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...