Tuesday, May 31

WME Flickr Focus: May 2016

It's time to unfurl the bunting and send out the invitations as we prepare to welcome more glamorous guests into the Flickr fold. Let's see which prestigious pictures made it to the photostream party in May...

First among our photographic dignitaries is WME Birmingham, newly adorned with the finest attire from Highgate (Stanway signage at the Lamp Tavern) and Hill Hook (the local nature reserve). St Andrews football ground helps add a splash of Bluenose brashness and is joined in sporting terms by a look at Four Oaks Saints cricket club. A Gas Street red plaque and the Royal George hotel bar exemplify the sense of an extravagant entrance as the party gets underway.

Our Master of Ceremonies now announces the attendance of WME Dudley which combines bus station bravado (a rebuilding shot at Halesowen for example) with brewery brilliance (Holdens at Woodsetton) and a glimpse of Gosty Hill Tunnel signs. We must however pause briefly to remember the passing of the Earl of Wessex, once resident on Summerhill Road in Coseley but alas no longer with us.

Chauffeur-driven to the gates of the gala we admire the couture from wonderful Wolverhampton and spiffing Sandwell. For Wolverhampton we have Devils Elbow Bridge and the former Fallings Park Co-op vying for attention with corners of Priestfield and a vintage Ettingshall Carling Black Label feature, whereas Sandwell's selections are the Friar Park pub near Wednesbury and a repeat reply from Tipton's Factory Locks. Who could forget sumptuous Staffordshire though, fully resplendent with Dunsley Tunnel and the Boat at Gnosall.

Also appearing at our high-class house party are WME Worcestershire (Bridge 1 at Diglis Basin and a dashing showing from Droitwich rail station), WME Walsall (the debonair Deers Leap bus stop), WME Warwickshire (the Coventry speedway stadium at Brandon) and WME Telford (the delightful Donnington Co-op store). If that isn't razzmatazz enough for you we even have a couple of gatecrashers, so arriving fashionably late are WME Shropshire (gifting us a Craven Arms antiques hut) and Exploration Extra (handing over a Hinckley micropub) - lovely!

With all our VIPs (very important photos) present and correct it is only appropriate to raise a toast to the WME photostream and its onward progression. Another glitzy get-together is planned for June so any camera contenders are requested to RSVP asap to secure their place on the guest list. Until then dear fellows, tatty bye!

Monday, May 30

Towpath Turpin Samples Stourport...

Friday 27th May 2016 brought with it a combination of church, canal and crossword as Nick and I sought the Stourport sunshine prior to visiting the Kidderminster Beer Festival...

- 172 221 at Kidderminster -
There might also be a few calendar characters in attendance but first off I join Nick aboard the 10:22 from Smethwick Galton Bridge, reaching Kidderminster half hour or so later. After the ever-essential train photograph we flag down a passing bus (the 10 from Spennells as it turned out), administer our £3 Diamond Daysavers and then connect onto the number 3 at the town bus station.

- Stourport Parish Church -
A swift ride via Birchen Coppice later, we alight by Stourport Civic Centre ready to have an opening look at the local parish church. St Michael & All Angels surprises us by having a relatively modern box building set within some atmospheric stone ruins, resulting in something of an architectural anticlimax. The churchyard allows further views of the older Victorian Gothic masonry while the neighbouring lawn cemetery is neatly laid out stretching down towards the canal.

- Stourport Narrow Locks -
Talking of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire, it was time to put Towpath Turpin to the test with a basin-bound stroll. Lower Mitton Bridge and York Street Lock are both accounted for then we survey Stourport's historic canal quarter complete with four distinct basins all watched over by a well known clock and the fairground helter skelter. A set of broad locks can be found over towards the Tontine but we concentrate on the narrow locks leading down to the hump-bridge junction with the River Severn.

- A friendly dinosaur (but which one?) -
On a warm spring morning you can certainly begin to appreciate Stourport's Georgian charm, although it's safe to say they didn't have the Treasure Island amusement centre to contend with when the canals were first built. Something about the fair does appeal to our collective silly streak, especially when Towpath Turpin can pose next to various gorillas, pirates, the Statue of Liberty and Mr D9's favourite purple dinosaur. We can only assume that 'Barney' was suitably starstruck to have made the acquaintance of our highwayman hero. 

