Thursday, March 29

Kings Heath & Moseley

Wednesday 28th March 2012 and the cricketing summer will soon be upon us, meaning this would be the last outing from the Chip Foundation's 2011/12 winter catalogue. The close season had already seen us touring the likes of Pattingham, Amblecote, Harborne and Darlaston, so to round things off we thought we'd tackle more Birmingham business with a combination of Kings Heath and Moseley...

THE WELLINGTON: 2pm and the race was on to get to Birmingham, Stephen and Nick by train whilst I had the Metro from Bilston. A fair wind and a good connection saw me get to Brum first, so I could dart straight into the Welly for a precious pint of Penny's Porter from the Derby Brewery. My esteemed Chip Foundation colleagues were not too far behind though, so with our party complete we can enjoy our opening drink in relaxed fashion. The Wellington was the perfect place to meet, the beer choice as ever being wide-ranging with several tempting options so pick yourself a pump number from the big screen.

The 50: unfurling Birmingham CAMRA's 107-strong guide to local real ale outlets, we decided to aim for the furthest point and then work back towards the City, hence the 50 was needed to whisk us off to Kings Heath. The route is apparently one of the busiest in Europe and we have buses in convoy all getting snarled up in the traffic through Balsall Heath, Moseley Village and the stop-start nature of Kings Heath High Street.

- At Kings Heath Cricket Club -

KINGS HEATH CRICKET CLUB: just as the congestion relented it was time to alight, the bus stop being immediately outside our next target, the Kings Heath Cricket and Sports Club on Alcester Road South. As the name suggests, this is a social club rather than a pub but we have no problem getting in unannounced as visitors. The lounge provides a very comfortable setting as we discuss the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, Nick and I partaking of a half of Slipway from the ship's namesake brewery. With drinks quaffed we had a little peek at the cricket ground itself, the thwack of leather on willow will not be far away now.

THE STATION: we sneak back on the 50 for a few stops and then venture into the Station. I remember trying to visit this place with Roger a few years ago but it was closed, so today it was second time lucky. The pub has clearly been modernised and opened out a little but retains some character, with the main highlight for us being the suntrap beer garden. Shut your eyes and it could almost pass for March, open them and the weather was definitely more like August with the sun beating down yet once more. A half of Purity's Mad Goose was rather refreshing in such balmy conditions.

- The Station, Kings Heath -

HIGHBURY PARK: proving once again that we are the Chip Foundation by nature as well as by name, everything stops for food. We seek out a chip shop amongst a plethora of Kings Heath takeways and then find a shaded spot in nearby Highbury Park in which to eat. The shock news here is that Nick actually finished his meal first, with Stephen being so surprised he indignantly threw his roe onto the floor from where the remains were hoovered up by a passing dog called Tigger.

PRINCE OF WALES: anytime a pub named after Nick's lookalike crops up we feel obliged to test it out, so the Prince of Wales in Moseley just had to be done. They must have known we were coming too, for what should we see at the bar but a beer called Sad Bastards - now there's a photographic caption too good to turn down! Stephen gallantly dosed himself up on lemonade and black as we sat in the front bar, although the heated beer garden tent looked inviting (and crowded). Sadly the two smaller snug rooms were booked for private functions as I would like to have explored their old-fashioned character.

- A couple of 'Sad Bastards' -

: all this lemonade and blackcurrant had clearly got to Stephen, thus resulting in a manoeuvre now known as the 'Balsall Heath Bounce' where essentially you find a miscreant kerb and land spreadeagled on the nearest pavement - for once I didn't have my camera ready to record such a priceless moment. Dusting himself off, we made it safely to the Old Mo without any further injury thank goodness. Some Salopian Icon gives Nick just the encouragement he needs to dissect another menu, with pride of place seemingly going to dishes involving the recently-installed tandoori clay oven. Tucked away in the backstreets of Balsall Heath, the pub itself has a nice traditional feel with hints of dark panelling.

- The Old Moseley Arms -

POST OFFICE VAULTS: The evening, and indeed our winter season, concludes with a call at one of Birmingham's newest real ale venues, accessed via an unprepossessing door down from New Street - blink and you almost miss it. The Post Office Vaults occupies the cellar of the former Royal Mail buildings, the underground atmosphere adding to the sense of intrigue as the bar boasts a proud array of continental and bottled ales. Nothing quite so European for me and Nick though - our All Rye Paddy hailed from Nottingham, the Milestone Brewery to be precise, and it ran the Penny's Porter close in the Beer of the Day debates. With that, it's time to catch our train home and the Chip Foundation signs off another successful winter agenda. Fear not though, I'm sure there will be plenty of cricket-themed adventures ahead!

