Friday, October 31

The Birmingham Beer Festival

With Hallowe'en but a day away, some early Hockley haunting was in the offing when Nick and I paid a Thursday visit to the relocated Birmingham Beer Festival...

- Midland Metro at the Jewellery Quarter -
An 11 o'clock rendezvous is scheduled at Jewellery Quarter station, Nick appearing fresh off his tram although it wasn't one of the new ones that I'd been taking photos of just before his arrival. We then had to find our way to the New Bingley Hall, the new home of Birmingham Beer Festival after it had outgrown its previous Second City Suite venue in Highgate. A short stroll down by Hockley Flyover had us on the right track for a building that occupies the Whitmore Street site of the former Hockley Bus Garage.

- The Good, The Bad & The Dudley -
The hall is certainly spacious, easily large enough to house the 300+ ales and 100+ ciders/perries on hand to tempt discerning drinkers. With so many to choose from it can be tricky deciding where to start, but Nick felt an English Breakfast sounded appropriate while I sampled a Holden's movie-themed special with a rather cheeky local name.

- Pumpkin Persuasion with Double Scotch -
The ales were arranged across five bars each named after local personalities such as Jasper Carrott, Tony Hancock and Jeff Lynne. Among our next selections were Kinver's Skiffle King, Little Valley's Organic Stoodley Stout, Redemption Friendship Porter and a Thriller in Vanilla, while pride of place also went to Pickles of Harborne with their irresistible scotch eggs and pork pies, very tasty.

- Tombola Trinket -
Perhaps influenced by the presence of an Ozzy Osbourne lookalike, we decided to stay firmly on the dark side with a further array of porters and stouts. Enville's Ginger Gothic made an appearance alongside Princess Caraboo and Papa Jangles, although Brass Castle's Hazelnut Mild also made a good impression. We made the acquaintance of two chaps (Kevin and Andrew) from down Aylesbury way and enjoyed chatting about the festivals and ales of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, interesting stuff. With tokens spent there was just time to have a go on the tombola, although my prize cupcake purse will surely rank alongside the infamous Bromsgrove pot in our raffle oddities hall of fame.

- Postal Posing at the Lord Clifden -
The festival had been most enjoyable, and now we could savour some of our favourite Hockley hostelries. First stop is the Lord Clifden, a self-styled Urban Art Bar (UAB) on Great Hampton Street. The pop art influence certainly shows through with a paint-splattered postbox and Marilyn Monroe motif, although our attention is soon focused on the table football when two brothers challenge us to a match and promptly send us spinning to a dignified defeat. Moving swiftly on, the Drop Forge is a converted industrial unit where Woods' Beauty beer accompanies scatter cushions, spiral staircases and an upmarket menu Nick relished dissecting.

- Handsome Devil in the Red Lion -
The Rose Villa Tavern overlooking the cast iron Chamberlain Clock is always worth a visit just to admire the architecture, especially the spectacular green glaze tilework. Some Lord Marples here is just the ticket before we finish off in the Red Lion (sister art bar to the Lord Clifden) where comedy cobwebs build up the Hallowe'en atmosphere. Entering the spirit of the season, I was only too happy to model some Thwaites' Handsome Devil (dashingly delicious or so the pumpclip says) and then it was back to Jewellery Quarter station for our respective rides home. 

Tuesday, October 28

A Sutton Park Story

Last Wednesday's Chip Foundation outing around Streetly and Sutton Coldfield had left me with some unfinished business where Sutton Park was concerned. Not to worry, the park and surrounding areas would make the ideal location for my next Monday Mission instead...

- Streetly Library -
So it was that on Monday 27th October I found myself aboard the 935 bus bearing down upon Streetly once more. The area has a long pedigree in my personal exploration history having featured during journeys on the 377 route back before I even had a digital camera. It's nice to see Blackwood Road again with the familiar shops, schools and branch library although I don't previously remember spotting the Streetly Evangelical Church tucked away on Egerton Road.

