Thursday, August 31

WME Flickr Focus - August 2017

If we imagine the year as if it were a motorway then autumn is fast approaching in the rear view mirror; August has (allegedly) dispensed its summery miles and September is now waiting its turn at the steering wheel. The WME photostream is a road without an ultimate destination but the fun is always collecting up different locations along the way, so let's confirm the calling points from the last four weeks...

The first major junction we reach during our journey is WME Sandwell with tempting turnings for Great Barr (the Red Admiral pub sign on Gorse Farm estate), Cradley Heath (the interchange at dusk) and Smethwick (a glimpse of the Engine Arm Aqueduct, a classic canal structure). Still in Sandwell, Great Bridge demands a detour so that we can scoop up pub pictures of the Old Crown Inn and the Beehive, the latter looking a little dishevelled on Brickhouse Lane.

Back on the main carriageway, we can tour our way through WME Birmingham for a cricketing call at Edgbaston. Some Specsavers stumps enter the fray here along with Messrs Ambrose and Hain batting against Hampshire, whereas the Covered Wagon musters a Moseley pub shot fresh from the Yardley Wood Road. An evening entry for the Redhill Tavern's picture sign at Hay Mills already has an archive quality given the pub seems to have ceased trading.

In need of further fuel, we trundle into the service station otherwise known as WME Dudley. Coseley Station's entrance hoop provides the lubrication to get things moving again and there are more lost pub memories courtesy of the Shakespeare on Stafford Street - the unspoilt interior there was one of my favourite Black Country settings, especially when the pigeon racing club was in attendance. Thankfully the Red Cow at Lower Gornal remains a firm example of traditional hospitality.

Next into the sat-nav is WME Wolverhampton closely followed by WME Walsall. Wolverhampton offers corners of Claregate (an autumnal view of the local park), Coalway Road (more tiled street sign action) and Sedgemoor Park (the Elisabeth Arms) while Walsall pulls over at a Granbourne Road bus stop slap bang between Lodge Farm and Bentley. The sat-nav voiceover also directs us momentarily to WME Telford to pick up a welcome sign for the Brookside estate.

Checking the route carefully, our final waymarkers among August's additions arrive care of WME Staffordshire. Burton and Chasetown join forces for our driving delectation with the Union Inn, the Coopers Tavern and the Cottage of Content (a vintage M&B sign) all lurking in the glovebox awaiting discovery. With that August prepares to vacate the vehicle and it will be up to September to continue the journey - I wonder which pictorial passengers we will encounter?

Tuesday, August 22

The Birmingham Bear Hunt Continues...

Not content with July's initial attempts at Big Sleuth bear collecting, Stephen and I join forces again for a second sculptural sweep, eyeing up the examples on display in Bearwood, Harborne and at the University of Birmingham...

- Going Forward at Smethwick Rolfe Street -
Our sleuthing adventure starts at Smethwick where I'm pleased to see the faded mosaic alcove on Rolfe Street's Birmingham-bound platform has been refreshed with a vibrant 'Going Forward' mural. A stroll along Smethwick High Street then bears photographic fruit thanks to the Red Cow and the Council House while we also note the William Mitchell pen factory (now a nursing home) on Bearwood Road.

- Bussy Bear -
Our first bears of the day can be found in Bearwood where the bus station is home to Bussy Bear complete with steering wheel, driver's uniform and the 82 timetable. Just across in Lightwoods Park we meet Bear-trix Blocker all geared up for a skateboard session; tattoos, a nose ring and a yellow crash helmet are among the distinctive elements of this design.

- Alice -
Lightwoods Park is currently undergoing a £5.2 million restoration project overseen by Sandwell Council, and it's great to see the historic fabric of the park being given some attention. A major aspect of the scheme is the renovation of Lightwoods House after years of decay and neglect; the building is already looking much improved and is the base for a group of bear cubs peeping out from the ground floor windows. One such cub is Alice, a nurse who wears blue spectacles, a name badge and a red cross cap. 

