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Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Old Toll Bar Reopens

The Old Toll Bar, 1-3 Paisley Road West, Glasgow G51 1LF

Glasgow only has a handful of historically significant bar interiors left (including The Horseshoe, The Steps, The Railway Tavern, The Portland Arms and The Laurieston) so it’s positive news that one of those, the Old Toll Bar, is to re-open on Saturday (1st October).

Languishing empty for at least a couple of years, the Old Toll has been comprehensively refurbished by Old Toll Inns Ltd, who have ambitious plans for the joint.
The Old Toll started trading in 1893 (not 1874, as stated on the wall outside) and is probably Scotland’s best example of a trend described as the “palace pubs”, not to be confused with the “gin palaces” of earlier in the 19th century.

This style of pub aimed to draw people away from the confines of their one-roomed dwellings into grand, impressively designed places of entertainment and booze. Ornaments and fittings of not only great value, but dazzling to the late Victorian/early Edwardian eye were the means by which the owners of these venues attracted large numbers of punters.

In the case of the Old Toll, etched and painted glass, beautiful advertising mirrors and improbably smooth dark wood are the significant features that will have entranced drinkers over its long lifetime.

But all of these are surpassed by the bar’s gantry – eight original spirit casks sit high and proud, above recessed sections rendered grotto-like by clever use of light and shade. At the very top, the wood is carved like a ship’s prow and in the centre of this magnificence the Old Toll clock ticks, bearing the bar’s date of birth.

The new owners are sweeping away the extraneous modern clutter of TVs and fruit machines that obscured the grandeur of the interior. On my last visit to the Old Toll, about five years ago, these new additions were an annoyance, as was the totally abandoned nature of the downstairs lounge and the lacklustre bar service.

Not that it is easy running a traditional pub in a relatively obscure part of the city, where footfall will never be that of the city centre, this in contrast to earlier times when the pub – as suggested by its name – sat at a toll point of a major turnpike west out of the city.
But the bar doesn’t sit in complete isolation today, there are four or five bars nearby, most notably the Viceroy – itself a little gem of a traditional pub, with Knox brothers’ stained glass from the late-Victorian era and a terrazzo spittoon.

The other bars in the area show that Rangers’ influence is strong around here, with the triangulation of The Angel, The Quayside and The Union Bar dominating. And unsurprisingly, this association is a long one. One of the Gers’ most famous players, Jim Baxter, was the landlord of a previous incarnation of The Union Bar, and his son, Stephen, was at one time the landlord of The Old Toll Bar itself. As an aside, in my pre-BB days I had a run-in with the latter when he was throwing his not inconsiderable size about. But I’ll leave that story for another time.

I’m still negotiating with the Muse over my attendance at the Old Toll’s re-opening on Saturday and hoping to be the first inside its walls, but whether I make it or not, it will be fascinating to see if the new owners are successful in their project promising craft beer from small producers like Up Front Brewing and Fallen Brewing; classic cocktails with a modern twist; and old board games and gramophones. If things go well, this chapter in the life of the Old Toll could well be entitled – the past re-energised.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The West Highlands

Scotland is equally famous for its mountains as for its drink. And some of us who like the latter also explore the former, even though a pint in the bar after the exertion can be the highlight. But what pubs are worthy of hosting that particular delight?

Heading north from Glasgow, there are a plenty of options but the A82 offers the best route to the best mountains – those of the West Highlands. In succession you have the Loch Lomond peaks, followed by Ben Lui, Beinn Dorain, the Black Mount, Glencoe, and then on into the heart of Lochaber; crowned by Ben Nevis.

From Fort William, most drivers, if not hillwalkers, continue up the west shore of Loch Ness, but the best lands lie to the west of that, when you take a left at Invergarry. From there, the road leads to the delights of Kintail, Skye and even Torridon: an impressive list even when omitting the legendary wilderness of Knoydart.

And along this wondrous route there are indeed hostelries of note, not as many as you might first think, but that is only down to the limited permanent population of the Highlands in general. Here are a few of those pubs…

At the top of Loch Lomond, the Drovers’ Inn is one of the country’s most well-known and oldest hostelries. However, these two facts don’t excuse it being a draughty, damp and dirty pit of a joint, nor answer the question – why are the staff exclusively Antipodean? It is one of the most overrated pubs in the country and if you do want to stop off in this area, the Ardlui Hotel is a far better option.

