Sunday, August 7

Bull-ish About Birmingham

Commonwealth Games fever has swept Brum recently as the Second City celebrates hosting the 2022 edition of the international sporting spectacle. I was lucky enough to catch some of the Cycling Time Trial action when that visited Wolverhampton, and now on Saturday 6th August I'm Birmingham-bound to catch up with some bulls...

- Raging Bull at Centenary Square -
The Commonwealth Games got underway on Thursday 28th July with a memorable opening ceremony that showcased the proud history of Birmingham and the wider West Midlands region as well as introducing the participating athletes. Stealing the show however was a mechanical raging bull with red eyes and smoking nostrils, an exhibit that was designed to represent female emancipation (with reference to Cradley Heath chainmakers) and Brum's many diverse migrant communities. After the ceremony the bull has taken up residence at Centenary Square where it regularly attracts flocks of fans, myself included. There had been talk that the structure would be dismantled once the Games have finished but a petition to retain it as a legacy feature will mean it hopefully is preserved for future display.

- Perry at Oozells Square -
Raging Bull has arguably stolen some of the thunder of 'Perry', the official Games mascot who nevertheless seems to have quickly become popular especially with young children. As part of an initiative to encourage exercise and get visitors to see more of Birmingham, Perry's Trail has been created utilising 17 physical statues and nine digital avatars at key locations across the city centre. Having enjoyed similar previous events involving owls, bears and snowmen, I was naturally keen to capture some of these on camera, starting with the installation at Oozells Square around the back of Brindley Place. This proved to be one of the quieter locations whereas some of the others attracted a significant youthful entourage!

- The Bear That Cares -
Plotting my way back through the crowds, I account for further Perry sculptures on Broad Street (beside the Black Sabbath bench), Summer Row (close to the Shakespeare pub), Colmore Row (within the grounds of St Philip's Cathedral) and outside Snow Hill railway station. Steelhouse Lane then leads me steadily down to Birmingham Children's Hospital where along with a Perry I can also reacquaint myself with 'Florence Nightinowl' from the Big Hoot and 'The Bear That Cares' from the Big Sleuth - they're getting quite a collection down here to be fair. One of the avatar screens is sited on Colmore Circus so you can strike your best pose with an animated Perry should you so desire.

- Perry on Church Street -
I might have declined that selfie invitation but I'm not going to refuse the prospect of a quality pint, especially when the Wellington is waiting to claim my custom. This Bennetts Hill mecca has been a mainstay of the Birmingham real ale scene for several years and comes up trumps for a Coach House Strawberry Blonde, poured from pump 8 according to the menu screens. The pub's pet cats rule the roost here, hence the instructions not to let them out of the back door, and the place in general is bubbling up ready for a busy Saturday afternoon service. Appropriately refreshed, I resume my Perry search on Church Street with a specimen that faces out towards the Jewellery Quarter and appears to be waving at St Paul's Church.

- St Paul's Church -
Said place of worship is my next prime photographic target, once I've crossed a pedestrian footbridge and ascended Ludgate Hill past the Actress & Bishop. The church is Georgian in origin having first been consecrated in 1779 and stands amidst a well-preserved square that is home to several elegant townhouses, not to mention artisan coffee shops. My penultimate Perry of the day laps up the sunshine as a young girl asks her daddy if she can take him home - cue the poor parent trying to explain why it won't fit in their garden! Charlotte Street heralds the Queens Arms with its lovely Mitchells & Butlers Gold Medal Ales frontispiece on Newhall Street junction (opposite what used to be the Assay Office until they moved to Moreton Street), then I burrow deeper into the Jewellery Quarter. 

- Ready for some Rock & Roll? -
I've tracked down ten of the seventeen Perry statues and the last of those can be found off Warstone Lane practically behind the Rose Villa Tavern - I've certainly enjoyed attempting some of the trail so I can easily envisage kids really loving it. Finishing off in the Jewellery Quarter means there are an enviable number of ale options to choose from but I've got two establishments in mind that I'm most intent on revisiting. The Rock & Roll Brewhouse Bar on Hall Street is absolutely essential, producing vegan-friendly beer on the premises and playing  eclectic playlists every weekend. I partake in a pristine pint of 'King Kong' and get chatting to one of my old public library colleagues who I hadn't seen for years, wonderful!

- Raspberry Pale at the Jewellers Arms - 
The Elvis cardboard cut-out seems disappointed that I'm departing Rock & Roll but I simply must proceed to my closing port of call, namely the Jewellers Arms on Hockley Street. This Black Country Ales boozer served as Birmingham CAMRA's Pub of the Year from 2019 to 2021 and was a leading contender for the 2022 vote too. Titanic's Raspberry Pale has a pleasing pink tinge which I pair with a cheese and red onion cob for a tasty late lunch. The pub is very handy for the Jewellery Quarter railway station and that's where I ultimately head for my homeward train, keeping tabs on the football scores as Wolves start their 2022/23 campaign with defeat at Leeds. Birmingham was brilliant today and that's no bull!

