column of enemy tanks in Stalingrad, it can be a pretty gruelling time of year for us Gen-Z snowflakes.
If the Scottish winter were to be represented by a colour, it would be an omnipresent dull grey symbolising boredom and misery. It is a time of existential crises mitigated only by the soothing warmth of an evening drink and a hot shower. Winter in St Andrews is returning at the start of the new term brimming with optimism, reinforced by a set of New Year's resolutions which you observe for a short while but which promptly nose dive in Week Four as the long nights drag on and the stultifying burden of deadlines gets even tougher in the wintry gloom. It is new people flooding into the gym and not knowing how to use the equipment. It is long, damp, dreary nights at the back of the Whey Pat, embracing your suffering and staring into an empty Guinness glass like a character out of an Irish version of “Crime and Punishment”. Alternatively, it is hibernating in the depths of Aikman’s cellar bar, whose very own dank, clammy microclimate renders superfluous all seasonal distinctions. Winter is being hit like a ton of bricks when the time comes around (far too quickly) for your first exam cycle of the academic year, and holding onto the thought that, in a few weeks’ time, it’ll be Christmas and all your troubles will disappear with the pulling of a cracker and a sip of brandy. It’s applying for internships to the point of internal collapse and realising how screwed you are as the rejections start streaming in one after the other. It’s enduring week-long colds, slipping on ice as you walk past your crush on the way to Uni Hall, and seeing your breath – exhilarating at primary school, foreboding in adulthood – as you take that first momentous step, trussed up in a jacket and scarf, out the confines of your abode. On a more positive note, it is also a time of fun and varied events, including Welly and Christmas Ball, the ski trip (if you succeed in getting a place), and the long-anticipated Refreshers, which, after two weeks of bumming around at home over the winter break, never fails to inject some life into your deflated soul. But it also marks the beginning of that dreaded rat race when everyone scrambles to lay claim to the pitifully limited pool of private accommodation, losing all sense of camaraderie in the process.
When winter finally gives way to spring, the mood changes drastically. As the trees begin to bloom, the atmosphere around town is a bit like the scene from “Wizard of Oz” where the munchkins emerge tentatively from their homes in the wake of the somewhat brutal, if deserved, death of the Wicked Witch of the West. Springtime in St Andrews is the surreal experience of joining thousands of half-naked students as they descend on West Sands like a Zulu army (minus the spears) to partake in the annual May Dip. It’s turning up to one of the countless fashion shows and trying to work out what on earth all the hype is about until you experience an epiphany à la Prince William upon gazing into the eyes of one of the gorgeous underwear models – soon to be sweetheart. Springtime is buying a barbour jacket for the sole purpose of going to “Polo”, allowing you to fantasise about being moneyed for a day before returning to your squalid student digs on Lamond Drive to pig out on Aldi pizza in front of the telly. It’s the moment of realisation at the end of term when you realise just how many times you’ve walked the same three streets over the course of the year, finally appreciating what it must feel like to be a hamster.
It’s the other moment of realisation as you wake up with a throbbing headache – and zero memories – at the end of term and vow that you will never go to the Union again because you’re far too grown-up. It’s Grad Ball and May Ball, garden parties and Oktoberfest (oddly). And, for those in halls, it is the mounting revulsion of potatoes – in any form they may take bar late night chips at Empire – as it dawns on you that the canteen staff have served the vile things with every meal since Day One. Spring is sitting outside with a lager or a glass of wine, trying to convince yourself that it is warmer than it really is and that changing into a T-shirt was not only warranted but necessary. But it is also exams, deadlines and dissertations – and to cap it all, emotional farewells and stressful efforts to pack and tidy your flat in the run up to moving out.
Without a doubt, the summer months see St Andrews at its most glorious. So it is a tragedy, really, that they don't coincide with term-time. Nevertheless, if you are lucky enough to be able to spend the summer here, it is a season of unparalleled fun and freedom. It is tossing a ball around on West Sands and pretending you’re Tom Cruise in that steamy volleyball scene from the latest Top Gun film. It is running wild free of obligations, letting your hair down without consequence, drinking tinnies on the beach, and soaking up the short-lasting spell of sunshine. Summer is taking a pleasant stroll along the Scores, marvelling at the serenity of your surroundings, only for your blissful reverie to be interrupted by the impossibly loud braying of middle-aged Americans in baseball caps as they make their way to the Dunvegan after a long day of playing golf and tracing their ancestry. It is also ambling along to Janetta’s for the obligatory mid-summer ice cream and joining the comically long queue that invariably extends around the block.
Autumn. A season filled with highs and lows for freshers and fourth-years alike. Autumn in St. Andrews is the drunken revelry of Freshers’ Week and the ensuing haze of crippling hangovers made all the worse by the recognition that the new year is about to begin and you will soon have to pick up the pieces of your fallen existence. It is signing up for anything and everything at Freshers’ Fayre but never following up on your half-baked aspirations. It is adopting your “dark academia” counter-persona in a secluded corner of Taste, cradling a pumpkin spiced latte and sporting a cable knit jumper and a pair of glasses that you don’t even need but nonetheless wear to look scholarly in front of your stack of library books.
It is getting through the autumn grind on the approach to reading week and fighting your way in and out of Pret like an SAS operative at the Iranian Embassy siege (an art that you have down to a T). It is dressing up for Halloween as a dinosaur, a fridge, or, even worse, a stripper with lipstick smeared around your face, seeing to it that you are drunk enough to endure the embarrassment of turning up at the Union in your sunken state. It is pretending to have found faith in God to get a free doughnut, completing the obligatory “Pablo rainbow” (short of receiving a fine for throwing up on a bouncer), and entering your room only to find your mates have removed all the furniture while you were gone. It is getting adopted by twelve sets of parents in one night and exploiting them all for alcohol. It is hatching ways of making the lives of your adoptive children a living hell for the duration of Raisin weekend. Autumn is also wifing season: a time when everyone around you seems to be finding partners and, by extension, becoming dull and staid. It is a fun-filled season, but it is also an overwhelming one – for with the new year comes a confusing melange of fresh expectations, renewed pressures, and unfamiliar faces.
For such a small town, St Andrews is remarkably dynamic. The atmosphere of the town seems to transform with every new season, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. It is chameleon-like in the way it adapts according to who’s there, what time of year it is, and what’s going on. It is also a town of contrasts. It can be simultaneously ugly and pretty, homely and intimidating, virtuous and debauched, pleasant and dismal. We all experience it differently too; some thrive in the autumn, others bloom in the spring. For most of us, though, the rapid march of winter is a threatening prospect. But there are always means of coping. In their infinite wisdom, 1970s British rock band, Mungo Jerry, wrote: “When the winter's here, yeah it's party time, bring your bottle, wear your bright clothes, it'll soon be summertime”.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew