Sunday, January 31

2 in 2

After a relatively sedate start to the year on the exploration front, it was time to grab the bus pass and camera again as I embarked on two trips in two days...

Friday 29th January: Destination Birmingham, with a side order of Shirley. I start in the City Centre, investigating the Children's Hospital and Law Courts, whilst Aston University's campus at Gosta Green offered a few tempting shots of the Sacks of Potatoes pub. The main purpose of the outing though was to say goodbye to a couple of bus routes facing the chop, starting with the 12 and a ride down to Shirley Station via Stoney Lane - the new 3/3A combination takes over from Monday. At Shirley, I was surprised to find that the station forecourt had undergone a mini-makeover and that my favourite green bus shelter had disappeared!

Also on my bus hitlist was the 32, so I weave my way up Bills Lane hoping for a photo at the church terminus. The route traditionally avoids the gaze of my camera lens, but today it just about behaved itself, thank goodness! Further bonuses arrive courtesy of the Shirley Institute and the Plume of Feathers, then I tick off the Saracens Head and the Red Lion for good measure, the latter being a curious 1960s-type block on the end of a row of shops.

Next it's Hall Green, brazenly pausing for pictures of the landmark Robin Hood pub, now part of the Toby Carvery chain. Pitmaston Road leads me to Gospel Oak, where I am greeted by the sad sight of the Oak pub surrounded by hoardings and with most of its windows smashed in - another one about to bite the dust? The 32 arrives on the scene to whisk me off to Yardley via Gospel Lane, Acocks Green and the Lyndon - an extended 31 and a new 42 lie in wait as the replacements in this case.

Alighting on the Coventry Road, Yardley seemed particularly grim in the biting wind and hail. I bravely negotiated the subways and flyover footbridge to attempt a photo of the return 32 on layover outside the flattened remains of the Swan Centre precinct. South Yardley Library is handy for a browse and a warm, and then I decide to walk it up to Sheldon for a look at the branch library there, not forgetting the Stirrup Cup on Horrell Road.

My final piece of today's bus jigsaw was the 41, which will also be partially replaced by the 42. The route as it stands is a convoluted affair linking the College Arms and the Baldwin via a big loop of Acocks Green, Yardley and Olton. My destination is the Baldwin, where I grab a couple of layover pics, some lunch and a pub photo too. I finish the outing with a quick flurry of activity, catching the 5 to Sarehole Road then having a mooch around Swanshurst Park and Sarehole Mill. The 11A allows me to sneak a view of Acocks Green Garage and I wrap things up at Spring Road Station, surveying the tumbledown corrugated shack then legging it for the oncoming train.

Saturday 30th January: as if all that wasn't enough excitement, I'm back on the beat the day after as I join Dad for the second of our Black Country pub tours. Our first port of call is Halesowen, taking lunch in the William Shenstone Wetherspoon's before sampling the shabby delights of the Waggon and Horses. This is a true old-fashioned drinker's pub, where the beer is king and the surroundings are authentic to the extent that it looks like the place hasn't been decorated for decades. There are a good dozen or so real ales available, with Dad plumping for Batham's bitter and me on the Shropshire Gold. We find a comfy wooden bench where we can reflect on a distinctive, pleasurable drinking experience.

Next is a bit of a walk, up through Hawne to Windmill Hill where I pounce for a photo of the Round of Beef. We catch the 9 back into Stourbridge, and I then take Dad on a tour of Enville Street and Wollaston. There are a wide selection of pubs to choose from, including Bathams' the Royal Exchange and the Unicorn, whilst the Somerset House caught my eye as a corner Banks's. Dad doesn't feel ready for another pint just yet though, so we continue on into Amblecote where we make the Robin Hood our final stop of the day. The pub is perched on Collis Street and has a friendly atmosphere where you can relax and strike up a conversation over a nice pint. Here Dad sticks to the Batham's whilst I'm tempted by the Simpkiss courtesy of Enville Ales, bringing the old brewing name back to life. We consider the merits of having a good local pub nearby as news filters through of Wolves' progress away at Hull - they eventually fight back from behind twice to draw 2-2. The 259 and 255 buses then secure our passage back to Wolverhampton, and we are both already looking forward to the third installment of the fledgling series.

