Thirsk

thirskThirsk sits snuggled in North Yorkshire, in the heart of what the tourist board is anxious to call Herriot Country.  It’s an old-fashioned market town built around an imposing square and has a population of 4500 which doubles when the neighbouring villages of Sowerby and Carlton Miniott are included. And triples when the races are in town.
The Yorkshire Dales are to the west, the North York Moors are to the east and a whole lot of pubs and sheep are in between.  It is the birthplace of Thomas Lord (he of the cricket ground), was mentioned in the Doomsday Book and is home to a 90-year-old Ritz cinema and a 500-year-old church.  Most famously these days it was the inspiration for the town of Darrowby in the books of James Herriot.  Market Square, where the main business of the town has been carried out since early medieval times, is reminiscent of French town squares – or Kelso if you are fortunate enough to have had the pleasure.  On busy days – race days, market days or the entire summer – you take your life in your hands trying to cross the square such is the volume and pedestrian-hating nature of the traffic.  However the quest is worth it if you can find a table outside a pub and watch the world go by.

As well as Mr Lord and Mr Herriot, Thirsk was home to coiner and murderer Thomas Busby, whose ghost was thought to haunt the Busby Stoop Inn at the crossroads where he was gibbeted for his crimes.  For more than 20 years no-one would sit in the chair that now hangs in a local museum kitchen for fear of the dreadful fate said to await anyone who braves Busby’s curse.  There is something similar at Ye Olde Three Tuns where one seat bears the inscription “Barry’s Chair” and some dreadful fate probably befalls anyone else who sits in it.

Where To Eat

An oasis amidst the culinary desert of North Yorkshire is Charles Bistro, an elegant little establishment half-hidden down Bakers Alley, just off the main square. Surprisingly and gratifyingly, this is perhaps the only establishment in the whole county which doesn’t offer every dish served in a big foxtrot-oscar Yorkshire pudding. Praise the lord. Instead they serve up food as the rest of the world agrees to be appropriate – and very tasty it is too.  The Plumbers would recommend the Beef Wellington or the fillet steak with a pernod and escargot sauce.  Add to this an excellent cheeseboard and you can’t go too far wrong.  The Thirsk tartlets looked very appetising too but we didn’t indulge.

saddleroomfoodElsewhere in Thirsk you will find a host of pubs in and around Market Square offering ‘traditional pub grub’.  It really doesn’t matter which you opt for because it will all be the same.  Gird your loins, kiss your bottom goodbye and choose from steak pie, lasagne, Cumberland sausage or fish and chips – each and all served in the obligatory foxtrot-oscar pudding.  If the whole world is a circus then eating out in Yorkshire is the lion-tamer’s pants.

Yet even amidst the desert there is a dry spot and special mention must be made of the Saddle Room Buffet at Thirsk Racecourse.  If you like your food to be cold, insipid and preferably orange then this is the place for you.  Possibly the only place in the western world to serve orange steak pie.  We would recommend starvation as a viable alternative.

Where To Drink

There is no shortage of public houses in Thirsk, no less than seven of them dotted around the cobbled Market Square in the heart of the town.  There you will find The Golden Fleece, The Black Bull, The Three Tuns, The Black Lion, The Blacksmiths Arms, The Royal and The Darrowby Inn.  Drink your way round that lot and the square will be going round and round.  Of the above, we’d recommend the Darrowby and the Black Bull but each to his own.  If you don’t like one, try another.  In fact try another one anyway.

Ye Olde Three Tuns is on Finkle Street, just off the square and if you are happy to put up with a bit of smoke and run the risk of depression on account of the darkness then there is a decent selection of ales.  The Cross Keys in Kirkgate doesn’t serve food so that’s a definite plus given the standard elsewhere.  It looks a bit grotty but the beer is well-looked after.

Where To Stay

Well we stayed in York and travelled in for the day so we can’t make a proper judgement on any of Thirsk’s hotels.  However the fact that we stayed out of town is a reflection on the number, if not the standard, of places to stay here.  That being said, The Three Tuns and The Golden Fleece look fine and there are a number of B&Bs. Out of town there are country inns such as the Nag’s Head at Pickhill or The Forresters Arms at Kilburn.

What To Avoid

If it is at all possible, avoid the entire township of Thirsk on days when rampaging Geordies and Mackems come to town for the racing.  These, lest you have any doubt, are young gentlemen from the cities of Newcastle and Sunderland respectively, identifiable by designer clothing, aggressive demeanour, short foreheads and being absolutely bladdered.  They will almost certainly be shouting to each other at the top of their voices and challenging passing children to fights.  They will be using the language of vocabulary-challenged troopers and generally being as much of a pain in the neck to everyone else as they can manage before urinating where they stand and passing out.

The Geordies and Mackems are no doubt fine people, the salt of the Earth, when alone or with their womenfolk, but when in packs they are outstanding candidates for extradition to the colonies. Spend too much time in their company (around two minutes in the Black Bull should do it) and you find yourself turning into the kind of person who wants to read the Daily Mail, drive a Nissan Micra, bring back capital punishment and thinks a spell in the army would do Geordies the world of good.

Culture

Well, we don’t know if you could exactly call it cultural but the Bearded Lady of Thirsk is a must-see for every visitor.  This may prove difficult during particularly busy periods for the North of England pornography business or in the run-up to Christmas but the effort should prove worthwhile.  On Thursdays around 1.00 she can usually be found at the bus stop near Tesco on Station Road.  Nary a finer beard has been seen on the face of any lady since Uncle Albert Trotter had the HRT.  If they were alive today, Barnum and Bailey would be at her door waving vast wads of folding money and then sitting back to count the profits.

From the sublime to the veterinarian. Thirsk’s main tourist attraction is The World of James Herriot in Kirkgate, a recreation of the 1940s and 50s animal husbandry surgery that housed Alf Wight, author of the eponymous vet.  Thirsk was the Darrowby of the books, films and long-running TV series and the author lived and worked in this house.  They’ve clearly spent a lot of time, money and effort on getting this place right and it seems to have paid off.  If you once spent Sunday evenings watching Christopher Timothy et al shoving their hands up cows’ derrieres then this should prove an interesting hour or so.  Apart from the restored living quarters, there are exhibits about the life of Alf Wight, TV sets and a veterinary museum.  You even get the chance to shove your hands up a cow’s arse, just like Peter Davison.

Getting There

National Express have direct services between Thirsk and London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cambridge, Leeds, Nottingham, Hull and other destinations.  Full details and tickets from Thirsk Travel Centre or via the National Express website.  ARRIVA provide train services to Northallerton, Middlesbrough, Darlington, York and beyond with connections to GNER and Virgin Cross country services at York and Darlington.

Teesside Airport (MME) is about 30 minutes drive from Thirsk with scheduled services to Amsterdam and London amongst other destinations.  A direct train service connects with Manchester airport and Leeds – Bradford Airport is about 1 hours drive.

Getting To The Course

Getting the train to Thirsk Station may seem like a good idea but you should be warned that it is misleadingly named. The station actually sits in the middle of nowhere (or Carlton Miniott as it is known) about a mile from the racecourse and a mile and a half from the town of Thirsk. It is not too much of a hardship on a dry day but a taxi is a better option when it is raining or on the windy road back from the pub. Thirsk(ish) station sits on the main York-Newcastle line and that brings the mixed blessings of easy travel and drunken Geordies. Twenty minutes will get you here from York and a further 45 minutes from the Toon. There is plenty of parking in Thirsk so taking the car is definitely an option. There’s free parking in town (behind the Kirkgate) and the course is only a short walk away.

About The Course

Thirsk is a left-handed oval track about a mile and a quarter long joining the six furlong straight about half a mile from the finish. The track is undulating and the turns tight so it makes for interesting racing when Jamie Spencer is around. There are something like 14 meetings per season with a liberal sprinkling of evenings for those who have to work for a living.

What To Wear

There are two camps here really. The members’ enclosure operates a strict dress code where males are expected to wear a jacket and tie. Ties can be purchased in situ by the forgetful or affluent. Presumably, this effort is well rewarded by the accompaniment of some decent food. On the occasion of the Midnight Plumbers’ visit, not a tie was to be had between the four of them so off to the plebs area they had to go.

In the Tattersalls area, things are much more informal with the only noticeable dress code being the one operated by the Geordie and Mackem brigade. The uniform in question being the T-shirt. Climate would not seem to be a factor in this matter.

The Plumber

The Travel Guide recommends: Iain’s Domestic Services, Rosedene, Knayton, Thirsk, North Yorkshire YO7 4AZ Tel: 01845 537181.

Perth

fair-maidPerth has been a site of human habitation for at least 8,000 years. It’s a former capital of Scotland, it has grown to a population of over 50,000 people, and it is with just cause known as “the Fair City”. Because its wealth is based more on agriculture than industry, it is to an extent inflation-proof and can cock a snook at the ravaged post-industrial wastelands of Scotland’s central belt. Situated on the banks of the river Tay, its wide streets, open views and many, many trees make it one of the more pleasant cities to spend time in. Trees are a big thing here; Perthshire contains Europe’s oldest and Britain’s tallest, as well as the world’s highest hedge.

There has always been light industry however, and much prosperity was brought to the city by entrepreneurs such as Arthur Bell and Matthew Gloag through their experiments in blended whiskies. Discovering that two or more unpalatable whiskies could be mixed together, given a fancy label and sold to the undiscerning masses was a masterstroke. As for the younger and slightly more feminine Gloag, was tarting up the clapped-out formerLondon buses used to transport itinerant berry-pickers to and from the fields of rural Perthshire to create Stagecoach, the largest transport company in the UK. On the outskirts of the city you can check out the Caithness Glass factory, where they have given the whole heritage centre treatment to the traditional craft of glass-blowing. It would once have merited no more than a three-minute slot on the Generation Game.

Perth is home to St Johnstone, the sleeping giant of Scottish football. Not perhaps that big, but certainly fast asleep. It also boasts the railway bridge over the river Tay that doesn’t collapse poetically into the river anytime the weather gets up a bit.

It is the place to be for fishing, golfing, and wearing woollen clothes.

