Saturday, December 19

WME Flickr Focus: September to December 2015

Oh dear! Has it really been almost four months since I last filed one of my Flickr updates? Admittedly not a huge amount has been happening where the West Midlands Exploration photostream has been concerned, but that's hardly an excuse. An apologetic account of recent activity is urgently required so here goes...

September and October can each definitely be bracketed under the heading 'steady but unspectacular'. Both months primarily concerned themselves with archive extractions, so among the pictures receiving promotion were pub shots of the Nags Head at Darlaston (WME Walsall), the Blue Bell at Kidsgrove (WME Staffordshire) and the Summer House at Whitmore Reans (WME Wolverhampton). A bus station bonus came courtesy of Halesowen (WME Dudley) and there was Grand Union Canal content for both WME Solihull (Bridge 72 at Knowle) and WME Warwickshire (Bridge 55 near Hatton).

November was altogether enamoured with all things Exploration Extra, hence proffering forth railway-related shots from Colchester (the modern station entrance) and Weymouth (a general platform picture) while second shots of both Wrexham and Gloucester bus stations also entered the equation. Elsewhere, Fallgate Mill near Ashover made a welcome appearance, as did the 4a bus at Bournemouth and the Raven pub at Welshpool.

That merely leaves us with December and a minor attempt at a mopping-up exercise. Badger made its way onto the WME Shropshire map, while the courtyard garden at Bantock House supplemented an existing Bradmore sequence on WME Wolverhampton. Other than that a few buses parked themselves into position, notably the old 33 route at Tile Hill North (WME Coventry), the 44 at Telford Bus Station (WME Telford) and finally the 614 at Selly Oak (WME Birmingham).

This all means that I close down for Christmas with 2,737 pictures now paraded on my photostream - a not insignificant number but potentially only the tip of the iceberg in terms of representing thirteen or more completed years of digital photography. Any further updates will have to wait until 2016 though so I'll return to action in January with some fresh Flickr fragments for your delectation - see you next year!

Friday, December 18

Nick Turpin's Festive Forage

Monday 14th December 2015 and the yuletide season brings with it the chance for more highwayman handiwork in the company of Nick Turpin. Wintertime Warwickshire thus awaits with our Stagecoach all set to call at Barford, Wellesbourne, Bidford and Leek Wootton...

- A Warwick Welcome -
A tour of some smaller settlements is in the offing then as we meet up at Warwick. The county town is already firmly in the festive spirit with lights aloft and a Christmas tree taking pride of place next to Randolph Turpin's statue in the Market Square. The bus station off Bowling Green Street is where we summon the Stratford Stagecoach, otherwise known as the X18 bus.

- Joseph Arch's Cottage -
With views of Warwick Racecourse, the local non-league football club (Racing Club Warwick) and Shakespeare Drive, we ride serenely to the village of Barford beside the River Avon. A relaxing hour's wander allows some photographic pillaging concentrating on St Peter's Church, the Granville Arms and the village shop. A notable Barford personality was Joseph Arch (1826-1919), who founded the National Agricultural Labourers' Union and served as a Liberal MP; a local pub now bears his name while his old cottage residence can still be found on Church Street.

- Stags Head, Wellesbourne -
Sequestrating another Stagecoach, our next stop is Wellesbourne although Nick Turpin plentifully praises the stately pile that is Charlecote Park with its surrounding land being home to roaming fallow deer. The cervine connection continues at the Stags Head, a picture postcard pub overlooking Chestnut Square where there is Otter Ale to be drunk and fireplace baubles to be fondled. Wellesbourne's parish church is also dedicated to St Peter and has the Kings Head at close quarters although we decide to forego a quick half in favour of commandeering a top deck seat on the next X18.

- Bearing Baubles in the Bulls Head -
Tiddington (with the Crown and the Home Guard Club) then Loxley Road pave our way into Stratford-upon-Avon where there is an instant interchange onto a separate Stagecoach, the 28 towards Evesham now taking the strain. Our furthest destination of the day is Bidford-on-Avon, which like Barford earlier has an ancient river crossing for us to admire. The Bulls Head is an old inn standing on the opposite side of High Street to St Laurence's Church; we call into the pub for 'A Good Stuffing' (that was the name of the beer by the way) before inspecting the creative Christmas tree designs on show in the church, whereby a certain Mr D9 would surely have approved of the 'lavatree' with its toilet seat base and loo roll tinsel.

