Thursday, 24 April 2014

From Uphall to Livingston Cricket Club: 19th April 2014

Hooray - a lovely Easter Bank Holiday was beckoning with lots of sunshine forecast all weekend. I decided that a good walk through the West Lothian countryside and some of its country parks was called for, stopping off at a few pubs and ending up at the Livingston Cricket Club Beer Festival.

View Uphall in a larger map

Outward journey was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street Low Level to Uphall (21, 51 on the hour)

I needed to get to the other side of the platform at Uphall Station but couldn't find a bridge or an underpass so I had to head down to the traffic lights at the bottom of the road and then back up the other side. Thankfully the path to East Calder was far better signposted, at the very far end of the platform.

The path is a disused railway line and it took me through tree & flowering bracken lined fields and also curved past the fishing platforms at Pumpherston Pond.

This continued in the same vein for a ~3 miles and was a more than pleasant walk in the warm spring sunshine. Eventually I came to the Camps Viaduct over the River Almond. It's a pretty high viaduct and the views here both up & down the river valley are quite spectacular.

I decided to keep going along the old railway path until it emerged into the main street of East Calder. Just along the road is The Grapes, a really nicely presented building, where I'd hoped there might be some tasty Alechemy Brewing beer.

There's a large spacious main bar (and a function room where a group of girls were setting up a birthday cake), and they seem to do decently priced pub grub including various filled rolls, but neither of the 2 hand-pulls had anything on them at all (it seems there was a change of ownership last November) and so after slaking my thirst with a cold bottle of Becks I headed back along the path to the Camps Viaduct. At the north end of the viaduct I found a steep set of steps leading down to the valley floor (I think there must have been about 60 steps in total).

There's a cycle path and walkway here along the feeder canal for the main Union Canal but also some scrub-land giving great views back to the viaduct and also access to the river where there were a lot of folk fishing today.

I followed the path as it wound its way along the River Almond, criss-crossing both banks and taking in a number of small weirs.

Just after the weir at the confluence of the River Almond and the Linhouse/Murieston Waters I headed up through a small car park and into Mid Calder. On the main thoroughfare of Bank/Market/Main Street I found a number of eating establishments, the Toripchen Inn (which seemed quiet/closed), Khushis Indian Restaurant (great food and BYOB) and The Black Bull, initially really busy but which emptied in almost a heartbeat just after I arrived to allow the regulars to get on the football coach for today's Livingston FC game.

There are 2 very separate sections of the building - downstairs (right hand side) is the pub where football is the main source of entertainment & conversation and upstairs (left hand side) where there is a large area for dining and also a welcoming bar complete with standing space and a number of bar stools. The bar has a tall wooden gantry extending to the ceiling, large brass hanging lanterns and a dark wooden floor with the wood effect extending to the partial dividing screens and the panelling in the dining area. On the 2 hand-pulls today were Deuchars IPA (permanent) and Houston Killellan Bitter (I was just slightly too early for promised Harviestoun Broken Dial), but I was happy enough to take a pint of Killellan (light & lemon citrussy, but perhaps not quite as tasty as when Carl Wengel was making it a couple of years ago) and let the helpful staff take my order.

There is some pretty adventurous food available all day and lots of specials on the blackboard but I reverted to type and went for the soup-and-sandwich deal, today a thick & creamy Cauliflower & Chive, Ham & Tomato sandwiches and salted tortillas.

It seems like a real community place; everyone was friendly, the service was great and they put on a lot of gigs (the one for Easter Sunday was was advertised as '9pm til Late'), quizzes & promotions. Meal and beer finished I walked back down the main street where an large information sign was detailing the start of the Almondell and CalderWood Country Park, located just below the high level bridge.

There are numerous paths here along the Linhouse & Murieston Waterways, all quite well defined and they took me through some dense woodland, areas of more desolate moorland, patches of colourful spring flowers and past a number of small waterfalls - it seems as if a lot of it has been left to grow with minimal intervention. I saw lots of birds, some squirrels and even a deer (I'm not sure who was more spooked, me or the deer).

Following the path in a vaguely south-west direction along Murieston Water eventually took me under a number of main roads in Livingston and then up into a housing estate near Livingston South train station. I headed past a lot of large houses along Murieston Valley until I could see banners waving in the slight breeze outside Livingston Cricket Club.

