Friday, September 28

D9 Does Coventry...

The anti-hub marketing movement is gathering momentum in response to the increased threat of TBT, thick blue lines and strange hub arrangements. As a result the next meeting of the Anti-Hub Marketing Board has been scheduled for Friday 28th September 2012 with Coventry as the designated venue. Members are advised to consult the following agenda, and to note that penalties for lateness will now be applied under the revised constitution - these are charged at the rate of one half-pint or cob per fifteen minutes overdue...

The Coventry meeting is due to commence at 0900 hours sharp, with members advised to catch the 0830 London Euston train from Birmingham New Street (a vestibule area has been reserved to meet demand). Upon arrival at Coventry we shall proceed with a small tour of Spon End, comparing the contrasting architectural styles of Spon Street and seeing what our Chairman makes of the connecting subway.

- 7 at Brownshill Green -

Dodging persistent drizzle, members will then be invited to join the number 7 bus route for a ride to Brownshill Green, This will encompass the areas of Coundon and Allesley, with the Coundon Hotel, former Coundon signal box and the Rainbow Inn providing notable landmarks en route. The turning circle terminus on Browns Lane will offer the opportunity for photographs, weather-permitting, although views of the Jaguar plant may well be limited.

An energetic hike is then proposed to take members from Brownshill Green to Whitmore Park via Keresley. You may wish to note the White Lion pub, a 1930's pumping station and the Keresley Grange School as we make our way through Keresley Heath. A connection with the number 13 bus is included from Beake Avenue, whereby our Chairman has promised to perform a driving demonstration complete with a makeshift quiff in honour of former Coventry bus driver Ron West.

- Tribute quiff in action -

Whitmore Park will involve a key element of the morning's protest whereby a photo call will take place outside the Hub on Wheelwright Lane, provided of course that the Secretary's camera is not suffering from annoying zoom errors. We shall then reboard the 13 a short distance before locating the Coventry mobile library at Holy Family Church.

- It's the Hub! -

In a last-minute arrangement that members should find most agreeable, breakfast (bacon sandwiches) will be provided courtesy of the Craftsman pub on Beake Avenue. With a further ride on the 13 (passing the former Sandy Lane Garage Site), members will also be able to seek refreshment in the beamed surroundings of Whitefriars Olde Ale House where the Secretary's preference for tarmac-styled beers may once more be displayed (albeit Slaughterhouse's Starboard Porter is definitely on the enjoyable side of creosote).

Heading into the afternoon, we recommend a stop at the Biggin Hall on Binley Road (where the Chairman can drool over a spread prepared for a forthcoming wake), and then our attentions will turn to Willenhall. The 13 will drop us off on Remembrance Road so that members can explore local features including the Haggard Centre, the Co-op supermarket and the Primary Care centre - a toilet hunt has also been factored in so that allowances are made for the Chairman's miscreant bladder.

- 13 at Willenhall -

Having caught the 13 down to Willenhall, we intend to utilise the 21 route by way of leaving the estate. This will connect us to Whitley (where the Royal Oak pub will be disappointingly closed), where we can link with the 801 route for a ride around Cheylesmore. An optional visit to the New Haven can be arranged if the Chairman is feeling specifically "dive-hungry".

The 801 will then convey us forth to the Warwick University Campus, where we will encounter swathes of students excitedly boarding the bus in anticipation of their weekend endeavours. Being as the Chairman no longer passes for a student (due to a significant shortage of hair), we will have to alight at Earlsdon where another Royal Oak will also thwart our attempts to raise awareness of the anti-hub campaign. Nonetheless, the City Arms Wetherspoons will restore the pub quotient and ensure that we don't fall behind with our intended remit.

The Craven Run has been a staunch supporter of various rallies over the years, in recognition of which it is once again proposed for inclusion on this agenda. The Coombe Abbey, the Hearsall Inn and the Chestnut Tree will allow us to cover a lot of ground within a small geographical area, and what's more the Secretary will be able to claim the Discount of the Day award courtesy of neighbouring rounds costing £2.40. The Chairman might almost choke on a cheese cob once he realises the underhand tactics being employed.

