Monday, May 28

Hub Marketing: South Birmingham

Friday 25th May: Fire up the old D9, it’s time for another outing as the Board Chairman and I made tracks towards South Birmingham for a tour of Hawkesley, Kings Norton and Northfield…

Closet Conundrum: After a breakfast bacon roll courtesy of the Billiard Hall in West Bromwich, we board the Metro to Birmingham Snow Hill to resume our inspection of the city’s former street urinals. We had actually been in the vicinity of Livery Street before but had somehow failed to spot the telltale cast iron detailing peeking out from one of the Lionel Street arches – mark that down as an early success for Mr D9’s sleeves then, an occasion marked by a suitable photograph.

- Lionel Street Urinal -

Brum Walk: A well-timed 16 relocates us to Corporation Street so that we can enjoy a stroll around the City Centre, looking for evidence of subterranean pubs and general chunks of heritage. It was far too early for a drink but we did note the Post Office Vaults, the Craven Arms and the Old Fox as items for a future agenda. The theatrical quarter is also home to the National Trust Back-to-Back houses and a Wetherspoon’s called the Dragon, although Andy ensures me that the latter is entirely unconnected to his beloved Mrs D9. 

- The Bald Spot at Bordesley -

Bordesley Closet: The Bull Ring Markets were doing a roaring trade on what was quickly becoming a scorching morning, and having ferreted through to Digbeth we decided to make the most of things by continuing down to Bordesley. Here Mr D9 achieved one of his lifetime’s ambitions by investigating the old station toilets, the remains of which can still be found beneath the Coventry Road railway bridge – we would have explored the station itself but the gates were chained up, a reflection that only one train a week calls here (the 13:37 Saturday afternoon departure to Great Malvern). 

 - Applying the Horseradish -

Canals: So far we had concentrated on Central Birmingham so things were now well and truly about to head south. Returning through the Bull Ring, we make use of a passing 45 to have a blast down the Pershore Road, alighting just after Stirchley to join the towpath of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. Here Mr D9 takes extra care to lubricate himself with plenty of ‘horseradish’ (a.k.a suncream) although I strangely declined the opportunity. Passing alongside Lifford Lane recycling plant, we home in on Kings Norton Junction where we can transfer onto the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal for further exercise. The guillotine lock accompanying Bridge 1 is a curiosity that definitely merits a close look but beyond this the canal meandered gently for quite some distance and we weren't entirely sure how far we would end up having to walk. Just as I was beginning to fear another ‘Bromsgrove Station’ situation, we arrived at Brandwood Tunnel where we were able to smoothly track down the bus stop for the number 35. 

 - Guillotine Lock, Stratford Canal -

Hawkesley: It had been a number of years since I last properly ventured into Hawkesley so a return effort was definitely overdue. Having negotiated Pool Farm, the 35 drops us off on Edgewood Road where I can admire the estate’s new-build community centre (which also contains a small little library). The local shops at Hawkesley Square looked instantly familiar although the adjacent pub can’t seem to decide whether it’s called the Tunnel or the Shannon – either way we decided we wouldn’t try it out this time around. We then slogged it up to Shannon Road turning circle for a game of peekaboo with malevolent route 27. 

- Hawkesley Community Centre -

West Heath: it has to be said that we were now quite thirsty so thankfully our opening quencher of the day wasn’t too far away. Having eventually deigned to grace us with its presence, the 27 nips over to West Heath and the Man on the Moon where a refreshing shandy and some televised cricket made for an enjoyable visit. 

Kings Norton: after a brief look at the Woodpecker down Turves Green way, we turn-up-and-go with the 47 to see what we would make of Kings Norton. The park looked like an ideal spot to laze away in sticky temperatures, and I rather envied the young art group escaping from class to draw pictures of the Old Grammar School in St Nicholas’s churchyard. The shandy count grew with assistance from both the Bull’s Head and the Navigation – I never realised that the former had a beautiful tiled staircase lurking in its midst, what a discovery that turned out to be! 

 - Decorated staircase in the Bulls Head -

Northfield: Mr D9’s bald spot is holding up well under its layers of horseradish so we are safe to proceed into Northfield. Readers of this blog will know that I am an admirer of the Great Stone pub down by the church so it was great to pop in there for a quick half of Sunbeam (a crisp Banks’s ale that has citrussy notes of grapefruit). Whilst it was very tempting to take a cooling dip in Northfield Baths, we settled instead for refreshment from the Black Horse so as to see what Wetherspoon’s have done with the famous Bristol Road landmark, mock-Tudor beams and all. 

