Any comments on the blog, propositions (legal, of course), ideas for places for me to go see, please get in touch at and don't forget to follow me on Twitter

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Burns Means Business...and Costley Too

Kings Arms, 89 Main Road, Fenwick, Ayrshire, KA3 6DX
Brig O' Doon House Hotel, High Maybole Road, Alloway, KA7 4PQ
Souter Johnnies Inn, Main Road, Kirkoswald, KA19 8HY

Rabbie means business. Yup, I’m sure the women of his time and neighbourhood would have said as much to each other, after a memorable encounter or two, but I’m talking now, about how his name and legacy pulls in the money. Just ask the people behind Homecoming Scotland... well, maybe not.

But anyway, a pilgrimage down to Ayrshire is common for Glasgow locals, even more so when we have visitors. Normally you would travel down the M77 but why not take a different route such as the back road via Eaglesham – a conservation village with a number of hostelries worth a future visit – and Fenwick. The latter reached on a drive across the moor of the same name, now inundated with windfarms.

We looked at the Fenwick Hotel but it appeared a little too formal for our purpose that day, and being one of the Best Western chain of hotels blandness is also a characteristic. We retreated up the village’s main street to the more modest Kings Arms.

This inn, in contrast with the Fenwick Hotel, looks like it is actually used by the locals, some of them in to watch the Man United versus Chelsea decider. The feel of the place reminded me of the Minishant Inn down the road beyond Ayr; both with cosy, traditional interiors; both places where locals celebrate anniversaries, birthdays etc; and both serving a decent selection of ales and good common fare-try and compare their equally tasty but different versions of chicken wings.

I must admit I found the exterior a tad anglicised but that is probably more to do with my familiarity with urban watering holes over rural versions. But they should repaint the walls, yellow just doesn’t do it.

Moving on down the A77 now we bypassed Troon because of time constraints but just the mention of the town got me thinking of the couple of bars near the ferry port that I’ve always meant to visit and of a wedding The Muse and I attended a couple of years back at Lochgreen House Hotel.

This grand house overlooking Royal Troon GC creates an imposing impression on any visitor. On our entrance we enquired as to the location of the wedding- the size of the place making one believe it could host any number of separate ceremonies – and in doing so glimpsed the Tapestry restaurant, almost making us wish we were dining there that evening in its luxurious surround rather than attending the wedding. Could we do both perhaps? The wedding reception was anyway very good, the bar prices withstanding.

The Lochgreen is the jewel in the crown of the Costley & Costley group, a chain now dominating the Ayrshire hotel scene. As you would expect they have endeavoured to associate themselves with the Burns legacy or legend. Alloway is the heart of Burns connections and in that village Costley have two prestigious venues.

On our visit we were actually unaware of the Alloway Inn, instead electing for a non-alcoholic refreshment in the wee coffee shop opposite Burns’ cottage before strolling down towards Brig O’ Doon via the Auld Kirk. Burns’ father’s resting place is a shaded spot, the kirk’s ruins always a place of chills. The church itself is tiny and totally derelict but in the graveyard you can make out some names and dates on the smooth stone. For some this is a place of contemplation, for others it evokes the terror of the ancient.

It’s certainly not very hard to imagine why Burns used the setting and atmosphere to inspire his most famous work, Tam O’ Shanter. The witches in the poem chased him down to the famous bridge which is a lovely spot in the sunshine, especially after a rain shower.

Costley’s own the ivy-fronted Brig O’ Doon House Hotel overlooking the brig and river. I had the good fortune of attending a wedding here too, in the millennium. I was impressed then by the lobby area’s various side rooms and off-shoots where you could take drink and by the banqueting room which has the appearance of an auditorium such is its scale and grandeur.

On this occasion we sampled the new bar located at the front of the hotel before strolling through the gardens by the river. On our return we chatted to the company’s wedding greeter. On some, the full highland kilt regalia may have jarred, being slightly incongruous in this part of Scotland, but this chap carried it well, with no hint of parody. He took the trouble to answer my questions on Costley’s future plans and finished by explaining to us that even after 40 years down in Ayrshire from Glasgow he is still not regarded as a local.