The Drovers’ Inn is over 30 miles from Glasgow, yet you still somehow feel in the Central Belt, that impression only really dispelled as you climb up and away from the loch on the long pull up to Crianlarich. Unfortunately, there isn’t much drinking in that village, nor in the next, Tyndrum, though the Green Welly Stop and the Real Food Café are decent food stops.

Ten miles further on, The Bridge of Orchy Hotel is a welcoming haven, even if standards of food and drink have dropped over the last decade. Along a dead-end B road there is even more seclusion at the Inveroran Hotel but this remoteness means the bar is mostly very quiet.

The vast bleakness of the Rannoch Moor is next, and only the Kingshouse Hotel offers any shelter. Its large size means it can lack atmosphere but the humble Climbers’ Bar at the back is worth a pint, the worse the weather the better. It holds a special place in my memory as the place which allowed me the chance to change and recover after a scary tumble into a raging Glen Orchy burn one cold mid-February day.

The mouth of Glencoe beckons at the west of the moor. Near the bottom of the glen, the Clachaig Inn sits on the edge of the trees that flank the old road to Glencoe village. The Clachaig is up there with the Drovers in the famous stakes, but happily it gets far closer to delivering a good drinking experience.

There are two bars, the front- of-hotel comfortable type and the enormous back boot bar. Neither are brilliant but with this location, crouched beneath the peaks of Scotland’s most famous glen, they don’t have to be. The back bar, for instance, is really too big to have a sustainable atmosphere but on music nights that space is useful. And somehow, this inn offers a far more pleasurable bar experience if you are staying the night than if you are just passing through, whether you are boozing or not.

Fort William is next, but I’m not going to waste any time on it, as this dismal outpost surely gets the prize for the biggest negative contrast between town and location anywhere in Britain.

As the traveller continues north-west, the next bar of note is encountered just beyond Loch Lochy. The Eagle not only has great views of the surrounding hills, but floating on the Caledonian Canal it is one of only a handful of water-bound drinking outlets in the country. I’ve had pleasant afternoons both on deck and in the cosy confines below. The only reason I won’t give it any higher praise is the fact that on a recent visit, on a Sunday in July, it was closed, the owners taking a break without adequate notification of their absence.

Invergarry is next, at the junction of the A82 and A87. The village contains two hotels, one large, one small, both fine for a beverage of any variety. Turn left here and soon you are rising up beyond the trees to one of the finest roadside views in Scotland. The small layby allows a fantastic vista due west into Knoydart. Those Rough Bounds are arguably the best condensed area of adventurous hill-going in the land but as there is only one pub – The Forge – and that is at the very south of Knoydart, we can fairly leave that place to another kind of writing.

Instead, the next point of call can be the Cluanie Inn on the approach to Glen Shiel. This hotel, restaurant, bar and bunkhouse has been serving travellers of all sorts for at least a century. It is 15 miles either way from any other sort of habitation and a large part of its charm is this isolation and thus the refuge it gives from the wilds, especially in the dark of a winter night when its lights twinkle tantalisingly from afar as you approach along the lochside road. The focal point of the whole joint is the downstairs section of the whisky bar, get a seat down there if you can.

Kintail can be said to begin at the other end of Glen Shiel, the western end. The chief accommodation within this delightful district is the Kintail Lodge Hotel. I’ve stayed there three times over the last 15 years or so and enjoyed every visit. It, like Cluanie, also has a bunkhouse to complement the hotel accommodation and that adds to the eclectic nature of the mix of punters.

The hotel has a nice split personality: fairly refined, almost genteel dining/breakfast rooms with the option of alfresco in the garden; a cosy restaurant; an adjoining bar area with decent long counter, generous seating and a little covered sitooterie. These two latter areas bring all evening guests together, residents, locals and travellers.

During my latest visit, we enjoyed two nights of the hotel’s hospitality: good food, even better whisky, and engaging conversation with Kintail folk. As with all evenings like these, you know that, largely, most of the chat will soon be forgotten but you hope that at least some of it remains.

On our first night, the Friday, there was a large contingent of Yorkshire people in the bar and restaurant, this particular group seemingly annual visitors. Good for them, I say. During the course of the evening, the difference between the Scots and our southern neighbours became evident – their natural level of conversation is louder. I don’t think they notice it but we listen and think that nothing deserves that amount of amplification.

