Thursday, December 31

WME Update Digest: December 2009

By my own admission, 2009 has not been a particularly productive year in terms of WME updates, with the galleries generally limping along on basic rations and little else. After a summer hiatus, October and November at least got things moving again, and December has now delivered the biggest batch of additions for ages, a welcome final flourish to conclude a frustrating year…

My headline act this month is WME Staffordshire, which proudly provided that rare beast, a WME milestone. Yes, the 250 photo barrier has been breached thanks to the inclusion of some encouraging new collections. Exploring Stoke represents the old market town that gave its name to the wider city, offering a Potteries flavour that is augmented further by the arrival of Stoke-on-Trent Station amongst my rail selection. Brownhills West Station gives the Chasewater Railway its first airing, whilst the local content is also boosted by contributions from Exploring Penkridge (featuring a nice shot of the church) and Exploring Cannock Chase (with two sample forest views) – and the Trent & Mersey Canal got a couple of additions too.

New collections were also the order of the day on both WME Shropshire and WME Solihull. Shropshire now boasts a feature on Wem Station, complete with platform views and totem sign, whereas Solihull has received Exploring Solihull Lodge with its leafy views of High Street. Neither should I forget WME Telford, where my pictures of the Bridge and Shakespeare pubs in Newport had been waiting for an eternity before finally being included.

Muscling in on the act now is WME Birmingham with its own fresh arrival to celebrate. Exploring Quinton comprises shots of the local library, Evangelical Church and Four Dwellings Primary School, with ballast being provided for Exploring Northfield (St Laurence’s lich gate) and Northfield Station (some familiar station views there). Also jostling for attention is WME Coventry, with a photo each for Coventry by Bus (route 10 at Bell Green), Exploring Canley (another library shot) and Exploring Tile Hill North (another look at Jardine Crescent shops).

To the Black Country then, where WME Dudley leads the way with an array of new content. Exploring Lye features the Windmill and Railway pubs, Exploring Hayley Green presents two glimpses of the Foxhunt, Dadfords Bridge takes its place on the Stourbridge Canal collection and the White Lion joins Exploring Sedgley. WMEs Wolverhampton and Walsall have been quiet by comparison and can only boast a single offering each, Wolverhampton’s being the cottage shops on Exploring Wednesfield and Walsall’s a sneaky view of Brownhills Marketplace.

I hope you’re keeping up as we continue this breathless summary with a glance further afield. WME Worcestershire first, where the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal has spectacularly crashlanded - the canal might only visit the county briefly, but the section here does include the charming Shirley Drawbridge. For once WME Warwickshire hasn’t been forgotten – I give you a platform view and a station frontage shot on Leamington Spa Station.

Finally, and last but by no means least, it’s our good friend Exploration Extra. Plenty of happenings here, as I’ve taken the opportunity to improve the East Anglia 2007 and Essex 2008 collections. Bus photos from Colchester, Cromer, Wymondham and Great Yarmouth have therefore been joined by a rail assortment from Colchester Town, Frinton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze.

All of this amounts to a total of 64 new photos, by far the biggest monthly update of the year and a vast improvement on the previous six months or so. Only WME Sandwell escaped without anything, so I shall have to put this right if possible. At least the galleries now have a bit of momentum heading into the New Year, and my resolution will be to build on this during the first few months of 2010…

Saturday, December 19

The Black Country Birthday Beer Tour

I've often thought there's something timeless about a cosy, traditional pub where you can enjoy good conversation and a decent pint. Today Dad and I put this to the test with a circuit of some of my favourite Black Country boozers as part of Dad's belated birthday celebrations...

Catching the 254 from Wolverhampton, we make our way to Brierley Hill where we join the Dudley No. 1 Canal at Delph Locks. The crisp, frosty morning lent itself to some nice scenic photos of the locks as we strolled down to Black Delph Bridge, and I also added in some handy views of a couple of the local pubs, the Tenth Lock and the Dock & Iron. The walk provided a fine aperitif but now it was time for the main event to commence.

And what a way to start. The Vine, or Bull and Bladder, has gained legendary status as the home of Batham's Brewery, and once again it fully lived up to my expectations. An open fire, a welcoming ambience and a cracking pint of Batham's Mild set the scene just nicely, Dad particularly enjoying the beer which he thought was easy drinking with a hint of chocolate. The food wasn't bad either, a ham salad crusty roll and a tasty pork pie for £2 seemed good value to me.

If the Vine is a beer mecca, Ma Pardoe's at Netherton is equally worthy of such a status. After a brief collision with the Merry Hill Centre, where Dad introduced me to the delights of the Decathlon store, we hop on the 283 bus with much anticipation. Once again we weren't to be disappointed, and the pub seemed very busy with a mix of regulars and ale tourists. We found a seat in the restaurant section next to an organ and the Christmas tree, a nice festive setting in which to sample the Bumblehole - another pint that quickly received the Dad seal of approval.

We had planned to visit the Beacon Hotel next, but it would have been a rush trying to get there before the 3pm closing. Instead I decided to introduce Dad to one of my favourites that he hadn't heard of, the Waterfall at Cradley Heath. It's fair to say he was probably a bit sceptical as we caught the 244 bus down through Old Hill, even more so when we alighted at the station then walked along the canal, but it seemed that once inside he felt right at home. That timeless quality was very much in evidence here, and we couldn't think of any better way to pass a Saturday afternoon. The place had a really warm, welcoming vibe, lots of chatter and conversation washed down with a Golden Glow for Dad and a Goat's Leap for myself.

It seemed a shame to end the outing early, so we thought we'd squeeze in a final pint on the way home. The 242 from Old Hill therefore led us to the Lamp Tavern in Dudley for another chance to sample some Batham's Mild. The Lamp had certainly got into the Christmas spirit with plenty of festive decorations - the streamers on the ceiling reminded me of the ones we used to have at home when I was a kid. Rog only introduced me to the pub in November, but its already become a firm favourite. We conclude matters with a walk through Dudley Marketplace, where the town Christmas tree twinkled away prettily in the dark, and a ride back home on the 558.

In these days of recession and pub closures, it was heartwarming to do an outing such as this to remind ourselves that great pubs do still exist. I certainly enjoyed the trip, and I think Dad had fun rolling back the years a bit and reminiscing about his younger days in Bloxwich. The beer was great, the hospitality excellent and it all sets us up for Christmas very nicely indeed...

Friday, December 11


Now I've taken photos in all kinds of conditions over the years, but I must admit that today's outing provided something of a first. In a moment of what can only be described as madness, I decided to venture around Oldbury despite freezing temperatures and thick fog. Usually once the mists descend I give up any pretence of taking photos, but today I decided to brave it regardless, resulting in a fascinatingly atmospheric slice of exploration...

The omens weren't looking good at Wolverhampton Station. Walking along the concourse, you could barely see the 9:19 local train waiting at platform 5. My ride to Sandwell and Dudley only emphasised the lack of visibility, with the fog showing no signs of burning off whatsoever. Alighting, I try photos of the station entrance and a haze-surrounded Railway Inn before tracking down the Birmingham Main Line Canal at Bromford Lane.

I'm always keen to do my bit pounding the towpaths, and I was actually quite intrigued to see what impact the fog might have on my photos. After a quick look at a lattice footbridge, I found myself at Bromford Stop, a seminal Black Country canal location in its own right. Here the Spon Lane Locks branch off to meet the Old Main Line whilst the New Main Line ploughs straight on towards Birmingham. The junction has two impressive roving footbridges which I had hoped to get into the same photograph - I just about managed it, but only if eerie shadows in the mist count for anything. Locks 3 and 2 provide less resistance to the camera, but the towpath is closed off before I can add lock 1 to my repertoire. Instead I have to do an about turn and finally track down the Old Main Line at Stewart Aqueduct.

What followed next was one of the most unnerving sections of canal exploration I've ever done. I could blame the weather, but I have a feeling that this particular stretch would seem desolate and depressing even in glorious sunshine. The main reason for this sense of discomfort is the M5 motorway, which towers overhead virtually encasing the canal between giant concrete pillars. Accompanied by a cacophony of traffic noises, I encounter the rather charming Blakey Hall Bridge, a traditional old style bridge that seems most incongruous in its surroundings.

If that find was a high point, the next sequence defintely provided the flip side. Venturing deeper into the recesses of the motorway, Anchor Bridge and Manchester Road Bridge both seemed charmless and functional. The worst discovery of the lot though was Oldbury Junction, which has surely got to be the ugliest place I've ever visited. I've always used the Bromford estate in Birmingham as my preferred example of a grim location, but Oldbury Junction has not only stolen the crown, its vanished off with it clean out of sight - no other competition need apply! The place is an absolute eyesore with concrete masonry everywhere - nowhere is this more evident than with the junction bridge itself, yuk! The junction provides access to the Titford Canal although I'd imagine some visitors would be seriously deterred from visiting the branch if its starting point is anything to go by.

