Saturday, 1 August 2015

A cycle loop around lower Loch Lomond: 24th July 2015

I hadn't managed a cycle anywhere this year, the weather really has been pretty poor for the majority of this summer of 2015, but with the possibility of a slight improvement for the next couple of days I decided a trip out to the Bonnie-Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond to visit a few pubs was a worthwhile risk to take.


Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow to Dalreoch (11, 23, 41, 53 on the hour)
  Water Bus: Balmaha to Luss (13:10, 14:20, 15:30, summer 2015)

I headed first of all to Dalreoch where the train line splits to either Balloch or Helensburgh and where it also happens to intersect with Nation Cycle Route 7 along the western bank of the River Leven. Along the winding route I came across a few gates & cattle grids (for the animals that can graze along the river bank) but it's mostly flat and was quite busy with (serious) cyclists & walkers. I crossed the Leven by the Bonhill Bridge at Alexandria, took the path up the hill and eventually connected with the fairly steep Auchincarroch Road out of Jamestown, just to the south of Balloch. This road eventually narrowed, but was very quiet, and after a few miles high-up on the hillside I re-joined Cycle Route 7 (which had detoured into the centre of Balloch). This took me to the small village of Croftamie where I decided that I could ride along the main road for a few miles before crossing the Endrick Water and then turning off towards Drymen. Drymen is a busy place during the summer being the start of the Rob Roy Way and just off the West Highland Way, with a number of hotels, B&Bs, a good bike shop (Peloton Bikes), cafés & pubs both heading into and on the main village square (I'd previously visited The Clachan).

However this time I had decided to try The Drymen Inn, just slightly along Stirling Road, with a great front conservatory restaurant and a number of outside seating areas at the back. (I locked my bike up to the rear beer garden staircase.)

Inside there was also quite a lot of space, both around the bar where there were some comfy low sofa seats & coffee tables, and at both sides of the bar around the stone walls, the fireplaces and the wooden fixtures - it's a good mixture of traditional and the more contemporary.

The hand-pulls are situated on a slightly built-up section of the bar-top and today it was good to see both a light beer (Skye Gold) and a darker one (Fyne Ales Maverick).

I took a pint of the Maverick (malty, smooth, a nice nutty-bitter finish), a glass of water, ordered some food and then decided it was only fair to the staff to go and change my T-shirt. The chef seems pretty good here, there was an interesting choice of main meals and grilled specials, but I went for the Coronation Chicken sandwich with some chunky fries. This was certainly full of spicy pieces of chicken in a thick sauce and the use of a napkin was absolutely essential.

I next had to take the road from Drymen to Balmaha which has had the recent addition of a tarmac'd combined cycle/footpath for part of the way. This was great when it existed, but when it ran out the non-tarmac'd pavement was still pretty muddy, gravelly and beset by low hanging branches and so it made sense to hop on the road at those points. I went past the holiday homes at the Loch Lomond Waterfront resort and then it wasn't long before I was pulling up at the lovely Oak Tree Inn. Nowadays this is a sprawling collection of buildings which comprises the original pub/restaurant, standard & bunkhouse accommodation, an ice cream parlour/café and the village shop (they even provide a 'comfort partnership' facility since the public toilets in main car park now operate only limited hours). (Bike stands are available outside the ice cream parlour.)

Both the main inside bar/lounge and the outside beer garden at the Oak Tree were busy as usual, but it it only took a few minutes to percolate to the front of the small rear bar counter and peruse today's hand-pull selection. There were beers available from Loch Lomond, Fallen Brewing and a Belhaven house lager, but the only beverage available from the in-house Balmaha Brewery was a cider/perry, Balmaha Pider (ouch!).
(sorry for the poor photo!)

I had hoped to talk to owner/brewer Sandy Fraser (the Frasers have owned the Oak Tree for a long, long time) about the Balmaha Brewing Company (he wasn't available), but it seems they still brew some in-house beers & ciders from the tiny in-house kit developed in conjunction with Douglas Ross of Bridge of Allan/Tinpot. However they have been hoping to move into larger brewery/smoke-house premises, separate but still adjacent to the Oak Tree, sometime in 2015 (it wasn't clear if this is still going to be the case from the small amount of information I was able to obtain today) but the Balmaha’s Braw Weekend is scheduled for the 3/4th October this year so here's hoping the new brewhouse will be ready for then. Instead I was more than happy to bag a table outside in the shadow of the eponymous oak tree and enjoy my Pider (very sweet pears, apples & pomegranate with a slightly sour lemon finish).

Having finished the Pider (at a hefty abv of 6% I decided against having another one), I went into the ice cream parlour to see what was available. I don't think the ice cream was selling too well due to the Scottish summer weather but the White Chocolate and Raspberry Crunch was fantastic and as good as anything I'd had for quite some time.

With a bit of time to spare I headed down to the Balmaha boatyard to check out some of the Loch Lomond cruises for a few friends and then walked further down from the Oak Tree to the actual lochside. It's here that the statue of walker, writer & broadcaster Tom Weir is located, which was officially unveiled on 29th December 2014, the 100th anniversary of his birth. It's an impressively life-like bronze statue (complete with trademark bobble-hat) and I think Mr Weir would be impressed with the great backdrop of lower Loch Lomond and the loch islands.

