Monday, March 29

Taking Leave

It's just typical isn't it - up until last week we'd had a prolonged spell of some decent spring sunshine, but as soon as my holiday arrives so does the rain. I shouldn't moan too much really, as I actually still had a decent week and managed a fair bit of exploring whilst dodging the showers...

Monday: A taste of Sandwell with a morning walk around Horseley Heath and Tividale. My route included Lower Church Lane (Tipton Police Station and the Old Courthouse), Alexandra Road (the Cottage Spring and Tipton Cemetery), Horseley Heath (the old post office and the Port & Ale), the Old Main Line Canal (Tividale Aqueduct and Gilberts Bridge) and Dudley Road West (Tividale Park, the Wonder and the Albion) - some good finds amongst all that lot!

Tuesday: risking a Sandwell overload with a Titford Tour around Langley and Blackheath.
  • Hurst Green got me started with the Clock and the Fairfield, then it was Causeway Green for the Wing Wah (formerley the Hen and Chickens) and the post office.
  • Langley next, visiting the Carnegie-built library and Barnford Hill Park, folowed by a quick loop of Rood End to find that the Gate pub is now a builder's merchants.
  • The centrepiece of the trip was a walk along the Titford Canal - Oldbury Junction still looks horrific even with the sun shining, but the locks and pumphouse proved much more appealing. It was a shame to see the perilous condition of the Langley Maltings building, a sad ruin with most of its roof missing.
  • Lunch in Langley and back on the towpath. There's a junction just after Jarvis Bridge - Whiteheath is straight on but I bear right under the M5 and out to Birchfield Lane.
  • Lion Farm beckons - not my favourite estate it must be said, but I'm pleased to locate Rounds Green Library and the Phoenix pub.
  • Wander down to Whiteheath, where the Gate pub is being demolished and the local shops are being redeveloped.
  • Onwards to Blackheath to track down a photo of the 129 route (soon to be withdrawn) and to note that the California pub has found a new lease of life as a bridal shop - the mind boggles!
  • I finish with a ride on the 88, another route facing the chop. Intriguing journey back through Hurst Green and Langley, with the Londonderry and Uplands section giving me a few future targets.
Wednesday: a grim and grey day enlivened by an evening drink with Stephen and Nick at the Great Western. I decide to head to the pub via a circuitous meander around Northycote Farm, Underhill (handy 511 bus photos) and Wednesfield. I was still running early so I indulged in an extra trail around Heath Town (my local correspondent had informed me that the Duke of York had been demolished, thanks Mr B) and Springfield.

Thursday: now this is more like it, a bit of extended sunshine. Compton and Tettenhall Wood are my destinations for a cracking little stroll, my photo targets this time including the Shoulder of Mutton, the 501 bus terminus and the former Tettenhall Wood Library - all rounded off with a perfect pint courtesy of the Royal Oak.

Friday morning: sunshine and showers were on the menu this time, so I decided to brave Birmingham for a wander around Aston and Nechells. Star finds here were pubs such as the King Edward VII, the Aston Tavern (closed down near to the parish church) and the Villa Tavern (corner of Nechells Park Road opposite the impressive old baths). I had planned to investigate the canals around Spaghetti Junction, but this was quickly aborted thanks to one of those pesky showers. The rain was short-lived but bordered on the torrential, so there was nothing to do but seek shelter and dry off at Bridge 109. Twenty minutes later its blazing sunshine but I still look like a drowned rat - I grab a quick look at Cuckoo Bridge and Aston Bottom Lock on my way back to the station.

Friday afternoon: still feeling a bit soggy, its back to Wolverhampton to meet up with Stephen. Unfortunately the showers have followed me over from Brum, and round 2 sees me get soaked again as we head for HSBC. Codsall and Wednesfield then feature as we sample the Station and the Vine, a couple of distinctive pubs to act as the backdrop to our debates and reflections. The Station was another towards my Holden's collection and featured some choice railwayana and a pint of Ironbridge Foundry Gold, whilst the Vine had an austere quality befitting its inter-war heritage and is the current Wolverhampton CAMRA pub of the year.

