Day 6 was a day I’d been looking forward to for the entire trip. From the early planning stages the sight on the map of 4 miles or so of walking through a big flat forest had my attention.
One of my dream bucket list trips would be a multi-day walk which takes place entirely within deciduous forest. Sadly, this is a dream which can never be fulfilled within the UK due to thousands of years of chopping trees down to build big boats so we could go oppress foreign lands. My fantasies of days of practicing bushcraft skills, trekking along rustling paths of beech leaves, catching sight of woodland life roaming around the brush will have to remain just that, fantasies. I do have some long term designs on a bikepacking adventure around either Ettrick or Kielder forests, but those are both managed coniferous monocultures for the most part – and that just isn’t the same.
Tentsmuir forest isn’t a bad option for a walk though, about 14km2 of mixed woodland (much of it boring old pine forest, but a fair amount of others to be fair), a whole load of wildlife (we saw red squirrels and deer, and we weren’t even looking), a whole load of archaeology, and some coastal terrain as well with broad sand dunes and beaches.
First though, we needed to get there, and that meant getting ourselves out of St. Andrews and high-tailing it North along the coast. Of course anyone who knows Fife, and particularly the area around St. Andrews will know what that involves…
More golf courses!
Fortunately this time the coastal path led us straight past them, slightly separated from the main road, along a rather nice mixed use cycle path which continued all the way along the coast towards Leuchars. This proved to be a little boring, but much more pleasant than our previous excursions around the edge of the courses South of St Andrews. The weather was rather nice, although some heavy grey clouds on the horizon threatened afternoon showers. I was keen to get us under the forest canopy before the inevitable downpour came.
We made very good time along the coast to the station at Leuchars (our scheduled morning bathroom break) and then into Leuchars itself in search of food. This proved to be a terrible mistake.
I’ve spent time in a lot of small towns in Scotland (and for that matter Northern England) which could be described, generously, as “shitholes”. Hell, I grew up in one. Leuchars really takes the biscuit. It’s properly grim. Still, we needed to get lunch there and supplies for dinner so we had to use whatever amenities we could find. This included a pub in which I was scared to eat the burger, alarmed by the greasiness of the glasses, terrified by the 300lb bear-like dog (imaginatively named bear),and puzzled by the anomalous flavour of the pepsi. Lauren wisely stuck with just nachos. The Spar wasn’t a lot better, on account of it being a Spar, but we managed to gather together the rudiments of sandwiches for dinner and breakfast.
Moving on, we bombed it down country lanes (ultimately what would turn out to be the wrong country lane, but it made very little difference) through lovely flat countryside towards Tentsmuir Forest, the trees of which were increasingly visible on the horizon. Pursuing us apace were some ominously dark clouds off to our left.
We made it into the cover of the trees along the forest approach road and started our walk into the forest. Our goal was the main car park, a third of the way into the forest, where the guidebook promised us toilets, a drinkable water tap, and perhaps even (according to google) a crepe shack! Our plan was to have dinner there, refill our bottles and then head into the deeper woods to find a sneaky spot to sleep in. Sadly however, this was one of the places where the guidebook again let us down. Whilst the car park did have all of those things, disaster had struck. Scottish Natural Heritage, or perhaps the local council, had fitted a tap which required a key. Lacking such an appropriate tool, there was no way for us to refill our water bottles. The promised crepe shack was very closed, and to make it worse at this point the heavens decided to open.
We took stock of the situation in the visitor centre gazebo, and took the opportunity to utilise the (slightly grim) facilities. The gazebo was a nice shelter from the passing storm, so we chowed down on the first course of our dinner whilst learning a bit more about the forest. It’s actually very well waymarked and documented [PDF Guide from SNH) with tonnes of information about the wildlife (including the red squirrels we spotted on the way into the forest), trees, management and archaeology. The forest has a rich history from the Mesolithic (that’s late Pleistocene to us real scientists) through to the present day, and there’s tonnes of bits and pieces to go look at, including an ice house from 1888 and a whole range of WW2 defences and encampments. I haven’t talked too much about the various archaeology we encountered on the Fife Coastal Path, but there’s a good and varied amount covering the full range of Scottish history. The walk is worth doing if you’re into such things.
Rolls and salami consumed, and the storm passing, we made a plan. Lauren was very keen to do the “Seashell Trail”, an optional route which took us along the coast across the dunes rather than through the forest itself. We enjoyed this for a while, looking at the rather lovely purple northern marsh and pale coral root orchids scattered throughout the dunes. At the icehouse we dropped back into the trees to shelter from the winds and started looking for a good camping spot.
The evening woods were absolutely gorgeous, and with the storm past were rapidly drying out again. I had my eye on a picnic area on the forest map, which I had high hopes for as a good flat camping spot. The woods here were surprisingly lumpy – the sandy soils clearly didn’t make for the greatest support for trees, so a lot of fallen trees had ripped up the ground and led to a lot of rolling hummocky ground. What wasn’t hummocky tended to be a little on the boggy side, so we ended up walking rather a long way through the woods on the hunt for a good spot.
We actually ended up coming right up to the Northern edge of the woods before finding a nice open flat space between some younger pines. We got the tarp up and then went off for a little explore.
A small dune-hill to the North of our camping spot spat us straight out on the beach and into some epic sky over the estuary. We sat for a while on the concrete tank traps, enjoying second dinner (more rolls and salami, lovely), before going for a small paddle. This is what camping is all about.
As a rather epic sunset started to light up the forest from the side we retired to the tarp and put our heads down to sleep. Tomorrow would be our last day on the path.