Friday, December 24

Snowstruck in Bromsgrove

Saturday 18th December and this time it's a Christmas outing with Woody, Rog and Andy. The plan was to do a Worcestershire tour of Redditch, Bromsgrove and Stoke Prior but a serious dose of the white stuff meant that things went a little bit astray…

• A cold snowcapped morning start has me tentatively negotiating the local trains through Wolverhampton and Smethwick en route to meeting the chaps at Stourbridge Junction.

• Stourbridge offers a disconcerting snow flurry, which seems ominous but we decide to press onwards with the plan anyway. Our train to Kidderminster arrives on cue and it’s a scenic ride down with Blakedown looking particularly pretty.

• Alight at Kidderminster where it’s alarm bells rather than the Railway Bell that we can hear ringing. That initial snow flurry has become a prolonged outburst as we worriedly wait for the Redditch-bound X3.
The bus arrives arrives and on we get, handing over our £5.50 for the day tickets. The fact we’re the only passengers on board tells a tale in itself, and the snow only gets heavier as we proceed past Shenstone island and Chaddesley turn. Driving conditions are now becoming very hazardous and our driver is doing a sterling job just to keep things going. We head down the front to have a chat with him and debate the best move as regards the plan.

• The bus manages to churn its way through to Bromsgrove, with most of our difficulties being caused by the cars in front of us being unable to cope in what at times resembled a blizzard. Rather than risk Redditch, we alight at Bromsgrove and take stock as I pounce for an ill-advised bus photo in the teeth of the snow. We're in need of liquid lubrication so it's into the town where the centre looks festive enough but its hardly enjoyable being out in this.

- Guinness in the Golden Cross -

THE GOLDEN CROSS: We seek refuge in Bromsgrove’s Wetherspoon’s, literally staggering in off the street and gradually thawing out. Rog is first up for a round so it’s Guinnesses, Becks Blue and for me some ‘Yule Be Back’ from Hyde’s of Manchester. We sit in some comfy settees by the entrance, next to a nice warming fire, and I am at least able to get some Woody Files shots to keep the camera from seizing up entirely.

• The weather shows no signs of abating so it seems wise to abandon the plan and head homewards as best as we can. We return to the bus station but there isn’t much on offer – the 144 and 143 come and go as we wait hopefully for a 318, but gradually the flow of bus traffic grows eerily quiet. A Diamond bus arrives with news that traffic is difficult and main routes are becoming blocked.

• After a considerable wait, several snowballs and a good coating for Andy’s bald spot, the X3 arrives bound for Kidderminster and it looks like we’re saved. We hop on board and begin the slog back, but before long the bus gets stuck in the general clogginess and the driver gets a call that the X3 ahead of us has become marooned in the middle of nowhere. Rather than risk getting stranded, he makes the wise decision to do an about turn and thus we pitch up back at Bromsgrove in something of a quandary.

QUEENS HEAD: With the X3 driver now trying to find a safe route back to the garage, we decamp to the Queens Head for further reflections. Rog and I visited the pub back in 2005 during another Bromsgrove ordeal (the station hike), and this time we find a seat round to the left of the bar and sample some Guinness as the barman tries in vain to get the telly to work. We’ve got quite a dilemma now but we decide to try for another bus and take it from there.

- The Queens Head in the snow -

• DIAMOND DES: There’s nothing seemingly in at the bus station, but Woody spots Des with his Diamond bus and manages to scrounge us a lift. We got on at about 12:30 and for the next two hours we hardly moved, stuck in a solid flow of traffic trying to reach the A38. Bladder panic sets in so Woody and Andy alight for an impromptu sprint to the Crabmill and back.
We were getting concerned over whether the traffic would ever get moving again, and a night in a local B&B looked a distinct possibility. Thankfully that scenario was averted as Des was able to nimbly navigate his way through onto the main road. The M5 had been closed off due to accidents, and we managed to drop two ladies off somewhere near Rubery. The challenge now was just to keep moving, so we hit the A491 and then branched off via Romsley, a treacherous passage but Des handled it with aplomb as we sat up the front to give him moral support. After about 3 hours we arrive unscathed in Halesowen, thus completing probably the longest bus ride I’ve ever experienced.

WILLIAM SHENSTONE: There’s no sign of any buses at Halesowen, and a quick call to the garage confirms that everything has been called in for the time being. We have no option but to head to the pub and sit it out, but at least we get chance for the Christmas drink we’ve all been hoping for. My tipple is Old Scrooge from the Arundel Brewery, and I get through a good helping of them whilst devouring a much-needed chicken gourmet burger, not bad at all. Everyone is a bit more relaxed now we’re back on home ground, and it’s a relief when the buses start trickling back out.

• 222: Andy and I bid Woody and Rog farewell as we start the journey home. The 222 got the nod by virtue of turning up, providing us with a handy connection to Cradley Heath via Old Hill, sticking to the main roads rather than braving round by the station.

• From Cradley Heath, Andy and I gradually managed to slush our way back towards West Bromwich. Buses were still scarce so some extra pubs were needed in order to stave off the threat of frostbite. Some Guinness in the Wizard & Glass got us off to a good start, after which we timed a sprint very well to make it onto the 404A. The Lyng estate then beckoned, sampling the Prince Albert and the Old Vic as I ventured into enemy Baggies territory trying to keep my Wolves allegiances very well hidden. Confirming the bus times with the garages once more, we realised we had time for a final half in the Goose before catching our respective rides home. Actually it had proved to be a very enjoyable evening that salvaged a bit of seasonal sheen from the earlier snowbound carnage.

• The outing as a whole certainly proved very memorable, and I'm sure we'll all look back on it with many a shudder in years to come. Whilst I'm all for a bit of an adventure, I will be perfectly happy if our trips in the New Year aren't anywhere near as eventful. Until then, may I take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone for supporting West Midlands Exploration this year. Have a great Christmas and see you all in 2011!

The Chip Foundation Christmas Crawl

Friday 17th December heralded a festive flourish as I joined Stephen and Nick for an afternoon across Gornal way...

THE BEACON: What better place to start? Stephen and I arrive fresh from the 558 to find Nick waiting eagerly on the doorstep ready to sample some Snowflake. The pub proved just perfect on a cold Friday afternoon, 12:20ish, sitting in the main lounge room where there are already a few happy souls in attendance. Some Cheers photos get the camera into gear as I also pick up a copy of Potters Bar from Stoke CAMRA - a nice bonus find. At 8%, the Snowflake goes down a treat, very well-balanced for a winter-warming throat-tickler.

• One half down and thoughts turn to lunch. We head into Sedgley and try out the Tasty Plaice takeaway where we are served at lightning speed, a £2 special of chips, sausage and mushy peas for me and roes for the chaps, very enjoyable. We find a perch on the churchyard benches to tuck in to our generous portions, with the mushy peas working well as a drinkable soup. The whole thing turned out to be a real treat, definitely worth considering again in future.

THE BRITANNIA: How’s about a bit of Bathams? A quick 558 ride brings us to Upper Gornal where the prospect of some Bathams Bitter is too tempting to resist. The pub has a lot of character and the front bar room is already crammed with Gornal regulars. We grab some winter copies of Beerwolf and have a look in the rear lounge - complete with festive decorations and an intriguing bar structure where the pumps come directly out of the wall - before eventually settling in the Parlour. Here I can admire the dartboard and a little collection of library books before chalking up ‘Chip Foundation Xmas 2010’ onto the blackboard, a welcome cue for some more Cheers photos. I actually really liked this back parlour; it was one of the highlights of the day.

- Stephen meets some fellow 'Bears' -

THE OLD MILL: A two minute walk around the corner onto Windmill Street brings us to a backstreet Holden’s that really quite appealed to me. Golden Glow is my tipple of choice as we find a cosy corner by the back window - the décor here seems quite homely with beams, brasses and bears. Stephen gets acquainted with the teddies whilst Nick poses with a potplant and I relax in a rocking chair, not bad at all.

