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...