Late November and the Christmas Market beside Edinburgh Waverley Station was getting under way. The sky was calm and clear. And we took the train to Galashiels on the Borders Railway.
The Borders Railway wins awards
The Guild of British Travel Writers had just recognised it as the Best Tourism Project in the UK at an awards ceremony. High time we took a look.
The Borders Railway opened in September 2015 as the longest stretch of closed railway in the UK - 30 miles / 48km - ever to be re-laid and reopened. Today’s railway mostly follows the old trackbed of part of the famous Waverley Route, originally connecting Edinburgh and Carlisle. It closed in 1969.
The Borders Railway for Tourists
First, some research. The web page on the VisitScotland site says that 'the regions of Edinburgh, Midlothian and the Scottish Borders all blend rich history, breathtaking landscapes, thrilling outdoor activities and much more'.
And experiencing what these ‘enchanting regions’ have to offer is ‘easier than ever before’ now that there’s a railway.
All aboard - but bring a vacuum cleaner
Our train was sitting in a bay platform at the east end of Waverley Station. A little two-coach job. The seats were grubby, the floors grubbier. (And, as a regular traveller, I mean unusually grubby.)
Off we set through the 'enchanting regions' of suburban Edinburgh, out into the 'breathtaking landscapes' of Midlothian. Quite a lot of it seemed to be in a cutting, but it offered glimpses of, uhmm, a lot of houses, small business premises, some industrial dereliction and distant views of the Pentland Hills. We could have got off at the interesting National Mining Museum Scotland at Newtongrange, but we were Gala-bound!
Instead, after Gorebridge (in a cutting) we climbed away up Borthwick Bank, famous as a challenge for the south-bound expresses in the days of steam, though that was something that only rail-enthusiasts would be aware of.
There’s a quick view of Borthwick Castle on one side, then an even quicker one of Crichton Castle on the other.
The Borders landscapes - seen from the train
The landscape though, was changing to 'breathtaking' fields with sheep in them and also some gentle hills . And then some more fields and some more sheep and a wee river or two. Oh, and there were trees as well. It was pretty bleak. The church spire at Stow was a highlight.
All too soon we had arrived at the substantial town of Galashiels where we got our breath back after it had been taken. Immediately facing the station is a fine new interchange, which is a grand name for a bus station. It has a cafe too.
Then we wandered into the town of Galashiels. Elsewhere on this site we may have mentioned that once, when driving here, we were sucked into the gravitational pull of its one-way system and were unable to escape until we had engaged warp drive.
No such problems for us today - we were just six folk and a Border terrier on foot.
Galashiels is OK and looks exactly like an average Scottish town. It’s pleasantly ordinary. A sprinkling of charity shops, businesses for sale, some fine looking gifty shops, cafes, small businesses and so on.
A town with heritage, its ‘Burgh Buildings’ of 1925 (by Robert Lorimer) includes a revered statue of a fierce-looking man with a colander on his head astride a horse. Designed by local boy Thomas Clapperton, the figure is a Border reiver (cattle-thief or outlaw) and is part of - though rather blocks the view of - the war memorial.
Because it is dog friendly, we lunched at the Salmon Inn, opposite the equestrian statue mentioned above. They could not have been friendlier or more helpful - they have 5 rooms too - so it would be a good place to stay.
Old Gala House, the local museum, was closed, so after lunch we wandered back past a good selection of more shops. (According to one of the town’s helpful information boards, Galashiels retail choice is one of its ‘best-known secrets’. Eh? What?)
The Borders Railway and Sir Walter Scott
Though we were a bit casual, we had accidentally timed it just as a train arrived from Tweedbank. Ah, yes, the terminus, just a few minutes down the line from Galashiels. It’s a stepping off point for Abbotsford, the grand house built by Sir Walter Scott, one-time block-buster novel writer. No-one much reads him now.
There’s a restaurant and also fine visitor centre at Abbotsford, which is open all year - worth noting (though check the house opening times - they are different - it is closed in winter).
Extra seats for the Borders Railway
Anyway, we piled on the train and, it being off-peak and off-season, easily found seats. Then we clattered back to Edinburgh, passing an absolutely packed Tweedbank-bound two-coach unit en route. There are plenty of trains and so great is the demand that, from December 2016, we hear that some extra coaches and bigger trains are to run the service.
It isn’t our place to debate the politics and economics of the Borders Railway. All we wanted was to try a nice excursion that visitors might enjoy.
The Borders Railway experience
And how was it? Well, it’s totally brilliant that the Scottish Borders has a railway. It’s great for commuters and the local economy.
But if I was visiting Edinburgh for a short break and fancied a day out of the city, I’d still prefer to tootle by train down to North Berwick in East Lothian, or go by car or organised coach tour to the Trossachs, or St Andrews, or hire a car for a day to explore Stirling Castle, then cruise Loch Katrine or visit Loch Lomond or...well, do a hundred other things.
I think if I definitely wanted a rail excursion I’d even prefer to take the train from Waverley Station in Edinburgh to, say, Helensburgh on the breezy Clyde estuary - there is a direct service - just to glimpse the western seaboard and visit, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s magnificent Hill House.
The Scottish Borders scenery can be a bit dreary
So, I’m glad the Borders Railway is there. I love rail travel and it's a huge community asset. But the scenery is dreary before Gorebridge and ordinary beyond.
It isn’t the Highlands (even if some of the station signs are inexplicably in Gaelic). The set of tourism experiences on offer - with some notable exceptions - is not easily reached if you decanted yourself at a wayside station.
The main town served by the railway, Galashiels, looks much like any other post-industrial Scottish community. You may find this a plus point though.
Anyway, we returned to Waverley Station as dusk was falling, and had a lovely time wandering through the Edinburgh Christmas Market.
Can I go by steam train on the Borders Railway?
I don’t know. Can’t quite work it out. Sometimes in peak season, maybe. The steam-hauled services on the Borders Railway in 2016 only ran at weekends for a couple of months and got complaints from commuters when they got in the way of the regular services.
(And the old-fashioned coaching stock used on the steam services featured primitive sanitary arrangements that got even more complaints from line-side rail workers facing the wrong way when the train went past. Ah, the good old days...)
Journey time is under one hour.
Trains every half hour for much of the day.
At time of writing, the relevant ScotRail website page on steam trains is strangely evasive, though it does say that ‘with a chuff and a chuff and a hoot’ (yes, really) they made some memorable journeys last year, while managing to sound like a Thomas the Tank-Engine story. I’m sure they’ll update the page. (They did - no mention of steam!) It's reproduced here though...