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Published on April 5, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour


Welcome to Belgium upon Berwickshire

Life is full of pub surprises, writes Alastair Gilmour


A mecca for Belgian beer lovers and aficionados of cask and craft keg beer isn’t what you expect to find in a village just north of Berwick upon Tweed. But life is full of surprises and unforgettable experiences.

Ayton, roughly five miles into Scotland, is a solid, typically attractive Border settlement with a population of around 500, plus handsome houses, a village shop, a couple of hairdressers’ and a Grade A-listed baronial castle. Its High Street bank closed in 2015, replaced by a twice-a-week mobile service – but an absolute gem of a pub makes up for many a lost facility.

Hemelvaart Bier Café opened its doors in July 2015 in the building occupied by The Black Bull until it predeceased the bank around six years ago. It’s a continental-style pub offering 150 bottled world beers – with an emphasis on Belgium – and an impressive selection of two British hand-pulled cask ales and six ever-revolving craft keg beers. It serves pizzas, burgers, steaks and superb coffee.

A pub regular – a pastry chef – supplies cakes reputedly so good they often don’t make it as far as the counter, and with award-winning pies in the shape of pork and blue cheese, Cullen skink, cauliflower and coconut curry (from Jarvis Pickle in Kirkcaldy) plus Pieminster old favourites Matador and Deerstalker, it’s a foodie’s delight.

Hemelvaart is aptly name – Hemelvaartdag is Flemish (and Dutch) for Ascension Day, the commemoration of Christ’s elevation to heaven after his resurrection on Easter Day.

Putting religion aside, we prefer the shorthand version, “died and gone to heaven”.

The Black Bull was apparently a very much male-orientated pub. An application to convert it into residential use was agreed by the local council, but an outcry from villagers concerned about the loss of yet another village facility to add to the closure of shop after shop, ensured the bid was overturned.

“We got it about 18 months ago,” says Hemelvaart co-owner John Atkinson, a former maths and English teacher, B&B owner, and education facilitator with the Leonardo Project, a European Union lifelong learning programme. John, a decided beer expert, runs Hemelvaart Bier Cafe with partner Phil Walker who concentrates on the food and entertainments side of the business.

“We had a continental-style beer/cafe of the same name at the station yard at Bedale in North Yorkshire,” says John. “We saw this was for sale and thought it would be perfect for developing the idea further.

“We got a lot of local help to refurbish the place and local support that comes in regularly. We’re very female-friendly – in fact, many of our customers say that it’s the first place they’ve been comfortable about coming in by themselves.”

Hemelvaart isn’t a typical village pub but a selection of settees, cinema seats, picnic tables, dining chairs, school-hall seating, bric-a-brac, paraphernalia, church pews and even a small chair cleverly covered in pages of The Beano (donated by a villager), plus a large cinema-style screen, give it the notion of being “right”. Different, but right.

A large altar-piece in the small lounge at the rear now serves coffee rather than communion wine.

John Atkinson says: “We were originally inspired by the Belgian beer scene. We also had a look at what they were doing at The Head of Steam in Durham and The House of Trembling Madness in York then put all that knowledge to good use.

“We work exclusively with small independent brewers, such as Creedence Brew Co from Amble, Tempest from Galashiels, and Bear Claw, based at Spittal, who experiment in Belgian-style beers. Sonnet 43 Yellow Cab (from County Durham) is our biggest seller and Yorkshire Dales Brewery is a good supporter, plus we stock a range of German Fritz-Kola soft drinks.

“But we specialise in Belgian lambics, gueuze and aged beers – some of them have been stored for two or three years, so they’re really for enjoying at leisure.”

Hemelvaart also concentrates on entertainment with some of Britain’s best live music and comedy acts having found their way to the Berwickshire pub through Phil Walker’s sheer persistence (and a good drizzle of cheek). Comedians Sarah Pascoe and Gary Delaney (Sarah Millican’s husband) and the mighty Rob Heron And The Teapad Orchestra have been recent visitors, while X Factor star Emily Middlemas has nominated Hemelvaart as her favourite venue.

“Many of the bands and comedians are now much bigger than when we first had them here,” says Phil.

Hemelvaart Bier Cafe might be small-town in location but it’s international in beer offer, vision and potential – however something like a pork and blue cheese pie will ensure its feet remain firmly on the ground.


About the Author

Alastair Gilmour

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