Sunday, April 30

WME Flickr Focus - April 2017

In between all my Rail Rover activities and other assorted April adventures I have found time to rustle up some more tasty dishes for the West Midlands Exploration photostream. Let's see what's been on the menu over the last few weeks...

WME Shropshire has taken the role of head chef on this occasion, cooking up some treats from Shrewsbury (Millingtons Hospital) and Ellesmere (another taste of Bridge 58 on the Llangollen Canal). Oswestry makes its photostream debut thanks to a diet of pub signs care of the Oak Inn and the Boars Head, bringing back memories of a Hub Marketing visit last year.

Donning their aprons and wielding their rolling pins to notable effect are WME Wolverhampton and WME Warwickshire. Wolverhampton offers a liberal sprinkling of Merridale morsels (Oak Street tiled signage, Pelham Street emptiness where the Fort Works once stood) and Bilston bites (Hickman Park trees plus a reminder of the Royal Exchange, a lost Loxdale pub) whereas Warwickshire has ladled on some Leamington loveliness (the Oak Inn and the Talbot are also sadly bygone boozers).

Fresh out of the oven are delicacies from WME Walsall (vintage Sankey Working Mens Club signage augmented with the Old House at Home in Pelsall), WME Birmingham (a class 172 train shot at Moor Street) and WME Staffordshire (a Penkridge pair showcasing the White Hart and the local market). Nor should we overlook WME Solihull's culinary efforts, especially now the Blue Bell Cider House near Earlswood has made a photostream appearance.

This just leaves a final few collections fighting over the leftovers. Among the potato peelings and fish heads, WME Dudley unearths a picture of Lye's glorious shed of a railway station whereas WME Sandwell whips up the sign for St Paul's Church in Golds Hill. Not to be outdone, WME Telford scrapes up a bus shelter shot from Newport Interchange for its first meal of the year. With that the stove falls silent for a while but no doubt there will be more to pluck from the pot come May...

Saturday, April 29

Rail Rover 2017

Trumpet fanfare please - nothing less will do for a moment of such exploration significance. Yes, my Rail Rover adventures have been resurrected after a FIVE year gap. Not since 2012 had I last set forth armed with a Heart of England Rover ticket but now the wider Midlands rail network was once again waiting to be (re)discovered - here's what I got up to...

- Tutbury Castle -
Monday 24th April 2017: I've opted for the Flexi Rover ticket this time around which gives me three days travel within a seven day period. Lapworth and Leamington brought the curtain down in 2012 so picking up the baton from those esteemed locations is Tutbury & Hatton on the North Staffordshire Line (Crewe - Derby via Stoke-on-Trent). The station serves neighbouring communities either side of the River Dove with Tutbury being home to a ruined castle, a quaint High Street and a few pubs - I sampled the Leopard for some lunchtime Pedigree. Hatton is actually just over the county boundary into South Derbyshire and has a Nescafe factory as probably its most notable landmark. 

- Foxfield Railway -
Monday afternoon sees me stopping off at Blythe Bridge, a village on the south-eastern fringes of the Stoke-on-Tent city conurbation. The main village facilities (library, post office, Black Cock pub) can be found along the Uttoxeter Road although of particular interest to me is the Foxfield Railway. Originally built to serve Foxfield Colliery, the railway now operates weekends and Bank Holidays as a heritage line from its base on Caverswall Road. Although the site is understandably quiet on a weekday I still enjoy getting glimpses of the goods shed and some of the rolling stock. I then round off the day in Stoke town centre where I'm pleased to see the former Gray's Corner pub (with its Inde Coope lettering) brought back to life as the Olde Bull and Bush.

- Leominster Station Sign -
Tuesday 25th April 2017: Rail Rover Tuesdays are traditionally reserved for Shropshire although I decide to include a little bit of Herefordshire on this occasion. Catching the Carmarthen train out from Shrewsbury, I land in Leominster for my first ever look at the town's railway station, a modest setting that still conveys a sense of transport history. As a sizeable market centre on the River Lugg, Leominster has plenty of attractive architecture to keep me busy: Corn Square with its millennium clock, the Priory Church of St Peter & St Paul and several coaching inns. The Grape Vaults was my choice here and stole my heart with a cracking pint of Ludlow Best to match the old-fashioned ambience and the murmur of local conversation.

