Saturday, February 16

Crooked Hubs in Himley and Kingswinford

Friday 15th February sees Hub Marketing members clambering back aboard the beer bandwagon with a considered crawl from Sedgley to Kingswinford, stopping off too in Gornal Wood and Himley. Prepare for silly songs, snooker, beefy buttresses and landfill fragrances - all in a day's work!!

- D9 gives it oomph on the 1 -
A 12:30 rendezvous has been agreed in advance but the Chairman throws a curveball by declaring himself available a whole hour ahead of schedule - the lengths some people will go to just to avoid a cob penalty eh? It's therefore still morning as we peruse a Wolverhampton antiques shop in search of vintage ashtrays before catching the Dudley-bound 1; note how the D9 bald spot has been polished up nicely ready for some top deck driving action!

- Sarah Hughes Signage -
Our first destination is Sedgley for yet another visit to that firmest of favourite haunts, the Beacon Hotel. Secretary WME simply loves this place from the William Morris-style wallpaper to the picture rails and stoop-down serving hatches. The Sarah Hughes house ales are on fine form as we partake of Amber and Dark Ruby Mild from the comfort of the front snug, munching a cheese and onion cob each while soaking up the timeless Victorian ambience. The building dates from circa 1850 and is recognised as having a nationally important historic interior.

- Bald spot in the Bulls Head -
Elsewhere in Sedgley, the Clifton Wetherspoon's merits a mention as a former cinema (a 1930s 'Picture Palace' no less) that overlooks the Bull Ring roundabout, then All Saints parish church entices us along Vicar Street but we seem to have missed the number 27 bus. The Chairman quickly recalculates our route and suggests combining the 1 and the 17 for our gateway to Gornal, negotiating the tight turns of the Stickley estate in the process. We alight outside the Bulls Head, an establishment with previous Banks's and Mad O'Rourke's guises that now operates as an Indian Bar & Grill. Here we sample some Sharps Atlantic and D9 gets distracted by his mobile - cue a cheeky bald spot shot!

- Banks's beckons at the Crooked House -
It's good to see the Bulls Head back in business and its Himley Road location means we're handily placed for seeking out a legendary boozer that just happens to be nearby. The Crooked House has achieved a considerable amount of fame thanks to its distinctive sloping appearance, the result of mining subsidence although some hefty buttresses ensure it isn't about to collapse anytime soon. Access is via a grim driveway flanked by a landfill site, hence the whiff of household waste percolating the air. We take our mind off the stench by declaring our silly songs of the day, Benny Bell's 'Shaving Cream' being a cheeky counterfoil to Steve Wright's 'I'm Alright'.

- The Chairman finds his marbles! -
Painted lettering proclaims the Crooked House to be of a Banks's persuasion as we wander into the lounge, eager to test out the optical illusion of marbles rolling uphill. Our eyes are not deceiving us even though the jaunty angles and wonky windows make us feel a bit disorientated. Tilted Tipple is the main ale available, not the greatest pint in truth so the spectacle of the building outshines the beer quality. Nonetheless, our curiosity has been satisfied so we hold our noses and dodge the dumper trucks as we retrace our steps back past the tip.

- Gornal Wood Crematorium Closet -
Our afternoon ferret makes use of Guys Lane and Chase Road to reach Gornal Wood Cemetery and Crematorium. Overseen by Dudley Council, the crematorium opened in 1960 and seems peaceful in the February sunshine; perhaps of most interest to Mr D9 is the fact the crem has public toilet facilities, adding a further closet to his collection. Just up the road is the Forge Inn, a Marston's Two-for-One chain effort next to the Kingswinford Railway Walk (complete with an overgrown footbridge). The sight of the Forge prompts our Chairman to revel in murky tales of secretarial shenanigans albeit we don't witness any illicit assignations on this occasion!

- Pensnett Trading Estate -
Leaving the old railway line at Stallings Lane, we proceed into Kingswinford by passing the remains of the Ibstock Brickworks - the factory closed six or so years ago and the site has been earmarked for leisure, retail and around 200 new houses. We also encounter part of the Pensnett Estate business park before arriving at the British Oak, a wedge-shaped community local just down from the Charterfield Shopping Centre. This pub seems really popular with the early evening crowd so we manage to squeeze in and arm ourselves respectively with Banks's Mild or Boondoggle.