Thursday, January 28

WME Update Digest: January 2010

In what seems like no time at all, the first month of 2010 is almost over and its time for my customary trawl through my recent updates. December's sudden flurry of site activity generated some much-needed momentum for the galleries, with my challenge for January therefore being to maintain the pace if possible. Let's see how I got on...

The answer in a nutshell is "not too badly actually". For starters, there are a couple of landmarks to celebrate courtesy of WME Birmingham and Exploration Extra. Birmingham has barged its way through the 300 photos barrier, cementing its place (behind WME Wolverhampton) as my second largest gallery, with new stuff now nestling on Exploring Hall Green (Fox Hollies Road and the Maggies pub sign), Hall Green Station (two more station entrance views) and Exploring Hawkesley (the Square shops and the Tunnel pub). This is all very laudable, especially as the latter two collections had effectively been dormant with barely a sniff of new content for what seems like years.

Whilst Birmingham bashed 300, Exploration Extra has now serenely reached half that total with a neat charge through the 150 photo mark. The key development here has been the arrival of a new Rail Rover 2008 collection, currently comprising a variety of views from Chirk and Moreton-in-Marsh, although its also worth noting that Clacton Seafront Gardens and Harwich Maritime Museum have muscled their way in on Essex 2008. Looking at the gallery as a whole, those 150 pictures now cover quite a spread of geographical locations that hopefully give the site an appeal outside of the immediate West Midlands area.

Elsewhere, WME Staffordshire has been busy. There's a new Exploring Bishops Wood collection to report, featuring the Royal Oak pub and the local church, whilst additions have also been made to Exploring Kinver (the Vine and Old White Harte pubs), the Trent and Mersey Canal (various shots from my Potteries walk) and a look at the old Green Bus depot on Bus Stops & Stations. Things have been comparatively quieter on WME Worcestershire, where the inclusion of Exploring Wolverley offers some long awaited extra local content as the Lock and Queens Head pubs make their debut - oh, and the Kidderminster to Spennells number 10 bus has squeaked in as well.

Talking of number 10 bus routes, Coventry's equivalent makes its latest appearance thanks to a couple of Metrobus pics at Eastern Green terminus, washed down with a bonus view of the entrance to Pool Meadow Bus Station. Also like Worcestershire, WME Telford habitually suffers from a lack of local content, so an important development here is Exploring Dawley - this offers two views of the Lord Hill pub, a local landmark that was sadly closed down when Rog and I visited last November.

Another closed pub seen in happier times is the Knave of Hearts, now showing on Exploring Bloxwich along with a shot of the local marketplace. WME Walsall can also boast the fledgling Exploring Palfrey with its views of the local park, and there's a quick sighting of Aldridge Wharf Bridge on the Daw End Canal. WMEs Dudley and Sandwell offer one new picture a piece - the Commercial pub at Brockmoor for Dudley, and the 406H bus at West Bromwich for Sandwell - whilst bringing up the rear for once is WME Wolverhampton, where Broad Street Lock Cottages (Birmingham Main Line Canal) and the White Rose at Loxdale (Exploring Bilston) at least ensure that the gallery has clocked in for the new year.

That then I think covers everything, and its a case of so far so good as far as 2010 is concerned. I've started as I mean to go on but, as ever, there is still much work to be done and many more photos are waiting in line to take their turn in the limelight. It'll be interesting to see exactly which particular pictures get their curtain call in February...

Sunday, January 17

A Starter for 2010...

Saturday 16th January provided the first trip of the New Year as Woody, Andy and I descended upon Worcestershire to begin 2010 in style...

A 8am start sees me make my way to Stourbridge Junction via Smethwick Galton Bridge, arriving just in time to startle Mr Wood who wasn't expecting to see me so early. We then join Andy on the 9.17 train down to Kidderminster, with Woody bringing us up to speed with developments in the Masters Snooker from Wembley. From Kiddy its onto the first First of the day, a short X3 ride over to Bromsgrove, alighting at the rather damp bus station.

