Monday, July 4

Trooping to Tardebigge with the Merry Monarch

The beer festival bandwagon is rolling into Bromsgrove and naturally Nick and I want to be there to see what's occurring, especially as we can combine our attendance with a splash of Worcestershire waterways walking. What's more, our resident royal can even muse about his liking for the Monarch's Way long-distance footpath - here comes the tale of the trip...

- Bromsgrove Station -
It's Friday 1st July 2022 and great news that the Bromsgrove Beer Festival has been restored to its customary slot on the summer schedule after Covid necessitated its cancellation in both 2020 and 2021. Nick and I meet at Birmingham New Street in readiness for the 10:50 train to Hereford, touching down in Worcestershire at around about quarter past eleven. Bromsgrove Station is a much-improved facility compared to when I first clapped eyes on it, with the 2016 rebuild now firmly bedded in and Cross City services terminating here every half an hour. The bus interchange outside offers links into a town centre which is still a fair old walk away.

- Monarch's Way at Finstall -
Nick and I will be doing some walking but the town is not our target - nope, we want to explore a stretch of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Tardebigge. Getting there requires usage of the Monarch's Way, a lengthy trail that reputedly charts the escape route taken by the future King Charles II when fleeing the Battle of Worcester in 1651. We pick up the footpath on St Godwald's Road, flank the railway line and then nip down the side of Bromsgrove Rugby Club (our festival setting for later) from Finstall into Stoke Cross. Dusthouse Lane takes over, passing Stonehouse Farm before we edge across fields to reach Alcester Road.

- Tardebigge Tunnel -
The village of Tardebigge has earned a certain notoriety in canal circles for being the location of the longest lock flight in the entire country. There are thirty narrow locks in total here and it is said to take somewhere in the region of four hours for boats to traverse from one end to the other. Our first glimpse of the Worcs & B'ham comes courtesy of Tardebigge New Wharf, a small marina and pumping-out station situated just below the southern portal of Tardebigge Tunnel; the tunnel itself is 580 yards long and dates from the early 19th century. Christening himself as the 'Merry Monarch' for the day, Nick is intending that we should investigate the whole flight but an unexpected heavy shower sets in and we need alternative plans. 

- Mad Goose at the Tardebigge -
Coming to our rescue is the Tardebigge pub which is stationed a little further along Alcester Road, albeit getting there still results in a minor drenching. We're soon able to dry off however in the comfort of an airy bar populated by lunching schoolmums and various prison wardens, HMP Hewell Young Offenders Remand Centre being not very far away. Bright floral wallpaper and dangly chandeliers are the other notable features as we listen to George Ezra (against Nick's will) and sup our decent halves of Purity Mad Goose. We wouldn't ordinarily have made a special effort to visit this one although the building has an interesting history having been constructed by the Earl of Plymouth in 1911 to serve as the Village Hall.

- St Bartholomew's Church -
Whilst we're in the area we might as well see what else Tardebigge has to offer, with the most definitive landmark being St Bartholomew's (otherwise known as the 'Church on the Hill'). The tall spire of this imposing place of worship dominates the landscape for miles around and will be a familiar sight to anybody regularly working the canal locks down below. Our visit happens to coincide with an assembly involving the adjacent Tardebigge First School, hence we are treated to infant voices singing a succession of hymns such as 'Give Me Oil In My Lamp' and 'Shine Jesus Shine' - it's simply magical to hear the songs and gaze out over the churchyard.

- Tardebigge Locks -
Our village detour has done the trick in terms of allowing the weather to improve, and we're now bathed in summer sunshine as we commence our curtailed descent of Tardebigge Locks. Top Lock (No. 58) is just beyond the wharf I mentioned earlier, and then the sequence really begins in earnest after Dialhouse Farm Bridge (London Lane). Of the thirty we cover a mere nine - not even a third of the complete length - but what we do see is enchanting countryside, the very essence of England. Several of the locks have accompanying cottages and for an amateur photographer such as myself it really is camera heaven! Our exit point is Bridge 54 (Grimley Lane) because we've got a beer festival we need to get to...

- A Tennis Elbow diagnosis -
Said festival as ever is being held at the Bromsgrove Rugby Club hence there's a massive marquee in situ beside the clubhouse and part of the wider pitches appear to have become an impromptu campsite. Armed with 'Yellow Pubmarine' Beatles-themed glassware and the all-important beer tokens, I work through a kaleidoscope of ales from pale (Backyard's Tennis Elbow) to golden (Platform 5's The Coaster from Torquay) to copper-hued (Teme Valley's Wotever Next) to dark (Strawberry Fields' Marmalade Skies Oatmeal Stout). Each of those proves very enjoyable but my favourite tipple is undoubtedly Byatts' Madagascar Stout thanks to its hefty thwack of coffee, chocolate and vanilla - gorgeous!

