Tuesday, July 25

WME Flickr Focus - July 2017

With a busy few days ahead due to culminate in the 2017 WME family holiday, I thought I'd better file my monthly photostream summary while things are still reasonably quiet. Exploration Extra took the update honours back in June but July's additions have returned the spotlight to the West Midlands plus the usual neighbouring counties...

One such county is represented by WME Shropshire which has become besotted with Bridgnorth of late. The town's pubs are to the fore whereby the signs for the Crown (High Street) and Railwayman's Arms (on the Severn Valley station platform) are joined by a sneaky shot of the Old Castle's dartboard. Even some vintage road signs on West Castle Street still have a pub connection, mounted as they are on the walls of the Shakespeare.

Pub pickings are also very much in evidence on WME Warwickshire given that Atherstone ale haunts the New Dolphin and the Old Swan have supplied their signage; sadly the Dolphin is no longer trading, a considerable shame as I really liked it when Nick and I visited in September 2012. Meanwhile on WME Staffordshire, Boney Hay and Burntwood have both been bolstered with the Drill Inn, the Nags Head and a 'School Ahead' sign being among the arrivals.

Turning swiftly to West Midlands material, WME Coventry has developed a minor bus stop obsession concentrated within the vicinity of Barley Lea, Stoke Aldermoor (the local clinic provides some kind of counterbalance). WME Walsall summons its own stop segment plucked from the Allens Rough estate to go alongside Bloxwich's One Man and His Dog and a half-hidden Bridle Lane nugget from near Barr Beacon.

Bucking the recent trend, WME Birmingham has delved into my Digbeth Branch archives for some choice canal components; Ashted Tunnel rises to the occasion with views inside and out (the south-eastern portal a few months apart) being accompanied by a snap of nearby Lock 3. WME Wolverhampton similarly goes against the grain by offering museum morsels from Bantock House; here we can meet a miserable-looking mannequin and take a peek inside the billiard room (a shot I'm rather fond of). My favourite photo from July though can be found on WME Dudley, a Bathams beermat - need I say more? Until August, enjoy the pictures...

Sunday, July 23

We've Been On A Bear Hunt!

The array of animal artworks appearing on the streets of the West Midlands in recent weeks have certainly added a sense of fun to my summertime photo sessions. Stephen was keen to get in on the act, so with a spare (but potentially soggy) Friday at our disposal we breeze into Birmingham ready for some serious sleuthing...

- The Bear That Cares -
New Street Station gets our bear-spotting underway almost immediately as the concourse has become home to The Bear That Cares, a bright pink example whose appearance is based on the characters from the Care Bears television series. The red balloon symbol on the bear's tummy represents the logo for the Birmingham Children's Hospital Charity.

- Shakesbear -
One of the bears I was most keen to find is Shakesbear, designed with a certain famous playwright's portrait in mind. It takes pride of place out on New Street itself, attracting the attentions of passing shoppers with a mixture of delight and bemusement. Elsewhere on New Street we make the acquaintance of Marcus Bearlius (inspired by sculptures of Roman emperors) before Olly the Octobear has bright red tentacles by Victoria Square.

- A Dalek Distraction -
 The threat of rain means we make for the shelter of the Mailbox where the BBC visitor centre has definitely embraced the Big Sleuth spirit. Several mini-bears are on display here including Bournville Unwrapped, Lulu and Totally Tropical; like the other smaller bears on the trail, these have each been created with the involvement of a local school. Thankfully the resident Dalek has so far refrained from exterminating any of them!

- The Bees Knees -
To Gas Street Basin then and an encounter with The Bees Knees, one of a number of honey and bee themed bears that feature as part of the event. Situated next to the Worcester Bar footbridge, this design raises awareness about the importance of bee conservation and the need to protect wild flowers as a source of pollination.

- Crunchie -
Not all of the bears are in the city centre so our next move takes us to Bournville in order to track down Crunchie outside Cadbury World. Being rather partial to the honeycomb chocolate bar ourselves, we can appreciate this bear licking his lips while seemingly escaping out of his wrapper. 

