Saturday, July 31

Pub Patrol

Friday 30th July: Outing No. 4 in the growing series of periodic pubcrawls with Stephen and Nick. The running order thus far had seen us tackle Gornal, then Netherton with the Delph, whilst last time was a Metro-based Wednesbury effort - today it was the turn of Stourbridge...

* Armed with our plans, we meet for lunch on Sedgley Beacon, orange battered chips and breezy views over the surrounding landscape.

* Pub 1: The Beacon Hotel - my personal liking for this classic gem of a pub is surely well documented now. I can think of no better place to start, sitting in the snug with half of Ruby Mild and looking forward to what the afternoon might have in store.

- Nick in the Beacon Hotel -

* Walk into Sedgley trying to think of famous Max's - Boyce and Bygraves immediately spring to mind. Onto the 558 into Dudley as Nick contributes Max Mosley, then we change onto the 246 for a look at Russells Hall Hospital, Woodside and Brierley Hill.

* Pub 2: The Robin Hood - alight in Amblecote, and after quick shots of the Swan and the Starving Rascal, its down Collis Street to another Paul pub favourite. Nick tries some Enville Ginger whilst I go for Slater's Premium Bitter. A cosy setting with books, indentures and a bottle collection to admire - Stephen also comments on the goalframes in the urinals, bizarre!

* A wander down towards Stourbridge, passing the cricket club and calling by at the Bonded Warehouse. The traffic is building as we head for Friday afternoon rush hour on the ring road.

* Pub 3: The Royal Exchange - sampling the Enville Street experience with a brace of Bathams' boozers. First is the Exchange, with its inviting passageway, traditional bar and pretty beer garden. We sit however in the little lounge room, a distinctive setting for some Bathams Mild and a look at a poster of Irish writers.

* Pub 4: The Unicorn - Bathams Part 2 takes us to Wollaston Village and a pub full of local characters engaged in banter and conversation. We try the Bitter this time as we soak up the cracking atmosphere and peruse the Bathams 2010 calendar - I want one!!

* Back on the buses with the X96 from Wollaston Junction into Stourbridge, changing onto the 9 for Halesowen. The tour guide in me kicks in again as I provide my own brand of commentary for Lye and Colley Gate. Stephen has also got hold of the cricket score, sounds like England are on top in the Trent Bridge test vs Pakistan.

* Pub 5: The Waggon & Horses - off at the new bus station, with Nick a little undecided as to it's merits. Beer mecca awaits us next, as the Waggon and Horses has its usual wide eclectic range to pick from. The bar is bustling so we find a quiet corner to savour a crusty pork pie washed down with Northumberland Sheepdog for me and Malvern Hills Black Pear for Nick. Mr B enjoys his customary lemonade and blackcurrant as we read Ales & Tales and the Leicester Drinker.

- Enjoying a drink in the Waggon & Horses -

* The day is going well so far as we make our way to the Hawne Tavern on Attwood Street. The pub was absolutely packed so we decided not to stay, although I liked what I saw and the amount of regulars is recommendation enough in itself - one for the future perhaps...

* Back on the 9 then as we move on to Lye. Nick ponders the plethora of Balti houses as we try and dodge the drizzle, noting the Windsor Castle and the Railway as we stroll down Pedmore Road.

* Pub 6: The Shovel - our final port of call and a pub I've had my eye on for quite a while. It seems to be part way through a makeover so I wasn't quite sure what to make of the place. The beer was enjoyable though, some Nelson's Treasure Trove for me with Nick on the Brough's Pale Ale.

* Its back into the squall as we decamp to the bus stop, timing it just right for an otherwise empty 9 back to Stourbridge. Its then 256 duty for the ride back home, and another successful outing safely takes its place in the exploration pantheon. Thoughts turn to future trips, with Kinver, Walsall and Coventry amongst the possibilities for investigation next time around...

Monday, July 26

Time To Say Goodbye

Saturday 24th July: A poignant occasion as I joined Woody and Andy to bid farewell to Lea Hall Garage and witness the final West Midlands journeys of the MCW Metrobus...

