Wednesday 26 May 2021


Sometimes station collecting is a box-ticking exercise.  Get off the train, take the photo, job done.  And sometimes it's... magic.  

Stow station is, to use a technical term, miles from anywhere.  It's almost a twenty minute ride here from the previous station, Gorebridge, and then it's another ten minutes on the train to the next.  Stow itself is a village of less than a thousand people; you strongly suspect that if the railway had been only a few hundred yards further away from the centre they wouldn't have bothered reopening it.  They didn't bother with the one at Fountainhead, for example.  As it is, the station is a spot of double track, allowing trains to pass one another, and comes with all the usual gizmos of a modern railway halt - car park, info screens, huge ramps.

It had also retained its original station building and, unlike others I'd spotted, it was well-kept.  I'm not sure if it's a business or a private home but it looked like it was being used usefully.  I moved up to the railway bridge and snapped my sign as usual.

A little further on, though, I had to stop and gasp.  Stow was there in front of me and it was gorgeous.

I was sold.  It didn't really matter what happened for the rest of the morning; it didn't matter what I found in the village.  I adored Stow.  Writing about it now, five years on, I'm still in love.  I want to go back.

I walked into the centre, a tight knot of stone houses falling down the hill to the Gala Water, with a post office and village shop.  There was a bowling green and a war memorial and a patch of neat grass with benches overlooking the river.  All of it was sprinkled with a light mist, a clingy soft rain, as though nature had provided its own vaseline on the lens.  

I swooned for a little while, then decided to rest in the Cloudhouse cafe and gallery for a drink.  Once again, Stow decided it would be as adorable as possible.  Inside, lying on his own special pillow, was a boxer dog.  A sign above his head informed us that his name was Yoda, he loved children, and feel free to stroke him.  I bent down and ruffled the soft fur on top of his head.  

We had a boxer dog growing up, Bomber, a brindle, and so I can say without fear of contradiction that they are the finest dogs.  They're loving and fun and joyous; Bomber would leap into the air, two feet straight up, out of sheer excitement when you walked through the door.  Here is a picture of me with him in our back garden as he shows about as much interest in a ball being thrown his way as I would.

Providing a dog along with a latte was a great gimmick; the conversations I overheard were an added bonus.  Like the updates on a man who'd been trampled by a cow.  He was airlifted to hospital but was fine now.  A man came in and handed over some eggs - the owner explained to her patrons that he'd rescued some ducks the year before, and, not knowing what to do with the eggs, he simply brought them in for her so she could make cakes.  A woman in a nurse's uniform fussed over a tiny baby, who was clearly madly in love with her.  Another patron was overwhelmed by the size of the cake slices on offer.  It was all so lovely and happy and I could've stayed all day.

I finally dragged myself away - giving Yoda another quick stroke on the way out the door, which he appreciated - then walked out to the main road.  The A7 passes through the village and my plan had been to walk down it to Galashiels and the next station.  I was so comfortable, so cheery though, that I instead took the bus.  It was a wise decision on two fronts.  Firstly, we'd barely left Stow before the grey skies emptied, pelting us with heavy rain.  Secondly, it turned out the road to Galashiels was busy and winding and had not much in the way of pedestrian facilities; I'd have been a nervous wreck trying to negotiate it.

We were deposited in a large, posh bus station that also served as the railway station.  I kept my head down to avoid spoilers and headed across the bridge into the town centre.  What I found was a small, tight community, a little down at heel - there were more than the usual number of empty shops - but it was busy and the people seemed cheery.  There was an excess of what I had mentally labelled "Tartan nonsense" - kilts and Scottish gifts and shortbread - but the buildings were nice and it was a decent little precinct.

I decided to treat myself.  It was midday, and Stow's lovely cafe had got me in the mood for a nice lunch.  I don't like eating on my own in restaurants; I feel self-conscious and awkward.  But I'd been in Scotland for a few days and never eaten anything more substantial than a McDonald's breakfast so I thought it was time to enjoy myself.  I circled the town and found a pub/restaurant with a decent menu and waited to be seated.  The waitress looked me up and down and, when I asked for a table for one, immediately snapped that they had none available.  Behind her I took in the half-empty dining room with at least three vacant tables within spitting distance.

I limped away, feeling dejected and embarrassed.  The further away I walked though the angrier I got.  My money was as good as anyone else's!  I was perfectly capable of eating just as much as the next man!  I'd like to say that this resolve drove me to another restaurant where I enjoyed a fine banquet, but my bravery had been broken.  I considered a Wetherspoons, then remembered their Brexity beermats, so instead I got a pasty and a bottle of water from Greggs and went and sat in the bus station.

