Monday, November 30

Bristol Fashion

Saturday 28th November 2009: November's final flourish saw Woody, Andy and myself heading into unchartered territory with a visit to Bristol and Bath...
  • The day kicks off with a ride on the local train into Birmingham, with Mr Wood joining me at Smethwick Galton Bridge. We find Andy waiting at New Street and make our way to platform 10b for the 9:12 service to Plymouth.
  • The train seemed popular, but our advanced reservations did the job (thanks Mr Wood) and ensured we had a table seat for a relaxing journey. Andy pointed out his old residence as we sprinted through Bromsgrove, whilst the service also provided glimpses of Cheltenham, Bristol Parkway and local stations such as Yate. In fact, the journey was so relaxing, Woody decided to do some 'spontaneous meditation'...

  • Bristol Temple Meads is a grand city station as befits its association with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I really like the place and got a few platform shots as we made our way out to the forecourt to find our connecting bus. The entrance is particularly impressive, with a clock tower looming over the station drive. The 8 and 9 bus routes both terminate outside the station but their drivers didn't seem very keen on letting us board - the 8 drove off then the 9 wanted to make a quick getaway too and to top things off, the ticket machine thing wouldn't work!

  • Things got even more ominous when we alighted on Bond Street in search of the bus station, access to which turned out to be via a grotty subway followed by a block of shops that looked every inch the mugger's paradise. On finding the bus station I wasn't that impressed either - sure its a clean modern facility, but it seems to have been designed specifically to stop people getting photos of the buses. We did get a few shots walking round the back of the layover area, but overall it was a frustrating location.

  • To Bath then, and a ride on the X39. Andy's bladder was holding up well so far, and he treated us to a D9 driving re-enactment as we debated Mark's 'previous existence' as a driver at Stourbridge Bus Garage. The route mainly follows the A4 and doesn't take that long, despite the best efforts of the local traffic jams.

  • Bath Bus Station was another irritating place, very much in the Bristol mould although I felt it did at least offer a little more scope for taking pictures. The station resembles a narrow glazed box perched close to the river, and seemed especially busy when we visited. I was intrigued by routes to Warminster and Chippenham, and also noticed a few Faresaver buses doing the rounds, a local independent operator perhaps?

  • Lunch was beckoning so we venture into Bath City. Our aim was to track down the Wetherspoon's but we lost our bearings somewhat, although I did get a look at Bath Spa railway station and the Royal Hotel. Woody asks the police for some directions, and then its a merry dance through historic streets swarming with visitors to the Christmas market. The place was a hive of activity, and I rather enjoyed the festive atmosphere.

  • After a few more twists and turns, we locate the King of Wessex and then have the difficult task of finding a spare table. The pub was rammed full, but we dropped lucky by finding a space and getting in a trio of Guinnesses to accompany our gourmet burgers. Actually, the food didn't take as long as we expected, and the chip count was considerably more than Chester had to offer.

  • Our post-lunch plan was to track down the First depot at Twerton, but this was thwarted when the 5 failed to turn up (possibly because of extra demand due to Bath City's F.A. Cup tie with Forest Green). We console ourselves with some extra bus station photos, and I sneak another look at Bath Spa station, before its back on the X39 for the return leg to Bristol. Andy and Mark looked rather cosy when they both nodded off on the back seat!

  • Back in Bristol, we undertake another Wetherspoon's hunt. The pub was once again proving very elusive, although I did enjoy exploring the city streets with the festive lights sparkling as darkness set in. Our search took us through the German Christmas Market and around Cabot Circus, the Marriott Hotel and the Mall shops, whilst our attempts to interrogate cleaners and information desk assistants only added to the confusion...

  • One collision with Burger King later, we finally discovered Corn Street and were able to sample the historic surroundings of the Commercial Rooms. The pub was another example of Wetherspoon's utilising an impressive old building, and I particularly liked the panel of Presidents and a huge portrait of Brunel. The beer wasn't bad either, a decent pint of Ugly Sisters (a Marston's brew with a pantomime theme) that featured in our festive Cheers photo.

  • The day was now drawing to a close, and we just had the simple matter of catching the 8 or 9 from the Hippodrome back to Temple Meads. Unfortunately the rain set in and the buses were nowhere to be seen, with the real time info display seemingly having a nervous breakdown. We worked out that the 1 could get us to the station, but by the time the driver had worked out our emergency ticket and negotiated city centre gridlock, our 6pm train home had scarpered. Luckily we could catch the 6:30 without any problems, so I just had time for a few bonus Temple Meads shots by way of goodbye. The ride home was swift and uneventful, and provided a suitably becalmed conclusion to our 2009 Christmas outing.
Despite the various hiccups, it had proved a fascinating day and I would like to thank Woody and Andy for their excellent company as always. I am very much looking forward to recommencing proceedings with a New Year trip some time in January 2010...

