Thursday, March 31

WME Flickr Focus: March 2016

The first three months of 2016 have together proved rather productive in terms of photostream arrivals. Whereas January and February both cast their nets across the country for pictorial content, March very much fished in more local waters...

The biggest catch on offer this time around was that hauled in by WME Walsall. A trio of bus routes were successfully landed - the 355 and 655 at Aldridge plus the 370 at Beechdale - while Barr Beacon's war memorial was very much appreciated as a landmark on the distant horizon. There might be a few little tiddlers to tempt out of the local canals, in which case Barnfield Bridge (Daw End Branch) and the disused Anson Branch (two towpath scenes) could be places to try. 

Several prized specimens were plucked out on WME Dudley whereby my newly-established Black Country Living Museum pool has already become reasonably well stocked. The Castle Fields Boat Dock, the Bottle & Glass Inn, Lench's Oliver Shop and a Guy Vixen coach have all taken residence here, while over in Amblecote a brooding Swan is lurking courtesy of an evening pub sign shot.

With baited rod we now see what else has been brought safely to shore. WME Birmingham lured in two shots from the Bartons Arms in Aston (a pub with a very special interior) while WME Shropshire got a brace of bites from Albrighton (including a photo of the Gibson garage). A solitary transport-related tug on the line each for WME Coventry (a number 19 bus at Tile Hill), WME Solihull (the 40a at Knowle) and WME Staffordshire (route 428 at Lichfield), and then our catch is completed by a certain patchwork elephant character coming up for air on WME Wolverhampton. The angling is all set to continue into April, so I'll be sure to report any notable additions in due course albeit probably minus any fishy metaphors!!

Tuesday, March 29

Golds Hill Good Friday

A little Easter extra from the Hub Marketing Board here as we go on the trail of the former Balls Hill Branch Canal around Hill Top and Harvills Hawthorn...

- Taking a break at Black Lake -
Good Friday 2016 and a midday meet sees us Metro-bound for Black Lake as our chosen starting point. The Ridgacre Branch is close at hand when we alight at the tram stop - this canal once linked with the Balls Hill Branch, both being offshoots of the Wednesbury Old Canal. There are a couple of pub stops to account for prior to us exploring any lost waterways, although the Chairman does find time to test out an abandoned armchair.

- The Sow & Pigs -
Our first port of call is the Sow & Pigs on Hill Top which has been renovated and relaunched under the Two Crafty Brewers brand. Hub members visited the place when it was a somewhat fading Banks's boozer so it is pleasing to see one of West Bromwich's oldest watering holes getting a new lease of life, even if a little of the building's internal character has been sacrificed. A nice pint of Russian Bear accompanies our initial exchanges on the dartboard with WME Whirlwind taking an early advantage.

- Bakery Baldness -
Pub two is the New Talbot just down the road where we are tempted in by a Wye Valley sign on the pavement outside. A half of HPA is duly obtained and the darts continue, D9 Destroyer coming back into contention until WME reclaims the lead courtesy of a 43 checkout featuring a double 11 finish. Perhaps the Chairman was distracted by recollections of a well-known local business, Firkins having been a prominent name for well over 100 years until their Black Lake bakery closed and the firm ultimately went into liquidation.

- Double Delight for WME -
The Black Lake estates bring back a few bus memories for Mr D9 before the day's musical interlude ushers forth delights from Barbara Windsor and Bruce Forsyth. We're firmly on the hunt for the Balls Hill Branch now and know the old canal once passed close to the Beehive on Brickhouse Lane. Despite a seemingly isolated location the pub is still trading and presumably survives on the custom of factory workers. Board members can't resist calling in for a quick Carling, satisfying our collective curiosity and completing the darts in the process with WME Whirlwind nailing double 12 to seal a 6-3 scoreline.

- Remembering Brickhouse Bridge -
Brickhouse Bridge was indeed situated right next to the Beehive as evidenced by a vintage bus photo from the Chairman's research. We pay appropriate tribute to said spot before tracking the former canal as closely as possible - the course does however pass directly through a private scrapyard and along an embankment, so we keep tabs as best we can along George Henry Road and Bagnall Street.