Sorry, it wasn't the bus station, it was the Interchange, with an angular glass building that seemed way too large for its purpose.  I could well imagine the architect's notes which made great use of the words "landmark" and "iconic" and "gateway" while I sat in its big echoey hall and tried to ignore the smell of urine wafting out of the toilets.

Having finished my slightly pathetic lunch I made my way up to the station platform (opened by Councillor John Mitchell).  It's not actually inside the Interchange, slightly making its name a lie; instead you leave out the back and cross a road which hugs the line so closely it can only have been built on the old trackbed. 

The original station was now an Asda, so the new platform had been wedged in under a wall of vegetation.  It was slightly oppressive, and certainly didn't feel like a grand entrance to the town.  Compared with the money spent on the bus station it felt especially inadequate.

I had only one station left on the Borders Railway: Tweedbank.  The original Waverley Route had stretched much further, all the way to Carlisle, with a dozen more stations, and indeed the decision to end the new line at Tweedbank wasn't without controversy.  A couple more miles of track would've taken it to Melrose, with its abbey and the home of Sir Walter Scott, but it was deemed that the passenger numbers would be too small to justify the expense.  As with all new railways in Britain, once you get a little, you want a lot; there are campaigns to take the line on to Melrose, to Hawick, even right the way to Carlisle itself.  All good ideas and, this being a British railway, I look forward to a single track extension to somewhere quite useless in about 2066.

It's not a looker.  Tweedbank station combines two deadly transport concepts, being both the end of the line and a park and ride.  As such the train limps in sadly, full of exhaustion, to a landscape that's dominated by tarmac.  The sole station building isn't a station building at all, it's a crew facility.  

I'd come all this way and I didn't want to go back on the same train so I walked away into Tweedbank itself.  There was a map board outside the station but it was far more keen to tell me about the delights of Melrose, underlining the fact that the people who suggested the railway should continue a bit further may have had a point.  Still, I crossed the road by a large blank-faced industrial estate and plunged into suburbia.

Tweedbank was originally constructed in the 1970s, with further additions twenty years later, and both sections were incredibly typical for their time.  The newer houses were detached and semi-detached, grouped irregularly around cul-de-sacs, stinking of nouveau.  The 1970s homes smacked of architectural ambition, homes that were intended to uplift and foster community.  Tightly packed houses grouped around pedestrian paths with car parking at the rear.  Long curving walks through greenery.  Underpasses beneath roads designed to whisk you off to work.

The centrepiece of the district was the Gun Knowe Loch, a big expanse of open water with fountains sputtering and a shop and pub nestled in its corner.  Somewhere along the line the pub had been upgraded and was now Herges on the Loch, a family-style restaurant that, somewhat bafflingly, seemed to be Tintin themed.  (A look at their current website reveals that they seem to have dumped this branding for something a bit more upmarket, which is a shame).  I regretted filling up on that pasty in the bus station.

It felt hopeful.  This part of Tweedbank, not the 90s bit, seemed to have been constructed with a proper ambition to make the new suburb a great place to live.  I don't know if it succeeded to those who came here but for me, a visitor, I found it charming and likeable.

I headed back through the underpass.  I was aware that I was wandering aimlessly, killing time more than anything, and I could do that back in Edinburgh proper.  I didn't need to loiter in the suburbs.  I walked back to the station for my train.  The Borders Railway had taken me to places I'd never been and would never have visited if it hadn't existed.  It opened up a new part of the world to me.  And isn't that what travel should be all about? 

Thursday 6 May 2021



Up until this point, the Borders Railway had been new, but old.  It was a former freight line that had a couple of stations on it.  From now on, the tracks were all new, laid over the course of the long abandoned railway.  Except at Shawfair, where it was all new.  The City of Edinburgh bypass crossed the old Waverley Route, and there was no way to restore it.  As a result, at Shawfair, the line veers onto virgin territory.

It was an eerie place.  For the best part of a century the land round here had been collieries, but of course they were gone now.  The plan was for a new garden suburb to be built here - homes, shops, schools, places to work.  An entire new community served by a fast regular train into Edinburgh.

It hadn't happened yet.  It hadn't happened in 2016, and it still hasn't happened in 2021.  A quick look at satellite view in Google Maps reveals a station in amidst scrubland and dirt.  The Shawfair website says that work is progressing on a new access road ahead of construction; that's about it.  