- Harby -
Tracking down our next target involves a wander through Warley Woods where Bentley the Bearwood Bear waits to greet us over by the drinks fountain. We have only just started to admire Bentley's decorative detail (including a depiction of Thimblemill Library) when the heavens open and a thundery shower sends us scampering for shelter. Thankfully the 48 bus runs to schedule and the deluge has stopped by the time we reach Harborne, meaning we can account for Harby on the High Street without risking a further drenching.

- Queen Elizabeth Hospital -
Typically of an English summer, the rain burst is followed by bright sunshine as we proceed along Metchley Lane towards the hospital complex. A bear called India is positioned outside the entrance to Birmingham Women's Hospital while the striking architecture of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital also needs to be surveyed. The site has been transformed into a world class state-of-the-art medical facility that hosts the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and provides specialist care for wounded military personnel evacuated from overseas.

- Mr B meets Buzz -
From the hospital it is but a short walk to the University of Birmingham's Edgbaston Campus, passing University railway station along the way. Three bears require detection here - Bee Kind (on the station plaza), Buzz (a honeycomb theme outside the University's new library) and Rosie (brown with a bouquet at the Bramall Music Building). I have fond memories of the three years when I was a University of Birmingham student so it's nice to be back, looking up at the Old Joe clock tower once more as the bells bong for 2 o'clock.

- Window Shopping at the Bull Ring -
With a bit of spare time at our disposal we call into the Barber Institute of Fine Arts for a more cerebral artistic experience. The exhibits include Monet's Water Lily Pond along with works by Canaletto, Tintoretto, Turner and Degas plus portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the gallery as a whole was a pleasure to explore. A ride on the 63 bus then connects us to Birmingham's Bull Ring for a spot of Window Shopping as our bear sequence resumes.

- Florence Nightin'owl -
Birmingham City Centre has the highest concentration of bears so among the others we seek are Bhangra Bear (with drum and moustache), Vincent the Biploar Bear (partially inspired by the artist Van Gogh) and Dr Bear Brawn (in medical scrubs with stethoscope and yellow-rimmed spectacles). Dr Brawn is on duty outside Birmingham Children's Hospital where he is joined by Florence Nightin'owl, a tribute to the nursing profession that has remained on display from The Big Hoot event of 2015.

- Captain Blue Bear -
We round off this particular bear hunt at Colmore Square by making the acquaintance of Get Your Bearings (black design containing road markings) and Birminghamshire (featuring a whimsical rolling landscape) although it is Captain Blue Bear who steals the show with his eyepatch, cutlass and treasure map. That's probably enough fun for one day - the Big Sleuth event runs through until Sunday 17th September so I should yet get chance for more sculpture shenanigans before the bears are auctioned off for charity.

Wednesday, August 16

Wolf Wanderings with Mr D9

The Wolves in Wolves project has created something of a stir in Wolverhampton this summer, so for our August outing the Hub Marketing Board decide to seek out more sculptures before setting off on a Black Country beer bash...

- Hunter hails the bald spot -
Friday 11th August 2017 whereby the afternoon begins with some immediate wolf action in and around Wolverhampton City Centre. Secretary WME has been gathering pictures of the various sculptures for a few weeks but hadn't until now seen 'Beanstalk', a pantomime-themed design appropriately located in the Grand Theatre. It is however Hunter, the black and white wolf by the University Art department, that has the pleasure of meeting the D9 bald spot.

- Zeus -
A brief Molineux detour means members can clock in at the Apprenticeship Hub (formerly the Feathers pub) prior to more wolf photo-calls around by the Civic Centre. Zeus - an Olympic-inspired wolf from Highfields School - looks out over the piazza while Wolf Ver-Hampton's mayoral robes guard the main entrance to the council offices. At this point we feel a bit of liquid refreshment is in order so we trade rather pricey rounds at the Cuban Exchange (where Che Guevara's portrait is a persistent feature) and the Grain Store (Sharp's Wolf Rock Red IPA is the obvious ale choice given our brief for the day).

- With Claude in a Clothes Shop -
Of all the wolves on the trail the most elusive is Claude, an ambassadorial 'wandering wolf' who crops up in different locations each week. The @Wolvesinwolvo Twitter team provide a helpful clue as to his whereabouts and we track him down in the MRG designer clothes store on Victoria Street. Mander Wolf (in the Mander Centre, funnily enough) is much easier to find and seems a popular target with deckchairs, a sandpit and a Minions book tree for company.

