Biggar to Berwick upon Tweed
In September 2021 Ted and I spent two days in the Scottish Borders, with our friend Ken, travelling by bus and calling in at a few pubs in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide. These are our notes from the journey.
We met up in Edinburgh bus station from where it takes 80 minutes to reach Biggar. We crawled out of Edinburgh towards the Pentland Hills – every traffic light turning against us as we approached it. The bus ambled through Penicuik, historically developed around paper mills. Today it is a miserable place, the town centre largely replaced by shopping sheds and surrounded by modern commuter housing estates with no facilities and a totally car dependent population. As we left Midlothian and entered the Scottish Borders we reached proper countryside. We passed through Dolphinton – we didn’t spot any dolphins and decided that ‘dolphin’ must be the local dialect word for sheep…so for the rest of the trip we saw plenty of dolphins. Finally we rolled into Biggar, a distant outpost of South Lanarkshire.
We had a couple of hours so there was time for a pint in each of the two Beer Guide pubs, both in the High Street near the bus stops. The bar of the Elphinstone Hotel (pictured) was quiet but had the vibe of a good boozer and decent pints of Orkney Island Life. Then we carried on to the Crown Inn which had a good range of real ales. We chose one which was starting to go off, though it was changed without query. At lunchtime it was dominated by people eating but our guess was that it would be a good pub in the evening. Biggar seemed quite a vibrant little place…the distance from any large town means that it has retained a good range of local shops and services.
Catching the onward bus to Peebles became an adventure – if we missed it we faced a two hour wait until the next one. The Border Buses website showed that it left from the southbound stop (though the obvious direction for Peebles would be northbound from the stop across the high street). The timetable panels were well out of date. The southbound stop showed no services to Peebles, the northbound showed a few, though at different times and days from those on the online timetable. No one at waiting the bus stops knew. However, when we left the pub there was an ‘Out of Service’ Borders Bus parked near the southbound stop. At the departure time the driver changed his screen to ‘Peebles’, then went straight past us despite our outstretched hands. In the hope that he was heading off to turn round somewhere we dashed across to the northbound stop and, sure enough, he appeared after a few seconds. It was a bit of a laugh but it is not good when both the bus company and the local authority provide the wrong information.
The driver said that no one had tried to get on at the southbound stop before, perhaps because no-one ever found out how to catch the bus – we were the only passengers. After we crossed back into the Scottish Borders we called at the primary school in the village of Broughton to pick up a few kids who alighted at various road ends along the way. The countryside was pleasant and peaceful and felt much more remote than the main road into Biggar. The hills became more dramatic and near the hamlet of Drumelzier we crossed the River Tweed for the first time.
On arrival at Peebles we had a quick look round, took a couple of pictures from the Tweed Bridge (above) and headed for the Bridge Inn. It is a fine old pub, friendly, with good quality Stewart’s beer and historic urinals. I couldn’t recollect stopping in Peebles before but the view from the bridge looked vaguely familiar. When I checked later it transpired that we had called in on our way back from a break in New Lanark in 2004 (incidentally, New Lanark is well worth a visit). I even found a 2004 photograph of the Bridge Inn urinals.
Our final journey of the day was the short trip to Innerleithen where we checked in to the Traquair Arms Hotel, climbed to our room at the top of the building, had a rest then headed out to hit the town. However, Innerleithen was closed – the most exciting thing happening was the traffic lights changing. The main commercial activity seemed to be serving the cyclists who flock to the Southern Uplands – easier to get a new inner tube than a fish supper. We opted for some snacks from the Coop then visited the hotel bar. Its main claim to fame is being the only regular outlet for draught Traquair beer produced at nearby Traquair House – but that evening they didn’t have any. We had a couple of beers from the Midlothian brewery Stewart’s as a nightcap. Incidentally, the food being served in the restaurant looked excellent.
Next morning, after a filling Scottish breakfast, we were back on the bus along an impressive stretch of the Tweed Valley through Walkerburn, then over the hill, through Clovenfords and into Galashiels with Ted driving the bus from the front seat upstairs. As yesterday, every settlement we passed through had a 20mph speed limit (see note 1). There was no time to see round Gala (I have been before and it is not memorable) and after a short wait at the transport interchange we set off to Earlston via the Borders Hospital and Melrose. We caught a few glimpses of Melrose Abbey – the town is worth a visit, but this time we were heading for the Beer Guide listed Red Lion at Earlston.
Except that it wasn’t open. The WhatPub website mentioned new owners so we knew there was a risk. The bar entrance was shut, but we wandered in the main door, and asked when the bar opened. The message that came back was ‘Thursday’. We thought about lounging around outside for twenty-four hours but decided to seek out the alternatives, while we waited two hours for the next bus. The Black Bull Inn didn’t open until 1700, but the door of the Swan Inn was open. There was no real ale but Guinness and Belhaven Best kept us from being thirsty and we spent the time watching Boris Johnson huff, puff and bluff his way through Prime Ministers Questions on the pub TV.