Where To Eat

Eating in Perth can be a very pleasant experience. There are a good number of hotels offering basic Scottish fare at reasonable prices and using largely locally-sourced produce. That’s the benefit of being an agricultural capital. Try the New County in County Place, or the Queen’s opposite the railway station. If the Scottish fare of beef, venison, salmon etc doesn’t do the business for you, then you could try the Café Royal’s international menu. Try the ostrich, kangaroo, springbok, bison, or crocodile. Endless opportunities for referring to the difference between a buffalo and a bison or asking the waiter for crocodile and to “make it snappy”. They’re surely just taking the piss with Salamander as the vegetarian option though.

Excellent restaurants are Let’s Eat at the corner of Athol St. and Kinnoull St., and Kerrachers fish restaurant 168 South St. Try both. Usual plethora of Chinese, Italian, Indian are dotted around, and there’s the Krung Thai restaurant in Murray Street. Best of the ethnic dishes has to be the Lamb in Guinness at the Manzil Tandoori restaurant in York Place. Not so traditional, perhaps, but hey, traditions are there to be begun

Where To Drink

It’s been said elsewhere, but it bears repetition, that restaurants are for eating and pubs are for drinking. In Perth, restaurants are for eating and pubs are for drinking up and leaving quickly. There are exceptions. There must be. But one of these is not Ormond’s. This pub pays homage to the late Willie Ormond, member of the Hibs Famous Five, Scotland manager for the 1974 World Cup, and St. Johnstone legend who took the team into Europe as often as Neville Chamberlain. But not for as long. The pub is dank, damp, dark and dismal with a disproportionately hostile attitude to strangers. Drink up and leave early. The alternative is to put “duelling banjos” on the jukebox and settle in for a very, very long evening.

Other pubs about whom (excepting the Willie Ormond memorabilia) pretty much exactly the same could be said include The Robert Burns, The Royal Bar, the Silver Broom, Whitelaw’s, the Corina and so forth and so forth until the names become a blur. And don’t be visiting That Bar in Scott Street unless it’s to advise the clientele they should go home and study for their Standard Grades.

So where can you drink, if you must? The Foundry is OK; very impressive collection of cask-conditioned ales and international lagers in a spacious and atmospheric converted foundry. A feature is the gents toilet; a standard of plumbing evocative of the Golden Age of the profession. The Twa Tams in Scott Street is a family-run business with a bit of charm; the Irish bar. Mucky Mulligans in Canal Lane actually isn’t all that bad or Irish and has in the eye-easy Kim the most pleasant barmaid in Perth. Not a difficult competition to win right enough but that’s to take nothing away from Kim. It’s either there or Chasers Bar in the White Horse Hotel you should be heading to count your cash and re-live the highs of your day’s racing.

The only decent real ale pub we found in the city is Greyfriars, opposite the Salutation Hotel just before you cross the river. Maybe there are others. Searching for pearls on a stony beach.

Where To Stay

Aforementioned Queens Hotel (Best Western) Leonard doesn’t look bad, rooms from £45. Similarly priced is the New County Hotel, County Place. There’s lots of choice; get a list from the Tourist Office.

What To Avoid

Getting into conversation with farmers. Inadvertently saying “I like my tractor”.

Violence has been noted in the City at certain times with the notorious drive-by shooting now a familiar feature. Easily identified. Clip-Clop. Clip-Clop. Clip-Clop. Bang.

Culture

There’s a fair bit of culture in the fair city. There’s the museum and art gallery down by the river. And certainly pay a visit to Perth Theatre. But there’s no rush – if you wait till your early seventies you won’t appear quite so youthfully-challenged among the regular theatre-goers. The company know their customers, offering generous OAP concessions and full refund if you die before the interval. Continuing the drama them, seven miles north of Perth at Bankfoot, you’ll be enchanted by the Macbeth experience. Here the record of history is set straight for a much-maligned, but nonetheless worthy King of Scotland. The Plumbers have long been admirers of Shakespeare for his refusal to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Talking of Kings of Scotland, 42 of them were crowned in nearby Scone Palace, on the Stone of Destiny. The Stone since disappeared to England but if all tales are to be believed popped back and forth across the border almost as frequently as the Flying Scotsman in the days before Jarvis were responsible for track maintenance. It remains an important symbol for some Scottish nationalists, but this adherent to the cause of independence remains unconvinced. If the Scottish monarchy were restored, we’d have to go to all the trouble of abolishing it. Let the Stone sit in a Scottish museum, or let it prop up a flyover on the M6.

As a general rule, sport is for watching, not for participating in, but if you feel you must take exercise, check out Perth Swimming Pool. It’s an indoor pool but you can swim out into the open to see if it’s raining. Incidentally, Perth and Kinross Council are to be congratulated for their initiative in offering free swimming at all pools for school-age children. It’s a constructive move which will help reduce the weight problems faced by Scotland’s children. But in the meantime, swim during school hours. You don’t want to be sharing the water with crowds of lardy young schemies.

Next door to the Swimming Pool is the ice rink which plays host to some of the finest curling in the land. The “roaring game”, so termed because of the noise of the stones, has been played in Scotland for 400 years so we were about due for a medal.

Getting There

Perth is on the main Glasgow – Aberdeen and Edinburgh – Inverness railway lines with trains usually at least every hour. It’s about an hour’s drive north of Edinburgh, and Dundee airport, 22 miles east, offers (extortionate) flights to the UK. Edinburgh airport is only about 40 mins drive though for the cheapies.

Getting To The Course”>

The course is situated in the grounds of Scone Palace, about 3 miles outside Perth. There’s a free regular bus service from the city centre; private aircraft and helicopter facilities by arrangement. Or take a taxi.

About The Course

There’s been racing at Perth since 1613, and they can certainly claim to have got it right. A picturesque course with an excellent view of the action from a variety of stances. A plethora of bar choices to suit absolutely all tastes. Except those who don’t drink and they don’t count. Anyway they can picnic on the lawn with elderflower presse or Irn Bru.

What To Wear

It’s Perthshire. You will never be accused of over-doing the tweed. Weather can be a bit on the nippy side so remember your Barbour.

The Plumber

The Travel Guide recommends: Chas Stewart Plumbing, 16 Dunkeld Road, Perth PH1 5RW Tel 01738 627701

Stirling

stirlingcastleStirling, ancient capital of Scotland, where Highlands and Lowlands meet, historical heart of this great nation and home to (most of) the Midnight Plumbers. Again, much is written about this town, but this unique guide will tell you what the other guides won’t. You can be sure, dear reader, that the information herein is derived from the bitter experience of bona fide locals.

The town has much to commend it, nestling as it does in the winding coils of the Forth River (a port until the 1960s), a subtle fusion of urban chic and rural idyll. It is dominated by two of Scotland’s most famous landmarks, the ancient castle and the Monument to William Wallace, arguably one of Scotland’s greatest heroes. The Victorians built the monument and any resemblance the structure has to a certain male appendage is purely coincidental. You be the judge.

The town, or city as we must now call it since city status was conferred on Stirling in 2002, lies within easy reach of the stunning countryside of the Trossachs to the north and west and close to the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, short journeys to the south and east respectively – both are just short train rides away. It is the perfect base to explore Scotland’s treasures.

Where To Eat

Eating out in Stirling needs to be done with some care, as is true across most of Scotland, the quality varies, but there are still a few rewarding culinary experiences to be had. Current favourite is L’Angevine, 01786-446277, on Spital Stret. Also recommended are Herman’s restaurant, 01786-450632, on Broad Street and, a little out of town, the River House, 01786-465577, which is excellent for Sunday lunch and gets a particular commendation for child friendliness. One of Stirling’s latest dining hot-spots is the restaurant at the Tolbooth theatre, 01786-274010, it is highly recommended for pre-theatre dining, or just a start point for your night on the town.

For curry-lovers, The East India Company, 01786-471330, on Viewfield Terrace is pretty good, the rather understated entrance belies the cosy wood-panelled atmosphere to be found inside. If you prefer your curry in cheesy décor, head to King Street to the Taj Mahal, 01786-450966. The bar design is reminiscent of India’s great monument of love. The Goan fish is particularly recommended. The local Tex-Mex is Smiling Jacks, 01786-462809, a small place with big portions, starve yourself first.

Scholars restaurant in the Highland Hotel makes it into many of the good food guides and that may be your bag, but your day at the races will need to have been a good one to enjoy this one to the full. The drams are expensive, but their range superb 01786-475444.

Lovers of Chinese cuisine might like to try The Regent, 01786-472513. on Upper Craigs.

Recent additions to Stirling’s gastronomic repertoire include a new, and lauded, Thai restaurant. Wilawan on Baker Street, 01786-464837. Dinner with wine can run to about £30 a head.

A short trip to Bridge of Allan will allow you to sample the fare on offer at Clive Ramsay’s in Henderson Street. Clive has been selling good food for a lot longer than it has been fashionable with his shop in Bridge of Allan winning several awards over the years. He also recently became the food-buyer for Jenners in Edinburgh, a move which has certainly revitalised the epicurean reputation of one of Scotland’s finest independent stores. The recent addition of a Valvona and Crolla-like bistro to the shop in Bridge of Allan has simply cemented his reputation as bon-viveur and restaurateur extraordinaire. The Plumbers can particularly recommned the fresh asparagus ravioli with a sauce vierge.

Something a bit different is the Bouzy Rouge, 01786-823285 (aka the Sherriffmuir Inn) about 5 miles out of town in the Ochil Hills. On a nice night, the views are spectacular and the food is excellent, with contemporary Scottish cuisine a speciality. There are also four bedrooms, why not make a night of it. The nearby moorland was the scene of a battle during the 1715 Jacobite rising. Sea food is a speciality at Chambo in Bridge of Allan, and again comes highly recommended, 01786-833617.

For more traditional sea fare, we particularly recommend the Allan Water Café in Bridge of Allan for fish suppers ? 01786-833060 – cooked to order and completely delicious.

Those after poor quality American-style dining might be tempted by the Filling Station on Port Street, 01786-472820.

One thing Stirling is not short of is cafes and tea shops, the town is peppered with them, from comfy sofa, Sunday papers joints like Bean Scene on King Street to the fine Italian café that is Corrieri’s at Causewayhead. My favourite is 81 Port Street, a lovely wee deli up an alley on Port Street, next to a funeral director, but don’t let that put you off. They have a café at the back, only four tables, but the coffee is great, the bacon sandwiches and home made soups quite excellent and the cakes large and varied.

