Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Across the Moor Real Ale Festival: 20th October 2012

The last time I was in Balfron there wasn't too much to shout about from a beer point-of-view. However this week I'd seen a flier for the Across the Moor Real Ale Festival which seemed just my type of thing - some beer and some possible walking.
Because the Festival was taking place in both Balfron & Buchlyvie the obvious plan would have been to walk between them. However there didn't seem to be a good pavement on the main roads between the two villages and although there was the so-called drover's Muir Road across Buchlyvie Moor, the only information I could find about this suggested that it was now only a very boggy field boundary in large parts. All this and the fact that it had been raining for most of the week on the West Coast meant that I decided to look for a more sensible alternative and the the best I finally came up with was to take the bus to Gartmore, walk across Flanders Moss and then eventually into Buchlyvie via a disused railway line which was now part of a Sustrans walking/cycling route.

View Buchlyvie in a larger map

Outward Travel was as follows:-
  Bus: Milngavie to Balfron (First C10, 37 on the hour)
         Balfron to Gartmore (First C11, 13:42)

When I climbed onto the double-decker bus at Milngavie Station the top level was occupied only by myself and a large party of young Italian tourists. They were heading to Glengoyne Distillery and as we went around just about every new corner I could see (and mostly hear) that they were just gob-smacked at the stunning Scottish scenery - an incredible riot of amazing autumnal golds, reds & browns. After they had all disembarked in a flurry of designer jackets, scarves, sunglasses & mobile phones across the road from the Distillery, the bus continued into Balfron and I spied a number of hand-written wooden signs for the Pirn Inn and the Beer Festival on the run-in into Balfron. Those were probably needed because, in contrast to most of the pubs in rural Stirlingshire which are located on the main street through the village, the Pirn Inn is hidden away somewhat down a couple of side streets, pretty well in the midst of a housing estate. It's a large Grade C Listed Building and was formerly part of the British Linen Bank (before its acquisition by The Bank of Scotland).

I went in and immediately spied the welcoming sight of 5 casks on gravity on one side of the bar - 4x Williams beers: Cock o'the Walk, March of the Penguins, Birds & Bees and Impale IPA as well as Crouch Vale Brewers Gold - a nice surprise & probably one of the best golden bitters around.

As I chatted away to the owner, Jim Hamilton, I found out that there's not normally a hand-pulled ale available, 'just' a kegged Williams beer - previously Joker IPA and now Caesar Augustus. There were also a lot of Williams bottles in the fridge and some branded glasses, although these are not given out any more since they were being 'half-inched'. Jim's not been in for too long and has definitely spent some money on the place - there's a decent pool table & dart board, some great pictures of old Balfron (including the Pirn Inn operating as a Bank) and a lovely fireplace (with a fire about to be lit at just past midday in October) & surrounding tables - I really liked the place.

The beer festival had definitely helped to bring the crowds into the Pirn on the Friday night (the Crouch Vale Brewers Gold was almost gone & I was making a dent in the Wiliams beers) and Jim had also put on 3 Bands for Saturday evening, although unfortunately not the brilliantly named 'Meet Laaf', a Glaswegian tribute singer (booked for 10th November). The kitchen in the Pirn is leased out to a Chinese restaurant & takeaway - it basically wasn't worth their while employing a full-time chef for the pub in today's financial climate (and interesting enough the other pub in Balfron has a similar arrangement with an Indian Restaurant). I was really looking forward to a bowl of spicy noodles but unfortunately the kitchen wasn't going to open until after 1pm so instead I re-traced my steps to the end of Balfron's Buchanan Street and went into Doyle's Deli for some soup. After polishing off the soup-of-the-day (carrot & sweet potato with lovely warm bread) I couldn't leave without a few of their fancy cakes - this time dark chocolate with marshmallow chunks & some sort of caramel tart with vermicelli sprinkles (and amazingly these did survive the walk & the really bumpy return buses).

