Sunday, December 9

A Kenilworth and Leamington Forage

Astounding. Simply astounding. There are some trips every year that you just know are going to be all-time classics, the annual Festive Forage being a case in point. However, 2018's Nick Turpin Christmas special exceeded even the loftiest expectations, helped by a quirky selection of watering holes that included my first ever experience of walking through a fridge to enter a bar...

- Class 153 train at Kenilworth -
Saturday 8th December 2018 and Nick Turpin has sacrificed his Stagecoach in favour of letting the train take the strain. I am therefore instructed to meet our highwayman hero at Kenilworth, journeying down from Coventry on a single carriage Class 153 unit. The fact that Kenilworth has a railway station again is an immediate cause for celebration - the town had disappeared off the network map in 1965 thanks to the Beeching cuts but can now boast a brand new facility with an hourly shuttle service between Leamington and Coventry. 

- St John's Church -
It's a bright crisp December morning as we set about plundering Kenilworth for photographic prey. Nick acts as our tour guide as we join the busy Warwick Road, pondering references to Walter Scott novels and spotting a disused branch of the National Provincial Bank. A notable landmark at the southern tip of the town centre is St John's Parish Church, positioned pretty much opposite the Green Man pub where we slake our initial thirst. This Ember Inns establishment is listed in the 2019 Good Beer Guide so we enjoy respective halves of X-Panda and Mad Goose sitting in the dedicated grumpy men's corner.

- Mouthy mat in the Bear & Ragged Staff -
Kenilworth is a place that seems to have pubs at regular intervals and we're somewhat spoiled for choice. The Earl Clarendon is a traditional little Marston's local while the Lion has big screen sport and cheeky patio gnomes. Sport is also to the fore in the Bear & Ragged Staff, a standard Greene King boozer where we can choose between watching rugby or football. Rocking Rudolph whets our whistle here, a decent malty Christmas ale which we quaff while testing out the Chris Kamara beermats - I'm not sure it suits me though!

- Abbey Fields -
Prior to becoming a dandy highwayman/ace cataloguer, Nick Turpin did a mid-1970s stint as a Saturday assistant at Kenilworth Library. Alas it shuts at 1pm today so we can't fully revisit his old stomping ground, then an ill-timed shower sends us scurrying for shelter in the Almanack (cue expensive halves of UBU in a gastropub setting). The skies clear soon enough and we're free to proceed over the Abbey Fields, excitedly exploring the earthwork remains of St Mary's Augustinian Abbey as the Finham Brook burbles by. More tangible building remnants include an intact former barn (now a museum, it may have historically been the Prior's Hall) and the remains of an ancient gatehouse.

- Old Original, Virgins & Castle -
St Nicholas's Church is also close at hand as a landmark of distinction; the young Nick Turpin rang the bells here on occasion but today we satisfy ourselves with a glimpse of the altar and a peek at some organ pedals. Our lunchtime location is the Virgins & Castle, a fascinatingly atmospheric inn on Kenilworth's old High Street. Everard's Old Original (5.2% and immaculate, our only full pint of the day) washes down a delicious bowl of Chicken Ginataang curry, a Filipino culinary treat. I however fail my highwayman's apprenticeship course by reminding the barmaid to take for our beer, a commendable moment of honesty when we would've had a free drink otherwise. 

- Rail Reflections -
We haven't quite finished with the Kenilworth pub scene just yet - New Street reveals the Royal Oak (Butty Bach plus Jeff Stelling in full Sky Sports Saturday flow) whereas Stoneleigh Road supplies the Cottage Inn (a Charles Wells tied house where the Eagle IPA is a tad iffy). Darkness is descending by the time we make tracks back to the station, catching the 16:44 to Leamington as Nick reflects further on the welcome return of Kenilworth's railway connection - it may be in time that services continue through to wider destinations such as Nuneaton or Stratford-upon-Avon.

- Back to the Drawing Board? -
Our arrival in Royal Leamington Spa means Nick can attempt to flummox me with weird and wonderful discoveries from the town's burgeoning beer scene. First stop is the Drawing Board as an eclectic Newbold Street gastrobar - they're clearly keen on comics here as the bookshelves are crammed full of bygone annuals while the walls are adorned with framed covers of Spiderman, Captain America, Groo the Wanderer and such like. I've never been anywhere quite like it and the Elephant Wash ale is rather nice too, produced locally in conjunction with the Old Pie Factory Brewery in tribute to Leamington's longstanding liking for all things elephantine.

