Accomm – Pathhead: The Stair Arms. A modern chic overhaul is hidden behind an original 1830s facade.

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Located off the main A68 south-east of Dalkeith and within shouting distance of Scotland’s capital city,  The Stair Arms in Pathhead sits high above the River Tyne in an enviable countryside location.

The country inn, a ‘B’ listed historic building –  was built in the1830s as a coaching inn covering the route between the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. Originally commissioned by the late Lord and Lady Stair of Oxenfoord in 1831.  The venue has recently undergone a complete refurbishment of its main public areas and all 12 bedrooms.

Driving along the mist-shrouded A68, a traditional stone-built building emerged as I drove into the large car park.  I had a pre-determined idea of what to expect inside with dark wood, brassware, tartan curtains and carpets bedecking the interior. What a mistake that was, but more later.

The hotel has level access for wheelchair users from the car park into all public areas. Be aware however that being a listed building means there are limits as to what type and level of improvements the owners can undertake. All 12 bedrooms are currently reached via stairs on the first floor.

The business, operated and managed for the past 26 years by the Ramsay family now has three generations currently looking after it, from front of house, service areas and in the kitchen.

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The Stair Arms.

The moment you walk in the front door be prepared for a very pleasant surprise indeed. Forget the traditional Scottish standard design features of dark wood and tartan and instead think bold and light-coloured tweeds, crushed velvets,  muted greys, creams and ecru as a colour palette. I have had the benefit of seeing what it was like previously – with one of the present owners Carolyn showing me ‘behind the scenes’ as to what it was once like. See below

What a transformation. It’s almost like someone has come along and popped a new hotel into the exterior of the old one.

You can see a lot of thought has gone into the design of this refurbishment in order to give it a modern feel but still with a nod to tradition for this gracious old lady. I raise my hat to the family who have carefully looked after this establishment. And it really is a family affair with matriarch Carolyn at the helm along with daughter Amanda, son Grant as head chef, Grant’s wife doubles up as the design guru, while three of Amanda’s children all work the dining room and function suite – you can see where I’m going here when I say family run.

It was quite obvious as I spoke to Carolyn and Amanda that they have a great love for the place, which became even more evident as I spoke about what being hoteliers meant to them.

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Comfortable seating in the reception area

At the time of my visit, it was refreshing to see the hotel has a number of young staff working,  some local, and, as I mentioned, some family members also. And, I’ll say it now – well done to them, every single one. Friendly, helpful, professional. They couldn’t do enough for us – and don’t think it was just because I was undertaking a review – they were exactly the same interacting with other guests.

I don’t how many times I have said this, but any business relies heavily on its staff and their attitude to paying guests. The management at the Stair Arms Country Inn need have no concern on this front. Amanda mentioned they intend to drop the hotel title and move forward as a country inn, which the family feel is more aligned with their brand and offering and leaves guests with no dubiety at what they are likely to receive.

Anyway, check-in was smooth and undramatic at the newly created reception desk area just inside the front door.  We were provided with the key to room number 11.

Unfortunately, at this time there are no disabled rooms on the ground floor, and as all the rooms are located upstairs with local planning vetoing a lift. You will have to check in advance as to suitability for your requirements.

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The recently renovated reception desk area

So off upstairs we wandered. It’s the usual rabbit warren of corridors and doors, as is expected of a building built in the 1800s, until room 11 appeared.  This is reached by a flight of stairs and along two corridors and is located at the rear of the hotel overlooking the garden area. I’ve stayed in places who advertise themselves as having junior suites which were smaller than the room we were given. It was huge!

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All the bedrooms are located on the first floor

The room is marketed as a standard double however features a king-size bed along with all the usual bedroom furniture: Wardrobe, bedside tables with lamps, USB sockets, a table and two armchairs, luggage rack and a work desk area. The colour scheme downstairs had been continued into the bedrooms, with an ash-coloured flooring, which was also reflected in all the furniture and bed backboard.

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Room 11 which has undergone a full refurb, along with all other 11 rooms

Both bedside lamps and the main room light are fitted with LED energy-saving bulbs. The two armchairs featured matching tweed material to that used to great effect throughout the rest of the hotel and to finish things off, even managed a bed throw in the same material. It was an excellent sized room even allowing for a small work surface area to place a laptop on and helpfully, conveniently placed power points with fitted USB sockets. A flatscreen TV completed the refurb.  The bedroom contained a kettle along with tea, coffee and a rather upmarket Borders biscuits selection, although to be honest, sitting by the fire downstairs enjoying a dram of malt wins out every time against tea in the room.

