Thursday, 31 May 2012

Burscough Bridge to Southport: 25th May 2012

I only managed one decent walk during my 'staycation' in Southport. This was a walk from Burscough Bridge along part of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in some glorious sunshine visiting some great canal-side pubs and then back into Southport from the south-east.

View Burscough in a larger map

Outward Travel was as follows:-
  Train: Southport to Burscough Bridge (24, 54 on the hour)

It was a less than 15 minute journey by train to Burscough Bridge (although it does take a long time to get to Manchester Airport on this line). I crossed the bridge over the railway line and could see my first stop, The Hop Vine at the corner of a busy junction, already bedecked with banners proclaiming that they were on the path of the Olympic Torch Relay (due Friday 1st June).

It's just retained the local CAMRA Pub-of-the-Year Award and I can definitely see why. It's a fairly big place with a large central bar with 5 or 6 hand-pulls (Burscough beers and guests from Phoenix and Southport), a raised restaurant area at the back and a couple of lounge/snug areas behind the main bar area.

There's also a great cobbled courtyard area with some fully shaded tables & benches and other more exposed ones - really perfect for a sunny day.

In an outbuilding in the courtyard (left side in the photo) is the small in-house microbrewery, the Burscough Brewing Company. I managed to 'sneak' in the open brewery door whilst I was waiting for food to have a chat with the brewer Andy, who runs the brewery in conjunction with the owner of the Hop Vine. It's a 4BBL plant, interestingly enough previously used by Oban Ales before being sold in 2010. Andy told me that 50% of their output goes to the Hop Vine with the rest going to various pubs and beer festivals in Lancashire and then a small amount further afield (I remember seeing their Priory Gold on at The 3 Judges in Glasgow just before my holiday). Andy also mentioned that they're looking at expanding to somewhere nearby Burscough but would still want to keep the 4BBL plant in the Hop Vine specifically for the pub and for experimental brews.

I tried 3 of their beers whilst I was at the Hop Vine - the Flat Rib Mild (very roasty & nutty), the Hop Vine (a nice hoppy bitter) and the Mere Blonde (a pale ale with a real citrus aftertaste) - all were quite excellent; there's definitely somebody here who knows what they're doing.

Along with my liquid refreshment I also ordered the Hop Vine classic burger - a great thick burger with chunky fries. The recommendation with this was to try the Lancashire Sauce - pretty powerful, spicy stuff and not to be used in excess!

Service was great - the staff were friendly, knew what the state of the queue was at the bar, and the food was served promptly and with a smile - what a difference this makes! I also managed to cajole a couple of bottles of Burscough Priory Gold and Lions of England Lager from the owner even though they weren't on display - I left a great pub a very happy man.

Only just down the main street from the Hop Vine was the entrance to the Leeds to Liverpool Canal at the re-developed Burscough Wharf. Around the courtyard are couple of arts & crafts shops, cafes, a deli & some chandlery shops - it's all been quite sympathetically built-up.

I then started along the canal in the direction of Liverpool. It's a well used canal (certainly in comparison to those I've walked along in Scotland) with moored house-boats (in various states of repair), cruisers and the odd for-hire canal-boat. I walked past a Thwaites pub called The Slipway (which was just a bit too close to the start of my walk) and then after a further mile or came to The Farmer's Arms

It's a large building with conservatory facing the canal and tables outside at the canal bank. As far as I could tell only 3 beers were on hand-pull, and so I went for the one I hadn't tried before, the Tetley Mild.

I was somewhat confused about why there was so much Tetley Mild and Bitter about in the Lancashire pubs that I'd visited - I'd always though of Tetley as being a Yorkshire-based regional brewer (now Carlsberg, of course). From information I'd picked up from Paul at Southport Brewery and from the barman I chatted to in the Farmer's Arms, I found out that there had been a Warrington-based Brewery called Walkers which had merged with Tetley back in 1960 (and eventually formed Allied Breweries), before being subsumed into the Carlsberg empire in 1992. Now the Tetley cask beers are brewed by Marston's in Wolverhampton but their Warrington (and thus Lancashire) based legacy still carries on. And the Mild itself - not at all bad with some roasted coffee and chocolate tones, but still with that Tetleys almost artificial smoothness. Give me a Burscough Flat Rib Mild any day. As a slight aside it seems that some of the Walkers recipes will be followed by the new Tipsy Angel microbrewery in Warrington - they'd certainly be interesting to try.