- Canal Site at Golds Hill -
The next clear trace we can find of the canal is a green wasteland strip behind the Miners Arms at Golds Hill. St Paul's Parish Church heralds our approach before we rummage around the back of the pub to reveal a ribbon of grassland stretching back a short distance - sadly the section is cordoned off behind a security fence so we are unable to investigate in further detail.

- Golds Hill Crossing -
Pikehelve Street and Shaw Street offer up our next clues, Chairman D9 eagerly embracing the latter thoroughfare and then marching down a mysterious gravel track that ultimately emerges at Golds Hill Crossing. This is where the South Staffordshire Line once passed when making its way between Wednesbury and Dudley, a route that may hopefully one day be resurrected as a Midland Metro extension (something long overdue in my opinion). Golds Hill Bridge on the Tame Valley Canal is immediately adjacent but this canal is separate to the main focus of our investigations.

- Balls Hill Basin (we think) -
Climbing back up to Harvills Hawthorn, the Chairman can recall many car park congas involving bygone pubs and clubs as we proceed towards Hill Top. The final element of our Balls Hill brief sees us take Tunnel Road in search of the branch's terminal basin, a site historically reached via a long-demolished aqueduct that took the canal over what is now the Midland Metro line. We can see the tram tracks down to the left as we reach an earthwork area of open ground near Ardav Road, a likely spot for the lost waterways location. Photos taken, we reconvene in the Dovecote pub (previously known as the Flash Harry and the Hillcrest) for a satisfying pint of Great Orme's Welsh Black mild.

- 75 at Wednesbury -
A short hop on a passing 75 transports us to Wednesbury where we round off with a few pictures around the town. Secretary WME notes that the Pig & Trumpet has been renamed the Golden Cross while Mr D9 pays homage to a closet block that is due for demolition. A final drink in the Bellwether Wetherspoons is followed by a homeward ride on the 313, and that's your lot for this mini bout of Easter Hub Marketing.

Friday, March 25

Towpath Turpin Tackles Tamworth

Ever eager to add to our canal collection, Nick and I are tempted towards Tamworth for our latest towpath trek on a day that also presents photographic Polesworth possibilities and some luxury bus travel...

- 110 at Fazeley Square -
Indeed, the 110 bus between Birmingham and Tamworth is operated by a stylish fleet of Sapphire-branded buses courtesy of Arriva. Laptop sockets and stitched leather seats are among the on-board features that show an extra attention to detail while we enjoy the view out of the large top deck front window. A sprint along the Aston Expressway is followed by the intricacies of Spaghetti Junction then Erdington, Sutton Coldfield and Mile Oak before we reach Fazeley.

- Bonehill Road Bridge -
The war memorial at Fazeley Square is our cue to alight in readiness for our opening waterways wander of the day. The Coventry Canal has the honour first up as we quickly locate an aqueduct spanning the River Tame, a notable preliminary find to set the tone for the trip. Retracing our steps back towards Fazeley village, we pass through Fazeley Junction and then explore out past Peel's Wharf to the brown-brick simplicity of Bonehill Road Bridge.

- Drayton's dramatic footbridge -
To Fazeley Junction once more where we now join the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal in the shadow of Tolson's Mill. Tolson's Footbridge and Fazeley Mill Marina are interesting enough but a truly remarkable structure awaits a little further along. Drayton Footbridge is distinctly decorative with its whitewashed towers and spiral steps - I've certainly never encountered anything quite like it before. If the footbridge alone isn't fascinating enough, an accompanying swivel bridge only increases the sense of intrigue at a most memorable location - we then duly reward our exploration endeavours with a lovely half of Draught Bass in the timelessly traditional surroundings of the Three Horseshoes.

- Posing in Polesworth -
The next 110 along takes us fully into Tamworth where we find the 785 route ready and willing to provide our passage to Polesworth; the ride incorporates Glascote, Stonydelph and Birchmoor with the Dolphin, Chiltern Road estate and the Game Cock being the respective landmarks we meet along the way. Alighting on the old stone bridge above the River Anker, we make a beeline for the Bulls Head as Polesworth's premier contributor to the Good Beer Guide. A zingy half of Glamorgan Welsh Pale tickles the tastebuds although the pub itself is quiet during a mid-afternoon lull.