* An early start sees me head over to Stourbridge for 8:30. Here I meet Mr Wood and get some photos of the 294 and 295 on their final day being operated by National Express West Midlands.

* Next its on board the 9 with Mark looking forward to this route being run by Pensnett Garage. We change at Bearwood onto that Birmingham institution, the Outer Circle. Our 11A takes us down through Harborne, Selly Oak, Bournville, Cotteridge, Kings Heath and Hall Green with views of the Grant Arms, the Hazelwell and the New Billesley.

* Alight at Acocks Green Garage and the Metrobus Farewell Running Day is already in full swing. The depot is hosting an open day as part of the commemorations and a selection of vintage buses are on display alongside model stands and a burger stall. Woody and I have a scout around whilst awaiting the arrival of Mr Lunn. Its fascinating to see inside the garage proper with the various staff noticeboards and engineering equipment.

* Andy arrives on the scene and checks on the instructions for his stint driving one of the Metrobuses later on. After a further mooch around we head across to Lea Hall, accompanied by a soundtrack of the Kinks and howls of pain from Woody whenever Andy demonstrated the D9 driving.

- Lea Hall Garage -

* Our visit to Lea Hall was simply brilliant, albeit a sombre occasion as well. The garage is closing down with its routes and vehicles being transferred elsewhere - it doesn't seem that long ago that I was here for a celebratory birthday open day, but this is an altogether different occasion. Mark has secured permission for us to visit and take photos, so its on with the hi-vis jackets and across to the admin office to check in.

* I felt very privileged to be granted such access, and the whole experience was an eye-opener in terms of what is involved in operating a bus depot. We have a look around the admin block, noting the reception desk and driver information boards, then headed into the main garage. You definitely got the sense the place was winding down towards the inevitable, and there was a sense of sadness in the air although it was still fun roaming the yard for photos of parked up buses and the reserve fleet.

* We'd just about finished our tour (Andy even videoing the toilet block!) when David Harvey arrived with his preserved vintage bus hoping for one last look around. With permission secured, he was able to park it in the garage entrance and provide us with some wonderful bonus photos - a happy accident if ever there was one! This really made our day and gave Lea Hall a fitting footnote after 55 years of transport service.

* Andy then does the honours to get us back to Acocks Green, with it being my turn to suffer the D9 punishment in the front seat. After a quick burger and a bit more networking, it's time for Andy's driving stint. 2832 returns off 31E duty and becomes the 37E to Corporation Street and back, therefore providing my last ever journey on an in-service West Midlands Metrobus.

- Andy takes the wheel of the 37 -

* The journey begins at 13:49 loading at Acocks Green Village with driver Paul from Coventry doing the run into Birmingham. The bus is packed out with enthusiasts and brings back my own fond memories of riding Metrobuses on a variety of routes over the years. Corporation Street provides photo opportunities and a driver change as Andy takes the wheel for the return leg and Woody gets in position to film the occasion (and gets shut in the doors for his troubles!) The experience of that last ride is something I will remember for a long time.

* Back at Acocks Green Garage, the bus is swamped by enthusiasts all keen for that special shot. Andy eventually finds a gap in the crowds in order to drive the bus into the yard and out of sight. With 2832 parked that just leaves two more buses out on the road. 2988 is the next back, getting duly mobbed fresh off 11E duties, then its left to 2903 to have the honour of being the final Metrobus out in service. It arrives back off its trip on the 1 just after 3:20pm complete with farewell banners and RIP in the back blind. After an array of photographs, it eventually disappears into the yard to a round of applause and its the end of an era.

* The crowds disperse and its time to wander home. Mark and I decide to mark the passing of the old workhorse with a few drinks across Stourbridge way. Andy kindly provides us with a lift to Halesowen as Mr Wood takes delight in me suffering some more D9 treatment - my revenge is swift however as we leave him trapped in the car by the childlock, we only let him out because it was his round!

