Sunday, June 25

Bears on Tour - Chelmsford

It's been a little while since Stephen and I last did one of our cricketing escapes, circumstances meaning we hadn't seen much cricket at all in 2017 thus far. A week in Chelmsford would be the perfect way to put that right so with cases packed and train tickets in hand we embark on a few days of sporting spectatorship in Essex...

- A County Ground Clue -
With the four day County Championship match due to begin on Monday 19th June, we travel down the day before (via Euston and Liverpool Street) then settle into our Premier Inn accommodation - the hotel is ideally located just over the road from Chelmsford railway station. Once checked in we can get our bearings around Chelmsford city centre including finding the Cloudfm County Ground on the side of the River Can. An evening pint at the Ale House (a bar tucked away among the railway arches) allows us to preview the game and hope that Warwickshire can improve on their disappointing start to the season.

- Judge Tindal's Statue -
Monday morning brings with it sizzling sunshine and an excellent Premier Inn breakfast (I already miss the scrambled eggs, black pudding and Bubble & Squeak) before we say hello to Judge Tindal on our way to the ground. Sir Nicholas Conyngham Tindal was a celebrated lawyer who in 1820 successfully defended Queen Caroline against charges of adultery - his statue can be found in Tindal Square outside HSBC. To cricket matters and Essex win the toss, choose to bat and spend the day compiling a healthy 263 for 5 thanks largely to knocks from Nick Browne (84) and Ravi Bopara (84 not out). It's also a thrill to see Alastair Cook in action, England's record Test match run-getter contributing 39 to the home cause. 

- Chelmsford Cathedral -
Monday evening means Moulsham Street where supper comes courtesy of Robinson's (a Chelmsford chip shop institution for well over 100 years) which we follow with a call into the Cricketers, a Gray & Sons pub just up from St John the Evangelist Church. Into Tuesday and Chelmsford Cathedral takes its turn for some morning photography before we watch Essex pile on ever more runs. Bopara takes his tally to 192 and is ably assisted by James Foster (121) in 541/9 declared, an ominous total that has the Bears stuttering to 60 for 2 in reply. Stephen and I are still hopeful though, especially as key Bears batsmen Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott will be leading the chase on the third morning. Our optimism is confirmed over a chat in the Railway Tavern, a classic Chelmsford boozer where the Meow Mild has me purring in appreciation.

- Hop Beer Shop, Moulsham Street -
Wednesday sadly brings a fair amount of woe for Warwickshire as Essex take a firm grip on the game. Bell and Trott both departed relatively quickly, and while Sam Hain made his first Championship half century of the season, it was mainly through the pugnacious efforts of Jeetan Patel (71) that the Bears reached 283 all out only to be asked to follow on. Chief destroyer was spinner Simon Harmer with 6 for 92 and he soon added to his collection with the second innings scalp of Trott, lbw to the final ball of the day (a decision that prompted a bout of Beardsmore umpire heckling). The precarious predicament is discussed at length at our next choice of evening establishment, Stephen and I therefore being worried in the Woolpack - the pub itself is a lovely backstreet Greene King place situated opposite the historic Hall Street building where Marconi based his first radio factory.

- A Pavilion Picture -
Thursday naturally brings a sense of trepidation as we wonder whether Warwickshire can hold on for a draw. Any threat of a thunderstorm soon subsides (the weather was great all week) but there is little relief out in the middle where Harmer continues to hypnotise batsmen with his offbreaks. Resistance is in short supply sadly despite Tim Ambrose's stoic efforts; the Bears are bundled out for a mere 94 to lose by an innings and 164 runs, their fourth innings defeat in six games played - ouch! Harmer surpasses his earlier haul with 8 for 36 giving a heroic total of 14 wickets in the match.

- The Queens Head -
The carnage of the Warwickshire collapse means a consolatory drink is required. The Queens Head on Lower Anchor Street is close to the ground and owned by the Crouch Vale Brewery; we first came in on Monday night to be greeted by two cute pub dogs (one wearing a bow tie no less) but this time around the pub is a haven for Bears fans licking their wounds. A pint of Black Fox Porter (or lemonade and blackcurrant for Mr B) soothes our disappointment although the threat of relegation is starting to loom large unless a few wins can be found from somewhere.

