Friday, December 24

Snowstruck in Bromsgrove

Saturday 18th December and this time it's a Christmas outing with Woody, Rog and Andy. The plan was to do a Worcestershire tour of Redditch, Bromsgrove and Stoke Prior but a serious dose of the white stuff meant that things went a little bit astray…

• A cold snowcapped morning start has me tentatively negotiating the local trains through Wolverhampton and Smethwick en route to meeting the chaps at Stourbridge Junction.

• Stourbridge offers a disconcerting snow flurry, which seems ominous but we decide to press onwards with the plan anyway. Our train to Kidderminster arrives on cue and it’s a scenic ride down with Blakedown looking particularly pretty.

• Alight at Kidderminster where it’s alarm bells rather than the Railway Bell that we can hear ringing. That initial snow flurry has become a prolonged outburst as we worriedly wait for the Redditch-bound X3.
The bus arrives arrives and on we get, handing over our £5.50 for the day tickets. The fact we’re the only passengers on board tells a tale in itself, and the snow only gets heavier as we proceed past Shenstone island and Chaddesley turn. Driving conditions are now becoming very hazardous and our driver is doing a sterling job just to keep things going. We head down the front to have a chat with him and debate the best move as regards the plan.

• The bus manages to churn its way through to Bromsgrove, with most of our difficulties being caused by the cars in front of us being unable to cope in what at times resembled a blizzard. Rather than risk Redditch, we alight at Bromsgrove and take stock as I pounce for an ill-advised bus photo in the teeth of the snow. We're in need of liquid lubrication so it's into the town where the centre looks festive enough but its hardly enjoyable being out in this.

- Guinness in the Golden Cross -

THE GOLDEN CROSS: We seek refuge in Bromsgrove’s Wetherspoon’s, literally staggering in off the street and gradually thawing out. Rog is first up for a round so it’s Guinnesses, Becks Blue and for me some ‘Yule Be Back’ from Hyde’s of Manchester. We sit in some comfy settees by the entrance, next to a nice warming fire, and I am at least able to get some Woody Files shots to keep the camera from seizing up entirely.

• The weather shows no signs of abating so it seems wise to abandon the plan and head homewards as best as we can. We return to the bus station but there isn’t much on offer – the 144 and 143 come and go as we wait hopefully for a 318, but gradually the flow of bus traffic grows eerily quiet. A Diamond bus arrives with news that traffic is difficult and main routes are becoming blocked.

• After a considerable wait, several snowballs and a good coating for Andy’s bald spot, the X3 arrives bound for Kidderminster and it looks like we’re saved. We hop on board and begin the slog back, but before long the bus gets stuck in the general clogginess and the driver gets a call that the X3 ahead of us has become marooned in the middle of nowhere. Rather than risk getting stranded, he makes the wise decision to do an about turn and thus we pitch up back at Bromsgrove in something of a quandary.

QUEENS HEAD: With the X3 driver now trying to find a safe route back to the garage, we decamp to the Queens Head for further reflections. Rog and I visited the pub back in 2005 during another Bromsgrove ordeal (the station hike), and this time we find a seat round to the left of the bar and sample some Guinness as the barman tries in vain to get the telly to work. We’ve got quite a dilemma now but we decide to try for another bus and take it from there.

- The Queens Head in the snow -

• DIAMOND DES: There’s nothing seemingly in at the bus station, but Woody spots Des with his Diamond bus and manages to scrounge us a lift. We got on at about 12:30 and for the next two hours we hardly moved, stuck in a solid flow of traffic trying to reach the A38. Bladder panic sets in so Woody and Andy alight for an impromptu sprint to the Crabmill and back.
We were getting concerned over whether the traffic would ever get moving again, and a night in a local B&B looked a distinct possibility. Thankfully that scenario was averted as Des was able to nimbly navigate his way through onto the main road. The M5 had been closed off due to accidents, and we managed to drop two ladies off somewhere near Rubery. The challenge now was just to keep moving, so we hit the A491 and then branched off via Romsley, a treacherous passage but Des handled it with aplomb as we sat up the front to give him moral support. After about 3 hours we arrive unscathed in Halesowen, thus completing probably the longest bus ride I’ve ever experienced.

