Tuesday, February 26

Winter Ales in Derby

Saturday 23rd February and the final day of Derby CAMRA's 12th Winter Ales Festival sees Nick and I making tracks for the East Midlands in order to sample one of the beer capitals of Britain...

    The venue for the festival is The Roundhouse, barely a stone's throw from the 
back entrance to Derby Station. The building was for many years at the heart of 
Derby's locomotive building industry (complete with an engine turntable) but is 
now a flagship feature of the Derby College campus. Here we see the queues forming in readiness for the festival opening at 11am.
The restored interior of the Roundhouse was a spectacular sight and provided a wonderful setting for all the lovely beer. Over 300 different ales were available over the course of the weekend, with some of our personal favourites being Rutland Beast, Noggin Filler, Dark Drake (Dancing Duck), Coffin Lane Stout and some Humber Bridge Black IPA. Nick (as ever) nailed himself firmly to the dark side whilst I seemed to be 
ploughing a furrow of Best Bitter.

We couldn't fault the festival one bit, and an extra feather in the cap was the free 
bus that was laid on to ferry visitors back and forth between the Roundhouse and 
the City Centre. We were never going to pass up on a gift such as this so we 
clambered on board for the short ride to the Quad, operator Trent Barton 
doing the honours with much aplomb. 

The afternoon would have us seeking out some of Derby's finest local hostelries as 
we put the city's beer capital credentials firmly to the test. First stop was the Furnace 
on Duke Street where we enjoyed some Crate Stout as recommended by a 
very enthusiastic barman. 

Amongst our other calling points was Ye Olde Dolphin Inne, said to be Derby's oldest 
pub in that it apparently dates from 1530-odd and is reputed to be haunted. 
We didn't detect any ghosts ourselves but do partake of Centurion Mild served 
in traditional fashion straight out of the jug.

I don't think the Flower Pot was originally among our targets but upon hearing a 
glowing recommendation we simply had to check it out. It was here that we had a 
close encounter of the Zymosis kind, the beer being a real brute despite its 
deceptively pale colour. 

It has to be said that the centre of Derby is blessed with an array of excellent pubs, 
all with their own little quirks and points of interest. There are brewery taps to be sampled - Dancing Duck's at the Exeter Arms and the Derby Brewing Company's 
taphouse, the latter being where I try to explain the finer points of rugby to an 
utterly baffled NW, talk about attempting the virtually impossible! We round off down
by the station getting to grips with Harold Larwood and then squeaking in 
Bass from the jug to close. 

What a fantastic day, so here's to Derby as a beer capital - it definitely gets my vote!

Monday, February 25

Battery Bother in North Birmingham

Friday 22nd February 2013: The latest installment of Anti-Hub Marketing duties brought with it frozen fingers and power problems as Chairman D9 and Secretary WME surveyed North Birmingham...

THE HAWTHORNS: the customary breakfast rendezvous of bacon rolls in West Bromwich provides just enough fortification for the Secretary to stomach visiting The Hawthorns, where he stoically photographs the Jeff Astle Gates whilst trying hard to forget about the current plight of his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Chairman has no such qualms and happily gets shots of the ground in all its glory.

- Handsworth Cemetery -

HANDSWORTH: the Secretary needed cheering up after that close encounter with West Bromwich Albion, although a stroll around Handsworth Cemetery wasn't quite what he had in mind! The cemetery grounds are quite extensive and include an impressive arts and crafts styled mortuary chapel, although there was no sign of the old closet block the Chairman had set his heart on sampling. We emerge empty-handed at the 101 bus terminus by the Leveretts ready for a ride down to Handsworth Wood and a quick peek at The Grove.

- The Chairman gets Hubbed -

WITTON: onto the Outer Circle next and a short trundle through Perry Barr to Witton, where the Secretary's sleeve summons up a photo opportunity outside the Hub development off Witton Road. The Chairman's toilet detection skills sniff out the urinal block in the walls of the Aston Hotel and then there's more footballing torment for the Secretary to endure when Villa Park becomes the second rival stadium to be photographed in a matter of hours, the freezing breeze doing little to add to his enthusiasm.

