Monday, July 25

WME Flickr Focus: July 2016

There's only one place to start this month and that's with the news that the West Midlands Exploration photostream has taken delivery of its 3,000th picture! Rough Wood nature reserve had the honour of providing the milestone moment but there were a few other July additions to help things along...

WME Wolverhampton has been central to recent progress thanks to contributions from Northwood Park, Monmore Green and Penn - please welcome accordingly a Family Shopper sign (outside what was formerly the Staffordshire Volunteer), greyhound traps at dusk and a shot of St Michael's Church Hall. Star billing must go though to Northycote Farm where mint fresh from the herb garden joins a genteel goose and some rather cute sleepy piggies, just going to prove WME isn't always about pubs and transport.

WME Birmingham mixed the predictable with the surprising for its latest offerings. Handsworth's 101 bus terminus at Oxhill Road and the Plough & Harrow sign at Roughley are probably par for the course but the Welcome Garden at Perry Hall Park or the butchers sign at Pool Way are arguably a little more unexpected. A Church Road street sign at Moseley and the flame-themed Beggars Bush at New Oscott round off the half dozen of new arrivals here.

July was a decent month over on WME Telford where Muxton made its photostream debut through the auspices of the local primary school. Newport lent a hand too, ushering forth a canal basin scene, a Barley pub sign and an interior shot from the New Inn, homely Joule's fireplace very much to the fore. From Newport to Newtown of the WME Staffordshire variety and the inclusion of the Ivy House, scene of an evening call with Nickolenko back in August 2011; Norton Lakeside's basic halt on the Chasewater Railway also merits a mention.

A general sweep of the remaining WME galleries reveals the following: WME Dudley dabbled with the Yew Tree in Netherton, WME Sandwell sought out a brace of Old Hill pub prospects (the Boat and the Spring Meadow), WME Coventry reeled in two bridges off the Oxford Canal and even the lesser-spotted WME Solihull summoned a train at Dorridge. Finally, Exploration Extra eased back to life with a Grassington stone wall and a River Swale scene from Richmond. 3,000 photos then and counting - I'd better start working towards my next noteworthy number...

Hub Marketing 2016: Burntwood

Slap on the sunblock and settle back for a Staffordshire scorcher - the Hub Marketing Board are all bound for Burntwood and Boney Hay, bronzing up a certain bald spot during a full throttle summertime spree...

- New Invention Community Green -
Friday 22nd July 2016 and it's a 'will they won't they' morning until the Chairman's attendance can be confirmed. Secretary WME therefore starts off with some solo exploration at New Invention, targeting the Victory Club and the Community Green for some photographic treatment while pondering the increasingly precarious state of St Edmund Gennings Church. A Sneyd Lane stretch touches the edges of Essington as memories surface of playing fields, Sneyd School and Crab Lane approaches towards Bloxwich.

- Food for thought? -
News that Mr D9 has received clearance for hub duties means the Secretary is summoned to Walsall, but only once he's safely extracted himself from the Poets Corner estate near Short Heath. The local pub here is surrounded by scaffolding although Pings takeaway around the side seems unaffected. After quite a wait, the 41 bus beats the 69 in appearing on Keats Road so Lodge Farm and Bentley offer echoes of Monday's scenery until arrival at Walsall Bus Station. Members then get straight down to business by accounting for the Food Hub signage outside the Saddlers Centre.

- Swan Island Closet -
The 10 route provides our onward connection to Burntwood, travelling up through Rushall, Shelfield and Walsall Wood before D9 takes the imaginary wheel for a thrash along Brownhills High Street. Chasetown reverberates to the strains of Sir Sidney Saitheswaite's forgotten 45 'Our Mabel' - she looks good on a horse apparently - then we close in on Burntwood itself alighting outside the post office. The town rather blends with Chasetown and Chase Terrace to become one larger mass between Cannock and Lichfield but Swan Island is a defining feature, watched over by a shopping parade and the White Swan pub. It's then over to the Secretary's sleeve to locate yet another closet for the Chairman's prized collection.