- Coventry Canal (with handy pub indicator) -
The Bulls Head is handily located on the side of the Coventry Canal so we soon indulge in another towpath tour, covering the short section between bridges 54 (Tamworth Road) and 51 (Limekiln Bridge). The walk passes quietly between houses to begin with before the scenery opens out looking across Abbey Green Park.

- Polesworth Abbey -
Although situated roughly three miles from Tamworth, Polesworth is in a different county to its larger neighbour hence Nick rather relishes being back on Warwickshire soil. The village has a proud history as indicated by the presence of the Abbey Church, the site of which has been a place of worship and reflection since Saxon times. We also admire the Abbey's restored 14th century gatehouse then pick out Polesworth pictures of the Spread Eagle, the post office, the Red Lion and the local library.

- A Peaty Pint -
The 15:26 786 bus is on hand to return us to Tamworth where our priority becomes obtaining a belated lunch. The Bole Bridge gets the nod for a bite to eat whereby our corresponding gammon and salmon meals are accompanied by Marston's Irish Peated Ale, something of a taste sensation assuming you like the flavour of peat bogs - it seems we do! The beer has been brewed especially for Wetherspoon's real ale festival and the prospect of more beguiling beverages means we seek out the Silk Kite, Tamworth's other JDW outlet. There I sample O'Hara's Irish Red whereas Nick requests a three third sampler of various international concoctions, striking it lucky when he actually gets served a trio of halves, all for £1.65!

- The King's Ditch -
Last but definitely not least, we could not come to Tamworth and miss out on visiting the town's micropub. As an old cycle shop, the Kings Ditch is small but perfectly formed with three ales on gravity and an impressive selection of ciders. I partake of Nethergate's Priory Mild with Nick on the Duck & Cover as we watch a big screen showing all the 'action' from the barrel room. After that we settle aboard another sprightly Sapphire for our ride home, content at having covered canals in two different counties. Cheers!

Monday, March 21

Hub Marketing 2016: East Birmingham

Hub Marketing tradition dictates that one of our earlier excursions each year should be a visit to the eastern reaches of Birmingham. 2016's contribution to this custom is timed to closely coincide with St Patrick's Day, so would we be blessed with the luck of the Irish or not? Here comes the tale of the trip...

- Metro at Bull Street terminus -
A Metro meeting gets things off and running aboard the tram from Bradley Lane to Birmingham, whereby it was interesting to sample the new street-running section from Snow Hill to the current Bull Street terminus, passing the posh offices of the emerging Colmore business district. All members are punctuality personified in reporting for duty very much on time as the Chairman takes early delivery of a Bilston Steelworks beermat bonus.

- A Sleeve in the Subway? -
No cob penalties today then but a Cobs Bar does feature during our morning ferret around Horse Fair and Highgate. The Secretary's top target is the Bromsgrove Street underpass where Mr D9 is delighted to discover old closet remains among the standard Sixties subway mosaic effects.

- Bingo! The 97 at Chelmsley Wood -
Time for a proper Brummie bus ride with the 97 being on hand for our connection to Chelmsley Wood. The journey takes us through Bordesley Green and along the Meadway, thus allowing plenty of scope for silly song selections, landmark spotting and a Foster & Allen singalong. Secretary WME does however have to endure some dodgy tour guide commentary courtesy of a cardboard chum the Chairman has created especially for the occasion.

- A Chelmsley Cuppa -
Although this is an East Birmingham expedition, Chelmsley Wood technically comes under the auspices of North Solihull, not that this deters us from a breakfast pit stop. The indoor market cafe does just grand for a cuppa and some sustenance whereby Secretary WME narrowly avoids a messy accident with a leaky ketchup lid. Chelmsley Wood's outer estates then come calling when the 97A brings us to Helmswood Drive for a darting duel in the Greenwood, a 1970s-era local pub that still displays some original Ansells insignia.

- Sheldon Hall -
Returning firmly to our Birmingham brief we tickle the edges of Tile Cross. The Chairman becomes extremely excitable at the thought of crusty tower blocks and a vintage launderette before we sample the split personality of the White Hart by Gressel Lane (the cosy front lounge with its low beams contrasts markedly with the noisy brash back bar). Just around the corner is a surprise for the Secretary in the stately form of Sheldon Hall, a genuinely impressive piece of architecture albeit now in use as a Crown Carveries outlet.

