Wednesday, September 30

On the trail of the Bentley Canal

My latest Monday Mission is an extended walk investigating traces of a former waterway that once linked the Wyrley & Essington at Wednesfield with the Anson Branch at Bentley Mill...

- Wednesfield Junction -
Monday 28th September 2015 and this will be a mission with a difference as I have an accomplice for the day. Lured perhaps by the promise of a vintage Fred Trueman beermat, Stephen gamely joins me for the trek as we attempt to follow the course of the Bentley Canal as closely as possible, wondering what evidence might still remain given that the line was abandoned back in the 1960s. Beginning on the towpath of the Wyrley & Essington near Heath Town Park, we soon reach Wednesfield Junction where the historic turnover footbridge spans a short remaining stub of the Bentley Canal next to the Nickelodeon pub.

- Old Cut New Rise -
The creation of the Bentley Bridge retail and entertainment complex from the 1990s onwards meant that any other lingering canal remnants in the area were swept away in the name of progress, so Stephen and I cross shoppers car parks where locks and cottages were once located. There were bridges at both Well Lane and Neachells Lane, the latter still being discernible adjacent to the Gem Centre building, before the line continued to Merrills Hall. The most interesting current feature around here is the nearby 'Old Cut New Rise' sculpture installation - this admirable nod to heritage depicts a stylised sequence of locks and is positioned by the site once home to the landmark Falcon pub.

- Hills Bridge -
Back in the very early days of my digital photo explorations, I vaguely remember doing a Wednesfield/Willenhall walk and spotting an isolated old bridge in some factory grounds. In all the intervening years I'd never made it back to confirm that sighting - until now that is, whereby I'm delighted to say that Hills Bridge is very much still intact having been preserved outside the offices of Corus (subsequently Tata Steel) and today can be seen wearing an attractive red covering of autumnal leaves.

- Mr Beardsmore at Fibbersley -
A path beyond the Tata plant brings us into the Fibbersley Local Nature Reserve, where the canal is only one example of the industrial activity once found in the vicinity. Mining and railways were also prominent here, but nowadays we have greenery and wildlife interspersed with wetland habitats. 

- 442 Bar -
Our initial route through the reserve emerges onto Noose Lane next to what was the Willenhall Town football ground, now home to Sporting Khalsa with the clubroom given an allover black look complete with 442 Bar Lounge branding. From here we take a quick detour to Watery Lane for some pool photographs then navigate further paths and tracks to pick up the canal trail again at Fibbersley Bridge. The Navigation pub just up the road is a continuing clue as to the presence of the cut in days gone by.

- View at Monmer Lane -
From Fibbersley to Monmer Lane the course of the canal is clearly identifiable as a wide grassy track skirting the back gardens of Thorne Road. We exit onto Monmer Lane itself next to a chicken coop, but the trail goes cold for a while when the next section is inaccessible having been fenced off behind an advertising billboard. We therefore continue via road, which does at least allow a few pub pictures focusing on the Cat (closed and boarded up), the Forge Tavern and the increasingly derelict Rushbrooke Farthing.

- Spring Bank Bridge -
The Forge and the Farthing stand facing each other on the junction of St Anne's Road and Sharesacre Street, and it's the second of those thoroughfares that provides our next piece of the jigsaw. Wandering up past a scrapyard we reach Spring Bank Bridge which carries an alleyway onwards into the Ashmore Lake trading estate. The surroundings here are certainly industrial as the line of the canal passes through the yard of a haulage depot, meaning we have to continue via the pavement round to Charles Street/Stringes Lane trying to pinpoint the location of Sandbeds Bridge and its accompanying locks, of which sadly little trace can be seen.

- Clarkes Lane -
The vacant Elm Park Tavern adds another boost to our pub pictures before Slater Street connects us to Clarkes Lane where the canal course again becomes much more apparent. A short green stretch heads back north-westwards towards what would have been the final Sandbeds Lock, but we press on in a south-easterly fashion from the embankment where Clarkes Lane Bridge was positioned. A wide track soon leads us to Durham Avenue (site of Farm Bridge) and then to County Bridge by the side of Bentley Cemetery.

