Wednesday, January 10

Investigating Ironbridge

Out with the old and in with the new as they say, but for me the 2018 exploration year begins much as my outings from 2017 had concluded - with a little something from Shropshire...

- Sporty sign in Bridgnorth -
Fresh from my Shrewsbury session at the end of December, I have Salop in my sights once more. I'm on a mission to make further use of my Ironbridge Gorge Museums annual passport (a ticket that has remained untouched since September), so I set out on the number 9 bus from Compton to Bridgnorth hoping that the morning showers don't turn into more serious rainfall. High Town sets the photographic ball rolling for January, my camera collecting up sports club shots and pub portraits. The Woodberry Inn appears to have had a makeover, losing the 'Down' part of its name in the process, while the Golden Lion by Northgate Museum is now a Holden's establishment.

- The Old Furnace, Coalbrookdale -
The next 9 along has me homing in on Ironbridge (via Broseley with all wing mirrors thankfully intact this time). I actually stay on board through to Coalbrookdale before alighting to locate the Darby Houses and a Quaker burial ground. My first museum of the morning is Coalbrookdale's homage to all things iron - I inspect the furnace remains out in the grounds then head inside to peruse the informative exhibition floors. The Darby family were pivotal in the development of ironmaking techniques during the Industrial Revolution, while John 'Iron Mad' Wilkinson was another notable pioneer. 

- Enginuity -
Part of the same complex as the Museum of Iron, Enginuity is an interactive engineering emporium that enables children to get hands-on with the way things work. There are plenty of inspired youngsters in attendance at the time of my visit but I still get chance to work the robotic arms and spot a Sinclair C5. I tear myself away from all the fun by next hiking up an Ironbridge hillside where the steepness of the incline took me rather by surprise. St Luke's Parish Church helps me get my breath back in readiness for a mooch along Madeley Road, tracking down the Horse & Jockey and Golden Ball as tempting taverns for future reference.

- Is the Iron Bridge in there somewhere? -
Venturing back down the hill, the centre of Ironbridge presents a selection of interesting shops including Bears on the Square (for all your teddy bear needs) and Eley's 'World Famous' Pork Pies. My hopes for any scenic snaps of the Iron Bridge itself are dashed as the structure has been encased in protective cladding during repair works, a scaffolding shield I can admire from the comfort of the Tontine Hotel. A pint of Three Tuns XXX goes down nicely here as I look out from the public bar, then I set off on the next stage of my walk by joining the Severn Valley Way on the opposite side of the river. I always enjoy rummaging around railway remains so this footpath is a treat, following the course of a disused line from the Station Hotel towards Jackfield.

- Broseley Telephone Exchange -
Jackfield Bridge (a relatively modern river crossing which opened in October 1994) provides the ideal approach to my second Ironbridge pint of the day, bringing me to the doorstep of Ye Olde Robin Hood for some Holden's hospitality. One Golden Glow later, I decide to explore a place I last visited nearly ten years ago. Broseley has been absent from my archive since June 2008 so - after a short ride on the 9 - I set about correcting that omission by gathering glimpses of the telephone exchange, the King & Thai (formerly the Foresters Arms) and All Saints Church. The church was erected between 1843 and 1845 using stone quarried just the other side of Bridgnorth in Highley.

- Broseley Pipeworks -
Continuing my Broseley town tour and a landmark I'm especially keen to find is the Pipe Museum on Duke Street. This former factory celebrates the fact that Broseley was a prime producer of clay tobacco pipes, although seasonal opening times mean I'll have to wait until May before I can take a look inside. In the meantime, High Street allows for some sculpture spotting as I find a few of Gerry Foxall's creations depicting local industries (these were previously located at Ironbridge Power Station until the plant was decommissioned). A Lancaster Blonde in the Duke of York is my liquid finale as dusk descends upon Shropshire, and with a closing ride on the 9 my first trip of 2018 draws to a close. Here's to many more fine outings over the coming year!

Wednesday, January 3

WME Review of the Year - 2017

Happy New Year one and all! As 2018 arrives kicking and screaming, I shall keep to my usual custom of having my first January blog posting be a retrospective looking back over the preceding twelve months. 2017 wasn't such a bad year as it turned out, and there were certainly many exploration highlights...

January: the old year got underway with a brace of Wolverhampton wanderings, seeking out the familiar (and not so familiar) around Finchfield, Castlecroft and i54 - I paused to ponder the final passing of the Goodyear tyre factory before investigating the new focus of manufacturing as represented by Moog and JLR. A solo Saturday stroll saw me rummaging around canal remains in Halesowen, popping along to Hasbury for a crafty pint in The Crafty Pint prior to meeting up with Rog and Rachael in the Waggon & Horses. The Hub Marketing Board opened their 2017 account with a Desi Day (the curry in the Red Cow stole the show) whereas the Chip Foundation braved Bearwood and Harborne courtesy of the Outer Circle bus route.