- A Stratford Spectacular -
The return 28 Stagecoach is somewhat delayed by congestion at both ends of the route with Stratford town centre being especially clogged up from the Salmon Tail (on Evesham Road) thereafter. We escape from the jams by seeking sustenance in the Golden Bee Wetherspoons, our trusty Nick Turpin tucking into a yuletide turkey dinner with cranberry sauce while yours truly opted for a not-so-seasonal gammon. Dusk has now descended upon Shakespeare's town allowing us to see the Christmas lights along Bridge Street in all their glittering glory.

- Anchor Inn, Leek Wootton -
Careful study of the X16 timetable suggests we can include a final explorational extravagance to round off this fun-filled forage. Leek Wootton is therefore identified as our evening indulgence, albeit by the time the bus actually arrived our window of opportunity had almost vanished. Undeterred, our highwayman hero strides into the night, availing himself of the Anchor Inn's hospitality and the lascivious charms of Dorothy Goodbody's Santa Special ale - we might only have been in the pub five minutes but it was five minutes well spent! Our X16 Stagecoach swansong then returns us to Warwick railway station where it all began, and our festive felicitations are ended with the train back home. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 17

Hub Marketing 2015: Christmas

The final Hub Marketing Board outing of the year brings with it certain administrative duties; there's a calendar presentation to perform, DJ D9 Heartburn is set to declare his Pick of the Pops top twenty chart, and Charles Pemberton Rowbottom III will be exhumed in readiness to announce the Hub Awards 2015. Hurst Green and Hasbury are the designated destinations for this Christmas cracker of an adventure...

- Britannia Park -
West Bromwich is distinctly wet and dreary as members battle bus station congestion before encountering rainy Rowley Regis, wading up the hill to Rowley Village for shelter in the Britannia pub. Some darts are part of the drying off process as the Chairman takes an early Golden Glow-powered lead. There are awards nominations to consult amid tinselled surroundings before a brief look at Britannia Park, a statement of civic pride from the days when Rowley Regis was its own county borough.

- A Robert Peel Ride in Rowley Regis -
Heading back down the hill towards Blackheath, there is a photo call outside the Robert Peel where Mr D9's daft radar has detected a strange hippo like creature to straddle on the pub car park. A closed closet by Barclays Bank adds to the picture count despite the weather, then members board the 129 bus outside the market hall so that we can hear grannies grumbling about recent bus route changes - could it be that the Chairman's timetable scheduling has struck again?!

- Hairless in Hurst Green -
With Mr D9 suspiciously keeping a low profile we make it safely to Hurst Green where there is our second pub to visit (the Fairfield, a large Marston's estate roadhouse) and some old factory remains to investigate (the Chairman stomping across possible former canteen tiles in the process). The bald spot gets its requisite airing as do some seasonal silly songs in advance of the full chart rundown - 'Merry Christmas You Suckers' by Paddy Roberts adds a particularly sardonic note of cynicism to proceedings.

- Secretary Santa in the Swan -
Onwards to Long Lane and the Swan sees Secretary WME in Santa mode when delivering the 2016 edition of the Hub Marketing Calendar, a photographic record depicting another twelve months of mayhem. Board members are very impressed with the Swan, a homely Black Country Ales establishment that just so happened to be hosting a beer festival; Enville's Blizzard and Fixed Wheel's Coco Mocha Porter are duly sampled, mopped up with a lovely crusty cob and a thick wedge of pork pie. Wonderful!

- Maypole Music -
The focus of the trip now switches to DJ D9 Heartburn as he recounts the highlights of a whole year of comedy song choices. A soundtrack including singing dogs, wailing ladies and Des O'Connor accompanies us through Halesowen to Hasbury where the pub plot includes a visit to the Maypole on Bassnage Road, a place that has been under threat of closure and demolition. The Secretary has had sporting success here before and stages a darting comeback complete with a seldom-seem genuine double checkout!

