Sunday, January 25

Chip Foundation 2015: The Coventry Chronicles

There was a hint of medieval mischief in the air when Coventry provided the setting for the Chip Foundation's opening exchanges of 2015. HRH Nick, Mr Beardsmore and I thus set out on one of our further flung adventures, Thursday 22nd January being a day of cap consternation, velvet thrones and delayed dinner...

- Bridge 9 -
Arrival at Coventry is just after 11:30 with the 8A bus obediently waiting outside ready to take us towards Potters Green with Walsgrave providing the scenery along the way. By this stage Nick's attire has already earned our admiration, dressed as he is in full Bears regalia including baseball cap and members sweater. Alighting on Ringwood Highway, we have a little wander along Woodway Lane where the Jolly Colliers pub has been demolished since I was last in the area although the M6 motorway is still very much a presence. A footbridge briefly connects us to the Oxford Canal towpath where Stone Bridge is a handsome structure.

- All aboard The Boat -
Initial refreshment comes courtesy of the Boat on Shilton Lane, a cottage pub that feels very much on the fringes of the urban area. Church End's Fallen Angel is an enjoyable ale for starters as we muse over pictures of morris dancing. The soft settee does its best to swallow Stephen but he manages to extract himself, propelled on by thoughts of lunch.

- Moat House Leisure Centre -
Wood End is our next destination, Deedmore Road passing St Patrick's Catholic Church in bringing us out by the Moat House Leisure and Neighbourhood Centre, an impressive facility symbolic of efforts to improve the local area. Our quest for chips was still empty-handed though as we caught the 10 on Winston Avenue, riding through Wyken and along Blackberry Lane towards Stoke Heath.

- Darts Determination -
Tucked away on North Street, the Rose & Woodbine is a community pub I finally sampled at the third time of asking with D9 last year. I considered it worth a swift return visit and was happily rewarded with a nice half of Black Sheep - sadly my efforts on the dartboard were less triumphant, Stephen vying successfully for victory while Nick seemed intent on using tongue warfare as a distraction technique.

- The Whitefriars Debating Society -
Back in Coventry City Centre, lunch belatedly is taken care of by the Earl of Mercia Wetherspoons, the Thursday Curry Club deal proving good value although Mr B felt short-changed in the chip department when receiving his ham and eggs. We then relocate to Whitefriars Olde Ale House, where the crackling open fire accompanies Holden's Hogmanay Porter and a detailed discussion about religion and politics. The timbered interior has a monastic heritage and certainly adds atmosphere to our deliberations.

- Herbert Museum and Art Gallery -
With the sun beginning to set, we make our way past the Herbert Museum to Coventry Cathedral. The gates were closed but we could still pause a moment to reflect, the fading light adding to the poignancy of the ruins. Just across the way, the former County Hall is home to the Establishment, a rather upmarket bar where Nick falls foul of the 'no baseball caps' policy. With HRH's uncouth apparel removed we are clear to sit upstairs where chandeliers and courtroom coats of arms make for quite a spectacle.

- The Wonders of the Old Windmill -
Our final stop involves more medieval architecture in Spon Street where the Old Windmill offers characterful crannies just waiting to be investigated. We are particularly enticed by the back brewhouse room where HRH can avail himself of a luxurious seat next to barrels and brickwork. A half of Beijing Black is a Potbelly potion on which to conclude matters and a speedy scurry gets us safely on our 18:27 train home. Cheers!

Friday, January 23

A Sutton Park Sequel

Last October's "Sutton Park Story" had given me a tantalising tour of the western half of the park but left the eastern half untouched pending further investigation. Monday 19th January thus became the day when I would finally account for that elusive area...

- Wylde Green Station -
A chilly but bright morning sees me making my way to Wylde Green where the railway station is located amidst polite residential surroundings. Early photo targets include the Wylde Green pub (a Hungry Horse establishment on the main Birmingham Road) and the local primary school off Green Lanes.