- The Chairman has a cob on him -

With standing orders being suspended, the remaining item for discussion should be Stoke Heath, specifically the Rose & Woodbine on North Street. However, the Secretary has misplaced the relevant information and a search for some bearings has proved fruitless despite a thorough trawl of backstreet locations. We have therefore passed a motion to include Barras Green as a late amendment to the itinerary, thus permitting calls in the Hastings and the Old Red Horse by way of compensation.

- A final showing for the quiff in the Hastings -

This shall conclude a full day of campaigning across the length and breadth of Coventry, and members will then be able to retire to Coventry Station with the aid of the number 8 bus. A direct Virgin train to Sandwell & Dudley (and thence to Wolverhampton) is scheduled for 1922 hours, and the meeting will close at 2000 hours when the Chairman shall receive his customary summons. We believe this programme of activity will help to heighten the profile of the Anti-Hub cause and result in much enjoyment for all those involved. END.

Monday, September 24

A North Warwickshire Narrative

Saturday 22nd September 2012 and the old stagecoach is on standby as our two intrepid highwaymen, 'Nick Turpin' and yours truly, prepared to plunder their way around Atherstone and Nuneaton...

The starting point for this merry adventure is the city of Coventry, where 'Nick Turpin' arrives fresh off his X17 carriage in time for our 10:10am rendez-vous. In my time-honoured tradition I had already been doing some investigations of my own, notably seeking out the distinctively round Coventry Market and the rather less exciting Central Library.

10:38am and we saddle up on the 48 for a swashbuckling ride into Warwickshire's northern outposts. Bedworth is negotiated without incident, and at Nuneaton we change steeds so as not to end up in Leicester. It can get a little hairy up past the quarries to Camp Hill, but Hartshill looked peaceful enough with a leafy green and hints of an old castle.

- The lesser spotted Blue Boar -

We dismount at Mancetter where the parish church and some almshouses provide rich pickings for the camera, although the less said about the breezeblock post office the better. We might have been persuaded by the Plough but any such thoughts were scotched once we encountered a boar - not just any old boar you understand, but a blue one holding a beer festival. Thirsty travellers such as we do not turn down such wonders and so some Blue Boar Special (Church End Brewery) and Head Hunter (Sperrin) were requistioned in the fine 1930s surroundings.

Our next staging post would be the hatting town of Atherstone, although it would be the pub trade that would most occupy our attention. Firstly comes lunch in the historic market square, followed by refreshment in the Market Tavern, a pub now occupied by the Warwickshire Beer Company with Piston Broke being an ale commemorating the Atherstone Heritage Motor Show.

 - Atherstone Market Square -

Nick Turpin definitely approves of Atherstone and his appreciation for the town is heightened by a short stroll along the Coventry Canal, a tantalising titbit of towpath that included the uppermost five of the Atherstone Locks. The railway is also close at hand, albeit the old station house is now a veterinary surgery, whilst back on Long Street are a multitude of tempting watering holes from the Red Lion to the Old Swan. Being a well-researched highwayman, Nick Turpin had one particular alehouse in mind though, this being the New Dolphin where we do battle with a Rampant Gryphon (Wentworth Brewery) that was so rampant we couldn't even begin to contemplate the garlic bread mountain that is said to frequent these parts on Sundays!

- How to handle a Rampant Gryphon -

How do you follow up on boars and gryphons we pondered? Our answer was to clamber back onboard our trusty 48 and see what might be purloined in Hartshill. The Stag and Pheasant might have sufficed by the afore-mentioned green, but we got wind of another option lurking almost undetected in a sidestreet somewhere. It did not take long for us to uncover the Malt Shovel, a Banks's house where we availed ourselves of Fields of Gold.

 - The Malt Shovel, Hartshill -

With the 48 once more proving a doubty companion, we manoeuvre our way back to Nuneaton where there were further riches awaiting us. A Crown is always a prized target for pub-pickers like us, and the one on Bond Street came bearing gifts of Oatmeal Stout and Cottage Breast Bitter (at £2 a pint it really was a gift). We then made the acquaintance of a gentleman by the name of Felix Holt, one of the burgeoning Wetherspoon's dynasty, before roaming into the night to track down our remaining two taverns.

