Friday, March 1

WME Flickr Focus - February 2024

Ah February, that month of romance... and pancakes! The West Midlands Exploration photostream doesn't usually concern itself with affairs of the heart (nor the frying pan!) so we'll simply concentrate on the usual tranche of newly-delivered pictures...

There has been a ding-dong battle for the chief contributor's crown this month with WMEs Wolverhampton and Staffordshire locked in a prolonged bout of arm-wrestling. True to form, it's WME Wolverhampton which emerges supreme, triumphing thanks to balance beams galore on the Birmingham Main Line Canal (Locks 18, 19, 20 and 21 all accounted for). The city's Art Gallery procures us various puppets from a 2017 exhibition - dogs, birds and even a tufted camel - while Jay's Cafe is a Stafford Street greasy spoon I wish was still trading.

WME Staffordshire might have missed out on victory but a very solid second place showing is not to be sniffed at. Wombourne was almost exclusively responsible for its recent glut of arrivals, rustling up scout hut signage and 'Watch Your Speed' warnings from a policewoman character. Add in a shrine sighting from St Bernadette's Catholic Church plus some general Wom Brook greenery and it all amounts to pleasing progress even if I say so myself.

Overshadowed but nevertheless quietly beavering away is WME Worcestershire which gains its first additions of 2024. Worcester itself wangles a newsagents shop, a former pub doorway (the Barley Mow's in fact, complete with added circus posters) and a vintage Heineken advert, then it's over to Wythall for a clay post directional arrow opposite the railway station. It partially points the way to WME Birmingham where a Church Road street sign gets Yardley on the move again; WME Dudley meanwhile gains a double dose of Wordsley Junction's fingerpost.

Elsewhere, I can report a sprinkling of odds and ends for the following galleries: WME Walsall (Covid-related graffiti on the Walsall Canal), WME Sandwell (two West Bromwich pub sign pictures for the Flower Pot and the Merry Go Round), WME Telford (hints of Wellington's Church Walk and a James Rollason metal merchants board), and WME Warwickshire (for Whitnash News and the Woodloes Tavern).

Ordinarily that would be enough for most months, but I'm hearing of sleepy stirrings involving Exploration Extra - yes it's waking up from a near yearlong hibernation. Altrincham additions have helped end the slumber, hence glimpses of Moss Lane, the Old Roebuck and the Bee-Bop-A-Raver bee sculpture, then there is Carlisle content in the form of Bitts Park planting and the Carlisle United club shop. I have a feeling that Exploration Extra is going to dominate matters for the foreseeable future so watch this space!

Sunday, February 25

Lost Pubs from the WME Archives #33

I started my Lost Pubs series of blogposts nearly five years ago and here we are 33 episodes in with still enough material to keep me occupied for several more yet. Our first archive dip of 2024 brings back memories of bygone boozers from Birmingham, Coventry, Burton and Herefordshire...

- The Stags Head -
We'll start this selection on Summer Lane in Birmingham where there used to be a fair few pubs on the run up into Newtown. The Barrel Bar & Grill has survived (at time of writing) but the Stags Head on the corner of Brearley Street has fallen by the wayside. The building is admittedly still standing but is becoming an eyesore with exposed brickwork and some very unsightly metal shutters; I don't know what further use the owners may have in mind for it. 

- The Rocket -
I never had the pleasure - or otherwise - of frequenting the Stags Head although I did venture into the Rocket on one occasion (with Mr D9 during the Hub Marketing Board's 2013 Coventry Caper). Very handy for the railway station, this Warwick Road watering hole was a sports bar in the main and not especially memorable at the time of our visit; it did however have history as a meeting place for 2-Tone artists such as the Specials and the Selecter who would have recorded at the Horizon Studios over the road. Demolition was the ultimate fate here, the Rocket finding itself razed to facilitate a new station frontage. 

- The New Highcroft -
Now here's a place I well remember from childhood, although I hardly ever ventured inside. The (New) Highcroft stood on Old Fallings Lane at the top of Whitgreave Avenue, from where it served the residents of Bushbury Hill and Fallings Park. Living not too far away, many is the time I would have gone past on foot or during car journeys and it was a definitive landmark for the local area. If I remember correctly, it had a short-lived spell as a Wetherspoons (the Moon Under Water) before reverting to the Highcroft moniker and then making way for a care home. 

