Saturday, February 27

Hub Carpeting the Second

Back in September 2014, the Hub Marketing Board descended upon the Wyre Forest district for a day of wanderings covering Bewdley and Kidderminster. Now, some 18 months later, we were back in the area for the Stourport-centred sequel...

- A Breakfast Cuppa -
A Bradley Lane rendezvous means members meet aboard the Midland Metro in advance of a brief stay at The Hawthorns (where the proximity to all things West Bromwich Albion still makes the Secretary shudder). A hassle-free interchange brings our onward train to Kidderminster and we touch down in Worcestershire's carpet town just in time for breakfast. This in turn is ably supplied by the Oxford Cafe complete with red chairs, fried bread and black pudding - wonderful!

- Rugged Driving on the 3 -
Fortified for the exertions to come, we board the 3 at Kidderminster Bus Station and partake of a Diamond DaySaver at £2.80 each. Always one for some novelty headgear, the Chairman uses the back seat setting to unveil his latest anti-baldness device in the form of a floppy blanket. The jury is still out on whether it properly qualifies as a rug but this does not prevent Mr D9 from steering us to Stourport via Birchen Coppice.

- Mitton Chapel Bridge -
The Secretary has a longstanding fondness for Stourport-on-Severn dating from childhood holidays spent at his Nan's caravan in the area, while the historic canal basins are always worth a visit. The towpath beckons today with a stretch along the Staffordshire & Worcestershire from York Street Lock to Leapgate Railway Bridge. Along the way there are bridges at Gilgal and Mitton Chapel, D9 comes over all David Attenborough when paying close attention to some frisky ducks and there's the prospect of an opening Hobsons half at the Bird in Hand. 'WME Whirlwind' took rather a shine to the dartboard here, powering his way to a 3-0 lead as 'D9 Destroyer' withered in the face of consistent scoring.

- Leapgate Old Railway Line -
The disused railway bridge is our cue to leave the canal behind and join the old trackbed above which has been retained as a linear country park walkway. Stourport had a station on the original Severn Valley Railway route which formerly connected Shrewsbury and Hartlebury (the current heritage operation reflects only part of the line), and there was also a halt at nearby Burlish Crossing. We take the path for the short distance to Wilden enjoying some scenic views of the River Stour.

- Caveman Chairman -
At Wilden the Chairman can unleash his inner neanderthal during a visit to the Rock Tavern. The pub itself is food-orientated and quite posh but does have a spectacular smoking shelter courtesy of a sandstone cave. We aren't quite brave enough to venture deeper within (it looked very dark) so we take the safer option of sampling the Bay Horse, a cosy Marston's local on the Hartlebury Road.

- The Stourport Skellyman -
Meandering our way back into Stourport town centre, we make the acquaintance of a certain Skellyman outside a scooter repair place. Bones rattled, we switch our attention to two of Stourport's Good Beer Guide entries, the Hollybush (Black Country Ales) and the Black Star (Wye Valley Brewery). Both pubs meet with members' considered approval thanks to the provision of excellent ales, Titanic Plum Porter and Dorothy Goodbody's Wholesome Stout respectively.

- Stagborough Arms -
By this stage the Chairman was aching for a proper precinct pub, the kind with limited architectural merit and a roof of dubious proportions. Luckily the Secretary knows precisely the place, just down Lickhill Road a little further on from the Memorial Park. The Stagborough Arms is thus revealed perched next to the local shops; some Worcestershire Way (Bewdley Brewery) accompanies our further attempts on the dartboard but the 'D9 Destroyer' is still losing despite a remarkable bulls-eye induced 70 checkout.

- A Grizzly Situation -
From the Stagborough we take a stroll down by the Severn, inspecting the Riverside Gardens (and closets) before venturing into the Treasure Island amusement park. There are plenty of pirates to pose with here, not to mention Disney characters, scrummaging rugby players and a certain purple dinosaur. Our chosen picture from this portion of the trip shows Mr D9 embracing an ursine companion with great gusto.