- An Apehangers Acquaintance -
Next on Nick's itinerary is a walk south/sarf of the river (prompting my best efforts at a dodgy Danny Dyer accent) and a backstreet trail that eventually leads us onto the twilit towpath of the Grand Union Canal. Navigating in the dark is never easy but we successfully stumble across Clemens Street where the Procaffeinate coffee shop conceals an amazing hidden surprise. Step through the Smeg fridge - I kid you not - beside the counter to enter a subterranean world of motorbike helmets and Charles Aznavour LPs. This dear reader is the Apehangers Bar, a basement drinking den with the stairwell guarded by a tinsel-strewn lady mannequin. Dortmunder Vier pale lager is our tipple as I try to comprehend what on earth is happening. 

- The Beertorrent Samosa Stop -
No, we haven't entered a parallel universe and to prove it Nick now introduces me to the Beertorrent tasting room, tucked away in a railway arch and dispensing vegan-friendly concoctions - how much more 'craft' can one place get? The 8.1% Belgian Christmas brew is impossible to ignore so I pace my sipping while munching bargain samosas; Nick meanwhile avails himself of a Smoked Wheat stunner as we park ourselves on a long bench seat. All good things must sadly end and this particular forage concludes with two swift halves of Guinness, one in the Railway Inn (a nice enough two-roomed town pub) and one in Kelsey's (a studentcentric club venue that was eerily quiet, enlivened only by us trying our hand at table football). Half past eight or thereabouts heralds our trains home and a simply astounding pubcrawl for the ages passes into history - cheers!

Sunday, December 2

D9 does Dudley Winter Ales... again!

Having enjoyed our visit to the Dudley Winter Ales Festival so much in 2015, our redoubtable Chairman was keen to repeat the dose for more beery business. Friday 30th November 2018 therefore saw the Hub Marketing Board targeting the Town Hall during an afternoon also notable for pepperpots, puppeteers and Parkfields...

- The Fallen -
Secretary WME's day begins in Wolverhampton checking out some new wolf developments. Remembrance sculpture The Fallen has been brought back to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice (find it in the Archives gardens at the Molineux Hotel) whilst over in the Wulfrun Centre a pop up store is showcasing Professor Heinz Wolf as an extra creation that didn't feature in the original trail last year. The shop is aiming to raise money to repair the South Staffordshire Regiment's tablet memorial on Thornley Street.

- BizHub at Burnt Tree -
The hub action proper commences with a ride on the X7 Platinum bus from Wolverhampton to Burnt Tree island, Mr D9 ready and waiting to board at Dudley (he's so early there's not even the remotest sniff of a free cob). The massive Tesco store is our cue to alight, not because we need groceries but rather we have a photo location to visit, the D9 sleeves revealing the BizHub office block next to the Toby Carvery place. The requisite pictures are quickly taken before we tiptoe tentatively into Tividale, renewing our acquaintance with the Albion where WME is nervous about the pub's strong Baggies allegiances.

- Back on the old D9 patch -
The Chairman used to live in Tividale and uses his previous home advantage to secure a narrow darts victory by two legs to one; WME Whirlwind does have the consolation of the day's highest checkout (a count-them-up 44). Regent Road takes us past the former D9 residence in bringing us to Tivi Ale, a micropub housed in an old shop premises. Here we dry out after a sharp shower by force-feeding spicy samosas to an innocent reindeer while enjoying a pint of some golden ale we can't remember the name of!

- D9 Doolittle strikes again -
Two pubs down and it's time for a ferret, but not just any old random wandering. No siree, Secretary WME has been thorough with his research in realising we have a missing item from our pepperpot mission (last staged in January 2013). The open spaces of Warrens Hall Farm therefore beckon as we make tracks from Oakham Road, shuffling down the side of a care home to pass the riding stables. Mr D9 momentarily tries his hand at horse-whispering though the neighbourhood nags seem wise to his approaches. 

- A Pepperpot Pose -
Our 'Getting Shafted' adventure over five years ago had seen us tracking down several examples of the canal ventilation shafts that serve the Netherton Tunnel. One of the structures - known locally as pepperpots due to their cylindrical appearance and domed tops - had however escaped us back then so today we go cross country over the paddock to complete our set. Shaft No. 6 is that which we seek, perched halfway up a hillside with a vintage British Waterways Board nameplate. 

- A Pepperpot Spot -
With No. 6 captured on camera we squelch our way over more of the reserve, listening to silly songs including 'The Beard' (by the Four Beards, chosen by D9 in tribute to any hirsute hipsters we might meet at the beer festival later) and 'The Tiger's Wide Awake' (a slightly off-key answer to 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'). Pictures are taken of Pepperpot No. 4 for good measure - complete with a balding intruder - as we emerge onto Dudley Road ready for a ride on the X8. We share the bus stop with a puppeteer lady who has a festive elf on her arm and gives us a brief ventriloquism demonstration - how unexpected!