I walked down an empty road that was far too good for the handful of people who ever used it.  There were a couple of learner motorcyclists taking advantage of the tarmac to practice, jerkily driving up and down while their instructor spoke to them through a radio headset.  A handwritten sign asked flytippers to smile - you're on CCTV.  

A little to the south was Newton Village, a proper old mining community that I'm guessing the Shawfair promoters quietly gloss over.  There's something mean about houses in Scotland, a hard quality, as though they're built as bunkers to hide in.  The homes here were pebbledashed and dark; they watched me as I passed.  

Another stretch of new, gleaming, underused road, and I was at the City of Edinburgh Bypass.  It's a dual carriageway that loops around the city, connecting the M8 to the A1, and unsurprisingly it's incredibly busy.  It's 70 miles an hour, with no space for pedestrians or slow vehicles; it's basically a motorway in disguise.

And I had to cross it.

The Sherrifhall roundabout is so busy, the Scottish government are currently planning to build a flyover to carry through traffic.  I hope when they do that they also build some footbridges or underpasses.  I basically hurled myself across the road, running across the lanes of traffic.  I am not built for running.  It was more of a lollop as I dodged the cars and trucks and ended up on the central reservation for a pause, before trying again on the far lane.  Panting, I was finally able to pause on the other side.  

It's strange sometimes, the shift from planned to lived in a landscape.  Before I'd been on roads that were laid out with one objective: to whisk cars as quickly as possible to and from their destination.  They smelt of computer aided design and theodolites.  The Old Dalkeith Road, however, curled and twisted.  It ran past gate posts and nudged hillsides.  Its moves were illogical but human; it was a road that carried its history with it.  Immediately my mood lifted as I walked down the hillside towards the town.  

Dalkeith first came at me with small, white houses, pebbledashed and painted, terraces tucked off to the side.  The town centre meanwhile was strung along a high street, pockmarked with empty shops, but still busy.  

If I'm honest, what sold me on Dalkeith was its precinct.  It was a brutalist curve of concrete, each blocky shop angled slightly to form an arc, and fronted by a plaza.  There was something about its quiet ambition and its lack of compromise that really appealed to me.  I expect the town hates it.

The railway line, sadly, doesn't pass close enough to the town to be part of it, so I passed up the opportunity to buy a pasty - no matter how tempting the smell was wafting out of the bakery - and instead followed the High Street south.  The old Council Chambers building was a confection of Caledonian nonsense, all pinnacles and pointy towers, as though Ivanhoe was going to pop his head out of the top window.  

Beyond that it devolved into the usual edge of town businesses - takeaways, restaurants (an Indian had a sign pinned on its menu saying SORRY LUNCH IS CLOSE), then a slip into houses.  There was a church with a load of scaffolding and builders crawling all over it, with a sign proclaiming, Church is not closed - we are undergoing a faith lift!, which made me immediately pledge my allegiance to Satan.  I turned south on a busy road lined with trees and large homes that quietly shifted into suburbia.  Large expanses of new homes, the flags of the developers flying proudly, all taking advantage of the new station in their midst.

Eskbank station is set back from the main road, and in between they've slipped in a campus for Edinburgh College.  There's a public road to it of course but it runs between the main college building and its car park so it was swarming with young people.  They hung out on the benches and steps, hovered in doorways, being youthful and fun and full of hope.  I absolutely understand that we should treasure our older people and listen to their wisdom and that the pursuit of youth is essentially a folly, but moving amongst them, I felt like a troll who'd wandered into a fairy village.  

One day Eskbank will be a pretty station, surrounded by trees and vegetation and well-used.  Barely a year after it opened (by, according to a plaque on the fence, Erin Gilbertson, a 13-year old local) it still felt new and untouched, a bit raw.  

Still, you know what makes everything better?  PUPPIES!  There was a woman on the platform with a tiny golden retriever pup, wearing a bib saying Guide Dog In Training.  She told another woman on the platform that he was being shown the trains so he'd get used to their noise and, sure, enough, when it came in, the puppy sat down neatly on the edge of the platform.  His handler gave him a congratulatory stroke as I boarded, an immensely cheering sight.  

Newtongrange is the mid-point of the railway, and it was here that Her Majesty was brought to officially open it.  There's still a commemorative plaque stuck to the fence, overlooking the car park, which is where I suppose you have to put that kind of thing when there's no station building.  It feels a little disrespectful though.  Couldn't they have scraped together a flower bed for it or something?

I feel like I should note for posterity that the station is on "Murderdean Road".  Poor Dean.