- Raspberry Wheat in the Hollybush -
Back to more serious matters and lunch comes courtesy of Ye Olde Crown Inn, a former Wetherspoons that still follows the JDW template quite religiously - our curry club deals are washed down with a decent pint of Woods' Shropshire Hills Beauty. Two very tempting taverns are next in our sights - the Hollybush for some excellent Raspberry Wheat ale (Titanic once again showing mastery of fruity flavours) then the Black Star where the invitation to grapple with Dorothy Goodbody and her Wholesome Stout is never something Nick is likely to turn down!

- Brinton Park -
The Friday afternoon congestion along High Street does its best to delay us but the 3 does eventually arrive on the scene, loading up with noisy schoolkids just as Nick tries to take his restorative nap. A sharp nudge has him awake again for Brinton Park, Kidderminster's flagship area of open space being home to a Doulton-tiled drinking fountain recalling the life of eminent solicitor and freemason Richard Eve. Equally worthy of mention is Weavers Park Lane pub where we stop for a swift half, sampling Hobson's Old Prickly and Ramsbury's Sun Splash respectively - not bad at all!

- Crossword Conundrums -
Our early evening exertions are very much focused on the Kidderminster Beer festival, held once more in the superior surroundings of the Town Hall complete with the William Hill Organ. The festival theme celebrates the 250th Act of Parliament anniversary that brought about the construction of the Staffs & Worcs Canal, and among the ales to be tasted are Fixed Wheel's Blackheath Stout, Pope's Rhubarb Fool and Hobson's Postmans Knock. We also attempt the waterways-inspired crossword in the programme but quickly get stumped by some of the more cryptic clues. 

- A Fishy Finale? -
Our knowledge of odigrips, funnelstacks and Dutch flat-bottomed boats is admittedly limited so I send out an SOS (a Banks & Taylor Strong Bitter) and end up with Mild Concussion (a potent Fixed Wheel concoction); Nick meanwhile has come over all Plum Porter as per his predilection. Time and train waits for no Turpin though so to the station we must go, pausing briefly for more plumminess (in Weavers Comberton Hill micropub, a place we heartily recommend) and a final fishy flavouring to our pictorial posturings. Cheers!

Monday, May 23

Hub Marketing 2016: West Bromwich and Bilston

A half day helping of hub happenings here as the Chairman and the Secretary join forces for a doorstep challenge with an added element of cold case investigation...

- CSI West Bromwich boldly baldly on the case... -
Donning gumshoe garb we meet at Dartmouth Street tram stop to commence our detective duty, whereby D9 has got wind of an unsolved murder dating back to 1961. We therefore stake out the crime scene near Bratt Street hoping for leads whilst trying to pinpoint the former locations of Christ Church and some tennis courts. Sadly there aren't any new clues to be found although we do note the pending demolition of a fire-damaged town house just across from the former Labour Club.

- Tantany Lane -
We clearly aren't cut out for cold case contemplation so a forensic ferret will have to suffice instead. The backstreets of Tantany are beckoning as we pass West Bromwich Baptist Church and Hargate Primary School before uncovering the town's fire and ambulance stations. Detective Superintendent D9 is then distraught to find the Hargate Arms seemingly closed (for good?) - he has fond memories of the place from his early days on the beer beat.

- Lyne Purl Penalty Notice -
To Lyndon next and a chance encounter with hidden history when we find the Lyne Purl Well perched upon the pavement - this was once the primary source of clean water for the locality but has been out of use for 20 years or more, hence the ceremonial lion's mouth now runs dry. The well was an excellent discovery but the same cannot be said of D9's next piece of evidence, a penalty notice packet that he probably could have done with in Ellesmere. Thankfully the Chairman is not liable for any fines today so it's the Secretary on call for the cobs and ale in the Horse & Jockey, Mr WME being only too happy to pay out for £1.50 pints of Ringwood Fortyniner - a definite discount deal!

