Maybe you’ve never really noticed the St Andrews Harbour Cafe before. You’ve probably walked past it a few times on your way to East Sands. It’s located just before the small wooden bridge where the lock gates are: it’s the small, somewhat temporary-looking 15 by 10 foot MDF square that is almost no colour at all, the one with the chalk swing-sign out front that tries to say ‘Today Homemade Tattie Soup’ while being violently blown about in the briny (and permanent) breeze.
Well this article is about the world of this cafe. It aims to draw your attention to the history of the cafe and its significance and meaning for St Andrews. It’s an experiential exploration of this inconspicuous, unpretentious little establishment on the St Andrews seafront in which the life of manager Pat Dodds has been going by for the last 31 years.
A brief history
Mrs Dodds has run the cafe since her family purchased it in March 1984. It was originally erected as an ice cream parlour in the 1960s by former St Andrews harbourmaster Sid Stevenson.
“It was more a small shed,” said Mrs Dodds, who was born six decades ago just outside of St Andrews, “and the chap sold ice creams, crisps and cans of juice.”
Back in those days the cafe was only open in July and August.
“We’re now fully open all week from the beginning of the season in February,” Mrs Dodds told The Saint.
The first thing you notice about Mrs Dodds is how kind and alive her eyes look. They are like blue fireworks exploding in the friendly sky of her face. Her voice, too, with its soft, Scottish lilt, seems living and energetic. She seems to have some sort of indefinable inner strength and has probably worked very hard all of her life.
Her children were born in the now derelict Craigtoun Hospital, which stands like an architectural ghost two miles southwest of St Andrews. This large early Renaissance building was once the home of Sir James Younger (from a famous family of Scottish brewers who donated Younger Hall to the University in the 1920s), and Mrs Dodds’ uncle worked in the gardens, which now form Craigtoun Country Park.
Her grandfather had a boat at the harbour. Her father was in the armed forces until he retired and became a lorry driver and her mother was born in St Andrews and worked as a secretary. The family would regularly visit St Andrews for seaside holidays and, at ten years old, the young Mrs Dodds came to stay in Kingsbarns and began studies at Madras College. After this Mrs Dodds married and had a family before taking over the cafe.
Inside the cafe
While from the outside the building looks a bit like one of those portacabins you get on construction sites, on the inside, it feels like an old timey cafe from a seaside holiday your parents had in the 1960s. The interior mise-en-scène is made up of wooden chairs and tables covered with chequered table clothes. The teal-coloured walls are a bricolage of seadrift, with all sorts of sea-themed props adorning them (this contrasts nicely with the exterior colour of the cafe which has almost stopped being yellow). Plastic crabs and crayfish are somehow stuck to the walls. There are posters identifying different species of fish and other sea life, and black and white photographs of St Andrews in the past. The ceiling is festooned with fishing nets, creating a sort of maritime canopy. The decor perfectly reflects the dying values of British seaside culture and was designed by Mrs Dodds herself.
“Simple and fair-priced food there be here,” one fisherman said after The Saint asked him to say it so he could be quoted. The cafe sells what would typically be called honest, working-class fare such as eggs and bacon, hamburgers, ice cream, confectionary and, of course, fish and chips. Seaside essentials such as footballs, fishing nets, crabbing lines, frisbees, inflatable toys and kites are also for sale. You can even buy those plastic buckets and spades that come direct from your childhood when you were still happy.
Most of the people in here around mid-morning look like extras from a Kaurismäki film. Many of them are just silently staring into the universes of their coffees. You get all sorts of characters in here: fishermen, students, lecturers, old people, tourists, dog walkers, vagabonds and local swashbucklers such as retired fisherman Bob Mackay who comes in for a coffee every morning and still has a herring boat docked at Anstruther Harbour.
Located on the main pedestrian thoroughfare from Shorehead to East Sands, the cafe is the nucleus of a harbour microculture. The early morning regulars come in for a coffee, to read the papers and gossip while others stop to have a chat as their dogs have a post-walk drink at the tub of water by the cafe’s steps (a nice touch). Later in the morning the students from Albany Park start to pass the cafe, heading for their classes. From lunchtime onwards the hungry tourists and holidaymakers arrive.
Mrs Dodds also operates the bridge over the lock gates. In 2012, the 200-year-old lock gates got washed away (they spent 100 years at the Caledonian Canal in Inverness and 100 in St Andrews). They had most likely weakened under the floodwaters rushing down Kinness Burn into the harbour basin during the 2010-11 floods. Perched on the edge of the harbour, the cafe had an unfortunately good view of those floods.
“The rabbits were all drowned in their holes,” said Mrs Dodds. “It was 25 years ago we last saw flooding like that.” She spoke about the floods in the same distant way fishermen speak about the weather.
Unbeknownst to some, St Andrews is still a working harbour with 12 working creel boats.
“Once there were 200 boats,” Mrs Dodds told The Saint. “Each winter, the fishermen are tied up longer and longer.’
The haddock in St Andrews Bay were overfished a long time ago.
“It’s been 40 years since they caught any,” said Mrs Dodds. “Crabs and lobsters are all the fishermen can really get these days.”
Most of the crabs and lobsters caught in St Andrews Bay get sent to Spain, but some are reserved for Mrs Dodds, who deals North Sea Crabs as a side business. If you enter the Harbour Cafe and ask to speak with Mrs Dodds about procuring a North Sea Crab she’ll take your number and call you when the next shipment is due.
“We sell live undressed crab and lobster straight from the North Sea with 24 hours notice,” Mrs Dodds told The Saint.
What makes the Harbour Cafe different?
The Harbour Cafe is one of the few local-feeling cafes remaining in the town where you can come into contact with people other than students or University staff. It’s a no-frills place – a cafe that doesn’t need a fancy accented ‘é’. It seems less fake than the majority of St Andrews eateries in the sense that it’s not trying to imitate anything and does not consciously or post-modernly perform itself in an attempt to evoke a kind of nostalgic mirage of an era: it feels like a time-weathered remnant of the Great British Seaside Holiday rather than a shabby chic reconstruction. There is a sincerity and an un-trendiness to this beautifully asynchronous place that seems, sadly, incompossible with 21st century café culture.
Now more than ever St Andrews needs this place. As the hurricane of the Harbour Trust’s planned modernisation programme approaches, the cafe clings to the harbour like a cobweb spun between the corners of 1984 and 2015. Across the UK this type of cafe is under threat from large coffee house chains and fast food franchises. In this nautical town, it is also threatened by charity shops – the melanoma of the British High Street – all of which now sell buckets and spades and thus take business away from Mrs Dodds. The Saint’s advice? Go there while you still can. The Harbour Cafe is an almost lost world, and one of the last of its kind still alive in St Andrews.