Saturday, 30 March 2013

Crossing the Forth to the Larbert Beer Festival: 30th March 2013

I try to fit walks around some of the larger local Beer Festivals and so had already developed some tentative plans for a walk around Larbert before the Cromarty Brewing beer cancellation issue at the Larbert Beer Festival had 'blown-up' - see here and here. I seriously thought about not going but because those plans had been made and then subsequently because I'd seen a Facebook post from Kinneil Brew Hoose brewer Stuart Simpson regarding an interesting pub in nearby Kincardine, I decided that it was still worthwhile heading out that way (and even without Cromarty, the proposed beer-list was very good).

View Kincardine in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Bus: Glasgow Buchanan St to Kincardine (Stagecoach X24/26/27 - 10, 30, 50 on the hour)

I actually managed to get into the centre of Glasgow at a decent time and caught the 10:10am bus out of Buchanan St Bus Station heading to St Andrews. This only stops at Cumbernauld and with the new M80 extension fully open this got me into Kincardine far quicker than any train/bus combination through Larbert or Falkirk. After a quick look around the shops dotted around Kincardine it was only just after 11:00am when I found The Unicorn bar/restaurant/hotel situated in the quiet centre of town.

The place dates back to 1639 and was the birthplace of one of the most famous (and most overlooked) Scottish scientists - Sir James Dewar, inventor of the Dewar or Vacuum Flask (I remember a great school physics experiment with a Dewar Flask, dry ice and flower petals) and also the co-inventor of cordite.

The inside certainly doesn't look 17th Century with the front room being a modern brasserie-type place serving breakfast and tea/coffee until 12noon, and then light lunches afterwards. The small bar only had taps for Stella & Guinness (and they were promoting the Diageo-owned (and pretty awful) Jeremiah Weed Brews), but there were bottles of Harviestoun Schiehallion and Bitter & Twisted available behind the bar.

However since it was just past 11:00am I decided to go for a Mocha rather than a beer and ordered a bacon roll to go with this. The bar was festooned with lots of small Easter decorations and there were also home made Easter eggs and home baking available (and which seemed to very popular judging by the number of people coming in for them). The Mocha when it came was probably once of the best I've had - lots of chunky, dark, bitter chocolate which slowly melted in bottom of the glass, but I think I should probably have had a scone with it rather than the bacon roll.

Full of sugar and chocolate I left The Unicorn and walked past a number of small sets of cottages towards the northern bank of the Forth. I think if I hadn't known about it beforehand I would probably have walked past the Railway Tavern - all that was visible from the outside was a metal cigarette box and a small sign with J Dobie, Licensee above the narrow doorway.

The current licensee and owner, Ronnie Dobie, was just opening up when went I went past so I let him get things sorted and then entered this incredible time-warp of a place. The bar is on the left of the doorway corridor and is up there with the smallest bar I've ever seen (I think Ronnie mentioned that 32 people packed in shoulder to shoulder was the absolute limit for the bar, and it's full most weekends). There are only 2 chairs at the bar, an immaculate bakelite bartop, a decent selection of spirits on what seemed to be homemade shelves and a lot of lovely pewter tankards.

Ronnie let me go behind the bar to take a photo of the front of the bar with its 4 red bench seats, red-painted heavy-duty fireplace, old pictures of the bar & a selection of customers and an amazing cabinet full of alcoholic miniatures.

The lounge room on the right hand side of the corridor is (perhaps) slightly bigger, with 2 tables including an extending 5 leg table used for cards, dominoes etc... and the room can also be booked for Stag Dos and other functions. Note that the buzzer marked 'Ring for Attention' still works.

