Friday, 27 November 2015

Social times in North Ayrshire: 21st November 2015

For a first longish walk in ages I had decided to head down to the Renfrewshire/North Ayrshire border, where I could visit a couple of decent pubs before ending up at a real ale 'event' being organised in a local Community Social Club by a number of Ayrshire CAMRA members.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Lochwinnoch (04, 34 on the hour, the slow train to Ayr)

Lochwinnoch is located (unsurprisingly) on a couple of fresh-water Lochs (Castle Semple Loch and Barr Loch) and the surrounding low-lying wetlands are a haven for both wildlife and waterfowl. Just down from the train station is the Lochwinnoch RSPB Reserve and on a crisp, clear Saturday morning in Autumn the car park was pretty full and I could see the frequent glint of binoculars from the ornithologists high-up on the viewing platform.

A well-signposted path led me to the large visitor centre at the eastern end of Castle Semple Loch which was still busy today with cyclists, dog-walkers, rowers and people simply out for a walk in the bright sunshine (the Kenmure Hill Folly can just about be seen at the far end of the Loch).

I had timed my arrival so that after a short walk along the loch-side paths, I was able to continue on to the main street of Lochwinnoch. There are a couple of pubs, cafés & restaurants here but I headed to the opposite site to Castle Semple where the welcoming, stone-clad hostelry of The Brown Bull was waiting for me (and it was good to see a French Tricolour flying between the Saltires).

I've been here quite a few times and this is a lovely, family run pub, with a downstairs area full of hidden away nooks & crannies, an upstairs more formal restaurant, a fantastic, somewhat idiosyncratic beer garden and a low-beamed dark wooden bar area (with bar gantry bedecked with a mass of different bank notes) at the very front. As luck would have it, the real fire in the bar had just been lit as I came in (and additional wood was being brought in by one of the owner's kids) which meant I could peruse the 4 interesting cask beers on hand-pull in a lovely smoky, warming and kindle crackling atmosphere.

Today local beers from Kelburn (Red Smiddy and Ca' Canny) were available as well as Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Brass Castle Northern Blonde, so I took a pint of Northern Blonde (sweetish orange, toffee, quite resiny, bitter orange finish - nice) and sat down opposite the bar. For lunch (note the 12:30pm opening of the kitchen) they do pub classics, fish specials and also burgers, sandwiches & omelettes so, for a change, I ordered the chicken burger and waited with Cate Blanchett as my table companion (ha, if only!) for this to arrive.

This didn't take too long and the thick creamy sauce with the chicken seemed to contrast well with the Kelburn Ca' Canny winter ale that I'd ordered as a follow-up to the Northern Blonde (loads of dark red fruits, slight coffee and almost some warming bourbon sweetness in the finish). Food finished I left the pub and started off on my walk for the afternoon, but it wasn't too long before I had to take care and negotiate my first possible set of obstacles (thankfully none of these furry creatures were about).

It is possible to take the old railway line, which is now National Cycle Route 7, from Lochwinnoch almost all of the way to my final destination today of Kilbirnie/Glengarnock, but I wanted to be somewhat more indirect and go via the town of Beith and so I headed back to Lochwinnoch train station until I reached a turning just past The Loch House restaurant. This took me on a narrow single-track road through the Ayrshire countryside where I encountered no cars at all during the entire 3 mile or so walk to Beith; only the green fields, bare hedges & sparsely snow-speckled hills (and wind turbines) kept me company.

After crossing a fast flowing burn the road forked and I followed the left hand turn up a gradual incline and into the outskirts of Beith. Since my last visit the Masonic Arms on the High Street had stopped selling real ale and been put up for sale by auction, but the nearby Sarcaen's Head Hotel on the road south out of town had started selling Scottish real ale and had even become Ayrshire CAMRA's Pub of the Year in 2015.