Where To Drink

Like most Scottish towns, Stirling has Irish bars. It also has a selection of trendy, glass and steel theme bars with knuckle-heads in black guarding the door. Best of these is probably Pivo, which has a selection of continental bottled lagers. Neighbouring Cambio has loud music and vastly overpriced wine. Don’t be put off, there are alternatives. The Hogshead at the top of Friar Street has a good selection of ales and a nice atmosphere for the more mature drinker, where merry banter can be exchanged, without having to shout over Eminem to get your joke heard. This is probably the best pub in town for real ales. Round the corner is the Stirling institution that is the Barnton Bistro, huge high ceilings and very busy at weekends. I’m told that the bar staff used to get people to drink up at closing time by starting and revving their motor-bike engine, filling the place with exhaust fumes. Happily this practice has been discontinued. The Bistro is also where you’ll want to be if you prefer the company of other men. Yes, we all prefer the company of other men, but you know what I mean. Elsewhere in the centre of town, we recommend the Port Customs Bar and (less enthusiastically) Nicky Tams on Baker Street.

Much better drinking is to be found just that bit out of town, the Birds and the Bees, on Easter Cornton Road serves passable food and has the added charm of stuffed sheep for seating, you can even play petanque out the back. A quite different establishment is the Borestone Bar in St. Ninians, which has an unrivalled selection of whiskies.

If pub quizzes are your thing, there are a few regular ones, the Wallace at the top of Causewayhead Road offers a good prize,  The Torbrex Inn (once a haunt of the Midnight Plumbers) has a pretty good quiz on a Wednesday and is a good enough local. Also worth a favourable mention is the Abbey in Cambuskenneth, a very quiet friendly pub, with a pool table.

However, we have reserved the plumbing ‘u-bend’ of delight for the Foresters in the village of Cambusbarron, just south of Stirling. The lounge has a splendid array of tables across three mezzanine levels and a high ornate wooden bar. A reasonable selection of beers, wines by the two-glass bottle and a good selection of whiskies are on offer. They also seem to have a rather agreeable, non-PC, staff recruitment policy. It is also famed as the home of the Thursday quiz, where named teams battle it out for very ordinary prizes. If you fancy the challenge, the Midnight Plumbers will be happy to rise to the occasion, come and have a go if you think you know enough.

Pass marks also go to Hydes, behind the Queens Hotel in Bridge of Allan, not least because of its proximity to the Bridge of Allan Brewery, the local micro-brewery. Also in B of A, the Westerton is pretty good. Students and staff from the nearby university favour the Meadowpark, though it’s lost its edge since it demolished its unique Gaudi-esque beer garden and is in need of a face-lift. It does have two enormous screens for watching the footie, though.

Where To Stay

Fairly obviously, as we live in Stirling, we have not the merest inkling of an iota of a clue where might be a good place to hang your hat for the night. If you’ve got loads of cash from a day at Perth or Hamilton races, you’ll be staying at the Stirling Highland Hotel, 01786-475444, and it serves you right. The Best Western Terraces, 01786-472268 gets a good name (if you are a Rotarian, and if you are, you’re excused) and the Golden Lion, 01786-475351, is in the centre of town and has the added attraction of being where Rabbie Burns wrote some of his poetry. Anything else he might have done while staying there is a matter for debate, but I’ll bet the sheets needed changing.

Something a bit different might be the accommodation on the University campus where, in student vacation periods (which is most of the year, let’s face it), you can rent a room in the halls, 01786-467141. The management centre, also on campus, has a much higher standard of accommodation with fine bars and restaurants, 01786-451666.

The Bouzy Rouge at the Sheriffmuir Inn is also an option, though it has a limited number of rooms, and is well out of town. There are many B&B establishments on Causewayhead Road that will provide reasonably priced comfort, but we recommend the Georgian House B&B on Allan Park, 01786-very close to the centre of town, yet quiet and a fine example of the city’s architectural heritage. The rooms are decorated with the landlady’s own art works.

What To Avoid

Sportsters and any town centre bar after 8pm on a Friday/Saturday night.

Culture

It would be almost derisory to try and summarise the cultural offerings of Stirling in a brief guide like this. The city is central (literally) to Scotland’s history, and is especially associated with the key battles of Stirling Bridge in 1297 (Scotland 1 – 0 England) and Bannockburn in 1314 (Scotland 2 – 0 England). The story of Wallace and the 1297 scrap is told at the National Monument to him, and the view from the top (a fair climb for the over 40s, so Nissan Micra drivers be warned) over to the castle and the carse beyond is splendid. The story of Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn is told at the visitors centre (National Trust for Scotland), which is off the beaten track a bit, but served by Stirling’s excellent open top bus tour. The castle itself (Historic Scotland run it, as they do Edinburgh Castle) has enough to keep the kids entertained for an afternoon, and of course all the history of the kings and queens of Scotland, note the superbly reconstructed great hall (way bigger than Edinburgh’s, by the way), we suggest you walk up to it via the Back Walk which runs from Corn Exchange Road and is described as Europe’s finest urban walkway (no really, it is). During the summer months, the castle hosts a number of re-enactments of the events of the Jacobite risings, where rough, bearded, ginger-headed, tartan clad coves stand heroically and roll their Rrrrs a great deal. It’s a lot of fun.

Add the legend of Rob Roy MacGregor, whose grave is some 20 miles to the north of the city, and we can offer enough carnage and mayhem to keep the most bellicose American tourists happy for weeks.

Lesser known cultural highlights include Scotland’s oldest football at the Smith Museum. Have a walk through Riverside and over the footbridge to the village of Cambuskenneth, at first quaint but uninspiring, to discover Cambuskenneth Abbey, James III of Scotland and his queen are buried in the grounds.

It’s not all blood and thunder, Scotland’s roll-call of sporting greats would be considerably shorter without Stirling’s contribution. Billy Bremner, the ginger terrier for Leeds and Scotland in the 70s was from the city (maybe we spoke too soon about the blood and thunder?), as was horse-racing legend and Claire Balding’s plaything, Willie Carson. Kenny Logan, one of Scotland’s most capped rugby internationals is also a Son of the Rock.

Lovers of sport are well served, top division rugby union (in 2008/09) from Stirling County at Bridgehaugh, the delights of second  division football at Forthbank, home of Stirling Albion, even cricket at the new cricket ground near Forthbank stadium.

If industrial heritage is your thing, then Stirling has a particular boast. As you look over the town from the Wallace monment, what is now a housing estate was once a small engineering works off Causewayhead Road. It was from here that the Barnwell brothers made the first powered flight in Scotland. The fact is commemorated by a small (and rather bizarre)  statue at the roundabout at the top of Causewayhead Road

If you are into walking, you have the agony of choice: the Ochils to the East, the Campsies and Loch Lomond to the West and the Trossachs to the north. However, on a warm Sunday afternoon, take the drive to the Port of Mentieth (15 miles west, on the road to Aberfoyle) and take the boat out to Inchmaholme Priory on the Lake of Mentieth, Scotland’s only lake. An oasis of calm and tranquillity. Nowhere else quite like it in Scotland.

In a city of this size, it is unusual to find two major arts venues: the Tolbooth at the top of the town, towards the castle has recently undergone a major refurbishment and hosts music, theatre and comedy events. It also has an excellent café bar (though the scones kept out of sight, you have to ask) and it?s worth taking the walk to the top floor for the view from the roof terrace. The university campus has the newly reopened MacRobert arts centre which has a full programme of theatrical performances and a film house. And, yes, the ubiquitous café bar. Passable lunches of (salads, panini etc.).

Getting There

Stirling is right in the middle of the central belt of Scotland. The city is almost equidistant from Glasgow (35 miles) and Edinburgh (30 miles). Well connected to these cities via the M9/M80 motorways and to the north by the A9. By rail, Stirling station is 30 minutes from Glasgow, 50 minutes from Edinburgh, with trains running twice an hour to both cities well into the evening. We are 30 minutes from Perth, 2 hours from Aberdeen and, via Edinburgh, 5 hours from London. It is just over 30 minutes drive from Edinburgh airport, and just over an hours drive from Glasgow’s International Airport. We are very well connected.

Getting To The Course

Racing can be had just outside Stirling at Corbiewood stadium in Bannockburn, where greyhound racing is held, as well as trotting racing most Thursdays in the summer months. The stadium lies on the main ring road and is best reached by car, a taxi from the centre of Stirling would be between £5 and £10.

Harness racing is quite a sight for the uninitiated. Jockeys tend to be older (and larger) than your average and one has to respect the bravery of someone who is prepared to start a race behind a speeding car and career round a track at high speed less than six feet from a horse?s bottom. Sudden braking cannot be contemplated.

About The Course

Epsom it ain’t, but the stadium has a small covered area beside the finish line and a sizeable bar, right alongside the track. The track itself is a red ash surface, with the dog track within this outer ring. Entrance fee is £6 with a programme.

Events are modest in stature, with only a few bookies prepared to take your money. Odds tend to be short, with maximum fields of around 5-6 traps. Our visit netted a few quid, but gambling on odd-on favourites has limited appeal.

You won?t find to many Barbour-jackets here, more baseball caps than Fedoras, more Buckfast than Bollinger, and the best dressed lady competition would be a struggle for the most generous of judges.

One feature of the course is its unique backdrop. From the stand, a spectacular vista from the castle across the Ochil Hills provides quite a view on a balmy summer’s evening. And if you can trouser a few quid into the bargain, it’s all good.

A higher standard of racing can be found at Hamilton Racecourse, about 40 minutes south or at Perth, 40 minutes north. Your Racing Post will be more useful to you there.

What To Wear

In town on a Saturday, you’ll need your GAP hoodie to blend in. In the summer, you could wear a kilt to impress the tourists, but the locals would assume you are American, or from Edinburgh. If the weather dictates your wardrobe, then you’ll need rainwear from October to around April. You’ll also need it from May to September, but may get away with wearing it less frequently. At Corbiewood, dress down, and a tattoo or two will help. If you are a girl, then some form of undergarment designed to give maximum cleavage is a must, your man’ll need somewhere to store the tenners.

