Thursday, December 31

WME Update Digest: December 2009

By my own admission, 2009 has not been a particularly productive year in terms of WME updates, with the galleries generally limping along on basic rations and little else. After a summer hiatus, October and November at least got things moving again, and December has now delivered the biggest batch of additions for ages, a welcome final flourish to conclude a frustrating year…

My headline act this month is WME Staffordshire, which proudly provided that rare beast, a WME milestone. Yes, the 250 photo barrier has been breached thanks to the inclusion of some encouraging new collections. Exploring Stoke represents the old market town that gave its name to the wider city, offering a Potteries flavour that is augmented further by the arrival of Stoke-on-Trent Station amongst my rail selection. Brownhills West Station gives the Chasewater Railway its first airing, whilst the local content is also boosted by contributions from Exploring Penkridge (featuring a nice shot of the church) and Exploring Cannock Chase (with two sample forest views) – and the Trent & Mersey Canal got a couple of additions too.

New collections were also the order of the day on both WME Shropshire and WME Solihull. Shropshire now boasts a feature on Wem Station, complete with platform views and totem sign, whereas Solihull has received Exploring Solihull Lodge with its leafy views of High Street. Neither should I forget WME Telford, where my pictures of the Bridge and Shakespeare pubs in Newport had been waiting for an eternity before finally being included.

Muscling in on the act now is WME Birmingham with its own fresh arrival to celebrate. Exploring Quinton comprises shots of the local library, Evangelical Church and Four Dwellings Primary School, with ballast being provided for Exploring Northfield (St Laurence’s lich gate) and Northfield Station (some familiar station views there). Also jostling for attention is WME Coventry, with a photo each for Coventry by Bus (route 10 at Bell Green), Exploring Canley (another library shot) and Exploring Tile Hill North (another look at Jardine Crescent shops).

To the Black Country then, where WME Dudley leads the way with an array of new content. Exploring Lye features the Windmill and Railway pubs, Exploring Hayley Green presents two glimpses of the Foxhunt, Dadfords Bridge takes its place on the Stourbridge Canal collection and the White Lion joins Exploring Sedgley. WMEs Wolverhampton and Walsall have been quiet by comparison and can only boast a single offering each, Wolverhampton’s being the cottage shops on Exploring Wednesfield and Walsall’s a sneaky view of Brownhills Marketplace.

I hope you’re keeping up as we continue this breathless summary with a glance further afield. WME Worcestershire first, where the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal has spectacularly crashlanded - the canal might only visit the county briefly, but the section here does include the charming Shirley Drawbridge. For once WME Warwickshire hasn’t been forgotten – I give you a platform view and a station frontage shot on Leamington Spa Station.

Finally, and last but by no means least, it’s our good friend Exploration Extra. Plenty of happenings here, as I’ve taken the opportunity to improve the East Anglia 2007 and Essex 2008 collections. Bus photos from Colchester, Cromer, Wymondham and Great Yarmouth have therefore been joined by a rail assortment from Colchester Town, Frinton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze.

All of this amounts to a total of 64 new photos, by far the biggest monthly update of the year and a vast improvement on the previous six months or so. Only WME Sandwell escaped without anything, so I shall have to put this right if possible. At least the galleries now have a bit of momentum heading into the New Year, and my resolution will be to build on this during the first few months of 2010…

Saturday, December 19

The Black Country Birthday Beer Tour

I've often thought there's something timeless about a cosy, traditional pub where you can enjoy good conversation and a decent pint. Today Dad and I put this to the test with a circuit of some of my favourite Black Country boozers as part of Dad's belated birthday celebrations...

Catching the 254 from Wolverhampton, we make our way to Brierley Hill where we join the Dudley No. 1 Canal at Delph Locks. The crisp, frosty morning lent itself to some nice scenic photos of the locks as we strolled down to Black Delph Bridge, and I also added in some handy views of a couple of the local pubs, the Tenth Lock and the Dock & Iron. The walk provided a fine aperitif but now it was time for the main event to commence.