- Springlestyche Lane -
Rugeley Road leaves Swan Island behind, passing the Memorial Institute and gradually revealing country lanes with high hedges. The Nags Head is a Chef & Brewer establishment on the edge of town where D9 evokes the sounds of 1937 as the Two Leslies warble about playing darts. We aren't taking our turn at the oche just yet, instead venturing along Springlestyche Lane in sticky heat to find the Drill Inn. You wouldn't really anticipate finding a pub in such an out of the way location but the sense of surprise all adds to the charm I guess, and it's certainly enjoyable sitting outside in the shade with a half of Doom Bar to slake one's thirst.

- A hint of the countryside at Boney Hay -
Meg Lane continues the feeling the escape with further field and farm views during our approach to Boney Hay. The local primary schoolchildren are excitedly breaking up for their summer holiday as hub members eye up our next pub with equally exuberant anticipation. The Ring O Bells has all the hallmarks of a decent community boozer - nothing too fancy just honest beer (Brentwood's Golden Galaxy), extremely crusty cobs and a good welcome. We do indulge in some darts here, taking care not to puncture the tyres of a bravely-parked bicycle with any stray arrows!

- Secretary in the White Swan -
Boney Hay is a rather pleasant corner of north Burntwood with appealing scenery looking out over the lowland heath of Gentleshaw Common. Secretary WME remembers visiting the estate back in 2010, tracking down the old 394 bus terminus on Oak Lane - not much has changed it seems with the Foresters Tavern still intact on Ogley Hay Road. 'D9 Destroyer' completes a rare darts victory before we reconvene at the White Swan to celebrate/commiserate as appropriate; respective tastings of Brains' Reverend James and Hobson's Best do the trick at a pub we were very impressed with.

- Chasetown's Cottage of Content -
The crawl continues as we weave our way onwards to Chasetown. The Trident is a simple local on Chase Road with a penchant for Marilyn Monroe montages then the Cottage of Content has the Chairman drooling once the original M&B picture sign has been spotted. Some Robinson's Trooper here befits the rock vibe as a replica Stig's helmet makes an appearance and the resident dog gives us a friendly sniff.

- Taming the 10 -
Chasetown Clock is where we catch the return number 10 whereby Mr D9 cannot resist another impromptu bash of back seat driving. His soundtrack of grunts and gear manoeuvres keeps us occupied all the way back through Ogley Corner, Brownhills and Walsall Wood while we keep a more sensible eye out for colliery and railway remains. 

- Four Crosses, Shelfield -
Our homeward journey is interrupted at Shelfield in order to visit a historic tavern that has been saved from closure. The Four Crosses sits on the corner of Mill Road and Green Lane where it is said to have served the village for 200 years or so, something worth toasting with Holdens Golden Glow and a pack of scratchings - Black Country indulgence at its finest! A Rushall splash and dash and the now-obligatory Moxley nightcap see us safely home, and with that our summer spectacular is deemed a sun-filled success!

Monday, July 18

A Willenhall Railway Rummage

After a few months gap, the Monday Mission series of adventures resumes with another instalment focusing on the transport heritage to be found around Willenhall. Having tracked down bits of the former Bentley Canal last September, Stephen and I were back in tandem for a railway-related ramble on one of the hottest days of the year so far...

Monday 18th July and the temperatures are already climbing as I make my way to Wolverhampton Bus Station for the first task of the morning. The number 28 service is due to be withdrawn this coming Sunday (24th July) to be partially replaced by the 69 so it's a case of ride it while you still can. The route leaves Wolverhampton along the Wednesfield Road (collecting Stephen as it goes) and then darts around New Cross Hospital, Wood End and Ashmore Park. New Invention is next for a call, followed by Coppice Lane and a diversion to avoid an inaccessible stretch of Lucknow Road, before we pull into the terminus on Willenhall's Union Street in the shadow of Morrisons supermarket.