- The King Edward: an Aston landmark for how much longer? -

ASTON: Villa Park becomes the scene for the first onset of power failure when the Secretary is beset by battery problems whilst in the midst of dealing with the Holte End. Various juggling of AA's ensues to try and extract some kind of charge so that Aston Hall, the Parish Church and the derelict Aston Tavern can be committed to camera. Other pub targets include the New Adventurers (a dubious vision in claret and blue) and the King Edward VII (a landmark apparently at risk due to proposed industrial developments) before members cast a unanimous vote to procure an emergency cafe meeting in order to escape from the biting cold.

- The site of Tyburn Bus Depot -

TYBURN: thawed out by a medicinal sausage bap, our agenda moves to the Tyburn Road courtesy of the 67 Bendibus. The Chairman remembers the old Tyburn bus depot based near Wood Lane but all that remains of it now are crumbs of rubble and a long flank of white hoardings. Holly Lane offers a sighting of the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal at Brace Factory Bridge but a second power failure means further investigation is futile so the proposed towpath walk is abandoned in favour of a quick 966 ride into Erdington instead.

- Wallet woes at the Lad in the Lane -

ERDINGTON: alighting on Orphanage Road, members make a beeline for the warmth of the Swan pub where the radiators are requisitioned for battery heating duty and the Secretary celebrates an early contender for the discounted round of the day competition. Further power reinforcements are obtained from Boots the Chemist whilst it is pleasing to note the completed restoration of St Barnabas Church five or so years after a devastating fire put the building in jeopardy. The Secretary is on the hunt for sleeve surprises in Rookery Park only to take a wrong turn and miss his intended exit. His navigation skills do however manage to locate the Lad in the Lane, reputedly Birmingham's oldest pub and said to date from the 1400's - sadly for the Chairman, the building does not come with medieval prices and the D9 wallet incurs considerable collateral damage. A diplomatic incident is only avoided when the belated discovery of the Rookery Park closet gets the Secretary off the hook, with D9 ecstatically snapping the vintage tiles and urinals for all that he was worth.

- Bald Spot braves the Rookery Park closet -

PERRY COMMON: additional Outer Circle gymnastics then transport events to Stockland Green where a lung-busting sprint is required in commandeering an onrushing 65. Streetly Road and Short Heath are glimpsed breathlessly before we touch base with Perry Common terminus on Witton Lodge Road. The perishing temperatures have predictably created a D9 bladder situation so the Secretary summons up a pub from the recesses of his memory bank. Thankfully the Leopard was close at hand and the Chairman was spared any need for impromptu phone calls.

SUTTON COLDFIELD: the 66 bus covers some of what used to be the 68 Birmingham North Circle, thus collecting members outside the Leopard for transportation to Sutton Coldfield via The Hurstway, Finchley Road and New Oscott. Once in Sutton there's an encounter with the Duke Inn to sample some Theakston's Lightfoot, although there are no apparent sightings of a Chicken Tom or a Perry Barr Pig. The Chairman reminisces about Sutton Coldfield's former bus garage on Upper Holland Road, the site near Plantsbrook School is now occupied by a care home. More battery frustrations rear up at Lower Parade so the emergency stash needs to be broken into for the rest of the agenda.

- The Anvil - 

FALCON LODGE: the outer reaches of North Birmingham beckon with a ride out to the Falcon Lodge estate, where members are able to enjoy a game of darts in the Anvil. Alf the dog will be on hand to referee (and sniff out the scent of chihuahuas) as the Secretary secures a stunning victory by virtue of hitting the treble 19 twice (despite only needing to score 32)!

- Chewing Wasps on the Driving Demo -

MINWORTH: a 115 RUAG induces an attack of wasp-chewing proportions with the Chairman particularly suffering in the vicinity of Walmley. Local landmarks include the Fox Inn, a war memorial and a library/community hall, but thankfully D9 manages to spit the miscreant wasps out by the time members had reached Minworth. A Walmart Hypermarket is a notable feature here whilst the Boat and the Hare & Hounds are both close to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal.