Next it was a further walk along the canal until I saw some signs for Martin's Lane and 'The Farm' Shop. A hundred yards or so up Martin's Lane I found The Martin Inn

This is another large place with a central bar, some pool and darts rooms and a large outside seating area in the car park. I hadn't had tried any of the beers on hand-pull before - these were Martin Inn Barney's Brew (not sure who brews this for them), Ludlow Gold & Mayfield High Jinx - the latter being a nice citrusy best bitter, served a bit cold, but, to be honest, quite welcome for that (also only £1.05 for a half).

I headed back down to the canal and walked along the path for another 20 minutes or so until the Heaton Bridge, situated again on the canalside.

Upon entering I knew that this would be a really decent pub. 4 interesting beers were on hand-pull on the central bar including Brewsters Hop-A-Doodle-Doo (very hoppy!) of which I partook a pint (honest - it's not a John Smith's!).

Inside there were at at least four separate drinking areas, including 2 small snugs which were full of empty whisky bottles - the place really looked like a great country pub.

I took my Hop-A-Doodle-Doo outside and got chatting to one of the locals on a nearby table who managed to place my accent, not bad at all, and also gave me the best way back to the M6 Motorway when leaving Southport. I must say I was really impressed about the friendliness of people in Lancashire.

Pint finished it was a walk along the last stretch of canal for today, which included a great overhead green canopy for part of its length, to finish at the main A570 road.

Just at the intersection of the road and the canal is a new large canal marina, Scarisbrick Marina, complete with over 200 moorings and a coffee/tea shop.

I managed to time my connection for the bus pretty well and stayed on it until just outside the main part of Southport town centre at the Ash Street junction. It was then a short walk over the bridge across the railway line to the London Hotel - another Oakwell Brewery premises as per The Magpie in Carlisle.

This is a great community local with friendly staff, pool table, multiple dart boards and lots of events happening in the evenings. This time instead of their Barnsley Bitter I managed to get a pint of Oakwell Mild, perhaps not as good as the Barnsley Bitter (or the Burscough Mild) but still a more than decent pint for all of £1.80! They were also selling their SIBA Award Winning Acorn and Oakwell Lagers on draught - I don't know if the names are a a dig at the Acorn Brewery also in Barnsley - see here. Incredibly enough there is yet another bowling green at the back of the pub! It was in immaculate condition and would be a great place to while away a few hours in the sun (really starting to show my age now!).

Return Travel:-
  Bus: Scarisbrick Marina to Southport Ash Road (Arriva 385, 34 on the hour)

* UPDATE MAY 2013 *
It now seems that the London Hotel closed on May 1st 2013. The parent company have ceased production at Oakwell Brewery and all their pubs are to be sold off. The London Hotel is likely to be demolished for a housing development - a very sad state of affairs.

Monday, 28 May 2012

A close shave across the Mersey: 22nd May 2012

Whilst in Southport on my 'staycation' it was an obvious decision to visit the great city of Liverpool. I'd been to some of the historic pubs around the Georgian Quarter (The Philharomonic, Roscoe Head, Grapes and others, see here for more information) fairly recently so this time I though I'd try the city's only brewpub, The Baltic Fleet, and then take the iconic Ferry across The Mersey to an interesting/bizarre new pub & barbers(!) of which I think there are only a few in the UK (and probably the world).

View Birkenhead in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Southport to Liverpool Moorfields
  Ferry: Liverpool Pier Head to Birkenhead Woodside

After spending a bit of time sightseeing we headed down to the redeveloped Albert Dock area where there are now masses of tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants and chain pubs. I wonder how many know that just across the main dual carriageway in a 'funny shaped' building is a great pub called the Baltic Fleet, home of the in-house Wapping Beers.

