A Short Break at Sandcastle Cottage – in November!

When our guests and their children return to school after the October holidays, the opportunity now arises for us to spend some time in our weekend hideaway at Sandcastle Cottage in Crail.

Our daughter is eager for the company of a friend for the weekend, so we invite one of her oldest friends (they met at nursery aged 6 months) to join us for part of the weekend. The girls are not quite at the age when they’d be happy to be away from their parents overnight, so we invite Dad too! It’s going to be a bit of a juggling act working out the sleeping arrangements – but it’s only for one night.

Friday Night

We set off from Edinburgh in the dark, with rain pouring down and a forecast of more to come over the weekend. We decided to wait until after we’d had our meal on Friday night before setting off because the roadworks on the approach to the Forth Road Bridge mean that setting off any earlier just lengthens the journey time. Fortunately by just after 7 pm the traffic is flowing smoothly, and it’s just the poor visibility which slows us down.

It’s an easy drive from Edinburgh – only about an hour and a half at the most, and we take the A90 over the Bridge, then up to Junction 2a and on to the A92 towards Kirkcaldy and Glenrothes. We choose the inland route towards Glenrothes and along the ? towards Leven – it’s longer but usually marginally quicker, and we start to feel like we’re coming ‘home’ as we approach our familiar chain of East Neuk villages – Lundin Links, Upper Largo, then choose the inland road again (we can’t see much at all so no point in taking the scenic route) through Colinsburgh where there’s a 20 mph limit in force through the village now, along with a whole load of road works. This route bypasses Earlsferry, Elie and St Monans and takes us straight to Pittenweem.

Somewhere between Colinsburgh and Pittenweem the tune for the hymn ‘For those in peril on the sea’ starts in my head and I am grateful that we’re inside our warm car and not out in this wild night, and certainly not in a boat. That’s also the time when our 4-year old son starts to ask ‘are we almost there?’ and our daughter starts to panic – ‘Are you feeling sick?’ She’s still remembering a fateful journey down the A68 when we were heading for Beamish and we didn’t manage to stop in time. The point where we discovered that he does suffer from car sickness.

However, we chant the mantra of the East Neuk villages, “look, here we are in Pittenweem passing Heather’s house (Heather takes care of Sandcastle Cottage and arranges the cleaning and preparation for our guests)”. “Watch out for the Craw’s Nest in Anstruther, can you see the flags and the Craw in his Nest?” “What’s round the next corner?” “Yes, it’s the Shell House.” “Not far now.” We’ve not got a saying for Cellardyke, but then we’re only really there for a few hundred yards on this inland trail. Then, “look, here we are at Kilrenny – do you remember the wonderful Kirk Tea we had there one day, with the delicious home baking?” Now, “over the bridge at Kilrenny and the next place is Crail.”

If it were drier, we’d point out the Island of May and look for the lighthouse flashing there as we travel on the last winding road towards Crail, but the rain is practically horizontal at this point and I’m concentrating on avoiding the roadside puddles – some of the water’s quite deep and I don’t want to skid.

“See those lights up ahead, there’s Crail, hurray, hurray!” “The Chip Shop’s open.” “Aye, but there aren’t many people out tonight – all the locals are keeping themselves warm and dry.”

I slow right down to negotiate the right turn off the High Street into Marketgate at the Golf Hotel, and as I do so I remark that the rain’s slowed down very conveniently which will at least allow us to unpack the car without getting completely soaked. There’s a scaffold up on the house at No 2 Marketgate, which makes the right turn into Kirk Wynd somewhat tricky, but fortunately there’s a big parking space just outside the cottage, so we’re able to scurry inside with our bags and lift our sleeping son indoors.

Fortunately when I was up a couple of weeks ago showing the Visit Scotland STB Grading Inspector round the cottage, I had the foresight to check the timing on the central heating, so the cottage is toasty for our arrival

We’ve only brought waterproofs and wellies and a couple of changes of clothing for our weekend stay, so unpacking doesn’t take long.