- The Red Lion -
From Wolverhampton's far north to the eastern edges of Burton upon Trent now as we pause to ponder what became of the Red Lion in Horninglow. A reasonably handsome property in its heyday, it could be found opposite the little parade of shops at Horninglow Green but looked depressingly derelict when I took this picture back in September 2018. As with many in the vicinity, this was a Marston's tied house but has since been turned into a community centre.

- Ring of Bells -
Last but not least comes an example from lovely Ledbury, that charming Herefordshire market town which is noted for its Tudor-styled timber architecture. The Ring of Bells on New Street doesn't quite reach those levels of constructional quaintness and had already closed down by the time of this April 2011 photograph. The premises has latterly been converted for residential use with the sloping side portion removed in order to squeeze in more housing.

Sunday, February 18

Caunsall, Cookley and Kinver

Cask ales, canals and some rather special cobs are all on the menu when Nick and I delve into the underrated area where South Staffordshire meets Worcestershire - there is even a seriously sizeable serving of side salad!

- Stained Glass at St Thomas's -
It's Saturday 17th February 2024, mild but overcast as I board the number 16 bus opposite Penn Library. The journey to Stourbridge is one I used to make quite frequently back in the day, so the likes of Wombourne, Swindon, Wall Heath and Kingswinford form a roll call of familiar friends before Stourbridge Interchange hovers on the horizon at nearly 10 o'clock. Nick is already in attendance having utilised the 'Dodger' shuttle train down from Stourbridge Junction and we've a few spare minutes for a spot of Stourbridge sight-seeing, hence nosing around inside St Thomas's Parish Church. This Grade I-listed Georgian gem features many interesting details, not least of which are an elaborate barrel-vaulted ceiling and some very fine stained glass (the latter produced by Chance Brothers of Smethwick).

- Stourbridge Town Hall -
Stourbridge's architectural treats also include the Town Hall further along Market Street, a venue Nick and I know well from the times when it hosted the local beer festival. Red brick in appearance and constructed in a Renaissance style to designs by Thomas Robinson, it was built in 1887 and funded by public subscription in honour of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. Our bus connection to Kinver is the 242 route, departing at 10:40 and currently operated by Select Bus Services of Penkridge. A trundle along Enville Street to Wollaston Junction is followed by a circuit of Hyperion Road (an ordinary Stourton housing estate), a glimpse of Stourbridge Rugby Club and a reminder of the Stewponey, a massive roadhouse pub which was demolished circa 2004 and replaced with apartment living. 

- Snuggly Buggly on the Staffs & Worcs -
Dunsley Road wiggles its way towards Kinver and we hop off as soon as we see the Vine Inn so as to join the Staffs & Worcs Canal at Kinver Lock. Hyde Lock and Dunsley Tunnel would await were we to head north but on this occasion we're aiming south in the general direction of Caunsall and Cookley. Despite recent downpours, the towpath isn't overly muddy and there are cottage gardens on the far bank for us to admire (with chimpanzee and parrot ornaments). Narrowboats including 'Little Grebe' and 'Snuggly Buggly' are moored up as we take our time, leisurely reaching Whittington Horse Bridge with the River Stour for close company.

- Whittington Lock -
A little more strolling brings us next to Whittington Lock, accompanied by a creamy yellow keeper's house where the canal ducks below Windsor Holloway. You feel like you are getting away from it all here, a scene that won't have changed much over the centuries except maybe for the distant traffic churn of the A449. We're crossing into Worcestershire by this stage and the sight of Caunsall Bridge prompts us to exit the canal in favour of hamlet exploration. There isn't very much to Caunsall in truth, a cluster of houses and barns with an excitable barking Alsatian guarding one goose-focused smallholding. There is however one more item of note...