- Homeward via Liverpool Street -
The Royal Steamer and the Railway Tavern (more Meow Mild) have the honour of being of our closing Chelmsford watering holes and then Friday morning allows for one last breakfast indulgence prior to our homeward journey. Our Greater Anglia train to London Liverpool Street is hauled by a unit named after Sir John Betjeman which poses poetically at the terminal platform, after which some tube trickery conveys us thus to London Euston and another cricket caper is complete. Hopefully the next time we watch Warwickshire we might witness a win!

Saturday, June 10

Black Lake to Bilston

Even though I find politics rather fascinating, I must admit a certain amount of election fatigue had crept in yesterday after hour upon hour of coverage dissecting the nation's voting decisions. In need of an escape, I hopped aboard the Midland Metro to Black Lake and then embarked on a photographic perambulation covering Hateley Heath, Hill Top and a bit of Bilston...

- Ridgacre Past -
I've explored the remains of the Ridgacre Branch a few times before (usually at the start of a D9 Hub Marketing outing) but this time around I wanted to piece together a little more of the canal's Hateley Heath heritage. I therefore join the towpath at Black Lake Bridge (the proverbial stone's throw from the tram stop) and enjoy an informative chat with a passing cyclist who told me about the canal's lost connections. It's then but a short distance to the branch terminus, a location marked by an artistic structure depicting scenes past, present and future.

- Current Canal Terminus -
You wouldn't necessarily know it given the modern-day surroundings (the houses of Denbigh Drive one side of the canal, Ridgacre Road industrial units on the other), but there used to be two former arms in the vicinity. The Dartmouth Arm once headed north to meet Coles Lane and Witton Lane, whereas the Halford Arm ventured south towards Church Lane, both having been initially constructed to serve the extensive local mines and collieries. Church Lane in fact historically featured two canal bridges as the Jesson Branch (itself an offshoot of the Halford Arm) also made an imprint on the area. Where the current canal ends various paths spread out with my chosen route taking me to Cardigan Close.

- Kesteven Green Swan Sculpture -
The wider estates of Hateley Heath are now at my disposal although first of all I pick out a Queens Head pub picture on the corner of Church Lane and Small Street. A sharp shower does its best to dampen my enthusiasm but the sun reappears in time for Wiltshire Way and a look at Kesteven Green. Mr D9's favourite swan is still intact here along with a selection of mosaics, not to mention a bench shaped like a fish. Phoenix Collegiate is a local educational landmark while the Gough Arms is a sprawling Marston's establishment at the bottom of Coles Lane - I'm intrigued by the little Lowe Bros Turf Accountant's hut on the pub's back yard, a reminder that large roadhouses often had a bookies in close proximity.

- A Police Presence at Hill Top -
Not being of a gambling persuasion, I forego placing any bets in favour of climbing Coles Lane to reach Hill Top. Every other shop here seems to be a takeaway of some description as I note the Hen & Chickens appears to have closed down, not a pretty sight surrounded by grim hoardings. An altogether more appealing prospect is the Park Buildings complex, home to Hill Top Library and Community Centre but with evidence of policing pedigree among the carved stonework - one wing of the building once served as the Sergeant's House no less.

- Three Horseshoes, Witton Lane -
I think I've earned myself a pint and as Hill Top Park's pathways release me onto Witton Lane I can eye up the Three Horseshoes as a tempting tavern. The pub was refurbished by Black Country Ales last year and the increased real ale range was something I needed to investigate - cue Everard's Tiger and a bag of scratchings, nice! The Vintage TV soundtrack of Roy Orbison and the Crickets makes a welcome change from my recent diet of David Dimbleby and Andrew Neil.

- Tame Valley Scenery -
I resume my walk with Holloway Bank, quickly switching onto the Tame Valley Canal which in truth is one of the least enticing waterways on the BCN. The relentless straightness of some of its sections can be rather monotonous with the stretch down to Doe Bank being no exception. The redundant railway at Golds Hill enlivens things a little while an electricity substation is notable without being in any way pretty. The presence of the pylons and so forth prompts me to ponder Ocker Hill Power Station, the cooling towers of which were a prominent part of the Tipton skyline for many years. The plant was situated beside the Walsall Canal and supplied electricity to the Black Country before being decommissioned in 1977 and ultimately demolished ten years after that.

- Light lunchtime reading -
The site of the power station has since been reclaimed for housing so I turn towards Toll End by following the Walsall Canal to Moors Mill Lane. Along the way I pass two former junction locations, the first being for the Ocker Hill Tunnel Branch (part of which still exists as residential moorings either side of Bayleys Lane) and the second for the Toll End Communication (a bygone branch that had several locks and linked with the New Main Line in Tipton at a spot now occupied by Caggy's Boatyard). I seem to have worked up a bit more of a thirst but refreshment is at hand courtesy of the Rising Sun on Horseley Road, my second Black Country Ales offering of the day. A giant cheese and onion cob perfectly matches some Burton Bridge Damson Porter as a special indulgence.