Tuesday, August 2

The Chip Foundation's Tamworth Treat

In a week that saw Aussie soap opera 'Neighbours' air its final ever episode, it's comforting to know that another long-running serial is very much still going strong. Having commenced back in 2010, the Chip Foundation Chronicles reaches its 70th instalment with a Staffordshire celebration for a certain septuagenarian...

- Sir Robert Peel's Statue -
It's Friday 29th July and this trip has been arranged in honour of Mr B Senior's 79th birthday - the big day itself was actually a couple of weeks back but we won't let such technicalities get in the way of a good excuse for an outing. Birmingham New Street is basking in the glow of Commonwealth Games fever as we catch the 10:49 Nottingham train, Nick bumping into a Derby-bound acquaintance called Ron. A twenty minute journey gets us to Tamworth where we are greeted by a spear-wielding sculpture on the roundabout outside the railway station. Victoria Road tickles us into the town centre for historical sightseeing on Market Street - the Town Hall takes pride of place here (complete with Doric columns supporting an assembly room), all watched over by Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police Force and a two-time Conservative Prime Minister (1834-35 and 1841-46).

- Inspecting the Platinum Jubilee Garden -
Further heritage interest is close at hand in the form of Tamworth Castle, a Norman fortress although the site was also of Anglo Saxon significance when Tamworth was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. The castle guards the confluence of the Rivers Tame and Anker whereby both Beardsmores attempt some fish-spotting. The Castle Gardens resound to big screen triathlon commentary as we admire a Platinum Jubilee installation, the centrepiece of which is a large number 70 plonked among the flowerbeds. A riverside stretch means we can cross the lovely Ladybridge with its six segmental arches. Carved friezes within the pavement tell of significant moments in Tamworth's history, such as being laid siege to by the Vikings. Hopefully there won't be any encounters with the likes of Ivar the Boneless today...

- Purple Peril in the Market Vaults -
Enough with the tour guide act, it's time for the pubs! First up is the Market Vaults, a Joules Brewery taphouse that still bears etched windows from its previous Banks's ownership. Mr B Junior gamely grapples his lemonade and blackcurrant as we converge on a table near the back hearth, admiring vintage enamelled Keen's Mustard advertising in the process. Nick and Ken do their best to make sense of recent political developments including the downfall of Boris Johnson, albeit Nick is typically evasive when we quiz him on his preference for who should become the next Prime Minister. Joules' seasonal 'Bob On' ale is a refreshing tipple while Mr B Snr interrogates a poor unsuspecting regular before deciding to have a Blonde. 

- St Editha's Church, with added anchors -
One nice half down with more to come but we're back on the culture trail next. The Tamworth Heritage Hub on Middle Entry is staffed by enthusiastic volunteers who fill us in about the Peel family tree. Stephen creates a minor spillage when accidentally kicking over a doggy water bowl - you can't take him anywhere - and then it's the turn of St Editha's Church to beguile us. Editha ranks as one of the more obscure and mysterious Anglo Saxon saints, possibly being of royal descent and said to have been an abbess at nearby Polesworth. The church building is medieval in origin with 14th, 15th and 19th century elements while an adjacent anchor-themed artwork pays tribute to the wartime sailor Colin Grazier - he lost his life when recovering German codebooks from a scuttled U-boat in 1942 and was awarded a posthumous George Cross in recognition of his bravery. 

- Deal Deliberations in the Bole Bridge -
Our second beer-related port of call is the Sheriff of Tamworth, situated in a grand Colehill townhouse which until recently had been home to a firm of solicitors. Of the two cask ales we collectively opt for Church End's 'What the Fox's Hat?' (careful how you say that) apart from Stephen who sticks to the soft drinks. Barrel tables with high tractor stools aren't perhaps the most comfortable of seating arrangements - especially when you're in the older age bracket - so we're relieved when a bench comes free. Nick likes the fact that the building historically served as the Sheriff of Warwickshire's residence back in the days when Tamworth came under the jurisdiction of Staffordshire's neighbouring county. For lunch we decamp down the hill to the Bole Bridge Wetherspoons, partaking of Fishy Friday and gammon deals with John manfully devouring a 10 oz platter of the latter. An old lady at an adjacent table has a dizzy turn although rumours she was overcome by Ken's masculine charm are just idle gossip.