Pressing on from the junction, the gloom lifts slightly even if the fog seems to be getting heavier. The Old Main Line flirts with the edges of Oldbury, taking in Stone Street, Seven Stars and Whimsey Bridge in fairly quick succession. Then its High Bridge at Rounds Green, where I leave the canal in favour of doing some local exploring. Brades Road offers a glimpse of the impressive Brades Tavern, but by this stage my camera has virtually seized up completely and my fingers aren't too far behind.

I perservere a little longer, and am rewarded with a few views of Brades Bridge as I momentarily rejoin the canal towpath. Dudley Road East leads me towards Oldbury Town, pausing for photos of the George pub, and I finish off with a brief tour of the town centre where both the Junction and the Olde Bulls Head looked inviting (or at least vaguely warm)! A highly memorable trip concludes back at Sandwell and Dudley Station where I catch my train home and reflect on the relative merits of photos in the mist. I might well return to today's locations in better weather - yes, even Oldbury Junction - but I doubt any future visits will leave quite the same impression as today's fog-filled frolics...

WME Update Digest: October and November

The West Midlands Exploration galleries appear to have undergone a process of reverse hibernation recently - quiet all summer then cautiously coming back to life for the winter. Despite the lack of site news on the blog over the last few months, there have been a few small developments that now merit a quick mention...

Having not issued a single new addition in either August or September, it was left to October to pick up the reins and get things moving again. The update was minimal (involving only eight photos), but did include a new collection on WME Shropshire. Exploring Wem has arrived with views of the Albion pub and the local recreation ground, a useful start to recording the landmarks of this charming little Shropshire town. Also returning to action were WME Walsall, where two library views joined Exploring Rushall, and WME Birmingham, thanks to shots of the Cock pub (Exploring Bartley Green) along with West Heath island and bus terminus.

November was barely any more successful, with only eleven new additions to its credit. Nine of these appeared on WME Staffordshire, where three views of the Why Not pub crashlanded on Exploring Essington whilst Landywood Station got a train photo and a platform sign. There was also a hint of the Potteries, never a bad thing of course, as Longport Station steps made a reappearance alongside first-time views of Longton Bus Interchange and Harecastle Tunnel, the latter being a particularly interesting landmark on the Trent and Mersey Canal. WME Shropshire took care of the remaining two photos, with a couple of extra train pictures muscling their way into my Shrewsbury Station selection.

So there you have it - I must admit that for two months worth of updates this was a pretty poor showing, and I am at least trying to make an effort to ensure December heralds a more substantial batch of new offerings. 2009 has been a year of struggle as far as the WME galleries have been concerned, but I hope to end it on a bright note and look forward to bringing you a more constructive digest soon...

Monday, November 30

Bristol Fashion

Saturday 28th November 2009: November's final flourish saw Woody, Andy and myself heading into unchartered territory with a visit to Bristol and Bath...
  • The day kicks off with a ride on the local train into Birmingham, with Mr Wood joining me at Smethwick Galton Bridge. We find Andy waiting at New Street and make our way to platform 10b for the 9:12 service to Plymouth.
  • The train seemed popular, but our advanced reservations did the job (thanks Mr Wood) and ensured we had a table seat for a relaxing journey. Andy pointed out his old residence as we sprinted through Bromsgrove, whilst the service also provided glimpses of Cheltenham, Bristol Parkway and local stations such as Yate. In fact, the journey was so relaxing, Woody decided to do some 'spontaneous meditation'...

  • Bristol Temple Meads is a grand city station as befits its association with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I really like the place and got a few platform shots as we made our way out to the forecourt to find our connecting bus. The entrance is particularly impressive, with a clock tower looming over the station drive. The 8 and 9 bus routes both terminate outside the station but their drivers didn't seem very keen on letting us board - the 8 drove off then the 9 wanted to make a quick getaway too and to top things off, the ticket machine thing wouldn't work!

  • Things got even more ominous when we alighted on Bond Street in search of the bus station, access to which turned out to be via a grotty subway followed by a block of shops that looked every inch the mugger's paradise. On finding the bus station I wasn't that impressed either - sure its a clean modern facility, but it seems to have been designed specifically to stop people getting photos of the buses. We did get a few shots walking round the back of the layover area, but overall it was a frustrating location.

  • To Bath then, and a ride on the X39. Andy's bladder was holding up well so far, and he treated us to a D9 driving re-enactment as we debated Mark's 'previous existence' as a driver at Stourbridge Bus Garage. The route mainly follows the A4 and doesn't take that long, despite the best efforts of the local traffic jams.

  • Bath Bus Station was another irritating place, very much in the Bristol mould although I felt it did at least offer a little more scope for taking pictures. The station resembles a narrow glazed box perched close to the river, and seemed especially busy when we visited. I was intrigued by routes to Warminster and Chippenham, and also noticed a few Faresaver buses doing the rounds, a local independent operator perhaps?

  • Lunch was beckoning so we venture into Bath City. Our aim was to track down the Wetherspoon's but we lost our bearings somewhat, although I did get a look at Bath Spa railway station and the Royal Hotel. Woody asks the police for some directions, and then its a merry dance through historic streets swarming with visitors to the Christmas market. The place was a hive of activity, and I rather enjoyed the festive atmosphere.

  • After a few more twists and turns, we locate the King of Wessex and then have the difficult task of finding a spare table. The pub was rammed full, but we dropped lucky by finding a space and getting in a trio of Guinnesses to accompany our gourmet burgers. Actually, the food didn't take as long as we expected, and the chip count was considerably more than Chester had to offer.

  • Our post-lunch plan was to track down the First depot at Twerton, but this was thwarted when the 5 failed to turn up (possibly because of extra demand due to Bath City's F.A. Cup tie with Forest Green). We console ourselves with some extra bus station photos, and I sneak another look at Bath Spa station, before its back on the X39 for the return leg to Bristol. Andy and Mark looked rather cosy when they both nodded off on the back seat!

  • Back in Bristol, we undertake another Wetherspoon's hunt. The pub was once again proving very elusive, although I did enjoy exploring the city streets with the festive lights sparkling as darkness set in. Our search took us through the German Christmas Market and around Cabot Circus, the Marriott Hotel and the Mall shops, whilst our attempts to interrogate cleaners and information desk assistants only added to the confusion...

  • One collision with Burger King later, we finally discovered Corn Street and were able to sample the historic surroundings of the Commercial Rooms. The pub was another example of Wetherspoon's utilising an impressive old building, and I particularly liked the panel of Presidents and a huge portrait of Brunel. The beer wasn't bad either, a decent pint of Ugly Sisters (a Marston's brew with a pantomime theme) that featured in our festive Cheers photo.

  • The day was now drawing to a close, and we just had the simple matter of catching the 8 or 9 from the Hippodrome back to Temple Meads. Unfortunately the rain set in and the buses were nowhere to be seen, with the real time info display seemingly having a nervous breakdown. We worked out that the 1 could get us to the station, but by the time the driver had worked out our emergency ticket and negotiated city centre gridlock, our 6pm train home had scarpered. Luckily we could catch the 6:30 without any problems, so I just had time for a few bonus Temple Meads shots by way of goodbye. The ride home was swift and uneventful, and provided a suitably becalmed conclusion to our 2009 Christmas outing.
Despite the various hiccups, it had proved a fascinating day and I would like to thank Woody and Andy for their excellent company as always. I am very much looking forward to recommencing proceedings with a New Year trip some time in January 2010...

Monday, November 9

Pensnett, Cookley and Swindon

Time now for the final three episodes from Exploration Week, which include a Black Country local along with visits to Worcestershire and Staffordshire...

Friday 6th November: Rog and I meet in Dudley and set off to Holly Hall for a walk around Woodside taking photos of the local park, the Woodside Inn and the old Harts Hill Garage. For reasons best known to himself, Rog then led us on a tour of Brierley Hill industrial estates in the hope of finding the business premises of an old associate of his. Needless to say we couldn't find the place, but did at least get a bacon sandwich by way of compensation. Next is a look around Pensnett, a place I've long wanted to get photos of so I was in my element taking shots of the Fox & Grapes, war memorial, High Oak and the Four Furnaces. Lunchtime sees us in the Kingswinford, where we meet up with John for a quick chat, then its a trio of traditional pubs in the afternoon. The Lamp Tavern in Dudley was a classic Bathams as the rain set in, the Swan in Amblecote had a selection of Halloween themed ales from which we chose Demon Drink, and the Robin Hood on Collis Street was preparing for the big Stourbridge v Walsall FA Cup tie by offering Hackett's Ale in honour of the Stourbridge manager.

Saturday 7th November: The Worcestershire leg of the week, but first its a few piccies of Kingswinford and Stourbridge - it had been a while since I'd done a proper bus photo session at Stourbridge bus station, so it was good to be back. Into the trip proper and we catch the 228 bus down to Kinver to join the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal. Our walk takes us all the way to Wolverley, with welcome pub breaks at Caunsall (The Anchor, a real gem) and Cookley (the Eagle and Spur). I really liked Cookley, a charming little village with plenty of photographic interest including the canal tunnel, a traditional post office and a selection of pubs - sadly the Red Lion had closed down, much to Rog's dismay as he had fond memories of the place. Lunch arrives courtesy of the Lock pub in Wolverley, where we tuck in to gammon and lasagne respectively, but the walk back to Cookley almost finishes Rog off completely. We recover in the Bulls Head, where one of the locals treats us to his array of Cookley memories and anecdotes. With Rog still worn out, I indulge in some solo exploring heading back along the canal for a final few bridge photos as the light begins to fade. We meet back up in Kinver, where The Cross pub provides the venue for our pool tournament decider - I take victory, but only after about twenty attempts at potting the black!