- "Let me out!!" -

* The William Shenstone is our first port of call for a spot of tea and a soothing pint, mine being Sadler's Brickmakers Bitter. The Sadler's theme continues as we venture over to Lye to visit their brewery tap, the Windsor Castle. This pub wasn't exactly what I was expecting, as instead of the usual traditional interior it seemed modern and contemporary - I actually rather liked it. Much of the building has been given over to dining but we find a perch near the bar where we can savour our excellent pints of Worcester Sorcerer.

* We conclude proceedings back at Stourbridge, trying a half in each of the Wetherspoon's - I was especially pleased to find some Beowulf Chasewater on at the new Chequers. We also decided to try a drink at the re-opened Rock Station for old time's sake, but the less said about that the better. We finish instead at the Duke William, a closing half as I try some of the Duke's house brew. Our discussion here involves reviewing what had truly been a landmark day in the local transport scene. Woody and Andy really did me proud today, and I must also thank the staff at Lea Hall and all those involved in the farewell event at Acocks Green. With Lea Hall closed and the Metrobus gone, things might not quite be the same again, but at least we gave them a great send-off...

Wednesday, July 21

WME Update Digest - April, May & June 2010

Has it really been over three months since I last submitted a digest of WME gallery news? Indeed it has, but this only reflects the blunt truth that very little has been happening on the website recently. However, in the interests of tying up the loose ends, here's a quick summary of the new additions that did manage to squeak through...

The most notable arrival was on WME Walsall in May, with a new Exploring Goscote collection taking pride of place. Goscote Hospital features here along with an archive view of the Dolphin pub that has gained extra significance now that the place has been demolished. Existing collections that also got a bit of treatment were the Wyrley & Essington Canal (shots of Anchor Bridge and Birchills Junction) and Exploring Lodge Farm (a couple of photos of the Homestead).

If Walsall led the way, WME Wolverhampton trotted along quietly with a light sprinkling that coincidentally included another Anchor Bridge, this time on the Birmingham Main Line. The local shops at Dovecotes made their presence felt whilst there was a welcome reappearance for the old William Butler pub at Ettingshall shortly before the site was cleared for a housing block. Also emerging from the archives was an intriguing view from Bilston Bus Station being redeveloped in the summer of 2005.

Elsewhere its been a real struggle, with the occasional photo here or there but nothing substantial. For completeness, I therefore offer you the Nags Head at Great Bridge (WME Sandwell), Sutton Coldfield Library (WME Birmingham), the 007 at Halesowen as operated by Ludlows (WME Dudley) and the Herald pub at Canley (WME Coventry). Exploration Extra at least managed a massive two new additions, both hailing from Matlock way during Rail Rover 2008, not that we're clutching at straws or anything.

Being frank, even by my usual quiet standards this is still a pitiful return for three months worth of work on the site. Despite good intentions, I somehow never quite got around to sorting much out, and consequently I've spent much of July having to remind myself what it was I was aiming to do. Things have gradually got moving again this last couple of weeks and I hope to offer a more constructive digest for you soon...

Saturday, July 10

Reviewing West Birmingham

Friday 9th July: The continuing drive to overhaul the West Midlands bus network has now turned its spotlight on West Birmingham, an area I came to know very well during my University days. An array of service changes are in the offing, so I couldn’t resist taking a trip down memory lane by revisiting some of the favourite routes and haunts that provided my treats between lectures…

* Smethwick Galton Bridge is today’s launchpad as I venture out into West Smethwick for a few local photos of West Cross shopping parade, the Ivy Bush pub (still with some Holden's signs) and West Smethwick Park.

* 448 – I was keen to explore the route again as it was a University favourite that is set to be extended to Bartley Green under the Review. We trundle down through Londonderry, Warley Woods and Bearwood, then at Harborne I was surprised to find the baths had been demolished, a fine landmark gone although I think a new pool is being built in its place. The current terminus is Vincent Drive near the QE Hospital and University Station.

* University – a chance to see what's been happening since I was last here. The other end of Vincent Drive has now been closed off with traffic using the new road down to Selly Oak whilst the hospital redevelopment gathers pace. I hope for a few bus photos and track down a belated 448 shot outside the National Blood Service offices, whilst the 76 also poses on the main roundabout. It’s nice to linger a while watching as the Hospital minibus does its rounds and people mingle about preparing, I assume, for graduation ceremonies.

