Wednesday, September 20

Bye Bye Bears!

After a summer spent captivating and entertaining the good folk of Birmingham and environs, the Big Sleuth project is sadly drawing to a close and I for one will be sorry to see the bears go, even though they will soon be auctioned off for a most excellent cause (the Birmingham Children's Hospital charity). Luckily September still gave me scope for a couple more bear-spotting adventures so here are the details of a sleuthing swansong...

- Ruby Thursday? -
First off we have Thursday 14th September and a brief but productive morning of central Birmingham bear photography. Stephen and I begin at Church Street Square where we find Bearjing (in the style of a Chinese dragon) and Hettie the Heritage Bear (depicting industries such as chainmaking and glassblowing). Heading over towards Arena Birmingham and the Sea Life Centre, we're pleased to find Ruby the red panda mascot for the IAAF 2018 World Indoor Athletics Championships.

- Mr B meets Bearmingham -
Brindley Place is certainly a sleuth stronghold as a succession of sculptures greet us among the prestigious banking buildings. Oozells Square offers Enlightment and The Ink Detective whereas Central Square is the base for Bear'indleyplace and Bearlock, the latter a definite favourite that pays tribute to Sherlock Holmes complete with deerstalker, tweed and magnifying glass! There's just time for a Bull Ring briefing with Bearmingham - the heraldic example that guards St Martin's Church -and a Selfridges shuffle to meet Brummie Bear by the department store's reception desk. 

- The White Rabbit nears completion -
The combined necessities of work (for me) and cricket (for Stephen) put paid to any further Thursday sleuthing but I can resume the quest on Friday 15th September in the company of Mr D9. A 10:45 West Bromwich rendezvous gives me leeway for some solo stuff beforehand whereby I call in at Bilston to see how the White Rabbit is progressing. This new-build Marston's carvery pub is due to open in October so it looks like the hard hat army and cherry-picker cranes are just applying the finishing touches.

- Picnic Time for Teddy Bears -
I've mentioned before that the Big Sleuth bears aren't necessarily confined to Birmingham so a couple of their contingent have been let loose in the wilds of West Bromwich. Taking the tram up from Loxdale gets me into position for Bearolution (stripey waistcoat and a 'Success' love heart by the Farley memorial fountain) and Picnic Time for Teddy Bears (lurking outside the notorious former Public building, now the Sandwell Central Sixth college). 

- Mr D9 gets a Bearhug -
With the Chairman nimbly dodging any cob-related forfeits, the Hub Marketing Board agenda can commence via a Midland Metro ride to Grand Central. New Street Station is the setting for a Bearhug, a sculpture with an in-built seat although I'm not sure the cavity was quite designed for people of our age or girth. D9 just about manages to extract himself in order to catch the 11:39 stopper train to Birmingham International.

- The Secretary risks a Soggy Bottom -
The NEC complex now stretches out before us, albeit minus the travelators that were always a novelty feature when visiting exhibitions past. Beyond the main halls we reach the realms of Resorts World, a rather exclusive shopping and entertainments emporium that looks like somewhere you could spend a lot of money very quickly. Bears rather than buys are our concern though, and to that end we quickly locate Richard the Virgin Trains Bear (with an uncanny resemblance to a certain Mr Branson), Citizen Khan Bear (inspired by Adil Ray's hit BBC comedy series) and Mary Beary (cupcakes, cardigan but thankfully no soggy bottoms).

- Birmingham International Bike Hub -
Aside from the animal art, we still need to attend to general marketing matters hence a photocall at the Bike Hub is a must. The Chairman completes his modelling duties here with aplomb and we 'reward' ourselves with a drink in Wetherspoons where the £4.55 Carling is definitely a spreadsheet buster! We recover from our expensive outlay by trading silly songs courtesy of Russ Abbot's 'The Plumbers Song' and Bruce Forsyth's 'I'm in Charge'. 

- Solihull Steering on the S1 -
Hopping aboard the X12 towards Solihull, the next stage of our plan should have involved adding to our flat roof pub collection. Alas the Acres on Rowood Drive is undergoing renovation whereby part of the building is now a gents barbers and the remainder will reopen as the Damson Bar too late for our visit. A further X12 short hop brings us instead to the Greville Arms which as a Sizzling roadhouse is not as droolworthy as the Acres would have been. Nonetheless the Greville will do for some darting action, WME Whirlwind edging a tight encounter by 4 legs to D9 Destroyer's 3. The Central Buses S1 service is then on hand for the requisite expert driving demonstration.

