Tuesday, August 31

Bank Holiday Beer

Monday 30th August: A dry and sunny Bank Holiday Monday seems like a rare event, so Dad and I made the most of the weather with an afternoon walk, adding in a few pubs along the way...

Our stroll took us along the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, out from Aldersley Junction to Compton through Newbridge. The cut made for a relaxing green backdrop as we discussed Wolves' start to the new Premier League season. We left the canal at Compton Bridge and braved the hike up the Holloway into Tettenhall Wood, rewarding our climb with a first pint of the day.

The Royal Oak on School Road has always appealed to me as an old-fashioned local that has been a long term feature of the community. Calling inside, we find a nice cosy bar with green leather seats, and then a homely lounge/restaurant area with farmhouse-style furniture such as a big wooden dresser. Dad tries the Banks's Mild (his usual barometer when in a Marston's pub) whilst I opt for Ringwood's Showman's Tipple, the guest beer plucked from amongst the Marston's stable. Sitting in the window we can watch the comings and goings at the local shops on School Road, and generally enjoy a nice village setting for a relaxed drink.

Having supped up, I can then get a few photos of Tettenhall Wood including the old branch library building and the Institute. My attention also focuses on the former Shoulder of Mutton pub, now closed down and awaiting demolition despite a long battle by customers to try and keep the place open. Personally I think it is a great shame to be losing a popular facility, and I doubt the housing earmarked for the site will have anything like the same value for the wider community...

Anyway, getting off my soapbox it's back down the hill to sample pub number 2. Dad remembers visiting the Swan at Compton years ago so it would be interesting to see whether it had changed. I guess the answer would be very little, as entering the pub certainly seemed like stepping back in time to me. A classic wooden bar room complete with dark benches, solid tables and a sprinkling of seasoned regulars chewing the fat. The Swan has apparently been a coaching inn since 1777, a fact testified by the painted sign above the fireplace. We take a pew in one little cranny and sample some Marston's Old Empire, an ale with a fair old kick to it as befits a 5.7% ABV. There were lots of intriguing little touches, such as little joke signs dotted about by the bar and a corridor of deep red glazed tiles that all added to the character. I'm already keen to return for a further pint or two, perhaps exploring more of the building and the snug in particular.

How do you follow a gem like that? Well, a beer festival would be a good start and that's what was on offer at the Chindit on Merridale Road. A further walk up Compton Road and Richmond Road ensured we worked up a thirst, and I was particularly keen to see what the pub was like having had my eye on it for quite a while. I was not disappointed, as the Chindit has its own period feel and atmosphere, albeit evoking the 1970s with a plain stark interior and artex style walls. It might've been basic but the place still carried a sense of honesty and homeliness, a pub where the beer very much is king.

Talking of the ale, Bank Holiday weekend was the Chindit's 11th Real Ale festival and seemed to have proved popular judging by the fact that most of the beers had sold out. No matter though, Dad and I tried some Mauldon's Mid Summer Gold off the stillage on the back yard (very nice although the 'gold' is open to debate) followed by Hop Back's Summer Lightning from the handpull at the bar. We sup the latter sitting in the front room, admiring the music posters and the net curtains - a fitting way to conclude an excellent afternoon, containing some great pub discoveries I shall definitely look forward to revisiting in future...

Monday, August 30

Oxford and Swindon

Saturday 28th August: Fire up the old D9, we're off for another adventure. This time our destination is Oxford, the City of the Dreaming Spires, followed by the roundabout heaven that is Swindon...

* An early start as I make my way to Birmingham on a combination of local trains via Smethwick. I alight at Snow Hill to a shout of "Oi!" as Mr Wood is immediately in attendance. A quick browse around Birmingham includes Colmore Row bus photos and a chance to top up the all-important beer money.

* The 8:52 Chiltern departure to Marylebone is our steed for a jaunt down to Leamington Spa as we wonder what incidents might befall us today. Its generally a quiet journey through Solihull and Warwick, remembering expensive rounds at the Forest Hotel in Dorridge (a future call for Andy perhaps?). Alight at Leamington for our CrossCountry Oxford connection which is slightly delayed - we break out the emergency timetables as crowds of Leeds Rhinos fans gather en route to the Challenge Cup final.