- Ludlow Market Square -
One stop back up the line towards Shrewsbury is lovely Ludlow, a place I always enjoy visiting. The whole pace of life seems so different compared to the West Midlands and I savour taking pictures of the Market Square in the shadow of the historic castle. My beer radar then leads me to the Rose & Crown, a courtyard pub hidden away off Church Street that was refurbished last year by Joules of Market Drayton, while the Railway Shed down by the station is now the established tap of the Ludlow Brewery. A pint of Black Knight and some scratchings does me very nicely indeed as I watch the brewers at work.

- Wrenbury Village -
Thursday 27th April 2017: my third and final day of rovering is dedicated to Cheshire as I settle back and relax on the local stopper between Shrewsbury and Crewe. There's something about quiet branch lines and request stops that really appeals to me so I ask the conductor for the train to call at Wrenbury, an unstaffed village halt. I'd never been to Wrenbury before but immediately feel at home, especially with a stretch of the Llangollen Canal to investigate. A succession of lift bridges either side of Wrenbury Mill Marina provide the focus of my towpath tour until a sharp shower sends me scurrying for shelter in the Cotton Arms, a Cholmondeley Road inn with an associated caravan site.

- Shropshire Union at Nantwich -
When the rain relents I return to Wrenbury station for the short journey up the line to Nantwich where my canal capers continue courtesy of the Shropshire Union main line. The stretch from Marsh Lane to Nantwich Aqueduct is sedate and reasonably scenic with narrowboat moorings adding charm along the way. Nantwich's main centre sits beside the River Weaver and the town is historically associated with both the salt and tanning industries (the local football club is nicknamed the 'Dabbers' in reference to the latter). I weave my way through from Welsh Row to Hospital Street, making sure to seek out the Black Lion (as listed in the 2017 Good Beer Guide) for a quality pint of Weetwood's Cheshire Cat. There's just time for me to wave hello to 'Elvis' over at the Railway Hotel before my Crewe connection arrives, and as I make my return back to the West Midlands I hope it won't be another five years until I next see Rail Rover action!

Wednesday, April 19

Hub Marketing 2017: Good Friday

Having thoroughly enjoyed our Good Friday outing around Golds Hill last year, the Hub Marketing Board were primed and ready for more Eastertime exploration burrowing through the Black Country. Great Bridge and Wrens Nest are on the menu for a 2017 springtime session...

- Darts in hand at Greets Green -
Friday 14th April 2017 and our starting point is West Bromwich in advance of a ride on the 42 towards Great Bridge. Secretary WME always likes a look at Farley Park with its historic reading room lodge so we alight for a repeat investigation coupled with a pint in the Greets Green Sports Bar. Armed with some Abbeydale Moonshine, the Chairman continues his recent improved darting form while trying not to injure the resident dog when she strayed too close to the oche. The bar is part of the local social club premises which also includes a cafe fronting onto Whitehall Road.

- Shenton's Ironfounders -
To Great Bridge then as originally intended with local industry to the fore courtesy of Shenton's engineering works. Mr D9 gets all nostalgic for lost Pepsi cafes and doctors surgeries but we are pleased to see that the Old Crown Inn on Sheepwash Lane (opposite the library) has been resurrected as the Zions Bar, even if our visit has us thinking we've landed in a kindergarten rather than a pub. A brief stop for chips is followed by a call at the Lounge Bar (formerly the Limerick) where Secretary WME is only too happy to cash in his discount research - Samuel Smith's Extra Stout at £1.50 a pint, result! 

- Bald spot busy spotting closets -
We rather liked the Lounge Bar/Limerick, a landmark pub by Great Bridge Market Place that summons up a sense of community and continuity. Sadly the nearby Nags Head remains disused and unloved as we commence a walk through to Dudley Port, the highlight of which is discovering a possible closet clue beside the Hebron Chapel. The Chairman peers over the wall hoping to get a view of forgotten urinals but its only really his bald spot that ends up on show.