- Working on the White Rabbit -
Letting the bus take the strain, I catch the 43 from Toll End Pound to Bradley so as to finish off with a look at the ongoing Bilston Urban Village works. New roads connecting Dudley Street with Coseley Road and Highfields Road at Ladymoor are taking shape while the construction of the White Rabbit also gathers pace, Marstons' new-build pub will be situated between Morrisons supermarket and the Bert Williams Leisure Centre. My faithful friend the 25 bus is then in place to take me home so I can find out what kind of government might emerge from the chaos of election night. One thing is for sure though, a day out in the Black Country is definitely a WME vote winner!

Thursday, June 1

A Rocket Pool Rummage - Part Two

Back at the start of April, Stephen and I descended upon the Rocket Pool estate for a canal-themed couple of hours of photography. We focused on part of the Bradley Canal Arm and a Daisy Bank detour that day, meaning we didn't quite get into Princes End as intended - this did however give some unfinished business to attend to, and with another free Thursday morning at our disposal, we set our sights beyond Bilston once more...

- Why did the geese cross the road? -

The 530 Banga Bus from Wolverhampton again dutifully serves as our initial connection, revealing the rubble by the Royal Hospital where the former Cleveland Road depot has recently been demolished. Rocket Pool Drive is a familiar terminus location now although some daredevil geese insist on waddling about in the middle of the road while taking no notice whatsoever of oncoming traffic. Our feathered friends survive unscathed so Mr Beardsmore and I can reacquaint ourselves with the remains of the Bradley Locks Branch, picking up the trail just off Humphries Crescent. The footpath gently climbs towards Weddell Wynd, the locations of the old lock chambers being noticeable where the path levels off in certain places.

- Weddell Wynd Earthworks -

The Bradley Locks Branch historically reached a junction with the Wednesbury Oak Loop somewhere in the vicinity of Weddell Wynd, the open spaces of which nowadays form a community woodland as part of the Black Country Urban Forest. Dodging a small army of dog walkers, we try to pick out where the Wednesbury Oak Loop used to go as it snaked off towards Batmanshill Road. There are some interesting earthworks that could indicate the curve of the canal before we emerge by a small clutch of shops comprising Chris's Stores and a Chinese takeaway.

- Wallbrook Primary School -

From lost canals to railway remnants next as we take Hobart Road in order to explore some of Princes End's transport heritage. The area was at one time served by two separate railway stations, the first of which (Princes End & Coseley) was located on the GWR route between Wolverhampton Low Level and Dudley. The line can be partially traced as a footpath beside Wallbrook Primary School while the station was positioned just off Bradleys Lane. We can't see much evidence of any platform structures but Stephen does spot some curious gate columns for a disused sports ground.

- Exploring the Princes End Branch -

Passing the Triple S Bar (previously the Talbot) on the Fountain Lane fork, we continue across Bloomfield Road in search of our second railway route of the morning. The Princes End branch line was a link between Tipton and Wednesbury with a stub to Ocker Hill Power Station - the passenger service ceased in 1916 although the route was retained for goods access through until the early 1980s, after which the section between Princes End and Ocker Hill became a leisure walkway. Newhall Road is our access point and we soon reach Upper Church Lane, site of Princes End's second railway station and a signal box although both are long gone.

- Princes End Precinct -

It's been a good few years since I last photographed the centre of Princes End so an archive update is very much in order. The precinct seems relatively unchanged with shops still including Fryday's Fish Bar, Gwen's Tackle & Bait, the local post office and the Tay Pot Cafe (the Black Country accent is alive and well in deepest Tipton). The William Perry Amateur Boxing Club is another notable feature but none of the three pubs I remember are still standing, the Shepherds Cottage, Lagoon and George & Dragon all consigned to history.

- Tipton Sports Academy -

Rejoining the railway walk, we proceed steadily towards Gospel Oak with the Glebefields estate for company over to the right. Time is running away with us and the full circuit we'd hoped to do will not be possible but there are still photo pickings to pluck out courtesy of an Asda supermarket and the Tipton Sports Academy (the leisure centre complex serving as the base for Tipton Town Football Club and Tipton Harriers Athletics). The Gospel Oak and Great Bridge Road see us safely back to Bradley Lane for our Metro conclusion, rounding off a rewarding roam that still leaves us with scope for a third instalment at a later date. To be continued...