And what a way to start. The Vine, or Bull and Bladder, has gained legendary status as the home of Batham's Brewery, and once again it fully lived up to my expectations. An open fire, a welcoming ambience and a cracking pint of Batham's Mild set the scene just nicely, Dad particularly enjoying the beer which he thought was easy drinking with a hint of chocolate. The food wasn't bad either, a ham salad crusty roll and a tasty pork pie for £2 seemed good value to me.

If the Vine is a beer mecca, Ma Pardoe's at Netherton is equally worthy of such a status. After a brief collision with the Merry Hill Centre, where Dad introduced me to the delights of the Decathlon store, we hop on the 283 bus with much anticipation. Once again we weren't to be disappointed, and the pub seemed very busy with a mix of regulars and ale tourists. We found a seat in the restaurant section next to an organ and the Christmas tree, a nice festive setting in which to sample the Bumblehole - another pint that quickly received the Dad seal of approval.

We had planned to visit the Beacon Hotel next, but it would have been a rush trying to get there before the 3pm closing. Instead I decided to introduce Dad to one of my favourites that he hadn't heard of, the Waterfall at Cradley Heath. It's fair to say he was probably a bit sceptical as we caught the 244 bus down through Old Hill, even more so when we alighted at the station then walked along the canal, but it seemed that once inside he felt right at home. That timeless quality was very much in evidence here, and we couldn't think of any better way to pass a Saturday afternoon. The place had a really warm, welcoming vibe, lots of chatter and conversation washed down with a Golden Glow for Dad and a Goat's Leap for myself.

It seemed a shame to end the outing early, so we thought we'd squeeze in a final pint on the way home. The 242 from Old Hill therefore led us to the Lamp Tavern in Dudley for another chance to sample some Batham's Mild. The Lamp had certainly got into the Christmas spirit with plenty of festive decorations - the streamers on the ceiling reminded me of the ones we used to have at home when I was a kid. Rog only introduced me to the pub in November, but its already become a firm favourite. We conclude matters with a walk through Dudley Marketplace, where the town Christmas tree twinkled away prettily in the dark, and a ride back home on the 558.

In these days of recession and pub closures, it was heartwarming to do an outing such as this to remind ourselves that great pubs do still exist. I certainly enjoyed the trip, and I think Dad had fun rolling back the years a bit and reminiscing about his younger days in Bloxwich. The beer was great, the hospitality excellent and it all sets us up for Christmas very nicely indeed...

Friday, December 11


Now I've taken photos in all kinds of conditions over the years, but I must admit that today's outing provided something of a first. In a moment of what can only be described as madness, I decided to venture around Oldbury despite freezing temperatures and thick fog. Usually once the mists descend I give up any pretence of taking photos, but today I decided to brave it regardless, resulting in a fascinatingly atmospheric slice of exploration...

The omens weren't looking good at Wolverhampton Station. Walking along the concourse, you could barely see the 9:19 local train waiting at platform 5. My ride to Sandwell and Dudley only emphasised the lack of visibility, with the fog showing no signs of burning off whatsoever. Alighting, I try photos of the station entrance and a haze-surrounded Railway Inn before tracking down the Birmingham Main Line Canal at Bromford Lane.

I'm always keen to do my bit pounding the towpaths, and I was actually quite intrigued to see what impact the fog might have on my photos. After a quick look at a lattice footbridge, I found myself at Bromford Stop, a seminal Black Country canal location in its own right. Here the Spon Lane Locks branch off to meet the Old Main Line whilst the New Main Line ploughs straight on towards Birmingham. The junction has two impressive roving footbridges which I had hoped to get into the same photograph - I just about managed it, but only if eerie shadows in the mist count for anything. Locks 3 and 2 provide less resistance to the camera, but the towpath is closed off before I can add lock 1 to my repertoire. Instead I have to do an about turn and finally track down the Old Main Line at Stewart Aqueduct.