- Cornbow Centre Christmas Tree -
The chart countdown continues as we weave our way back to Halesowen, pit-stopping along Hagley Road for swift halves of Enville Ginger (in the Rose & Crown) and Theakston's Smooth (in the Hare & Hounds). Chairman D9 embarks on an unsuccessful Cornbow closet hunt while Secretary WME admires the mall's Christmas tree, then we have a 244 bus to catch as 'Neasden' is crowned the Hub Marketing #1 silly song for 2015.

- Charles Pemberton Rowbottom III does his duty -
Netherton will be the final calling point for this outing and indeed the whole year. Mr D9 gets all excited about the flat-roofed appearance of the Crown on Simms Lane, but it's in the Bulls Head that hub originator Charles Pemberton Rowbottom gets resurrected in order to declare the annual awards. A snooze-struck speech is ably enacted (not bad for a 300 year old) as all honours are handed out accordingly - Halloween in Coventry is our favourite outing of the year, WME is the darts and discount champion while D9 gets the lifetime achievement gong for his concerted commitment to all things bald. 
Merry Christmas and a Happy 2016 from the Hub Marketing Board - Cheers!

Tuesday, December 1

D9 does... Dudley Winter Ales

Friday 27th November 2015 offers up a date with Dudley as the Hub Marketing Board descend upon the town's Winter Ales Fayre to sample the delightful brews being showcased therein. A Tipton tour would also feature during a day when Chairman D9 was determined to "bring on the beermats"...

- A Building Site Bald Spot -
A West Bromwich rendezvous has members on the march for an opening homage, whereby Chairman D9 picks out the patch on Dartmouth Street where the Hop & Barleycorn once stood. He requires intense concentration when peeking through the hoardings to see whether any segments of the old pub still linger, but alas the only thing to be spotted is a certain balding bonce.

- The Castle Gate Hub -
The Farley Clock Tower at Carters Green looms large as we catch the 74 bus down to Dudley, the Chairman's timetable scheduling proving quite robust on this occasion despite us encountering traffic at Great Bridge and Dudley Port. We alight just before Castle Gate roundabout so that Mr D9 can excitedly visit 'the hub' (part of the Village hotel complex) before pointing out the former location of Dudley Bus Garage.

- The Ivy House, Kates Hill -
It's now but a short walk into Kates Hill, an estate where the Hill Tavern and Freebodies pubs have both been demolished in recent years. The Ivy House is still going on the corner of Brewery Street and Watson's Green Road, thus enabling a bit of darting action as the comforting warmth of a crackling coal fire powers D9 Destroyer to a rare victory. A comedy song trade-off involving Charlie Drake and Bernard Cribbins keeps us occupied until Dixons Green; here the Bush presents a certain landmark quality on the roundabout where Oakham Road meets Buffery Road.

- Duncan Edwards Statue -
Stocking up on tins of salmon, we catch the bus for a quick lift into Dudley town centre where Duncan Edwards' restored statue once again takes pride of place at the head of the marketplace. Born and brought up in Dudley, Edwards was considered one of the most talented footballers of his generation but tragically his life - and those of several Manchester United teammates - was cut short by the fateful Munich air disaster of February 1958.

- Meeting our Warwickshire correspondent -
Having paid our respects to a local sporting legend, we proceed to Dudley Town Hall where the Winter Ales Fayre is taking place. The £15 entry pack arms us with tokens and glasses ready to imbibe of the finest beery concoctions; Secretary WME seeks out some Figgy Pudding Porter to begin with whereas the Chairman launches straight into the supreme strength of Sarah Hughes Snowflake. Honorary Hub Member HRH Nick Turpin is also in attendance, getting to grips with an Enville Cherry Gothic amongst other seductive stouts and porters.

- Flags Aloft in Fountain Arcade -
The ales aren't the only attraction in the festival hall though; the breweriana stand comes in for some serious attention as D9 raids the boxes of vintage beermats - in the end he must have purchased over 200 examples! Back to the beer and WME's other tempting tipples include Peer Pressure Porter, Church End RIP, Holdens Master Ale (a whopping winter warmer) and Brass Castle Christmas Kitty (with lovely hints of vanilla). D9 meanwhile is being especially extravagant, building up to the 15% beer bombshell that is the collaborative Angel Ales/Fixed Wheel Cyclone, a triple IPA that the Secretary isn't brave enough to tackle. Grey peas and good company make for a fine old time and it is a shame to leave, especially with wet weather awaiting outside. Exit we must but at least the Fountain Arcade with its display of Black Country flags offers some brief respite from the elements.

