Saturday, 30 March 2013

Crossing the Forth to the Larbert Beer Festival: 30th March 2013

I try to fit walks around some of the larger local Beer Festivals and so had already developed some tentative plans for a walk around Larbert before the Cromarty Brewing beer cancellation issue at the Larbert Beer Festival had 'blown-up' - see here and here. I seriously thought about not going but because those plans had been made and then subsequently because I'd seen a Facebook post from Kinneil Brew Hoose brewer Stuart Simpson regarding an interesting pub in nearby Kincardine, I decided that it was still worthwhile heading out that way (and even without Cromarty, the proposed beer-list was very good).

View Kincardine in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Bus: Glasgow Buchanan St to Kincardine (Stagecoach X24/26/27 - 10, 30, 50 on the hour)

I actually managed to get into the centre of Glasgow at a decent time and caught the 10:10am bus out of Buchanan St Bus Station heading to St Andrews. This only stops at Cumbernauld and with the new M80 extension fully open this got me into Kincardine far quicker than any train/bus combination through Larbert or Falkirk. After a quick look around the shops dotted around Kincardine it was only just after 11:00am when I found The Unicorn bar/restaurant/hotel situated in the quiet centre of town.

The place dates back to 1639 and was the birthplace of one of the most famous (and most overlooked) Scottish scientists - Sir James Dewar, inventor of the Dewar or Vacuum Flask (I remember a great school physics experiment with a Dewar Flask, dry ice and flower petals) and also the co-inventor of cordite.

The inside certainly doesn't look 17th Century with the front room being a modern brasserie-type place serving breakfast and tea/coffee until 12noon, and then light lunches afterwards. The small bar only had taps for Stella & Guinness (and they were promoting the Diageo-owned (and pretty awful) Jeremiah Weed Brews), but there were bottles of Harviestoun Schiehallion and Bitter & Twisted available behind the bar.

However since it was just past 11:00am I decided to go for a Mocha rather than a beer and ordered a bacon roll to go with this. The bar was festooned with lots of small Easter decorations and there were also home made Easter eggs and home baking available (and which seemed to very popular judging by the number of people coming in for them). The Mocha when it came was probably once of the best I've had - lots of chunky, dark, bitter chocolate which slowly melted in bottom of the glass, but I think I should probably have had a scone with it rather than the bacon roll.

Full of sugar and chocolate I left The Unicorn and walked past a number of small sets of cottages towards the northern bank of the Forth. I think if I hadn't known about it beforehand I would probably have walked past the Railway Tavern - all that was visible from the outside was a metal cigarette box and a small sign with J Dobie, Licensee above the narrow doorway.

The current licensee and owner, Ronnie Dobie, was just opening up when went I went past so I let him get things sorted and then entered this incredible time-warp of a place. The bar is on the left of the doorway corridor and is up there with the smallest bar I've ever seen (I think Ronnie mentioned that 32 people packed in shoulder to shoulder was the absolute limit for the bar, and it's full most weekends). There are only 2 chairs at the bar, an immaculate bakelite bartop, a decent selection of spirits on what seemed to be homemade shelves and a lot of lovely pewter tankards.

Ronnie let me go behind the bar to take a photo of the front of the bar with its 4 red bench seats, red-painted heavy-duty fireplace, old pictures of the bar & a selection of customers and an amazing cabinet full of alcoholic miniatures.

The lounge room on the right hand side of the corridor is (perhaps) slightly bigger, with 2 tables including an extending 5 leg table used for cards, dominoes etc... and the room can also be booked for Stag Dos and other functions. Note that the buzzer marked 'Ring for Attention' still works.

