Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Some large beasts, The Kelpies and a GRAF: 28th June 2014

I really like Andy Scott's public art projects (see my A beer festival, a microbrewery and some art around Alloa blog) and so I had wanted to head to the latest and most ambitious of these, The Kelpies, ever since they'd been officially opened this April but just hadn't had the chance. This weekend a change in plans meant that I could get to the Falkirk/Grangemouth area to see The Kelpies but also make it back in time to sample the atmosphere and the beers of the first Glasgow Real Ale Festival (GRAF) in ~20 years.

View Kelpies in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Falkirk High (every 15 minutes)

It's a bit of a walk from Falkirk High train station to the Forth & Clyde Canal and I needed to zig-zag through a fair amount of Falkirk's back-streets before eventually reaching the canal at Lock Gate 4. Here I joined a lot of walkers and cyclists heading mostly east along the tow-path to the end of the canal.

The canal soon made a sharp right-angled turn to head north into the what has been christened The Helix canal basin area and it's from here that The Kelpies are first seen, dominating the skyline with the backdrop of the Ochil Hills across the River Forth.

It is actually free to walk about the whole Helix basin area, but there's also an ~45 minute guided tour run by Falkirk council which takes place every 30 minutes or so and for all of £4.95 I decided that it was worthwhile (and it was the only way to actually get inside one of the Kelpies). There won't be an official Visitor Centre on-site until 2015 so tickets are purchased from a portacabin next to the car park, but there are fast food stands, ice cream stalls and picnic areas all around the basin area. Our guide Andy (not Andy Scott!) was really very good and a gave us a dramatic & informative account of the history of the surrounding area & the site, the mythology of a Kelpie (a magical water horse with supernatural strength), the real Clydesdale horses that were the inspiration behind The Kelpies and finally how they and the rest of the site were designed & constructed (with the help of a Lottery grant). He then introduced us to both of The Kelpies (named after the Clydesdales), Duke (the head-down Kelpie on the left) and Baron (head-up on the right). There's no doubt that up close these are seriously impressive - they're like a captured instant of massive potential raw power & suppressed motion that could explode into life again at any instant and it's compounded by the fact that the unblinking gaze from Duke seemed to be following us, Mona Lisa-like, all the way around the park.

Whilst Baron seemed to be the most likely to slip it's earthly ties.

Andy then opened the door at the base of Duke to let us inside the Kelpie.

The internal base platform is actually surprisingly small, a wooden 'floor' with a couple of large information panels setup close to the door. Andy then went into full info-dump mode, mentioning that The Kelpies are the largest equine sculptures in the world at over 100 foot high, that they are both clad in 464 stainless steel panels (I would have guessed a lot more, but each panel effectively covers/crosses a number of levels of the structure) and, since they don't overlap and are somewhat slotted, that they leak like the proverbial sieve when a heavy downpour occurs!

However it is the sheer height & complexity of the internal structure which gets you as you crane your neck upwards; a lattice framework of vertical & horizontal steel tubing to which all the external panels are attached. There is an access ladder to a platform probably over half way up but there's no way that would be open to the general public (drats!). This view is looking towards Duke's head.

One fitting element of symbolism is located at the very front of the base platform, a horseshoe from Duke; so a piece of steel from the real horse is present inside the many other pieces of steel making up the Kelpie (and it's hopefully a good luck charm).

The Kelpies point the way along a brand new section of the Forth & Clyde Canal which eventually connects into the Firth of Forth. There used to be a sea loch for this with a number of low bridges & pipelines to navigate past/under which meant that it was really only possible to do so at very low tide. However the new stretch of canal now incorporates an underpass for the M9 motorway, a swing bridge for the A905 and the pipelines are bypassed entirely. As I started off along this part of the canal path those giant Kelpies still took me by surprise every time I glanced back over my shoulder.

At the swing bridge I turned into the outskirts of Grangemouth and cut down past a rugby club and towards the colourfully presented and hanging basket bedecked Auld Toll Tavern (there's also an Auld Toll Shop next door) which I assume was well used when the Toll for vessels was collected at start/end of the Forth & Clyde Canal.

There seemed to be a bar on the left but since I wanted some food I decided on the lounge on the right. I entered into a large open plan room, stopped at the 'Please wait to be seated' sign and was shown by an incredibly polite young lad to a table at the front window. However I did manage to check the bar at the far back of the room, and as well as the standard shiny fonts for Stella, Best, Guinness and Carling there were bottles of Deuchars IPA available in the fridge which was good to see. There were quite a few modern arty prints on the walls and lots of modern tables and chairs available, both at the windows, at the sides and nearer the bar, but I'm guessing some of these get moved away later in the evening when the large PA system limbers up for some live music or karaoke.