One of the things about this being our own cottage is of course that we’re never really ‘off duty’ – I notice that the new curtains which I put up last winter have one of the rings pulled out at the top, and resolve to get the ladder out tomorrow morning and fix it.

We also inspect the downstairs toilet where there’s a small problem with the cistern, which we’d been assured would be fixed this week – but no progress, which is a bit of a pain for us as it means we’ll all have to share the en suite toilet upstairs until it’s fixed. However, we’re coming up again next weekend so we’ll make sure it’s all done by then.

We’re all tired after a long week at work and school, so we don’t do much unwinding, but head straight for bed. Our son falls asleep almost immediately, and our daughter is satisfied with only one chapter of Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” before she’s happy to settle down to sleep.

I’ve brought “Restoration” by Rose Tremain to read, but don’t manage much of it before it falls on my nose and I realise it’s time for lights out.

Saturday morning

As the kids have had a pancake craze this week, I’d taken the precaution of bringing sufficient quantities of the necessary ingredients with us, just so’s we didn’t have to go out first thing before we’d had a chance to have a relaxing shower or long lie. However, for our elder child the pancake craze has worn off and she knows that there’s the possibility of a Penman’s sausage for breakfast, if only her dad shows willing to wander along to the Butchers. Fortunately the gale force winds and driving rain have cleared for the morning, and it’s a lovely sunny day outside, and it’s not even very cold.

I resolve to make the pancakes anyway as I know that at least one of our family will be glad to munch away on them whilst watching the diet of Saturday morning kids’ entertainments on TV.

There’s a moment of panic when our eldest finds that she’s not able to phone in for the competition on CBBC, and although I’ve brought the laptop, we don’t have internet access.

We find that it’s necessary to perch our mobile phones in the window of the cottage just to get some kind of reception here – the thick stone walls are protection against most mobile signals. However, the drawback is that we find that if we’ve to answer one of the mobiles we’ve to perch on the windowledge ourselves – which can be a bit awkward, not to say looking a bit odd from the street. However, one of our guests was successful in having sufficient strength on her mobile signal that she not only managed to ring through to the Fred MacAulay show on Radio Scotland, but also successfully won the Daily Dementor quiz – great excitement in Sandcastle Cottage that morning.

When Sandy returns from his walk along the High Street, he’s managed to buy provisions for the rest of the day, not just breakfast. This involved the obligatory chat with Ronnie at Penman’s, who agrees with Sandy’s view that parties for birthdays should stop at a young age. Sandy had been telling him that we were coming up to Crail next weekend to celebrate his 50th birthday, and going out for a meal rather than having a party.

But for those of you who are reading this for ideas on what there is to do on a weekend in Crail, we’d happily confirm that Sandy was able to buy plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, ham hough for making soup and three splendid sirloin steaks for our evening meal. Penman’s famous pork sausages and delicious back bacon are teamed up with fresh free range eggs from Kilduncan Farm which we buy at Fresh Fruits. They’ve also got perfect vine tomatoes and mushrooms for our breakfast feast.

Fortified with our cooked breakfast, the kids decide it’s time to go to the beach – yes, even in Scotland you can go to the beach in November. However it’s a pretty different sartorial decision than summer beach visiting. Our daughter decides that whilst she wouldn’t be seen out in Edinburgh in the layers of clothes we insist upon here, we’re in Crail so it doesn’t really matter. So t-shirt and skirt is supplemented by a stout pair of wellingtons, cardigan, waterproof and windproof jacket, hat, gloves, scarf. Our son is similarly bundled up and we set off – but it’s the adults who need the windproofing most because we’re so much more likely to stand around than the kids who’re soon off running.

Big sisterly concern is shown as we descend the steps by the 16th Century Doo’cot on the way down to Roome Bay beach. Our son quickly finds out about the dangers of standing on the green slimy stuff which coats the rocks nearest to the sea, and lands firmly on his bottom. Our daughter is soon returning with wellies which have accidentally let in some of the waves in which she was paddling, and needs her socks wrung out and stowed away in Mum’s pockets.