The northern part of Balfron is called the Clachan and comprises some of the oldest houses in the village, the church, the war memorial and the Clachan Oak. This is an old hollow tree which Rob Roy was meant to have hidden inside and there are also a number of metal bands around the trunk - petty criminals were supposedly chained to these in times gone by & made fun of.

I then got my bus to Gartmore, a (very) small village a few miles south of Aberfoyle. The bus was completely empty, but since it continues to Aberfoyle and then on to Stirling I assume it gets busier later on. I got off at the Black Bull Hotel situated at pretty well the highest point of the village.

It's a fairly large place with tables outside and separate entrances for the both the restaurant and the bar - I tried both in my attempt to find the staff! The restaurant seemed quite classy, fully of separate little nooks & crannies, with the bar (or village pub) taking one side of the building complete with pool room, juke box, a nice fireplace and the eponymous Black Bull's head on the wall.

There was only Old Speckled Hen on hand-pull (OK but nothing exceptional) when I eventually got served a 1/2 pint of it by a very harassed member of staff (I think it was a combination of my bad timing and a lack of people mid-afternoon). It's meant to be a busy place in the evening and it would be great if they could be part of the Across the Moor Festival next year.

Thankfully I'd chosen a fairly downhill route from Gartmore back to the main A81 road. I crossed this at the Trossachs Holiday Park and encountered a number of what seemed to be some very contented Highland Cattle - they certainly took very little notice of me.

The path then skirted around the holiday park (very quiet), past Easterhill Farm (the site of Action Adventure Activities (painball, quad bikes etc...)) and finally onto the Sustrans cycle/walking route just after the crossing of the Kelty Water, a tributary of the not so mighty River Forth.

The route is an old railway line and goes arrow straight for over a couple of miles through the cultivated woodlands of Flanders Moss...

... before curving back to the minor road between Aberfoyle and Buchlyvie just before the outskirts of the village. With over an hour to spend before my bus I headed first of all to the Buchlyvie Inn at the eastern end of the village.

They had put away all their normal roadside signs and I soon saw why - at the front door of the Inn I was greeted by a sign which didn't seem at all promising.

Jim from the Pirn Inn had warned me about this - supposedly Punch Taverns had forgotten to renew their alcohol license for pubs in Stirlingshire on Friday (and then tried to get it done in Fife!) so that meant that they all wouldn't be able to sell any alcoholic drinks until Monday. This presented a problem to the Buchlyvie Inn with a number of casks of real ale to consume, so they instead decided to host a 'private party'. Thankfully I managed to blag my way into this after it became clear that I'd just been to the Pirn Inn and after I'd gone through my sob-story (a long way from Glasgow etc...).

Inside the tent in the beer garden were a couple of casks of Fallen beers (Grapevine & Dragonfly), one of Tryst's Brockville Pale and a number of Fallen bottled beers. After managing to spill part of my beer (and being given a good ribbing for doing so) I settled down with a lovely malty & spicy, but still bitter Fallen Dragonfly to chat to the people inside about what had happened, walking from Buchlyvie to Balfron (I'm now glad I didn't try) and horse racing (Frankel was about to run his last race). After a couple of 1/2s of the Fallen beers I headed up to the other side of the village to the Rob Roy Inn (4 out of 4 whitewashed Inns today!).

This time Tryst beers were available with Sherpa Porter & Nelson Sauvin Hop Trial (both in excellent condition) on at the bar, as well as bottles from Fallen, Tryst and the Eden Brewery (St Andrews). The staff were more than welcoming, quite happy to chat about the beers that were on and how they'd managed to get the hand-pulls installed just-in-time (look at that Whitbread hand-pull on the Nelson Sauvin!) with help from John McGarva of Tryst.

All along the inside walls of the Inn are some superb murals of Rob Roy's journeys across the Highlands (which I couldn't really get a good pic of - their web-site is pretty comprehensive) and through the back, past a games room, there is a great outside/BBQ area and a long south facing beer garden.