THE MINERS ARMS: Another short walk brings us to our next Holden’s experience. The pub is nice enough with plenty of chintzy festive streamers hanging from the ceiling, but the real ale choice was disappointingly limited to Holden’s Bitter only – the festive Old Ale is still proving frustratingly elusive. We take our seats as Nick models his hat, the cold must be getting to him poor thing. Overall I would class the Miners as a decent local although I prefer some of the other pubs Gornal has to offer.

• On leaving the Miners we are dismayed to see the 297 bus go whizzing by, presenting us with a potential disaster. Thankfully this is creatively averted thanks to a sprint-shuffle down to Gornal Wood Bus Station, not for the faint hearted with it kept us on schedule! We are rewarded with a neat little ride down through Gornal Five Ways and the Pensnett Trading Estate before heading up Pensnett High Street passing the High Oak.

THE FOX & GRAPES: The second Bathams of the day and the realisation of a longstanding mini-ambition to pay this place a visit. The building has a period art deco style exterior with the bulls head motif on the frosted windows. Heading inside, the place is very busy with Friday afternoon regulars who look like they’ve popped in after work. The main bar is quite crowded but we find a quiet table round the back where some Bathams Mild does us nicely as we soak up the ambience.

• With the evening drawing in I lead the chaps on a merry dance through Upper Pensnett, where thankfully there aren't any sightings of Wagner from the X Factor.

- Scratchings in the Rose & Crown -

THE ROSE & CROWN: Holden's number 3 is our sixth pub and counting. We first dropped by here towards the end of our Ma Pardoe’s/Delph visit earlier this year, escaping from the rain (and the George Gallagher) as Mr B eyed up the food hungrily. Today we were back, although we’d arrived too early to try the food. I’m pleased to say the place hasn’t changed much, so it’s a nice traditional feel sitting in the lounge bay window supping Holden’s Mild and trying to get me teeth around some proper butcher’s scratchings, crunch crunch!

• 17:21 and now it is dark and cold as we troop out onto Bank Street for the 255 bus. It arrives in the form of a packed-out double decker that has just enough room for us to sit upstairs.

THE BRIDGE: One final bonus stop at this recent Good Beer Guide entry in Kingswinford. Initially I wondered what on earth we’d let ourselves in for when we walked into the front bar and were greeted with a karaoke disco vibe complete with flashing lights and a white plastic Christmas tree. I think there was some kind of party due later in the evening, and it was quite a relief to escape to the more sedate surroundings of the lounge. Actually the lounge was rather good, with period 1930s features such as the bar hatch, bell pushes and general brown woodwork. There was also a nice games table with cribbage boards and dominoes, and a proper open fire to warm us all up. Beer choice was from the Marston’s family, and it was an easy decision to choose the Christmas Pudding spiced guest ale, very palatable and a full pint to finish the day off properly. Nick’s hat becomes a pass the parcel object swapping heads amongst the various Cheers photos, and we time it nicely for our 256 connection back to Wolverhampton.

- The Bridge at Kingswinford -

• It had been a thoroughly entertaining afternoon, making the most of some good pubs and decent ales. The highlights for me were probably lunch in Sedgley, the parlour room at the Britannia, the visit to the Fox & Grapes, the moonlight flit around Pensnett and finally the scratchings at the Rose and Crown. All in all, very satisfying indeed.

Monday, December 6

Slippery Customers!

Saturday 4th December saw Rog and I braving the 'Big Freeze' with a Birmingham-based West Midlands local outing...

* Meeting in Stourbridge, we were able to check on the progress at the town's old bus station. The site is now closed off behind various hoardings and a raft of health and safety notices. A series of portakabins have moved in and most of the old stands have now been demolished.

* To Brum then, so it's the Parry's People Mover (looking smart in London Midland livery) followed by the Dorridge train from the Junction, changing at Snow Hill.

* Our first port of call is Spring Road Station, always a bit of an eyesore and I think Rog was suitably underwhelmed. I encourage him to get photos of the rusty old ticket shack just so he could prove he'd actually been there, but our main focus is trying to stay on our feet whilst hopefully not looking all constipated as we waddle along.

* A little treat for Rog as we head around the corner to find Acocks Green Bus Garage. We line up shots of the depot frontage but there isn't much visible in terms of vehicles, I guess they were all hiding round the back.

* Risking limb if not life, next we brave a local walk into Hall Green that enables me to photograph the York pub and the local dog track. Cateswell Road brings us to Hall Green Station for more railway shots, then we slide off to catch the Outer Circle.

* A good ride on the 11C at least gives us chance to warm back up again as we reminisce about our Birmingham trips past. Through misted-up windows we encounter Kings Heath, Cotteridge, Harborne and Bearwood before making a dash to alight at City Road for Summerfield Park.

* Our next intrepid mission is to revisit Edgbaston Reservoir, although the icy conditions underfoot are now being accompanied by steady drizzle. Trudging across the park and down Gillott Road, we find the turning for the Midlands Sailing Club and then cross the reservoir dam towards the Tower Ballroom as Rog gets all nostalgic for the Boon TV series.

* Having sampled the Outer loop earlier, our attentions now turn to the Inner Circle and a short ride on the 8C from Monument Road to Hockley via Ladywood Middleway and the Jewellery Quarter.

* We alight near New John Street just handy for tracking down our opening drink of the day. The White House is the only Holden's pub in Brum and is just the type of backstreet boozer I like to seek out - honest and traditional whilst serving good beer, in this case Black Country Bitter.

* Braving the chill once more, it's onwards to Aston where the Barton's Arms awaits us. The traditional tiled interior here is simply stunning and provides an air of extravagance as we tuck into our thai lunches.

* For the afternoon we venture to Digbeth, always a favourite location for a proper pub or two. Today we try out the Spotted Dog on Warwick Street (welcomingly Irish and a matchday favourite with Blues fans it seems) followed by the Lamp Tavern in Highgate. We'd visited the Lamp previously and our return only emphasised how much we like the place, sitting in the cosy bar with some 'Stan the Man' Stanney Bitter for me and a Coke for Rogner.

* Darkness is beginning to fall as news filters through that Wolves have lost 3-0 at Blackburn, a result that suggests a long hard winter is still to come. We make our way to Moor Street and thence to Rowley Regis hoping to complete the day with a Black Country evening.

* Our target in Blackheath is the Bell & Bear when disaster strikes on Gorsty Hill Road. Having managed to stay on my feet all day, I come across one icy patch too many and over I tumble. To make matters worse, I land in a puddle and my jeans end up covered in damp patches that make it look like I've had a different kind of 'accident'. Roger of course finds the whole episode absolutely hilarious, especially when the barmaid in the pub asks me if it's wet outside!

* At least the Bell & Bear gives me chance to dry off as a warming fire and some Adnam's Dutch-style Bokbier help me overcome my embarassment. The pub has a nice cottagey farmstead feel set back from the road as you head towards Coombeswood.

* Being very careful where I tread now, we head down the hill to Old Hill Station and catch the 222 bus into Cradley Heath. Our final target is the Hollybush on Newtown Lane, a pub we hadn't come across before but it made a good impression and seems to host a lot of events. It certainly proved a nice place to finish off the evening before braving the cold once more with the return train to Stourbridge.

* So what's our advice for dealing with the freezing weather? Well, a few photos and a hazardous walk can keep you moving in the morning, then throw in some thai curry, wash that down with a selection of real ale pubs and you've got yourselves a cracking day out. Just remember that comedy falls in Blackheath are an optional extra that I wouldn't necessarily recommend...

Monday, November 29

WME Update Digest: November 2010

November got off to a flying start thanks to those aforementioned landmarks for WMEs Wolverhampton and Dudley, but what did the rest of the month have to offer?