- Tying the Kangaroo Down -
Pleased with our sculptural haul, we proceed towards the second half of our agenda with the Chairman being press-ganged into driving duty aboard the 255. For reasons best known only to himself, Mr D9 seems intent on doing a kangaroo impression involving some leaden-footed throttle and braking manouevres. It is a relief to alight at Wall Heath! 

- Wall Heath Closed Closet -
Wall Heath offers two pubs for our delectation on this occasion, the Horse & Jockey and the Prince Albert facing each other across the High Street - the former has a cottagey appeal to complement the quality Banks's Mild whereas the latter is a hotchpotch of an old inn that seems a bit down on its luck. Some silly songs involving cooing babies (Papa Loves Mama) and surfing scat (courtesy of the Trashmen) are endured before the Chairman contemplates a closet closure by the local shopping parade - the public conveniences here shut down over six years ago so it is a good job the D9 bladder is actually behaving for once!

- The High Acres -
Every self-respecting Hub Marketing outing requires a darts destination and for this trip we take a punt on the High Acres, a flat roof special on Rangeways Road. The promise of Enville Ale entices us inside and the vacant dartboard is soon put to good use for that rarest of outcomes - a draw! Over the course of eight legs, D9 Destroyer and WME Whirlwind each take four apiece, trading steady scoring and almost clinical checkouts blow for blow. Perhaps it was the cobs that fuelled us to such exceptional (for us) heights?

- The Crestwood -
Honours even on the oche then but Secretary WME ensures he takes the day's sleeve plaudits when revealing the Crestwood, another place that easily qualifies as an example of D9's favourite pub architecture. Sharp's Atlantic is our tipple therein, supping away to a soundtrack of 1980s chartbusters which prompts the Chairman to declare a detailed knowledge of the American band Atlantic Starr.

- Beaming in the Britannia -
All too quickly the evening is encroaching and members must once more head homeward, but only after our requisite nightcap stop. Holding the curfew back this time around is the Britannia on Queens Cross, just up the road from Dudley Cemetery - not the most glamorous location we'll admit but we hadn't done it before and are curious about the prospect of cheap Carling. A closing pint is thus procured and we consider ourselves most satisfied with our efforts at wolf and pub collecting. Until next time, cheers!

Wednesday, August 9

North of the Border

With Worcester's Hub Marketing done and dusted, I was free to switch my attentions to the 2017 WME family holiday. This year we would be staying in Edinburgh for my first ever visit to Scotland...

- An Edinburgh Skyline -
Saturday 29th July: It's strange to think I'd never been to Scotland before, and with most of my memories of Wales confined to childhood caravans breaks, my exploration activities have been limited almost exclusively to England. The journey up to Edinburgh is a long but trouble-free one, arriving just after lunchtime to get our bearings in the Scottish capital. A walk along the Royal Mile is an excellent starting point, the mighty Castle at one end and Holyrood Palace at the other. The city is very busy in the build-up to its annual festival and associated fringe performances.

- Easter Road, Hibernian FC -
Sunday 30th July: a morning of dedicated Edinburgh exploration is notable for a visit to Easter Road, home of Hibernian Football Club. The green-tinged stands seem to rise up out of the terraces with the floodlights of the Meadowbank Sports Stadium also clear on the horizon. Leith Walk has its own fascinations in being the main route between the city centre and the historic port on the Firth of Forth - Pilrig Church, McDonald Road Library and the Central Bar are all waiting to be discovered.

- The Oxford Bar -
Edinburgh Pubs: being a pub enthusiast, I am determined to visit some of Edinburgh's finest watering holes during the course of the week. I particularly love heritage interiors of which there are plenty to seek out, ranging from the elaborate splendour of the Cafe Royal (with tiled murals depicting famous inventors) to the spartan setting of the Oxford Bar (a place enshrined in literary folklore thanks to Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels). Decorative ceilings and magnificent mahogany can also be detected (the Abbotsford Bar) along with little gems of exquisite tiling (the Barony Bar) while the beer isn't bad either, Caledonian's Edinburgh Castle brew becoming a WME favourite as an example of an eighty shilling ale.