- River Cole -
A further stretch along Gressel Lane links us to Lea Village and the local shops up by Kitts Green Road roundabout. We then pick up the Project Kingfisher trail beside the River Cole, snaking between Shard End and Stechford with the brown box Banks's Brook Meadow pub serving as our vantage point to witness Don Cossack prevailing in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

- The Raven at Stechford -
Suburban Stechford now awaits with the rambling roadhouse surroundings of the Raven catching our eye - it's nice to find a pub that stills retains its bowling green along with an extensive back beer garden. We even think we've spotted an actual raven bird screeching in a nearby tree but not being expert ornithologists we can't be completely certain as to the precise species.

- Hodge Hill Horror in the Hunters Moon -
From the Raven, a short shuffle along Bucklands End Lane brings us to the mighty Hunters Moon, a notable Hungry Horse establishment keeping watch over part of Hodge Hill Common. Here our dartboard exploits reach a thrilling final leg decider; D9 Destroyer thinks he's got victory in the bag only for WME Whirlwind to snatch the win thanks to a deadly double that left D9's eyeballs bulging in disconsolate disgust.

- Brummie Baldness at BCU -
A turn-up-and-go ride on the 55 transports us via Ward End, Washwood Heath and Saltley to Eastside, alighting at Cardigan Street for a fascinating look at the campus construction zone that is reclaiming a previously derelict area. Every time we return here there is a new piece of the jigsaw taking shape - it's seriously impressive already and there is plenty more to come by the looks of it. One attractive feature is a landscaped fountain that seems to have the bald spot somewhat transfixed!

- Going Green in the Woodman -
The Eastside area has also seen something of a renaissance as regards the local public houses. The Eagle & Ball (known latterly as Moby Dicks) has been restored and now takes pride of place amid the BCU building site, while the Eagle & Tun's remarkable resurrection brings back to life a building associated with UB40's 'Red Red Wine' music video. The trio of tavern comebacks is completed by the Woodman where Stonehenge Brewery's Sign of Spring green beer (yes green!!) soon gets the Chairman's full attention.

- Big Hat in the Big Bulls Head -
The day draws to a close with a distinctly Irish-themed finale in Digbeth. The Big Bulls Head has an inviting traditional pub interior (with bell pushes) as we sample Wye Valley HPA before transferring to the Kerryman for a nightcap half of Guinness that neatly matches our choice of headwear. A homeward Metro then concludes another excellent East Birmingham expedition - cheers!

Sunday, March 13

A Tale of Two Beer Festivals

Trip Log >> Friday 11th March 2016: An ambitious adventure this as Nick and I attempt to cunningly combine two separate beer festivals in the same day, not to mention adding in a morning canal stroll around Aston...

- Snow Hill Station Sign -
Birmingham Snow Hill is our chosen meeting point with Stephen also joining us for the initial towpath trek. First of all we investigate the station's Livery Street exit, which emerges among the arches close to Nick's favourite Lithuanian sausage shop. The access at this end of the station will in due course become the location for a new Midland Metro stop so that direct tram and train interchange will once more be possible at Snow Hill.

- Aston Locks -
Steps from Livery Street lead us down to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal where the BT Tower gradually recedes on the skyline as we leave the city centre behind. Barker Bridge (resplendent in engine green with 1842 date letters) and Newtown Row both feature before we approach Aston Junction where there's a distinct whiff of smoke in the air. Aston Locks stretch out in front of us for a steady descent into Heartlands - the scenery is industrial without being overwhelmingly grim while the Dollond & Aitchison offices by Rocky Lane have their own landscaped lock inlet.

- Britannia once ruled the Lichfield Road -
We leave the canal at Holborn Hill within spitting distance of Aston railway station. Before catching our next connection there are a couple of pub landmarks for me to photograph - the Swan & Mitre (strangely branding itself under the umbrella of 'Countryside Inns') and the Britannia (a heritage building now used as an Eritrean cafe). The 11:35 train dutifully gets us to Walsall just in time for lunch and some Highgate Old Ale in the Imperial Wetherspoons. Stephen then bids us farewell, but not before he's loaded up with sweeties courtesy of the Chocolate Box's traditional confectionery delights.

