Monday, December 30

WME Flickr Focus: December 2013

With the turkey and mince pies just about digested, it's time to cast a post-Christmas glance in the direction of the West Midlands Exploration Flickr photostream to see what may or may not have been occurring of late. In truth there is not a lot to report, even allowing for my typically pedestrian rate of progress, and I can't really blame the festivities for the lack of update action... 

Nonetheless, there have been a few bits and pieces that have beaten the clock as it ticks down towards 2014. Top of the tree this time around is WME Birmingham, which jousts with the usual yuletide angels by providing views from Edgbaston (a cricket ground shot, two scenes from Constance Road plus a glimpse of the Ivy Bush pub), Rubery (the Morrisons supermarket at Great Park) and Blake Street Station. WME Dudley has also been forthcoming with the presents this year, hence we have two buses (the 265 at Merry Hill and the 298 at Stourbridge) plus a peek at the Sainsbury's store on Withymoor village. 

Less generous but still registering their attendance at the office party are WME Staffordshire (a look at Penkridge's station house, not forgetting the historic Essex Bridge near Shugborough Hall), WME Sandwell (the wreck that is the Forresters Arms off Spon Lane, West Bromwich) and WME Coventry (the city's railway station frontage with added taxis). Also on the guestlist are WME Wolverhampton, sporting a fetching shade of old gold courtesy of Molineux Stadium, and the oft-forgotten WME Solihull where Cheswick Green's local pub (The Saxon) jostles for a bit of attention. 

Of course, Christmas is also the time of year for meeting up again with distant friends and relations, and to that end we have a slight Welsh invasion to report from Exploration Extra. A 111 bus from Mold has tiptoed into view whilst Wrexham makes its photostream debut courtesy of the town's football ground and bus station. With that it's pretty much time to dismantle the tree and box up the decorations for another year, and I shall close with a resolution to try and be more forthcoming with the updates in 2014...

Sunday, December 22

Christmas Hubs with a Helping of Calendars

Christmas is fast approaching and the festive season brings with it the unveiling of the annual WME calendars, my own little way of saying thank you to those wonderful (some would say misguided) individuals who spend the rest of the year adopting various silly poses in the name of exploration...

- Scouting for Bathams -
A note first for a special presentation that occurred in wet and windy Wollaston on the evening of Wednesday 18th December. Nickolenko and I had braved the elements in order to meet up with Mr SBI who was wearing scout regalia especially for this momentous occasion. The Unicorn pub was the setting as Roger's calendar was duly handed over, accompanied by some excellent Bathams Bitter. Here we see Messrs Pubalotovich and Chance savouring the ale, whilst elsewhere that evening Nick did a very passable impression of Mary Poppins in almost getting blown away frantically clutching a miscreant umbrella.

- The Wheatsheaf -
Friday 20th December is the final Hub Marketing meeting of the year, a yuletide yomp that would cover the nether regions of Carters Green, Hateley Heath and Wednesbury. Our rendezvous is at the Wheatsheaf, a classic Holdens boozer that seems like a highly appropriate place to discuss the Hub Marketing Awards 2013. Our illustrious Chairman is crowned as the Discount of the Year recipient (but also copped for the most expensive round of the last 12 months), whilst the Secretary is recognised for his sleeve successes. The New Inns at Birchills is 'awarded' the Pub of the Year title by virtue of its lasting canine impressions, and Charles Elgar Pemberton Rowbottom III gets the Lifetime Achievement accolade.

- The Bald Spot Gets Clocked -
The prize for the best bald spot photograph was a tough decision because there were so many to choose from, although there was a late submission within the vicinity of Carters Green clock.

- The Chairman takes the lead -
Counting back over the year's pub games exploits, we realised that the Secretary and the Chairman were currently tied level at 6 victories each. This meant that today's battles would decide the 2013 title, whereby D9 got off to a flying (and somewhat smug) start with some darts success at the Sow & Pigs.

- Calendar Considerations -
Moving round towards Hateley Heath, we happen across the Coach & Horses on Kesteven Road. Mr D9 remembers this being a Wetherspoons pub some years ago but today it'll do nicely as the place to peruse the Hub Marketing calendar.

- Swanning About in Hateley Heath -
The open spaces opposite the Coach & Horses were once apparently occupied by maisonettes but nowadays the green gives the Chairman chance to come over all T Rex by riding a (not very) white swan.