- The Merry Monarch goes international -
But what of our resident royal I hear you ask? Well Nick takes his role very seriously and thus embarks on a programme of international diplomacy. He starts off very much British care of Beowulf's Dragon Smoke Stout - always a favourite - but then progresses to Madagascar (that Byatts stout again), Ukraine (Ambridge Zenyk, brewed using aromatic Ukrainian hops) before finally landing in Brazil with a nod of Colchester's Brazilian Coffee and Vanilla Porter. That such globetrotting is all achieved from the confines of the rugby field is a very impressive effort indeed. With that we retire to the railway station for our homeward trains but it has been a truly excellent day, even with the vagaries of the English summertime. Cheers!

Friday, July 1

WME Flickr Focus - June 2022

Dearie me! - more blog posts should start with the words 'dearie me' in my opinion - we're halfway through 2022 already, how did that happen? June's transition into July means we're inching ever deeper towards high summer, those times of Glastonbury, Wimbledon and sun-baked test matches (weather permitting). The passing of another month means I'm also primed to bring you a photostream summary...

And which of my galleries is most eager for our attention in this instance? Why it's none other than WME Staffordshire which must have been bristling at my previous comments that it had been having a quiet year thus far. Not so anymore for it fashions together a mere 25 arrivals taking us from Orton (Showell Lane) to Penkridge (a viaduct view and a Covid mural) by way of Perton's Wrottesley Arms. A special shout out too for the Pendeford Mill Nature Reserve, overseen by Wolverhampton Council but geographically within South Staffs - from here I give you geese, pool panoramas and some car park signage.

No other gallery could compete with Staffordshire for sheer June accumulation although WME Wolverhampton put up a decent fist of a challenge. My Wolves whereabouts focused most closely on Oxley and Penn this month, hence the pictures of Cedar Grange Care Home, Oxley Links Road, Wells Road and Woodlands Walk. The Penn Fields Bowling Club brings back happy Hub Marketing memories of 'clubbing' (inverted commas definitely intentional) prior to lockdown and there are street sign glimpses from Palmers Cross and Parkdale too. 

After those two slugged it out for supremacy, there wasn't a fat lot left for my remaining contenders to fight over. WME Shropshire made a welcome return to prominence thanks to some Oswestry offerings comprising the Boars Head, the Oak Inn and the town's former Shropshire Star newspaper offices. Similarly the seldom-spotted WME Solihull managed to eke out two Saxon Knight artwork items outside Olton railway station, and other than that we've just got WME Walsall and the Queens pub in Pelsall. Enjoy the photos!

Sunday, June 26

A Codsall Collection

Friday 24th June should have been a day spent at the Stratford-upon-Avon Beer Festival with Nick, but the train strikes meant a jaunt across to Shakespeare Country wasn't really viable. Instead I sought out a few ales closer to home by visiting the South Staffordshire village of Codsall...

- No trains here -
My plan is a simple one: catch the bus across to Codsall, have a little stroll around and then see what the various pubs have to offer. The 10B is therefore on time from Compton at 9:44 for a ride via Tettenhall Wood, Perton and Heath House Lane, dropping me off at the Bakers Way terminus. My walk encompasses Wood Road, Chillington Lane (past Nursery Farm) and the old parish path - somewhat overgrown these days - that leads back up to St Nicholas's Church. A handful of pictures along Sandy Lane precede a pit stop at the deserted railway station where an apologetic scrolling display tells me that there are no trains until Sunday because of the industrial action situation. 

- First port of call is... -
The Station: being on the platform means I'm ideally placed for my opening pub, which just so happens to be based in Codsall's former railway house. The Station is operated by Holden's with many of their core beers available (Black Country Bitter, Special and Golden Glow) albeit I'm drawn towards the Hartlebury 'Bitter Strikes Back' guest ale, 3.8% abv and rather moreish. As you might expect, there are plenty of railway artefacts dotted around including a weigh bridge hut on the car park and some signalling equipment; anyone looking to park their car is warned that they need to leave enough room for the dray deliveries. A read of the newspaper and occasional cricket score checks helps me pass a very pleasant hour of quality quaffing. 

- Beer Garden Banks's -
The Bull: next up is a longstanding Banks's favourite in the very heart of Codsall, the Bull having stood in The Square for many a long year. I might have missed the dining rush at the Station but here there's no escaping the mass of retired folks all seeking keenly-priced grub. The traditional bar corner has its fair share of old boys staring into space while a rabble of hi-vis builder types are enjoying knocking off for the afternoon. I take my pint of Amber on a tour of the well-presented beer garden, ducking through pergola arches and plodding along pink gravel pathways. This would be a real suntrap should the weather oblige with brighter skies but it makes for a nice setting regardless with bees buzzing on the breeze. 