The Cricket Club were holding their 3rd Annual Beer Festival in association with Livingston Round Table and it was only a matter of buying social membership for the Club (valid for the year), getting a glass, and then being able to choose from the 12 cask beers that were available. This included a selection from local brewery Alechemy, Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, Windswept, Tryst and DemonBrew (it's great to see DemonBrew Dave back (he's currently brewing at Tryst) and his Firehead still has that great balance, but lovely, very bitter grapefruit finish that it's always had). All these were available for £2.50/pint over the weekend and then sold off for £1/pint on Easter Monday evening, outstanding value.

It was here at Livingston Cricket Club exactly 2 years ago that Alechemy made their first public appearance; it's certainly been a rapid and very successful expansion for the enthusiastic Dr James Davies and his expanded team just along the road in a (now packed) Livingston industrial unit. They have a great range of core beers, seem to launch new beers all the time and also come up with the occasional 'curve-ball', one of which was available on the bar this weekend - 10-Storey Malt Bomb, a seriously sweet, malty & toffee Brown/Scotch Ale with a great depth of flavour from the 10 different malts used (great name too). Today it was such a pleasant change to be able to take this beer and a couple of others outside into the sunshine, grab a seat and watch some lads practice cricket in the nets and on the outfield (cricket & beer work well together). Unfortunately I had to leave early because of a cancelled train (the ScotRail App wins through again), but it was good to make an appearance at this friendly place.

Return journey:-
  Train: Livingston South to Glasgow Central (15, 58 on the hour)

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Cake (but mostly beer) around Kendal: 12th April 2014

I'm hopefully going to try a few longer journeys in the next 6 months or so, not that I've exhausted the 'nearer' pubs and beer festivals by-any-means, but just that it's good to try some different pubs, serving beers from breweries that I've never heard of before. Cumbria will certainly be one of those destinations (for some reason I've yet to visit the Hawkshead Beer Hall at Staveley), but today there were 2 beer festivals taking place within walking distance of each other in Kendal which gave me an easy excuse to visit this South Lakes Market Town.

View Kendal in a larger map

Outward journey was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Oxenholme (Lake District) - 08:40, 09:40 more...
  Bus: Oxenholme Station to Kendal - 41/41A, 32, 58 on the hour

On getting off the train at Oxenholme I did think about just walking into Kendal town centre (probably a good 35-40 minutes hike), but the bus was due in less than 5 minutes so it wasn't really worthwhile. I got off at the Shakespeare Inn (a couple of stops before the main bus station) and it was easy to spot the entrance archway for The Brewhouse at Burgundy's along Tanners Yard across the road (there is also a less enticing entrance to Burgundy's Wine Bar on the busy main road).

The cobbles were fairly wet & slippery today, and there's also not that much room in the corridor between The Brewhouse and the high stone wall for the car-park (deliveries must certainly be interesting!).

It was probably just before the noon opening time, but the door to The Brewhouse was open so I entered the bright modern bar, complete with gleaming brewkit set pride-of-place behind the bar and 12 hand-pulls providing the beers for their latest Cumbrian Beer Challenge (there were also 8 more upstairs in the Wine Bar).

Burgundy's was initially setup as a Wine Bar in 1986 but they've been serving real ale & continental beers for quite a number of years. Owner Mike Pennington then opened up The Brewhouse at Burgundy's in the adjacent buildings behind the Wine Bar in 2011 and the in-house Kendal Brewery with help from Peter Goldsborough (ex-Moorhouse Brewery) and Hans Krüger (ex-Derwent Brewery). Now it is run by head brewer Vernon Seymour and he was busy setting up today when I came in, but he happily welcomed me, and was able to chat a bit whilst serving, cleaning, taking bookings and also doing some of the lunchtime cooking for The Brewhouse (a man of many talents). Vernon was good enough to unlock the brewing room to let me see the shiny kit up close - it's a 2.5BBL plant with 4 main vessels: Mash Tun, Copper, a dual use Fermenter/Conditioning Tank and another separate Conditioning Tank.

This setup means they can only brew twice a week at most, with ~75% of the beer being consumed in-house and the reminder mostly going to various beer festivals around Cumbria. They've tried to recreate some of the historical recipes from the last Kendal brewery, Whitwell, Mark & Co., which closed in the 1970's (and who were based in the Kendal Brewery Arts Centre buildings), but Vernon admitted they've had to use their best judgement for some of the quantities involved. They've also gone with some more modern hop-forward type beers such as the hoppy Webster's Amber Ale and this Eleven Bells - a nice light citrusy, lemon-sherbety pale ale.

There are quite a few different areas in The Brewhouse - as well as the main bar with lots of bistro-style seating (also eggs for sale on the bar (£1.85/6, free range) and paintings for sale on the walls), there's an area at the back with comfy seats and a fireplace...

