Ceilings that will take your breath away. A room slept in by Bonnie Prince Charlie. One of the largest collections of family portraits in Scotland. A vintage toy collection. Home baking in a traditional tea room. This is the Thirlestane Castle experience. It is located on the outskirts of Lauder in the Scottish Borders. A 6 mile cycle from Stow station on the Borders Railway is the best way to reach the castle.
How to get there
Take the Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Stow (45 minutes). The approach into Stow is one of the prettiest sections of this railway line with views of the Gala Water and the church, Saint Mary of Wedale, dominating the village. When I arrived nobody got off or on the train. This feels like a very rural place and yet it is only a short distance from the bustle of Edinburgh.
Stow's original 1848 station building survives. It is not currently in use, but I read of exciting plans to turn it into a bistro and cycle hire business.
Leaving the station you should cross the bridge that goes over the Gala Water.
As you make your way through the village it is impossible not to be charmed by it. Idyllic, tranquil, pretty- these are the sort of words that spring to mind. There is not much to see in the village. There is a Post Office and a cafe and that's about it.
To get to Thirlestane Castle you take the B6362. Beware! It begins with a 15% ascent as soon as you leave the village. The road curves upwards and enters woodland. It is a lot of work to reach the top, but you are rewarded with great views over Stow.
When the road levels off you are in a world of lush countryside. There are fields, copses of trees, undulating hills, livestock, birdsong and even Heather moor. This road is only about 5 miles, but has an incredible variety of scenery. It was also very quiet during my cycle with hardly any other road users. This turned out to be a perfect place to find solitude within a short train ride of Edinburgh.
I came across sheep walking on the road at one point:
The descent into Lauder was magnificent. I hardly used the pedals and just sat there and rolled along with the horizon of hills unfolding before me.
When you arrive into Lauder take a right turn along the high street which is also the A68. The castle is only 1 mile away, so although this is a main road you are not on it for very long and there is a pavement if you feel the road is too busy. During my visit the traffic was fairly light.
The gates into the castle grounds are guarded by a pair of proud stone eagles. The panorama of the castle is imposing. It makes you wonder what riches await inside.
The doorway into the castle appears more Georgian country house than medieval castle with its Doric pilasters and sash and cash windows. This reflects the many alterations and additions that the building has undergone.
Thirlestane can be dated back to the late sixteenth century when it was a fortified keep. In 1670 the 2nd Earl of Lauderdale's vision was for the castle to be turned into a palace- he employed the architect William Bruce to make this a reality. This explains the different architectural styles that you can see today.
After the hill climb to get here my first priority was to restore my energy levels. I ordered a Colombian filter coffee and raspberry and chocolate tray bake in the tea room. There was a gently ticking clock and show tunes on a radio. The wooden dresser had cakes stands with the names of the cakes handwritten on card. The windows looked out to the grounds where sheep strolled and ate grass.
The woman working in the tearoom was impressed that I had cycled the hilly road. "Hat's off to you," she said and made the gesture of removing a hat. She had not thought of the Borders Railway opening up access to Lauder and Thirlestane Castle and said it was "clever" using train and bike to come here.
Explore the Castle
You tour the castle on your own, but there are guides in the rooms who have incredible knowledge about the place.
Look out for the windows cut into the original keep walls. The thickness of these 13 foot walls is easily seen and it must have taken a lot of work to make these window holes.
Chiming clocks was about the only sound inside the house. I loved the Billiards Room with its enormous windows to let the light flood in. There are lovely brass oil lamps that had been converted to electricity. The room has an unusual screen decorated with salmon flies that were probably used to catch fish on the River Tweed.
On the theme of fish I read about a path across the Lammermuir Hills to Dunbar called Herring Road. It got its name because of an occasion where the Duke of Lauderdale ordered a messenger to collect herring for dinner. It was 50 miles by foot to Dunbar and the messenger made it back in time for dinner!
I passed through the library that had books on law, politics and religion. There was a massive family bible on a gilded stand, dated 1772.
I made my way up the spiral staircase that has more of those lovely gas lanterns that I spotted earlier in the Billiards Room.
Thirlestane is the family home of the Maitlands who still occupy the castle today. John Maitland, 2nd Earl of Lauderdale was made a Duke by Charles II. There is a charter conferring this on the wall of the Duke's Room. He was the Secretary of State of Scotland, so the most influential man in Scotland at this time.
This power is clearly in evidence when the Duke diverted labour from Holyrood Palace to work on his plaster ceilings. They took around 4 years to complete and date from around 1670. It is these ceilings in the upstairs rooms that are the standout feature of Thirlestane. In a room that had been used by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 the ceiling features three dimensional foliage and lions that appear to gallop out of the roof.
My favourite room was the drawing room. The plaster work features musical instruments and 4 eagles. The guide in this room informed me that one of the eagles had previously fallen off, but was restored. He also showed me a wall panel that concealed a secret staircase.
In the Grand Bed Chamber there is 1870s wallpaper in perfect condition. The guide pointed out that it has traces of arsenic in it, a normal component of wallpaper from this era. "Don't rub your finger on it and lick it!"
The dinning room has one of the largest family portrait collections in Scotland. There was a curious object in this room- a Butler's Chair. This was used when someone was eating on their own and it did not make sense to use the huge dinning table. They could sit here and be served with a tray that slots into the chair. This room also has a ram's head snuff mill with a Cairngorm gemstone found only in Scotland.
The children's nursery rooms have wonderful toys from the Edwardian and Victorian era, including a Noah's Ark with individually carved wooden animals. Toys from this time were not mass produced and passed from generation to generation.
Gardens and Grounds
I was surprised at how small the grounds and gardens are compared to other grand houses. They are very pretty. There is a short woodland walk with wildflowers and birdsong.
A Stroll Around Lauder
Lauder is an attractive town with a long street lined with characterful cottages of different sizes and ages.
Soup and Art
I stopped in the Fat Cat Gallery thjat showcases the work of Scottish Borders artists. It's a great place to browse and there is also a cafe where I took the window seat that had a beautiful natural wood table. I ordered the carrot and courgette soup. It came with salad and crusty bread. I couldn't resist trying the chocolate and oranage jaffa cake. The food was delicious and the friendly ambiance made me want to linger.