All told it was really great to visit 4 pubs I'd never been to before and it's always a welcome sight to see some local & tasty beer available in these pubs. I'm certainly hoping they continue with their Beer Festival next year.

Return transport:-
  Bus: Buchlyvie to Balfron (First 12, 35 on the hour)
          Balfron to Milngavie (First C10, 46 on the hour - this is the same physical bus so don't get off!)

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Prestwick to the Ayrshire Real Ale Festival: 13th October 2012

This year the Ayrshire Real Ale Festival was a week later in the calendar - this suited me fine since it had started to clash with various other beery events in Scotland (in particular the BRAAS Bo'ness Real Ale Festival). Since it was a lovely, bright autumn day I decided to head down the Ayrshire coast to Prestwick, walk along the beach to Troon for lunch and then end the afternoon at the Ayrshire Real Ale Festival.

View Prestwick in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Prestwick Town (00 & 30 on the hour)

Prestwick Station is situated immediately alongside Prestwick Golf Club, where The Open Golf Championship was first played back in 1860. It therefore attracts a lot of visitors and I've been waiting on the platform a number of times when nervous golfers on the 1st tee have sliced their shots on, or wide of, the railway line - thankfully they've added more netting in recent years.

I lived in Prestwick for a number of years and after taking a nostalgic look at my old flat I headed to Prestwick Main Street and the new JD Wetherspoon pub, The Prestwick Pioneer

It's only been trading since May this year and had to get through a lot of local opposition to open. I think there were 2 main reasons for this - firstly there are quite a few pubs (& cafés) on Prestwick Main Street who thought they would lose a significant amount of walk-in business and secondly that the Wetherspoons in Ayr (The West Kirk) has managed to attract more than its fair share of trouble since it's been open, but then that is very close to the majority of the Ayr nightclubs. The local CAMRA branch were happy (as I would have been) - the availability of real ale in Prestwick has been very intermittent over the years (I think the Eagle Tavern does now provide 1 or 2 handpulls) and 9 times out of 10 I went to Ayr for an evening out. In any case it's now open in what used to be the old Woolworths premises (I still have a number of items I bought from that store). It's narrower than I remember, but very long and very bright with lots of natural light from the main windows at the front and a fantastic, huge sloping skylight about 3/4 of the way into the building (that certainly wasn't there when it was a Woolworths). The artificial lights are interesting as well - the main ones having a definite swirl effect, almost from a Galaxy Ripple commercial), there are some chrome effect balls (probably not needed) and a line of pot-like down-lighters at bar.

It's a great change from some of the older Wetherspoons (especially some of those down South Lanarkshire way) and like the Carrick Stone in Cumbernauld really good to see some modern design features and makes a visit a lot more interesting. All the Wetherspoons have displays of local information to some extent and this one certainly goes to town on it. There's information on the Prestwick Pioneer himself, David McIntyre, who helped found Prestwick Airport, a great acrylic picture of Elvis, old photographic prints of Tom Morris & other golfers and golf balls configured into some complex atom/molecules shapes.

There are 10 hand-pulls at the bar with 8 available early on Saturday afternoon. There was a decent selection of guest ales with Nelson Dragon's Revenge (an OK best bitter), Otter Bitter, Pinnacle Porter, Kelham Pale Rider & Brains SA available as well as the standard Abbot Ales & Ruddles County and a cider. It was a shame there wasn't a LocAle beer on but I know that Ayr beers have made an appearance. The staff were fine, chatting about some of the local Wetherspoons, and efficient (food seemed to make an appearance in less than 10 minutes).

There are a number of ways you can walk to Troon from Prestwick. The more direct route involves walking alongside the main road for a mile or so, going past the Airport and then following the cycle/footpath between the golf courses when the main road turns inland. The more scenic route (perfect on a crisp autumn days) involves heading down to Prestwick beach. Today the tide was quite high, kites were being flown and windsurfers were operating from Prestwick Sailing Club slightly further down the beach towards Ayr.

I headed in the opposite direction along the beach where the fairly stiff breeze off the sea (great to clear the head) was whipping the sand and the surf into a lot of sea foam.

