Monday, November 29

WME Update Digest: November 2010

November got off to a flying start thanks to those aforementioned landmarks for WMEs Wolverhampton and Dudley, but what did the rest of the month have to offer?

Well for starters we have another little milestone to celebrate as WME Shropshire has crept tantalisingly past the 50 photo mark. Every little helps as they say, and in this case the all important extra content came courtesy of two new collections. Exploring Kemberton takes a quick look at a small village near Shifnal by offering a village map and the pub sign for the Masons Arms, whilst Exploring Boscobel takes us into Civil War country with views around Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory. It's actually very rare for my Salopian gallery to receive so much all at once so make the most of it whilst you can!

Elsewhere we find that WME Dudley is still vying for our attention. Not satisfied with its latest milestone, the gallery has also taken delivery of two new local collections. First is Exploring Norton, which provides a snapshot of an estate near Stourbridge by featuring launch photos of the Greyhound pub and the Norton Covert beauty spot, then we have Exploring Woodsetton with its brace of views of the Bramford Arms pub. It's all constructive stuff as a little bit more of the borough gradually falls into place.

A furtive glance now at WME Worcestershire, which didn't want to be outdone on the new collections front and thereby offers Exploring Cofton Hackett by way of contribution. My selection here currently includes two views of the site of the former branch library plus a leafy shot looking down Groveley Lane. Poor old Worcs had been feeling a bit neglected so this is very much a step in the right direction.

Finally we have our stragglers. Bringing up the rear this month are Exploration Extra, where a couple of Fleetline shots have pitched up on my BaMMoT October 2005 assortment, and WME Sandwell with it's solitary picture of route 82 calling at Bearwood Bus Station. All in all it's been a fairly solid month and it's now over to December to see if I can end the WME year with a festive bang...

Sunday, November 28

Dudley Trails and Winter Ales

Friday 26th November – beer was beckoning in Dudley once more as I joined Nick for the Dudley CAMRA Winter Ales Festival, but first a bit of exploring…

* My day begins with a quick ride into Dudley on the 126, noting the demolished estate off Priory Road. Dudley Town Centre offers the chance for a handful of photos including the Fellows (the latest addition to the Holden’s estate), the curving Heart Foundation shop on the bus station corner and the mess that was the Metro Bar.

* Venturing beyond the town centre, I decide to investigate the Kates Hill area, initially finding myself on Watsons Green Road for photos of the Hill Tavern and the Ivy House. I'm especially keen to get photos of St John's Church, a towering Dudley landmark that was abandoned after being declared unsafe. The St John's Church Preservation Group are leading efforts to restore the church and I sincerely hope this important building is protected for future generations.

- St John's Church, Kates Hill -

* Just opposite the church is a former pub which itself has seen better days, and I also note some local shops on Highview Street. My walk then takes me further along Watsons Green Road, arriving at Green Park which seems a rather bleak open space on a chilly November afternoon. Crossing the field brings me to Green Park Road, and with a few sidestreet dodges I cross the municipal border into Sandwell territory.

* Oakham is an area I only vaguely remember having passed through on the 120 and 688 buses some years ago. I emerge at Regent Road near a construction site (Regent Rise) that looks suspiciously like the grounds of a former pub, then Elm Terrace leads me deeper into the estate as I weave my way round onto Poplar Rise for a look at Oakham Library. One thing I do remember about the area was that it's very hilly, and City Road proves the point with a steep climb up to the Wheatsheaf - the pub didn't quite have the landmark quality I was somehow expecting though.

* Oakham Road has me heading back towards Dudley and actually feels quite exclusive with some nice houses. I once again cross paths with Regent Road and this time there's definitely an old pub site on the corner as the sign stanchion is still intact behind the hoardings. I speculate what the building might have looked like and feel rather annoyed with myself for not previously photographing the area.