- D9 in the Dew Drop -
To Tipton then and the Fountain on Owen Street where the Secretary confirms that the homely hospitality he witnessed with the Chip Foundation a few weeks ago is very much in evidence again - there is a strong sense of community here with a warm welcome for two soggy strangers escaping from the rain. Tipton's community spirit is also to the fore during the switching on of the Christmas lights; despite the weather, a good crowd have gathered on the square by the shopping precinct to begin the festive celebrations. Our Chairman is a bit too old to sit on Santa's knee these days so we forego the grotto in favour of heading to Toll End, getting drenched along Powis Avenue by the Harrier but thankfully drying off in the Dew Drop.

- Waggon & Horses, Toll End -
Our final port in a wild and windy storm is the Waggon & Horses, the tap for the Toll End Brewery whose ales include Power Station, Black Bridge, Phoebe's Ale (P.A.) and in our case the Clooz Oss special. A fitting flourish to a fabulous festival ferret - cheers!

Monday, November 23

Sandwell Valley and Handsworth Wood

Mission Statement 14: November's allocation to the Monday Mission archive is an outing that was heavily inspired by recent Hub Marketing activities (the Perry Barr Patch trip), only this time Secretary WME is going solo to hoover up further photographic plunder from the Sandwell Valley area...

Europa Village: Trinity Way is my opening location on this occasion - from the Metro stop it's but a short walk to the Europa Village estate, collecting bonus daylight pictures of the Desi Junction (formerly the Lewisham Hotel) along the way. Beeches Road provides access to Europa Avenue, a circular residential road with several offshoot cul-de-sacs named after various saints. My only previous visit to the estate was with Roger in July 2007; there wasn't much to photograph then and the same holds true today, although I do find a path through into the Sandwell Valley nature reserve. Back in 2007 the 414 bus did the rounds here whereas Diamond's 54 route is the latest incumbent with links to Smethwick, Warley and Worlds End.

West Bromwich: passing the Park Inn hotel, I return to Beeches Road for some tasty titbits of previously unseen West Bromwich. My finds include an ornate entrance (with lodge) into Dartmouth Park that I hadn't hitherto been aware of, plus King George V Primary School as built in 1892 with a rather refined clock tower. I also note that the road was once a single thoroughfare but has been unceremoniously divided by the Trinity Way dual carriageway, although a footbridge still connects the now disparate halves.

- Dartmouth Park Memorial -

Dartmouth Park: from the school I emerge onto Reform Street for a familiar approach into Dartmouth Park, even though the back end of the New Square development (with Tesco and Primark) represents the march of local retail progress. As for the park it proves a delight to explore on a bright but chilly November morning; I particularly enjoy capturing the war memorial and ornamental lake on camera, although I'm not entirely convinced by the new pavilion building with its modern matchstick-like appearance (Mr D9 might however approve of the toilet provision).

Sandwell Valley: reaching the car park by the Valley Cycles base, I can proceed seamlessly into Sandwell Valley Country Park where I hope to mop up more photo targets. D9 and I covered Forge Mill Farm earlier this month but its more heralded counterpart is Sandwell Park Farm, a restored Victorian farmyard experience complete with grazing pasture, rare breed animals and a walled kitchen garden (admission charges do apply).

- Sandwell Priory -

Sandwell Priory: resisting the urge to visit the farm's tea rooms, I venture instead through Priory Woods by following a nature trail that features carved animal sculptures and educational activity boards. Crossing above the M5 motorway, I soon arrive at the remains of Sandwell Priory for an intriguing slice of medieval history. The site is said to have been founded as a Benedictine monastery in the twelfth century before being dissolved in 1525; today's visitors can see wall remains showing the layout of the chapels, chancel, transept and cloister - the structure and its associated well are what Sandwell Metropolitan Borough was named after when the authority was created in 1974.

Oxhill Road: Park Lane marks the boundary between Sandwell and Birmingham so I charge on into the latter courtesy of an allotment-flanking footpath that brings me out at the 101 bus terminus on Oxhill Road. The turning loop stop is positioned outside the gates of Handsworth Cemetery while another local feature is the St John Wall Catholic School. The old Uplands pub would definitely have been in camera contention had it still been standing; alas the demolition of a fine landmark has only made way for a hand car wash enterprise that does little to enhance the street scene.

