Back and forth

Well, we’ve had our long-awaited trip to St Andrews, and very fabulous it was too. Going back was like meeting a friend who has aged particularly well. Stunningly well. In fact, St Andrews has had the equivalent of a complete facelift, with liposuction and new boobs thrown in. It’s like Richmond, or Dulwich, or Blackheath – dinky, full of charm, with cheese shops selling intriguing chevres at £20 for 100g and all the essentials, like Phase Eight.

My daughters are used to my stories about university life involving extreme cold and/or poverty, sometimes featuring me burning old clothes to keep warm (true, and not very effective) or selling my year’s books to afford to the train fare home (true, and still quite a good wheeze I think). They looked at me in amazement as we sauntered down streets lined with expensive boutiques, trendy juice bars and lovely cafes, including the place where Kate and Prince William met. Was this really the spot where I’d acquired a permanently red nose and a yearning for thermals?

Luckily, I was with my lovely friend, also the astonished parent of an 18-year-old, who could attest that yes, back in the dark days of the 1980s, there were only two shops in St Andrews. One sold fishing tackle, and the other, called The Boat Window (why?), offered huge taffeta ballgowns, so bouffant they could make even Princess Diana look like the hippo from Fantasia. Oh yes, there was also a Woolworths, where we used to go for a bit of excitement (yes, REALLY) and one stationers, that sold calendars with Scottie dogs on, and did a roaring trade in plastic rainhats. There was a single cafe, the Victoria, and a plethora of chippies selling fine Scottish fare – deep-fried pizza, deep-fried mars bars and, of course, deep-fried haggis.

It’s the Royal connection which has put St Andrews on the map in ways which 600 years of academic excellence could not. The university has doubled in size since Prince William turned up. Thirty per cent of students are now American (there were two in my day, both looking confused), and the fact that a lot of the American students are rich (since St Andrews fees are peanuts compared to Harvard, Yale or Chicago) means that the town now flourishes. Our taxi driver had lurid tales of super-rich students who use the uni as a base and fly off to Barcelona or Venice at weekends. I know the urge well – it’s a town with three streets, and sometimes you need to escape. When Woolworths eventually paled, we did occasionally take the bus to Dundee.

Some things remain exactly the same, though. My daily walk along the pier (much mocked by those who were never up in time to see whether I’d actually gone out or not, thank you) was recreated, and involved a hearty exfoliation of all our skins as the North Sea lashed angrily at the rocks and the wind blew our hair into crazy updos. And we did finally find the History department, scene of many of my anxiety dreams. Usually, the scenario is that I’ve completely forgotten where the building is, and of course we did actually walk right past it in real life. But my friends were very kindly determined to help me run it to ground at last, and so we did, in the deepening dusk. There it was, just as it had always been, a stony, solid building looking out to sea. Good times.

Taffeta: not for everyone

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