... and then there are more seats in a separate room at the front with a tempting FussBall Table (and that doesn't even include the original Wine Bar and another mezzanine area associated with it upstairs and to the front of the building).

As well as the Cumbrian Beer Challenge they were also promoting this weekend as a 'Beer and Sausage Festival' and I was really looking forward to trying either the Watson & Woollard Pork & Kendal Brewery Grisleymires Stout sausage or the Higginsons '9 inch' sausage, both made by (competing) local butchers, but unfortunately these were only available after 6pm when more staff are available - drats! So instead I could have gone with a number of the bar tapas selections, but eventually decided on the Brewhouse Beef Goulash, with lovely brown bread and all washed down with a very good Goodhew's Dry Irish Stout from Barngates Brewery (coffee, dark chocolate & liquorice with a long, slightly bitter & dry(!) finish).

I did manage a few other 1/2's from some more breweries that I'd never heard of, with my favourite being this light & citrusy Welly Blonde by Healey's Brewery (the pump-clip is slightly unusual as well, a good marketing ploy).

After thanking Vernon for his time (and dropping off an Islay Ales beer for him) I headed off to join the busy throng of people in Kendal town centre. I wouldn't normally have done this on a Saturday afternoon but there was a Booths supermarket just up the road from Burgundy's, and this was worth a flying visit, both for a train beer and for some to take home to Glasgow. Their bottled beer selection really is very good (supposedly 200+), especially for Cumbrian, Yorkhire & Lancashire beers (Saltire, Little Valley, Hawkshead, Hardknott etc...), and it puts most of the Scottish-based supermarkets to shame.

I then started to make my way out of the town centre, but stopped by the Kendal Brewery Arts Centre. It's a lovely setting and this was where the old Kendal brewery, Whitwell, Mark & Co., was located with the buildings now containing a theatre, exhibition rooms and a cinema, as well as a bar/restaurant. However with only a couple of Greene King beers on in the bar I decided I wasn't going to stay there when there were lots more interesting beers available elsewhere.

Instead I headed though some more archway passageways to a park down by the River Kent, over a footbridge...

...and then up Sunnyside road to a stile where Kendal Castle and its grounds could be glimpsed on the hilltop.

The 13th Century castle is very much a ruin (although it is a really well preserved & cared-for site), and there's a high path that circumnavigates it completely (I'm assuming there was originally a deep moat between the path and castle) giving great views of the ruins.

I then half walked/clambered down off the hill, past some football pitches and up under the railway line to the main road out of Kendal to the M6 motorway. One of the entrances to the Castle Green Hotel is here but it's the delivery and leisure club entrance so instead I walked up the road a hundred yards or so, crossed over and entered hotel by the main entrance. It's a pretty big, classy hotel with the detached stone-clad Alexanders The Pub situated at the very northern edge of the sprawling site.

The staff were really friendly & helpful and shepherded me past all the diners at the front of the pub to the small bar area at the back. With 4 (fairly) local beers available on hand-pull I took a 1/2 of Bowness Bay WWW (named after William Wavell Wakefield; British Lions rugby player and politician), another light, lemony golden ale.

By now it was just past the 2pm opening of the beer festival so I headed out of Alexanders, up some steps and into the main Function Room of the Castle Green Hotel where it was being held.

It was all very quiet, calm and echoey inside (not at all like the start of a normal Beer Festival), but then I think it had been a long night for those concerned and the band weren't due on until ~7pm. In fact all the hand-pulls were still turned off and it needed some good natured coaxing to the staff to get them turned back on again. I then needed to buy a (refundable) glass for £1, but decided against a scratch-card of 8 beers for £12 (I didn't think I'd have time to try that many, but looking back I think I came quite close) and just paid-as-I-drank.

Bowness Bay Brewery seemed to be the main festival sponsor with a 2-litre bottle of their Waterbird Wheat up for grabs through a raffle (the beer itself perhaps needed a bit of texture but had loads of lovely spicy ginger, lemongrass & lime flavours), and it was great to try beers from Marlpool Brewing, Tigertops Brewery and Lancaster Brewery. However a couple of the more interesting beers came from a really new and really small 'nano'-brewery, Brewshine in Kendal, who were making their first public appearance this weekend and for whom the term 'garage' brewery is literally true. They had a couple of small casks almost hidden away from sight with Silly Billy (a lovely balanced bitter, malty, really crisp with a nice red fruit bitter finish) and Billonde (light, lemon/lime with a grapefruit bitter finish) available. It's obviously difficult to scale up an almost homebrew setup to 'commercial' levels but at least these guys have the base beers to give themselves a great starting point.