There are a number of Loch Lomond cruises which start at the Balmaha boatyard (and also at Balloch, although the famous Maid of the Loch is currently undergoing a complete overhaul), but there has also been a water bus service operating between the piers at Balamaha and Luss for the last couple of years. I had timed the mid-afternoon connection fairly well and for £7 for a single trip (£9 for a return, bikes go free) this was well worth the effort of getting out to Balmaha.

The service was being well used today (mostly by visitors judging by the accents I eavesdropped on) and there was the option of either a warmer inside seat or sitting outside at the back around the sides of the small vessel (albeit some diesel fumes did waft my way). However what I did get by sitting there were great views of the Loch Lomond islands, the sealife/wildlife (including the occasional wallaby (honest!) on Inchconnachan), canoeists, speed boats, swimmers and panoramic views north up the length of the loch with Ben Lomond and the western hills of The Trossachs in the distance. It's certainly an impressive wee trip.

It was only a journey of about half an hour across the loch until Luss pier came into view (although we were delayed by quite a few minutes by a tardy cruise boat) with the heavily forested Beinn Dubh hill prominent behind Luss.

I thanked the guys for taking my bike off the water bus and headed off down the road from the pier. Luss is very much a tourist haven during the summer (far busier than Balmaha), with a number of cafés, gift shops, a small museum and at the end of the pier road, the large Loch Lomond Arms Hotel. (I tied my bike to the car park fence.)

I hadn't been here since its first opening weekend almost 3 years ago, and it's definitely become a very slickly run establishment. The bar staff were friendly & efficient, they were more than helpful in finding everyone who came in that afternoon the table that they wanted, and beer-wise they seem to have settled on Loch Lomond Brewery ales and WEST St Mungo lager - no complaints from me with that selection.

I decided to stay in the centrally located bar area for my 1/2 of Loch Lomond West Highland Way (a new recipe tag was present, more lemony-g/fruit citrus bitterness than before?) before starting off on my cycle back to Balloch on the Loch Lomond cycle path. It's a fairly flat, easy path but I think I must have followed a wrong sign-post close to the Loch Lomond Golf Club (I had to lift my bike over a gate), but I eventually made it past Duck Bay before reaching the large expanses of Loch Lomond Shores car park. Normally I would indulge in some retail therapy (Jenners/House of Fraser do some decent bottled beers) but this time I bypassed the shopping units and continued on Old Luss Road to the very new Marstons establishment, the Queen of the Loch, which includes an adjacent 27 room lodge. (There are excellent bike stands between the pub and the lodge.)

Inside it's pretty similar to the Steam Wheeler at Braehead; from a food point-of-view they seem to specialise in carvery a bit more and as always the tempting desserts & cakes are on show at the front. On the 6 hand-pulls are some permanent (Pedigree, Hobgoblin) and some seasonal beers from Martons & their regional breweries (Ringwood, Jennings, Banks's, Wychwood and Brakspear) but this time there didn't seem to be the option of a flight tray, so instead took a 1/2 of the Ringwood Best Bitter (a bit too malty sweet) and headed out into the rear beer garden through the patio-style doors. This is quite extensive with a shaded canopied area and also quite a few individual large benches and must really be a sun trap come late afternoon & evening.

From the Queen of the Loch it was only a 2 minute or so cycle into the centre of Balloch and I headed past the Tullie Inn (without stopping, which must be a first), across the bridge over the Leven, past The Balloch House (again without stopping, this was becoming very strange) before arriving at The Dog House, just before the entrance to Balloch Country Park. (Bike stands are available across the main road.)

This used to be a managed Maclays pub, but when the group was put into administration early in 2015 it was transferred over to LT Pub Management and not sold off to Stonegate (who have bought The 3 Judges, Tullie Inn etc...). Irrespective of all the management changes the place still promotes itself as very dog friendly (as per the name), there was a busy rear bar full of locals and the front bar/lounge has had a modern, light re-vamp and looked very inviting (although I don't think they do any food).

It was also great to see that there was now a single hand-pull available and it looks as if they will be selling a Loch Lomond Brewery beer for the foreseeable future, plus there were branded bar mats, towels & signage around the interior - these local tie-ups can only be a good thing. And the Loch Lomond Southern Summit was excellent (great condition, loads of grapefruit citrus bitterness and an earthy dry finish) albeit in a somewhat non-Loch Lomond Brewery glass! I even stayed for another before eventually forcing myself to wheel my bike across the Leven to Balloch train station.

Return travel:-
  Train: Balloch to Glasgow (23, 53 on the hour)

2 comments:

  1. Great trip. Couple of establishments I've not been in that you mention and one (Tullie) that I've no plans to ever go back into after last couple of visits due to extortionate prices and incompetent staff. Love Loch Lomond brewery and good to see that they're expanding their territory over there - well deserved.

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  2. Cheers, Gordon. Yup - shame about Tullie, def needs some decent staff (& management)

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