* 21 – a bit of a personal pilgrimage this, recalling special memories of rides out to Bartley Green in the days when any ride out from Uni was a voyage of new discoveries. I feel quite sad that the route is being withdrawn (with the 448 extended as part replacement) so I was determined to give it a good send-off. New road aside, its a recognisable tale of Selly Oak, Alwold Road, Weoley Castle and Woodcock Lane. Newman College is having its own building works done down opposite the reservoir at Bangham Pit, then we're into Bartley Green by the library, arriving at one of my all-time favourite terminuses on Romsley Road.

* Bartley Green – what can I say, it’s great to be back. There’s plenty of bus activity with 18s almost falling over themselves, then there was a queue of 22 and 23s to contend with at one point as well. The memorial, St Michael’s Church and the Bale of Hay keep me busy whilst I wait to I attempt the all-important 21 shot, not sure whether it came out that well though.

* 18 – a route that means a lot to me and I’m glad they’re leaving it well alone in this review. Sadly the Metrobuses have gone but it’s still a good double decker run back past the Woodcock and then through Merritts Brook (where the Highlander was still going along). The former pub site at Hoggs Lane/Basil Road is still fenced off and empty, and the back of the Black Horse heralds my arrival in Northfield.

* Northfield – a very brief sojourn only, but long enough to sneak a photo of Sainsbury’s and to try some zooms of the Black Horse as it gets converted into a Wetherspoons. The swimming baths also gets a bit of attention as I keep an eye on the real-time info display with the 62 8-10 minutes away, then suddenly due, curious that!

* 62 – a roam down to Rednal. The 61, 62 and 63 were always Bristol Road staples so it seems a little weird that we’ll be dealing with an X62 in future. I can at least catch up with the latest Longbridge developments, with St Modwen very prominent and the new Bournville College campus coming along nicely. I can still remember part of the old Rover plant here behind white railings, and there's still plenty of atmospheric rubble and old entrances acting as reminders of what went before - I rather sense I should make more effort to record this transition photographically but that’ll have to wait for another day. Rednal terminus is a nice spot with the Hare & Hounds pub and the tram track cottage, again it seems sad that it’ll lose its 'end of the line' status when the X62 ploughs on to Great Park.

- 62 at Rednal -

* Rednal – I linger a while for some bus and pub photos, with the next 62 along arriving neatly on cue to pose most willingly, what excellent timing! With that in the bag my mission is to get to Great Park so I plot a route through the estate, taking in Heronswood Rd and Edgewood Rd for a peek at the shops and the Coppice pub.

* Great Park - after a brief Morrisons interlude with no sign of buses on the car park, I weave round to Park Way to see what's on layover by the Hollywood Bowl. I mainly associate the terminus here with the 63 on grey Northfield days, and in truth the location has never really appealed that much. The 20 is here (with half a blind only) – having replaced some of the 44 and 49 last year, this service is now being chopped and will go down historically as having escaped my clutches entirely. There is also a 49 parked up but it seems to have broken down and I have to wait for the next one along.

* 49 – like the 18, this route is right up there as a WME cracker. Admittedly this is the modified form (Great Park to Solihull via West Heath, Maypole and Shirley) but it’s encouraging to note that Northfield and Weoley Castle are soon to be bolted onto that. I remember the route for visits to Shirley Station, Northfield Orthopaedic Hospital or a Cotteridge call riding round to Longbridge via Vardon Way. Today the route serves me well again, providing a handy link across towards Pool Farm.

* Druids Heath – a bit of a bonus with some local exploring indulgence. A quick look at the A-Z suggests Aspley Croft and Chelworth Rd can get me to Druids Heath terminus, and indeed they do – a quiet residential back way with lots of cul-de-sac offshoots before I happily emerge at the turning circle to see what’s what. Surprisingly, this was my first ever visit here and I'm pleased to find a 50 parked up on layover with a blind intriguingly proclaiming “I’m a Smart Bus”. As I digest that bold statement, I scurry over the road to plunder some shots of the old Bells Farm, a timber-framed house that offers lots of character next to the local primary school.

