Monday, August 17

Wet Weather West Bromwich

Umbrellas at the ready! There's rain in the air as Chairman D9 is on direction duties for an afternoon adventure exploring the River Tame from Bescot to Bustleholme Lane then finishing off in West Bromwich...

- Bescot Baldness -
Friday 14th August and it's a mid-afternoon start that sees members bearing down on Bescot Stadium railway station for the first photos of the day. The station's concrete footbridge is a hideous lump of masonry but does allow good views of the sidings and train depot, plus an elevated perch from which to see the bald spot in action.

- River Tame at Bescot -
The photographs continue as we join a footpath beside the River Tame, crossing waste ground with tethered ponies for company. The walk allows further glimpses of Bescot's railway yard complete with maintenance blocks, sleeper joists and mounds of ballast rubble as we exit onto Sandy Lane.

- River Tame Aqueduct -
Crossing the Walsall Road by Tame Bridge station, the riverside walk continues with a track that skirts the edges of the Yew Tree estate. The M6 motorway is at an absolute standstill due to an earlier accident as Mr D9 gets all excited about the carriageway's support columns (and I quote "Look at the legs on that"!) The Secretary isn't quite as impressed by the M6 underbelly but does appreciate the aqueduct that carries the Tame Valley Canal over the river, definitely one of the discoveries of the day.

- Andrew Road -
The Tame now bisects Ray Hall sewage works and then passes below the M5 before members branch off into the Bustleholme Mill estate where Andrew Road and Stanhurst Way form a rectangular loop. Bustleholme Lane leads to the Haywoods Nature Area, an intriguing green pocket of open space almost hidden away within Charlemont Farm. The central path brings us to another section of Bustleholme Lane where the Chairman can reminisce about being a pupil at a local primary school.

- Proper Job! -
The rain has been on and off so far with the Chairman's brolly regularly getting into the action. We escape from the latest shower by sampling a couple of pubs - the Crown & Anchor (a corporate Sizzling pub known locally as the Jinglers) and the Royal Oak (on Newton Street where a pint of Proper Job is quite literally just the job, accompanied by a cob and a read of the evening paper).

- Heath Lane Cemetery -
Further ferreting is next on the D9 agenda as we pay homage to a former underground closet located on the junction opposite All Saints Church - the Chairman points out where the respective ladies and gents entrances were as indicated by gaps in the brick wall outside an undertakers premises. Another place that used to have toilet facilities is Heath Lane Cemetery with Mr D9 again eagerly hunting for clues. 

- Rampa Champ! -
Trading witty ditties featuring Sid James ('Our House' meets 'The Ooter Song') we arrive at the Rampa on Vicarage Road, a pub that has adopted its colloquial name as its preferred title having historically been known as the Hall End Tavern. The place is now partly an Indian restaurant and provides a suitable setting for our latest pub games challenge. Today we wield pool cues rather than darts as, fuelled by Mansfield Smooth, D9 'Hurricane Higgins' prevails for a 2-1 victory. The first frame saw the Chairman in top form whereas WME 'Whirlwind' barely potted a ball, but frame two saw the Secretary fighting back with a memorable clearance to set up a decider. This in turn went down to the final black in scenes of high tension not witnessed since the 1985 Snooker World Championship final - both players had chances but it was the bald one who ultimately held his nerve.

- Menzies Memories -
Back out on the photographic beat and Clarkes Lane is the location of the Phoenix Collegiate Academy, D9's old secondary school (although it was known as Menzies High when he attended). The Chairman wallows in nostalgia for athletics tracks, science blocks and his own hair as we survey the current school site, the facilities potentially set to be demolished and rebuilt as part of the government-backed Priority Schools Building Programme.

- Getting into Gear on the 47A -
A visit to the Chairman's old stomping grounds would not be complete without a dose of dysfunctional driving, so the 47A is summoned for our connection into West Brom town centre with Wiltshire Way feeling the full force of the D9 gear changes. The rain finally appears to have fizzled out for the evening, meaning the Secretary has no weather-related excuses with which to wriggle out of an incursion into Albion territory.

- WME in West Bromwich -
With the Bond Wolfe office block acting as a beacon, we round off the day with a couple of the Chairman's choices on West Bromwich High Street. The Prince of Wales and the Sportsman Club are both released from the D9 sleeve but perhaps more memorable was Desi Junction with its rather grand frontage (built as the Lewisham Hotel). Some Highgate Mild and a bit of Aston Villa vs Manchester United action is not a bad note on which to finish, all topped off with a thumbs-up from one of D9's former works colleagues as we take our leave. Cheers!

