Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Sorn and Failford on the River Ayr: 7th December 2013

With the weather and the shorter daylight hours it's sometimes difficult to get to many pubs in the wintertime, but get an early enough train and there's normally a way. This weekend I headed to East Ayrshire to visit a pub I hadn't been to before and also one that I hadn't been in for a few years, with (hopefully) a walk in-between along the picturesque River Ayr.

View Sorn in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows :-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Auchinleck (08:12, then every 2 hours)
  Bus: Auchinleck to Sorn (21 on the hour, Stagecoach X50)

Auchinleck is an East Ayrshire former mining town which (unsurprisingly) hit a bit of a downturn when the coal mine and nearby Barony power station closed down in the 1980's. However with the opening and restoration of Dumfries House (only a mile or so away) it's perhaps undergoing a bit of a resurgence. Dumfries House is certainly an interesting place for a wander around (the photo was taken in the summertime, definitely not today!) and the collection of 'old master' paintings is probably worth the entrance fee on its own (though photography is not permitted inside the House).

About the only other thing I'd come to associate Auchinleck with was their 'Junior' football team, the mighty Auchinleck Talbot, so with a few minutes to spare I walked up from the train station to see if I could find their ground, Beechwood Park. As Junior Cup winners 'The Bot' have automatically been in the Scottish FA Cup for the past few years, and in 2012 were narrowly beaten in the Fourth Round by eventual winners Hearts.

There's a pretty good bus service from Auchinleck to both Kilmarnock & Ayr but I had to take the more circuitous X50 service which literally went 'round the houses' in Auchinleck before heading off into the Ayrshire countryside and eventually dropping me off in the main street of Sorn (and then it seemed to reverse back the way to continue on to Catrine). After a very short walk past a playground and a bowling green I came to the whitewashed buildings of the Sorn Inn,

OK, I admit I probably did hang around at the main entrance of the Inn for 5 minutes or so before they took pity on me and opened up at almost dead on Noon. I then walked through the fairly large Michelin-guide listed restaurant before being directed back the way and into the festively decorated small bar.

There are a few small tables here around the opposite corner to the bar and I was happy to de-camp there rather than go and sit in the more formal seating area across the partition from the bar (I think this is called the Chop House, I don't know why).

There was a single hand-pull with Orkney Northern Lights on today (John Smiths, Coors & Guinness were also available) and I took a pint of this (very well kept) and went to peruse the extensive menu. Or at least I did for about 3 minutes or so before most of the lights went out, leaving only the twinkling, colourful Christmas lights (probably not quite enough to eat by). Thankfully this proved to be short lived and having made my choice I was happy to look around the bar at the pictures of old Sorn, the modern freezes and note the local Post Box (for Christmas Cards, I guess). I'd gone for something filling and warming, meatballs with tomato sauce & pesto, and although the sauce was great the meatballs seemed a bit dry and just a tad disappointing.

Stepping back out into the dreich weather I walked along Sorn main street and past a large motorcycle shop until I came to Sorn 'Auld Brig' over the River Ayr, with restored milestone and old church on either side.

It's an early 18th Century Bridge built to reduce accidents when fording the river (makes sense!) and is just about wide enough for a single car.

There was then a slight incline until the start of the River Ayr walkway. As the path rose it gave great views of Sorn Castle, a private residence complete with extensive grounds which can be used for weddings and other functions.

The path did quickly head back down to the bank of the River Ayr where the river was in full flow after the storm of Wednesday night/Thursday morning.

The path was pretty muddy with a lot of run-off from the surrounding ground, but that was easy enough to negotiate. What was more difficult, however, were the amount of trees and branches that had blown down to block the path, I think due to a combination of the winds and the sheer force of the river in some places.

Apart from a couple of such obstacles it was a nice walk along the river until a large bend which heralded the Catrine Voes, an area of wetland which was used as a reservoir to power the historic cotton mills, but which is now a nature reserve. There's also a weir here to help provide the necessary water flow.

Unfortunately just before the footbridge over the river, the path was closed for what seemed to be some serious repairs, and by closed I mean there were some all encompassing high metal fences which would have been difficult to breach. This required a detour up the driveway of Daldorch House, a large home/school run by the National Autistic Society which eventually took me out onto the Sorn-Catrine B-road. As I descended into Catrine there were some very veiled views of the Glen Catrine Bond complex, the largest independent bottling facility in Scotland. To be honest I don't think there is too much else of interest in Catrine so I hopped on the first 43 bus to Ayr, which took me through Mauchline and then into the village of Failford (though the driver missed the bus stop by a good 100 metres). Situated at the roadside is the Failford Inn, a low slung building located in the middle of a terraced row of houses.

This was the first time I'd visited the Failford Inn since Michelle Kelsall & family had moved back to England in 2010 with new owners having taken over. Michelle had setup the long-remembered and long-lamented Windie Goat Brewery in the cellar of the Failford in 2006 and had given me some of my earliest memories of UK-brewed, hop-forward, US-style IPAs (the magnificently hazy & cascade bitterness of Gutter Slab anyone ?). Michelle now operates Offbeat Brewery in Crewe and still produces some outstanding beers (for instance the lovely Topsy & Turvy at Carlisle Beer Festival). The bar area on the right of the Failford hasn't changed too much; a very small space with just a few tables and a lovely warming fire, with a lot more seating in the adjoining restaurant area. Although the brewery has been sold to the Iceni Brewery in Ickburgh, Norfolk they (thankfully) still do some cask beer - today Ayr Brewing's golden bitter Leezie Lundie was the only beer available on the 2 hand-pulls.

Their food is also meant to still be very good, but having eaten already I decided that even on a day like today it was worthwhile heading out to the lovely terraced beer garden at the back of the Inn with the River Ayr in full flow at the far end of the terrace.

The are a fair amount of both bench & individual seats on the terrace and although I wasn't going to sit down today without some plastic sheeting it was still good to drink a decent pint out in the fresh air whilst leaning on the decking.

Normally when I'm at the Failford I walk the 3 miles or so downriver to the Stair Inn, another lovely country pub set in the Ayrshire countryside just off the River Ayr. The riverside path is pretty spectacular with parts of the sandstone cliffs of the River Ayr steeped in history (Peden's Cove and Windie Goat Wood), but today I decided it probably wasn't worthwhile (it's definitely a summertime walk-and-crawl in the longer daylight hours). I therefore got on the next 43 bus to Ayr and went pretty well straight to The GlenPark Hotel for a beer (the Ayr Brewing Clootie Bree is a lovely warming, spicy winter ale) and to pick-up one of their bottles of Doctor Blacklock Stouts (the Blueberry one). I'd have to say they probably have enough beer to last the Festive Season (but perhaps not...).

Return Transport:-
  Bus: Catrine to Failford (13, 43 on the hour, Stagecoach 43)
  Bus: Failford to Ayr (23, 53 on the hour, Stagecoach 43)
  Train: Ayr to Glasgow Central (very regular)

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