The Horseshoes on Heath End Road, Chilvers Coton has established itself as the brewery tap for the Tunnel Brewery and proves itself an excellent purveyor of memorable beer. Nick Turpin has been known to go continental occasionally and so he persuaded me to try the Belgian-styled Up the Kriek with its distinct flavour of cherries, what treasure indeed. Fortified by fruit, we venture forth to Attleborough where the Royal Oak handsomely delivers our closing half, ample reward for pounding the pavements of Nuneaton in the dark.

- Nick Turpin goes Up the Kriek -

After a heady day of plunder and pillage it was time for the noble highwaymen to head home, flagging down the Stagecoach for one final 48 fling. It turned out that the ride back to Coventry took us into bandit territory, with our steed coming under attack from the hostile locals and incurring a smashed window. Nonetheless, we gained safe passage into Coventry and thence to the railway station to round off a legendary day. Here's to North Warwickshire, Your Money or Your Life!

Thursday, September 20

A Cross City Catch-Up

The Cross City line was a vital exploration artery for me during my very early adventures around Birmingham, and I well remember the fascination of venturing out from University station for a ride in between lectures and seminars (although it has to be said that some studying was also done too). Fast forward to Friday 14th September 2012, and with ten years of digital photography now under my belt, the line would once again provide the foundations for an outing that mixed personal nostalgia with new discoveries...

ASTON: and how's this for a fitting place to start? As I mentioned the other day, Aston Station was one of my very first photo locations back in 2002, and here it is a decade later still offering me up some camera targets. It's handy being able to catch a train direct from Wolverhampton, albeit only as a long-winded consolation for the loss of the Walsall-Wolverhampton shuttle service, but at least it makes for a neat connection onto the Cross City, which then takes me north through Spaghetti Junction and on beyond Erdington and Sutton Coldfield.

BUTLERS LANE: I alight at Butlers Lane, actually one of my lesser-visited stations that I can only really recall touching base with once before (with Rog in 2005). Not a lot has changed apart from little hints of London Midland corporate signage, otherwise the ramps, shelters, ticket office and wooden fences are all pretty much as I remember. 

- Station Sign at Butlers Lane -

MERE GREEN: it isn't all train travel today so let the walking begin, starting with a wander into Mere Green. Butlers Lane (the road rather than the station) has the prospect of pub shots of both the Butlers Arms and the White Lion, then I take Hill Village Road down to the local centre. The pub/restaurant overlooking the main Lichfield Road roundabout is now called Romantica, and I was saddened to see a whole segment of shopping parade still all shuttered up whilst the site remains in redevelopment limbo.

- What next for these former shops? -

LITTLE SUTTON: into the local estates next as I follow the trail of the 905 bus route along Sherifoot Lane and Gibbons Road. The Pint Pot was a useful pub find on Tower Road, whilst on Grange Road I can photograph the post office opposite the Four Oaks Baptist Church - I'm sure Rog and I passed through here on the way to Roughley once. Little Sutton Road splits away and becomes quietly residential, leading down to Weeford Road where farms and fields suggest you are nearing the edge of the West Midlands county boundary.

WHITEHOUSE COMMON: here's a part of Sutton Coldfield that I don't remember happening across before. Landmarks include the White Horse (a Flaming Grill pub) and a Nisa store post office on the corner of Barnard Road. Venturing deeper into the estate brings me out by the Good Hope Hospital and I'm pleased to get a photo of the Boot Inn, a cottagey-looking pub on Rectory Road.

- The White Horse -

RECTORY PARK: a path down the side of the Boot leads me into Rectory Park, a large area of open sapce that feels quite rugged in places. Playing fields are dotted in amongst wilder common, and there seems to be a football ground in one corner judging by the perimeter rails and the home and away dugout shelters. Another track takes me down to a tree-lined avenue by a car park, the path flanked by what look like sculptural table-tennis tables. The park provides a welcome place to pause for some lunch, hoping that the gathering grey clouds aren't suddenly about to empty their contents on me.