Well for starters we have another little milestone to celebrate as WME Shropshire has crept tantalisingly past the 50 photo mark. Every little helps as they say, and in this case the all important extra content came courtesy of two new collections. Exploring Kemberton takes a quick look at a small village near Shifnal by offering a village map and the pub sign for the Masons Arms, whilst Exploring Boscobel takes us into Civil War country with views around Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory. It's actually very rare for my Salopian gallery to receive so much all at once so make the most of it whilst you can!

Elsewhere we find that WME Dudley is still vying for our attention. Not satisfied with its latest milestone, the gallery has also taken delivery of two new local collections. First is Exploring Norton, which provides a snapshot of an estate near Stourbridge by featuring launch photos of the Greyhound pub and the Norton Covert beauty spot, then we have Exploring Woodsetton with its brace of views of the Bramford Arms pub. It's all constructive stuff as a little bit more of the borough gradually falls into place.

A furtive glance now at WME Worcestershire, which didn't want to be outdone on the new collections front and thereby offers Exploring Cofton Hackett by way of contribution. My selection here currently includes two views of the site of the former branch library plus a leafy shot looking down Groveley Lane. Poor old Worcs had been feeling a bit neglected so this is very much a step in the right direction.

Finally we have our stragglers. Bringing up the rear this month are Exploration Extra, where a couple of Fleetline shots have pitched up on my BaMMoT October 2005 assortment, and WME Sandwell with it's solitary picture of route 82 calling at Bearwood Bus Station. All in all it's been a fairly solid month and it's now over to December to see if I can end the WME year with a festive bang...

Sunday, November 28

Dudley Trails and Winter Ales

Friday 26th November – beer was beckoning in Dudley once more as I joined Nick for the Dudley CAMRA Winter Ales Festival, but first a bit of exploring…

* My day begins with a quick ride into Dudley on the 126, noting the demolished estate off Priory Road. Dudley Town Centre offers the chance for a handful of photos including the Fellows (the latest addition to the Holden’s estate), the curving Heart Foundation shop on the bus station corner and the mess that was the Metro Bar.

* Venturing beyond the town centre, I decide to investigate the Kates Hill area, initially finding myself on Watsons Green Road for photos of the Hill Tavern and the Ivy House. I'm especially keen to get photos of St John's Church, a towering Dudley landmark that was abandoned after being declared unsafe. The St John's Church Preservation Group are leading efforts to restore the church and I sincerely hope this important building is protected for future generations.

- St John's Church, Kates Hill -

* Just opposite the church is a former pub which itself has seen better days, and I also note some local shops on Highview Street. My walk then takes me further along Watsons Green Road, arriving at Green Park which seems a rather bleak open space on a chilly November afternoon. Crossing the field brings me to Green Park Road, and with a few sidestreet dodges I cross the municipal border into Sandwell territory.

* Oakham is an area I only vaguely remember having passed through on the 120 and 688 buses some years ago. I emerge at Regent Road near a construction site (Regent Rise) that looks suspiciously like the grounds of a former pub, then Elm Terrace leads me deeper into the estate as I weave my way round onto Poplar Rise for a look at Oakham Library. One thing I do remember about the area was that it's very hilly, and City Road proves the point with a steep climb up to the Wheatsheaf - the pub didn't quite have the landmark quality I was somehow expecting though.

* Oakham Road has me heading back towards Dudley and actually feels quite exclusive with some nice houses. I once again cross paths with Regent Road and this time there's definitely an old pub site on the corner as the sign stanchion is still intact behind the hoardings. I speculate what the building might have looked like and feel rather annoyed with myself for not previously photographing the area.

* The far end of Oakham Road leads me directly to the Buffery where I can reacquaint myself with the Bush pub and take a return tour of Paradise. Buffery Park lends itself to some nice autumnal shots amongst the leaf-fall, and the children’s centre looks nicely framed amongst the trees. I photograph the houses that have replaced the Selborne Arms on one side of the park, but then note that the corresponding pub on the far side (the Struggling Man?) also appears to have bitten the dust. The amount of lost pubs I’ve encountered in just a moderate walk is now accumulating quite alarmingly.

* Next up is Cinder Bank, passing the new Aldi store onto Peartree Lane. Here I track down Blowers Green Pumphouse and the Dudley Canals, joining the towpath of the No. 1 at the hideous-sounding Dudley & Lye Waste Bridge. The Pumphouse marks Park Head Junction where the two Dudley Canals meet, and I can see the No. 2 heading off under Blowers Green Bridge and beyond. My investigations focus however on the No. 1, getting further views of the pumphouse and the accompanying lock, followed by the junction fingerpost overlooked by a giant cement tower.

- Blowers Green Lock and Pumphouse -

* Park Head Locks then continue up towards Dudley Tunnel, with Bottom Lock providing a memorable scene as some ducks go waddling past on the frozen ice. I pass under the viaduct to reach the series of adjacent bridges I remember from my Woodside outing. Park Head Locks 1 Bridge is the central of the three, and I also add in shots of the Pensnett Basin bridge to the left (not forgetting to get views of the basin itself).

* The final leg of my now lengthy walk takes me back towards Dudley Town Centre. I negotiate Scotts Green island and take Stourbridge Road past the cemetery. Wellington Road offers zooms of the Earl of Dudley Arms, then a sidestreet dart along Waterloo Street and Holland Street introduces me to the White Swan, a typically 1960’s/1970s type boozer, followed by the Hearty Goodfellow on Maughan Street. I weave my way past the depressing sight that is the Grange and soon find myself on Priory Road awaiting my next bus.

* The 126 is soon on the scene to whisk me off to Woodcross where I’ve arranged to meet Nick at 4pm. I’m slightly early so there’s time for views of the Spread Eagle (now depressingly closed again and home to another of those insidious hand car washes) followed by a walk around the block (Nally Drive, Childs Avenue and a quick snap of Manor Primary School’s main entrance).

* Nick emerges from his office at 4pm and we look forward with anticipation to the beer festival. Back to Dudley on the 126 then, and we make a beeline straight for the Concert Hall which is proudly hosting the 25th Winter Ales Festival. Entrance is via a little side door where we hand over the £10 entrance fee, then we collect our commemorative glasses and programmes as we pass through into the main hall. The place is already heaving and is an impressive sight – a long row of stillages over to the right, with various stands on the left and the main stage straight on. We have a little wander about picking up various bits of literature (mainly involving Wakefield CAMRA’s booklets and festival guides), and also investigate the location of the food which looks very inviting.

* Right then, it’s time for some beer. The winter ales are strong stuff and are available in either thirds (usually costing £1ish) or halves (£1.50+ depending on strength). My first tipple is Holden’s Old Ale as experienced at the Great Western, whilst Nick tries some Enville Cherry Gothic. We decamp to the food room to slay our hunger – a dish of grey paes and bacon with a crusty pork pie is simply delicious, proper Black Country nosh and you can't beat it.

* Drink No. 2 for me is a significant moment, sampling my first ever taste of Simpkiss, the old Black Country brew having been revived by Enville. At 4% it's one of the festival's weaker offerings but proves to be a very flavoursome pale bitter. Nick this time is savouring some Great Heck Vanilla Wheat Stout. We’re getting into the swing of things now as the room gets ever more crowded and the band begin to strike up a quick rehearsal. I’m also enjoying browsing the breweriana stand and where some vintage beermats catch my eye, including examples from Butler’s, Highgate, M&B and Holts.

* Beer No. 3 has me really ramping up the alcohol content thanks to Banks’s Old Ale at a hefty 9% or thereabouts. The ale certainly packs a bit of a punch but is still well rounded, a real winter warmer! Nick moves through his next selections - Sadler’s Mud City Stout, Hawkshead Organic Oatmeal Stout and Hesket Newmarket Tsarry Night - quite smoothly, sampling some Cumbrian examples as per the event’s theme. For my fourth tipple, I stay local and try out the Olde Swan White Widow from Netherton, still punchy at 7% and coming with the usual flavourfest you expect from Pardoes.

