Golfing Scotland, by Rail: A Bridge, An Axe, A Kingdom

WHEN THE MILLENNIUM turned a few years back and the BBC formulated its inevitable list of “Top 100 Britons”, from the previous 1,000 years, Sir Benjamin Baker was prominent among the honorees. Baker built the Aswan Dam and was key in realizing London’s labyrinthine Metropolitan Railway, but it was his design of the gloriously cantilevered Forth Rail Bridge — considered among the greatest engineering achievements of the 19th century — that cemented his professional reputation.

Dr. Richard Beeching didn’t make the BBC list. Not even close. Indeed, Beeching was chairman of the newly formed British Railway Board in 1961, and his name still elicits stern Presbyterian scowls and scoffs across Scotland today. Beeching was the government face behind a countrywide dismantling of local rail service during the late 1960s. For a century or more, the trains had connected nearly every British hamlet and village. When the full force of “Dr. Beeching’s Axe” was felt, some 2,128 stations would be closed in the name of cost-cutting – a development that eliminated more than 67,000 jobs and markedly diminished local train service.

The Axe cut deeply in the Kingdom of Fife, the very region whose golfing prospects were so positively affected by Baker’s bridge. Abandoned was the coastal route serving Crail, Elie, Lundin and Leven. Not even hallowed St. Andrews was spared; the railway now bypasses the Old Grey Toon altogether.

It’s difficult to countenance this travesty of rail justice. Renowned British golf commentator Henry Longhurst surely couldn’t: In 1966, upon learning of the Beeching’s plans, the game’s portly oracle of wit, wisdom and whimsy penned a now-famous plea in the London Times entitled, “You can’t let them do it, Barbara,” urging then Labor Minister of Transport Barbara Castle to save golf’s ground zero from the Axe. To no avail. The rail that had first come to St. Andrews in 1852, the tracks that prompted the quick issuance of Rule XX in the Royal & Ancient Rules of 1857 (“Should a ball betwixt the rails, the player shall have the option of playing it, or lifting it and dropping it behind him, losing a stroke”), the line that had so closely hugged the 14th, 15th and 16th holes on the Old Course that conductors knew not to whistle when players stood over the ball, is now a foot path.

Beeching was clearly a man of little sentiment, but we didn’t let his dubious priorities spoil our trip, and neither should you. It’s but a short cab ride to St. Andrews from the nearest station, at Leuchars, just a few miles west over the Eden Estuary, and many hotels will pick you up with advanced notice. Once situated in Toon, the cream of the Links Trust courses — the Old, New, Jubilee and Eden — all lie within walking distance, while the Trust’s new Castle Course, the newly renovated Dukes courses, plus relatively new links at St. Andrews Bay and Kingsbarns, plus the old and new courses at Crail, remain another reasonable cab ride/hotel shuttle away.

That said, having arrived in Northeast Fife by train, the region’s various rail remnants are hard to miss. Golfers, for example, no longer launch Road Hole drives over working “railway sheds”. Since 1969, when train service to St. Andrews was discontinued, they have played over “abandoned” railway sheds that today serve as decidedly less romantic warehousing for the Old Course Hotel. More tangibly affected (perhaps for the better) was the Eden Course, which remains criss-crossed with a lattice of now-redundant tracks.

[This is the fourth in a six-part travel log. Be sure to check back in a couple days for a new posted installment, along with other new content.]

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3 Responses to “Golfing Scotland, by Rail: A Bridge, An Axe, A Kingdom”

  1. Adam

    Not that it matters a heap, but so readers are on the button, the Duke’s isn’t one of the Links Trust courses, of course, of course – it belongs to the Old Course Hotel, ie to Herb Kohler.

  2. Hal Phillips

    Thanks for the correction, Adam. You’re right of course. I’ve changed the post to reflect this reality. I’ve not played the Dukes but I hear the renovation improved the original quite markedly. Is that so?

  3. Adam

    I didn’t see the previous version. I quite like it now, the fancy bunkers were a bit stark when new but last time I saw it had settled down nicely. They tried to mimic a heathland look, and it has the topography, but the soil is rotten, so you’re probably dependent on decent weather to get it running properly.

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