As the place filled up I chatted away with the staff and some of the customers about local breweries, festivals and pubs to visit, and I also gave my recommendations of places to visit in Scotland (look out Fyne Ales Brewery Tap Room); it was a certainly a nice, friendly place to spend an afternoon trying some new beers. However I did need to leave and just to be sure I'd catch my specific train back up-north I'd booked a taxi from outside Alexanders to Oxenholme Station. It was a tad late, but it still managed to get me the couple of miles or so to the Station with some time to spare (I had thought about walking it, but there were no paths at all on the fairly narrow roads, grrr...). This and the fact that the train was running late meant that I could drop into the Station Inn at the top of the hill from the Station.

There's a large beer garden and a lot of child-friendly apparatus available outside (swings, slides, climbing frames and even some inquisitive alpacas(!) to look at) but I really liked the Crazy Golf at the far end of the car park (which must be fun after a few pints!).

The pub was an interesting mixture of new/modern & old/traditional with a large conservatory-style dining area with loads of tables and a nice dark-panelled bar complete with 4 hand-pulls, today with Hawkshead Bitter, Moorhouse Blond Witch, Brains Bitter and Taylor Golden Best available.

For some unknown reason I'd never had a Hawkshead Bitter before so I managed a quick half of that (a really well-balanced *bitter* bitter) before walking down the hill (there were footpaths here, hooray!) to the entrance of Oxenholme Station. Since my train was being further delayed I headed into the yard of the small number of industrial units at the east side of the station entrance and found a great takeaway coffee shop & bakery, Lovingly Artisan. They were just closing but I managed to quickly order a mocha and a seriously tasty piece of homemade crumbly shortbread (no Kendal Mint Cake), and also found out that the following week they were just about to set up some permanent outside seating for the summer season. Good luck to them - it's certainly a far more appealing option that waiting for a train on one of the station platforms.

Return journey:-
  Train: Oxenholme (Lake District) to Glasgow Central (frequent...)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Around the Arrochar Alps Real Ale Festival: 29th March 2014

There does seem to be quite a lot of new, smaller beer festivals cropping up nowadays (Ardrossan, Fairlie and Bankfoot to name just 3 in the last 6 months or so), and they all seem to be really well supported by the local community, great to see. This weekend there was to be another one of these in the picturesque village of Arrochar at the very head of Loch Long, and with some good travel options from Glasgow it was an easy decision to head up (fairly early) on Saturday morning.

View Arrochar in a larger map

Outward journey was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Arrochar & Tarbet (10:37, 12:21)

To get to Arrochar I connected into the West Highland Line train to Oban and if you sit on the left side of the train there are some great views across the Firth of Clyde and up the spectacular Clyde Sea Lochs (there were a lot of photos being taken from the train, even today). On leaving at the small Arrochar & Tarbet station I headed down to the main road between the two villages to see if the converted church on the roadside was open or not. The last time I was here it was Rustlers and there were also plans to also incorporate a Clan Heritage Centre, but it seems that all fell though, and after being closed for a bit has now re-opened as Slanj Bar & Restaurant.

It looks as if it's only open Friday, Saturday & Sunday at the moment, but as of next weekend (the start of the Scottish school holidays) it should be open 7 days a week until the end of summer. I did have a quick look through the windows and couldn't see any hand-pulls, but it may be that there is some decent bottled beer available. I then headed along the main road until the Church Street turning and took this down to the A814 coast road. About a mile or so further on past some shops and an arts/craft studio is The Village Inn, with a busy car park and a 'No Vacancies' sign posted outside.

There are a lot of outside tables here with (normally) great views of the Arrochar Alps (including the anvil shaped summit of Ben Arthur, or The Cobbler), but today there was just too much low cloud and a really quite chill easterly wind to enjoy it all properly.

On entering the Inn there's a centre corridor which leads off on the right to the main restaurant and on the left to the smaller bar/lounge. I headed into the bar/lounge and waited at the back bar until someone came through to serve me. The dark wooden bar has a lot of military shields mounted overhead as well as water jugs, trophies, soda dispensers and carry-oot cartons and there's a good amount of standing space. Normally there's a pretty diverse range of beer (Loch Lomond, Fyne Ales etc...), but today it was just a tad disappointing - Arran Clyde Puffer, Orkney Northern Light, and Caley Deuchars IPA & 80/.