- WME wins in the Globe -
D9 did get his own back by winning the first two legs of darts, then our customary exchange of silly songs has Kenneth Cope uttering 'Hands off stop mucking about' in reply to a 'Frontier Psychiatrist' - how's that for an frankly frightening combination! Decamping to the Globe sees normal sporting service resumed, WME Whirlwind finding form with the aid of Thornbridge Jaipur and some stellar checkouts (85 and 52 chief among them). A 0-2 deficit becomes a 5-2 lead in barely the blink of a pub cat's eye.

- Tesco Trolley Time -
For some bizarre and devilish reason the Chairman was now most insistent that the Secretary should experience the full authentic West Bromwich 'treatment', warts and all. WME's misgivings about what such an education would involve were not remotely allayed when an unnerving concrete car park suddenly appeared on our agenda; apparently this multi-storey masterpiece is due to be consigned to history before too long, hence D9's keenness to milk it for vintage trolley park pictures.

- Metro Moments -
Escaping back into normal daylight, we weave a trail to the Vine on Roebuck Street, pausing momentarily to account for the Olde Wine Shoppe along the way. The Vine is well known for its Indian cuisine and indoor barbecue but we somehow manage to resist the lure of the curry in favour of some enjoyable Holden's Golden Glow. Kenrick Park Metro awaits in the shadow of some distinctive blue tower blocks, then we ride to The Crescent in advance of some Bilston doorstep canvassing.

- A new recruit in the Happy Wanderer? -
To Stowlawn where Green Lanes offers up bus stop flags and a cemetery closet to keep the D9 out of mischief, that is until we reach the Happy Wanderer where a certain barside mannequin soon caught his eye. With our new acquaintance watching on we play out our darting denouement, WME Whirlwind just about clinging on for a 7-6 triumph that was too close for comfort. A couple of Bilston homages are required in the vicinity of Prouds Lane; the Villiers Arms has been converted into flats while the town's former swimming baths have been flattened now that the Bert Williams Leisure Centre is in full swing.

- Woody's Bar -
Bilston town centre provides the final action from this perilous plot. Woody's Bar definitely merits a visit, adjoining the Robin 2 club and paying affectionate tribute to Midlands musical legend Roy Wood of Wizzard and the Move fame. D9's dive radar is attuned to both the Dog & Partridge and the Horse & Jockey; a swift half in the latter involves enduring the resident karaoke queen's rendition of the Eurythmics 'Thorn in my side' (hastily re-titled 'Pain in my ears') before sanity is restored courtesy of a Purple Moose in the Cafe Metro... and that's that, case closed. 
Was that another excellent Hub Marketing excursion? Guilty as charged.
Appropriate sentence = more of the same coming soon!

Tuesday, May 17

Ten Whole Years - A Blog Birthday

Believe it or not, this very day - 17th May 2016 - marks the tenth anniversary of the creation of the West Midlands Exploration blog. This milestone achievement has crept up on me almost unheralded, but it does present an opportune moment to reflect on what those ten years have meant in terms of life and exploration...

So it was that back in May 2006 the WME blog was brought into existence as a companion piece to what was then my Fotopic photo gallery website. The fact that I am still here prattling away one entire decade (and 559 posts worth) later is quite a feat of endurance if nothing else! Plenty of things have changed over the intervening years but I'd like to think that the core purpose of the blog remains intact - a sounding board to record memories and ponder my photographic direction. I've always thought of the blog as essentially a personal space written by me for me; whether other people read it and like it has been and still remains merely a secondary issue.

The bedrock of the blog's content is the West Midlands area and its public transport connections (bus, train and metro), not forgetting the canals and also allowing for an increasing focus on pubs in more recent years. I've certainly enjoyed detailing my various adventures whether solo outings or in the company of my cast of characters - D9, Stephen, Nick (a.k.a Nickolenko Pubalotovich, Nick Turpin and HRH), Rog, Woody and others. So what can I say about the period 2006-2016? Here are a few musings...

There is always the risk with retrospective reflections that things seemed better in the past, but I do think the local bus scene in 2006 was more interesting than it is now. Back then we still had Metrobuses, Leyland Nationals and the distinctive orange livery of Chase Bus Services gracing our streets - things are more corporate these days although there have been undoubted improvements in passenger comfort and information provision. I also think the route network had more variety with local estate links and socially necessary services which have latterly been streamlined through commercial approaches and the march of austerity.