* Its closing in on 7pm now as Nick and I decide to revisit the food hall for more grey paes and bacon, my second helping being particularly peppery. Its then time for our final drink – Nick goes all daring with some Wobbly Wabbit at a whopping 11% whilst I conclude with Sarah Hughes’ Snowflake and very nice it was too. With some sadness it was time to depart, although Stone Street Square with its Christmas tree makes for an inviting scene as we step outside.

* We make our way to the bus station and catch the 126 home, reflecting on what had been a fine evening. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to sample some cracking ales, all of them being local ones that I rarely get to try otherwise, and the whole event had been a real education encouraging me to find out more about our brewing heritage. Judging by the attendance, the event must surely have been a huge success and I look forward to seeing which festivals 2011 might have in store...

Saturday, November 27

A Coseley Crawl...

Wednesday 24th November was the date set for the 6th Chip Foundation pubcrawl outing, whereby Nick, Stephen and I would loosely follow the template of the previous five but this time with a tour around Coseley and Sedgley.

* Finishing work at 2pm, our intrepid pubgoers call in at The Diner for a gammonfest lunch then catch the 126 bus deep into Coseley as we debate Nick's resemblance to the Prince of Wales.

* We alight on the Birmingham New Road at the stop opposite the New Inn only to find that my pre-planned itinery has let us down - the pub doesn’t open until 4pm, oops!! Disaster is averted thanks to a swift juggling of the batting order and the Park Inn becomes our replacement opener. Stephen and I therefore act as Nick’s royal bodyguard as we head to Woodsetton, a task that is easier said than done given his highness’s liking for walking in the middle of Vicarage Road.

* The Park Inn - first pub of the day then and for me it provides a welcome return to the Holden’s Brewery Tap. I was hoping to try one of Holden’s monthly special brews and November’s offering is Fogger, a name that presumably fits in with the erstwhile trend for naming the ales after industrial jobs (Shaftspragger, Wind Blower, Burton Runner etc). We take up residence in the games room where Nick demonstrates his considerable prowess at table football.

- The Park Inn, Woodsetton -

* The Painters Arms - heading through Swan Village with photos of the Swan Inn and the Summerhouse, we make our way back through Roseville and on to our second Holden's of the day. The Painters Arms on Avenue Road has a very local feel with plenty of interesting characters about. Our beer choice here is Hobgoblin as we sit in the back lounge by the pool table. Being up against stiff competition, it wasn't my favourite call of the day but still seemed a decent pub.

* The New Inn - having safely now got past 4pm, we return to the now open New Inn to savour it's homely ambience, which seems to be even more accentuated on a cold November evening when it’s getting dark outside. Nick and I get in our Golden Glows and admire the fishtank by the bar, then we decamp to an inviting corner table where the walls are adorned with cheeky brass mottoes and a mounted vintage handpump. Classic stuff!

* The Horse & Jockey - a nifty ride on the 581 bus leads us to Woodcross and this local on the corner of Robert Wynd. The building didn’t especially appeal to me as it seems to be half hidden in a dip but much work has been done here to attract a real ale clientele; whilst the pub lacks the age and heritage character of my favourite watering holes, I can still commend the place for making a concerted effort to care about its beer. There is a healthy range of guests from which we select Hobson’s Town Crier to hit the spot very nicely.

* The Beacon - from one new pub experience to an old favourite as we walk the back way through the estate to the Beacon. Yes, yet again we are drawn back to this Sedgley classic, we just can’t keep away. I decided to steer clear of the Ruby Mild on this occasion, plumping instead for the Amber at 4%, although the Thornbridge guest beer weighed in at a potent 7.7%! We find our way into the snug where there’s plenty of space to ponder England's prospects in the Ashes and to peruse the latest copy of Ales and Tales.

- Nick gets Stumped -

* The Mount Pleasant (The Stump) - following on from the Beacon is no easy task, but one quick skip through Sedgley later, we arrive in the Stump and immediately feel at home. The back lounge areas are pretty full so we find a seat in the front bar and finish the evening with a closing pint. Nick selects Enville’s Ginger Gothic whilst I try some Wye Valley Big Bang (had a fruity quality I thought, perhaps a hint of cherries) and I also stock up on the all-important pork scratchings.

* With the pubs concluded for another outing, its back homeward as Nick bids farewell whilst Stephen and I head back to the Beardsmore residence for the opening gambit from the Ashes. Once again the Black Country had done us proud with some fine local inns, with Coseley making its own imprint on our evergrowing list of favourite pubs...

Sunday, November 21

Knowle in November

Saturday 20th November and how very Novemberish it was, with the the kind of autumn mists that Puff the Magic Dragon might well enjoy but they don't do much for my photography! My mission was to sort out my 2010 selection of Solihull shots, so it's destination Dorridge and take it from there...

* Getting to Dorridge proves a bit more of a challenge than usual, as a broken down train means delays at Smethwick Galton Bridge. When the train does show it resembles something more akin to last week's tube, so I wait another few minutes and hop aboard one with altogether more breathing space.

* I've always liked Dorridge, both the station and the place in general, and it seemed like an ideal place to start. I arrive at about 10:50am and pitch straight into my customary views of the station and the Forest Hotel - no expensive rounds today mind, as I concentrate on getting photos of the local shops whilst the wallet stays firmly out of sight.

* I wanted to widen my horizons beyond the immediate station surroundings and a walk along Grange Road does the trick nicely, introducing me to the Railway pub with its red M&B "Good Honest Beer" lettering. The pub was a nice find but seems to be a fair distance from any kind of railway infrastructure, making me wonder if I was heading for another Bromsgrove situation!

* Earlswood Road and Four Ashes as my walk continues. The Drum & Monkey adds to my pub content, whilst Mill Lane offers views of a level crossing complete with a nice pedestrian footbridge.

* I emerge onto Widney Road and quickly track down Knowle and Dorridge Cricket Club. Even on a grey November day their ground looks quite inviting and I attempt a couple of shots on behalf of Mr Beardsmore.

* I'm enjoying the freedom of my morning walk as Station Road leads me into Knowle, a village I always admire for its traditional charm and atmosphere. There's a considerable amount of traffic around on the High Street so I have to be patient when lining up a photo of the timber-framed library building.

* One of Knowle's proudest landmarks is the parish church, looking very historic in its green setting flanked by fir trees and more timber-framed buildings. The whole scene captures a pretty sense of Englishness even if the weather didn't quite allow me to do the place justice today.

* Time for some canal exploration as I follow Kixley Lane down onto the towpath of the Grand Union. From Bridge 72 I squelch my way along to Knowle Locks and enjoy some welcome peace and quiet. There are five locks in the flight, counting down from 51 to 47, and being the Grand Union they are considerably wider than you would find on the BCN. I particularly liked Lock 47 with its canalside cottage and a little location sign.

* Beyond the locks there is more mulchy towpath as I proceed to Bridge 70 at Warwick Road, flanked by the Heron's Nest pub. Here I leave the canal to undertake a vain search for a bus stop - no such luck, so I have to take a chance on hail and ride.

* S2C - luckily the bus does stop for me, thus meaning I can sample a route which sounds more like a Welsh TV station! The journey replicates the old 197 route and takes in Chadwick End, Fen End and Temple Balsall before Balsall Street homes in on Balsall Common.

* I alight at Balsall Common roundabout for a look at Station Road shops and the local branch library. If anything it's getting even colder and the mist is becoming a fine drizzle, making it frustratingly tricky to get a shot of the Brickmaker's Arms.

* The day concludes at Berkswell Station with a couple of shots of the Railway pub followed by a survey of the station itself. I was saddened to find that the old station house is part way through being demolished - I appreciate that the decaying building was something of a safety hazard but this still seems such a shame, and means that even more of the station's traditional character is disappearing following the replacement of the level crossing a few years ago. I accompany my photos of the remains of the house with some general platform views as I wait for my 14:21 train home - the service arrives promptly and gets me back in good time despite a crush of passengers boarding at Birmingham International.