- The Endwood -

Handsworth Wood: Another former pub is next on my agenda, this being the Endwood on Hamstead Road. This building is at least still with us at the moment with proposals in place for conversion to a mosque. From here Handsworth Wood Road is pleasantly leafy, Devonshire Road is home to a bowling club and Somerset Road offers the Bayley Lees Hall (now seemingly part of a Sikh gurdwara). The roundabout with the Grove is instantly recognisable but just around the corner on Slack Lane is a total surprise - Handsworth Old Town Hall, a historic cruck-framed house that had somehow escaped my attention until now. What a find!

- Handsworth Old Town Hall -

Hamstead: Time marches on and so do I, seeking out Hamstead Hall Road where I confirm that Hawthorn House (formerly a public library and community facility) is now in private hands. Craythorne Avenue leads me towards the Hamstead Hall Academy until Acfold Road takes over with a sequence of shops climbing up a bit of a hill. The 54 bus is on duty here, a different route from the one I mentioned earlier (this one was previously numbered the 654), and then an alleyway shortcut from Hamstead Hall Avenue passes the scene of D9's unforgettable billboard-hugging antics. No fence-hopping gymnastics are required today thank goodness, and I safely make it to Hamstead railway station where this mission shall terminate. Another successful adventure!

Monday, November 16

Hub Marketing 2015: The Perry Barr Patch

November 2015's contribution to Hub Marketing Board history is an afternoon assortment from Perry Barr and environs. Unsuspecting readers are therefore advised that the following report contains Pudsey Bear ears, a Springfield Brewery ashtray, farmyard frolics and an unscheduled attempt at climbing billboards...

- All Aboard the 5 -
There was little hint of the mayhem to come as members met at West Bromwich Garage ready for a short ride to Sandwell Valley courtesy of the number 5 bus. D9's driving madness was nothing out of the ordinary in this respect as the usual top deck pose was adopted prior to alighting on Newton Road for Forge Lane.

- Pony Playtime at Sandwell Valley -
Sandwell Valley Country Park is not an area that Secretary WME knows very well so there is immediate interest to be found from a derelict farm and the borough crematorium. Forge Lane soon leads us to Forge Mill Farm as maintained by Sandwell Council, bringing a touch of the countryside into an otherwise heavily urban borough. The Chairman is quickly interacting with the animals by saying hello to some little ponies by the farm gate.

- Goat -
Following a signposted trail through the farmyard, we encounter cattle sheds, pigpens, tufty sheep and inquisitive goats plus a considerable amount of mud. Mr D9 is well catered for by a high dependency toilet, while the farm shop sells vegetables, compost and rare breed meat. 

- Sandwell Valley RSPB Reserve -
Beyond the farm itself is Forge Mill Lake, built in the 1980s to alleviate flooding along the River Tame. The lake and surrounding habitats provide a haven for a wide variety of wildlife visitors (most notably waterfowl) and are designated as an RSPB reserve popular with birdwatchers. In tribute to the feathered residents, Chairman D9 selects 'Let's All Sing Like The Birdies Sing' as his song of the day, while Secretary WME recounts the unfortunate industrial accident described by Max Bygraves in 'Chip Chopper Charlie'.

- Ashtray Activity in the Beaufort Arms -
We plot our wanderings through the reserve so as to follow the course of the River Tame as closely as possible, although one selected track nearly causes serious problems when we realise it brings us to a locked security gate. A scrambled clamber up a nearby billboard saves us from turning all the way back although D9 nearly came a cropper on a sharp spike; compensation comes in the Beaufort Arms when he is presented with a vintage ashtray gift. Mr WME's generosity does not extend to the dartboard though, the Secretary claiming a 3-1 lead despite our Chairman overturning a near-200 point deficit for his solitary leg win.

- Perry Hall Moat -
A squally shower threatens a Rocky Lane deluge but the weather brightens up again by the time we reach Perry Hall Playing Fields. Of historic interest here is the moated site of Perry Hall, former home of the Gough family but demolished many years ago leaving just the rectangular moat as a feature still in situ today. A community orchard has been created on the empty patch where the hall once stood.