- Streetly Childrens Centre -
Even when revisiting areas you think you know well there's always scope for a surprise or two, and on Foley Road East I happen across a couple more local features that had thus far escaped my attention. Streetly Community Centre, Childrens Centre and Youth Club are neatly packaged on one site just across from All Saints Parish Church.

- Streetly Lodge -
Emerging onto Thornhill Road, I've got my bearings correct for Streetly Gate this week although the Little Aston signs indicate I'm flirting once more with Staffordshire. There's a Co-op, a kitchen showroom and the Streetly Village Fish Bar if you continue north-east along the B4138 but my focus is firmly on Streetly Lodge guarding an entrance into the National Nature Reserve.

- Jamboree Scout Stone -
I remember visiting Sutton Park during day trips as a kid but somehow or other my explorations since have always skirted around the edges without properly venturing within. The site is said to cover over 2,000 acres comprising pools, open heath, woodland and marsh. I'm tempted to venture cross country into the wilderness but decide to stick with the main driveway (my evening shift at work means I don't want to risk getting too lost or muddy). I thus pass various gravel car parks before reaching the jamboree stone, commemorating the 9th World Scout Jamboree held here in 1957.

- Longmoor Pool -
At Hollyhurst I switch paths and bear right in the vague direction of Banners Gate. Being half term, it's encouraging to see so many kids out enjoying the park whether cycling, walking dogs or even attempting a round on the private golf course. Longmoor Pool is a scene of relative tranquility where the golden shades of autumn can also be enjoyed.

- Banners Gate -
Just a little further and I reach Banners Gate, handily located to provide park access from New Oscott and Kingstanding. Another lodge house stands sentry here while the children's play area is proving popular over by Monmouth Drive. You also hear the regular rumble of cars and such like trundling over the cattle grids, hopefully keeping to the park's internal 5 miles-per-hour speed limit.

- A Bit of Bird Life -
Rather than retrace my steps back through the park, I take the road route around to Boldmere with Monmouth Drive flanking the park's southern perimeter. I collect a spot of lunch from Boldmere Shops before strolling along Stonehouse Road and indulging in some token ornithology, although my knowledge on the bird species is shamefully limited to saying it was black and had feathers!

- Boldmere Gate -
Stonehouse Road leads up to Boldmere Gate as overlooked by both Boldmere Lodge and a Miller & Carter steakhouse restaurant. This seems like a suitable spot to have my lunch, so I find a quiet bench and enjoy the views looking over towards Powell's Pool.

- Powell's Pool -
This pool is the largest of the seven within the park and plays host to watersports, angling and boating although activities today seem to be restricted by the stiff breeze. Time is now ebbing away so a final stretch takes me via Somerville Road to the Horse & Jockey stop so that I can catch the bus back to Walsall where work beckons. I've got to grips with the western side of Sutton Park now but that still leaves the eastern half requiring investigation, with Town Gate, Bracebridge Pools and some former railway locations all awaiting discovery on a future Monday Mission...

Saturday, October 25

Chip Foundation Chronicles: Streetly

Wednesday 22nd October sees the Chip Foundation in the environs of Streetly and Sutton Coldfield, delving into their autumn almanac for scatter cushions, singing fish and purple puddles...

- A Canine Cushion -
The afternoon begins with a Sutton Road stroll, calling into the Longhorn just up past the canal bridge. The pub is one of Walsall's entries in the 2015 Good Beer Guide, with Wold Top's gluten-free Against The Grain being among the tempting ales available. A cosy armchair with cushion companion sets a theme that will crop up at another Ember Inn establishment later on.

- The Longhorn -
The Longhorn proved a relaxing start to our adventure, and there is time for a pub photo while we await the 935 bus for our Streetly connection. It's only a short ride to the Foley Arms, passing the Three Crowns (a disused pub now hosting a car wash) and negotiating Barr Beacon crossroads.

- The Streetly Spillage -
I first visited the Foley Arms some years ago, calling in with Roger after an extended hike through the Hundred Acre estate. The pub proved equally memorable on this occasion, mainly due to an incident that will go down in history as the 'Streetly Spillage' when Mr Beardsmore decided to decorate our table and much of the surrounding floor with a tidal wave of lemonade and blackcurrant. No wonder he looked a little sheepish afterwards, although rumour has it that Nickolenko was also tempted to discard his drink so distraught was he at the absence of real ale.