Sunday, March 25


24th March 2012 and my remarkable sequence of Saturday sunfests continues with a springtime stroll into Worcestershire, making the most of yet more glorious weather...

KINGS NORTON: the day begins in one of my favourite corners of Birmingham as I survey the historic heart of Kings Norton. St Nicholas's Church dominates the scene with its spire visible for miles around, whilst the churchyard also includes the Old Grammar School building that featured on the BBC series Restoration. Exit through the lich gate and you're on the village green with a variety of buildings including the Bulls Head pub and the medieval Saracens Head complex. What a place to start your morning walk!

- The Old Grammar School -

WEST HEATH: I now have a bit more Birmingham to contend with as I head along Rednal Road towards West Heath. A little detour by Vardon Way allows a shot or two of the Kings Oak pub and then I can admire the carpet of daffodils on display at West Heath Park. Across from the park is West Heath Hospital, the wards of which provide sub acute care and rehabilitation, and I achieve a little mission by getting a photo of the Man on the Moon, the landmark pub that overlooks the Redditch Rd/Redhill Rd roundabout.

- The Man on the Moon -

CANAL: Resisting the temptation to explore the Hawkesley estate, I pass Wast Hills Golf Club and the Birmingham City FC training ground to enter into Worcestershire along Wast Hill Lane. I'm keen to pick up the trail of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, looking for the point where it emerges from Wast Hill tunnel. I'd seen the tunnel at the northern end by Shannon Road previously so it was great to see the southern portal, the canal arriving into a shaded cutting and then curving around towards Hopwood. The Hopwood House Inn briefly catches my eye but I stick with the towpath, passing Lower Bittell Reservoir and then burrowing beneath the M42. I soon reach the outskirts of Alvechurch where I'm treated to the majestic sight of a swan in full flight. Counting down the bridges, the Crown pub looks enticing at Withybed Green so a mental note is made for future reference.

- Wast Hill Tunnel -

THE WEIGHBRIDGE: I didn't have to wait long for my pub experience of the day though as one bridge further on brings me to the Weighbridge, neatly located alongside Alvechurch Marina. The building used to be the weighbridge office associated with the canal and only became a pub about ten years ago but has quickly won itself several awards from the Redditch & Bromsgrove branch of CAMRA. My expectations were high as I stepped inside but I immediately liked the characterful interior with three nice little rooms looking very cosy. The beer choice gives me a real dilemma because there are several tempting local ales - I eventually decide on some Fruiterers Mild from Cannon Royall (based in Uphampton near Droitwich) and follow this with some Bargees Bitter from Kinver, both excellent. I'd caught the sun a little bit so thought it best to sit indoors, but there are patio, marquee and beer garden options outside that were very much proving popular on this occasion. A cracking find that I would definitely recommend.

- The Weighbridge -

ALVECHURCH STATION: Ale quaffed, I have a quick peek at the marina and then head across to the railway station which is a stone's throw further down the road. Served by the half-hourly Cross City connection to and from Redditch, the station is essentially an unstaffed halt with a single platform and no defining features. It was useful to have a look around and check the train times but otherwise the station wasn't remotely memorable.

ALVECHURCH: thankfully Alvechurch village was far more rewarding with plenty of fascinating photo targets to work with. First up is St Laurence's, the historic parish church possibly founded by the Saxon lady Aelgiva in providing the village with its very name. The village green contains a memorial stone and a flagpole whilst Bear Hill also offers the village hall and the post office. Arriving onto The Square, a pretty selection of half-timbered houses dotted about includes a family butchers, an insurance company and the Tudor Rose Fish Bar. Swan Street and Red Lion Street hint at the names of the local pubs whilst the 146 bus provides a bonus photo as it makes its way to Birmingham. My closing treat is some lunch in the churchyard, relishing the sense of tranquility and listening to a beautiful chorus of birdsong, a lovely memory on which to finish.

