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