Monday, 27 June 2011

Wee Beefy drinks in Dalriada

Evening all,

many weeks ago there wasn't such a thing as new-fangled humid 21degree nights and unbroken sunshine, because we had just stumbled into a meteorologically muddled June. This was the time that I chose to head off for 7 days in Scotland, the country of my birth, the bestower of my nickname, and provider of my most interesting antecedents.

Wee Fatha was to be driver, human guide book and gracious coverer of costs for some of the nights, since originally this was to be a mere 3 night escapade arranged as a present for me and Chala. We started our adventure at 08.00 on Saturday 4th June and set out for the long haul oop north.

Following the snake and some motorways with 6's in them, we headed through the lune valley gorge before stopping at Milnthorpe in that Lancashire for morning coffee. Alas too early for a licensed beverage, we nevertheless had an enjoyable break sat under a tree on the green admiring the church and the sunshine, which was ominously predicted to shrink away before we got to Carlisle - and so it did.

As soon as we entered the lake district the lights went off and the clouds blew in, but it wasn't dull, or indeed cold as we crossed the border, just average. Our first stop proper was Moffat and the Buccluech Hotel. The GBG could perhaps have been a bit more precise in its details but essentially the hotel has a tiny bar with no real ale, but next door is what looks like a separate business, the Coachmans bar.

Here there was the inescapable Deuchars, a shame since on past visits under independent ownership the quality far outshone the pale copy that abounds today; also on the bar was Inkie Pinky from Inveralmond Brewery. This was a pale refreshing beer with a nice malt and balance of bitterness which didn't last very long, but then neither did we. What with much to cram in, and despite an interesting chat with a gent at the bar, we all too soon had to leave for pastures new.

These were Larkhall, on the outskirts of Glasgow, perhaps not as fearsomely lawless as WF made out as he insisted we packed all but our coats into the boot, but nevertheless looking like it may well have seen better times, a considerable number of years ago.

The Village Tavern is on the National Inventory of historic pub interiors (N.I) and comprises two entrances and essentially two different drinking areas either side of the bar, with bench seating along each side, and loos at the end giving the interior a pleasing 1930's design symmetry (although the layout is older ). Much of the old seating area on the left is basic which suits the functional bar fittings, with, I am told, a separate area to the right which may have been a snug or off sales jug and bottle bar. Alas there is no real ale, but we did at least get some acceptable McEwans 60/-. Its an inescapable fact that real ale is probably even less prevalent in traditional pubs on the inventory, so where possible I try and get a 60/- or a "best" to lessen the impact of how grim my drink is. Further disappointment came in the form of the pub being so packed as to make getting a photo impossible, which is a shame.

Next we headed East for the former mining village of Shotts, which was perhaps a good day to visit since the whole place was buzzing with the highland games on up the road, and many people dressed in kilts and full traditional regalia, or put another way, dressed as Americans would assume everyone did in Scotland's urban industrial heartland.

We were uncertain if our intended stop would be open at all though, with WF having got no joy with the phone number provided or from directory enquiries, but having taken a wrong turn and had a drive around Shotts fairly glum environs, we arrived at the Old Wine Store on Shottskirk Road. That said, I only knew this because I recognised it from a picture, and because WF had advised there might no longer be a sign. There is not, just a board where it will one day go, the only written identification being a blue McEwans sign with Old Wine Store in small letters along the bottom.

Now seemingly only on the regional Scottish inventory, it is still obvious what the unique feature is here - its the magnificent bar gantry housing 4 huge old spirit casks that still dispense whisky. Round the far corner of the small bar, with high ceilings and a low partitioned seating area on the right, a couple of ancient handpumps suggest a real ale may have been available once, but its keg only unfortunately. So I had a pint of the Belhaven Best and WF a rather odd choice of McEwans Tartan, a beer from my past when I had no idea what I was drinking that sends shivers down my spine, usually based on how cold its served to mask its barely detectable one dimensional flavour.

The gantry, or at least the ends of the wooden bar back, looks to have a couple of A shapes on it, I wondered if these were part of the design, i.e just shapes/patterns, or were a nod to former ownership by Alloa or Aitkens brewery. There is also a famed miniature mirror round the back left of the bar which WF reckons to have spotted, but even given the friendliness of the staff and the locals, I dind't fancy jostling at the bar for no apparent reason and staring intently at people in line with the said mirror.

We said our farewells after getting a few pics, and headed off up the road to West Calder, and the imposing visage of the Railway Hotel, also on the N.I and complete with a small tower at the left hand end as you look straight at it. Still no real ale here, so Belhaven by default and tomato juice for WF.

The interior of this grand pub was the best thus far. Being busy with regulars watching the England match on a giant screen in the right hand bar, we sat in the quieter left, having walked all the way around the island bar from the entrance and along a slatted wooden walkway at the back. This is a handy feature, not least because the bar splits at the end to allow staff into a room directly behind it, perhaps previously a traditional Scottish managers room, now likely a kitchen.

The thin single bar fitting straddles the exact middle of the island bar and features ornate woodwork, and to the right of the far end of the bar is a corridor to a second room (given that the bar does not reach the ceiling there is no partition and thus essentially only one room), which also provides access to the loos, as well as a snooker room with dark wood panelling at the end. In the left hand bar where we sat is a small window at the end of the bar structure which reminded me of one at Bennetts in Edinburgh, and some nice coloured glass windows.