It had been quite a while since I'd been to Bromsgrove, and the interchange has had a bit of a makeover in the interim. They must have heard Andy was visiting because a 24 hour toilet has been installed, presumably to combat his notorious bladder. Amongst the routes on display were the 007 Midland Rider to Halesowen, a Red Diamond 144E to Rubery and a Black Diamond 202, all of which proved handy for a few test photos as I put my replacement camera through its paces. I also make a quick dash into town to top up on beer money and sneak a shot or two of the Queen's Head, scene of an infamous recovery pint following that legendary hike to 'Bromsgrove' Station.

Banishing that particular memory from my mind once more, its onto the 144 to Droitwich courtesy of an unexpected First Trident double-decker. I'm pleased to say the rain had relented upon arrival, giving us chance to explore more of the town. Photo-wise, my eye was taken by Victoria Square (with its 'hub' bus shelter), the local library and the impressive black and white timber-framed frontage of the Raven Hotel. Elsewhere, we located a selection of pubs including the Talbot, the Hop Pole and the Star & Garter - all useful information for future reference I'm sure!

As tempting as those pubs were, we had a prior engagement with Stoke Prior (bad pun alert!!) so we track down Diamond's 141 service for a little wiggle through Wychbold. As we alight, Andy and Woody have a chat with the driver whilst I attempt a sneaky bus photo - an act that didn't go unnoticed as the driver then enquired whether I had a 'bus fetish'!! I wasn't quite sure how to answer that one, but I have a feeling the quote will provide much amusement for years to come.

It was now time for our long awaited first pint of the year, which came courtesy of the Bowling Green pub, a nice homely local on the edge of the village where we waited outside for the place to open. My Banks's Bitter certainly hit the spot, and the drinks set us up well for a rather treacherous return walk along the towpath of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal - I was pleased to investigate Bridge 41 and Astwood Top Lock, even if the underfoot conditions were precariously icy.

Lunch was beckoning so we call into our second Stoke Prior pub, the Boat and Railway. This was a real cracker, with a roaring open fire and more Banks's Bitter to savour. Having ordered our baguettes, we then attempt the customary Cheers photos but these proved quite a challenge, especially when trying to master the timer on Andy's camera! The food proved worth waiting for, a tasty baguette with some chips at a reasonable price can't be bad, and we finished just in time to catch the 141 back to Droitwich with the same wisecracking driver as before.

Our earlier pub research then came in very handy as we made a beeline for the Star and Garter to sample a Guinness each, although the expensive-looking Raven did tempt us being as it was Andy's round. Whilst I enjoyed the pint, I did get the feeling that the pub had seen better days even though it was friendly enough - Woody even got a handshake off a fellow customer, adding more fuel to the theory that he is indeed a reincarnated Stourbridge Garage bus driver.

By this stage we're running ahead of schedule, so we decide to head off plan with a ride on the 133 direct to Kidderminster via Cutnall Green and Chaddesley Corbett. This allows us to connect straight onto the 3 down to Areley Kings, with Andy demonstrating the kind of buses Mr Wood used to drive in his previous existence. Our bonus pub is the Kings Arms and it proved to be well worth a visit, particularly as we got to see the closing frames of the epic snooker semi-final clash between Ronnie O'Sullivan and Mark Williams. With Ronnie completing victory, we head outside and straight onto the 3 back to Kiddy - no missing buses this time around.