In terms of train and metro there is less of a comparison to make, although the eyecatching transformation of Birmingham New Street is a notable development. I have gradually made my way around almost all of the railway stations in the West Midlands area; Earlswood is the only station that has consistently eluded me although the recently opened Coventry Arena has yet to be sampled either. There have been rolling stock changes such as Class 172 trains on the Stourbridge line while I'll always have a soft spot for the grunting class 150s that first introduced me to the network. The Midland Metro has had a fleet overhaul too but still remains a solitary line, even allowing for extensions at either end - I do wonder if we'll ever see the construction of accompanying branches as the proposed link through to Dudley and Merry Hill seems no nearer now than it did ten years ago.

Canals have been a constant source of fascination as I've steadily chipped away at my photographic coverage of the BCN. The jigsaw is by no means complete, and it's often the bleakest locations that prove the most memorable (Oldbury Junction or Salford Spaghetti for example, perfectly hideous). Recent endeavours to trace the Bentley Canal last September and the Balls Hill Branch on Good Friday have maintained this waterways theme, the chance to uncover lost history proving ever-alluring. I intend to keep a watching brief on restoration projects and am intrigued by the potential resurrection of the Bradley Locks Branch near Bilston.

Pubs didn't feature that much during the early days of the blog but have gone on to become a more prominent aspect of my writing. I am very much a fan of traditional Black Country boozers (and traditional Black Country beer) whereby the pub is often one of the defining landmarks within a local area. I have long lost count of the number of pubs that have sadly closed, either converted into alternative use or demolished completely - admittedly not all of these losses are to be regretted but there is a sense of a way of life gradually disappearing, hence imbuing in me more of a mission to visit and photograph those that have survived thus far. The trend for suburban pub closures is well exemplified by the situation on my own Bushbury doorstep, where casualties have included the Staffordshire Volunteer and King Charles (both Northwood Park) and the Bushbury Arms at Showell Circus. However, there has been positive pub news too with new establishments arriving on the scene - in Wolverhampton alone I can think of the Lych Gate Tavern and Hail to the Ale, the latter being a flagbearer for the new breed of micropubs.

There have of course been other themes too - cricket trips, family holidays, even the very occasional dabble with dodgy poetry - but one thing the blog has done unstintingly is document my pictorial progress, firstly with Fotopic and then with Flickr. I must have taken several thousand photos over the years, of which only a tiny fraction get to see the light of day on the wider interweb. The WME blog has provided a running commentary of update digests (usually involving rather silly extended metaphors), and the current Flickr photo count currently stands at 2,914.

On a personal level the last decade has certainly been eventful, the customary mix of wonderful moments interspersed with times of great sadness that together form the very fabric of life. Since 2006 I've largely made progress professionally, coming out the other side of a redundancy situation although the current plight of public libraries nationally remains a matter of grave concern to me. I've learned to drive, said a final goodbye to my dear grandad and had the privilege of getting to know my little nephew, plus accomplished many other things besides - the blog and my photo outings have been a thread throughout, helping me through all the various ups and downs.

Finally, it seems appropriate to conclude with a quick reference to my blog beginnings. My very first post back on 17th May 2006 identified that the blog was intended to serve as "part diary, part personal planner, part memory bank, part discussion board" with the promise to "post any ideas, news, comments and other trivial nonsense that I can think of". After all this time I still believe that this holds true, and - while the internet remains transient and temperamental in nature, thus meaning I can never make any guarantees - I look forward to continuing in the same vein for however many years there may be to come!

Sunday, May 8

Hub Marketing 2016: Shropshire

The Hub Marketing Board do like a good Shropshire session from time to time, so following on from Market Drayton & Shrewsbury (June 2013) and Bridgnorth (May 2014) - plus various visits to Telford - comes this assault on Ellesmere and Oswestry...