Monday, November 9

Pensnett, Cookley and Swindon

Time now for the final three episodes from Exploration Week, which include a Black Country local along with visits to Worcestershire and Staffordshire...

Friday 6th November: Rog and I meet in Dudley and set off to Holly Hall for a walk around Woodside taking photos of the local park, the Woodside Inn and the old Harts Hill Garage. For reasons best known to himself, Rog then led us on a tour of Brierley Hill industrial estates in the hope of finding the business premises of an old associate of his. Needless to say we couldn't find the place, but did at least get a bacon sandwich by way of compensation. Next is a look around Pensnett, a place I've long wanted to get photos of so I was in my element taking shots of the Fox & Grapes, war memorial, High Oak and the Four Furnaces. Lunchtime sees us in the Kingswinford, where we meet up with John for a quick chat, then its a trio of traditional pubs in the afternoon. The Lamp Tavern in Dudley was a classic Bathams as the rain set in, the Swan in Amblecote had a selection of Halloween themed ales from which we chose Demon Drink, and the Robin Hood on Collis Street was preparing for the big Stourbridge v Walsall FA Cup tie by offering Hackett's Ale in honour of the Stourbridge manager.

Saturday 7th November: The Worcestershire leg of the week, but first its a few piccies of Kingswinford and Stourbridge - it had been a while since I'd done a proper bus photo session at Stourbridge bus station, so it was good to be back. Into the trip proper and we catch the 228 bus down to Kinver to join the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal. Our walk takes us all the way to Wolverley, with welcome pub breaks at Caunsall (The Anchor, a real gem) and Cookley (the Eagle and Spur). I really liked Cookley, a charming little village with plenty of photographic interest including the canal tunnel, a traditional post office and a selection of pubs - sadly the Red Lion had closed down, much to Rog's dismay as he had fond memories of the place. Lunch arrives courtesy of the Lock pub in Wolverley, where we tuck in to gammon and lasagne respectively, but the walk back to Cookley almost finishes Rog off completely. We recover in the Bulls Head, where one of the locals treats us to his array of Cookley memories and anecdotes. With Rog still worn out, I indulge in some solo exploring heading back along the canal for a final few bridge photos as the light begins to fade. We meet back up in Kinver, where The Cross pub provides the venue for our pool tournament decider - I take victory, but only after about twenty attempts at potting the black!

Sunday 8th November: A short and quiet outing to finish off an epic week. We meet in Kingswinford, where the Remembrance Sunday parade is in full swing. The 255 takes us to Swindon, where we attempt another canal walk but it is clear that Rog is still suffering from the previous day's exertions. We get as far as Hinksford Bridge before turning round and heading into the Green Man, where Rog enjoys a pint or two of Old Empire whilst I devour a homemade roast pork sunday lunch - at £4.95 I was very impressed. Dessert involves more local photos of Swindon, focusing on the Old Bush and Greyhound pubs, both of which also looked most inviting. We continue to Wombourne however, where Rog is determined to track down the Mount Pleasant despite his ankle getting increasingly painful. The pub is situated on Ounsdale Road and provides our final drink of the week whilst preparations for a bonfire party continue around us. From Wombourne we then catch our buses home as the final curtain fell on a week of fine exploring and classic pubs - as they say, all good things must come to an end...