- The Old Bank House -
Tamworth has seen a veritable boom in the number of real ale establishments since I last set foot in the town and two more such haunts are on our afternoon agenda. The Tamworth Tap has award-winning credentials on Market Street having been crowned CAMRA's Staffordshire Pub of the Year for 2022 and acts as the taproom for the Tamworth Brewing Company. We're mightily impressed both by the beer quality and general ambiance - Wilde Child Event Horizon Cherry Oatmeal Stout is absolutely glorious stuff while the decor ranges from dried hops to Burton Union checking boards. I raid a stash of LAST Orders back issues (the local CAMRA newsletter being prominently on show) before we switch to the Old Bank House on Ladybank. Like the Sheriff earlier, this is another heritage property that's been given a new lease of life and we soon make ourselves at home in one of four lavishly-presented rooms. North Riding's Bakewell Tart Stout is a dreamy tipple laced with hints of cherries and almonds - I could drink this all day although that wouldn't be very wise. Two absolute crackers in a row there!

- Mr B Senior shows off his Halo -
After that brace of newbies we round off at a WME favourite that itself hasn't been around all that long. Lower Gungate is where we find the King's Ditch micropub serving ales straight from the cask - you can watch the barman pouring them on the tv screen if you wish. More stout in this case means Glass Half Empty from Pentrich Brewing, a half that maintains the stellar standard we've enjoyed all trip. John tends to avoid the darker beers and is given a Halo instead, hence the comedy pose in the picture above - he's not usually so angelic! Space can be at a premium but we find a table upstairs and peruse a pumpclip display grouped into brewery order. Some cricket and Commonwealth Games scorechecks punctuate the chat and then it's time to head homeward courtesy of the 17:36 Brum train. Cheers to terrific Tamworth!

Monday, August 1

WME Flickr Focus - July 2022

It's not very often that a month's-worth of updates manages to tick most of my gallery boxes but July 2022 has provided a little bit of everything - well, almost! Admittedly Exploration Extra and WME Solihull didn't quite get in on the act but all of the other WME constituents have received new material recently...

You may recall that June was a remarkably productive period for WME Staffordshire and that resurgence has continued unabated deeper into the summer. The Rickerscote area of Stafford leads the charge with street signs and H.L. Boulton access markers, aided and abetted by the town's former rugby club and a sniff of the Star & Garter. Elsewhere I can report more pickings from Penkridge (Preston Hill Farm) and Pool Hall (private fishing grounds near Trescott).

Not to be overshadowed, WME Wolverhampton puts in a strong showing with an emphasis on the Smestow Valley Nature Reserve. Canalside meadows join various vegetation shots and even a smiling globe as one of my prime lockdown boltholes comes to photographic prominence. Other Wolverhampton arrivals include Regis Road - pretty Tettenhall terraces there - plus a nod for Springfield's Brownfield Research and Innovation Centre development. 

Skipping across to WME Shropshire, we acknowledge respective additions from Shifnal and Shrewsbury. The first of those locations supplies archival representation from the Beehive, a pub that has since perished at the hands of the wrecking ball. Shrewsbury meanwhile grants us a gander at the Loggerheads and the Albion Vaults whilst pausing for a peek at Pengwern Road. In related news, near-neighbour WME Telford paraded around Priorslee picking out painted pebbles displayed around The Flash - the local schoolchildren clearly got quite artistic during the original 2020 lockdown period.

WME Walsall hasn't earned much fanfare thus far in 2022 so the presence of four more items definitely counts as tangible progress. The Brown Lion in Pleck is probably the main attraction here just because I really like the vintage Highgate Brewery frontage but that's not to dismiss the value of Queslett's Old Horns or Short Heath's Duke of Cambridge. There are then some fallen leaves at Holly Bank Basin if you prefer my glimpses into the natural world. 

Quickfire shout-outs go next to the Brum/Dudley/Sandwell triumvirate which take delivery of three new photos apiece. WME Birmingham secures Sheldon Country Park and a flashback to platform entrance construction at Snow Hill railway station; WME Dudley dutifully stops off at Sedgley to scoop up pub piccies of the Leopard, the Bulls Head and the Mount Pleasant; WME Sandwell lingers at Spon Lane Top Lock (i.e. under the M5 motorway, never the most appealing of sights) then raids my back catalogue for Reddal Hill Primary School.

What's left after all of that lot? Well, WME Warwickshire goes truly cultural by visiting the grave of William Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon while WME Worcestershire retrieves a Redditch running board - in the dark no less! The final word goes to WME Coventry which snares itself a Sewall Highway street sign from somewhere out in the wilds of Wyken Croft. Whether as many galleries garner attention again in August remains to be seen, but until then please enjoy the pictures...

