Thursday, June 30

WME Flickr Focus: June 2016

Well well well, what a dramatic few days it has been - first came all the trauma of the Brexit vote and then we had England's ignominious departure from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, ouch! Thankfully things have been far less turbulent on the WME photostream so let's assess the pictorial ins and outs that took place in June...

Two rival groups have been jostling for snapshot supremacy whereby the combined West Midlands metropolitan constituents (the INs) have traded good-natured blows with representatives of the wider region (the OUTs). Lead campaigner for those within the West Midlands was WME Walsall, where heavyweight muscle was provided by the Wyrley & Essington Canal through a trio of very autumnal views of Holly Bank Basin. Hollanders Bridge (Daw End Canal) and a stanchion remnant for the sadly departed Lane Arms at Bentley also made their considerable presence felt while Farmer Johns in Streetly joined the party too.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Walsall on the battle bus were WME Wolverhampton and WME Birmingham. The former deployed the Man on the Horse (otherwise known as Prince Albert's Statue) and a Legs Lane bus stop whereas the latter's strategy concentrated on Mere Green (the Old Speckled Hen), the Merry Maid (a Highgate pub interior) and a little bit of Jiggins Lane street sign jiggery-pokery; WME Dudley meanwhile tried to win hearts and minds with a Leasowes Park tree stump and the Top Bell at Lye. WMEs Coventry and Solihull were more understated in their contribution to the 'In' argument although the Marston Green Tavern and a Jackers Road street scene (Aldermans Green) should not be discounted.

Turning now to the 'Out' half of the debate and most vocal among the surrounding Midlands areas was WME Staffordshire. A forceful tactic here involved the introduction of Little Aston (twin town information) and Lower Penn (village boundary sign) alongside more established proponents such as Lichfield (cathedral carving of St Philip) and Longport Station (a peek along the Stoke-bound platform).

Elsewhere, the trio of Worcestershire, Telford and Warwickshire were eager to pitch their views into the mix. Telford busied itself with pubs: Horsehay's derelict Labour in Vain (prompting some much appreciated correspondence - thanks Harry), the Boat at Jackfield and then the Olde Robin Hood on the Ironbridge side of the Severn. Worcestershire was very much of a Malvern persuasion, summoning as evidence a town centre view, a Malvern Link station sign and a Morgan pub sign picture, whereas Warwickshire attempted some floral bribery courtesy of the pretty plants at Leamington's Jephson Gardens.

After all of that, the vote was declared an honourable draw with the result that the WME photostream now displays 2,969 pictures. This means I'm rapidly closing in on the 3,000 photo milestone, so hopefully come July I'll have news of that achievement and things will be clearer for the country at large!

Monday, June 27

Bears On Tour: Manchester 2016

Our annual cricketing getaway for this year saw Stephen and I returning to Old Trafford, Manchester for the County Championship Division One match between Lancashire and Warwickshire. Back in 2014 we stayed in the lodge at the ground but that option wasn't available to us this time around, meaning that nearby Sale became our base for enjoying a few days of sporting spectatorship...

- Volunteer Hotel -
We travel up to Manchester on Sunday 19th June, taking advantage of a Fun Fare special offer on National Express coaches that gave us a return ticket for only £8 each - result! The outward journey goes direct to Manchester Airport and on to the city centre, the coach being almost full with some of our fellow passengers heading for the Stone Roses concert later that evening. A short ride on the tram then connects us to Sale where our hotel is not far at all from the Metrolink station. We check in before getting our bearings around town, calling into the J P Joule Wetherspoons for a bite to eat. I am very keen to try out some proper Greater Manchester boozers while in the area, so Exhibit A is the Volunteer Hotel with its distinctive turret feature and a spacious traditional interior; of Holt's ale range both the Mild and Bitter go down well here.

- Weather Watch -
Monday 20th June is the opening day of the cricket but some not untypical Manchester weather means there's no play before lunch. An uncontested toss means Warwickshire elect to field and the Bears make a few early breakthroughs when the action does finally get underway. Besides watching the weather we keep a lookout for Ken who has come up for the day and joins us for the view from the Statham End. At one point Lancashire were 91 for 4 but an unbroken partnership from Brown and captain Croft sees the home side safely through to the close.