* The Oxford train is about 15 minutes late and surprisingly has a fair bit of room on board - I didn't even have to boot anyone out of our seats, saving my evil act for another journey then. We cruise through Banbury and then into Oxford itself, arriving just before half past ten.

* For me, Oxford Station was a bit of a disappointment - I guess I was expecting something more historic considering the elegant architecture awaiting elsewhere in the city. Instead the station seemed relatively modern and bland, its frontage almost hidden behind a screen of shrubs and a bus interchange. Saying that, the interchange was a nice bonus for starter photos of Stagecoach Oxfordshire and the Oxford Bus Company.

* A walk into the city centre spotting the Royal Oxford Hotel and the Oxford Retreat. We quickly find Gloucester Green Bus Station, seemingly dominated by National Express services such as the Oxford Tube and the X5 to Cambridge. The 66 to Swindon stops in there somewhere too - we still have a bit of time before catching it so we stroll up to Magdalen Street where some of the local buses set down, including the 25 Bicester service operated by Heyfordian.

-D9 Driving in Oxford -

* So then, getting our kicks on route 66 so to speak, although I for once am spared the worst clutch excesses as Mr Wood demonstrates how his old D9 would have navigated its way out of Oxford. This was a most enjoyable ride on a sparkling clean vehicle (well done Stagecoach!) that introduced us to the delights of Kingston Bagpuss - sorry, Bagpuize - and Faringdon as I eyed up pubs like the Hinds Head and the Old Crown Hotel. We safely negotiate the Defence Academy at Watchfield followed by Shrivenham High Street, which just leaves us with the daunting prospect of the 'Magic Roundabout' sequence of mini-islands as we close in on Swindon.

* Yes, Swindon. Admittedly, first impressions aren't good, largely because the bus station looks like some 1960s/1970s throwback stuck on the end of a multistorey car park. The stands look depressing with metal grilles creating a cage effect that limits the photo potential, so I have to make do with shots of a Thamesdown double decker in the layover bays.

* Lunch beckons, once we can find the Wetherspoon's that is! Our detour takes us along Fleming Way where there are more bus stops and better photo opportunites. Thamesdown seem to be the main local operator and have a travel shop hut here where I would later collect some handy timetable guides and Wiltshire bus booklets.

* Gradually getting our bearings, we find Fleet Street for the Groves Company Inn. The usual chicken tikka/gourmet burger double act is ordered as we peruse the Wetherspoon's guide to see which establishments we'd visited - the list is evergrowing. Beer wise, Mark is on the John Smith's whilst I try Box Steam's Tunnel Vision (a local brew) followed by Coach House's Innkeeper's from Warrington. Our food arrived promptly, although the kitchen door kept making sounds akin to a harpooned moose that made me question just what exactly was in my burger...

* The Wetherspoon's guide had revealed there are 4 JD's in Swindon alone, including another on Fleet Street itself. This we had to investigate, hence a quick call at the Sir Daniel Arms where I sample another rail-related ale, GWR Whistle Blower, as we enjoy the sunshine sitting at the tables outside.

* I needed that drink to prepare me for the horrors of Swindon railway station. If Oxford's had been disappointing earlier, Swindon's was a whole new league of misery that seems at odds with the town's proud railway heritage. Approaching from Station Square, I am greeted by a monstrous 1970's office block frontage towering up several storeys with a silvery metallic entrance pod at ground level. With this to confront me I had little intention of heading inside, and instead consoled myself with shots of the Queen's Tap pub and GWR Hotel located opposite.

* I hotfoot it back to the bus station just in time to join Mr Wood on the return 66. Mark ably demonstrates his D9 reversing prowess as we leave the bus station, although he does conveniently avoid attempting the Magic Roundabout - Dave might have got some stick for leading him through there otherwise! Without Mr Lunn to lead us astray, the ride proved an exercise in perfect bladder control, strange that...