There's only about 6 tables in the bar, so I took the smallest (all the tables were full by ~12:40), and sat down with my Northern Light, although I was starting to think it was probably an Arran Clyde Puffer that I'd ordered/been given (not a problem). It's a nice bar - full of olde Scottishe stuff with, not one, not two, but three stags heads, a claymore, muskets, a shield, hanging brass jugs, an impressive candelabra in centre, photos of old Arrochar & fishing catches, tartan curtains, mirrors, and a fire in an exposed stone fireplace to heat everyone up.

I had been 'persuaded' (as if) by the barstaff to try the soup-of-the-day (beef & vegetable) and I wanted something slightly more substantial to have before quaffing a few beers, so I went for a baked tattie with haggis & neeps. I thought the soup might just come in a mug, but no, the wide-bowled plate of soup and tattie pretty well covered most of the available table space.

The soup was great, the beef adding to the texture of the soup, but the baked tattie was excellent, almost burnt skin & a lot of rich pepper sauce to go with the haggis & neeps and I just about managed it all. I needed at least a bit of a walk after all that carbohydrate and so after finishing the meal I headed up the A814 road, past a whole load of hotels & B&Bs and to the bridge over the river at the head of Loch Long where the views down the length of the loch are at their best (even on a day like today).

There are some mudflats and a saltmarsh here that attracts a lot of bird-life, but there's also been a lot of rubbish/detritus washed up this year (not that my wooden friend was too bothered).

Heading back down to the centre of the village I came to one of the other hostelries in Arrochar, Ben Arthur's Bothy.

It's a pretty basic 2 room pub, with a long lounge at the back serving food, and a minimalistic bar at the front (with pool table taking pride of place), although the accommodation upstairs is meant to be pretty impressive. There is a hand-pull on the bar, but nothing was on it today, so I just took a 1/2 of Belhaven Best and went to sit outside at one of the many tables overlooking Loch Long.

It would be a great place in the summer, but with the wind whistling in from the east today I wasn't going to last long out there. I therefore headed back past the main road junction and to the venue for the Arrochar Alps Real Ale Festival, the Three Villages Hall.

It's quite a new place, only opened in 2010 after a significant amount of community fundraising and it also takes in the adjacent Three Villages Café and Pit Stop takeaway (I've had many a great poke o'chips from here). Inside there's a gym, exhibition spaces, meeting rooms for clubs and all sorts of classes are run. Some very friendly people greeted me, showed me where to buy my tokens and sent me on my way into the main hall. I obviously gravitated first of to the casks setup on stillage at the far end of the hall which were arranged in terms of colour/style (left to right, light lager to dark stout). They had chosen 10 Scottish beers from the Highlands & Islands, consisting of the following (I'll go from left to right as well) - Isle of Skye Tiny Angels, Fyne Ales Avalanche, Cairngorm Tradewinds, Thorn Dhu Saltire, Windswept APA, Oban Bay Kilt Lifter, Spey Valley David's Not so Bitter, Orkney red McGregor, Loch Lomond Bravehop Dark and Lock Ness DarkNess.

There was one change from that advertised in the program, Black Isle Red Kite wasn't available, but instead there was a beer from the very new and very small Thorn Dhu brewery at Lochgair (on the road to Lochgilphead), their Satire. This was a really, really nice surprise, and a very, very nice beer - some red fruit, almost rye spiciness and then a long, clean, bitter finish. I'd actually just missed meeting the brewer as he'd been sampling his own beer (and the competition's) just an hour before, but found out that he only supplies a few places in Argyll including The George Hotel in Inverary, the Kilmartin Hotel and the Argyll Arms Hotel in Ardrishaig, so it was a boon to see this here.

I managed quite a few other 1/2s (all in great condition) and it was good to have a chat with some of the organisers about beer in the local area, find out how the festival was going (beer was definitely going to sell out early and there were bottles in reserve) and listen to something a bit different compared to the standard beer festival music - this was supplied by Kintraw, a duo of harp, pipes & drum (a different class of music up here). The main hall is also very distinctive with a set of almost whale-bone shaped arch-type beams, a lot of natural light and they've designed in a number of energy efficiency systems to keep the running costs down.

And as a bonus I was even able to take the private hire bus that was operating between the Three Villages Hall and Helensburgh, which meant that I didn't have to wait for the late afternoon train from Arrochar & Tarbet (donations were made accordingly to the Festival charity, MND Scotland).

Return journey:-
  Bus: Private hire, Three Villages Hall to Helensburgh
  Train: Helensburgh Central to Glasgow Queen St. (10, 40 on hour)