Monday, 7 March 2016

Top Pubs & Top of the Hops down Ayrshire way: 27th February 2016

With the 6 Nations rugby, some family matters to attend to and the generally seriously wet winter weather, I don't get about too much in February. However, with a bright, crisp and clear day promised (and an early start), I thought I would be able head down to Ayrshire for a walk along the coast, find some food & some beer and also visit a new beer/homebrew shop in Kilmarnock before watching the Scotland rugby game from the Italian capitol.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Irvine (00, 05, 30, 35 on the hour)

Irvine on the Ayrshire coast is a place I know quite well, having worked there for a good number of years, although I'd have to qualify that in that I know the industrial estates and the shopping centre, but not the harbourside area. So instead of joining the majority of people who headed off the train and into the sprawling Rivergate Centre and nearby retail outlets I headed in the opposite direction towards Irvine's historic harbourside area. This is where the rivers Garnock & Irvine come together to empty into the Firth of Clyde and where ships have landed cargo and supplies for hundreds of years. The port declined rapidly in the 20th Century when the upper Clyde ports came into prominence and now there are only a few older vessels moored upstream from the smaller leisure vessels in the newer marina.

I'd seen a strange bridge over the river quite a few times from the train and had always thought it was some sort of unfinished or storm damaged grain/aggregate conveyor bridge but as I came closer something started to click in my memory. This was the sliding Bridge of Scottish Invention walk/cycleway which linked across to now closed The Big Idea science centre on the Ardeer Peninsula. The sides of the bridge are festooned with the names & inventions of various Scottish scientists down the ages and it also had an intriguing slide-in/slide-out docking mechanism to allow access for tall ships to/from Irvine harbour. With the closure of The Big Idea in 2003 the bridge is always open nowadays with the entrance to the bridge completely boarded up but Ayrshire Creative Corridor have plans to turn the sand dune-like structure of The Big Idea into a hub for high-tech ventures although this is still in the very early planning stages.

The walk along the river to the coast isn't too long and really is quite a lovely stroll on a bright, sunny day and as I came to the end of it I found another intriguing structure, the multi-level Pilot House. This is by no means the most architecturally stunning building about, but it had a life-saving practical use to automatically signal the depth and state of the tide in the river to ships, both during the day (by use of a selection of large black balls) and at night (by using a sequence of lights). There aren't too many structures like still standing in the UK and it's great to come across them.

Ayrshire has a lot of great breaches, Troon, West Kilbride and the long sands of Ayr itself, but I hadn't realised the beach at Irvine was so spectacular, with miles of silver sands and high dunes in front of the raised beach; today these were sparely populated with walkers, scampering dogs and even a couple of horses & riders.

I could have quite happily walked for ages along the beach but the winter sun had just about reached high-noon and so I back-tracked towards the town centre. There are a number of pubs, coffee shops and the Harbour Arts Centre opposite the river walkway but today The Ship Inn was my intended destination although I wasn't quite sure about which entrance to use - either through the sunken conservatory at the front left or what seemed to be as separate-ish pub at the right-hand side (the Wee Catch).

Since I was looking for some food I went for the central front door and was rewarded by the sight a dark wooden panelled rectangular bar with a number of shiny keg fonts but also 2 hand-pulls. There wasn't anything on the first but the 2nd had something I wasn't expecting, a house beer called Auld Ship 1567.

I obviously asked which brewery provided this and was told it was told it was a Caledonian beer. This was a bit surprising since I didn't think Caley did that type of thing but when I tried it I could well believe it - very malty sweet, some red berries, and not a lot of hoppy bitterness - it was OK but could have been a lot better. I sat down at one of the tables in the many nooks of the sunken conservatory area and although this new part probably doesn't date back to 1567 it's very nicely decked out - the sloping roof has charcoal drawings of the old riverside of Irvine and there lots of Burns quotes dotted around the walls - I'm a sucker for this type of stuff.