- A Colourful Closet -
The old moat is popular with geese and swans, meaning D9 has ample opportunity to bother more birdlife. The theme extends to the park offices and amenities block, repainted since I visited in April and now sporting a very attractive mural design depicting a birdbox, a kingfisher and a robin.

- Spotted at Tower Hill -
The Chairman had managed to keep his bald spot under wraps for much of the outing thus far, but the sight of Tower Hill's former Clifton Bingo (now a banqueting suite) tempts it out of hiding. The local branch library provides the backdrop to this particular piece of baldness as we ride ceramic lions before trying out The Towers for a swift half of Brew XI.

- The New Bell chimes for WME Whirlwind -
Our incursion into the Perry Beeches estate coincides with school hometime at the local academy, but we dodge the hordes of pupils (and runaway footballs) by detouring to the New Bell on Booths Farm Road, the Chairman reminiscing about the old number 59 bus service that apparently served the area prior to deregulation. Secretary WME might in future have cause to feel nostalgic about his darting exploits in the vicinity; D9 Destroyer was threatening a comeback until a clinical 72 checkout secured yours truly the ongoing bragging rights.

- Evening Beeches -
It's veritably dusky as we delve deeper into the estate by way of Beeches Pool and Thornbridge Road. The local shops include Bays Fish Bar, a Greggs bakery and the Headway Brain Injury charity store, while across the street is The Beeches, a large landmark roadhouse that's now part of the Hungry Horse chain and has the constant murmur of the M6 for close company.

- Spotted by the Parish Church -
Having checked the cricket and darts scores over some Greene King IPA, we proceed into Perry Barr proper courtesy of an athletic hike past the Alexander Stadium. The parish church of St John the Evangelist offers moody uplighting in the ever-darkening evening while the Church Tavern, Tennis Court and Seventh Trap all are subjected to pub photography, the latter being a plain Banks's boozer which (as its name suggests) is handily located for the greyhound track.

- A Final Song and Dance Routine -
Homeward we go via Handsworth, taking pit stops at two long-serving landmarks in the form of the Grove (overlooking Handsworth Wood roundabout and dating from 1891) and the Farcroft (a sprawling bastion of Brewers Tudor on Rookery Road). Just before our final Metro, we have time to squeeze into the New Soho Tavern, a pub that a few short years ago looked so derelict we never envisaged it trading again. Not only has the place been resurrected, it serves a decent drop of  Church End Fallen Angel although D9's glass took the 'fallen' aspect rather too literally by depositing itself on the floor. Benson Road then plays host to an impromptu Children In Need-inspired comedy performance (complete with Pudsey ears and a pink umbrella), and the good old Metro does the rest. Cheers!

Friday, November 6

Chip Foundation Chronicles: Black Country Living Museum

Nick, Stephen and myself are assigned a dedicated Black Country brief for this the 39th example from our long-running series of Chip Foundation excursions. Tipton, Brierley Hill and Dudley are all jostling for inclusion but the centrepiece of the trip will involve immersing ourselves in heritage and nostalgia at the Black Country Living Museum...

- Tipton Station -
We're under starter's orders to converge at Tipton Station by twelve noon but as Stephen and I alight at platform 1 there is no sign of Nick at platform 2 - it turns out his train has been delayed due to a missing driver, so we're just thankful Nick wasn't tempted to take to the controls himself! A few general station photos help to pass the time, as do some shots of the 42 bus which stops by the station car park on route to both Dudley and West Bromwich.

- On form in The Fountain -
With everybody present and correct we can investigate a little of Tipton, with Owen Street presenting some local shops, St Martin's & St Paul's Church and the main offices of the Tipton & Coseley Building Society. A longstanding landmark on the side of the canal is the Fountain public house, a prime place to pause for an enjoyable half of Enville Ale.

- The Slasher's Statue -
The Fountain holds historic interest as the headquarters of William Perry - the 'Tipton Slasher' - a renowned pugilist who was champion of England between 1850 and 1857. This bare-knuckle boxer is remembered through a bronze statue that stands in Coronation Gardens just across the road from the pub.