- Ludlow Gold in the Anchor -
Ah, that'll be the Anchor with its Mitchells & Butlers lamp over the front door. It's been over ten years since I last had the pleasure of coming here yet it hasn't altered one jot, from the snug with its horse racing illustrations to the main bar alive with that peculiar burr of Black Country accents mixed with a Worcestershire twang. It seems an anachronism in the modern age to say that a pub can survive merely by selling cobs but the ones on offer at the Anchor are the stuff of legend; we opt for the cheese variety, getting a solid slab of cheddar and a generous plateful of salad ingredients (onion, cucumber, lettuce, tomato, as fresh as you could want) - all for the princely sum of £3, goodness gracious! The drinks are equally exceptional with me savouring a Ludlow Gold while Nick is drawn towards the Barbourne scrumpy cider, perfect!

- Cookley Tunnel -
Conscious of tight timings because the last bus back from Kinver is ridiculously scheduled for quarter past three, we continue along the lane into nearby Cookley but do detour to the canal again briefly so as to see Cookley Tunnel. Otherwise referenced as Staffs & Worcs Bridge No. 23, the tunnel burrows 65 yards through a sandstone ridge with a row of houses on high. Up on the lane once more, we nip into the Bulls Head for your standard Marston's experience - cue a swift half of Banks's Amber sitting in a lounge furnished with baby toys and high chairs. The barmaid here is something of a character with a booming voice that would put many a foghorn to shame, making Nick want to adjust his hearing aids pronto!

- Kinver Constitutional Club -
Cookley Lane takes the strain for the return leg to Kinver, spotting St Peter's Church on the skyline to reassure us we're going the right way. Having been spoiled for cask quality at the Anchor earlier, we'd like to try somewhere with similar levels of ale excellence and the Kinver Constitutional Club will be that place. A longstanding entrant in the Good Beer Guide, the club is often in the running for CAMRA awards and can serve up to a dozen tempting beers mostly from local breweries. As a case in point, we plump for pints of Kinver Noble (a moreish 4.5% pale bitter) and sit in a plush bay window keeping half an eye on any High Street happenings. Clubs such as this offer that additional level of comfort compared to what you might get in a normal pub, so it's a relief when we're buzzed through and welcomed inside.

- Bathams Bitter in the Unicorn -
Catching that 15:13 242 as planned, we stop off in Wollaston where the ever-beguiling Unicorn has lost none of its Bathams beauty - Best Bitter, textured walls, carved pews and good conversation is all you can ask for really. The Kingsbridge has more of a coffee shop vibe by contrast but there's no disputing their Wye Valley Butty Bach is in good condition and news that Wolves are winning at Tottenham further embellishes my good mood. Acting on a recommendation from a bloke we'd chatted to on the bus, we finish up in Stourbridge courtesy of the Crafty Jar, a newish venture on Lower High Street which specialises in craft beer. Purity Bunny Hop scores highly here then it's a nightcap task of squeezing in at a busy Duke of William on Coventry Street to round things off over a Ludlow Black Knight. Cheers!

Saturday, February 10

Mopping Up Around Old Hill and Cradley Heath

The Hub Marketing Board have been very thorough over the years when it comes to amassing our West Midlands pub repertoire, meaning our recent trips have tended to become mopping up exercises plugging any lingering holes. Chairman D9 has now earmarked Cradley Heath and Old Hill as areas in need of some additional attention, and with the forecast set for rain, rain and more rain we might be mopping in more ways than one!

- Route 1 at Dudley (Tower Street) -
It's Friday 9th February 2024 and the weather is already drab and dreary as Hub Marketing members descend upon Dudley for an 11:45am rendezvous. The closure and demolition of Dudley Bus Station means that bus services are terminating at various stops across the town centre, including at Coronation Gardens, Priory Road and Tower Street - the latter location is where the number 1 terminates (at the end stand opposite the Malt Shovel) so the Secretary lands here after journeying across from Tettenhall Wood. A new £24 million interchange is due to open in 2025 (all being well) with modern passenger provision to replace the 1986 facility.

- Theakston's Tarmac in Ella's Bar -
Dodging persistent drizzle, we board the 19 bound for our opening destination of the day - Netherton. Regular readers would at this point be expecting us to beat a path straight to Ma Pardoe's front door but no! In an almost sacrilegious turn of events, we instead target Ella's Bar further along Halesowen Road. This used to be the local Labour Club and defies our dive predictions by being reasonably smart and comfortable inside (external appearances are still a little off-putting mind). Bottletop and penny coin tables, a stage area and panda artworks add to the intrigue as we try to avoid watching 'Loose Women' over our opening pints of Carling and Theakston's Mild respectively. Swerving the Old Swan? Well I never...