Sunday 8th November: A short and quiet outing to finish off an epic week. We meet in Kingswinford, where the Remembrance Sunday parade is in full swing. The 255 takes us to Swindon, where we attempt another canal walk but it is clear that Rog is still suffering from the previous day's exertions. We get as far as Hinksford Bridge before turning round and heading into the Green Man, where Rog enjoys a pint or two of Old Empire whilst I devour a homemade roast pork sunday lunch - at £4.95 I was very impressed. Dessert involves more local photos of Swindon, focusing on the Old Bush and Greyhound pubs, both of which also looked most inviting. We continue to Wombourne however, where Rog is determined to track down the Mount Pleasant despite his ankle getting increasingly painful. The pub is situated on Ounsdale Road and provides our final drink of the week whilst preparations for a bonfire party continue around us. From Wombourne we then catch our buses home as the final curtain fell on a week of fine exploring and classic pubs - as they say, all good things must come to an end...

Thursday, November 5

A Bonfire Bash

Thursday 5th November, and the fourth episode of 'Exploration Week' sees Rog and myself avoiding any fireworks with a proper Black Country local...
  • Today's meeting point is Kingswinford, with the 256S dropping me off early enough to do a bit of solo photography before finding the Rog. Amongst my discoveries are St Mary's Church, King George Park and the Union pub as I mooch around a corner of Kingswinford that I'd previously somehow managed to ignore.
  • 9:30 sees the arrival of Mr Chance, complete with the usual long leather coat and flowing blond locks. We catch the 205 from Manor Park up to the Pensnett Trading Estate, where Rog then introduces me to his place of work. It was fun to meet Erica and have a chat, an enjoyable start to the day.
  • To avoid the risk of Rog being requisitioned, we take our leave and catch a handily-placed 297 into Merry Hill. The journey is notable for a look at Pensnett High Street, where the High Oak pub is now masquerading as the Roost restaurant, whilst the traffic around Russells Hall Hospital is bordering on horrendous.
  • From Merry Hill its the 283 to Netherton, where we renew our acquaintance with the Old Swan pub, otherwise known as Ma Pardoe's. The pub is a must for anyone who wishes to sample Black County culture at its best; entering the bar is like stepping back in time, and there is plenty to admire including a tiled swan centrepiece on the ceiling. Rog and I decamp to the Smoke Room where we sup our pints of Bumble Hole and give Bruce an airing. All in all, a delightful experience.
  • With Ma Pardoe's under our belts, we decide to add in another classic pub with a visit to the Vine (or Bull and Bladder) at the Delph. After a return ride on the 283, we eagerly make our way to the home of Bathams Brewery and are not disappointed. The beer (Bathams Bitter, naturally) was good, but the food was simply outstanding - faggots, chips and mushy peas for a scarcely credible price of £2.50. There isn't a menu as such, you just pick what you want from the table in the prep room, and the resulting hearty portions mean that practically every other pub's meals look like a rip-off by comparison.
  • A visit to the Delph isn't complete without sampling at least a couple of pubs along the famed Delph Run. Our second choice today was the Brickmakers Arms, situated on Mount Pleasant towards Quarry Bank, where we savoured a pint of Banks's each before sprinting aboard the 99 to Cradley Heath.
  • We alight by the new Tesco store, which quickly becomes a photo target along with some general views of the other shops on Cradley Heath High Street. Next, we battle our way through Tesco's car park to find the Swan Inn (Jasper's) on Providence Street so I can add to my archive of Holden's pub pictures. A combination of the 404A, train and Parry's People Mover then returns us to Stourbridge, where we bring the curtain down on another trip with a final drink in the Longlands on Western Road.
Another day down then, but with some fine exploring and epic pubs to look back on with a lot of affection. More of the same tomorrow will do just nicely...

Wednesday, November 4

Wednesday around Walsall

And so the exploration bandwagon has rolled onto Wednesday, an occasion that Rog and I decided to mark with some wandering across Walsall...
  • A bright and early start sees me safely onto the 333, riding up through Portobello, Willenhall, Lodge Farm and Bentley.
  • I alight at Pleck for a few bonus photos, mainly focusing on the local library and the landmark Brown Lion pub. Rog then joins me fresh from a ride on the 313 and we head down to Walsall Town Centre.
  • Further local exploring follows in the shape of The Butts, situated right on the edge of the town centre. Targets here include the Fitters Arms on Hatherton Street and the Butts Tavern, whilst an imposing schoolhouse on the corner of William Street also catches my eye.
  • By this stage its turning into a fine and sunny morning, so we make the most of the weather with a stroll around Walsall Arboretum. Sadly the Illuminations are no more, but Hatherton Lake still looks most elegant and the trees are as stately as ever.
  • Weaving our way through a nearby estate, we pass the Dilke pub and arrive at Longwood Junction. This is the meeting place of the Rushall and Daw End Canals - we join the latter and savour the more rural setting as Riddian Bridge provides a fine discovery.
  • Our next port of call is the Manor Arms pub, although we have to negotiate a further stroll by Winterley Bridge whilst waiting for the pub to open. First pint of the day is a taste of Old Thumper, and very nice it was too. The pub is quite charming even though we got asked if Bonus had any ID!
  • From Rushall, the 346 whisks us off to Pelsall just as the rain sets in. We brave the flurries of drizzle and catch the 348 to Pelsall Wood terminus, where I was saddened to find that the Free Trade pub remains closed.
  • Another 346 ride conveys us to Bloxwich, where the rain gets heavier as we plod down the High Street. It is here that Rog gets worryingly mistaken for a blonde-headed Jesus, so its with much relief that we find the Lamp Tavern pub. This Holden's house is classed as being in Bloxwich although we were practically in Leamore by the time we got there! We enjoy a relaxed drink whiling away an hour or so with some more seasoned regulars.
  • Back into Bloxwich Town, and that dreaded bladder curse strikes again. The Spotted Cow comes to our rescue, with Rog also taking control of the pub jukebox. His playlist included the usual favourites (Metallica, Bowie, Bon Jovi and Queen) along with more eclectic choices, Max Bygraves and Judas Priest, and the plain frightening - sorry mate, there was no excuse for inflicting Mr Blobby on everyone even if it was a Christmas Number One in 1993 or whatever.
  • Beating a hasty retreat, we hop on the 560 to Wolverhampton and finish off a fine day in the Great Western. Here I introduce Rog to the horseshoe gammon accompanied by homemade chips, a dish that is rapidly becoming my favourite pub meal. A pint of Dragon's Blood (a Holden's special ale brewed with a Halloween theme) completes proceedings, but only until we start all over again tomorrow morning...

Tuesday, November 3

Hockley and Kenrick Park

Day two of the joint SBI/WME exploration festival saw Rog and myself venturing across to the Jewellery Quarter to undertake a Birmingham and Sandwell local outing...
  • After yesterday's exploits, we reconvene at Stourbridge only for the heavens to open. Seeking refuge in a bacon sandwich, we decide to abandon our planned Cookley walk and proceed with a rain-dodging West Midlands local instead.
  • We therefore try out the Parry's People Mover before taking a train across to the Jewellery Quarter. With Roger's bladder already causing trouble, we find the Woodman pub in Hockley where we sample some M&B Mild and have a chat with the landlord about auctions and eBay.
  • The Hockley investigations continue with a look at Hockley Circus, complete with subways, underpasses and a police escort (albeit they were on bicycles).
  • A brief flirtation with the 74 bus brings us to Handsworth, where I take advantage of some belated bright sunshine to get photos of an impressive council building along with the Flighted Horse and Pump Tavern pubs.
  • Time for some lunch, so we catch the Metro from Booth Street to Kenrick Park in order to track down the Vine on Roebuck Street. The pub has a growing reputation for its speciality Indian-style cuisine and was certainly busy when we called in. Our food arrived almost instantly, and I certainly enjoyed my samosas and chicken tikka. A return visit could well be in order whenever we're in the West Bromwich area.
  • We follow lunch with a closer look at Kenrick Park, allowing me the chance for some autumnal views of the park itself complete with high-rise tower backdrop.
  • Back on the Metro, its off to Dartmouth Street where we try to locate our next suitable pub (Rog's bladder being once more in need of some urgent attention). We find our way into the Old Crown on Sandwell Road, where we sample some Dizzy Blonde and resurrect our pool tradition. With two frames played, the score is tied at 1-1, Rog claiming the first game comfortably before I mounted a stunning comeback with a lethal pot on the black, even if I do say so myself!
  • Pride intact, we work our way across to Wolverhampton via a quick call at Bilston. Our Wolverhampton target this time is the Posada pub on Lichfield Street, where we enjoy the old fashioned ambience armed with a swig of Reverend James. Rog then tempts me into a final drink in the Giffard (mainly so that he could get Metallica on the jukebox), and we just have time to debate the merits of Moomins before Rog catches his 256 bus home.
Two days down, plenty of exploring to come - I wonder what Wednesday might bring?