Anyway, by the next afternoon I had forgotten my little observation, perhaps because we were driving over the famous Mam Ratagan pass en route to a bar in a hotel that I had never yet visited before. The Glenelg Inn sits on the peninsula of the same name, a tranquil corner of Scotland sandwiched by Kintail and the Knoydart wilderness.

It is hard to get to, but not that hard that it should take three attempts, but it has for me; the two previous efforts denied by winter and another less-foreseeable reason I can’t even recall. The inn is worth it, though – complete with low-beamed ceiling, real log fire, pleasant garden and plenty of live music events.

We settled in for a couple of hours’ stay, sitting out then in, as the only rain shower of the weekend passed over. But then, who was inside but the same Yorkshire group as last night. They were, we found out later, staying in the inn, and they didn’t look too pleased at us breaking up their private party. Oh, well, we all have to be tolerant, you know, even of irritating neighbours.

After another enjoyable evening in The Kintail Lodge Hotel, we were done and dusted with our trip but took a slight detour past Eilean Donan Castle to a favourite viewpoint of mine. Nearby, we supped at The Dornie Inn. This is an unremarkable village pub but it sits at the meeting point of three lochs, Loch Alsh, Loch Long and Loch Duich – an enchanting spot.

And that is the point of these Highland pubs I’ve spent much time surveying. They aren’t distinguished by their housing nor by their interiors. Not even by the booze they sell. Their location is all, and that is – easily - enough for me.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Woodlands Road - West on the Corner & The Arlington

West on the Corner, 160 Woodlands Road, G3 6LF
The Arlington, 130 Woodlands Road, G3 6HB

Some roads are only widely known for where they take you, rather than for themselves or what they contain. Woodlands Road is one of them. It links the West End with Charing Cross and hence the city centre.

In way, it is a bit like the Finnieston stretch of Argyle Street used to be, before that drag became so hip and featured in all the magazines. But perhaps because Woodlands Road isn’t able to have a concentration of shops and food/drink outlets, being lined by the northern edge of Kelvingrove Park, such a transformation is unlikely.

Still, that isn’t to say that nothing happens on this road. At the eastern end, Uisge Beatha was replaced by Dram! just a few years back. The original pub wasn’t a particular fave of mine but it could claim to be unique in this city, Highland kitsch isn’t common in Glasgow. Now, Stonegate have it, having acquired it from the late Maclay Group. Nothing unique about Dram! but plenty of blandness, rest assured.

Further east, another multiple operator has moved in fairly recently. And again, the pub making way was a place of some repute. The Halt was its name. And it had one of the best-preserved interiors in the city including a beautiful U-shaped bar counter in dark wood and a wood-panelled snug.

What made the Halt even more notable was its clientele – the type of punters not normally associated with a traditional bar. West End dropouts you might call them. Crusties was another, less charitable, name. The ones I knew of, and went to school with, were just too young to have fully participated in punk but they held some of that attitude. Of course, most have drifted away over the years, or lost the faith, but I did see a familiar soul or two anytime I was in the area.

The main bar was adjoined by a function space that hosted some decent live music, often of the more raucous type. All in all, a joint worth a good few hours of your time, day or night.

It was common knowledge over more recent years that the Halt was struggling. Various plans were mooted for its revival. But nothing concrete until the burgeoning West operation (brewery and huge, but atmospheric bar at the Templeton Building, Glasgow Green) announced it was opening as a pop-up bar in the Halt premises, with the intention of making it a permanent affair.

In moved the refurbishers to rip out the soul of the old pub. In the place of venerable dark wood, and brass fittings they inserted an interior befitting a college cafeteria, minus the warmth.

Every angle is covered with cheap-looking, light-coloured wood and tabletops covered by something reminiscent of Formica, without the nod to nostalgia. Grey lampshades are scattered here and there, reflecting the haphazard nature of the total refurb. So bad, that the superb original wooden floor is rendered bereft.

The disheartening theme continues behind the bar with a completely unoriginal steel gantry that although well-stocked does not tempt you to discover any of its delights.