Thursday, November 5

A Bonfire Bash

Thursday 5th November, and the fourth episode of 'Exploration Week' sees Rog and myself avoiding any fireworks with a proper Black Country local...
  • Today's meeting point is Kingswinford, with the 256S dropping me off early enough to do a bit of solo photography before finding the Rog. Amongst my discoveries are St Mary's Church, King George Park and the Union pub as I mooch around a corner of Kingswinford that I'd previously somehow managed to ignore.
  • 9:30 sees the arrival of Mr Chance, complete with the usual long leather coat and flowing blond locks. We catch the 205 from Manor Park up to the Pensnett Trading Estate, where Rog then introduces me to his place of work. It was fun to meet Erica and have a chat, an enjoyable start to the day.
  • To avoid the risk of Rog being requisitioned, we take our leave and catch a handily-placed 297 into Merry Hill. The journey is notable for a look at Pensnett High Street, where the High Oak pub is now masquerading as the Roost restaurant, whilst the traffic around Russells Hall Hospital is bordering on horrendous.
  • From Merry Hill its the 283 to Netherton, where we renew our acquaintance with the Old Swan pub, otherwise known as Ma Pardoe's. The pub is a must for anyone who wishes to sample Black County culture at its best; entering the bar is like stepping back in time, and there is plenty to admire including a tiled swan centrepiece on the ceiling. Rog and I decamp to the Smoke Room where we sup our pints of Bumble Hole and give Bruce an airing. All in all, a delightful experience.
  • With Ma Pardoe's under our belts, we decide to add in another classic pub with a visit to the Vine (or Bull and Bladder) at the Delph. After a return ride on the 283, we eagerly make our way to the home of Bathams Brewery and are not disappointed. The beer (Bathams Bitter, naturally) was good, but the food was simply outstanding - faggots, chips and mushy peas for a scarcely credible price of £2.50. There isn't a menu as such, you just pick what you want from the table in the prep room, and the resulting hearty portions mean that practically every other pub's meals look like a rip-off by comparison.
  • A visit to the Delph isn't complete without sampling at least a couple of pubs along the famed Delph Run. Our second choice today was the Brickmakers Arms, situated on Mount Pleasant towards Quarry Bank, where we savoured a pint of Banks's each before sprinting aboard the 99 to Cradley Heath.
  • We alight by the new Tesco store, which quickly becomes a photo target along with some general views of the other shops on Cradley Heath High Street. Next, we battle our way through Tesco's car park to find the Swan Inn (Jasper's) on Providence Street so I can add to my archive of Holden's pub pictures. A combination of the 404A, train and Parry's People Mover then returns us to Stourbridge, where we bring the curtain down on another trip with a final drink in the Longlands on Western Road.
Another day down then, but with some fine exploring and epic pubs to look back on with a lot of affection. More of the same tomorrow will do just nicely...

Wednesday, November 4

Wednesday around Walsall

And so the exploration bandwagon has rolled onto Wednesday, an occasion that Rog and I decided to mark with some wandering across Walsall...
  • A bright and early start sees me safely onto the 333, riding up through Portobello, Willenhall, Lodge Farm and Bentley.
  • I alight at Pleck for a few bonus photos, mainly focusing on the local library and the landmark Brown Lion pub. Rog then joins me fresh from a ride on the 313 and we head down to Walsall Town Centre.
  • Further local exploring follows in the shape of The Butts, situated right on the edge of the town centre. Targets here include the Fitters Arms on Hatherton Street and the Butts Tavern, whilst an imposing schoolhouse on the corner of William Street also catches my eye.
  • By this stage its turning into a fine and sunny morning, so we make the most of the weather with a stroll around Walsall Arboretum. Sadly the Illuminations are no more, but Hatherton Lake still looks most elegant and the trees are as stately as ever.
  • Weaving our way through a nearby estate, we pass the Dilke pub and arrive at Longwood Junction. This is the meeting place of the Rushall and Daw End Canals - we join the latter and savour the more rural setting as Riddian Bridge provides a fine discovery.
  • Our next port of call is the Manor Arms pub, although we have to negotiate a further stroll by Winterley Bridge whilst waiting for the pub to open. First pint of the day is a taste of Old Thumper, and very nice it was too. The pub is quite charming even though we got asked if Bonus had any ID!
  • From Rushall, the 346 whisks us off to Pelsall just as the rain sets in. We brave the flurries of drizzle and catch the 348 to Pelsall Wood terminus, where I was saddened to find that the Free Trade pub remains closed.
  • Another 346 ride conveys us to Bloxwich, where the rain gets heavier as we plod down the High Street. It is here that Rog gets worryingly mistaken for a blonde-headed Jesus, so its with much relief that we find the Lamp Tavern pub. This Holden's house is classed as being in Bloxwich although we were practically in Leamore by the time we got there! We enjoy a relaxed drink whiling away an hour or so with some more seasoned regulars.
  • Back into Bloxwich Town, and that dreaded bladder curse strikes again. The Spotted Cow comes to our rescue, with Rog also taking control of the pub jukebox. His playlist included the usual favourites (Metallica, Bowie, Bon Jovi and Queen) along with more eclectic choices, Max Bygraves and Judas Priest, and the plain frightening - sorry mate, there was no excuse for inflicting Mr Blobby on everyone even if it was a Christmas Number One in 1993 or whatever.
  • Beating a hasty retreat, we hop on the 560 to Wolverhampton and finish off a fine day in the Great Western. Here I introduce Rog to the horseshoe gammon accompanied by homemade chips, a dish that is rapidly becoming my favourite pub meal. A pint of Dragon's Blood (a Holden's special ale brewed with a Halloween theme) completes proceedings, but only until we start all over again tomorrow morning...