Going back into the bar I made that fatal mistake made by tall people in an old pub and battered my head on the underside of the door - *ouch* and cue laughter from both of us. I definitely needed a beer after that and Ronnie provides the choice of Tennents 60/-, 70/- or Lager from the triple-tap brass font (there's no cellar available for a cask of real ale). However recently he has started selling bottles from the Kinneil Brew Hoose in Bo'ness (Pennvael Amber, Caer Edin Dark & Kincardine Sunset) so I took a bottle of the Kincardine Sunset (a lovely, mellow orangey citrus bitterness) and chatted away with Ronnie for half an hour or so about his family (the pub has been in his family for 4 generations), opening times (only Saturday lunchtime and from 6:30pm in the evenings), the change in beer duty, Glasgow & Kincardine pubs etc... I really had a great time and many thanks to Ronnie for this.

However I needed to get on my way and reluctantly decided to give the Auld Hoose, just down the road from the Railway Tavern, a miss and instead climbed the steps directly opposite to the start of the Kincardine Bridge, built in 1936. The higher central section used to be a swing bridge allowing ships upstream to Alloa, but this hasn't been in use since 1988.

Crossing the Kincardine Bridge gave me great views of the new road bridge slightly upstream, the Clackmannanshire Bridge, completed in 2008 and used for traffic to/from Perth and the M90.

I needed to cross the approach roads to the Clackmannanshire Bridge and it was a lot easier to do this at the main roundabout where there is an island rather than attempt to cross 4 lanes of traffic. This then led me to a decent cycle path and towards one of the large pylons taking electricity across the Forth from the nearby Longannet Power Station. Here I followed a track along the the foreshore of the Forth - the views here are not the best, it's mostly reclaimed farmland and mud-flats with an industrial complex near Alloa just about visible through the haze in the distance.

I took the marked 'Path' and headed inland into the outskirts of the village of Airth to the main road to Stirling and walked up to the T-junction just outside the village to a helpful National Trust for Scotland signpost. About 10 minutes later along a single track road I came to a small car park and the Walled Garden for the Dunmore Estate which holds The Pineapple. Seen from the manicured lawn of the garden this really is a fantastically bizarre folly - a summer house with a roof built to convey the pointed segments and spiky leaves of a flowering pineapple, since this was perceived as an exotic and rarely seen fruit (and hence the 'privilege' of the wealthy) back in the 18th Century when it was built. The structure was a lot larger and the stonework more impressively intricate than I had thought it would be and I believe the summer house can be rented out from the Landmark Trust.

I got out of the way of my fellow tourists looking for the perfect photograph and walked back down to the village of Airth past some interesting terraced houses to old Airth Main Street. The old Market Cross is located here in front of the Elphinstone Inn.

There was no-one in the first room I came to (the larger lounge with pool table), but when I opened the double doors I found a group of guys watching the Football in the smaller bar. There wasn't any interesting beer available so I made do with a half of Belhaven Best and sat with this until the bus was due across the road (it kept me out of the swirling snow for a while).

The bus was fairly late (I had even resorted to phoning the local Airth Taxi which was out on a pick-up) but it did eventually arrive and sped through Carron and Stenhousenuir to get me to the Dobbie Hall and the Larbert Beer Festival in actually pretty good time.

Even mid-Saturday afternoon the Festival was quite busy and the most popular beers were just starting to go off - I managed to snare the Alechemy Mosaic Burst (spicy & bitter/sweet), but missed the DemonBrew Firehead (which might not be brewed again for a while - see here). As per last year it was good to see that some more obscure English beers were available (quite a few Mallinsons single-hop beers were on) and the Penzance Brewing Co. Potion No. 9 was very zesty & refreshing (and one I'm not likely to see again too often). As always the volunteers were great and the large cross-off beer 'money-card' worked well (thankfully it's a lot more difficult to lose this compared to tokens).

I did manage to speak to one of the Festival organisers and it does seem that CAMRA's Scottish Regional Director is on a mission to make brewers differentiate between keg and cask variants of their beer (even if the beer is from the same gyle) by some sort of pump-clip colour change or name change/addition. As stated before I just think this seems very petty when new, local Scottish microbreweries and the great beer they produce should be encouraged as much as possible - only my humble opinion.

Return travel:-
  Train: Larbert to Glasgow Queen St (02, 32 on the hour)

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