- The Wildlife Detective -
The Cross City line connects us sweetly with Sutton Coldfield for our final sleuth targets of the day. Stephen has the pleasure of posing next to the Wildlife Detective (complete with some bear-noculars perhaps?) as we stroll through Sutton Coldfield railway station. Straw-bear-y (a fruity friend on Lower Parade) and Honeybear (a hive effect by Holy Trinity Church) also make memorable impressions when we survey the town centre.

- A Sutton Coldfield Scatter Cushion -
A pub interlude precedes our very last piece of arty action with the Brewhouse & Kitchen on Birmingham Road brewing their own ales on the premises. I partake of The Cup, a 3.6% bitter that takes its title from the pub's historic name, and clutch an appropriately boozy scatter cushion while modelling some distinctive glassware. Tiger Lily by the Empire Cinema celebrates the resurgence in wild tiger numbers and with that we head homewards, satisfied with our sleuthing so far but with plenty more bears still to meet in the months ahead.

Monday, July 17

Loopy in Lapworth?

Following up a summer spectacular like last week's Hatherton Canal outing was always going to be a challenge but a Warwickshire wander might just hit similar heights. A day of boots, beer and Baddesley Clinton is therefore on offer as I join Navigator Nick for a couple of loops around Lapworth...

- Poddington by St Philip's -
Prior to the main event I indulge in a little more sculpture spotting in the West Midlands. Wolverhampton has its wolves of course but in Birmingham there are bears to be had (and not the ones that play cricket at Edgbaston). The streets of Brum have witnessed some ursine unveilings in recent days as part of the Big Sleuth, the artistic follow-up to 2015's Big Hoot owls. My animal antics are limited to the handful I can find between New Street and Snow Hill stations but do include Ghostbuster Bear (John Bright Street), Spock (a Star Trek-themed classic by the Floozy in the Jacuzzi) and Poddington (near St Philip's Cathedral).


- Nick at the Navigation -
There are 100 bears in total dotted around Birmingham (some are located as far afield as Dudley and Solihull) so there's certainly mileage for a few more snapshot safaris between now and September. They can wait though as Lapworth requires the utmost concentration - I meet Nick at Dorridge and a short Chiltern train ride later we alight at Lapworth Station, a quiet halt with a blue footbridge. Noting the local primary school on Station Lane, we then start as we mean to go on by taking an almost immediate pub pit stop. The Navigation is on the side of the Grand Union Canal and serves up a decent drop of Byatt's Lapworth Gold which we happily sup outside in the pretty beer garden - this is the life!


- Something foxy? -
After that early refreshment break, Nick's route calculations soon have us heading for Baddesley Clinton, a medieval moated manor house that was the historic home of the Ferrers family. Nowadays it is a National Trust property where visitors can ponder the priestholes and savour the tranquility of the walled garden. Although we won't be venturing into the house itself, we can enjoy views of the wider grounds and meet some carved woodland creatures including a crafty fox.


- A Brome Burial -
A couple of hundred yards from the main house stands the church of St Michael, notable for a 'Tower of Atonement' built by Nicholas Brome as penance for murdering the parish priest. Brome was buried in an upright grave by the church door while the tomb of Sir Edward Ferrers is a notable feature in the chancel. We linger awhile the admiring stained glass and further Ferrers memorials before pressing on with our stroll, the next stage of which comprises Rowington Green and a wheat field approach towards Wroxall Abbey.


- WME is on the Case (Bitter) -
Nick's regular glances at his watch confirm that we're tight on time if we're to squeeze in a call at the Case is Altered. The pub operates traditional opening hours (mid-afternoon closing is at 2:30pm) but with a bit of a spurt we beat the call for last orders and reward ourselves with a pint of Case Bitter, a classic English Bitter from the Old Pie Factory Brewery - excellent! The trading hours aren't the only traditional aspect here; the building is very homely with a bar billiards table fed by old sixpences. Anyone daring to use their mobile phone runs the risk of paying a £1 fine while the off the beaten track location only adds to the charm of a rare wet-led survivor. A superb find indeed.