- Highbury Theatre -
Crossing the railway into Boldmere, the footbridge over the tracks is decorated with a mural painted by school pupils and features a family of friendly-looking green aliens. A surprise awaits me among the terraces of Sheffield Road, for half way down the street is the Highbury Theatre Centre, a community venue that hosts various performing arts events. At the end of the street, the Boldmere Oak is now a Joule's pub renamed the Boldmere Tap albeit with reference to an earlier guise as the Old Cork & Bottle.

- Boldmere St Michaels FC -
I was keen to uncover a little more of Boldmere with St Michael's Parish Church being a prime landmark. Further along Church Road, the local non-league football team carries the name of the church and hosts home games at the Trevor Brown Memorial Ground. The Birmingham Angling Centre catches my eye with its large fish adverts before I make my way back to Boldmere Gate to resume my Sutton Park study.

- Royal Sutton Coldfield Athletics Club -
Bearing right along park paths, the next major feature I encounter is Wyndley Gate, situated by Wyndley Pool with a plank footbridge crossing a little brook. Wyndley Leisure Centre is close at hand, comprising swimming pool, gymnasium and sports courts while the Royal Sutton Coldfield Athletics Club has a running track and a shed-like office building.

- Town Gate -
Clifton Road leads me on towards Town Gate, arguably Sutton Park's feature entrance as guarded by two cabins. The 604 bus stops outside as I follow the driveway down past the cafe and round to a carved totem pole with an acorn and a deer's head being part of the design. Park House is next to get my attention, nowadays being home to a Toby Carvery pub/restaurant as my stroll continues.

- Hartopp Gate -
Before long I cross the freight railway line to reach Hartopp Gate, a somewhat unheralded entrance that faces out towards the private roads of the rather exclusive Four Oaks estates. A few cars trundle over the cattle grid as I line up my photos, the park being partially accessible to motor traffic although it is no longer possible to drive through from one side to the other.

- Blackroot Pool -
Heading west from Hartopp Gate, I soon arrive at Blackroot Pool for another splash of waterside scenery. The pool has industrial origins having been constructed to power a watermill, although it is the modern day saw mill that I can hear close by, making timber products from the park's natural resources.

- Railway Remnants -
Bracebridge Pool would have been my next target but seeing that freight line earlier had prompted me to focus on railway remains instead. The Sutton Park Line had passenger services until 1965 with stations situated at Streetly, Sutton Park itself and Sutton Town. I initially hope that Midland Road might yield glimpses of the Sutton Park station site but I can't see anything for certain - I do have more luck on Midland Drive (the other side of Sutton Coldfield High Street) where the former booking hall of Sutton Town station is very much intact and up for sale as office premises. This seems a suitable note on which to conclude another memorable Monday mission, and I catch my 77 bus back towards Walsall feeling very satisfied with my day's work.

Sunday, January 18

Hub Marketing 2015: Walsall

A mini Hub Marketing medley opens our account for the new year as Chairman D9 and Secretary WME set off around Walsall in search of discounts and dominoes...

- Brewery Baldness - 
A mid-afternoon rendezvous means there isn't much time for an in-depth investigation along the lines of our usual morning ferrets, but we make sure to visit the historic Highgate Brewery where the future of the site is still sadly uncertain. It remains to be seen whether brewing will ever recommence here but at least we can christen the place with the first bald spot photo of 2015.

- The Walsall Arms -
Our opening ale of the day (and indeed the year) comes courtesy of the Walsall Arms, a former Marston's pub that is now an independent free house tucked away on Bank Street in the shadow of the Walsall Box Factory. The interior has been done out since I last visited but is still welcoming and comfortable while the Enville Ale was enjoyable, although sadly we didn't get chance to test out the skittle alley.

- Discount Distress -
Continuing towards the town centre, I recall visiting the Watering Trough when it was the Rising Sun, the former Highgate tap with a liking for heavy rock now back using a previous name. The Victoria (a.k.a. the Katz) on Lower Rushall Street is our next port of call, although the 1970s shop signs of the neighbouring Chinese takeaway distract D9 from spotting serious discount potential - it is therefore WME who claims the spoils with £1.70 Backyard Bitter, a price that could be hard to beat in the months ahead.