- D9 driving on the 82 -
Dudley Port has the railway and canal in close proximity spanning the A461 on twin bridges. The Royal Oak is noted as a watering hole by the railway station before bus 74 combines with bus 82 to get us to the other side of Dudley for our Wrens Nest ferret. Wrens Hill Road leads us through to the nature reserve, a site of special geological importance - believe it or not, the land where Dudley now stands was covered by coral reefs and tropical seas some 400 million years ago (no, I don't remember that either). We dabble with some fossil finding then seek out a pub specimen in the form of the Caves, an estate boozer that's been spruced up a little of late. An orange-haired wench with a penchant for tattoos chats to us a while before we sup up and wander on to Woodsetton.

- Parkes Hall Pool -
Emerging onto Parkes Hall Road, there is unexpected scenery to stumble across when we find an intriguing secluded pool; apparently it was originally constructed by the Dudley Waterworks Company as a reservoir supplying the town with drinking water, and while the pool hasn't fulfilled that particular function for well over a century, it remains a little oasis utilised by local anglers. Elsewhere the Chairman gets most excited about an old Asda bus stop in the undergrowth by the Parkes Hall Social Club, then the pub picture archive is boosted by the inclusion of the Bramford Arms and the Brook. 

- Turls Hill Road, Hurst Hill -
The Brook proves a nice find actually, its compact single storey aspect stretching back from Bourne Street into a larger building where the regular punters are engrossed watching Wolves v Brighton football action. We partake of Timothy Taylor's Landlord here before soldiering on to Sedgley, Turls Hill Road being a hidden track that reveals inviting views over pasture and paddock - not quite the usual vistas you associate with the heart of the Black Country. Sedgley serves us well with old faithful the Beacon Hotel in perfect position for a drop of Pale Amber; the pub was recently awarded the Dudley CAMRA Pub of the Year accolade and deservedly so, it's superb!

- Blakenhall Backstreets with blossom -
 Showers set in as the number 1 bus trundles home to Wolverhampton although we do indulge in a Blakenhall pit stop. The Rose & Crown on Park Street South is situated opposite where the Phoenix Rise flats once dominated the local landscape - the pub has something of a medieval/Tudor theme judging by the curious friezes displayed on the lounge walls. Some backstreet navigation then allows for a final flurry in Wolverhampton itself, accounting for the Hooded Ram's predictably busy opening night. Ram's Head Bitter is just one of the ales hailing from the Isle of Man so we make a mental note to return and try more of the range in due course. A very good Good Friday - cheers!

Monday, April 10

A Codsall Wood Circuit

Following on from Thursday's Rocket Pool roam, Stephen and I joined forces once more for another leisurely walk. This time the industrial backwaters of the Black Country are swapped for the country lanes and parish paths of South Staffordshire - cue Codsall and Codsall Wood...

- Moatbrook Lane -
Saturday 8th April brings with it stunning sunshine as Mr Beardsmore and I board the 5A bound for Codsall (the route serves Birches Bridge shops whereas the plain 5 covers more of Bilbrook). Our stroll begins at Bakers Way terminus, setting forth along Wood Road but detouring via Moatbrook Lane for a quieter sense of cottages, millennium nature reserves and hedgerow-lined sharp bends.

- Codsall Wood welcomes us -
Rejoining Wood Road we make sure to dodge any oncoming traffic in passing the entrances to Wheatstone Park and Pendrell Hall (the latter was formerly an adult education college but now markets itself as a wedding venue). The centre of Codsall Wood is just a little further and is mainly residential these days - the local post office closed a few years ago with the Cross Guns pub also passing into the annals of history, sadly demolished to make way for housing. 

