Saturday, May 8

A Wombourne Return

Covid has made it inevitable that certain locations are cropping up in my explorations more than they normally would, but there are still new angles to unveil and exciting discoveries to make in even the most familiar of places. Take Wombourne for example, partially covered during February's Trysull Trek and now back for more in May...

- Approaching Penn Halt -
Arguably my most regular haunt of the lot over the last year has been the Smestow Valley/ South Staffordshire Railway Walk which finds itself press-ganged into service yet again. Friday 7th May's outing therefore commences with the section from Castlecroft to Lower Penn, revisiting Penn Halt and generally appreciating the burgeoning greenery with leaves adorning the treetop canopy. Lower Penn itself seems tranquil enough in the sunshine and I can't resist getting a few village green shots near St Anne's Church and pretty Rose Cottage.

- Orton Grange -
By way of variety, I want to pick out a public footpath I last walked nearly fifteen years ago (June 2006, when my blog posts were minimal to say the least!); the turning is just after the church and takes me over the fields to Orton via various kissing gates, a set of wooden steps and a close encounter with some thankfully docile cows. Showell Lane and Flash Lane received the WME photo treatment last August so this time around I concentrate more on Orton Lane, passing several notable properties such as Orton Grange. 

- St Benedict Biscop School -
I reach the fringes of Wombourne much quicker than I'd expected although it takes me a little while to wend my way towards the village centre. Billy Buns Lane is served by the number 15 and 16 bus routes before Wood Lane leads me into a residential estate notable for shops on Bull Lane (the Golden Valley takeaway, a hair salon and a tanning parlour among them). I can hear children's laughter nearby so I'm not surprised to stumble upon St Benedict Biscop Primary School, the playground in full cry at mid-morning break time.

- A Smallbrook Farm Steed -
Wombourne has expanded significantly even in my lifetime so it's nice to get a sense of a previous way of life. Smallbrook Farm lends a more rural atmosphere with hay bales and inquisitive horses while Battlefield Hill is quietly screened from the A449 dual carriageway - the Red Lion here has always struck me as a particularly homely little pub. The reference to a battlefield is certainly intriguing, whereby it has been speculated that Wombourne may have featured during the 910AD campaign against the Vikings (associated perhaps with the Battle of Tettenhall, the exact location of which is subject to some conjecture).

- Wom Brook Nature Reserve -
There's less mystery about my next target as the Wom Brook Nature Reserve is a popular walking route snaking its way beside the banks of a babbling stream. I did some of the trail years back but hadn't covered the eastern end until now, hence Pool Dam makes for an excellent find near the local scout and girlguiding bases. The nature reserve in full links Rookery Road with the Poolhouse Estate via Lower End and Ham Meadow, intersecting at times with the railway walk and the canal. I branch off via Mill Lane for glimpses of St Benedict Biscop C of E Parish Church and yarnbombing creations at the United Reformed Chapel.

- Enville Ale at the Mount Tavern -
Isn't it great to be able to punctuate outings with the occasional pint again! The New Inn is my choice of Wombourne watering hole for this trip, sitting out the front with a Banks's Amber as the sun beams down, and I break my homeward journey on a spluttering 16 bus by alighting at Penn's Mount Tavern. This is a pub I hadn't been to since 2012 so it was high time for another look (even if it was recently frequented by a certain Boris Johnson MP). I wouldn't normally follow in the Prime Minister's footsteps but an exception is made in order to partake of the Enville Ale, perched on a planked table overlooking the Penn Road. Cheers!

Monday, May 3

D9 discovers the Anson Branch

Canals have been a favourite hunting ground during the Hub Marketing Board's most recent activities and, on the premise of 'if it isn't broke don't fix it', we are more than happy to retain the waterways theme for our end-of-April extravaganza. An interesting offshoot of the Walsall Canal requires closer investigation, plus (whisper it quietly) we're even hoping to sample a pub or two along the way...

