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.
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.
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!)