- Chillington Hall Lodge -
All is not lost though as some photographic pickings remain. The junction with Whitehouse Lane allows for shots of one entrance into the Chillington Hall estate - the accompanying lodge holds a few memories for Mr B as he remembers waiting outside the gates for Sunday morning access to the Hall's fishing pools. The Cross Guns might have gone but the Crown is still trading, albeit renamed the Pendrell Arms since coming under community ownership. We slake our thirst with a relaxed pint, mine being Holden's Black Country Mild whereas Stephen opts for his customarily purple dose of blackcurrant and lemonade.

- St Nicholas Church, Codsall -
Suitably re-energised we commence the climb back through to Codsall, following the old footpath which connects the little church in Codsall Wood (St Peter's) with its larger counterpart in Codsall village. The parish church of St Nicholas thus stands tall on the horizon as we approach alongside the cemetery, the 14th century tower basking in some rather warm sunshine. The weather is admittedly lovely, lifting our spirits given the not-very-encouraging cricket updates coming from the Oval (Warwickshire are struggling somewhat in their opening game of the 2017 County Championship).

- Irish Red in the Crown Joules -
We reward our exertions with further refreshment courtesy of the Crown at Codsall Square, a Joules establishment that recently received the accolade of being Wolverhampton CAMRA's Country Pub of the Year. Moorhouse's Irish Red is my chosen tipple here, a nice pint amongst inviting surroundings. Stephen then keeps abreast of the Bears batting woes as we catch the return 5A to Wolverhampton and that's that for a couple of successful mini-adventures. Cheers!

Sunday, April 9

A Rocket Pool Rummage

The first of two Stephen trips in three days involves a bit of Black Country canal investigation near Bilston and Bradley as Mr Beardsmore and I examine the canal heritage to be found around the Rocket Pool estate...

- Rocket Pool -
Thursday 6th April 2017 sees Stephen and I boarding the 530 bus from Wolverhampton's Tower Street (just behind the Express & Star offices). The route is operated by Banga Travel and links Wolverhampton City Centre with Rocket Pool via Rough Hills (Hardy Square), Millfields Road and Bilston. Alighting on Rocket Pool Drive, we can immediately pitch into photographic action thanks to the Rocket Pools pub (a simple estate Banks's boozer), the local Children's Centre and of course Rocket Pool itself, a body of water seemingly popular with local anglers.

- Glasshouse Bridge -
Venturing through Lower Bradley, we negotiate an estate where the roads are named after royal personalities (Elizabeth Avenue, Edinburgh Road, Princess Anne Square) before emerging onto the towpath of the Bradley Canal Arm. As something of a Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) backwater, the arm has remained just about navigable due to the presence of the Bradley workshops; the manufacturing amongst other things of replacement lock gates here has justified keeping this part of the canal open. We follow the extant canal on towards Bilston, passing below Pothouse Bridge (near Loxdale Metro stop) and Glasshouse Bridge where we can witness some of the Bilston Urban Village construction works.

- Daisy Bank Schools -
The Urban Village is certainly taking shape with new housing and the proposed White Rabbit new-build pub set to join now-established landmarks such as the Bert Williams Leisure Centre and the South Wolverhampton and Bilston Academy school. A closer look at the building site is tempting but is put on hold in favour of a peek at Daisy Bank. The old Sedgley Board Schools building is still there on Ash Street along with the Golden Lion and Great Western public houses, while Hall Green Cemetery presents a modern lawn aspect unlikely to yield a certain Mr D9 with a vintage closet.

- Mr Beardsmore by the Bradley Locks Branch -
The final aspect of this short but sweet wander involves an earthworks examination from Bradley Lane back towards Rocket Pool Drive and Humphries Crescent. The open spaces flanking the estate were once the site of an extensive canal network involving the Wednesbury Oak loop canal and the Bradley Locks Branch. We do our best to decipher the course of the former waterways among the bumps and hollows, albeit aerial photos and a map would be required to assess things properly. There were certainly former bridges in the vicinity and the line of the old locks is quite clear where a public right of way undulates its way towards Moxley. We hope to explore the canal remains around Weddell Wynd and Princes End in more detail in the not-too-distant future, but for now we shall sign off for a couple of days and pick up the story in Codsall on Saturday...