- Rectory Park Football Ground -

FALCON LODGE: any rain thankfully holds off as I negotiate Reddicap Heath (complete with the Reddicap Tavern behind a yellow privet hedge) and make my way into Falcon Lodge. Here we have a self-contained estate that has served as a bus terminus for many years. The shops on Churchill Road make for a distinctive long parade of stores, whilst other features include the pointy Methodist Church and a youth centre. The 904 route is the current service to lay over here but its the 115 I catch today, enjoying a proper bash down through Walmley and along Penns Lane.

- Churchill Road -

WYLDE GREEN: my plan had been to stay on the 115 through to Aston Station but that swiftly got abandoned when it dawned on me that I was entering Wylde Green, an area that conjures up precious memories of my earliest bus adventures, outings completed long before I had any thoughts about digital cameras. Somehow the Yenton pub and the Birmingham Road shops had planted themselves in my brain for all these years and yet I'd never remotely got anywhere near taking pictures of them. This black hole in my archive simply had to be filled, with the afore-mentioned features accompanied by the discovery of the library and community hall building on Emscote Drive - seminal moments indeed!

- The Yenton -

CHESTER ROAD: all of this giddy excitement had to end somewhere, and Chester Road Station happened to be close at hand to tie a big bow around my Cross City contemplations. As stations go this isn't a personal favourite, even though the signs on Chester Road bridge make for a nice photo opportunity. There isn't a huge amount of character to admire with the modern platform structures being functional and largely inoffensive.

- Chester Road Bridge Sign -

The ride home after a hugely enjoyable outing is always a bittersweet experience, where the contentment and satisfaction of a job well done mixes with a tinge of sadness that another adventure has ended. Those self-same emotions are here again today as I stand on the platforms at Chester Road then Aston awaiting my final connections back. This was an outing where my exploration past and my exploration present came together as one, as if the spotty-faced student of ten years ago was right there with me, and it was comforting to think that the same excitement and enthusiasm that fuelled me then still drives me now. The Cross City line has been a staunch backdrop to so many adventures, and today's experiences suggest there are still plenty more places the line can open up for me in future...

Sunday, September 16

Cricket... and carrot!

Two busy weeks of exploration have seen Warwickshire hunting titles as the cricket season reaches its crescendo, not to mention the small matter of the Tamworth Beer Festival...

WORCESTER: The Bears are in the running for the County Championship crown as Nick, I and the two Mr Beardsmores descend upon New Road. Having bowled Worcestershire out for only 60 in their first innings, things are looking good as the second day of the match is spent accumulating runs and getting into a strong position. The St John's area of town offers a couple of nice local pubs (the Bell and the Berkeley Arms) although the biggest treat of the day is reserved for tea and cake from the Ladies Pavilion.

- Awaiting the presentation by the Graham Hick Pavilion -

Going into the third day of the match, Warwickshire needed to take a further eight Worcestershire wickets in order to secure the club's seventh Championship title. Stephen and I were determined to witness cricketing history being made, and were duly rewarded just after lunch when Chris Wright clean bowled Alan Richardson to complete a resounding victory. It has been a remarkable effort from the Bears squad over the last few months and they have undoubtedly proved themselves the best side in the country - congratulations!

- A Victory Drink in the Eagle Vaults -

TAMWORTH: The glow of that title glory was still with us as Nick and I made our way to the Assembly Rooms, Tamworth for the town's 19th beer festival on Friday 7th September. Despite us going early, the venue was already crammed full although everyone was having a great time sampling some interesting and unusual ales. The Church End and Tunnel Breweries had particularly indulged in some flavour experimentation with Coffee & Walnut Cake and Cherry on the menu, although nothing quite prepared me for the Rusty Mo-ta carrot beer which came with a free specimen of the said root vegetable - I think the carrot tasted nicer than the actual drink. The theme for the festival was the Olympigs (a cross between the Olympics and Tamworth pigs) so we had to try the Olympig Snout, my favourite out of the tipples tasted. Whilst in the area, we also tried out some of the local pubs with the Globe and the Robert Peel particularly standing out.

