Monday, May 24

Peak Condition

Saturday 22nd May: It was Destination Derbyshire for a family ride out to the picturesque village of Ashover, situated between Matlock and Chesterfield. The weather was simply glorious, providing a fine backdrop for a relaxed walk followed by a thirstquenching pint...

I've always been a fan of the Peak District thanks to previous visits to places such as Ashbourne, Bakewell and Buxton - the combination of craggy scenery and charming market towns is hard to beat. Despite this, I'd never heard of Ashover before and would probably have ignored it if I saw it on a map, so calling by here was an unexpected and delightful treat. The village is full of charm and character with buildings and a surrounding landscape that neatly encapsulate what the Peak District has to offer.

Having parked up, we have an initial mooch around. The Black Swan pub immediately catches my eye, a tall and elegant stone building bathed in sunlight, it looked most inviting. Round the corner are a couple of local stores including a greengrocers and a traditional post office, whilst the 63 bus came through on its way to Chesterfield. After a picnic lunch there is more to explore, including the Crispin, a smaller cottage type inn with Civil War connections situated next to the church. This was a picture postcard scene, with the church itself (All Saints) being a grand landmark and a classic photo target in its own right. Down the bottom of a little hill is the Old Poets Corner pub, but more about that later.

The surrounding area is good walking country and we'd picked out a gentle stroll starting and finishing at the Poets. Setting out, we head across the showfields and round the back of the cricket pavillion before negotiating a series of squeeze stiles (breathe in and be brave). A bluebell woodland then awaits us, the scene given a rather magical quality as the light streams in through the branches. There are views of an old quarry complete with a bright blue pool, then we pass a farm to emerge onto a path flanking the River Amber. The river is barely a trickle here but has a soothing presence as the day gets hotter, whilst the perfume of wild garlic hangs heavy in the air. The path brings us out onto a country lane leading back into the village for a well deserved pint.

So then, the Old Poets Corner. The pub has gained an excellent reputation as the home of the Ashover Brewery and was voted the Chesterfield and District CAMRA Pub of the Year in 2009. Its easy to see why the pub (and the beer) is so popular as they make a lot of effort to build up the ambience and keep everything in good condition. Dad and I tried the Light Rale brew, a paleish bitter that proved nice and refreshing after our exertions. The pub made a good impression and I would recommend it - there seems to be an extensive home-cooked menu with sausages a particular speciality, although I wasn't so keen on finding promotional posters and leaflets everywhere (even on the walls in the toilet) as if every available marketing opportunity had to be exploited.

Pint quaffed it was back to the car for a leisurely ride home, and a smashing excursion was over all too quickly. Once again the Peak District made quite an impression on me, offering somewhere a bit different from my usual catchment area and proving that it's always good to broaden your exploration horizons...