February: judging duty saw me focusing on the Dudley and South Staffordshire area in February with Mr D9 appearing in full courtroom regalia when we pitched up in Kinver and Enville. Trysull made its presence felt, walking out from Wombourne with a bonus peek at Bratch Locks, while Stephen and Nick were summoned to tour some classic Black Country boozers: the Bull & Bladder, Ma Pardoe's and the Beacon Hotel = pub heaven! Nick was also on hand for the first beer festival of the year with Rugby claiming that particular curtain-raising honour; Hillmorton at dusk was our memorable finale that day, tracking down the Bell for some good old Draught Bass.

March: Spring is in the air and there's a spring in my step as I linger in Langley, calling in at Causeway Green to sample the Old Dispensary micropub. It was then D9's turn aboard the Outer Circle although he nearly got sent to the scrapyard when some Handsworth hospitality had us staying out much longer than anticipated! We were much better behaved in Meriden and Olton a couple of weeks later, the prospect of Bedders fish and chips (plus those delectable onions) making sure we kept to schedule.

April: the major headline here has to be the long awaited return of Rail Rover Week, three excellent days of train-related adventures that took me to Leominster, Tutbury and Nantwich among other places. A couple of Stephen strolls kept the archive ticking over, Rocket Pool and Codsall Wood being the respective destinations. Micropub magic is to the fore in Burton-upon-Trent (another festival special with Nick Turpin) whereas the Hub Marketing Board's Easter Extravaganza encompasses Good Friday in Great Bridge.

May: a month with arguably the most memorable sight of the year, Mr D9 in a bright pink wig during the Hub Marketing Board's Bloxwich bash - not for the faint-hearted that's for sure! Two Thursday morning taster trips otherwise have me occupied; the first comprised Northycote and Underhill with newly-born lambs, the second was a Wednesfield walk stopping off at Long Knowle and Ashmore Park gatherings shots of Co-ops and Corpus Christi.

June: into summer then and that can only mean cricket. Chelmsford was where Stephen and I witnessed the future County Champions in action - sadly for Warwickshire it was opponents Essex who would go on to lift the title, the Bears ultimately suffering an ignominious relegation. The beer festival bandwagon saw Nick and I roll into Nuneaton (sampling the Lord Hop in the process for some superb Lucid Dream stout) whereas Dad was introduced to the delights of Stone for his Father's Day treat - he still gets misty-eyed thinking about the outstanding Titanic Plum Porter he drank in the Royal Exchange. Wednesbury ensured that the West Midlands was not forgotten, the resultant Patent Shaft pubcrawl came complete with a guest appearance from Roger.

July: who could forget all the fun of finding the various animal artworks dotted around the region as Big Sleuth Bears and the Wolves in Wolves all awaited discovery. An initial bear hunt took Mr Beardsmore and myself to the esteemed environs of Bournville and Sutton Coldfield although Shakesbear in Birmingham City Centre had a neat line in Twitter proclamations - has a sculpture ever uttered the word forsooth before? Nick and I made the most of the summer sunshine for a Lapworth circular stroll (via Baddesley Clinton), and I was likewise blessed with excellent weather when investigating the remains of the Hatherton Canal between Calf Heath and Cannock

August: next up is the WME 2017 family holiday which entailed seven days in Scotland, Edinburgh to be precise. Given that I'd never been further north than Newcastle before, this was a seminal week that dabbled with Dunfermline and pottered around Prestonpans - I very much enjoyed venturing into Inspector Rebus territory too with a pint in the renowned Oxford Bar. Hub Marketing happenings mean a mention for Worcester, roaming around the racecourse to the tune of 'Waf Woof' by the Springfields, not forgetting the D9 Wolf Watch trip in Wolverhampton trying to track down the ever-elusive Claude.

September: the approach of autumn tells us it is time for some sculptural swansongs, seeking out final fleeting glimpses of bears and wolves. It's not every day you get to meet Elvis Presley, Mary Berry and Richard Branson in quick succession but that was the fate that befell the Hub Marketing Board over at Resorts World and Solihull - we even saw Citizen Khan! In other news, a certain Nick Esq celebrated a notable birthday so the Chip Foundation converged upon Blists Hill Victorian Town in order to mark such an important occasion (thankfully the Beardsmore contingent were still able to join us after missing the bus).

