On probably the first dry day of the year so far I decided it was worth taking this opportunity to visit to an interesting new pub in Dunblane and then walk down an historic old road to both Bridge of Allan and then onwards into Stirling.
View Dunblane 2014 in a larger map
Outward travel was as follows:-
Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Dunblane (48 on the hour)
On arriving at Dunblane Station I walked past both the Village Inn and the Dunblane Hotel until I reached the newly opened & completely refurbished premises of The Riverside, a tall, imposing building standing guard over the Allan Water.
This used to be the Stirling Arms Hotel until it was bought over and then refurbished in August last year, and it seems there has been an inn of sorts at the location for a long, long time.
The Riverside had been open for breakfast and coffee & cake since 10am so I entered through the light, modern doorway, stood at the 'Please wait to be seated sign' and managed to get a table next to the bar on the left side of the room, spookily quite close to the Henry Lawson quote on the wall - 'Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer'.
The glass doorway, all the light wooden tables, chairs & decorative trim, the tiny pairs of down-lighters and the use of chrome fittings certainly gave the place a bright, modern feel and I liked the large blackboard with food, drink and cake specials and the slightly smoky smell coming off the real fire across the room where much in the way of coffee, tea & scones were being consumed on the more comfy seats. There is also a more formal restaurant downstairs and an outside riverside terrace (think I would probably have guessed that from the name of the place!) complete with retractable canopy; it'll be great place for a beer during the summer. Although it seemed very much a food-led place there were a number of seats at the well-stocked bar and available today on the counter were 3 keg lagers (Amstel, 1664 & Bierra Moretti), keg Caledonian 80/-, and 3 hand-pulled beers - Deuchars IPA (which looks permanent from the super-shiny font), Loch Lomond Ale of Leven and Loch Ness FestiveNESS. A week back at work had not quite knocked the memories of Yuletide 2013 out of me so I decided I could still handle a pint of the FestiveNESS - all dark fruit, spices & even a hint of oxo cubes - definitely Christmas in a glass.
Food switched over from the Breakfast Menu to Lunch at 12noon, with a wide selection of starters, sharing platters, more traditional mains and lots of sandwiches including the 'Soup Club', a bowl of today's soup for an extra £1.50 with any sandwich or starter. So that made it an easy choice for me - I went with the Green Lentil & Bacon soup (with a nice amount of smoky bacon pieces in there) and a cheese-and-ham toastie including quite nippy home-made mustard mayonnaise. It was all really tasty & well-made but the bread was the star - thick sour dough from the Village Bakery in Stirling and absolutely stunning.
For dessert I was almost tempted by the ice cream selection since it's fabulous stuff made by the Stewart Tower Dairy people and there were also tempting jars full of Mini-Eggs & Jelly Babies on the shelves behind the bar. During the day at least this is certainly a food-led establishment with a nice beer selection, but it has a similar vibe & ethos to both The Hanging Bat and the St Andrews Brewing Co. Pub (which are beer-led bars with nice food) - it's independent, modern, makes use of local produce and has great staff & service - I was most impressed. Next I needed to head off and find my footpath to Bridge of Allan, but as I walked up the Main Street towards Dunblane Cathedral, there (literally glinting in the winter sunshine) was one of the fabled Gold Post Boxes, this one painted over to celebrate Andy Murray's gold medal at the 2012 Olympics - go Andy !!
This road then took me up to the town bypass and the entrance to Dunblane New Golf Club. At the very far edge of the golf course (still on the bypass) I found a helpful signpost to Bridge of Allan along the historic Darn Road, a route said to date back to Roman times.
I followed this path alongside a number of the golf holes (there were a lot of golfers out, golfers are as committed as walkers) but this eventually led me to a more rocky and puddle covered track.
This then dropped steeply in a couple of places (and was very muddy, I was glad I was heading downhill) until reaching a bridge over the Allan Water.
Just down from the bridge is a large cave in plain sight. Robert Louis Stevenson was meant to have sheltered here whilst holidaying at Bridge of Allan and the cave is supposedly part of the inspiration for Ben Gunn's Cave in Treasure Island.
The path then followed the Allan Water for a bit longer before emerging beside a new housing estate into Bridge of Allan proper. The main street of Bridge of Allan was busy as always but it wasn't too long before I could head out into a side-street just past the Adamo Hotel and step into the familiar surroundings of the Allanwater Brewhouse (not too much changes here on year-by-year basis (at least from the outside)).