Tuesday, May 30

WME Flickr Focus - May 2017

Whitsun for me is one of the defining weeks of the year when summer is fast approaching with (hopefully) blue skies and soaring temperatures to match. The transition from May into June also prompts me to summon up another of my monthly summaries, so here we go again with more photostream progress...

I shall start this brisk bulletin with WME Warwickshire, latterly the proud purveyor of some Warwick Castle wares. I've focused on the armour and the waxwork exhibits so far rather than the formidable architecture, although the sight of King Henry VIII in all his glory is not one to trifle with. The castle content is joined by fledgling albums showcasing Southam (the Bowling Green pub), Kenilworth (the Virgins & Castle) and The Lakes railway station.

A shuffle through the shires takes me next to WME Worcestershire where Stourport stakes its own claim as May's biggest photo contributor. The Treasure Island amusement park, some ruined church walls, a mysterious cave in Wilden and a couple of pub signs certainly make an impression while the town's canal heritage is evident in photos of York Street Lock and a helter-skelter basin view. Class 323 trains at Redditch and a peek at Pershore's station sign complete the county's haul on this occasion.

Where to now dear reader? How about WME Birmingham for a stop at Star City so we can spot the Vue Cinema, or perhaps a wander over to West Heath Park? WME Shropshire can offer us Maund's Garage at Wem plus some simple pub signage courtesy of Shifnal's Anvil, WME Staffordshire then maintaining that theme with some traditional Holden's examples from the Swan at Whiston - anywhere that proclaims 'Golden Glow on sale here' is always likely to secure my custom! 

WME Solihull and WME Sandwell have both been rather quiet in terms of 2017 updates but make sure to get in on the act this time around. Solihull squeezes through a Salter Street church carving and a glimpse of Robin Hood Cemetery (not forgetting a Widney Manor station sign) whereas Sandwell busies itself with Tipton Conservative Club. I should definitely note that even WME Coventry has sparked back to life, its 2017 debut offering being the Jolly Colliers sign at Potters Green.

That leaves me quite neatly with some Black Country bits and pieces on which to finish. WME Dudley collects a fossil find from the Wrens Nest nature reserve, WME Walsall picks up April's Pelsall thread by adding in more pub photos (the Railway and the Fingerpost) then WME Wolverhampton samples St Jude's Church before confirming the Polski Sklep fate of the former Waggon & Horses on Cannock Road. May is thus done and dusted for another year and the spotlight now falls upon June to see what the next few weeks can bring our way...

Sunday, May 28

Hub Marketing 2017: Bloxwich

There is wonderful weather all the way as the Hub Marketing Board take their third bite out of Bloxwich (with a little help from Lower Farm and Blakenall Heath too)...

- Forest Footbridge -
A look back through the archives confirms that Messrs D9 and WME do a 'Bloxwich Blast' roughly every two years. 2013 and 2015 had established the sequence so 2017 continues the happy trend as our trusty Secretary boards the 69 bus, the top deck of which feels something akin to a sauna in the sticky on-board temperatures. Blue skies are very apparent as the day's photo acquisitions get underway with some canal coverage - Top Lock on the Walsall Canal at Birchills is an old favourite making another archive appearance but Forest Footbridge on the Wyrley & Essington is a structure seldom seen among the WME back catalogue.

- A four dart flourish -
Apart from the canals, Mr WME is keen to uncover corners of Walsall he hasn't seen before. The Local History Centre on Essex Street is therefore an excellent discovery, although the old schoolhouse here will cease to be the base for the borough's local studies facilities when the service transfers to the centre of town later this year. Talking of historic relics, the Chairman is due to join proceedings so a Carl Street rendezvous precedes some refreshment in the Railway, a Leamore local where the Carling powers D9 Destroyer to an impressive 101 darts checkout. 

- All aboard for Lower Farm -
A trundle to Lower Farm is next on the agenda, the 302 negotiating the predictable congestion along Bloxwich High Street where Mr D9 grinds through the gears during another expert driving demonstration. Little Bloxwich Bridge then heralds the turning for Stoney Lane as we eye up the Beacon Way for a decent pint of Wye Valley Butty Bach. Elsewhere the estate has a tower block or two and a Costcutter store plus a further run of shops can be found on Buxton Road. The Secretary's local knowledge secures him a sleeve success in the form of the Saddlers Arms, a Fishley Lane alehouse that initially thwarts our hopes of access - persistence will pay off later though.