I leafed through some magazines and an interesting book about local history, Through Time and Place. It told an interesting WWII story when there was a call for people to lend their dogs to the army to use them as guard dogs at military prisons. The author had loaned his dog, Tweed, who was given a military serial number and he received regular written reports of how well Tweed was doing.
I went into the bakery and asked about one of the cakes. The baker said, "It's pure sugar! Are you in need?" Admittedly I wasn't, based on what I had already consumed in the course of this blog, but I would put it aside for tomorrow. "Macaroon, melt in the mouth." I can confirm that this was a very accurate description.
The return cycle to Stow meant the tough ascent, but once it leveled out the tranquil countryside was the most perfect place to ride a bike. The castle, the bike ride and the pretty town make for a brilliant day trip from Edinburgh.
There is an entry fee to Thirlestane Castle. Current charges and opening hours can be found on the castle website
For more ideas of places to visit in the Scottish Borders visit my Borders page.
The four abbeys in the Scottish Borders are one of Scotland's greatest collections of historical ruins. These are evocative places, full of history and architectural wonder. It is difficult to choose a favourite, but go and see them all and enjoy! They are linked by a walking route and a cycling route, so it is easy to plan an adventure to visit them.
1. Melrose Abbey
In terms of scale and architectural wonder Melrose is my favourite of the 4 abbeys. Famously, the abbey is the home of Robert the Bruce's buried heart. The abbey church, dating from the late 1300s, is a magnificent piece of architecture where the height of the ceiling is immense and difficult to stop looking up at. The quality of the stone sculpture is mesmerising and there is even a carving of a pig playing bagpipes.
Melrose is one of the easiest abbeys to get to. The Borders Railway, Scotland's newest railway line stops at Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh). From there it is about 1.75 miles from Melrose. There is a cycle path to Melrose directly opposite the station. It is such a short cycle ride that you might prefer just to walk there. Melrose itself is one of my favourite towns in Scotland and you can read my guide to what there is to see and do.
2. Dryburgh Abbey
If you like your abbeys to have tranquil, woodland settings then Dryburgh should be top of your list. The abbey is situated in a gorgeous little enclave with the River Tweed flowing by and a great selection of nearby attractions, including a suspension bridge and a giant William Wallace statue. This peaceful location makes it easy to imagine a canon's life of devotion and nothing to interupt this.
The abbey is renowned as the burial place of Walter Scott, one of Scotland's most famous novelists. Earl Haig, the commander of British forces for part of the First World War, is also buried here.
Although the abbey is a ruin there is a lot that has survived. The immense size of the windows and doorways is awe-inspiring and the quality of the stone carving incredible.
It will take around 30 minutes to cycle to Dryburgh Abbey from Melrose Abbey using National Cycle Network Route One. My blog has the details of this route.
3. Kelso Abbey
On first impressions this is the least impressive of the abbeys because a lot less has survived- it suffered a devastating attack from English invaders in 1545. It does not have the scale of Melrose or Jedburgh, but in its day this was the richest and the oldest of the 4 abbeys with spectacular Romanesque architecture. The remains of the great doorway are finely carved. It is also in the centre of Kelso, which makes for an impressive centrepiece in the town.
You can use National Cycle Network Route One to reach Kelso. It is 11.5 miles from Dryburgh Abbey.
4. Jedburgh Abbey
Built by King David I in the 12th century Jedburgh is perhaps the most photogenic of the abbeys. The scale and lavishness of the architecture is much more obvious than the other abbeys because it is really just the roof that is missing. A spiral staircase leading to a balcony viewpoint provides a marvelous vista of the nave and the fine stone construction. The abbey sits on high ground over a river and the view of it from the other side of the river is particularly impressive. If you can arrive into Jedburgh this way it means that the abbey suddenly comes into your view and you are going to think, if not say, 'wow'.
Jedburgh Abbey is the furthest to reach by bicycle. The 4 Abbeys cycle route links Jedburgh to Melrose and this route is about 20 miles. It is not a direct route as it avoids busy roads. If you are planning to visit all of the abbeys then the 4 Abbeys cycle route is 55 miles and quite challenging, but can be done in one day. However, I recommend taking longer as this allows for much more time to spend enjoying the abbeys.
Kelso Abbey is free to visit and there is an entry fee to visit the other three. All of the Abbeys are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and their website has current entry fees and opening hours.
For ideas of more places to visit in the Scottish Borders visit my Scottish Borders page
Smailholm is a classic example of a defensive tower house that was once common in the Scottish Borders. For 500 years the border between England and Scotland was a treacherous place with wars and raids a constant threat to residents. It was essential to build a home that could withstand attacks and Smaiholm provides an opportunity to visit one of these dwellings. The tower is a 10 mile cycle from Tweedbank station on the Borders Railway.
How to get there
Step One: Take the Borders Railway from Edinburgh Waverley to Tweedbank (55 minutes). Bicycles are carried free.
Step Two: Cycle 4 miles from Tweedbank to the Leaderfoot Viaduct, via Melrose. You can read the details of this route in my Leaderfoot Viaduct blog.
Step three: Cycle 5 miles from the Leaderfoot Viaduct on the C78 road.
Beware that the start of this road involves an uphill slog. The C78 has very low traffic volume, less than B-roads. It was almost deserted when I rode it, which made for glorious cycling. It did not matter that the scenery was not particularly outstanding, just fields, because I had a wide road, well-surfaced, all to myself. At one point a vole scurried across the road in front of me, its legs moving at a furious pace.
After 5 miles you will find the sign for Smailholm that directs you onto a single-track road. After one mile you will arrive at the tower. On a field adjacent to this road I found a group of sheep lying exhausted with the remains of turnips scattered around them. They had been feasting and were too exhausted to run away from me when I pulled over to take in this scene of over indulgence.
On the final approach to the tower the road becomes a rough, gravel track.
The landscape becomes increasingly rocky and totally different to the farmland that you have left behind. It comes as a surprise that such a craggy land exists in south Scotland. It feels like somewhere in the Highlands.