Tuesday, November 3

Hockley and Kenrick Park

Day two of the joint SBI/WME exploration festival saw Rog and myself venturing across to the Jewellery Quarter to undertake a Birmingham and Sandwell local outing...
  • After yesterday's exploits, we reconvene at Stourbridge only for the heavens to open. Seeking refuge in a bacon sandwich, we decide to abandon our planned Cookley walk and proceed with a rain-dodging West Midlands local instead.
  • We therefore try out the Parry's People Mover before taking a train across to the Jewellery Quarter. With Roger's bladder already causing trouble, we find the Woodman pub in Hockley where we sample some M&B Mild and have a chat with the landlord about auctions and eBay.
  • The Hockley investigations continue with a look at Hockley Circus, complete with subways, underpasses and a police escort (albeit they were on bicycles).
  • A brief flirtation with the 74 bus brings us to Handsworth, where I take advantage of some belated bright sunshine to get photos of an impressive council building along with the Flighted Horse and Pump Tavern pubs.
  • Time for some lunch, so we catch the Metro from Booth Street to Kenrick Park in order to track down the Vine on Roebuck Street. The pub has a growing reputation for its speciality Indian-style cuisine and was certainly busy when we called in. Our food arrived almost instantly, and I certainly enjoyed my samosas and chicken tikka. A return visit could well be in order whenever we're in the West Bromwich area.
  • We follow lunch with a closer look at Kenrick Park, allowing me the chance for some autumnal views of the park itself complete with high-rise tower backdrop.
  • Back on the Metro, its off to Dartmouth Street where we try to locate our next suitable pub (Rog's bladder being once more in need of some urgent attention). We find our way into the Old Crown on Sandwell Road, where we sample some Dizzy Blonde and resurrect our pool tradition. With two frames played, the score is tied at 1-1, Rog claiming the first game comfortably before I mounted a stunning comeback with a lethal pot on the black, even if I do say so myself!
  • Pride intact, we work our way across to Wolverhampton via a quick call at Bilston. Our Wolverhampton target this time is the Posada pub on Lichfield Street, where we enjoy the old fashioned ambience armed with a swig of Reverend James. Rog then tempts me into a final drink in the Giffard (mainly so that he could get Metallica on the jukebox), and we just have time to debate the merits of Moomins before Rog catches his 256 bus home.
Two days down, plenty of exploring to come - I wonder what Wednesday might bring?

Monday, November 2

Horsing Around

Rog and I are embarking on a week-long series of adventures, during which I aim to bring you brief summaries of our activities each day. For starters, Monday's trip saw us sample the delights of Telford...
  • 891 - meet at Wolverhampton just after 8:30, and get a few National Express West Midlands photos. Then its the 891 to Telford via Tettenhall and Albrighton - I was surprised to find that the route has been altered, and now serves more of Albrighton before heading straight down the A464 to Shifnal rather than calling at Cosford and Tong.
  • 25 - after a brief stop at Telford Bus Station, we change onto the 25 for a ride to Wellington. Rog gets to sample The Rock, whilst the route also covers Overdale, Hadley, Hadley Castle and Leegomery.
  • Wellington - the 25 pitches up at the town's new bus station, another surprise discovery arranged into two rows of red stands. The facility is a definite improvement on the previous interchange, which has now been converted into a car park. Our walk around the town includes glimpses of the railway station, the Charlton Arms, the library and the White Lion. We then catch the 44 back into Telford via the Bucks Head, Ketley and Oakengates.
  • Horsehay - a fascinating little village situated between Dawley and Coalbrookdale. The 99 drops us off at the Foresters Arms, so we head inside for a pint of Cornish Tribute Ale and watch This Morning featuring Rog's favourite, Holly Willoughby. Exploring the area in more depth, we find the Traveller's Joy pub, the post office and village hall before investigating Horsehay Pool and the Telford Steam Railway. A real highlight!
  • Dawley - our planned visit to the Station Inn was aborted as the place doesn't open on Mondays, so we continue into Dawley only to encounter more difficulties. One of my perennial Telford favourites, Dawley today sadly resembled something of a ghost town with the Lord Hill leading the casualty list amongst the local pubs. Eventually we track down the Church Wicketts for a pint of 'Hoppiness' and a spot of lunch, whereby Rog was impressed by the size of my yorkshire pudding wrap.
  • Madeley - a run on the 22 via Aqueduct and Woodside brings us to Madeley, where we sample our second Foresters Arms of the day. This example provided a decent drink before we climb the High Street, noting redevelopment works at the local square. I grab a photo of the 44 and then we recommence battle with the 22, completing the leg back to Telford via Sutton Hill, Brookside, Randlay and Hollinswood.
  • Great Western - we just about catch the 891 back to Wolverhampton, but the journey proves tortuous for Rog as he suffers agony with his bladder. Thankfully he kept himself together, and we were able to meet up with Stephen to celebrate his birthday with a drink in the Great Western. Rog tries to educate Mr B on all matters Formula One, and its a convivial end to the start of the week...