Some small boys are making their version of a 21st century fortification with rocks and sand on the beach – it’s quite an impressive structure involving circles of standing stones and mounds of sand.

It’s wonderful to see the kids relax and become carefree as they gallop around yelling and enjoying themselves. I reflect upon the passage I read recently in Nicole Krauss’s “The History of Love”, where the character of Uncle Julian talks about how an artist, in order to paint a head, has to make a decision to leave out the rest of the body. It’s a similar thing when we get to contemplating the beach at Roome Bay – beachcombing focuses our attention on the myriad of small things to be found on the beach, and pushes out cares and worries from our heads.

We enjoy the winter sunlight – although looking over towards the Lammermuir Hills behind Berwick Law and the Bass Rock, it looks as if the sun hasn’t really risen too far in the sky today as the light behind the clouds seems to be the colour of a sunrise, but the sun itself isn’t visible.

The children are soon wandering happily looking at the colours and shapes of the pebbles and boulders on the beach, and wading through piles of slimy seaweed. I spot some redshanks landing further along the beach, and there are whirling herring gulls and arctic terns shrieking above us.

Our daughter finds out about the properties of sandstone as she chucks a rock and it splinters, and about pigment as her hands get covered in red particles from spots of (presumably) iron within the rock.

I notice that the Seaside Award flag has tattered so much in the prevailing wind that the year of award has been worn away. There’s a new board up beside the path at Roome Bay Beach which provides some information about the beach and the parkland on the coast. I take a photo to remind me to look at the information later.

As we’re climbing back towards the play park to do some swinging and circling on the roundabout to work off the cold, we notice a couple of intrepid canoeists rounding the headland from Sauchope Links and heading towards Crail Harbour, also a couple of small fishing boats which follow them round the coast.

Meantime Sandy’s been back at the cottage preparing a delicious soup for our lunch from the aforementioned ham hough which he’s boiled up and added a selection of vegetables – leeks, onions, carrots, parsnips and potatoes. It’s wonderful to return to the smell of it filling the kitchen, and to welcome us back.

Our weekend guests arrive at this point and are soon happily sitting with us discussing plans for the afternoon and munching on the crusty bread which we’ve also bought from Penman’s this morning.

After lunch, we decide to take a circular walk which takes in some of the highlights of Crail, and will give our guests a flavour for why we love it here so much. Neither of them have been to Crail before, so it’s a great opportunity for us to travel familiar territory and tell some old tales of our experiences here.

We set off again, suitably wrapped up and with the kids kitted out with Wellington boots just in case of paddling. We go down the path towards Roome Bay once again, which is just on the other side of Nethergate from our cottage. As we round the corner at the top of the Triangle Park, our guests remark that it’s an amazing surprise to come round the corner and find the sea so close. While you can see the sea from our upstairs bedroom windows, it’s still a breathtaking view from the height of the path at the top, looking towards St Abbs Head in the far distance and out to the North Sea from the very end of the River Forth. The tide has come in since our last visit to the beach, and the waves are stronger, splashing the children and forcing a speedy retreat up the beach in an attempt to avoid being completely soaked before our walk even begins.

We head along the Coastal Path in the direction of Crail Harbour. As well as the views out to sea, there are some interesting sights to take in on the landward side. The gardens behind Downie Terrace (also on Nethergate) show evidence of their historic use as bleaching fields where linen which had been woven in some of the old mills in Crail was laid to bleach and dry. We cross the fast-running mill lade and the Smugglers’ Path – is it called Brandy’s Holme? – and resist the children’s begging to climb up there. David Grieve, the owner of the Crail Pottery, has a wonderful organic garden behind his cottage on the steep slope towards the path. We spot leeks, Brussels sprouts and all manner of winter vegetables growing in his productive plot. There are ornamental gardens too – with railway sleepers set into the hillside to hold back pebble gardens, and large cactus-like plants and ornamental grasses.

The steep ascent towards the Watch House reminds us that there was once a mill here too – the board at the top of the path tells the story of the Corn Mill, called Kings Mill, which once occupied the site. There’s a link to our cottage too as one of the people who held the original title when the cottage was built had something to do with Kings Mill. I must check out the title deeds again when I get back home.