WILLIAM SHENSTONE: There’s no sign of any buses at Halesowen, and a quick call to the garage confirms that everything has been called in for the time being. We have no option but to head to the pub and sit it out, but at least we get chance for the Christmas drink we’ve all been hoping for. My tipple is Old Scrooge from the Arundel Brewery, and I get through a good helping of them whilst devouring a much-needed chicken gourmet burger, not bad at all. Everyone is a bit more relaxed now we’re back on home ground, and it’s a relief when the buses start trickling back out.

• 222: Andy and I bid Woody and Rog farewell as we start the journey home. The 222 got the nod by virtue of turning up, providing us with a handy connection to Cradley Heath via Old Hill, sticking to the main roads rather than braving round by the station.

• From Cradley Heath, Andy and I gradually managed to slush our way back towards West Bromwich. Buses were still scarce so some extra pubs were needed in order to stave off the threat of frostbite. Some Guinness in the Wizard & Glass got us off to a good start, after which we timed a sprint very well to make it onto the 404A. The Lyng estate then beckoned, sampling the Prince Albert and the Old Vic as I ventured into enemy Baggies territory trying to keep my Wolves allegiances very well hidden. Confirming the bus times with the garages once more, we realised we had time for a final half in the Goose before catching our respective rides home. Actually it had proved to be a very enjoyable evening that salvaged a bit of seasonal sheen from the earlier snowbound carnage.

• The outing as a whole certainly proved very memorable, and I'm sure we'll all look back on it with many a shudder in years to come. Whilst I'm all for a bit of an adventure, I will be perfectly happy if our trips in the New Year aren't anywhere near as eventful. Until then, may I take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone for supporting West Midlands Exploration this year. Have a great Christmas and see you all in 2011!

The Chip Foundation Christmas Crawl

Friday 17th December heralded a festive flourish as I joined Stephen and Nick for an afternoon across Gornal way...

THE BEACON: What better place to start? Stephen and I arrive fresh from the 558 to find Nick waiting eagerly on the doorstep ready to sample some Snowflake. The pub proved just perfect on a cold Friday afternoon, 12:20ish, sitting in the main lounge room where there are already a few happy souls in attendance. Some Cheers photos get the camera into gear as I also pick up a copy of Potters Bar from Stoke CAMRA - a nice bonus find. At 8%, the Snowflake goes down a treat, very well-balanced for a winter-warming throat-tickler.

• One half down and thoughts turn to lunch. We head into Sedgley and try out the Tasty Plaice takeaway where we are served at lightning speed, a £2 special of chips, sausage and mushy peas for me and roes for the chaps, very enjoyable. We find a perch on the churchyard benches to tuck in to our generous portions, with the mushy peas working well as a drinkable soup. The whole thing turned out to be a real treat, definitely worth considering again in future.

THE BRITANNIA: How’s about a bit of Bathams? A quick 558 ride brings us to Upper Gornal where the prospect of some Bathams Bitter is too tempting to resist. The pub has a lot of character and the front bar room is already crammed with Gornal regulars. We grab some winter copies of Beerwolf and have a look in the rear lounge - complete with festive decorations and an intriguing bar structure where the pumps come directly out of the wall - before eventually settling in the Parlour. Here I can admire the dartboard and a little collection of library books before chalking up ‘Chip Foundation Xmas 2010’ onto the blackboard, a welcome cue for some more Cheers photos. I actually really liked this back parlour; it was one of the highlights of the day.