- The Crown Joule's -
The Crown: diagonally opposite the Bull and still very much right at the heart of the village, the Crown (Joule's) is usually my Codsall mainstay if I fancy a solo pint when in the vicinity. I'm more than happy to maintain that position today, nipping inside for a glass of Joule's Mild which is not an ale I've personally encountered before; the more familiar combinations of Slumbering Monk, Joule's Pale and Blonde are available along with Green Monkey lager. From what I can gather, the pub has a long history as a coaching inn but had suffered a decline in fortunes prior to Joule's taking it over. The Market Drayton-based brewery have applied their usual breweriana stylings, creating an effective library/gentleman's club vibe through a prevalence of timbers, nicknacks and mentions of happy pigs.

- Love & Liquor -
Love & Liquor: the newest arrival to Codsall's cask scene is a smart micropub based in an ex-tearoom shopfront between Lloyd's Chemists and the Nationwide building society branch. It's location on The Square means that you have this, the Bull and the Crown literally within yards of each other - pub heaven! In the interests of full disclosure, I took the picture above during my initial morning wander (hence the shutters being down) but it was fully up and running by 2pm with pavement seating for a spot of almost-continental cafe culture. A tight ale range includes representation from Salopian, Wye Valley, Ludlow and Enville - all breweries I rate highly - but it's the Enville Ale that wins out this time around, accompanied by a hefty cob. Considering the place has only been in existence for two and a half years, its a mighty fine achievement for them to be Wolverhampton CAMRA's South Staffordshire Pub of the Year 2022 - I'm very impressed, even if England's lame batting threatens to darken my mood. 

- Cricket at the Claregate -
The Claregate: I depart Love & Liquor with the cricket score on 55 for 6 in order to intercept a number 5 bus back towards Wolverhampton. Codsall has certainly compensated for missing out on the beer festival and I still have time to squeeze in one more stop on the way home. Cue the Claregate, a suburban Marston's roadhouse which older readers might remember being called the Fieldhouse. A Generous George makeover and the construction of a Tesco Express on the car park haven't totally detracted from what remains a community boozer at heart; I'm undecided as to whether I approve of the trendified fixtures and fittings but if I can watch the cricket I'm usually happy. Jonny Bairstow and Jamie Overton are sowing the seeds of what will be a spectacular partnership so things are looking up, and the Amber goes down nicely too. For a trip plucked out of the contingency basket it's all gone rather well - cheers!

Monday, June 20

Majesterial Marketing in North Birmingham

The Hub Marketing Board are meeting by royal decree for the first Hub outing of the 2022 summer season. The Chairman has chosen North Birmingham as his preferred destination and the weather looks set to be scorching... 

- A Right Royal Drive -
It's Friday 17th June 2022 and temperatures are set to soar towards 30 degrees on the hottest day of the year so far. Slathering on the sunblock, board members meet at Bradley Lane to catch the tram now that Midland Metro services have been reinstated again after recent safety issues. This trip will be notable for not one but two inaugural appearances as Chairman D9 and Secretary WME are being joined by a new hub mascot (a Twirlywoos character we've christened 'Woo Gary' as a nod to a certain radio DJ) and none other than Her Majesty The Queen. Her Highness is keen to get stuck straight into hub business and takes over driving demo duties as we board the 11C Outer Circle at Winson Green - good steering ma'am!

- The bald spot surveys Perry Barr regeneration -
Our first principal port of call will be Perry Barr, an area which is undergoing huge changes in line with hosting the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. Gone is the old A34 flyover while the Seventh Trap pub has similarly been consigned to history, much to Mr D9's dismay. Major roadworks are in place along Walsall Road near the One Stop shopping centre and the local bus interchange is fenced off pending its anticipated overhaul. Nearby, the transformation of Perry Barr railway station is now complete, updating the previously depressing 1960s facilities with something more befitting of the 21st century. The new frontage is a modern bold design with rusty-hued cladding and improved accessibility features. 

- Tame Valley Canal, nearing Spaghetti -
Further transport-related developments are also afoot as regards the National Express West Midlands bus depot, with the existing Perry Barr Garage towards the top of Wellhead Lane due to be phased out when its replacement opens nearer to Aston Lane this coming autumn. The Queen graciously inspects each site before we track down the towpath of the Tame Valley Canal via a Witton wiggle and Deykin Avenue. Urban scenery doesn't come much grittier than that on offer as we approach Spaghetti Junction, the famous mass of concrete ribbons having celebrated its 50th anniversary on 24th May - whether it looks good for its age is open to debate although Mr D9 certainly considers it to be a thing of beauty.