The food is basic, good value pub grub, but there were the options of lots of steaks, various mixed grills and an all-day breakfast, but I was happy to go for the chilli & rice, medium hot and pretty good.

On leaving the Auld Toll Tavern I decided to head back to the new section of the canal and followed it for a bit longer until a lock and boat lift on the River Carron before the River Forth.

This was the end of the canal path as far as I could see; I did (somehow) manage to get into a nearby pumping station but there was no way of there past some locked (and barbed-wire) gates so I'm hoping there will be some additional signs for the unwary traveller put up in due course.

Since I was now most of the way into Grangemouth I decided to head into the centre of town and to one of the more interesting JD Wetherspoons about, The Earl of Zetland, a fantastic church conversion.

Here I found another JDW Adnams-international brewery collaboration beer, this time with Bodebrown from Brazil, Cerveja Curitiba Brazilian Pale Ale, but asking the barmaid for 'A Brazilian, please' was somewhat off-putting. Nevertheless this was another interesting collab, quite dark for a pale ale but with a piney bitter, slightly peppery finish and, as always, it was great to drink this in the confines of the converted church, organ-pipes and all.

I then jumped on the bus from Grangemouth to Falkirk bus station (a somewhat circuitous route) and since it was on my way, had time to visit another old haunt, the Wheatsheaf Inn, hidden away from the passing traffic through an alleyway off Falkirk's main shopping precinct.

They normally have something interesting available on at least one of their 4 hand-pulls and today was no exception; Burton Bridge Golden Delicious was calling out to me with a slight sulphur snatch, and a light citrus flavour with a bitter-lemon finish - a very decent golden session ale.

After the climb back up the hill to Falkirk High station I got the frequent train back to Glasgow Queen Street and walked the 10 minutes or so to the southern part of the Merchant City and the Grade-A listed splendour of The Briggait.

This Victorian building used to be the city's fishmarket but had been left mostly empty & decaying for the best part of 20 years before being redeveloped in 2009/10 as a modern, up-to-date artistic space with studios, shop-fronts, exhibition spaces and a quite stunning central courtyard atrium. I was able to head upstairs to get a view of this from the rear and it really is quite spectacular - full of wrap-around balconies, wrought ironwork, soaring columns, high windows and an incredible roof & support structure (thanks to Stewart & Kenny for showing me up here). I think the last Glasgow Beer Festival (at least the last one I went to) took place in the almost claustrophobic confines of The Arches under Glasgow Central station; this really was quite some difference.

The beer festival had setup with the 100 or so casks on stillage (from mostly Scottish and some English breweries) on either side of the courtyard in pretty well alphabetical order with the Franconian bottled beers and ciders/perries at the back. All around the side of these were some large offices, and even during the beer festival they were still in use.

Although what the people working would have made of the Caledonian Pipe Band I don't know. Normally they can be a bit of a distraction but in this space with some great acoustics they actually went down really well.

It's long been a topic of conversation that the city of Glasgow doesn't really have that many breweries (certainly compared to Edinburgh at the other end of the M8) so it was great to see the launch of a new Glasgow-based microbrewery, Jaw Brew, at the festival. Owner and brewer Mark Hazell is now operating out of an industrial unit in Hillington and had provided 2 beers, Jaw Drop and Jaw Drift, and I think he went through at least 3 casks of each of them. Drop was slightly too unbalanced & bitter for me but Drift was far smoother, balanced with more body but still with a bitter citrus finish and a far better 'drop' IMHO. Chatting to Mark I found out that he will also provide a darker beer come the winter months and has a bottling machine on order 'as we speak' so I definitely expect to see a lot more of his beers in various different places around Glasgow and the west - the very best of luck to him.

As usual there were a lot of 'old favourite' Scottish beers available, but some new, interesting beers had been held back and were being put on throughout the Saturday session and since I like to mostly try the new ones (it's the beer ticker in me) my beers of the festival were probably Atom's Rare Earth (a sweet & spicy satay peanut taste, with the saffron possibly keeping it spicy all the way through) & Brass Castle's Bad Kitty (vanilla, cocoa, slight coffee & liquorice and a smooth bitter coffee finish), a new brewery to me which it's always good to come across. All told there was a really nice friendly, relaxed vibe to the place, and it was easy to chat away to the hardworking CAMRA staff & a lot of friends having some interesting, well kept beer in an outstanding venue. After an absence of ~20 years it was great to see a large scale beer festival back in Glasgow and it surely won't be another 20 years until the next one.

Return travel:-
  Bus: Grangemouth to Falkirk Bus Station (4, First in Scotland, frequent)
  Train: Falkirk High to Glasgow Queen St. (every 15 minutes)

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