He also recommended the aforementioned Alloway Inn. It sounded good, as did the other Costley place he mentioned, The Beresford Wine Bar and Art Gallery in Ayr town centre. (Turns out it’s close to the pub I popped into before catching the train back from the Ayr Races. I erroneously called that place the “something cafe” in my Day at the Races entry back in March. I can correct that. It is O’Brien’s. Irish bar. Ok.)

But we were headed further down the coast. Even in early summer, daylight is precious when you have foreigners hungry for more experiences. So it was along the coast past The Heads of Ayr. Good views for our guests. I slowed the vehicle as we passed the coastal village of Dunure, having heard of the revitalised Dunure Inn, but they were more interested in Electric Brae and Culzean Castle and other items on the tourist list.

It is a great pity that once you rejoin the main road, the A77, just after Turnberry there are no hostelries of note on this rugged coastline drive. Girvan, for example, just has a few downtrodden pubs that do nothing more than rival those in Maybole for gloominess. The road hugs the shore all the way to Ballantrae, past atmospheric locations such as Sawney Bean’s cave and on windy day’s with waves crashing off the rocks the area is crying out for a cosy, historic inn. One you could imagine RL Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae entering on a stormy night, cloak dripping with rain, his arrival silencing the throng inside. Sadly there is nothing worthwhile until at least Stranraer.

So it was back up the A77 to Kirkoswald and a place we’d passed en-route from the Stranraer ferry a couple of years back. Unfortunately on that occasion we were driving a fully-laden Transit so stopping wasn’t a possibility. Souter Johnnies Inn is the place, another Costley venture.

Based upon a real pal of Burn’s, Johnnie was the dependable drinking buddy in the aforementioned Tam O’ Shanter. The inn complex has been fully refurbed with whitewashed exterior and superbly-thatched roofs which attract admiring looks from passers-by. I call it a complex because it comprises a number of buildings including a coffee shop and an ice-cream parlour, which supplies all the other Costley eateries.

We entered via the car park and back door, fortunately enough because we came across the hub of the pub, as it were. Here at the narrow end of the bar, there’s a small fireplace, a full length portrait of Rabbie himself, stone-flagged floors and a cosy corner booth in green leather.

Throughout the bar extensive use is made of barrels as standing tables, traditional without being twee. But the tartan carpet in the eating area is step too far, again not appropriate for this part of Scotland, and a too obvious tourist-pleaser.

I had feared that as we were eating we would be taken away from the atmosphere in the best corner of the bar but we were lucky enough to be given a table in the mezzanine area, overlooking our earlier spot. So we could eat, food hearty and reasonable by the way, and observe the interactions downstairs.

After our meal we returned downstairs, this time nearer the front door to watch early-Saturday-evening drinkers and diners being greeted at the reception area, a different buzz from the back area but interesting nonetheless.And Enlivened by the in-jokes of Ayrshire locals whose over-familiarity with each other proved entertaining. “You’re looking good tonight,” said a chap at the bar to a forty-something woman, before enquiring: “you in with your mother this evening?” gesturing towards her companion who was roughly the same age but who had, I have to say, weathered not so well.

She made no reply, but her expression told the story. Who knows the animosities, intrigues, slights and feuds that colour nights in pubs like this? It’s what makes them such fun.

Souter Johnnies reminds me of the Corn Mill in Llangollen North Wales, not so much in appearance but in the way drinkers and eaters are effortlessly combined in one venue and in the ambition shown in the development.

I have my reservations on chain operators dominating an area but local influence mitigates some of the conformity that is bound to appear. Costley are managing to avoid most of the other faults exhibited by chains but let’s hope some decent competition arrives, which will be of benefit to everyone.

But who can blame Costley, the business is there, and someone has to grab it. As one of our visitors remarked, “Where Burns has been; the money follows.”

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Woodside Sanctuary

The Woodside Inn, 239 Maryhill Road, G20 7YB

Some places you just pass by, even buildings you can see from your window. Then you discover them as new.