Its now starting to get dark and news filters through that Wolves are losing at home to Wigan. Our final port of call is Bewdley, sampling a little First Optare Solo on the 2 via Habberley. We dodge the roadworks on Load Street to enter the George Hotel, a historic 17th century building now owned by Wetherspoon's. Tea for me arrives in the form of a gourmet burger washed down with a pint of Bath Ales' Dark Hare, a decent drink. We still have a bit of time to kill, so we make the unwise decision to sample the less-than-angelic Angel. The cardboard cut-out ladies in the window set the alarm bells ringing for starters, and then we unwittingly participated in some kind of comedy sketch where seemingly every beer we tried to order was unavailable - it would have been funny if it hadn't been so depressing. Needless to say, we didn't stay long, prefering instead to wait in the pouring rain for the 292 back to Kidderminster Station. A final flourish arrives with a quick drink in the Severn Valley Station pub, and then its the train back home.

What an eventful day that was! Good exploring, great pubs and many memorable moments to set 2010 off to the best of starts. My thanks as ever go to Woody and Andy for their excellent company - lets hope the rest of the year proves just as enjoyable...

Thursday, January 7

Camera Calamity...

New Year's Eve marked not only the end of 2009, but also the final moments for my trusty Fujifilm digital camera. I'd actually enjoyed quite a nice (but cold) afternoon out, during which I ventured into Whitmore Reans to explore the terraced areas in the shadow of Molineux Stadium. The camera at this point seemed to be working fine as I collected shots of Central Baths and the Newhampton Arts Centre, whilst at Leicester Square I was more concerned about the encroaching darkness than any camera malfunction.

I got the camera safely home and browsed through the thumbnails as usual, but when I later came to transfer the images onto computer, the camera just wouldn't respond. For some reason or another, the power had developed a fault and all efforts to revive the thing failed - its almost as if it had waited until the end of the decade and then died. This all leaves me somewhat bereft whilst I await the arrival of my replacement model, and the recent heavy snow has only added to the sense of frustration when I think about the wintry scenes I've missed out on.

Looking back though, the camera served me very well during the course of many adventures. It's first outing came on a trip to Hamstead and West Brom in October 2005, and it instantly proved a step up from its 1.3 megapixel predecessor. Along the way it got battered and bruised, wet on occasions, and encountered snow, ice and fog, thus proving its versatility in a range of conditions. True, it was never great at taking photos indoors, and it had persistent zoom errors towards the end, but it still feels like the end of a little era. I can only hope that my new camera maintains the legacy by capturing many more treasured memories...

Friday, January 1

2009 - Review of the Year

Happy New Year! Well, can you believe it? Another year has flown by already, and as 2009 passes into 2010, its time for the annual review of my exploration exploits over the past twelve months…

January: 2009 got off to a flying start thanks to a pair of Solihull visits in anticipation of the Solihull Network Review. Routes such as the 30, 671 and 672 were recorded as I ventured around Acocks Green, Olton and Cranes Park. I also enjoyed a local Wolverhampton trip exploring Newbridge, Wergs and Wightwick, not forgetting an atmospheric wintry walk through the mists around Shifnal and Kemberton.

February: The headline outing this month was a Sandwell Special, beginning with Carters Green and Black Lake then heading through Wednesbury, past the Myvod and into Darlaston – quite an epic walk that, my feet have only just recovered!! Elsewhere, Oxley and East Park kept things ticking over locally, and there was a magical morning when I captured some stunning snowy scenes around Bushbury and Northwood Park.

March: Another memorable month, beginning with a tour of Mushroom Green, Saltwells and Netherton, Black Country exploring at its best. Equally enjoyable was a visit to Chester and Mold with Woody, Rog and Andy, whilst Rog also joined me for a pubcrawl that introduced Bruce to the Beacon Hotel. The month ended on a poignant note as I bade farwell to Mary Pointon, Daisy Bank and Scotlands & Underhill libraries as they shut their doors for the very last time – a sad day…

April: The highlight was Highgate, delving into backstreet Birmingham with some Digbeth discoveries, namely Warwick Bar and Bordesley Junction – absolutely fascinating. My attentions then turned to Shropshire, joining the chaps for an Arley, Bridgnorth and Shifnal excursion followed by a family day out in Shrewsbury. Back on home turf, a Greets Green and Stone Cross outing introduced me to Ryders Green Locks and Wigmore Farm, and I shouldn’t forget an eventful stroll around Handsworth and Hamstead that featured the very elegant Hawthorn House. Finally, Rog and Bruce led me astray again with another pub-filled adventure around Coombeswood and Langley – I was serenaded by the Brownies in the morning, and Bruce met his alter ego in the Waterfall.

