Saturday, April 21

Rail Rover 2012

Ticket bought, camera charged, train timetables at the ready and plenty of destinations in mind - yes, Rail Rover Week has arrived once more. This annual extravaganza has become a cherished mainstay of my exploration calendar, so where would five frenetic days take me this year?

Monday 16th April: How to begin a week of adventures? Well, I reckon some of the best scenery anywhere on the Heart of England railway network has to be along the Derwent Valley line between Derby and Matlock. I pitch up at the delightful Cromford Station where the historic waiting room has been brought back to life as a holiday cottage. Arkwright's Mill and the Cromford Canal add to the attractions, with the canal forming the basis of my walk from Whatstandwell to Ambergate. I finish off by browsing Burton on Trent where the plethora of pubs bears testimony to the town's brewing heritage - I didn't have a drink but I certainly got plenty of photos!

- Cromford Station -

Tuesday 17th April: Tradition dictates that Shropshire should be my Tuesday destination on Rail Rover Week, a custom I wasn't about to break this time around. I therefore took the chance to revisit Wem and Whitchurch, two small market towns that epitomise the relaxed charm of the whole county - I love weaving amongst the compact streets wondering what I might find around the next corner. I had to try a pub or two today, hence sampling Joules' Slumbering Monk in the Castle Inn, Wem whilst Whitchurch contributed half of Nettle Thrasher in the Old Town Hall Vaults, a building that was the birthplace of the composer Edward German. I just have enough spare time to squeeze in a bit of medieval Shrewsbury on the way home - wonderful!

- Whitchurch, High Street & St. Alkmund's Church -

Wednesday 18th April: The middle of the week and I have one eye very much on the weather because the forecast is less than promising. Luckily I manage to dodge the worst downpours during my morning visit to Hinckley, adding Leicestershire to my range with some views of Castle Street and the Market Place. The afternoon starts off dry as I enjoy lunch in Riversley Park, Nuneaton but the onset of the showers sends me scampering for the shelter of the Crown, a real ale pub but a stone's throw from Nuneaton Station - very handy to know for future reference.

- Riversley Park, Nuneaton -

Thursday 19th April: How's about a bit of Worcestershire? After tracking down the Lea & Perrins factory - the home of Worcestershire Sauce - near Shrub Hill Station, I'm tempted down the Cotswold Line by the prospect of Evesham and Pershore. Evesham was enchanting, especially the timber-framed merchants house (now NatWest bank) in the Market Place, and the Abbey bell tower pealing out a magical midday rendition of 'Morning Has Broken'. Pershore is equally enjoyable even though it is a fair old walk from the train station to the town centre - I can recommend the Brandy Cask, a homebrew pub on Bridge Street where I enjoyed an excellent pint of Brandysnapper.

- Abbey Park, Evesham -

Friday 20th April: and finally, a Warwickshire flourish to round things off. Taking the Chiltern Railways link out of Birmingham Moor Street, I land at Leamington Spa for a walk along the Grand Union Canal towards Sydenham Drive. The Jug & Jester Wetherspoon's helps me escape from a hailstorm, and the afternoon takes me to Lapworth where the Grand Union crosses paths with the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. 

- Lapworth Station -

And in the blink of an eye, the five days is over. It has been an absolute whirlwind of a week, with Rail Rover once more living up to its star billing in providing excellent value as I zigzagged back and forth across the Heart of England. There are still so many places I have yet to visit, so many photographs I have yet to take, so I guess the planning will soon start in earnest ready for when I do it all over again in 2013.

Saturday, April 14

Green Beer?!

A quirk of the calendar meant that the beer festivals at Walsall and Coventry would both be held over the same weekend this year, not that such a clash could possibly deter 'Nickolenko' and myself from attending of course...

12th April: Thursday evening and it's opening night at Walsall, the festival having moved back to the Town Hall after being at the local college last year. I arrange to meet Nick at the Black Country Arms so that we can start on the dark beers right away (Night Ryder for me with something from Orkney for Nick), and then we proceed to the festival to see what's on offer there. Armed with programme, beer tokens and a 'Beertrice' glass, we set about our selections starting with a stout each - my Burton Old Cottage definitely hit the spot. The hall was certainly an elegant civic setting for the event, a large organ at one end of the room as the brews were lined up on the left hand side. A quiet room was positioned off another corridor and there was a canteen area serving reasonably priced food, the grey paes and bacon at £1 being a particularly enjoyable snack.