I really like the appearance of the building - it's somewhat reminiscent of a Mississippi steam boat with multiple funnels on the top and certainly very distinctive. Inside there are 2 main rooms - a lounge/seating area away from the road (quiet today at lunchtime) and the main bar area on the other side facing the road. There were a couple of workmen around the place today, sawing & drilling away, and there's definitely been some significant redevelopment on-going. The really friendly barmaid told us that the long sweeping bar top had only been in for about 8 weeks - it really looks the part - and that it was such a relief to see the end of the temporary bar. Still present were the Baltic Fleet life-boat ring, a huge bell for last orders, displays of knot types, loads of CAMRA and other awards and (last but not least) the 7 hand-pulls.

On hand-pull today were 'only' 5 Wapping beers, to which they normally add a couple of guests at the weekend, so I had the Baggy Wrinkle - a nice light citrus ale perfect for outdoor quaffing. Food is pretty basic, either pies of various types or Scouse ('beef' stew & tatties), so I went with the Chicken Tikka pie. The workmen had stopped for their lunch so we went outside and took a seat at one of the benches in the sunshine. The pie was really tasty, if a bit dry, but a bit of HP sauce got round that problem.

This was certainly a far, far more enjoyable and interesting place to have lunch than anywhere around the Albert Dock area and I really must come back in the evening at some point when I suspect the place will be quite busy.

It was then a walk back over the dual carriageway and past the rest of the Albert Dock area and the new Museum of Liverpool to the Pier Head ferry terminal. Outwith the main rush hour period (when you can take a direct ferry) you have to take one of the River Explorer Cruises which performs a loop out to Liverpool Bay, then docks at Seacombe and then Woodside before heading back to Pier Head - the whole excursion takes about an hour. What you get are great views of the Livepool skyline and the unmistakable Royal Liver Building.

We disembarked at Woodside Terminal, Birkenhead and walked the short distance up Chester Street to Gallagher's Pub and Barbers

This is almost next door to another pub, The River View, and on a different day we would probably have stopped there due to the outside benches and the views across to Liverpool. However Gallagher's had a couple of things going for it - firstly a little blackboard across the road stating 'CAMRA Wirral Pub of the Year 2011' and secondly that striped Barbers Pole. We headed inside and found a fairly darkly wooded, long narrow place with a couple of different seating areas before the centrally located bar.

Both the windows and the inside were bedecked with Union Jacks, pictures of royalty and lots & lots of military souvenirs - some were for the Jubilee celebrations but most were because the owner had previously served in the Irish Guards before starting up a couple of barbers shops and then combining these businesses with a pub - the place really looked festive & very welcoming. The owner's wife (co-owner!) greeted us and immediately booked me in for a beer and a shave (in that order). They promote local breweries and I had a great pint of Peerless Skyline bitter brewed about 500 metres away in Birkenhead, but it was also good to see Hawkshead Lakeland Lager on tap.

Whilst waiting for the barber we headed out to the beer garden at the back, a real sun-trap in the afternoon and which seemed to attract a lot of dogs (and their owners). There weren't any views of Liverpool but the high tower of Hamilton Square Clock Tower was impressive enough.

Finally it was time to head to the barbers, located just behind the bar.

This definitely isn't a gimmick, but a fully featured barbers shop. To give the barber the most difficult test possible I had deliberately not shaved for 3 days (giving me my best terrorist impersonation) so it was going to be a full hot towel and cut-throat razor shave for me (£15 for over 40 minutes). For those interested in the minutae of these things the barber went through a fairly impressive process for me - first off a trim with an electric trimmer, lather & hot towel(#1), an initial shaping with a cut-throat razor, lather & hot towel(#2), a shave with Mach 3 razor (I blunted this), lather & hot towel(#3), a final cut-throat shave, cool towel(#1), a trim of any missed bits, cool towel(#2), some essential oils, then a face massage - really great (I was almost falling asleep at some points).

By the time that I was finished there was a queue of 2 people waiting, so business must be pretty good. The barber did say that I had been his 2nd most difficult customer of all time - always good to know that I present a challenge in some respects. I felt great at the end and I don't think my neck area had ever felt smoother. The best thing about this was that my own next couple of shaves after this were so much easier and better. It was definitely worthwhile and I would certainly recommend it, especially as a beer is on-hand when required. (Sorry there was no after photo - well there was, but I'll be impressed if anyone can get it!).

All in it was a great visit to a great pub. The pub is interesting and friendly, serves well kept, great local & further-flung beers and the barbers just gives it that additional reason to visit. I'll definitely be back the next time I'm in the Liverpool area - this time for a beer and a haircut!