An interesting day's investigations then as I firmly ensured that Solihull has taken its place on the 2010 exploration map. In years to come, the outing will prove memorable for that morning Dorridge walk, my first ever look at Knowle Locks and the unexpected goodbye to Berkswell's station house - not forgetting of course the very Novemberish weather! The camera got through this one intact, so I wonder what photographic challenges the winter might have in store for me...

Monday, November 15

After the Lord Mayor's Show

Saturday 13th November 2010 provided a capital return for Rog, Woody and myself as we descended upon London to witness the spectacle of the annual Lord Mayor's Parade - here is the tale of the trip...

* An early start sees me in Wolverhampton checking on the progress of the new bus interchange. Most of the main structure now appears to be in place as a scaffold-clad block looms ominously by the ring road.

* It's then to Birmingham on the 8:19 local train, arriving in plenty of time to meet my accomplices at New Street. Woody and I note Rog's appearance with a Jenson hat in a vain attempt to cover up his bald spot.

* Dashing for coach A at the far end of platform 5, the 9:10 Virgin Pendolino service provides our link to Euston with a journey that passed by quickly as we recall our various mishaps and Rog's hat comes in for some more abuse.

* Arrive at Euston at 10:34, heading straight outside for a look at the bus station and a sneaky shot of the Doric Arch pub.

* Our first bus ride of the day involves the 205, which looked very crowded but there was some room upstairs - sadly a bit too much room actually as Woody was able to start up the old D9 again! Passing Kings Cross Station, the bus was destined for Bow Church but we were after Liverpool Street, none of which explains the rather bizarre decision to alight on City Road in a state of total confusion.

- 38 at Victoria Station -

* Whilst Rog and Woody debate our location, I get a photo of the Eagle pub and then we gradually find our way to Old Street underground.

* Now here's a question for you. Why is it that seemingly half of the Tube lines are out of action on the day of the Lord Mayor's Parade? Answers on a postcard please but it seemed an utterly crazy bit of planning. Luckily the Northern line was operating for our quick shuttle through to Bank.

* Our next task is to try and make our way to the parade location. Bank Station is a bit of a maze in truth and we end up emerging out of Monument heading for the Tower of London. Resisting the temptation to lock Rog in there, we do an about turn and eventually find our vantage point.

* The parade was thoroughly entertaining as we watched the procession go steadily by. Amongst the various floats and marching bands were some buses, a tank, some farmers and a giant waving potato, although Rog at times seemed more interested in admiring some of our fellow onlookers.

* With the procession concluding at about 12:10pm our thoughts turn to lunch and beer. We navigate our way to the Crosse Keys Wetherspoon's which was unsurprisingly packed out but did deliver a welcome pint of Titanic's New York Wheat Porter, dark and flavoursome.

* Still in search of food, we head for Whitehall by braving the crush of the Tube once more. Liverpool Street Station is a welcoming location as we descend to the underground platforms and catch the Central Line to Bank. We alight here only to find out that Northern Line services won't be calling here due to overcrowding, so it's back on the Central Line to Tottenham Court Road and thence on the Northern Line to Charing Cross.

- Woody with pint in the Silver Cross -

* Whitehall then and our initial preference is to visit the Lord Moon of the Mall, scene of London lunches past. Once again the pub is heaving, so in this case we try our luck at the Silver Cross over the road. Despite Rog's best attempts to mess up the food order, lunch is partaken with my lasagne proving tasty washed down with some Young's London Gold.

* Next we proceed to Westminster, passing Horse Guards and the Cenotaph amidst preparations for Remembrance Sunday. At Parliament Square Rog continues his mission to photograph Big Ben from every conceivable angle (and then some!), although reports that I was mistaken for former MP Lembit Opik were grossly exaggerated...

* The next stage of our plan was to get the bus up to Mansion House. We caught the No. 11 alright but in completely the wrong direction, ending up at Victoria after Mr Wood narrowly averted us going all the way to Fulham Broadway. The journey had at least given Woody the chance to demonstrate his D9 driving prowess once more, complete with a well-timed interruption from the everpresent 'Dave'.

- D9 Dave strikes again! -

* Victoria came with the bonus of some extra bus photos, including the 38 to Clapton Pond, and then it's back down below for another dose of the Tube. The District Line platforms were absolutely rammed but we managed to surge on board and held out in the crush all the way to Whitechapel.

* Negotiating our way through the market, we arrive at the Blind Beggar (now firmly ensconced as our London local of our choice) for a recovery pint. The pub gained notoriety as the scene of a Krays murder with Rog on the hunt for bulletholes then pressing himself a commemorative penny.

* Darkness is beginning to fall as we go on the hunt for Vallance Road, home to one of the Krays former residences. News filters through that Wolves have lost 3-2 at home to Bolton (ouch!) as we catch the 205 back towards Euston.

* The day has one final authentic London experience in store for us, as heavy traffic means we're in serious danger of missing our train home. We alight at Kings Cross and embark on a kamikaze Benny Hill-style sprint through tube tunnels and up and down various escalators to emerge blinking back at Euston with a couple of minutes to spare. Our train is loading at platform 3 and with some relief we board just in time for the 17:43 departure. The ride back to Brum is very relaxing by comparison.

What an eventful day that was all told - various mishaps were a sign that Rog was back on the scene but they only added to the fun and adventure. I'm gradually starting to feel at home in London now, and once again the capital has provided us with some memorable moments, with the Lord Mayor's Parade claiming it's place as one of the exploration highlights of the year.

Saturday, November 6

Landmarks Ahoy!

It's a familiar nautical yarn that the good ship WME generally encounters choppy and featureless waters whilst sailing on the sea of updates, but more recently there have been signs of hope on the horizon. Back in October it was WME Solihull that glimpsed the mainland by reaching its century of photos, and November has brought with it a brace of additional landmarks beckoning from the harbourside...

The first milestone concerns our lead boat, WME Wolverhampton, which is now celebrating having collected its 400th photographic passenger. Hopping on board as we approached that momentous number were shots of Whitmore Reans Library and Tettenhall Old Bridge plus bus station views of the side entrance and an Optare Scania on the 501 route. It was however a new collection that saw us crash through the all-important wave, so take a bow Exploring Blakenhall with your views of the local shops and the Kings Arms pub. 400 is a fairly hefty number to reach, and as Wolverhampton continues to accumulate there's definitely something for my other galleries to aspire towards.

Talking of other galleries, a glance at my captain's log reveals that WME Dudley is our second milestone-maker this month. In this case the occasion is 250 photos, a figure breached courtesy of additions to Exploring Wollaston (the Crescent Arcade shops and the Forester's Arms), Exploring Lye (a neat shot of the Hadcroft) and a Dudley by Bus picture of the X96 posing at Wollaston Junction. It's all good stuff to warm the cockles of your heart and again provides evidence that slowly but surely I am building a substantial record of the West Midlands and surrounding areas. At the risk of extending an already daft metaphor even further, I would suggest that these landmarks - along with the general swell of updates recently - have negated the need to man the lifeboats for the time being, although I have a niggling feeling that my combined WME content across all of my galleries is merely a drop in the ocean with much work still to do...

Thursday, October 28

WME Update Digest: October 2010

Well here we are again with another month fast disappearing as we hurtle headlong towards the winter. In terms of WME action, October was actually quite a productive month with my updates focused this time on the galleries outside the immediate West Midlands area...

It was a tussle between WME Staffordshire and Exploration Extra over which of them would take centre stage. Extra won by a nose or two, thanks to various additions to exisiting collections. Rail Rover 2008 received photos of the aqueduct, platforms and Stanton House Inn at Chirk alongside a platform shot at Matlock and a look at the redevelopment works at Derby. I raided my holiday archive to dig out some Cornwall 2004 material, including Lands End scenery, Newquay beaches and platform views from Newquay and St Ives. North Yorkshire 2004 wasn't forgotten either thanks to the arrival of the Aidensfield Arms, Pickering Station and St Mary's Church in Whitby.