- Poised for the Pie Factory -
Besides the Slasher, Tipton is also famous as the home of the Pie Factory, a quirky Mad O'Rourke's establishment where Desperate Dan Cow Pies come complete with pastry horns. We aren't quite brave (or hungry) enough to tackle that particular challenge but do still stop here for lunch. My steak and kidney suet pudding is delicious with a lovely gravy whereas Nick was Hen Pecked (buttered chicken and mushroom pie with puff pastry) and Stephen became a Skinny Boy (a solid burger with the 'green stuff' removed). All meals are accompanied by tasty battered chips served in frying baskets while Lumphammer Bitter in a dimpled glass is also a nice touch. The pub is certainly an experience with sawdust-sprinkled floors and various tongue-in-cheek pictures and artefacts to capture the imagination.

- D9 on display (but no sign of a bald spot) -
And so to our afore-mentioned centrepiece. The Black Country Living Museum has been preserving the area's heritage from its open air Tipton Road site for over 30 years, and the current £16.50 admission allows us to return regularly over the next twelve months for no additional charge. Initial exhibits to explore include the Bradburn & Wedge Motor Garage (showcasing several locally manufactured vehicles) while a Midland Red D9 bus can be spotted parked up by the war memorial originally erected at Wolverhampton's Springfield Brewery.

- Women Workers Banner -
The replica Newcomen Engine provides evidence of the ingenuity during the Industrial Revolution, then the Tilted Cottage (Jerushah) gives a glimpse into bygone living conditions with an outside privy and a pig pen. A feature I personally find particularly fascinating is the Cradley Heath Workers Institute with its trade union offices, displays about the chainworkers strike and an auditorium where a Women Workers banner hangs above the main stage.

- New Dudley Canal Trust Centre -
The Institute stands at one end of a 1930s shopping street that also includes Hobbs & Sons fish and chip shop (where the chips are traditionally cooked in beef dripping, very tempting but we do behave ourselves having eaten earlier), Hartill's Motorcycles and Preedy's Tobacconists. There are bakelite wireless sets to admire in Gripton's Radio Stores (a family firm that originally operated in West Bromwich and Oldbury) before we descend the steps into the canalside village beyond which we can see the completed new visitor centre at the neighbouring Dudley Canal Trust attraction.

- Silence in class, or else it's detention! -
Back in the main village, the Bottle & Glass Inn is a former Brockmoor public house rebuilt in the museum grounds; alas the bar had closed for the afternoon so we couldn't sample the Banks's Mild although we did peek in the parlour to see an aspidistra atop the old piano. A wander around the boat dock has Stephen on the lookout for fish before we seek out St James's School, pulling up a pew by the blackboard and resisting any instruction to recite our times tables. The Conway Garage and a fairground helter-skelter are also encountered as we wind our way back to the main entrance just as the museum starts to shut down for the evening. We didn't see everything by any means so there is plenty of scope for at least one more return visit, especially with those beef dripping chips to look forward to!

- Cheers from the Courthouse -
There are still a few traditional treats to enjoy today though, even if the customary traffic jams by Russells Hall Hospital do their best to delay things. A 246 ride to Brierley Hill and back allows for a swift half in the Three Crowns while I stock up on scratchings, then our finale is a Dudley dash comprising the Lamp Tavern (bostin' Bathams, need I say more) and the Courthouse (for a dark drop of Pothole Porter), not forgetting to say hello to Duncan Edwards's re-positioned statue. Cheers!

Tuesday, November 3

Witch's Coventry and Hallowe'en Hockley

Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble: the monstrous members of the Hub Marketing Board set out for their spooky Hallowe'en spectacular, summoning discount spells and dartboard magic among the cauldrons of Coventry. Let's board the broomstick for this terrifying tale...

- This year's quiff unveiled -
An early start sees members rise from their coffins and journey to Coventry where Chairman D9 wastes no time in revealing his carefully-selected themed disguises for the day. A witch's hat and a mummified mask are scary enough, but surely the most hideous is the paper towel quiff that enters the action during a drive on the 8 from the railway station to Pool Meadow.

- Coventry Canal Basin -
A fiendish ferret is frequently top of our morning agenda, and this particular example commences at Coventry Canal Basin where we try not to frighten the statue of James Brindley too much. The basin is the terminus of the Coventry Canal, a waterway that connects with the Trent & Mersey Canal at Fradley Junction by passing near places such as Bedworth, Atherstone and Polesworth.