- 28 at Union Street -

With the requisite bus pictures taken, we indulge in a limbering-up stroll around Willenhall town centre. This gives me chance to update my photo archive to reflect recent developments, such as the now-restored Bell ex-pub hosting community artwork while across the road the old Barrel & Shive has been resurrected as a foot clinic. The marketplace clock is always worth a photograph (or several) while we also note a duo of hardware stores, Wood Street Cemetery and a Morrisons-mounted motto: "We are Willenhall and we are wonderful!" - we can't argue with that.

- Willenhall Market Place Clock -

Passing the Field Street war memorial we home in on Willenhall Memorial Park, doing a circuit of internal pathways so that Stephen can relive a bit of bygone fishing nostalgia. A bandstand, a pavilion and a bowling green initially catch our eye before we find two pools - one ornamental with modern angling stations, and then the natural pond Mr B remembers which has latterly become a little overgrown despite the provision of a boardwalk.

- Park Road Bridge -

The park also provides our initial access onto the old railway that will form the centrepiece of our mission. The Wolverhampton and Walsall Railway opened in 1872 but wasn't especially successful - the passenger service largely ceased in 1931 whereas the track remained opened for goods use until the 1960s. Nowadays parts of the line can be followed as an interurban footpath; we pick up the trail at an old bridge positioned at the end of Park Road and follow in a roughly easterly direction towards Bentley.

- Stephen at Stafford Street Station -

Before long we reach the former station site at Willenhall (Stafford Street), although there isn't a huge amount to see apart from the overhead bridge which retains an intriguing separate archway alongside the main passage. Some platform brickwork can be discerned but any buildings seem to be long gone; Willenhall was historically served by two stations with the other being at Bilston Street on the south side of the town centre. Our path continues by passing beneath Cemetery Road, opening out among wider green spaces before crossing St Anne's Road and running on an embankment behind the Elm Park Tavern.

- Brown Jug, Sandbeds Road -

At Stringes Lane the trail goes cold for a while, even though we can see a telltale line of trees stretching off between industrial premises. Sadly there is no direct access on foot but our enforced detour gets extended to include a sorrowful look at the Brown Jug on Sandbeds Road, a pub that has been derelict for a few years and sadly it shows with smashed windows very much to the fore. Clarkes Lane featured during our Bentley Canal bash and is firmly in our sights today given that there was a Short Heath railway halt somewhere in the vicinity of the fire station's current location. The trail reappears at the side of said fire station and we're soon bearing down on Bentley in the heat of the midday sun.

- Short Heath Station Site (or thereabouts) -

Mad dogs and Englishmen seemingly can't resist a little look around Lodge Farm. The spot where the old railway crosses Granbourne Road is familiar from rides on the number 40 bus (and the 333 route before it) so we momentarily leave the line here to reacquaint ourselves with the estate. A small section of Stroud Avenue is sufficient for glimpses of the Homestead pub and the Brackendale shopping parade (Hardings Pharmacy, a Nisa supermarket and a Cash for Clothes outlet). Curiosity leads us along Furzebank Way where a couple of neighbouring schools are potentially of interest - I vaguely recall one of them being home to a public library once upon a time.

- Railway Route near Bentley -

Anyway, back to Granbourne Road and our final stretch of railway rambling. The trail at this point effectively bisects the two housing estates, Lodge Farm to the left and Bentley to the right with the M6 somewhere straight ahead. We plod through to Poplar Avenue where the prospect of another fishing pool tempts us away. Lunch is obtained from the local shops at the junction of Churchill Road and Queen Elizabeth Avenue, then we clamber up the steps by Emmanuel Church to visit the Bentley Cairn - this stone monument recalls the existence of Bentley Hall, one of several Midlands sheltering spots used by the future King Charles II when making his famed escape during the English Civil War.