- Petit Pois Pose -
Some mopping up later, we proceed via Wood Lane to the Hardwick Arms for another Ember Inns encounter. Having made the collective acquaintance of Reverend James and Timothy Taylor's Landlord, there are more cushions to cuddle while Stephen accidentally invents a new review website 'Tripe Advisor', which presumably offers up all manner of offal-related observations!

- Nickolenko meets Billy Bass -
Streetly tradition dictates that I inflict long walks on my outing accomplices, a custom maintained with an interminable slog up to Four Oaks once the WME satnav had suffered a rare malfunction. We did get to see the northern edges of Sutton Park (the fence at least), and my punishment became a rather expensive round in the Four Oaks pub (perhaps the doggy water would have been cheaper). We get back on track by catching the 6 to Sutton Coldfield, briefly meeting cricket chum Ken on board, before things take a surreal turn at the chip shop when a waggling fish serenades us to the tune of 'Don't Worry Be Happy'.

- A Three Tuns Tipple -
Our Sutton soiree is completed by a brace of boozers and a twilight glimpse of the landmark Town Hall. The Station pub has a Holden's house brew called Station Master that hits the spot nicely, while the Three Tuns is an old coaching inn on High Street where the Hallowe'en horror theme of Open Casket provides a coffin-clasping closing half setting us up nicely for the Cross City train ride home.

Tuesday, October 7

Sheepwash Shenanigans

Friday 3rd October 2014 and the Hub Marketing Board are in session once more, this time burrowing deep into the Black Country with a half-day gander around Greets Green and Glebefields...

- Ryders Green Locks -
Our rendezvous was originally scheduled for 1130 hours but hub matters of a pressing nature meant that the Chairman was otherwise detained until 1200. Left to his own devices, the Secretary changed course at Great Bridge and launched into a canal contingency by striding up Ryders Green Locks.

- Izons Turnover Bridge -
At Ryders Green Junction, our erstwhile Secretary transferred from the Walsall Canal onto the Wednesbury Old Canal, continuing the short distance to Pudding Green. It's hardly the most scenic stretch of inland waterway it has to be said, but Izons Turnover Bridge had a certain overgrown appeal among the business units and workshops.

- Oak House -
Leaving the towpath at Albion Road, the Secretary's next target is the Oak House Museum towards West Bromwich town centre. This attractive half-timbered residence is said to date from around 1630 and includes fine examples of wood panelling and 17th century furniture. A new visitor centre recently opened in converted barns as part of a wider restoration programme.

- New tram at Dartmouth Street -
The Chairman clocks in with news of a further 15 minute delay so there's time to mark the passing of some Bromford Lane pubs - the White Swan is now the Kebub restaurant while the Royal Exhcange has closed with its signage removed. At Dartmouth Street Mr WME gets his first glimpse of the new Midland Metro fleet, then the proper hub marketing can get underway once Mr D9 is safely in attendance.

- 'Spotting' an old pub -
First stop is the Yew Tree for some Proper Job and a chorus of yapping chihuahuas. The hub action then moves swiftly towards Greets Green, unleashing some darts in the Jolly Sailor and paying homage to the Dunkirk Brewery site on Whitehall Road where Darby's were once based, albeit now long gone. A former pub on Cape Street keeps the local heritage coming as well as tempting the bald spot out of hiding.

- Just Horsing Around -
Mr D9's shiny bonce could explain why he was getting plenty of attention from the local equine population, although the scent of takeaway chips might also have helped. Lunch is eaten in the well-presented environs of Farley Park, the landmark lodge standing proud with its reading room and clock turret. Sadly the nearby Royal Oak is a sorry shell with its first floor missing, then there's personal nostalgia for the Chairman as he retraces childhood memories of Horton Street.

- High Visibility Darts -
Emerging onto Sheepwash Lane, the next port of call is the Tame Bridge pub - you can hardly miss it given the bright pink exterior. Some Batham's Best Bitter is just what the Secretary needs to mount his darting comeback, aided and abetted by a hi-vis jacket while the Chairman battled a miscreant mobile phone.