- The Charts Are Revealed -
Mr D9 fancies a Darby End detour for his next trick but things don't quite work out as planned because both the Gate Hangs Well and the Red Lion are closed of a Friday lunchtime. Maybe we're just being unlucky with our timings so a stomp up Gawne Lane gets us back on track, passing the White Lion pub-turned-cafe in the process. Powke Lane is subjected to the upper echelons of the 2023 Pick of the Pops chart; we'd started the countdown in Telford last time but DJ Hubbacini got too distracted by his beer and forgot to announce the top five. Happily we can now confirm that 'We All Love Tiny Tim' claimed the number one position as Silly Song of the Year, a revelation we mark over a hefty cob and celebratory glass of Elephant Riders Pale Ale at the Old Bush Revived. Black Country Ales have kept the place pleasingly traditional since taking it on from Banks's, well worth climbing the steep hill for. 

- Spring Meadow Signage -
Thankfully for the Chairman's lungs, it's downhill next all the way into Old Hill as we continue to compile our list of 2024 Silly Song candidates. This trip's contributors will be Bruce Forsyth ('My Little Budgie', as awful as you might imagine) and Stephen Lewis (yes him again, this time with 'Tickets Please'). Our eardrums have only marginally recovered by the time we reach Halesowen Road and swoop upon the Spring Meadow, tastefully refurbished after a catastrophic fire a few years ago. Glossing over the beer choice (John Smiths vs Doom Bar), we admire the heritage pictures dotted around the walls including recalling the heyday of the Old Hill Plaza, an important venue in the formation of Led Zeppelin no less!

- A Sighting of Satchmo?! -
While it is heartening that the Spring Meadow has been able to survive and indeed thrive despite such a significant setback, other Old Hill watering holes haven't been so resilient. Satchmo's (historically the George) has been turned into a pharmacy although you can still detect a portrait of the great Louis Armstrong outside; the Cooksey expired several years back, and news now reaches us that the Riddins Tavern on Mossvale Close has shut down and is unlikely to ever trade again. Another backstreet Banks's boozer gone for good?

- D9 Destroyed in the Cottage Spring -
One relatively recent arrival to offset these casualties is of course Wheelie Thirsty, Fixed Wheel's micropub as situated in a former bank/pizza takeaway. Wheelie Pale is crystal clear nectar when paired with a tiger roll and a packet of scratchings - their meal deal is very good value we think - plus we like the various cycling-related illustrations on display. Things are arguably less cultured however at the Cottage Spring off Bowling Green Road, an average estate affair which apparently serves up carvery roast dinners. We decide to make this our darting starter for 2024, occupying the oche across four not-very-clinical legs which WME Whirlwind edges by a 3-1 scoreline; perhaps D9 Destroyer was getting befuddled by his Beardsmore bleach or an entourage of children playing pool nearby. 

- A Holly Bush Bald Spot -
Progressing deeper into Cradley Heath, we ponder the Holly Bush on Newtown Lane where the bald spot is interested in the idea of Thursday night comedy clubs. There isn't any sign of life there on a Friday evening though so we relocate to the Cherrywood Smokehouse over on Graingers Lane which acts as our second ex-Labour Club of the day as well as seeing us gatecrashing another wake too, not that the Chairman is successful in his attempts to grab any buffet leftovers! Nepalese and Indian food is their stock-in trade so we make a mental note to visit for a mixed grill on a future expedition when we're not so stuffed with cobs. 

- Home D9 and Don't Spare the Horses! -
Our final slice of mopping up activities brings us neatly into Quarry Bank because Mr D9 has yet to have the pleasure of the Old Liberal or the Beer Bank. Secretary WME rates them both very highly and is pleased that they are as lively as when he visited with HRH last November; perhaps in honour of Nick, we partake of halves of Royal Beast in the latter (albeit minus any free mince pies) and even check out their padded throne, not quite as thorny as the seat in Wolverhampton's Giffard Arms but you can't have everything. A quick shuffle up towards The Delph yields a HPA nightcap in the Brickmakers Arms before the number 8 bus drops nicely for a D9 driving-infused journey home. Much mopping was thus achieved - cheers!