 - The Great Stone -

Merritts Brook & Bangham Pit: the Hub Marketing Board constitution dictates that members should always endeavour to include a varied selection of local hostelries, both good and bad, especially when cheap rounds might be in the offing. The Highlander seemed busy and was showing the test match so I was happy enough, whilst Mr D9’s choice of the Woodcock proved nowhere near as grim as it might have been – anywhere selling Barnsley Bitter and Oakwell Dark Mild has to be worth a look. The beer prices were very reasonable so the Chairman was spared the threatened punishment of a dunking in Bartley Green Reservoir. 

 - Discount in the Woodcock -

Homeward: The talking timetable that is Mr D9’s route knowledge means we are right on cue for catching the 448, whisking us through Weoley Castle, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital complex (looking utterly futuristic having moved on apace since I last saw it), Harborne and Bearwood, and with just a little pit stop in Londonderry we touch down full circle back in West Bromwich. Mr D9 awaits collection whilst I hotfoot it to Tettenhall to make up the numbers on The Bears quiz team, and another in-depth investigation is filed away for posterity.

Monday, May 7

Itching for a Beer Festival...

Saturday 5th May saw myself and 'Nickolenko' heading for Warwickshire to attend a beer festival with a bit of a difference. Whereas most such events are held in one centralised venue, such as a town hall or a sports ground, the one at Long Itchington is spread across the village's six pubs - an commendable example of co-operation that means each pub gets supported at a time when many nationally are under threat. Add in calls at Southam and Kenilworth on the way home and the day became something of a record-breaking outing...

Catching the 09:15 Chiltern train from Birmingham Moor Street, we make our way to Leamington Spa to catch the 64 bus from outside the Parish Church - the lady bus driver instantly recognised us as beer enthusiasts and encouraged us to have a drink on her behalf. The route covers Radford Semele, Ufton and Southam for views of rolling Warwickshire countryside before dropping us off in Long Itchington by the quaint village duckpond - I feel very much at home already.

- Long Itchington Pond -

We have a bit of time to spare before the pubs open so Nick guides us on a little walk around the village, enabling me to get a few quick photos before the main crowds arrive. The Harvester and the Green Man both catch my eye as traditional-looking pubs and then we cross the fields where Nick has a nervous confrontation with a sheep with horns! After a bit of a staring competition the sheep backs down and we are safe to join an old railway walk (utilising the former line from Leamington to Weedon via Daventry) - this in turn leads us to the towpath of the Grand Union Canal as we wander up towards Stockton Locks.

- A Dinosaur at the Blue Lias -

Our first pub of the day is technically located in Stockton and isn't part of the main festival group, but it was well worth visiting. The Blue Lias has an enviable canalside location and takes its name from the local jurassic limestone rocks, hence the presence of a dinosaur on the pub sign. A half of Old Hooky whets my appetite and then we return to Long Itchington to begin the festival proper. The Two Boats and the Cuttle Inn face each other from opposing banks of the Grand Union and each boasts a healthy selection of brews to choose from. At The Two Boats we raid the basement bar for some Union (Wood Farm Brewery), sitting inside where I wallop my head on the low door frame (twice!) and Nick makes the acquaintance of an excitable dog. Belvoir's Whippling Bitter is our tipple from the Cuttle, a light blonde brew. 

- The Cuttle Inn -

Making our way into the centre of the village, our next stops are the two pubs based either end of the duckpond. Indeed, the Duck on the Pond refers directly to said landmark and was a corporate Charles Wells roadhouse where we sampled some Birds' Natural Blonde, another golden ale. Decamping to the Buck and Bell, we switch to the darker stuff with some Acorn Darkness and O'Hanlon's Port Stout whilst watching a bit of World Championship Snooker - the pub has a certain refined atmosphere and we enjoyed chatting to a couple of other festival goers, exchanging tips and opinions.