I was welcomed by the lovely Katie Jane who had just started in the Brewhouse a few months ago (and was finding it far more fun than her previous job at No2 Baker Street in Stirling). She took me through all of the beers but did mention that I'd just missed the last of the Christmas specials on cask (drats!), but that they were still available in bottles (hooray!). Instead there was the Chilli Pot, Wheat 70/- Pot and Czech Pot available with the IPA just about to go on. At first the Chilli Pot seemed deceptively like a standard golden ale, but then a pretty huge blast of chilli heat battered the inside of my mouth with a herbal bitter aftertaste lingering at the back of my throat for quite some time. It wasn't actually unpleasant when I'd gotten used to it, but I don't think I'd have more than a pint of it in one sitting.
Brewer Douglas Ross was also in and out that afternoon and we chatted about what was happening at the De Brus Brewery in Dunfermline (he's still brewing there, but hoping to recruit someone this month) and there were also lots of bottles of the De Brus beers available to buy.
Once Douglas had established that I was walking, he was also good enough to give me a sample of mead that had been been brewed(?)/fermented/made 6 months or so ago. This uses only local honey and water and was currently maturing at about 12% abv. It was very sweet (obviously) & floral, but still quite light and certainly didn't taste 12%. It'll probably creep up a further few abv percentage points and Douglas wasn't sure what to do with it. My suggestion was to put it into some large ornate bottles, call it Craft Mead, and then sell it at some of the evening Fireside music sessions that get held at the Brewhouse.
Beers bought and mead drunk I bade Douglas & Katie Jane goodbye and then started off to Stirling (although I think it was actually a bit more of a stagger due to that sample of mead I'd had). I decided to give both The Meadowpark Hotel and The Birds and the Bees a miss and headed down the main road past Cornton Vale prison. Along the road there were some great views of the Wallace Monument as the moon rose.
I walked across the Auld Bridge and decided I had time to clamber up Gowan Hill, located at the very northern-most point of the same crag that Stirling Castle is also perched on. It's not a steep or long climb and at the top of the hill are the Beheading Stone (set behind some serious bars) which was the site of numerous executions in the 15th Century and 2 cannons representing those that were destroyed by artillery fire from the Castle during the Jacobite Rebellion.
As well as sweeping panoramic views out to the Wallace Monument and the Ochil Hills I could just about make out the snow capped Trossachs and the Southern Highlands in the low sun.
Only a short walk from Gowan Hill I found the Settle Inn, said to the oldest inn in Stirling.
I walked into the quiet bar and noted that there was only 1 real ale available on the 2 hand-pulls, Everards Beacon (an OK golden bitter), so I took a 1/2 of that and a packet of BBQ mini-cheddars. The landlady told me that I'd just missed a number of An Teallach beers (drats, although they can be somewhat inconsistent), and there were signs of their passing by the number of An Teallach bar towels and beer mats all over the place.
I sat down at one of the tables opposite the bar, took a paper and certainly warmed up quickly in front of the fire. The landlady was looking for some help in repairing one of the hand-pulls and the guy at the bar was more than happy to help, to the extent of bringing in his own tools from his van (not quite sure why he was drinking in that case). I took the opportunity to pop into the larger room at the back (almost a 'bunker') used for gigs and (a wild guess) darts.
It was a bit too much of a hike to go up to The Portcullis at the top of the Castle crag, but instead I decided to try a couple of other pubs in the centre of Stirling. No2 Baker St. had only Green King IPA, Belhaven 80/- and Old Speckled Hen (although Fyne Ales Avalanche did come on later, so at least they are trying), and Morrisons Cold Beer Co. had nothing at all on their hand-pulls (but did have a lot of continental keg beers), both are Belhaven/Greene King outlets. However after much legal opposition (mostly from the aforementioned Belhaven/Greene King) there will be a large JD Wetherspoon opening up in the former HMRC premises in Spittal Street later on in 2014; perhaps this will shake up the Stirling beer scene a bit.
Instead I decided to give my custom to La Ciociara, a great Italian Café/Deli just up the road from the train station. This has well-priced take-away coffee and a mouth watering selection of sweet & savoury pastries and so I took 2 huge fruit/cherry scones for later on in the weekend and was tempted by a white chocolate/raspberry/shortcake slice for the train journey back to Glasgow. I suspect this all took me over my recommended calorie intake for the day, but then my excuse was that I did have a more than decent walk.
Train: Stirling to Glasgow Queen St. (23, 53 on the hour, + others)