Staffordshire came in as the runner-up but was kept occupied with a new collection for Rugeley Trent Valley Station - it's hardly the most scenic railway location but a series of entrance sign shots and a possible old station building provide a start. Just across the road from the station is the Yorkshireman pub, a landmark that is now making its presence felt on Exploring Rugeley, whilst a couple of Burntwood Library shots have landed on Exploring Chase Terrace. The Shropshire Union Canal collection has also been ticking over thanks to photos of Bridge 4, Stretton Aqueduct and some charming facilities buildings at Norbury Junction.

With Extra and Staffordshire battling with supremacy, the other galleries were left to fight for whatever crumbs might happen their way. There certainly isn't much to report, but there were occasional flickers of life - WME Warwickshire partook of further views of Stratford-upon-Avon's station frontage and the Railway Tavern at Nuneaton, WME Telford has welcomed a Guildhall shot on Exploring Newport, and finally there's just enough room on WME Worcestershire for a train pic at Shrub Hill Station.

So there you have it, October 2010 and it's contribution to the WME family. In November I hope to turn my attention back onto the principal West Midlands galleries and see what else I can shoehorn into position - hopefully I have a few updates up my sleeve but, as ever, it remains to be seen just how much I actually manage to get done. Until then, enjoy the galleries...

Sunday, October 24

Stourbridge Signs Off...

Saturday 23rd October was the last day of operations for Stourbridge Bus Station before it closed for redevelopment, meaning a scene of many happy photographic memories will pass into history. I couldn't resist visiting one of my favourite haunts one last time...

It's fair to say that Stourbridge Bus Station has been an exploration constant, beginning with the visits with Stuart riding the 248 and battling the subway, through solo adventures escaping from University on a Friday afternoon, and latterly meetings with Rog and Woody and all that this has entailed. The station always seemed to be an old-fashioned and outdated facility, with simple rows of basic shelters, but I liked it because there was plenty of scope for taking photos with a sense of freedom that the newer bus interchanges clamp down on. Add in bacon sandwiches at the Bus Stop Cafe, timetable gathering at the little information office and watching the comings and goings over a pint at the Rock Station, and for me personally it is virtually the end of an era.

I was therefore determined to do the place justice with a final photography session, anticipation building as I rode across on the 256. I spent an hour or so hovering around waiting to see what might present itself, and plenty did. A 276 shot provided a nice starter accompanied quickly by the X96, then I called in at the info office for a quick chat with Andy who was helping out as the room was gradually being emptied of it's stock. Back outside and the Diamond 267 keeps me occupied, followed by offerings from Midland on the 298 and Hansons on the 228. I made sure to get a few shots of the stops themselves, including Stand F where I've waited for many a 256 ride home. With the time approaching 10am, the 657 provides a further Hansons shot and I have the added bonus of two routes I've never photographed before - the 142 in the form of a 'Stourbridge Shuttle' liveried Diamond service, and the 252 Hansons run to Kidderminster. Even at this late stage, the bus station was still delivering the goods!

My hour up, and it's onwards with some local exploration. I decide to revisit the Stourbridge Town Arm branch of the Stourbridge Canal for a relaxing autumnal stroll up to Wordsley Junction, then have my first encounter with Henderson Bridge as I work my way partly up the locks to Glasshouse Bridge, Dadford's Shed and the Dock cottage - the Black Country at it's best in my opinion. Leaving the canal I do a loop of Wordsley and Ashwood Park, with my photo targets including the Bird in Hand (hidden away on the corner of John Street), the Ashwood pub (no sign of any bald spots today!) and the Glasscutters Arms (backstreet boozer on Barnett Street). Barnett Lane and Cot Lane lead me towards Kingswinford as I add the Mount Pleasant and the Park Tavern to my haul, then I catch the 256 back from the Cross to complete what had been a most constructive morning.

A final word for Stourbridge Bus Station then. In some ways I'd have liked to have been there at the very end, as darkness falls and the last few buses trundle away late into the evening, but I was delighted with my early efforts and hope these will provide the fitting finale I was after. The redevelopment is aiming to create a "world-class, £7 million public transport interchange" which does sound exciting, whilst in the meantime passengers are being directed to the temporary stops on Parkfield Road and Birmingham Street. I will always have a soft spot for the old bus station but I also think that Stourbridge as a town does deserve a modern, welcoming facility, so I look forward to returning over the coming months to see it all taking shape.

Sunday, October 17

Coventry 2010

Friday 15th October: Having safely ticked Telford off my list back in September, my attentions now turned to another of my annual exploration targets - cue Coventry...

* Hampton-in-Arden: a snippet of Solihull for starters, catching the 9:13 train out of New Street complete with dodgy on-board announcements. Hampton Station isn't very exciting in truth, comprising a grim concrete footbridge, some silvery bus stop waiting shelters and a small booking office that lacks any real presence. The village itself is more my thing, yielding various photos of the local library, pretty church and the White Lion pub.

+ The White Lion, Hampton-in-Arden +

* 82: a Central Connect route that is the latest incarnation of what was previously the 192/194 service. From Hampton the bus heads through Meriden and Millisons Wood then bashes its way along the A45. I also noted that the route now covers the Parkhill bus stop instead of the 900.

* Coundon, Radford and Keresley: ensuring I get my walking quota in for the day with a local Coventry ramble. I'm still a little uncertain where Coundon stops and Radford starts, but amongst my finds are the Coundon Hotel (corner of Barker Butts Road and Tomson Avenue), Coundon Library (having recently reached it's 61st birthday), then the Wallace and the Old Shepherd approaching Keresley. I actually also find Keresley a little tricky to pin down - part in Coventry, part in Warwickshire with Keresley Heath, Keresley Green and Keresley Newlands all to consider. Whatever my exact whereabouts might be classed as, I ended up at Watery Lane with a shot of the Hare & Hounds before catching my next bus.

+ Coundon Library +

* 36: my first National Express Coventry ride of the year, and it's a quick journey back down the Radford Road spotting the local social club and The Grapes with its Caffrey's signs.

* Coventry Canal Basin: it has literally been years since my last visit to Coventry Basin, and the place doesn't seem quite as nice as I remembered it. The warehouses and Brindley's statue still make for some decent photos but Bridge 1 did look overgrown and I got the impression there hadn't been much recent investment.

* Coventry Centre: I brave my nemesis footbridge over the Ringway to arrive in the City Centre, where I keep myself occupied with shots of the Belgrade Theatre. The Town Wall Tavern is a fascinating discovery, tucked away quietly round the back of the theatre on Bond Street - the pub looks quite traditional and is in the Good Beer Guide so I might have to investigate in future.

+ Coventry Basin Warehouses +

* Spon Street: stepping back into Coventry's medieval heritage to explore the various Tudor frontages, some original and some that have been reconstructed here. Pride of place goes to the Old Windmill pub with its dark panelling, open fires and an interior made up of several small, atmospheric old rooms. Upper Spon Street is a different matter entirely however, with modern flats and a shuttered-up corner shop - despite the subway link, the two halves of the street feel a whole world away from each other.

* The Craven Run: picking up where Rog and I left off last year, I revisit this hotbed of public houses for further photos of the Craven Arms and to make my first acquaintance with the Nursery Tavern on Lord Street, a pub that hosts rugby and F1 sporting clubs as well as a wide selection of real ales.

* 1: I time it to the minute to catch route 1 on Queensland Avenue, heading through past the Maudslay for a sneaky terminus shot on Grayswood Avenue.

* Allesley: in a further echo of September 2009, the finale of my Coventry capers sees me back in Allesley surveying the various village landmarks. There are plenty of characterful cottages lining either side of the Birmingham Road, whilst the Rainbow Inn has an intriguing brewhouse (and some rather less appealing toilets) in it's back yard.

* The 900 provides a handy connection (via Meriden once more) to Birmingham International Station, and I alight just right for catching the 16:09 Aberystwyth train for a stress-free ride home.