The Plumber

The Travel Guide recommends: Stirling Plumbers have, in general, proved to be an unreliable, unpredictable bunch of arrogant knuckleheads. Just hope nothing goes wrong with the old waterworks and get out the Yellow Pages.

Garrison Savannah

Garrison Savannah is a small town in Barbados, two miles outside the capital Bridgetown.  It grew up around the military barracks which gave it its name.  A name, of course, shared by the top class chaser which won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1991 and was runner-up in the Grand National the same year.  It has been the home of horse racing on Barbados since the colonial days of 1845.  The officers of the British Regiment who were stationed in Barbados, used what was then the parade ground to match their horses in races and they were later joined by the wealthy merchants and planters.  These days it’s little more than a collection of hotels, a public park, the cricket ground where the likes of Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall strutted their stuff and the racecourse.  Although what more do you want?  Bridgetown is a bustling coastal capital with more than its share of expensive yachts and plenty of fine shopping but also more shanty areas on its edges than it would like.  If you are on the island then you probably won’t venture too far from the beach or the bar but the capital is well worth a visit, if only for half a day.  As for Barbados, what is there to be said that Judith Chalmers hasn’t said a hundred times?  Sun, sand, sea and seven kinds of rum.  Underneath the mango tree, my honey and me, Ursula Andress popping out of the sea without so much as a bye your leave.  It’s a beach lover’s paradise in the sunny Caribbean sea.  It’s typically tropical.

Where To Eat

Let’s assume you are not going to spend a week or two in Garrison Savannah and instead will be holidaying somewhere else in Barbados.  In which case you will probably eat at your hotel more often than not, unless you are visiting Bridgetown.  There you will find a number of good restaurants, many specialising in local fare with fish dishes aplenty.  The Plumbers would recommend the Rusty Pelican in Cavans Lane where you can enjoy good grub – an eclectic Creole and Mexican mix – and cold drinks while overlooking the Careenage harbour and watching the crowd amble by.

Where To Drink

There’s no shortage of bars and your choice will almost certainly be influenced by how far you have to walk to get there.  And if you are getting free drinks in your hotel then why the heck would you want to go anywhere else?  Our personal rule of thumb would be to avoid any bar which flies the flag of St George or is decorated with Premiership football shirts.  Unless you like that kind of thing.  However it may be the price you have to pay to get out of the sun and watch a live match on one of the few places with Sky telly.  There’s a place in St Lawrence Gap which offers this dubious service if you can beat the time difference, get up early enough and don’t mind knocking back a cold one before the sun is over the yard arm.  Whatever that means.

Where To Stay

Not surprisingly there are more than a few hotels on Barbados which would be happy to provide you with lodgings.  There’s hardly much point in telling you about them here; get a brochure.
 We stayed at the Barbados BeachClub
which is an all-inclusive resort hotel, about five and a half miles from Bridgetown, with surprisingly good food.  All drinks are also included in your stay.  Need we say more?

What To Avoid

Stick to the beaten track and don’t go wandering too far at night.  Barbados is reasonably safe compared with some Caribbean islands, notably Jamaica, but use a bit of common sense all the same.  If you go into Bridgetown then the previous advice is doubled.  At night, give a particularly wide berth to the area around the Fairfield Street bus station.  The chances are that you will stand out rather conspicuously as a tourist and you might as well write ‘target’ on your forehead with sun cream.  The vast majority of the locals are extremely friendly but one or two will have their eye on your over-privileged wallet.  If you are sunning yourself on the beach, and it’s likely that you will at some point, then you will soon be approached by one of the many local entrepreneurs trying to sell their wares.  These principally include bananas, hats made out of bananas, coconuts and jewellery made out of coconuts or bananas.  As soon as they have established that you are not the polis they will also try to sell you bags of leaves from the marijuana plant.  As to whether this should be avoided is a matter of personal predilection.  And the law.

Culture

Few visitors to Barbados could care less if it has any culture or not but we know you are more discerning than that.  We know you want to know more than the temperature (hot), the quality of the beaches (excellent), the price of beer (reasonable) and the availability of whistling grass (plentiful).  You don’t?  Stuff you then.  We still recommend that you hire a car and get the sand out of your undies for at least a day and explore the inner island.  Check out the smaller villages, the chattel houses, the pottery shops and the rum houses. Check out Sunbury Plantation House, the Flower Forest and Holetown.
 Then go back to the beach, you philistine.

Getting There

Well it’s a long way to walk so we would recommend flying.  It’s the only way to travel.  It’s not as cheap as the number 34 bus to Ayr but it’s a whole lot sunnier when you get there.  The plumbers recommend Coconut Airways

Getting To The Course

You can get there on official service buses from just about anywhere on the island and they are regular enough and reliable enough to do the job.  The more adventurous should take the smaller, more crowded, noisier and infinitely more interesting ganja buses.  They don’t exactly follow timetables and your missus may get sold to gangsters but you get a free whiff of mellow yellow all the way to the course.  If the bus is particularly slow getting there then you can at least rest assured you won’t give a monkey’s if you lose your shirt or not. Enjoy the ride.

About The Course

Let’s just say that Ascot it isn’t.  Which is fine by us.  The serious punter has several options for watching the races.  They can enjoy the view from the Grand Stand, Field Stand, Sir John Chandler Stand or, if they are lucky enough to get an invitation, to the luxurious corporate boxes overlooking the famous paddock bend.  Needless to say we didn’t.  But for ample compensation there were beers cooling on ice plus fish, chicken and burgers sizzling on open range barbeques.  The track itself is a six-furlong turf oval and races range from five to eleven furlongs.  The locals take their racing pretty seriously and aren’t slow to let the jockeys know if they’ve cost them a dollar or two.  They also seem to like clambering up on the metal railing in the stand and loudly ‘riding’ their winner home.  Or at least they did the day we were there.  Maybe they had just been on the ganja bus a bit too long.  Betting is on the Tote and if you can follow the form in the programme then you are doing well.  You could do a lot worse than pick a nice name and cross your fingers.  The day we were there, two horses with Scottish names romped home and we weren’t too proud to have backed them.

What To Wear

Well it’s usually a bit hot so leave the trench coat at home.  Shorts and t-shirt are fine as the Barbadians don’t go in for much formality at the racecourse.  The only ones in shirt and tie are ex-pat Brits trying to flash their cash.  If you feel like dressing up then go for a pair of trousers but don’t say we didn’t warn you.  Find yourself some shade, get a can of Red Stripe and watch the show.

The Plumber

The Travel Guide recommends:  Robert Best, The Singing Plumber.  Thirty-nine year old Robert, a qualified plumber by profession, lives in the parish of St. Peter and sings with St. Peter’s Church choir.  He is known across the island for his fine tenor voice and by his soubriquet, The Singing Plumber.

Hamilton

hamiltonHamilton lies just 11 miles south of Glasgow off the M74 motorway and has never really managed to escape from its bigger neighbour’s shadow.  The town often displays a grey and depressed mien, although this is belied both by its inhabitants, who are amongst the friendliest and most accommodating in the land, and the fact that it is the birthplace of The Cat.  The architecture is very much small-town West of Scotland with a smattering of posh harkening back to brighter times.   The Duke of Hamilton, who also held the French title of Duc de Chatelherault, is eponymously associated with the area with a number of landmarks such as the mausoleum and the restored William Adam Hunting Lodge at Chatelherault Country Park celebrating the time when he was one of the most important nobles in Scotland.  The hunting lodge was built by Adam for the 5th Duke and was part of the estate at a time when Hamilton Palace was associated more with courtly love and duels than Courtney Love and fights as it is now.

If aliens were to abduct you, play with your mind and then leave you dazed, reeling and sore in the middle of Hamilton you would not take too long to find your bearings. A quick look at the diminutive, under-nourished, shell-suit-and-baseball-cap toting locals would immediately and clearly yell “Lanarkshire”.

As is the case with most like-sized Scottish towns, the centre has been raped by the retail park developer.  Sadly, this sorry and all too common pattern has been extended to the local football club, Hamilton Accies, who have suffered more than most.  A lucrative deal saw the grand and atmospheric old Douglas Park sold to supermarket giants Sainsbury to be replaced by the bleak and soulless IKEA-stadium we have all come to loathe.  For lovers of trivia and rhyming slang, the North Stand at the Accies’ Ballast Stadium is sponsored by the Spice of Life restaurant.  Local stories of financial irregularities are rife with players threatening to strike over unpaid wages and numerous boardroom shuffles and takeovers regularly featuring in the local rag.  Where did all the money go?

Shopping in Hamilton is an unrewarding experience unless you are a Nissan Micra driver (there is a really big Asda in the new retail park).  Glasgow is 11 miles away.

Where To Eat

Hamilton itself offers plenty of cheap and cheerful pub grub as well as a branch of the Italian DiMaggio’s chain – which is good for the kids – but you might need to venture further afield if you want something a bit more palate-challenging.

If you’re hell-bent on Hamilton try the Avonbridge Hotel for lunch.  The menu, despite being international and extensive, is well-presented and the food is tasty.  Be prepared for a wait, though.

Dinner options are pretty well limited to Chinese, Greek and Indian with Chim’s in Bothwell Road (Tel 01698 284803), Costa’s in Campbell Street (Tel 01698 283552) and the excellent Bombay Cottage in Lower Auchingramont Road respectively all worthy of a visit.

Alternatively, a short taxi ride to Bothwell will take you to the outstandingly friendly establishment that is the Cricklewood.  Originally a coaching house, this grand Victorian stone building sits in its own modest grounds just outside Hamilton.  The food is interesting, if a tad too international, but
is always a wee bit different.  Children are welcome, there is good beer and even a beer garden for the one night in the year when it’s warm enough to sit outside.  There is ample car parking in the adjacent car park or streets.  An added attraction of the Cricklewood, if you like that sort of thing, is its reputation as the watering hole of choice for the Scottish professional footballer.   So whether it’s taking the wife out for a Saturday evening meal or drinking yourself insensible after being dropped from the first team, the Cricklewood is yer man.
Booking is recommended. Tel 01698 853172.  Oh, and remember.  No nudging or pointing.

The Plumbers are told that the erstwhile unvisitable Hamilton Town Hotel has had a makeover and that a promising young chef has been poached from elsewhere. This has yet to be corroborated.