- Programme Poised -
Once in Dudley we make a beeline straight for the Town Hall where the 2018 Winter Ales Fayre is already well underway. The Secretary considers this to be his favourite beer festival as there's always scope to sample some stronger darker ales you wouldn't normally encounter. Tokens purchased we plot a path through the programme, opening with respective Lunar and Murderer's Yard tipples. D9 is then enticed by the Lunartic Porter whereas WME opts for Ratmus Pudding, tasting almost medicinal due to the festive flavourings. 

- Molten Glow -
An essential element of coming to DWAF is tucking into grey peas and bacon plus picking up some bargain beermats (albeit the main breweriana stall didn't seem to be there this year). Among the Secretary's other ale selections are Gregory's Porter (Ilkley) and Charlie Blackout Extra (Toll End) although special mention has to go to Holden's Molten Glow, brewed in tribute to the industrial pioneer Abraham Darby I who was born in Woodsetton. D9 meanwhile opts to go strong and exotic, supping his way through Mango Junction, Peach Milkshake and a Chocolate Orange IPA. The beer quality as ever proves exceptional.

- Parkfield Central Bar -
Our last traces of tokens are exchanged for Beat's Cosmic Pop (a black IPA) by way of a festival finale, and then we exit into the evening primed for further fun. Our aim now is to hoover up a few Wolverhampton watering holes we hadn't yet visited, so the X8 down the Birmingham New Road gets us underway again. The Garden Bar (previously the Copper Bowl, historically the Staffordshire Knot) specialises in Asian cuisine on the corner of Laburnum Road, and mixed grills are also to the fore on Martin Street where the Parkfield Central Bar is a backstreet revelation. This used to be a working men's club with Jack and Vera Duckworth-style stone cladding that has become something of a Desi gem.

- Cat charming in the Crown -
Indeed, the Desi theme continues with the Builders Arms on Derry Street, All Saints. The place is packed with a mixture of football fans and curry connoisseurs giving a lively backdrop to a swift swig of Banks's, noting an impressive old frosted window that tells of the pub's Butler's Brewery heritage. Last but not least comes the Crown on Cartwright Street, an almost unspoiled old school industrial boozer where we watch Wolves take the lead against Cardiff (sadly that scoreline couldn't last). The Chairman though is more interested in the felines than the football, and with one closing purr we call it a day - cheers!

Wednesday, November 28

WME Flickr Focus - November 2018

There has been a certain amount of sleuthing taking place on the West Midlands Exploration photostream in November, yet we haven't been graced by appearances from Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. Let's don our detective garb and see what's been afoot...

Far from being a mystery, the major recent development has been the arrival of certain Big Sleuth bears from last year's Brum-based art event. As you would expect, WME Birmingham leads the way with a selection of sculptural snapshots - Spock, Shakesbear, Poddington and Captain Blue Bear chief amongst them. Birmingham has also furtively gathered a couple of pub pluckings, filing away the Cock at Rubery and the Station in Sutton Coldfield for safekeeping.

Beyond Birmingham's boundaries, the Big Sleuth presence has been felt by WME Sandwell and WME Solihull. Solihull rummages around Resorts World to retrieve bears inspired by Mary Berry and Citizen Khan, whereas Sandwell casts its magnifying glass over Bentley the Bearwood Bear (found lurking in Warley Woods). Not to be outdone by Birmingham, Sandwell can unpick its own pub plottings thanks to the Red Cow at Smethwick and another showing for Tipton's Tilted Barrel.

Our powers of deduction next identify suspicious stirrings from WME Warwickshire as two Festive Forage haunts slip into the spotlight - Rigsby's Cellar Bar seems suitably subterranean enough to entice a private eye or two while the Wild Boar has previous where the Nick outings are concerned. Elsewhere, plainclothes ops in the Rowington area have resulted in pictures of the Tom O'The Wood and the Rowington Club being obtained, all valuable intelligence. WME Coventry meanwhile comes over all clandestine in ruefully registering the closure of Whitefriars Olde Ale House.

This whodunnit ends with reference to WME Wolverhampton whose gumshoe qualities have been utilised to infiltrate Tettenhall (a Wergs Road ceramic street tiles), Underhill (the Talisman pub sign) and Tettenhall Wood (a pair of likely reindeer characters spotted staking out Blooms Florist). Our forensic finale involves two bandstand views from West Park (one summertime shot, one autumn) and that's your lot for November - case closed!

Saturday, November 24

More Coventry Chronicles

Friday 23rd November sees the Chip Foundation plus Mr Beardsmore Senior setting forth on an autumnal adventure. Our destination is Coventry, the third time we've visited Godiva's fair city over the course of our chronicles - what mischief awaits???