October: now this was a month bookended by beer festivals, Solihull at the start balanced by Birmingham towards the end. Nick was present on both occasions while Mr D9 attended the latter and developed a taste for the stronger end of the brewer's spectrum - half pint scratching mugs in Olton and Celery Sour in the Clink will be among my abiding memories of those two excursions. In between times came the smaller matter of the annual Hub foray into Coventry, the Chairman exceeding himself yet again in terms of quiff creation. The Cheylesmore Social Club inscribed itself into HMB legend that day as we contemplated the finer arts of the bagatelle table.

November: Coventry was also quick to make an impression in November, this time with the Chip Foundation for company. Fargo Village has to go down as one of the quirkiest destinations of 2017, where else can you meet pink gorillas and rusty robots then sample the wares from the Twisted Barrel Tap House - wonderful! Lower Penn was the recipient of one of my Thursday morning missives but undoubtedly the most personal photo session came when I bade a fond farewell to Bushbury, my former home of nearly 30 years. 

December: and finally to those outings that are still very fresh in my mind. Nick Turpin's 2017 Festive Forage turned into a Leamington and Warwick showstopper that was especially notable for coffee taverns and cellar bars. The Hub Marketing Board made Willenhall their Christmas setting before unleashing Charles Pemberton Rowbottom III on the unsuspecting Beehive complete with complimentary brandy. December also supplied a couple of doorstep duties (Frozen Finchfield; a dalliance with Dovecotes) then concluded with a Shrewsbury spectacular as I sought out the remains of the old Gay Meadow football ground (replaced by an exclusive housing development) - and that's a wrap! 

Tradition dictates that at this point I should say a heartfelt thankyou to those brave souls who have been such a huge part of my escapades over the last twelve months. My gratitude once again therefore goes to Nick, Stephen, Andy, Ken, Dad and Rog - here's to more of the same in 2018...

Friday, December 22

Hub Marketing 2017: Christmas

The culmination of another year’s worth of Hub Marketing madness has arrived, meaning D9 and I must attend to our customary December business. There are calendars to unveil, Hub Awards to present, Pick of the Pops with 'Paul Hubbacini' and of course the annual resurrection of Charles Pemberton Rowbottom III…

- D9 drives the 529 -
This will be a rare Tuesday trip for the Hub Marketing Board which possibly explains why the Chairman is piling up the cob penalties by the time he finally clocks in just after 1 pm. Poor old D9 has been suffering from illness recently but has recovered sufficiently to adopt his favourite steering pose aboard the 529. With gear-crunching aplenty he guides us to Willenhall where the Falcon on Gomer Street stages the grand calendar reveal - the 2018 edition features pink hair, lollipop signs and Stechford baldness.

- Dereliction Bald Spot -
Talking of bald spots, the Chairman takes the opportunity to flaunt his when surveying the wreck of a Moat Street factory as we ferret through towards Ashmore Lake. Our silly song selections have Dora Bryan longing for a Beatle for Christmas whereas Keith Chegwin extols the virtues of the humble spud. The Secretary's sleeves are then on high alert as the WME radar picks out the Willenhall CHART Community Hub plus the former Ponderosa Social Club (still with some vintage Carling Black Label branding).

- The darts victor is... -
Our darting destination for the day is the Cross Keys on Ashmore Lake Road where Dickinson's Real Deal provides the televisual backdrop to our oche occupation. A tightly-fought encounter sees WME Whirlwind prevail by three legs to two, helped largely by a double top finish for a 59 checkout. Adding these to the scores from across the year gives our 2017 total as WME 52-29 D9, meaning the Whirlwind has retained his crown for the fifth year in succession - maybe 2018 will see the D9 Destroyer triumph at long last?

- Where are we again? -
Two tempting taverns are next on the agenda as we account for Golden Glow in the Jolly Collier (a 2018 Good Beer Guide entrant on Lucknow Road) followed by Robinson's Dizzy Blonde in the Whimsey. An honourable pool draw (one frame each) precedes the Pick of the Pops top 13 chart rundown whereby resident dj Hubbacini announces the placings on our hit parade. The top three are: #3 - 'Gossip Calypso' by Bernard Cribbins; #2 - 'It's Me Again Margaret' by Ray Stevens; #1 - 'I'm in Charge' by Bruce Forsyth. In all the excitement we almost forget where we are, so luckily there's a helpful hint to be found in the Key Master as we partake of Greene King IPA.

- Tribute in the Navigation -
Heading back towards Willenhall town centre, the Secretary's sights are set upon the Prince of Wales only for us to discover it isn't open. Faced with something of a dilemma over where to try instead, the 25 bus provides the answer by shuttling us through to Fibbersley for an encounter with the Navigation. The Bentley Canal historically passed close by in giving the pub its name, and nowadays the place is a lively community local serving some St Austell beers and incorporating Bert's Bistro.