- I Just Want To Be Your Teddy Bear -
On with the sleuth strategy and Solihull steals the limelight thanks to Grandpa Bear (bifocal spectacles, checked shirt and a chunky camera) and Flower Bear (bringing to mind a summertime meadow). A tour of the Touchwood Centre produces a hub in a lift followed by a memorable meeting at Theatre Square with an Elvis exemplar, clearly channeling the 1970s version of 'The King' by referencing Mr Presley's trademark white jumpsuit of that era.

- Beer in the Bear -
With pit stops in O'Neill's and then Shirley's Plume of Feathers, we make use of the number 6 bus to do battle with the Friday afternoon congestion along the A34 Stratford Road. One pub we simply must visit (especially given the overarching theme of the day) is the Bear at Sparkhill, a 1930s corner local with a distinct Irish influence. The Carling here comes with a frothy peak and goes well with some early evening quizzy entertainment from The Chase. We follow that with a Digbeth detour so as to admire the original bar balustrade and Minton tiling on show in the White Swan, armed with some Boondoggle but of course!

- A Bhangra Bear Bald Spot -
Continuing into central Birmingham, the Chairman's bald spot becomes well acquainted with Bhangra Bear on High Street and there is a brief get-together with some of D9's work colleagues in the Briar Rose (nice to meet you Dave and friends). Last but not least comes a Metro dash to the Rock & Roll Brewhouse, a lively Jewellery Quarter establishment where music is very much to the fore - a selected album playlist is displayed as we enter while the ales have flowerhead pumpclips and names like Brew Springsteen. Our visit is only a flying one and we definitely intend to return, but our Big Sleuth climax is nigh and the honour of being our final find goes to Mummy Bear in head-to-toe bandages outside Jewellery Quarter railway station. Cheers - and Bye Bye Bears!

Wednesday, September 6

Blists Hill with the Chip Foundation

Friday 1st September 2017 is the date for Episode 49 of the long-running Chip Foundation Chronicles, and a trip that happens to mark a significant milestone in the life of a certain Mr Nick Esq. Our adopted ‘royal’ celebrated his 60th birthday recently and so this Shropshire outing would be our way of honouring his advancing seniority…

- All aboard? Not quite! -
The plan in theory was simple - catch the 09:45 number 9 bus straight through from Wolverhampton to Jackfield in readiness for our Ironbridge Museums itinerary. Nick, Ken and I were in position at the bus station well in advance but the Beardsmore contingent were cutting it fine, so fine in fact that (despite a gallant sprint) the bus drove off without them! A car contingency meant all was not lost, but for the three of us who had caught the 9 the journey proved very eventful, taking us through Bridgnorth to Broseley where the narrow lanes saw an encounter with a van's wing mirror that delayed things somewhat.

- Jackfield Tile Museum -
We eventually alight at Jackfield (Black Swan) twenty-odd minutes behind schedule but can at least enjoy the gorge scenery beside the River Severn. Jackfield Tile Museum is the former Craven Dunnill works notable for the manufacture of encaustic and decorative tiles; we pass the museum on Church Road as we make our way towards Coalport, crossing the river at the memorial bridge by the Boat Inn. The Beardsmores have checked in safely at the Blists Hill car park so we hike up the Coalport Road (quite a climb without a pavement) to meet them at the All Nations. 

- Birthday Bitter at the All Nations -
With all members now in attendance, we can raise a toast to Nick's significant birthday at one of Shropshire's most cherished pubs. The All Nations is certainly a personal favourite of mine and to be back again is a real delight, sitting outside supping the tasty house bitter and soaking in the unspoiled surroundings. Chatting away in good company is always a pleasure so among our topics of conversation are Jackfield fishing memories, senior railcards and cricket.

- W Corbett & Co. -
Although the All Nations runs it close, the main attraction on our agenda is the Blists Hill Victorian Town, a former industrial area that has been painstakingly turned into a living history environment set at the end of Queen Victoria's reign. Claiming our annual passport tickets, we enter the museum grounds and begin by exploring the various stores of High Street and Canal Street. A Broseley branch of Lloyds Bank has been recreated so that visitors can exchange modern money for replica farthings, threepenny bits and sixpences. Corbett's Ironmerchants has various wares on display while Pritchard's Confectioners allows me to stock up on old-fashioned fudge - yum!

- The Hay Incline -
Canal Street leads to a section of the Shropshire Canal, a tub boat operation that historically supplied the local industries with raw materials. The canal originally ran from Donnington Wood to Coalport (plus a branch to Coalbrookdale) and was notable for the use of inclined planes as a means of transporting the tubs between different water levels. The Hay Incline is a surviving example of such a mechanism and even though it is no longer functional you still have to admire the engineering ingenuity of the structure. 