Monday, August 10

Hub Marketing 2015: The Telford Trek

Friday 7th August 2015 and the Hub Marketing Board's annual Shropshire away day this year involves a return to Telford where we put the town's revised Arriva bus network to the test...

- 4 at Telford Bus Station -
Chairman D9 is eager for the earliest possible start so it's the 8 at 07:35 that we board at Wolverhampton, the route effectively being the old 891/892 under a new number. Wergs, Albrighton, Cosford and Shifnal (with Drayton Road loop) are all accounted for, although we didn't go fully into Tong village. At Telford Bus Station the Secretary tries to make sense of new route numbers including the 4 to Leegomery.

- Spotted at Southwater -
Before any more buses though it is time to catch up on Telford's recent transformation. Central to this has been the Southwater project, creating a major leisure destination with cinema, bars, restaurants and a hotel. Southwater One is home to Telford's new library plus a Hungry Horse pub (the Wrekin Giant) and a University facility. The whole development is rather impressive actually and includes a new lake that forms an attractive gateway to Telford Town Park and the International Centre, even coaxing the bald spot out of hiding!

- Muxton Primary -
Back to the buses and the 6 provides a speedy link to Muxton, an old village that seems to have morphed into a modern outlying housing estate up near Donnington. We alight at Marshbrook Way to debate the day's silly songs selection - there's a distinct canine theme afoot with the Barron Knight's 'Sit Song' being countered by 'Oh Susannah' by the Singing Dogs (now there's a treat for your ears). Muxton Primary School sits neatly among the newer houses before Wellington Road offers glimpses of a handful of shops, a Serbian Orthodox Church and the White House Hotel.

- Donnington Little Theatre -
A clock tower and a McDonald's also catch our eye as we proceed into Donnington, spotting the Little Theatre as an auditorium for amateur dramatics. Turreff Avenue sees the Secretary clutching a strawberry milkshake while trying to photograph the local branch library followed by the site of the Champion Jockey (the pub was replaced by a Morrisons supermarket which is now being turned into a Home Bargains store). 

- The Customary Closet Shot -
Wrekin Drive next and a parade of shops that includes a Co-op, Lloyds Bank, a takeaway or two and a new entry for Mr D9's closet collection. We speculate that the Oasis might well be a former pub now housing a chip shop, but alas we couldn't find a greasy spoon for a belated breakfast.

- "Everything's been Hubbed!!!" -
And so to Wrockwardine Wood, a place that will surely enter Hub Marketing legend. Secretary WME's idea to call by was sensible enough in principle, but things started to go awry when we realised most of the bus stops in the area had been taken out of use - it seems we've found a pocket of Telford that has fallen off the new network map, hence the Chairman laments the rubbing out of thick blue lines. 

- Holy Trinity, Wrockwardine Wood -
To make matters worse, neither of the local pubs appeared to be open either, although we lingered around just in case by filling time taking photos of the athletics club and Holy Trinity Church. Alas the pubs still thwarted us, a situation especially disappointing given that the Bulls Head had a lovely tiled frontage, and we couldn't help wondering if the fates were conspiring against us.

- D9 6 WME 1... -
There was nothing for it but to plough on into St Georges, still hoping for that elusive opening pint as things became increasingly farcical. Both the Lamb and the Talbot were also shut (on a Friday lunchtime?!) meaning our poor old Chairman was beginning to have hub hallucinations such was his need for urgent refreshment. Thankfully the Albion Inn on Station Hill came to the rescue with some much-savoured Jennings Bitter, the restorative power of which prompted Mr D9 into some deadly darts finishing and a sizeable 6-1 lead. In the Secretary's defence, Mr WME knew his Wolves allegiances meant he would probably never prosper in a placed called the Albion!

- Disconsolate Driving -
That was however as good as it got for D9 darts-wise as a famous fightback was soon on the cards. A few quick Ironbridge Gold-fuelled legs in the Cottage Spring got WME back into contention, then the comeback was completed in the Turf courtesy of a spectacular 140 throw plus a proper double checkout. D9 had gone from triumph to disaster in the blink of an eye, so he was not at all a happy chappy when taking to the wheel of the 5A for our ride back into Telford.

- 2 at Telford -
Our new network navigation continues with the 2, which along with the 1 has partially replaced the former South Telford Circular 11 and 22 services between Sutton Hill, Madeley and the town centre. The Chairman is still mourning the loss of the darts decider as we hop aboard for a ride via Malinslee, Dawley and Aqueduct Surgery to Woodside, a place where all the road names begin with a W.