* Back in Oxford we alight at the Royal Oxford Hotel and Woody does battle with the U1 Brookes University Bus. We then make a beeline for the Duke's Cut, sampling a pint of Brakspear Oxford Gold each perched outside on the decking above the canal. This was a fine spot to enjoy the sunshine and a waterside setting, buoyed further when news reaches me of Wolves taking the lead 1-0 over Newcastle at the Molineux. Classic moments from a pub that became an instant favourite.

* With hunger calling once more, we head up past Oxford Castle and find the Swan & Castle for another Wetherspoon's experience. My ale selection this time is the summery Olde English Rose from the Cotswold Spring brewery, a decent drink to mope into when Newcastle equalise. We work off our tea with a final walk around Oxford and another mooch around at Magdalen Street by the Randolph Hotel.

* Back to the train station for our 17:36 train home, reflecting on another highly successful, excellent adventure. Plenty of photos were taken, making the most of some fine weather and sampling a range of good brews - all in all, a great introduction to another fascinating corner of England.

Monday, August 23

An Arnside Diary

My 2010 summer family holiday saw us based in Arnside, a small village on Morecambe Bay that provided an excellent base for exploring the Lake District - here's what the week had in store...

Saturday 14th August: The journey up to Arnside isn't too bad at all with a jaunt up the M6 taking about two and a half hours. We settle into our apartment and admire it's fine views over the Kent estuary, then we acquaint ourselves with the village in general. A couple of pubs have caught my eye - the Albion and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks both serve Thwaites' cask ales so I enjoy an immediate taste of Wainwright's beer and Lancaster Bomber.

Sunday 15th August: a ride around the Lakes takes us to Keswick, where we sample Sunday lunch (and a pint of Robinson's Unicorn Bitter) in the Lake Road Inn. Derwent Water looks pretty on a sunny afternoon as Keswich Launch attracts a crowd of visitors, whilst my personal highlight involves watching some local Twenty20 cricket at Fitz Park, home of Keswick Cricket Club.

- Derwent Water -

Monday 16th August: A morning in Kendal, exploring the charming Cumbrian market town. My stroll around includes photos of the bus station, Stagecoach depot and the railway station (served by local trains to Windermere). Old bridges over the River Kent add a sense of history, and the New Inn provides a memorable mixed grill lunch that was excellent value at £6.95. The afternoon constitutes a further Lakes tour, this time driving up to Ullswater for a look at Aira Force waterfall and Glenridding Pier.

Tuesday 17th August: We leave the car behind and catch the train to Lancaster for the day - it's only a short ride from Arnside, which comes as a relief when the single Northern carriage is rammed full. At Lancaster we try out a few pubs that Dad had been recommended, hence calling in at the Borough, the White Cross and the Sun Hotel. After lunch I investigate a small stretch of the Lancaster Canal then wander over to the historic castle, which still operates as a state prison. The return train is just as wedged so I hop off at Carnforth for a 'Brief Encounter' experience - the iconic station is great for a few photos, especially focusing on the famous platform clock.

Wednesday 18th August: going solo for another day on the trains, this time exploring the Furness Line and the Cumbrian Coast. First stop is Grange-over-Sands with its genteel surroundings and elegant station. Barrow is rather more industrial although I'm pleased to see the town trying to make the most of its heritage - there are some great proud buildings here, such as the town hall and the library, but sadly the plain station isn't one of them. The Cumbrian Coast Line is particularly scenic and makes for an engrossing ride, even with an unscheduled wait at Kirkby-in-Furness when a fellow passenger required medical assistance. To satisfy my curiosity, I hop off at Sellafield in the shadow of the nuclear plant - it was never going to be the prettiest of locations but it was interesting all the same. My final call is at Ravenglass, a small seaside village where I can mooch around the heritage line station and partake of a well-earned pint in the Ratty Arms. A classic day!