* The far end of Oakham Road leads me directly to the Buffery where I can reacquaint myself with the Bush pub and take a return tour of Paradise. Buffery Park lends itself to some nice autumnal shots amongst the leaf-fall, and the children’s centre looks nicely framed amongst the trees. I photograph the houses that have replaced the Selborne Arms on one side of the park, but then note that the corresponding pub on the far side (the Struggling Man?) also appears to have bitten the dust. The amount of lost pubs I’ve encountered in just a moderate walk is now accumulating quite alarmingly.

* Next up is Cinder Bank, passing the new Aldi store onto Peartree Lane. Here I track down Blowers Green Pumphouse and the Dudley Canals, joining the towpath of the No. 1 at the hideous-sounding Dudley & Lye Waste Bridge. The Pumphouse marks Park Head Junction where the two Dudley Canals meet, and I can see the No. 2 heading off under Blowers Green Bridge and beyond. My investigations focus however on the No. 1, getting further views of the pumphouse and the accompanying lock, followed by the junction fingerpost overlooked by a giant cement tower.

- Blowers Green Lock and Pumphouse -

* Park Head Locks then continue up towards Dudley Tunnel, with Bottom Lock providing a memorable scene as some ducks go waddling past on the frozen ice. I pass under the viaduct to reach the series of adjacent bridges I remember from my Woodside outing. Park Head Locks 1 Bridge is the central of the three, and I also add in shots of the Pensnett Basin bridge to the left (not forgetting to get views of the basin itself).

* The final leg of my now lengthy walk takes me back towards Dudley Town Centre. I negotiate Scotts Green island and take Stourbridge Road past the cemetery. Wellington Road offers zooms of the Earl of Dudley Arms, then a sidestreet dart along Waterloo Street and Holland Street introduces me to the White Swan, a typically 1960’s/1970s type boozer, followed by the Hearty Goodfellow on Maughan Street. I weave my way past the depressing sight that is the Grange and soon find myself on Priory Road awaiting my next bus.

* The 126 is soon on the scene to whisk me off to Woodcross where I’ve arranged to meet Nick at 4pm. I’m slightly early so there’s time for views of the Spread Eagle (now depressingly closed again and home to another of those insidious hand car washes) followed by a walk around the block (Nally Drive, Childs Avenue and a quick snap of Manor Primary School’s main entrance).

* Nick emerges from his office at 4pm and we look forward with anticipation to the beer festival. Back to Dudley on the 126 then, and we make a beeline straight for the Concert Hall which is proudly hosting the 25th Winter Ales Festival. Entrance is via a little side door where we hand over the £10 entrance fee, then we collect our commemorative glasses and programmes as we pass through into the main hall. The place is already heaving and is an impressive sight – a long row of stillages over to the right, with various stands on the left and the main stage straight on. We have a little wander about picking up various bits of literature (mainly involving Wakefield CAMRA’s booklets and festival guides), and also investigate the location of the food which looks very inviting.

* Right then, it’s time for some beer. The winter ales are strong stuff and are available in either thirds (usually costing £1ish) or halves (£1.50+ depending on strength). My first tipple is Holden’s Old Ale as experienced at the Great Western, whilst Nick tries some Enville Cherry Gothic. We decamp to the food room to slay our hunger – a dish of grey paes and bacon with a crusty pork pie is simply delicious, proper Black Country nosh and you can't beat it.

* Drink No. 2 for me is a significant moment, sampling my first ever taste of Simpkiss, the old Black Country brew having been revived by Enville. At 4% it's one of the festival's weaker offerings but proves to be a very flavoursome pale bitter. Nick this time is savouring some Great Heck Vanilla Wheat Stout. We’re getting into the swing of things now as the room gets ever more crowded and the band begin to strike up a quick rehearsal. I’m also enjoying browsing the breweriana stand and where some vintage beermats catch my eye, including examples from Butler’s, Highgate, M&B and Holts.