- Mr Beardsmore at Bentley Cairn -

For the record, the Wolverhampton and Walsall Railway had a station serving Bentley, the site of which is close to the Bloxwich Lane bridge remains but lost beneath the M6. The line then continued through to North Walsall and Walsall itself so there is potential for further investigation at locations such as Reedswood Way and Bloxwich Road. We however round off with a short hop on the 40 up along Bentley Lane past Reedswood Park and the Alma - the 40 is another route set for the chop (it will be partially replaced by the new 37) so it seemed appropriate to include it. With that we reach Walsall town centre and say our farewells at Bradford Place where Stephen boards his Bilston-bound 39. We certainly made the most of the warm weather by covering a fair few miles of transport heritage - mission accomplished!

Tuesday, July 12

The Telford Trip 2016: Madeley Moments

Every year there are certain trips that I really look forward to: Coventry in the autumn, a Birmingham bash or two, and of course my annual visit to the Telford area. I've come to know the town and its constituent parts quite well over time but there are still some unexplored pockets in need of a little photographic attention...

- Southwater One -
Thursday 7th July 2016 and some estate-based exploration is in the offing as I arrive at Telford Bus Station. My first point of reference is however the Southwater development which has transformed the town centre scene, bringing about new leisure and retail spaces alongside a remodelled lake. A statement presence here is Southwater One, a shimmering gold building that is home to Telford Library, First Point council services and a University of Wolverhampton higher education facility.

- Amphitheatre and Randlay Pool -
Telford Town Park has been a favourite family haunt since I was but a lad so it's always nice to come back for another look around. On this occasion I'm concentrating on pool pictures, starting with the Spout and Withy specimens by the new visitor centre and kiddies play zone. Heading past Wonderland (where the infuriatingly catchy theme song lodges itself in my brain for the rest of the morning), I can enjoy the views of Randlay Pool looking out from the amphitheatre.

- Stirchley Chimney -
My stroll now sweeps round between Randlay and Blue Pools with further vantage points from which to survey the watery scene. Another feature I'm determined to find is the Stirchley Chimney, a relic from the days when  the Town Park expanses were occupied by blast furnaces. At 62 metres tall the chimney certainly stands out on the horizon - the structure and its associated furnace remains are now used to educate people about industrial archaeology.

- Randlay Farmhouse -
Time now to leave Town Park and wander into those local estates I mentioned. Randlay is close at hand, once I've escaped the clutches of various cul-de-sacs to find my way onto Randlay Avenue. Facilities include a community centre, some shops (a Premier convenience store, a hairdressing salon and Big T's Chippy), the primary school and the Randlay Farmhouse pub (Banks's). White and red hoardings surround the site of an old shopping precinct that has been demolished as part of the neighbourhood renewal process - this won't be the only overhaul example I'll be seeing today.

- Lord Silkin School Site -
A green ribbon of open space runs through the middle of Randlay and continues as a walking route into neighbouring Stirchley, a place I last encountered in September 2010. I'm approaching from a different angle this time though so I don't immediately realise that the major construction site I happen across is actually the Lord Silkin School being totally rebuilt. I reclaim my bearings with the help of the Co-op supermarket and the branch library, the latter having been absorbed into the Stirchley & Brookside Parish Council offices.

- Brookside beckons -
Talking of Brookside, that will be my next destination once I've satisfied my curiosity about Holmer Lake, a balancing reservoir popular as a fishing location despite the ominous presence of the A442 Queensway dual carriageway. The Mallard pub is almost lakeside and heralds my full arrival into Brookside where the neighbourhood amenities await along Burford; when I checked Google Street View in advance of doing this trip, the precinct resembled an ugly brown blob of a mugger's paradise but it too has been subject to investment and so a presentable little parade is now on hand to greet me. I'm still not convinced about Brookside as a wider estate though (it feels like the kind of place that would give Jeremy Kyle enough material to fill a whole series) but I can't fault the attempts at improvement.

