Friday, 9 May 2014

Journey to the Centre of the Kingdom of Fife: 3rd May 2014

It's a long way from Glasgow to Glenrothes & the Kingdom of Fife Beer Festival (especially by public transport) but a couple of things persuaded me that it was worthwhile making the effort - firstly the Champion Beer of Fife competition had taken place at the Festival and it had been won by an intriguing beer (called CV) from the Abbot Brew House with 105 different varieties of hops, and secondly there were a couple of interesting pubs nearby that I could visit (and hadn't ever been to before) - as always it's way too easy to sway me with beer & good pubs.

View Markinch in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows :-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Haymarket (every 15 minutes)
  Train: Haymarket to Markinch (04, 34 on the hour)
  Bus: Markinch to Star of Markich (46 Stagecoach in Fife, 40 on the hour)
  Bus: Star of Markinch to Glenrothes (46 Stagecoach in Fife, 53 on the hour)

I had thought about walking 'cross-country' to the first of those interesting pubs (located in a small village called the Star of Markinch) but because of the narrow roads and the wet weather I decided instead to wait for the bus from roundabouts Markinch way. This meant that on leaving Markinch station I could instead head to nearby Balbirnie Park. I'd been to Markinch at least once before but hadn't noticed the impressive Parish Church standing guard over the main street, as almost always the church is located on the 'higher ground'.

I headed past the church, the Laurel Bank Hotel and a couple of bakery/cafés towards Glenrothes and it wasn't too long before I came to one of the entrances of Balbirnie Park.

This is the entrance for the Balbirnie Park Caravan Club and just at the gate there was an old fashioned wooden cabin selling ice cream and other refreshments - you don't see many like these nowadays.

Balbirnie Park is really quite extensive and the main driveway took me past Balbirnie House and the immaculate fairways of Balbirnie Park Golf Course. Once past the large golf course Clubhouse the road peters out and transforms into a lovely woodland trail, complete with overhanging leafy trees and bubbling brook.

At the very, very end of this path I came to the location of the Balbirnie Stone Circle, a set of 7 stones and a burial cist.

Unfortunately it's not the original location of these stones - they were moved here from a location ~150metres away in 1970 before the main A92 road was widened, but it's still an impressive site. A couple of the stones are actually quite large, with the central burial cist featuring some distinctive artwork. Although it may not be the original site, it's certainly better to have them here rather than put away in a museum.

There's another neolithic monument only a few hundred metres away, the Balfarg Henge, but it's across the busy A92 and over some fences so (reluctantly) I decided to retrace my steps back to the main part of Balbirnie Park. In the centre of the park is Balbirnie House, a luxury hotel & conference centre, and it certainly seems to be a popular wedding venue of choice judging by the influx of people and caterers.

Just up from the hotel I saw a sign-post for the Balbirnie Craft Centre. There are a number of small shops/galleries/workshops in the middle of a lovely courtyard of what used to be the stables, but all of these were closed this morning and may actually be permanently closed - it wasn't obvious with just a quick look.

I needed to leave the park via the East Lodge exit and so walked out using a different set of paths. These took me past some amazing sheltered gardens in full bloom, with the colours from the rhododendrons quite breathtaking in amongst all the greenery.

The exit at East Lodge brought me onto the north road out of Markinch and heading down towards the bus-stop I came across the weathered Stobbcross, said to be from the 6th Century and marking the boundary of sanctuary of Markinch Church.

I then had only a few minutes to wait for the hourly bus to Leven (on the Fife coast) to arrive, and this took me through some winding lanes before dropping me off right in front of The Plough Inn, at the very east end of the Star of Markinch (or just Star) - its name translates as a type of grass that grows on boggy land of which there is a lot of the north of Star.

Sometimes you get a feeling about a place, that it just looks right, and The Plough Inn looks like a great, traditional country pub, with an number of low-slung connected buildings, trimmed hedges, benches & tables outside, weather-vane on high and a selection of well maintained plants. It also helped that this sign was hand-written prominently near the main entrance.