- Hopyard Bridge -
The clear track continues as we proceed to Hopyard Bridge, the structure of which has been retained for a path that links two sections of the County Bridge housing estate. The local primary school then occupies the site of the canal for a short distance and I wonder whether we'll be able to locate much more of the line.

- Anson Road -
Luckily there is one further stretch for us to investigate whereby Anson Road flanks an area now used as a children's playground - the houses along one side of the road presumably once looked out over the towpath and the derelict waterway, perhaps not all that many years ago.  The A454 Black Country Route cuts a dual carriageway swathe through where the canal would have gone from here, although some allotments parallel to Wrexham Avenue seem to mark out the former course leading up to the Anson Branch terminus.

- Meeting with the Anson Branch -
Our mission is not complete though until we've visited the eastern extremities of the line, which means a stroll along Bentley Mill Way to find some rather overgrown junction remains in the shadow of the Boundary Mill store. Here a mournful black service pipe spans the reeds where the Bentley Canal would have emerged to meet the Anson Branch. We've certainly covered a fair old distance in exploring the canal from point to point, noting the curious symmetry that has resulted in modern retail parks book-ending the canal's former termini, and with that we treat ourselves to a refreshing drink in Walsall and a chance to recover from our exertions. Mission accomplished!

Sunday, September 27

Cannock and Hednesford

Friday 25th September 2015 brings with it the occasion of the Cannock Chase Beer Festival, meaning Nick and myself are all aboard for another Staffordshire ale adventure...

- Cannock Park -
A bright autumnal morning greets us as we join the number 154 bus for our ride to Cannock. The route was introduced by National Express West Midlands to provide wider access to the i54 development, thus operating between Wolverhampton and Hednesford via Pendeford Business Park, Featherstone and Cheslyn Hay. Arriving in Cannock in advance of the festival, we enjoy a little stroll through the local park before collecting photos of the Chase Leisure Centre, the Roebuck and the British Legion club.

- Enjoying a belated breakfast? -
The Prince of Wales Centre is the festival venue so it is perhaps no surprise that Nick feels instantly at home, especially as we have an excellent selection of ales to choose from. First to tickle the tastebuds is Plain Ales' Inncognito, a 'night black' stout with hints of aged port, while Nick's memorable concluding tipple came courtesy of Breakfast Stout, a sledgehammer of a brew loaded with German grains and Brazilian coffee beans - wow!

- Another triumph on the tombola! -
In between times, things got rather fruity through the combination of Apricot Jungle and Rasberry Blonde, plenty of heady flavours to savour there. After that it all went rather hazy for Nick (Hebden's Naturally Hazy Wheat Beer to be precise) whereas I was easily distracted by Devon Darkness and some super Scilly Stout. There were boxes of vintage beermats to investigate (recalling bygone breweries such as Vaux, Devenish and Tolly Cobbold) while the tombola came up trumps for Mr Men socks and a 'Born to Shop' keyring!

- Hednesford Station Sign -
With so many interesting ales available it was a shame to tear ourselves away, but we had beer business to attend to in Hednesford hence the 154 bus was summoned back into action. The section of the route between Cannock and Hednesford features Cannock Chase Hospital, Chadsmoor and Huntington Terrace Road (including the Jolly Collier pub). We alight on Belt Road so as to sample the Bridge Inn, following up on a festival recommendation by trying a Tasty Tackle (Burton Bridge Brewery) before wandering down for a quick look at Hednesford's railway station, an unstaffed halt on the Chase Line.

- The Hedgeford Lodge -
Our primary mission in Hednesford was to sample the town's new Wetherspoon's - the Hedgeford Lodge - which opened earlier this year in a prominent historic building overlooking the landmark clock just off Market Street. Some Scapa Special (Black Knight for Nick) is obtained as we give the renovation our seal of approval before sitting outside in some pleasant September sunshine.