- Mr D9 drives to Darlaston -
Friday 30th April 2021 and yes it's true, board members are plotting to pick up some pints for the first time since our Stafford spectacular last October. An ahead-of-schedule Bradley Lane rendezvous punctures any prospect of a cob penalty as the surprisingly punctual Chairman delivers a D9 driving dosage aboard the number 79 bus. Our initial destination is Darlaston, alighting opposite the Asda in order to grab pictures of the Conservative Club on Little Cross Street, tucked away behind a set of underwhelming backstreet garages.

- A riot of red at the Why Not -
Our first drink of the lockdown-easing era however comes at the Why Not just off Blockall. Branded as a Davenports establishment, this has variously been known as the Talk of the Town and the St Lawrence Tavern over the course of its existence, and a red car park tent offers a distinctive setting for sampling some Carling or Worthingtons. The bright scarlet  backdrop might play havoc with the Secretary's intended photos but Mr WME does have the not inconsiderable solace of securing a £5 round, easily the Discount of the Day.

- Rubery Owen Office Buildings -
Supping up, there is local history on our collective radar as we swoop upon a target we somehow contrived to avoid during December's Darlaston ruminations. Even though we specifically featured Rubery Owen on our pre-Christmas tour, we neglected to visit the firm's historic Booth Street head offices - how remiss of us! The building still stands and is currently home to the 'Innovation Works', seeking to inspire the next generation of local businesses. Queen Street and Willenhall Road then combine to take us to The Crescent where the Robin Hood has an impressive lawn and (even better!) a glorious glass of Stout Dwarf.

- The bald spot hunts the Anson Branch -
That Fownes elixir at the Robin Hood was the perfect prelude to the day's canal centrepiece, whereby Bughole Bridge begins our towpath trail on this occasion. The Walsall Canal is quite grim through here despite the presence of NHS-thanking street art and 'Jesus Loves You' declarations. We liven things up by selecting our silly songs - Shag Conners and the Carrot Crunchers meets a Margaret Thatcher impressionist - before Forster's Bridge acts as the gateway to the Anson Branch, a lost line of the BCN that was abandoned in 1961.

- Canal Clues near Bentley Mill Way -
The Anson used to provide a water supply to Birchills Power Station and had a junction with the defunct Bentley Canal; the Secretary has previous as regards exploring the route and it seems even more desolate and reed-choked than he remembers. The Chairman meanwhile is stunned to bump into one of his former neighbours, a chap called 'Mad Matthews' who is out walking his dog - he certainly seems to be quite a character! One extended chinwag later, we proceed to Bentley Mill Way before availing ourselves of a short 529 hop so as to avoid the worst of the Junction 10 bridge replacement works. 

- Reedswood Park Blossoms -
Pargeter Street is our prompt to leave the bus behind and plot a path through Reedswood, passing the little tent hire shop on the corner with Edward Street in the process. It's nearing home time at the local Primary Academy school so we dodge the parked-up parents by seeking further refreshment at the Alma. We could get used to this beer garden lark you know, especially with the sun beaming down and PopMaster on the BBC Sounds app; we score very respectably this time around (even getting the Boyzone 3 in 10). Our 'prize' is a peek into Reedswood Park, admiring the springtime blossoms looking out over Bentley Lane. 

- Carling Concentration in Birchills -
Birchills now awaits but neither the Four Ways (converted into a Premier convenience store) nor the Rose & Crown (presumably still closed due to Covid) can claim our custom today. We pitch up instead at the New Navigation, not exactly the prettiest of places despite its canalside location. The outhouse vibe on the back yard has the properly pubby atmosphere we've so craved during lockdown, particularly with whiffs of coal smoke and boat grease on the breeze. A Carling each is adequate refreshment as the Chairman reminisces about classic Hub dives. 