Saturday, May 15

Windmill Lane to Warley

Friday 14th May: After my recent Rail Rover gallivanting it was time to return to the day job with a proper West Midlands local trip. Normal service was therefore resumed courtesy of a Sandwell stroll incorporating Cape Hill, Smethwick, Londonderry and Bearwood...
  • My starting point for this adventure was Smethwick Rolfe Street, from whence I make my way round to Windmill Lane spotting the Falcon (on the corner of Messenger Road) on the way.
  • At the top of Windmill Lane is a busy roundabout with other routes such as Grove Lane and Cranford Street radiating out. The island is home to two pubs - the London Apprentice (the usual boring stock design M&B small pub, apparently up for sale) and the Moilliet Arms (a much more interesting taller house that looked quite traditional).
  • Windmill Lane itself leads me down into Cape Hill. St Matthews Church is a nice feature whilst the CAP centre also caught my eye as a new facility. Suffrage Street offers access to Victoria Park along with photos of the Robin (an intriguing backstreet local), whilst Windmills Shopping is a modern retail park that includes Asda, Matalan and an indoor market.
  • Cape Hill itself is a place I covered only recently, but I pause briefly for a handful of shots of the Seven Stars and the Waterloo. I also track down the 438 route loading outside the main entrance to the Windmills Centre, a useful bus bonus there.
  • Wandering round into Smethwick I can enjoy a further look at Victoria Park. There are nice views to be had of mature trees now heavy with leaves and the occasional hint of blossom, with a backdrop of railings and the lower end of High Street. Further along I find the Park Hotel, a once fine building that now looks sad having become yet another pub casualty. Given its prominent location on a one-way system opposite the park, I hope the closure is only temporary as we can't keep losing such landmarks.
  • My Smethwick tour continues with shots of the Heritage Centre, war memorial and the grand Council House (with musical accompaniment from the chiming clock tower) before I branch off down Arden Road for another look at the Old Chapel next to the Church. The Uplands leads me to the Hollybush (another for the M&B collection) and round by the cricket club as I enter the mysterious world of Londonderry.
  • A brace of pubs keep me busy here - the Londonderry and the Queens Head are both large and distinctive buildings, with the latter also paid homage to by several of the local shop names. In days gone by there might have been three to investigate judging by the cleared area on the corner of Queens Road and William Road.
  • Pottery Road brings me into what could be defined as Warley, although its an area I've always struggled to pin down. The George is a chain pub chasing the casual diner, whereas the Plough on George Road is a cottagey little local that Rog and I visited last year. The local fish bar round here is called the Warley Whale, a name that made me smile although I haven't checked the size of their fish portions just yet.
  • My next little mission is to track down the Wernley on the Wolverhampton Road before sampling the Dickensian-sounding Bleakhouse area. Despite the name it comes across as a pleasant enough estate, and I was particularly pleased to find the local branch library. The facility here has recently reopened after a makeover and I was very impressed by what they've done with the place - it's clean, bright and inviting inside so I hope the new Wednesfield library meets a similar standard. Note to self: remember the button for the automatic door in future!
  • More from Pottery Road brings me to the Pheasant pub and onwards to Warley Woods. The area of open space here comprises a public park and a golf course, again with pretty blossoms very much in evidence. A non-pub landmark for a change is the famous (?) Warley Water Tower, a turreted relic off Harborne Road that I can well remember featuring during rides on the 448 bus.
  • Lightwoods Hill and Lightwoods Park convey me safely to Bearwood, where I linger at the bus station admiring the floral displays whilst waiting for the 447 bus. I'm on the homeward stretch now as the route takes me back through the day's conquests heading for Smethwick and West Bromwich - it seems I managed to avoid the Ivy House (ex-Holden's) pub during my walk so that will have to wait for a future engagement.
  • My final act is to alight on Spon Lane where the Metro awaits me at Trinity Way. There's just time for a brief collision with the Flower Pot (no Bill and Ben though?) before catching my tram home.
Sandwell has become a favourite hunting ground recently, what with the Winson Green, Tividale and Titford trips, and this was further evidence that the borough can offer some genuinely fascinating explorations. I'm glad I tidied up my knowledge of Windmill Lane and now feel I know the Cape Hill area better, whilst Warley was long overdue some attention. I'd actually been keen for some time to investigate the area that gave its name to a wider county borough prior to the creation of Sandwell, and I only hope I did it justice.

Wednesday, May 5

The Rover Returns

Rail Rover Week was a notable absentee from my 2009 exploration collection, with circumstances and the weather depriving me of my annual tour of the Heart of England railway network. I am therefore delighted that Rail Rover last week reclaimed its rightful place in my 2010 calendar as I enjoyed a fascinating few days out and about, bookended by a couple more memorable adventures - here's what I got up to...

Sunday 25th April: a prelude to Rail Rover came in the form of a Metro Pubs Medley with Nick and Stephen. Using the Good Pubs by Metro leaflet as our guide, we ventured out on the tram to sample the delights of Hockley, Carters Green and Wednesbury. Pub of the day was the Black Eagle, which delivered its customary excellent service and homely atmosphere. We then called in on the Vine on Roebuck Lane and the Wheatsheaf at Carters Green before enduring the dubious charms of Wednesbury, where most of the pubs seemed to be either closed on a Sunday afternoon or closed completely. We did find the Rose Hill Tavern for a swift half, and were quite glad to escape the town for the comfort of the Olde White Rose at Bilston, a nice way to finish.