- The Cheslyn Hay Cob Culprit -
To the 154 once more, catching the bus on Victoria Street opposite the Tesco superstore and settling in for a smoothly swift ride to Cheslyn Hay. The mining heritage of the village here is reflected in the name of the Colliers Arms pub, which becomes our final port of call for some Holden's Golden Glow and a crusty cheese and onion cob amid a homely community atmosphere. 

- Former Library Location -
And that is nearly that, save for a couple of quick pictures before the 154 has the honour of bringing proceedings to a close. From the bus stop I photograph the Nile Practice medical centre as housed in Cheslyn Hay's former branch library (the library itself having relocated to the village hall on Pinfold Lane), and with our connection running on time we're soon en route to Wolverhampton having added another cracking outing to our roving repertoire. Cheers!

Sunday, September 13

Nick Turpin Heads East!

Friday 11th September 2015 and our favourite highwayman is firmly on ale alert as we eagerly exploit the East Midlands with a visit to the Hinckley Beer Festival...

- Station Sign -
Birmingham New Street is our rendezvous location on this occasion, the station fast approaching its official reopening following a complete overhaul - it'll be fascinating to see the finished facility in due course. I find Nick Turpin poised on platform 12A in readiness for our 09:52 Cross Country train towards Leicester, which calls at Coleshill Parkway and Nuneaton before bringing us neatly into Hinckley.

- Crescent Construction -
Hinckley Station meets with our approval (particularly the old station building) as we arrive just on half past ten. Station Road provides a direct route into the town centre where construction of The Crescent is well underway - the project will create a brand new leisure and retail destination complete with Sainsbury's, TK Maxx and Cineworld. The whole scheme is due to open in the autumn and sits adjacent to the town's bus station, where the dated brown shelters are familiar from my previous visits to Hinckley.

- Hansom Heritage -
Continuing via Regent Street and The Borough, there is evidence of Hinckley's heritage as a hosiery town whereby the High Cross Building still bears signs for knitwear and underwear. Another claim to fame is the creation of the Hansom Cab as designed by the architect Joseph Hansom when he was based locally.

- Hinckley War Memorial -
Our tour of the town centre also takes in St Mary's parish church (hosting a Women's Institute market) and the adjacent Argents Mead park with its jubilee bandstand. A mound within the park grounds was historically the site of Hinckley Castle, a motte and bailey fortress built in Norman times. These days the bailey area is home to the town's war memorial as we look out to see where a new leisure centre is being built nearby.

- Quality Quiche -
Castle Street is arguably Hinckley's principal outdoor shopping street and is a lively affair with a multitude of market stalls in full swing. The time is now approaching midday so our thoughts turn to all things ale, and after a bit of random navigation we eventually happen across the Atkins Building where the beer festival is taking place (next door to the college as it turns out). Collecting glasses, programme and token cards we brace ourselves for beer and I immediately savour delectable brews including a Light Irish Stout and Elliswood's Jolly Jack Tar. For his part Nick Turpin avails himself of Ashover Elderflower followed by Nene Valley's Bible Black before proudly posing with a cheese and mushroom quiche!

- A Dragon Detour -
Sitting outside in the sunshine by the tapas stand we are soon joined by fellow ale enthusiast Mike as the supping and sampling continues. I was very impressed by Berry Dangerous (infused with berries from the Chatsworth estate) while Nick gets embroiled in a Banana Drama but thankfully emerges relatively unscathed. Our ultimate favourite of all the ales tasted was however the Chocolate Guerrilla from Blue Monkey, a lovely stout with an intense chocolatey aroma - heavenly! With tokens spent we prepare to peruse the local pubs but not before Nick Turpin tries out some dragon-taming in the college foyer.

- Triple Chocoholic -
Hinckley has two pubs listed in the newly-published 2016 Good Beer Guide so we made sure to try out both. The New Plough Inn is a Marston's pub on Leicester Road where some Burton Bitter hit the spot among the framed rugby shirts, whereas the Queens Head on Upper Bond Street is a free house of Victorian vintage with an enticing interior. Here we strike gold in the form of Saltaire's Triple Chocoholic, a thoroughly indulgent speciality ale brimful of cocoa and chocolate wonderment.