If you fancy a drive into the Clyde Valley then the Popinjay at Rosebank is well worth a visit.  Excellent, if a bit pricey, food and a unique interpretation of the word service mean that you should come prepared with a fat wallet and a wheen of patience.  Alternatively, take a drive out to Strathaven and visit one of their excellent restaurants, including The Tavern on the Town, the Cabin Tel. 01357 522555 or Super Mario’s Tel. 01357 522604.

Where To Drink

Pubs abound in Hamilton but like most other towns in the area a modicum of care is sometimes required later in the evening.  Near to the racecourse you might want to try The Bay Horse which is popular with students from nearby Bell College.  The Stonehouse in Cadzow Street is busy with the pre-Palace set and the Silver Tassie up near the old County Buildings in Almada Street usually has a bit of a buzz about it on a Friday night.  Be warned, though, that the live entertainment can be a bit on the noisy side.  Quality is variable to say the least.

A Plumbers’ favourite is Hardy’s in Campbell street.  Beware of getting this one wrong, though, as there is also a Harley’s and a Harvey’s, so be careful in the taxi if you have had too much too drink or are a poor enunciator.  Hardy’s is a small bar that tends to allow too many customers in for the available space.   To remedy this, a conservatory was recently built; don’t expect a relaxing drink overlooking a babbling brook, however, as the view is of a busy main road.  Otherwise there is a reasonable selection of drinks and okay selection of food.  Being close to the Police Station, it would not behoove you to try and knock off a policeman’s helmet in some late night fol-de-rol lest a night in the cells be the outcome.

Where To Stay

The discerning plumber has a simple choice to make here.  If Hamilton is a must then The Avonbridge costs £55 per night for a single room and is perfectly acceptable. Alternatively, take a small step up-market into fashionable (for the area) Bothwell and stay at the Bothwell Bridge Hotel.
Prices start at around £58 for a basic, single room.  You could also stay close to the motorway in the Holiday Inn Express , making the visit to the ‘Number 1 Theme Park in Scotland’ a literal walk in the park.

What To Avoid

Eye contact in pubs.  For many locals anyone over the height of 5’7″ is regarded as a threat.  This threat seems to metamorphose into a challenge as the night develops.

The course has had a terrible reputation for pickpockets for several years although the Plumbers have never been victim to this particular personal violation as yet.  Be wary though – it’s just common sense.

If you are a Nissan Micra driver then be aware that Hamilton Palace is not a Scottish Heritage building.  Still, musn’t grumble.  It has very much stolen the mantle once severally worn by Oil Can Harry’s in Falkirk, Flick’s in Brechin and Kirkcaldy’s Jackie O’s as the the popular younger Scottish person’s dancing entertainment centre with busloads of 18-30s arriving in full-on party mode.  Its several bars and discos stay open until very late.  For wildlife enthusiasts, a visit to the concomitant taxi rank around 3 a.m. should provide some interesting nocturnal viewing.

Culture

Culture in Hamilton used to involve watching it grow in the rooms of the Hamilton Town Hotel, but even that is a thing of the past, so the Plumbers are told.  A visit to the Mausoleum in the Park is worth doing, as is a wander round the excellent Low Waters Museum near the Retail Park.  The museum is home to a permanent collection of artefacts celebrating the Cameronians so any military historians amongst our readership will not be disappointed.  There is very little of the dramatic in the area unless you visit the East Kilbride Arts Centre, replete with resident ghost, or make the effort to head into Glasgow.

Getting There

J5 off the M74 and follow the signs for the Racecourse.  Alternatively, take the more stressful option of relying on Scotrail to get you there.  Hamilton West station is about 10 mins walk from the course.

Getting To The Course

The course is situated just north of the town on the road to Bothwell.  Meetings are very busy so the traffic can be particularly difficult.  Leave yourself plenty of time.  If you are driving then it’s probably best to come off the M74 at junction 5 and head towards Hamilton/Bothwell.  There’s a mini-roundabout where you need to turn left.   There’s little chance of getting lost as everything is well-signposted and the huge traffic jams will give you a clue.  If you take the train, alight at Hamilton West and get a taxi if you can find one.  Alternatively, turn left at the top of the station stairs and walk along Clydesdale St.  Follow the road round to your left, go past/through all of the big car parks and turn right again.  Walk to the end of the road and turn left into Bothwell Road.  The course is on your right hand side about half a mile in front of you.
Allow a good 10-15 minutes from the station. If you get lost ask a local but be prepared for a long story.

About The Course

Hamilton
Park
is known as the ‘Goodwood of the North’ due to its layout of a right-handed loop with long, straight uphill finish.  Many’s the time the Plumbers’ pound has looked safe with a furlong to go only to be pipped at the post by some unlikely outsider.  Improved immensely since a £2.5m refurbishment a year or two ago, the course offers excellent views and facilities which seem to be aimed more and more at the corporate hospitality market.  The quality of the 18 annual meetings (flat) is not always of the highest but there is usually an excellent turnout and some fine excitement to be had.  Over the years a number of celebrity horses have visited including Sea Pigeon, Desert Orchid and HRH The Princess Royal Princess Anne.

You have a choice of grandstands: the plebs one at £10 entry fee offers the usual mix of alcohol and bookies; for an extra five quid you can enter the members enclosure which boasts a couple of extra bars and an excellent view of the winning post.  Meet highlights must include the Saints and Sinners meeting in June and the Fair Friday meeting in July (to celebrate the start of Glasgow Fair fortnight).  Both of these meetings are extremely busy so arrive early and watch your pockets.

What To Wear

Pretty much what you want as the course attracts an eclectic mix from the well-heeled Bothwellian to the plain old keelie.  The annual charity meet, The Saints and Sinners, is well worth attending.  It might not be Ascot, but many of the more extravert patrons use this as an opportunity to show off a bit of finery. At the very least, the shell-suit has been cleaned and pressed.

The Plumber

The Travel Guide recommends: John Butler, 5 Aqua Avenue, Hamilton, Lanarkshire ML3 9BA Tel: 01698 426839.

Dublin

It would be pointless for us to try and write a full guide to Dublin; the bookshelves are groaning with guides to this remarkable city, and any attempt to write a pub guide would be almost derisory.  So what we have here is the merest flavour of the city distilled from the bits we probably enjoyed the most. Some details may have become blurred in the passing of time and water but I think you’ll get some idea of what this unique city has to offer.  Dublin has become one of Europe?s top destinations.  While it may not have the sights of Paris or Rome, it is an exciting and rewarding place to visit.  You may principally be here for the craic and the porter black but Dublin has much more than smoky drinking dens.   Some very fine Victorian architecture, the famous Georgian doors, a turbulent and fascinating history and the largest urban park in Europe, Phoenix Park, where the Pope delivered Mass in 1997 (which we couldn’t be arsed with really at all), are just some throwaway examples.  This, and its multifarious cultural and artistic attractions give it all the added value that international race goers could wish for. We recommend you take the city bus tour to get a feel for the place, check the Dublin gallery to see how much fun this can be.  You’ll be shown all the sights of the city from Trinity College to the Ha’penny Bridge, from the GPO building where the Easter Rising began to the statue of Molly Malone (the tart with the cart), you’ll be shown it all.  If you are really (un)lucky, your guide will sing to you as well.  Whatever these fine people are paid, it isn’t enough.  Many Dublin sights have been renamed by the locals with that particular wit that is the preserve of the Irish.  So look out for the Tart with the Cart, the Floozy in the Jaccuzi and the newly opened Stiletto in the Ghetto.

One thing to be aware of is that Dublin, and in particular the Temple Bar area, is full of very young people.  And very young people who like drinking and making a lot of noise well into the night.  So if you are an old fuddy-duddy or own a Nissan Micra (apologies for the tautology) then you would probably be better looking at alternative destinations.

Shopping in Dublin is reasonably stress-free as there is a wide selection of shops to suit all finances.  Grafton Street is the main area with the usual stores dotted around.  However, there is the occasional
gem – you just need to look about.  The high proportion of young people means that second-hand bookshops and clothes shops abound.  There are many fine establishments to browse but be aware that shopping in Dublin can sometimes take a bit longer than you might think.  They do like to have a wee chat with you.

Where To Eat

Dublin has what you might call an eclectic view on dining.  Now ask yourself, where does Ireland feature in the league table of the world’s finest cuisines?  Exactly.

Traditional fare revolves around the humble potato, be it in gigantic, singular, unpeeled, unwashed, eye-ridden, lump form or the more dignified, but equally belly-filling crepified format known as the boxty.  The boxty is a kind of potato pancake filled with a variety of edible substances.  Excellent examples can be had at Bewley’s or Gallagher’s – well known establishments in the city.  Those in search of traditional fare might like to try Oliver St. John Gogarty’s, on Fleet Street. It is HUGE and is usually very busy which is often a good sign.  It’s right in the heart of Temple Bar, though, which is often a bad sign.  They claim to serve traditional Irish cooking, like Dublin Coddle (sausage, bacon, onion and the obligatory potato, stew) with dishes dating back over 100 years.  IOHO, it’s OK, but there are greater epicurean delights elsewhere. Tel: 671 1822.  Dublin does, of course, boast one of the finest fish & chip shops in the civilised world: Leo Burdock’s in Werburgh Street.  It’s just around the corner from the Lord Edward pub or Jury’s Christchurch Inn depending on your predeliction.  It is well worth a visit even for potatophobics.

A bit more upmarket is Tante Zoe’s, a Cajun/Creole place on Crow Street in Temple Bar.  Excellent food and friendly service from a particularly attractive set of young ladies is not to be sneezed at.  So it’s not traditional Irish, but the rice will help soak up the Guinness. Tel: 679 4407.   For lunch, head off to O’Neills on Suffolk Street, a labyrinth of snugs and corners serving quick lunches or a full feed from their carvery.  Much better food than you are entitled to expect from a city centre pub.   Be warned that is is very busy at lunchtime but well worth the wait if you are hungry.  Keep an eye out for the serving technique at the carvery.  These are lads who did not train under Jamie Oliver.

A good day at the races, or gratuitous showing-off, might lead you to the Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud at the Merrion Hotel.  Two Michelin stars and a host of awards tell their own tale.  Take your camera so you can take a picture of the food – it is truly a work of art.