- Nick inspects his Sign of Spring -

There were over 100 ales and ciders in total so we were spoilt for choice, with Kinver's Black Ram and a Ramsgate Dogbolter also catching my eye amongst the stouts and porters. The Beer Geek Brewery has only recently been set up in Birmingham so we were very pleased to sample their Dark Side of the Geek which went down very well, and it was highly appropriate to try some 1912 from Titanic in the centenary week of the ship making its fateful voyage. However, the highlight of the evening has to be my long-awaited first taste of green beer - Roger mentioned such a thing a few years ago but the ale had somehow eluded me, until now. The beer in question is Sign of Spring from the Stonehenge Brewery, which is vividly green in colour but still has a very moreish pleasant taste, definitely worth waiting for. We decreed that our visit to the event had been a resounding success and celebrated this fact with a visit to the Falcon, Willenhall on the way home.

Friday 13th: another day, another beer festival. Coventry was our day two destination, renewing our acquaintance with the Coventry Rugby Club setting, the Butts Park Arena. Last year the place got very crowded on the evening so we were aiming for the lunch session this time, a wise decision that meant we could explore Coventry itself a little later in the afternoon. Approaching midday we join an already healthy queue outside the venue and gradually filter inside. Entry secured, we head for the beer racks and work our way through some of the more unusual flavourings that were available - liquourice, lemongrass and ginger, double espresso and orange all featured. I always like to try a local brew that I haven't come across before so Tunnel's Fletcher Portal (with a whiff of Christmas pudding) and Wood Farm's No. 8 both fit the bill nicely. For the second day running I struck lucky on the tombola, whereby my Walsall haul of a pen and an alarm clock was joined here by a pint glass and a London Pride mug, Nick managing to avail himself of a couple of goody bags.

- A helpful clue at Coventry -

We left the festival at 2pm to partake of some chips (minus the twilight on this occasion) and then we ventured forth to try some of the pubs in the immediate area. The Broomfield Tavern is a mere stone's throw away and is very homely overlooking a little park - some Hyde's Berry Good kept up our theme of taste experimentation. A little stroll further brings us to the Craven Run, a sequence of pubs I've dipped into a couple of times before. Three of them are in the 2012 Good Beer Guide so it was only right that we should visit them all, hence we had the Nursery Tavern (admiring the Formula One memorabilia over a half of Raspberry Fool), the Craven Arms (chatting to the barmaid about the horse racing at Aintree) and the Hearsall Inn (distinctly Irish with some Church End Goat's Milk). We then head into the City Centre to round things off with Whitefriars Olde Ale House, now firmly confirmed as a personal favourite - some Molly's Chocolate Stout was a real treat amongst the medieval curiosities.

- The Craven Arms -

Well then, what a couple of days it has been - excellent local pubs, some intriguing beer discoveries and two superb beer festivals rightfully taking centre stage. There is such a lot of planning and dedication that goes into putting on a successful festival and the CAMRA volunteers at both Walsall and Coventry deserve an immense amount of credit for making the events so friendly and enjoyable - thank you to every single one of them. Add in the thought of green beer and it couldn't have been better - Cheers!

Sunday, April 1

The Hub Marketing March

Friday 30th March 2012 was declared as the day when Mr D9 and I would unite to promote the hub cause. Inner-city Birmingham and genteel Lichfield were therefore nominated as the places we would visit in order to make the message known, and as usual we would be looking out for pubs and closets along the way...

Every army marches on its stomach apparently, so with this in mind we convened a breakfast meeting over a bacon bap at the Billiard Hall, West Bromwich. Mr D9 shocked me by arriving right on time, demonstrating his absolute commitment to all things hub - in fact he'd even brought some banners for us to display throughout the day.

- Fuelled by coffee, the D9 leaves West Bromwich -

The 75 bus was then required to get us down to Handsworth to begin the march, Andy taking the opportunity to explore the old closets by the former New Inns pub and then at Booth Street Metro stop. A quick link to Benson Road meant we could acknowledge the Soho Tavern, an absolute wreck of a pub, before tracking down the Railway further along Park Road.

Next on our route was a loop of Hockley, taking our campaign to the gates of Soho House (the historic home of Matthew Boulton). We added the Roebuck and the Beehive to our list of closed establishments, then Andy pointed out that I had a whole building dedicated just to me - apparently WME is very big in this corner of Birmingham. The dubious sights and smells beneath the Hockley Flyover left a lingering impression (to put it politely) so we thought it best to jump onto the 8 and relocate to the streets of Newtown.

- WME advertising in Soho! -

We alight by the Barton's Arms to undertake a sweep round to Aston, passing the Royal Mail depot to have a glance at Miller Street, a holding pen for buses that might soon be sent to the scrapheap. Dartmouth Circus takes us above the Aston Expressway but there weren't any hidden closets for Mr D9 around here. It does feel like a concrete jungle as we make our way to Aston Road to acquaint ourselves with the Albion pub and the former Aston Manor Post Office.