Going back into the bar I made that fatal mistake made by tall people in an old pub and battered my head on the underside of the door - *ouch* and cue laughter from both of us. I definitely needed a beer after that and Ronnie provides the choice of Tennents 60/-, 70/- or Lager from the triple-tap brass font (there's no cellar available for a cask of real ale). However recently he has started selling bottles from the Kinneil Brew Hoose in Bo'ness (Pennvael Amber, Caer Edin Dark & Kincardine Sunset) so I took a bottle of the Kincardine Sunset (a lovely, mellow orangey citrus bitterness) and chatted away with Ronnie for half an hour or so about his family (the pub has been in his family for 4 generations), opening times (only Saturday lunchtime and from 6:30pm in the evenings), the change in beer duty, Glasgow & Kincardine pubs etc... I really had a great time and many thanks to Ronnie for this.

However I needed to get on my way and reluctantly decided to give the Auld Hoose, just down the road from the Railway Tavern, a miss and instead climbed the steps directly opposite to the start of the Kincardine Bridge, built in 1936. The higher central section used to be a swing bridge allowing ships upstream to Alloa, but this hasn't been in use since 1988.

Crossing the Kincardine Bridge gave me great views of the new road bridge slightly upstream, the Clackmannanshire Bridge, completed in 2008 and used for traffic to/from Perth and the M90.

I needed to cross the approach roads to the Clackmannanshire Bridge and it was a lot easier to do this at the main roundabout where there is an island rather than attempt to cross 4 lanes of traffic. This then led me to a decent cycle path and towards one of the large pylons taking electricity across the Forth from the nearby Longannet Power Station. Here I followed a track along the the foreshore of the Forth - the views here are not the best, it's mostly reclaimed farmland and mud-flats with an industrial complex near Alloa just about visible through the haze in the distance.

I took the marked 'Path' and headed inland into the outskirts of the village of Airth to the main road to Stirling and walked up to the T-junction just outside the village to a helpful National Trust for Scotland signpost. About 10 minutes later along a single track road I came to a small car park and the Walled Garden for the Dunmore Estate which holds The Pineapple. Seen from the manicured lawn of the garden this really is a fantastically bizarre folly - a summer house with a roof built to convey the pointed segments and spiky leaves of a flowering pineapple, since this was perceived as an exotic and rarely seen fruit (and hence the 'privilege' of the wealthy) back in the 18th Century when it was built. The structure was a lot larger and the stonework more impressively intricate than I had thought it would be and I believe the summer house can be rented out from the Landmark Trust.

I got out of the way of my fellow tourists looking for the perfect photograph and walked back down to the village of Airth past some interesting terraced houses to old Airth Main Street. The old Market Cross is located here in front of the Elphinstone Inn.

There was no-one in the first room I came to (the larger lounge with pool table), but when I opened the double doors I found a group of guys watching the Football in the smaller bar. There wasn't any interesting beer available so I made do with a half of Belhaven Best and sat with this until the bus was due across the road (it kept me out of the swirling snow for a while).

The bus was fairly late (I had even resorted to phoning the local Airth Taxi which was out on a pick-up) but it did eventually arrive and sped through Carron and Stenhousenuir to get me to the Dobbie Hall and the Larbert Beer Festival in actually pretty good time.

Even mid-Saturday afternoon the Festival was quite busy and the most popular beers were just starting to go off - I managed to snare the Alechemy Mosaic Burst (spicy & bitter/sweet), but missed the DemonBrew Firehead (which might not be brewed again for a while - see here). As per last year it was good to see that some more obscure English beers were available (quite a few Mallinsons single-hop beers were on) and the Penzance Brewing Co. Potion No. 9 was very zesty & refreshing (and one I'm not likely to see again too often). As always the volunteers were great and the large cross-off beer 'money-card' worked well (thankfully it's a lot more difficult to lose this compared to tokens).

I did manage to speak to one of the Festival organisers and it does seem that CAMRA's Scottish Regional Director is on a mission to make brewers differentiate between keg and cask variants of their beer (even if the beer is from the same gyle) by some sort of pump-clip colour change or name change/addition. As stated before I just think this seems very petty when new, local Scottish microbreweries and the great beer they produce should be encouraged as much as possible - only my humble opinion.