Where To Drink

Your choice is limited only by your imagination and the resilience of your liver and other vital organs.  Most of the vibrant nightlife is based around the young and lively Temple Bar area of the city but there are plenty of other fine areas for you to explore.  The traditional Irish bar may be getting harder to find, as the number of glass-and-steel dance hell-holes increases, but there are many places worthy of a visit.  Is it expensive?  Well, at around 3.50 a pint it’s not that much more than city-centre drinking in the UK, and much more rewarding.

A good starting point at the very top of Temple Bar is the Lord Edward on Christchurch Place, which still has some claim on tradition.  A small, smoky, friendly bar full of small, smoky, friendly locals proved the ideal place to watch the Irish version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  We also spent some time in the Mercantile, on Dame Street.  A leviathan of a pub, its scale alone makes it worth a look, but you could be anywhere and it ain’t cheap.  It does have one other peculiar and rather unique feature, though.  Seated at the very back of the pub, on the first floor, it is possible, quite innocently you understand, to see into the ladies toilets of the Dame Tavern (also worth a brief stop) across the street.  Now, we are not suggesting that watching the fair maidens of Dublin on the can is in any way an attraction, but it does make for an amusing and verifiable dare after a few beers. I speak from experience when I say that the view in the other direction is just as much fun. 

Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street claims the best Guinness in town, but you’ll need to judge for yourself.  Davy Byrne’s, of Ulysses fame, is worth visiting for the Irish stew and the gorgonzola sandwiches.  The Stag’s Head, The Long Stand and Neary’s are all worth visiting if you’re looking for bars with a bit of character.

Madigan’s, on Earl Street North, we liked.  Nice high ceilings and impressive polished taps in a well-preserved old pub.  Good Guinness here! The Porter House on Parliament Street is among the more interesting of Dublin?s newer pubs, being the city’s first micro-brewery with a range of its own brews, makes for interesting imbibing. Add the frenetic atmosphere and regular live music, and you’ll get a feel for why Dublin’s nightlife is so famous.  It claims to be the ‘best pub in Dublin’, which makes me suspicious, but there’s no denying that the PorterHouse Red is worth the trip

Where To Stay

We stayed in the Harding Hotel on Fishamble Street, close to all the action in Temple Bar, but with the chastening view over Christchurch Cathedral from your window.  It also boasts a street running through its lobby.  Rooms are comfy enough and have usual modern facilities.  There is also a bar below, Darkey Kelly?s, which is a good enough place to start the session.   It has live music too but then, these days, what Dublin pub doesn’t.  Rates are not too bad at around ?60 for a single given its location, although breakfast – served in Darkey Kelly’s downstairs – is extra.

Alternatively, you might want to spend a bit more at Jury’s Christchurch Inn – a mere stone’s throw away for those with a good throwing arm.  Rooms are bright, spacious and clean and facilities are excellent. They do some good deals, particularly over the Internet, so keep your eyes peeled and you may pick up a bargain

What To Avoid

No doubt about it – Eddie Rockets. This glitzy American 50s-style diner on Dame Street is well dodgy. The food will perform one important function, though: your plumbing system will be given a complete and thorough evacuation.  We recommend the aptly-named power breakfast but ensure that you are in the vicinity of a restroom towards the end of your meal.

Beggars are prevalent on Dublin’s streets but then I guess it’s the same just about everywhere.  The Irish variety is blessed with the gift of the blarney though so be prepared to steel yourself against the onslaught.  The area up around O’Connell Street has also gained a recent reputation for pickpockets and street muggings so you maybe want to be a bit careful round there at night.

Tat abounds.  If you want a sheep fridge magnet that plays When Irish Eyes are Smiling then Dublin is yer man.

Due to its young population, cheap and frequent flights from the UK and reputation, the Temple Bar area can be a bit of a magnet for stag and hen nights so you might want to avoid the area on a Friday and Saturday night.

Culture

Dublin is one of the smallest capital cities in the world and also has probably the youngest population.  So a lot of activities are aimed at the 18-30 set.  Consequently, you should prepare yourself for alcohol consumption, talking nonsense and incoherent conversation after about 10 o’clock in the evening.  If you own a Nissan Micra then this should not pose too much of a problem for you – except for the alcohol consumption, obviously.

Alcohol is a central feature of Dublin lifestyle so be prepared to spend a lot of time in pubs.  So the Guinness Brewery (or Storehouse, the brewery itself is not open to the public) is worth the trip: a splendid museum charting the rise and rise of the country’s most famous export.   Features include a whole section on the famous Guinness advertising and endless opportunities to buy Guinness branded merchandise.  Be sure not to miss the SkyBar, where your free sample will be served in a tower with a 360 degree panoramic view over the city. The story is that the people of the city wanted a tower as their millennium celebration, the Dublin Corporation refused and Guinness took up the challenge.  Whether this is true or not is debatable – like most of the things Dubliners tell you – but what cannot be argued is that this was the best Guinness to be had in the city, even at 11 in the morning.

Most pubs have some form of live music, usually of the fiddle variety.  The quality can vary but sessions are very lively.  If you fancy a bit of dancing then go no further than Kitty O’Shea’s.  Full of
tourists but hey, are you not a tourist yourself?

Ireland has, of course, produced some of the finest writers in the world.  Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and Jonathan Swift et al have all made their unique mark on the literary lexicon.  And we’ve
already mentioned that alcohol is a central part of the Dublin way of life.  What could be more typically Dublinesque than to marry the two.  And so was the literary pub crawl born: a wonderful, rambling journey through the best bits of Irish literary history with a few snifters of the Guinness thrown in.

For some peace and tranquillity, you might want to spend an hour or two at Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest Uni and right in the heart of the city, only a short walk from Molly Malone on Grafton St.  Lovely buildings and grounds and, of course, the Book of Kells in the Old Library.  Be prepared for a bit of a queue though.  We recommend that you join one of the guided tours.  They are usually led by students or postgrads from the University and can be eventful.  Something about studying at Trinity seems to bring out the Oscar Wilde in them all.  The cultural event, though, that gets the Plumbers ‘u-bend’ of approval is the short taxi ride (see the Getting to the Course section) to Dalymount Park to see Bohemians play.  The Eircom Irish league champions provide excellent entertainment and you’ll get good craic from the crowd.   Boh-es ’til we die.

Go to Dublin at Easter time for the parades and songs of the 1916 Rising, where O’Connell Street is packed with people and the lampposts are adorned with faces of the martyrs of that rising. &nbsp.

Getting There

Take the plane. Ryanair flights are plentiful and cheap with the trip taking no more than an hour from most civilised parts of the UK.

Getting To The Course

If you’re heading out to Fairyhouse for the racing, you’ll need a car or a taxi unless you want to slum it with the hoi polloi on one of the many extra buses put on by the Corporation on race days.  We recommend the taxi option, and we’d go as far as to recommend a driver. Ray is yer man, call him on his mobile, 086 345 2081.  Not only will he take where you want to go, but he will give you the inside story on everything en route, from horse racing to the Papal visit. Ray’s unique view is a true Dublin experience.  If easily offended by profanity, take the bus. In fact, if you’re easily offended by profanity you’d be better not going to Dublin at all at all.  Access to/from the course is via one single track road so it gets busy.  The last time we were there the Garda decided it would be a good idea to allow only incoming traffic prior to the meeting.  Presumably, the idea was to minimise congestion by trapping everyone at the course for the whole afternoon.

About The Course

Fairyhouse is a grand course on a grand scale.  It’s a good few miles outside the city (it’s at Ratoath about 15 miles north of Dublin) so remember to book Ray. Views are excellent with a large grandstand accommodating a vociferous and good-natured crowd.  Fairyhouse also hosts one of the biggest bars you are ever likely to see in your life.  Betting is pretty much the same as in the rest of the UK with plenty of on-course bookies to choose from.  There is ample opportunity to polish up your Irish accent too.

The website carries scant details of hospitality offerings, fixtures, admission prices and so on.

What to Wear

Horse racing is such a central part of Irish life that you will find it very much a family occasion.  So the rule for the well-dressed plumber is wear what you like.  Barbour and Burberry or Winfield and WhatEvery’s: they’re all in great abundance at the course.

The Plumber

The Travel Guide recommends:

How to Bet

This section goes through everything you need to do to place your bet. You probably want to know beforehand just what type of bet you are going to place so make sure you read the Types of Bet section too.

There are four main ways to place your bets and we will look at the pros and cons of each below. They are: on course; off-course (at the bookmakers’); via the telephone or via the Internet. There are probably lots of other avenues for betting that could be explored (Digital TV etc.) but, traditionalists that we are, we will concentrate on the main ones as outlined above for the moment.

We’ve also a section devoted exclusively to the Tote.

On course betting

Terry McQuaidEvery racecourse in the UK has a plethora of on-course bookmakers who will be happy to take your money. Usually, they are all grouped together in a common area near to the grandstand like hyenas (and a particularly unattractive bunch of hyenas at that) round a stricken gazelle. They are easily spotted: a squalid advertising board displays their name; a colourful, yet somehow sadly dilapidated, umbrella helps to keep them (and their money) dry; a queue of well-dressed mug punters line up close by. Do not, however, be put off by the bookmakers’ somewhat shabby appearance. Like most predatory animals, they cloak themselves in a way that displays the least sense of threat, inexorably luring the unwary to penury, premature baldness and alcoholism.

Once you have selected your horse, approach your chosen bookmaker. Remember to fix him with a resolute eye – you will be coming back again and again to trouser your reward so it pays to show who is boss right at the outset. In a firm and steady voice, announce your bet. You can choose to name the horse or simply state the number. Thus "Ten pounds on number 5, please" and "Ten pounds on Pongee, my man" are both valid statements. The size of bet is entirely down to personal preference although be aware that some bookmakers will set a minimum limit (usually around £5) or may stipulate win-only bets. They will also limit the amount that they will pay you although this should only really concern high-rollers such as the Plumbers. Betting on course is limited to win and each-way wagers.

Bookmakers may also choose to offer odds on the field without the favourite. This is particularly the case where a very short-priced favourite may put off the casual or novice gambler. The Midnight Plumbers would warn against involvement in this form of betting.