Return travel:-
  Train: Birkenhead Hamilton Square to Liverpool Moorfields
            Moorfields to Southport

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Inn Beer Shop and Southport Brewery: 23rd May 2012

It was to be another 'staycation' this month with a week long break in very sunny Southport, the up-market neighbour of Liverpool. There are some really nice pubs in the town (in particular the Guest House and Barons Bar), but from a beer point-of-view probably the 2 most interesting places are run by brothers from the same family - Peter Bardsley operates the fairly recently opened Inn Beer Shop on fashionable Lord Street and Paul the Southport Brewery on the outskirts towards Ormskirk.

View Southport Brewery in a larger map

The Inn Beer Shop is located at the very north-east end of Lord Street under one of the iconic Victorian glass topped canopies (unfortunately we were staying at the south-west end; damned inconvenient, but it was a nice stroll back!).

This is an interesting place with a slight twist on the 'standard' off-license/bottle shop or deli, since in addition to the great (and I mean really great) range of bottled beers there are also seated areas both inside and out on the pavement (just watch out for those pesky pigeons). This means you can sit in and drink one your many purchases (for an extra 50p) or have a tea or coffee (free refills) in some nice china along with one of the local pies. The place reminded me a bit of a Dutch Brown Café (minus any illegal substances, of course!).

It's quite narrow and cramped inside (maybe half a dozen tables at the front) whilst at the back is a bar area and a couple of additional tables. The bar is really quite small with only a single hand-pull (with a beer normally from the Southport Brewery) and a couple of foreign beers on tap (Augustiner Edelstoff and Jever Pilsner whilst I was there). The small bar area was always packed when I was in with people chatting away and beers being purchased - great to see.

The bottled beer choice was seriously impressive. I bought a load of bottles from the local George Wright Brewery (including some single hop Citra and Mount Hood specials), a few Prospect and Isle of Purbeck beers and an interesting beer with added port (Port O'Call - ouch!) from Bank Top Brewery. Prices ranged from under £2 to a more 'normal' £2.40-£2.60 and then over £3 for the more well-travelled bottles.

In addition there is also a great selection of German and Belgian beers, a good proportion of which will be served in the correct glass if you sit in. From Belgium I noted beers from Westmalle, Chimay (all colours), Floris, BFM Grand Cru, Kasteel, Rochefort etc...

I popped in on an almost daily basis and all the staff and locals were great. Peter and his wife Pamela wander about chatting to one and all, making sure everyone is OK, organising the tables etc... and the locals are more than happy to give advice on the beers and other pubs in Southport - it's all just very friendly and civilised and I liked it a lot.

In the middle of the week we headed to the only brewery in Southport, the eponymous Southport Brewery which has been going for just over 8 years. It's located over 2 units in a busy Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Southport.

I'd e-mailed beforehand to make sure we would be welcome and Paul, the owner/brewer, greeted us when we arrived. He runs the place with his step-son Jason who was out delivering in Liverpool today. Paul was really great company, showing us around the one unit with the brewery and chill-room with the other having the bottling equipment and 'all my junk' (Paul's words). It's a 5BBL plant and Paul now brews 3 times a week so the 3 Fermenting Vessels were all being used.

There are 5 beers in the core range with a number of seasonal and specials as well (especially if Southport FC manage to win anything!), see here. His latest beer is an Olympic-themed easy-drinking summer beer - he decided not to go for a Jubilee Beer as there seemed to be far too many on the go.

These vary in strength from 3.7% to 5.5% abv as that really is the core market around Merseyside/Lancashire - Paul has no inclination to brew anything stronger. Malt comes from Yorkshire (ha!), mostly english hops are used for bittering, but American, New Zealand and Slovenian hops are used for aroma, simply because the intensity of aroma they generate is far greater..

Because of the brewery tie system, he doesn't supply to that many places in Southport (a definite shame), really only the Guest House and Barons Bar (although there is still lingering ill-feeling for the latter from local brewers due to some loss of revenue from the recent takeover by Britannia Hotels), but supplies a number of outlets in Liverpool and the surrounding towns and also to independant pubs in the Lancashire countryside, beer festivals which seem to happen almost every week, as well as bottling a significant proportion of the beer nowadays.