This is a fairly large 2-room pub, quite brightly & modernly decorated, with separate sections on either side of the rectangular central bar, a games/pool room further back and some outdoor seating/smoking areas at the very rear. Today the right-side was quite busy with people in for the football results and the racing on the many TVs, and the bar staff were attentive & helpful when I came in. They've had beer from Isle of Skye and Jaw Brewing on the bar, but today a couple of Kelburn ales were present on the 2 hand-pulls, Jaguar and Ca' Canny. I had a 1/2 of Kelburn Jaguar, recently named as Champion Golden Ale of Britain, a lovely, resiny, well-balanced beer, but I would have said it's lost a bit of its quite bitter bite since being first brewed in 2012 (or my tastes have changed, either is possible). Food in the Saracen's Head comes in the form of rolls, paninis and baked potatoes but there is also the option of ordering meals at the bar which come from the next door chippy, Fryer Tuck's Chip Shop (ouch), including a number of daily specials (pizzas, fish on Friday's etc...).

Almost opposite the Saracen's Head it's impossible to miss a very brightly decorated building, the B-Listed Beith Town House. Originally housing a number of shops (as well as a temporary cell for the upstairs Sheriff's Court) it is now used as a local museum and occasional concert venue.

Heading south out of Beith I was able to take a path through a housing estate to get to the main road to Glengarnock and then continued on this road to the junction for the Glengarnock Business Park at Caledonian Road. For some reason the pavement on the main road stops here (but does go into the Business Park) so that I then had to scrabble on the grass verge for a few hundred metres before reaching the outskirts of Glengarnock. Just into the residential area is a large construction project, the £40-Million Garnock Campus, which will host local secondary & primary schools as well as community facilities, and I'm assuming/hoping the pavement will continue all the way along the main road when this is completed in 2016.

There's not too much in Glengarnock, but just after the railway station is an interesting sandstone building - with a faded Kilbirnie Co-operative Society and Drapery signs, as well as a large front facing clock at the top of the building (albeit not working too well), there is an obvious link to the Co-operative Societies and their associated shops of the late 19th/early 20th Century. It seems the ground level of the building had recently been the location of a Jehovah Witness' meeting hall, but most of this level was now in the process of being redeveloped, possibly into a café/takeaway.

I took a footbridge over the River Garnock and then walked past & through the bollarded off road which marks the boundary between Glengarnock and Kilbirnie. At the very end of this road was my final destination, the Garnock Community Social Club (this is fairly obviously the back of the club, too many people were milling about at the front for me to get a decent pic).

From the entrance at the front I made the classic mistake of choosing the wrong room; this was totally empty and I had the fleeting thought I had come to completely the wrong place...

...but eventually by following the music that had started up I managed to find my way to the large function room of the club. After signing in as a guest I bought a number of 1/2 pint tokens (4 for £5, certainly can't complain) and gravitated to the small stillage area at the back of the room.

This was being marshalled by organiser Ian Martin, one of the Ayrshire CAMRA member helping out at the club (Ian normally wears a giraffe hat at beer festivals, today it was a Morris Dancer's, I think there is an endless supply of these). Ian has spent a fair amount of time & effort in making real ale available at the Social Club at weekends and this event was the culmination of all this effort. The beers available were a mixture of local beers (Ayr, Kelburn, Five Kingdoms), other Scottish beers (Jaw, Alechemy), quite a few from further afield and a number of Waulkmill ciders. In particular Ian had managed to obtain a couple of beers from his native London, Hackney Calypso Eldorado and East London Nightwatchman with the latter being quite superb - lots of red fruit bitterness, very smooth and a long dry bitter-fruit finish - an excellent Extra-Special Bitter. In addition, Ian had been able to 'procure' a 'quantity' of 2015 Great British Beer Festival pint glasses for the event, a nice touch (and I didn't want to how he had managed this).

I was only able to stay for about an hour but in that time all the beers that I had were in excellent nick, the place was busy, there were lots of kids milling about, everyone I spoke to was friendly & seemed to be having fun and the music from the local ensemble was great. It's a shame that there are so few social clubs providing decent beer in Scotland, hopefully the Garnock Community Social club can continue to do so for some time.

Return travel:-
  Train: Glengarnock to Glasgow Central (08, 38 on the hour)

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