- Alvechurch Architecture -

Back to the station then and the 14:32 train gets me back to Brum despite a lengthy hold-up in Kings Norton, so I arrive back home just in time to find that Wolves are losing yet again. Never mind, it had still been a delightful day out to rank alongside my recent adventures in Lapley, Bobbington and the like. I really have been blessed with the weather lately, and I can't quite believe I've gone through a whole winter of exploration without seeing a drop of rain. Perhaps the changing of the clocks will bring about a turn in the meteorology, but at least I've made the most of the conditions thus far.

Friday, March 16

Speaking Up For Libraries

Much of the time this blog deals with the light-hearted trivial details of my explorations, whether this be catching buses, visiting pubs, drinking beer or taking photos, so forgive me today when I adopt a more serious tone...

Libraries are an important part of my life. Not only do I currently work in a library, but I have a longstanding affection for such facilities that stretches back from childhood visits to my local Low Hill, Collingwood and Oxley branches in Wolverhampton. Libraries are also an integral part of the life of the nation, one of the foundations that makes up the very fabric of a community. From the cradle to the grave they are there, serving everyone from babies learning to read, to the jobseeker looking for work, to the student researching their dissertation to the housebound elderly person receiving books and information delivered to their doorstep. They are crucial, and yet they are often overlooked in terms of social necessity. As informal centres of leisure and learning, people can just walk in and discover new hobbies, new worlds, new skills, new friends. Libraries change lives, and yet across the country, libraries are under threat.

In response to this, the Speak Up For Libraries coalition of organisations and campaigners are working to protect libraries and their staff, now and in the future. A day of action was organised for Tuesday 13th March whereby Stephen and I attended the rally and lobby events at Westminster. It was hugely important to us that we demonstrated our support for the library service both nationally and locally.

The rally was held in the Methodist Central Hall and featured high profile speakers explaining just how vitally important libraries are. Amongst those who spoke were Dave Prentis (UNISON General Secretary), John Dolan (CILIP), Dan Jarvis (MP for Barnsley Central and Shadow Culture Minister), authors Alan Gibbons, Kate Mosse and Philip Ardagh, along with Ruth Bond from the Women’s Institute, Ian Anstice (librarian and author of the Public Libraries News blog) and representatives of library campaigns in Shropshire and Croydon.

The speeches were all very thought-provoking in setting out the risks to the library service nationally and explaining why the service needs to be supported. A couple of case study films emphasised the incredibly valuable work that can be achieved, highlighting that libraries are far more than just shelves of books. A recurring complaint was that the Government had failed to act to protect services, hence the assertion that Culture Minster Ed Vaizey was the library equivalent of Dr Beeching and the short-sighted railway destruction of the 1960s. Everyone acknowledged that the economic climate meant that tough decisions needed to be made, but there was a real fear that libraries could be irrepairably damaged if seen as an easy target for savings, undermining all the hard work and efforts of our forefathers in establishing the services in the first place.

Stephen and I then took the opportunity to lobby Parliament by attending a meeting with Emma Reynolds, the MP for Wolverhampton North East, who had kindly arranged to see us. We put forward a firm case for why libraries were important locally, particularly for the deprived areas of the constituency, and discussed the wider national context of cutbacks and closures. Emma was very gracious in listening to our arguments and we now wait to see what develops in terms of specific proposals for the future of libraries in Wolverhampton.

On a wider note once again, we do have to be realistic. Library services of course cannot be immune from providing their fair share of economies in austere times when many elements of local authority provision are having to grapple for funding. It is important though that libraries aren't just dismissed as an irrelevance or handed disproportionate cutbacks that threaten their very survival. I sincerely hope that the Speak Up For Libraries campaign achieves its aim of safeguarding services and raising the profile of the wonderful job libraries and their staff are doing all over the country. I for one was very proud to take part on Tuesday, and I would encourage anyone reading this blog to visit their local library and take advantage of all of the opportunities that will be on offer.

Saturday, March 10

Down Staffordshire Way Again

Saturday 10th March: I enjoyed January's foray around Lapley, Penkridge and Codsall Wood so much that I was eager to have another nibble at some South Staffordshire photo action, once again using the Staffordshire Way long distance footpath as a means of getting around the countryside...

588: my day starts in Perton, waiting by Sainsbury's for a bus that runs to a limited timetable of a couple of round trips or so on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The route in question is the 588, linking Perton, Wombourne and Kinver via the villages in between. With the bus arriving right on cue at 9:55, I'm stunned to find that my ticket to Bobbington costs only £1 due to the fact that the service is subsidised by the County Council. The bargain fare means I enjoy my journey all the more, and what a lovely relaxing ride it is, meandering down through Wightwick, Lower Penn, Trysull and Halfpenny Green.