Monday, November 2

Horsing Around

Rog and I are embarking on a week-long series of adventures, during which I aim to bring you brief summaries of our activities each day. For starters, Monday's trip saw us sample the delights of Telford...
  • 891 - meet at Wolverhampton just after 8:30, and get a few National Express West Midlands photos. Then its the 891 to Telford via Tettenhall and Albrighton - I was surprised to find that the route has been altered, and now serves more of Albrighton before heading straight down the A464 to Shifnal rather than calling at Cosford and Tong.
  • 25 - after a brief stop at Telford Bus Station, we change onto the 25 for a ride to Wellington. Rog gets to sample The Rock, whilst the route also covers Overdale, Hadley, Hadley Castle and Leegomery.
  • Wellington - the 25 pitches up at the town's new bus station, another surprise discovery arranged into two rows of red stands. The facility is a definite improvement on the previous interchange, which has now been converted into a car park. Our walk around the town includes glimpses of the railway station, the Charlton Arms, the library and the White Lion. We then catch the 44 back into Telford via the Bucks Head, Ketley and Oakengates.
  • Horsehay - a fascinating little village situated between Dawley and Coalbrookdale. The 99 drops us off at the Foresters Arms, so we head inside for a pint of Cornish Tribute Ale and watch This Morning featuring Rog's favourite, Holly Willoughby. Exploring the area in more depth, we find the Traveller's Joy pub, the post office and village hall before investigating Horsehay Pool and the Telford Steam Railway. A real highlight!
  • Dawley - our planned visit to the Station Inn was aborted as the place doesn't open on Mondays, so we continue into Dawley only to encounter more difficulties. One of my perennial Telford favourites, Dawley today sadly resembled something of a ghost town with the Lord Hill leading the casualty list amongst the local pubs. Eventually we track down the Church Wicketts for a pint of 'Hoppiness' and a spot of lunch, whereby Rog was impressed by the size of my yorkshire pudding wrap.
  • Madeley - a run on the 22 via Aqueduct and Woodside brings us to Madeley, where we sample our second Foresters Arms of the day. This example provided a decent drink before we climb the High Street, noting redevelopment works at the local square. I grab a photo of the 44 and then we recommence battle with the 22, completing the leg back to Telford via Sutton Hill, Brookside, Randlay and Hollinswood.
  • Great Western - we just about catch the 891 back to Wolverhampton, but the journey proves tortuous for Rog as he suffers agony with his bladder. Thankfully he kept himself together, and we were able to meet up with Stephen to celebrate his birthday with a drink in the Great Western. Rog tries to educate Mr B on all matters Formula One, and its a convivial end to the start of the week...

Monday, October 26


Saturday 24th October saw Woody, Andy and myself enjoy an entertaining and eventful day out in Worcestershire, during which we visited Great Malvern, Droitwich Spa and Areley Kings. Here is the tale of the trip...
  • An earlyish start sees me on the 9:12 train from Smethwick Galton Bridge to Kidderminster, with Andy successfully completing a sprint finish to join me on board at Rowley Regis (even though it took him most of the morning to recover from his exertions). Mr Wood completes the party at Stourbridge Junction, and we look forward to the day ahead.
  • We alight at Kidderminster only to find that a bloke completely out of it on drink, drugs or something is making a nuisance of himself. We head off to get some supplies and investigate a vintage National Express coach on the forecourt of the Severn Valley station, then return to the main platforms to find our Worcester train has been mysteriously delayed. It transpired that the guy from earlier had decided to stagger along the track, causing a trespass incident and he was lucky that the train was going slowly and able to pick him up. As Woody rightly says, it wouldn't be a true outing unless something bizarre happens somewhere or other...
  • To Worcester then, and the delay means we have no time to lose. Its straight to the bus station to catch the 44, whisking us off to Great Malvern via Malvern Link and Barnards Green. This was an interesting ride that included a look at Powick and a visit to a retail park where the bus does a tight 360-degree turn. The journey also marked the return of the curse of Andy's bladder, thankfully he just about held out but it wasn't looking good.
  • Great Malvern proved a delight to explore, once Andy's bladder was sorted at least. Climbing up to the top part of the town, I was able to get photos of the post office, tourist information centre and the Unicorn pub - and could that have been Su Pollard I spotted browsing some of the shops? The 44 does a loop of the town centre, so we catch it by the Foley Arms and return to Worcester with Andy showing no further signs of discomfort as yet.
  • Back in Worcester its time for lunch, so we visit the Postal Order Wetherspoon's by Foregate Street Station. The place was packed out, mainly with pre-match rugby fans, but we found a table in the corner by the TV. Sadly, the Wolves match wasn't showing but Woody did enjoy the weather forecast as we ate our chicken tikkas and gourmet burgers. Hunger slayed, its off to the bus station for a photo or two and then our next bus.
  • We're running a little ahead of schedule so Woody recommends we venture off plan for a while and squeeze in a visit to Droitwich. The 244 gets us there in good time, although the almost deserted bus did lead to comments that it "doesn't make a big fat profit"! We couldn't see any sign of the Diamond Bus depot as we headed into the town, so we consoled ourselves in the Westcroft with a pint of Guinness, a couple of Cheers photos and a look at the football - Wolves and Villa were drawing 0-0 at the time.
  • Continuing with the unplanned element, our next move sees us catch the 133 direct to Kidderminster. This was another journey where fellow passengers were conspicuous by their absence, but the route did provide an enjoyable ride through Chaddesley Corbett and Harvington, where two lads hopped on board only to be terrorised by an innocent looking wasp. News from home reveals Wolves have secured a 1-1 draw against Villa at Molineux, a good point against our local rivals.
  • After investigating a parade of Whittles at Kiddy, we change onto the 3 for our Areley Kings connection. It was good to finally have a proper look at the area having only passed through without stopping previously. Views of the Kings Arms, local church and garage ensure the photo quota is sorted, and we pop into the Astley Cross for a quick pint. Waiting for our return bus to Stourport, a First 3 heads towards the estate but never resurfaces, leaving us to conclude that the driver had taken a naughty shortcut. There's nothing for it but to have another drink, this time in the Squirrel, and hope the 294 doesn't let us down. Andy just has time to get intimately acquainted with the 'Worcestershire hub' before the bus arrives...
  • The 294 maintained the theme set by the 244 and 133 in providing another quiet countryside journey. The Red Lion crossroads seemed familiar for some reason, and we enter Worcester via Henwick Park with its intriguing bus terminus and University buildings. Teatime sees us back in the Postal Order, then its onto the 18:49 train home, darkness setting in as we ponder the merits of Hartlebury Station.
So that's another trip done, and the standard was once again excellent. Andy and Woody did me proud with some great banter, and I'm already relishing the prospect of a potential November visit to Bristol and Bath. The fact that November is fast approaching is a sobering thought - the year seems to have gone by in a flash, but whatever the final two months bring, I think its already certain that 2009 will go down as a vintage year of exploring, maybe the best ever...

Monday, October 19

Roundabout the Reservoir

Friday 16th October and a trip also known as the South Birmingham Review Part Two. Following on where Rog and I left off last Saturday, I ventured back across Brum way to add in a solo adventure investigating the soon-to-change bus network...
  • First stop is Northfield Orthopaedic Hospital as I'm determined to get that pesky 49 terminus photo. Thankfully I have more luck this time, with the bus obligingly parking up so I could get a series of shots that were at least vaguely in focus.
  • Next, one of those lengthy local walks I enjoy so much. This one took me from the Hospital to the Roundabout, a curious estate near Longbridge. My photo targets include Bell Holloway, Ley Hill estate redevelopment with the Highlander, and then a couple of follow-ups from Saturday; the site of the Beeches has now been levelled off with the rubble removed, whilst the Dingle is still an eyesore awaiting possible clearance.
  • A dash down Farren Road brings me to the Roundabout, where I'm delighted to get a terminus photo of the 630 route - thanks driver! Central Connect operate the service linking the Roundabout with Worlds End via Northfield and Weoley Castle, a local gapfiller of a route that will be renumbered as the 39 under the Review. I hop on board for an interesting journey that included Josiah Road, Merritts Hill and Long Nuke Road before alighting at Weoley Castle.
  • Always one of my favourite Birmingham locations, Weoley Castle did me proud with a spot of lunch and some tantalising photo opportunities. I make sure to get shots of the site of the Raven, pausing once again to lament the demise of a landmark pub. Bus wise, the 44 poses on its way to Turves Green whilst the 69 rewards my patience by belatedly putting in an appearance for an all-important terminus pic.
  • With that in the bag, it's onto the 21 for a short ride towards Bangham Pit. Here I can track down the Woodcock pub on Hillwood Road before enjoying the views from Genners Lane looking out over Bartley Reservoir. The visit was only brief but was a real treat all the same, especially when I added in shots of Newman College and the return 21 towards Birmingham.
  • My next move sees me catch the 18 so that I could try and solve one of Saturday's little mysteries. After a neat ride through Northfield and Cotteridge, I alight at Brandwood End to see which route was currently serving the Dawberry Fields estate. The answer turned out to be the 76, with the 69 set to take over in a couple of weeks time.
  • It was useful to have a mooch around Brandwood, but there wasn't too much to interest me - a block of shops of Yarningale Road, a possible old pub site and St Bede's Church were about it. I also found the Territorial Army centre on Dawberry Fields Road, and waited here for the next 76 as I made a sharpish exit.
  • Saying that, I was pleased to have a quick look at the 76 before the service changes kick in. The route as it currently stands links Brandwood End with Solihull, of which the Kings Heath to Solihull bit will be retained with the addition of an extension to serve the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Today's ride took me to Yardley Wood Station, running the gauntlet outside Kings Heath Boy's School at closing time in the process - now there's a hair-raising experience!
  • Having reached the safety of Yardley Wood, its time to bring the curtain down on another outing. By way of an encore, I have time for the customary photos of Highfield Road shops and the station ticket office before catching my train home.
So there you have it, back-to-back trips that at least attempted to sample and record the soon to be 'old' South Birmingham Bus Network. I think I did the routes justice, and am looking forward to seeing how the new network takes shape - it'll certainly give me an excuse to return once more to one of my happiest exploration hunting grounds...