It seems like the owners of the tower managed to seek out the only rocks in the Scottish Borders so that they could stick it on top of one.
It was for good reason that the tower was built here. The border between England and Scotand was a place of strife and it was essential for homes to be fortified. Smailholm was attacked by English raiders many times in the 1540s.
It was only in 1548 that the attacks stopped because John Pringle, the Laird, made a promise not to attack England or to interfere with English raids into Scotland. In return his lands were guaranteed to be left alone.
The Pringle family had built the tower around 1450. They were one of the wealthiest families in the Borders, making a living from farming. Smailholm was their farmhouse and it really says something about the world they lived in when a farmhouse has to be a tower with 2.5m thick walls.
The Pringles sold Smailholm to the Scott family in 1645. The most famous member of this family was none other than Sir Walter Scott, Scotland's renowned novelist. He spent time here as a child, recovering from polio, and this place inspired his love of the Scottish Borders.
For me the outside of the tower is more impressive than inside. Its situation on top of the only rocky outcrop in the area, standing guard over the farmland is mesmerising. Just look at the size of the stones that have been used in its construction. Look up the side of the tower to the sky. This is a formidable building.
The only way into the tower is through this small door:
The building has five stories linked by a spiral staircase with a rope banister. I loved how the age of the tower was written into this staircase with the wear on the steps and the scores and indents on the central pillar.
The the rooms are mostly empty, apart from an exhibition of figures that feature in Walter Scott's ballads. This means there is no furniture or objects to take up your time. There are interesting architectural features like the vaulted ceilings, window seats and fire places.
For me the highlight of a visit inside the tower is that you can access the rooftop. From here the views are incredible. You can clearly make out the oddness of this landscape- that this rocky ground is truly a one-off because it is largely surrounded by mainly flat farmland.
It does not take long to look inside the tower. It is the outside that is the best aspect of Smailholm. The tower on top of the rocky outcrop looks fantastic and you should take the time to walk around and capture it from every angle.
Other Things to See
Don't leave the area without a look at Smailholm Church, in the nearby village. It is very pretty and can be dated back to 1150.
On the return journey the road crosses over the Leader Water, not far from the Leaderfoot Viaduct. There is some lovely walking here with a path heading through the forest and alongside the water.
More on the Scottish Borders...
One of the most magnificent landmarks in the Scottish Borders is the Leaderfoot Viaduct. It is a breathtaking sight with its 19 arches that span the River Tweed. The good news is that it is very easy to travel to. A 4 mile cycle from Tweedbank station on the Borders Railway will take you right there.
The Borders Railway makes it easy to visit the viaduct. The last stop on the line, Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh), has a cycle path beginning at the station. This is well signposted, so just follow the blue cycle route signs to Melrose. This route is a mixture of traffic-free cycle path and quiet roads.
Once in Melrose you might want to explore a bit as this is one of Scotland's finest towns with lots to see. Read my blog about Melrose for ideas of things to do.
In Melrose head north on Abbey Street which becomes Annay Road. You will pass Melrose Abbey and soon reach The Abbey Mill. This began life as a corn mill, likely for the Abbey. Later it supplied barley to the Abbey brewery. These days the building houses a country clothing shop with a tea room upstairs.
I popped in for coffee and a scone that was still warm from the oven. It was fluffy inside and one of the best I have tasted. The room has enormous sash windows that let the sun pour in.
Once you reach the end of Annay Road you turn left, onto the B6361, to proceed through the village of Newstead. Oh-so-pretty cottages are jammed right against the road on both sides, flowers spilling from window boxes. Country village perfection indeed.
Once you reach the end of the village you take a left and then the first right (there are cycle route signs showing the way). This will take you to a road that has a gate across it, meaning a traffic-free cycle from here to the viaduct.
This road takes you through the site of a Roman fort called Trimontium. This is the largest Roman site in Scotland. You will come across this stone that summaries the story of the fort:
At regular intervals, along this road, there are interpretive panels that tell you more about the fort. There were several people walking this route and stopping by the panels.
Trimontium was a cavalry fort that housed about 1000 troops. It was well furnished with an amphitheater and bath house. Archaeological digs uncovered amazing objects, like a brass face mask with elaborately braided hair, a bronze cavalry parade helmet and a stash of silver coins. Most of these items can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and some at a museum in Melrose.
The first sight of the viaduct will blow you away. Queen Victoria described it as "immense" and that is exactly what it is. After miles of tranquil countryside and fields this man made structure suddenly appears and dominates, but in a way that seems to enhance the landscape.
It is interesting that we regard these once functional structures as beautiful and not detracting from the natural environment that they rest in. However, a nearby road bridge that carries the A68 over the river would be generally considered as ugly. You cannot deny that these Victorian railway structures have an elegance that is rarely matched by modern equivalents.
The road proceeds under the viaduct, but just before it does you will notice a staircase. Stash the bike and jump up there to take a look at the top of the viaduct.
Unfortunately you cannot walk across the viaduct as it is fenced off, but you are able to look down the grass covered track bed.
I found reference to a plan to have some train carriages with a tearoom and museum parked on the viaduct, but this never came to fruition. I quite enjoyed its forgotten state as it meant using my imagination to picture trains crossing it and to simply enjoy the thrill of being so close to such a magnificent structure.
The road beneath the viaduct provides the perfect vantage point to marvel at the incredible height and scale of the arches. From a distance the columns of the arches seem very slender, but close up they look indestructible.
Cycle on to the old stone bridge. It is from here that the best views of the Leaderfoot Viaduct can be had. This bridge dates from 1776. It used to carry the A68 road until it was replaced in 1974 by the adjacent modern bridge. Only cyclists and pedestrians can use this old bridge today, so you are able to pause here for as long as you like.
The story of the viaduct is that it was built to carry a railway branch line to Duns and then connect with the East Coast mainline. It opened in 1865. There was a storm in the late 1940s that caused damage to the line and passenger trains ceased at that point. Freight was still hauled across the viaduct until 1965 when the line was finally closed.