* Beer No. 3 has me really ramping up the alcohol content thanks to Banks’s Old Ale at a hefty 9% or thereabouts. The ale certainly packs a bit of a punch but is still well rounded, a real winter warmer! Nick moves through his next selections - Sadler’s Mud City Stout, Hawkshead Organic Oatmeal Stout and Hesket Newmarket Tsarry Night - quite smoothly, sampling some Cumbrian examples as per the event’s theme. For my fourth tipple, I stay local and try out the Olde Swan White Widow from Netherton, still punchy at 7% and coming with the usual flavourfest you expect from Pardoes.

* Its closing in on 7pm now as Nick and I decide to revisit the food hall for more grey paes and bacon, my second helping being particularly peppery. Its then time for our final drink – Nick goes all daring with some Wobbly Wabbit at a whopping 11% whilst I conclude with Sarah Hughes’ Snowflake and very nice it was too. With some sadness it was time to depart, although Stone Street Square with its Christmas tree makes for an inviting scene as we step outside.

* We make our way to the bus station and catch the 126 home, reflecting on what had been a fine evening. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to sample some cracking ales, all of them being local ones that I rarely get to try otherwise, and the whole event had been a real education encouraging me to find out more about our brewing heritage. Judging by the attendance, the event must surely have been a huge success and I look forward to seeing which festivals 2011 might have in store...

Saturday, November 27

A Coseley Crawl...

Wednesday 24th November was the date set for the 6th Chip Foundation pubcrawl outing, whereby Nick, Stephen and I would loosely follow the template of the previous five but this time with a tour around Coseley and Sedgley.

* Finishing work at 2pm, our intrepid pubgoers call in at The Diner for a gammonfest lunch then catch the 126 bus deep into Coseley as we debate Nick's resemblance to the Prince of Wales.

* We alight on the Birmingham New Road at the stop opposite the New Inn only to find that my pre-planned itinery has let us down - the pub doesn’t open until 4pm, oops!! Disaster is averted thanks to a swift juggling of the batting order and the Park Inn becomes our replacement opener. Stephen and I therefore act as Nick’s royal bodyguard as we head to Woodsetton, a task that is easier said than done given his highness’s liking for walking in the middle of Vicarage Road.

* The Park Inn - first pub of the day then and for me it provides a welcome return to the Holden’s Brewery Tap. I was hoping to try one of Holden’s monthly special brews and November’s offering is Fogger, a name that presumably fits in with the erstwhile trend for naming the ales after industrial jobs (Shaftspragger, Wind Blower, Burton Runner etc). We take up residence in the games room where Nick demonstrates his considerable prowess at table football.

- The Park Inn, Woodsetton -

* The Painters Arms - heading through Swan Village with photos of the Swan Inn and the Summerhouse, we make our way back through Roseville and on to our second Holden's of the day. The Painters Arms on Avenue Road has a very local feel with plenty of interesting characters about. Our beer choice here is Hobgoblin as we sit in the back lounge by the pool table. Being up against stiff competition, it wasn't my favourite call of the day but still seemed a decent pub.

* The New Inn - having safely now got past 4pm, we return to the now open New Inn to savour it's homely ambience, which seems to be even more accentuated on a cold November evening when it’s getting dark outside. Nick and I get in our Golden Glows and admire the fishtank by the bar, then we decamp to an inviting corner table where the walls are adorned with cheeky brass mottoes and a mounted vintage handpump. Classic stuff!

* The Horse & Jockey - a nifty ride on the 581 bus leads us to Woodcross and this local on the corner of Robert Wynd. The building didn’t especially appeal to me as it seems to be half hidden in a dip but much work has been done here to attract a real ale clientele; whilst the pub lacks the age and heritage character of my favourite watering holes, I can still commend the place for making a concerted effort to care about its beer. There is a healthy range of guests from which we select Hobson’s Town Crier to hit the spot very nicely.