- Stephen meets some fellow 'Bears' -

THE OLD MILL: A two minute walk around the corner onto Windmill Street brings us to a backstreet Holden’s that really quite appealed to me. Golden Glow is my tipple of choice as we find a cosy corner by the back window - the d├ęcor here seems quite homely with beams, brasses and bears. Stephen gets acquainted with the teddies whilst Nick poses with a potplant and I relax in a rocking chair, not bad at all.

THE MINERS ARMS: Another short walk brings us to our next Holden’s experience. The pub is nice enough with plenty of chintzy festive streamers hanging from the ceiling, but the real ale choice was disappointingly limited to Holden’s Bitter only – the festive Old Ale is still proving frustratingly elusive. We take our seats as Nick models his hat, the cold must be getting to him poor thing. Overall I would class the Miners as a decent local although I prefer some of the other pubs Gornal has to offer.

• On leaving the Miners we are dismayed to see the 297 bus go whizzing by, presenting us with a potential disaster. Thankfully this is creatively averted thanks to a sprint-shuffle down to Gornal Wood Bus Station, not for the faint hearted with it kept us on schedule! We are rewarded with a neat little ride down through Gornal Five Ways and the Pensnett Trading Estate before heading up Pensnett High Street passing the High Oak.

THE FOX & GRAPES: The second Bathams of the day and the realisation of a longstanding mini-ambition to pay this place a visit. The building has a period art deco style exterior with the bulls head motif on the frosted windows. Heading inside, the place is very busy with Friday afternoon regulars who look like they’ve popped in after work. The main bar is quite crowded but we find a quiet table round the back where some Bathams Mild does us nicely as we soak up the ambience.

• With the evening drawing in I lead the chaps on a merry dance through Upper Pensnett, where thankfully there aren't any sightings of Wagner from the X Factor.

- Scratchings in the Rose & Crown -

THE ROSE & CROWN: Holden's number 3 is our sixth pub and counting. We first dropped by here towards the end of our Ma Pardoe’s/Delph visit earlier this year, escaping from the rain (and the George Gallagher) as Mr B eyed up the food hungrily. Today we were back, although we’d arrived too early to try the food. I’m pleased to say the place hasn’t changed much, so it’s a nice traditional feel sitting in the lounge bay window supping Holden’s Mild and trying to get me teeth around some proper butcher’s scratchings, crunch crunch!

• 17:21 and now it is dark and cold as we troop out onto Bank Street for the 255 bus. It arrives in the form of a packed-out double decker that has just enough room for us to sit upstairs.

THE BRIDGE: One final bonus stop at this recent Good Beer Guide entry in Kingswinford. Initially I wondered what on earth we’d let ourselves in for when we walked into the front bar and were greeted with a karaoke disco vibe complete with flashing lights and a white plastic Christmas tree. I think there was some kind of party due later in the evening, and it was quite a relief to escape to the more sedate surroundings of the lounge. Actually the lounge was rather good, with period 1930s features such as the bar hatch, bell pushes and general brown woodwork. There was also a nice games table with cribbage boards and dominoes, and a proper open fire to warm us all up. Beer choice was from the Marston’s family, and it was an easy decision to choose the Christmas Pudding spiced guest ale, very palatable and a full pint to finish the day off properly. Nick’s hat becomes a pass the parcel object swapping heads amongst the various Cheers photos, and we time it nicely for our 256 connection back to Wolverhampton.

- The Bridge at Kingswinford -

• It had been a thoroughly entertaining afternoon, making the most of some good pubs and decent ales. The highlights for me were probably lunch in Sedgley, the parlour room at the Britannia, the visit to the Fox & Grapes, the moonlight flit around Pensnett and finally the scratchings at the Rose and Crown. All in all, very satisfying indeed.

Monday, December 6

Slippery Customers!

Saturday 4th December saw Rog and I braving the 'Big Freeze' with a Birmingham-based West Midlands local outing...

* Meeting in Stourbridge, we were able to check on the progress at the town's old bus station. The site is now closed off behind various hoardings and a raft of health and safety notices. A series of portakabins have moved in and most of the old stands have now been demolished.