- An Elizabethan Excerpt -
D9's disposition improves markedly though once he'd spotted the Elizabethan, just the type of flat-roofed estate boozer to set him all adrool. Our Worthingtons here is accompanied by a generous cheese and onion cob each as the Secretary enjoys the background Irish dancing music.

- D9 chasing the birds again -
The 1 is the reverse route of the 2 so becomes our logical connection back to Dawley, where Secretary WME seeks out the Elephant & Castle as a Good Beer Guide entrant. This pub is the sister to the Crown in Oakengates (a place the Board have enjoyed visiting previously) and does us nicely for Burton Bridge Porter, scratchings and a bit of cheeky pumpclip purchasing on behalf of a certain Mr Beardsmore. Further down Dawley High Street is the Crown, scene of a swift half while the Chairman tried to train the resident parrot to say "It doesn't make a big fat profit".

- Price Pain in Tettenhall -
Our time in Telford draws to a close as the 17:35 number 8 takes us back towards Wolverhampton. There is still scope for a Tettenhall intervention, although Mr D9 rather wishes we'd avoided the Crown at Wergs having fallen foul of the most expensive round of the day by quite some distance (ouch indeed!) Wasp chewing is kept to a minimum though as WME has a quiz to attend, so its a prompt farewell until next time. Cheers!

Wednesday, August 5

Beacon Way and Goscote Valley

Monday Mission No. 11 brings with it a bout of Nature Reserve Bingo as I make my way through Walsall's woodlands and open spaces from Sutton Road to Ryecroft via Rushall...

- The Three Crowns -
Catching the 935 from Walsall town centre, I alight on Sutton Road by Walsall Garden Centre and the Three Crowns. Since closing as a pub, the latter landmark seems to be moving through increasing stages of dereliction after becoming instead the base for one of those hand car wash enterprises that seem to spring up everywhere these days.

- Cuckoos Nook -
Racking up the reserves is the order of the day and the first one to be crossed off my bingo card is Cuckoos Nook, an ancient woodland said to be over 400 years old. A public footpath opposite Moat Farm takes me across crop fields and into the secluded shade provided by tree species such as holly, birch and oak. 

- The Dingle -
The trail through Cuckoos Nook brings me directly into The Dingle, another important wildlife habitat where ash, beech and hawthorn can be found. The combined reserve straddles a geological fault line, one side of which (Cuckoos Nook) offers acidic soils with underlying coal seams whereas the other (The Dingle) is alkaline in nature due to the presence of limestone. Keeping an eye out for Beacon Way markers, I note the course of the Longwood Brook looking relatively dry following a prolonged spell of fine weather.

- Former Hay Head Branch Canal -
Leaving The Dingle, the Beacon Way veers off into nearby Hay Head Wood where I'm especially keen to investigate any traces of the former canal arm that once served the area's limeworks. I soon happen across a clump of bricks that look suspiciously like old bridge remains, followed by the course of the canal itself with the section still in water but definitely being reclaimed by nature. Before long I emerge on Longwood Lane at what I assume is the site of Hay Head Bridge - beyond this point the arm is in use as a private moorings accessed from Longwood Junction.

- Aldridge Airport -
Transport (or rather aviation) heritage is also to the fore with my next target as I proceed onto the playing fields of Aldridge Airport. From the 1930s to 1956 this was the site of the Walsall Aerodrome but nowadays is a public open space with an activity centre, bowling green and tennis courts (plus portakabin toilets for D9s with a special interest in such matters).

- Top Hangar -
One interesting feature of the former airfield is Top Hangar, a building that nowadays is used as a venue for events such as craft fairs. The main access to both the hangar and the park more generally is via a driveway off Bosty Lane, a road I now join for a direct route into Rushall passing a farm shop and the White House pub.

- Rushall Community Centre -
Rushall has cropped up fairly regularly during my Monday Mission series but has an established photo pedigree in the WME archives stretching right back to my earliest digital camera outings back in 2002. It's still nice though to root out things I haven't encountered before though, with examples this time around being Rushall Community Centre (on Springfields) and the local cricket club (off Pelsall Lane).

- Former Railway at Goscote Valley -
I'd been promising myself a closer look at Goscote Valley since April's Aldridge mission so it was time to pick up where I left off a few months ago. Taking Station Road towards Coalpool, I find the linear walkway that marks the South Staffordshire Line railway which used to link Lichfield, Walsall, Dudley and Stourbridge. Indeed, (as the streetname suggests) Rushall had its own station on the line somewhere close to the spot where I join the footpath.