Although the Borders Railway from Edinburgh saw trains return to this part of Scotland it is unlikely that the route across the viaduct will open anytime soon. Even in its heyday the line received small numbers of passengers.
Across Scotland there are many remnants of railway infrastructure and this viaduct is one of the most magnificent. I thoroughly recommend coming here and with it being so easy to get to using train and bicycle there is no excuse not to! Why not bring a picnic?
The Leaderfoot Viaduct is one of many places that you can reach easily from the Borders Railway terminus at Tweedback. Here are some other ideas:
Visit one of Scotland's best independent bookshops- Mainstreet Trading in St. Boswells.
Head to Scott's View, one of the most beautiful views in the Scottish Borders.
Explore Melrose where you will find a great selection of shops, an abbey and beautiful gardens.
For a great day of exploring in the Scottish Borders take the train to Tweedbank and join the cycle path right at the station. It only takes 8 miles of cycling to see an abbey, an enormous statue of William Wallace, an outdoor sculpture and one of Scotland's finest views.
The Borders Railway makes it easy to visit the Scottish Borders. The last stop on the line, Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh), has a cycle path at the station. This will take you on a mostly traffic-free journey to the attractions highlighted on this blog.
After 1.75 miles you will arrive in Melrose, one of Scotland's most charming towns. Read my blog about Melrose for ideas of things to see and do in the town.
Just after Melrose the route takes you onto a road that is closed to vehicle traffic. This involves a steep climb, but this is followed by a smile-inducing descent. After passing through Newtown St. Boswells the route requires a crossing of the busy A68, but this is a simple case of pushing the bike over to the large island in the middle of the road and then pushing it over to the other side. This will set you off on a minor road that descends towards the River Tweed.
Dryburgh Suspension Bridge
Here you will find a suspension bridge, built by the Earl of Buchan. In fact, this Earl had a hand in most of the things that you will see on this journey. There is something exciting about crossing a bridge on a bicycle- the river views being seen from an elevated position and the fact that you can easily stop in the middle and watch the water flowing beneath you. This bridge has a walkway of worn planks that shoogle as bicycle tyres pass over them.
Temple of the Muses
On the other side of the bridge you will notice a round Greek-looking structure on top of a hillock, among woods. This is the Temple of the Muses. It can be reached by following the cycle path around the corner where you will find a gate and a short path up to the temple.
The temple was built by the 11th Earl of Buchan to honour the Scottish Borders poet, James Thomson. Thomson lived in the 18th century and famously penned the lyrics to 'Rule, Britannia!' The bust on the top of the temple is Thomson.
Inside the temple there is a sculpture of bronze figures, representing the Four Seasons which was a series of poems by Thomson. The sculpture was installed in 2002- prior to this there had been a statue of Apollo with 9 muses that went missing.
The naked figures are clasping each other in a supportive embrace. All have different facial expressions. I was fascinated by the face with the eyes closed and head looking down, clearly deep in thought. What is she thinking?
This is simply a lovely spot to spend a bit of time. The bridge, the temple, the sound of the river- it is perfect. In the Springtime there are clumps of snowdrops to add a touch of panache to the woods around the temple.
Just a two minute cycle will bring you to the next attraction on this tour. It is a classic ruin in the countryside, like something from one of those romanticised 19th century paintings.
The abbey is renowned as the burial place of Walter Scott, one of Scotland's most famous novelists. Earl Haig, the commander of British forces for part of the First World War, is also buried here.
Although the abbey is a ruin there is a lot that has survived. The immense size of the windows and doorways is awe-inspiring and the quality of the stone carving incredible.
I put my hand on the stone. It felt sturdy and strong and must have taken some effort to destroy. Successive attacks by English armies left Dryburgh in its present state. It was burned down in 1322, then re-built, then smashed up again in 1385, re-built again, and destroyed a final time in 1544.
The same Earl of Buchan who built the Temple of the Muses acquired the ruins in 1786 and took them into his care. He saw himself as a champion of Scotland's heritage and worked to preserve what was left of the building. He is also buried here.
The site is incredibly peaceful and gives a good impression of a canon's life of devotion and tranquility. Visit on a weekday in spring and there will be few other visitors. There will be birdsong and daffodils to brighten your walk.
The Chapter House is one of the best preserved parts of the building as it still has a roof and walls. Inside there was Gregorian chant music on a sound system and I took a seat to listen and imagine the life of a canon. They took a vow of silence and had to pray eight times a day, even in the early hours of the morning. If they looked sleepy an official would shine a lantern in their face. The canons had piss-pots under their robes so that they could relieve themselves without interrupting their duties.
Coffee at Dryburgh Abbey Hotel
Next to the abbey there is a baronial hotel. It must be a fine place to stay with its large bay windows, riverside location and garden walks, but I came for the coffee. There are lounges with sofas and armchairs that make for a relaxing cappuccino destination. The woods next to the hotel are thick with snowdrops in the spring.
Gigantic William Wallace
Do you want the good news or the bad news?
Good news is that the next item on this tour is only 5 minutes away. The bad news is that it is mostly uphill. However, it is worth it to see the incredible William Wallace statue; the very first Wallace statue in Scotland.
On leaving Dryburgh you will pass this pretty ensemble of a red telephone box, red post box and stone cottage:
Wallace is one of the most famous figures in Scotland's history, largely as a result of the 1995 Mel Gibson film. The same Earl of Buchan who built the temple and the bridge was also a big fan of Wallace and he commissioned the statue.
Leave the bike in the car park (there are racks) and take the 5 minute walk through the woods.
I was taken aback by how big this statue is. It looms up from the woods. This Wallace has a kilt and legs with bulging muscles. He carries a shield with a Saint Andrew's cross and his sword is as long as he is tall. I am sure the intention is heroic, but I think the curly beard and piercing eyes make it appear somewhat cartoonish.
1.2 miles of cycling from the Wallace statue will take you to one of Scotland's most beautiful view points. Scott's view is named after literary giant Sir Walter Scott- this was one of his favourite places in the Scottish Borders.