Saturday: Matchday at the Molineux as Dad and I attend Wolves v Everton. A pre-match pint takes us to the Combermere Arms on Chapel Ash, the place was alive with anticipation and doing a good trade. The game itself finished as a goalless draw, Wolves showing plenty of character although Everton may feel a bit unlucky not to have won.

A busy week then despite the weather, I think I did well to cram in so much activity. I still have another week of holiday to contend with, and if anything the outlook for this coming week is even worse although I remain cautiously optimistic I'll be able to get out somewhere...

Sunday, March 21

A Trip of Two Halves (or was it eight?)

Friday 19th March: This was an outing with something of a split personality, starting in the morning with some local exploring around Winson Green and Smethwick before the afternoon sees me join Stephen and Nick for a proper Black Country pubcrawl. Here for your delectation are my summary selections...

Part One

  • Metro: A congested rush hour ride to Winson Green Outer Circle, the old sardines comparison certainly applied here and it was a relief to escape the crush.
  • Winson Green: The photos are underway with views of the Acorn pub and Winson Green Prison, where the wardens seemed to be waving at me. Thankfully Stephen's prediction that I would get arrested didn't become reality!
  • Canal: The Soho Loop first, exploring between Asylum Bridge and Winson Green Junction (by the Soho train depot). Its then the Main Line to Rotton Park where I rejoin the Soho Loop up to Spring Hill Bridge - it's all quite bleak and industrial here.
  • Dudley Road: Ticking over with views of the Birmingham Arms and City Hospital, where I can admire the new Birmingham Treatment Centre building.
  • Heath Street: one of my main missions for the morning is to get a photo of the 66 bus at its current Ladywood terminus, as this bit of the route will be withdrawn at the end of the month. Luckily the bus is waiting for me and a nice Polish driver lets me get a series of shots before bidding me to "have a nice day".
  • Summerfield Park: a quick look at the Bricklayers Arms then its the park, where I compose views of the bandstand and a fine avenue of trees. Another hitlist target is the old police station next door, so I add in views of the side and front elevations with Crimestoppers posters to the fore.
  • Cape Hill: an area once dominated by the old Mitchells and Butlers Brewery, the site of which has been transformed into a housing estate. I was pleased to find the works war memorial given pride of place in the new development, and also enjoyed getting a closer look at the Cape Hill Board Schools and old Dispensary building. Unsurprisingly, given the brewing heritage here, there are some handsome pub buildings to photograph including the Dudley Arms, the Waterloo and the Shireland.
  • Bearwood: or rather the fringes of Bearwood, where the Hadley Stadium had turnstiles that wouldn't look out of place at a Soviet prison camp. The Barleycorn pub seems to have shut but its curving frontage remains intact and reminded me a little of the Baldwin at Hall Green.
  • Smethwick: I've always thought of Smethwick as a bustling multicultural centre with lots of temples, so it was interesting to see a different side to the area. Smethwick Old Church and the neighbouring Old Chapel pub hinted at a traditional village centre, a nice quiet corner to discover. I then return to the more familiar Smethwick with views of the Red Cow, Old Corner House (after a Rabone Lane diversion) and the Blue Gates before catching my train at Rolfe Street.
Part Two
  • Let the pubcrawl commence! I meet Stephen in Wolverhampton for a nice spot of lunch with St John's Church providing a relaxing backdrop to our chips.
  • Bulls Head: 558 to Sedgley and into the local Holden's where I sample some Golden Glow as we await Nick's arrival. With our party complete, the Cheers photos begin as we look forward to the afternoon ahead.
  • Courthouse: more 558 brings us to Dudley, where I add shots of the Old Priory and the Malt Shovel to my collection. We descend on the Courthouse, a Black Country Ales house gathering a great reputation for real ales. There is certainly a wide selection, with Nick tempted by some Rhymney whilst I plump for BFG (Bradley's Finest Golden). The pub is nicely done out and Stephen seemed particularly impressed with the toilets.
  • Lamp Tavern: a wander up the top end of town brings us into Batham's territory, where the barmaid gently ribs us for drinking mild instead of bitter. The Lamp is becoming a firm Paul favourite now, and I really like little touches such as the embossed bull brown tiles and the wall of community photos and notices.
  • Ma Pardoe's: the rain has set in but we don't have to wait long for our 243 to Netherton where the Old Swan was beckoning. The place was once again a real treat to visit, sampling some Bumblehole in the back snug with Stephen seeming quite impressed by the character and atmosphere of the building.
  • Bull and Bladder: its become a personal tradition now that whenever I visit Ma Pardoe's I should also include a call at the Bull and Bladder - and why not? The 283 provided the link and soon we were drying off with a classic Friday afternoon drinking experience, sitting underneath the dartboard to savour our Batham's Bitter (or lemon and black for Mr Beardsmore).
  • Brierley Hill: into the evening and the weather now is quite miserable. A soggy stroll down the Delph and up to the High Street brings my attention to the George Gallagher, the Old New Inn and the Red Lion, all future photo targets for me to make mental note of.
  • Rose and Crown: a Good Beer Guide entrant and our second Holden's of the day. Although not as exalted as our last two offerings, the place seemed quite cosy and relaxed so I felt at home, plus there was the added bonus of being close to the 254 bus stop.
  • Wombourne: we decided it might be wise to include an Andy-patented bladder stop to break up the journey back. The New Inn at Wombourne did the trick, and we finished off with a bite to eat whilst waiting for our final 256.
Split personality or otherwise, it was certainly an epic day with the photos and the memories stacking up at a rate of knots. The morning changed a few of my perceptions about Winson Green and Smethwick, whilst the afternoon offered its fair share of golden pub moments. My thanks to Stephen and Nick for their company and conversation, excellent as ever, and I look forward eagerly to our next installment.