- Arriva Arrival at Gobowen -
The 09:43 departure from Wolverhampton to Gobowen is our selected starting service, cruising to Shrewsbury listening to silly songs about Cricklewood (glorious Goodies daftness). At Shrewsbury a rather violent decoupling exercise means we have to relocate into the front four carriages of the train where we now seem to be surrounded by party passengers heading for Chester Races. Although the prospect of a flutter was tempting, the Chairman's muppet t-shirt would have failed the dress code so we alight at Gobowen as planned. 

- Going for Gobowen -
Gobowen historically served as the junction for trains through to Oswestry, that connection sadly being a casualty of 1960s line closures. The old station building here remains an impressive piece of Italianate architecture while some classic running boards add an extra note of period detail. We linger by the level crossing, listening in to the Chairman's choice of Welsh sheep ditties, before the Secretary summons through photos of the signal box, the local post office and the Cross Foxes pub.

- D9 drives the 53 -
Our next target is the number 53 route to Ellesmere, operated by Arriva on a roughly 40 minute frequency. The bus picks up outside Gobowen Working Mens Club (opposite Tinsley's chip shop) for a full grunt thrash through St Martin's and Criftins. The Chairman certainly enjoys the chance to open out the throttle on his latest D9 driving demo as we admire saw mills and general pastoral scenery. The route terminates on Cross Street with the 208 Ellesmere circular also in attendance; the scent of manure then hangs heavy in the air as we prepare to explore the pleasingly traditional town centre.

- Ellesmere Market -
A stroll along Scotland Street reveals coaching inns, banks and independent shops while at the top end of town we find the library along with Dyke's Rennet Works. Curiosity leads us into the old market hall for a browse of the antiques stalls (and a bacon sandwich) - among the items available for purchase are some ancient Meccano magazines and a pamphlet about Great Barr Parish Church.

- Birch Road Bridge -
The Secretary is keen to take a little look at the Llangollen Canal, setting out from Ellesmere Wharf in the shadow of the Tesco supermarket. An old Shropshire Union warehouse provides some welcome continuity as the Town Arm towpath takes us past barge and blossom to the junction with the main line. A small army of cheerful volunteers are painting black posts as we proceed to Birch Road Bridge (No. 58) bidding everybody good morning (despite it now being afternoon). Birch Road itself provides a leisurely link back through town, passing a marina and the White Hart inn.

- Lakeside at The Mere -
A must-see attraction is The Mere, one of the bodies of water that have earned Ellesmere the title of being Shropshire's own Lake District. This is a lovely spot at which to unwind on a warm springtime day, partaking of the panoramic views and tracking down a closet for the Chairman's prized collection. By this stage we've earned ourselves a drink so the Red Lion (a Thwaites inn next to St Mary's Church) and the Swan both come up trumps for Taylor's Tipple and Tetley's Cask Bitter respectively. 

- Grappling with the Grim Reaper -
To Oswestry then with more gearbox grinding on the 53 to contend with along the way. The Secretary battles limited mobile connectivity to attempt some Twitter updates before we set down at the bus station as populated by Tanat Valley double deckers. Mr WME's research comes in handy for our opening Oswestry pubs whereby a quick half in the Three Pigeons is followed by discount duty in the Olde Vaults, a taphouse for the Offa's Dyke brewery where some tasty Grim Reaper porter costs only £2 a pint - bargain!

- Something foxy -
Oswestry is a town blessed with quality watering holes and members make sure our supping sequence includes some of the finest. The Fox on Church Street is Joules' offering and very nice it is too, even if the smoking ban doesn't quite cover the resident taxidermy! Further up Church Street lies the Oak, probably the Secretary's favourite given dreamy draught Bass and some vintage cigarette dispensers (perhaps that's where our foxy friend got his from?) Salop Road meanwhile brings with it the Black Lion for some Stonehouse Up the Town, a momentary spillage and a Guinness toucan clock. 

- Cambrian Cranium -
Transport history is very much to the fore in the guise of the former Cambrian Railway headquarters, Oswestry's old station building having been retained as commercial premises with accompanying museum - it certainly captured the bald spot's imagination at any rate.  Some preserved steam services now operate between Oswestry and Llynclys with the hope that one day the full link to Gobowen will be restored. The Railway pub is also close at hand but is perhaps not to be recommended unless you share D9's liking for dodgy dives.