* To Brum then, so it's the Parry's People Mover (looking smart in London Midland livery) followed by the Dorridge train from the Junction, changing at Snow Hill.

* Our first port of call is Spring Road Station, always a bit of an eyesore and I think Rog was suitably underwhelmed. I encourage him to get photos of the rusty old ticket shack just so he could prove he'd actually been there, but our main focus is trying to stay on our feet whilst hopefully not looking all constipated as we waddle along.

* A little treat for Rog as we head around the corner to find Acocks Green Bus Garage. We line up shots of the depot frontage but there isn't much visible in terms of vehicles, I guess they were all hiding round the back.

* Risking limb if not life, next we brave a local walk into Hall Green that enables me to photograph the York pub and the local dog track. Cateswell Road brings us to Hall Green Station for more railway shots, then we slide off to catch the Outer Circle.

* A good ride on the 11C at least gives us chance to warm back up again as we reminisce about our Birmingham trips past. Through misted-up windows we encounter Kings Heath, Cotteridge, Harborne and Bearwood before making a dash to alight at City Road for Summerfield Park.

* Our next intrepid mission is to revisit Edgbaston Reservoir, although the icy conditions underfoot are now being accompanied by steady drizzle. Trudging across the park and down Gillott Road, we find the turning for the Midlands Sailing Club and then cross the reservoir dam towards the Tower Ballroom as Rog gets all nostalgic for the Boon TV series.

* Having sampled the Outer loop earlier, our attentions now turn to the Inner Circle and a short ride on the 8C from Monument Road to Hockley via Ladywood Middleway and the Jewellery Quarter.

* We alight near New John Street just handy for tracking down our opening drink of the day. The White House is the only Holden's pub in Brum and is just the type of backstreet boozer I like to seek out - honest and traditional whilst serving good beer, in this case Black Country Bitter.

* Braving the chill once more, it's onwards to Aston where the Barton's Arms awaits us. The traditional tiled interior here is simply stunning and provides an air of extravagance as we tuck into our thai lunches.

* For the afternoon we venture to Digbeth, always a favourite location for a proper pub or two. Today we try out the Spotted Dog on Warwick Street (welcomingly Irish and a matchday favourite with Blues fans it seems) followed by the Lamp Tavern in Highgate. We'd visited the Lamp previously and our return only emphasised how much we like the place, sitting in the cosy bar with some 'Stan the Man' Stanney Bitter for me and a Coke for Rogner.

* Darkness is beginning to fall as news filters through that Wolves have lost 3-0 at Blackburn, a result that suggests a long hard winter is still to come. We make our way to Moor Street and thence to Rowley Regis hoping to complete the day with a Black Country evening.

* Our target in Blackheath is the Bell & Bear when disaster strikes on Gorsty Hill Road. Having managed to stay on my feet all day, I come across one icy patch too many and over I tumble. To make matters worse, I land in a puddle and my jeans end up covered in damp patches that make it look like I've had a different kind of 'accident'. Roger of course finds the whole episode absolutely hilarious, especially when the barmaid in the pub asks me if it's wet outside!

* At least the Bell & Bear gives me chance to dry off as a warming fire and some Adnam's Dutch-style Bokbier help me overcome my embarassment. The pub has a nice cottagey farmstead feel set back from the road as you head towards Coombeswood.

* Being very careful where I tread now, we head down the hill to Old Hill Station and catch the 222 bus into Cradley Heath. Our final target is the Hollybush on Newtown Lane, a pub we hadn't come across before but it made a good impression and seems to host a lot of events. It certainly proved a nice place to finish off the evening before braving the cold once more with the return train to Stourbridge.

* So what's our advice for dealing with the freezing weather? Well, a few photos and a hazardous walk can keep you moving in the morning, then throw in some thai curry, wash that down with a selection of real ale pubs and you've got yourselves a cracking day out. Just remember that comedy falls in Blackheath are an optional extra that I wouldn't necessarily recommend...