- Mill Lane Nature Reserve -
If I'd have headed north I could have explored through towards Pelsall but that can wait for another mission. Instead I bear south with the Ford Brook for close company, passing around the eastern edges of Ryecroft Cemetery but staying firmly beyond the railings on this occasion. I've one final bingo location in mind, this being Mill Lane Nature Reserve where the pools and damp meadows are apparently popular with mating toads. Cecil Street is my route through The Butts as I go full circle back to Walsall town, and with my full card of nature reserves marked up I can confirm this is another mission most definitely completed. House!!

Monday, August 3

Stafford, Newport and Gnosall

The final day of July 2015 saw Nick and myself anticipating ales when combining the Stafford Beer Festival with a ride out to Newport and Gnosall. Church Aston would also feature, along with some canals and the latest addition to our cuddly toy collection...

- Behold! A Beer Banner -
We shall start then with Stafford, arriving there with some relief after enduring standing room only on the train up from Wolverhampton. A proposed Eccleshall excursion is quickly expunged from our agenda in favour of an immediate visit to the beer festival, hence we eagerly enter the grounds of the Blessed William Howard School where the ales await once again in the sports hall.

- Pondering Plum Porter -
Local ales to tempt us included Slater's Smoked Porter, Titanic's Plum Porter and Talke O' Th' Hill's Potters Porter as our persistent preference for the darker brews showed no sign of abating. Marble's Chocolate Stout was also on message before Nick lost himself in the legend of King Korvak's Saga.

- Tombola Teddy -
Besides the darker delights, I also picked out a Passion Fruit (tastily tropical from Coach House in Cheshire) before hurtling headlong into the Milky Way as brewed by Black Hole. Along the way I gained myself a new cuddly companion when a winning tombola ticket resulted in me being presented with a fluffy pink bear, much to everyone's amusement! For his part, Nick became the proud owner of a Snoopy character keyring, and with tokens all spent we bade the festival farewell and set out for Shropshire. 

- The Aston -
Catching the 5 (the new route number for the 481 following a recent Telford bus network review), we made serene progress through Haughton, Gnosall and Newport before alighting in Church Aston. Unfortunately, stopping here will go down as one of those bright ideas that somehow goes astray (for which I am admittedly somewhat notorious). The village pub is The Aston but we timed our arrival to coincide with afternoon closing, meaning we were promptly ushered back from whence we came.

- Newport High Street -
Luckily the 5 was soon on hand and any D9-style bladder emergencies were avoided - the Railway Tavern gets our nod for a celebratory half of Wadworth 6X while watching England take a 2-1 Ashes lead with victory at Edgbaston. Nick was rather impressed with Newport on the whole; as an attractive market town it has several examples of Regency and Georgian architecture to admire. 

- Newport Branch Canal -
Newport features worthy of investigation include St Nicholas' Church, the Royal Victoria Hotel and the Market Hall as we continue along High Street to Lower Bar for a brief look at the canal basin. The restored section of waterway here makes for an enticing walk on a summer's afternoon, and I still intend to do an extended exploration here from Meretown to Edgmond.

- New Inn with new chum -
Leaving the canal, we proceed past Newport Swimming Pool to find the recently re-opened New Inn on Stafford Street (very handy for the bus stops). The pub is now under the stewardship of Joules Brewery with all their customary panelling and nostalgic advertisements. I'm particularly taken by the large inglenook fireplace in the snug, a perfect location for Tombola Teddy's first pub photocall.

- Cowley Tunnel -
Given our aborted Church Aston episode earlier, Nick could have been forgiven for ignoring my suggestions for the rest of the day (if not longer). It was therefore most gallant of him to agree to giving Gnosall a go - one 5 ride later and we pitched up by the Navigation for our second segment of canals this trip. The Shropshire Union passes through the village as it makes its way between Wheaton Aston and Norbury Junction. Our stroll covered the stretch from Gnosall Bridge (No. 35) to Cowley Bridge (No. 32), the Boat Inn and Cowley Tunnel providing additional interest.

- The Bear & Pheasant -
All the walking meant we didn't have time for a Gnosall pub, so we finished off back in Stafford with a Hobgoblin Gold and a cob in the Bear & Pheasant, a mid-terrace local just the other side of the Tesco supermarket. The pub has a distinct sports focus with European football scarves on the ceiling and various fixture posters on the walls (including one promoting the forthcoming Rugby World Cup). A Tesco car park dash saw us safely onto a crowded train home, and another excellent adventure passes into posterity. Cheers!