- A drop of the dark stuff in the Buck & Bell -

Four festival pubs down means there are two to go as we switch our attentions to the afore-mentioned Harvester and Green Man. I really liked the Harvester as it had a certain quirkiness allied to a real sense of tradition; here we sampled some Third Switch (a London Porter from the Aylesbury Brewery) before bravely trying one of the buffalo burgers being sold on the pub's back yard, a curious but very tasty delicacy. All of the pubs were proving very popular by now so we literally had to squeeze our way into the Green Man to resurface with half an Ironbridge Stout. Judging by the amount of people around, the festival must have surely been a storming success and we just had time to witness a bit of Morris dancing before catching our return 64, the driver of the 15:48 departure admonishing us for leaving the festival so early.

We might have waved farewell to Long Itchington but there was still plenty more fun to be had as we launched into the second half of our Warwickshire itinerary. A few minutes up the road lies Southam, a place that had intrigued me when we rode through it earlier so we decided to stop off for a closer look. Using Nick's local knowledge, we called into the Market Tavern (part of the Warwickshire Brewery portfolio; a basic no frills type of place where we enjoyed some Castle Mild) and the Olde Mint (a historic pub with Civil War connections, reputedly being the place where King Charles I minted coins after the battle of Edge Hill; there were certainly a few beams and muskets about as we supped our Purity UBU). Southam as a whole really appealed to me actually, and I relished taking photos of other local landmarks including the Bowling Green, the Black Dog, the library and the old Manor House (now the town pharmacy).

 - Market Tavern, Southam -

More history awaited us as we finished the day in Kenilworth, a place Nick has a firm affection for having lived there in his younger days. The combination of the 64 and an X17 takes us in and out of Leamington, with the latter dropping us off in perfect position to visit the Wyandotte, a pub seemingly named after a Native American tribe (the pub sign depicts one such member complete with headdress). Some Burton Bitter goes down well here as we find a perch to watch a bit of the FA Cup Final, a nice solid corner local. Nick then introduces me to the Abbey Fields and St Nicholas' Church, where he apparently attempted some bell-ringing as a lad.

- The Virgins & Castle -

We emerge onto Kenilworth's old High Street, a fascinating place with some lovely townhouse architecture. The street is also home to a couple more pubs, starting with the Virgins & Castle where we seem to have stumbled upon another beer festival. This was a most unexpected bonus so we happily availed ourselves of some Bateman's Salem Porter straight from the stillages whilst trying to keep track of exactly what we'd drunk and where we'd been so far. Nipping across the road, we simply have to visit the Old Bakery, a wonderfully relaxed bar setting for half of Old Prickly (we just knew Stephen would make an appearance somewhere!)

- View from Kenilworth Castle -

It had now become a beautiful sunlit evening and arguably our greatest treat was still to come. Wandering up to the top end of the High Street, we can savour views from the mound overlooking Kenilworth Castle and the nearby Castle Green. Preparations were well underway for a re-enactment event to be held at the castle over the Bank Holiday, so we took the opportunity to have a closer peek inside whereby Nick clambered over the Elizabethan ruins with considerable gusto. The stonework of the keep looked formidable enough in the twenty-first century so we could only imagine the impact it would have had in medieval times, and I must say the restored Elizabethan Gardens looked absolutely immaculate. Fantastic!

We had one final calling point before bringing the trip to a close, so just across from the castle we found the Clarendon Arms awaiting us. This was a place with definite gastronomic aspirations so we felt a little out of place just calling in for a drink, even though our Warwickshire Bitter hit the spot nicely. With that we cross the Abbey Fields once more and complete the homeward journey with an X17 to Coventry followed by the train through to Wolverhampton. With a bit of tally totting we reckon we did fourteen halves across thirteen pubs, surely setting a new personal record in the process (drinking responsibly at all times of course), thus ensuring that our day in Long Itchington was definitely up to scratch!

Sunday, May 6

Bears on Tour: Hove

As per usual, the arrival of the new cricket season has coincided with the weather taking a definite turn for the worse. Despite the possibility of inclement conditions, Stephen and I demonstrated our support for Warwickshire County Cricket Club by following the Bears down to Hove for the County Championship match against Sussex…

Wednesday 25th April: the first day of our break sees us negotiating the long journey down to Brighton. This actually went remarkably smoothly, even with the challenge of a quick hop on the London Underground between Euston and Victoria. Southern Trains are then on hand for our link to Brighton, arriving in mid-afternoon so that I can admire the station roof constructed from glass and iron. We get our bearings and locate our guesthouse amongst the refined surroundings of Brunswick Town. The evening sees us explore backstreet Hove in search of chips, and then the monsoon arrives as rain lashes down into the night, meaning we get very wet when visiting the Neptune and the Lion & Lobster, two local pubs recommended by the Good Beer Guide.