- J P Joule -
Our evening entertainment will involve a certain intercontinental football tournament but firstly the small matter of food. Captain Cod on Northenden Road is in our sights as I succumb to my craving for steak and kidney pudding, a delicacy I sorely wish was available on chip shop menus back in the West Midlands. Our tucking-in perch in Worthington Park is accompanied by a bronze bust of Mr Joule, the scientist who gives his name to the SI unit of energy (not to mention the aforementioned Wetherspoons). As for the football, England play out a tame 0-0 draw against Slovakia but still progress to the knockout stages of Euro 2016 - we watch the match at the Legh Arms at Sale Moor, another no nonsense Holt's experience with a full size snooker table in the public bar. 

- Sale Bridge -
Tuesday 21st June and a bit of exploring before we head to Old Trafford. Sale Town Hall and the Railway Inn (Robinson's Brewery) get some photo treatment while we stock up on snack supplies at various bakery stores. The Bridgewater Canal runs through the centre of Sale immediately parallel to the Metrolink Line and offers a sunkissed stroll along the towpath to Brooklands, passing Sale Cemetery and then discovering the Brook pub adjacent to the Altrincham-bound platform. 

- Noise Stops Play -
Back at the cricket, the morning is a lively affair thanks largely to the presence of 80 or so primary schools attending a community outreach day - cue lots of inflatable bananas, a bouncy castle and Lanky the giraffe mascot doing a tour of duty. Lancashire are bowled out for 308 with captain Croft top scoring on exactly 100, then the Bears make a solid start until losing two wickets in two balls. Nothing out of the ordinary there then, that is until a public address system malfunction unleashes an intermittent high-pitched sound something akin to an alien invasion! An early tea interval is taken as noise stops play.

- Peveril of the Peak Revisited -
The technical glitch is soon resolved and Warwickshire progress to 202 for 6 by the close, helped largely by an unbeaten stand between Keith Barker and Tim Ambrose. Rookie legspinner Matthew Parkinson makes an impressive bowling debut and the match is relatively evenly poised, meaning we can explore Manchester City Centre with an upbeat disposition. Deansgate Locks on the Rochdale Canal provide some further waterways interest then two classic pubs take centre stage; we've visited the Peveril of the Peak before but it more than merits another look for Seven Bro7hers ale from Salford and to admire the exquisite tiled frontage. Just around the corner, the Britons Protection offers Robinsons Unicorn, a Jack Daniels-themed snug and a mural depicting the events of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. Highly recommended!

- Witnessing our final ball -
All too soon it is Wednesday 22nd June, our final day of our cricketing escape. Warwickshire are dismissed for 263 approaching lunchtime, Barker with 64 and Ambrose a well-played 70 not out while Parkinson took 5 for 49, we reckon he's one to watch for the future. The terrace restaurant at Trafford Town Hall provides good grub (in my case hotpot) at very competitive prices, then Lancashire spend the rest of the afternoon compiling an increasingly healthy lead, opener Hameed on his way to a maiden first class century - 170 for 5 at the close.

- Grey Horse Inn -
A tram ride to Piccadilly Gardens means Mr B and I are well placed for our 8pm homeward departure, but with a little time to kill there's scope for a pre-coach pint in another memorable Manchester watering hole. The Grey Horse Inn on Portland Street is cheerfully compact as Euro 2016 action from Hungary 3 Portugal 3 accompanies some quality Hydes Original. Chorlton Street Coach Station then awaits and we make smooth progress back to the West Midlands via Stoke on Trent. The four days as a whole passed very quickly indeed but it was fun being out and about watching the Bears once more.

Saturday, June 18

Exploring Earlswood

Several years of exploration antics have meant that there aren't too many corners of the West Midlands that I haven't at least some passing knowledge of, but there are still occasional outings where I pitch up somewhere I've never been before. Today's adventure is one such example, introducing me to Earlswood for the very first time...