Bobbington: I alight as the bus reverses at Brantley Crescent and launch into my first village snaps of the day. Dad and I visited Bobbington on one of our walks a few years ago but this was the first time I'd had a proper look around. Holy Cross Church is much admired as a landmark, then the Red Lion pub offers Enville Ales and a hotel annexe, both of which could prove attractive to clients using the nearby airport. I also note the Corbett Primary School and the village hall, whilst the local shop seems to be based in the front room of someone's bungalow.

Halfpenny Green: The mere mention of Halfpenny Green conjures up childhood memories of visiting the market that used to be held by the airfield, but it's years since I was last here and nothing seems familiar. Wandering along Six Ashes Road to a soundtrack provided by the occasional drone of a light aircraft, I soon arrive at the Royal Oak pub overlooking the triangular village green. A few sprouting daffodils offer an early hint of spring as I busy myself with pictures of the totem sign and a memorial boulder. Tom Lane then leads me past another of the area's famous features, the Halfpenny Green Vineyard although I can't see too many grapes on display just yet.

Highgate Common: Turning into New Road, I join the Staffordshire Way route and follow the markers down past Halfpenny Green Golf Club and across Highgate Common. The common is a dedicated Country Park that proves popular as a place to witness wildlife or just escape from the daily grind. I certainly enjoy picking my way through amongst the birch and heather, greeting a dog walker or two and hearing trills of birdsong amongst the aircraft noises. I exit onto Gospel Ash Road and then stick with the Staffordshire Way across the fields through Lutley and over to Morfe Lane.

Enville: A little more cross-country walking involving brooks, stiles and gateways brings me into the garden of Enville Court, using the main black driveway gates to exit onto the A458 Bridgnorth Road. Turning left towards the centre of the village, I immediately notice the imposing tower of St Mary's, a red sandstone church that looks rather serious in gazing down upon the surrounding lands. The village is only small but contains a quaint little post office and general store plus a pocket-sized village green with a couple of benches and a war memorial. Spotting the entrance road into the Enville Hall estate, I venture up for a quick look at the cricket ground where the scorebox looks charming built into an old brick wall. The Hall itself was the seat of the Earls of Stamford and remains as a family home today.

The Cat Inn: all of that exercise means I've earnt myself a little treat, and what better place is there to end up than at a classic village pub serving great beer. I first visited the Cat with Stephen a couple of years ago, popping in for a quick pint on our way back from Bridgnorth. I loved the pub then and simply had to try it out again, especially with the prospect of some ales from the Enville Brewery, just about as local as you can get. Soaking up some beer garden sunshine, I indulge first in a pint of Old Porter, a lovely dark beer that Nickolenko definitely approves of. With a quick glance at the bus times, I realise I still have half hour to spare so I head indoors for another pint. Enville Ginger tempts me this time, and I appear to be rapidly acquiring the taste for an ale that I didn't actually like much the first time I tried it. With its prime location on the main road just across from that little village green, the Cat was very popular today and deservedly so.

588: all that remains is for me to make my way home, so with a little wait on Blundies Lane I can catch my return 588 back towards Perton. Handing over my scarcely believable £1 fare, I get chatting to the driver who remembers me from the morning journey. The route weaves along some very tight lanes to emerge into Bobbington, and then the conversation continues as we progress through Halfpenny Green, around the Wombourne loop and then tick off the Trysulls, Seisdons and Wightwicks to arrive into Perton not long after 4pm. The only blot on the landscape is news of Wolves' capitulation at home to Blackburn Rovers, but otherwise it had been an absolutely wonderful day out.

Monday, March 5

Happy Wanderers!

Dateline: Friday 2nd March 2012. The mission log shows that Captain D9 and Lieutenant WME embarked on a dangerous expedition, trawling the Black Country to see what life could be found amongst the local public houses of Wednesbury and Bilston…

RAY HALL: 1230 hours and our intrepid duo meet at Base West Bromwich armed with digital cameras, beer money and a random sense of direction. The 451 bus is assigned to take us towards Scott Arms with Captain D9 making the call to disengage at Ray Hall Lane amongst the open spaces of Sandwell Valley. Putting D9’s navigation skills to the test, we risked peril by wandering into unknown territory. Carefully avoiding the prospect of a sewage farm, we ventured through woodland and flanked motorway slip roads to reach the towpath of the Tame Valley Canal.