- A Cheapside Bald Spot -
Continuing our riverside ramble, we tiptoe across the locks in the shadow of the Tontine and then explore old factory remains at Cheapside. The Chairman is distracted by a vintage clocking-in machine and leaves his bald spot unguarded (no 'rug' to save him this time) before atmospheric alleyways take us round by the Angel and thence onto High Street for our next bus.

- It's just not cricket! -
A quick pit stop at Birchen Coppice (where Mr D9 drools about the Radcliffe Arms) precedes a final flourish in Kidderminster itself. Two Weavers establishments of differing sizes take pride of place on our itinerary here - the Park Lane version having Father Mike's Dark Rich Ruby (and a game of darts 'cricket' that had D9 grumbling about the rules) while the Comberton Hill counterpart offered Corvedale's Dark and Delicious. A wait for our train means surreptitious munching of scotch eggs, and our carpeting crusade is complete once more. Cheers!

Sunday, February 14

Chip Foundation Chronicles: Codsall

Also opening their account for 2016 are the Chip Foundation courtesy of a Saturday Summit meeting concentrating on Claregate and Codsall...

- Hailing Morton's magnificent micropub -
An 11:30 rendezvous at Wolverhampton Bus Station is timed to allow onward progression aboard the 5A, riding up through Dunstall and Whitmore Reans into Claregate. We alight in readiness for Hail to the Ale, the reigning CAMRA Pub of the Year for the West Midlands region (covering Shropshire, Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire in addition to the West Midlands county). Some excellent Unweal Stout and Morton's very own Scottish Maiden are sampled along with a crusty cob, while the canine gallery in the conveniences is proof of the pub's popularity among the four-legged fraternity.

- 5 at Bakers Way terminus -
After a most relaxing hour or so of micropub hospitality we rejoin the 5A for the stretch into Codsall, encountering Birches Bridge junction but avoiding the loop around Bilbrook. Nick takes a shine to the Lone Singer sculpture displayed by Bakers Way bus stop whereas Stephen is more enamoured with Greggs bakery, eyeing up possible pastries for later on. A further item of intrigue is the Crown pub, currently undergoing a Joules Brewery makeover and set to reopen later this spring - it will definitely require a visit once the refurb is complete.

- Turbostar train at Codsall -
The Bull seems to be busy with pre-match football fans while the Station also boasts its fair share of Wolves shirts in attendance. The latter is our second port of call, a Holden's pub positioned in the converted waiting room and stationmaster's quarters of Codsall's old railway house. As such it combines two of my favourite themes; transport heritage and beer, a surefire winner! There are plenty of old signal box signs and station totems to add to the atmosphere plus the ale hits the spot - Nick tries Holden's new 101 Black Pale Ale whereas I opt for Pacific Cascade from Mallinsons. Being next door to the rail line has its advantages, so at one point I sneak out for a picture or two of the Shrewsbury-bound train, a nice little bonus that.

- Firs Club Cobs -
Codsall is also home to Wolverhampton CAMRA's 2015 Club of the Year, this being the Firs Club around the back of the Co-op. Non members are welcome here so we don't have to worry about smuggling Stephen inside; instead we can simply enjoy a round of cobs and beer (Three Tuns XXX or Belhaven 80 Shilling being the guests on offer). The Six Nations rugby gets going on the big screen and I spy a pumpclip for a mysterious Old Git ale which sounds like the ideal beverage for Nick to pose with (sorry HRH I couldn't resist). Stephen then gets his cake fix, licking his way through a vanilla doughnut in his own inimitable style with Nick and I demolishing an apple danish each.

- Domino in the Dog & Doublet -
Our return towards Wolverhampton includes a call in the Newhampton, a classic street corner local on Riches Street in Whitmore Reans. Nick falls foul of a Dirty Tackle here as the smoke room TV screen mysteriously decided to switch itself off (but not before informing us that Wolves were losing). We brace ourselves for post-game congestion as the 1 drops us off for the Dog & Doublet, our setting for some Domino Welsh Stout (Big Hand Brewery) and a few sporting updates. A tidal wave of football supporters then escort us back towards the bus and railway stations, completing an afternoon well spent!