- Tunnel Temptation -
The Sheepwash Nature Reserve was the afternoon's primary ferreting mission, Mr D9 being especially keen to track down any tunnels beneath the railway embankment. We found one such example, although the stagnant water within meant we weren't tempted to walk through. Elsewhere there are glimpses of the Chairman's old primary school plus various Sheepwash ponds (some heavily crusted in green goo), not to mention a bout of River Tame leapfrog where members narrowly avoided a soaking!

- A Horseley Half -
Our in-depth Sheepwash investigations eventually led us to Johns Lane where members could continue through onto Dudley Port. Once again D9's bald spot was attracting ungulate attention but the steed on this occasion was of a vicious persuasion, meaning we quickly retreated to the Horseley Tavern for a dubious half of Mild.

- Driving Duty on the 43 -
Our early evening endeavours became a case of tickling Tipton - there are quite a few pubs in the vicinity of Horseley Road including the Old Courthouse (which seemed to be closed), the Shrubbery and the Kings Arms. However, the one we were most keen to sample was the Rising Sun, a Black Country Ales establishment where we gatecrashed a wake and savoured some Chase Buster. The 43 then gets some supplementary steering courtesy of the Chairman along St Mark's Road.

- Sportsman at Dusk -
Things get briefly Botanical as we call at the Sportsman to conclude our darts exploits - this wedge-shaped Glebefields estate pub proved worth a look between bus rides, although the Secretary's 7-5 victory means he'll automatically remember it favourably. Bradley provides the final curtain call for this trip, watching Emmerdale in the White Hart before a Loxdale Metro farewell. Where will our hub marketing activities take us next?

Thursday, October 2

Rambling Around Rushall

September's final slice of exploration action is a Walsall walkabout featuring canals, nature reserves and a stroll around the arboretum...

- Rushall Locks -
Monday 29th September 2014 sees me setting out from The Delves before joining the Rushall Canal at Birmingham Road Bridge just up from the Bell Inn. This stretch of the towpath makes for a peaceful walk, passing the back gardens of Park Hall and Gillity.

- Moat Bridge -
Beyond the Longhorn pub and Sutton Road, the Rushall Canal feels a little more rural on its final approaches to Longwood Junction. Moat Bridge is where the canal skirts the eastern edges of Walsall Arboreturm, and there are a couple more locks on the climb to meet the Daw End Branch.

- Hayhead Wood -
I momentarily leave the waterways to investigate a local nature reserve off Longwood Lane. Hayhead Wood was historically the site of lime mining but nowadays the area has become a haven for wildlife with a variety of woodland, grassland and wetland habitats.

- Riddian Bridge -
Picking back up on the towpath trail, I've now joined the Daw End Branch as it quietly bisects its way between Rushall and Aldridge. Fields and waterfowl provide the scenery and company with Riddian Bridge feeling like it could be in the middle of nowhere. 

- Rushall Olympic -
Before too long the canalside combination of the Manor Arms and the Boathouse are a good indication that I've reached Rushall. At Daw End Bridge I can take another little detour, finding the Dales Lane home ground of Rushall Olympic Football Club - the Pics currently play in the Northern Premier Division of the Evo-Stik League.

- The Royal Oak -
Just over the road from the football ground, I was sad to see that the Royal Oak had closed down. I remember having a pint here with Roger once, watching some F1 qualifying and pestering Pedro the pub parrot.

- Winterley Bridge -
Doubling back to the Daw End Branch once more, Winterley Bridge is accompanied by the sound of car horns tooting as drivers approach the narrow crossing above. Brawn's Bridge seems to serve a private cottage while the bridge's nameplate commemorates the engineer John Brawn, one of those responsible for the canal's construction during the late 1790's and early 1800's.

- The Farmers Boy -
Just beyond Brawn's Bridge I bid the Daw End Branch goodbye by venturing into the local estates off Barns Lane. The street names appear to have had royal inspiration, Edinburgh Drive and Queens Road for example. There are a clutch of local shops to be found on Kings Road (including Rushall Hardware and Barns Lane Post Office) while the Farmers Boy pub also attracts a few photographs.