CANALS: That unscheduled shortcut definitely worked to our advantage as we happened upon Rushall Junction, a canal outpost in the shadow of the M6. Brickfields Bridge allows us access onto the Rushall Canal as a hi-vis cyclist seemed to monitor our every move. Biddlestone and Hill Farm Bridges are also encountered as the waterway continues out towards Longwood.

- Bald Spot at the Yew Tree -

YEW TREE: 1330 hours and the Captain’s radar was twitching frantically so it was necessary to leave the towpath and enter the nearby Yew Tree housing estate. Top target here was the Yew Tree Sports and Social Club, although sadly we’d arrived a couple of weeks too late to actually test out the facilities. D9 is almost inconsolable as we survey the forlorn club building awaiting its fate at the hands of the bulldozer. With the club no more, the only drinking establishment left in the vicinity is the Archers on Thorncroft Way, so that will have to do for our opening half of ale. A quick look at Redwood Way’s shops is required as a future marker before we avail ourselves of a 405 bus connection, the Captain keeping a low profile once on board rather than risk being spotted by a scary creature known simply as ‘the wife’.

STONE CROSS: 1400 hours and D9 feels safe enough to show his face again once we reach Stone Cross, so we disembark to refuel courtesy of the Black Country Chippy. A friendly craft in the form of the 410 bus can then lead us to Wednesbury, although the timings are less than robust despite the alleged presence of blue lines with large thicknesses.

- The Wednesbury Closet -

WEDNESBURY: Reloading the data from our January mission, we aim to penetrate the areas we had failed to frequent on that previous occasion. A well-hidden windmill peeks out near Squires Walk, and then we can take a measurement on the Woden just down from St Bartholomew’s Church. The old gates of the Patent Shaft Works - a former factory that once stood where Wednesbury Parkway is now located - are noted as a roundabout feature, plus the Captain’s Closet Collection is boosted by a specimen on The Shambles. The Turks Head has certain charms even if it means drinking more ‘bleach’ (Captain D9’s technical term for anything that isn’t real ale), but our prized find is the Coachmaker’s where we detected a vintage tiled sign for Woodhall’s Brewery along with a largely unchanged interior that looked like it had a few stories to tell.

- The Coachmakers Arms -

PRIESTFIELD: The Wednesbury leg of our voyage had not been quite as dive-infested as potentially feared so we now plotted a course for Bilston. The Midland Metro is probably the most futuristic mode of transport we have available (at the risk of seriously stretching the imagination), and it’ll do right now to power us to Priestfield. Passing the Ward Street site of the former Priestfield railway station (the current Metro stop is in a slightly different location), we find our way down to the Old Bush and the Orange Tree, two pubs curiously arranged slap bang next door to each other, effectively within the same overall building. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a catchment area so it’s no surprise to see that the Old Bush has shut down, but the Orange Tree soldiers on having been taken up by Black Country Traditional Inns - it’s not a bad place really so we wish it well. Sadly we were less enthusiastic about the Gate, especially when the Captain copped for the most expensive round of the expedition.

- A Happy Wanderer -

STOWLAWN: Following the shock damage to D9’s wallet, some emergency resuscitation was needed to avoid any diplomatic incidents. Back in the days when the Captain had hair, he remembered riding past a pub on the Stowlawn estate so off we trooped in search of it, the hunt assuming critical proportions when some familiar bladder complaints began to resurface. Luckily we made it to the Happy Wanderer just in time, the pub having an old Ansell’s vibe that felt like it hadn’t changed much since the 1970s.We expect to come across the occasional strange lifeform during our missions but the pub’s resident mannequin still managed to spook and surprise us; thankfully the beer wasn’t so other-worldly in passing D9’s rigorous scrutiny. Our sweep of the estate also included a look at the Villiers Arms, standing proudly on Villiers Square, and a nod in the direction of the former Bilston Leisure Centre on Prouds Lane, recently replaced by the new facility named after Bert Williams.

BILSTON: Our final efforts at reconnaissance are pitched around Bilston Town Centre. The Olde White Rose is always an excellent place to land, especially when there’s the promise of a Backyard Blonde to contend with, whilst the timber-framed Greyhound & Punchbowl reeks of history with carved mantles, moulded ceilings and a roaring fire very much befitting its reputed history as Stowheath Manor. Every intergalactic operation must come to a close though and we just have time to beam into the Swan for our last dose of lubricant before the Captain is summoned away by Mission Control.