- The Chairman refuels at Fibbersley Garage -
We've received news that Charles Pemberton Rowbottom the Third has awoken from his lengthy hibernation and is demanding our presence for the Hub Marketing Awards. Chairman D9 therefore doses up on Diesel at an old-fashioned petrol station as we make tracks for the Beehive on Coventry Street, just off the main Willenhall Road. CPR3 is indeed in attendance so - with Banks's Mild in hand - he proclaims the various category winners for 2017: Horseley Heath's Hebron Hall has the 'Closet of the Year', the best darts checkout was WME's 3-dart 101 in Fenside, and the most expensive round goes to D9 courtesy of the Grainstore. With the accolades assigned, that concludes hub matters for another year but we are already looking forward to 2018.

- Cheers and Merry Christmas from the Hub Marketing Board! -

Tuesday, December 12

Festive Foraging in Leamington and Warwick

Nick Turpin's Festive Forages have become one of the exploration events of the year, when each December I join forces with our redoubtable highwayman hero to tour taverns and partake of the ale. Our original plan had been to make merry in High Wycombe but snow in the forecast prompted us to stick safely with Warwickshire where there would still be much fun to be had...

- Leamington Station Sign -
Buckinghamshire is therefore spared our scrutiny for now as we convene aboard a Leamington-bound train, Nick appearing at Warwick Parkway on cue as intended. Given that Leamington is recognised for its regal architecture, it's pleasing to note that the town's railway station is an appropriately impressive building - 1930s art deco more so than Regency admittedly but very handsome with a neo-classical Portland stone frontage.

- Old Librarian in the Old Library -
Nick Turpin is in charge of our itinerary today and instantly sets his sights upon the Old Library, a former Wetherspoons establishment on Bath Street (in JDW days it was known as the Jug & Jester). A half of the house beer - Old Library Ale as supplied by Jennings - provides initial refreshment as we read through some previous research that Nick has resurrected for the occasion. Prior to being a pub, the building served as a theatre and indeed a library - no wonder we feel very much at home!

- Fizzy Moon -
Making our way along the Parade, we pause to see how Queen Victoria's statue was displaced an inch across its pedestal by German bombs in 1940. There are elephants to enjoy on Livery Street before we chance upon the Fizzy Moon, a Regent Street gin and fizz palace that happens to have its own microbrewery. We say hello to Santa whilst imbibing of Reinbeer and We're Three Kings, although the 9% King Sadhu IPA is a little too strong even for our seasonal delectation.

- Feeling Festive! -
Besides the beer, Fizzy Moon makes an impression with quirky artefacts including one of those face-in-the-hole saucy photo boards you find on seaside piers (I decided to include the picture of Nick as Father Christmas rather than the buxom young wench equivalent). If that isn't entertainment enough, we merely have to move a few yards down the street to meet Spiderman and Batman scaling the walls of Murphy's Bar. Such a surreal sight demands closer examination so we make this Irish emporium our lunchtime stop, happily devouring a bargain £2.50 cajun chicken, chips and salad. 

- Remains of the Great Western -
All this excitement must be getting too much for Nick Turpin as before I know it he's slipped into a coma... the Big Cat Coma just down from Leamington Station that is! A half of Duck Soup ensures our slumberous interlude is sufficiently restorative and we can catch the 13:55 to Warwick with a spring in our collective step. A sad sight awaits us when we alight however - the charred remains of the Great Western lurk at the bottom of the station driveway after the pub suffered fire damage earlier this year. We very much doubt this place will ever open again, demolition surely being its only fate.

- Lord Nelson -
Our Warwick wanderings take us first to the Lord Nelson, a community local on Emscote Road where we encounter Slaughterhouse Winter Ale and admire the nautical timber effect in the lounge. From here we progress into the town centre to do trade with the Old Coffee Tavern, recently established in a grand townhouse on Old Square. Some Maggs' Magnificent Mild (West Berkshire Brewery) lives up to its billing while the open kitchen adds a certain drama to proceedings.

- Rigsby's Cellar Bar -
The Turpin travel plans also include a quick look in the Tilted Wig (a 2018 Good Beer Guide entrant situated overlooking the Market Place) and a brave dive into the Railway in honour of Mr D9. That said, our favourite find undoubtedly must be Rigsby's Cellar Bar, a tiny little drinking den in the style of a continental bierkeller. Blonde Star in the basement is the order of the day here, wondering what lurks behind a curious locked door (it isn't the toilet as that's inside a Narnia-esque wardrobe by the entrance). We even have time for a Stout Snout in the Wild Boar prior to the train home, meaning our full-on forage has surely lived up to the customary exalted standards. Cheers!