- Blists Hill Blast Furnaces -
Prior to the creation of the open air museum, Blists Hill was predominantly an industrial landscape associated with brick and tile production. The blast furnaces of the Madeley Wood Company have been retained as an original feature and can be found opposite the G R Morton Ironworks down towards The Green. Other exhibits at this end of the site include Stirchley Board School, Forest Glen Refreshment Pavilion and the Victorian fairground. Enamel signs for Wem Ales and Hudson's Soap add further notes of period detail, as do the posters advertising forthcoming meetings of the Women's Suffrage Movement and the embryonic Labour Party.

- Cheers from the New Inn -
One unmissable feature of Blists Hill is the New Inn, a Banks's boozer transplanted from Walsall - my Dad actually remembers drinking in the pub at its original location on the junction of Green Lane and Hospital Street. Our arrival in the tap room coincides with a singalong around the parlour piano, although we wisely refrain from inflicting our limited vocal talents upon the other folk present. Instead we concentrate on conversation and ale, the choice being old faithfuls Banks's Mild and Bitter along with Marston's EPA. 

- The Customary Chip Shot -
If the New Inn isn't enough of a thrill, we follow it with some traditional chips from the Fried Fish Dealer on Canal Street. At £2.50 a cone they are not the cheapest but it's worth it for the beef dripping taste, plus you can apply your own salt and vinegar in the time-honoured fashion - culinary nostalgia in one bite (even if Stephen prefers his chips slightly soggier). The tasty treats continue when I pick up some proper pork scratchings from the butchers although I make sure to save those for future consumption.

- McClure's General Drapers Store -
We're wending our way towards the exit now but there is still time to peek inside a few more shops. AF Blakemore's Grocers purveys travel sweets, Bovril and condensed soup (amongst many other items) whereas Bates & Hunt Chemists dispenses curious medical ointments, potions and tinctures - their dentist's chair looks particularly fearsome! We finish in McClure's Outfitters where a fine array of  ribbons, fans and millinery is delicately displayed. We may have only scratched the surface of what the museum has to offer but with our passport ticket we have a whole twelve months to return and explore in more detail.

- Coalport Bridge -
We take our leave of Blists Hill because Coalport is calling via a steady stroll along the Silkin Way (a former railway route). Coalport Bridge was constructed in 1818 and is a scheduled ancient monument that connects us to the Woodbridge Inn, a pub with a seemingly idyllic location beside the Severn. Respective halves of assorted blonde persuasions are quaffed (Nick's being Spikey) and then Mr Beardsmore Senior strides forth in leading the return hike to the car park. An excellent day was had by all despite the opening travel tribulations, and we look forward to adding to our Ironbridge investigations over the next twelve months.

Thursday, August 31

WME Flickr Focus - August 2017

If we imagine the year as if it were a motorway then autumn is fast approaching in the rear view mirror; August has (allegedly) dispensed its summery miles and September is now waiting its turn at the steering wheel. The WME photostream is a road without an ultimate destination but the fun is always collecting up different locations along the way, so let's confirm the calling points from the last four weeks...

The first major junction we reach during our journey is WME Sandwell with tempting turnings for Great Barr (the Red Admiral pub sign on Gorse Farm estate), Cradley Heath (the interchange at dusk) and Smethwick (a glimpse of the Engine Arm Aqueduct, a classic canal structure). Still in Sandwell, Great Bridge demands a detour so that we can scoop up pub pictures of the Old Crown Inn and the Beehive, the latter looking a little dishevelled on Brickhouse Lane.

Back on the main carriageway, we can tour our way through WME Birmingham for a cricketing call at Edgbaston. Some Specsavers stumps enter the fray here along with Messrs Ambrose and Hain batting against Hampshire, whereas the Covered Wagon musters a Moseley pub shot fresh from the Yardley Wood Road. An evening entry for the Redhill Tavern's picture sign at Hay Mills already has an archive quality given the pub seems to have ceased trading.

In need of further fuel, we trundle into the service station otherwise known as WME Dudley. Coseley Station's entrance hoop provides the lubrication to get things moving again and there are more lost pub memories courtesy of the Shakespeare on Stafford Street - the unspoilt interior there was one of my favourite Black Country settings, especially when the pigeon racing club was in attendance. Thankfully the Red Cow at Lower Gornal remains a firm example of traditional hospitality.

Next into the sat-nav is WME Wolverhampton closely followed by WME Walsall. Wolverhampton offers corners of Claregate (an autumnal view of the local park), Coalway Road (more tiled street sign action) and Sedgemoor Park (the Elisabeth Arms) while Walsall pulls over at a Granbourne Road bus stop slap bang between Lodge Farm and Bentley. The sat-nav voiceover also directs us momentarily to WME Telford to pick up a welcome sign for the Brookside estate.