- Cheers! -

As afternoons go, this was a rocket-powered outing blasting around some interesting corners of the Black Country. The pubs might not have hit the heights but there were some good bases covered and we now have that little bit more knowledge about the West Midlands universe…

Sunday, March 4

WME Flickr Focus: February 2012

Can it really be that we are one sixth of the way through 2012 already? March has arrived and it will soon be spring, but before the onset of bunnies, lambs and cuckoos we'd better take a look back over February's contribution to the West Midlands Exploration photostream...

It would be a little unfair to say there was only one show in town last month, but the fact is that February was undoubtedly dominated by WME Dudley - of the 106 photos I released back online, 69 of them represented the borough. Buses, canals and local selections all made their presence felt as I dug deeper into my Dudley archive and brought what I could to the surface. The vehicular contingent included returning shots of the 636S at Quinton, a 210 at Fatherless Barn, an X96 at Wollaston and some evening views from Stourbridge. The canal stuff concentrated on the Stourbridge Canal (including the Town Arm) plus some of the footbridges near Coseley Tunnel, whilst local landmarks getting an airing were the Jolly Crispin at Upper Gornal, the Hadcroft in Lye and the Netto Supermarket at Daisy Bank, not forgetting a walk across Sedgley Beacon.

If Dudley did the bulk of the labour there were still a few shifts put in elsewhere. Wolverhampton and Walsall both returned to the coalface although there doesn't seem to be much more I can extract where they're concerned. I really had to graft to tease out what I could this time around, hence WME Wolverhampton receives views of Devils Elbow Bridge (Wyrley & Essington Canal) and a sign at Wednesfield Park whilst WME Walsall gains shots of Palfrey Park, Bradford Place Bus Station and a couple of Daw End Canal bridges. There might be the occasional nugget still in there somewhere but essentially I've plundered this part of my archive as much as I can for the time being.

That just leaves us with the Brum and Sandwell shafts to comment on. WME Birmingham was January's star miner but was altogether quieter this time, although trains at Witton and Tyseley, a shot of Hawkesley Square and a clutch of buses (17 at Tile Cross, 60 at Cranes Park) were still a worthy effort. WME Sandwell hauled in Black Patch Park along with some Tipton treats (Jubilee Park and the Red Lion pub), and I think that's where the dig will be concentrating most over the next few weeks. All in all it's been another decent month down the pit and I look forward to seeing what jewels might be coughed up in March...

Friday, March 2

Leap Year Larks with the Chip Foundation

The 29th February is not a date that comes along very often so when it does you definitely have to make the most of it. Bridgnorth and Much Wenlock featured for my leap year outing back in 2008, but this time around I was joined by my Chip Foundation colleagues for some Harborne high jinks...

Why Harborne? The popular, lively Birmingham suburb is an area of contrasts where the busy High Street with its shopping and leisure opportunities is juxtaposed with pockets of rural character such as the old village centre down by St Peter's Church. The main attraction for us though was the local pubs, whereby Harborne is renowned as a hotbed for real ale. We were eager to test out such esteemed credentials whilst crossing off a few of the 106 pubs that feature in a recent Birmingham CAMRA leaflet, although to Stephen's relief we weren't planning to do all 106 in one go!

The outing almost got derailed before it began. A major fire had engulfed the Carver's Building Supplies premises in Wolverhampton and the railway station was closed as a safety precaution - it was a huge shock to see the historic firm go up in smoke so I sincerely hope the business can recover if at all possible. For us Chips this meant a quick change of plan, with Nick briefed to meet Stephen and myself in Bilston so as to catch the Metro into Birmingham. The journey to Snow Hill went smoothly enough as we eagerly anticipated the pubs ahead. From Colmore Row we catch the 24 Woodgate Valley bus and with a brief look at Five Ways and the Botannical Gardens we found ourselves setting down on Harborne High Street ready for our first drink.