Our daughter relates our family story to our guests, that the benches on Castle Walk have a particular significance for us. Her grandfather proposed marriage to her grandmother there, so she in part owes her very existence to the benches there – it’s quite an inspiring spot.

Unfortunately the board at the corner of Castle Walk is missing, so we can’t see the distances to the Island of May, and the other landmarks on the horizon – the Bass Rock, Berwick Law and even Arthur’s Seat and the Pentland Hills behind Edinburgh.

There’s a steep path down to the harbour past the Harbour Cafe and Gallery which is closed for the winter until early March, and we find when we get to the harbourside that there are no crabs or lobsters to be seen – it’s a feature of our summer walks to visit the tanks at the harbour shed and see the crab and lobster crawling around in the tanks, and to buy some delicious dressed crab when it’s available.

By this time the children have decided to start begging to be taken to the sweetie shop for their afternoon treat, and after the ascent of the Hen’s Ladder, they’ve certainly earned it. We pass the East Neuk hotel which is advertising teas and coffees and meals – we must visit sometime to check it out as our friends at the other end of the village say that it’s now very welcoming and child-friendly. We also spot the Crail Bookshop, but it doesn’t have the essential sweetie factor, and the kids are now even more eager to get that sugar fix.

We’re surprised to find that Penman’s has opened again this afternoon – we didn’t realise that they were open on Saturday afternoons. Our guest is astounded at the range of produce on offer there – with all the preserves and speciality delicatessen foods as well as the butchery section.

A lady at the bus stop begs us to confirm that she’s standing on the correct side of the road for the bus to Leven as she says she’s been standing there for an hour already and she is worried that she’s going to miss the bus. We assure her that she’s in the right place, and that the bus is due quite soon – the timetable states that the bus is due at 14.39 and we see it a little later, although it’s running about 4 minutes early at that point – maybe that’s why she missed the last one.

Unfortunately the Newsagents doesn’t have the required variety of 8-year old girls favourite magazines, so we’re unable to ensure that we’ve patronised every single shop in Crail this weekend.

A quick trip into the Beehive however ensures that we’ve at least obtained the necessary sugar dose in the form of musical lollipops and a choc ice for our son who doesn’t seem to care that we’re already in late autumn.

We discover that First Fruits is open in the afternoon too and decide that their green grapes will go very well with the gift of cheese from Ian Mellis that our guests have brought as their contribution to the evening meal. A quick race across to the Co-op finds the required pink magazines with obligatory plastic gifts sellotaped to the front. These should occupy a quiet half hour later when the girls are worn out.

The Crail Museum has opened especially this weekend to show an exhibition of Santa’s Eye Views of Crail – some locals have taken a flight over the coast in the summer to check out an article which was published in the Scotsman newspaper in the summer which said that the dry summer had exposed some previously unknown archaelogically significant sites. Something to do with patterns appearing in fields of crops showing where there had been ancient buildings or sites. We appreciate the views of Crail, and put our names down to buy one of the prints which shows our cottage quite clearly. I’m wondering if I can scan the photo and use it on our website for the cottage. Must find out who took the photographs and write asking their permission.

Our weekend guest is fascinated by the part of the Museum exhibition which deals with HMS Jackdaw – the coastal defence base situated at the Airfield in Crail during the Second World War. It transpires that he thinks his father spent some time serving there. The younger members of the party are disappointed that the upstairs exhibitions are not opened because they include an old typewriter which they love to visit and bash away on. I’m a bit miffed because I find that the lovely Dunoon Ceramics mugs which I bought in John Lewis recently are cheaper at the Crail Museum!

