It was promising to be dry this weekend for the first time in a couple of weeks so I decided to (reluctantly) give an additional trip to the Scottish Real Ale Festival in Edinburgh a miss and instead get out into the countryside for a walk. I hadn't been up around Loch Lomond way for a while so thought I could manage a trip out to the east side of the Loch via Balloch and Drymen.
View Balmaha in a larger map
Outward travel was as follows:-
Train: Glasgow Westerton to Alexandria
Bus: Balloch to Drymen (309, McColl's Buses - see timetable)
After a quick chat with the guys (& gal!) at the Loch Lomond Brewery in Alexandria I walked up the River Leven pathway to the marina/boatyard at Balloch - the gateway to the southern section of Loch Lomond.
I only had a short time before my bus connection at Balloch's main bus stance so went looking for a swift half at The Balloch House.
It's another Mitchells & Butlers Vintage Inn with a similar setup & decor as a number of other places I've been (Commodore in Helensburgh, Cambustay in Broughty Ferry). This doesn't make it bad - not at all, it's a really 'nice', classy place, friendly staff and excellent guest beer selection (today Ilkley Mary Jane, Fullers Summer Ale & Itchen Valley Calypso) - it's just that it really is very similar to all the others. Sit in one of the comfy bars or the restaurant and you really couldn't be sure which pub or town you were in.
Actually that's not fair - sit in the beer garden and you could be sure - the stunning views up to the Loch gives that all away. I had my half of Itchen Valley Calypso (a bit of a strange, earthy, bitter taste, but actually pretty good) and enjoyed the hustle and bustle of people walking along the shore and getting on and off Sweeney's Cruises around the Loch.
The bus service to Drymen & Balmaha is about every hour and a half, not bad at all given the fairly small towns & villages it connects. The bus did struggle up even the slightest gradient (the description 'a piece of s**t' was given by the driver) but we actually made the journey dead on time.
I got off the bus in the centre of Drymen, one of the many villages just off the main Balloch to Stirling road which skirts the north of the Campsie Hills. In the village itself are a number of craft shops, galleries, a great cafe/ice cream parlour (Skoosh) and quite a few eating places, including a surprisingly large selection of pubs & hotels. I decided on the Clachan Inn on the north side of the village square which claims to be the oldest registered licensed pub (1734) in Scotland (I guess 'registered' is the key word here in fighting off counter claims from The Sheep Heid Inn and the Kenmore Hotel).
I went into the bar on the left hand side (with the restaurant on the right) and immediately spied a pump-clip for Kelburn's excellent new Jaguar (their Pivo Estivo was the other choice). I then settled down with a pint of this (after being offered a taster - always good to see), chatted with the staff about how fast the Jaguar seemed to be selling (less than 24 hours for a cask) and perused the 3 menus (specials, lite-bites & main meals). Choice made I sat back and took in a bit more of the bar area - a fairly small place with the main bar at the back, pictures of old Drymen, Glasgow trams & Loch Lomond and a number of whisky & Whitbread Ale mirrors on the walls, an open fire and flashing puggy machine. There was a TV, but this was off (good!) with the only noise being the chatter of conversation between the locals and the great staff.
My Macaroni Cheese then arrived, was served with a smile and was just what I needed before my walk.
I was just finishing as a large Wedding party come in for pre-Wedding drinks and so made a hasty retreat to take a quick look at the alternative choices in Drymen. On the west side of the square is a large hotel, The Winnock.
It runs a number of 'interesting' events during the year including paranormal 'Spooky Scotland' nights and more light-hearted Murder Mystery weekends. The attached Ptmarmigan bar was fairly quiet when I popped in but did have Belhaven 80/- and Belhaven IPA on hand-pull.
And finally on the east side of the square is an interesting place, the Drymen Pottery, a cafe/shop, restaurant and bar.
I went upstairs to the bar and it's a really quite large, long place with lots of tables, a dart board and pool table. A great pint of Harviestoun Schiehallion could be had from the single hand-pull in the bar and the more intimate restaurant around the side seemed really busy.
I now started on my walk to Balmaha, about four miles down a decent path on the side of the road. To be honest there's not too much of interest in the first few miles - some large houses & B&Bs (one with it's own pitch-and-putt mini-golf course) and a lot of curious sheep before the views of Loch Lomond start to appear, so I think next time it might make more sense to walk the Conic Hill above Balmaha instead.