Hub Marketing 2016: Wolverhampton

The Hub Marketing Board's opening excursion of 2016 is an investigation of Wolverhampton's industrial innards, taking in the history and hospitality of the areas just outside the ring road...

- Cleveland Road Garage Homage -
We get underway with a former transport location. Cleveland Road Garage was the base for several Wolverhampton bus routes (sharing the network with Park Lane) but is now an indoor car park, not that this stops our Chairman from convening a tribute driving pose. The future of the garage remains uncertain pending redevelopment of the wider area that has already seen the derelict Newmarket pub and neighbouring Cleveland Club be demolished. Dixons decorating store soldiers on valiantly at the top of the street but the entire scene is still loomed over by the depressing disused shell of the Royal Hospital.

- Gordon Street -
Although progress with the old hospital seems to have stalled again following the withdrawal of Tesco from the scheme, All Saints as a whole is seeing some changes taking place. Evidence of this can be seen on Gordon Street where several new houses have sprung up, encouraging signs mirrored by the successful Royal Gardens development on Raby Street.

- Bob's Book -
A long-serving All Saints landmark is the Dartmouth Arms on Vicarage Road, scene of our first tipple of the year. Banks's Mild accompanies a few legs of darts and a look at a vintage folder of pub notes compiled many years ago by a chap known as 'Bob the Bus'. Bob listed several lost inns and taverns the length and breadth of the country, often including snippets of entertaining commentary about beer and toilet quality.

- Pond Lane Mission -
Thirst quenched, we proceed along Vicarage Road to Pond Lane where the Secretary's sleeve reveals a tin tabernacle mission church constructed out of corrugated metal. A disused launderette and the Builder's Arms are next for some photographic attention before a stroll across to the Dudley Road reveals that the Kings Arms is being converted into a couple of shop units. The pub played a notable part in early Wolverhampton Wanderers history, the team having been formed in Blakenhall prior to their move to Molineux.

- Blakenhall Backstreet Baldness -
Blakenhall these days is a busy multicultural area that has undergone a relatively recent transformation. Tower blocks have been flattened and the local shopping precinct completely rebuilt, although there is still the British Queen and various terraced sidestreets for a sense of continuity. We take Ranelagh Road through to Haggar Street in remembering the spot where Phoenix Rise once stood.

- St Luke's Church -
A photo or two of the Rose & Crown on Park Street South precedes a closer look at St Luke's Church, which must surely rank as one of the most eye-catching buildings in Wolverhampton. The Gothic Revival style architecture is certainly impressive although structural problems have meant that worship now takes place at the adjacent primary school. Formal closure proceedings are underway given that the repair bill is estimated to cost a million pounds or more.

- Sunbeam Saved? -
We've now arrived into a corner of town historically associated with the motor industry. Villiers Engineering Company was based on Marston Road while 'Sunbeamland' was a major centre for car and motorcycle manufacture. The Yew Tree pub on Pool Street sits in among all this heritage and seems like an appropriate place to stop for a pint (and re-runs of Michael Barrymore television quiz shows). I'm pleased to see that Sunbeam's long-derelict Jeddo Street works are finally being brought back into use with the first batch of apartments nearing completion.

- Cheers from the Chestnut Tree -
From Penn Road island we mooch into Merridale, weaving via St Mark's Road and Oak Street past a different Yew Tree watering hole. A short ride on the number 3 then connects us to Finchfield where some Thwaites' Wainwright is available in the Chestnut Tree, Secretary WME enjoying the ale even if D9 isn't as enthusiastic about the price!

- A Merry Hill Moment -
Finchfield Lane with its monkey puzzle tree roundabout is our link into Merry Hill where the locality's eponymous pub occupies the junction with Trysull Road. Here there are darts to be decided as Secretary WME begins the new year with a double top checkout on route to a 7-4 victory - the Chairman was probably distracted by nostalgic thoughts of driving the 513 bus back in the days when he had some hair left.