- The Gough Arms -
A short shuffle brings us next to the Gough Arms, a longstanding Hateley Heath landmark that I remember from previous rides on the old 428 and 429 bus routes. Here we maintain our uncanny recent knack of gatecrashing wakes - I think Mr D9 has a sixth sense for funeral business, trying to sniff out a bit of buffet.

- The Chairman Goes All Potty -
After a swift visit to the Cottage Spring, sporting hostilities are resumed over the pool table at the Old Mill. The Chairman seems intent on wiping the floor with the Secretary and should have sewn up victory there and then given WME's consistent inability to pot straight. D9 takes the first frame easily but then commits the cardinal sin of potting the black out of sequence, handing frame 2 to a relieved Secretary by default.

- And the 2013 Champion is... -
That tactical error came back to haunt D9 as the action moves to the Croft. The Secretary has got his eye in with the darts now and storms back into contention, meaning its all to play for in the deciding leg of the whole year. The situation took on such importance that only a genuine double could secure victory, and when Mr WME summoned up a barely believable double 8 finish the Chairman was sunk good and proper.

- The Chairman Gets His Claus Out -
With that, a final tour of Wednesbury gives 2013 a festive flourish. The Village, the Brunswick (minus Shameless), the Old Blue Ball and the Rose Hill Tavern are all sampled with various Santas spotted before the George ensures the year ends on a classic D9 dive experience. With that we wish you all a very merry Christmas and we look forward to starting it all over again in 2014!

Saturday, December 7

D9 Does... Stafford and Uttoxeter

Friday 6th December 2013 and the countdown to Christmas means that some festive ferreting is very much in order as the Hub Marketing brigade descend upon Staffordshire...

- A Grace-ful Pose -
Chilly mornings make early starts a challenge but all members are present and correct for the 76 out of Wolverhampton, trundling on through Coven and  Penkridge to reach Stafford for half past eight. The Chairman is immediately on alert for previous pavement pizza scars although the Sun's 'evidence' appears to have been painted over so we have to make do with meeting WG Grace over at Victoria Park.

- Marketing the Bald Spot -
Stafford was very much entering the yuletide spirit with decorations along Greengate Street and a large tree taking pride of place in Market Square. The Italian stalls weren't the only things on display though as D9's bald spot crept into view when the Chairman was distracted by a rare pillar box.

- The Uttoxeter Closet -
Our link to Uttoxeter is the 841 bus, a route that probably doesn't make a "big fat profit" but does take in some enjoyable village scenery through Tixall, Great Haywood and Little Haywood. We arrive in Uttoxeter just on quarter past ten whereby Mr D9 immediately makes a beeline straight for the toilet and finds to his surprise that the spotless gents is decorated with pot plants and ceramic duck ornaments.

- Uttoxeter Market Place -
Uttoxeter is a market town in East Staffordshire that is notable for its racecourse, Stevenson's buses, Fox's biscuits and JCB construction equipment. We enjoy a classic ferret around the town's main streets before calling into Coffee & Cream (or was it Godley & Creme?) for a well-earned breakfast.

- A new style of D9 driving -
A gentle stroll down to the railway station was now in order, allowing us the opportunity for views across the neighbouring racecourse. The station itself is fairly basic and lacks a ticket office although there does seem to be a new footbridge plus an eye-catching mural that means D9 gets to drive for Stevensons.

- The Secretary skittles the opposition -
Into the afternoon and it's time to let the pub games battle commence. The Vaults is a wonderful old Bass parlour pub where we find the table skittles ready and waiting for us. Having acquainted ourselves with the rules, we set about pegging out our scores whereby the Chairman assumes the role of 'Wipeout Willie' in his attempt to secure perfect nines. Sadly for Mr D9 it is the Secretary who has the happy knack of closing out the exact number of pins required for victory.

- Mine's a double! -
Having triumphed in the skittles skirmish, Mr WME then strikes gold in the darting duel thanks to a scarcely believable leg when he hit not one double but two to claim the crown. As such, the Secretary departed Uttoxeter with an unblemished combined 4-0 scoreline and thus thinks he might need to drink Bass more often.

- D9 bashes the 841 -
From Bass to the bus and a return 841 that allows the Chairman to indulge in some D9 driving demonstrations, sporting a Christmas antidote hat in the process. Bramshall, Stowe-by-Chartley and Hixon are the other main villages covered by the service.

