I AM not terribly good at keeping a secret. However, I will keep you hanging on for a few moments anyway, so don’t go away.
As you may have noticed, we have introduced a new Motoring section to the site, expertly written by seasoned correspondent Iain Robertson. So popular have Iain’s technical reviews proved, that we decided to introduce a touring section, whereby, being an experiential luxury travel blog, we secure a high-end vehicle and link it to one of our upcoming features, be it a destination guide, hotel and spa review, restaurant critique, or city guide. Iain recently completed a sectional tour of Ireland’s glorious Wild Atlantic Way, and was blown away not only by the scenery, but by Ireland and its people as a whole. I recently travelled Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, and was equally smitten.
And so it is that on a Tuesday morning I am delivered the keys to a Mercedes-Benz GLE 350d 4MATIC AMG Line Coupé. The vehicle is in hyacinth red metallic paint, complete with pearl black nappa leather interior and a 9G-Tronic automatic transmission.
My destination is the Scottish Borders, where I am booked for two nights at The Horseshoe Inn, Eddleston, a restaurant with rooms just under five miles north of Peebles on the A703. Ah, I have just given the game away, because the inn is one of those locations that is not on many people’s radar… yet. Eddleston lies a good 260 miles from my front door, so I allow myself five hours on the road. I punch my destination into the sat-nav, which, as anticipated, takes me northbound on the A1 as far as Scotch Corner, where I join the A66 across the North Pennines.
At one time this road was a nightmare, clogged with artics slowly trundling across the vast open, windswept landscape. Thankfully, much of it is now duelled, making it a far more pleasurable drive. As I join the A66 I pull into the Sedbury Lay-by where I pop into the transport café and refuel with a bacon and mushroom bap and mug of tea.
The driving experience so far has been one of immense pleasure. Comfortable and extremely quiet, I particularly enjoy using the Distronic Cruise Control with Steer Assist and Go Pilot. In essence, the system maintains the desired distance to the vehicle in front, and also helps with lane guidance. Security and safety is enhanced by the Pre-Safe Brake system, which prompts the driver to take action when the risk of a collision is detected, and can also initiate autonomous emergency breaking at a speed of up to 30mph.
At Penrith I join the M6 northbound. Extraordinary as it may sound, as I approach the Scottish border, I can see ahead a large band of dark, sombre-looking clouds. The temperature suddenly disappears southwards from 14degC to 12, then 10! I hope that this is not a sign of bad weather to come. Just past Beattock at J15 I leave the A74(M) to join the A701 Moffat road. I recall visiting this town a few years ago as editor of Lakeland Walker, when I was invited to open the Moffat Walking Festival. Proceeding on to the B712 and finally the A72, the road runs parallel to the glorious River Tweed. Once in Peebles, I head north along the Edinburgh road to the village of Eddleston.
The eight rooms are housed in a former Victorian primary schoolhouse at the back end of a large car park behind the inn. When I say rooms, we are talking charm personified, with large, comfortable beds, hair dryers, tea and coffee making facilities with fresh milk, fresh fruit and homemade cake, organic toiletries and bathrobes.
I am greeted by General Manager Mark Slaney, who shows me to my accommodation. Having deposited by bags, I am intrigued as to what I will find at the inn. Walking into the small foyer, to my right is the dining area, and to the left a further private dining area and lounge with Chesterfields, an assortment of other cosy furniture, wood-burning stove and bar area.
After a refreshing shower, I walk back across the courtyard to the single storey inn with its unusual round windows, and take a seat in the lounge, where I am served an aperitif and canapés, and shown the menu.
Alistair Craig joined the Horseshoe Inn as Head Chef in spring 2013 from a former position as Senior Sous Chef at the Michelin-starred Montagu Arms in Hampshire. “I learnt a lot there. The food was really good, very simple, and of a similar fashion to what we do here really. It was certainly a big influence on me,” Alistair tells me. His focus is equally on vegetables as it is on meat, a style of cooking which is becoming more popular, and clearly a healthy option. “Sourcing produce locally is very important to us. Having said that, the rabbits come from France, but they are really nice. As much as people like wild rabbit, they can be a bit hit and miss. Other than that, the meats and vegetables mostly come from this area or northern England.”
Also in the kitchen is Sous Chef Darren Miranda, previously Head Chef at Links House, Dornoch, and prior to that, Sous Chef under Michelin-starred chef Charlie Lockley at Boath House, Nairn. Pastry Chef Ryan Miller joined the small team after a long stint at 5-star Relais et Chateaux Chewton Glen Hotel as Senior Pastry Chef de Partie.