- Silly Sausage -
The day's finale is a Bradmore bash encompassing the Bradmore Arms (for cheap Carlsberg), the Chindit (where we get Bitter & Twisted over a game of pool) and some D9 misdemeanours with a battered sausage, the least said about which the better. Old faithful the tram waiting room sees us smoothly to the close, and this first foray of 2016 can consider itself filed as a superb starter. Cheers!

Sunday, February 7

Alcester Tales and Winter Ales

For Nick and myself the Redditch Winter Ale Festival has become a much-anticipated event on our beer sampling calendar, marking the curtain raiser each year for another twelve months of festival fun. This time around our visit to the Rocklands Club in Headless Cross comes with a Stagecoach supplement and some action from Alcester - here comes the tale of the trip...

- St Stephen's Church -
Catching the 10:02 Cross City train from Birmingham New Street, we descend upon Redditch in advance of our Stagecoach connection. A spare half hour or so is put to good use investigating St Stephen's parish church and Mercian Square (home to a small street market and the town library) while the Kingfisher Centre looms large as an indoor shopping arcade.

- A somewhat small Stratford Stagecoach -
It was now time for our bus with a slightly-delayed route 26 being on hand from Stand G at the bus station. Despite my hopes for a double decker it's actually a little Solo minibus that turns up, but all passengers safely squeeze aboard for the ride down through Headless Cross, Crabbs Cross (where the Fleece Inn is a notable landmark) and Studley. The most impressive feature of the journey is Coughton Court, a Tudor stately pile that Nick rather fancies requisitioning as his second home.

- Historic High Street -
Alighting by the police station and the Roman Alcester Museum, we make our way past the Swan Hotel coaching inn to Alcester's intriguing High Street; here several more pubs and taverns rub shoulders with a variety of independent shops and family businesses. The town's architecture is a harmonious mixture of old-fashioned beams and elegant Georgian townhouses, while St Nicholas' Church looks proudly on with its clock unusually positioned on one corner of the tower.

- Jolly in the Holly Bush -
Nick's research had identified three particular pubs we were aiming to try. The first, the Holly Bush opposite the Old Town Hall, serves up some cracking Ebony Stout from Woods of Shropshire before we proceed in turn to the Turks Head (food-orientated but a nice Tiny Rebel brew) and the Three Tuns (Hobson's Mild and a patchwork sofa), those latter two hostelries both being on High Street.

- Black Bull Porter -
To the festival then with our return 26 Stagecoach dropping us off practically on the doorstep (after an unexpected loop of Alcester's outer estates). The function room in the Rocklands Club becomes our home for the next few hours, working our way through the beer list in the company of Mike. Fixed Wheel's Blackheath Stout makes an excellent opening impression followed ably by some Stockporter and a Kinver Cavegirl. Add in a Leatherbritches Hairy Helmet (I always like a silly name) plus a half of No Brakes to finish and I thoroughly enjoy the occasion. Nick also samples the Blackheath Stout along with some Black Bull Porter and Burton Bridge's Damson Porter, sticking steadfastly to the dark side of the ale spectrum.

- The Black Tap Brew Pub -
Taking our leave from the festival, we seek out the Rising Sun Wetherspoons for a bite to eat and then concentrate on sampling a recent addition to Redditch's real ale scene. The Black Tap brew pub opened last year on Church Green East and serves beer produced on the premises - some Scots Wha Hae does very nicely as we ponder life and the universe from the comfort of the main bar.

- Our homeward steed -
All good things come to an end as we wave goodbye to Redditch until next time by availing ourselves of the 19:12 Cross City connection back to Birmingham. Looking back on a fantastic day, Alcester was an absolute delight to explore, the Black Tap a distinctive pub discovery and the Redditch Beer Festival has us off and running for another year of ale activities. Cheers!