- Walsall Top Lock -
We're not being too ambitious with this trip and are aiming for an early evening finish, meaning we've just got the small matter of Walsall town centre to come. A steady look at the lock flight pays photographic dividends until we detour via Birchills Street and the Crown Wharf retail park. Our final calling point is Bar 10 (The Wharf) where a table beside the basin pontoons gives a good view of both the New Art Gallery and a 'Deep Water' buoyancy balloon. Closing Carlings in plastic glasses set the seal on our comeback crawl and we make our way back to Moxley satisfied with an excellent afternoon's work - cheers!

Wednesday, April 28

WME Flickr Focus - April 2021

Dust off that ancient abacus folks, we need to count up the beads of recent photostream progress. Statistically speaking April has been another steady month of solid addition, if never quite veering towards exponential multiplication...

It doesn't take a master mathematician to work out our top performer over the last few weeks. WME Staffordshire has outscored all of the competition by reeling off a spate of newbies, most of which involve Stafford one way or another. Gaolgate Street and Greengate Street plus more sightings of W.G. Grace at Victoria Park equals tangible accumulation, and that's not to subtract from the valued input of Trysull (Holden's at the Bell), Stoke (the White Star), or indeed Upper Bratch Bridge on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.  

Also piling up the numbers are WME Birmingham and WME Wolverhampton. Brum tots up its tally thanks to arrivals from Stirchley and Sutton Park, hence the appearances of Lea House Road, Attic Brewery and a repeat showing for Town Gate. Wolverhampton's rolling aggregate now includes the likes of Upper Vauxhall, St Stephen's Primary School, a Summerhouse Bass lamp in All Saints, and an intriguing piece of automotive artwork homaging Sunbeam speed records at St John's Retail Park. 

Elsewhere, my calculations show some encouraging activity from WME Walsall, particularly as regards the attendance of Hoppy the concrete hippopotamus complete with painted Saddlers football shirt; the Victoria/Katz and the Walsall Arms ensure the pub quota is suitably stocked up here. WME Telford meanwhile has been busy practising its times tables, thus resulting in successful sums from St George's (the Albion) and Town Park (a fishy favourite).

The update equation looks less rosy in terms of our remaining collections but any evidence of enhanced numeracy is still to be applauded. WME Sandwell tackles a trio from Tipton - the local building society, Factory Road and the Pie Factory's in-house 'newspaper' - whereas WME Warwickshire studies Studley in claiming a Shakespearean bus stop with a Bell pub sign. That's about all the maths I can cope with for one month though so we'll see if May is any more arithmetically gifted - see you then!

Saturday, April 24

Towpath Turpin's Beer Garden Safari

For our first joint pubfaring outing of 2021, Nick and I intrepidly rove the wilds of Warwickshire for a day of locks (aplenty), stocks (of ale at last) and barrel-roofed cottages. Here comes the tale of the trip...

- JFK Memorial Mosaic -
Friday 23rd April 2021 is a sunkissed St George's Day blessed with cloudless blue skies. Having arranged to meet Nick just before noon, I have the morning free to dabble around Digbeth by stocking up on street art photography. The area around the Custard Factory is always a surefire bet for gathering graffiti, hence I duly encounter Inspector Gadget, Spongebob Squarepants and Pat Butcher (of EastEnders fame). Another key target is the John F Kennedy memorial mosaic as designed by Kenneth Budd; the artwork was originally located at St Chad's Circus but has latterly been recreated on the corner of Floodgate Street.

- HS2 Construction at Eastside -
Still having half hour spare before my train, I decide to catch up on HS2 progress over towards Curzon Street where the Woodman pub stands as an island amidst all the hoardings. Some local road closures are in force as construction gains momentum, with Park Street now permanently shut and part of Fazeley Street also affected. There are various gates for works access, including one at the top of Bordesley Street, and mounds of aggregate piled up where land is being prepared for the arrival of the high speed line. Eastside has already seen rapid change in recent years and is set to be transformed again as the project continues. 