The main entrance opens into the bar/lounge and it was the smell, smoke & sound of a recently lit crackling real fire which immediately caught my attention, fantastic. I headed to the bar to be greeted by the owner/chef who pre-empted my request for a drink by asking 'A pint of real ale?' (OK - I had 'phoned beforehand just to make sure). Today there was lovely lemon-citrussy Ossian from Inveralmond Brewery available on the single hand-pull and the owner explained that it had only just been put back on again for the 'summer' season, they just don't get through enough of it in the winter to make it worth their while (but do at least supply bottles to people who need their fix). The owner left me in the capable hands of his friendly Australian wife and went away to well, cook all the meals. She almost managed to tempt me with the main dinner menu (modern Scottish) but I was quite happy to go for one of the 'snacks' (only available util 5pm) - soup, omelettes, mixed grill, chilli etc... After ordering I sat down opposite the bar and had a look around the place - a number of small tables in the bar (these were pretty low for my knees) with musical instruments perched above the bar, lots of pump-clips (including one of cask Brewdog 5AM Saint), pictures of farms & farm horses, a golden box of 'something' and then a good number of tables in the main dining room at the front of the building.

And for people just wanting a drink there is a comfy lounge off to the right hand side of the bar - it's really good to see that this is available for the local community.

When it came my chilli-and-chips was certainly a bit larger than a 'snack', and the chilli was quite superb - there was a depth of meaty flavour & spices which made it so much better than my own chilli, damn! I was told by the owner/chef's wife that even she didn't know the actual recipe for the chilli.

It really was an excellent meal in a great country pub and it was good to see the place start to fill up as the afternoon progressed; it's certainly well known by reputation (and by I eventually had to take my leave and waited for bus back to Markinch which then continued to Glenrothes Bus Station. Here I got off and waited for (yet) another bus just down the stances to Leslie, a few miles or so to the east of Glenrothes (Fife transport tip - buy a DayRider ticket for the area, it's way cheaper). On another day I would certainly have hiked it across all the roundabouts but today the bus dropped me off in the Main Street of Leslie after only 10 minutes or so. I walked along the quiet road and found the Burns Tavern, a hostelry since 1899 (I think the gaelic translates as approximately 'Welcome from the female host', but I can't be sure.)

If the Plough Inn is a quintessential country pub then the Burns Tavern is its urban equivalent - a two roomed pub with a lounge on the left (there was no-one in at lunchtime, that would be silly), and a packed bar on the right full of people watching the English & Scottish football seasons draw to a close on the TV. There's a central bar that supports both rooms, a low artexed ceiling, some tables & seats at the walls and an extension further into the building with more seats and a pool table at the far end. Dotted all around are (unsurprisingly) pictures of Robert Burns & scenes from his poems, as well as copper clad images of The Bard, football pictures, trophies and some books. There are 2 hand-pulls, but only one was available today serving Taylor's Landlord (and no decent bottles that I could see) so I ordered a pint of this (not forgetting some scampi fries) from the really friendly barman/owner and was quite happy to take in the football for the duration. Food is available but would seem to be basic stuff - toasties, pies, ploughmans, etc... but more than acceptable for a filling lunch.

By now I was ready to head to the 16th Kingdom of Fife Beer festival to try some different beers. I jumped on the return bus to Glenrothes, got off at the west end of the Kingdom Shopping Centre and found my way to the glass, metal and concrete complex that is the Rothes Halls.

As this time of day it's a fairly relaxed place, with nowhere near the same 'frenzy' compared to Paisley Beer Festival or the SRAF. I gravitated first of all the Award winning beers and thankfully they were all still on with their rosettes proudly displayed.

And the CV from Abbot Brew House was indeed excellent - a definite sweetness upfront, quite resiny, and a lovely bitter spicy finish - I may not have been able to taste all 105 hops but I could certainly tell there was a lot of them present. I wasn't too keen on the Abbot 10:4 (a bit too malty sweet for me) but the quality of the beers from the Abbot Brew House is now very good indeed. Although the Champion Beer of Fife had been judged here one Fife brewery wasn't present, Luckie Ales. From talking to the friendly staff it seems there had been a falling out between the 2 parties a number of years ago and since then there have been no Luckie beers supplied to the Fife Festival (but there has been to the Dunfermline Festival, with the same people ordering). It's a definite shame as I'd had a Luckie Ales Export Helles the evening before and it was quite superb - it would definitely have given the CV a run for its money. I managed quite a few other 1/2's of beer, chatted away to the helpful staff & some fellow punters and eventually decided that my beer of the festival (by a smidgen from Abbot CV) would probably have go to Wharfe Bank The Hawaiian, a dark chocolate coconut milk stout, with a lovely citrus, fruit finish, and that was the one I took as a Carry-Oot for my long bus & train journey back to Glasgow.

Return Journey:
  Bus: Glenrothes to Markinch (numerous, just don't get the 5, it's a good sprint up to Markinch station)
  Train: Markinch to Haymarket (08, 29 on the hour during the afternoon)
  Train: Haymarket to Glasgow Queen St. (every 15 minutes)

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