- The Great Haywood Grinch -
We alight at Great Haywood where the Fox & Hounds pub is closed and up for auction. The Clifford Arms is open though meaning the Bah Humbug hat gets a further airing accompanied by some Pendle Witches Brew from Moorhouse's of Burnley.

- Make that another double! -
We had a bit of time before the next bus to Stafford so we decided to sample Little Haywood too. Here the Red Lion sees darting hostilities resumed, and although the Chairman pulled a couple of legs back it was still Mr WME who was overall champion courtesy of a remarkable double 17 finish that even had the pub regulars gazing on in amazement.

- A Titanic Tempter -
Back in Stafford there are plenty of inns and taverns to choose from, notably the Shrewsbury Arms (with a beermat ceiling and a room full of clocks), the Rose & Crown (Joule's), the Market Vaults (formerly Joxer Brady's) and the Lamb. My favourite as always is the Sun Inn, showcasing the range of Titanic ales in all their glory, and a delay to our train home means that we have to seek out the Railway in the backstreets for a swift closing half. Despite D9's humbug hat there was plenty of festive cheer throughout the day, and we look forward to more merry marketing heading towards the New Year.

Tuesday, November 26

Hubs of Praise

Friday 22nd November 2013 will go down in Hub Marketing history as the day when members almost underwent a religious conversion whilst investigating Lozells, Ladywood and West Birmingham...

- The Observatory -
Any cob catastrophes are completely avoided as we take the tram to Soho Benson Road where the morning ferret shall commence. The Soho Tavern is up for auction - not that we'd want to buy it - as we climb the hill to Handsworth Church. Shuffling our way into Lozells, there are interesting former pubs to photograph including the Villa Cross and the Observatory either side of some bladder emergencies.

- Hairless in Hockley -
Lozells gained unfortunate notoriety as the scene of rioting in both 1985 and 2005, but in the calm of a crisp autumn morning we find ourselves admiring some of the terraced architecture. The Stork on Heathfield Road is always a nice photo target whilst Lozells Road itself had a distinct multicultural atmosphere. Via Burbury Park we make our way to Hockley, locating the Queens Head on Farm Street before ferreting around the flyover where the Chairman is on the trail of an old public conveniences.

- Rotton Park Junction -
Ladywood is next on the agenda although the local canals make for an appetising side salad. Venturing past All Saints School and Hockley Port, we join the Soho Loop by Roseberry Street and follow on down to Rotton Park Junction, the only canal crossroads to be found on the BCN. From here we advance to Ladywood Middleway, locating a leisure centre, fire station and St John's & St Peter's Parish Church.

- Five Ways Demolition -
Mr D9 had a specific interest in visiting Five Ways as he'd heard that the shopping centre was due for demolition. This is indeed the case as chunks have already been taken out of the precinct, albeit some of the front stores are still trading and the former Crusader pub premises are intact for the time being.

- D9 prepares for the preacher -
A turn-up-and-go (TUAG) connection is now required and the 29 bus happily obliges for our link down to Northfield. The Chairman quickly adopted the requisite pose in readiness for some driving action only to be interrupted by a persistent preacher who tried to teach us the "Sinner's Prayer" with the aid of an illustrated exercise book. 

- The Clock Cafe -
Fresh from the sermon we seek redemption at the Clock Cafe, a Northfield institution where the staff seem to know everybody who walks through the door - even those they don't recognise (such as two Hub Marketing delinquents) are soon made to feel part of the family.

- The Balmoral -
One hearty breakfast later we board the 18 to Bartley Green where the Chairman is sorely tempted to restock the local reservoir. Thankfully he manages to resist that particular urge and we can proceed to Kitwell as planned, calling in at the Balmoral for a closely-fought darts match that the D9 Destroyer won by three legs to two.

- Baldness and a bus -
Kitwell is something of a West Midlands outpost, a relatively modern estate that was originally part of Bromsgrove district until the Birmingham boundary was revised. The turning circle opposite the local shop serves as the terminus of the number 22 bus as well as providing a crafty bald spot opportunity.

