Saturday, July 23

Featherstone and Shareshill

Friday 22nd July: Exploration for me doesn't always have to be about blazing a trail across the West Midlands. Sometimes it's good to take things at a gentler pace, a case well proven by today's relaxing incursion into South Staffordshire. My aim was to call in on two villages (Featherstone and Shareshill) that I've never photographed before despite the fact they're only a few miles from where I live...

Moseley Old Hall: But first a slice of history, making my way up through Northwood Park and Northycote for my first ever look at Moseley Old Hall, a National Trust Property with Civil War links to Charles II. Given that the hall is virtually on my doorstep I'm rather ashamed that I'd never been there before, but at least I put that right this morning, weaving my way along the narrow lanes wondering what to expect. I first catch sight of the perimeter low brick wall and the cottage gardens before enjoying views of the historic home itself - it's a building with considerable charm to accompany its famed royal connections, and at some point I could well be tempted to have a proper look around when the house is open to visitors.

- Moseley Old Hall -

Featherstone: The tranquility of Moseley gives way to the murmur of the M54 motorway as I continue through to Featherstone. I've passed through many times on family drives or number 70 bus rides to Cannock so it was high time I gave the place some camera treatment. The village has expanded over the years to house commuters and its main shopping facilities are concentrated on The Avenue with the 'Select & Save' containing the local post office. Other notable features include Whitgreave Primary School (maintaining the name of the family who formerly owned Moseley Old Hall) and the Red, White and Blue pub. Featherstone was an interesting place to visit but didn't entirely capture my imagination - there was a lot of Cannock Road traffic and many of the buildings were quite modern.

- Shareshill Shop & Post Office -

Shareshill: A short walk up the main A460 brings me to Shareshill where there is more of the feel of a typical country village. Top photo targets here include the Elms pub and the Shareshill Post Office and Stores; both pub and shop have survived being threatened with closure quite recently, and the shop is now run by the local community and prides itself on personal service - I can certainly vouch for that having enjoyed a friendly conversation with the chap behind the counter. Mention must also go to the Church of St Mary and St Luke, a worthy landmark with a captivating old belltower (said to date from the 13th century) that is adjoined by a Georgian nave and a 21st century hall annexe. It doesn't look as cobbled together as it sounds!

The sense of escape was completed with a leisurely walk home, crossing public footpaths with ice cream in hand and then swatting flies along more narrow country lanes as I wove my way back through Featherstone and Brinsford. As a final treat I dropped in at Northycote Farm to see some of the farm animals - the lambs and ducks were cute, but I think the pigs stole the show for sheer laziness.

Now that's what I call having a gentle unwind!

Friday, July 22

Reviewing the Review

It had to happen sooner or later. The rolling programme of Bus Network Reviews has finally fixed its beady eye upon Wolverhampton, and so in a couple of days time we will have a new series of bus routes to accompany the fanfare opening of the rebuilt bus station...

Ordinarily with these network reviews I tend to dedicate an outing to getting around and sampling the existing routes before the changes take place. I haven't really done that this time, mainly because with Wolverhampton they are my local buses which I use virtually on a daily basis, routes I have grown up with and photographed several times over the years. I have of course gathered a few farewell photos lately but we're talking more of a prolonged goodbye than a frantic final flurry. As you might expect, the proposed changes have generated some considerable debate locally, and here I will now offer my personal opinions about what is set to take place.

New Bus Station: Sunday 24th July will mark the grand opening of Wolverhampton's flagship new bus station, and I look forward to taking my first look at its state of the art passenger facilities. I must admit I wasn't entirely convinced about the need for a new bus station in the first place - I always felt that the railway station had a more urgent case for redevelopment - but the bus station got the go-ahead and it's been interesting to see the site being transformed over the last year or so. A lot of money has been spent and I really do hope it all proves worth it, although there are concerns I will need to be convinced about.

