The 29th February is not a date that comes along very often so when it does you definitely have to make the most of it. Bridgnorth and Much Wenlock featured for my leap year outing back in 2008, but this time around I was joined by my Chip Foundation colleagues for some Harborne high jinks...
Why Harborne? The popular, lively Birmingham suburb is an area of contrasts where the busy High Street with its shopping and leisure opportunities is juxtaposed with pockets of rural character such as the old village centre down by St Peter's Church. The main attraction for us though was the local pubs, whereby Harborne is renowned as a hotbed for real ale. We were eager to test out such esteemed credentials whilst crossing off a few of the 106 pubs that feature in a recent Birmingham CAMRA leaflet, although to Stephen's relief we weren't planning to do all 106 in one go!
The outing almost got derailed before it began. A major fire had engulfed the Carver's Building Supplies premises in Wolverhampton and the railway station was closed as a safety precaution - it was a huge shock to see the historic firm go up in smoke so I sincerely hope the business can recover if at all possible. For us Chips this meant a quick change of plan, with Nick briefed to meet Stephen and myself in Bilston so as to catch the Metro into Birmingham. The journey to Snow Hill went smoothly enough as we eagerly anticipated the pubs ahead. From Colmore Row we catch the 24 Woodgate Valley bus and with a brief look at Five Ways and the Botannical Gardens we found ourselves setting down on Harborne High Street ready for our first drink.
THE JUNCTION: This pub was high on Nick's hitlist as he remembered it having a period Victorian interior when he last dropped in a few years ago. It certainly looks the part from the outside, grandly occupying the fork where Vivian Road splits off from the main High Street, but inside we were less convinced. The place has upmarket aspirations with a sophisticated makeover to match so had perhaps lost some of the heritage character Nick had fondly recalled. Nevertheless some Brentwood Blonde in a proper handled glass scored well in my eyes as Nick went into Michael Winner mode, dissecting the various menus with great gusto whilst delightedly deciphering any examples of 'restaurant speak'.
THE BELL: Continuing along Vivian Road, we pass the New Inn (a Marston's pub that wasn't yet open) and then cross into Old Church Avenue, following the path between the cricket pitches down to St Peter's churchyard at the centre of the old village. The mixture of little cottages and the medieval church tower (said to date from the 14th century) contributes to the sense of history, as does the village pub. The Bell is situated right next to the church and looks very quaint with hints of beams, cosy rooms and a glorious L-shaped bowling green. The bar is actually in the main corridor, making for quite a tight squeeze, and the ale choice is a little limited although I did enjoy my half of Bombardier. We also note that Stephen seems to be getting extra measures with his blackcurrant and lemonades today so we'll have to make sure he doesn't overdose on cordial. A lovely place to while away an hour or so.
CHIPS: We're not called the Chip Foundation for nothing, so our next task is to get some food. The chip-shop radar kicks in to find the Harborne Fish Bar on the War Lane/Northfield Road roundabout, then we commandeer a bench overlooking part of the Church Farm Golf Course where we tuck in whilst keeping an eye on the pitching, driving and putting talents of the locals. Dessert is provided by a shot or two of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a closed pub on Tennal Lane that looks set to be redeveloped - another one bites the dust. We then wander up War Lane back into the centre of Harborne, noting the treadmill activity taking place in the front gantry of the rebuilt swimming baths leisure complex.
HARBORNE CLUB: Our next port of call is not a pub at all, but rather a member's club quietly tucked away on Albany Road. The building is unmarked except for a small brass plate on the front door, the understated entrance adding to the sense of intrigue. Nick flashes his CAMRA card and we are invited to sign the guest book before settling in amongst the very comfortable surroundings. Nick and I have opted for the Hobson's Bitter, which arrives in another traditional dimpled glass (with handle), whilst Mr B has a plain lemonade as the strains of Central News provide us with an update on the Carver's fire. I really rather like it here, it's very relaxed and a place where good conversation and excellent company takes precedence over eveything else.
WHITE HORSE: The evening light is ebbing away fast as we branch away off the High Street to resume our pub patrol. The White Horse on York Street is one I'd had my eye on for some time, the sidestreet location just keeping it away from the rush of the traffic while still being very central to the night-time economy. After the luxury of the Harborne Club, this was an altogether plainer experience with exposed floorboards and a solid central wooden bar. The place was lively but we found a little corner in the small snug where the pub cat was entertaining some of the other customers. Picking our beer off the TV screen menu, the Dark Swan was calling out to us with its links to Ma Pardoe's back in Netherton proving too much to resist.
GREEN MAN: Our trail is proceeding very nicely as we work our way around Metchley Lane, passing the Sportsman which was closed for refurbishment. The Green Man is part of the Ember Inns portfolio and bears all the usual corporate hallmarks that seem to come as standard throughout the chain - perfectly acceptable I suppose but they all blend into one homogenous lump in my memory. Elgood's Black Dog was our choice here, a Cambridgeshire mild that ensured Nick stayed firmly on the dark side. Supping up, we would have tried the Plough across the road (promoting itself as a fine gastro pub) but it was absolutely crammed, so instead we availed ourselves of a Hybrid electric bus on the 22 back into Birmingham City Centre.
OLD JOINT STOCK: The evening had one last treat in store before home time, so from Colmore Row we pitched into the remarkable opulence of the Old Joint Stock. Formerly a bank, the building has some wonderful features including a domed ceiling and an imposing old counter - there's even a theatre in here somewhere. Being a Fuller's establishment, it's no surprise to see the likes of London Pride, Chiswick and Discovery being well represented at the bar, however it's the guest selection that catches our eye. Nick and I end up plumping for the Gone for a Burton (from the Tower Brewery) although the ale had a rather peculiar flavour that led to Nick inventing new words to describe it - 'astrurious' anybody? At the risk of astringently reinventing the dictionary we decided to get Metro-bound once more, whizzing back to Wolverhampton safe in the knowledge that Harborne had made an excellent impression on our exploration catalogue.