- Anyone for Dominoes? -
The upstairs games room in the Katz was the setting for a darting duel that saw the Secretary emerge in the lead despite Chairman D9's initial double top checkout. The pub games continue in the Fountain where we attempt to play dominoes while sampling the January S'Ale. The act of knocking on the table when unable to lay a domino evokes wistful D9 memories of the Yew Tree Social Club.

- Drive of the Day -
Onwards to the Old Square Shopping Centre where D9 gets in a bonus drive by the Debenhams escalators, his flower power choice of vehicle being a departure from the usual buses. St Matthews Church is lit up proudly surveying the top end of the market hill while the Black Country Arms is always worth a visit for those of a real ale persuasion.

- Crafty Concentration -
Time ticks on as the 34 bus gives us a handy lift towards Darlaston and Moxley where we close out proceedings with nightcap halves in the Forge Tavern and the Red Lion. The Secretary takes the games honours by clinically dispatching the requisite darts checkouts, and a fiery curry collection on the way home precedes a Bradley Lane farewell. A thoroughly enjoyable way to start the year!

Thursday, January 1

WME Review of the Year - 2014

Happy New Year! The arrival of 2015 means another twelve months lie ahead filled with exploration and adventure, but let's pause to reflect on some highlights from the year just departed. 2014 was most definitely eventful with major changes professionally and personally - there were joyous occasions, moments of great sadness, the final ending to one job and the early chapters of what will hopefully prove a fruitful and enjoyable new career. Throughout it all, the ongoing threads of exploration and photography have provided continuity, solace, fascination and fun...

January: 2014 began with some local investigations, East Park taking the spotlight aided and abetted by Deansfield and Stowlawn. Mr D9 had his Domestos bottle on display during a Hub Marketing East Birmingham bash, mourning the loss of the Mountfort in Kingshurst and the Meadway Cafe in Bordesley Green. An epic darts tussle also took Board members around the pubs of Wednesfield, a marketplace bald spot and some duster skirts making their respective appearances.

February: There was no Redditch Beer Festival in 2014, so Derby became the annual ale curtain-raiser with Nick on hand to sample Chester Green and even New Zealand! The Chip Foundation got into gear with an evening in Gornal, with honorary member Ken joining us for a windswept wander encompassing the Old Bulls Head, the Black Bear and the Jolly Crispin. The Hub Marketing team set their sights on Pendeford with a D9 drive around the i54 development, plus there was an energetic Titford trek to contend with, saying 'Hello Dolly' in the company of a badly-bearded Barrel impersonator!

March: Springtime Skegness became the setting for the WME family holiday with visits to Lincoln and Louth living long in the memory, complete with a climb up the notorious Steep Hill. Loughborough and Leicester kept the beer festival bandwagon rolling, Nick and I fortified by Stilton cobs and an unexpected meeting with Phil Porter. The Chip Foundation chronicled the Shropshire scenery of Oakengates and Shifnal in what was to be the last outing when all of us were still in active library service; Nick and I then joined the Wolverhampton CAMRA crew for the branch visit to Church End and Nuneaton. Closer to home, the pubs of Portobello and Willenhall comprised another stage of the D9 Doorstep Challenge, the Royal Oak witnessing some of our best darts scoring of the whole year.

April: The West Midlands beer festival calendar goes into overdrive with events at Walsall, Coventry and Stourbridge happening in quick succession. The cricket season is underway as Stephen and I spend Easter in soggy Manchester, whereas a local walk enables me to check on what little remains of the Strykers bowling alley following a major fire. April was also the month when Nick retired, an occasion marked by a tour of some of our favourite Black Country hostelries the Beacon Hotel and the Trumpet for old time's sake.

May: There are further retirement celebrations when Nick Turpin was unleashed around Long Itchington complete with a tank, buffalo burgers and some suggestive Warwick foliage. A few days later and it was my turn to say farewell to old colleagues as an 11 year career came to a close - the end came more quickly than expected once I'd accepted a job offer elsewhere. A four week break between jobs was ideal opportunity for solo exploration, hence a waterways walk from Wordsley to Wombourne and a Telford tour encompassing Dawley Bank, Doseley and Aqueduct. Nick and I got drenched in a Hartlebury deluge prior to the Kidderminster beer festival, the weather being much kinder though when D9 and I buccaneered around Bridgnorth. May arguably provided my favourite trip of the whole year when the Hub Marketing Board tackled North Birmingham with breakfast in the wonderfully evocative Pype Hayes Transport Cafe.