May: The fun continues with a solo Saturday adventure investigating the 36 route around Tyseley, Sparkhill and Stechford – another contender for trip of the year. Two Museums Day was fun, as was a tour of Cannock and Heath Hayes during which I tracked down the old Brownhills Library. Honourable mention should also go to Skegness, scene of this year’s family holiday – my day in Boston was an absolute classic! May is also traditionally home to the Kinver Carnival, where Woody stunned us by walking to the village via the Whittington pub (a wise choice) and the parade turned out to be two scouts and a fire engine!

June: Into the summer, but not as you’d notice. The weather put paid to our Warwickshire plans, meaning we sheltered instead in the Trumpet at Bilston and the Star and Garter in West Bromwich (now there’s an experience!). I cobbled together a few lunchtime locals based around Moxley, Ocker Hill and Coseley, but otherwise things were quiet for a change.

July: Thankfully July was much more productive, with Rog in attendance for a brace of the best. A Metro-themed Jewellery Quarter jaunt was followed a week later by a day in the capital wandering around Wimbledon. I also took time out to see the latest goings-on at Tipton Station, where work to replace the level crossing was well underway.

August: and the month kicks off with another triumph for Mr Wood, his excellent plan seeing us cover Chester, Rhyl, Prestatyn and Holywell for a welcome taste of Wales as Andy’s bladder just about behaved itself. Mark and I also indulged in some Warwickshire exploration, calling in on Rugby and Leamington before finding Bruce’s older cousin in Warwick Museum. Rog resurfaced for a tour of Chuckery and Sutton Coldfield, but the monthly title has to go to a cricketing trip to Nottingham with Nick and Stephen, a cracking day at Trent Bridge with the added bonus of a pint in Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem.

September: Autumn marks the close of the cricket season and its goodbye to the Edgbaston pavillion, now set to be redeveloped. The webmasters of SBI and WME link up again for two more travelling tales – the first sees us in Pattingham enjoying a pint in the Crown, whilst the second takes us to Coventry with Hawkesbury Junction featuring prominently and Rog sampling the delights of the ‘Craven Run’. I also make the most of a prolonged spell of fine weather with a couple of canal walks visiting Calf Heath, Coven and Brewood.

October: The countdown is on as the South Birmingham Network Review approaches, so Rog and I tackle routes such as the 61, 49 and 614 around Northfield. I’m back a few days later to add in the 630 for good measure, popping in at Weoley Castle and Bangham Pit in the afternoon. Mark and Andy then introduce me to the world of hubs and ‘turn up and go’ during a Worcestershire workout starring Great Malvern, Droitwich and Areley Kings – Su Pollard even made a brief cameo appearance but soon vanished after seeing Andy do his bladder walk!

November: The start of the month is dominated by Rog Week, seven days of intrepid indulgence collecting pictures and pints at Horsehay, Hockley, Pleck, Pensnett, Amblecote and Cookley amongst many other places. Its then over to Messrs Wood and Lunn for a tremendous festive voyage down to Bristol and Bath with the Christmas markets in full swing.

December: Another year of fine exploration comes to a close with an unforgettable fog-framed hike on the canals around Oldbury – the utter bleakness of Oldbury Junction marked a new low in the ugly stakes. Besides this there were a few bits and pieces mini-outings with Whitmore Reans, Wednesfield and Heath Town all throwing a few crumbs to the camera – and that’s that!

I always say this, but it has been an excellent, inspiring year filled with top class exploration. I’ve learnt a lot about the West Midlands this year, making some exciting discoveries whilst noting with sadness the closure of pubs, libraries and other landmarks such as Coseley Baths. My thanks go to all the people who made my adventures so enjoyable – Mark Andy, Rog, Stephen, Nick and Dad especially – and I look forward to seeing what 2010 has in store…