- Christ Church, Blakenall Heath -
Making the most of the beautiful sunshine, we continue our estate endeavours by breezing into Blakenall Heath. Christ Church is a key landmark here, built in 1872 and looking particularly commanding with its tower peeping out through the treetops. Valley Nursery School and a Sure Start Children's Centre can be found clustered around the church while the Peace Tree on the green serves as a focal point for poppy wreaths. Two pubs are in the vicinity, but having sampled the New Inn back in 2013, we focus this time on the Kings Head (Ingram Road). This proves to be an excellent choice, the back lounge being the setting for Banks's Original amidst an impressive teapot collection. 

- Showman Silliness -
With the aid of Leamore Park's New Deal pathways, we swap the Kings Head for the Queens Head as the centre of Bloxwich beckons. The pub's basic box boozer architecture certainly has the Chairman captivated even if for most observers it wouldn't win any beauty prizes - neither indeed would our erstwhile Secretary who bravely (or foolishly) accepts a challenge to wear a pink wig in the Bloxwich Showman. The resultant effect makes WME look like the illegitimate offspring of rock guitarist Brian May and 'Are You Being Served?' matriarch Mrs Slocombe!

- Pat Collins Memorial Clock -
The Bloxwich Showman (a former cinema) is the town's Wetherspoons outlet and is named in honour of local personality Pat Collins, a renowned fairground entrepreneur who made Bloxwich his home. A further tribute to the 'King of Showmen' is the Memorial Clock on Promenade Gardens, funded through public subscription and presented in 1955. The afore-mentioned pink wig is thankfully squirreled out of sight as board members dutifully conclude their pub deliberations with a combination involving the Victoria, the Diana, the One Man and His Dog and that promised return to the Saddlers Arms - all in an afternoon's work.

- And finally... -
No self-respecting account of Hub Marketing activities could be accepted if it lacked either a bald spot or a closet. Here at the Chairman's request is a photo that ticks both boxes, the location being Bloxwich Cemetery. Until next time... cheers!

Friday, May 19

Wednesfield Area Wanderings

Another sunny Thursday morning means another local walk updating my archive with new photos of familiar areas. With the weather smiling on me once more, I take aim at wider Wednesfield with the intention of gathering pictures covering Old Fallings, The Scotlands, Long Knowle and Ashmore Park...

- Fallings Park Primary -

Wednesday's rain has fortunately given way to blue skies mixed with a handful of cheerful clouds as I set out along Whitgreave Avenue passing the former site of the Highcroft. Old Fallings Lane allows me to maintain my recent diet of school entrance signage with both Fallings Park Primary and Our Lady & St Chad's Catholic Academy on hand for extra educational coverage. The Otter and Vixen curiously insists it isn't closing as I pass the junction of Croft Lane/Fifth Avenue, then the Cannock Road roundabout has two churches for me to contend with although Our Lady of Perpetual Succour is much more impressive architecturally than its United Reformed counterpart.

- Scotlands Homezone -

I covered a little section of the Cannock Road during my Underhill walk two weeks ago but this time around it marks my approach to The Scotlands. I can just about remember the Plough pub near the turn for Mill Lane (now the site of a drive-thru McDonalds) then the Homezone decorating store also prompts a few childhood memories. I seem to recall there once being a tatty corner shop on the other side of the island where the Domino's pizza place latterly stands while other local stores include Zaras Plaice takeaway, the Fruit Tree greengrocers and a branch of the Nationwide building society.

- Blackwood Avenue backdrop -

The recollections continue along Blackhalve Lane where a Lidl supermarket replaced the Royal Oak a few years ago (somewhere in my back catalogue I've got a couple of pictures of the pub just before it was demolished). Blackwood Avenue leads me into Long Knowle, scene of Green Bus photos in times gone by - the flats are still there, as is the playing field and the primary school although you won't get a vintage breadvan trundling by these days; the estate is currently served by the 65 route linking Wolverhampton, New Cross Hospital and Fordhouses whereas the Green Bus used to go to Essington and Cannock. 

- Devils Elbow Bridge -

Wood End is next, keeping me busy with pubs past and present.  The Noah's Ark has been converted into a One Stop outlet but the Pheasant is still trading and remains a handsome building in a neo-Georgian style. A Ridge Lane rummage reveals that Dave's Supersave on Wootton Avenue has closed, then I can take a towpath timeout by joining the Wyrley & Essington Canal at Moathouse Bridge. Nesting swans and suburban back gardens accompany me along the short stretch to Devils Elbow, noting en route the narrow spot where Moat Green Bridge was formerly located.