With a choice of Menu of the Day, A la Carte or Alistair’s tempting six-course Tasting Menu, I opt for the latter, and start with ‘Wye Valley’, an inspired mix of asparagus (from the Wye Valley), mackerel, black garlic and egg yolk.
Mark Slaney is very much a wine connoisseur, and for diners has selected tasting wines for each of the six courses, ranging from a Chenin Blanc 2014 from the Jordan Estate, Stellenbosch, South Africa, to a Ballet d’Octobre 2012 from Domaine Cauhape, Jurancon, France. Mark, a former commercial wine buyer, put his knowledge to good use a couple of years ago by piecing together his recollections in a book entitled Tasting Notes, an insightful guide for finding wines today that are amongst the best in the world, and yet remain known only to a few. The book is available on Amazon.
The knowledgeable waiters walk me through each course before disappearing discreetly into the shadows, allowing one to feel one’s way through the superlatives on the plate. The beautifully seasoned and succulent lamb, for example, of which I am a huge devotee, is some of the finest I have ever tasted. It is abundantly clear that the passion and cooking expertise that Alistair puts into the food is transposed on to the plate, with care and attention to detail at the top of the list. I experience nothing short of perfection from each plate.
Breakfast is to prove yet another impressive milestone in my time at the Horseshoe Inn. Freshly squeezed orange juice is followed by hazelnut granola, which can be taken with Skyr yoghurt with fresh fruits.
An alternative is porridge with banana and mulled raisins. There is a choice of five mains: chestnut mushrooms on toast with poached egg; Ettrick Valley Smokehouse salmon with scrambled eggs; grilled peat smoked haddock with poached egg; omelette with Barwheys cheddar or chestnut mushrooms; or a traditional breakfast with grilled pork sausage, bacon, mushrooms, black pudding and tomato with a choice of egg. The food provenance is like a road map of culinary delights, with the bacon from Ayrshire, sausages being made in Peebles at Forsyth’s butchers, the black pudding from Dingwalls, the free range hen’s eggs from Lancaster, and the milk and cream from Yorkshire. Jams and marmalades are made in-house.
After a full English, it is time to head out for the day in the Mercedes. The Tweed Valley is yet to expose her charms, and I look forward to the route map that Mark has kindly drawn up for me, a drive of around six hours around the countryside. Those clouds that had been so ominous the previous afternoon must have followed me, because there is light drizzle in the air as I follow the Meldon road directly opposite the front door of the Horseshoe Inn.
The road climbs uphill, past thick hedgerows of beech, before opening out to grassland, where playful lambs jump and bounce across the land, some nuzzling grass through the wire fencing, because that’s what the grown-ups are doing.
The road soon drops into a hushed valley, the single track road meandering between large hills dotted with Iron Age forts. The defences can still be seen as low earth banks around the circumference of the forts on Black and White Meldon. The defences are visible from the valley floor as a circle around the summit of White Meldon, and it is still possible to see the round foundations of houses within the forts on the Meldons.
On the lower slopes, grassland plants include Creeping Thistles and Nettles, with Tormentil and Heath Bedstraw found on the upper slopes. Bracken, a member of the Fern family, is widespread on the hillsides where the soil is deeper.
I come across lonely, whitewashed Meldon Cottage, where I veer right at a fork. After a mile, the road joins the A72 Peebles to Glasgow road, where I turn right. I then take a left on to the B712 through the village of Stobo, and arrive at the entrance to Dawyck Botanic Garden (www.rbge.org.uk/dawyck). There are a number of cars and a coach in the car park. With dampness lingering in the air, I head for the café, the weather too overcast to enjoy a walk past the abundance of plant species which thrive in this continental climatic zone. The 65-acre garden offers both woodland and burnside walks, and is home to one of Scotland’s finest tree collections, including some of Britain’s oldest and tallest trees.
Back in the warmth of the Mercedes, I continue along the B172 until it joins the A701, where I turn left. Heading south, I reach the village of Tweedsmuir, where Mark has told me to look for a small turn to the left, signposted Megget, Talla and St Mary’s Loch. I almost miss the signage, buried as it is behind roadside shrubbery, but I do note the small humpbacked bridge over the River Tweed that I need to cross. The road winds past trees to emerge at the Talla Reservoir. Towards the end of the reservoir I stop and chat briefly to two fly-fishermen, who do not appear to be having much luck.
I am then greeted with a stiff climb, before emerging at 1500ft above sea level. Even with the laden, dramatic skies, this is magnificent scenery, every turn revealing a new vista to behold. I am met with hardly any other traffic, not surprising really, as it is bitingly cold and windy every time I step out of the car to embrace the scene.