Monday, October 12

Reviewing South Birmingham

The latest stage in the reconfiguration of bus services in the West Midlands is set to come into force at the end of the month courtesy of the South Birmingham Network Review. Several routes in the Northfield, Longbridge and Kings Heath areas are set to be revised, including some of my personal favourites from my University days. With this in mind, Rog and I decided to make the most of the existing network whilst we still could - here are some selected highlights from Saturday's outing...
  • The 61: currently linking Birmingham and Gannow, although an extension to Rubery Great Park is on the cards. We catch the bus on Corporation Street for a ride down through Bournbrook, Selly Oak and Northfield, during which Rog does some 'birdspotting' whilst we discuss some important historical quotes. Then its into Allens Cross, where I'm sad to see the Beeches pub has been demolished and it looks like the Dingle near Egghill Road is about to meet the same fate. Frankley next, with views of the Holly Hill Centre, then finally Gannow.
  • Gannow: I hadn't visited Gannow before, so I was intrigued to see what the terminus is like. It's located on Boleyn Road, with buses using Crompton Road to turn round, and is largely residential in terms of surroundings. Rog and I get a few photos and investigate the entrance to Waseley Hills Country Park.
  • The 49: another route due to be altered, whereby the Rubery to Northfield section will be replaced by other services, leaving the main route to cover between Great Park and Solihull. Rog and I caught the route back up to Northfield, spotting Gannow shops and the Lickey Banker pub whilst Rog feels threatened by a young pretender in a long gothic coat. We stay on through Northfield to alight at the terminus outside Orthopaedic Hospital - unfortunately my camera refuses to behave and I'm left without a decent route photo, despite dodging the Bristol Road traffic and trying various angles. Very frustrating!!
  • Northfield: The Bristol Road does at least yield an Oh Dear! contender broken down on the other carriageway, then its off to Jimmy's Cafe for a spot of brunch. The place is apparently recommended by the Sunday Mercury, and I certainly enjoy my bacon and egg sarnie. Dessert comes in the form of several local photos, including the Bell shops, Northfield Market, the Black Horse and the Clock cafe - we even track down the new 29 terminus up a sidestreet to get my bus shots back on track. A debate about Rhod Gilbert precedes a visit to the Great Stone pub, where we make Marston's Pedigree our first pint of the day and Rog makes the acquaintance of a cardboard spider!
  • 614: now this route has a fair bit of significance for me, bringing back fond memories of student tutoring in Bournville. I really enjoyed investigating the route properly, starting in Northfield and covering Mulberry Road, Cotteridge, Mary Vale Road, Stirchley and Selly Park before terminating in Selly Oak. Photos were garnered at both ends of the route, capturing the Black Diamond livery in all its glory and making for a job very well done.
  • Stirchley: Whilst passing through on the 614, I'd caught sight of the British Oak and we decided to have a closer look. The pub has an impressive old-fashioned frontage making it a Pershore Road landmark, yet inside it feels quite modern with hints of interior design. A selection of real ales are available, with the Piddle Artist winning out (less of the bladder jokes thankyou Mr Chance). We had to wait for the barrel to be changed, and the barmaid must've taken a dislike to Rog because he ended up with the stale pint. We head outside to the beer garden to admire the bowling green and be entertained by a cute football-playing puppy called Dexter - his dribbling skills were certainly impressive, displaying some good nose-to-ball coordination.
  • Weoley Castle: From the British Oak, we decamp to Bournville Station and thence to Selly Oak, where we catch the 69 to Weoley Castle. I was shocked to see that the Raven had joined the Beeches in being consigned to pub history, leaving just a telltale pile of rubble. I console myself with a photo of the Weoley Castle inn on Somerford Road corner and a spot of lunch from Gregg's.
  • The 69: a long time favourite from the early Rog trips, the 69 will be subjected to significant changes in the Review. A route that once linked Weoley Castle and Heartlands Hospital will soon serve between Brandwood End and Wythall only, so a proper send-off was a must. We therefore hopped back on board for a ride to Kings Heath, revisiting the fascinating sections around Selly Oak, Selly Park and up past the Highbury.
  • Kings Heath: The trip had gone really well until this point, but things nearly hit the buffers in Kings Heath. Firstly, All Saints Road terminus appeared to have been decommissioned already, putting paid to my hopes of 27 or 76 photos. Next, we hiked it down the busy High Street to find the Station pub was shut despite various boards outside proclaiming the place to be open, very curious indeed. To top it all, we rushed our contingency pint in the Hare and Hounds hoping to catch a 650 route that never turned up!
  • The 35: Every cloud has a silver lining, and the 35 was to prove our salvation. Not only did the route prove very handy for reaching our next pub, it also provided tantalising glimpses of Moseley Village, Calthorpe Park and the Horton Square shopping precinct in Highgate.
  • Lamp Tavern: All the Kings Heath frustration melted away thanks to an absolute classic pub experience. Situated on Barford Street, the Lamp Tavern is a backstreet Highgate local that exceeded all expectations. Settling down with our respective pints of Stanway and Silver Fox, we enjoy watching the Grand Prix snooker semi-final followed by the utter madness of 'Hole in the Wall'. Bruce also received a warm welcome, although it does help if a pub already has some teddies behind the bar - it was practically a family reunion!
  • Digbeth: I'd have quite happily stayed in the Lamp Tavern for the rest of the evening, but we venture onwards to conclude the outing in style with a look at Digbeth. The Anchor was already a confirmed favourite of ours, but you can also add the Old Crown to the list - its reputedly one of the oldest pubs in Brum (if not the oldest), and the delightful timber-beamed exterior was backed up by a decent closing drink.
It's almost becoming a cliche now, but this was yet another thoroughly enjoyable, eventful day out. Sure, the pubs were well represented as usual, and there was some fine local exploring to be had, particularly in Northfield. For me though, the main event was bidding farewell to the old bus network, and our investigations of the 61, 49, 614, 69 and 35 meant that I gathered some great new memories with which to say goodbye.

Sunday, September 27

A Coventry Compendium

Saturday 26th September: The explorations continue to come thick and fast as another autumn special sees our intrepid adventurers (WME, SBI, Bruce and Bonus) make a welcome return to Coventry. Amongst our destinations were Hawkesbury Junction, Chapelfields and Allesley Village - here's the tale of the trip...
  • An earlyish start for us both sees me on the local Wolverhampton to New Street train which Rog joins (minus coat) at Galton Bridge. The Euston service provides our Coventry connection, giving us chance to debate the latest F1 scandal (naughty Renault) whilst confirming the plan for the day.

  • Coventry: The 27 is waiting for us outside the station, and provides a quick photo followed by a ride to Pool Meadow. Then its a case of introducing Bruce to Lady Godiva's Statue, with Roger thankfully resisting the urge to go naked (although the buses on Trinity Street avoided us just in case). Coventry Cathedral provides another photo call, the bombed ruins are a poignantly atmospheric reminder of the horrors of war.

  • The 4: Back at Pool Meadow, we catch the 4 up to Arena Tesco. The route in full links the Tesco with University Hospital via Binley, and today's section provided a look at Eagle Street, Lockhurst Lane, Holbrooks and Hen Lane. We also got a good view of the impressive Ricoh Arena, home to Coventry City FC, before arriving at the Tesco Bus Interchange.

  • Arena Tesco: The interchange is a great place for bus photos, particularly with a clutch of de Courcey routes (701, 703, 704, 778) calling by. Rog and I busy ourselves with various shots and then venture into the supermarket complex, finding a little branch library and trying to avoid any carrier bags that might remind us of the dreaded West Bromwich Albion.