- Griffiths Drive Co-op -

Arriving into Ashmore Park, I quickly account for the new Co-op store built on part of the Ashmore pub's car park (the pub itself has thankfully been retained after being under threat of closure). Other amenities to be found along Griffiths Drive include St Alban's Church, a health centre, Corpus Christi Church and School, and the community hub (comprising library, cafe, fitness suite and sports hall). The local park has been a favourite haunt over the course of various sporadic visits to the estate, and I also enjoy exploring the earthworks by the shopping parade which represent the remains of a medieval moated farmhouse. It's then just a case of catching the 59 into Wolverhampton and another productive couple of hours has flown by.

Saturday, May 6

Northycote and Underhill

There's nothing I like better on a beautiful spring morning than getting out and about taking a few pictures, and I don't always have to go very far to gather a sizeable set of photos. Thursday 4th May placed some glorious sunshine at my disposal so I stayed close to home by visiting some of my favourite doorstep haunts. The walk went on to prove that even in the most familiar places there can still be new discoveries waiting to be made...

- Bushbury Arms House -
I'll begin if I may with an update from Low Hill (Showell Circus to be precise) where the transformation of the Bushbury Arms from public house to residential apartments has been complete for a while. The new houses of Sewell Gardens (on the former pub's back lawn) are also fully occupied although the Dale House site on the other side of 'The Circle' still remains empty. At least Low Hill Library is still on hand much as it's always been, looking out from the corner of Kempthorne Avenue and Jenks Avenue.

- St Mary's Churchyard -
A glance through the blog archives confirms that the combination of Low Hill - Bushbury Church - Northwood Park is one I've strung together several times on my doorstep wanderings, so if it ain't broke don't fix it! St Mary's Churchyard ensures that pattern is very much maintained as I eye up a few views among the headstones with hints of bluebells. 

- Flamin' Chicken -
Crossing Bushbury Lane, I venture once more into the Northwood Park estate where I've previously noted the conversion of the Staffordshire Volunteer into a convenience store (initially a Family Shopper, now a One Stop). This shop has latterly been joined in the old pub premises by a hairdressers salon and the Flamin' Chicken fast food takeaway. Nearby, both Northwood Park Primary School and the Broadway Gardens Retirement Village are serving as polling stations for the election of the West Midlands Metropolitan Mayor.

- A Sheepish Shot -
And so to Northycote Farm where notices advise that the lambing season is in full swing; indeed, one tiny woolly character is particularly cute when baa-ing in my direction! My customary visit to the herb garden confirms that the lemon balm, sage and lavender seem to be flourishing this year, but one addition to the farm's attractions that I hadn't photographed before is an impressive sensory area with varied planting that showcases different colours, scents and textures.

- Underhill Shops -
Just along the lane from the farm is Underhill where the local shops on Westcroft Avenue include a hairdressers, an undertakers and a cafe - I manage to resist the lure of hot roast pork, instead focusing on the steady stream of number 11 buses terminating here. Elsewhere, the Wulfrun Rose care home has taken over the site where Underhill House once stood and the Talisman still looks rather ominous as a pub prospect.

- The Berry Brook Farm -
Emerging onto the Cannock Road, there's a name change to contend with whereby the (New) Pear Tree is now calling itself the Berry Brook Farm following another makeover. Westcroft straddles the border with Staffordshire but I stay within the bounds of Wolverhampton (Belton Avenue, Blackhalve Lane) in taking a look at Wood Hayes; building work is finally underway here after the old pub grounds had lain disused for several years. A ride on the 11 (via The Scotlands and Fallings Park) rounds things off neatly and I have to say that was a rather productive morning's work!

Wednesday, May 3

Acocks Green with the Chip Foundation

April's last blast of exploration action saw Nick, Stephen and myself bound for the Acocks Green area (plus a side order of Solihull) in an outing otherwise known as number 48 of the Chip Foundation Chronicles...

- Olton Running Board -
Friday 28th April 2017 and our gallant trio descend upon Olton to begin proceedings with a rendezvous scheduled just after 11 o'clock. I rather like Olton Station with its a simple island platform, well-maintained waiting room (complete with geraniums) and artistically-tiled underpass scenes featuring windmills and boating lakes. The interchange information point directly outside the station is guarded by a stainless steel sculpture of a king on horseback while Olton's branch library is just across the road.