- A handful of Blonde in the Junction -

THE JUNCTION: This pub was high on Nick's hitlist as he remembered it having a period Victorian interior when he last dropped in a few years ago. It certainly looks the part from the outside, grandly occupying the fork where Vivian Road splits off from the main High Street, but inside we were less convinced. The place has upmarket aspirations with a sophisticated makeover to match so had perhaps lost some of the heritage character Nick had fondly recalled. Nevertheless some Brentwood Blonde in a proper handled glass scored well in my eyes as Nick went into Michael Winner mode, dissecting the various menus with great gusto whilst delightedly deciphering any examples of 'restaurant speak'.

THE BELL: Continuing along Vivian Road, we pass the New Inn (a Marston's pub that wasn't yet open) and then cross into Old Church Avenue, following the path between the cricket pitches down to St Peter's churchyard at the centre of the old village. The mixture of little cottages and the medieval church tower (said to date from the 14th century) contributes to the sense of history, as does the village pub. The Bell is situated right next to the church and looks very quaint with hints of beams, cosy rooms and a glorious L-shaped bowling green. The bar is actually in the main corridor, making for quite a tight squeeze, and the ale choice is a little limited although I did enjoy my half of Bombardier. We also note that Stephen seems to be getting extra measures with his blackcurrant and lemonades today so we'll have to make sure he doesn't overdose on cordial. A lovely place to while away an hour or so.

- The Bell -

CHIPS: We're not called the Chip Foundation for nothing, so our next task is to get some food. The chip-shop radar kicks in to find the Harborne Fish Bar on the War Lane/Northfield Road roundabout, then we commandeer a bench overlooking part of the Church Farm Golf Course where we tuck in whilst keeping an eye on the pitching, driving and putting talents of the locals. Dessert is provided by a shot or two of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a closed pub on Tennal Lane that looks set to be redeveloped - another one bites the dust. We then wander up War Lane back into the centre of Harborne, noting the treadmill activity taking place in the front gantry of the rebuilt swimming baths leisure complex.

: Our next port of call is not a pub at all, but rather a member's club quietly tucked away on Albany Road. The building is unmarked except for a small brass plate on the front door, the understated entrance adding to the sense of intrigue. Nick flashes his CAMRA card and we are invited to sign the guest book before settling in amongst the very comfortable surroundings. Nick and I have opted for the Hobson's Bitter, which arrives in another traditional dimpled glass (with handle), whilst Mr B has a plain lemonade as the strains of Central News provide us with an update on the Carver's fire. I really rather like it here, it's very relaxed and a place where good conversation and excellent company takes precedence over eveything else.

- Getting a handle on things -

: The evening light is ebbing away fast as we branch away off the High Street to resume our pub patrol. The White Horse on York Street is one I'd had my eye on for some time, the sidestreet location just keeping it away from the rush of the traffic while still being very central to the night-time economy. After the luxury of the Harborne Club, this was an altogether plainer experience with exposed floorboards and a solid central wooden bar. The place was lively but we found a little corner in the small snug where the pub cat was entertaining some of the other customers. Picking our beer off the TV screen menu, the Dark Swan was calling out to us with its links to Ma Pardoe's back in Netherton proving too much to resist.

- The White Horse -

: Our trail is proceeding very nicely as we work our way around Metchley Lane, passing the Sportsman which was closed for refurbishment. The Green Man is part of the Ember Inns portfolio and bears all the usual corporate hallmarks that seem to come as standard throughout the chain - perfectly acceptable I suppose but they all blend into one homogenous lump in my memory. Elgood's Black Dog was our choice here, a Cambridgeshire mild that ensured Nick stayed firmly on the dark side. Supping up, we would have tried the Plough across the road (promoting itself as a fine gastro pub) but it was absolutely crammed, so instead we availed ourselves of a Hybrid electric bus on the 22 back into Birmingham City Centre.

: The evening had one last treat in store before home time, so from Colmore Row we pitched into the remarkable opulence of the Old Joint Stock. Formerly a bank, the building has some wonderful features including a domed ceiling and an imposing old counter - there's even a theatre in here somewhere. Being a Fuller's establishment, it's no surprise to see the likes of London Pride, Chiswick and Discovery being well represented at the bar, however it's the guest selection that catches our eye. Nick and I end up plumping for the Gone for a Burton (from the Tower Brewery) although the ale had a rather peculiar flavour that led to Nick inventing new words to describe it - 'astrurious' anybody? At the risk of astringently reinventing the dictionary we decided to get Metro-bound once more, whizzing back to Wolverhampton safe in the knowledge that Harborne had made an excellent impression on our exploration catalogue.

- Cheers! -