- Chip Shop Chairman -
Our final 53 ride of the day brings us full circle with Gobowen once again in our sights. Chairman D9 becomes an honorary fellow of the Chip Foundation as Tinsley's gets our esteemed seal of approval, and there's just time to squeeze in a quick visit to the Cross Foxes for a swift Banks's Bitter before our train - the pub had a good community atmosphere, a real melting pot of village characters young and old. The 19:03 train is busy with horse racing revellers until a Shrewsbury switchover sees us safely back to Wolverhampton. A silky Smoked Porter nightcap in Slater's Bar completes the day perfectly, cheers!

Monday, May 2

Three go to Penkridge...

... but only two continue to Coven as the Chip Foundation embark on a trip of two parts punctuated by sharp Staffordshire showers.

- Lurking by the lock -
Saturday 30th April and the gang gather in preparation for a ride on the 54, a route that connects Wolverhampton with Stafford via the i54 development. We're only going as far as Penkridge but the ride allows us views of Pendeford Business Park and the sprawling i54 site (where construction continues as Jaguar Land Rover's presence grows) before trundling through Coven village and Gailey. We alight at Bungham Lane stop to join the Staffordshire & Worcester Canal just past Penkridge Fire Station. 

- Almost Incarcerated -
A gentle stroll from Cross Keys Bridge to the Boat allows a few lock photographs with Nick pondering how to properly pronounce the word 'Filance' (not that I'd imagine there are too many variations). We pass the Haling Dene complex and Penkridge Library to reach the village centre, making sure to visit the Old Gaol which has been restored as a visitor attraction. The building has plenty of heritage appeal with interesting displays about Penkridge personalities past and present. The stocks outside serve as a warning that we mustn't misbehave while the cramped cell conditions certainly deter us from risking imprisonment! 

- The White Hart -
Penkridge has a number of inns and hostelries with the most atmospheric appearing to be the White Hart, a historic timber-framed tavern that provides us with shelter from the first ominous downpour of the day. Legend has it that the pub was visited by both Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I so it's no wonder Nick feels at home with such a royal pedigree. Some Black Hole Cosmic ale goes down well as I attempt some live tweets, telling the twittersphere about our progress thus far. The building interior includes a large fireplace and some cosy crannies to spark one's Elizabethan imagination.

- Whiston Walking -
With the rain relenting we take a tour of Penkridge Market, memorably situated by the railway arches with the familiar sounds of traders' banter reverberating around the various stalls. Next we join the Staffordshire Way for a wander to Whiston, passing farms along Preston Vale Lane before seeking out the Swan for some remote refreshment. The pub feels pleasingly isolated whereby the effort to get here is rewarded by some lovely Three Tuns XXX ale; the field views with crop tunnels and crowing cockerels all add to the beguiling effect. Stephen then uses the return walk to regale us with delightful details about medical ailments as the tower of St Michael's Church teases us on the horizon. 

- Cherry Dark, very nice! -
We have a tight turnaround to make sure Mr B is on his requisite bus home but we get to Bungham Lane again just in time for said 54 at 13:48. Stephen is now set fair for Wolverhampton while Nick and I alight at Four Ashes to continue our pubcrawl. The Four Ashes inn has been given a makeover since I last visited and has a dressy upmarket air accompanied by an ambitious menu - anyone for arancini? A half there is followed by an absolute drenching on route to Coven but we can dry off in the Harrows, the current Wolverhampton CAMRA Country Pub of the Year. Such a title is very much merited as our Titanic Cherry Dark proves an excellent tipple while we also note an extensive range of tempting perry and cider.

- Our Coven Correspondent -
As a further heavy shower fizzles out we brave the puddles through to Coven with just enough time to try out the Rainbow. Some pictures of St Paul's School are therefore washed down with Wells' Glorious English Bombardier and with thirst slaked we board the 54 once more. Our final stop turns out to be Fordhouses for the Moreton Arms, escaping from yet another squall to sample the Ringwood Old Thumper as the football final scores roll in. Despite the weather's best efforts we still made the most of the day, hence the 42nd inscription of the Chip Foundation Chronicles is complete!