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Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Down By The Canal

The Boathouse, Auchinstarry Marina, Kilsyth

The Forth & Clyde Canal, between Bowling on the Clyde and Grangemouth, was built in the 18th century. Its purpose was trade and those involved in its construction would doubtless be surprised by the leisure opportunities provided by the waterway today. That and the works of art it now inspires, such as David Mackenzie’s award winning film Young Adam, and my much-delayed novel C. Tax.
Pubs and restaurants are a part of this transformation, the most notable opening of the last decade being the Boathouse Pub- Restaurant - Rooms at Auchinstarry near Kilsyth. Its owners Townhouse Restaurants won the SLTN (Scottish Licensed Trade News) Award for Best New Business last year, for this and the Wheelhouse near the Falkirk Wheel. The Wheelhouse does not have the same benefit of location as the Boathouse, being hundreds of yards from the Wheel and situated basically in a car park. Its sister operation sits right beside the canal marina at Auchinstarry and even affords views of the quarry, a popular spot for rock climbing when the weather permits.
The bar/restaurant is housed in a new-build of re-constituted stone, the white exterior presenting the place as an oversized house similar to the many new-build homes in the area. The exterior could also do with some weathering to add authenticity and perhaps the flavour of a boathouse from New England.
There are no surprises inside as the home theme continues. The lighting is as you would expect in a place of residence, and there is no music. Homely in a show home Sunday supplement way. Some people find that comfortable, home from home. But if you want that you should stay in. A bar is somewhere to get out of yourself, methinks.
Whoa! Despite all this there are positives. The furniture is substantial and soft – a tricky combination – and the large space is subtly, if unimaginatively, divided into a large dining middle area, a lounge/drinking area near the door, and a raised section by the French windows.
The colours, though, are muted throughout, pastels, creams and browns designed to make the minimum of offence, and light wood everywhere which is uneasily Ikea-ish especially round the bar itself. On the counter sit cookie jars, incongruous in many bars but here not so, coffee seems far more natural here than alcohol.
I managed to get a peek at one of the 10 rooms upstairs and these are far more chic and minimal, black, red and white predominate and the feel reminded me of the award-winning Atholl Arms Hotel up in Fort Augustus- coincidentally another place adjoining a famous waterway.
Alcohol on its own seems to be third in line as a revenue generator- despite the good staff appreciation of the wine list- behind the accommodation and food. Space has been maximised to get many tables in play, possibly at the expense of atmosphere.
On the two occasions I’ve ventured this far out of the city there have been birthday parties in flow here, nothing too raucous though, you feel that would be inappropriate. Celebrations such as these are what the management have set out to attract, that and casual dining from local residents, probably folk who commute to either of the two cities and who are pleased to have got somewhere reasonably close that ticks most of their boxes.
The menu is more varied than expected, but expensive. For example: £9.95 for roast vegetable and sun-dried tomato penne, or £19.95 for a mixed grill.
As I said earlier this place is perfectly located by the canal marina. They have made the most of this with a broad decking area, which extends round two sides of the whole building. There is easy access to the decking through the French windows and from there you can step down beside the narrow boats and cruisers that line the basin. A few of the tables have Boathouse- branded umbrellas and these are the largest I’ve ever seen, permitting outside drinking whatever the weather. But the best weather for this place is obviously hot sunshine glinting on the water. This is a daytime destination, the weather and location creating the atmosphere, at night the interior lighting dissipates any vibe.
Another chain that operates around water features is the Cawley group, they of Duck Bay Marina Hotel and the Hungry Monk restaurants. I recently visited their Wheelhouse bar and restaurant in Langbank, over the M8 from the Clyde. Similar in feel to their other outlets it is glitzy in a decidedly middle-aged fashion, and far from the sophistication you know the owners are trying to achieve. Being harsh you could go right through the list of fittings: handrails, lamps, silly globe lamps, beams and tartan carpets and call every one as fake. Owners and designers presuming their customers’ tastes rather than executing their own clear vision. Even at Duck Bay on Loch Lomond, with views all the way up the loch, they almost manage to ruin an iconic location with cluttered, ostentatious furnishing.
At the Langbank Wheelhouse our party was greeted under the assumption we were to eat. Faces fell when we announced our intention just to drink. For a Friday evening the place was quiet, the ambience not helped by the separation between tables which may work for dining but not drinking. And I’m not inclined to try their food these days, after the way they changed the Kirkhouse Inn from a good country hotel/restaurant into a bland outlet. There were less than ten folk in the whole place but when two of us returned from a smoke we were greeted as before, like strangers.
All in all not very impressive but I’m sure they are making money, at least I hope they are, considering the astronomical prices they once charged me for soft drinks at the Hungry Monk in Gartocharn.
Still, business by the waterways is never easy. Ocho, a fresh little licensed coffee shop and delicatessen situated at Spiers Wharf basin on the Forth and Clyde near Port Dundas, closed after a less than a year trading. This despite good food and good prices and a superb view over city centre Glasgow.
Maybe urban canal side hasn’t yet caught on properly. Just as the leisure possibilities aren’t quite developing either. We’ve all seen the barges outside Glasgow for hire and for guided tours, but in all the times I’ve walked the dirty towpaths inside the city limits I’ve yet to see a moving boat. In my aforementioned novel the hero witnesses a shocking crime on board the local commuter barge but life is yet to imitate this art.
But given the right weather there’s nothing better than a drink on the water. The Stables bar by the canal near Kirkintilloch still draws in the crowds, Sunday evenings being the best time, even if my pals and me never got lucky on that night of the week. Lock 27 near Anniesland has better outside facilities than it ever had in its early-nineties heyday and is worth a long stay on a lazy afternoon.
I’m still looking forward to visiting the Bridge Inn at Ratho on the Union Canal. Its pretty location by an old bridge and new owners this year means I will be along there soon. My favourite, though, will probably remain the Eagle Barge, at Laggan Locks on the Caledonian Canal. Here the barge is the bar. Watch your head as you descend into its belly. The interior is as snug and as wood-lined as you could wish for, with nautical curios all around, but even these delights won’t keep you inside if the sun is shining. The views are superb, Loch Lochy to the south, Loch Oich and Loch Ness to the north, and the mountains of Glengarry Forest to the west. Follow the discrete sign off the A87 and through the trees for a new drinking experience.
Until I return north, it’s back to the waterways of the central belt and their accompanying hostelries. With the longer days approaching and the hope of a good summer that’s not too bad a prospect.

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