Sunday, March 14


Saturday 13th March: The further intrepid adventures of Woody, Andy and myself continued with an away day in Gloucestershire, during which we battled bladders, discussed cheese rolling and avoided manic pigeons whilst enjoying a tour of Gloucester, Stroud and Cheltenham...

An early start sees me head off to Stourbridge (via Smethwick) where Mr Wood is waiting. Tickets purchased, we hop on the Worcester train and are relieved to find that Andy has made it, despite the best efforts of late running 404s and Rowley Regis ticket office trying to throw a spanner in the works. At Foregate Street we are concerned that the Paddington train is running late, but our Gloucester train is held at Shrub Hill so that we don't miss our connection - Gloucestershire here we come!

The ride down to Gloucester was new rail territory for me, offering a glimpse of Ashchurch for Tewkesbury, a boring halt-type station that didn't inspire me much. Gloucester Station itself was quite disappointing, with the main building resembling a 1960s style white office block that seemed completely devoid of charm. We alight on the somewhat detached platform 1 and ponder the blackened appearance of platform 4 opposite, whilst platform 2 had the main facilities but little character - altogether not the greatest of first impressions.

Our first target is the bus station, handily located just across the road. Again the facility seemed quite dated, but proved a useful photo location even if the buses were obscured by stumps and railings when pulling into their bays. The main local operator is Stagecoach whilst Cotswold Green add a bit of independent interest, and connections are available to places such as Ross-on-Wye, Forest Green and (courtesy of Red Diamond) Malvern Link.

Our route of choice is the 14 to Stroud, a cracking ride with a little Optare Solo guiding us through Quedgeley and Stonehouse then into the Cotswold countryside. I particularly liked The Stanleys, a collection of picturesque villages with old fashioned pubs, narrow lanes and some great scenery. A bit of banter always makes for an enjoyable journey, but our conversations here were particularly bizarre and included the topic of cheese-rolling - Woody thought I was having him on until a fellow passenger joined the debate! With Andy's bladder holding out comfortably, we arrive at Stroud terminus outside the Merrywalks shopping centre and get a selection of photos as Mark recognises an old Merry Hill minibus.

Stroud is my kind of place, a busy little town with hints of charm and history. The Old Painswick Inn immediately caught my eye, with the Subscription Rooms and town clock also providing appealing landmarks. Woody's Wetherspoon's radar leads us safely to the Lord John on Russell Street where we sample our first pint of the day, mine being some Derail Ale from the Box Steam Brewery in Wiltshire. Far from being derailed though, the drink leads neatly on to some more rail exploration, Stroud Station being just round the back of the pub and lending itself to a selection of photos with its totem sign and frontage offering the character I was craving earlier.