Coming into Balmaha I passed a new development of Lodges, Loch Lomond Waterfront, but there didn't seem to be anything in the way of public facilities there so I continued on my way past the main car park until the lochside. I'm pretty sure that marina/moorings seem to have increased since the last time I was here, but there's still a great view up the Loch from this location taking in a lot of the islands.
I continued further on along the Loch until a path which leads to a small jetty. Here the Water Ferry to Luss & Inchcailloch Island operates in the summer - £7.50 one way or £10.50 return, see here for more details.
I then back-tracked to the car park where the fairly new Village Shop sells groceries, snacks, ice cream and a lot of walking & foot-care products (not too surprising!), but there is also a pretty decent beer selection for such an out-of-the-way place.
Next to this, and probably the focal place for Balmaha, is the Oak Tree Inn - the eponymous Oak Tree is now so big you can't take a photo without it being in shot.
The Oak Tree has been a travel destination for day trippers from Glasgow and the surrounding area for some time now and is also a stopping off point for walkers on the West Highland Way and it's not hard to see why. There's a bar (today full of diners), a tea room, a conservatory restaurant with views out to the Loch and a number of large tables in the beer garden (again facing the Loch). The bar is choc-full of some quite interesting bric-a-brac - six large grandfather clocks (which thankfully don't chime) & some other carriage clocks, old pictures of Balmaha & the Loch, fishing nets & photos of fishing catches and a huge slate fireplace with brass companion set and a large brass dinner gong. There are also a few rather more 'bizarre' items - a number of huge metal tree saws on the wooden beams, at least 2 pairs of old fashioned wooden skis, a stuffed heron (I think) and alongside the collection of books I spied an old fashioned analog ammeter (which I seriously thought about 'borrowing'). It's certainly one of the most eclectic and individual bars I've ever been into and I liked it a lot.
On at the bar was the usual selection of draught beer, but there was also Balmaha 70/- and Balmaha Cider, both on hand-pull, and a very nice surprise! I obviously asked the barman where they were from and he answered Bridge of Allan, so they're definitely TinPot brews, but he did mention that their own microbrewery would be up and running before the end of the summer - very interesting. There's some further information in their newsletter but the picture in there is of the same TinPot kit I saw in January, so it'll be interesting to find out what they end up building or installing. A return visit will definitely be called for at some point soon!
Returning to the drinks, the Balmaha 70/- was more of a golden bitter than a traditional, malty 70/- but it was more than decent (and could well have been the Tinpot Hoppy 70/-) and the Balmaha Cider was excellent - quite dry and intense.
I left by the new reception area (very swish) and managed to get a picture of the adjoining tea room - the conservatory restaurant is just off to the side of this. There's obviously been a fair amount of money spent on the whole place and it definitely shows.
I then needed to head back on the bus and this time stayed on it all the way to the main stance at Balloch. As I made my way back to the train station I caught sight of this traditional West of Scotland delicacy being advertised in one of Balloch's chippies - definite cholesterol overload, especially with the additional breadcrumbs!
Perfectly positioned for the station is the almost mock-Tudoresque Tullie Inn and I couldn't leave without a final beer.
This is a Maclays Inn with a separate restaurant area (well managed service here) and a fantastic beer garden with seating both at the side and around the back of the building. There shouldn't be a problem getting a seat outside if you want it.
Inside there's also a large bar area with split level seating areas, a sort of an open, light porch area at the front, some comfy sofas dotted about, lots of TVs (it can be really busy when the football is on) and a few interesting tiled sections amongst the normal Maclay's decor. When I arrived Batman, the Village People and sundry others seemed to be getting ready for a night out in Glasgow but there wasn't a problem at all in getting to the bar for a drink. Thankfully they still have some leeway with regards to local ale and there was a great selection from Loch Lomond (Ale of Leven & Kessog) and Fyne Ales (Hurricane Jack & Pipers Gold) - I could probably drink these beers all day.
So an interesting day out visiting some outstanding pubs, quaffing some great beer and taking in the stunning scenery - getting out and about in Scotland is most definitely worth it (well - almost all the time!).
Bus: Balmaha to Balloch (309, McColl's Buses)
Train: Balloch Central to Glasgow Westerton