- Portobello Promenade -
Monday 31st July: a leisurely Monday morning at our apartment is followed by an afternoon at the seaside. Portobello isn't perhaps the most attractive of coastal resorts - a walk along the prom in a bracing breeze feels like a feat of endurance - but there is a sense of revival here after a period of decline. It's still nice to gaze along the beach and feel like you are actually on holiday, an antidote to the hustle and bustle of the big city.

- The Water of Leith -
Tuesday 1st August: a closer look at Leith now, an area of contrasts when you consider the scars of heavy industry and deprivation juxtaposed with the optimism of regeneration as represented by the Ocean Terminal shopping centre. The Royal Yacht Britannia is a major attraction, permanently berthed in Leith since being decommissioned, but our treat is a culinary one courtesy of The Kitchin where we savour a Michelin-starred lunch that will live long in the memory. The food was simply divine!

- Dunfermline Abbey -
Wednesday 2nd August: having stuck very close to Edinburgh thus far, on Wednesday we decide to have a ride out to Fife. I must admit it's quite a thrill to see the Forth Bridge for myself, an iconic piece of railway engineering that has come to symbolise the whole nation. The Forth Road Bridge is a marvel in its own right and the new Queensferry Crossing (due to be officially opened in September) will make it a trio of impressive structures. Significant architecture is also to be found in Dunfermline whereby the noble Abbey is revered for being the burial place of King Robert the Bruce.

- The 18th Hole, St Andrews -
Another Dunfermline claim to fame is that the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born in the town in 1835; he used his wealth to support many causes including public libraries, something very close to my own heart. Wednesday afternoon sees us continue to St Andrews, otherwise known as the Home of Golf. The Old Course is a legendary location we simply must see while the ruined cathedral and a sleepy harbour add to the town's rugged charm.

- Musselburgh Racecourse -
Thursday 3rd August: following on from St Andrews, Thursday summons another sporting setting for me to investigate during a mooch around Musselburgh. The racecourse hosts flat racing along with some National Hunt fixtures and feels rather exposed when a blustery squall sets in. We seek shelter in Staggs (a.k.a. the Volunteer Arms), a classic alehouse that has been owned by the same family since 1858. Some Silkie Stout (Loch Lomond Brewery) is just the job when escaping out of the rain.

- Mercat Cross, Prestonpans -
Friday 4th August: alas our final day in Scotland but one that provided some magical closing memories thanks to a coastal walk encompassing Prestonpans, Cockenzie and Port Seton. Prestonpans has some really interesting old buildings including Preston Tower, the Mercat Cross and the Northfield Doocot, a beehive-shaped dovecote dating from the 16th century. Add to that the Prestoungrange Gothenburg - the Goth - which operates under the principles of the Gothenburg Public House System so that surpluses are granted to the Prestonpans Arts Festival for the betterment of the community.

- 'Braw Lass' at Cockenzie Harbour -
From Prestonpans Shore I follow a short East Lothian section of the John Muir Way, a coast-to-coast trail that stretches from Helensburgh to Dunbar. The nearby combination of Cockenzie and Port Seton is my destination as I pass the site of a former power station to reach two small harbours, a Royal British Legion club and the Wemyss Hotel. The walk is an invigorating one - just me, the scenery and a few anglers for company, a world away from the West Midlands. A ride on the 26 bus (via Joppa, Portobello and Meadowbank) returns me to Edinburgh and the holiday ends by watching Mo Farah's moment of glory in the 10,000 metres at the World Atheltics Championships. A golden finale to a superb Scottish stay!

Monday, August 7

Hub Marketing 2017 - Worcester

My recent Flick Focus post predicted a busy few days would lie in store for me and that certainly proved to be the case. I'll be blogging about my Edinburgh holiday in due course but firstly here's an account of a Hub Marketing adventure in Worcester with Mr D9...

- Spotted at Worcester Racecourse -
Yes, Friday 28th July and the Board's summer spectacular sees members embark on an away day tour of Worcester's fair city. Chairman D9 boards the 09:49 Malvern train at The Hawthorns and is swiftly joined by Secretary WME fresh from an encounter with Smethwick Galton Bridge. The first matter of the day is to obtain ourselves some breakfast so upon alighting at Foregate Street we pop in to Poppins a few doors down from the station. With scrambled egg, black pudding and hash browns all accounted for we can proceed to explore Worcester Racecourse and christen the day with an early bald spot candidate.