- Pestle & Mortar Micropub -
A couple of further Hinckley alehouses also had us intrigued. The Pestle and Mortar is a recent arrival on the scene, a Castle Street micropub that only opened a couple of weeks ago. Named to reflect a previous use as a chemist's shop we enjoyed some Church Farm Brown's Porter before making our way to the Railway, a Steamin' Billy establishment back by the station where a half of 1485 primes us nicely for our train.

- The Hoot Highwayman -
Our journey back to Birmingham is punctuated by a pause in Nuneaton where the Crown is handily located a few yards from the railway station. The CAMRA members price of £2.25 a pint is certainly tempting as we select Black Country Chain Ale and Potbelly Beijing Black respectively; we then get chatting to a chap from Coventry CAMRA who was most informative about happenings in Godiva's fair city. Brum now awaits, and with darkness falling we have ideal conditions for an owl spotting session, hence making the acquaintance of The Big Hoot specimens in Victoria Square and round by the cathedral.

- An Owl Delivery -
Among the sculptures sighted were Alf the Penguin Owl (with goggles and a snorkel), Priceless Owl (celebrating the 250th anniversary of Lloyds Bank), Tick Tock (with a clockwork heart) and Owl By Night (shimmering in the flashlight with mirrored mosaic) as the event continues to capture many imaginations including ours!

- Doctor Whoot -
A final artistic treat awaits us in the foyer of Snow Hill Station where Doctor Whoot can be found paying homage to the legendary TV series and its tardis. With that we catch our corresponding trains home, thus bringing to a close this Turpin tale of owls and ales. Cheers!

Sunday, September 6

Hoot Marketing

As part of The Big Hoot art event, owl statues have sprung up in various landmark locations across Birmingham since the end of July. Never ones to miss out on a silly photo opportunity, the Hub Marketing Board decided to join the fun by paying a September visit to 'Sutton Owlfield' in search of sculptures...

- New Square, West Bromwich -
We swoop into action with a meeting in West Bromwich that includes a look around the New Square development, home to various high street brands, a large Tesco superstore and an Odeon cinema. The somewhat infamous Public building is also a prime feature here, now in use as a sixth form college despite being originally envisaged as an eyecatching art gallery. It's all a far cry from the days when the town's bus station was located here with a B&Q backdrop.

- WME without much hair! -
New Square is also home to bars and restaurants with the Interceptor falling into that category as a Hungry Horse chain pub. Some Greene King IPA is obtained here as we study the various references made to Jensen Motors, a local manufacturer of sports cars and commercial vehicles with the pub being named after one of their popular models. Besides the automotive heritage, Secretary WME's haircut is arousing interest as he attempts to rival D9 in the bald spot stakes.

- The Collingwood Centre -
A ride on the 5 takes us to Queslett where we alight by the Asda store and the Old Horns pub (a Sizzling effort overlooking the roundabout). D9 hopes for a discount but a lack of Doom Bar sends us scampering into Pheasey for some Platinum-spotting outside the Collingwood Centre. National Express West Midlands are introducing a branded fleet of new buses promising additional comfort and on-board wifi, with routes such as the 934, 936 and 997 among those getting the premium treatment.

- Deers Leap Darts -
The now-customary silly songs contest is held on route to the Deers Leap, Alexei Sayle enquiring about new motors before the strained operatic sounds of 'Juanita Banana' echo along Stanhope Way. The Deers Leap itself is the setting for more darts action, with WME's lack of hair not preventing him from securing a comprehensive 5-1 victory despite D9 trying underhand tactics!

- Spotted on a Kingstanding Staircase -
At the Chairman's request our next agenda item is Kingstanding, investigating the Sportsman's Rest on Cooksey Lane then the Co-op and the Mecca Bingo at Kingstanding Circle. A ferret around the shopping precinct is required but sadly there was no vintage Lunn Poly evidence to be found, hence a compensatory bald spot picture is taken instead.

- WME meets Hedwig Owl -
Back on the 5 and we home in on Sutton Coldfield eager to make the most of any owl opportunities that might come our way. One top target can be found perched outside the Empire Cinema where Hedwig Owl is inspired by the Harry Potter books and film series. Something tells us this Hoot Marketing is going to be fun!