The view encapsulates all that is beautiful about this part of the Scottish Borders. A valley of trees, fields and river that rises to the three peaks of the Eildon Hills.
It is easy to see why Walter Scott loved it here. In fact, he came here so often that his horses knew to stop without being asked to.
The cycle is uphill with the final stretch on a twisty road. The view is already magnificent even before you reach the top, so you will be tempted to stop numerous times to take it all in. Once at the top you will find a lay-by so that cars can stop. There are benches for those who would like to sit for a while.
Every time that I come to this view I have to pinch myself that it really is this easy to reach from Edinburgh, using the train and a bicycle.
Scott's View features in my video about cycling in the Scottish Borders:
For more ideas of places to visit and cycle routes in the Scottish Borders visit my Scottish Borders page
Mainstreet Trading, located in the village of St. Boswells in the Scottish Borders, is a magical place to visit. Not only is it one of the best bookshops in the country it also has a cafe, deli shop and homewares shop. This place is so good that it is worth making a special journey just to come here. The Borders Railway makes this a straightforward day trip from Edinburgh.
The Borders Railway, Scotland's newest railway line, makes it easy to visit Mainstreet Trading. The last stop on the line, Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh) is directly opposite a cycle path that takes you 1.75 miles to Melrose and then around 4 miles to St. Boswells. All that you have to do is follow the blue cycle route signs.
Melrose is one of Scotland's best towns with plenty to see and do and a great selection of independent shops. Read my blog about Melrose to find out more.
Cycling on a Closed Road
The sweetest part of the cycle route occurs just after Melrose where you pedal onto a road that is closed to vehicle traffic. At some point in time this road was given over to the cycle network and gates installed at either end. The white lines are faded and the cats eyes have weeds growing out of them. On a autumn day, with leaves blowing around and the verges overgrown with trees and bushes, there is something post-apocalyptic about this road.
The road features a tough uphill, but it is worth it for the fast descent waiting at the other end. There is also a fantastic viewpoint overlooking the countryside and hills.
Lookout for the Shetland ponies in one of the fields alongside the road. I saw a woman taking one for a walk- she had a West Highland Terrier on one lead and the Shetland pony on another lead.
After the closed road the route takes you through Newtown St Boswells and down to the A68. This is the point where you must deviate from the cycle route- it crosses the A68 to access quieter roads in the direction of Dryburgh Abbey, but you need to turn right and travel on the A68 for 1 mile to get to Mainstreet Trading.
The A68 is a busy road, so I used the pavement. I have done this a couple of times and have never met a pedestrian. The road is just far too narrow and fast to risk cycling it.
It will come as no surprise that The Mainstreet Trading Company is located on Main Street in St. Boswells. It is a long building with an archway that leads through to a yard, which is a good place to park the bike.
You will also notice the Mainstreet Trading van, a classic Citroen, that gets used to travel to schools. They have an ambition that every child in the Borders will be able to meet a Scottish children's author when the van comes to visit their school.
The building was originally a general store that pretty much sold everything. Supermarkets killed it in the 1970s and it was then used as an auction house prior to its current life as a bookshop.
I felt so excited about exploring this place because I had heard such good things about it. It exceeded my expectations. For someone who loves books and coffee this is a dream place to spend a few hours. They have over 7000 titles in stock and you can browse them whilst the smell of coffee tickles your nostrils.
I overheard a woman say to her companion, "It's got all the books you heard about and wanted to read." The range of books and the way that they are presented is inspiring.
The stripped wooden floor adds to the joy of walking around and browsing the books. You are encouraged to fill out a card with the name of the book that started your reading habit and post it on a wall where others have done the same.
At the cafe the cakes are displayed enticingly in a glass case with the name of the cake written on the glass. I took a slice of the chocolate vanilla layer cake and ordered the courgette soup with lemon which arrived with basil leaves and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar on the top. It was all delicious, exceptional quality food.
On the other side of the yard at the rear of the bookshop you will find the building that houses the deli and homewares department.
There is an irresistible selection of specialty foods, like olives, meats and cheeses. There is also a good selection of local produce, including beers from the Born in the Borders brewery.
The homeware department focuses on unusual independent suppliers and there is a good selection of quality stationery, cards and notebooks.
Don't just take my word for how good this place is. Mainstreet has won several awards, including Deli of the Year, Independent Bookseller of the Year, Children's Bookseller of the Year and Scottish Independent Bookshop of the Year.
It is worth having a little walk around St. Boswells for the idyllic cottages and well tended gardens. There is also a wonderful old fashioned fishing and hunting store called the Borders Gunroom.
Melrose was rated the best place to live in Scotland in the 2018 Sunday Times Best Places to Live guide. I have been to Melrose several times and this came as no surprise to me as I find this town to be one of the most charming in Scotland. It has a fine selection of independent shops, places to eat and a magnificent Abbey to visit. Let me take you on a walk through the town...
Getting to Melrose
The Borders Railway, Scotland's newest railway line, makes it much easier to visit Melrose. The last stop on the line, Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh), is about 1.75 miles from Melrose. There is a cycle path to Melrose directly opposite the station. It is such a short cycle ride that you might prefer just to walk there.
There is a brilliant food and coffee kiosk at Tweedbank station. Born in the Borders is a champion for produce from the Scottish Borders region. You could pick up a nice souvenir from here, like the delicious tablet that I bought. There is even an app that allows you to pre-order your coffee so that it is ready for your arrival!
Tempest Brewing Co. is located in an industrial estate next to the station. They have a shop so that you can stock up on some of the best craft beer in the country. Read about the brewery in my blog.
Don't miss the standing stone that commemorates the opening of the railway in 2015 by the Queen. It pays tribute to the community effort involved in restoring a rail link to the area after an absence of 46 years.
Great Shops and Railway Heritage
A wander around Melrose is like stepping back in time when all of Britain's towns had shops that catered to every need. The shop fronts have elegant facades that are so perfect you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped onto the set of a film set in the 1940s.
It is immediately noticeable that Melrose is lacking in the unfortunate characteristics of so many of Scotland's town centres- empty shop units, peeling and unloved buildings and a general lack of atmosphere. Melrose has none of this and is beautifully looked after with immaculate buildings, bright flowers and a genuinely interesting selection of stores.