Sunday, April 2

Burton Beer Festival 2017

Nick and I last had the pleasure of visiting Burton CAMRA's Beer Festival back in 2013 so a return date with the Town Hall and its Wurlitzer organ was somewhat overdue. What ale treasures and musical memories would await us four years on?

- The Weighbridge Inn -
The 10:19 Nottingham departure from Birmingham New Street gets things rolling and we're far from being the only ale fans on board - in fact it seems that most of the train alights at Burton with a veritable throng of enthusiasts then descending upon King Edward Place. Deciding to dodge the inevitable queues, Nick and I instead seek out the Weighbridge for our first drink of the day. This beguiling micropub is located in what appears to be a former railway outbuilding on the yard of a historic grain warehouse (now a Travelodge) - the Falstaff Darkside is a cracking opening tipple as we admire an old-fashioned telephone receiver and a clocking-in machine.

- Burton Town Hall -
Draining our last drop of Darkside, we are free to fling ourselves into the full festival experience at Burton's handsome Town Hall. Baron Burton's statue stands stately outside as we cough up the £12 entry charge in exchange for glass, programme and the all-important tokens. Ales then line the arches either side of the main floor while the Wurlitzer organ takes pride of place on the main stage. Nick and I both opt for Charrington's Oatmeal Stout before taking residence on the balcony to savour the scene from on high. This is a special setting and we settle in further by sampling Magic Rock's Dark Arts, Leatherbritches' Raspberry Belter (tantalisingly tart) plus Wiper & True's Milk Shake (boasting copious amounts of chocolate and vanilla).

- The wonderful Wurlitzer -
The beer bonanza continues with the rather remarkable Rattenburg Cake, a marzipan-infused Kristalweizen quite unlike anything I'd ever drunk before. Nick steadily steers through a selection of stouts until we both arrive upon Fallen's Chew Chew, a salted caramel milk stout described as a "sweet, briney, chewy trouble maker" - no wonder we couldn't resist! Just when we think things can't possibly get any better, Martin Atterbury treats everyone to his rousing repertoire on the Wurlitzer organ; 'Ain't She Sweet', 'Red Roses for a Blue Lady' and 'Delilah' are among the timeless tunes being performed.

- Swanning about in Stapenhill -
My final tokens are traded for Dark Star's Creme Brulee, a hot seller which lives up to its dessert-inspired name for another case of caramel contentment. The Dambusters March theme inspires an outbreak of balcony flag-waving almost akin to the Last Night of the Proms, then Nick and I take our festival leave in search of a Lord Burton lunch washed down by Titanic's White Star. It's a pleasantly warm spring afternoon now so a little wander seems in order, the sunshine smiling down as we stroll across the 1898 Ferry Bridge to Stapenhill Gardens where Nick soon makes the acquaintance of a certain swan sculpture. 

- The Last Heretic -
Back on the town side of the Trent we partake of three more pubs before our Cross Country curtain call. The Dog is a place I visited with D9 last December which has since been crowned the local pub of the year, credentials we put to the test over some Saltaire Hazelnut Coffee Porter. Station Street then has two establishments within a very short distance of each other - the Last Heretic micropub where we are emboldened by Stout Hearted and beer barrel benches, swiftly followed by the Roebuck which historically served as the Ind Coope brewery tap. Olde Peculier and scratchings are just the tonic we need before the train home but it's the Wurlitzer and the festival that will live longest in the memory. Cheers!

Saturday, April 1

Hub Marketing 2017: Small Heath, Meriden and Olton

March has become the Hub Marketing Board's preferred month for all things East Birmingham, especially if we can do an outing sometime around St Patrick's Day. For 2017 we didn't quite land a trip on the 17th itself so Monday 27th March proved an able deputy, even if we ended up spending much of the afternoon across the border in Solihull territory...

- Gearing up for the Coventry Road -
A morning Metro meeting gets us safely into Birmingham for ten o'clock or thereabouts with the Chairman then able to flex his driving muscles on a Kingshurst-bound 59. There's something about Digbeth and the Coventry Road that gets Mr D9 all excited - perhaps its the old garage or the inner city history that does it, along with the concentration of vintage closets beneath the railway arches of course. 