His Golden Sands won Champion Best Bitter back in 2009 and I think that's when I must have tried it at a Scottish beer festival - the uptake after a such a win is considerable. Interestingly enough Houston Peter's Well is the current Champion Best Bitter and the 2 beers are quite similar - the Golden Sands is possibly lighter & slightly sweeter and the Peter's Well has more of a definite citrus flavour, but they are both really good 'classic' beers.

I'd picked up a dozen beers from local Scottish micros such as Loch Lomond Brewery, Fyne Ales, Ayr Brewing Company, St Andrews Ales and a Tullibardine 1488 Whisky Ale to swap for a dozen Southport Brewery beers. Paul really appreciated this and hopefully he'll enjoy those beers as much as I'm sure I'll enjoy his.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Kirkcaldy to the Glenrothes Beer Festival: 12th May 2012

I've been living on the West Coast of Scotland for some years now and so don't get (or take) as many chances to visit Fife as I did previously. St Andrews is probably one of my most favourite places on the planet, and I like visiting all of the Fife East Neuk villages and towns. Kirkcaldy is probably the biggest town, but although it may not have the charm of St Andrews, it's still got a great long beach & esplanade and also some tremendous buildings. This weekend my plan was to visit Kirkcaldy for the first time in a while on the way to the Kingdom of Fife Beer Festival in Glenrothes, just north of Kirkcaldy.

View Kirkcaldy in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Haymarket
            Haymarket to Kirkcaldy
  Bus: Kirkcaldy to Glenrothes (Stagecoach East, X40)

The train station is slightly out from the centre of town, but there are some great buildings to crane your neck at on the way in. The Museum & Art Gallery was surrounded by scaffolding and not exactly at its most picturesque, but the Adam Smith Theatre was certainly impressive enough and attracts a lot of prestigious touring groups (I remember seeing the RSC here quite a few years ago).

My first port-of-call was to Mostly Wine to see if there were any local bottled beers available.

There's a door entry system there now at all times due to theft in the past, which is a real shame, but looking at the extent of wine bottles and straight from the cask wine I guess it's a sensible precaution. Beer wise there was only Williams Brothers, Coopers and (thankfully) the full-house of beers from the recently opened St Andrews Brewing Co - a nice set of branded bottles. I was hoping to also try a couple of these at the Beer Festival, but at least I now had some back-up.

By now I needed a beer and so headed down to Kirkcaldy High Street. There's definitely been a bit of money spent on the town centre - outwith the main shopping complex the place always used to look a bit drab and run-down but now it's a lot cleaner and modern. First off I headed to Betty Nicol's at the east end of the High Street (by coincidence also surrounded by scaffolding) which has had a licensed premises on site dating back to 1742.

The place has a bit of a schizophrenic nature with a nice old fashioned dark wood pub/bar area, partially tiled sections at the back and some interesting painted glass features and then there is also a trendy, modern lounge bar (called Bleu) out the back, mostly used in the evening. I stayed in the main bar and let my curiousity order me a Kozel, rather than a Deuchars IPA or a Bitter & Twisted. It wasn't too bad, a slightly bitter pils, with the beer choice further enhanced by bottles of Weihenstephan Hefe & Dunkel and Black Sheep Bitter. Also available were good value lunches (including the Betty's Hot Pot for £6.49) and some cracking well-filled, full slice sandwiches. It's a nice place - the staff were great and I really liked the chairs and long, high bench/table at the front windows so that you can look out at the passing trade.

Next a 2 minute walk east along the coast road brought me to the Harbour Bar, which although it may not look too inviting, once you get past the doorway it's a fantastic place to have a couple of great beers.

It's the home of the Fyfe Brewing Company which has been going for 17 years and I was hoping that there would be a couple of their beers on, but unfortunately not. The engaging owner told me that he now only brews a maximum of once a week and has also recently been having problems with his Nottingham yeast, so the in-house beers have been a bit less frequent. A shame, since I think I'd only ever had 2 of their beers (a long time ago), but I was more than mollified by the impressive line-up available that afternoon.