You may also find a number of big-name bookmakers such as Ladbrokes, William Hill and the Tote with outlets at the racecourse. Some are like traditional bookmakers’ establishments in that you can go into a shop. Others require you to queue at a window on the course.

Some betting tips

TipsHaving stated your wager you should now hand over your money to the clerk.

The bookmaker will then repeat your wager out loud – in a meaningless bookmaker argot – to enable his clerk to enter your bet in the ledger. You will then receive a small ticket. It is important that you nurture and protect this ticket as you will need it to claim your winnings when your horse romps home.

On most courses today, the majority of this transaction is executed using some electronic means. The bookmaker will still shout out your bet to a clerk but you may well find that the information is input to a laptop with you receiving a printed-out statement outlining the amount of your bet and the likely return should your bet prove a good one.

If you are unsure of what to back then there are some small pointers to look out for. One obvious one is to watch the market. The on-course bookmakers will spend a lot of time prior to the race changing the displayed odds for various horses. If no-one is betting much then they may lengthen the odds on some nags to try and stimulate interest. On the other hand, if a lot of money is being wagered on a particular horse then the odds will suddenly start to tumble. It is well worth watching out for this as you may be able to get a small piece of the action.

Another good tip is to go and see the horses in the paddock or parade ring. If a horse is restless or listless or just generally doesn’t look right then don’t waste your money on it. If it winks at you, however, have no hesitation on wagering a shed load of cash on it. This latter tip comes courtesy of Super Mario’s mum.

Once your selected nag delivers the goods, it is prudent to delay your return to the bookmakers’ area. This allows the little jockeys sufficient time to weigh in and any nonsensical claims of interference in the home straight to be correctly quashed. Savour the moment. Feel the power. Drain the cup of success to the very dregs. Then simply march straight up to your bookmaker, present him with the ticket dispensed earlier and claim your reward.

Pros: the thrill of the live event, getting close and personal, real money changing hands

Cons: limited betting options with single win or each-way bets only

Off course betting

LadbrokesOff-course betting generally means going to a High Street bookmaker such as Ladbrokes or William Hill. These establishments today are a far cry from the dingy, smoke-filled, sticky-floored dives of yesteryear. Now they are sparkly, clean, bright and shiny. Full of electronic wizardry and flashing lights, they aim to seduce you into a world of dogs, horses and puggies: all wholesome gambling fun. Some will offer you complimentary food or beverages. Some will run special promotions for big occasions such as the Derby or Grand National. The staff will often be found dressed in comedy costumes to celebrate some unlikely national or local event. But remember. They just want your money. But of course, you want theirs so there’s no harm done there, then.

Today’s High Street Bookmaker offers a bewildering array of bets on any sport (or virtually anything else) known to man. However, we’re here to concern ourselves with the Sport of Plumbers so horse racing it is.

There are two approaches to placing your bet with an off-course bookmaker: The Veteran Gambler and The Big Lassie. We examine each below.

The Veteran Gambler Approach

newspaperLook around and you will see a set of small yellow or white betting slips. Look around again and you will find, scattered amongst the human and artificial detritus, a number of cheap, tiny pens such as might be used by dwarves, small children or Jeremy Beadle. Simply write down the terms of your bet using the latter on the former (the pen on the slip rather than Beadle on the dwarves). Hand your completed slip and stake money to the clerk(ess) behind the Bet Here window at the counter. Now retire to the place of your choosing to await the result.

You may, when you hand over your slip, ask for the current odds for your selection. If you do not, then you will be paid the starting price assuming your horse wins. It is often pertinent to ask for the current odds as a number of factors can affect the starting price. It is not uncommon for well-fancied horses to receive a run of money quite late in the day with a subsequent shortening of the starting price. Much of the fun to be derived from gambling lies in making the most of any tips you might have. Remember, though, that prices may well drift throughout the day as more information becomes available. Getting your bet on early does not necessarily mean you will get the best price.

The Big Lassie Approach

In the Big Lassie Approach you need do nothing more than place a tick or a cross in a box on a specially designed betting slip. Just cast your eye around the shelves. Quadpots, placepots, trifectas, exactas, Scoop6 and the rest are all there. All you need to do is follow the dumbed-down instructions on the card and mark a cross, tick or little line in the relevant space. Take your slip to the Bet Here window and hand it over along with your stake. The clerk(ess) will run the slip through some kind of electronic reader and present you with a patronising glance and a receipt. Go and do some shopping in Asda.

Pros: cleaner and more comfortable than they once were, good range of available betting options

Cons: still very much a male dominion, lack of live action

Telephone betting

TelephoneTelephone betting accounts have been around since well, since the telephone was invented I guess. Quite simple. You open an account with your bookmaker, depositing an amount by credit card or whatever. In return you will receive a telephone number and a little card with various security details. When you want to bet just phone the number, provide the required responses, place your bet and return to your high-octane lifestyle.

Pros: available round the clock so handy in an emergency

Cons: first step on the road to ruin

Internet betting

KeyboardInternet betting has increased significantly over the last few years with most of the major chains devoting considerable resources to establishing an Internet presence. William Hill is the biggest in the UK although there are plenty of alternative options to choose from. Internet betting sites require you to open an account. There will be some area on the site where you will need to create a username and password and also provide some personal details. You will also need to put some money into your account before you can start betting – usually via credit card.

There are many, many sites out there offering online betting facilities so just explore and see for yourself what’s on offer. The Midnight Plumbers regularly use Victor Swindler, William Hill, the Tote and Blue Square but there are countless others that would offer similar services.

Pros: enormous number of events and bets to choose from, worldwide coverage

Cons: many sites are poorly constructed and difficult to navigate, credit card needed

The Tote

The Tote is just a big pool where what you win depends on how much money everyone else has bet. All winners will receive a share of the dividend. You can find Tote bookmakers on the High Street and also within most racecourse concourses. The Tote runs a number of different competitions such as placepots, quadpots and various jackpots where you make your selections by marking a number of boxes on a computer-readable card. These are all quite popular but the return can vary – obviously.

Pros: good number of different competition selections, easy to follow, good for beginners

Cons: not much of a horsey feel to the proceedings, variable returns

Some Betting Rules

There are loads of betting rules covering all sorts of eventualities but there is no intention of covering them all here. Instead we will simply go through the ones most likely to arise. Traditionally, horse racing bets have been covered by Tattersalls’ Rules of Betting and these form the basis of most bookmakers’ rules. If some kind of odd circumstance arises that is not covered by these rules then Tattersalls’ committee would make some kind of announcement to determine the outcome.

Each Way Betting

Each way betting is a combination bet consisting of a win-only and win-or-place bet. Thus if your horse wins you will receive a return from both parts of the bet. If it is placed then you will receive a return from the place portion of the bet only. How much you get back depends on the number of horses running and the type of race. In general, if your horse is placed then the bookmaker will pay you a fraction of the odds – usually 1/4 or 1/5. The following table shows the figures:

Type of Race

Number of Runners

Horse needs to finish in the first

Fraction of odds paid

All

2-4

1

1

 

5-7

2

1/4

 

8 or more

3

1/5

Handicap

12-15

3

1/4

 

16 or more

4

1/4

Rule 4c

Legalised swindlingIf a horse withdraws from the race before coming under Starters’ Orders then the bookmakers are allowed to deduct a small amount from each winning bet. The amount deducted depends on the starting price with more deducted from shorter priced favourites than long-priced outsiders.

A good yardstick is to assume a deduction of 10%.

Ante-post betting

Ante-post betting governs the placing of bets before the overnight declaration stage – usually 10 a.m. on the day before the race. This can be a good thing as you will generally be offered much better odds. Ante-post bets are, however, accepted on an "all in – run or not" basis. This can be a bad thing as it means that should your horse not take part then your money is lost.

Under certain circumstances you will get your money back though. If the race is abandoned or officially declared void or the venue changed then you should receive your stake money back as all bets are declared void.

Kelso

Kelso is a charming town in the eastern border country of Scotland. The Tweed sweeps majestically round the edge of the town centre, giving a superb setting for a relaxing break.  The centre of town itself is dominated by the large French-style, cobbled square, lined with some impressive period buildings giving this small town an air of gentility and prosperity.  The square is dominated by the impressive clock tower of the town hall where tourist information can also be found, and the imposing Cross Keys Hotel.  Kelso Abbey, built by David I in the early 12th century is one of several important such sights in the region.  Four of them – Kelso, Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Melrose – are linked by the Four Abbeys Cycle route, which understandably passes through Kelso.  More information on this route is available from Sustrans, and the Plumbers are happy to recommend Simon Porteous on Bridge Street for cycle hire. (01573 223692).

The borders area has plenty of opportunity for outdoor pursuits, especially if it involves killing.  These days, the violence is directed at the fish that are abundant in the Tweed or the local game, but the area has a turbulent past, being the scene of many a cross border raid and local feuds involving the clans of Scotland and neighbouring English families.  With crops destroyed and livestock killed or stolen, many turned to robbery, blackmail, kidnapping and murder.  This is the land of the Border Reiver. There is much written about the period of the reiver, 400 years or so up to the beginning of the 17th century.  We recommend you visit the reivers web site or this other reivers’ link for more info on this fascinating time in the history of both England and Scotland.  These days, raids are confined to the bookies on the Kelso racecourse.

The other main attraction is the Duke of Roxburghe’s place, Floors Castle, the largest inhabited castle in Scotland.  It is also, according to legend, where Prince Andrew proposed to Sarah Ferguson, but don’t let the Duke’s questionable choice of house guest put you off seeing his collection of art and furniture or viewing the spectacular gardens.  There is also a coffee shop, apparently.  Not enough that the poor Duke has to let the commoners into his boudoir, but good grief, the fearful grunts are staying for tea and cakes too.  It’s more than flesh and (blue) blood can stand.  McMurdo asserts that the Duke can often be met skulking around in the early morning – no doubt getting out of the way before the hoi-polloi arrive in their charabancs.

Kelso’s air of prosperity is reflected in the specialist shops found in abundance around the main square.  It makes for a refreshing change to walk down a high street in Scotland with no sign of the usual bland chain stores offering up pap for the indiscriminating masses.  A particular Plumbers’ favourite is the delicatessen on Bridge Street just along from the Queen’s Head Hotel.  Here you can sample some local specialities including the mouth-watering, but buttock-clenchingly powerful, Kelsae cheese. You have been warned.  Oh, and make sure you pick up a Border tart at the baker’s.