  • Coventry Canal: I was keen to continue my recent theme of towpath trails, so we joined the canal for a walk to Hawkesbury Junction. It proved to be a pleasant stroll, offering the odd bridge photo whilst Rog seemed intent on playing the Rock's greatest hits. Only marginally less bizarre was the sight of a curious stone sofa sculpture, whilst the Longford Engine pub was a useful discovery by Bridge 10.

  • Hawkesbury Junction: A cracking location that marks the meeting point of the Coventry and Oxford Canals. There's an impressive turnover footbridge and various buildings associated with Sutton Stop, one of which appeared to have some kind of police connection. To add to the charm, the junction is overlooked by the Greyhound, a classic canalside pub complete with brasses, cosy corners and a decent pint of Tribute ale.

  • Alderman's Green: Back to the walk then as we investigate the early reaches of the Oxford Canal down to Alderman's Green. We leave the towpath at Bridge 4 and can't resist taking a closer look at the Elephant and Castle pub. One swift Bombardier later, its time for some local photos courtesy of the nearby post office and the Miner's Arms, whilst the Nippy Chippy satisfies our food cravings with a couple of tasty scollops.

  • 30A: Having just about made sense of the Coventry bus map, we reckoned the 30A was the best option to get us back into City. The route combines with the 30C to provide a circular service around Lenton's Lane, although we avoided the terminal loop by catching the bus on Jackers Road. From here we pass through Victoria Farm and Longford Park before slogging it down the Foleshill Road with traffic building in readiness for the afternoon's football match.

  • Earlsdon: After a brief flirtation with Coventry City Centre, we hope to change onto the 1 for our connection to Chapelfields. A bladder break puts paid to that idea, so we hop on the Park and Ride service down to War Memorial Park. From here we can walk into Earlsdon, and I can get some bonus local photos of the local library and the Royal Oak pub.

  • Chapelfields: Continuing past Hearsall Common, we arrive in Chapelfields in search of the Craven Run, a famed sequence of pubs reminiscent of the Delph area near Brierley Hill. Craven Street itself offered four or five intriguing locals, with others such as the Nursery Tavern also close at hand. Rog and I didn't attempt the full pubcrawl, and instead settled on a fine couple of backstreet examples. First came the Chestnut Tree, where the barmaid kindly put the F1 qualifying on the big screen as we savoured some Q scratchings washed down with Everard's Tiger. Unfortunately, the curse of the Brawn hat struck again and Jenson could only qualify in 12th place. Rog wasn't happy, so we had no choice but to pop into the Hearsall Inn. This pub had a vaguely Irish theme, an appropriate setting then to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Guinness with a consolatary pint.

  • Allesley: The Craven Run certainly lived up to my expectations and I have a feeling we will be back at some point to test out the pubs we missed. Today though its a case of pressing onwards to Allesley, with Rog game for a bit more walking. This particular stroll takes us along Allesley Old Road, passing the Maudslay, then up Grayswood Avenue to find the route 1 terminus outside a little block of shops. Birmingham Road leads up into Allesley Village itself, where there are lots of nice cottages that do much to maintain the old-fashioned feel of the place. We soon find the Rainbow Inn, a historic village pub that seems very popular with the locals. We each partake of a pint of Piddlebrook whilst consulting the menu; I decide on some fish and chips whilst Rog goes for the scampi. It was a decent meal, good beer and a lovely traditional setting, definitely well worth the visit.

  • Meriden: Our trip was now drawing to a close, and it was time to bid Coventry goodbye. Catching the 900 just up from the Rainbow, we head over to Meriden and decide we just about have time for one extra stop. The village is supposedly the geographical centre of England, but as darkness is setting in, we limit our explorations to the Bull's Head pub. Here we quaff a pint of Timothy Taylor in rather posh, exclusive surroundings, and Rog is dismayed that his pheromone wipes don't seem to be working!
  • We finish off with a final ride on the 900, alighting at Birmingham International for our train home. Yet again it had been another fun (and beer) filled day offering an array of buses, canals and pubs to enjoy. I think we did Coventry justice, and maybe we won't leave it quite as long before our next visit.

Saturday, September 19


Friday 18th September: Last week's Calf Heath and Coven outing had proved so enjoyable that I was immediately keen to try another canal-based adventure. My research pointed me towards the Shropshire Union Canal, with a walk from Autherley Junction to Brewood proving very enticing...

I start off as last week, catching the 698 down to Wobaston. This time the bus is an Optare Solo, and the driver kindly lets me get a couple of photos before I head off to Marsh Lane. Whilst my walk proper would begin at Autherley Junction, I wanted to have a quick look at Pendeford, mainly because I wanted a photo or two of Priory Green School. The school is situated just off the Square, next to the library, and is currently subject to a consultation process that could see the place close in August 2010. Apparently a number of schools in the local area are carrying excessive surplus places, with the result that one school needs to be sacrificed in order to keep the other viable. A tough decision indeed.

To Autherley Junction then, and I greet the Shropshire Union Canal with a flurry of photos of the Junction Bridge and Autherley Lock. I've visited the junction countless times down the years but something about the place keeps drawing me back. Actually, much of the route I will be walking this morning is familiar territory, including the next section up past Dovecotes to Turnover Bridge and into Staffordshire. A sense of peace and relaxation is already evident as I head into more rural surroundings.

Beyond Bridge 4 I enter into a zone of new exploration, as I'd never covered the segment up past The Hattons until now. I was hoping for some nice bridges to photograph and I wasn't to be disappointed - both bridges 5 and 6 were delightful traditional stone examples, with the only modern intrusion coming in the form of the M54 motorway. Hunting Bridge (No. 7) marks my return to previous ground, and also provides the setting for a conversation with an angler who was telling me about building work, soffits and scaffolding. You can meet some great characters when out exploring the canals, and this was certainly a nice moment.

The chap also commented on the scenic photogenic quality of the approach to Brewood, and this was something I relished revisiting. I continued from Bridge 7 to Bridge 14, a stretch that includes the impressively grand Avenue Bridge near Chillington Hall. Every single one of the bridges had its own unique charm and character, some lit brightly by the morning sunshine whilst others nestle snugly in sleepy shade. At one point a majestic heron swooped by, providing a stunning reminder of the canal's important role as a wildlife habitat.

After nearly two hours of gentle walking, the spire of Brewood Church loomed on the horizon. I leave the canal at Bridge 14 and launch into local photos, starting with the Bridge Inn pub and the Catholic Church on Kiddemore Green Road. Heading into the village, I spot St Dominics School before branching off down Newport Street to find the local library. Brewood has been a favourite of mine for a while, often serving Dad and I very well during our weekend strolls, so it was good to be back. I add in views of the police station and St Mary & St Chad's before deciding I need a pint.

All that walking had certainly given me a thirst, so I called in at The Admiral Rodney for a pint of Timothy Taylor. The pub is located on Dean Street, just down from the Church, and did the job just nicely. I find a quiet corner to have a read of the newspaper and rest my legs, which weren't actually as weary as I'd anticipated. Thirst quenched, I head up to the Market Place for views of the village centre, complete with old fashioned wooden fingerpost overlooked by Speedwell Castle, The Swan Hotel and the Lion - the latter sadly having closed down.

Feeling refreshed, its time for some lunch. I pop in the Village Bakery on Stafford Street to sample their vegetable slices, and ended up participating in a bizarre conversation about lizards with the girl at the counter and the local butcher. Now I'm hardly an expert on the dietary habits of lizards, so I couldn't offer much in the way of advice, but it made for the second memorable conversation of the day. With lunch heated through, I head off to find somewhere to eat it and time things just right to get a shot of the Route 3 Green Bus calling at the bus stop outside the Post Office.

Having got my photo and received a thumbs up from the driver, I settle down to savour my slice before doing another photographic loop of the village. The library came in for some more attention, as did the school and a curious building called The Old Bank. I had a bit of time to kill before the next Green Bus was due, so I popped into the Swan for a slow pint. After some deliberation, I settled on some Abbot Ale and it proved a decent accompaniment as I once again did battle with the Metro sudoku - unfortunately, the puzzle got the better of me this week. Come 2pm its time to catch my bus, with the 3 echoing the 698 earlier in providing a repeat of last week. The bus arrives bang on time with the same driver and vehicle I'd photographed earlier; I'm pleased to note the driver still had a friendly smile. I take my seat for a cracking, breezy Green Bus ride back through Coven that proves a fine way to end proceedings, thus bringing to a close another canal classic.

Friday, September 11

Calf Heath and Coven

I was thinking just the other day that it had been ages since I'd done a proper solo adventure. Never one to turn down an exploration challenge, I put my thinking cap on and came up with a September Stunner during which I investigated the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal north of Wolverhampton...

The weather was absolutely gorgeous, barely a cloud in the sky, and just perfect for pounding the towpaths. First stop is my old friend Wobaston where I add to my collection of 698 terminus shots and sneak a couple of views of the Harrowby pub. Its then off to Marsh Lane Bridge to begin the walk proper - I'm aiming to get to Calf Heath although I'm not sure how far it is or how long it might take to get there.