Pressing onwards, we somehow avoided getting lost in the Merrywalks shops to emerge at the bus stops, where Woody's favourite minibus was still in attendance. We catch the 93 back to Gloucester, with Andy seizing the chance to rev up his latest D9 driving re-enactment (giving Mark a few bruises in the process), whilst I extract Woody's revenge with a sneaky photo of Andy's bald spot! The scenery is again superb and the bus immaculate, a far cry from what we're used to back home.

Gloucester then, and its lunch time. The Wetherspoon's radar is out again, this time finding The Regal just a few yards from the bus station. A pint of Bateman's Hooker goes down a treat - the beer is brewed specially to coincide with the Six Nations rugby. Unfortunately the food aspect wasn't so enjoyable, we had to wait ages for our order to arrive and when it did it was incomplete. Needless to say we weren't impressed.

Luckily the delay hadn't scuppered our plan completely, and we just about managed to catch our next bus. This was the 94 to Cheltenham, branded as Stagecoach Gold with an appropriate livery and a hint of luxury leather on board. We enjoy this added comfort with a quick ride up through Longlevens and Churchdown before alighting on the Promenade. Racing Post banners seemed to be out in force in the lead up to the Cheltenham Festival.

Cheltenham itself was a delight to explore, with its distinctive regency architecture adding a sense of occasion to our visit. From the Promenade we head round to the Royal Well Bus Station, a neat crescent where a selection of coaches and minbuses were on layover, including a couple of Swanbrook examples. The lure of another pint then leads us to the Cotswold pub where Andy and I sample some Old Father Timer courtesy of Wadworths of Devizes whilst Mr Wood takes care of the customary Cheers photo. Andy then has us worried as he disappears into Clintons Cards on a Mother's Day mission - thankfully he made it safely onto the 10 for the return ride to Gloucester.

We finish off an excellent day with a closing pint in the Water Poet, Gloucester's other Wetherspoon's and one I actually much preferred to the Regal. News filters through that Wolves have won 2-1 at Turf Moor Burnley, an important three points in the quest for Premier League survival. Gloucester Station then provides a final flurry of photos as I investigate platform 4 and sneak a shot of the Cardiff train - some nice memories that meant I left actually quite liking the station, even if it resembles something I'd expect to find at the back end of a hospital rather than as the gateway to a historic city. The Malvern train departs at 17:38 and we interchange at Worcester for our connections home, a reflective ride as we look forward to future outings.

So there it was, a great introduction to Gloucestershire with Mr Wood's plan delivering the goods yet again. It was possibly our finest outing to date, enjoyable from start to finish with the usual combination of buses, beer and banter. Now we've got our bearings I think a return visit to the county may well be in order, with Swindon, Tewkesbury or even Ross-on-Wye all within range for future investigation, but for now I'm content to say cheers to a day very well done.