- Getting Stuck in the Mud? -
To our first festival of the day whereby Walsall Town Hall is hosting the local CAMRA ale extravaganza. With tokens and glass in hand we can pick out our preferred tipples from the enticing array on offer. Praetorian Porter, Milky Milky, Great Newsome Jem's Stout and Morton's Essington Old Ale all make appearances, while Nick at one point becomes dangerously Stuck In The Mud (AJ's Brewery stout) until successfully managing to extract himself. Along the way we get chatting to Mac and Jane from Birmingham who provide entertaining insights from their attempts to complete the Black Country Brewery's ale trail.

- Queen's Head, Wednesbury -
Two of the beers at Walsall are however worthy of special mention: Backyard's Coaltown is something akin to liquid charcoal with an intensely scorched fragrance to match, while Fownes Cnebba proves itself an absolute beast of a 7% baltic porter. Just after 4pm we reluctantly prise ourselves away from Walsall and make tracks into Wednesbury, pit-stopping at the Queens Head on Brunswick Park Road for an altogether more restrained half of Wye Valley's Hereford Pale Ale.

- Cob Chemistry with Test Tube Turpin -
Our second festival involves an early evening engagement at Cafe Metro in Bilston, finding our way down an alley to a back unit somewhere above the tram tracks. Grey peas and Northern Soul songs are the order of the day here along with some excellent beer in contrasting colours. Enville Old Porter and Holden's Woodsetton provide the gold and black hues respectively, but once we add the lurid green of Stonehenge Sign of Spring into the mix it looks like we've embarked upon a mad lab experiment! 'Test Tube Turpin' is thereby duly christened to bring to an end a day of much magnificence. Cheers!

Wednesday, March 2

Leaping into Northamptonshire

The 29th of February only comes around once every four years, so when that date does indeed arrive I feel obliged to make the most of it with some exploring. In 2008 I went to Bridgnorth, in 2012 the Chip Foundation happened upon Harborne, and now in 2016 I join Nick Turpin for a supercharged Stagecoach sprint around Daventry and Braunston...

This Leap Year trip log commences in Wolverhampton, where I investigate progress at the Springfield Brewery site as construction of a new educational campus gathers pace. Nearby is the converted Waggon & Horses pub, now partially a Polish delicatessen, although I can also remember when there was a Coach & Horses boozer in the vicinity; the former was a Banks's tied house, the latter came under the auspices of Mitchells & Butlers.

- Former Waggon & Horses -

Time for some trains as a combination of London Midland stoppers and Chiltern connections carry me from Wolverhampton to Leamington via Birminghams New Street and Moor Street. Nick Turpin is on hand to meet me outside Leamington station so we can seek out our Stagecoach, the 65 to Daventry being selected on this occasion.The route was initially familiar through to Harbury, Bishops Itchington and Deppers Bridge (where the Great Western pub is an isolated landmark) but thereafter it was a case of uncovering new horizons. Napton intrigues as a canal village part-perched on a hill, while Staverton is over the border into Northants with the Countryman Inn and Lonsdale's car dealership.

- Daventry Bus Station -

The final approach into Daventry takes us past the town's ambulance depot then along St James Street to the bus station, a compact pull-in/reverse-out interchange with a penchant for red lamp posts. Nick Turpin has on his person a town map that comes in handy for finding our way around. Our trail therefore takes in landmarks such as the Moot Hall, the Market Square, Holy Cross Church (built out of distinctive local ironstone) and Wheatsheaf Court, a care home that was originally a hotel frequented by King Charles I during the English Civil War.

- The Moot Hall -

In need of refreshment, we endeavour to try out a couple of tempting watering holes. The George on St James Street gets us started with respective halves of Lancaster Bomber and Tetley's Cask Bitter, then we decamp to the Saracens Head Wetherspoons for the novelty of a 'Mexican Monday' lunch. I'm not sure if the average highwayman's diet back in the day would have included things such as burritos, quesadilla and guacamole though! The chilli kick of the cuisine is offset by a decent pint of Arkell's Kingsdown as we enjoy inspecting the pub's historic rambling interior.