- The Winning Post -
Baldness aside, the racecourse serves as our silly song setting with this trip's novelty gems being 'Waf Woof' by the Springfields (the tale of a toy dog in a Dutch shop) and 'Quiet Life' by Ray Davies (the lyrics remind Mr D9 of his own hectic household). Passing Pitchcroft Allotments we navigate our way to the Winning Post, a pub on Pope Iron Road where we can sample the Tick Tack Tommy Moore pale ale brewed literally just across the street. Resuming our racecourse roam, we follow the path beside the River Severn and round to the grandstand where we can pose with the other winning post. Sadly despite a game go at galloping down the final furlongs, we weren't eligible to enter the winners enclosure.

- Middle-aged musings from the Bull Baiters -
Crossing the Severn at Sabrina Bridge, we ferret our way into St Johns via Henwick Road level crossing with its signal box and subway steps. St Johns is an interesting suburb of Worcester which retains a village identity centred on Bull Ring and the church of St John-in-Bedwardine. It just so happens that there are a few pubs here too so naturally we decide to sample some of them. First up is the Bull Baiters, a relatively new micropub where the Money for Old Rope Stout consoles D9 as he ponders the woes of middle age. The Bell is a nice traditional inn opposite the church - Old Prickly is our ale choice there - while the Bush supplies some Cannon Royall hospitality to a backdrop of an impressively-carved curving bar surround.

- Royal Porcelain Works -
Two of Worcester's most well-known institutions are next into the spotlight. A wander down by the cathedral brings us to Severn Street and the remains of the Royal Worcester factory. Prized porcelain was produced on this site and transported around the world, gaining a reputation for high end luxury quality. The old works are being redeveloped but pottery enthusiasts can still visit the Museum of Royal Worcester to discover their collections of celebrated ceramics.

- A Saucy Bald Spot? -
Another famous Worcester brand is Lea & Perrins, makers of the piquant condiment that is Worcestershire Sauce. Our photo call at the firm's Midland Road base allows for a sneaky bald spot opportunity as the Chairman approaches the distinctive orange gates, the Secretary meanwhile having a sudden craving for cheese on toast! Wyld's Lane can then contribute a couple of photos of the Plumbers Arms, a backstreet boozer we were intending to sample but it didn't seem to be open.

- The Punchbowl, Ronkswood -
Not to worry, the Secretary has another pub tucked up his sleeve and therefore plots his way through the Perry Wood local nature reserve in order to reach Ronkswood. What seems to be a fairly ordinary housing estate has at its heart the Punchbowl, a place that at first glance looks similarly unremarkable. However, closer inspection confirms an intact original interior that has survived virtually unaltered since 1958 - wonderful! We absorb the community atmosphere here over a game of darts, WME Whirlwind breezing into a 4-0 lead no doubt inspired by those properly pubby surroundings.

- The Secretary goes all Imperial -
A couple of stops in Worcester city centre are now on the agenda before we have to think about catching the train. The Chairman takes great delight in obtaining discount Mild at the West Midland Tavern, an establishment that has all the architectural appeal of a grotty Blackpool guesthouse but compensates for this with a warm welcome. A friendly disposition is also evident at the Imperial Tavern, Worcester CAMRA's current Pub of the Year winner on St Nicholas Street. This is a Black Country Ales house refurbished in their customary style and a pint of Prescott Hill Climb soon has the Secretary purring in appreciation. 

- Worcestershire Whitewash Secured! -
That's all where Worcester is concerned but our homeward journey does include a Droitwich distraction in the form of the Riflemans Arms (a pit stop is normally needed on journeys where the D9 bladder starts to suffer). More Banks's Mild is accompanied by a darting coup-de-grace when WME Whirlwind unfurls the double 8 that secures a 6-0 victory, leaving the D9 Destroyer to contemplate having been whitewashed in Worcestershire. The bald one licks his wounds on the train but has recovered enough of his dignity to contemplate a Bilston Trumpet nightcap, cheers!