I AM usually no great admirer of the aristocracy; pomp, circumstance and baronial splendour just don’t do it for me.
I suppose it’s down to my grandmother’s influence on my formative years. A fervent left-winger with a disdain for the Great British Establishment, I once witnessed her throw a bucket of cold water over a prospective Conservative MP before telling him never to darken her door again. It worked and he didn’t, although Margaret Thatcher went on to win that 1979 General Election for the Tories, and things have never been quite the same since.
Now, as I arrived at the Roxburghe Hotel, near Kelso, owned by the Earl of Roxburghe, one of the richest men in Scotland, I wondered what my grandmother, who died ten years ago, would have made of the place and my visit. Whatever her thoughts – and she wasn’t averse to letting you know them – she would surely have agreed that the reason for my stay was a good one. My wife, recovering from surgery, needed rest and recuperation, and when the chance arose to spend a few days at a country house hotel, I took it.
Ordinarily, the Roxburghe would not be an obvious choice for me – I don’t play golf, fish or shoot. For anyone who does, the hotel, with a championship course, and some of the best salmon fishing and shooting in Scotland, is heavenly, but my wife and I just wanted a few days of relaxation, good food and attentive service. We found all three in a little gem of a place.
The Roxburghe – set in 500 acres of woodland and parkland – is approached by a long, tree-lined drive, and its exterior is a beautiful combination of weathered stone and mature shrubbery. Once inside, we were greeted by the glow of a log fire, warming the chill of an autumn day, and a receptionist with a smile to match. Every wall is festooned with paintings, many of which are huge, depicting former earls from the ancestral home at nearby Floors Castle. I stopped more than once to read the paintings’ inscriptions as we walked to our room, which proved a delight. Beautifully furnished, it had a four-poster bed, a log fire stacked, ready to be lit, a balcony overlooking the hotel grounds below, and walls decorated with a floral paper that somehow brought all the elements together to produce a sense of unpretentious home comfort.
Of course, the success of any hotel stay depends to a huge degree on the quality of the food on offer, and, here, too, the Roxburghe excelled. Led by head chef Neville Merrin, the hotel uses locally produced game, beef, lamb and other foods and herbs from the Estate and the Borders to offer beautifully presented meals with real taste. My pork belly and Iberico ham was absolutely delicious, while my wife, a vegetarian, was impressed there were a number of options on the menu for her, and loved her choice, a courgette galette. The Scottish breakfasts – I seemed to order the full menu – were tasty, too.
The hotel is part of a much bigger estate, some 54,000 acres and 55 farms, and includes Floors Castle, where Prince Charles wooed Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Andrew proposed to Sarah Ferguson. The Earl still lives at the castle and only part of it is open to the public. We visited Floors – and its adjoining garden centre – on our second day and, of the many items on display at the castle, what caught my attention, predictably, was a section on the Earl’s most famous racehorse, Attraction. I’ve always had the occasional flutter (another thing I learned from my grandmother) and remember Attraction, bred by the Earl at Floors, winning the 1000 Guineas, the Irish 1000 Guineas and the Coronation Stakes in 2004, and helping boost my finances considerably that summer.
It soon becomes apparent that the staff have a pride in what they do and a willingness to make the best of things. On the final day, as we were about to leave, we asked at the reception for the address of the local business supplying its cheeses. Both my wife and I had been so impressed by the range and quality on offer at dinner, that we wanted to take some home with us. As we were about to get into our car to leave, the receptionist came to the car park to tell us the cheesemaker wasn’t open to the public that day. She had bothered to ring them, and her telephone call had saved us a wasted journey.
A small thing, maybe, but another example of why the Roxburghe is so special. I think even my grandmother would have been impressed.
The Roxburghe Hotel, Kelso, tel: 01573 450331, www.roxburghe-hotel.com
Double rooms from £195 per night. Floors Castle will open from 1 May-28 October, www.roxburghe.net