Checking the route carefully, our final waymarkers among August's additions arrive care of WME Staffordshire. Burton and Chasetown join forces for our driving delectation with the Union Inn, the Coopers Tavern and the Cottage of Content (a vintage M&B sign) all lurking in the glovebox awaiting discovery. With that August prepares to vacate the vehicle and it will be up to September to continue the journey - I wonder which pictorial passengers we will encounter?

Tuesday, August 22

The Birmingham Bear Hunt Continues...

Not content with July's initial attempts at Big Sleuth bear collecting, Stephen and I join forces again for a second sculptural sweep, eyeing up the examples on display in Bearwood, Harborne and at the University of Birmingham...

- Going Forward at Smethwick Rolfe Street -
Our sleuthing adventure starts at Smethwick where I'm pleased to see the faded mosaic alcove on Rolfe Street's Birmingham-bound platform has been refreshed with a vibrant 'Going Forward' mural. A stroll along Smethwick High Street then bears photographic fruit thanks to the Red Cow and the Council House while we also note the William Mitchell pen factory (now a nursing home) on Bearwood Road.

- Bussy Bear -
Our first bears of the day can be found in Bearwood where the bus station is home to Bussy Bear complete with steering wheel, driver's uniform and the 82 timetable. Just across in Lightwoods Park we meet Bear-trix Blocker all geared up for a skateboard session; tattoos, a nose ring and a yellow crash helmet are among the distinctive elements of this design.

- Alice -
Lightwoods Park is currently undergoing a £5.2 million restoration project overseen by Sandwell Council, and it's great to see the historic fabric of the park being given some attention. A major aspect of the scheme is the renovation of Lightwoods House after years of decay and neglect; the building is already looking much improved and is the base for a group of bear cubs peeping out from the ground floor windows. One such cub is Alice, a nurse who wears blue spectacles, a name badge and a red cross cap. 

- Harby -
Tracking down our next target involves a wander through Warley Woods where Bentley the Bearwood Bear waits to greet us over by the drinks fountain. We have only just started to admire Bentley's decorative detail (including a depiction of Thimblemill Library) when the heavens open and a thundery shower sends us scampering for shelter. Thankfully the 48 bus runs to schedule and the deluge has stopped by the time we reach Harborne, meaning we can account for Harby on the High Street without risking a further drenching.

- Queen Elizabeth Hospital -
Typically of an English summer, the rain burst is followed by bright sunshine as we proceed along Metchley Lane towards the hospital complex. A bear called India is positioned outside the entrance to Birmingham Women's Hospital while the striking architecture of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital also needs to be surveyed. The site has been transformed into a world class state-of-the-art medical facility that hosts the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and provides specialist care for wounded military personnel evacuated from overseas.

- Mr B meets Buzz -
From the hospital it is but a short walk to the University of Birmingham's Edgbaston Campus, passing University railway station along the way. Three bears require detection here - Bee Kind (on the station plaza), Buzz (a honeycomb theme outside the University's new library) and Rosie (brown with a bouquet at the Bramall Music Building). I have fond memories of the three years when I was a University of Birmingham student so it's nice to be back, looking up at the Old Joe clock tower once more as the bells bong for 2 o'clock.

- Window Shopping at the Bull Ring -
With a bit of spare time at our disposal we call into the Barber Institute of Fine Arts for a more cerebral artistic experience. The exhibits include Monet's Water Lily Pond along with works by Canaletto, Tintoretto, Turner and Degas plus portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the gallery as a whole was a pleasure to explore. A ride on the 63 bus then connects us to Birmingham's Bull Ring for a spot of Window Shopping as our bear sequence resumes.

- Florence Nightin'owl -
Birmingham City Centre has the highest concentration of bears so among the others we seek are Bhangra Bear (with drum and moustache), Vincent the Biploar Bear (partially inspired by the artist Van Gogh) and Dr Bear Brawn (in medical scrubs with stethoscope and yellow-rimmed spectacles). Dr Brawn is on duty outside Birmingham Children's Hospital where he is joined by Florence Nightin'owl, a tribute to the nursing profession that has remained on display from The Big Hoot event of 2015.

- Captain Blue Bear -
We round off this particular bear hunt at Colmore Square by making the acquaintance of Get Your Bearings (black design containing road markings) and Birminghamshire (featuring a whimsical rolling landscape) although it is Captain Blue Bear who steals the show with his eyepatch, cutlass and treasure map. That's probably enough fun for one day - the Big Sleuth event runs through until Sunday 17th September so I should yet get chance for more sculpture shenanigans before the bears are auctioned off for charity.