The lights are in a gas lamp style which adds to the authentic feel, and there is noticable grooved dark wood at the edge of every window, making the frame look as though its as thick as the walls. A decorative old fireplace topped by a Belhaven mirror on the left wall facing the bar completes the scene, in what makes for quite a narrow room.

Our next stop was not drink related but the likely now private Niddry castle - the OS map has the words restored in brackets, which often means its privately owned. There is still a brown sign to follow near the network of local cycleways and paths in the area but we only wandered up the track for a peak, and a pic. Our next stop was more closely related to Mary Queen of Scots, as she is supposed to have stayed at Niddry, that being Linlithgow.

This magnificent town boasts a Palace, which was alas shut, at the top of a steep road above a grand fronted edifice which is probably the council house, and the Linlithgow cross. We walked up to take a look at the Palace and St Michael's church, and then walked down to the loch which we walked round part of in conveniently arrived bright sunshine, admiring the bird life and looking back to the mount with the palace and church on.

We then headed into town and into the Four Marys on High Street. This is one of two GBG listed pubs in the town and halted our real ale drought in some style, with 7 or 8 handpumps dispensing almost exclusively Scottish ales including the Belhaven 4 Marys, which I had a half of, and Houston Peters Well (untried), Williams Bros Ceilidh, and a fantastic pint of the Fyne Ales Avalanche,which had been a highlight of the recent 3 Valleys festival.

We left to watch an impressive circular parade round the square and up and down the main street, which explained the plethora of cones along every pavement, and was likely part of the Linlithgow Festival of the Marches. We then headed out of the town and made good progress over the Forth bridge to our accommodation in Clackmannan outside Alloa. We only briefly checked in before driving out to nearby Sauchie for tea at the famous Mansfield Arms brewpub.

We knew they were serving food until late and we were nearing the end of a long day travelling so just wanted to turn up. eat, and drink some decent real ale, which the Mansfield Arms is perfectly geared up to let you do. The pub, more precisely their Devon Ales brewery, is one of a handful of long established breweries that that have filled the void left by giants like Alloa Ales and Maclays in the area, and is a real ale survivor.

As the market started taking off in a big way in England there was a valiant but unsuccessful surge North of the Border. Here, Bothwell, Alice, Strathalbyn and Devanha breweries (to name but a few) opened and closed during the late seventies and early eighties, suggesting, with the exception of stalwarts like Harviestoun, that real ale and microbreweries didn't suit the Scottish market. The Mansfield Arms however has been brewing since 1993 (1992 according to their website ) and have seemingly gone from strength to strength. The brewery now produces 4 real ales and a smooth/cold version to suit the tastes of the younger regulars.

Real ale is served under air pressure from fonts but its cask conditioned so this makes only a marginal difference to the flavour - I did try them on gravity at Wakefield Beer Festival about a million years ago and recall little difference in taste. With our enormous portions of food we tried a pint ( for me ) of the Devon original at £2.10, WF having a half, a pint of the Thick Black, and a half of the Pride, which may also be called 90/-. All the ales were in good nick and were the perfect accompaniment to our food.

Luckily we had left room for a further drink sort of on our way back to the B&B. We popped in (having spent 10 minutes finding it, even for a 3rd visit ) to the unique survival that is the Railway Tavern in Kincardine. All that suggests there is a pub is a small beermat sized plate above the door stating J Dobie licensee, and a smokers wall mounted ashtray next to the blue door. Inside there is a small room on the right which is usually unused, only opened as an emergency overspill, a corridor off which leads the ladies and the gents at the end, a door on the left to the bar room, and, confusingly, another door on the left to the bar, literally. Given that ther can't be more than 30 square foot behind the bar fittings included, its merciful that this door opens out....

In the bar room is a fireplace as you enter on the pubs left wall and a couple of stools at the bar. Immediately on your left in the window, is a large table which seats 8. And that's it. You may be able to get 6 standing 2 sat at the bar and the table full but that would be absolutely rammed. This seating arrangement makes best use of the minute available space, and has led the regulars to develop an innovative purchasing arrangement. This usually involves a designated orderer being sat at the bar and taking the money from and the products to those sat at the window end of the table.

We were in early enough ( anytime before 21.30 ) to get a seat at the table, with myself occupying the seat against the window, luckily I chose an early point at which to go to the toilet. I had a pint of the Tennents Light, which just to make things clear is a dark beer, and settled down to listen in on the topics of conversation of the evening, including leeks and potato growing, highland blizzards, and catching up on the daily lives of the locals.

All night the blokes who I remembered seeing in there on my first visit were all drinking virtually the same drink - a half a beer and a whisky, sometimes with a cheeky lemonade or ginger beer added. Perhaps this cuts down on disruptive trips to the gents when the bar gets busy. Time passed very quickly even though we were there over an hour, but we had to head off all too soon to get a well earned kip after our lengthy first day.

Next - Loch Leven castle, some Dundee N.I pubs, Dunottar Castle, Stonehaven and Banchory.

Wee Beefy

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