* The Beacon - from one new pub experience to an old favourite as we walk the back way through the estate to the Beacon. Yes, yet again we are drawn back to this Sedgley classic, we just can’t keep away. I decided to steer clear of the Ruby Mild on this occasion, plumping instead for the Amber at 4%, although the Thornbridge guest beer weighed in at a potent 7.7%! We find our way into the snug where there’s plenty of space to ponder England's prospects in the Ashes and to peruse the latest copy of Ales and Tales.

- Nick gets Stumped -

* The Mount Pleasant (The Stump) - following on from the Beacon is no easy task, but one quick skip through Sedgley later, we arrive in the Stump and immediately feel at home. The back lounge areas are pretty full so we find a seat in the front bar and finish the evening with a closing pint. Nick selects Enville’s Ginger Gothic whilst I try some Wye Valley Big Bang (had a fruity quality I thought, perhaps a hint of cherries) and I also stock up on the all-important pork scratchings.

* With the pubs concluded for another outing, its back homeward as Nick bids farewell whilst Stephen and I head back to the Beardsmore residence for the opening gambit from the Ashes. Once again the Black Country had done us proud with some fine local inns, with Coseley making its own imprint on our evergrowing list of favourite pubs...

Sunday, November 21

Knowle in November

Saturday 20th November and how very Novemberish it was, with the the kind of autumn mists that Puff the Magic Dragon might well enjoy but they don't do much for my photography! My mission was to sort out my 2010 selection of Solihull shots, so it's destination Dorridge and take it from there...

* Getting to Dorridge proves a bit more of a challenge than usual, as a broken down train means delays at Smethwick Galton Bridge. When the train does show it resembles something more akin to last week's tube, so I wait another few minutes and hop aboard one with altogether more breathing space.

* I've always liked Dorridge, both the station and the place in general, and it seemed like an ideal place to start. I arrive at about 10:50am and pitch straight into my customary views of the station and the Forest Hotel - no expensive rounds today mind, as I concentrate on getting photos of the local shops whilst the wallet stays firmly out of sight.

* I wanted to widen my horizons beyond the immediate station surroundings and a walk along Grange Road does the trick nicely, introducing me to the Railway pub with its red M&B "Good Honest Beer" lettering. The pub was a nice find but seems to be a fair distance from any kind of railway infrastructure, making me wonder if I was heading for another Bromsgrove situation!

* Earlswood Road and Four Ashes as my walk continues. The Drum & Monkey adds to my pub content, whilst Mill Lane offers views of a level crossing complete with a nice pedestrian footbridge.

* I emerge onto Widney Road and quickly track down Knowle and Dorridge Cricket Club. Even on a grey November day their ground looks quite inviting and I attempt a couple of shots on behalf of Mr Beardsmore.

* I'm enjoying the freedom of my morning walk as Station Road leads me into Knowle, a village I always admire for its traditional charm and atmosphere. There's a considerable amount of traffic around on the High Street so I have to be patient when lining up a photo of the timber-framed library building.

* One of Knowle's proudest landmarks is the parish church, looking very historic in its green setting flanked by fir trees and more timber-framed buildings. The whole scene captures a pretty sense of Englishness even if the weather didn't quite allow me to do the place justice today.

* Time for some canal exploration as I follow Kixley Lane down onto the towpath of the Grand Union. From Bridge 72 I squelch my way along to Knowle Locks and enjoy some welcome peace and quiet. There are five locks in the flight, counting down from 51 to 47, and being the Grand Union they are considerably wider than you would find on the BCN. I particularly liked Lock 47 with its canalside cottage and a little location sign.

* Beyond the locks there is more mulchy towpath as I proceed to Bridge 70 at Warwick Road, flanked by the Heron's Nest pub. Here I leave the canal to undertake a vain search for a bus stop - no such luck, so I have to take a chance on hail and ride.

* S2C - luckily the bus does stop for me, thus meaning I can sample a route which sounds more like a Welsh TV station! The journey replicates the old 197 route and takes in Chadwick End, Fen End and Temple Balsall before Balsall Street homes in on Balsall Common.