Headlines have been made by the revelation that a number of routes won't even use the facility, then there's the curious case of the new footbridge to the railway station, which is puzzlingly situated right next door to the existing bridge that itself is still remaining in place. I realise the intention is that the Metro will at some point use the older bridge but I do wonder if I'll be looking back in years to come and remarking that this new bridge just ended up being a pointless extravagance. Also, as a bus enthusiast I am fully expecting that the new bus station will follow the example of other Centro creations in being a photographic no-go zone, and similarly I would also query just how safe the place will prove to be given that Walsall Bus Station (another heralded project) is a deathtrap waiting to happen.

Service Renumbering: One feature of the Network Review is that many services will drop the '5' prefix that has designated Wolverhampton bus routes since de-regulation. I am a little undecided on this as I quite liked the way an area's routes were distinguished from each other (300s for Walsall, 400s for Sandwell, 500s for Wolverhampton etc) and there could be an element of confusion if the same route numbers overlap in places. Saying that, I don't think the general public necessarily care too much about what number is on the front of their bus as long as they have a service that takes them where they want to go. I tend to refer to my local routes (the 532 and 533) as the 32 and 33 anyway, and that's precisely what they will become from Sunday!

Cross City Services: Another key feature of the review is the establishment of Cross City routes connecting two points either side of Wolverhampton City Centre. These routes will become the bedrock of the new network, hence they are prominently numbered 1, 2 3 and 4. Wolverhampton's existing pattern of routes essentially involved various spokes radiating out from the centre, so perhaps the logical thing to do when looking to make changes was to join some of these spokes together. Quite whether the residents of Tettenhall Wood really want a direct link to Dudley (or vice versa) is open to debate and there have been inevitable mutterings about reliability - if you're in Fordhouses you worry that all your buses will get stuck in Castlecroft, whereas if you're in Castlecroft you worry that all your buses will get stuck in Fordhouses! These prime new routes also seem to be the ones avoiding the new bus station, so it will be interesting to see how they are received once they are actually running.

Service Changes: A number of other services have changed, which as ever means you have winners and losers. A few observations for you;
  • If you travel along the Wednesfield Road you will be spoilt for choice - not only are there frequent 59s to/from Ashmore Park but you could also get the 69 or 89 Walsall services.
  • Efforts have been made to increase access to New Cross Hospital, a sensible decision which I think has to be applauded. For example, the 25 provides new direct hospital connections for places like Wobaston and Low Hill, whilst the 28 will now call in the hospital grounds.
  • There seem to be more through connections to Walsall, so as well as the 529 we will now have the 39 (via Monmore Green and Bilston), the 40 (via Willenhall and Bentley) and the 69 (via Coppice Farm and Beechdale). The 908 becomes the 89 to continue to provide links with Bloxwich and Pelsall.
  • Conversely, the 79 is shortened to run only as far as West Bromwich, breaking what had always seemed to be a staple direct connection to Birmingham. Travellers going from Wolverhampton through to Brum would now face the choice of 126, Metro or train, or they can change onto the 75 at Wednesbury or West Bromwich.
  • The improved Walsall links mean that places like Beechdale, Coppice Farm and Reedswood gain regular buses to Wolverhampton and yet Stowlawn (an estate well within the Wolverhampton boundary) loses it's direct daytime service to the city because the 26 will only go as far as Bilston. The estate gets the 34 as a consolation so residents can get into Walsall instead. This does seem slightly bizarre, although whenever I've used the old 526 it did seem that most passengers from Stowlawn only tended to go as far as Bilston anyway.
  • I notice that the 613 is set to become the combined 63 and 64 routes, with buses apparently changing numbers half way around the Bradmore/Penn end of the route. Now the 613 was confusing enough as it was and I had hoped that the review might resolve this, but the new timetable seems equally as baffling in terms of where the crossover takes place. I can't help thinking a trick has been missed here.
  • Some places will sadly see a reduction in service. Deansfield Road is one example whilst the old 525 sections around The Scotlands and Wood End particularly stand out for me as this was a route I used regularly. Wood End actually seems to have been cast adrift on the new network - where it once had the 525 and 528 running frequently between them, unless I'm missing something obvious there now only seems to be the Arriva 68 calling here. The new 28 goes off round Bellamy Lane and Ridge Lane to plug one hole but for me this leaves an alarming gap at the Pheasant and the shops on Wood End island where surely there are more passengers to be had???
  • Perhaps the most bizarre creation of the revised network is the new 57 route, which seems to have been dreamt up as a way of filling as many gaps as possible. As a join-the-dots exercise this is a masterpiece, linking Wolverhampton and Bilston over nearly an hour and a half (!!) via Ettingshall, New Cross, Fallings Park, The Scotlands, Wednesfield, Noose Crescent, Willenhall and Rough Hay. It attempts to combine the 575 route (which was fairly hideous already) with the 574 and leftover bits of 525; people might well make use of certain intermediary sections of the route but in all seriousness I can't see this attracting many passengers at all.
  • For me personally, the proposed network does away with some routes I am rather fond of, such as the 598 (Bushbury Hill being covered by the 2 through to Warstones), the 698 (the 25 will link Low Hill with Wobaston), the Pendeford Circulars (use the 4 for Rakegate and Stafford Road or the 6 for Dovecotes and Blakeley Green) and the 525 (a Paul favourite which I will be sorry to see go). However, the replacement services for all of these do allow for new travel opportunities and adventures, so there is plenty for me to be positive about.