Monday 26th April: Day one of Rail Rover proper, and I'm going all Welsh with a visit to Wrexham. The town has two railway stations (General and Central), both of which prove useful photo locations, and I also enjoy a wander around the marketplace. Lunchtime finds me in Ruabon, a place I never really liked much first time out but is now growing on me - a bonus shot of the Bryn Melyn Llangollen bus certainly helped the cause there. I finish in Chirk with a return visit to the canal tunnel and aqueduct (I'm still not brave enough to walk across), then eat a Mars ice cream outside the Cadbury factory - what a traitor!!

Tuesday 27th April: Tradition dictates that Tuesday is Shropshire day and 2010 is no exception. Ludlow is my morning target, exploring the town walls and savouring the slower pace of life. I decamp to Church Stretton in the afternoon, where I bother the Minsterley Motors buses on the 435 route. Some glorious sunshine tempts me to walk down to Little Stretton where I reward myself with a pint in the Green Dragon, Woods' Parish Bitter for a Shropshire ale in a proper Shropshire village local, perfect!

Wednesday 28th April: I had intended to head across to Ledbury and Colwall for a taste of Herefordshire, but I missed that train and ended up in Lichfield instead. Its always a pleasure to visit the city of the three spires, with the cathedral itself and Beacon Park proving especially beguiling. The same cannot be said of Lichfield Trent Valley, an ugly dump of a station where the main building is a glorified shed and there's a hideous platform sign feature that appears to have been put together out of paving slabs! Warwickshire creeps in with a visit to Atherstone, admiring the market square whilst getting to grips with the bus station, train station (unstaffed halt with the old station house now used as a vets) and Atherstone Locks on the Coventry Canal. An honourable mention should go to the Olde Swan pub, a fascinating half timbered setting for a welcome pint of Banks's Mild.

Thursday 29th April: More Warwickshire escapades, starting with a fascinating mid-morning roam around Henley in Arden. The station here has faded charm - a nice footbridge but the main building is boarded up when it could be a delighful old-fashioned stop - whilst the High Street is an absolute gem, bursting with character and interest. From here its over to Hatton for a walk down the locks on the Grand Union Canal. Unfortunately it starts raining, so I dive into the Locks Cafe and console myself with a homemade caramel shortbread cake, a real treat.

Friday 30th April: The closing gambit for Rail Rover 2010 finds me in the Potteries where I flirt with Fenton. I initially find the area quite depressing (as most old industrial areas are), but I then found a historic little quarter featuring the library, magistrates court and war memorial, all of which conveyed an impressive sense of civic pride. The canal content this time involves a loop around Kidsgrove, sampling the Macclesfield and the Trent & Mersey for photos of Harecastle Tunnels, Hardings Wood Junction and the Red Bull pub and aqueduct.

Saturday 1st May: The rover might be over for another year, but the outings continue unabated as I join Andy and Woody for a day in Shropshire. The D9 driving demonstrations are again to the fore as an 892/X5 combination conveys us to Shrewsbury - the steering wheel (a.k.a. the pizza) seems to get bigger with every trip, and the gearstick closer to Mr Wood's ribcage. I think Woody's alter ego as a 1970's Stourbridge bus driver has a lot to answer for! After a ride on the 70, we recover in Oswestry having eventually got served in the Wilfred Owen Wetherspoons. The rain arrives to accompany our subsequent bus station photos, and the D9 gets even more exaggerated on the return journey. Further pints arrive courtesy of the Thomas Botfield in Telford and the Wheatsheaf in Shifnal, and it is true - my wallet did make an appearance although it has now gone back into hiding with the moths on standby to keep it company!

Seven successive days of fun and adventure, that certainly is quite an achievement. It was great to have the Rail Rover back as part of my exploration arsenal, and I can look back on some fond memories of the places I've visited. Train travel in general really appeals to me, sitting back and relaxing whilst watching the world go by (in the off peak at least), and I'm already picking out some potential destinations for next year's contribution...