* Parsons Hill – one prized photo location is followed swiftly by another as I survey the distinctive McDonalds building overlooking the roundabout here. The restaurant occupies an old 1930s style estate pub and thus is very reminiscent of the McDonalds at Bordesley Green. It’s a cracking building and I’m pleased to have captured it.

* 69 – now here’s a route I definitely have a history with, from the days it went from Weoley Castle to Heartlands Hospital. Its been scaled back and altered a lot since, and the current Brandwood End to Wythall link seems rather lame by comparison. Even so I’ve got to make the most of it because it’ll disappear altogether from two weeks on Sunday. A short run into Kings Heath then we take in Yardley Wood Garage and the Maypole. Beyond this is Hollywood and Wythall, a section I was expecting to be quite quick but it seemed to take forever – the Pack Horse, Shawhurst Lane and Wythall Station being amongst the main features. Station Road then whisks us down to the main island near BaMMot, and after a circuit of the roundabout, the bus terminates at a grass verge with a Worcestershire pole stop.

- 69 at Wythall Island -
* Wythall – luckily the bus holds on for a bit and I’ve just got enough of a gap in the traffic to attempt my photos. The driver gave me a smile and a polite wave which made my day – nice to know there are some friendly ones still about. I can now walk it back to the station, pausing momentarily for a view of the local shops.

* Wythall Station – a new rail location to get stuck into, although my timing has gone a little awry. I arrive just in time to find passengers filing out having got off the 15.55 Birmingham train, and it looks like I’m marooned here for another hour. At least I can enjoy the peace as I survey the facility. It’s essentially a small station with the two platforms either side of the Norton Lane road bridge. On the Birmingham side (opposite Threshers), there’s a little wooden ticket office painted in terracotta tones with a nice canopy, with a ramp leading down. The Stratford side has the ramp but no outbuilding, whilst both platforms are served by a basic terracotta bunker style shelter and a scrolling digital departures screen.

* Tidbury Green – I still have the best part of an hour to spare, so its out with the A-Z once more, picking out a route up to Whitlocks End. The walk introduces me to Tidbury Green, a pleasant collection of houses but little else besides. The heart of the village seems to revolve around a crossroads notable for the local car garage and Yew Tree Farm. I plough onwards and surprise myself by reaching Whitlocks End quite quickly, discovering the very rudimentary Shirley Town football ground en route.

* Whitlocks End – my second new station experience within an hour. This is effectively an unstaffed halt with no main buildings to speak of. There’s a decent sized car park adjoining the Stratford side, with Birmingham platform access up and over the road bridge. I mooch around the Stratford platform first, whereby the access ramp seems to be the station's most recognisable feature, a mass of zigzagging hoop railings again in terracotta. I linger a while as the Stratford train is due then hotfoot it over to the Birmingham side for the 16.58 Stourbridge service.

* All that’s left now is the final journey home. I’m breaking my unwritten rule by actually travelling across Birmingham in the 5pm peak, but actually it wasn’t that bad. There was plenty of space on the train up until Moor Street, and then things got a little crowded through Snow Hill but nothing unbearable. Off at Galton Bridge, charging downstairs just in time to make the 17.32 Holyhead train, finding a standing perch back to Wolverhampton – it could’ve been much much worse.

And that was that. The West Birmingham review takes place from Sunday 25th July and will see the end of the 21, 62, 69 and so forth to be replaced by other services and modifications. I think the 86 Rubery Woodgate route is also becoming history, not forgetting that the 20 will also vanish after its rather brief tenure. The 448 will gain its Bartley Green extension, the 49 will cover Weoley Castle and the 636 will grow up from being the Harborne Hopper to extend fully from Halesowen to Brum. It’ll be interesting to see how the changes are received, but as each review goes by I become less and less convinced by the need for such upheavals. Hopefully this won’t be another round of unnecessary meddling, but at least I gave my old favourites something of a send off.