Thursday, April 28

Exploration at Easter

An extended Easter break has given me plenty of opportunity to get out and about enjoying some more of the wonderful sunshine we've been having recently. In fact, it's hard to remember the last time it rained, not that I'm complaining because conditions have been just perfect for taking photos...

Friday 22nd & Saturday 23rd April: A couple of days in Worcester partaking in that most English of pastimes, watching cricket. New Road was the venue as Worcestershire took on Warwickshire with me firmly rooting for the Bears along with Mr Beardsmore and Ken.

Good Friday morning offered up some bonus exploration, notably involving a wander across Worcester racecourse and a stroll around St John's, a district of Worcester that has some nice landmarks including the church (St John's-in-Bedwardine), a branch library and some pubs (the Garibaldi and the Bell spring to mind). At the ground, Warwickshire are fighting back strongly from a 174-run first innings deficit thanks largely to a second consecutive double hundred from Varun Chopra. The scene is made complete with a prolonged session of bellringing from the Cathedral, the bells having a mournful tone to mark the crucifixion.

Saturday was St George's Day and what better way to spend it than watching Warwickshire close out victory, Chris Woakes ripping through Worcestershire's batting with 6 wickets for 49. Sitting by the press box we were treated to Clive Eakin presenting his BBC Coventry & Warwickshire radio show live from the ground, hence we got a few goal updates as Wolves drew 1-1 with Fulham.

Tuesday 26th April: More indulgent investigations, this time across Walsall way with a tour of Bentley, Beechdale and Coppice Farm. The emphasis for the day was revisiting old haunts to see if anything had changed, so Bentley in particular offered food for thought where the old pub is now Parsons House apartments and the old library site is just an empty patch. It was nice to reacquaint myself with Beechdale too, picking out photo targets like the housing association offices (formerly the Three Men in a Boat pub) and the library/nursery building. I enjoy a spot of lunch at New Invention and make my way home via Ashmore Park where photos of the churches (Corpus Christi and St Alban's) come in very handy.

Thursday 28th April: Sunshine in Staffordshire is the order of the day as Cannock and Hednesford return to the exploration radar. I track down the Shoal Hill Tavern and mooch around Cannock Park, then admire the decorative flags on Hednesford's Market Street - possible royal wedding party preparation I wonder? Pye Green is my lunchtime location this time around, and the afternoon sees me getting reacquainted with Cannock Station, Bridgtown and Cheslyn Hay, pocketing a few pub pictures courtesy of the Stumble Inn, the Robin Hood and the White Horse.

So as you can see I have been quite busy but it's best to make the most of the fine weather whilst it's here. The meteorological gods have certainly been smiling on me recently, what with Rail Rover Week and my March outings also being blessed, so I just hope there isn't a monsoon waiting in the wings by way of payback later in the year. I've also continued my attempts to resurrect WME on Flickr and a separate post on recent progress should be with you shortly.

Monday, April 18

A D9 Ditty

This little ode is dedicated to the WARP crew and anybody who knew Mr Wood in his previous existence...

"The D9 was a bus from a long time ago,
It did all the routes Mr Wood used to know.
Mr Lunn is the chap who is going to teach you,
You need a steering wheel that's bigger than a pizza.
D9 Dave is on hand to collect every fare,
'Til he sees the next pub then he just doesn't care...

Emergency Stop!!

In the past Mr Wood was a real country rover,
Parking in country lanes just to get his leg over,
Beer holder at his side, he was known to get merry,
Which explains why one day he got lost on a ferry,
And his cab had a habit of being 'decorated',
Along with pub floors, so he was often berated...

Handbrake Turn!!

Rog and Paul come along to do their driver training,
So watch out for your ears if it ever starts raining.
With Andy at the wheel there are flailing elbows,
Whilst the clutch going in gives some very sore toes.
The starter button makes our suffering complete,
So beware of us filming there on the back seat...

Next stop driver please!!

Does the bald spot get bigger each trip that goes by?
Absolutely, just as Woody looks like Stephen Fry!
So with Worzel and Lembit and Dragon-by-marriage,
Not forgetting the bloke who worked at Stourbridge Garage,
You never know next time you're out on the bus,
If you're unlucky you might bump into us!

All Change, all change!!"

Monday, April 11

Soaking up the Shropshire Sunshine

Saturday 9th April: Rail Rover Week might be over but there's no end to the exploring as I join Messrs Lunn, Chance and Wood for a Salopian circuit of Bridgnorth, Shrewsbury, Newport and Stafford...

