Saturday 7th May: Last Saturday’s outing was something of a PR exercise as, minus the other WARP crew, Rog and I joined forces for a rather wet tour of Soggy Solihull that featured Hockley Heath, Shirley, Dorridge and Balsall Common. Here is the customary account of proceedings…
* Smethwick: The day is off to a damp start as we meet at drizzly Galton Bridge, Rog appearing in full McLaren F1 regalia and already on the lookout for some ‘Fairhavens’ (don’t ask!)
* Solihull: Catching the 9:46 service to Dorridge, we soon arrive at Solihull where the weather has only got worse. A serious downpour sends us scurrying for the bus shelters to plot our next move. The S3 I’d got my eye on doesn’t seem to call at the railway station so we had to catch a rain-dodging 76 into the town centre to meet our Hockley Heath connection.
* S3: A route that came about through the Solihull Network Review providing half-hourly links to Knowle and Dorridge with an hourly extension to Hockley Heath. Somewhat worryingly our Central Connect Optare Solo has a ‘Bus2Work’ livery but we stick with it for an interesting ride out to the edge of the West Midlands.
* Hockley Heath: A border village that was brand new territory for me, so despite the rain this was still intriguing exploration. Landmarks include the Barn Beefeater, the local war memorial and the Wharf Tavern on the side of the canal as we zigzag back and forth across the Stratford Road dodging the largest puddles so that we wouldn’t get soaked by oncoming traffic.
* X20: It was still too early for the pubs to be open and we didn’t feel like hanging around for another three-quarters of an hour. Riding to our rescue came the X20 courtesy of Johnsons whereby courtesy was indeed the operative word, a very friendly service with the driver showing lots of consideration for his passengers. A short ride gives learner driver Rog the chance to test his D9 skills but we both agreed he needed much more practice. Before long we alight in Shirley and track down a pub where we hoped we might watch the F1 qualifying.
* The Red Lion: An ugly lump of a pub from the outside, straight from the 1970’s, but inside it wasn’t too bad. A pint of Titanic’s Steerage goes down well and Rog is pleased when the staff switch on the screens for some motoring action. Our viewing delectation is accompanied by a spot of lunch, a cheap and cheerful curry and chips to be exact, and the protestations of fellow customer Brian who provides our favourite quote of the day, “Who cooked this!?! It’s rock hard”.
* 5: Outside into some rare sunshine with a ride down to Widney Manor via Cranmore Boulevard and Monkspath.
* Widney Manor: A new station location for us and definitely worth a future revisit. There’s a bus turning circle outside that could be handy for photos, whilst the station itself looks relatively new. We would have had a closer look but our train was coming and we had to put in a sprint over the footbridge to get safely on board. At least the dash gave Rog another chance to put his fun-running skills to good use!
* Dorridge: Returning to one of our classic trip locations, and the memories certainly come back when we find that the Forest Hotel is full of wedding guests just as it was when we first called here six years ago. On the positive side I was spared buying an expensive round so there was no need for me to take out a mortgage this time.
* S2A: Rog finally gets his ride on a Central Connect ‘Signature’ bus and he seems to have taken a shine to the stitched leather seats, very smart but somewhat slippery. A trundle up through Knowle and Chadwick End brings us to Balsall Common, terminating at the Station Road roundabout for the signature shot photos.
* Balsall Common: Having escaped in Dorridge, it was now time to put my hand in my pocket and get the drinks in. The Railway Inn was our choice, a nice local pub handily positioned next to Berkswell Station. There are some assorted train pictures on the wall as the barmaid tries to find a football match amongst various obscure satellite channels.
* Berkswell Station: Drinks supped we head next door to see when the train is due, and with remarkably good timing we’ve only got a couple of minutes to wait. The station is undergoing a makeover whereby the derelict station house has been demolished along with the nice old platform building and canopies. In their place a silvery box has appeared that will presumably be the new ticket office – I shall reserve judgement until I see it in full operation.
* Hampton-in-Arden: The 15:21 train arrives on schedule, whisking us 4 minutes down the track to Hampton-in-Arden. Here we can reacquaint ourselves with the White Lion, which combines the charms of an English village pub with some curious Gallic overtones complete with French background music that prompted Rog into some audience participation. He’s also having some fun with a man-eating chair, virtually disappearing before my very eyes. I reckon the seat came from the same batch that nearly swallowed Mr Wood in Dorchester last year.
* Brum: To the second city where we seek out a pub recommended by Nickolenko Pubalotovich. The place in question is the Prince of Wales, hidden away on Cambridge Street behind the new library development and the repertory theatre. It actually was deceptively small and cosy inside with various advertising curiosities on the walls and rugby league on the big screen. Rog thankfully resists the urge to go all thespian although he was saying ‘darling luvvies’ and ‘break a leg’ rather too much for my liking. We then have a little stroll around Brindley Place and try to locate the front entrance to the ITV Central studios on Berkeley Street before catching the 9 along the stop-start Hagley Road.
* Halesowen: Into the evening and our aim now is to enjoy a mini Black Country crawl sampling a couple of further pubs that intrigued us. Top of the list is the Hawne Tavern so we alight just past Halesowen town centre and are spotted by Rog’s brother who wonders if we need a lift. Having politely declined we head around the corner to sample what soon became our pub of the day. The main bar is busy but we find a quieter spot in the lounge where we peruse an array of pumpclips and talk beer festivals with one of the other punters – I love it when you can just spark up new conversations like this. The pub seems to pride itself on a wide real ale selection and my Stairway to Heaven from Burton Bridge certainly hit the mark nicely.
* Lye: Back onto the 9 a short distance (no sign of Rog’s brother this time) and we get off in Lye by the Old Bell. Rog becomes navigator as the sky begins to turn ominously dark and another soaking looks imminent. A few spots of rain can already be detected so we scamper to the shelter of The Hollybush and watch a bit of Doctor Who Confidential whilst the regulars concentrate on the Tottenham vs Blackpool football match. The Hollybush was just a normal local pub really, not much refinement but it served a purpose in keeping us dry. We then brace ourselves to head back out into the rain which wasn’t (yet) as heavy as I’d anticipated, and a well timed dash sees us safely onto the 9 just by the Windsor Castle.
* Stourbridge: The ride on the 9 might only have taken a matter of minutes but the heavens have really opened by the time we get dropped off on Birmingham Street. Luckily our final pub is not too far away, the dash coming complete with that quintessential Stourbridge requirement, a soggy subway. I always enjoy spending a bit of time in Stourbridge on an evening, and the Duke William is quickly becoming our new favourite (and everybody else’s judging by how busy it was). We find a little table in the bar just behind the door and leisurely sup our final half, which for me is Titanic once more with Nine Tenths Below. With the Hawne Tavern crowned as our pub of the day we just have to debate the barmaids award, whereby the two ladies in the Duke steal the title.
* Its then time to say goodbye with a final sprint out into the pounding rain to find the 256 waiting for me and that’s that! Despite the best efforts of the weather, it had been a great day regardless in getting May off to a flying start…