As with Telford, Coventry is always one of the year's most important and significant outings. I definitely feel I did the city proud today with a range of local photos of haunts new and old - the fact I don't know the areas concerned quite so well always gives my Coventry visits an extra edge of excitement. There is a debate over whether I should visit places like Telford and Coventry more often; whilst this would ensure a more consistent supply of pictures, I do feel the trips may lose their specialness and, for the time being at least, one main outing a year seems to work very nicely - so, until 2011...

Saturday, October 16

The Chip Foundation Drinks Again!

Wednesday 13th October and it's the fifth installment of the Chip Foundation's series of local outings. This time it's destination Willenhall for Nick, Stephen and yours truly - here's the account of our activities...

* The Robin Hood - after a stop-start ride on the 529 bus, we alight at The Crescent where we can investigate the Robin Hood. The pub has recently become another of the growing Black Country Inns portfolio, and the place looks immaculate from it's refurbishment. The full range of Black Country Ales is here (along with the brewery's own beermats), although Nick and I are tempted by the Morton's Essington Blonde as our first tipple of the day. The place did seem quiet, even allowing for 3:30ish being a generally sluggish time for pubs anyway, and for us it hadn't quite established it's own personality yet. Given time, I hope the pub proves to be a successful venture offering real ales for many years to come.

* Willenhall Walk - a little stroll back up into the town centre, giving me the chance to exercise the camera a little. Amongst my photo targets are the Old Oak, the Acorn and the Three Tuns (what's that cladding all about?!!), then Nick meets the Prince of Wales and we hurriedly avoid Willenhall Library (too much like work). The market was winding down for the day and it was quite a solemn experience to see the traders packing up their produce as the stalls gradually emptied, leaving only a trail of cardboard boxes.

* The Falcon - according to the Good Beer Guide, this is Willenhall's flagship real ale pub, and it takes a little bit of finding hidden away up Gomer Street West. It's well worth seeking out though as the pub offers a proper Black Country drinking experience - not the most refined setting perhaps but there's plenty of character (and characters) to give the place a well-loved community atmosphere. The bar room is lively with conversation as the barladies clearly know their regulars, whilst the smoke room is a little more luxurious if somewhat weathered. The beer is clearly the star here and I was very impressed by my pint of the Cairngorms Brewery's Sheepshagger - how could I resist a name like that?! Having supped up we were given a friendly send off by the locals, setting the seal on a good honest old-fashioned treat.

- Mr B in the Falcon -

* 369 - from Willenhall town it's onwards to Short Heath as I am reacquainted with the 369 bus. The route now includes an anti-clockwise loop around Coppice Farm and gives Nick the chance to get slightly confused about his bearings in New Invention.

* Duke of Cambridge - the Falcon was a hard act to follow but the Duke of Cambridge came up to the mark nicely. Here we have a very homely, village type pub situated on Coltham Road not far from Short Heath Church and the old post office. The lounge is particularly appealing with a proper fire, comfy seats and an array of cottagey teapots - a fine backdrop for some Cheers photos. Beerwise I take a punt on some Prima Donna whilst Nick goes for Pig on the Wall (the Duke also being a Black Country Ales house since re-opening following the sad death of the previous landlord). Further indulgence arrives courtesy of some Simmonds' scratchings, which Stephen agreed were very moreish and nicely digestable.

* Into the evening now as darkness starts to fall. We go via the alleyways through to New Invention Square where we wait in vain for a non-existent 908 bus. Eventually we give up and slog it up the Lichfield Road towards Wednesfield, then dash to catch the oncoming 559 outside Ashmore Park Bingo.

* The Vine - now here's a personal favourite of mine that has become a semi-regular haunt for Sunday evening drinks with Dad. The pub is evocative of 1930's inter-war austerity and it certainly feels more minimalistic than the others we've visited today, sitting on the wooden bench seats in the period brown bar room. The beer is up to scratch as usual, Nick tackling Wetheroak's Victoria Works with me opting for Forest Gold from the Milestone Brewery based near Newark. Stephen of course is on his lemonade and blackcurrant and is stoically riding out any resultant sugar rushes in a most determined fashion.

* The evening has but one final call as we conclude matters in the Royal Tiger, Wednesfield's Good Beer Guide accredited local branch of Wetherspoon's. I was pleased to find some Sadler's Celtic Trap on offer as we joined other friends and acquaintances in bidding Louise a happy birthday - many happy returns! A nice way to finish what had been another successful day of Black Country exploring, pontificating and a bit of boozing...

Monday, October 11

A Merseyside Medley

Saturday 9th October saw me team up with Woody and Andy for an epic tour of Liverpool, Birkenhead and Southport...

* First off it's the 9:19 London Midland train from Wolverhampton to Liverpool Lime Street, calling at Stafford, Crewe, Hartford, Acton Bridge, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway. I like these Class 350 Desiro units, very comfortable and well-appointed. Andy and Mark work through their "Some Mothers Do Ave Em" repertoire as we infiltrate a Liverpool-bound stag party, Andy refraining from too much D9 driving for the time being.

* Liverpool Lime Street where we disembark to meet Ken Dodd's statue and purchase our Saveaway tickets - these are excellent value as £4.50 provides a full day's travel on bus, train and ferry. The construction works I encountered on a previous visit have been concluded, so we could walk straight out the front of the station and take in the iconic Liverpool skyline - we have arrived!

* Liverpool Centre - we have a bit of time for a stroll around as Andy introduces his "purple pubs" theme of the day, with the New Penny Farthing providing an immediate example. Queen Square Bus Station includes the distinctive round travel centre for a handful of timetables, then we try to find Victoria Street as Andy practises his Scouse accent - to me he ended up sounding like a deranged cat with a bad case of furballs!

* First bus of the day is the 464, cranking up the old D9 with a ride through Queensway Tunnel to Birkenhead. The tunnel was surprisingly long, with several KEEP IN LANE signs before we re-emerged into daylight. The route is operated by Arriva linking Liverpool and New Ferry, and came courtesy of a decker with coach seating.

* Birkenhead was a curious place that seemed suspiciously quiet for a Saturday morning. We alight at the bus station, which looks quite bright in the ubiquitous Merseytravel yellow tones but the layout doesn't necessarily make bus photography an easy pursuit here. Mr Wood then employs his Wetherspoon's radar, taking us to the Brass Balance on Argyle Street with Andy finding plenty of purple candidates to keep us occupied en route.

* Like the town in general, the Wetherspoon's was half deserted, not that this bothered us much as we could get stuck straight into lunch and some real ales. For me this meant the customary gourmet burger washed down with a couple of pints - Wobbly Bob from the Phoenix Brewery (strong at 6% ABV) then Titanic's Last Porter Call (dark and flavoursome).

* Lunch over, it's back out onto the streets of Birkenhead. A few local photos come courtesy of the Fireman's Arms, the market building and the Crown, then there's a quandry over where we have to catch our next bus. The stop information on Europa Boulevard was conspicuous by it's absence, although I could at least get plenty of views of Conway Park Merseyrail station (served by the Wirral Line) whilst Andy gets acquainted with the 'Birkenhead Hub'. A rather-too-friendly local then gave us the benefit of his extensive Hamilton Square knowledge and we have to make a dash when the 409 finally appears round the corner.

* The 409 - another Arriva route, this linking Birkenhead and Wallasey Village although we're only going to Seacombe Ferry Terminal. With the bus already a little late, we hit a further obstacle when the dock bridge is raised to allow for some shipping movements. The regulars on the bus informed us that this is quite a rare occurrence these days, so our timing has been as impeccable as ever! We have no choice sit tight and study Mr Lunn's bald spot as eventually 'Prasident' glides past and the road is lowered back into position. With much relief we can continue with our journey, making it to Seacombe with literally a couple of minutes to spare.