- 172 217 at Earlswood -
Catching the 09:12 Stratford-upon-Avon departure from Smethwick Galton Bridge, I eagerly anticipate a personally significant piece of WME history. Thinking back on the original Centro rail network map I started out with many moons ago, every West Midlands station had been chalked off as visited bar one notable exception - yes Earlswood was the missing link and now here I was about to arrive at that final frontier. In truth the station isn't especially interesting, a simple halt with a car park, a shelter on either platform and a garden centre just up the road, but completing my collection makes it somewhat special all the same.

- Lady Lane Bridge -
Now to explore the wider Earlswood area, beginning with Rumbush Lane and Wood Lane passing the Methodist Church and part of the Clowes Wood Nature Reserve. Earlswood village centre seems to be a fair distance away from the station and I avoid it for a little while yet, instead taking Lady Lane past the Red Lion and onwards to find the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. Lady Lane Wharf sits beside Bridge 16 and marks the start of my towpath stroll, initially stretching out in a northerly fashion to reach Bridge 15 at Braggs Farm Lane near Dickens Heath. 

- Blue Bell Cider House -
Having retraced my steps back to Lady Lane Wharf, I am intrigued to spot the canal's feeder arm branching off towards the collection of reservoirs known as Earlswood Lakes. I however stick with the main line to reacquaint myself with Salter Street, briefly surfacing at Bridge 17 to take a look at St Patrick's Parish Church (a fine building) and associated primary school academy. Just a little further and Bridge 19 at Warings Green is accompanied by the Blue Bell Cider House, a pub I'd previously visited with D9 although it has since gained its own microbrewery. Needless to say I couldn't resist sampling their wares with the naturally hazy Brewster's Special proving fresh and flavoursome, very nice. With muddy boots on I make sure to sit in the traditional bar, a lovely room with a narrowboat-inspired counter surround.

- Engine Pool -
My circuitous approach to Earlswood village continues with Limekiln Lane which in turn reveals the Bulls Head, a rather upmarket outpost for the Thwaites Brewery - the suntrap beer garden here is an inviting setting for some Magic Sponge, a special ale for the Euro 2016 football championships. With the physio having declared me fit for action once more, I press on along Shutt Lane to finally reach the village centre - notable features include the village hall, a Co-op post office store and the Reservoir (a Hungry Horse chain outlet I didn't feel tempted to try). Valley Road then presents my first proper glimpse of Earlswood Lakes, three man-made reservoirs built to maintain the water levels in the afore-mentioned Stratford Canal. Windmill Pool and Engine Pool sit either side of Malthouse Lane and I pause to enjoy the relaxing scenery, looking out across the waters with several ducks and geese to keep me company.

- The Lakes Station -
The third of the lakes is Terry's Pool as the reservoirs together form a popular walking attraction and wildlife haven. After a couple more panoramic pictures I close in on my final target of the day as Malthouse Lane reveals The Lakes halt, a request stop station that is just about in Warwickshire (as indeed is Earlswood's village centre). Facilities are basic but nonetheless adequate as I await the 14:51 train, giving the driver a wave to make sure he stopped for me. My ride home is relaxing and uneventful, reflecting on the fact that another far flung pocket of the West Midlands county has now received the WME treatment.

Sunday, June 5

Hub Marketing 2016: North Birmingham

The Hub Marketing Board also took time out to celebrate Secretary WME's birthday by staging their now-annual North Birmingham bash. The 2016 version would feature Aston, Erdington and Old Oscott amongst other places on a day set to become notable for Spaghetti soundbites, damaged darts and transport cafe timewarps...

- Midland Metro at Grand Central -
The trip begins with our standard Metro meeting at Bradley Lane but this time we would be continuing to the line's new terminus at Grand Central - yes, the Birmingham City Centre extension is now fully operational! Reconfigured access has been restored at Snow Hill, then from Bull Street the track sweeps into Corporation Street (served by a shoppers halt) before the final bend to Stephenson Street to finish alongside New Street Station's shiny mirrored frontage. Members hope that the new link will prove a success and encourage further development of the tram network.