- Bandit with a Burrito -

Our second Stagecoach steed of the day is the number 12 to Braunston, passing through the new Middlemore Farm estate that has sprung up overlooking Drayton Reservoir. The journey only takes a quarter of an hour or so before we alight at Braunston Green just below the village hall. We can then stroll along the main street, encountering the Wheatsheaf, the Old Plough, a traditional butchers and a chip shop (it was a good job Mr Beardsmore wasn't present as the Braunston Fryer doesn't open on Mondays). All Saints Church sits at the far end of the lane with a blue clockface that looks like an interloping afterthought.

- Braunston Turn -

The church is sometimes referred to as the 'Cathedral of the Canals' in reference to Braunston's famed waterways heritage. We join the towpath by the Boathouse pub and quickly find Braunston Turn, a seminal location that marks the intersection of the Grand Union and Oxford Canals. The turn takes the form of a triangle marked by two elegant Horseley turnover bridges and a junction house. Photos taken we wander back past the Boathouse to reach Braunston Marina with its extensive moorings, dry dock and restored toll house. Its absolutely fascinating admiring the array of narrowboats and generally being nosy. 

- Braunston Marina -

Beyond the marina are a couple more Grand Union bridges before we amble through to Braunston village for a swift half. A barking dog deters us from trying the Wheatsheaf so the Old Plough gets the nod for a taster of their eponymous house ale and a look at the table skittles arrangement (sadly we didn't have enough time to have a go). Resuming our ride on the 12, we settle in for more Stagecoach action through Willoughby, Dunchurch and the outlying estates of Rugby (whereby a pub called the Griffin was spotted at one point). The most memorable feature of the route however was a circuit by Rye Hill Prison that sent Nick Turpin into something of a panic; luckily they didn't raise the alarm for escaped highwaymen so our hero avoided incarceration.

- Ale from Ashover -

All of which means we are clear to round the day off in Rugby with an evening half in the Merchants Inn. This is a pub that our felonious friend thoroughly approves of and a swig of Ashover's 1910 Porter is an ideal tonic among all the vintage breweriana. Our final slice of Stagecoach action involves the 86 through to Coventry, trundling through Long Lawford and Wolston in the dark before dashing to Coventry Station for our trains home. Thereby hangs the tale of how Nick Turpin was 'Dastardly in Daventry', and I wonder where I might pitch up on 29th February 2020...

Tuesday, March 1

WME Flickr Focus: February 2016

Another day, another dollar: another month, another digest. February's contributions to the front face of West Midlands Exploration contained no actual West Midlands items whatsoever, although the rest of England has been on hand to ensure everything stayed ship-shape...

So where shall we start? How about down in Cornwall, where January's arrivals from Falmouth have been latterly boosted by the likes of Looe (the Banjo Pier) and Liskeard (the Caradoc mural). Mevagissey and Polperro have also weighed anchor here courtesy of some beady-eyed seagulls, the Crumplehorn pub and a general seaside shot of Mevagissey's picturesque harbour.

Moving across the south coast we land in Torbay where some station signs from both Torquay and Torre are now on photostream display. A Devon General open-topped bus also joins the action here, while a shimmy over into Dorset brings us Weymouth with quayside fishing equipment and a view of First Group's bus depot. The Sandbanks ferry gets a second airing too, loading up cars on a sunny afternoon.

A brief pit stop in our fair capital city next and a single shot of the Regents Canal at Lisson Grove. This will eventually form part of a wider album documenting last year's visit to Lords, the home of cricket albeit I haven't managed to release any shots of the ground as yet. Another great city is Bath, which made an initial impression with canal images in January and has now supplemented these with a Widcombe Locks sign and a peek at Pulteney Bridge.

Heading north, Yorkshire has made its mighty presence felt with some Grassington dry stone walls, a Pateley Bridge chip shop and a wistful West Burton scene that seems to encapsulate a bygone age. Theakston's beer casks in Masham and a Knottingley-bound train at Wakefield Kirkgate also creep into contention. That once again brings you pretty much up to date, and I hope to be back on the West Midlands pictorial beat come March...