- Cultural Considerations -
Although Nick, Stephen and I know Coventry reasonably well now, John hasn't been for over 40 years (or so he claims) which means he's keen to see the main sights. Whether Coventry railway station counts as scenery is open to debate but it's a busy place at 10:30am or thereabouts with hoardings promoting the successful bid to be 2021 City of Culture. The Quadrant, Cheylesmore Manor and Ford's Hospital all feature as we stroll into the centre keeping an eye out for places of historical interest. 

- Ecce Homo -
A must-see location is of course Coventry Cathedral where the ravages of conflict seem especially poignant as we mark the centenary of the First World War armistice. We seem to have gatecrashed a university graduation gathering with mortarboards being thrown aloft at regular intervals. In among the swarm of students we can still explore the cathedral ruins and note the presence of Ecce Homo, a marble sculpture carved by Sir Jacob Epstein. A look at Lady Godiva's statue (no doubt feeling chilly in the autumn air) and a peek at some Priory remains completes our initial tour of duty.

- Hawkesbury Village Green -
Time now to head out of the city centre to see what we might find in terms of lunch and pub possibilities. The 20C bus was introduced at the end of September linking Coventry with Walsgrave Tesco so we hop aboard for a slow grind along the multicultural Foleshill Road. The route also passes Longford Park in reaching Alderman's Green where we alight on Lentons Lane. We're touching the very edges of Coventry here, a corner I've never explored before so it's interesting to uncover Hawkesbury Village Green (a squelchy patch of open space) and the local Baptist Church.

- The Old Crown -
Lentons Lane will serve nicely as our lunch location courtesy of the Old Crown which awaits back on the corner with Alderman's Green Road. The 2 for £9 main course deal sounds perfect for our needs and we're soon tucking in to gammon, mini fish and ham, egg and chips respectively. Apple pie is our universal choice for a cheap pudding, and while the lack of cask ale is a shame (a Doom Bar delivery was due), the pub still makes a good impression with a warm welcome and comfortable interior. In other news, Mr B Senior regales us with tales of his recent cruise and then contrives to misplace his mobile phone only to realise it's been in his pocket all along!

- Grinning at the Greyhound -
Panic over, we walk off the meal by joining the towpath of the Oxford Canal at Tusses Bridge (No. 4, next to a fishing tackle shop) and heading for Hawkesbury Junction. It's becoming a very misty murky afternoon, the air humming with the crackle from nearby National Grid transformers. Nick forges ahead past narrowboat moorings, eager to reach the Greyhound which overlooks the roving bridge at Sutton Stop. This classic waterways hostelry is in fine form despite the presence of some scaffolding and proves so popular that we have to take our drinks outside to get a spare seat. The Draught Bass is delightful while Nick heartily approves of his Sharp's Sea Fury.

- Sutton Stop -
Sutton Stop is one of those canal locations that has a gentle timeless appeal, even on a grey day in November. The little lock and roving bridges offer a certain charm and I rather like the 1909 service hut too, not to mention Hawkesbury Engine House which stands silently on the side of the Coventry Canal. We next nip through a new estate to Black Horse Road but the Boat Inn hasn't opened yet; the detour isn't a complete waste of time though as we spot a bit of railway heritage whereby the Wyken Way footpath marks the course of a dismantled line - something to investigate in more detail perhaps?

- The Longford Engine -
That can wait for another time however as we have a couple more watering holes to account for today. We resume our towpath task with the Coventry Canal, weaving its way below the M6 motorway and through to the Longford Engine for respective Purity halves of UBU and Mad Goose (or John Smith's bleach if you're of the senior Beardsmore persuasion). Nick positions himself in a corner labelled 'God's waiting room' but thankfully lives to tell the tale while the staff are busy dressing the bar counter by unfurling exotic fabrics although we're not exactly sure why.

- Passing the tea cosy test! -
We're relying on the Coventry traffic being kind to us for the rest of the trip and the 20 bus does at least play ball in connecting us to Lythalls Lane, passing through Longford Square en route. Lythalls Lane Industrial Estate is home to Byatt's Brewhouse Bar, surprisingly well-appointed considering the workshop unit surroundings. I came here with D9 last year so I know what to expect - quality ale for a start - although I wonder what Nick and the Beardsmores will make of it. Luckily they all approve albeit Stephen has to endure the Billy Connolly tea cosy trust test, passing with flying colours! Black Imps and Byatts Golds duly supped, we battle the rush hour to eventually get back to Coventry Station for our trains home, a little later than planned but that's how it goes - cheers!