- Mr D9 makes a new pal in Aston -

Unsurprisingly, we were now in need of urgent refreshment. Luckily we happened across the Manor Tavern, a pub neither of us really knew about but it turned out to be a gold star find. The pub had a lived-in feel, well worn in places but lots of traditional touches plus Mr D9 had the bonus of meeting Benjy the pub dog who seemed keen on sniffing out the scent of Chihuahuas. Perhaps our new canine chum wanted to demonstrate his own support for the hubs project, but we reculantly prised ourselves away to continue up the Lichfield Road for a quick half in the Swan & Mitre (formerly the Swanpool Tavern).

- Lovely Salford Junction -

The beer meant we were fortified for the canal element of our quest, delving into the shadows below Spaghetti Junction to survey Salford Junction. I didn't think there could be a BCN location as grim as the 'Soviet Swimming Pool' at Oldbury but this was certainly a worthy contender - the meeting place of the Tame Valley, Birmingham & Fazeley and Birmingham & Warwick Junction canals would definitely qualify as one for the purist. We resurface at Salford Bridge, blink past the Armada and wait ages for any kind of bus service on Gravelly Hill - the hub quality here was distinctly underwhelming much to Mr D9's disgust.

- The Gravelly Hill Hub Protest -

The 902 eventually took pity on us so that we could gather at Erdington, wandering along the High Street and then past the station to picket the Red Lion. Here we had one of Birmingham's heritage pubs complete with a brooding clock tower and a grand terracotta frontage. It's fairly impressive inside too with large rooms and some period d├ęcor - a quick Guinness helps us plan our next course of action as we prepare to move the campaign into Staffordshire surroundings.

From Erdington Station we take the Cross City line to Lichfield to test out the hub reaction amongst the rarefied surroundings of the cathedral. Lichfield has plenty of tempting pubs and coaching inns, notably the Kings Head, the Horse & Jockey, the Swan and the George IV. My two favourites though were the George & Dragon (just down from the Cathedral with some silky smooth Brakspear Special) and the Duke of York on Greenhill where the Joules's Slumbering Monk was top class - I think Mr D9 was suitably impressed by the items dropping out of my sleeves as we marched about town.

- Beer and Banner in hand at Lichfield -

With a half or two safely swallowed, we returned to Lichfield City Station to begin our final mission for the day, which involved getting back to base with regular stopovers to hammer home the hub manifesto. Our calling points included Sutton Coldfield, New Oscott, Kingstanding and Lyndon with it seeming fitting that we should respect some of the less-salubrious hostelries that those areas might have to offer. The Mount and the Kingstanding both proved extremely memorable as examples of the basic local and we made good use of the 451's evening frequency, Mr D9 worryingly forgetting about the robustness of his own timetable.

- The Churchfield Tavern -

Every march reaches an end point sooner or later with ours being the Churchfield Tavern, handily located close to the Sandwell General Hospital should either of us need medical treatment following our exertions. We covered a lot of ground in the course of our duties but I think the hub ideal was marketed most effectively from canal to cathedral and from backstreet to bleach. Cheers!

WME Flickr Focus: March 2012

Here we go again with your latest monthly digest of the comings and goings on the West Midlands Exploration Flickr photostream...

March was a month when I finally got my teeth into the WME Sandwell archive, prising out 40 images for your delectation. The canals did well out of it, with the Old Main Line, New Main Line and the Dudley No. 2 all putting in a showing, and there was bus representation from the 402 at Tipton, the 646 at Princes End, the 417 at Blackheath and the 406 at West Bromwich. The local arrivals took me to Rowley Regis (with the Robert Peel and Britannia Pubs), Langley (the Bridge pub and the former Maltings building) and Bearwood (Lightwoods Park and the Abbey) - a tap away on the calculator reveals that 105 of my original 180 Sandwell shots are now back in place.

The other major mover in March was WME Coventry, rousing from some soporific slumbers to register 25 entries of its own. Buses were very much to the fore as I reinstated a handful of the 17s and 27s I've photographed outside Coventry Station, plus we had the 32 and 33 at Tanyard Farm and the 4 at Binley to contend with. The Coventry Canal made a big stride forward thanks to pictures of Bridges 1 and 8, whilst it was pleasing to see further building blocks for Radford (Jubilee Crescent shops and library), Canley (another library, this time with an Elmer mural) and Canley Station. The calculator in this instance tells me I've scored 34/80 where Coventry is concerned, so still a fair bit more to be done.

The only other collection to make an impression last month was WME Dudley, which was much quieter than it had been in January and February. Mind you, progress is still progress so please accept some buses (the 002, 006 and 007 at Halesowen spring to mind), a view of Coseley Station and a look at the Railway pub in Lye by way of keeping things ticking over, and that is another month done. Incidentally, March marked a full 12 months since my Fotopic gallery bit the dust, and in that year I've grappled back 1,090 photos to furnish my new Flickr home. I think this is a pretty good effort all things considered, and whilst there remain lots and lots of holes to fill, at least I now feel settled in as a Flickr member and I look forward to further adding to my photostream in future.