June: Nick Turpin rides to the fore with a brace of Rugby visits, sampling Stockton and discovering Dunchurch in the process. Having covered the north of the city in May, the Hub Marketing Board turn their attentions to South Birmingham with a closet-themed circuit of Hall Green and Sparkbrook (not forgetting the Balsall Heath hub bald spot). There is cricket to be considered with a Sunday stop in Northampton, whereas at the Bromsgrove Beer Festival we nearly get entangled in a rugby scrummaging machine.

July: A summertime solo stroll takes me leisurely around Albrighton, making the acquaintance of various inquisitive cows along the way. The Chip Foundation enter a new era of fraternity with a Walsall workout, while Horsham is an undoubted highlight watching cricket in splendid sunshine with Stephen and Worcester Dave for company - excellent! Elsewhere, how could I forget the Hub Marketing Board's away day in Liverpool, getting interviewed on local radio and trying to get the bald spot a suntan on New Brighton promenade. The Philharmonic Dining Rooms had one of the best pub interiors I've ever seen, although I was less impressed by Mr D9's attempts at Cilla Black karaoke.

August: Another memorable pub discovery has to be the Midland in Bearwood, a converted bank that featured in the Chip Foundation's Sandwell soiree and would later be the venue for December's Hub Marketing Awards ceremony. Nick Turpin became the Harbury Highwayman for ales and Morris dancing at the village hall, whilst elsewhere there were contrasting festival fortunes in Stafford and Worcester. Nick single-handedly cleared out the tombola at Stafford's school sports hall, but we didn't even get into the Worcester event after neglecting to purchase advance tickets!

September: Into autumn with Mr D9 back in the saddle for more marketing exploits, this time crafting a crawl around Cradley Heath before carpeting our way around Kidderminster and Bewdley (the WME wallet still hasn't forgotten the expensive round in the Cock & Magpie). The Stagecoach was stood down when some Diamond-haulage propelled Nick Turpin and I into Studley for the village's inaugural beer festival, but we still never quite made it to the Weighbridge at Alvechurch (maybe 2015 will be third time lucky?) The Cannock Chase Beer Festival was another first time event to make an excellent impression, and I commenced my solo series of Monday musings with a roam around Rushall.

October: Monday magic was again in the air for some snippets of Sutton Park, pausing for lunch at Boldmere Gate. The Streetly spillage provided entertainment as the Chip Foundation also ventured towards Sutton Coldfield, while D9 and I relished a thorough trawl of the Sheepwash Nature Reserve near Great Bridge, tickling a few Tipton taverns along the way of course.

November: The Coventry Cats tour is an integral part of the Hub Marketing autumn agenda, so all quiffs were present and correct once more for Bell Green, Wood End and Foleshill. I spent a few extra-special days in Loughborough getting to know my new nephew before Dad and I savoured some of the ales on offer in Shrewsbury - the Chocolate & Vanilla Stout in the Dolphin was absolutely delightful. Warren Farm and Perry Common took pride of place during my third Monday montage, during which I unearthed a sense of slightly hidden history around by Perry Barr's parish church.

December: a festive flourish or two sees Chip Foundation action in Halesowen (the Swan being pub of the day with a potent half of Russian Rouble) and Hub Marketing merriment from Tamworth and Fazeley (the Wilnecote shops bald spot being especially devious here). There is just time then to cram in a proper Hub heartlands haul around Handsworth, Winson Green and Smethwick (ah the joys of the Londonderry Hub) before the sun sets on another epic year.

2014 was unpredictable, a year in which I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions like never before. The exploration was excellent, and my thanks as always go to all those who were involved in making so many memories with particularly honourable mentions for Stephen, Nick and Andy - thanks chaps. I look forward to 2015 with much optimism and am excitedly anticipating seeing what January has to offer...