- A Pype Hayes Cuppa -
After a photographic sweep of Salford Junction and environs (girders, masonry and graffti aplenty), we exit onto Lichfield Road in order to catch a number 67 bus. The Chairman recalls the days when this route had a five minute frequency and served the many tower blocks of Castle Vale although currently it operates every fifteen minutes. A steady Tyburn Road trundle brings us neatly into Pype Hayes where the Bagot Arms is a fire-ravaged wreck with heavily charred roof timbers skeletally reaching for the sky - such a sorry state of affairs. Happier news is that the Pype Hayes Transport Cafe is still going strong with all of its vintage Pepsi branding and Dixieland pinball machines intact. An All Day Special Breakfast here is a must, especially with fried bread, porky-pink sausages and crispy bacon to savour. 

- The Woo Mascot at the Digby -
Regardless of the Bagot's sad fate, the Digby was always in line to be our first pub of the day on this occasion and can be found nestled off the A452 Chester Road close to Pype Hayes Park. The midday heat is bordering on stifling so we are grateful for the chance to cool off indoors, introducing our Woo Gary mascot to the joys of San Miguel lager - only a half mind while he's still in training! Suitably refreshed, we endure a sweltering stroll along Orphanage Road into Erdington, passing a bust of the industrialist and philanthropist Sir Josiah Mason. Our silly song selections are declared at this point too, Mr D9 choosing 'The Bucket of Water Song' as performed by members of the TV show Tiswas while the Secretary unearths Bill Maynard's 1975 single 'Pheasant Plucker's Son'.  

- The Chairman gets a Standing Ovation -
Indeed, Mr WME's pick was inspired by our next watering hole, the Pheasant Plucker being a bar and grill affair close to the fire station. Both this and the Church Tavern (on the High Street up by St Barnabas's) occupy the earthier end of Erdington's pub spectrum, lively haunts with folk having fun in the sunshine but perhaps not the kind of places normally frequented by Her Majesty. Nor do we suspect that the Queen usually has cause to sing along to 'Ride on a Tractor', a cheeky slice of Irish innuendo that probably crops up regularly on the Church Tavern's jukebox. In between times we attend to more formal Board matters by staging a photocall at the Standing Ovation Hub, part of the almost-vacant Central Square precinct.

- The New Inns, Erdington -
As much as we enjoyed the Pheasant Plucker and the Church Tavern, our favourite Erdington find has to be the New Inns on Summer Road. Frosted front windows are a promising heritage sign but it's the Irish hospitality that really wins us over, from tricolour-painted panelling to the framed hurling sticks or a whole array of Gaelic football jerseys pinned to the ceiling. Alas it's too warm to truly appreciate any Guinness so we stick to the Carling Shandy approach while keeping abreast of happenings at Royal Ascot. The 77A bus is then on hand from Six Ways to whisk us towards Walmley via Minworth Asda; this Walsall - Sutton Coldfield service has been extended off-peak to cover the Erdington gaps left behind after Claribels stopped running the 167 and 168 routes. 

- Darting motivation at the Oak -
You all no doubt know by now that Mr D9 loves his flat-roofed boozers on far flung housing estates so us stopping off at the Oak on Calder Drive shouldn't come as a surprise. The 1980s breezeblock frontage belies quite a smart interior whereby we swiftly set up base in the rear sports bar. WME Whirlwind's darts form has been utterly dismal lately but here he seems to be a man possessed, nailing checkout after checkout as if spurred on by the astroturf board surrounds or cartoon catchphrases (see above). Poor D9 Destroyer simply can't get a leg in edgeways and suffers a Walmley whitewash - chalk that down as 5-0 to the Secretary if you please! Our subsequent Sutton Coldfield connection arrives in the form of the X14 provided we ignore an impromptu street barbecue underway outside Falcon Lodge shopping parade.

- The Queen in the Queen Inn -
From Sutton we opt for Boldmere as something sensible on the way home, meaning we can sample the Cask & Craft microbar/bottle shop to break our journey. 'Extra Special Beans' is part of the Siren Brewery's Project Barista concept that seeks to combine beer and coffee in inventive ways - the resultant tipple is very drinkable if perhaps an acquired taste. Chairman D9 insists we undertake some robustness checks on the route 5 timetables so we requisition a table on the Sutton Park's side patio and pass the DUAG (Drink Up And Go) challenge with flying colours. Last but not least is a West Bromwich nightcap for which Her Majesty gets the casting vote on choice of venue; naturally the Queen Inn seems a highly appropriate option and our sovereign seems suitably content with the resultant drop of Doom Bar. Cheers!