- Victory in the Union -
Kingswinford is well served in terms of its pub quota so we're spoiled for choice for the rest of the outing. Strangely enough, our next port of call is not a pub at all but rather the Kingswinford Snooker Centre, serving up a nice half of Enville Ale while we witness some hotly-contested breakbuilding. Somehow or other we haven't played darts yet, an omission that is corrected in the Union on Water Street - WME Whirlwind triumphs 3-1 helped by a startling 66 first leg checkout. The Bell, the Cottage and the MHT (Market Hall Tavern) keep us entertained with a succession of halves and the final curtain falls courtesy of a chip-fuelled ride on the 16 home to Wolverhampton. Cheers!

Monday, February 11

Trysull and Wombourne with the Chip Foundation

The Chip Foundation Chronicles crank themselves into gear for another year courtesy of this, our opening entry for 2019 which combines a sprightly South Staffordshire stroll with Black Country beer...

- Bratch Beckons -
Saturday 9th February brings with it fresh and breezy weather as the Chip Foundation cohort congregate at Wolverhampton bus station primed and ready for the 16 bus at 10:05. If the route number sounds unfamiliar that's because we're dealing with a rebadged version of the 256 Stourbridge service, and we're soon hurtling down towards Wombourne passing Nick's former Penn Fields dentists. We alight on Bull Meadow Lane for a quick peek at the village's old railway station before joining the towpath of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Bratch Locks.

- Scarf and Stephen in the Bell -
The Bratch is certainly a photogenic spot as I spring into action trying various angles of the staircase locks and distinctive octagonal tollbooth. We then proceed along the towpath to Awbridge, Stephen noting Beacon Cricket Club on the opposite bank of the canal as one ground he can't recall ever playing or umpiring at. Union Lane leads us past Awbridge Farm to Trysull where the Bell isn't quite open yet. A quick snowdrop-spotting shuffle helps pass the time until midday when the pub welcomes us with the prospect of Golden Glow and Batham's Bitter. Commandeering the tables next to the inglenook fireplace, I show off my new tartan scarf and the conversation turns to porridge, Nick recommending the inclusion of swollen sultanas for anyone considering an oaty breakfast. 

- Trysull Village Green -
Our return route to Wombourne takes in Trysull Village Green (complete with fluttering flagpole) and narrow Woodford Lane, crossing the Smestow Brook near a cattery and boarding kennels. Horses peep out over hedgerows as we pass close to a stable yard, then we reach the Ounsdale Road junction in eager anticipation of our second pub. This will be the Round Oak, situated next to Houndel Bridge on the Staffs & Worcs Canal, with Nick forging ahead to make urgent use of the facilities while the rest of us adopt a more leisurely approach. Jennings Cumberland is our ale of choice here, admiring wineglass chandeliers and previewing the weekend's Six Nations rugby action.

- Ounsdale School -
Ounsdale Road is the location for some of Wombourne's key amenities, most notably the local leisure centre, Westfield Community Primary School and Ounsdale High. Another feature is the Mount Pleasant, a standalone brick boozer perched on the crest of a small hill with a sizeable beer garden. Enville Ale or St Austell Tribute are on hand for a reasonably swift half as we leave the regulars to their rugby and find a secluded corner in a room expectantly laid out for a forthcoming function (stacks of plates but the finger food has yet to make an appearance). Our conversation covers politics, the future of libraries and the general state of public sector finances.

- The Old Bush -
We could have made it a trio of Ounsdale Road taverns, however the New Inn by Windmill Bank traffic lights is overlooked in favour of the Old Bush, a wet-led Banks's establishment on Wombourne High Street just along from the Women's Institute Hall. Perhaps its the bench seating, the old-school snug or the Gold Radio Crispian St Peters soundtrack but this place really strikes a chord with me, definitely a Paul kind of pub. Banks's Amber proves a decent drop as we keep Ken abreast of the Birmingham City score, the news from Loftus Road being that Blues are leading QPR 4-0 and it's not even half time!

