Start your outdoor adventures by taking the train, suggests Don Currie.
The Borders Railway, once the subject of years of debate and planning is a reality. It offers endless scope for car-free exploration of an under-rated and little explored part of Midlothian and the Borders.
Here are four mini-adventures – a walk, a run and two types of bike ride – starting at one station and ending at another. Why not try one – or, better still, devise some of your own?
RUN – FROM COLLIERY TO CASTLE
Newtongrange to Gorebridge, about 12km
Here’s a route for the kind of runner who doesn’t mind the occasional pause to consult a map or to gaze at the views. It links Newtongrange and Gorebridge, in a very indirect way, and includes farmland, woods, a country mansion and a spectacular ruined castle.
Newtongrange, which is the fifth stop on the new line, is one of Scotland’s biggest, and most intact, former mining villages. The Lady Victoria Colliery closed in 1981, but its surface buildings and winding gear, unlike at other sites, have survived. Since 1984 this has been the National Mining Museum. It’s staffed by enthusiastic former miners and is well worth a visit, but I’ve already seen it so, accompanied by my dog, Alfie, I leave the village with a steady uphill plod up Lingerwood Road. The neat one-storey colliery houses come to an end and I pass a farmhouse, jog along a grassy lane between high hedges and emerge into arable fields.
I bear left, clipping the south-west corner of the village of Mayfield and then climb again, heading south-west to a small wood. Here, on my Ordnance Survey map, the word “settlement” in olde worlde writing indicates a possible place of interest but no obvious remains can be discerned among the trees. I descend the other side, spotting two or three wrens and startling a vocal flock of starlings before I reach the tiny hamlet of Newlandrig, where I turn left along a shady signposted path through trees to Vogrie Country Park, which is cared for by Midlothian Council’s ranger service.
Here, after half an hour or more of blissful solitude, I’m plunged into happy crowds of families having picnics in the sun – Alfie has to go on his lead at this point – and enjoying the playpark as swallows swirl about at knee level. I approach Vogrie House, a Scottish Baronial beauty that now houses a café and an exhibition about the nature to be found within the park.
On previous visits, with small children in tow, I’ve turned left at this point, to follow well-defined paths back through the woods to the car park. This time, though, I bear right and plunge into much less frequented woods to the Tyne Water, startling a red deer as I go. Small fish dart about in the stream and the car-borne crowds seem a world away.
Leaving the dense wood I follow a stately row of massive beech trees, the crunchy carpet of beech nuts beneath my feet a welcome respite after the sometimes slippery paths through the dense greenery. And soon, there ahead of me is Crichton Castle, a towering ruin as dramatic as anything to be seen in the Highlands.
It’s looked after by Historic Environment Scotland and is rich in interesting features – not the least among them being the grandest stable block I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to pause for too long, so I after crossing the Tyne Water on a tiny bridge I head due west and make my way via a couple of quiet roads to Gorebridge station, now the sixth stop on the Borders line.
The National Mining Museum Scotland at Newtongrange is open every day. www.nationalminingmuseum.com
Vogrie Country Park is open every day.
Crichton Castle is open from 1 April to 30 September.
ROAD CYCLE – TRIUMPHANTLY TRAFFIC-FREE
Stow to Galashiels, about 30km
I leave the station at Stow (the name rhymes with cow) and freewheel down the road to the centre of the village. It straddles the busy A7, though its post office and the very nice Cloudhouse Café are on Townfoot, a short street straight ahead of me at right angles to the main drag. I pedal along here, rising from the saddle as the road turns left, leaves the last house behind and begins a long, steady climb towards Lauder. A sign warning of a 15 per cent gradient, and Tour de France-style graffiti on the road surface, fill me with foreboding, but the hill proves strenuous, rather than terrifying. The spray paint on the tarmac – Allez Pedro and similar slogans – is probably a relic of the 89-mile Tour de Lauder, which passed through here in April 2015, quite close to its finish after 89 miles.
I’m not going quite so far, and the varied terrain as I gain height takes my mind off my protesting thigh muscles. Mixed woodland gives way to rich pasture land, where curious cattle gaze at me over the hedge, and then to heather moorland before, finally, I can take my feet off the pedals and freewheel all the way down into Lauder, a handsome, historic town with a wide main street and a number of fine buildings. I sit and eat my sandwiches on a bench between the Old Kirk, built in 1673, and the Town Hall, built in 1735.
Had I not brought my own, I’d have had plenty of options as the town is becoming increasingly popular with foodies. The Black Bull, I know from a previous visit, excels with local beef, lamb, fish and game. The Flat Cat Gallery is ideal for soup or a sandwich, while the Spotty Dog Deli does excellent coffee and cakes.
If you want a complete break from pedalling at this point, a visit to Thirlestane Castle, just east of the town, is full of historic paintings and artefacts, and is highly recommended. Again, I’ve been there before so I content myself with a tootle down the drive before continuing on my way. Leaving Lauder on the A68, I take the first right on a very quiet, un-numbered road through Blainslie, or to be exact through, or past, all five Blainslies – Upper, Middle, South, Nether and New. Apologies if I’ve missed any.
Past Kedslie I take a sharp right and ride on a traffic-free back road over Mosshouses Moor and just beyond here pause to gaze at a field full of more free-range hens than I’ve ever seen in my life. I turn left at Langshaw, with its two ruined towers, and follow the route of the Allan Water as it flows to the Tweed. I eventually turn right at a T-junction and enter Galashiels.