- Yes, that really is a carrot in my beer -

NOTTINGHAM: the final round of County Championship fixtures sees the Bears facing Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, a ground that is my favourite of the larger Test arenas I've visited thus far. The match was evenly poised after the first day (Notts 155 all out, Warks 139/6) but the second day was largely notable for persistent showers, taking cover in the Trent Bridge Inn Wetherspoons and Nick's flaskful of fennel tea. I did enjoy a lunchtime walk around Nottingham with my sister, sampling lunch in the Bell Inn, a historic pub that claims to be Nottingham's oldest. We had better luck with the weather on Thursday, but spent the whole day watching Notts racking up the runs as the game and the season eventually ended in a solid draw.

- The view from Trent Bridge -

The cricketing season may now be over, but it has certainly been memorable with visits to Derby, Hove and Taunton leading up to that title-clinching moment in Worcester - absolutely brilliant. I look forward to following the Bears again next year as they try to defend their crown, and in the meantime I'm sure there will be plenty to keep me occupied over the winter months...

Monday, September 10

Ten Years On...

Little did I know it at the time, but Tuesday 10th September 2002 would change my life, for that was the day when I took my first ever digital photograph. Just out of curiosity, I borrowed my Dad’s camera and took it to university with me to try out a few shots of the railway station. Photos of Bilston, Sutton Coldfield, Walsall and Wolverhampton followed over the next couple of days, and already I was hooked...

- University Station: The day it all began -

Those fledgling early photos look really primitive now. I hadn’t got any kind of eye for composition (some people would say I still haven’t), and the camera had 1.8 megapixels, a world away from the clarity and detail that today’s models offer. Nonetheless, something about recording a moment in time really appealed to me, capturing a memory of a location, an adventure – and it’s that same thrill that still entices me out and about a decade later.

I like the challenge of exploring places, getting into the local detail of knowing where things are, what they look like and how to get there. My initial focus on buses and trains has shifted over the years, and now its amenities that I probably focus on more than anything else – libraries, parks, and of course pubs. I became aware quite quickly that some of my photos, however imperfect they might be, could just have some kind of local significance if a scene changed. I remember taking a photo of the Richmond pub in Stechford in 2003 only to find when I returned that the site was now a health centre; there have been countless other examples of landmarks being consigned to history.

Looking back over ten years of photography, it has been fascinating to see how places have changed and developed, how fortunes have fluctuated. I didn’t know the West Midlands that well when those first photos were taken, and there are plenty of corners now that are still managing to escape my attention. Every outing has been a voyage of discovery in one way or another, and I feel that I have been enriched by all of the places and experiences that have come my way. From 2005 the photographs became the foundation of my online galleries, firstly at Fotopic and latterly on Flickr, whilst since 2006 my various escapades have been regaled here on the WME Blogspot.

What has changed in those ten years? Many things have, and many haven’t. Some places are barely recognisable from what they were – think of Rover at Longbridge for example. The transport network doesn’t seem any better off, with the Midland Metro still limited to one solitary line (albeit with a Birmingham City Centre extension to come) whilst the railway system has largely stood still where opportunities for local expansion remain on the drawing board. Bus stations have been rebuilt from rows of simple shelters into state-of-the-art showpieces, albeit becoming photographic no-go zones in the process. The bus routes themselves seem to have been curtailed and reviewed in an ongoing fashion, whilst the current fleet somehow doesn’t seem as characterful compared to my early trips on Metrobuses, Lynxes and breadvans. That’s nostalgia for you I guess, the rosy-coloured tint of the past.

The world can seem a more hostile place to the amateur photographer these days. I’ve had my fair share of paranoid drivers, suspicious landlords and officious jobsworths to contend with, but it should also be said these have been more than outweighed by some wonderful reactions where local people have stopped to chat, tell me a bit of history and even suggest other things I might like to get pictures of. Sometimes my favourite discoveries turn out to be happy little accidents that I find out about in precisely this manner. I will pause now to thank all of the people who have been involved in ten years worth of adventures, especially Stuart, Dad, Roger, Woody, D9 Andy, Stephen and Nick who have all had to show admirable patience whilst I chase after my next picture fix, or show restraint when the lens has been focused on them!