Thursday 19th August: all too soon the holiday is drawing to a close as Kendal beckons once more. This time we explore the castle and savour the panoramic views looking down over the town. Back into the New Inn for another mixed grill, which if anything was even better than the one we'd had on Monday. We then call by at Staveley, where the Old Mill works is home to the Hawkshead Brewery and we can't resist popping into the Beer Hall to try out some Lakeland Gold. This is followed by a brief tour of Windermere and a final evening in Arnside - some heavy rain has set in, but we take shelter in the Albion where 'Walkers on Tour' claim the pub quiz crown thanks to some bizarre knowledge of Mark 'Tubs' Taylor, the BeeGees and Michael Howard!!

- An Arnside Sunset -

Friday 20th August: Homeward bound as the rain continues - it dries up further down the M6 but then we hit V Festival traffic. By 11am we were back in the good old West Midlands and another holiday was over, but - as with Dawlish, Great Yarmouth, Clacton and Skegness previously - I shall have many happy memories to cherish and look back on with fondness in times to come. Maybe at some point I might even get some of the photos onto WME, but given my usual rate of progression, I might get through a few more holidays first!!

Saturday, August 7

Going Around In Circles

Friday 6th August 2010 and Birmingham beckoned once more with news filtering through that the 68A/C North Birmingham Circular bus is set to be replaced. I therefore set out to do the route justice with a tour of Erdington, Pype Hayes and Castle Vale…

* For starters its Birmingham City Centre, warming up the camera with a few shots of Moor Street station and the disused Fox & Grapes pub on Park Street.

* 66 – my Erdington connection, investigating a route that is set to be altered again soon. Having lost its Ladywood link earlier this year, the route currently connects Birmingham and Erdington but will be extended to Sutton Coldfield. Boarding at Moor Street, the route provides a look at Aston University, Nechells, the Star City complex and Gravelly Hill.

* Erdington – time for a few local photos, starting with the Swan, the library and the swimming baths. St Barnabas Church also catches my eye, the clock tower standing tall whilst the rest of the building is covered over following fire damage from a few years ago. Even in its current state the building still conveys a sense of history.

* Rookery Park - after a brief look at the Lad in the Lane pub, I wander into Rookery Park to investigate Rookery House, a rather sad find being as its all boarded up and forlorn. So many of these elegant park buildings end up disused and virtually abandoned, it’s such a shame. In this case, the house looks rather odd juxtaposed with the charming flowerbeds arranged before the front elevation – an array of colours making for a well-kept visual delight.

* Pype Hayes - time for a quiet residential stroll along Moor End Lane, emerging by the Digby and then stopping off at Pype Hayes Park for a spot of lunch. The park is a large open space flanking the Chester Road, and has been a long-term target of mine along with the nearby Bagot Arms pub, so I'm pleased to add both to my burgeoning archive.

* 68A – to the main business of the day then, the Birmingham North Circle. To begin with, I sample the 68a for a short ride to the Fort Shopping Park, a nippy journey that features a loop of the Pype Hayes estates and a glimpse of the Tyburn House inn. At the Fort, the bus negotiates a tight hairpin bend before pulling up in the layby for a few minutes waiting time. I alight and risk life and limb trying to sneak a photo, there’s not much space and plenty of oncoming traffic!!

* Fort – surviving my photo attempts, I have a quick look at the centre itself. There’s a distinctive tower marker with FORT emblazoned on it which you can see from the motorway, and plenty of high street names in an out-of-town arrangement. I perch in the car park to zoom views of some of the shops, including the WH Smith Home Sense and Nandos.

* 68C – with my 68A ride being but a snippet, its time to indulge in some full-on route investigation. The 68C from Fort to Sutton Coldfield takes just under an hour, working its way back through Pype Hayes and into Erdington. The most intirguing sections from my perspective came around Short Heath (local park and the Leopard) then Perry Common, revealing new corners of Birmingham, whilst the journey is also notable for a text exchange with Mr Beardsmore taunting me with mention of gammon and pineapple sponge.

- 68C at Lower Parade -

* Sutton Coldfield – Alight at Lower Parade where I pounce for the all-important route photo, again taking the odd risk hoping not to get run over. My attention momentarily switches to the library, currently closed for urgent repairs but I can still photo the entrance frontage within the Red Rose centre. Then its back to the bus stop to wait for the next 68C along which arrives within a couple of minutes or so.