- A Castle Vale Clue -

CASTLE VALE: there is no immediate prospect of a 71 to catch so the Chairman takes the decision to hike into Castle Vale along Park Lane with a full circuit of Farnborough Road to follow. The estate is very different to the one our Chairman visited twenty-odd years ago and has lost most of its tower blocks and all of its pubs, even though the Skylark building is still standing. The area has a proud aviation history and a local traffic roundabout is known as 'Spitfire Island'. Much has been done regeneration wise including the redevelopment of the Reed Square shopping centre. After circumnavigating most of the estate, members will be pleased to intercept the 67 Bendibus for a ride back towards Birmingham.

ASTON: this North Birmingham investigation reaches its conclusions within the environs of Aston Station, where members take the opportunity to sample the King Edward VII. It would seem quite certain that the pub is to be demolished, a real shame for such a handsome building in an area that needs features of character. The D9 wallet takes its final punishment of the day care of some expensive Guinness and then the train towards Walsall completes another adventure. Hopefully all batteries will be fully operational in time for the next excursion!

Sunday, February 17

Rising Brook to Gailey Roundhouse

Is there such a thing as a canalaholic? If so I might be displaying some symptoms because I can't seem to get enough of the waterways at the moment. Friday 15th February brought with it the urge for some extended walking so I soothed my canal cravings by exploring some of the northern reaches of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire...

My day begins with a ride on the 76 bus, trundling up through Oxley, Coven and Penkridge to reach the outskirts of Stafford. RISING BROOK is an area I first encountered during an Eccleshall outing back in January 2008 so it was good to reacquaint myself with the place, opening my photographic account for the day with shots of the Royal Oak, the Nesbitt Arms and the branch library. The Burton Square shopping precinct also caught my eye, containing a post office with a Postman Pat window along with competing chemists whereby the Lloyds and Co-op Pharmacies face off across the paving slabs.

- Burton Square -

The number 8 bus provides a quick connection into Stafford where I gather a shot or two of Ye Old Rose & Crown, the pub having become a Joule's tap house since the day when I had a pint here with Roger and Woody. The canals are now calling so I hop aboard the 825 for another short ride across to RADFORD BANK, the sight of Crown Carvery pub being my cue to alight. An impressive stone bridge with three arches crosses the River Penk here and offers views of the Radford Meadows Nature Reserve which occupies the river's flood plain.

- Radford Bank -

Onto the towpath then and Radford Bridge (No. 98) marks the start of my walk in earnest. A beautiful February morning adds to the sense of peace as I squelch my way along enjoying further views of Radford Meadows. You can see Stafford becoming ever more distant on the horizon as I head out towards countryside, passing Wildwood Park, Maple Wood Marina (home to Stafford Boat Club), Hazelstrine Bridge and Deptmore Lock.

- Acton Bridge -

Before too long I arrive at Acton Bridge (No. 93) where I'm tempted away from the canal in order to investigate ACTON TRUSSELL. This was my first ever look at the village and I didn't quite know what to make of it - it's obviously an affluent place but I struggled a little to find any landmarks or facilities to capture on camera. The community centre is a modern building tucked away on Acton Hill Road whilst on the far side of the village is St James Church, a site where acts of worship are said to have taken place since the year 1212. Close to the church is the Moat House, a rather exclusive looking hotel, restaurant and wedding venue.

I rejoin the canal at Acton Moat Bridge (No. 92) and relish the section down through Teddesley towards Penkridge. There are plenty of features to keep me occupied, notably Park Gate Bridge and Lock which I remember passing as a kid on the way back from family visits to Cannock Chase. Although the walk is relaxing, the M6 motorway is a constant companion and the thundering traffic creates a background soundtrack to remind me I haven't escaped completely. The canal actually passes beneath the motorway at Bridge 88A and you wonder what it would have been like at Longford before the road was constructed.