Tuesday, February 2

Railway Roaming around Brownhills

February 2016's Monday Mission is the sixteenth episode in a series dating back to September 2014, and sees me tasked with further investigations of the former South Staffordshire railway line. Having already bitten off chunks in Ryecroft (last August) and Pelsall (January just gone), I would now be concentrating on the section between Ryders Hayes and Brownhills, complete with the potential for things to turn Ogley!

- Free Trade Inn, a sad sight -

As in January, I get underway aboard the number 89 bus, riding out of Wolverhampton and enduring a loud rap music chorus courtesy of some rather inconsiderate fellow passengers. My eardrums can start to recover when I alight at Pelsall Wood, hopping off on Trevor Road to see if the nearby Free Trade Inn is still standing (answer: it is but looks a bit of a mess). Photos of the pub go hand in hand with shots of Pelsall Works Bridge as the Wyrley & Essington Canal nears Pelsall Junction. It's a gusty old morning and I have to brace myself not to get blown over as I proceed past Moat Farm Pool and the famous fingerpost traffic sign.

- Pool near Ryders Hayes -

A short stroll later and Ryders Hayes Lane brings me back to the spot visited in January somewhere in the vicinity of a lost level crossing. A tempting footpath stretches out ahead so naturally I follow this, tackling increasingly waterlogged underfoot conditions as I arrive at an open pool. Somehow I don't think the disused line came this close to the water's edge so I speculate I must have gone wrong somewhere, a feeling that gets confirmed when a further muddy track brings me beneath a railway bridge as I pitch up at a stable block.

- Bullows Road Bridge -

Those of you with personal experience of my occasionally wayward directions will no doubt be unsurprised at such a turn of events! Luckily I am permitted to cross the stable's yard (provided I don't scare the horses) and can exit safely onto Lichfield Road in search of proper access to the railway. Bullows Road (beside the One Stop convenience depot) comes to the rescue as I shimmy up the embankment and join a well-trodden footpath. Keen to see exactly where I'd gone astray, I head back towards Pelsall and discover I'd only been slightly out with my initial directions. Having given myself the requisite telling-off, I resume my original plan and aim for Brownhills.

- The railway crosses the canal -

Beyond Bullows Road, the old line soon reaches Clayhanger Lane (a bridge I know well from street level) and then crosses above the Curly Wyrley on a rusty relic of a metal structure. A brief detour onto the canal itself offers first ever photos of Becks Bridge (close to the Swan pub), while at Jolly Collier Bridge I branch off into Clayhanger for a well-earned bit of lunch. With my energy reserves suitably replenished, I return to the walkway only to find that access ends shortly after the Swan anyway; the line from this point through to Brownhills is out of bounds and seems to have a lot of standing water.

- From Clayhanger towards Brownhills -

My trail therefore continues via street and pavement, weaving along Wallace Road to emerge by Brownhills Police Station and the Hussey Arms. Holland Park flanks one side of the railway, as do the playing fields of The Brownhills School. The town's former railway station was situated just off the A452 Chester Road traffic island and adjacent to the landmark Town Hall with its ornate clock - I wonder if a curve in the railings here could be the ghost of a platform access ramp. The station closed in 1965 along with the passenger service along the entire line between Lichfield and Walsall.

- A Crowned Clock -

Satisfied with my railway reconnaissance, my attention now turns to matters of Ogley Hay. From Smithy's Forge I use the B4155 Lichfield Road to discover the 'Memo' (the colloquial name for the Memorial Hall), with Barnetts Lane revealing scout huts and a cemetery. The Sankey Working Men's Club is also an intriguing feature as I reach Ogley Corner, marked by a crossroads sign and a Costcutter supermarket that seems to have been turned into a little gym. 

- Ogley Crossroads -

Ogley Road then stretches back to the A452 and the bottom end of Brownhills High Street - a key feature here is the shell of the Warreners Arms, a building that served as a McDonald's restaurant for a while but now acts as the base for a hand car wash operation. From here I flag down an oncoming 10A for my ride through to Walsall and that my friends is that - more miles walked and another mission very much accomplished!