- The Banana Box Bandit strikes again -
Picking up the pace again, Navigator Nick brandishes his banana box while plotting a path through a scrapyard containing vintage Massey Ferguson tractors. We then retrace some steps from earlier, crossing our favourite wheat field to Rowington Green which in turn brings us to the Rowington Club. This establishment is invitingly situated opposite the village hall and next to a cricket pitch; our beer choice here is Cotleigh's Commando Hoofing, an ale which helps raise money for a Royal Marines charity. As at the Navigation, we make the most of the weather by sitting outside and enjoying the sunshine.


- Rowington Cricket Club -
The Rowington Club marks the completion of one loopy element of our walk with Nick now identifying a separate circuit involving the nearby canals. A few cricket outfield pictures include the sight screens and a scorebox shed, then we make tracks for the Tom O' The Wood on Finwood Road, an old country inn that's been refurbished to a high standard. North Cotswold Brewery's Summer Solstice provides some golden lubrication, setting us up nicely for a stretch along the Grand Union from Turners Green Bridge (No. 63) to Kingswood.


- Canal Junction at Lapworth -
Lapworth really is an excellent location for the waterways enthusiast to explore as the Grand Union and the Stratford-upon-Avon canals run in parallel, linked together by a short spur known as the Kingswood Branch. We take the branch from Kingswood Junction to join the Stratford Canal by a neat cottage garden where the tomatoes in the greenhouse seem to be growing well. Plenty of locks help keep us occupied as we aim in a roughly northwesterly direction, passing beneath Old Warwick Road (Bridge 35) and Mill Lane (Bridge 34).


- Menu musings at the Boot -
Early evening entices us with two posh pubs by way of concluding our circuitous crawl. The Boot is just off the towpath by lock 14; as part of the Lovely Pubs group it has a dining emphasis with many of the tables reserved. We study the menu over a half of Sharp's Atlantic and try to work out whether we'd be partial to caramelised cauliflower granola, gribiche or gunpowder chicken breast. Our final watering hole requires less culinary translation, the Punchbowl on Mill Lane having sedate modern surroundings due to a 1990s rebuild. Nick's local knowledge unearths us a shortcut back to the station and loop number 2 is fulfilled, capping off another cracking July jaunt that definitely maintained recent standards. Cheers!

Sunday, July 9

Waterways Walks: The Hatherton Canal

No sooner have I submitted one blog post with a canal flavour (Thursday's Rocket Pool Rummage: Part 3) than I dive straight back into exploration action by reprising my very occasional series of extended waterways walkabouts. A route from Gailey to Cannock has been plotted which will allow me to combine an unseen stretch of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal with some remnants of the Hatherton Branch...

- Gailey Pottery -
Friday 7th July 2017 and the trip is underway courtesy of the number 54 bus from Wolverhampton towards Stafford. Pendeford Business Park, i54 and Coven are navigated without incident so I can alight in Gailey not long after half past ten, opening photographic proceedings with shots of the Spread Eagle (a large Marston's roadhouse) and Gailey Pottery (based in an old church). The A5 Watling Street briefly keeps me company before I join the Staffs & Worcs towpath beside the distinctive Gailey Roundhouse.

- Foreboding signage in Four Ashes -
The roundhouse was a fitting finale to a previous walk I did down from Radford Bank in 2013, but this time around I would be heading south to link in with another of my earlier outings (2009's Calf Heath and Coven) - now would be my chance to neatly join these threads together. The stretch through Four Ashes is my new territory for the morning and is mainly notable for the presence of the chemical works; there are various stern notices about not mooring or stopping here plus some stark pipe bridges which match the grim architecture of the refinery. Gravelly Way Bridge is a little more appealing as a traditional stone structure but it's still quite a relief to reach Calf Heath Bridge and know better scenery awaits.

- Hatherton Marina -
Meandering bends in turn reveal Long Molls Bridge (Deepmore Lane), Hatherton Marina and the turnover footbridge at Hatherton Junction. The bridge is a little overgrown in truth and the access on the opposite bank is gated off so I can only see the first couple of locks on the Hatherton Branch from afar. These remain in working use as part of the marina but the remainder of the canal between Calf Heath and Churchbridge Locks was abandoned in 1955. Restoration plans - if successful - would see a canal link reinstated to Churchbridge then continuing through to meet the Lord Hayes Branch (an offshoot of the Wyrley & Essington) at Fishley north of Bloxwich.