I could probably make countless more comments but I think that's enough for the time being, and whilst at times I've been quite critical above I think it's important that I reserve full judgment until I've seen the new network in practice. I expect that Sunday 24th and the days immediately afterwards will be absolute carnage as passengers adjust to the changes; despite the best efforts of Centro and the bus operators there are bound to be people who are clueless as to what is occurring, and the double whammy of trying to work out which new route you need to catch from which stand in the new bus station (or not as the case may be) is potentially a recipe for chaos.

Let's get over the hurdle of the next couple of weeks and in time everything should settle down. It is only then that we will have a proper indication of whether the changes have brought improvements or problems/cutbacks - in truth there will probably be a mixture of both. We're certainly in for an interesting few days!

Sunday, July 10

Warwick Wanderings

Friday 8th July brought with it the latest episode of Chip Foundation antics as Nick introduced us to the wonders of Warwick. Here are some pictorial highlights...

After meeting up on the train at Coseley, we head into Birmingham for a look around Moor Street Station. The Chiltern service to Marylebone provides us with our Warwick connection, arriving just before 2 pm so Nick can pose on the platform. He doesn't take much persuading these days, one sight of the camera and he's into position with a ready grin!

The Wild Boar is handily placed near the station so we can sample some ales from the Slaughterhouse Brewery, all named with a distinct piggy theme. We then stroll into Warwick town centre for some lunch and a chance encounter with an old penitentiary door on the corner of Barrack Street - I resisted the temptation to lock them inside and throw away the key as I needed someone to pay for the drinks later.

It was actually my round next as Nick leads us to the Punch Bowl, a historic coaching inn that nowadays is an unexpected outpost for Oakwell beers from Barnsley. The Dark Mild was in excellent fettle and I was delighted to find that the ales came at honest Yorkshire prices that a certain reincarnated Stourbridge bus driver would surely have approved of.

The Old Fourpenny Shop completes our trio of taverns in the town and then we go cross-country to get in a bit of exercise. The walk was perfect and included sections across Warwick Racecourse (hence this view looking over at the grandstand) and along part of the Grand Union Canal.

Our next port of call was the Cape of Good Hope, a quintessential canalside pub brimming with traditional atmosphere. We approach the pub by scrambling over the locks, something I managed in a most uncertain fashion but a half of Two Llocks (also referred to as twollocks and brewed specifically for the pub) helped me regain some composure. I also liked the fact that you could get served out of the front window, adding that little note of quirkiness for extra brownie points.

We rejoin the canal and soon reach Warwick Parkway from where a return Chiltern service delivers us safely to Snow Hill. We test out the new station access to exit onto Livery Street where Nickolenko can't resist investigating the Lithuanian delicatessen. The evening is completed with a couple of Jewellery Quarter stops (the Queens Arms and the Brown Lion, more Two Towers treats in the latter) followed by some jazz at the Trumpet in Bilston. Superb stuff to round off another brilliant day, and with my Warwick bearings now firmly in place I could easily be tempted to return...

