Friday, 5 February 2016

Heading back along the Union Canal at Linlithgow: 16th January 2016

During a seriously cold and possibly snowy winter's weekend, it doesn't make too much sense to head out on any long walks out-with the beaten path, so instead I decided that a walk along the canal path from Linlithgow was a good way of expending some calories, especially with a number of newish pubs around Linlithgow, Polmont and Falkirk to visit.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Linlithgow (15, 45 on the hour)

When in Linlithgow a walk around the small, but perfectly formed, Linlithgow Loch is always worthwhile, especially on days like today when the loch was partially frozen and looking somewhat ethereal in the still conditions. A few birds were happy to perch on the thin ice but there was no chance that this was thick enough for a fully formed human being.

Also worthwhile is a visit to Ellie's Cellar, one of a chain of great local (& independent) beer and wine shops (in Linlithgow the classy sit-down area at the front allows some great High Street people watching). On the large number of shelves allocated to bottled beer I found a good choice of more established and local brews, with a neatly arranged display of newly-formed Edinbrew bottles and they also stock a selection from the nearby Kinneil Brew Hoose. New to me was their Espré Bean, a coffee infused Scottish Ale, but I'm not quite sure why brewer Stuart had put this into clear bottles (admittedly the small batch wouldn't have taken long to sell out and it does mean that you can see the coffee bean at the bottom of the clear glass).

I then walked past the West Port area of Linlithgow (complete with a couple of decent pubs, the Black Bitch and the West Port Bar) before negotiating the traffic lights at the large retail park in Linlithgow Bridge. Apart from the retail park Linlithgow Bridge seemed to have only a few small shops and so it wasn't long before I came to the outskirts of Linlithgow borough, marked by the impressive high-level bridge over the River Avon, complete with olde-style passing places. On the far side of this is The Bridge Inn, a hostelry which was also used to help take the toll for the bridge crossing from the 17th to 19th centuries. Since this was the only crossing over the Avon for miles around it was obviously very successful and so when the railway appeared in the late 19th century the Royal Borough of Linlithgow tried to secure a similar toll from the railway company, but after a protracted battle the court action fell through. Even with the toll removed The Bridge Inn continued as a eating & drinking establishment and also plays a key part in the annual Linlithgow Marches event.

The opening hours are writ large on the outside (always useful), so at just past High Noon I headed into the main bar as the outside declaration suggested it had been open since 11am. Once inside I did, however, have to negotiate my way around some vacuum cleaners but the lack of people meant that I had my choice of table in the bar (rather than the restaurant), and so I chose the far left side of the long bar area. The section here is more relaxed & comfy than the opposite site of the bar and is furnished with lots of brewery mirrors, a large black chess set displayed on-high (I couldn't see the white set anywhere, strange) and an (unlit) fire, and there were also a number of sofa chairs in which I was able to peruse the extensive lunch-time menu.

There was a single hand-pull at the bar, but there was nothing on it, sigh... I hate it when that happens! This meant a choice of either Belhaven Best or Younger's (now Wells) Tartan Special, and since I hadn't had the latter in a good many years I went for a pint of that and although it was certainly malty sweet & fruity, it still had that pasteurised, almost chalky blandness. As a counterpoint to this there was a very good menu, with everything from normal pub mains to a great selection of lunch-time lite-bites & snacks (wraps, sandwiches & jacket potatoes). On a cold, sleety day the soup was certainly a good choice, a herby, smooth, tomato & basil, but I decided against the chips to go with the coronation chicken wrap (hey, it was still January after all).

All of this didn't take long (the soup was excellent) and warmed-up against the elements I headed out into the ever greying afternoon. I crossed back over the Avon, followed some signs for the Avon Heritage Trail though a housing estate, and came to the start of the trail (right under one of the arches of the railway bridge).

This walking trail followed the River Avon for quite a few miles before steadily rising up towards the 240-foot contour level of the Union Canal. Literally only 100 metres away from this intersection I found the impressive sight of the Avon Aqueduct.

This is pretty high and somewhat vertigo inducing, and it doesn't help that it is also really quite long (supposedly the 2nd longest in the UK).

There are a number of passing places which offer great views up and down the Avon, the best of these I found to be close to the western end of the aqueduct.

The Avon Heritage Trails continues on the other side of the aqueduct, but I stayed on the towpath of the Union Canal. Not too far along is Bridge 49, which seemed pleasant enough & quite inviting, but by now it was starting to snow/sleet fairly heavily and so I decided to press on westwards along the canal and towards Polmont.

There's not too much to see along this stretch of the canal but a mile or so along I came across the sight of a deserted castle, Almond or Haining Castle, and it seems there used to be a brick works in the surrounding scrub ground.

It was a nice walk along the canal for another couple of more miles in the light, fluffy snow flurries before I headed up the ramp from the canal and into Polmont's Station Road. From here I walked past the station and down to the main shopping precinct in Polmont, where the Claremont Inn takes up the front section of the precinct (and was looking very festive in the snow).