There is a good selection of antique shops in Melrose. One of them is down an alleyway and was selling bird boxes made from recycled wood, displayed outside. Inside there was classical music on the radio and lots of fascinating curiosities to tempt me.
Outside the fruit shop there was an impressive display of delights, like raspberries, plums and rhubarb. I walked inside the secondhand bookshop and it had that wonderful musty smell that makes you want to spend hours exploring the shelves.
I made my way up to the old train station. It looks more like a Victorian manor house than a station, with its grand frontage of bay windows The new Borders Railway did not make it this far, but I could swear that I heard a steam train puffing. For a second I believed that a steam locomotive was on the platform until I discovered that the noise was from the extractor fan of the Italian restaurant that is now in the station.
Despite the station's new usage there are plenty of reminders of the railway's golden age. The platform still has a white picket fence, station sign and bench with a station nameplate. The canopy has vintage advertising for products like Lyon's Tea, Capstan Medium Cigarettes and Rodine ('kills rats and mice').
Take a look at the lamp posts on the platform- the stems have lovely flower motifs. A beautiful little detail that perfectly illustrates the care and attention that was once lavished upon station design.
There is something quite sad about a station no longer fulfiling its purpose; its platform now marooned alongside the busy A6091 instead of train tracks leading to Edinburgh. However, there is hope for Melrose station as there is a strong community and political desire to extend the railway here and beyond.
Amazing Ice Cream and Award Wining Pies
Dalgetty's Tea Room is the perfect place to enjoy that stepping-back-in-time feeling that Melrose creates so well. This bakery business has been around for over 100 years and the counter is loaded with an immaculate display of cakes and bread. They use tradtional ovens which are over 120 years old.
For ice cream lovers Simply Delicious is the shop to aim for. When the sun comes out there is an almost constant stream of customers. I tried the apple crumble flavour and it was amazing. There were little pieces of baked apple inside, so it perfectly replicated the taste of the dessert that it was named for. This is also an old fashioned sweet shop with shelves brimming with jars of candy delights that are measured into paper bags.
Down by the River Tweed
When you travel to the Scottish Borders it is almost impossible to avoid its mighty river, the Tweed. Melrose is situated right next to the river and one of the best places to take a look at it is from the chain bridge.
This bridge opened in 1826 and you once had to pay a toll to cross it. It feels like you are entering a castle via a drawbridge because of the iron suspension chains and the tower with the arched doorway.
The bridge still has the old signs with the list of byelaws 'by order F.P. Smart, Clerk to Joint Commitee.' There rules included no more than 8 people on the bridge at one time, not crossing in a heavy gale and not deliberately swinging the bridge. You could end up in prison for these offences!
The bridge is a good vantage point to take in the Eildon Hills, the distinctive peaks that give Melrose its attractive backdrop.
Gardens of Melrose
In the town centre there are two gardens that are havens of tranquility. Harmony Garden is free to enter and the venue for the Borders Book Festival.
The gardens belonged to a wealthy joiner, Robert Waugh, who owned a pimento plantation in Jamaica. He named Harmony House (1807) after the variety of pimento that he grew. The design of his Melrose home was also inspired by his West Indian property. Take a look at the staircase up to the front door of the Georgian House- this replicated the stairs to the front of the plantation house where they were designed to keep wild animals at bay.
You cannot visit the house, but you can rent it as a holiday home. The gardens are not huge, but they are a joy to walk around because of the beautifully presented flowers and views of the ruined abbey.
The only sound was chirping birds. The sweet scent of the huge variety of flowers delighted my nose. In one corner raspberries, substantial and juicy-looking, were thriving. A peek through the windows of a glasshouse revealed peppers, tomatoes and chilles.
Priorwood, also free to enter, is the other garden in the centre of Melrose, adjacent to the abbey. Its high walls hide it from view, so it is somewhat of a secret garden and easy to miss. The entrance to it is through a visitor centre and shop where you can buy dried flowers and apples from the gardens.
Priorwood is dedicated to cultivating flowers for the purpose of dried flower arranging. There is also an orchard with about 70 varieties of apples. I loved that you could walk among the trees and take a good look at the growing fruit. One of the apples is called White Melrose and is thought to have been grown by the monks of Melrose Abbey.
This place is so tranquil and pretty that it is crazy to think that it was going to be turned into a car park in the 1970s! Thankfully the National Trust stepped in to save it. Amongst the apple trees there is a bronze sculpture of two doves.
Melrose Rugby Football Club
Rugby has been played at The Greenyards since 1877. It is a lovely ground located right in the centre of the town. It does not have a massive stand and high fences, so you could easily watch some of a game as you wander down the street. Melrose is one of the most prestigious clubs in Scotland; this is where the Rugby Sevens tournament was invented.
The entrance to the club is turned out smartly with yellow doors and window frames, complimented with flower displays.
Famously the home of Robert the Bruce's buried heart, Melrose Abbey is the main visitor attraction in the town. The abbey church, dating from the late 1300s, is a magnificent piece of architecture where the height of the ceiling is immense and difficult to stop looking up at.
The scale is breathtaking, perfectly illustrated by the incredible size of the blocks of stone on the columns.
The detail of the stone carvings is spectacular- the most famous piece is a pig playing bagpipes, but there are plenty of others to look out for.
There is a spiral staircase with a rope banister to grasp. It leads to a viewing platform that allows you to take in the roof of the church and the surrounding countryside.
Melrose is much more than its visitor attractions and it topped the list of best places to live in Scotland because of good schools, transport links and community spirit.
Melrose is also brilliantly situated for nearby attractions that make for great day trips and I will be writing about these in future blog posts.
I am interested to find out if you liked Melrose as much as I did, so please leave a comment below.
Highlights of this cycle route:
Distance: Around 9 miles one-way, 18 miles return.
Terrain: Mostly tarmac cycle paths, some A and B roads that have low traffic volume. Mostly flat.
Getting there: Train to Tweedbank, around one hour from Edinburgh. Bicycle reservations not required.