- Cross Keys, Penkridge -

My arrival at Broom Bridge (No. 87) gives me my next excuse to branch off from the towpath as I head into PENKRIDGE in search of a bite to eat, and I must say it's nice to hear the happy chatter of the local schools at playtime as I make my way along Teddesley Road to Crown Bridge. I've photographed Penkridge a fair bit over the years but it's always good to add to my collection, hence the Horse & Jockey and Market Street's shops get a bit of attention. One landmark I hadn't spotted before was the village gaol, now in use as a heritage centre and home to Penkridge Civic Society - there's even a set of old stocks on the front yard so I'd better not upset anyone whilst taking my pictures! Francis Green Lane brings me back to the canal at Princefield Bridge (No. 85) and I perch on the balance beam at Filance Lock whilst eating my well-earned lunch. The stretch of canal immediately through the village is familiar from previous outings and includes the Cross Keys, an old-fashioned M&B pub on the side of Filance Bridge.

- Rodbaston Lock Sign -

The final section of my walk is perhaps the most fascinating for me personally as I uncover the bridges and locks between Penkridge and Gailey. Lyne Hill, Otherton and Rodbaston provide plenty of photographic opportunities, aided and augmented by Boggs Lock and Brick Kiln Lock on the approach into Gailey. The M6 maintains its waterside vigil as it counts down towards junction 12 where the busy A5 Watling Street also starts looming into view.

- Gailey Lock and Roundhouse -

A good few miles of gentle strolling have thus brought me to GAILEY where I bid the canal farewell by surveying the wharf buildings in all their splendour. Sitting aside Gailey Top Lock is the historic roundhouse that served as the toll keeper's office in years gone by - it bears more than a resemblance to a castle tower and now operates as a little shop, particularly during the summer months. Gailey Island is well known as a road junction where the A5 meets the A449 and other landmarks include the corner shop overlooking the roundabout, the old church (now home to a pottery studio) and the Spread Eagle pub. Satisfied that my canal itch has been well and truly scratched, I board the 76 back towards Wolverhampton and reflect on another cracking job well done.

Saturday, February 9

Barr Beacon

Friday 8th February 2013: Come lace up your hiking boots and join me on the towpath trail as I lead you on a roundabout stroll from Birchfield to Birchills by way of Barr Beacon...

BIRCHFIELD: Our endeavours begin at Perry Barr Station from where we set out in search of pub photographs in the surrounding areas. Wellington Road offers us the Calthorpe Arms by way of an opening gambit as we note the Brighter Birchfield hoardings by Westminster Road. The Birchfield area is notable for its terraced sequences as we do a loop around Putney Road and Church Vale.

- Hutton Road -

HANDSWORTH: We emerge onto Church Hill Road for a helping of Handsworth, admiring St Mary's Anglican Church on the Hamstead Road. The church looks out over part of Handsworth Park where we will find the pool and the park lodge to occupy our cameras. The park is divided into two by a railway line and there are other entrances from Grove Lane or Holly Road.

- Handsworth Park -

LOZELLS: Our next pub picture quest sees us seeking out the Stork, an old Butler's pub that's around here somewhere. As ever with me, there's an element of circumnavigation before we hit the target, although I'm not quite the sure backstreets of Lozells are really somewhere you want to be wandering around randomly. Nonetheless, the pub is located on the corner of Heathfield Road and Finch Road, just down from the Mayfield School.

- The Stork -

WITTON: From Lozells we have another brush with Birchfield, locating the temporary branch library facility behind the old Earlsbury Grange neighbourhood office - I remember taking a photo of the previous library back in 2005. Via Canterbury Cross we shall proceed to Witton, giving a nod to The Broadway where the Harriers pub has been converted into a day nursery. The Aston Hotel is a fine local landmark and we can lament the former site of the Aston Manor Transport Museum where a sign still forlornly hangs outside the tramways depot building.

- Lock 12 with cottages -

TAME VALLEY: Did I mention towpaths? The canal contingent comes to the fore as we join the Tame Valley cut at Deykin Avenue - there are a couple of nice lock cottages to admire before we commence our climb up the Perry Barr flight to Aldridge Road. On the way we will pass below Brookvale Road and the M6 motorway, completing the stretch from lock 12 up to lock 8.