- Calf Heath ahead -
Stage one of the day's canal contemplations has gone well and there is plenty more to still to come, however a little break from towpath trekking is now required as I seek out lunchtime refreshment. The marina is private property so I retrace my footsteps to Long Molls Bridge and exit for the accurately-named Straight Mile among farms and stables. Calf Heath is a narrow ribbon of a settlement with facilities including the village hall and the Dog & Partridge pub. Naturally I'm drawn to the latter despite it having the M6 motorway practically on its doorstep - a pint of Holden's Golden Glow is my reward as a montage of Madonna songs plays interminably on some music channel or other. I therefore try my best to blot out the sound of 'Crazy for You' while tucking into a tasty cheese and onion cob. Music preferences apart the pub made a good impression, the Glow was quality ale and further entertainment is provided by a pet pooch greedily gobbling up a retired chap's packet of pork scratchings.

- The Dog & Partridge -
Keeping with the canine theme a moment longer, Straight Mile historically crossed the Hatherton Branch at Dog Bridge, one of the structures that stands to be restored should the Lichfield & Hatherton Canals Trust achieve their aims. A culvert runs beneath the M6 but beyond this a sizeable section of the old canal is under British Waterways ownership and accessible as a permissive footpath. I love exploring lost waterways like this and with favourable (i.e not too hot) July weather I was in for an absolute treat! Scrawpers End Bridge on Oak Lane is the starting point for stage two of my towpath tour even if the low headroom is a bit of a challenge if I'm to investigate the little stub right up next to the M6 carriageway.

- Scrawpers End Bridge -
A bit of crawling and contortion later means I've captured the culvert on camera and am clear to proceed towards Cannock. Scrawpers End is just one of a sequence of interesting bridges demanding discovery, so in turn I encounter Saredon Mill Bridge, Cross Bridge (also height-restricted, this is where Four Crosses Lane goes over the line) and Cats - or Catch - Bridge. A brick-lined narrowing marks the site of Meadow Lock and the trail ends at Bridge 8 to the rear of the Roman Way Hotel. I have to say that together they made for one of the most fascinating strolls I've done in a long time, and the LHCRT have done a great job of rebuilding some of the bridges that had fallen into disrepair. The canal channel is mainly in water throughout, flanked by lush vegetation which is rather pretty in places. I'm not sure how much of the original fabric of the line survives beyond Wedges Mills - it would be interesting to find out but that's a task for another day.

- Meadow Lock -
Longford Island now looms large with its retail parks and Beefeater restaurant. The A5 is getting busy on a Friday afternoon so the relative calm of the Longford estate is more to my liking, especially with suburban snaps to snaffle up. The local social club is one camera candidate swiftly followed on Bideford Way by a clutch of shops and St Stephen's Methodist Church. I'm keen to track down the Ascot Tavern and find it on one corner of Ascot Drive (Longford Primary School is just over the road); sadly the pub shut a few months ago and is due to make way for a housing development so its first appearance in the WME archives will surely be its last.

- Ascot Tavern -
No chance of a drink at the Ascot then but there are a couple of Cannock establishments I can claim prior to catching my bus to Wolverhampton. Exhibit A is the Crystal Fountain on St John's Road, a Black Country Ales establishment with a sympathetically refurbished 1930s interior. Tinner's Tipple (Golden Duck Brewery) is on good form here, setting me up nicely for one of the newer additions to Cannock's pub contingent. High Green is thus home to the Newhall Arms micropub where a mural stag looks on appreciatively as I raise a pint of Pole Dancer in honour of Mr SBI's birthday.

- Staring Stag in the Newhall Arms -
My number 70 carriage awaits, taking me a little by surprise in passing the Ascot Tavern on the way out of town (I remember when the route went through Rumer Hill to Bridgtown but now it uses Dartmouth Avenue). Delta Way Garage and Walkmill Lane are as I remember, leading into the familiar combination of Cheslyn Hay and Featherstone. Come Fallings Park I hop off to meet up with Stephen for chips and cricket; the evening is then reserved for Team Bears quiz duty whereby we actually won, a great result even if I still have a headache from working out some particularly fiendish sporting anagrams. A perfect end to a perfect day, and not a wolf in sight!