Return travel:-
  Train: Larbert to Glasgow Queen St (02, 32 on the hour)

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Along the Three Towns coast (Ardrossan, Saltcoats & Stevenson): 16th March 2013

I hadn't been able to get out for a decent walk outwith Glasgow for some time so when I was finally able to do so I wanted to head to somewhere where I could watch the last of the 2013 6 Nations rugby games and preferably somewhere where there was some decent beer. Thankfully this flyer from the Ardrossan Accies Rugby Club seemed to suggest that here was a place where this was a more than likely possibility so I decided to head off to the Three Towns area of the North Ayrshire coast.

View Ardrossan in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Glasgow Central to Ardrossan South Beach (18, 48 on the hour)

Literally only a stumble across the road from the car park of South Beach train station is the Lauriston Hotel, blessed with great panoramic views of the main promenade, the expanse of South Bay and the Isle of Arran (when visible).

I made a quick (and hopefully nonchalant) inspection through the large front windows, noted that the large modern conservatory seemed pretty quiet early on a Saturday afternoon and so I instead entered the adjoining Lauriston Bar through its separate doorway at the left-hand side of the building. This opened up to a long, fairly narrow wood-clad bar with lots of bar stools and 4 large square tables opposite the bar area. The first impression today was that I had dropped into a Guinness promotion - the place was packed full of St Patrick's Day 'tat' - flyers, ribbons, hats, wrist-bands, balloons and probably lots more besides. It was also packed full of people - a group of guys on a stag doo had commandeered a couple of the tables & most of the front of the bar to watch the early football, so there was a fair amount of banter flying back and forth. There was only Caley Deuchars IPA on hand-pull (as well as Tennents, John Smiths Smooth, Strongbow and Tartan Special(!?)), so I took a half of this, ordered the soup-of-the-day (and some Guinness crisps, curiosity overcame me) and took the last table at the back of the bar. Behind all of the green and black 'tat' were a lot of nautical themed objects - barometers, clocks, displays of knots & model ships and there was also a remembrance memorial picture & a poem to HMS Dasher, an aircraft carrier which sank off Ardrossan in 1943.

When my soup came I also noticed the nautical theme on the table tops - interesting old navigation maps (on mine the 'Western Approach to the Firth of Clyde'). And the soup was excellent, thick & spicy roast pepper with crème fraîche, and (OK, I admit it) the malty toffeeness of the Guinness crisps went down quite well with it.

I left the stag-doo to the rest of their St Pats themed afternoon & evening and walked the short distance past the railway station and the Holm Plantation park to the clubhouse of the Ardrossan Academicals Rugby Football Club.

It had just opened at 12:30 so it was still (very) quiet, but the guy manning the entrance for the glasses and tickets had indicated that it had been pretty busy on Friday evening so the event (only its 2nd time of running) seems to be a definite success (not surprising at £2.50/pint). The beer casks were racked as 2 groups of 6 on gravity dispense and comprised Kelburn Jaguar & Dark Moor, Loch Lomond Ale of Leven & West Highland Way, Strathaven Avondale & Old Mortality, Ayr Leezie Lundie & Jolly Beggars, Fyne Avalanche & Vital Spark and Houston Slainte & Zywiec - a more than acceptable selection of local beer.

The 2 guys who were manning the beer stand had also worked at the Troon Beer Festival last year so we got chatting about the situation at the forthcoming Larbert Beer Festival where Cromarty Brewing's Red Rocker beer order had been cancelled due to a CAMRA rule which warns against the possibility to 'mislead the drinker' between cask and keg versions of the same beer (see blogs here and here). Interestingly enough it seems the Troon Beer Festival had the same issue with Harviestoun Schiehallion last year and so did not take this (though they did take Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted, also seen frequently on keg). I just find it very petty (and not supportive of some excellent Scottish breweries) and I can only hope that this does not lead to more cask beer cancellations at future CAMRA Festivals. As kick-off time for the rugby approached the clubhouse certainly got a lot busier and it was good to have a few 1/2's of decent gravity-fed beer (I quite liked the Polish hop(s) in the Houston Zywiec giving it an interesting mineral-like pils flavour) and also watch the occasional person have their photograph taken in front of a palm tree & beach back-drop and send it to their friends.