890: The day begins at Lichfield Street, Wolverhampton where our intrepid quartet join the worryingly long queue for the Bridgnorth bus. Whilst waiting, Andy brings me up to speed on the latest proposals for the Stafford Road hub incorporating 'Book-a-Banga' options for those who can't ride bicycles. When it finally arrives the bus predictably becomes rammed so it's a case of standing room only and cling on for dear life. We whizz through Compton and Wightwick noting the various disappointed faces who aren't let on because the bus is so full, then it's out into Shropshire via Shipley, Rudge Heath and Worfield. At Bridgnorth we make a curious detour into the Stanmore Industrial Estate to pick up some Arriva drivers who are let on board despite the fact passengers were turned away earlier, hardly the greatest example of customer relations then!

- Northgate, Bridgnorth -

Bridgnorth: The town seems very popular today with people making the most of the wonderful weather. We alight by the Bear Tavern for a couple of bus photos and I add in a few streetscenes admiring the architecture of Northgate. After our cramped harum-scarum 890 ordeal we urgently needed a refreshing drink so we call into Wetherspoon's The Jewel of the Severn where Rog battles his phone to try and get news of the F1 qualifying - he'd have been just as well flying to Malaysia to find out in person given how long it took for the information to load...

437: Our next move sees us waiting back at the Bear bus stop for any sign of our Shrewsbury connection, due at 11:37 but only arriving at gone midday just as we were about to give up all hope. All the hanging about meant Andy went into D9 overdrive, firstly when leaving Bridgnorth (see below) and then for a spot of extended open throttle chugging his way through Cross Houses. In between times the route called at Harley and Cressage, detours that we didn't think met the criteria for thick blue lines or 'turn up and go'.

- D9 strikes again -

Shrewsbury: Lunchtime, hence a dash to the Shrewsbury Hotel Wetherspoon's where I bypass my comrades in cheekily getting a pint of Bateman's All Seasons whilst they were still waiting at the other end of the bar. Our food order consisted of the customary gourmet burgers and chicken tikka masala (but no side-orders of horseradish), and I also perused the bookshelves where the titles included 'Creative Conflict', 'Wood Heart' and 'The Secrets of Mr Wood's Wallet' - ok I admit it, I made the last one up!

Three Fishes: With some extra time to spare we decided to sample one of Shrewsbury's historic alehouses. The Three Fishes is located in the narrow medieval quarter just below St Alkmund's church and is a half-timbered building with low beams and much charm. We find a corner table where the staff kindly obliged us with a Cheers photo, and I thoroughly enjoyed my pint of Midnight Stout from the Woodlands Brewery in Cheshire, nice and nutty with a roasted fragrance. The only downside to the visit was finding out that Wolves had lost 3-0 at home to Everton, relegation awaits I fear.

- Colonel Custard in the Three Fishes -

519: One highlight of the day was swiftly followed by another as we catch the 519 for a country ride out to Newport. I really liked the rural nature of the route, which featured places such as High Ercall, Tibberton and Edgmond along with landmarks such as Haughmond Abbey, the Cleveland Arms and the Sutherland Arms. Andy seems less convinced though and speculates that the route "doesn't make a big fat profit" whilst Woody seems to have nodded off midway through enacting a Little Britain sketch.

Newport: Upon arrival at Newport Interchange we make a dash for the nearest pub that's showing the Grand National - Mr Wood has a bet on and wants to check on his investment, although the rest of us were just shocked that he'd spent some money in the first place. We therefore pile into The Barley and the race gets away on time but unfortunately we don't quite have long enough to see it through to it's conclusion as the 481 should be waiting at half past four. One other thing we did note was that Newport Interchange had obviously been preparing for Andy's arrival because a whole new toilet block had been built in his honour.

- Woody wills on his Grand National steeds -

481: It's farewell to Shropshire with a swift ride into Stafford via Gnosall and Haughton. With us having missed the end of the big race, Rog decides to call up the final result on his phone although I'm not entirely sure whether he was doing this using a method of telegram, semaphore or pony express. An eternity later and we find out that Woody hasn't won after all, talk about prolonging the agony.

Stafford: A fleeting visit gives us just enough time for a pint in The Lamb, a nice little local on Broad Eye close to the Chell Road bus stops. Andy and I go all Old Hooky as Rog finds himself curtained off, or was the glare just the reflection off Mr Lunn's bald spot?