- Shelfield United -
Linking up with the Lichfield Road for a while, Rushall Library and the local Labour Club are familiar features from previous explorations - indeed, I first took digital photos here back in 2002 although some landmarks like the Miners Arms have since disappeared. A pocket of Rushall I'd never investigated before is that round by the Elmwood School, where Manor Farm Community Association and the Shelfield United football ground caught my photographic eye off King George Crescent.

- Park Lime Pits -
It was now time for my second nature reserve of the day as I wander over to Park Lime Pits, a former limestone quarry that now features mature woodland and picturesque pools. Maps and markers indicate a nature trail through the woods with views of the surrounding farmland.

- Rushall Parish Church -
Out on the horizon I catch the occasional glimpse of a spire and decide that this merits closer inspection. A public footpath thus leads me around the edges of Rushall Hall to reveal the Parish Church as dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. The churchyard feels secluded and atmospheric while the church building is very commanding and dates from the mid-nineteenth century.

- Hatherton Lake -
A quick shuffle via Leigh Road and Mellish Road brings me to the Gallery Garden entrance into Walsall Arboretum. As a kid I remember dark evenings around this time of year when we'd visit, excitedly marvelling at the famous Illuminations - sadly this spectacle no longer operates, the last such event having been held in 2008. There is still much to admire as restoration work continues apace, part of the park being cordoned off while a new visitor centre is built. Hatherton Lake is popular with geese while the bandstand poses proudly near the water's edge. I pass pavilion and play area, rose garden and trim trail to eventually emerge between cricket pitches onto Sutton Road to complete this particular outing. A proper autumn appetiser!

Wednesday, October 1

WME Flickr Focus: September 2014

A little bit of everything, that's what September had in store during an unusually productive month of photostream updates. Here's a handle on what was harvested...

Perhaps the most notable pickings from the early autumn crop came courtesy of Exploration Extra, which seems to have spent most of the year in hibernation otherwise. From Altrincham and Arnside to Liverpool and Lincoln a swathe of the country has been scoured in search of photographic fruit, with examples being Lord Tennyson's Statue, a Metrolink tram at Altrincham, an amusement arcade at Chapel St Leonard's and a platform view from Bristol Temple Meads.

Closer to home there have been good yields back in the West Midlands. WME Birmingham summoned forth Yardley (Swan Centre demolition, the New Inn pub), Warstock (the Community Centre) and Stirchley (the British Oak bowling green) among others, while WME Dudley was offered fresh new produce for Wollaston (the Waterloo and Barley Mow former pubs) and Woodsetton (the Brook). WME Sandwell takes it's place on display with a trio of West Bromwich pictures focusing on the Crown & Cushion and the Saturday market.

WME Wolverhampton anticipates the arrival of winter with some snowy shots from West Park, although the weather is brighter for a look at Stowlawn bus terminus. There are also sunnier skies on WME Walsall where Walsall Wood offers up a colliery pithead memorial and the gates to Oak Park football ground. Even WME Solihull has been active, getting into step with the Plume of Feathers at Shirley, a train at Whitlocks End and various canal bridges near Hockley Heath.

Slightly further afield, the neighbouring counties have been sure to make their contributions. WME Staffordshire called by at Shenstone (the Bulls Head sign) and Stonnall (the Pinfold) whilst also securing a Shropshire Union sequence from Upper Hattons towards Brewood. WME Worcestershire homed in on Stoke Prior (a bus stop, a canal bridge and the Bowling Green pub) while WME Warwickshire stopped off at Warwick Market, a place a certain Nick Turpin has been known to frequent on event days. 

September has also seen encouraging signs of regrowth as my old Fotopic archive has been plundered for a handful of returning rarities, so planted back into position are trains at Stourbridge Junction and Solihull stations plus a 34 bus at Tile Hill South. With that I shall close the lid on September's harvest hamper but still look forward to further autumnal additions as we proceed into October...