First off, take a trip on the Borders Railway
The Borders Railway is the newest railway and the longest railway to be built in the UK in 100 years. It is a superb tourism asset as it makes it much easier to access the scenery and visitor attractions of the Scottish Borders.
Read my blog: 8 Reasons to Love the Borders Railway
You can also take a look at my video that shows how easy it is to use the Borders Railway for exploring the area by bike:
Journey time to Tweedbank is under one hour from Edinburgh. Once the train passes Gorebridge the view starts to become special with rivers, hills and sheep farms. There are tunnels and viaducts and the track twists and turns frequently, giving the line a unique character that makes it endearing.
Right next to Tweedbank station you will notice signage for cycle routes, so exploring this area by bike is very simple. Just follow the signs.
You want to take the path alongside the train track, heading back towards Galashiels. Follow the signs for Innerleithen.
Soon the path takes you alongside the River Tweed. I loved this ribbon of tarmac through meadows of little white wildflowers. It was a joy to ride.
This path smells sweet, fresh and woody. It is worth taking your time to spot the variety of wildflowers along the way.
There are also glimpses of Abbotsford, the home of Walter Scott, through the trees, on the other side of the river. This house, once home to one of Scotland's most famous literary figures, can be visited by bicycle, but I saved this for a future trip.
Further on, the road passes a trio of impressive timber-framed houses. They have gorgeous gardens and large bay windows looking onto the river. It looks like a scene from a country living magazine where everything is photogenic and perfect.
After about 3 miles on this road you take a left, crossing a stone bridge over the River Tweed. This will take you towards Selkirk.
The approach towards Selkirk is via a cycle path that runs alongside the busy A7. This is the least interesting part of the journey because you are just looking at a main road, but it does not last for long and it is superb that a segregated cycle path has been provided on this road.
The route does not take you into the centre of Selkirk, but passes the outskirts where there are impressive mill buildings, some ruined, some beautifully restored.
You get a great impression of how significant the textile industry had been in this town from the scale of these buildings. At one point it provided jobs for over 1000 people. It is sad to witness this visual display of the decline of an industry, but there are also positives to be found. Still in operation in this area is Lochcarron which weaves the largest range of wool tartans in the world. There is a visitor centre, shop and cafe.
From here it is only 3.5 miles to reach Bowhill House. This is by means of the A708, but don't worry because this is one of those quieter A-roads.
Whose side are you on?
The road passes fields where a great battle took place in 1645, the Battle of Philiphaugh. Imagine over 5000 men exchanging musket fire. You cannot tell who is on the side of the Covanters and who is on the side of the Royalists because there are no uniforms. Only a piece of paper or grass pinned to their hat symbolises which side they fight for. I wonder how many of the deaths resulted from mistaken identity? There is a battlefield walk with Interpretive panels at the fields.
The Waterwheel Cafe is also located here. It is a chalet-style building, made from Scots Pine, which gives it a striking interior.
For the remainder of the A708 you will have glimpses of the Yarrow Water through the woodlands that flank the road. You cross this river on a stone bridge to enter the Bowhill estate.
In comparison with other stately homes Bowhill can appear plain on the outside. It lacks in decorative architectural features like stone carvings and columns, but I think there is an elegance to its proportions, particularly when seen across the landscaped gardens.
One frequent visitor had been Walter Scott, one of Scotland's most renowned literary figures, and he was impressed, describing the house as 'sweet Bowhill.' It is the inside of the house where the magic begins with beautiful art, furniture and antiques, so let us step inside.
Visits to the house are by guided tour. My guide's name was Walter and he loved everything about Bowhill. His catchphrase was 'unbelievable', applying this to all of the things he found incredible about the house. "This clock dates from 1640 and is still ticking. Unbelievable."
Later he remarked on the tapestries, "the colours are just the same as the day they were made. Unbelievable."
There are many fascinating objects to be seen in the house. If art is your thing there are works by Canaletto, Raeburn and Gainsborough. I was intrigued by a curious long sofa with two separate seats at each end. I learned that these seats were for the chaperons to keep an eye on the courting couple who would be seated in the middle.
I adored the pair of French cabinets that had birds nests painted on them. One cabinet had a nest with two eggs and the cabinet on the other side of the room had a nest with chicks inside. "But look!" exclaimed Walter, "there are three chicks, so one of those eggs must have been a double yoker." If there are children on the tour Walter pretends to do a magic trick asking the kids to look at the cabinet with the eggs and then turns to the other cabinet and says "Ta da! And now there are chicks!"
Our tour visited a room that housed a collection of miniature portraits. These are incredibly detailed for their tiny size and I was surprised to learn that hairs from squirrel tails were used to paint them.
Despite all of these riches Bowhill has a lived-in feel. It is still used by the Duke and his family and I liked seeing the trappings of modern life dotted around, such as plasma televisions and modern paperbacks lying alongside the antique volumes. In one room there was a lingering scent of last night's crackling fire, a basket half-full of logs and a novel resting with a bookmark, so it really felt like people had been making used of this room.
Photography is not permitted inside the house, apart from in the kitchen, so here are some shots for you to enjoy.
The most striking thing about the kitchen is its double height, essential because of the heat that would have been generated in this room.
All this display of pots, pans and jugs was making me hungry so I headed to the tearoom. The sweet potato and coconut soup hit the spot and gave me the energy to explore Bowhill's extensive grounds.
I must tell you about the giant chess set that I found at the rear of the house. It has to be the most scenic location for a game of giant chess with a backdrop of rolling hills and forest.
My favourite thing about the grounds was the Upper Loch, artificially created for the sheer pleasure of having a loch in your garden. It was dug out in 1816 and that must have been some job without the aid of mechanical diggers. The loch is surrounded by woodland, which means a delightful walk through the trees when you do a circuit of the water. During my visit, pretty clumps of daffodils were in full bloom.
I was short on time so I used the tarmac roads to cycle some of the grounds, including the route up to the ruins of the 15th century Newark Tower. I passed a pair of lambs cuddled up together and sleeping. It was the cutest thing I had seen in ages.