What followed next was one of the most unnerving sections of canal exploration I've ever done. I could blame the weather, but I have a feeling that this particular stretch would seem desolate and depressing even in glorious sunshine. The main reason for this sense of discomfort is the M5 motorway, which towers overhead virtually encasing the canal between giant concrete pillars. Accompanied by a cacophony of traffic noises, I encounter the rather charming Blakey Hall Bridge, a traditional old style bridge that seems most incongruous in its surroundings.

If that find was a high point, the next sequence defintely provided the flip side. Venturing deeper into the recesses of the motorway, Anchor Bridge and Manchester Road Bridge both seemed charmless and functional. The worst discovery of the lot though was Oldbury Junction, which has surely got to be the ugliest place I've ever visited. I've always used the Bromford estate in Birmingham as my preferred example of a grim location, but Oldbury Junction has not only stolen the crown, its vanished off with it clean out of sight - no other competition need apply! The place is an absolute eyesore with concrete masonry everywhere - nowhere is this more evident than with the junction bridge itself, yuk! The junction provides access to the Titford Canal although I'd imagine some visitors would be seriously deterred from visiting the branch if its starting point is anything to go by.

Pressing on from the junction, the gloom lifts slightly even if the fog seems to be getting heavier. The Old Main Line flirts with the edges of Oldbury, taking in Stone Street, Seven Stars and Whimsey Bridge in fairly quick succession. Then its High Bridge at Rounds Green, where I leave the canal in favour of doing some local exploring. Brades Road offers a glimpse of the impressive Brades Tavern, but by this stage my camera has virtually seized up completely and my fingers aren't too far behind.

I perservere a little longer, and am rewarded with a few views of Brades Bridge as I momentarily rejoin the canal towpath. Dudley Road East leads me towards Oldbury Town, pausing for photos of the George pub, and I finish off with a brief tour of the town centre where both the Junction and the Olde Bulls Head looked inviting (or at least vaguely warm)! A highly memorable trip concludes back at Sandwell and Dudley Station where I catch my train home and reflect on the relative merits of photos in the mist. I might well return to today's locations in better weather - yes, even Oldbury Junction - but I doubt any future visits will leave quite the same impression as today's fog-filled frolics...

WME Update Digest: October and November

The West Midlands Exploration galleries appear to have undergone a process of reverse hibernation recently - quiet all summer then cautiously coming back to life for the winter. Despite the lack of site news on the blog over the last few months, there have been a few small developments that now merit a quick mention...

Having not issued a single new addition in either August or September, it was left to October to pick up the reins and get things moving again. The update was minimal (involving only eight photos), but did include a new collection on WME Shropshire. Exploring Wem has arrived with views of the Albion pub and the local recreation ground, a useful start to recording the landmarks of this charming little Shropshire town. Also returning to action were WME Walsall, where two library views joined Exploring Rushall, and WME Birmingham, thanks to shots of the Cock pub (Exploring Bartley Green) along with West Heath island and bus terminus.

November was barely any more successful, with only eleven new additions to its credit. Nine of these appeared on WME Staffordshire, where three views of the Why Not pub crashlanded on Exploring Essington whilst Landywood Station got a train photo and a platform sign. There was also a hint of the Potteries, never a bad thing of course, as Longport Station steps made a reappearance alongside first-time views of Longton Bus Interchange and Harecastle Tunnel, the latter being a particularly interesting landmark on the Trent and Mersey Canal. WME Shropshire took care of the remaining two photos, with a couple of extra train pictures muscling their way into my Shrewsbury Station selection.

So there you have it - I must admit that for two months worth of updates this was a pretty poor showing, and I am at least trying to make an effort to ensure December heralds a more substantial batch of new offerings. 2009 has been a year of struggle as far as the WME galleries have been concerned, but I hope to end it on a bright note and look forward to bringing you a more constructive digest soon...