- Y is for Yampy in the Lamb -

76: The final ride home gives Andy another excuse for some D9/S23 driving combinations, although his subsequent back-seat contortionist act looked most uncomfortable - further evidence that his bladder bother had kicked in again perhaps? We negotiate Penkridge and Brewood before the chaps pick out the ideal locations for the Stafford Road hubs, even finding that some of the bike rack infrastructure was already in place. With Andy threatening to spring a leak, I take my leave and the door closes on another exceptional day. Cheers lads!

Coventry Beer Festival

As you may have gathered from my previous post, last Friday morning's Rail Rover tour of Rugby and Long Buckby was only half of the story. There is still the small matter of the afternoon to tell you about, whereby I was joined by my esteemed colleague Nickolenko for a canal walk, a smattering of pubs and the crowning glory of the Coventry Beer Festival...

From Long Buckby I take the London Midland service to Coventry, arriving in time to meet Nick off his 13:11 train up from Birmingham. A Travel de Courcey 85 bus gets us to Pool Meadow, and then we can catch Stagecoach's Atherstone and Leicester-bound 48 for a ride up the Foleshill Road to Longford Tesco.

In keeping with much of the week, the weather was glorious and we were bathed in warm sunshine as we joined the towpath of the Coventry Canal for the stroll to Hawkesbury Junction. We enjoy views of the Ricoh Arena and Nick gets to test out the 'Stone Sofa' sculpture before we pass the site of the original canal junction at Longford. A little further on and we reach Sutton Stop - the meeting point of the Coventry and Oxford Canals remains one of my favourite waterways locations.

- A perfect pint of proper Perry -

Part of the charm of Hawkesbury Junction is undoubtedly the Greyhound pub, which occupies an envious position looking out over one of the turnover bridges. It seems we're not the only ones keen on an afternoon drink here as the beer garden here is absolutely full, but there is room inside for us to enjoy a refreshing pint of Weston's Perry, a delicious way to slake one's thirst. Nick is definitely in English mode for the time being and we have a browse of the various Sutton Stop structures including a police hut and the old engine house.

- The Town Wall Tavern -

We retrace our steps back to Bridge 10 so that we can catch the number 20 bus outside the Longford Engine. Before too long we're back in Coventry centre on the trail of our next pub, heading round the back of the theatre to find the Town Wall Tavern. This was another excellent choice where we debated our favourite Chip Foundation haunts over some Adnam's Broadside and noted an internal frosted window etched with Atkinson's Brewery - at least Nick resisted the urge to play the piano...

With the beer festival set to open at 6pm, we had a spare half an hour or so to fit in one more call. The Old Windmill on Spon Street fit the bill nicely for a dash of medieval charm, sitting in one of the tiny front snugs supping some Olde Peculiar. If you're looking for a pub with character and beams this place is hard to beat - the open fires can add an extra touch of cosiness although thankfully there was no need for them today.

- The Old Peculiars with their Old Peculiars -

We were now ready to sample the delights of the beer festival, which was being held at the Coventry Rugby Ground off The Butts. Despite arriving just after 6pm the place was already pretty full and was only set to get busier. Heading inside we pick up our commemorative glasses and programmes then select our opening tasters. There is a wide range on offer including many 'LocAle' examples from around Warwickshire, so I opt for Merry Miner's Warwickshire's Finest from near Atherstone (very nice) and Nick dabbles with Honey Stout from the North Cotswolds Brewery.

The event is certainly popular and there seems to be a broad mix of people all interested in their ales. The food servery is also attracting a bit of attention and we avail ourselves of a cornish pasty each before battling our way back up to the bar for our second samplers. It's getting rather crowded now so I choose Humpty Dumpty's East Anglian Pale Ale by virtue of being able to get close enough to ask for it, whilst Nickolenko's Slavic tendencies come to the fore with some Gorlovka Russian Stout all the way from... Barnsley!!

It was getting on for half past seven and the festival appeared to have become a victim of it's own success as the volunteers weren't able to let many more people into the hall. We decided to go for a third and final tipple with Nick bravely negotiating the scrum to resurface with some Scilly Stout courtesy of the Penzance Brewing Company. This was potent stuff and hit the spot perfectly, with Nicoklenko craftily getting confused and drinking some of mine on my behalf, the cheek! We leave the venue to a few cheers (someone else could now go in) and complete the evening with some chips at dusk and a train back from Coventry Station. The whole experience was huge fun and I look forward to attending further such festivals in future...

