Although I grew up not many miles to the west, I have rarely visited the area generally known as the Borders – essentially the traditional counties of Selkirk, Roxburgh and Peebles – lying just to the north of the English border. But a brief day trip on the new Borders Railway on a lovely early autumn day two years ago introduced me to the quiet charms of the area. Now, the chance to meet up with some old friends brought me back to Galashiels on a dark, damp, late afternoon at the end of November.
The opening of the railway has been one of the few heartening transport-related stories in the last few years and the throng of pre-Christmas shoppers, plus a few fragile Murrayfield returners, who packed into the little train as it left Waverley, testified to the line’s growing popularity.
Although it was soon too dark to appreciate the scenery, the route travels through some lovely countryside on its way down to Tweedbank. Hopefully, its popularity will continue to grow as it aids the local economy and opens up the area for recreation and commuting, while lessening traffic on the surrounding roads. Certainly, my mid week return trip seemed very popular with morning shoppers heading for Edinburgh and the full car park suggested many commuters to the city were now taking the train.
I travelled from Galashiels by bus to Kelso. The timings suggested there is some coordination of rail/bus services, although a delayed arrival would have resulted in a two hour wait for the last available bus that evening.
I was meeting my friends at Duncan House in Kelso. Dating from the early nineteenth century, this impressive Regency building has been sensitively restored and is positioned only meters from the town centre. It also overlooks the River Tweed and the famous Junction Pool, renowned for its salmon.
Next morning, while my friends took advantage of the country’s premier salmon river, I caught the bus into Melrose. I intended to walk from there to St Boswell’s, on a route I had taken previously – but this time, hopefully, without getting lost. But, before I set out I wandered around Melrose’s attractive town centre, finding an interesting knitting shop, with impressive stock and friendly, knowledgeable staff, as well as a couple of cosy cafes.
One reason for the walk was to revisit the wonderful bookshop/cafe/deli,the Mainstream Trading Company, in St Boswells. I was delighted it had recently been awarded the title of Britain’s Best Small Shop 2018: well deserved in my book. To say I was disappointed to find that Monday was the one day of the week when Mainstream is closed was something of an understatement, but it should teach me to check basic details in advance.
So, I headed back to Kelso a little earlier than planned, but found some pleasant surprises there as well. There seem to be far fewer chain outlets than usually found in British high streets and, consequently, more independent shops have survived. I had forgotten to pack my Apple charging plug, but found one easily in a very well stocked computer shop. There were also several decent clothes shops and, pleasingly, few major supermarkets.
Lunch at the Cream Chimneys, in the town square, was a pleasant surprise, with delicious Moroccan tomato soup, a good flat white and a mouthwatering cake. The piece de resistance though, was its resident canine companion, the lovely, placid Piper, this afternoon accompanied by a crazily delectable, young springer spaniel.
The now persistent rain tempted me back to Duncan House somewhat earlier than I had planned, but a roaring fire, pot of tea and a good book made it well worth while. There are certainly much worse ways to spend a murky November afternoon.
Southern Scotland – i.e., the area north of the English border and south of Glasgow and Edinburgh – is a region still relatively under visited and overlooked, in tourist terms. The M74 and main West Coast Mainline provide a sort of border between the east and west sides of the region; the east more pastoral and undulating, compared to the higher and more exposed hills of Dumfriesshire and Galloway.
In the east, the historic and independent towns of, Kelso, Galashiels , Melrose and Hawick survived centuries of border wars and sieges until the establishment of the UK in the eighteenth century. Probably best known in the past for their tweed, rugby and salmon, communities throughout the region have retained their individual character and continue to preserve their unique heritage through traditions like the annual riding of the marches, or common riding. These summer festivals are rooted in the region’s past and maintain the traditions of checking the boundaries of each community. This is particularly associated with the Borders because of the centuries of wars with England and the lawlessness of the infamous Borders Reivers.
One of the most striking aspects of the Borders is its religious legacy. The region is home to a number of ancient abbeys, of which the most famous are, Melrose, Kelso, Dryburgh and Jedburgh. All four were established in the twelfth century and are testament to the importance of the area in the middle ages, when various orders of monks made the journey from Europe and settled here to practise their religion: a timely reminder of our enduring links with the continent.
Although constantly besieged and attacked during the centuries of internecine struggle, the surviving ruins still give a vivd impression of the beauty of these buildings. Today the ideal way to appreciate the abbeys is to cycle the 55 mile 4 Abbeys route, or walk the 109 kilometres Borders Abbeys Way.
The Borders, largely by passed by the Industrial Revolution and sufficiently distant from the cities of Newcastle and Edinburgh, has succeeded in preserving its traditional character. Now, its new rail link has made the region much more accessible, without the need to take the car.
All in all, well worth a visit. Just don’t tell everyone.