The feeling seems to be quite selective – it has a lot to do with the space I’m standing in. If, for example, I’m on the ramparts of Doune Castle with a good solid wall and a roof behind me, I can look down fairly happily. But if, as I found out to my cost, I’m standing on the teetering parapet of the Scott Monument, with only a few square inches between me and mid-air in almost any direction, I’m inclined to freeze. And that was only half-way up!
Colin and I visited St Andrew’s Cathedral for the first time in March this year, and when I saw the amazing 12th century tower of St Rule and learned that there’s a spiral staircase inside, I was really tempted to try and climb it. I could see people at the top, holding their cameras up to photograph the spectacular view. How scary could it be? Too scary, I decided.
But when Verity came up last weekend, and we took her to St Andrews for the day, I thought I would have a tough word with myself. After all, I have lots of loyal readers on this blog and The Hazel Tree, and I decided that you would all love to see the view from the top just as much as I would! It’s 100 feet high, and to my knowledge, no one has ever fallen off. What could go wrong?
There’s a turnstile at the base of the tower, and you have to get tokens from the Historic Scotland shop in order to pass through. Then, the only way is up… and for the first 20 or 30 feet you’re climbing on an open, wrought iron stairway, with full view of the nice, comfortable ground you’ve left behind. I didn’t like this much. At this point Verity, who had joined us up until now, turned round and said she’d be happy to stay below.
But there’s a small wooden landing about a quarter of the way up, and after this the stairs became narrow stone steps, spiralling steeply within a circular stairwell. I was concentrating on not looking up, but the views down had practically disappeared. That was quite a relief.
In fact, it took us less than 10 minutes to reach the top, although I was very glad to see the sky and breathe some fresh air. The wooden viewing platform is about 20 feet across, and there’s an extra railing between you and the stone parapet that you can see from the ground. This means that you can’t lean over – unless you deliberately climb over the railing, and I wasn’t about to do that.
And the views… everything I had hoped for, and more. As you gaze down into the dizzying space, the churchyard of the Cathedral gives way to red-roofed town houses and the castle beyond, with wafer-thin fingers of headland sliding into the North Sea. The ruined cloisters and nave look like small-scale models, and the original cross shape of the cathedral is easy to see on the ground. You are even higher than the twin turrets of the magnificent east gable which stands to your right, and it was this proximity (and the chasm between) that struck me the most.
Luckily, panic didn’t set in! Instead, I set about creating a video. I didn’t hang my camera over the side, although I did lift it up as high as I could (Colin was more successful, being taller!) Eventually we made out the tiny figure of Verity on the ground below, and waved.
Crikey, it’s high. I wonder if the monks came up here to sit and ponder, while they ate their sandwiches.
Then we turned around and headed back down the stairs, wondering aloud just what would happen if we met a party of people coming up. We soon found out – it’s a matter of breathing in and flattening yourself against the wall, while trying to give them as much as possible of the widest part of the steps. One of Colin’s cameras knocked against the wall and a lens hood went bouncing down the stairs into the darkness, sending echoes around the hollow tower. He eventually picked it up again, undamaged!
And so, I proudly present to you… my video from the top of St Rule’s Tower!