I think I'd only ever had a Buxton beer on cask down south, so the Kinder Downfall was a great surprise - some light citrus with a bitter, spicy hop kick at the end, and if anything the Brodies Hoxton IPA was even better - slightly hazy with an almost oily taste of deep bitter citrus hops - lovely, but lethal! The place wasn't busy at lunchtime (pies only for food) so I had a quick look around - the lounge is pretty basic but I liked the tables and benches at the back of the bar with books available and a view out to the back of the yard. When looking up the place up on the Internet I'd seen that it had seemed to be up for sale for some time, but the owner indicated that this was because of an on-going issue with the lawyers and that the price he was looking for was substantially more than that stated on the web-site (of course he would say that!).

After leaving the Harbour Bar I took a walk slightly further along the coast. On the way I encountered this enterprising piece of marketing for the pub at the top of the road called The Path Tavern - different!

Further along the coast, hidden away in the midst of a housing estate away from the main road, is something which looked a lot more inviting from the outside - the Feuars Arms, a Victorian gem dating back to 1859, although re-modelled in 1890 and 1902 in an almost quasi-Jacobean fashion.

If the outside hinted at something more interesting, the inside was just amazing. An incredibly long U-shaped bar with brown art nouveau-type tiling, these huge decorative lanterns on the bar counter, a tiled mosaic floor, stained, coloured and painted glass all over, a Laurieston Bar-style pie heater and an elaborately dark wood-paneled side-room - all told, quite stunning.

The barman came over, gave me a minute to pull myself together and then asked me what I wanted. I couldn't see a pump-clip on the hand-pull, but the barman explained that it had just been changed and went down into the cellar to make sure it was OK. After washing his hands he then poured a great pint of Scottish Borders Foxy Blonde making sure that the head was perfect, wiping the glass constantly to make sure there wasn't a single drop of beer or condensation on the outside of the glass - serious attention to detail! As I sipped my beer and contemplated the rest of the pub, the barman then wrote the beer name up on the back of a tray (!) and placed it above the till for all to see, and then got the pump-clip from the safe (a serious bank-style safe!, full of pump-clips!) below the till and attached the Foxy Blonde pump-clip to the hand-pull.

Traffic through the pub was certainly steady enough whilst I was there with good a mixture of couples, friends out for a chat & a few drinks and younger lads watching the TV tuned to the sports headlines (one of the few modern touches). I chatted away with the barman for a while about beer and breweries and mentioned the new St Andrews Brewing Company and he indicated that he would take a look at it since he already picks up some casks from the nearby Loch Leven Brewery himself on the way to work. As I left I headed to the Gents in the corner of the bar - now I don't normally take photos of toilets, but this had something I hadn't seen before - a Doulton glass cistern still with the "London, Paisley and Paris" markings.

Since I was still in a bit of a daze it was just as well that by chance (ha - good planning for once) the bus stop for the X40 bus to Glenrothes was less than a minute from the Feuars Arms. The route we took was perhaps not the most direct to Glenrothes Bus Station but it was only just over 20 minutes before I was walking around the outside of the Kingdom Shopping Centre to the Rothes Halls and the Glenrothes Beer Festival.

The Rothes Halls confounded my expectations a bit by being a bright, modern venue complete with art galleries and a classy cafe - I took a wander around for a few minutes and was most impressed by the place. Today the main hall was fairly full, but there was a considerably more relaxed vibe than the Paisley Beer Festival I'd been to a few weeks ago. I got my glass and was told that the St Andrews beers had all sold out (therefore a good decision to get the bottles beforehand) and also Ascot Ales Anastasia’s Imperial Stout, a definite shame. However there was still a great selection available and I chose local(ish) beers from Loch Leven and Deeside and others from more far afield breweries such as Saltaire and Black Iris. Probably my favourite of the day was the Wylam Galena which had a nice hint of almost sour blackberries from the Galena hops. I chatted away to staff regarding pubs in St Andrews & Kirkcaldy and also met Alan Lawson from Angus Ales who was quite happy to keep me informed regarding what was happening beer and pub-wise in and around Dundee. Although it had been a fair hike by public transport to get to Glenrothes (and it would be another couple of hours to get back) it had definitely been worthwhile trip - I enjoyed it a lot.

Return transport:-
  Bus: Glenrothes to Kirkcaldy (Stagecoach East, X40)
  Train: Kirkcaldy to Haymarket
            Haymarket to Glasgow Queen Street