But on my first visit to West on the corner, as it’s now called, I of course did sample some of that alcohol. I went low-strength, for convenience sake and soon regretted that decision – the West Somme going as close to carbonated water as Trading Standards will probably allow, a real waste of barley. Of course, most West beers are reasonably good, and I agree with the concept of low-strength beers, but this version is a brewing failure.

Next door, in the former events space, is a slightly more elegant room in which the full food menu is served. Although the German menu is quite a novelty in this city, it is still just another restaurant serving middle-of-the-road fare, something that is not a rarity in this city, whereas decent live-music venues are dwindling in numbers.

No comprehensive BB bar visit is complete without a toilet inspection and downstairs I did just that. The red tiling contained within is easily the best design feature of the whole joint. That tells you something.

Down there, I recalled the anecdote that during the gutting of this place’s beautiful fixtures and fittings, the builder/desecrator was given the old bar to keep. Lucky for him, fuck the rest of us.

A hundred yards further along Woodlands Road in the direction of town is The Arlington, and hardly a starker contrast with West on the Corner can be imagined.

The Arlington has had a number of refurbs over the decades but I think its present look is the best of the lot of them – a bit of a midden, really, and all the better for it, because that’s what its punters want, an antidote to the rest of the West End. They want a place you can get drunk in without bothering if you spill some of your lager on the floor or you bundle over a chair or two as you stumble to the bar.

And they, in this outpost of counter-culture in this district of Glasgow, don’t care if the lighting is pretty decrepit – the fairy lights, for instance, quite ridiculous – or the furniture the cheap side of rickety, or the drink brands the very opposite of premium.

Craft-beer snobs would scoff at the drinks selection which includes the Arlington’s own Stone of Destiny lager (£2.70) which plays on the urban legend of the true resting place of that relic. The fact that the bar lets you pay for that particular pint with Scotcoin tells you a little bit more about the ethos of this bar.

In here you get misfits, dropouts, serious drinkers, ex-Halt-goers (probably), OAPs on a Wednesday afternoon pub crawl, down-at-luck salesmen with glassy eyes stuck in the corner with two pints for company, and just old-fashioned party animals partaking in concoctions like a Bucky Bomb.

The most recent time I was in, on a Wednesday afternoon, the handful of punters, who before entering the Arlington had mostly been strangers, were crowded around the bar chatting, laughing and drinking together. Down the road at West on the Corner, there was a similar number of customers but they remained separate, each little party of one, two, three or four keeping to their own table – circulation seemingly an impossible thing as they sipped and sipped and sipped…

The difference between the two joints thus confirmed in those two snapshots – and it tempts me to say that in The Arlington they have a good time, in West on the Corner they just think they do.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Sunny Dalmuir

Mountblow Bar, 832 Dumbarton Road, Clydebank, G81 4BS
Macintosh's Bar, 2-4 Swindon Street, Clydebank, G81
The Horse & Barge, 688 Dumbarton Road, Clydebank, G81

Clydebank gets by - just. Post-industrial may sum it up. The heavy industry has gone decades ago and nothing substantial ever really took its place. The town’s ‘centre’ is the shopping complex bulked up by leisure sites such as the cinema, bowling and Playdrome. The retail
experience here is a notch below that of, say, Braehead.

There’s a few modest business parks, a large college, two or three railway stations and very little else of commercial note. Quite a stepdown in prominence for a town specifically targeted by the Luftwaffe due to its extraordinary concentration of shipbuilding and other heavy industry.

Bordering Yoker and Drumchapel, Clydebank can be regarded as an extension of the Greater Glasgow conurbation but older Bankies, especially, would object to this description. However, the town does provide cheaper housing than in the neighbouring city thus allowing many folk the opportunity to be able to use the amenities and attractions of Glasgow without paying the premium for being within the city boundary.

On weekend nights, particularly, taxis, buses and trains ferry lots of Bankies into Glasgow to enjoy some nightlife, many only going as far as Partick, but I’m not interested in that phenomenon here – I’m looking at the places that will attract and keep locals. This time I’m concentrating on Dalmuir and Mountblow, the districts at the far west end of Clydebank.

Contrary to received wisdom a place like Clydebank should have a multitude of bars, but that number barely reaches double figures. And for a population of around 45,000, that is a relatively low number, well below my rule of thumb of one pub per 1,000 people.