Inside is a large single roomed building with a raised platform restaurant area mostly setup for diners, a right-angled bar at the back and a largish section at the front for the more hardened drinkers with lots of seating at the bar and some additional contemporary tables & chairs. There was only a single hand-pull in amongst the keg beer fonts, but thankfully there was something on it this time - hooray! - Inveralmond's Santa's Swallie (even though it was served in a Harviestoun glass). It may perhaps have been getting a bit late in the season for a Santa beer, but I took a pint of this and retired to a table near the side windows.

By now the snow was really starting to lie and so instead of continuing on the canal to Falkirk I decided the sensible decision was to get on the train at Polmont and travel to Falkirk's Grahamston Station, only 5 minutes away by fast train. From here it was only a few minutes to cross the increasingly grid-locked inner ring-road to reach Behind The Wall, where the rear alleyway 'secret' entrance to the Eglesbrech Ale and Whisky Bar was still in operation.

After a bit of a blip a few years ago the beer in here has improved a lot in terms of quality & selection and today was no exception - a couple of excellent (as per normal) Tryst beers but the Harviestoun Old Manor was new to me and seemed worth a try, but I got less than a 1/2 pint of this before it went off - drats! Instead I went for a pint from the rarely seen Cotswold Spring brewery - their Stunner was full of marmalade orange citrus, a decent body with a bitter burnt orange finish and really quite nice if perhaps (picky, here) not 100% stunning.

The front bar is a relaxing place to sit and have a few beers, there is a more function/music orientated back room (where Barney's Beers used to be) and they have a lot of diverse beer & brewing related paraphernalia around - I don't think I'd noticed this interesting display of beer bottles before.

I ascertained that the Old Manor wasn't coming back on and so, once finished, I headed back outside and walked up towards Falkirk's main shopping thoroughfare. On the street before this and extending into one of the many traditional Falkirk alleyways I couldn't miss the newly opened Artisan Tap, advertising craft beer, gourmet coffee & cask ales (as well as light & warmth in the snowy gloaming), part of a growing 'craft' chain from Hawthorn Leisure.

I'd been in an Artisan Tap before (in Paisley, this was unfortunately only short lived being located relatively far out of the main Paisley shopping drag) and wasn't expecting too much, but inside was quite a nice surprise. There was lots of light wood, sanded floors, bright downlighters, wrought iron features, a raised area for food and a long bar in front of a large open kitchen hatch. Peppering the bar were a lot of shiny keg fonts, some chilled wine dispensers and 3 hand-pulls - I'm pretty sure they have some sort of distribution deal with Belhaven/Greene King, and although I hadn't tried the Hardys & Hansons (Greene King) Rocked Out I didn't really fancy that or the other cask beers (Landlord or Old Golden Hen).

However as well as the hand-pulls they have a couple of large beer fridges. Normally beer fridges are behind the bar (or there sometimes is a bottled beer menu), necessitating a sometimes hasty & ill-informed selection, but these were to the side of the bar, with self-service for the bottled beer and (more surprisingly) for the chilled glass of your choice. OK, it's not quite the 'Magic' beer fridge of the Allison Arms in Glasgow or the Hemelvaart Bier Café in Ayton but for a chain it's not bad at all. Choice-wise they could possibly do with more Scottish beers, but there was a lot of Harviestoun, WEST, Brewdog, Meantime, Adnams, Flying Dog, Westmalle, Chimay, Duvel, and even Point Brewing lurking in said fridges.

I took a bottle of the Meantime Chocolate Porter (sweet dark chocolate, very thin, cold, it had a nice bitter-cocoa finish, but needed a bit more intensity) and managed to catch a few words with the staff whilst they kept up with the busy trade in beer (it seems they had managed to sweep up some of the stack from the closed Paisley branch), coffee and food. Deciding that it would be better not to have another chilled beer from the fridge, I set forth for Falkirk High station (I even, reluctantly, gave The Wheatsheaf a miss). I slip-slided around the inner ring-road to the bottom of the steep High Station Road, but a quick look at my ScotRail App (and a few delayed trains) meant that I could pop into the Woodside Inn for a beer (I'd never been in before, I think I'd always been too focused in getting to the High station).

This is about as polar opposite to the Artisan Tap as possible - a traditional centre horseshoe island bar, very narrow corridor areas left and right opening out to some small tables hugging the walls and lots of painted glass windows and partitions. There are 2 hand-pulls on the bar located almost immediately in front of the door, today with the fantastic Tryst Brockville Pale (which I could have drunk for the rest of the afternoon) as well as Marston's Pedigree available.

There were also a number of large brewery mirrors set at eye-level on the walls, including this impressive George Younger one which reminded me of my pint of (William) Younger's Tartan Special at The Bridge Inn - if nothing else at least there are still a few reminders of the past of Scottish brewing.

Return travel:-
  Train: Falkirk High to Glasgow Queen Street (every 15 minutes)