St. Columba’s RC church on Hopehill Road is just such a building. It’s an imposing structure, built during the war, one half of it looking like a scaled-dow Battersea Power Station. Its red brick, Italianate finish also reminds of the nearby Woodside Hall. In front of an annexe there is a large, slightly overgrown garden much like the kind in which they tend the wounded in war movies. Picture a strange amalgamation of Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled and A Bridge Too Far. It comes as no surprise that is the home of the Dominican (the Order of Preachers) community in Glasgow, the building looking too grand to be merely a local church. As such it takes on the character as a place of refuge from the material world.

Just down the road from the church is The Woodside Inn, a place I’ve similarly neglected on the corner of Maryhill Road and North Woodside Road. The Royalty Bar, The Thistle and Castle Vaults are the nearby pubs and, of course, I’ve been in them all but never stopped at the Woodside. A definite blip.

No reason for this omission, but as a younger man I was so confused with the areas of inner Glasgow that I mixed up the location of this pub with Crosslands on Queen Margaret Drive some mile or so away to the North West.

But this time I entered the premises, under the oversized gas lamp, a caricature of Victorian lighting. It’s a free house with a worn exterior betraying a probable shortage of funds so the rather smart interior is a surprise. The furniture – chairs, high stools and booths – is substantial, the seating finished with a suede covering.

A stained glass partitions do a decent job dividing the bar space and there are the obligatory photos of old Glasgow. The World Cup was just beginning but there was only the one discreet TV placed high on a shelf. Aside from the football, Sky and ESPN racing was advertised. Behind the bar a Glasgow Warriors scarf is pinned to the wall, this being on the route from the West End to Firhill Stadium.

I had to call across to the barmaid who was standing at the far end of the bar chatting to punters, to get my order in. Belhaven Best was the only draught on offer aside from the usual global brands. Despite her inattention she wasn’t unfriendly and her rapport with the regulars was apparent.

Everyone else in here is an obvious regular but I get no undue attention sipping my pint and reading the local freesheets. I go to the toilet and notice missing tiles, more evidence of limited monies. Leaving the toilet I glance right to the quiet area with tables that may be used for dining – the furniture matches that in the rest of the pub – or functions or big televised sporting events. This part used to be called The Inn Crowd, but this moniker seems to have been dropped, probably for the best.

The chat is still going between the barmaid, another off-duty member of staff and the regulars – mostly and elderly bunch. Returning to my booth I am followed by a wee dog of one of the punters. It hangs around at my table until I have sat down, then it wandered round my feet and the legs of the table before joining me on the seat. I pat it for a while, and then as if satisfied at gaining my attention it returns to the floor and then back to its owner.

There’s no preaching going on but this place is another sanctuary. In it you not only feel comfortable but also forget the realities of the pub trade, supermarket competition, dwindling margins, falling pensions, benefit cuts...

All these vanish from your mind, and this easy state of mind feels like it could continue not only for this afternoon but for as long as you wish.

I have to go, messages to do, but could always pop into another hostelry at the opposite end of North Woodside Road, The Pewter Pot, that being another retreat, but of an entirely different sort. I think twice about that idea. Not a good one.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Premium Bond

The Drake, 1 Lynedoch Street, G3 6EE
Bond No.9, Commercial Street, Leith, EH6 6LX

Apropos my previous piece on Bier Halle and foreign beers, these days your average pub will stock far more than just one lager, one heavy, one stout, one guest ale and one cider.This is not surprising in the light of globalisation and the fact that sales of premium bottled beers are growing quicker than any other area of the industry.

On a recent sampling trip I took in a few new beers on the block...

Newcomer bar The Drake had been on my to-do list for a wee while so I began there. The Drake sits in the basement on the corner of Woodlands Road and Lynedoch Street in a site that has seen many failures. The new venture has more of a chance of succeeding than most of the previous occupants especially with its imaginative use of a small space behind the building creating a cosy little beer garden. The Drake will, I’m sure, feature fully in this blog soon.

Another reason for visiting this bar was their stocking of Mahou, a beer from Madrid. The Classic Mahou on sale here is light, too light really. A clean finish perhaps but not enough clout. It pales in comparison with other Spanish similar imports such as Cruzcampo or Estrella Damn.