- Snowdrop working the Mersey Ferry -

* Luckily for us, the ferry has only just arrived and there will be a little hold whilst existing passengers disembark. I put this to good use with photos of the Seacombe Ferry pub (next door to the terminal building), and a view or two of our boat itself, prettily named 'Snowdrop'.

* The ferry - simply a magical experience, evoking thoughts of the Gerry & the Pacemakers song and the opening credits of Brookside. The ride flanks the Birkenhead bank initially, calling at Woodside terminal, then crosses the mighty Mersey as we close in on Pier Head and the magnificent Liver Building. Combined with an informative running commentary, great views, lots of photo possibilites and a freshening breeze, this was undoubtedly one of the exploration highlights of 2010 - or any other year for that matter.

* Disembark at Pier Head, and after an RTA collision between Messrs Wood and Lunn, we catch the C2 Cumfybus city circular for our Moorfields Station connection. We initially find ourselves at the back end of Moorfields where the access is closed and the shutters are down, but we soon find the main station and descend into a subterranean atmosphere very (unnervingly) reminiscent of the Tube.

* The train to Southport, sampling a local suburban Merseyrail service. There seems to be an intermediate station call every 2 minutes or so, including places like Crosby, Formby, Ainsdale and Birkdale that sound familiar, whilst Woody discovers that an afternoon snooze is an effective way of avoiding some D9 bruises.

- Time for an afternoon nap-

* Southport Station and a quick few photos of the trains in their bays. The station is a terminus for the Northern Line and services through from Wigan but I didn't think that much of it in truth - the main frontage onto Chapel Street was a solid greyish lump that rather intrudes into an otherwise pleasant streetscape.

* Getting our bearings, we just have time for a pint in the Hoghton Arms where I bit the bullet and coughed up for the most expensive round of the day - the price would've brought out the violins ordinarily but for the fact it was still significantly cheaper than Andy's legendary round in Sheffield! The Guinness went down well and then it's back on the train for the return ride to Liverpool - no naps this time so it's driving reconstruction punishment all round. The burning question remains - did Mr Wood visit Merseyside during his previous existence?

* We alight amongst the crowds at Liverpool Central and battle our way up the escalator and back out onto the street. A closing couple of pints will do us nicely, so we start with the Richard Jack Blackler Wetherspoon's. Heading into Saturday evening, the place was unsurprisingly crammed and the Lord Marples ale was off, so we settled for some Innkeepers, dropped lucky in finding a spare table and then got bemused by a parade of mix and match superheroes - I spotted Robin but where was Batman? No such confusion at the Crown but still plenty of punters - again the beer seemed to be running out but I was more than satisfied with my pint of Deuchars IPA. We found a quiet spot in the gallery upstairs for a Cheers photo and I even found myself a copy of Mersey Ale, the local CAMRA newsletter.

* Lime Street Station once more for food supplies and the train home. I did the guys proud by finding a table seat right next to the toilet just so that Andy was well catered for, although we were tempted to lock him in it at one stage. Running late out of Liverpool, the train made up good time, hence the rather comical sight of Mr Wood sprinting out of Wolverhampton Station hoping to catch his 256 back to Stourbridge.

* For Andy and myself, the day has one further treat in store as we call into the Posada for a closing pint. Brains' SA was our tipple here, enjoying the seemingly authentic surroundings - a fitting way to finish off what had been another absolutely brilliant day out. All I can say is, bring on the next one!!

Sunday, October 3

A Century for WME Solihull

Gallery landmarks are very rare events in these days of update austerity, but at long last there is finally a new milestone to celebrate...

Friday just gone (1st October) and the weather was abysmal, so any plans for trips and photography had to be put on hold. Instead it was over to the back-up plan and some site updates, bringing me to WME Solihull. Perched precariously on 98 photos, I was able to strategically breach the 100-photo mark with an orchestrated offensive known as the new Exploring Solihull collection.

It's a strange anomaly that for all of my local galleries, I seldom have collections representing the town centres of the places concerned. Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, Coventry - I've got photos from the districts and the suburbs but nothing as yet to show for the centres themselves. Solihull has therefore bucked that trend with a fledgling collection containing two basic views of the Masons Arms. As ever, it's only a start but I have made a mental note to get snapping the hearts as well as the extremities in future.

So, 100 photos for WME Solihull and that century has been a long time coming, especially when you consider that I reported the 50 here on the blog back in March 2007. Solihull remains one of my lesser galleries but is gradually developing into something of substance, reflecting the slow process of accumulation that is occurring across WME as a whole. There's still a lot of work to do, but perhaps the next site landmark might not be so far away...

Thursday, September 30

WME Update Digest: September 2010

For once, my feast and famine approach to WME updates has somehow clicked over onto the 'feast' setting, and it's actually been a decent month for photo additions - no wonder I sound surprised! There's a bit of catching up to do, so let's get straight into it...

September's star attraction is WME Solihull, something of a shock in itself. Some well overdue attention here has involved a precious new collection looking at the Grand Union Canal - only the two starter photos to begin with, both views from Damson Lane, but this is the first step at giving Solihull some canal content so it is quite an achievement. Further additions to report include archive views of the Marston Green Tavern and Station Road shops on Exploring Marston Green, whilst the Old Colonial makes a further appearance on Exploring Damsonwood. Solihull Station has been kept occupied with a path view and a train shot, whilst the bus contingent partakes of four new offerings - the 151 and 37 at Solihull Station, the 76 at Damsonwood and the 56 at Marston Green. All in all that's 12 photos in a month for a gallery that has previously only received 24 in the past two and a half years!

Also making waves has been WME Wolverhampton, where I'm particularly pleased with a couple of new collections. Exploring Long Knowle and Wood End features shots of Long Knowle Library, the Castle pub, Blackwood Avenue flats and the old Wood Hayes pub (in it's later guise as the Old China buffet restaurant), whereas Exploring Wightwick includes the Fieldhouse pub and a streetscape of Perton Brook Vale. It's always good to see my local photos finally slotting into place, so mention too must go to the Cleveland Arms (Exploring East Park), the Dog & Gun (Exploring Tettenhall), the Summer House (Exploring Whitmore Reans), the Boat (Exploring Wednesfield) and Ladymoor Pool (Exploring Bilston) - some handy collection top-ups there. I shouldn't forget the bus stuff so there are two further views of Bilston Bus Station, whilst a brace of 506's at Pendeford are a hangover from August that I never got round to telling you about at the time!

To WME Dudley and more scenes of activity. New collections abound this month and here we have Exploring The Straits (the old Straits House pub being converted into housing, plus views of the school and the local shops) and Exploring Stourbridge (a Rock Station double) - it was about time I granted Stourbridge a proper local presence considering how much the town has figured in solo outings and Rog & Woody trips over the years. Deepfields footbridge has muscled it's way onto the Birmingham Main Line Canal collection, likewise Delph Top Lock on the Dudley No. 1. There's also an extra 248 route shot for Dudley by Bus, and Stops & Stations has been augmented with Stand H at Dudley complete with a castle backdrop.

Skipping next door into WME Sandwell, and it's a big welcome for the Titford Canal collection, now showcasing a trio of views of New Inns Road Bridge. The Titford is a branch I'm very fond of (despite the joys of Oldbury Junction) so it's good to see it taking it's rightful place. My archive has also been plundered for an intriguing view along the old passenger footbridge at Langley Green Station - the sprawling replacement just doesn't have the same charm.

September's stragglers are WME Walsall (piccies of Brownhills Market and Coalpool Bridge) and WME Birmingham, albeit Brum has still done respectably. The Stechford Station frontage series has continued into a fourth shot (although the station never looks any more appealing), Livery Street Bridge has popped up on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, and the buses are represented by the 21 and 23 both posing at Bartley Green. The final word however goes to a longstanding test photo that has finally found a home - my shot of the Plough & Harrow pub at Roughley has been safely plonked into Exploring Sutton Coldfield after several years of waiting. If something as momentous as that can happen then things are definitely looking up!!!