Sunday, April 10

Rail Rover 2011

Rail Rover Week is traditionally one of the pinnacles of the annual exploration calendar, so would the 2011 offering live up to the heights of previous years? You bet it did!!!

- Monday: Burslem Square -

Monday April 4th: The week begins with a Potteries tour as my walk from Stoke-on-Trent Station takes me to Hanley Park, the Caldon Canal and Etruria Junction. I branch off into Burslem to admire an array of proud civic buildings (notably the Town Hall) and traditional pubs. Lunchtime sees me in Longport, getting drenched in the solitary rainshower of the week, but I dry off by tiptoeing into Cheshire for a roam around Alsager. A solid start.

- Tuesday: Beeston Lock Cottage -

Tuesday April 5th: Rail Rover custom has it that Tuesday is always Shropshire day, but not so this year. A dodgy weather forecast had me scampering eastwards where the trio of Derby, Beeston and Sileby ensures I neatly cover the three East Midlands counties, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Derby is a welcoming city and Sileby a village I wouldn't mind another look at, but the highlight of the day was Beeston, sampling a pint of Kiss Me Kate in the Victoria Hotel (what a great pub!) and tracking down the Nottingham Canal where it meets the River Trent at Beeston Lock - and it didn't even rain in the end!

- Wednesday: Ledbury Market House -

Wednesday April 6th: Worcestershire on Wednesday with a morning stroll around Malvern Link, climbing up into Great Malvern and realising that the glorious sunshine has made it unseasonably warm - it's only April but it feels like August! Getting my breath back, I cross into Herefordshire for an afternoon in Ledbury, a gem of a market town with a delightful collection of black and white timber framed buildings. This is England at it's very best in my opinion, a fact confirmed with a pint of Hereford Pale Ale in the historic Prince of Wales pub on cobbled Church Street.

- Thursday: Yorton Station -

Thursday April 7th: Shropshire strikes back with arguably the best day of the lot. The weather stays stunning as I call at Craven Arms to absorb the town's agricultural ambience with its relaxed pace of life. A stroll around Shrewsbury introduces me to Castlefields and Abbey Foregate, then I get away from it all with a request stop at Yorton, a country halt with considerable charm. I wander up to the nearby village of Clive with its tiny village store, then make it back to Wolverhampton to join The Bears team as we take on the challenge of the Mayor of Wolverhampton's Charity Quiz Night.

- Friday: Rugby Clock Tower -

Friday April 8th: A final morning of indulgence involves a Warwickshire workout in Rugby, taking in sights such as the Market Clock and Rugby School, where the game of rugby originated. My closing gambit takes me into Northamptonshire, completing a full Heart of England collection with a look at Long Buckby with it's portakabin-style rail station. The Coventry Beer Festival then beckons, but that - as the saying goes - is another story entirely...

Friday, April 1

WME Update Digest: March 2011

Ordinarily my monthly digest post would bring you news of the latest additions to the WME galleries, but March 2011 will instead go down as the month when West Midlands Exploration ceased to exist. To borrow the boating analogy from one of my previous posts, March saw the good ship Fotopic sink without warning, taking down WME and all other galleries with her and as yet there's been no sign of anyone manning the lifeboats.

To say this turn of events has been disappointing would be something of an understatement. I had invested five and a half years of patience and energy into building up West Midlands Exploration as a worthwhile pictorial record of the region only for it all to disappear seemingly overnight. Then again, it's hardly the end of the world - we are only talking a collection of photos after all, and more recent global events tend to show up such piffling concerns for what they are.

The final analysis will show that I added my last photos to the fotopic site on March 9th, a shot each of the 256 and 259 routes calling at Stourbridge Bus Station. This meant that I had reached a total of 2,359 images collated across my galleries, broken down as follows: Wolverhampton 435, Walsall 208, Birmingham 330, Dudley 262, Sandwell 180, Coventry 80, Solihull 112, Staffordshire 299, Worcestershire 90, Telford 68, Warwickshire 45, Shropshire 58 and Exploration Extra 192. I was proud of how the galleries as a whole were shaping up and I believe they contained some attractive and interesting photos, some of which had already become quite historic as bus routes changed or buildings got demolished.

It is then time to draw a line under what went before and to look towards the future. I have set myself up with a Flickr account and will soon commence the mammoth task of transferring my images onto my new photostream. For me this is quite exciting, starting again and seeing which direction my photos take me in this time - I'm not sure how things will develop but I will aim to keep you informed right here on the WME Blog. I shall update my blog links once the Flickr account becomes more organised, but for the time being you can access the photos at...