- Drakes Drum -

OLD OSCOTT: You are permitted to rest your feet momentarily as we hop aboard the 997 bus for a short dash to Old Oscott. Birmingham Metropolitan University's James Watt Campus might catch your eye with there also being the chance to spot the Drakes Drum pub before we continue into Pheasey to collect lunch in the shadow of the Collingwood Centre.

- Restoring the Barr Beacon Memorial -

BARR BEACON: The highlight of the afternoon will undoubtedly be a walk across Barr Beacon, where we can stop to eat our lunch and admire the panoramic views. This is one of the highest points in the whole of the West Midlands and a welcome escape from the dense urban areas toured in the morning. The beacon's war memorial has been a much-loved landmark for many years, although sadly targeted by metal thieves in recent times. A project is underway to repair and restore the monument to ensure it once again does justice to the borough's service men and women.

- Longwood Junction -

LONGWOOD: Another landmark in distress is the Three Crowns pub on Sutton Road, the building in a sorry state whilst its car park is used as a car wash premises. A renewed burst of energy then sees us joining the Rushall Canal at Daisy Bank, encountering Moat Bridge at the back of the arboretum before emerging at Longwood Junction where we meet the Daw End Branch and a couple more locks.

- Walsall Town Wharf -

WALSALL: A swift ride on the 7 will convey us into Walsall for a survey of the town's ongoing transformation. The arrival of Tesco and the development of a new college campus have changed the scene dramatically, and there is a similar story to tell down at Walsall Wharf where the Art Gallery has latterly been joined by new waterside developments in various curious pastel-shaded shapes and forms.

- Sainsbury's at Reedswood -

BIRCHILLS: From the Walsall Town Arm we shall weave into Birchills for a flurry of further photography, the light just about holding after 4pm now we're firmly into February. The Orange Tree by Hollyhedge Lane is a deteriorating eyesore these days, whilst the wedge-shaped Tannery off Burrowes Street has met an apparent demise. A final canal stretch sees us to Birchills Junction and we round the whole hike off with a moment or two of reflection at the site of Birchills Power Station. Six cooling towers dominated the skyline for a number of years but were demolished in the 1980's and the land reclaimed, now used for a Sainsbury's supermarket amongst other things. With that our endeavours are over and we can collapse in a heap on the number 89 bus back to Wolverhampton, concluding another memorable feat of West Midlands explorational endurance.

Saturday, February 2

Redditch Reconnaissance

Friday 1st February brings with it the fun and frivolity of the first beer festival of 2013. Redditch has the hosting honours so Double Agent ‘Nickolenko’ and I set out for an evening of covert operations in Worcestershire…

Before the main event comes a bit of Ettingshall Park espionage, eliciting photographs of Holy Trinity Church and the Three Crowns pub. Moving by stealth into Hurst Hill, I note the sad closure of the Gate Hangs Well on Hurst Road, then it is time to team up with Nickolenko as he exits his usual hideout in Woodcross. NW’s cover is almost blown by a friendly driver on the 229 bus, but we make it to Coseley without further alarm so as to safely catch our train into Birmingham.

The conscientious agent should always try and avoid detection so we embark on a round of Cross City line hopscotch in order to throw any would-be villains off our trail. Brief encounters could be had with Bournville and Northfield, the latter apparently being the first time NW had ever set foot on that particular station – he wouldn’t have to wait too long for his second bite at it either! The pit stops give us chance to work on our code for the evening with Agent NW keen to include crumpet, strumpet and trumpet amongst our vocabulary.

The decoys appear to have worked and we reach Redditch with our target, the Rocklands Social Club, firmly in our sights. Last year we had a slight misadventure trying to locate the venue so we have taken extra precautions to ensure we go in the right direction this time around. The plan works to perfection, and access is gained to the 7th Redditch Winter Ales Festival. With a nudge and a wink (and £10 admission) we obtain the all important glasses and tokens then stake out the room to assess which beers require closer investigation.