Thursday, July 7

WME Flickr Focus: June 2011

Half way through another year already and these monthly digests seem to be rolling around at a hectic rate of knots. Steady progress was the name of the game for June as I continued the long process of resuscitating the WME archive in its new home. Here comes the number crunching...
  • 82 photos were reinstated in June, bringing my Flickr running total to 413. Useful then but there's still a long way to go to reach the 2359 I had on Fotopic, and that's before I even think about adding new stuff into the mix.
  • Of those 82, 55 have nestled into WME Wolverhampton bringing my score there to 281 out of a target of 435. A good chunk of my Wolverhampton photos are now back online which is pleasing, and within that some of the sets are getting their substance back, examples being Bilston (16 shots), Heath Town (8 photos) and Tettenhall (10 photos).
  • WME Walsall received 23 photos in June meaning I've now got 125 of the original 208 shots back in place. Bloxwich and Streetly have come to the fore recently and many of my canal views around Pelsall Junction have resurfaced. There is still work to do with both Wolverhampton and Walsall but I am getting there and will keep chipping away at it.
  • WME Birmingham hasn't really got going yet but there were a token 4 additions making their presence felt last month - the 27 bus at Kings Heath and 3 photos of Sheldon. This did at least freshen up the front page of my photostream as most of the other content I added tended to get hidden away in the background.
  • Behind the scenes I have now completed uploading all of my Birmingham archive, so these will gradually be released once dates and commentaries have been applied. I have also brought through some of my Dudley bus photos and hope to squeak a couple of these through in July.
That brings you up to date then with what I've done and what I hope to do next. It is becoming clear that getting everything back to the Fotopic levels is going to be a long haul so please bear with me, hopefully it will all be worth it and my photographic record of the West Midlands region will be back for everyone to see.

Monday, July 4

On Location in Liverpool

Saturday 2nd July and the WARP brigade are on the television trail as we tour Merseyside seeking out filming locations from some iconic Liverpudlian TV series…

To Liverpool
: I meet the chaps outside Wolverhampton Station and we narrowly avoid someone having a fracas as we head inside to catch our 9:19 train. London Midland operate a good service to Liverpool, running every half hour or thereabouts using a fleet of Class 350 Desiro trains that are always smartly presented.

Touch down in Merseyside
: We arrive at Lime Street at about 10:45 and quickly purchase our £4.60 Saveaway tickets, excellent value for a day riding local buses, trains and ferries. Rog is in need of a nicotine fix so we head outside where I can get the camera into gear with shots of the war memorial and Radio City tower. Queen’s Square bus station then beckons for our first bus of the day, not to mention a sighting of the ever-growing D9 bald spot…

- D9 phones home -

: The Stockbridge Village Circular provides our connection to location #1 and I really enjoy the ride down through West Derby. There are plenty of intriguing landmarks including some derelict pubs for Roger (the Newsham Park) and some gas ones for Andy (the Sefton) whilst West Derby Village Hall also catches my eye. We alight on Mab Lane and a short walk around the corner brings us to Brookside Close.

: I never watched Brookside much when I was a kid but the opening titles and theme tune still carried a certain resonance as the soap broke new ground in British TV history. The programme was filmed around a self-contained cul-de-sac that was home to the likes of Sheila Grant, Jimmy Corkhill and Ron Dixon. The set became virtually abandoned when the show was cancelled, and today the builders are in converting the houses ready for standard residential use. Some photos of the Close itself are followed by group shots around the Brookside sign and luckily Roger escaped without becoming the next body under the patio!

- Brookside -

: Back to the City Centre then and all my sprinting during the Digbeth trip came in useful when the return 12 bus hove into view for a TUAR ‘turn up and run’. The route seemed very busy, particularly heading down West Derby Road through Tuebrook, so the thick blue line on the bus windscreen was highly appropriate.

Lunch: Alight at Queen’s Square once more and we file into the Fall Well Wetherspoon’s for lunch and a couple of pints. Needless to say I opted for my regular gourmet burger, washed down here with some Black Cat from the Moorhouse Brewery in Burnley. The local scammers obviously know an easy target when they see one as Rog got conned into giving a ‘homeless’ chap some change – or perhaps he just mistook Rog for Freddie Boswell!!