There’s one more essential stop on the way back to the cottage – the Jerdan Gallery. The lady there explains that many of the favourite pieces have in fact gone off to Edinburgh for the weekend to participate in the Edinburgh Art Fair which is taking place at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh this weekend. But there’s certainly plently left to look at and lovely sculptures in the garden which excite our son’s imagination. One of our party however is having trouble with her wellies rubbing on her feet and we decide that it’s really time we retreated to the cottage for an afternoon cuppa and the odd chocolate biscuit or two. Just as we come out of the Jerdan Gallery, the sun reaches an angle through the High Street so that it illuminates the Market Cross, and I take some photographs.
We pause opposite Crail Parish Church to see if we can spot the Blue Stane – a big boulder which sits to the left of the entrance to the Kirk. Legend has it that the devil hurled it there from the Island of May – but legend doesn’t explain what the devil was doing on the Island of May in the first place!

The children take possession of the living room and the television, and the adults take their afternoon tea in the dining room – I’m glad I hung on to the old armchairs when we refurbished the living room last winter.

When it gets towards time for our evening meal, the children vote to have fish and chips from the Anstruther Fish Bar, so a small group sets out on that endeavour while I stay behind to prepare the vegetables to cook for the evening meal. Simplicity in itself, I peel betroot, sweet potato, parsnip, carrots and red onions then venture out to the back garden to snip some rosemary from the busy which grows at the back door and add this to some olive oil to coat all the vegetables. Forty five minutes or so in a hot oven will roast all of these and provide a tasty accompaniment to the sirloin steaks which Sandy cooks with onions, mushrooms and a little cream and brandy.

We don’t always go as far as Anstruther for our fish and chips – after all there’s Borella’s fish bar in the centre of Crail, but the last time we went there the fish was so overcooked that it was almost inedible, and we don’t want to take the risk of that when we’ve special guests for tea. Despite our daughter’s protests that she doesn’t want to go all the way to Anstruther, she decides that it was definitely worth it when she tucks into the tasty treat. Two fish suppers (haddock and chips) are an ample portion for three hungry youngsters, and there’s even a bit of fish for the adults to have a taste.

We have to confess to having brought our own red wine with us rather than buying it here – but this was really because we’d opened some earlier in the week and it didn’t get used. We could easily have bought some at the Co-op or KB Stores here in Crail.
An intensely competitive game of Scrabble keeps the older children and a couple of the adults amused until it’s time for bed. It’s amazing how large doses of sea are shorten the usually long-drawn out performance of falling asleep for our two eight year olds. Our four year old didn’t even make it to the game of Scrabble before he was completely worn out.


Everyone awakes refreshed from a good night’s sleep – and not too early either. The children go off to find out what is on Sunday morning TV and I snatch another half hour with my book before I feel obliged to to and fix breakfast.

Suitably fortified with a stack of the (ok today it seems) pancakes and some home made apricot jam and strawberry jam, the older children are deemed responsible enough to be sent on a trip to collect the Sunday papers and some milk and rolls for later. This has the danger of allowing them their own choice of a sweet from the shop too, which inevitably results in the sugariest confections being chosen. However at least we don’t end up with the horrible concoctions which our daughter and a friend found in the campsite shop at Sauchope Links in the summer – lollipops in the shape of a thumb – which would have been bad enough, but to cap it all they were turquoise in colour and turned their lips and tongues bright blue!

The adults tuck into a wonderful cooked breakfast (diet tomorrow?) and enjoy the Sunday papers which the girls have brought us.

Amazingly, we’ve got another brilliantly sunny day, but our youngest has woken up with a temperature and a sore throat and doesn’t feel like going out or eating anything. So we let the older girls go off to the beach and the park at Roome Bay, taking periodic peeks down to see that they haven’t thrown themselves into the sea. I settle down to write this, and try to shut out the combined sounds of the Teletubbies on Video and the Nintendogs puppy chirping away in the background. So much for peace and quiet.

After a morning with the papers the Dads set off on a journey of discovery to the bottom of the garden – and out through the gate to take another wander round the village. There’s a little path running along the side of the Den Burn through the Denburn Wood and up to Beech Walk park which makes a pleasant circular walk which is not too taxing.

The girls return from their bracing voyage to the beach and settle down at the table in the dining room to busy themselves with some Sand Art projects which keep them busy until lunchtime.