Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Midsummer happenings around Stonehaven: 20th June 2015

Although I'm originally from the East Coast of Scotland there are still masses of tiny villages & harbours in that lovely part of the country that I've never been to before. This Father's Day weekend I was hoping to walk between a few of them, visit some pubs and then make it up to Stonehaven, where the relatively low key Stonehaven Real Ale Festival had transformed & upgraded itself into the first ever Midsummer Beer Happening.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Bus: Dundee to Johnshaven, X7 Stagecoach (15 Dundee, 28 Panmurefield, on the hour)
  Bus: Gourdon to Stonehaven, X7 Stagecoach (41 on the hour)

The way the bus/train timetables had worked out my best option to get up the East Coast was to take the Stagecoach X7 Coastrider service which picks up from the new-build Panmurefield Village site on the Arbroath Road between Brought Ferry and Monifieth. This meant that I was able to take a leisurely walk from my Dad's house and head to the associated Chef and Brewer pub, The Bell Tree, just to satisfy my curiosity and see what it was like.

It's a Spirit Pub Company (soon to be Greene King) 'classic country pub' similar in style to the Mitchells & Butler Vintage Inns with lots of panelled wood, dark beams, bright downlighters, exposed brickwork, open fires and some nice pictures of old Dundee. It's mostly food led with lots of tables in various parts of the building and on different levels, but there's also an area at the front-right for the discerning drinker. Here I was able to see that they were running a promotion for 3x taster glasses of beer/cider and a snack, so I went for the drinks that were available on hand-pull, Sharps Atlantic (a decent pale ale), Bombardier Burning Gold (a not great golden ale) and Old Rose Elderflower Cider (wow, very sweet) as well as a bowl of cashew nuts; more than OK for £4.99.

It's a nice enough place and good to see that they provide some cask beers, but I'd definitely suggest the nearby Milton Inn in Monifieth for far superior beer, food and just general atmosphere if ever in the area. Once finished I crossed the busy A92 and didn't have long to wait before my impressive Coastrider coach arrived. I bought an East Coast Explorer day ticket and settled back in my leather reclining seat, complete with air-conditioning, reliable WiFi and a charger point (ScotRail take note!). The service is limited stop through Arbroath and Montrose with some great views of the varied coastline and it wasn't too long before I was requesting my stop on the main road above the fishing village of Johnshaven. There's a narrow road down to the shore passing the single 'corner shop' and it also goes by the front of The Anchor Hotel.

There's a bit of a step down at the main door (and a low ceiling, ouch!) but this leads to a front bar with lots of light oak panelling & bright lights, tables set around the central bar, some snob screens between the tables, and models boats, photos & pictures on the walls. There's obviously a nautical/fishing theme in here and I liked this fishing-homage hanging on the far wall.

At just before the end of the lunchtime serving it was still really busy, full of day-trippers and locals both in the bar and the restaurant further into the back of the building, so I decided that ordering a large meal wasn't a good idea and instead went for the Tuna Mayo Toastie option. Beer wise there were 3 hand-pulls, 2 in use today, so I ordered a pint of Golden Sheep (Doom Bar was the other choice, but Burnside beers have been on before and bottles of the mighty Inveralmond Blackfriars were in the fridge) and used the WiFi since there was absolutely no 3G signal at all.

The toasties were great, service was quick and cheerfully done and it was good to see such a busy place doing things well. Also in Johnshaven I found a really interesting arts/craft shop just around the corner from The Anchor, Starfish Studio, selling all sorts of hand-made, locally derived jewellery and gifts...

...another pub/inn, The Ship, which didn't seem to be open (I rattled a lot of doors trying, but it could just have been a timing/opening-hours thing)...

...and of course the lovely harbour (complete with communal clothes drying-line). It's here that the annual Fish Festival is centred around in August and there's also meant to be a spectacular Fireworks display in January.

Nation Cycling Route 1 passes through Johnshaven and I picked this up and followed it north out of the village. Here there's a large caravan site, Wairds Park, which seemed to be a magnet for a small fleet of incoming VW Camper Vans.

