Christopher Ruane

AFTER months mostly cooped up inside, like many folk I was itching to get out and travel again. With the pandemic ongoing and travel logistics in flux even after lockdown restrictions were eased, something close to home seemed sensible. This odd time could provide a good opportunity to see more of Scotland.

The Fife Coastal Path ticked the right boxes. This long distance walk may be less well-known than others like the West Highland Way, but it is a well-planned, well-signposted and rewarding path. Opened in 2002, its route now stretches 116 miles between Kincardine and Newburgh. Several guidebooks to the path are available. Passing through towns and villages, public transport access on and off the path is straightforward, even just for a long weekend. It also offers a chance to enjoy some of Fife’s sleepier coastal hamlets.

We opted for some sections in the East Neuk, starting on a Friday afternoon in Burntisland. The first drink in a pub since they reopened felt indulgent before even starting the walk. But it was a holiday after all. The Smugglers Inn, just by the train station, offered well-spaced outside decking and table service. Contemplating the coming walk over a map in the sunshine, the scene evoked the feeling of leisurely summer holidays.

We walked down towards the waterfront, passing the old station building on one side and the modern pallet factory on the other. Part of what makes the path enjoyable is its proximity to the coast. Whereas some coastal paths deviate quite far inland, this one really does cling to the sea. Not only did that make for spectacular views in bracing air, it also makes for easy navigation. If ever in doubt, just tack back to the coast.

The town and beach were busy with families enjoying themselves. Walking on, the noise soon melted away, replaced by the omnipresent sound of waves. It was a straightforward path towards Kirkcaldy, mostly on the flat. Chalk on the Lang Toun’s waterfront marked set distances people had run back and forth during lockdown. A stop near the picturesque old harbour town of Dysart allowed for a sandwich dinner beside empty creels. Looking out over the Firth of Forth, East Lothian was visible on the other side. While energising ourselves, reminders of other forms of energy from across the ages dotted the landscape.

The nearby coalfields had once been economically and socially important. The path passed by the Frances Colliery Memorial, bearing the names of dozens of miners who died there before the pit closed in the 1980s. The impact of industrial decline scarred some of the areas the path passed through, which were less pretty than Dysart but also thought provoking. The gargantuan wind turbine just offshore from Methil had been the world’s largest when built in 2013. It loomed into view many miles away and looked outsized from every direction at any distance. A rig anchored miles offshore similarly seemed to defy perspective, shadowing us far up the trail like an elaborate trig point.

But that wasn’t the most exciting sight offshore. In the Friday gloaming, foamy splashes near the beach caught the eye. Looking closer, a raft of otters moved around with surprising speed. They popped up in one part of the sea before vanishing only to emerge far off soon afterwards. It was the perfect conclusion to an enjoyable day close to nature. We arrived late in the evening at a bed and breakfast in Leven after the 16-mile walk from Burntisland.

Overnight, pouring rain had replaced the sunshine. The B&B had no other guests, so breakfast was a leisurely affair and we waited until the sun returned to set out. A shift from driving rain to gorgeous sunshine set the tone for a day of contrasts.

At Leven and Lundin, the first of many golfers were clearly happy to be out on Fife’s links after months putting on their back lawns or living room floors. The expansive beach at Largo Bay was the near private domain of a solitary paraglider. Just around the corner at the large caravan site near Shell Bay, there were flocks of people chatting, eating and walking.

Much of the trail so far had been wide and sparsely peopled, so it was quite easy to keep a distance from other walkers. The next section, on the narrow pathway over the headland before Elie, was different. It was busy with runners and groups walking in both directions. Facing away when passing each other was an option, but proper distancing was impractical. This was also the steepest part of the trip, with a sharp ascent offering views down over Scotland’s via ferrata, a chain walk over the dramatic volcanic rocks far below. The exhilarating vista was worthy of a summer holiday on the Mediterranean.

Back at sea level, the elegant town of Elie was an ideal pit stop, with the newsagent and deli both well set up for distanced shopping. It was a lovely spot for a bite to eat, gazing on the busy beach. Children paddled close to the sand while surfers rode the waves further out. The path wound on to Pittenweem, thrillingly pinned between the sea and the Auld Kirk in St Monans.

Pittenweem’s quaint harbourfront gave way to coastline and soon the start of Anstruther. It was getting dark and the last heat had left the sky. The fishing boats bobbed alongside and it was a treat to sit by the pier enjoying the town’s renowned fish supper.

Having read how much the hospitality industry was struggling, I had naively assumed that accommodation would be plentiful. In fact, a lot of places had not yet reopened. Some were still making changes to their set up, others had written off the season, and perhaps others had decided to pack it all in for good. That made for a tighter supply of accommodation, just when many people were opting to holiday close to home.

Asking around all the accommodation, Anstruther offered nothing. We finally called a hotel in Crail which had a room. Having walked 16 miles since morning, we opted for a taxi. With the usual Saturday night wait for a car, the warm indoors appealed. A popular pub was stowed out as if there had been no pandemic, so we opted for a quieter local. The pub league darts fixture list showed all the rounds played before the lockdown had presumably forced the final to be delayed. The players have had the chance to polish their skills at home over the summer, so it will doubtless end up being a hotly contested final.

Digs in Crail were the Balcomie Links, a family-run hotel. With a small bottle of sanitiser in the bathroom and a dining room laid out to keep guests apart, they were well set up to welcome visitors again. A warm bath washed away the gentle aches of the day.

A delicious breakfast was a good set up for a relaxing Sunday. Instead of another full day of walking, it was time to rest the feet a little and take a bus to St Andrews. The X60 bus between Edinburgh and St Andrew’s stops at various points along the Fife Coastal Path, but from Crail we took a local bus running its normal service. The passengers were few, and all wore masks.

The university town was much quieter than usual. It was lovely to enjoy its charms without crowds. From St Andrews, the path moves inland for a stretch. A level, new hard surface made for just under five miles of very easy walking. It was a popular local cycle route too. At Guardbridge, an inn with an expansive garden offered a chance to sit by the riverside, before the simple walk up to Leuchars for the train home.

The next train due was operated by LNER. For distancing reasons they require reservations but the ticket office couldn’t make any for us. Instead, we were asked to wait for a later train operated by Scotrail, who do not require reservations.

On the train, scenes from the past several days whizzed by much faster than they had on foot. Before long we left Fife over the Forth Rail Bridge. A few days on the Fife Coastal Path had been a mostly easy walk along a beautiful shoreline. More than anything, it just felt great to be out and see the wider world afresh.