Friday 26th November – beer was beckoning in Dudley once more as I joined Nick for the Dudley CAMRA Winter Ales Festival, but first a bit of exploring…
* My day begins with a quick ride into Dudley on the 126, noting the demolished estate off Priory Road. Dudley Town Centre offers the chance for a handful of photos including the Fellows (the latest addition to the Holden’s estate), the curving Heart Foundation shop on the bus station corner and the mess that was the Metro Bar.
* Venturing beyond the town centre, I decide to investigate the Kates Hill area, initially finding myself on Watsons Green Road for photos of the Hill Tavern and the Ivy House. I'm especially keen to get photos of St John's Church, a towering Dudley landmark that was abandoned after being declared unsafe. The St John's Church Preservation Group are leading efforts to restore the church and I sincerely hope this important building is protected for future generations.
* Just opposite the church is a former pub which itself has seen better days, and I also note some local shops on Highview Street. My walk then takes me further along Watsons Green Road, arriving at Green Park which seems a rather bleak open space on a chilly November afternoon. Crossing the field brings me to Green Park Road, and with a few sidestreet dodges I cross the municipal border into Sandwell territory.
* Oakham is an area I only vaguely remember having passed through on the 120 and 688 buses some years ago. I emerge at Regent Road near a construction site (Regent Rise) that looks suspiciously like the grounds of a former pub, then Elm Terrace leads me deeper into the estate as I weave my way round onto Poplar Rise for a look at Oakham Library. One thing I do remember about the area was that it's very hilly, and City Road proves the point with a steep climb up to the Wheatsheaf - the pub didn't quite have the landmark quality I was somehow expecting though.
* Oakham Road has me heading back towards Dudley and actually feels quite exclusive with some nice houses. I once again cross paths with Regent Road and this time there's definitely an old pub site on the corner as the sign stanchion is still intact behind the hoardings. I speculate what the building might have looked like and feel rather annoyed with myself for not previously photographing the area.
* The far end of Oakham Road leads me directly to the Buffery where I can reacquaint myself with the Bush pub and take a return tour of Paradise. Buffery Park lends itself to some nice autumnal shots amongst the leaf-fall, and the children’s centre looks nicely framed amongst the trees. I photograph the houses that have replaced the Selborne Arms on one side of the park, but then note that the corresponding pub on the far side (the Struggling Man?) also appears to have bitten the dust. The amount of lost pubs I’ve encountered in just a moderate walk is now accumulating quite alarmingly.
* Next up is Cinder Bank, passing the new Aldi store onto Peartree Lane. Here I track down Blowers Green Pumphouse and the Dudley Canals, joining the towpath of the No. 1 at the hideous-sounding Dudley & Lye Waste Bridge. The Pumphouse marks Park Head Junction where the two Dudley Canals meet, and I can see the No. 2 heading off under Blowers Green Bridge and beyond. My investigations focus however on the No. 1, getting further views of the pumphouse and the accompanying lock, followed by the junction fingerpost overlooked by a giant cement tower.
* Park Head Locks then continue up towards Dudley Tunnel, with Bottom Lock providing a memorable scene as some ducks go waddling past on the frozen ice. I pass under the viaduct to reach the series of adjacent bridges I remember from my Woodside outing. Park Head Locks 1 Bridge is the central of the three, and I also add in shots of the Pensnett Basin bridge to the left (not forgetting to get views of the basin itself).
* The final leg of my now lengthy walk takes me back towards Dudley Town Centre. I negotiate Scotts Green island and take Stourbridge Road past the cemetery. Wellington Road offers zooms of the Earl of Dudley Arms, then a sidestreet dart along Waterloo Street and Holland Street introduces me to the White Swan, a typically 1960’s/1970s type boozer, followed by the Hearty Goodfellow on Maughan Street. I weave my way past the depressing sight that is the Grange and soon find myself on Priory Road awaiting my next bus.
* The 126 is soon on the scene to whisk me off to Woodcross where I’ve arranged to meet Nick at 4pm. I’m slightly early so there’s time for views of the Spread Eagle (now depressingly closed again and home to another of those insidious hand car washes) followed by a walk around the block (Nally Drive, Childs Avenue and a quick snap of Manor Primary School’s main entrance).
* Nick emerges from his office at 4pm and we look forward with anticipation to the beer festival. Back to Dudley on the 126 then, and we make a beeline straight for the Concert Hall which is proudly hosting the 25th Winter Ales Festival. Entrance is via a little side door where we hand over the £10 entrance fee, then we collect our commemorative glasses and programmes as we pass through into the main hall. The place is already heaving and is an impressive sight – a long row of stillages over to the right, with various stands on the left and the main stage straight on. We have a little wander about picking up various bits of literature (mainly involving Wakefield CAMRA’s booklets and festival guides), and also investigate the location of the food which looks very inviting.
* Right then, it’s time for some beer. The winter ales are strong stuff and are available in either thirds (usually costing £1ish) or halves (£1.50+ depending on strength). My first tipple is Holden’s Old Ale as experienced at the Great Western, whilst Nick tries some Enville Cherry Gothic. We decamp to the food room to slay our hunger – a dish of grey paes and bacon with a crusty pork pie is simply delicious, proper Black Country nosh and you can't beat it.
* Drink No. 2 for me is a significant moment, sampling my first ever taste of Simpkiss, the old Black Country brew having been revived by Enville. At 4% it's one of the festival's weaker offerings but proves to be a very flavoursome pale bitter. Nick this time is savouring some Great Heck Vanilla Wheat Stout. We’re getting into the swing of things now as the room gets ever more crowded and the band begin to strike up a quick rehearsal. I’m also enjoying browsing the breweriana stand and where some vintage beermats catch my eye, including examples from Butler’s, Highgate, M&B and Holts.
* Beer No. 3 has me really ramping up the alcohol content thanks to Banks’s Old Ale at a hefty 9% or thereabouts. The ale certainly packs a bit of a punch but is still well rounded, a real winter warmer! Nick moves through his next selections - Sadler’s Mud City Stout, Hawkshead Organic Oatmeal Stout and Hesket Newmarket Tsarry Night - quite smoothly, sampling some Cumbrian examples as per the event’s theme. For my fourth tipple, I stay local and try out the Olde Swan White Widow from Netherton, still punchy at 7% and coming with the usual flavourfest you expect from Pardoes.
* Its closing in on 7pm now as Nick and I decide to revisit the food hall for more grey paes and bacon, my second helping being particularly peppery. Its then time for our final drink – Nick goes all daring with some Wobbly Wabbit at a whopping 11% whilst I conclude with Sarah Hughes’ Snowflake and very nice it was too. With some sadness it was time to depart, although Stone Street Square with its Christmas tree makes for an inviting scene as we step outside.
* We make our way to the bus station and catch the 126 home, reflecting on what had been a fine evening. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to sample some cracking ales, all of them being local ones that I rarely get to try otherwise, and the whole event had been a real education encouraging me to find out more about our brewing heritage. Judging by the attendance, the event must surely have been a huge success and I look forward to seeing which festivals 2011 might have in store...