Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Amongst the Hillfoots towns from Dollar to Alva: 1st December 2012

On a lovely crisp December day I decided that a walk up one of the more picturesque Glens in central Scotland seemed like a good idea. I therefore set-off on a trip to Dollar, one of the Hillfoots towns at the southern base of the Ochil Hills just outside Stirling. This would hopefully also give me the chance to try the Scottish Pub of the Year, the Woolpack Inn, in nearby Tillicoultry.

View Dollar in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Stirling (18, 48 on the hour)
  Bus: Stirling Bus Station to Dollar (09:10 then every 2 hours, 23 Stagecoach in Fife)

The connecting bus on the Stirling-Dollar-Kinross route bus was over 20 minutes late at Stirling bus station, and as we eventually drove into Tillicoultry and then Dollar I could see why - a light snow fall had occurred during the night dusting the streets & pavements and giving a nice festive cap to the Ochil Hills.

The walk to Dollar Glen is well signposted and starts at Dollar Museum just to the north of Bridge Street and alongside the Dollar Academy playing grounds.

I decided to take the pain of climbing the steep side of the Glen at the start and headed up the steps and paths of the west side for 15 minutes or so before gently coming back down to reach the gushing waterfalls and wooded canopy at the Burn of Sorrows.

Further on the wooded Glen peters out somewhat with trails extending to the King's Seat summit - today I was more than happy to leave that to odd hardy sheep.

Heading back downhill on the other (east) side of the Glen there were some great clear views of Dollar & the River Devon valley as well as the dramatic 15th Century Castle Campbell (aka Castle Glume), now a ruin torched by The Marquis of Montrose in 1645.

The steps back down the Glen from the Castle were pretty treacherous in places but eventually I came to another set of waterfalls and John Knox's Pullpit.

The whole excursion had taken a fairly active hour and a half so I was then more than ready for a beer and some nourishment. First of all I made for the elegant Castle Campbell Hotel at the east end of Bridge Street.

I passed the more formal restaurant areas and headed to the lounge bar situated on the left side of the building. This consists of a bar area with half a dozen or so tables and a more relaxed 'sitting room' with lots of comfy sofas as well as papers & guide books open to read. On the 2 hand-pulls at the bar were Deuchars & Doom Bar so I ordered a Doom Bar (to which the barman paid a serious amount of attention) and went to sit in the lounge/sitting room. This reminded me a bit of a Habitat showroom, but it was nice & relaxing and I especially liked the huge canvas print of a parrot.

They were only serving food until 2pm (and I hate ordering too close to the end-of-service), so I made my way a couple of doors along Bridge Street to the King's Seat.

Thankfully here they were serving food all day, both in the restaurant on the left and bar on the right, so I ordered the soup (Scotch Broth) along with a pint of Scottish Borders Foxy Blonde (Bitter & Twisted, Deuchars & Scottish Borders Game Bird were the other choices). The Foxy Blonde is normally a decent citrusy golden ale but this started quite yeasty & not very pleasant, although it did improve (a lot) further down into the pint (I do seem to pick this characteristic up in quite a few golden ales). In the bar itself there's only a small serving area with a few bar-stools, but there are a number of additional tables dotted around the wall to sit and have a meal or watch the Football. It's all done up with lots of light wood, modern prints, clocks and books (including a nice collection Good Beer Guides).

The Scotch Broth really was lovely - meaty, spicy, thick with barley & pulses and very, very hot - just what I needed.

There's an an excellent Deli across the road (Reids of Dollar), with a good selection of interesting cheese, olives, pâté & with coffee & sandwiches to go, but the beer selection is fairly minimal (really only Williams Brothers, all of which I'd had before). I therefore headed out with a fairly empty rucksack to the Devon Way cycle/footpath and my walk to Tillicoultry. However my first look at this seemed to present a serious problem - the path had completely frozen over and was covered by a thin sheet of solid hard ice.

I was seriously thinking of going back to the town centre and waiting for the next bus, but because of the dearth of public transport from Dollar this would have meant a wait of an hour or so for the return journey back to Stirling (although the Kings Seat would have been an attractive alternative). So I decided to give the path a go and it wasn't too treacherous - keeping to the very edge of the path meant that I could walk in the loose earth & leaves which gave a decent enough grip. And there were quite a few other people out walking that afternoon - although the guy with the bike was really taking a chance on that surface. After 45 minutes or so of fairly slip-free walking I went past the Sterling Mill Outlet Mall in Tillicoultry and then headed up to Glassford Square and the Woolpack Inn

I'd put my head around the door of the place 3-4 years ago but decided against staying for a beer since I was also looking for something to eat (and I think there was also only a single hand-pull). In the meantime the pub has changed hands a couple of times, been awarded the most improved pub in the CAMRA Forth Valley region and has just become CAMRA Scotland Pub of the Year. There are quite a few rooms to the place - what looked like a snug/games room on the left (I think I spied a shuffleboard table in there), the main bar, a large lounge/TV room showing the rugby (again this looked a bit like a sitting room) and a function room upstairs where they have live music. The main bar is a bit cramped, but there was a nice fire going, lots of pump-clips on the wooden beams and it seems a very dog friendly place. On the hand-pulls today were Greene King IPA, Belhaven St Andrews and Cairngorm Trade Winds so I settled back with a 1/2 of the Trade Winds, a blond beer that I've always liked (I think the high proportion of wheat definitely helps in the body of the beer).

It's difficult to judge a place from a short visit but it definitely seems to be an excellent pub - friendly & welcoming, a good atmosphere and someone behind the bar who knows how to keep and pour a real ale. The beer choice wasn't great today, but from the pump-clips on the beams it seems as if they are rotating through a large number of guest beers and sometimes outwith the large cities you have to accept that choice can be somewhat limited.

By now it was getting fairly dark so I decided to save some time (and be sensible) and take the bus to Alva, a couple of miles along the main A91 towards Stirling. This meant I missed out on looking at Harviestoun Brewery, but with the time heading towards towards 4pm on a Saturday it wasn't likely to be open - hopefully I'll make it back some other time. The bus dropped me off in Alva main street and I walked up to No 5 Inn, almost at the entrance to Alva Glen.

It seems to have built a bit of a reputation for good food, with the large restaurant area on right-hand side of the building, but the bar was also looking very festive & welcoming with some tasteful Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling. I also liked the prints & large-scale faded newspaper cuttings from the Famous Alva Games, surprisingly now the last Highland Games event in Clackmannanshire. They were serving Belhaven St Andrews (unsurprisingly sales of this must rocket during St Andrews Day week) and also Arran Blonde (complete with Isle of Arran pump-clip), so I took a 1/2 of the latter, watched the rugby on the TV, and joined in the discussion regarding the respective merits of Rugby against American Football.

Twilight was now starting to fall so I wasn't going to be able to get to the next Hillfoots town, Menstrie (and also Menstrie Castle), before the light gave out - I think I'll probably try that when it's slightly warmer.

Return travel:-
  Bus: Alva to Stirling Bus Station (11, 31, 51 on the hour, 63 First in Scotland East)
  Train: Stirling to Glasgow Queen St (23, 53 on the hour + some faster trains)

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