* I alight at Balsall Common roundabout for a look at Station Road shops and the local branch library. If anything it's getting even colder and the mist is becoming a fine drizzle, making it frustratingly tricky to get a shot of the Brickmaker's Arms.

* The day concludes at Berkswell Station with a couple of shots of the Railway pub followed by a survey of the station itself. I was saddened to find that the old station house is part way through being demolished - I appreciate that the decaying building was something of a safety hazard but this still seems such a shame, and means that even more of the station's traditional character is disappearing following the replacement of the level crossing a few years ago. I accompany my photos of the remains of the house with some general platform views as I wait for my 14:21 train home - the service arrives promptly and gets me back in good time despite a crush of passengers boarding at Birmingham International.

An interesting day's investigations then as I firmly ensured that Solihull has taken its place on the 2010 exploration map. In years to come, the outing will prove memorable for that morning Dorridge walk, my first ever look at Knowle Locks and the unexpected goodbye to Berkswell's station house - not forgetting of course the very Novemberish weather! The camera got through this one intact, so I wonder what photographic challenges the winter might have in store for me...

Monday, November 15

After the Lord Mayor's Show

Saturday 13th November 2010 provided a capital return for Rog, Woody and myself as we descended upon London to witness the spectacle of the annual Lord Mayor's Parade - here is the tale of the trip...

* An early start sees me in Wolverhampton checking on the progress of the new bus interchange. Most of the main structure now appears to be in place as a scaffold-clad block looms ominously by the ring road.

* It's then to Birmingham on the 8:19 local train, arriving in plenty of time to meet my accomplices at New Street. Woody and I note Rog's appearance with a Jenson hat in a vain attempt to cover up his bald spot.

* Dashing for coach A at the far end of platform 5, the 9:10 Virgin Pendolino service provides our link to Euston with a journey that passed by quickly as we recall our various mishaps and Rog's hat comes in for some more abuse.

* Arrive at Euston at 10:34, heading straight outside for a look at the bus station and a sneaky shot of the Doric Arch pub.

* Our first bus ride of the day involves the 205, which looked very crowded but there was some room upstairs - sadly a bit too much room actually as Woody was able to start up the old D9 again! Passing Kings Cross Station, the bus was destined for Bow Church but we were after Liverpool Street, none of which explains the rather bizarre decision to alight on City Road in a state of total confusion.

- 38 at Victoria Station -

* Whilst Rog and Woody debate our location, I get a photo of the Eagle pub and then we gradually find our way to Old Street underground.

* Now here's a question for you. Why is it that seemingly half of the Tube lines are out of action on the day of the Lord Mayor's Parade? Answers on a postcard please but it seemed an utterly crazy bit of planning. Luckily the Northern line was operating for our quick shuttle through to Bank.

* Our next task is to try and make our way to the parade location. Bank Station is a bit of a maze in truth and we end up emerging out of Monument heading for the Tower of London. Resisting the temptation to lock Rog in there, we do an about turn and eventually find our vantage point.

* The parade was thoroughly entertaining as we watched the procession go steadily by. Amongst the various floats and marching bands were some buses, a tank, some farmers and a giant waving potato, although Rog at times seemed more interested in admiring some of our fellow onlookers.

* With the procession concluding at about 12:10pm our thoughts turn to lunch and beer. We navigate our way to the Crosse Keys Wetherspoon's which was unsurprisingly packed out but did deliver a welcome pint of Titanic's New York Wheat Porter, dark and flavoursome.

* Still in search of food, we head for Whitehall by braving the crush of the Tube once more. Liverpool Street Station is a welcoming location as we descend to the underground platforms and catch the Central Line to Bank. We alight here only to find out that Northern Line services won't be calling here due to overcrowding, so it's back on the Central Line to Tottenham Court Road and thence on the Northern Line to Charing Cross.

- Woody with pint in the Silver Cross -

* Whitehall then and our initial preference is to visit the Lord Moon of the Mall, scene of London lunches past. Once again the pub is heaving, so in this case we try our luck at the Silver Cross over the road. Despite Rog's best attempts to mess up the food order, lunch is partaken with my lasagne proving tasty washed down with some Young's London Gold.