- St Benedict Biscop -
A visit to Wordsley is next on the ale agenda so we convene outside St Benedict Biscop, Wombourne's parish church; this venerable Victorian landmark is constructed out of pink sandstone and was rebuilt circa 1867 although there has been a church on this site for over a thousand years. The 16 bus behaves itself, conveying us via Wall Heath and Kingswinford to the Bird in Hand which is absolutely heaving. It's great to see a backstreet pub pulling in the punters even if this means standing room only when partaking of some decadent Stay Puft Marshmallow Porter (Tiny Rebel Brewery). Elsewhere QPR are threatening a monumental comeback only for Blues to ultimately prevail 4-3, a win very much to Mr May's satisfaction.

- An Amblecote Swan(song) -
All of which leaves us with Brettell Lane by way of a finale, assuming I can navigate successfully along Oak Park Road as the sun starts to fade. My bearings hold true to reveal a free house favourite, the Swan supplying a peculiarly beguiling mix of chintzy patterned furniture and beer you've never heard of (Exhibit A on this occasion being Kelburn Brewery's Jaguar, golden and grapefruity). In terms of decor this is almost the lounge that taste forgot but the sheer 1970s-ness of it all is curiously captivating. So it goes that our adventure is adjourned here in Amblecote, Nick darting for a Stourbridge-bound 6 whereas the rest of us head homeward to Wolverhampton. Cheers to another Chip Foundation crackerjack!

Sunday, February 3

Fragments from February

February 2019 is barely a couple of days old and yet I can already claim two new trip entries for my ever-expanding exploration portfolio. The outings in question comprise a quickfire double-header that yield Enville excitement followed by Cradley Heath contentment...

- St Mary's Church -
Friday 1st February is immediately notable for the welcome return to outing action of the 'Beardsmobile', Stephen's trusty Mazda transporting us into southernmost South Staffordshire. The forecast all week had warned of possible heavy snowfall but there's not the slightest sign of any white stuff as we descend upon Enville. Local features to capture on camera here include Enville Forge (a family farrier business) and the sandstone stubbornness of St Mary's Church, originally dating from the 12th century albeit heavily restored by George Gilbert Scott between 1871 and 1874.

- The Cat Inn -
Enville is also of course home to the Cat Inn, perched beside the main A458 and always an enticing prospect any time or season but especially on a cold February afternoon. As Dudley CAMRA's reigning Pub of the Year winner, the Cat certainly has proud real ale credentials so on this occasion I'm tempted by a pint of Blizzard, Enville Brewery's potent winter warmer concoction. Stephen meanwhile partakes of his customary lemonade and blackcurrant then we settle in a plush dining room to discuss all things sport, Wolves's recent Premier League successes being in stark contrast to the plight of the England cricket team who are seriously struggling against the West Indies.

- Stephen meets Sunny -
Next for our consideration is Enville's near neighbour Kinver where we can happily reacquaint ourselves with Sunny, the former Birmingham Big Sleuth bear that has taken up residence at one end of the Chenevare Mews shopping alley. Equally primed for a repeat visit is the Cross Inn on Church Hill, a Black Country Ales establishment which proves ideal for a light lunch - ham or cheese salad cobs, quickly minus the salad in Stephen's case! Froth Blowers Cloudburst Porter is a deliciously dark tipple as we hope in vain for a cricketing comeback; I take my mind off the unfolding debacle by testing my late 50s/early 60s musical knowledge, recognising tunes from Jane Morgan and Julie Rogers during an impromptu warm-up for our evening quiz appointment.

- A Constitutional Shropshire Stout -
Kinver has one further treat in store when we nip into the Constitutional Club, nearly gatecrashing a wake in the process. Hobson's Shropshire Stout keeps me firmly on the dark side as we ponder life from the comfort of the snooker room. The Con Club has won countless CAMRA awards in recent years and it's fair to say the ale quality was up to the usual extremely high standards, top notch! Alas the Bears quiz team couldn't quite scale similar heights later on, falling foul of the devious Wipe Out round in Tettenhall when a rogue Orkney crept into our list of possible shipping forecasts areas. 