- Promoting Peace in Central Birmingham -
A Peace Hub photo call keeps the Chairman out of mischief back at Bull Street, then there's a bacon bap stop to fuel us for a ride on the 65 to Aston Station. Secretary WME's planned morning ferret encompasses a loop of Aston and Nechells, picking out pictures of the restored Aston Tavern (brought back to life near the parish church in response to the demise of the King Edward VII), the shell of the Rotala Garage on Long Acre followed by the Villa Tavern with Ansells heritage by the old Nechells Baths.

- Blue Skies at Star City -
Mr D9 takes over navigation duties on Aston Church Road, cheerfully homing in on his Taxi Hub sleeve surprise for which he is granted the appropriate credit. The Secretary meanwhile gets more excited about Star City, the bold brash entertainments complex built on a reclaimed industrial site which now boasts the Vue multiscreen cinema and the Genting Club casino as principal attractions. The 66 bus tootles by as we join the Grand Union Canal off Cuckoo Road, strolling the short distance to Salford Junction trying not to get pecked by hissing geese.

- The Bald Spot seeks Spaghetti -
Soviet swimming pools don't come much more stark than at Salford, buried in the twilight zone beneath Spaghetti Junction's concrete carriageways. The location prompts a WME silly song 'On top of Spaghetti', a scouting tale of runaway meatballs that keeps our spirits high for more dubious architecture on the Birmingham & Fazeley. The relentless hum of an electricity generator plant greets us next closely followed by a tunnel below an old factory unit - the whole sequence prompts D9 into doing some unscheduled 'hoovering' on the approach to Bromford Lane.

- Erdington Hall Bridge -
So far so good and we now have a lunch date with an old friend to attend to. The acquaintance in question is the Pype Hayes Transport Cafe, proud proclaimer of vintage Pepsi signage and some seemingly ancient pinball machines. Squeezy sauce bottles and hints of formica hark back to the 1970s as we sample the specials menu and watch the Chester Road world go by. Some of the regulars are priceless characters that help give the cafe its beguiling earthy charm - it's not a place for anyone on a diet but we are somewhat smitten with it!

- Beer at the Bagot -
With D9 still drooling about such timeless greasy spoon appeal we relocate to the nearby Bagot Arms for our opening drink of the day. A steady half allows our stomachs to settle while we can chalk another sprawling suburban Birmingham roadhouse off the Hub Marketing to do list. A quick check on the Chairman's newly-installed bus app confirms that the 28 is imminent so we make tracks for Erdington via Wylde Green, the route in full linking Scott Arms with the Heartlands Hospital.

- WME Whirlwind primed for victory -
Our pub choice in Erdington is the Royal Oak, a traditional M&B number situated one corner across from the more ostentatious Red Lion. Given the Irish influence here some Guinness seems appropriate, providing lubrication for our misguided attempts to play darts despite only having two fully functioning arrows at our disposal; when one of these then suffers a broken flight we still soldier on gamely, Secretary WME taking a 5-1 lead whereas D9 Destroyer took his nickname a little too literally!

- Golden Hind, Kingstanding -
Another trundle on the 28 offers sighters of Short Heath and Warren Farm, places that have limited coverage in the Secretary's photo archive (WME senses another mission forming). Although both localities are tempting, we stay aboard until Old Oscott where there are interesting gems to be discovered in the Birdbrook Road vicinity - a possible Good Cheers Cellars site followed by the Brooklyn Fish Bar sporting signs for Fleur de Lys pies. The Drakes Drum and the Golden Hind are both large corner pub landmarks operating under the Sizzling brand - some Greene King IPA in each keeps things moving as the darts scoreline progresses to WME 9 D9 2 until our stricken flight gives up the ghost completely.