- Gongoozling on the Grand Union -
Via Ulverley Green Road we make our way to the Grand Union Canal which runs in a reasonably leafy cutting where the stretch from Acocks Green to Damsonwood is concerned. We initially tackle the towpath from Castle Lane to Woodcock Lane (Vineries Bridge), pausing to admire swooping herons as Stephen ponders the canal's fishing potential. We then momentarily branch off into Yardley for the Journeys End on Clay Lane, a Sizzling pub where Nick is just a little too young to be eligible for the Golden Years menu.

- Former Fire Station -
Back on the canal and the afore-mentioned Vineries Bridge is said to date from 1794, making it something of an original survivor where so many other bridges have been replaced to cope with the demands of modern traffic. We follow the towpath through to Yardley Road before making our way into Acocks Green Village, passing the railway station, the police station and Cottesbrooke School. My favourite find however is an old fire station on Alexander Road, a heritage feature I must admit I'd never spotted before.

- Blackberry Stout? Don't mind if I do! -
Our primary pub target in Acocks Green is the Inn on the Green, a place that is quickly becoming a favourite of mine given that I also called in with D9 a few short weeks ago. The range of real ales here always seems to include something really interesting, Waen's sumptuous Blackberry Stout fitting the bill perfectly this time around. Mr Beardsmore is happy as he has some cricket to watch while a background soundtrack of rock classics seems to fit the pub's personality.

- Warwick Road Chip Choices -
A true Chip Foundation outing always requires for actual chips to be eaten so our lunchtime location turns out to be the Dolphin Fish Bar (the Spread Eagle Wetherspoons being far too busy to tempt us to stay). A bench on the Warwick Road might not be the most scenic of perches but we can contemplate the former Adler's Garage building while munching our respective roes, mini fishes and battered sausages. The Aldi supermarket just behind us was once the site of the Dolphin pub (demolished 1991), a landmark which gave its name to the adjacent lane where there seems to be an outbreak of abandoned sofas lurking among the suburban front gardens.

- Solihull High Street -
Hall Green seems to have less in the way of discarded furniture as we seek out the Bulls Head on Stratford Road, a typical Ember experience on the junction with Fox Hollies Road. A vintage Scotts Cycles shopfront is a further point of interest before a ride on the 6 through congested Shirley brings us safely into Solihull. Stephen is running the risk of a purple beverage overload but gamely braves a final dose of blackcurrantyness as we make the Masons Arms (opposite St Alphege's Church) our closing port of call. Inviting armchairs serve as our setting for some political debate encompassing the forthcoming General Election and a mention or two for President Trump, and with that we wend our way home from Solihull Station - cheers!

Sunday, April 30

WME Flickr Focus - April 2017

In between all my Rail Rover activities and other assorted April adventures I have found time to rustle up some more tasty dishes for the West Midlands Exploration photostream. Let's see what's been on the menu over the last few weeks...

WME Shropshire has taken the role of head chef on this occasion, cooking up some treats from Shrewsbury (Millingtons Hospital) and Ellesmere (another taste of Bridge 58 on the Llangollen Canal). Oswestry makes its photostream debut thanks to a diet of pub signs care of the Oak Inn and the Boars Head, bringing back memories of a Hub Marketing visit last year.

Donning their aprons and wielding their rolling pins to notable effect are WME Wolverhampton and WME Warwickshire. Wolverhampton offers a liberal sprinkling of Merridale morsels (Oak Street tiled signage, Pelham Street emptiness where the Fort Works once stood) and Bilston bites (Hickman Park trees plus a reminder of the Royal Exchange, a lost Loxdale pub) whereas Warwickshire has ladled on some Leamington loveliness (the Oak Inn and the Talbot are also sadly bygone boozers).

Fresh out of the oven are delicacies from WME Walsall (vintage Sankey Working Mens Club signage augmented with the Old House at Home in Pelsall), WME Birmingham (a class 172 train shot at Moor Street) and WME Staffordshire (a Penkridge pair showcasing the White Hart and the local market). Nor should we overlook WME Solihull's culinary efforts, especially now the Blue Bell Cider House near Earlswood has made a photostream appearance.

This just leaves a final few collections fighting over the leftovers. Among the potato peelings and fish heads, WME Dudley unearths a picture of Lye's glorious shed of a railway station whereas WME Sandwell whips up the sign for St Paul's Church in Golds Hill. Not to be outdone, WME Telford scrapes up a bus shelter shot from Newport Interchange for its first meal of the year. With that the stove falls silent for a while but no doubt there will be more to pluck from the pot come May...