- Bald Spot at the Garage Gates -
A favourite Coventry custom of ours is to pay tribute to notable bus driving characters including Rocking Ron West (hence the quiff). Today this involves a homage at one of the old Coventry Corporation stomping grounds, the former Sandy Lane Garage where buses in the distinctive local maroon and cream livery once graced gates now being bothered by a bald spot.

- Bridge 6, Stoney Stanton Road -
Further canal ferreting awaits as we rejoin the towpath at Foleshill Road for a meandering stroll up near Edgwick and Stoke Heath. Twice we pass under Stoney Stanton Road - firstly at Priestley's Bridge and then Navigation Bridge - before we arrive at Old Church Road (Bridge 7) in Little Heath. Along the way, our Chairman decides to become part of a waterside artwork but that photograph was far too petrifying to be presented here!

- A Big Banger Brew -
We leave the canal again so as to seek out breakfast as amply provided by the Big Banger Cafe. Secretary WME is tempted by the 'Full Irish' here (which would include fried spuds and white pudding) but decides to be slightly more restrained while Chairman D9 loads up on cups of coffee and admires the Routemaster wallpaper.

- Jardine Crescent -
Time for another bus ride with the 6 soon on hand to collect us from Proffitt Avenue for a cross-city jaunt to Tile Hill North. We alight on Jardine Crescent where a classic concrete closet block requires D9's attention, as does the local shopping precinct as an example of functional urban design. Other neighbourhood facilities include a branch library, a youth centre, a children's play area and the Black Prince pub, the latter having a proud Coventry City FC allegiance complete with an accumulation of Sky Blues shirts past and present.

- Devilish Darts in The Vale -
Our opening Worthingtons in the Black Prince is followed by some Greene King IPA in the Vale, a Sizzling chain pub on Nod Rise in Eastern Green. An unoccupied dartboard is all the invitation we need to throw some arrows with the Secretary plotting his way to a narrow 3-2 victory despite Mr D9 concocting an impressive 68 checkout in leg three. 

- WME Witchcraft? -
Two pubs down and two Hallowe'en haunts to come as both the Maudslay and the Nursery Tavern give us an excuse to don our disguises. Wicked Witch WME made the acquaintance of a toy rat who just so happened to be perched on a cobweb-covered fireplace in the first of those establishments, while D9's mummy mask attire there will surely give the local children nightmares for years to come.

- Domino Distress -
The Nursery Tavern meanwhile was decorated partly for Hallowe'en and partly for the Rugby World Cup final, the pub having a long-established affinity with the oval ball. Our sporting segment here involves not rugger but dominoes, with poor old D9 finding himself bamboozled by the scoring system while that crafty Secretary successfully pegs out on the cribbage board to cement games honours for the day.

- Old Clarence Closet -
Darkness is descending as we make our way towards Hearsall Common where a suspicious shadowy object lurks in the undergrowth near the Old Clarence pub. Fear not dear reader - the feature is none other than a disused toilet block, meaning the gleeful Chairman's prized bald spot glows like a ghostly apparition in the fading light. With that our Coventry exploits are ended as we catch the train back from Canley, but there are still many mysterious matters to attend to in Birmingham before the night is out.

- The Beast of the Bartons Arms -
Top target in Brum is the Bartons Arms, a stunningly ornate piece of architectural opulence found on High Street (the A34) in Newtown, Aston. The pub serves ales from the Oakham Brewery (based near Peterborough) and also contains a popular Thai restaurant, but it's the general majesty of the interior we are here to see, from snob screens to glazed tiles and a feature staircase. The Chairman is so overcome by the thought of it all that he resorts to wearing mask and quiff at the same time, a truly terrifying combination.

- With Willow in the White House -
A trio of Hockley taverns round off this tale of trepidation as members call in on the Gunmakers Arms (up for sale and potentially set for residential conversion), the Queens Head (for party lights and a bag of scratchings) and finally the White House, the Holdens pub on New John Street where Willow the cat becomes our latest feline friend. A Metro ride home then completes this spot of explorational sorcery, so all that remains is to wish you a Happy Hallowe'en from the Hub Marketing Board.