- Closet Concentration at Brownhills -
And now for something completely different as our Birmingham brief gets noisily interrupted by a whiff of Walsall, Brownhills to be precise. Secretary WME has heard wind of a Backyard Brewery bar lurking somewhere amidst an outlying industrial estate so we pick up the Platinum 937 for a luxury ride up through Kingstanding and Aldridge. Disembarking at Brownhills Parade means the Chairman's closed closet cravings can be sated at Holland Park, then we're free to go onwards to Ogley Corner and beyond...

- Backyard Brewhouse -
The Backyard Brewhouse is based on the Gatehouse Trading Estate off Lichfield Road and they open up their 'Tap Room' (otherwise known as Unit 8A) every Friday afternoon for a few hours. It feels a bit like drinking in someone's lock up, albeit your average garage does not usually contain quite this array of brewing equipment. Secretary WME is quick to opt for the Coaltown Coffee Stout (liquid charcoal) whereas Mr D9 makes a personal connection with a fragrantly scented Blonde (not to mention a bag of scratchings). More microbrewers seem to be opening their doors to paying punters in this fashion, something Hub members are wholeheartedly happy to support!

- Daughter Driving on the 997 -
We haven't finished with Walsall just yet though - Aldridge also requires our ale attention as the setting of a recently opened micropub, the Turtles Head. Situated on Croft Parade adjoining the town's main shopping square, this is a compact storefront affair combining five or so changing beers with a selection of real ciders. John Bull Bitter gets a patriotic nod as we introduce ourselves to the cuddly turtle toy collection, and when some complimentary chips are proffered we are easily persuaded to stay for an extra drink (Church End's What the Foxes Hat). The Chairman unwisely requests a Crown Carvery call for splash and dash dishwater but we recover aboard a very special 997, the bus being named after D9's eldest daughter. From Walsall Bradford Place we have a hairy encounter (in a nice way) on the 34 before finally moseying into Moxley for a Fiery Holes nightcap, job done! Together with Wednesday's trip to the Black Country Museum that all adds up to two brilliant birthday outings - cheers!

Thursday, June 2

A Black Country Birthday

Wednesday 1st June 2016 just so happened to be my birthday, and while my precise age will remain a closely guarded secret, I will let you in on details of a celebratory outing featuring the Black Country Living Museum and a couple of my favourite pubs...

- Watery Lane Junction Bridge -

The Chip Foundation is gathering to mark the special occasion whereby Nick, Stephen and myself are being joined by honorary member Ken. Our collective meeting point is Tipton Station where we can immediately launch into some lost canal investigation. Caggy's Boatyard on the New Birmingham Main Line is a well-known feature based at the site of Watery Lane Junction, a location that once provided links to the Tipton Green and Toll End branches. The first of these can still partially be followed as a public footpath stretching away from the old junction just where the New Main Line slightly widens. We therefore amble the short distance through to the remains of Tipton Green Junction where we reach the Old Main Line in the shadow of the Slasher's statue; along the way the track crosses Union Street (next to the Conservative Club) and passes through a former lock chamber where some of the stonework remains intact - interesting indeed!

- Lock Lookout Duty -

Tipton was historically awash with waterways so it is a challenge trying to unpick the various linkages. Our next significant location is simply named Tipton Junction - this is where the Dudley Canal branches off towards the Black Country Living Museum and Dudley Tunnel, although we have to switch towpaths at Pitchfork Bridge to access the line properly. We pass under Dudley Road and the Birmingham New Road in quick succession to reach the gate at the edge of the museum grounds; there isn't any direct access here so we leave the towpath and head for the main entrance off Tipton Road.

- Pitchfork Bridge -

Even though I only visited the museum back in April it was great to be back, extracting every last ounce of value from my 'Unchained' pass which is soon due for expiry. This would be my fourth visit in total but each time there is something different to catch my eye and add to the fascination, notably today a ride on Trolleybus No. 735 in its distinctive all-blue municipal Walsall Corporation livery with destination blinds for the Mossley estate. Hopping aboard outside the Bradburn & Wedge Garage, the journey takes us smoothly down towards the canalside village to terminate at the tramshed opposite St James's School.

