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)

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