Wednesday, August 3, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 1

I spent most of July back home in Scotland.

For the first eight days of the trip Mrs V and I hiked the 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William along the West Highland Way, it was the first long distance hike we had ever done. We spent most weekends in the first half of this year training on the Appalachian Trail with friends of ours, one of whom has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It became something of a tradition for us to hike in the morning and then head to the pub afterwards, and to a certain extent our trail choices were informed by whatever breweries and bars were nearby. There really is nothing quite as satisfying as that first pint after hiking for for several hours lugging a 30lb backpack with you.

If you've been reading Fuggled for any length of time you'll know that I love pubs, sure the beer is important, but I'd rather have a pint of Guinness in a good pub than drink some innovative IPA in bar full of crafties and trendies. All along the West Highland Way I found good places to drink, most with great beer, some with poorly constructed swill, but all nice places for a bevvy, a feed, and a rest.

Starting at the beginning, quite literally as it is just a few dozen yards from the official starting point of the Way, Mrs V and popped into the Talbot Arms the night before we started our hike. I will just say now that there are 2 magic words that will get me into pretty much any pub and I saw them as we walked past the Talbot Arms on a reccy mission, they are of course the words 'real ale'. Sadly, for all the buzz around beer here in the US, finding properly cask conditioned ale (without the addition of silly shit) is like finding a needle in a haystack. For most of the trip Mrs V was drinking cider, but seeing Kelburn Jaguar on a hand pull, I knew what I was getting, and it was everything you expect from a Kelburn beer, magnificent.

The Talbot Arms is in many ways my kind of pub, a good selection of beer, both keg and cask, staff that are friendly and efficient, and a good atmosphere - that hum of a friends talking, disagreeing, comparing notes, if you're a pub go-er you know what I mean. With a couple of pints of Jaguar in my belly, we wandered back to the Premier Inn to get some kip ahead of the first day's hiking, 12 miles from Milngavie to Drymen.

The first day of the West Highland Way, going north, is not particularly challenging. Of course it helps if your guide books haven't gone north in your dad's car and you have to buy a map before heading away from the obelisk that marks the start of the trip. The weather was ideal for hiking, never warmer than about 16°C (60°F), mostly overcast, and the occasional shower, though only twice did we actually need rain gear. That number would have been three if after 7 miles on stone paths we hadn't come to the Beech Tree Inn and taken the opportunity for a welcome pint. I tried a couple of beers, Loch Lomond's West Highland Way seemed apt, and rather tasty, then Jaw Brew Drop, which was likewise a fine beer, so I had another one. The rain had turned to hail by this point, so we sat under the shelters in the garden watching the clouds, chatting with other hikers and just waiting for the rain to pass on by.

With the rain easing and the clouds parting to reveal patches of blue we headed on to Drymen, and being a little early for checking into our B&B for that night, we wandered on the Ptarmigan Bar in the Winnock Hotel. We were the only people in the pub, so we dropped our packs and sat at the bar, where the hand pull had Leeds Brewing Vienna Lager on, naturally I ordered a pint, and it had gone to vinegar. On pointing this out to the barman the cask was pulled and an interim pint of Belhaven Best ordered, no questions asked, no attempts at telling me it was supposed to taste like that, no attempts at insinuating that I didn't understand what I was drinking, just simple, efficient, service. Bravo to the Ptarmigan, they will be held in high esteem in my world for that very reason. The replacement cask that eventually appeared was an absolutely smashing pale ale from the Home Counties that I can't remember the name of, or the brewery, oops.

Having successfully checked in to our bed and breakfast and enjoyed an afternoon tea with fresh scones and homemade jam, we set out to the Clachan Inn for dinner. I was looking forward to the Clachan, it had a good reputation online, is mentioned in the stand up of one of my favourite comedians, and is apparently the oldest licensed premises in Scotland. Maybe we caught them on a bad night, but the beer was flaccid, not bad per se, but in poor condition, again I don't recall what I was drinking, but I was starting to get into something of a funk because of the seemingly half arsed lamb burger I was eating. Now, I am perfectly willing to accept that I have been spoilt here in Virginia, but a burger in a dry bun with a single lettuce leaf and slice of tomato was something of a let down, especially for £15, that and lukewarm chips. Thank goodness the stunningly good pale ale was still on at the Ptarmigan Bar for a night cap.

Day two of the hike was our shortest day, but also our first decent climb, about 6 miles from Drymen to Balmaha, climbing Conic Hill on the way. Balmaha, it would seem, has a single boozer, the Oak Tree Inn, which was also where we were staying the night - rather handy as you can imagine. Again arriving before check in time, and this time getting slammed by a hail storm that blew in off Loch Lomond, pints were ordered and taken to an outside table to watch a married couple worry and faff over a finch hopping around near them. Again I was looking forward to Oak Tree Inn, but this time because they are part of the same concern as the Balmaha Brewing Company, again I was disappointed. The only Balmaha beer available was called Kiltwalker as they are in the process of building a bigger brewery. To be blunt, if Kiltwalker is representative of their beer, they should save their money, it was dire, with a distinct taste of cigarettes. Thankfully though the Dragonfly American Amber from Fallen Brewing was very good and in good nick from the handpull, and Belhaven Best was quickly becoming a reliable back up.

While I was not impressed by the Balmaha Brewing Company's beer, everything else about the Oak Tree Inn was excellent. The food, the service, the bedroom, absolutely top notch in my book, especially the bar staff, lead by a Polish guy called Marcin. A quick side note, but the number of times the service was superb and said service was provided by Eastern Europeans was astounding, it would seem the life blood of the hospitality industry at home is Czech, Polish, Slovak, or similar. I spent a good couple of hours at the bar that evening, enjoying a couple of shots of 12 year old Balvenie Doublewood and more of the Dragonfly.

Having breakfasted on a full Scottish fry up, with the added bonus of haggis, Mrs V and I set out towards Inversnaid, picking up a Danish hiker called Søren on the way who had got a bit confused with the route. Much of this section of the hike follows the shore of Loch Lomond, with all the midges that implies, by now I had the beginnings of my first blister of the trip. As the morning came to a close we arrived at Rowardennan, and decided to stop in the Clansman Bar, which is part of the Rowardennan Hotel. Having removed wet boots and dumped packs in the corridor the three of us snagged a table and I limped a tad to the bar and the sight of a WEST Brewing tap pouring St Mungo Lager brought much cheer to my heart as it was the first time I had the opportunity to try anything from a brewery I have heard much about. What a lovely lager it is too, I may have had three pints while Mrs V did the sensible thing of eating lunch.

Leaving Soren behind in Rowardennan we continued along the banks of Loch Lomond until we reached Inversnaid, where we would spend the night in a self catering apartment and go to the Inversnaid Bunkhouse and Bistro for a feed and a bevvy. My eldest brother, who did the Way last summer, recommended the Bunkhouse to us, and we would pass on that recommendation to all and sundry, the food was superb, the hospitality magnificent, and they have a very good bottled beer selection. As the evening was coming to a close I spied a bottle of Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted, which played the perfect foil to more Balvenie before bed.

That's where we'll leave it for now....more pints, pubs, and people to come.

1 comment:

  1. I've been in Scotland too and then GBBF so just catching up. Enjoyable read.How did you get on with the midgies?