* Next we proceed to Westminster, passing Horse Guards and the Cenotaph amidst preparations for Remembrance Sunday. At Parliament Square Rog continues his mission to photograph Big Ben from every conceivable angle (and then some!), although reports that I was mistaken for former MP Lembit Opik were grossly exaggerated...

* The next stage of our plan was to get the bus up to Mansion House. We caught the No. 11 alright but in completely the wrong direction, ending up at Victoria after Mr Wood narrowly averted us going all the way to Fulham Broadway. The journey had at least given Woody the chance to demonstrate his D9 driving prowess once more, complete with a well-timed interruption from the everpresent 'Dave'.

- D9 Dave strikes again! -

* Victoria came with the bonus of some extra bus photos, including the 38 to Clapton Pond, and then it's back down below for another dose of the Tube. The District Line platforms were absolutely rammed but we managed to surge on board and held out in the crush all the way to Whitechapel.

* Negotiating our way through the market, we arrive at the Blind Beggar (now firmly ensconced as our London local of our choice) for a recovery pint. The pub gained notoriety as the scene of a Krays murder with Rog on the hunt for bulletholes then pressing himself a commemorative penny.

* Darkness is beginning to fall as we go on the hunt for Vallance Road, home to one of the Krays former residences. News filters through that Wolves have lost 3-2 at home to Bolton (ouch!) as we catch the 205 back towards Euston.

* The day has one final authentic London experience in store for us, as heavy traffic means we're in serious danger of missing our train home. We alight at Kings Cross and embark on a kamikaze Benny Hill-style sprint through tube tunnels and up and down various escalators to emerge blinking back at Euston with a couple of minutes to spare. Our train is loading at platform 3 and with some relief we board just in time for the 17:43 departure. The ride back to Brum is very relaxing by comparison.

What an eventful day that was all told - various mishaps were a sign that Rog was back on the scene but they only added to the fun and adventure. I'm gradually starting to feel at home in London now, and once again the capital has provided us with some memorable moments, with the Lord Mayor's Parade claiming it's place as one of the exploration highlights of the year.

Saturday, November 6

Landmarks Ahoy!

It's a familiar nautical yarn that the good ship WME generally encounters choppy and featureless waters whilst sailing on the sea of updates, but more recently there have been signs of hope on the horizon. Back in October it was WME Solihull that glimpsed the mainland by reaching its century of photos, and November has brought with it a brace of additional landmarks beckoning from the harbourside...

The first milestone concerns our lead boat, WME Wolverhampton, which is now celebrating having collected its 400th photographic passenger. Hopping on board as we approached that momentous number were shots of Whitmore Reans Library and Tettenhall Old Bridge plus bus station views of the side entrance and an Optare Scania on the 501 route. It was however a new collection that saw us crash through the all-important wave, so take a bow Exploring Blakenhall with your views of the local shops and the Kings Arms pub. 400 is a fairly hefty number to reach, and as Wolverhampton continues to accumulate there's definitely something for my other galleries to aspire towards.

Talking of other galleries, a glance at my captain's log reveals that WME Dudley is our second milestone-maker this month. In this case the occasion is 250 photos, a figure breached courtesy of additions to Exploring Wollaston (the Crescent Arcade shops and the Forester's Arms), Exploring Lye (a neat shot of the Hadcroft) and a Dudley by Bus picture of the X96 posing at Wollaston Junction. It's all good stuff to warm the cockles of your heart and again provides evidence that slowly but surely I am building a substantial record of the West Midlands and surrounding areas. At the risk of extending an already daft metaphor even further, I would suggest that these landmarks - along with the general swell of updates recently - have negated the need to man the lifeboats for the time being, although I have a niggling feeling that my combined WME content across all of my galleries is merely a drop in the ocean with much work still to do...