- A lovely setting for cricket -

Thursday 26th April: it’s still a bit damp as we collect a few food supplies before making our way to the Probiz County Ground. Concern over the bowlers’ run-ups leads to a delayed start but play gets underway at mid-day with Warwickshire asked to bat. A sticky start has the Bears 13/2 – Ian Bell bowled for a duck – then Chopra and Trott put on an excellent partnership and we reach the close on 281 for 5. Stephen and I select Brighton as our evening destination this time, wandering around the highly eclectic North Laine and popping into the Lord Nelson for a relaxed pint.

- The Lord Nelson Inn, Trafalgar Street -

Friday 27th April: a day of stunning sunshine where the appeal of watching cricket at Hove (complete with deckchairs and seagulls) really shone through. I grab a few photos around The Lanes before breakfast, then we take a quick look around Hove Station (very pleasant) and almost get locked in by the ticket barrier. Over to the ground where it’s time to watch more Warwickshire batting with Jonathan Trott extending his innings to a mammoth 178. The Bears kept on grinding the runs well into the afternoon, eventually racking up 545 with Ambrose scoring 75 and Clarke 78 not out. Sussex lost a couple of wickets as the play ended on 57 for 2. 

- Pavilion in Sunshine -

Saturday 28th April: my morning jaunt took me to Aldrington where the railway station was a bleak spot enclosed within grim metal railings. There was already a hint of rain in the air, so with no prospect of play before lunch we headed along the seafront to stroll along Brighton Pier. We also called in at Kemp Town on the way back, sampling a quick half in the Hand in Hand, a quirkily small little boozer. Back in Hove, there is some cricket with Warwickshire taking three quick Sussex wickets but the rain soon sets in again and we scamper for the shelter of the pavilion, meeting up with Edward to keep an eye on the football scores as Wolves draw 4-4 with Swansea. Heavy evening rain means Stephen and I once again make use of the Neptune as our regular wet weather escape.

- Brighton Pier -

Sunday 29th April: our worst fears are confirmed when the rain continues well into the morning and the match is unsurprisingly abandoned as a draw. Thankfully things ease on the afternoon to at least allow some exploring, hence we found our way to Hanover, a hilly district of Brighton notable for rows of multicoloured terraces plus a healthy selection of backstreet boozers. We tried out the Charles Napier and the Constant Service (positioned at either end of the same street) - both were very lively and doing a good trade in homecooked roast dinners. We also tried out the Evening Star, a pub from the local Dark Star Brewery not far from Brighton Station, so the day wasn't wasted.

- In the Pavilion on Soggy Sunday -

Monday 30th April: Wouldn't you know it, it's time to head home. With a final little tour of Hove just to say farewell, we check out and lug our bags up to Brighton to begin the journey back. I think Brighton and Hove  as a whole made a very good first impression - it was much bigger than I'd expected and I liked the way that  the different areas (Hanover, North Laine, Kemp Town etc) really did have their own individual character. Hopefully we may return in future, perhaps with the Bears as reigning County Champions!

Thursday, May 3

WME Flickr Focus: April 2012

Due to Rail Rover and cricket commitments, the West Midlands Exploration photostream went onto the back burner for most of April. As a result nothing much happened, so there are only a few little bits and pieces to bring you up to date with…

What little action there was centred on WME Coventry and WME Solihull. Coventry built slightly on the progress from March by gaining additional pictures for Tile Hill Station (platform and footbridge views plus some station signs), Coventry Station (a couple of train photos) and Tile Hill locally (the library and shops on Jardine Crescent). That brings my Coventry collection to a running total of 51 images out of the 80 that were originally on the old Fotopic site.

As for WME Solihull, we saw the merest signs of life to follow up on the initial three photos that had resurfaced in January. The Grand Union Canal put in an appearance thanks to two views taken from Damson Lane, whilst further up the same road we come to the Old Colonial pub which has been put to work representing Damsonwood. Finally, a handful of route 37 shots have driven their way into Solihull by Bus, and that’s your lot this time around. May is also likely to be a sluggish month due to ongoing commitments but I am hopeful that a further slither of my archive should make its way back online.