Saturday, April 29

Rail Rover 2017

Trumpet fanfare please - nothing less will do for a moment of such exploration significance. Yes, my Rail Rover adventures have been resurrected after a FIVE year gap. Not since 2012 had I last set forth armed with a Heart of England Rover ticket but now the wider Midlands rail network was once again waiting to be (re)discovered - here's what I got up to...

- Tutbury Castle -
Monday 24th April 2017: I've opted for the Flexi Rover ticket this time around which gives me three days travel within a seven day period. Lapworth and Leamington brought the curtain down in 2012 so picking up the baton from those esteemed locations is Tutbury & Hatton on the North Staffordshire Line (Crewe - Derby via Stoke-on-Trent). The station serves neighbouring communities either side of the River Dove with Tutbury being home to a ruined castle, a quaint High Street and a few pubs - I sampled the Leopard for some lunchtime Pedigree. Hatton is actually just over the county boundary into South Derbyshire and has a Nescafe factory as probably its most notable landmark. 

- Foxfield Railway -
Monday afternoon sees me stopping off at Blythe Bridge, a village on the south-eastern fringes of the Stoke-on-Tent city conurbation. The main village facilities (library, post office, Black Cock pub) can be found along the Uttoxeter Road although of particular interest to me is the Foxfield Railway. Originally built to serve Foxfield Colliery, the railway now operates weekends and Bank Holidays as a heritage line from its base on Caverswall Road. Although the site is understandably quiet on a weekday I still enjoy getting glimpses of the goods shed and some of the rolling stock. I then round off the day in Stoke town centre where I'm pleased to see the former Gray's Corner pub (with its Inde Coope lettering) brought back to life as the Olde Bull and Bush.

- Leominster Station Sign -
Tuesday 25th April 2017: Rail Rover Tuesdays are traditionally reserved for Shropshire although I decide to include a little bit of Herefordshire on this occasion. Catching the Carmarthen train out from Shrewsbury, I land in Leominster for my first ever look at the town's railway station, a modest setting that still conveys a sense of transport history. As a sizeable market centre on the River Lugg, Leominster has plenty of attractive architecture to keep me busy: Corn Square with its millennium clock, the Priory Church of St Peter & St Paul and several coaching inns. The Grape Vaults was my choice here and stole my heart with a cracking pint of Ludlow Best to match the old-fashioned ambience and the murmur of local conversation.

- Ludlow Market Square -
One stop back up the line towards Shrewsbury is lovely Ludlow, a place I always enjoy visiting. The whole pace of life seems so different compared to the West Midlands and I savour taking pictures of the Market Square in the shadow of the historic castle. My beer radar then leads me to the Rose & Crown, a courtyard pub hidden away off Church Street that was refurbished last year by Joules of Market Drayton, while the Railway Shed down by the station is now the established tap of the Ludlow Brewery. A pint of Black Knight and some scratchings does me very nicely indeed as I watch the brewers at work.

- Wrenbury Village -
Thursday 27th April 2017: my third and final day of rovering is dedicated to Cheshire as I settle back and relax on the local stopper between Shrewsbury and Crewe. There's something about quiet branch lines and request stops that really appeals to me so I ask the conductor for the train to call at Wrenbury, an unstaffed village halt. I'd never been to Wrenbury before but immediately feel at home, especially with a stretch of the Llangollen Canal to investigate. A succession of lift bridges either side of Wrenbury Mill Marina provide the focus of my towpath tour until a sharp shower sends me scurrying for shelter in the Cotton Arms, a Cholmondeley Road inn with an associated caravan site.

- Shropshire Union at Nantwich -
When the rain relents I return to Wrenbury station for the short journey up the line to Nantwich where my canal capers continue courtesy of the Shropshire Union main line. The stretch from Marsh Lane to Nantwich Aqueduct is sedate and reasonably scenic with narrowboat moorings adding charm along the way. Nantwich's main centre sits beside the River Weaver and the town is historically associated with both the salt and tanning industries (the local football club is nicknamed the 'Dabbers' in reference to the latter). I weave my way through from Welsh Row to Hospital Street, making sure to seek out the Black Lion (as listed in the 2017 Good Beer Guide) for a quality pint of Weetwood's Cheshire Cat. There's just time for me to wave hello to 'Elvis' over at the Railway Hotel before my Crewe connection arrives, and as I make my return back to the West Midlands I hope it won't be another five years until I next see Rail Rover action!