Food-wise they do all sorts of stuff in here, from breakfast (10-12am only), to sandwiches, their famous fish-and-chips and other pub mains & specials. I was going to plump for the soup-and-sandwich deal (quelle surprise) but found out that the soup-of-the-day contained sweetcorn (arghhh...) and so on the advice of the waitress I went for the pasta special instead. This was spicy Italian sausage & rocket in a cream sauce & quite, quite outstanding. The thick creamy, slightly herby sauce in particular was superb and I really had to force myself not to lick the plate clean.

After that full-on carbohydrate intake I needed a bit of a walk and so headed back towards the centre of Irvine. Just before the train station I came across a small shop that had been boarded up when I went past earlier, Vanilla Joe's. This bills itself as 'The Best Gelateria in Scotland', a lofty & ambitious title, and although the cold-tray of ice creams seemed impreasive, I was way too full of creamy pasta sauce to attempt one of their confections - I will definitely have to come back.

As I walked past the sprawling Rivergate Centre I did think about popping into the relatively new Wetherspoons, The Auld Brig, but decided that my rugby-based schedule didn't really allow me this liberty and so skirted this complex and found the footpath along the River Irvine just to the north & east of the centre.

I didn't stay on this too long but instead followed another path through the mass of industrial units, roundabouts and swooping seagulls that make up the central part of Irvine. This merges into the smaller community of Dreghorn with a large TA Barracks on the outskirts and an ultra-modern glass, concrete & steel Primary School. As I continued through Dreghorn Main Street I came across the old Primary School building, alma mater of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, which has been bought by Arran Brewery.

The plan for this Victorian building (and the whole site) is to become Scotland's first Sake brewery, a visitor centre and the bottling & distribution centre for all of Arran's beers - definitely an ambitious undertaking. This has been hampered by a number of break-ins in the last 18 months, and when I went past there wasn't too much in the way of outward progress, but anything that brings jobs (and beer/Sake) into the area has got to be welcomed.
I think it is possible to walk all of the way into Kilmarnock from Irvine but I wasn't going to try that today. Instead I got on one of the frequent Ardrossan-Kilmarnock buses and stayed on until the terminus at Kilmarnock bus station. From here it was only a few minutes to the Foregate area of Kilmarnock where Top of the Hops is located.

This is a fairly new venture, having been opened in September of last year by local man John Mullen. Inside is a great array of bottled beer both Scottish (Ayr, Arran, Black Metal, Alechemy, Fallen and others), UK wide (Wiper and True, Kernel, Weird, Wild, Wold Top) as well as a diverse Belgian & German selection. As befits modern tastes there is also an craft can collection on the shelves with Beaverton, Four Pure, Adnams & Magic Rock all present and correct.

The other side of the shop is given over to homebrew supplies with a choice from basic kits up to all grain and a eclectic selection of yeast types.

From talking to the engaging owner it seems he took inspiration from Hippo Beers in Glasgow, and after a bit of a shaky time after the Christmas & New Year period, sales are heading in the right direction again. He plans to introduce a growler station, hopefully in the next few months, with key-kegs from both a local brewery (possibly Ethical Ales) and one from further afield, and also has further plans for a sit-down and drink-in-the-shop section, although that would seem to require a lot more in the way of planning permission.

It's great to see such a shop (in Kilmarnock as well, quite amazing) and I'm hoping he does really well. I bought a good number of bottles (bubble-wrapped against the world) and headed off to find somewhere to watch the rugby. As far as I know the place in Kilmarnock for this (and decent beer) is Fanny By Gaslight, a traditional Victorian Saloon Bar that I've been to a number of times in recent visits down this way and which has evolved into a great pub.

The place has been recently awarded CAMRA East Ayrshire Pub of the Year and I'm not that surprised. The full island bar is fantastic, there was a mini beer festival on today (a fairly safe, but good range of local Scottish beers from Harviestoun, Drygate, Orkney and some new bottled beer from Keith Brewery), and the staff are great, chatty & helpful (I was offered a high-backed chair to watch the rugby simply because I'm tall, a complete first for me). Scotland even won their 6-Nations game against Italy which I watched to the end in Fanny's with some more than decent beer - a welcome end to an afternoon out in Ayrshire.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Kilmarnock to Glasgow Central (27, 57 on the hour)

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