As the West End Festival was in full flow I headed next to its epicentre, Ashton Lane. Brel was the place I had in mind, Belgium one of the top three or four countries for brewing. But walking along the lane I noticed an acquaintance sitting outside the Ubiquitous Chip. Our conversation only lasted five minutes – something I said? – but as he made to leave I decided to go inside.

As is their want in The Chip, mini-notices pinned on the wall advertised their latest deal and/or suggestion. Guest beers in this case. From North America. Moosehead was first. Yes, it is a Canadian beer, brewed in the east of that mammoth nation but, my US-centric friends, that does qualify as North America. Moosehead Lager has a golden appearance, is of the easy-drinking variety of lagers and is reminiscent of massive-selling brands such as Rolling Rock. However, Moosehead surpasses most in terms of smoothness and has a subtle finish of more depth than the popular brands from the American Midwest.

Samuel Adams brewery of Boston is one of the more renowned craft beer makers in the States. After the Moosehead I needed a contrast and luckily Adam’s Boston lager was next on the offers list. Its hometown reminded me of a holiday in New York and Massachusetts in the nineties. Choice in all things from pizza to pancakes is essential to American consumers and beer was no different. The best example of this was our visit to a large bar on a party strip near Fenway Park, home of the Boston Redsox. This pub had its own mini-brewery within the walls, the pipes and barrels exposed to our fascination. Somebody handed me a huge menu filled with fruit beers, pale ales, brown ales etc. As I read I heard one of my companions ask for a... lager. Variety is lost on some people.

Since then even humble Glasgow has got in on the on-site microbrewery act with the Clockwork Beer Company on the south side and West brewery and bar/restaurant by Glasgow Green.

The Boston Lager I sampled in the Chip was dark in appearance and malty in taste. It held more interest to the palate than the Moosehead and remained longer after the liquid was drained. The one drawback was the grainy feel ever-present in the mouth.

Also on their list of offers was a P&T, port and tonic. I didn’t have time to sample it that night but from deep in my memory or notes is a reference to white port & tonic being a fresh summer drink best garnished with lemon. The drink can also be varied with the use of soda instead of tonic. Some mixologists would never countenance such a combination of port, wishing instead to recommend a chilled white port as a summer aperitif. This in itself is an interesting counterpoint to a tawny port served with cheese after the meal or accompanying a decent cigar.

A few days later I popped in to The Belle in Hillhead, seeking draught Brooklyn. This comes from the renowned brewery of the same name, whose raison d’être in its founding twenty years ago was to wrestle brewing eminence back to New York from the afore-mentioned Midwest. The Belle also offers draught Sagres and Anchor Steam Beer alongside more common varieties. At £4 a pint Brooklyn needs to be savoured so I took it outside to the quiet of the smoking area.

The pint pours nicely, the head settling quickly. There is quite a sparkle to the traditional amber, the bubbles continuing long into the sup. My un-tutored nose detected a fruitiness- unsurprising in that Brooklyn’s intention was to develop their versions of Belgian and other European beers – and if pressed would say there’s a hint of grape there. The taste verges on the acidic and delivers more fruit to the palate than, for example, a Hobgoblin (from the Wychwood brewery in Oxfordshire) I tried the night before. The Brooklyn is less bitter and less salty than the Hobgoblin also. While searching for more flavours I admired the good deposit left on the side of the glass and noticed the yeasty finish which was too much for my digestion. The hints that I had detected at last resolved themselves into a burnt orange, quite a surprising but tasty outcome. However, the chalky feeling on the roof of my mouth lowered the satisfaction levels.

High on my agenda for future tastings is draught Blue Moon, a white beer from Colorado. I believe it is sometimes served with orange, an anathema to some beer-heads but I’ll go with an open mind. Only two bars are serving the keg version of Blue Moon, one of them Bond No.9 in Leith. This sophisticated hangout characterised by dark wood, stone and judicious use of leather aims to promote the premium drinking experience; alcohol savoured not guzzled. This ethos and its style allow it to serve the notorious Absinthe without being accused of being on the same level as a smack dealer. Quite some feat.