Ten years and several thousand photos have flown by so quickly, but I know I definitely wouldn't be without my camera now. Here's to the next ten!

Saturday, September 1

Double Duds with Mr D9

Friday 31st August took me from Duddeston to Dudley, aided and abetted by Mr D9 Esq and a selection of canals, hills (far too many hills!) and public houses...

- Birmingham & Fazeley Canal: the day begins in style with a walk from 
Snow Hill to Aston Junction, where I'm delighted to find Aston Top Lock 
complete with old humpback bridge -

- Digbeth Branch: it's then on towards Digbeth, tackling Ashted Tunnel 
(crusty cobwebs) and more locks, leading down through Eastside 
where the Moby Dick remains marooned amongst cleared land -

- Duddeston: a good old bit of ferreting takes me down Erskine Street 
where the Midland Tavern is a sorry sight, a burnt-out shell of a 
Banks's boozer with most of its roof missing -

- Spon Lane Branch: Switching to Sandwell & Dudley, I join the 
Spon Lane Branch at Bromford. Three locks here keep me occupied, 
the uppermost of which is buried in the bowels of the M5 motorway -

- Oakham: Mr D9 joins the action intent on half-killing himself with some
 hill based hiking. He almost needed oxygen to cope with Bury Hill Park
and then the Oakham estate seems to be located on a mountain range. 
Here the balding one negotiates the undulating terrain of a reclaimed quarry site -

- Razor Phone: whether the Wheatsheaf and Dolls House had sent him 
doolally or not is debatable, but Andy was inspired by the Lion Farm youths
to try shaving off his sideburns with his mobile phone -

- Rowley: the Wolves wallet stays well hidden in the Bull's Head 
(previously the Chaplin) when we accidentally find ourselves amongst 
a throng of Albion fans attending a wake; I did still get the round mind! 
The Cock Inn provides an escape from a bar full of Baggies -

- Closet Capers: Into Dudley where Mr D9 feels at home by the gents closet, 
albeit he is having to cope with a severe belt malfunction. The Shakespeare pub 
was a real gem here, complete with Theakston's Tarmac, pigeon fanciers 
and an outside loo for a real Black Country experience -

- A few halves around Dudley Town complete proceedings, with the
Little Barrel proving narrow and the Griffin having a bizarre mix of Mr Blobby, 
Wombles and heavy metal on the jukebox, nothing to do with us I might add. 
We round it all off in the Old Priory, Cheers ! -

WME Flickr Focus: August 2012

Extra, extra, read all about it! The printing presses have been slaving away over the last month and are now churning out the most recent headlines from the West Midlands Exploration photostream...

Strangely enough, there was only one story in town for August, but WME Staffordshire is well deserving of its front page billing. Editorial endeavours ensured that 138 Staffordshire photos were returned to the fold, taking care of a sizeable chunk of archive in the process. Making the newsworthy grade were a selection of canal and local photos that will hopefully satisfy a discerning readership.

From the canal contingent, the Staffordshire & Worcestershire proved itself a weighty copyfiller with the presence of numerous locks and bridges from Great Haywood to Kinver all accounted for. The Trent & Mersey pages dip into the Potteries with reporting from Stoke whilst the Wyrley Branch and Stourbridge Canal also confirmed their inclusion, Bells Mill and Baker Bridges being particularly well covered.

The features editor was also kept busy with plenty of local happenings, always remaining true of course to WME's traditional South Staffordshire bias. Items rolled in from the larger centres such as Stafford, Rugeley and Hednesford but it was equally heartening to see village coverage from the likes of Bishops Wood, Essington, Gnosall and Kinver. Cannock Chase added a modicum of scenery whilst the usual pub and library topics were much in evidence - take for example the Wrottesley Arms (Perton), the Woodman (Bilbrook) and the former libraries at Cheslyn Hay and Great Wyrley. Stop Press: Stoke made a late bid for inclusion with pubs and a library, plus a post office and a market entrance.

It's not often that there is so much news from one particular section of the WME family (or that much news full stop come to think of it), so August will go down as a bumper copy whilst we await to see what arrivals will be providing the stories in September...