- A Bird-Related Bald Spot -
To the Gracechurch Centre where we find a veritable parliament of owls including the pirate-themed Ahoy Matey plus a selection of smaller owlets, some of which look rather startled when seeing the bald spot approaching. Admittedly the Chairman was slightly grumpy at this point having just witnessed Secretary WME pocketing a Wetherspoons discount in the Bottle of Sack courtesy of Sadler's Goldie Locks ale.

- D9 with the Sutton Coldfield Owl -
Our tour of Sutton Owlfield concludes with a final brace of birds - Serenity (taking roost by the gardens at Holy Trinity Church) and the Sutton Coldfield Owl (located outside the Birmingham Metropolitan College campus on Lichfield Road). We only covered a handful of sculptures today but across Brum the Big Hoot seems to have been a considerable success - the event continues until 27th September after which the larger owls will be auctioned off to raise funds for Birmingham Children's Hospital.

- D9 in need of some Good News -
With a bit of assistance from the 902 bus, members now proceed into Mere Green where the Chairman's wallet suffers collateral damage from the local beer prices. The Butlers Arms delivers a Golden Promise (thank goodness we avoided the pink champagne) whereas the Old Speckled Hen involves a Scrum Down special brew in preparation for the Rugby World Cup. The excessive expenditure means poor D9 is grateful of the comfort provided by the newspaper awaiting him when catching the 6 to Aldridge.

- A Platinum Pose -
The Secretary's sleeve is starting to twitch which is a sure sign he has something tucked away in his memory bank of local knowledge. On this occasion the item in question is the Red Lion on Station Road where the latest WME darts victory is confirmed. The Bowman lurks deeper within the estate off Red House Lane before we finally get our much-anticipated ride on a Platinum when the 997 has D9 in position making the most of the extra steering space.

- Fiery Finish -
Evening has descended but there's just time for a nightcap or two in Walsall and Moxley sandwiching a ride on the 313. The Fiery Holes is nominated as our landing point, the pub having established a popular takeaway curry menu. Our glasses are thus raised to the end of an enjoyably eventful excursion - you could even say it's been a hoot!

Thursday, September 3

WME Flickr Focus: August 2015

Time for our monthly update on photostream progress, and August brought with it some notable new additions to bring my overall photocount to 2,696 pictures...

WME Sandwell has earned first mention on this occasion, summoning up shots of Swan Bridge (the Wednesbury Old Canal), the lake at West Smethwick Park and the Pheasant pub in Warley. There are also a couple of Wednesbury arrivals in the form of the John Wesley commemorative plaque and a sneaky peek inside the Old Leathern Bottel, a pub I must admit I rather like.

Bustling over into WME Birmingham now where I can report a further sighting of Spring Road railway station's old corrugated hut (sadly no longer a part of the station scene there) plus Ward End Park and Conker Island at Warren Farm near Kingstanding. There's even a rare example of a picture from this very year thanks to the Town Gate sign at Sutton Park as captured on camera back in January.

WME Staffordshire has been busy in the vicinity of Lichfield Trent Valley station, hardly the most photogenic of places if a platform feature made out of crazy paving is anything to go by. The Trent Valley pub as was gets an airing, the building more recently being used as a children's nursery. Not to be overlooked, Trysull makes a couple of contributions courtesy of the Plough pub and a village sign.

WMEs Walsall and Wolverhampton have been in update action all year thus far and maintain their respective 100% records with Riddian Bridge (Daw End Canal) and Streetly Children's Centre from Walsall backed by Wards Bridge (Wyrley & Essington Canal) and the new Wednesfield Library mid-construction from Wolverhampton. Finally for this month, there are encouraging noises emanating from both WME Shropshire and WME Solihull. The Salopian selection is a High Street view from Much Wenlock and the Railway pub in Whitchurch, whereas Solihull tickles the towpath of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal for a brace of bridge 23 vistas. That's all for now folks, and although I predict September will be a slower month in terms of update action, there might still be a few tasty morsels dropping into place!