- Sad Stonehouse -
Other than the Balmoral, other local pubs that caught our eye included the Cock Inn (on Jiggins Lane) and the Hairy Lemon at Woodgate Valley South (previously known as the Hobson's Choice but now with a distinctly studenty yellow-themed interior). It's a shame to see the Stonehouse in such a sorry state over towards California - you have to wonder if the wrecking ball is just around the corner.

- The Discount Demon celebrates -
To Harborne then, and the Hillyfields on Quinton Road serves up a discount half that had the Chairman positively beaming with smug satisfaction...

- Eyewatering expensiveness -
... sadly his joy was not to last long as a visit to the Junction inflicted untold damage on the D9 wallet courtesy of the most expensive couple of halves in hub marketing history.

- The Harborne Closet -
Other Harborne features would include the Bell Inn (by the church), the swimming baths and the Duke of York road junction although sadly the Scarlet Pimpernel down on Tennal Road is no more. Our favourite find has to be the old cast iron urinal which remains very much in working order just across from the library. Such a facility came in very handy when easing bladders in anticipation of the White Horse (where we met the pub cat) and the Harborne Stores.

- WME Whirlwind wins again -
Early evening sees us homeward bound on the 48 route, stopping off at West Smethwick to complete our darts duel. D9's Balmoral advantage quickly disintegrated as it was the Secretary who ultimately held his nerve to claim a prized place on the spreadsheet. Spon Lane then contributed the Flowerpot - the only pub remaining out of the twenty or more that once populated the street - and a Dartmouth Street shuffle rounds up shots of the Vine and the Railway for good measure with a bonus bit of Emmerdale watching (should you happen to like that kind of thing). Another day done and it's all praise to the hubs, they certainly served us well this time!

Sunday, November 17

The D9 Doorstep Challenge - Part Two

Friday 15th November brings with it the much anticipated follow-up to September's Tipton and Coseley tour. This time the Hub Marketing brigade are bearing down on Bilston, Bradley and Darlaston in the second sweep of the Chairman's home turf...

- Bilston Baldness -
The Chairman always gets nervous about half-day afternoon outings, as he usually incurs a cob penalty despite having the final say on the rendezvous arrangements. He was right to be concerned on this occasion, for the clock had ticked over to 12:32pm when his tram rolled into Bilston Central, meaning he missed the deadline by a mere two minutes. His bald spot is then on full display when surveying the former Heaths greengrocers shop by the Metro entrance.

- Academy Astroturf -
After a truly gut-wrenching rendition of "Hello Dolly" in the Trumpet (I don't think D9 will be joining the ranks of esteemed jazz musicians any time soon), there is some investigating to be done down by the South Wolverhampton & Bilston Academy. The old school buildings on Prosser Street have been demolished along with the remains of the Stonehouse Schools with hard court play areas and astroturf pitches taking their place.

- Industrial Remains? -
A mysterious path makes its way towards Ladymoor and we come across a patch of cleared land that might well have been an old factory site. As we speculate which firm might have operated here, the Chairman does some impromptu modelling on behalf of the Children in Need appeal. Elsewhere in Ladymoor the Clog pub has been converted into Sai's Convenience Store.

- WME in Wolves Corner -
To Bradley then, following an old railway path to emerge in Daisy Bank not far from where there was once a station on the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton line. The Golden Lion joins the ranks of our darts locations and proves a lucky omen for the WME Whirlwind who prevails by 2 legs to 1. The sporting theme continues in the Great Western where the Secretary feels most at home among the framed pictures of John Richards, Mike Bailey and other Wolverhampton Wanderers heroes of yesteryear.

- The Bradley Hub -
Making our way along Hall Green Street, we spot what used to be the Britannia (a Holden's pub back in the day) and note Woottons Square as the former location of the George & Dragon (demolished a good while ago). The Chairman's hub radar then sniffs out this gem on Rose Street, even if Hub Le Bas sounds more French than Black Country.

- Mixing with the local wildlife -
Being so close to home meant that Mr D9 wished to remain out of sight as much as possible in case he got requisitioned for additional domestic chores. We therefore detour via a canal path towards Loxdale Sidings, although the Chairman's trousers received some unwanted nibbling when he tried to ingratiate himself with the local equine population.

- A boarded-up bald spot -
Parents are gathering in readiness for the end of the school week as we pass Loxdale Primary on Chapel Street. There is then sad news to report of the Royal Exchange, which seems to have closed within the last few weeks and now has a demolition notice stuck on the front door. With our quest for a quick half thwarted, we console ourselves with a look at a Wolverhampton Corporation trolleybus pole over towards Moxley, chalking up a sleeve success for Mr D9 in the process.