Dalmuir has three of that number, all located on or near the main road through lower Clydebank – Dumbarton Road. The furthest west is The Mountblow, situated on a quiet corner.

The blinds were down as I approached. Not for my benefit, I realised, but slightly off-putting nevertheless. As if to emphasise this impression, my entrance elicited a few light sniggers and knowing looks between the barmaid and handful of punters. But exposure of this sort is momentary and has to be got over if you want to be a successful or indeed a non-successful bar reviewer of any kind.

And the blinds on this unusually sunny September Thursday served to filter the light in such a way as to render the brown interior pleasingly dusty, rather like a laid-back drink shack of the Southern United States.

I ordered my pint quickly and used the pouring time to establish that the US link was continued by the fair number of framed photos of Yank iconography such as an Ali v Liston – the second fight, I believe.

I sat under the snooker scorer that had lost its table. But sport of some sort goes on here, or at least amongst the punters, if the collection of trophies on the gantry is an indication.

Beside them are a distinctive row of pewter tankards and bells. I never quite felt able to ask to whom these belonged or if there was something down the stairs directly in front of my seat other than just a storeroom.

Many books are stuffed into available shelf and window-ledge space but it is a measure of this joint that I made no move to peruse the collection let alone buy another pint and actually start reading one of them.

So I was up and away in under half an hour, heading east to the next one on the list – Mackintosh’s, which is adjacent to a dreary selection of shops.
The exterior of Mackintosh’s is gloomy, the dark cladding overpowering the small windows. But this look is pretty typical of bars in outlying urban areas that have undergone ‘60s, ‘70s redevelopment.

Inside is probably of a vintage a decade or two antecedent to the exterior – very basic light wooden furniture and a basic glass gantry with probably the smallest selection of spirits I’ve seen in a bar since the 1990s.

But not holding that against the place too much, you have here a joint far busier than the last, with a more inclusive atmosphere to boot, new faces coming in and out in the time I was there, a revolving, evolving collection of punters one could say. Quite unlike The Mountblow.

In the raised area there was some serious dominoes going on – no blood was likely to be spilt, largely because of the 8 blokes in the two groups at least 5 would be on warfarin – but as close to that state of strife as is possible otherwise.

A more convivial recreation is the twice-weekly fish-tea dinner dances (adults only) advertised on Mackintosh’s exterior and these occur, I believe, in the large lounge area to the side of the saloon bar. The lounge is extensive but doesn’t appear to be in regular use, apart from those fish-tea extravaganzas on Tuesdays and Fridays.

But this was Thursday. I had to go. Leave. Be on my way. There was one more to do today. The Horse and Barge by name, previously O’Kane’s. The biggest of the three, so large that the space taken up/lost by a pool table is hardly missed.

This spaciousness is exaggerated by the large windows that go right around the corner from the main road to the side street. Probably cold and draughty in the winter but on this day of sunshine a pleasant warmth and light engulfs the whole joint, most particularly in the raised area of tables nearest to the windows.

The heat made me wish you could enjoy a drink or two outside, perhaps with a view of the nearby Forth and Clyde Canal from which this pub derives its name, but in Clydebank there is next to no outside provision, apart from a few chairs outside a couple of establishments near the bus station.

But at least this keeps one’s attention focussed on the interior. And in here the main point of interest is the snugs, or departments as they used to be called in old-pub nomenclature.

I edged around them trying to see if there was access to any of the three of them, or even if they actually were snugs. Was I mistaken?
One has its door slightly ajar and I peer in, but all I see are brushes and a mop before the aperture creaks closed. I decline to ask at the bar about the true nature of these features and instead take my pint of 70 and chaser of Scottish Leader up to the raised area.

The 70-shilling was spectacularly off but I didn’t let it bother me. I sat and looked around and wondered if the two blokes sitting at separate tables were prosperous retirees who had just strolled down the hill from the bungalow-heavy district of Overton for a quiet pint or a whisky and Irn Bru with their papers and mobiles.

Hurricanes and the 1968 riots are on the TV but the atmosphere is contemplative and tranquil and somehow it gets more so as over the shoulder of one of those gents I spot a holiday jet rise high into the sky without a cloud to obscure its climb to the heavens. I could almost imagine being in that plane, leaning back in my seat, resting my head – ten seconds later closing my eyes…