The station is right next to the National Mining Museum Scotland and everything about it is angled to get you to visit.  The signage, the architecture, everything is pointing you to turn right and go to this important national museum.  I did not go to the museum.  I went to the pub.

Regular readers will be completely unsurprised by this but I actually have a good explanation for it this time.  The Dean Tavern is one of the few remaining Gothenburg pubs in Scotland.  This was a movement founded in the 19th century in Sweden as an alternative to temperance.  Rather than ban alcohol altogether - rightly realising that was a fool's errand - communities instead established trusts to run the pub.  They had stricter rules than a regular tavern, discouraging patrons from drinking excessively and curbing games and entertainments, and their profits went back into the community.  They were especially popular in mining towns as the mining companies didn't want their employees getting lathered all the time, and the trust running the pub could be dominated by members of the mining company's board.

As time wore on and the temperance movement faded most of the Gothenburgs became regular pubs.  In Newtongrange, however, the Dean Tavern continues, and over the centuries it's contributed to libraries, community centres and groups throughout the district.  So you see, visiting the pub was an actual act of charity.  I was doing good for the community.

I'd thought about having lunch here, but it wasn't long open, and the dining area was deserted.  Instead I ordered a pint and took a seat at a table in the back, away from the locals.  It was a wonderful building.  A high beamed roof soared above us, while here in the rear was obviously a secondary bar for functions, all dark wood and historic features.  

The only bad thing was the beer, but this was my own fault.  Hey, I thought, when in Scotland, drink as the Scots do!  So I'd ordered a pint of Tennents lager, Scotland's most popular beer.  It was not good.  Fizzy acid would be the best description.  I wondered if this was part of the Dean Tavern's plan to discourage you from drinking too much - serve you rancid alcohol that you wouldn't ever want to have a second pint of.  I was about to judge the entire Scottish nation for buying it, then I remembered that the most popular lager in England is Carling, and I realised getting hammered on terrible pish is something that unites both Kingdoms.  

I watched Sky Sports News for a while on the silent telly and drank my pint, then got up and left.  I was happy from the alcohol but also from the slight feeling of pleasure you get when you contribute to a worthy cause.  Children In Need would raise a whole lot more money if they ran pubs, that's all I'm saying.

I headed back through the village for the road south.  I realised I was a little light headed - I hadn't eaten anything since a McDonalds breakfast several hours before - so I nipped into the Co-op and got a sandwich to eat as I walked.  I passed the National Mining Museum again, and felt a little guilty for passing up its worthy charms in favour of a pint of beer.

The town petered out and I was on roads that bore the scars of post-Industrial life.  The units were a little drabber, a little rougher; there was an indefinable hardness about them.  An Indian restaurant at the side of the road looked like it would serve your Korma with a sneer.  I turned off for the Gorebridge road.

Nobody will ever call Gorebridge the most scenic village on earth, but it had a stout practicality about it.  I pushed up the hill, and reached the village centre, where my eye was caught by a teenage girl at the bus stop.  She was carrying a folder under her arm and was wearing the brightest, pinkest leggings I had ever seen; I'm pretty sure she would've glowed in the dark.  I tried to control my boggling face and pushed on.  As I reached the next bus stop, outside the library, a single decker pulled up and the same girl got off.  She'd travelled exactly one stop.  No wonder childhood obesity is such a problem.  I'd have been embarrassed to take that trip; I'd have felt judged by all the other passengers.

The station was to the south and I passed through the village quickly.  There was bunting throughout, ready for the Gorebridge Gala Day that Saturday; Newtongrange had been flying the bunting too, but that was left over from their gala the week before.  It seemed in this part of Scotland you could work your way from village to village every weekend experiencing a different fete.

Unlike many of the other stations on the Borders Railway, the station building at Gorebridge was still intact.  Unfortunately it looked like this:

Modern stations don't need the facilities the old ones did.  Replace a warm waiting room with a shelter on the platform, and the ticket office with a machine.  It makes your railway less human, more impersonal, more clinical, but it saves you a lot of money.  The station building can stay there as a heritage feature - maybe it'll be turned into a house, or a cafe at some point,  Until then board it up and have that as the first thing people see when they arrive in Gorebridge.  Well, that and a big empty car park.

She was a community leader, apparently, which means she gets a nice stand for her plaque, unlike the boring old Queen.

I headed for the platform.  I could, theoretically, have continued south and finished off the last few stations on the line; there was plenty of time.  But that seemed lazy.  I didn't want to simply tick every station off the list, I wanted to enjoy it.  Instead I took the train back to Edinburgh.