I continue over the bleak moorland and drop down along the side of Megget Reservoir, before I join the Yarrow Valley road at a T-junction where to my left is a historic AA box, painted in traditional yellow and black. I haven’t seen one of those for countless years. I turn right to follow alongside St Mary’s Loch and the Loch of the Lowes. The miles quickly eat up as I head over another high pass before arriving at the car park to The Grey Mare’s Tail, a magnificent waterfall, hidden behind a deep, cavernous gorge.
The fifth highest waterfall in the UK, Grey Mare’s Tail is an outstanding example of a hanging valley. With the path slightly slippery underfoot, I take a ten-minute walk to the falls, which cascades from Loch Skeen into the Moffat Water Valley from a rocky precipice 200ft above. It is possible to tackle the steep slopes of White Coomb on the opposite side of the valley. At 2,694ft, this highest hill in Dumfriesshire offers even more spectacular views of the falls, but I decide against this route due to the inclement weather, plus the fact that I am loaded down with camera and video equipment.
If you were to ask me what gives me pleasure in life, then here you have it. Outdoors, alone, at one with nature, taking in a pristine landscape, unchanged over millennia. Seemingly a million miles away, yet within striking distance of civilation. I head back down to the car, lost in thought, thinking how lucky I am to be here at this moment in time.
I retrace my route past St Mary’s Loch, past the turning to Megget, and on to Selkirk, once the base for William Wallace when he was fighting the English. I come across road diversions as flood defences are being built, so I avoid the town centre and instead head back to Peebles through the enchanting Tweed Valley.
Back at the Horseshoe Inn, I take tea in the lounge by the wood-burning stove, just as blue skies make their entrance through the scudding clouds. With the rain a distant memory, I reflect on my time here: the delightful hospitality, the sophisticated food, the intimate fine dining experience, the exemplary service, the attention to detail, the personal touches… I think you get my drift. And all this unpretentious luxury set amidst a stunning environment.
There are more neat, personal touches still to mention. For your day out, maps and a thermos of coffee are made available as a matter of course. However, how about Mark not only arranging a route for your day out, but also accompanying you around the Borders towns and visitor attractions, stopping for a bespoke barbecue lunch with your personal chef and waiter on hand!
It is only upon looking again at the map on the morning of my departure, that I note how close Rosslyn Chapel is to Eddleston. Having made a keen study of the Knight’s Templar over the years, and supposed association with the chapel, I can think of no better excuse to return to the Horseshoe Inn as a base for my future research… and not forgetting the food.
Having visited, I can now understand why the Horseshoe Inn is termed a restaurant with rooms, with the focus clearly on the outstanding cuisine. This is Scottish fine dining at its best, make no mistake, and it would be nice to think that a Michelin star is just over the horizon. Unlike other establishments I have visited, the restaurant atmosphere is unpretentious and wonderfully relaxed. And what’s more, after a sumptuous meal and superb wines, you can dispose of the car keys and bed down for the night in a cosy bedroom.
I decide on returning via the A68, which takes me by Jedburgh and the magnificent Kielder Forest Park. Avoiding the A69 towards Newcastle, I sweep on down via Consett, skirting the eastern edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding National Beauty, before joining the A1(M) north of Richmond. There is little in the mileage either northbound via the A66, or return via the A68, but this was to prove a far more scenic route, all told.
As for the Mercedes-Benz GLE 350d 4MATIC AMG Line Coupé, well, it certainly attracted plenty of looks wherever I went, due to its SUV appeal, lofty appearance, running boards and sweeping body styling. With an on-the-road price of £60,680.00, my model featured various add-on packages which inflated the price to £67,215.00. Despite its bulky appearance, it is exceptionally smooth and comfortable to drive, with a roomy cabin space, and a vast boot which amply stored by weekend case, camera and video cases. Under the bonnet is a refined V6 diesel, and the nine-speed auto made for some exceptionally smooth cruising. Vision was excellent, with the vehicle dwarfing most other cars on the road. All in all, it made for the perfect companion for my trip up north.
All images © Michael Cowton Photography/Essential Journeys
Horseshoe Inn, Eddleston, Peebles EH45 8QP
www.horseshoeinn.co.uk Telephone 01721 730225
Our man behind the wheel…
Michael Cowton is editor of Essential Journeys, and clearly enjoys the good life. After a lifetime in journalism, and having worked in South Africa and Kenya, he has travelled through dozens of countries, and still has a few in the pipeline which he is eager to visit. In the meantime, as our roving Editor-at-Large, Michael currently drives a Jaguar S-Type Sport and, for the summer, likes the top down on his Honda S2000. Then again, who wouldn’t!