- No sign of a genie here -
After a rummage around and about Burns Road, we cross the Walsall Canal at Heathfields Bridge and enter the Herberts Park estate. The Chairman was confident he knew the pubs in the vicinity but his knowledge didn't appear to extend to the New Junction, meaning the Secretary's sleeve also collects some brownie points. To be fair to D9, he did have the Aladdins Lamp on his radar but this Wiley Avenue boozer appears to joining the Royal Exchange in the graveyard judging by the telltale dreaded metal shutters.

- The Whirlwind wins again -
Darlaston still boasts its fair share of drinking establishments though with the Staffordshire Knot (a landmark ex-Atkinson's pub at Catherines Cross), the Crown (a King Edward Street affair with an entrance akin to an adult bookshop) and the Frying Pan being in that number. The Vine is a particular favourite where we feel like we are walking in the footsteps of former Rubery Owen factory workers, whilst the Black Horse is the setting for a darts decider that sees D9 Destroyer well and truly vanquished.

- Pudsey Pose in the Prince of Wales -
All good things come to an end, and our Darlaston deliberations are wrapped up courtesy of a Walsall Road trio in the shape of the Springhead Tavern (Black Country Ales), the Prince of Wales (Holdens) and the Horse & Jockey (Banks's) with those Pudsey ears becoming almost a permanent fixture on the Chairman's balding bonce. The doorstep has certainly received a proper polishing over the last couple of months, and there might yet be some further sweeping up to do...

Saturday, November 9

Telford Twice Thwarted

I think the Shropshire weather must have it in for me at the moment, for twice in the matter of a month I've attempted a Telford outing only to abort it due to premature precipitation...

- The Woodcutter, Hollinswood -
The saga begins on Friday 11th October, when the weather seemed reasonable in Wolverhampton but the rain set in virtually the moment I stepped onto the platform at Telford Central. Despite the drizzle I braved a walk down through Hollinswood, discovering the Woodcutter as a piece of pub architecture straight from the brutalist handbook. By the time I reached Dawley Bank the drizzle had become a deluge, and the serious sogginess had me scampering for the safety of the train back home.

- Telford again, but still raining -
Fast forward four weeks to Friday 8th November, and the forecast is the very epitome of promising as I board the train in readiness for Telford Take Two. Perhaps the Wrekin creates a special microclimate where the clouds just cannot escape, for Wolverhampton's sunshine is once more replaced by telltale droplets on the carriage windows as soon as we get the other side of Shifnal. Nonetheless, the camera does get an airing with this Telford sculptural lettering being an early target.

- The Grazing Cow -
To be fair, the rain on this occasion was light and inconsequential to begin with and I rather enjoyed my walk out to Lawley. The village here is the subject of a major development project creating new housing, business and shopping spaces plus schools, play areas and leisure facilities. Already up and running is the Grazing Cow, an example of the modern breed of Marston's pubs aimed at serving new communities.

- Lawley Square -
Also in place is a Morrison's supermarket and next door to this is the Lawley Square shopping parade featuring stores such as Greggs and Barnados along with the local parish council offices. Work is continuing on a bright golden nursery school (due to open in early 2014) whilst some of the planned 3,000 houses are springing up in nearby fields.

- Dawley Bank -
From Lawley Medical Centre I climb Station Road to Dawley Bank, scene of October's deluge and worryingly today's rain is getting noticeably heavier the nearer I get to the top of the hill. The junction with Milners Lane means I can renew my acquaintance with the Beacon chapel and the Bull's Head, but I have to seek refuge in a bus stop to escape the worst of a heavy shower.

- Elephant & Castle, Dawley -
Things seem to have eased off momentarily so I complete my loop of Dawley Bank, spotting the Queens Arms on Bank Road and passing Ladygrove Primary School along Old Office Road. Unfortunately, the rain then returns with a vengeance and I'm absolutely drenched by the time I reach Dawley town centre. A High Street shop doorway gives me just enough dry cover to try a shot of the Elephant & Castle, but that's where the camera action ends as I once more grudgingly concede defeat to the elements. Back to Telford Central then, only this time I might take the hint and steer clear of Shropshire until next spring!