The first stretch of canal is familiar territory, heading down past Forster's Bridge to the M54 and on through Coven Heath. Cross Green Bridge looks photogenic in the dappled shade, whilst the Fox and Anchor pub also looks inviting. The familiarity ends with Slade Heath Bridge - it was at this point that Dad and I turned round during a previous walk, so I get some shots of the pretty canalside cottages and prepare to step into the unknown.

I always find new canal exploration fascinating, but what followed was especially enjoyable. I think the fine weather, the sense of solitude and the rural surroundings all contributed to a wonderfully relaxing, peaceful walk. The discoveries weren't bad either, with the towpath winding its way round to reveal Laches Bridge, Moat House Bridge and Deepmore Bridge in turn, all of which were traditionally built and most charming.

One bend on from Deepmore Bridge and I found myself at Calf Heath trying to get to grips with Hatherton Junction. The location had long intrigued me as the place where the former Hatherton Canal branched off towards Cannock. Sadly the canal closed (partly due to mining subsidence) although the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Trust hope to restore it. I actually found the junction to be most frustrating - the whitewashed turnover bridge was quite nice, but the towpath onto the short remaining stub of the Hatherton Canal was gated off with no public access. This was especially annoying as there seemed to be a pretty little bridge and some locks just waiting to be investigated.

At this point I ventured away from the canal to explore Calf Heath in more detail, partly with the aim of getting some village photos but also in the hope I might find alternative access to the waterway remains. A loop of the village thus ensued, with the highlight involving me battling my way up Straight Mile (no pavement!!) to get pics of the Dog and Partridge pub. The old canal was still being elusive - I did find the top of the pretty bridge, but not to any avail, and I couldn't see much trace of the route elsewhere. Saying that, I could easily have missed something and I do have the option of tracking down the canal from the Cannock end instead.

Back at Hatherton Junction, I rejoin the Staffordshire and Worcestershire and head for Gailey. This enables me to take a closer look at Hatherton Marina with its plethora of narrowboats before continuing on to Long Moll's Bridge and Calf Heath Bridge - the latter seems to be some distance from the actual village and is closer to the Four Ashes industrial estate. After a handful of bridge photos, I bid farewell to the canal and make my way down to the Four Ashes pub on the A449 where I enjoy a spot of lunch washed down with a cracking pint of Banks's. The pub was nice and homely so I was glad I dropped by.

I'd already covered some miles but I wasn't finished yet, as the next stage of my walk took me down past the Harrows and into Coven. I've passed through the village a few times on the way to Brewood, but this was my first proper look around. A narrow lane leads up past St Paul's School and into the village centre with its little parade of shops including a bakery and the post office. The Rainbow Inn catches my eye so I pop in for a pint of Marston's Pedigree, find myself a spot in the beer garden and attempt to tackle the Metro sudoku - a perfect way to pass half an hour or so. The treats continue as I indulge in an ice cream whilst investigating St Paul's Church, then I find my way back to the parade to wait for the next bus to Wolverhampton.

A route 3 Green Bus is soon the scene and cruises up through Coven Heath and Fordhouses, complete with Heart FM on the radio. I hop off at Oxley and have time for one final photo selection before heading home. Oxley Library closed in March but the building is still in situ and I couldn't resist getting a few shots for old time's sake. I still think its a shame the library had to close, and I can well imagine the building sitting here vacant for quite some time yet. I just hope the place doesn't become a vandalised eyesore. A sombre note on which to end a classic solo outing.

Monday, September 7

Paws at Pattingham

Following swiftly on from our Chuckery adventure the week before, Rog and I decided to step once more into the breach with a further outing that saw Bruce and Bonus tagging along for a tour of South Staffordshire and the Black Country...
  • Our meeting point is Wolverhampton, where we tuck in to a bacon sandwich courtesy of the Express Cafe near the bus station. After that fine start, its off for a look at the former Cleveland Road Bus Depot followed by a visit to Wolverhampton Library where Bruce finally got to meet his Uncle Stephen. Bonus got a little overexcited when showing Stephen his wrestling prowess, and I was just grateful that Bookstart Bear didn't join the party...

  • The South Staffordshire part of the outing involved a visit to Pattingham. We therefore caught the Midland Rider 517 route, and enjoyed a nice ride through Compton, Tettenhall Wood and Perton with the bus reminding me of primary school visits to the swimming baths. The driver even let us get a photo of the bus on layover outside Pattingham Shops.

  • I always enjoy visiting Pattingham, the pace of life seems slower and I like the village atmosphere. Our visit gave us the chance to try out the village pubs, starting with the Pigot Arms. This had a corporate feel as part of the Ember Inns chain, nice enough with a pint of Old Hooky. I did prefer the Crown round the corner though, a more traditional local where we chatted with the landlord and got a Cheers photo or two. The pub was really friendly, had a nice beer garden and came with the added bonus of a pint of Olde Swan - I've never seen this beer outside of Netherton before!

  • With Rog suitably impressed, we caught the 517 back to Wolverhampton so I could introduce him to another cracking pub. The Combermere Arms at Chapel Ash has long intrigued me and didn't disappoint - we try a pint of Liquid Gold each whilst admiring Gav's World of Tat and discovering that there is indeed a tree growing in the Gents outside toilet! Bruce was also happy as he found himself behind the bar before posing with a Wolves shirt and a picture of Mick McCarthy.

  • After a spot of lunch, we head through the backstreets of Graiseley to track down the 526 route by Penn Road Waitrose. For some unknown reason, Rog has temporarily turned Welsh and I feel obliged to join in, even though my accent needs a lot of work. The ride takes us through Goldthorn Park and Parkfields before alighting near Bilston.

  • Next up is an extended walk up through Ladymoor and into Coseley. Ladymoor is an area I'd only visited very briefly up until this point, and I was pleased to get photos of the local pool, a garage workshop and the Clog pub. We then join the canal for a look at Deepfields Junction and a stroll through Coseley Tunnel - I'm not sure whether Rog enjoyed the experience, although it was the steps on the other side of the tunnel that really did for him!

  • By way of compensation, we pop into the New Inn at Coseley for a quick recovery pint. The pub is hidden up a backstreet just off the Birmingham New Road, and allowed us to tick off another entry in the list of Holden's establishments we've frequented.

  • The evening sees us finish at one of our old favourites, the Beacon Hotel near Sedgley. I've said it before, but the pub is a true classic and an absolute pleasure to visit. Having settled quietly in the corner with our pint, things took an unexpected turn when the landlady came over and asked whether we had any teddy bears with us. I can only assume she'd recognised Roger from his previous visits (well, he is quite distinctive after all), and thus it was that Bruce made his first ever request appearance. We had been quite happy to leave him in the bag for a while, but could hardly say no when she'd asked so nicely. All of this only confirmed the Beacon's status as a great pub, and a teddy friendly one at that!

It was a memorable end to another fine day of exploring, with Bruce and Bonus making further friends in the process. From that breakfast sandwich through to our final pint it was a day to remember. Bruce already wants to revisit the Beacon yet again, and I have a feeling Pattingham might become a regular haunt too. All in all it proved an excellent way to kick off our autumn adventures!

Tuesday, September 1

Chuckery and Other Stories

Saturday 29th August saw me return to the West Midlands beat as I joined Rog and the Bears for a tour of Walsall and Sutton Coldfield. In keeping with recent high standards, it was another day packed full of fun and adventure - here's the tale of the trip...
  • I begin with a ride on the 333 to Walsall, a quiet journey that covered Portobello, Willenhall, Lodge Farm, Darlaston and Pleck. I was particularly interested to note the ongoing redevelopment in Bentley, where construction of a housing complex and the new library is set to transform the area.

  • I meet Rog at Bradford Place and we immediately launch into a local walk. Our stroll takes us around the market and into The Chuckery, where I can investigate the site of the old Crabtrees (not Cadbury's!!) factory and take photos of the Spring Cottage and Duke of York pubs. I would have added the Walsall Arms too, but lost my bearings a little with Rog worrying I might be leading him on a wild goose chase!

  • Rog's feet then got some respite as we caught the 377 across to Boldmere. Here we track down the Bishop Vesey pub, where I sample a pint of Red Dwarf and Bonus shows off his miniature wrestling belt - he's one teddy that's not to be messed with!

  • A short walk then takes us to Chester Road Station, passing Boldmere Library, St Michael's Church and the Boldmere Oak pub. It was my first visit to the station and I made sure to get photos of the signs on the roadbridge along with a couple of platform views.

  • The Cross City line takes us north to Blake Street, where we call in at the Blake Barn for a spot of lunch and a pint of Hobgoblin. Rog tackles his customary gammon steak whilst I go slightly more exotic by trying the moussaka - a decent meal, although we did have a bit of a dash afterwards to catch the 902 at Hill Hook terminus.

  • From Hill Hook its down to Sutton Coldfield, where we watch the F1 qualifying and are stunned when Giancarlo Fisichella secures pole position in his Force India. To add to the sense of "how did that happen?", Jenson Button only qualifies 14th with Lewis Hamilton 12th - needless to say, Rog is not a happy bunny.