The Pow Burn flows into the Firth of Clyde between Prestwick and Troon so I had to look for the Green Signpost on the dunes to tell me when to head inland to find the bridge to cross the burn. Just across the bridge is Prestwick Holiday Park, right on the flight path for Prestwick Airport (I guess you must get used to all the planes).

After a short skirmish around the far edge of Troon Golf Course it was easy to get back onto the beach and continue my walk into Troon. It was a lovely day for a walk and at times there seemed to be more dogs on the beach than people, but after dodging these and various large pieces of flotsam I left the beach and onto the long expanse of Troon Esplanade, the starting & finishing point for the Troon Tortoises 10K Run, of which I've completed a few (it's a killer finish if the wind (and rain) is blowing against you!).

Heading into the centre of Troon I wanted to see what had happened to the Ardneil Hotel which had closed in early 2010. It was a classy hotel, always seemed to be busy with golf parties, had a great conservatory restaurant and was one of the few permanent places to stock Arran Ales (and a very convenient place to wait for the train).
(Photo: (c) Gordon Thomson)

Now the place has been completely bulldozed and there have been flats built ('The Courtyard') with, I assume, more planned - a definite shame.

I wanted to find something to eat before heading to the Beer Festival and have in the past gone to the Piersland House Hotel for their great cold buffet, but they now don't stock any real ale (which is strange since their sister establishment The Canny Man in Lugton headlines that it does) so instead I walked into Troon's main Portland Street. Fullartons was my first choice...

but this was packed out and since I couldn't sit & eat at the bar I headed up the road a bit to McKays.

This used to be Dan McKay's in years gone by (owned by a well known Troon publican) but after a short flirtation with Belhave/GK I think it's back in private hands again. There may not be the beer choice that there was some years ago but it was good to see Inveralmond Ossian and Ayr Lezzie Lundie. The place hasn't changed too much - lots of space & seats at the bar, a raised area at the back with some tables, papers available and a quite extensive beer garden - and my tuna & cheese panini was absolutely fine.

Now it was time to head to the Ayrshire Beer Festival - many thanks for the link to my blog on their home-page.

Held again in Troon's Concert and Walker Halls I'd been given a ticket from one of the organisers so instead put my entrance fee to their designated charity (UK Cancer). Although they'd put on more beer than last year (always good to see) as expected for the Saturday most of the new/interesting/trendy Scottish beers had gone (word gets around quickly in such a confined space) but it was good try my first beer from the 'resurrected' brewery in Kinlochleven, River Leven IPA (although it probably needed more bitterness).

So instead it was a chance to try so a number of English & Welsh beers which I'm more than happy to do. Highlights for me were Coastal's Merry Maidens Mild, an excellent burnt, bitter mild and Thwaites Crafty Devil, a spicy, sweet red beer brewed for Halloween, which I hope to find again in bottled format (Thwaites really are doing some excellent beers in their Signature range). Entertainment though the afternoon was provided by the Troon Blackrock Band...

and famous Killie Pies were available as sustenance as well as specially embossed Empire Biscuits to take away (so I did).

It was good to meet and chat to quite a few #glasgowbeer folk and, as usual, the Festival staff were more than helpful, well organised and really do a fantastic job.

Return travel:-
  Train: Troon to Glasgow Central (25 & 53/54 on the hour)

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Linlithgow to the BRAAS Bo'ness Real Ale Festival: 5th October 2012

I'd not been to the BRAAS (Bo'ness Real Ale Appreciation Society) Real Ale Festival for a few years - it's a nice relaxed festival that normally doesn't sell out of interesting beer on the Friday evening. I thought I could combine a visit to the Festival with lunch out at a (fairly) upmarket pub just out of Linlithgow and then walk lunch off by heading out to Blackness Castle on the south side of the Firth of Forth.