I wanted to have a bit of a walk along the long expanse of South Beach promenade and so left the Accies clubhouse fairly early. The promenade still has a number of classic seaside holiday features - large amusement arcade, swing/play park, bandstand and even a crazy golf course (although I don't know if this is still in use).

Further on towards Saltcoats I was just able to see the remains of the saltwater pools that were once part of the Lido bathing complex and also the observation tower on the sea wall which heralds the start of the mass of Braes rocks before Saltcoats harbour - it's a good bracing walk all the way out there.

I decided to head into the main streets of Saltcoats and couldn't really miss the JD Wetherspoon pub, The Salt Cot - this large building used to be the La Scala cinema and entertainment venue until its conversion in 1999.

As per most Wetherspoons on a damp, cold afternoon it was busy with a diverse mixture of people on a number of different seating levels. The 5 hand-pulls had Arran Dark, Ruddles, TSA Glencoe Stout, Batemans XXXB & Deuchars IPA (I should have stayed at the Beer festival) so I took a half of the Arran Dark and sat down for a few minutes. There were a few local 1920's/30's prints about but the most striking print was a large one of a Pierrot troupe who had played at La Scala back in 1924.

As I walked back to the coast along Saltcoats Hamilton Street there was the usual number of small amusement arcades, cafes & take-aways. This one caught my eye - the The Kandy Bar.

It had been awarded Best Scotch Pie 2011 so there was no real choice but to give one a try. And it was good, a nice decent crust, but I've definitely had Scotch Pies with a tastier, more peppery & spicier filling.

Next I wanted to walk along Seaview Road and the path at the water's edge towards Stevenson. It is here that the electrified railway line is really close to the shore (although not as close as us pedestrians). This is the view that is always used on the National News when there is a serious westerly storm & the waves break over the sea barriers and onto the passing trains.

From here it was a walk of a couple of miles past a large caravan holiday park into the lower part of Stevenson and further on into Ardeer. Most of this peninsula is still taken up by what used to be known as the British Dynamite Factory, established by Alfred Nobel in 1873, although it was subsequently renamed and taken over by ICI, and is now part of a Japanese conglomerate called the Inabata Group. Part of the complex seems somewhat run-down, but it's certainly still operational.

Further south along the beach & foreshore I hoped to find an interesting mural, and I could glimpse this and something else from a fair distance away. Bizarrely enough the something else actually turned out to be a silver Subaru Impreza - a couple of young guys had driven out to take their (huge) dog for a walk along the beach. How they had managed to drive across a couple miles of rocky scrubland & beach I don't know - I was impressed.

The mural of Robert Burns is painted directly on the breakwater wall and is approximately 25 feet high by 16 feet across. I think when the Ardeer Youth Group initially planned it it was going to be a lot larger but they couldn't get permission for this. Obviously it's now had some graffiti and some alterations but I'm guessing Mr Burns wouldn't be too bothered about the sunglasses.

I then retraced my steps over the beach & the common-land to walk into Stevenson proper. I went past a fair number of pubs on the way, but I wanted to try the Champion Shell Inn just off the Main Street, a place I'd hadn't been into for probably well over a decade.

It definitely used to sell cask ales (as is advertised by the original hanging sign outside) but inside there were none to be found. I took a Ginger Grouse instead as an alternative since 1/ I hadn't tried it before, 2/ it wasn't a Guinness and 3/ there is still some sort of sponsorship tie-up with the Scotland Rugby team - it was vaguely refreshing but I probably won't ever have another. The pub itself was fine - nicely decorated with a dining area & lounge on the left, bar on the right, and a supposedly haunted function room at the back. The TV was showing the rugby and I managed to alternate my attention between this and some of the prints & items on display on the walls, in particular this one of some mining explosives & detonators - a nice reference to the local Ardeer works.

Return travel:-
  Train: Stevenson to Glasgow Central (15, 45 on hour)