- Silkin Way near Aqueduct -
Leaving Brookside behind, I join the Silkin Way long distance footpath just off Aqueduct Road near the Britannia pub. The walkway follows part of the old railway line down towards Coalport; I've covered bits of it before although this particular stretch is new to me. My intention is to revisit the former Madeley Market station but I don't quite get that far, distracted instead by the remains of an old windmill and a separate footpath that looks rather enticing.

- Madeley Court Gatehouse -
My detour pays off in bringing me to an exciting historic discovery, Madeley Court Hotel being the former manor house home of the Brooke family. It's certainly an impressive building, standing stately next to a pool and boasting an elegant restored gatehouse that simply demands to be photographed. Similarly intriguing but of a much more recent vintage is the dry ski slope I pass as the trail links up with Court Street to provide access to Madeley town centre.

- Madeley Cricket Club -
Madeley is today's designated finishing point but there are plenty of pictures to be taken before I head home. In keeping with the theme of the day, the town has undergone considerable redevelopment of late, with a sizeable Tesco superstore being chief among the new additions. A climb up Park Street reveals the Red Lion and the Cricket Club (which dates from 1855 according to the numbers on the entrance gates), then a weave along Church Street allows a look at St Michael's Parish Church (designed by Thomas Telford) and the Six Bells pub. A closing look at Russell Square then the number 2 bus in on hand to transport me back to Telford (via Sutton Hill and Dawley) - job done for another year!

Monday, July 4

Hub Marketing 2016: Bromsgrove

The occasion of the Bromsgrove Beer Festival saw the Hub Marketing Board returning to the Chairman's former Worcestershire parish during our latest entertaining excursion. Special guest Nick Turpin would also be in attendance on a day involving pirates, a banana box and a few transport tribulations...

The outing begins in time-honoured fashion with our morning ferret, the Midland Metro taking us from Bradley Lane to Booth Street as Mr D9 anticipates some serious Smethwick-based industry. Rabone Lane's metal refineries therefore offer swarf and sulphur as we reach the ghost of a transport location next to the Old Corner House pub. Soho Station stood in this vicinity from 1867 till 1949 but little trace of it remains, the area having been subject to extensive clearance and road realignment over subsequent years - a bald spot shot becomes our token gesture to the site's existence. 

- Spotted at Soho Station Site -

The winds of change are very much still evident here today thanks to the construction of the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, a seven storey medical masterpiece that is taking shape on a 16 acre brownfield plot off Grove Lane. Cranes tower overhead as we witness brand new development juxtaposed with the rotting dereliction of abandoned factories. A bonus Cranford Street closet gets some D9 attention as we count up the lost pubs of the locality - the London Apprentice, the London Works Tavern, the Moilliet Arms and the Queens Arms have all closed down in recent memory.

- Hospital construction continues... -

The Secretary's top target for the morning involves tracking down the ex-M&B cricket ground once associated with the Cape Hill Brewery. To get there we flirt with Winson Green, passing the sad ruins of the Bellfield Inn (still somehow standing) then taking terraced backstreets through to Rotton Park Road where a corner hardware store seems bedecked with plastic birds. City Road next to Portland Road and the ground itself, the facility now serving as the base for Warwickshire's second XI and youth squads. Historically the venue hosted County Championship and Birmingham League matches so it's pleasing to see cricket being at the forefront of a recreational resurrection.

- Mr WME meets Papa Winson -

Our rendezvous with Nick Turpin is rapidly approaching but we cannot miss out on some belated 'Big Hoot' owl-spotting carried over from last autumn. Summerfield Park is home to Papa Winson, a community-designed owl that remains proudly perched in public view whereas most of its fellow creations were auctioned off for charity. The park's neatly maintained flowerbeds provide an inviting backdrop to our sculptural snapshots although the adjacent disused police station is nowhere near as attractive. 