- Bald spot at Bordesley -
Anyway, on this occasion we alight just past St Andrews to begin our morning ferret in Bordesley. An immediate landmark is the former Free Library building (now a mosque) on the fork of Green Lane and Little Green Lane, the bald spot taking a close interest in the clock tower. Two intriguing pubs are close at hand, the Cricketers Arms and the Roost presumably being matchday haunts for Blues fans. Wright Street takes us past Small Heath School to Muntz Street where we find hints of heritage thanks to a painted tobacco advertising sign and the remains of the Malt Shovel pub (complete with adjacent gents conveniences, long since closed).

- Small Heath Park (watch out for pigeons) -
Small Heath is a fascinating place to wander around as you never quite know what you might spot. Golden Hillock Road leads down to the local park where a large flock of pigeons gorges themselves on leftover chapatis. I remember investigating the 28 bus terminus here over ten years ago but D9's memories go further back to the days of the Gary Owen Club on Wordsworth Road - what lurid tales might the Chairman tell of eventful evenings there? Charles Road has us on the trail of a vintage Washeteria with 1970s-style mosaic frontage, then we weave through the terraced sidestreets around Somerville Road for another look at the Monica, a one-time pub that has been re-purposed as a community hall.

- Help yourself in Hay Mills -
After having a chat with some friendly locals, our thoughts turn firmly to food matters and a luncheon appointment at Bedders. This independent chip shop is a Coventry Road institution which opens Monday to Saturday lunchtimes (11:30 - 2) plus Friday evenings. £6.50 obtains us fish, chips and mushy peas with a generous spoonful (or several in D9's case) of the all-important onions, lovely! We walk off our indulgences by exploring a little of Hay Mills where the Chairman's nose for a closet unearths a miniature pink toilet from a pile of junk.

- Meriden Green -
And now for a complete change of scenery as we swap the terraced backstreets of Small Heath for the leafier environs of Meriden. The X1 bus is our steed, National Express West Midlands having given the old 900 route a new number as part of a 'Platinum' upgrade. The service roads around Birmingham Airport don't detain us for too long and we can alight without incident at Meriden Green. Immediate photo targets here include Arden Cottage branch library, a memorial obelisk dedicated to wartime cyclist casualties, and a sandstone cross said to represent the very centre of England (although that 'fact' is subject to some geographical conjecture).

- Meriden Village Hall -
Meriden also boasts a healthy selection of pubs with the Queens Head top of our list for a visit. Tucked away in an Old Road dip, this is a place that featured in the 2016 Good Beer Guide so we avail ourselves of Draught Bass and a game of darts - shock horror, the D9 Destroyer actually won for a change! His prize/punishment is a drink in the Strawberry Bank, a rather posh establishment where a Magnum IPA pumpclip with a Tom Selleck-style bristly moustache proves fatal to the Chairman's wallet. In between times, the village hall and a pretty duckpond add to the picture count before another X1 comes into play for the ride back towards Brum.

- The Harvester, Tanhouse Farm Road -
Wells Green is our next alighting point and we soon leave the busy Coventry Road behind in favour of the quieter residential estates approaching Olton. There are a clutch of local shops arranged around the junction of Old Lode Lane and Hatchford Brook Road, one of which contains the Pup & Duckling micropub. That doesn't open on Mondays though but we do have the Harvester on hand just around the corner for some Lancaster Blonde amidst a Birmingham City FC team gallery.

- Cheers from the Highwood -
A trio of taverns in the Hobs Moat vicinity see us through the early evening. The Hobs Meadow on Ulleries Road has recently been refurbished by Greene King so we partake of Abbot Ale and ponder the architectural merits of more local shops (the Ice Rink Fish Bar being especially prominent). The Olton Tavern is an Ember Inns example where we try some Brakspear Bitter, and finally there's the Highwood with its flat-roofed features for additional Greene King hospitality. With that a not very express X2 conveys us into the city centre and it's job done for another trip - cheers!