Thirlestane Castle is open on various days between late May and early September. www.thirlestanecastle.co.uk
MOUNTAINBIKE RIDE – HISTORIC UPS AND DOWNS
Galashiels to Tweedbank, about 42km
It’s just a short hop between the two southernmost stations on the line – though not the way I decide to do it. I leave Galashiels on the A72 towards Peebles, using the cycle track alongside the carriageway as far as Clovenfords, where I turn left on the B710, briefly joining the A707 until just after it crosses the Tweed at Yair Bridge. Here, after I’ve consulted the info panels at a small roadside parking area, the mountain bike shows its worth.
I leave tarmac behind and enter Yair Forest, climbing sharply up a narrow, quite muddy path which eventually joins a wider, firmer track. It’s a blue trail, the second easiest of the four mountain bike route categories, but it would be difficult indeed to attempt it on a road bike. I dismount and push a couple of times, which gives me a chance to spot details such as a tiny brown frog crossing the path, and a wren darting among the trees. The path leaves the trees and continues to climb, now over heather moorland, to the Three Brethren. It’s my first visit to these this group of 9ft tall cairns, built in the early 1500s by the lairds of Yair, Selkirk and Philiphaugh to show where their lands met. The spot is 484m high, but feels higher and commands magnificent views. To the east, the unmistakeable Eildon Hills look tiny, even though at 422m they’re not that much lower than where I’m standing.
I descend, heading west and then south to turn left on the A708 east of Yarrowford. Being a fan of very low-key places of interest, I’m intrigued by the words ”Birthplace of Mungo Park” on my Ordnance Survey map. Sure enough, at Foulshiels Farm there’s a noticeable stone wall bearing a plaque identifying this as the remains of the house where, on 11 September 1771, Park was born. He went on to make two expeditions to discover the source of the Niger, which rather puts my travels in perspective, but I carry on undaunted.A few minutes further along the road, at Bowhill, the grand estate that is home to the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, I am glad to turn away from the tarmac and spend a relaxing hour or so exploring the multi-use trails through the woods and beside the two lochs.
Here the riding is much gentler than my slog through the Yair Forest. I make a mental note to return and try one of the longer routes in the brochure I pick up in the courtyard. The seven-mile Duchess Drive route, for instance, includes moorland as well as woodland, and takes in the ruined 15th-century tower house, Newark Castle.
From Bowhill, there’s a choice of routes. The A708 takes you to Selkirk via the Waterwheel café at Philiphaugh, which has been warmly recommended to me. But I’m too late in the day for that, so I instead take the almost empty B7039, signposted Ettrickbridge, crossing the Ettrick Water and then turning sharp left towards Selkirk. From here, the direct route to my end point at Tweedbank is the very busy A7, which does have a cycle path alongside it for much of the way, but I prefer to keep that to a minimum and instead follow the B6360 via Sir Walter Scott’s house, Abbotsford.
Yair Forest, cared for by Forestry Commission Scotland, can be enjoyed every day.
Bowhill Country Estate can be explored every day from 3 April to 30 September, except Tuesdays outside Easter holidays, July and August. www.bowhillhouse.co.uk
Each winter, Durty Events organises a series of duathlons there. Visit www.durtyevents.com for more details
Abbotsford House, and its gardens, are open daily from 1 March to 30 November. The new visitor centre and café are open every day except 25-26 December and 1-2 January, and the estate is open to walkers every day.
WALK – PEACEFUL PATHS, QUIET ROADS AND FARM TRACKS
Eskbank to Gorebridge, about 26km
The line of the Dalkeith to Penicuik railway, closed in 1967, is now an inviting path, surfaced with tarmac until Rosewell, gravel for a stretch to Auchendinny and then tarmac once more. Accompanied by Alfie the dog again, I enjoy making good progress through this flat landscape, sharing it only with a few other walkers, runners and cyclists. Once full of activity with its mines and papermills, this part of Midlothian is now given over mainly to farmland and the occasional estate of commuter housing, which thankfully leaves the route intact.
The embankments beside the path are carpeted with ferns, mosses, grasses and wildflowers. Buddleia sprouts from walls, platforms and bridges, alive with butterflies. Little noise intrudes on our peace, except for a cacophony of barking as we pass a large kennels just before Rosewell.
We take a detour into Roslin Glen Country Park and look at the ruins of what was once the country’s biggest gunpowder mill. Here the walking options are endless, and if time allows another optional add-on would be a visit to Rosslyn Chapel, an architectural and historic wonder that sits on the other side of the glen. It has a superb modern visitor centre and a great café.
At the far end of Penicuik, following an attractive stretch of path alongside the River North Esk, we join the quiet B6372 and follow it for about 5km in a south-easterly direction. There are few cars, and we actually begin to see more wildlife than we had from the path: buzzards soar overhead and a weasel runs across the road a few feet in front of us. We turn left up a track past Fullarton farm to Edgelaw reservoir, which nestles among dense mixed woodland including some magnificent Scots pines. We spend some time exploring then follow a track to the south-west of the loch, which leads back to the B6372. From here it’s a straightforward 6km stroll to Gorebridge, passing the entrance to Arniston House, a Georgian mansion designed by William Adam.
Roslin Glen Country Park is open every day, and is cared for by the Midlothian countryside rangers, who run guided walks. See website for more information.
Rosslyn Chapel, is open every day and is still a place of worship more than six centuries after its foundation. Its countless ornate stone carvings include the Apprentice Pillar, said to have been carved by a mason’s apprentice who was then killed by his master in a jealous rage.
Arniston House is open on various days between early May and mid-September.
This article first appeared in Scotland Outdoors magazine