The bathroom, similarly refurbed in a modern style of grey tones balanced the rest of the room. Plenty of towels are provided, along with complimentary posh Cole & Lewis of London toiletries and a shower over bath unit which features a power shower finished off the bathroom revamp.

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The newly finished bathroom en-suite for room 11

The one thing of note in both bedroom and bathroom was the single-glazed sash windows. Hotels of this age and, particularly as this is a listed building, will not be permitted planning permission to remove original windows and simply replace with cheap UPVC replacements. So, with that in mind, be aware that it can get cold in the rooms.  The evening of our visit was the coldest in Scotland this year so far (November 2019) at -5c.

It did get cold in the middle of the morning – but the Ramsay family have made sure they’ve got that covered for you with not one, but two portable heaters in the room for guests use.

Downstairs, the dining room and function suite are add-ons to the original building but have been added so sympathetically that you’d never know they were not always part of the original 1830s building.

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The dining room and open fire

The function suite can cater for 150 guests and still provide room for dancing under the new twinkling star ceiling. It’s a perfect space in which to hold a party, celebration or even a wedding. The hotel holds a civil licence allowing a registrar to conduct your special ceremony on the premises.

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The entrance to the function suite

The refurb has really brought the Stair Arms into the 21st century and it can now sit proudly among many of its contemporaries. The hotel is not rated by the Scottish Tourist Board, and I do not intend to go into the politics of why some hoteliers register and others decide not to. There are many pros and cons for both decisions. Suffice to say that in my opinion, with their refurb, this delightful country inn with rooms would easily make the grade for a quality three-star establishment.

Room rates vary from £55 per room to a maximum of £105 depending on the room type, the number of persons staying, and the season. The room we occupied, room 11 was priced at £70 for two people including breakfast and VAT at 20%.

When one considers the costs that must be taken off the top line, at this rate there simply can’t be much left in the way of profit. I’ve paid a lot more for substantially less quality than was on offer here.

The dining room can seat approximately 60 persons and on the evening of our visit was actually very busy. It’s recommended you book in advance as there’s not always spare table capacity available. There is a smaller private dining space available, but this is reached by a short flight of stairs in the dining room.

So having unpacked, a gin and tonic was calling me from the bar.  The new bar area is next to the coffee machine, and although small in size, there are plenty of other seating areas in which residents can enjoy their drink. But, the selection of cakes, tray bakes and confectionery on display had us both salivating. Although I’m unsure if gin and chocolate cake are the ideal bedfellows. These snacks are all home-made in the kitchen. At the time of our visit there was a selection of millionaire shortbread, truffles, Scottish tablet, tiffin bar, crispy cake, chocolate shortbread and sticky toffee brownie to mention but a few.

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The coffee bay and bar area with seating

Did we try any of them? Try and hold Mrs M back – but apparently only for the purposes of vital research.

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Tempting – and dangerous!

It’s been a long haul for the Ramsay family trying to work around a full refurbishment yet still providing a full service to guests, but given the end result, it was certainly worth it. They now have a very chic, modern-looking upmarket countrified establishment that sits at the very top of its market in the locality and the three-generation family members who have made it happen should give themselves a pat on the back – they richly deserve it!

So, the following morning after a good nights sleep, it was down for breakfast, but what about that sleep?

Given the recent refurb it’s obvious the new mattresses – which had no brand shown on them – were probably hotel contract versions of a medium-firm texture – but, for me, someone with a back injury, I found it extremely comfortable and slept well. Amanda advised that should guests, and they do have a few, need a firmer mattress they can add a wooden board under it to firm it up even further.

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All the bedrooms have new beds and mattresses

The shower unit is a power shower and it was nice to see that it has been thermostatically controlled for children’s use. But, if you like a roasting hot shower in the morning you may have to put up with what you get as there were limits to the temperature of the water I could get, even at full power on heat level three.

And before checking out the following morning, I took one last wander around, when something else became very obvious. Someone has put as much thought into the Christmas decoration as the rest of the refurb. mainly gold tinsel adorned handrails, pelmets and light fittings which matched the overall gold/cream/grey colour palette and blended harmoniously, even down to simple white lights on a green tree adorned with gold decorations once again. All in all the whole thing was very professionally done.

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Seating area by reception

Would I stay here again – absolutely, and I’ll recommend it to anyone looking for somewhere that cares deeply about guest satisfaction, provides excellent value for money in a perfect location.

The Stair Arms advertises a ‘warm Scottish welcome’ and it wasn’t undersold – it was genuine, honestly meant and remained throughout our stay.

Full food review to follow.

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