The tower had been a royal hunting lodge and it provides an exciting 'wow' moment as it suddenly appears after a bend in the road.
Although you cannot go inside the tower it is interesting to walk around the outside, peer up at the crumbling remains of windows and put your hands on the hefty stone construction.
Reluctantly I had to leave Bowhill to catch the train home. This had been a perfect day trip using train and bicycle. Bowhill is just the right distance from Tweedbank station to provide a decent amount of cycling and plenty of time to visit the house and the grounds.
The Bowhill website promotes cycling, not just driving and public transport, as a means to reach the house. I was really impressed by this as it is quite rare to find cycling mentioned in the 'how to get here' sections of visitor attractions.
Food and drink is just as important to the travel experience as the scenery, history and visitor attractions. There has been a huge growth in craft beer producers in Scotland and I always try to find a local beer in the areas that I visit. Tempest Brewing Co. is located in Tweedbank in the Scottish Borders and they produce a wide range of exciting and innovative drinks. The Borders Railway makes it easy to visit their retail shop.
Having taken many trips on the Borders Railway to Tweedbank I noticed sings for Tempest Brewing Co. at the station. I decided to follow the signs into a nearby industrial estate to pay a visit to their shop.
The shop is located within the brewery. There is a rather functional entrance, distinguished only by the signage outside the door. When I went inside a staff member welcomed me and directed me past the stores of beer barrels to a small office area where there is a fridge filled with bottles of the entire Tempest range. I was excited to see everything in one place, as supermarkets and shops usually have just a selection of the range on offer. The shop also sells the clothing range, which includes cycling tops.
Tempest is one of my favourite craft beer producers. I love all of their creations because they use innovative flavour combinations that make this a unique and exciting product. They even have a beer for cyclists.
During my visit the staff were very excited because Tempest had just won 7 awards at the Scottish Beer Awards, including Scottish Brewery of the Year.
I bought half-a-dozen bottles of beers and stuffed them into my panniers to try them out when I got home. The member of staff who served me was particularly enthusiastic about Marmalade on Rye. He said he just loved it and described it as 'so moreish.' I couldn't agree more. It is another delicious creation from Tempest.
There are many exciting cycling routes in the Scottish Borders and taking the train to Tweedbank is one of the best ways to access them. With Tempest Brewing Co. just a few minutes walk or cycle from the station it would be foolish not to pop in and take back some fine craft beers.
Scotland’s newest railway and the longest railway to be built in the UK in 100 years is the Borders Railway. It travels from Edinburgh to Tweedbank in the area of Scotland called the Borders. The line has opened up an entire region to bicycle day trips.
In 1969 this railway line was closed as part of the cuts recommended by Doctor Richard Beeching. This left the Scottish Borders as the only region of Britain without trains. The original line went to Carlisle in England and in 2015 it reopened as far as Tweedbank. The line was officially opened by The Queen on the same day that she became Britain's longest serving monarch. The railway has been a huge success with passenger numbers 22% greater than the forecast.
8 Reasons to Love the Borders Railway:
1. Instant Access to Superb Cycling Routes
As soon as you get off the train at Tweedbank there is a cycle path right in front of you. This is National Cycle Route One and it takes you to many of the attractions of The Scottish Borders. Melrose, with its historic abbey, is only 2.5 miles away.
The railway now makes it easy to take a bike to a region of Scotland that was challenging to get to by public transport. In the past you would have to take a train to Berwick-upon-Tweed in England in order to cycle into the Scottish Borders. This necessitated overnight trips, but the new railway makes day trips easy.
2.. Stately Home Day Trips
There are some magnificent houses in the Borders, all within reasonable cycling distance from the railway. Fine art, antique furniture, stunning plaster ceilings, tea rooms and walks in the gardens are the reasons to come to these houses. Mellerstain (top left photo) is 11 miles from Tweedbank, Thirlestane Castle (top right) is 6 miles from Stow station, Bowhill (bottom left) is 9 miles from Tweedbank and Traquair (bottom right) is 16 miles from Tweedbank.
3. One of The Great Scenic Railway Journeys of Scotland
Scotrail promotes this line as one of six Great Scenic rail journeys in Scotland. Once you leave Gorebridge station (4 stops after Edinburgh) the urban areas fade from view and what you see out of the train window starts to become spectacular. There are forests, rivers and rolling hills populated with grazing sheep. A tunnel, viaducts and lots of curves give the line character and a touch of excitement.
4. Short Journey Time
Edinburgh to Tweedbank takes just less than one hour. It is incredible that this close to the capital city there are open spaces and miles of quiet cycle routes. For the ultimate rural experience get off at Stow station. It is only 45 minutes from Edinburgh, but feels far, far away and provides access to quiet country roads.
5. Cheaper Tickets
A competitive fare structure was deliberately introduced to encourage travel on the Borders Railway. This means that you can travel to the end of the line for £10.10 single or £11.20 off-peak return (correct as of October 2016).
6. No Bicycle Reservations
Borders Railway does not require bicycle reservations. This makes it a good option for impulsive, last-minute trips as you do not need to book your bicycle in advance. Some other rail routes have mandatory reservations for bicycles that can become fully booked, so you need to plan these journeys in advance. With the Borders Railway you just turn up and go.
7. The Brewery Next to the Station
Take home a taste of the Borders. Tempest Brewing is located in the industrial estate next to Tweedbank station. You will notice signs, near the station, directing you to the brewery where the shop is open on weekdays. Tempest was voted Scottish brewery of the year in 2016. They even produce a beer specifically for cyclists, which I previously reviewed.
8. Visit the Home of one of Scotland's Greatest Writers
Less than 1 mile from Tweedbank is Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott. In the nineteenth century Scott was one of Scotland's most prolific writers, producing 23 bestsellers and achieving worldwide fame. You can explore many of the rooms of Abbotsford, including Scott's wood-paneled study.
Excellent book about the Borders Railway
This book delves into the history of the original railway, its closure and then the campaigning and political journey to get it reopened. A fascinating read and full of photographs. You can purchase it on Amazon by clicking on the image below:
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle. Follow my blog on Facebook: