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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.”

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