: Talking of the Boswells, it was time to make our way to location #2. This necessitated a ride on the C4 Cumfybus to the Dingle estate – three of us can vouch for the bus indeed being very comfy but poor Andy had to shoehorn himself in above the wheelarch and there wasn’t much scope for D9ing there. After a tour of the City Centre we negotiate the streets of Toxteth to arrive at Park Hall Road.

: Following Mr Wood’s expert instructions we head around the corner to find Elswick Street, the terraced row looking down to the Mersey that doubled as the home of the Boswells in the 1980’s BBC hit sitcom Bread. We had a few misgivings about the general area but I think I’ve visited worse closer to home, and the thing that stood out for me was a real sense of community spirit.

- Elswick Street -

: The comedy hasn’t finished yet though as we now have the farce of trying to catch our return bus, an experience not helped by the fact the C4 and C5 do convoluted loops of the Dingle that cover the same roads twice in quick succession. We contrive to miss one C5 then have the C4 passing us twice whilst we wait for the next C5 along. To top it all Andy has to make an emergency bladder stop and Rog visits a local off licence that would put a bank to shame with it’s wall of security screens.

Liver Birds
: Finally the C5 does collect us and after a further tour of Dingle we head out to the salubrious surroundings of Falkner Square. Woody’s plan is again right on target as we find Huskisson Street, somewhere along which is the flat where part of the Liver Birds was filmed. We’re not exactly sure which residence it was though, and there’s nothing in the way of plaques or commemoration to help us – in fact none of today’s sites had been marked in any way, perhaps the Liverpool powers-that-be are missing a trick in not pinpointing this aspect of the city’s cultural heritage. At least I can get a variation on a bald spot photo by way of consolation…

- A bald spot photo of a bald spot photo! -

86B and Albert Docks
: From Huskisson Street we literally turn up and go on a Stagecoach 86B down to Liverpool One Bus Station, the driver forgetting we were on board so we have to alight in the parking zone. We can’t resist a look at the famous Albert Docks, for many years home to This Morning although we can’t convince Woody to recreate Fred Talbot’s weather forecasts (minus the floating map of course). With a quick nod to Billy Fury we then head down to Pier Head to wait for our 4pm ferry departure to Birkenhead.

Ferry: It takes a while for everyone to get on board but the experience is worth waiting for, cruising across to Seacombe whilst admiring the city skyline with the Three Graces taking centre stage. Rog bravely battles his sea sickness (or was it the shock of seeing Mr Wood’s hair move?!) whilst the on-board commentary tells us about the development of New Brighton and the use of the ferry boats in the First World War. We touch down at Seacombe to wait for our connecting bus and find that the Seacombe Ferry pub has closed down.

: the 409 arrives promptly and thankfully there are no raised lift bridges to hold us up this year, hence it’s a quick ride down via Woodside terminal and Hamilton Square. At Birkenhead Rog introduces us to the Mackenzie, a rather basic local pub that claimed to provide the “spirit of Scotland” but just seemed very average to me - I had to agree with Andy’s assessment of it being a PPP (purple pavement pizza) type of place but it did us alright. A short walk back to the bus station brings us onto First’s 1 route taking us through the Mersey Tunnel to complete its run from Chester and Ellesmere Port.

: a final look around the centre before our train home, so we squeeze in a couple of drinks. Firstly we try an Irish American bar where there’s some lively karaoke taking place; I was pleased we were in the quieter room as the rendition of Roy Orbison’s ‘Penny Arcade’ we heard being screeched might have scarred me for life. We then take cover in the Crown where I get to sample some Shepherd Neame Spitfire ale and collect a Cains beermat – the pub is firmly establishing itself as our chosen place to finish off our Liverpool outings.

- Rog taking liberties as usual -

: we stock up on goodies from the M&S foodstore in Lime Street Station then take our seats on the 18:48 Euston departure, changing at Stafford onto the Wolverhampton connection, arriving back at 8pm on the dot. Mr Wood and Mr Chance then set off to jinx their 256 bus on its way back to Stourbridge whilst Mr D9 and I toast an exceptional day with a swift pint in the Tap & Spile – and that’s that!

Cheers to a great plan, a great day and a great city!