Where to Eat

You are in the heart of some of Scotland’s best farmland and the region has some of the best fishing in Europe, so local produce is of the highest quality and Kelso, for its size, has a plethora of fine eating establishments.  Finest among them is the Cobbles Inn, tucked away just off the main square.  A small and congenial atmosphere complements the delicious (and plentiful) food.  On several occasions the Plumbers have been rendered immobile by the size of the portions, but still unable to resist the allure of a wee Border tart. Tel: 01573 223578.  The Cobbles web site will give you more details.  Booking is recommended.

Good eats can also be had at the Queen’s Head on Bridge Street, also the Plumbers’ preferred lodgings when in town – but note that it was closed last time we were there in December 2002.  An interesting and extensive menu, superbly presented, makes this a good choice for pre-race dining.  You may also pick up a tip or two at the bar, as the racing and canoeing fraternity are common customers.  The Border breakfast is also a must, setting the Plumber on his way with a hearty, cholesterol-filled feed. Add to that the opportunity of rubbing shoulders with portly ‘Scottish’ sporting celebrities known to ‘use the bar’ at the Queen’s, and you have an all-round delight of an experience. Tel: 01573 224636.  Try the website for more details.

Speaking of corporate (or maybe that’s corporeal), you might want to try some of the racecourse hospitality.  Prices are reasonable, starting at around £20 a head for lunch, with a whole range of packages to suit all tastes and wallets.  Booking it, however, is another matter as there doesn’t seem to be much coordination between the course officials (i.e. the Kelso jannie) and the outside firms (two local family businesses, apparently) which run the catering.  If you fancy trying this then phone the racecourse office on 01668 281611 and ask for Trish or email her direct. 

For that special dinner, push the boat out to the Ednam House Hotel, also on Bridge Street.  The bar has a superb view of the majestic Tweed as it sweeps through the town – just the perfect setting for that pre-prandial gin and tonic. The food is fairly good, even if it flatters to deceive, but the faded charm of the place makes for an interesting dining experience.  It’s still the only place we’ve ever had scrambled eggs on toast to finish off a seven course meal.  This is where the huntin’, shootin’ & fishin’ set are staying, so you can’t afford it, mate. Tel: 01573 224168 and have a look here

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Where To Drink

There are a few good pubs in Kelso, certainly enough to make for a reasonable pub crawl.  The Queen?s Head has a good selection of beers and a comfortable atmosphere and the White Swan comes recommended for post-race celebration and comiseration.  It’s busy and boasts real ales and over 70 whiskies.  Occasionally it boasts some boisterous locals too so watch out if you’re not in the mood for it.  Facilties include a pool table and (occasionally) loud jukebox.  For watching the footie, you can?t beat the Red Lion (behind the Cross Keys Hotel) where an open fire in the basic, but cosy, public bar ensures comfortable viewing.  This is where the Kelso folk club meets every Friday

Less endearing are the Black Swan (some interesting rugby memorabilia and a puggy that bleeds you dry, if I recall correctly) and the very small Cloisters Bar on Bridge Street, both of which can attract Kelso’s more interesting clientele.  Good for trying to pick up on the local lingo though.

Where To Stay

We’ve stayed at the Queen’s Head and it’s always been fine enough, other than the tricky business of having to decide which of us full-grown, heterosexual men are going to share a room.  Rooms are smallish, but comfy and have all amenities.  The price has crept up over the years and maybe that is a factor in the place being closed last time we were there.  Can’t remember what the décor is like but who notices that sort of thing anyway.  Also, you are on the main street and it can be noisy.

The Cross Keys Hotel is also worthy of a mention.  Its rooms are reasonably priced, comfortable and a good size. The restaurant is not too bad either, despite suffering from the local ‘black-pudding salad’ syndrome and has picked up a couple of (deserved) tourist awards.  The Italian owner, Signor Becatelli, is particularly friendly, making sure you get a copy of the Racing Post delivered to your door first thing in the morning – nothing is worse than the long, lonely trek to RS McColl’s after a long night in Cloisters bar.  Watch out for traffic wardens though.  The hotel has no parking so you’ll find yourself leaving the car on the main street at night only to have to move it to one of the main car parks early (after 10 a.m.) next morning.  More details are available on the hotel’s website

What To Avoid

We’d like to comment on the Waggon Inn, but it has been closed on every occasion we’ve visited.  Despite recommendations at a number of other places, this travel guide can’t recommend it, as they don’t seem to want the Plumbers’ trade.  Generally, Kelso has much to commend and little to disfavour it.

Culture

Yeah, yeah, abbeys and castles.  Been there, done that.  Get on your bike and head west to Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, situated between Melrose and Galashiels.  Stop off at the picturesque town of Melrose en route for a breather (we recommend the Ship Inn, 01896 822190, as do Kelso Ladies Hockey Club (what more incentive do you want!), excellent sausages from the local butcher and one of only two places in Scotland you can buy Valrhona chocolates for that special person (the other is Jenner’s in Edinburgh).  The house and grounds at Abbotsford are interesting enough, but Sir Walter’s study is particularly atmospheric.  Nice to see evidence of a great artist getting recognition for his talents while still alive to enjoy it.  No poverty-stricken suffering for the art here.

Getting There

Use a roadmap.  Transport other than your car is simply not a sensible option.  You can, of course, travel by bus, sea, air, rail or whatever mode of transport takes your fancy but the chances are you will arrive in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Newcastle – all of which are 1 to 2 hours drive from Kelso.  The town lies off the A6089 and the A699, just a few miles behind the 21st century.  If you’re really stuck then try the AA’s online route planner service.

Getting To The Course

The racecourse itself is right on the outskirts of Kelso so you’ll need to organise a driver or a taxi.  The fare is around £5 and the taxi driver will probably give you an excellent running commentary on local sites.  Just nod off and nurse your hangover because you won’t understand a word he says.  Parking is in a great big muddy field (if you take your car) so make sure you have a pair of green wellies handy.  Last time there, entry was £8 for the plebs and £12 for the members’ enclosure.  Pay the extra £4 – it’s worth it.

About The Course

The soubriquet Britain’s Friendliest Racecourse is one that Kelso well deserves.  It has long been a favourite of the Plumbers and what it lacks in quality racing, it more than makes up in charm and character.  Even the infamous Coole Abbey scam of 1998 failed to dampen the Plumbers’ enthusiasm.  The course enjoys excellent facilities with the imposing original grandstand now flanked by 2 newer stands offering a wide range of drinks and food.  Views at the course are excellent.  The Plumbers particularly recommend that you pay the additional 4 quid to enter the members’ enclosure.  This affords you a fine view of the action from the upstairs balcony and also the chance to stand right at the winning post and shout at Richard Johnson if that’s what you like to do.

There is a distinct intimacy at Kelso with the bookies, parade ring and winners circle all very close together.  This allows you to take an unhurried approach to your selection of that winning horse and leaves ample time for a quick snifter in the Tweedie Stand.

The website carries full details of all facilities, fixtures, admission prices and so on.

What To Wear

The area is full of European-subsidy fairmers so Barbour hacking jackets and bunnets are in abundance.  Do not turn up in a tee-shirt and jeans – it’s not Hamilton you know – even if you are from the North-East of England.  The Plumbers recommend a Burberry scarf to finish the outfit.  Oh, and remember to attach your members’ enclosure ticket to the zipper of your Barbour.

The Plumber

The Travel Guide recommends:  John M Turnbull, 10, Abbotsford Grove, Kelso. TD5 7BN Tel: 01573 224173

Pretty Boy Floyd

Charles Arthur FloydBorn in Barrow County, Georgia, in 1904, Charles Arthur Floyd, alias "Pretty Boy", participated in the Kansas City Massacre in 1933 when four law enforcement officers, including one FBI Special Agent, were killed.  A leading light in the classic age of American gangsters, Pretty Boy was up there with John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and Baby Face Nelson.  Known as Choc, after the popular local Choctaw Beer, for which, early in his teens, he displayed a liking, Floyd first fell foul of the law when he took part in a hit on a payroll in St Louis in 1925.  When the payroll master first described the three unidentified hoods to the police, he referred to Choc as "a mere boy – a pretty boy with apple cheeks." Charlie was sent to Missouri State Penitentiary where for a spell he worked as a cook on kitchen duty, then as a machine operator in the factory where the inmates made their own shoes and clothing, then as a plumber’s assistant.  On his release he gained nationwide notoriety as one of the most colorful, nervy bank robbers in the history of Depression-era America.  A Robin Hood who enjoyed hitting back against the wealthy for the defence of the poor, he is remembered in legend and in song, recalled not with a shudder but with almost a fond salute.  Floyd was killed in 1934 by FBI Agents and local police officers while resisting arrest.

John L Sullivan

John L SullivanRecognised as the first heavyweight boxing champion of the world, John Lawrence Sullivan was born in Boston, USA, in 1858.  Son of a quick-tempered Boston Irishman, he at first attempted to learn a trade, being for a while an apprentice plumber, tinsmith and stonemason.  However, as some journeymen colleagues of Sullivan painfully found out, John L’s personal attributes and ego were in fact perfect for prize fighting.  On the 7th of February (Super Mario’s birthday) 1882, Sullivan defeated Paddy Ryan to become the first world champion, in front of an audience containing Frank and Jesse James.  For the next decade or so Sullivan, despite chronic alcoholism, easily held on to his title, defending it nearly thirty times.  These fights were predominately arranged around Sullivan’s great tours of the United States in 1883-4 and 1886-7, whereupon at each stop John L. made his standard offer of one thousand dollars to any man who could last four rounds.  He rarely had to pay out for he could "lick any man alive".  Finally, on 6 September 1892 in New Orleans, Sullivan lost his title to James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett.  A visibly ageing Sullivan was knocked out in the twenty-first round.  He died on 2 February 1918, probably of heart failure.  A massive funeral followed.  Fittingly, the frozen earth had to be blasted to make his grave.  In the commotion that followed, the Boston Irish finally realised that neither they, nor anyone else, would ever again queue "to shake the hand that shook the world".  He is considered still by some to be one of the best heavyweights ever.