Wednesday, July 27

Waterways Walks: Parkhead to Netherton

My occasional Waterways Walks series has gently roused itself into supplying another  towpath-based episode. This time around I will cast my explorational spotlight upon the initial reaches of the Dudley No. 2 Canal on a walk that culminates with a classic Black Country boozer...

- It's in there somewhere, honest! -
Mondays aren't a day I dedicate to being out and about all that often but the need to use up some annual leave prompts me into action on 25th July. The number 8 Wollaston Farm bus provides a direct connection from Wolverhampton to Holly Hall Road where I alight ready to reacquaint myself with a seminal canal location. Parkhead Locks are part of the Dudley No 1 Canal as it exits Dudley Tunnel's southern portal and descends towards the Delph. Pensnett Basin and the Grazebrook Arm flank either side of the main line but the mighty Parkhead Viaduct is encased in cladding during ongoing repair works. 

- Park Head Junction -
Three locks in quick succession bring me to Park Head Junction, the point at which the two Dudley Canals diverge. Sadly the old junction cottage has seen better days and is practically becoming derelict while Blowers Green Pumphouse seems to have lost its location lettering. Despite a supposedly dry weather forecast, an almighty downpour sends me scampering for shelter beneath the Dudley & Lye Waste Bridge - oh the glamour! When the rain eventually eases off again I can join the Dudley No. 2 at Blowers Green Lock, the balance beams still sodden with moisture. Blowers Green Bridge passes under Peartree Lane before the canal skirts the edges of the Narrowboat Way Trading Estate. 

- Blackbrook Junction -
Even with industrial units in close proximity, Blackbrook Valley does permit some scenic views looking out across lush greenery towards Netherton Parish Church. Blackbrook Bridge earns itself a handful of pictures and is soon followed by Blackbrook Junction as marked by a roving turnover footbridge. The actual junction aspect is no longer operational but historically boats could take a shortcut here along the Two Locks Line to Woodside, thus saving themselves from having to negotiate the full Blowers Green section. Alas the squall returns with a vengeance and some well-placed trees help to spare me from an unwanted soaking. 

- High Bridge -
The weather remains threatening as I proceed the short distance to High Bridge, which does what it says on the tin by towering over the cut from a great height. Originally this was the site of Brewin's Tunnel, a structure that was something of a short-lived bottleneck and got opened out in the 1850s to create the bridge we see today. The tunnel hasn't been forgotten though, not with an artistic panel to tell of its relatively brief existence. Indeed, the No. 2 towpath has been dotted with commemorative creations at regular intervals, pointing out many interesting details regarding the canal and its immediate surroundings

- St Andrew's Church Noticeboards -
I've still got more watery walking planned but I permit myself a High Bridge detour so as to collect snapshots of significant Netherton landmarks. Top of that list is St Andrew's Church, set within an extensive graveyard (which includes burials from the 1830s cholera epidemic) and dominating the local landscape. The church's associated primary school is just down the hill and I also note a cricket pitch plus clubhouse nearby. Immediately south of High Bridge is Lodge Farm Reservoir which acts as a watersports hub for Dudley Borough; the Lodge Farm estate meanwhile is a self-contained circle comprising Farm Road and Lodge Crescent with amenities such as Sam's Superstore and a Baptist chapel. 

- A case of dual identity? -
Returning to High Bridge once more, I arc below Netherton in an easterly fashion as the canal meanders between the back gardens of Copse Road and Bratch Close. Saltwells Bridge looks slightly ramshackle at Stoney Lane, then Primrose Bridge has a potential identity crisis on its hands having been daubed with famous 'Astle is King' graffiti over the years in honour of West Bromwich Albion's 1968 FA Cup Final goalscorer. Naturally I shouldn't approve of any mention of the Baggies being successful but this bridge has entered Black Country folklore so I'll put my Wolves allegiances to one side just this once!

- A Home Brewd Highlight -
My stroll is nearing its ultimate destination as Bishton's Bridge heralds the bend that offers access to Withymoor Island, a moorings arm populated with shimmering narrowboats. Griffin Bridge then acts as my Northfield Road exiting point and the back door of Ma Pardoe's awaits, beckoning me inside to partake of the delectable Bumblehole (the Olde Swan Brewery's 5.2% Best Bitter). The pub is a Netherton institution, one of only four home brewhouses left in the country back in 1974 and is still known after legendary landlady Doris Pardoe even though she passed away in the 1980s. Entire, Netherton Pale Ale (NPA) and Dark Swan are among the other fine ales brewed on the premises while the interior is a veritable time capsule with a warren of atmospheric rooms. Having supped two pints of nectar, I pause to admire the pub's iconic Halesowen Road frontage - complete with Pure Home Brewd Ales paintwork - and head home to Wolverhampton pleased with my day's work. Cheers!