Monday, March 8

A Dose of Good Caldmore

Friday 5th March: The outings have been coming thick and fast recently, with my latest adventure involving a combination of unchartered Birmingham and a long overdue return to Walsall. Here are a few selected highlights...
  • 549: a new bus route, operated by Midland (formerly Choice Travel) that connects Wolverhampton and Walsall via New Cross and Manor Hospitals along with Wednesfield, Perry Hall, Pool Hayes and Bentley. Nice ride although I feel it may need a few more passengers to be viable in the long term.
  • Manor Hospital: Alight on Moat Road for a look at the Belle Vue pub and the Manor Hospital. The hospital always looked dark and foreboding whenever I've passed it before, so I'm impressed to see the site being redeveloped into a new state of the art facility. The Forge & Fettle and Forge Hammer pubs add further interest, even if the latter is an abandoned eyesore.
  • Birchills: the pub photos continue thanks to the Orange Tree (closed on the corner of Hollyhedge Lane), the Four Ways (overlooking Bentley Lane junction), the Rose and Crown (spruced up as a Black Country Ales house) and the New Navigation (on the side of the Walsall Canal).
  • Stafford Street: even more pub shots, this time featuring the White Horse (a small Green Lane Banks's, also shut), then John Street where the British Oak and the rather charming New Inns (a.k.a the Pretty Bricks) are practically next door to each other. Stafford Street itself contributes the Sportsman, the Prince and the Cuckoo Bell.
  • Walsall Town Centre: a bit of a shock as I discover that the main Walsall College of Art and Technology building has been demolished. I recover with bus station photos of the 331, 329E and 377 before tracking down the Wheatsheaf, an elegant Birmingham Street townhouse pub that has been a recent winner of the Walsall CAMRA pub of the year award.
  • Caldmore: a compact and vibrant multicultural area that offers several nice landmarks and is locally pronounced 'karma' - hence the appalling pun in the title of this post!! Caldmore Green is a neatly landscaped feature overlooked by some shops, whilst the White Hart is an impressive old manor house type pub. The Crown & Anchor and the White Lion are both equally striking, and I also catch a quick glimpse of St Michael's Church.
  • Highgate: bonus exploring here as I seek out a few shots of the Highgate Brewery, standing proud at one end of Sandymount Road as the scent of hops hung heavy in the air. The area is barely a stone's throw from Caldmore but feels altogether more refined, genteel even.
  • Bescot: after a brief look at South Walsall Library, its off to Bescot Station to wait for my 12:04 train whilst attempting some scary self-portrait photos!
  • Perry Barr: beginning the Brum leg of the day with prized views of the greyhound stadium and bus garage. I was hoping to locate the temporary Birchfield Library on Trinity Road, but inexplicably failed to spot a sign on the wall of the neighbourhood office despite taking a photo of the building. My powers of observation obviously aren't what they used to be!
  • Aston: I console myself with a trio of Aston gems. Villa Park is a footballing monument, with the Holte End and Holte pub particularly iconic. Aston Hall is simply glorious looking out over the surrounding parkland, with an inspiring frontage featuring lawns and a stately clock turret, whereas Aston Library isn't quite as grand but still dominates the corner of Albert Road and Witton Road.
  • Stockland Green: a momentary flirtation with the 11C Outer Circle brings me to Stockland Green, where I enjoy lunch in the shadow of the Gala Bingo and reacquaint myself with the former Stockland pub, now masquerading as the Modern China oriental buffet.
  • Erdington: the final act sees Marsh Lane introduce me to the Royal Oak and the Red Lion. I sneak past the station, then its Orphanage Road for a combination of the local library, leisure centre and town square. A couple of markets bring the curtain down - Wilton Market looking understated compared to the garish pink signs of Erdington Market opposite the Charlie Hall Wetherspoon's.
Well well well - that's March out of the starting blocks with a bang! After a couple of recent away days it was good to be back investigating closer to home, reminding myself that there is still plenty of the West Midlands waiting to be discovered. Saying that, I do hope for a few more adventures further afield before the month is out. As always, I'll try and keep you posted...

Monday, March 1

Oswestry and Ellesmere

Shropshire was beckoning as on Saturday 27th February I set out on a mission to explore a couple of intriguing rural market towns whilst sampling some classic bus rides in the process...

I begin at Wolverhampton Station where I find that the Shrewsbury train is terminating at Wellington due to engineering works, with the connection being completed by a rail replacement service. Whilst this is an inconvenience, it does mean I can attempt a few Telford area photos whilst waiting for the substitute bus to turn up. Despite the drizzle, I add views of the Plough, the Charlton Arms and the Market Square to my Wellington collection, before reconvening at the station car park at half past nine.

The rail replacement journey itself was quite interesting, leaving Wellington along Wrekin Road with a glimpse of the Wickets pub before joining the monotonous A5 slog. We enter Shrewsbury passing the Coracle pub and Heathgates roundabout, and there's even a sighting of Arriva's Shrewsbury bus garage - now there's a location worth a closer look. Park up on the railway station forecourt where a crowd have gathered for the return journey - I pounce for a few quick photos then track down the Shrewsbury Hotel near Welsh Bridge for a couple of Wetherspoon's shots too.