- Chainmakers Remembered -
Let's now nudge forward one whole notch on the calendar to land on Saturday 2nd February. Bright morning skies are all the encouragement I need for attempting a Cradley Heath solo stroll, my camera soon busying itself with shots of the Chainmaker sculptures at Mary MacArthur Gardens. Tickling round past Tesco allows me to indulge in an extended survey of the High Street, a place I generally consider to be one of the definitive Black Country locations. It used to be an absolute bottleneck along here but seems altogether quieter these days, so hopefully the likes of Roger Meredith's Opticians will be part of the shop scene for a good while yet. 

- Plough & Harrow -
One Cradley Heath mainstay I'm becoming increasingly fond of is the Plough & Harrow on Corngreaves Road, slightly out of the main centre and just t'other side of the railway bridge. A key part of the pub's appeal is good old-fashioned hospitality as evidenced by a friendly welcome and plenty of Black Country banter. The beer isn't bad either, both the Working Mon's Mild (Britt Brewery) and the Ludlow Gold hitting the spot very nicely indeed when paired with a tasty cob - what more does anyone need? 

- Timbertree Terminated -
My Saturday afternoon wanderings take me towards Timbertree, an estate sadly shorn of pub representation since its namesake inn has been demolished - what would D9's Uncle Les make of such a situation? Valley Road shops are still intact with their chippy, newsagents and a SureStart children's centre, then further along is the main gate of Timbertree Primary School down the side of the Valley Court nursing home. Norwood Avenue and Timbertree Crescent connect me back up with Corngreaves Road where I have the River Stour for company as I bear down on Belle Vale. 

- Corngreaves Nature Reserve -
The Stour forms the borough boundary between Cradley Heath (Sandwell) and Halesowen (Dudley) so I stick with Sandwell, admiring the handsome Corngreaves Hall from afar; a Grade II-listed property, the hall was the home of the industrialist James Attwood and has latterly been restored as a series of apartments. The adjacent Corngreaves Nature Reserve offers scope for woodland walks and feeds directly into Haden Hill Park with glimpses of Lower Pool and Haden Hill House. A productive perambulation then concludes via High Haden Road as I reach Old Hill Station just in time for my train home - cheers! 

Wednesday, January 30

WME Flickr Focus - January 2019

January is never the nicest of months, usually being too cold and dark to generate much enthusiasm for anything, but the good news is that February is just around the corner. Nonetheless, the first few weeks of 2019 have made some telling contributions where the West Midlands Exploration photostream has been concerned...

Tipping the scales with no sign of a New Year's diet is Exploration Extra, eagerly gorging on photos from 2018's Rail Rover and Fishguard holiday adventures. Rail Rover ruminates upon Cheltenham courtesy of some railway station and bus depot signage (plus a peek at the Old Restoration pub), whereas Fishguard fine-tunes a mileage marker and a boat called Sanity. Aberystwyth adds in an arty Winsor & Newton advert while Banbury breezes in with the Dog & Gun, not forgetting a further Forage find to keep things accumulating nicely.

The remainder of January's photostream activity has otherwise been concerned with tidying up some random archive extractions. Among the arrivals are the Farcroft at Handsworth and a Queen Elizabeth Hospital bus stand (WME Birmingham), the Cat & Fiddle at Pheasey (WME Walsall), a reminder of the latterly demolished Balds Lane Tavern near Lye (WME Dudley) and a Black Country Ales pub sign for the Midland in Bearwood (WME Sandwell). Honourable mentions meanwhile go to Blists Hill's drapers shop (WME Telford), a Lyndhurst Road ceramic street sign (WME Wolverhampton) and a display character sporting historic eyewear at Warwick Castle (WME Warwickshire).

On the surface this all appears to be photostream business as normal then, however I am beginning to wonder whether the time has come to freshen things up a bit. I first joined Flickr in 2011 as a direct replacement for my previous Fotopic-based website, so I just stuck with the same background process of resizing, editing and then publishing my photos. My preferred image size has remained resolutely 600 x 450 or thereabouts which was fine for my first forays into digital photography but the technology has moved on considerably since then. I'm not sure this approach works any more for showcasing my pictures at their finest yet I don't just want to undo several years of effort building up my Flickr archives. I'm therefore weighing up how best to proceed - carry on as usual, try larger resolutions, or maybe even see what other photo-hosting options might entice me (Instagram perhaps). I expect the WME Flickr photostream will be rumbling along for a good while yet but please bear with me if I start experimenting a bit more...