- Eyes Peeled for Suspicious Behaviour -

The stillages await and the temptation to move over to the dark side was just too strong – opening thirds of Titanic Cappuccino Stout and Wentworth Oyster Stout proving too much to resist. A seat on the stage is procured from where we have a view of the whole room as it fills up with jolly revellers, a very convivial atmosphere indeed. Power supplies recharged by pie and chips, we avail ourselves of further darkness whereby Morton’s Irish George and Slightly Foxed’s Urban Fox porter both feature. Agent NW did attempt to balance the blackness by availing himself of some Pushpanjali, a fragrant offering from the Rock & Roll Brewery that was flavoured with Indian spices.

Secret agents are often drawn towards danger, and with this being a winter ales event there were plenty of potent brews that demanded our attention. One beer promising peril was Bob 62, a heady bruiser of a stout that had NW’s eyeballs out on stalks such was its power. The daredevil streak in me then reared its head in the form of Kinver’s Boing, a 7% golden ale brewed especially for the festival – it certainly had me bouncing back to the railway station with glee.

With reconnaissance duties complete, we deemed the festival to have been a roaring success with a range of beer styles and strengths to suit all tastes. An agent’s work is never done though, and we were tempted by the prospect of an Alvechurch assignment on the way home. Unfortunately a mishap on the train put paid to such plans when we waited by the wrong door when trying to alight – an elementary error that I must take full responsibility for, so I think I need to go back to spy school for more training!

Ever resourceful, there is always a contingency when things don’t quite work out and so came about our swift second sampling of Northfield Station. Agent NW felt slightly dubious about the merits of the locality but perked up a little at the sight of the Great Stone – sadly he will have to wait a while longer to frequent that particular establishment. As tempting as it was to lock him in the village pound, we proceeded instead to the Black Horse, a mock Tudor landmark on the Bristol Road that is under the stewardship of J D Wetherspoon. Get past the entourage of bouncers and there is a heritage interior to admire, complete with impressive carved beams that we can inspect over our final pint. With that we signed off from another mission, and there was no sign of either of us self-destructing on the way home!

WME Flickr Focus: January 2013

The starting gun has fired and we're out of the traps for 2013, but instead of chasing mechanical rabbits it's photographic content that needs to be sniffed out over the coming few months...

To that end, the new year has brought with it a slight shift in emphasis as I have been able to include a few pictures that never appeared on the old WME Fotopic site. So far these have concentrated on Exploration Extra releases as I unfurl a little more of my 2009 archive. A visit to Chester with Roger, Woody and Andy gets some coverage thanks to shots of Chester Station, Mold auction shack and a couple of bus captures. Then we have a sprinkling from my Skegness holiday with nods to Bateman's Brewery and Boston Marina, whilst there is a token representative from Rail Rover 2010 in the form of Chirk Church.

The archive plunderings have also seen me revisit earlier outings to see what else might be extracted from the deep. Trips to Wythall and Aston Manor in 2006 and 2007 all fell under the gaze of my Fotopic endeavours but some of the photos missed out first time around. It's rather satisfying then to see some of the 'Wumpty Twenty' event buses taking their rightful place in the October 2006 selection for example - the Fotopic version of this set contrained only two photos but now there are six.

I have a feeling that much of my work this year will focus on releasing completely new material onto my photostream, and there is certainly a lot to get to grips with when you consider that my archive from May 2009 onwards is almost non-existent in terms of current representation. However, I will still be trying to chisel a few more of the old Fotopic images into position and January did make a contribution to this. WME Wolverhampton received a shot of Glasshouse Bridge on the Bradley Canal Arm, whilst WME Staffordshire took delivery of bus shots at Essington and Uttoxeter, not to mention a Wombourne village sign and a peek at Longton Bus Interchange. There were also some welcome airings for Clacton's Seafront Gardens on Exploration Extra to round things off. All this means that the WME photostream is a bit of a mongrel at the moment, but I might make a pedigree greyhound out of it yet!