The next bus took us to Duns through villages including Gordon and Greenlaw. We’d left the hills behind and the journey was away from the River Tweed through the farming countryside along the north edge of the Merse.
Duns is the former county town of Berwickshire and though small (the population in 2016 was estimated at 2750) it has the feel of a town rather than a village. In the main square (pictured) Ted met a large statue of a Polish bear called Wojtek carrying an artillery shell (note 2). Our port of call was the bar of the Black Bull. It was quiet but had all the essentials of a decent boozer – good beer from Born brewery, a friendly woman behind bar and impossible not to chat to the other customers. In walked a couple with a large dog wearing a coat on one of the hottest days of the year – it turned out to be a cool coat which stopped the dog from overheating. This was the first we’d seen and the dog was definitely a cool dude (note 3).
Our final journey was from Duns to Berwick upon Tweed. The bus called at Berwickshire High School before the Market Square and we were half expecting it to be full of Covid-ridden schoolkids. In fact there were only half a dozen on board. At least four of the students travelled to Berwick , which has its own High School. It may be the case that some parents in England choose to have their children educated in the Scottish system – as a Scot living in England I’m aware that there are substantial differences between the two education systems.
We had a couple of hours in Berwick before we caught our respective trains to Edinburgh and Durham so we made our way to the Pilot. We found seats in the small public bar (much better than the less characterful lounge), sorted out our train tickets online, then settled down for a couple of pints and some good conversation. A pleasant finale to the trip.
(1) This turns out to be part of a trial to promote walking and cycling, increase safety and benefit the environment. Funded by the Scottish Government, 90 towns and villages in the Scottish Borders now have 20mph limits throughout the built-up area. In areas such as this the traffic couldn’t justify the construction of bypasses even in the road building mania years, and it felt like a major benefit to us. Sources: www.scottishborders.gov.uk and www.itv.com .
(2) Wojtek was a brown bear adopted by the Polish Army during World War II. Many Polish soldiers were based near Duns – there is a Polish War Memorial in the town. Wojtek reached the rank of corporal then, after demob, spent the remainder of his life in Edinburgh Zoo. There are several monuments to him in Poland – the Duns statue is a gift from the town of Zagan. Source: Wikpedia.
(3) Anyone interested should Google ‘Cool Coats for Dogs’. It was the first we had seen but there are a variety for sale.
Sources: The main sources of information are Wikipedia, the Camra Good Beer Guide 2021 and 2022 (book and app) and their website www.whatpub.com for the pubs and beers. The Rough Guide to Scotland, Rob Humphries and Donald Reid, 9th edn, 2001, Rough Guides was useful for background information. A newer edition is available.
– Edinburgh To Biggar. Service 101, 101A operated by Stagecoach, www.stagecoachbus.com. Approximately hourly Mon-Sat daytimes. Limited evening and Sunday service.
– The following services are operated by Borders Buses, www.bordersbuses.co.uk .
– Biggar To Peebles. Service 91. 6 daily Mon-Fri, 4 on Sat, no evening or Sunday service. As mentioned in the main text the information in Biggar provided by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport is out of date and wrong. Borders Buses map of the bus stop location is also incorrect.
– Peebles – Innerleithen – Galashiels, Service X62. Every 30 mins Mon-Sat daytimes, hourly Sunday, limited evening service. Note that in Peebles buses heading east towards Innerleithen and Galashiels depart from the westbound stop at the Post Office, Eastgate.
– Galashiels – Earlston – Duns – Berwick. Service 60. 6 daily Mon-Sat daytime, 4 on Sunday, No evening service. Additional journeys operate between Galashiels and Earlston.
The pubs we visited are listed below. GBG means they are listed in CAMRAs Good Beer Guide 2022.
– Biggar, Elphinstone Hotel, 145 High St, ML12 6DL, GBG.
– Biggar, Crown Inn, 109-111 High St, ML12 6DL, GBG.
– Peebles, Bridge Inn, (also known as the Trust), Portbrae, EH45 8AW, GBG.
– Innerleithen, Traquair Arms, Traquair Rd, EH44 6PD, GBG. We booked our accommodation there via booking.com.
– Earlston, Swan Inn, High St, TD4 6DE. Our original destination, the Red Lion, is not listed in the 2022 GBG and it is unclear whether it offers real ale.
– Duns, Black Bull Hotel, 15 Black Bull St, TD11 3AR.
– Berwick upon Tweed, Pilot, 31 Low Green, TD15 1LZ, GBG.
Be aware that, due to the effect of Covid restrictions on the pub trade, opening hours may be less than those indicated on WhatPub or pub Facebook pages and websites. On the plus side problems with beer deliveries, particularly of national brands, has been an opportunity for local brewers to rebuild and expand their business.
Photo credits: All photos are by Steve Gillon, except for the following, sourced via Google Images: Biggar Market Place is from http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk, the Borders Bus is from flickr, Duns Market Square is from Trip Advisor and the Traquair Arms is from http://www.traquairarmshotel.co.uk .
Thanks to Ken Donald for the company and for spotting the typos in the draft.
Copyright: Text, and all photos except for those above are (c) Steve Gillon 2021