View BRAAS in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Linlithgow (15 & 45 on the hour)

When I came out of Linlithgow station I headed up the easterly main road out of town along a decent pavement/cycle track. A mile or so out of town is the huge Oracle building (which used to be Sun Microsystems). I know a few people who still work there, in the OSC (Oracle Solutions Centre), but I think manufacturing for the high-end servers was transferred elsewhere quite some time ago.

Further on, just past the South Queensferry turning was my stop for lunch, the Champany Inn and associated Chop and Ale House - I assume at some point in the near past they used to be a collection of farm buildings.

I'd looked the place up on the web and checked out some of the reviews and decided that there was no way my budget could stretch to the main restaurant so instead I headed to the smaller Chop and Ale House. They don't have a booking system here, it's purely first-come, first served, but since it was only 12:15 I managed to get a decent table (although by 12:45 it was almost completely full). It's definitely a bit cramped inside, there's no sitting at the bar, the tables are pretty close together & there's a large chimney which takes centre-stage, but there's also a decent overflow alcove section at the side windows. There are lots of brewery & whisky mirrors on the walls as well as farming pictures, and the low beams had fishing rods, brass badges, stirrups and other farming tools attached or hanging from them - I don't normally mind all this type of stuff (at all) but here it was just starting to look a bit like 'clutter'.

For a self-styled 'Ale House' there really wasn't much choice in the ale, Belhaven Best or Stella - I chose the Best and at least it did come in a nice handled mug. Now onto the food - this is *expensive*, £11.40 for the cheapest burger (with steaks at £20+ and some seafood available as well) but I decided to push the boat out and went for the Champany Burger (£13.40) topped with a blue-cheese sauce & bacon from the on-site smokehouse. This was all taken with polite efficiency by the well-trained staff, although I don't think the old-fashioned 'tea-house' aprons worn by the young girls are really that necessary. From the sounds in the kitchen the burger was certainly cooked from scratch, probably took 20-25 minutes and when it came, it did look and smell fantastic.

And it did taste fantastic too - cooked to medium correctly, juicy & a nice depth of flavour, with the bacon being outstanding and the chips pretty damned good as well. My only slight complaint(!) was that there was so much to eat that the burger was getting cold by the time I was 3/4 of the way through it - a hot plate would have made such a difference here. So was it worthwhile - £18.05 for a burger & chips and a beer ? (£4.65 for a Belhaven Best certainly was expensive!) Probably not is the answer, but it was good to try once and if you could be sure of the weather and get a table outside in the courtyard it would be even better.

Pretty well stuffed to the gills I was glad that I next had a walk down the minor road to the village of Blackness and then further on to Blackness Castle. This is a road that comes to a complete dead-end (unless you have a yacht, speed-boat etc...) but seemed to be popular with a fair number of visitors to the castle and those out to walk the dog(s). From the small marina/boatyard across the bay, Blackness Castle looked imposing in the clear, still air, almost like a stone battleship about to set sail into the Forth.
For some great aerial pictures of Blackness Castle see this blog here.

There is a pub in Blackness, the Blackness Inn, but it was shut and seems to have been up for sale for some time. Blackness really is a small place and with the Inn almost being at the furthest point of a completely dead-end road it really would have to be something unique and different to make the journey to it worthwhile and so be able to run the Inn on a commercial basis (see, for example, The Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha).

I then started my walk along the Firth of Forth foreshore to Bo'ness - this took just under an hour and went past a few shingle beaches and a lot of mud-flats before I reached the industrial estates of Bo'ness, but it was a lovely day for this and I really enjoyed the exercise. There is a Motor Museum just on the outskirts of Bo'ness but it looked a bit too child-friendly so I kept walking until I came to the centre of town. Just past the bus station on a patch of common-land is the Bo'ness Memorial to Mining, a huge coal pit wheel, together with a number plaques with pictures drawn by school kids about how they see mining in the past & in the present.

I wanted to see how the Corbie Inn was getting on after being open almost 12 months - see my blog from last year. There didn't seem to be too much of a difference from the outside but I liked all the flowers and hanging baskets, especially the large sunflowers which were taller than me.