- Trolleybus Terminating -

Another bonus quickly presents itself with a first-ever look inside AW Broome's Conway Garage, a replica of a building originally located near the Fighting Cocks in Wolverhampton. Among the engine oil cans and vintage fuel pumps are examples of Sunbeam motorcycles, representing how proprietor Alex Broome worked for the company as a racing mechanic before starting his own garage business. Close by, the old-fashioned fairground is a popular attraction during half term week although we resist the invitation to hook-a-duck or win a coconut.

- Fantastic Fish -

One prospect we aren't going to turn down though is that of the museum's famed fish and chips, traditionally cooked in beef dripping. The queue outside Hobbs & Sons is predictably long so instead we take our turn waiting at the Canal Street Fried Fish store which also operates during peak times - it's only a small shop and everything is prepared fresh so it does take a while to get served but our patience is certainly rewarded. Delicious!

- Birthday Boy in the Bottle & Glass -

A culinary treat like that needs to be washed down in style so we reconvene in the wonderful Bottle & Glass Inn (although I make sure to stock up on cinder toffee from Cook's sweet shop first). The ambience of this preserved Brockmoor boozer never ceases to captivate as we take up residence by the piano in the parlour and partake of Weston's Old Rosie, all the while being gently warmed by the flickering coal fire - June has not got off to an especially summery start temperature-wise it must be said! Time drifts slowly by as we savour the simple pub pleasures of cider and conversation, perfect preparation for the 3pm Charlie Chaplin silent comedy showing at the Limelight Cinema - naturally with Nick in attendance we had to sit in the posh seats!

- Canal Street Window Shopping -

A general browse of Canal Street's shops includes assorted sightings of cabbages, scrubbing brushes and bathtubs as we meander back towards the site entrance. Old Birmingham Road has an evocative array of 1930s shopfronts, among them that for Hartill's Motorcycles as recreated from Mount Pleasant in Bilston. We call into a couple of outlying cottages to get a feel for old time living conditions (outside privies and pig pens) then finish off with a peek inside the Woodsetton Toll House where the front bedroom boasts a patchwork quilt and a well-loved teddy bear.

- Woodsetton Toll House -

The Toll House used to be situated on the Sedgley-Tividale turnpike in the vicinity of Holden's Brewery, and strangely enough the brewery is precisely where we're heading next! After a mooch in the well-stocked gift shop we bid the museum farewell and set out along the Birmingham New Road to observe further Aldi construction progress following the demise of the King Arthur. My plan is to go cross country through part of the Wrens Nest Nature Reserve, a fine idea in principle but some typically dodgy WME navigation means we almost go round in circles - in my defence, one woodland track looks much like any other but at least we get to do a spot the difference exercise when Nick poses next to a fossil.

- Wrens Nest Fossil Watch -

Having recalculated my bearings we eventually emerge from Mons Hill to find the home of Holden's on George Street. A bottling plant and the main brewing building stand either side of the Park Inn tap, a place I hold in high esteem for quality ales and friendly hospitality. Today's tipple is Slack Tub, a new hoppy straw-toned brew I'd seen mentioned on Twitter a few days earlier - it's certainly a nice drink although Golden Glow remains my confirmed Holden's favourite. We sit in the games room and recall Nick's nifty-fingered table football excellence the last time we were here.

- Poised in the Park Inn -

Onwards and it's double 229 duty to connect us to our evening establishments. Being as it's my birthday, the Beacon Hotel in Sedgley simply has to be done - once there it must be the Dark Ruby Mild, the exalted Sarah Hughes elixir that is the stuff of legend. A seat in the snug is ideal for more relaxed banter as we ponder Ken's moustache memories and Stephen's shock cider confession. With Mr B then heading homeward to Wolverhampton, Ken, Nick and I proceed to Bilston in order to maintain our regular date with Patsy Gamble in the Trumpet - smooth jazz sounds in another must-visit Holden's hostelry, spellbinding stuff! That final session of scatchings and saxophones set the seal on a sensational day, all showcasing the very best of the Black Country. Happy Birthday me!!!