- Nick Turpin feeling fruity -

A busy 82 conveys us to the centre of Birmingham via Spring Hill and Sand Pits, although the diversions in place due to the Paradise Circus works mean we face an endless weave to Moor Street followed by a sprint on foot to Smallbrook Queensway. We just about meet Nick in time only to be informed that our passes aren't valid on the 144 bus, an irritation compounded when the 11:49 train is full and standing at New Street. Marooned in Brum for another hour, we decamp to the Shakespeare on Lower Temple Street for a contingency drink and a Nick Turpin revelation - our favourite highwayman is now owner of a bright yellow banana box and uses it to insist that Chairman D9 pays our Yorkshire Blackout bill.

Carriage capacity is slightly better on the 12:49 departure so we make it to Bromsgrove somewhat behind schedule and head straight for the festival, held as ever at the local rugby club. Entry is secured for £10 a piece then we can peruse the ale arrangement in the large marquee, complete with a London Bar special selection of offerings from the capital. A pirate theme has been adopted for this year which probably explains the unusually high number of Captain Jack Sparrow lookalikes dotted about - Aaarrr lad! Orchid Vanilla Mild, Fat Neck IPA and Stout Coffin are our opening choices before we take up residence in the clubhouse and consult the programme in more detail.

- Comparing ales in the Clubhouse -

Shiver me timbers, there be cracking beer bounty to be had out among them there stillages!! Secretary WME makes sure to try the intriguing White Stout (Bad Seed Brewery) and the Coach House Blueberry Bitter (fabulously fruity) while Lymestone's Stonewall Penalty proved more satisfying than the England football team's latest performances. Nick Turpin's charcoal cravings are ably attended to by Kinver's Black Ram and Five Points' Railway Porter whereas Chairman D9 chose to Rock the Kazbek before declaring himself to be a Horny Goat (no arguments there old chum). 

- Tombola Topiary -

Time passes quickly when you're having fun or so the adage goes; the saying certainly holds true for us, so with tokens spent up it's almost time to bid the Banana Box Bandit goodbye. Tombola tradition must not be ignored though so we take turns to draw winning tickets - a gravy boat for the Chairman, some mulled wine for Nick Turpin and a trio of garden topiary balls for the Secretary (although that last prize would later mysteriously go missing during the course of the evening). As Nick makes plans to catch his train, the Chairman and Secretary avail themselves of the number 43 Diamond bus through to Charford, an outlying housing estate served by the Golden Lion on Austin Road (a modern Marston's box effort that's alright for a swift visit). Other features here include a Co-op convenience store, St Andrew's Church and South Bromsgrove High School.

- Black Cross Baldness -

Mr D9 has fond memories of the days when he lived near Bromsgrove so he's in his element when we explore the town centre. A brief darts blast in the Olde Black Cross results in a 2-1 win for WME, a victory we follow with a cob and some Malvern Spring ale at the nearby Little Ale House micropub. The Wishing Well has become a holistic therapy centre so D9 decides on a splash and dash in the Grove (purely to ward off any bladder emergencies) then there's a minor panic when our intended return bus is late arriving. Visions of grovelling apologies haunt us until the 42 finally appears, meaning we just about make our train connection along with several other folk who've enjoyed the hospitality of the Redditch & Bromsgrove branch of CAMRA.

- A Celebratory Cheers Shot -

In all the excitement we've forgotten to reveal our silly songs for the day, so the homeward tram ride gives us an ideal opportunity to inflict listen to some singing fish heads courtesy of the Chairman. WME's gem is a Stargazers ditty about newly-born children, chosen specially in honour of the D9 family's latest addition - welcome to the world little Evangeline - although the fact the tune also happens to mention bald spots is surely just a coincidence! At moments such as these it is only right and proper to wet the baby's head hence a final nightcap in the Travellers Rest at Moxley allows us to maintain this most excellent custom. Cheers!