- Towpath Turpin: Bridge Inspector -
Lapworth is today's designated meeting point and the 11:34 departure from Moor Street has me clocking in on schedule. In keeping with his billing as 'Towpath Turpin', Nick has plotted out a walk that will make extensive use of Warwickshire waterways and we immediately make tracks for the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, joining at Bridge 34 (Mill Lane). We couldn't have asked for better weather and the conditions are just perfect for enjoying a leisurely stroll through a prolonged slice of lock heaven - the Lapworth flight is certainly extensive so my camera goes into overdrive recording each structure between Lock 15 and Lock 31. 

- Fleur de Lys, Lowsonford -
The architecture along this section of the Stratford Canal is particularly distinctive. Many of the lock bridges have central slits that historically allowed towropes to pass through unhindered, and we also spot several lovely examples of barrel-domed keepers' cottages - you don't tend to see this rounded roof design elsewhere very often. With the photo count soaring, we reach Bridge 41 for lunchtime in Lowsonford whereby the Fleur de Lys has a magnificent hay-lined marquee as well as a superb beer garden. A pint of Proper Job provides ideal refreshment for the opening stage of our 'Beer Garden Safari', making the most of outdoor drinking zones. 

- Lowsonford St Luke's -
The next leg of Nick's plan requires us to utilise country lanes towards Shrewley, and it seems no matter how far we walk we always seem to be six miles from Warwick - I guess distances are never an exact science in these parts! Coining the term 'flexible mileage' as a result, we try our best to ignore the distant drone of the M40 motorway. Narrow Lane introduces us to St Luke's, a quaint Victorian chapel (built in 1877 we believe) that acts as Lowsonford's principal place of worship. Despite the temptation of various public footpaths, we stick with the lane and emerge onto Shrewley Common, passing above a notable railway tunnel.

- Harry's Heifer at the Durham Ox -
It's turning into a relatively warm afternoon so we're delighted to see our second safari stop up ahead. The Durham Ox claims to have been established in 1764 and the main farmstead building certainly appears to have some age to it; more importantly for us today, there are plenty of outside beer tables not to mention an ornamental vintage Ferguson tractor. Towpath Turpin is very partial to a local ale so Harry's Heifer from the Church Farm Brewery gets a considered thumbs up, slaking our thirst in readiness for further canal coverage. 

- Surveying Shrewley Tunnel -
Besides the beer, Nick has promised me an engineering 'treat' and his star attraction is revealed to be Shrewley Tunnel as we join the Grand Union. I've explored a number of tunnels over the years but what makes this one memorable is that the towpath at the northern portal separates off into its own atmospheric passage - I imagine this would have been somewhat claustrophobic when frequented by horses! A combination of tree-lined cuttings and sweeping embankments then convey us into Rowington, noting the presence of a sizeable conifer plantation and admiring the cuteness of some newly-born lambs. 

- Rowington Church -
The sight of Bridge 62 prompts a detour into Rowington village, which remarkably maintains the theme of being six miles from Warwick. St Lawrence's Church looks delightful framed by carefully-tended topiary bushes, and a churchyard bench proves an appropriate setting for Nick to nibble on his customary mini Cheddars. Returning to the canal once more, we proceed to Bridge 63 at Turner's Green whereupon the Tom O' The Wood takes its turn in the beer garden safari spotlight. Church Farm's Pale Ale tickles our tastebuds here, shaded by a grey jumbrella as we discuss the relative merits of Englishness versus Britishness. 

- Weston Hall Bridge (No. 64) -
All good things come to an end they say and our safari swansong sees us back in Lapworth, hoping that the evening popularity of the Navigation won't preclude us from having a final pint. Time is tight in terms of the trains so my glass of Lapworth Gold disappears very quickly indeed; it's a good job it was nice and fresh so it slipped down rather easily, purely out of necessity of course! With that I bid Nick farewell and the safari is deemed a resounding success, no doubt helped by the faultless sunshine, and it really was wonderful to be able to meet up, cover a few miles and enjoy some ales again - cheers!