  • To cheer Rog up, we catch the 68c across to Minworth Village. Here we enjoy a short stroll along the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal followed by a visit to the Boat pub - it was nice to sit outside in the sunshine supping a pint of Highgate Dark Mild.

  • I quite liked the look of Minworth, especially as we went on to discover the Village Green, local school and the Hare and Hounds pub for some handy local photos. These are soon followed by shots of Walmley, where I investigate the shops, library and war memorial before we pop into the Fox to check what's happening in the afternoon's football - Wolves are drawing 1-1 with Hull at Molineux.

  • From Walmley we weave our way back to Walsall, pausing for the odd stop at Sutton Coldfield and New Oscott. The latter included a call at the Beggar's Bush as Roger's bladder was in dire straits at the time!

  • The trip turns full circle as we return to Walsall and call back at the Chuckery. Having failed to locate the Walsall Arms earlier, we make sure to find it on the evening and are rewarded with a relaxed pint in traditional homely surroundings. I really liked the pub, and hope the apparent lack of customers doesn't result in it disappearing before too long.

  • A Rog trip isn't complete unless we finish off at a biker pub, a tradition that has featured the Giffard at Wolverhampton along with our old favourite, the Rock Station at Stourbridge. To this we can now add the Rising Sun, a Highgate local situated on Ablewell Street where Rog gets Metallica up on the jukebox and we attempt a rather chaotic game of pool. A great end to another fine trip!

Sunday, August 16

Warwickshire with Woody

My August explorations have thus far involved some far-flung affairs taking in the likes of Chester, Rhyl, Nottingham and Worcester, and the theme continued yesterday as I joined Mr Wood for a throughly enjoyable tour of Warwickshire.
  • Start at Wolverhampton Station, catching the 9.45 Euston train. Woody joins me at New Street and we alight at Coventry, with the internal train doors trying their best to slice Woody in half!
  • From Coventry Station we sample the 585 de Courcey route over to Pool Meadow, with Mark having a further mishap by almost falling over as the bus pulls into its stand. He recovers by taking photos of a route 13 Gemini, and we add further shots on Trinity Street (20, 21 Bendibus and the Matrx route) and sneak a quick look at the Cathedral.
  • Now it's over to the 86, where the driver has trouble tracking down the setting for our DayRider Gold tickets. The route takes us to Binley Woods via Gosford Park and Binley Morrisons - we alight on Heather Road and are pleased that the driver has now located the button for our ticket. Fair play to him, he kept perservering until he'd found it!
  • Heather Road was one of the filming locations for the BBC comedy series Keeping Up Appearances. We find the bungalow that served as the Bucket residence (sorry, Bouquet residence) and note the house next door where Elizabeth and Emmett lived - both were nice discoveries, although I didn't enjoy getting stung by some mysterious creature as we headed back to the bus stop!
  • The 86 again, this time the full route into Rugby via pretty Wolston village. The route seemed quite different from how I'd remembered it, so perhaps its changed a bit since early 2007. It certainly enters Rugby in a new direction and terminated on the opposite side of Clifton Road.
  • Lunch time, and its off to the Rupert Brooke Wetherspoon's for a chicken tikka washed down with a pint of Carling for Woody and a pint of Wychert real ale for me, all good stuff. Our Rugby explorations then take us down Railway Terrace for a look at the Stagecoach bus depot followed by a wander around Rugby Railway Station. I thought the station was quite impressive actually, a nice modern frontage, clean interior and a hint of traditional heritage provided by the older platform buildings.
  • Next up is the bladder bus (also known as the 63) for the ride down to Leamington Spa. Without Rog or Andy, the bladders were very well behaved and we enjoyed an angst-free tour of Dunchurch and Southam before alighting on Upper Parade.
  • Leamington was its usual elegant self, with the charming streetscapes providing a great backdrop to our bus photos. We also called in at the Tavistock Inn for a quick drink and an update on the Chelsea v Hull game.
  • The X17 soon whisks us off to Warwick via Warwick Hospital and Cape Road. The old Market Street bus stops have been replaced by a new bus interchange which looks very smart and proves to be another useful photo location. We have a stroll up to the market square and call into the local museum. Whilst exploring the local and natural history exhibits, Woody finds a proper bear to pose with - I always wondered what happened to Bungle when Rainbow finished!
  • It's time for another pint, so we seek out the Tilted Wig in the marketplace. Mark sticks to the Carling, whilst I can't resist trying out a pint of Tilted Pig, an ale brewed with a nod to the pub's name by the local Slaughterhouse Brewery. Like the Wychert earlier, it was a very nice pint, although rather soured by the news Wolves were losing 1-0 to West Ham at Molineux.
  • Back to the bus station we wait for the 18 to Stratford, with temporary traffic lights causing a fair bit of congestion. The 18 arrives nearly 15 minutes late but does offer a nice double decker ride through countryside and villages such as Wellesbourne.
  • Stratford was our final call for the day, a fact we marked with a visit to the Golden Bee Wetherspoon's to partake of a Beer and Burger meal. We also found more bears courtesy of the local teddy musuem - Bruce will be jealous! A gentle stroll takes us up to the railway station for the ride back to Birmingham, whereby we kept a weather eye on the state of some of the request stop stations and Woody was suitably horrified by the prospect of Bordesley.
  • Back at Snow Hill, we catch the local Stourbridge service and I take my leave at Galton Bridge as another excellent day out draws to a close. Its been an eventful month, and today's outing certainly maintained the recent high standards with Woody's plan once again providing a great foundation for getting out and about when further afield. We did Warwickshire justice, and I look forward to seeing where we pitch up next.

Thursday, August 13


Wednesday 12th August saw Stephen, Nick and I venture into Robin Hood territory with a visit to Nottingham. We were there primarily to see Warwickshire play Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, although the outing also offered up some fascinating East Midlands exploration...
  • Meeting at Wolverhampton Station, the omens don't look great as its bucketing down with rain already. Nick maintains an air of cheery optimism as our train connections take us first to Birmingham and then on to Derby, although the precipitation seems to be following us along.
  • At Derby we change onto the local Nottingham service coming through from Matlock. It was interesting to note the ongoing development of Derby Station, the place is really starting to look quite smart as the blue hoardings are gradually disappearing to reveal upgraded platforms.
  • We arrive at Nottingham just before 11am, and I'm immediately impressed by the traditional feel of the station. I get a few platform views (including some ornate staircases) before we follow the central footbridge and exit via the car park.
  • We quickly make a beeline for Trent Bridge to see what prospects there might be for play. As its fairly damp, we're not too hopeful and its certainly no surprise that there's a delayed start. With a bit of free time on our hands, we do a perimeter tour of the ground before investigating the City Ground, home to Nottingham Forest FC.
  • Next, we decide to investigate Nottingham City Centre, strolling up London Road before navigating our way through an indoor shopping precinct that was rather reminiscent of Merry Hell. Back outdoors, the city streets were busy with shoppers, and we spotted a tram whilst trying to track down the castle and a pub Nick had told us about.
  • The pub in question is Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, reputedly the oldest pub in the country with connections to the Crusades undertaken by Richard the Lionheart. A fascinating discovery, the building has a real quirkiness nestled into the rock beneath the castle. Nick and I eagerly sampled a pint of Olde Trip each - both the pub and the ale proved a real highlight of the day.
  • The weather had taken a turn for the better, and whilst in the pub we received the excellent news that play was due to commence at 1.30pm. We had about half an hour to make our way back to the ground, just enough time to explore a stretch of the Nottingham and Beeston Canal. Like so many cities nowadays, the waterfront here had been the focus for some high quality urban regeneration and made for a pleasant stroll.
  • Back at Trent Bridge, the action was indeed underway and we find a lofty vantage point in the Radcliffe Road Stand from which to watch events unfold. Unfortunately, we had timed our arrival to coincide with a Warwickshire batting collapse - 35 for no wicket rapidly turning into 66 for 6 with Stephen regularly holding his head in his hands.
  • When Chris Woakes was inexplicably bowled for 22, Warwickshire were 94 for 7 and we feared the worst. Thankfully, Rikki Clarke led a useful fightback assisted by Tahir and Sreesanth, although Stephen was soon wincing again when Clarke criminally ran himself out on 67. The follow-on was now looking a remote possibility, although there was some entertainment to be had when Sreesanth hit a couple of fine sixes, one of which made its brutal way into the pavillion.
  • Just after 6pm, cloud set in and the light was deemed too poor to play (although we felt the decision to suspend play was somewhat debateable). Whilst this was a little disappointing, we'd actually seen more cricket than had earlier looked likely given the morning rain. We thus trooped back off to the station, failing by seconds to catch the 18.37 Brum connection so we waited instead for the 19.08 to Cardiff Central. The extra half an hour provided me with some bonus photos of the station frontage (very reminiscent of Leicester) and of the Express Transit tram awaiting departure for Phoenix Park.
  • The ride back home was a reflective one, and I think we were all in agreement that it had been another excellent day of cricket-based adventure. I would certainly visit Nottingham again, and was very impressed with Trent Bridge as a sporting arena. Hopefully Warwickshire can secure top flight Championship status, thereby allowing us to plan a return visit some time next year...