Inside it was starting to calm down after what I suspect (from the debris) was a quite a noisy Birthday Party lunch. They aim to have 6 real ales on all the time (and I guess they must go through this amount which is fantastic to see) but today there were only 5 available. The Kinneil Brew House Bridgeness Slab was still settling, but the landlady, Gail, agreed to let me try a sample, and although the aroma was great, it tasted slightly astringent and possibly needed another day of conditioning which Gail was going to leave it for. They still plan to open the far side of the building up as a dining area and are also still waiting on Falkirk Council to give them permission to fully utilise the beer garden at the rear (and have been waiting all summer - that's red-tape for you). I like the fact that they put little knitted hats on the hand-pulls to indicate that the beers are fresh on and so to pull the first pint though through & discard it - nice.

I then climbed the hill to Glebe Park & Bo'ness Town Hall where the BRAAS Bo'ness Real Ale Festival was taking place.

The Festival was split into 2 sections - the main hall housed the long bar (I think this was specifically built for the BRAAS Festival, and I've seen it used at some of the CAMRA Forth Valley Beer Festivals as well) and a fair amount of tables, although not too many people stood at the bar (except for me - I prefer standing at bars, years of practice). Only Scottish beers were available, but it was good to see beers from new local breweries Alechemy, Fallen (their new Dragonfly was an excellent biscuity, spicy amber ale) and, of course, Kinneil Brew Hoose, as well as a fairly fair rare appearance on cask from Traquair Bear Ale (an interesting malty, almost bran-like 'Old Ale', definitely not a 70/- or 80/-). And I'd have to say that the BRAAS people running the bar were excellent - chatty, polite but firm with the young guy trying to get a pint of 6.7% Broughton Old Jock with a single 1/2 pint token and quite willing to talk about pubs, local landmarks and beer.

In the other smaller hall were bottles of European (Belgian, German & Dutch) beer (the previous year they had American bottles) and they were running a couple of tastings for these over the course of the weekend. In addition on Saturday afternoon Stuart (owner & brewer) from the Kinneil Brew House was performing a Home Brewing Masterclass (complete with a lot of the brewing paraphernalia that he has acquired over the years) and I just caught the end of this.

I managed to get a bit of time with Stuart after he'd finished and found out that he'd been seriously worried about the head retention and quality of his beer in the last couple of months to the extent that he'd stopped selling the beer outwith the Corbie Inn. He'd only just found out that Scottish Water has been adding extra Chlorine into the reservoir where Bo'ness gets its water and he'd had to buy extra filters to combat this. Certainly the Caer Edin Dark Ale that I was drinking as I talked to Stuart was great - a head that stayed until the end of the glass, good body and a nice chocolate and coffee taste. He's still working on his local gruit beer and will also be starting to bottle his beers which definitely makes sense in this current economic climate - local bottled ales definitely do sell.

It seemed as if I'd been talking more than I had been drinking during my hour and a half or so at the Festival so I was surprised to find myself having to walk fairly rapidly down the hill to Bo'ness bus station to catch the bus back to Linlithgow. This dropped me off at Linlithgow Cross, almost at The Four Marys, and only a couple of doors down is the recently opened Beer, Wine & Spirit shop Ellies Cellar, substantially larger than the shop I'd be into a few times when I was staying in Crieff earlier in the year (the shop used to be a restaurant).

As per the Crieff store they have a really impressive selection of bottled beer - this included the very new Williams Impale IPA & their 2012 Edition Nollaig as well as all the 2012 Octoberfest beers. I had problems fitting a couple of bottles into my small day rucksack so one of the the young girls behind the counter volunteered to wash and dry my Beer Festival glass and then line the inside of the glass to allow me to put the bottle of Impale into this - many thanks indeed for this!

Return travel:-
  Bus: Bo'ness Bus Station to Linlithgow Cross (45/46 First in Scotland East)
  Train: Linlithgow to Glasgow Queen St (04 & 33 on the hour)