* 68C – completing my North Circle review with a run out to Castle Vale, leaving Sutton via Good Hope Hospital with sightings of Rectory Park and the Boot Inn. The Reddicap Tavern heralds our arrival into Walmley, then its a case of negotiating Minworth with its large Asda supermarket. The approach into Castle Vale is quite industrial before giving over to the residential developments of the regenerated estate. Turnhouse Road takes us into the centre, noting a 67 layover stand then turning right into the very narrow High Street for the local shops just as the drizzle sets in.

* Castle Vale – I alight at the end of High Street, outside St Cuthberts Church and opposite the Community Campus containing the library. Both buildings get some photo treatment despite the gloomy conditions, and I can't resist a peek inside the library for good measure. Having missed out on a 68C shot, I console myself with a picture of the 67 and am pleased when the 638 rumbles through for an unexpected bonus. Given the conditions, I didn't explore much beyond the bus stop so a return visit may well be in order if I am to do Castle Vale proper photographic justice.

* 67 – a Bendibus ride to finish things off. I sit in the front half just before the hinge, and get to see a bit more of the estate rumbling along Tangmere Drive. The Central park is a key feature of the local regeneration efforts, and there are some pointy roadside purple pyramids adding a further sense of identity. A slog down Tyburn Road then awaits, noting a Lidl on a former pub site at Kingsbury Road junction. Spaghetti Junction heralds concrete as the mass of motorways gather above, although we take the sliproad round onto Lichfield Road, leading me neatly to Aston Station and my train connections home.

* It had been a very worthwhile day out, returning to my old style bus-based adventures instead of the extra walking I've been doing more recently. The 68A and C have been part of the Sutton Coldfield bus scene for many years and it seems sad to see that come to an end, although I can perhaps understand the appeal of covering the areas concerned with more linear services. I do feel uneasy that the bus network is gradually losing its character, but at least I have sampled the routes and enjoyed the experience of riding around spotting the various landmarks and features that help to define them.

Sunday, August 1

WME Update Digest: July 2010

After the photo drought of the early summer, July has brought some welcome relief thanks to a faint trickle of new additions. Let's see where the raindrops landed...

Leading the way this time is WME Wolverhampton where its actually been quite a constructive month. I can report updates to a clutch of local collections, starting with Exploring All Saints which received views of the local park and the terraces of All Saints Road. The former Dan O'Connell pub makes an appearance on Exploring East Park, and I've been fairly busy Tettenhall way with Exploring Tettenhall claiming St Michael's lich gate and a shot of the Swan whilst Exploring Tettenhall Wood benefits from extra views of the Institute and the Shoulder of Mutton (the latter seen in happier times having recently closed despite a campaign to save the pub as a popular local amenity).

Canal content comes courtesy of the Shropshire Union Canal where the lock booth at Autherley Junction now takes pride of place. WME Walsall also claims some canal-based nourishment with Brawns Bridge muscling in on the Daw End Branch. Turning back to dry land and Daisy Bank, straddling the Wolverhampton - Dudley border, has provided stuff for both galleries. The Dudley offerings focus on the local Netto supermarket and the landmark White House pub, whereas back in Wolverhampton there's a view inside the old Daisy Bank Library and a quick look at the old Britannia pub being gutted.

Casting a crafty glance elsewhere, on WME Staffordshire there is news for Bilbrook Station - some platform signs seemingly made out of paving slabs have dubiously merited their inclusion. Over at WME Sandwell there's an intriguing interior shot of the booking office at Smethwick Rolfe Street, and saving the best for last perhaps, WME Birmingham is celebrating a new collection detailing Spring Road Station. Three starter photos here show the station entrance and the rusty old hut that was formerly the ticket office as I get one step closer to completing my personal Birmingham railways jigsaw.

Signs of progress then although it will take much more than the odd spot of refreshment if the galleries are truly to bloom on a regular basis. I make no promises whatsoever regarding what August might have in store - we'll just have to wait and see, my weather forecasting having proved unreliable on too many previous occasions!!