I followed the path as it hugged the coastline, though a few swarms of midges which had appeared as the temperature crept up, and after 3 miles or so approached the larger village of Gourdon, set well below the A92 road.

The harbours here (there are 3 of them) have more of a working feel, with a couple of fishing boats coming in as I watched, and there are still a number of large filleting/smoking sheds on the harbourside as well as the adjacent and award-winning Hornblowers Restaurant (upstairs) and fish-and-chip shop takeaway (downstairs).

Located at the start of the western harbour breakwater is the Harbour Bar, blessed with great views over the entire harbour from its front beer garden (and the smoking shed), and the owners also run a small B&B along the street.

Inside is a conservatory/games room with a pool table & juke box, a large TV lounge (which was busy and where the locals seemed to congregate) and also a fantastic small dark wood panelled bar/snug with a number of bar stools.

They only have one hand-pull, normally with an Inveralmond beer, and today it was their light and refreshing Inkie Pinkie. The day's menu was written on a small black-board next to the hand-pull; I should really have tried a crab filled roll, I suspect it would have been incredibly fresh.

As well as the harbour, the main attraction in Gourdon is the small Maggie Law Maritime Museum which houses the eponymous inshore lifeboat that the fishermen of Gourdon bought (and manned) themselves in the late 19th and early 20th century and which helped to save dozens of lives (it was named after the daughter of a local fish curer, Tom Law). Unfortunately this was just closing as I went by so I'll have to re-visit it another day.

Instead I headed up the steep hill from Gourdon waterfront where there some great views of the harbour and also lots of new houses being built (I guess Aberdeen is commuterable from Gourdon), crossed the A92 (again) and waited for the next X7 coach to Stonehaven (dead on time). This went through Inverbervie (there's another great fish-and-chip shop here, The Bervie Chipper) before heading into Stonehaven town centre. The Stonehaven Real Ale Festival used to be held in Stonehaven Town Hall every November but I went to the last one in November 2013 and there was no doubt it had outgrown that venue. Instead the organisers, including Robert Lindsay owner of six°north (bar and brewery) and The Marine Hotel, had decided to relocate to the green expanses of Baird Park just a 5 minute walk away and put-up a large array of interlinked marquees.

There had been some entry issues earlier in the day when queues had snaked down to the entrance of the park, but when I arrived it probably took less than 5 minutes for me to get in and the marshals were more than polite, asking everyone how long they'd been in the queue. I took my nice six°north glass, bought some tokens, managed to meet up with the AleselA people, and then went to find some beer in the main marquee. That wasn't difficult. A huge 4-sided bar-area has been set-up in the centre of the marquee with a seriously impressive choice of both cask hand-pulled beers (about 50 of these)...

...and shiny keg dispense beers (about 50 UK and 20 Belgian), as well fridges full of more Belgian beers.

These were all, amazingly enough, on at the same time, with the organisers having procured up to 3 casks/kegs of the same beer, but even with this planning the most popular beers inevitably started to run out late on Saturday afternoon (no Fierce Beer was left, drats!). Stand-out beers for me were the new Marooned blackcurrant wheat beer from Windswept (seriously dense and fruity), and the Saison Dupont Biologique which I'd never had on draught before (bready, hazy and spicy). Service was fine & cheery (though why people persisted in going to the completely wrong corner of the bars I don't know) and the place never felt that busy (OK, the queuing system for the toilets probably needs a bit of thought for next year) but overall I think the organisers actually pulled off a minor miracle (as well as raising a significant amount of money for the Stonehaven Dialysis Unit and the Sea Cadets). In addition the live music was very good...

...and I liked the old Stonehaven tradition of broken-up slices of bread being set down on the bar as the evening wore on to soak up all (or at least some) of that beer.

All told a really good day out on the East Coast, and maybe even the chance to do it again next year around Midsummer if the dates all work out the same.

Return travel:-
  Bus: Stonehaven to Dundee, X7 Stagecoach (53 on the hour)

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