The main trip proper gets underway as I catch the 10:15 number 70 bus to Oswestry. This was a cracking ride covering some nice little villages along the way. Calcott Lane is a narrow country road where we force the return bus to reverse back to a suitable passing place, then there's Montford Bridge with the riverside Wingfield Arms. Nesscliffe offers the Old Three Pigeons, West Felton and Queens Head flash by, and Whittington looked pretty with a hint of a castle tower, the Penrhos Arms and a level crossing. The final entry into Oswestry takes in the Unicorn estate then offers a brief glimpse of another Arriva depot - plenty of food for thought for a future visit perhaps?

I was rather excited about the prospect of visiting Oswestry and the town lived up to my expectations despite some persistent drizzle. The bus station is a good photographic location, especially with some Tanat Valley buses on layover, whilst the old railway station looms large over Oswald Road and demanded my attention. The town itself has plenty of charm - I particularly liked the market square with its array of old coaching inns (the Red Lion, the Eagles and the George), all overlooked by the impressive guildhall. The Cross features a lovely old timber-framed shop, then I proceed towards St Oswald's Church and discover more traditional pubs such as the Fox or the Oak. A quick look in the Visitor Centre, then its round to the library as the rain gets harder. The castle mound would also merit closer inspection, but I passed on the opportunity in favour of returning to the bus station and trying to stay dry.

Leaving Oswestry behind, its off to Ellesmere courtesy of the number 53. This again was an enjoyable ride, taking in the Park Hall estate, Gobowen, St Martin's and Criftins. Amongst the landmarks I spotted this time were the Cross Foxes by Gobowen Station, the Cross Keys and Ifton Miner's Welfare Centre at St Martin's and the Parish Pump and an old-fashioned post office at Dudleston Heath.

Ellesmere then, alighting by the post office and pitching immediately into more pub photos thanks to the Black Lion Hotel and the Market Tavern. Ellesmere is only a small market town but has plenty of character crammed into its narrow streets. Cross Street offers some independent local shops, much more interesting than your standard High Street, and the drinking landmarks continue with the Ellesmere Hotel and the White Hart.

One attraction I was particularly keen to seek out was the Llangollen Canal, beginning with Ellesmere Wharf where the basin has been neatly landscaped and a new Tesco superstore constructed. Joining the towpath, I walk the short distance along the Ellesmere Town Arm to meet the main canal at a pleasant little junction. Bridge 59 is a small footbridge spanning the end of the arm, whilst Bridge 58 is a classic Shropshire Union style stone feature linking to Birch Road. It's possible to do a circular walk to include the Mere and beyond, but I head back into town for a browse in the library and a handful of photos at Cross Street bus stop where I'm delighted to find the 53 and 501 both posing obligingly.

The latter route is my next target, leaving Arriva behind momentarily to sample a different operator, Bryn Melyn of Llangollen. The ride back into Shrewsbury is truly fascinating and wonderfully relaxing, with a little hint of Saturday sport as the Beacon Radio GoalZone show crackles away on the airwaves. The Red Lion catches my eye as we leave Ellesmere, then the Mere itself offers some lovely views and demands that I return to explore the scenery in greater detail. Other highlights include Cockshutt, Myddle (with its own Red Lion pub) and Albrighton, then its the Battlefield Enterprise Park and Coton Hill on the final approach to Shrewsbury - cracking stuff!!

Back in Shrewsbury just before 3pm, and I don't feel ready to head home just yet. Coton Hill had roused my curiosity on the 501 so I ventured back there for pictures of the Woodman pub and a nosey peek down Pig Trough, a fascinating riverside passage that surely has a beguiling history all of its own. This proved a fitting final act of exploration, and I decide to skip the rail replacement option in favour of the X5/892 combination, effectively providing one direct bus from Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton via Telford.

Home for 5.30pm and I covered some fair mileage all told, with both Oswestry and Ellesmere making some great first impressions. Now I've got my bearings, I look forward to building on this outing in future with further adventures in the area. Shropshire is perhaps my favourite county, the pace of life seems more relaxed and I really enjoy the sense of escape I get when exploring here - a nice antidote to my more usual West Midlands wanderings, allowing me to recharge a little in readiness for getting back on the homeward beat in March...