Thursday, 3 April 2014

Around the Arrochar Alps Real Ale Festival: 29th March 2014

There does seem to be quite a lot of new, smaller beer festivals cropping up nowadays (Ardrossan, Fairlie and Bankfoot to name just 3 in the last 6 months or so), and they all seem to be really well supported by the local community, great to see. This weekend there was to be another one of these in the picturesque village of Arrochar at the very head of Loch Long, and with some good travel options from Glasgow it was an easy decision to head up (fairly early) on Saturday morning.

View Arrochar in a larger map

Outward journey was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Arrochar & Tarbet (10:37, 12:21)

To get to Arrochar I connected into the West Highland Line train to Oban and if you sit on the left side of the train there are some great views across the Firth of Clyde and up the spectacular Clyde Sea Lochs (there were a lot of photos being taken from the train, even today). On leaving at the small Arrochar & Tarbet station I headed down to the main road between the two villages to see if the converted church on the roadside was open or not. The last time I was here it was Rustlers and there were also plans to also incorporate a Clan Heritage Centre, but it seems that all fell though, and after being closed for a bit has now re-opened as Slanj Bar & Restaurant.

It looks as if it's only open Friday, Saturday & Sunday at the moment, but as of next weekend (the start of the Scottish school holidays) it should be open 7 days a week until the end of summer. I did have a quick look through the windows and couldn't see any hand-pulls, but it may be that there is some decent bottled beer available. I then headed along the main road until the Church Street turning and took this down to the A814 coast road. About a mile or so further on past some shops and an arts/craft studio is The Village Inn, with a busy car park and a 'No Vacancies' sign posted outside.

There are a lot of outside tables here with (normally) great views of the Arrochar Alps (including the anvil shaped summit of Ben Arthur, or The Cobbler), but today there was just too much low cloud and a really quite chill easterly wind to enjoy it all properly.

On entering the Inn there's a centre corridor which leads off on the right to the main restaurant and on the left to the smaller bar/lounge. I headed into the bar/lounge and waited at the back bar until someone came through to serve me. The dark wooden bar has a lot of military shields mounted overhead as well as water jugs, trophies, soda dispensers and carry-oot cartons and there's a good amount of standing space. Normally there's a pretty diverse range of beer (Loch Lomond, Fyne Ales etc...), but today it was just a tad disappointing - Arran Clyde Puffer, Orkney Northern Light, and Caley Deuchars IPA & 80/.

There's only about 6 tables in the bar, so I took the smallest (all the tables were full by ~12:40), and sat down with my Northern Light, although I was starting to think it was probably an Arran Clyde Puffer that I'd ordered/been given (not a problem). It's a nice bar - full of olde Scottishe stuff with, not one, not two, but three stags heads, a claymore, muskets, a shield, hanging brass jugs, an impressive candelabra in centre, photos of old Arrochar & fishing catches, tartan curtains, mirrors, and a fire in an exposed stone fireplace to heat everyone up.

I had been 'persuaded' (as if) by the barstaff to try the soup-of-the-day (beef & vegetable) and I wanted something slightly more substantial to have before quaffing a few beers, so I went for a baked tattie with haggis & neeps. I thought the soup might just come in a mug, but no, the wide-bowled plate of soup and tattie pretty well covered most of the available table space.

The soup was great, the beef adding to the texture of the soup, but the baked tattie was excellent, almost burnt skin & a lot of rich pepper sauce to go with the haggis & neeps and I just about managed it all. I needed at least a bit of a walk after all that carbohydrate and so after finishing the meal I headed up the A814 road, past a whole load of hotels & B&Bs and to the bridge over the river at the head of Loch Long where the views down the length of the loch are at their best (even on a day like today).

There are some mudflats and a saltmarsh here that attracts a lot of bird-life, but there's also been a lot of rubbish/detritus washed up this year (not that my wooden friend was too bothered).

Heading back down to the centre of the village I came to one of the other hostelries in Arrochar, Ben Arthur's Bothy.

It's a pretty basic 2 room pub, with a long lounge at the back serving food, and a minimalistic bar at the front (with pool table taking pride of place), although the accommodation upstairs is meant to be pretty impressive. There is a hand-pull on the bar, but nothing was on it today, so I just took a 1/2 of Belhaven Best and went to sit outside at one of the many tables overlooking Loch Long.

It would be a great place in the summer, but with the wind whistling in from the east today I wasn't going to last long out there. I therefore headed back past the main road junction and to the venue for the Arrochar Alps Real Ale Festival, the Three Villages Hall.

It's quite a new place, only opened in 2010 after a significant amount of community fundraising and it also takes in the adjacent Three Villages Café and Pit Stop takeaway (I've had many a great poke o'chips from here). Inside there's a gym, exhibition spaces, meeting rooms for clubs and all sorts of classes are run. Some very friendly people greeted me, showed me where to buy my tokens and sent me on my way into the main hall. I obviously gravitated first of to the casks setup on stillage at the far end of the hall which were arranged in terms of colour/style (left to right, light lager to dark stout). They had chosen 10 Scottish beers from the Highlands & Islands, consisting of the following (I'll go from left to right as well) - Isle of Skye Tiny Angels, Fyne Ales Avalanche, Cairngorm Tradewinds, Thorn Dhu Saltire, Windswept APA, Oban Bay Kilt Lifter, Spey Valley David's Not so Bitter, Orkney red McGregor, Loch Lomond Bravehop Dark and Lock Ness DarkNess.

There was one change from that advertised in the program, Black Isle Red Kite wasn't available, but instead there was a beer from the very new and very small Thorn Dhu brewery at Lochgair (on the road to Lochgilphead), their Satire. This was a really, really nice surprise, and a very, very nice beer - some red fruit, almost rye spiciness and then a long, clean, bitter finish. I'd actually just missed meeting the brewer as he'd been sampling his own beer (and the competition's) just an hour before, but found out that he only supplies a few places in Argyll including The George Hotel in Inverary, the Kilmartin Hotel and the Argyll Arms Hotel in Ardrishaig, so it was a boon to see this here.

I managed quite a few other 1/2s (all in great condition) and it was good to have a chat with some of the organisers about beer in the local area, find out how the festival was going (beer was definitely going to sell out early and there were bottles in reserve) and listen to something a bit different compared to the standard beer festival music - this was supplied by Kintraw, a duo of harp, pipes & drum (a different class of music up here). The main hall is also very distinctive with a set of almost whale-bone shaped arch-type beams, a lot of natural light and they've designed in a number of energy efficiency systems to keep the running costs down.

And as a bonus I was even able to take the private hire bus that was operating between the Three Villages Hall and Helensburgh, which meant that I didn't have to wait for the late afternoon train from Arrochar & Tarbet (donations were made accordingly to the Festival charity, MND Scotland).

Return journey:-
  Bus: Private hire, Three Villages Hall to Helensburgh
  Train: Helensburgh Central to Glasgow Queen St. (10, 40 on hour)

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