Tuesday, January 30

WME Flickr Focus - January 2018

As well as providing many wonderful exploration memories, 2017 proved to be a good year for the WME Flickr photostream with a total of 371 photos published (one picture for every day of the year plus a handful to spare). The challenge for 2018 is therefore to match or even exceed that output, so January has been tasked with setting the ball rolling...

As is so often the case at the start of a new year, Exploration Extra can be found leading the way. I've done a bit of work on my archives from 2007 lately, meaning some forgotten shots from my Great Yarmouth holiday have suddenly resurfaced. Arrivals include the number 3 bus at Scratby, a Cromer fishing boat and a California Sands chip shop, ably assisted by seaside scenes from Southwold. Not everything I've added is over a decade old mind; Chelmsford and Rail Rover 2017 are of a much more recent vintage in releasing Nantwich's Railway Hotel sign or carving of St Peter at Chelmsford Cathedral amongst other offerings.

Of the local contingent of galleries, WME Sandwell and WME Wolverhampton have been the most lively. Sandwell has been especially active down in Bearwood, finding a bus stop and a bear's head both in close proximity to the Bear Tavern, but has stopped off too at Barnford Park (near Langley Green) for some mural musings. A 139 bus calling at Cradley Heath has also been collected whereas Wolverhampton receives its own bus boost care of two 511 examples from Underhill. Tiled street signs became a minor obsession of mine last year, my burgeoning collection in this case being represented by Bailey Street from the wall of the Great Western pub.

One gallery that never seems to get much attention is WME Telford but it has stirred from some lengthy slumbers thanks to a rare rush of activity. The Little Theatre at Donnington takes its photostream bow with little hint of stage-fright whereas the Telford Steam Railway receives a carriages and crossing scene down at Horsehay. Newport meanwhile nudges into the action as the setting of a 481 bus picture that itself has been plucked out of my dusty back catalogue.

That merely leaves a light dusting of additions for the remaining galleries whereby a quick check reveals the following - WME Coventry has taken delivery of an Allesley Park bus terminus stop sign; WME Staffordshire samples Poplars Farm in Boney Hay; WME Birmingham accounts for the New Adventurers at Aston (again); and finally WME Warwickshire is blessed by the presence of Warwick the Kingmaker with sword aloft at Warwick Castle. All of which means my running photostream total now stands at a very neat 3,500 images with hopefully many more to come!

Sunday, January 28

Ettingshall Exploration

The first ‘Thursday Taster’ trip of 2018 sees Stephen joining me for two hours of detailed Ettingshall endeavour, piecing together railway heritage before witnessing new residential developments on the banks of the Birmingham Main Line Canal…

- Mr B by the old railway path -

Catching the half past eight tram from Wolverhampton St Georges, we make our way two stops down the line to Priestfield where our walk can commence. Railway remains enter the fray immediately as we join a metalled footpath from Bilston Road through to Monmore Green Stadium – the path plots the course of the old line between Priestfield and Wolverhampton Low Level, flanked by scrapyards and ever-populated by discarded car tyres.

- Wholesale Market -

The afore-mentioned stadium is home to greyhound and speedway meetings while East Park is also close at hand as one of Wolverhampton’s principal public parks. Hickman Avenue brings us past the Wholesale Market to Cullwick Street before the A41 Bilston Road supplies pub pictures concentrating on the Gate and the Angel. Elsewhere in Priestfield, we visit the former Ettingshall Primary School site on Herbert Street (the schoolhouse was demolished a few years back and replaced by a medical centre) and then pause to reflect at the local war memorial, whereby a solemn cross stands in front of a public hall on the corner of Ward Street and George Street.

- School Gates at Ettingshall Primary Site -

Turning our attentions now to Ettingshall Village, we weave this way and that as we criss-cross the estate hunting photo targets. Pembroke Avenue allows Stephen to demonstrate his ample knowledge about construction periods of council housing, whereas George Street presents a Wesleyan chapel that houses the Word of Spirit and Life (WOSAL) Baptist Church. The chapel building has foundation stones laid by representatives of the prominent Butler and Bayliss families – William Butler built his first brewery on John Street, Ettingshall prior to moving to Springfield (from where Butlers Ales would become synonymous with Wolverhampton), whereas the Bayliss family were well known in the local iron and kindred trade.

- Pembroke Avenue -

To New Road next where the local shops include the cafĂ© I once sampled with Mr D9, not forgetting the bald-spot inducing Carling Black Label sign first discovered in May 2015. Just around the corner is Sidwick Crescent with some familiar flats but Ward Street is subject to new housing developments. The evolving streetscape here includes Northolt Drive, Pembrey Gardens and Turnhouse Crescent with several properties still in the process of being built – all very encouraging considering the depressing derelict patches that previously occupied the space. The Priestfield Sports & Social Club has been demolished to make way for the project but the Orange Tree and Old Bush pub buildings are to be retained (though neither seems to be trading at the moment).

- Stephen at Sidwick Crescent Bridge -

Ward Street also allows us to resume our railway ruminations by pondering the site of Priestfield Station, a junction location that was served by the lines from Wolverhampton Low Level towards both Birmingham and Dudley. The Midland Metro now uses the GWR route to Snow Hill but the Dudley line was abandoned with only earthworks for us to interpret this morning, hence Stephen poses by the remnants of Sidwick Crescent bridge. There were once four platforms in the vicinity (two for each line) plus a connecting footbridge and some hut-like waiting rooms; although the modern Metro line has a Priestfield tram stop it is in a slightly different location from where the railways station used to be.

- Ward Street Building Site -

Station scene surveyed, we stroll back along Ward Street past the building sites in order to join the towpath of the Birmingham Main Line Canal. Jibbet Lane Bridge has a slightly tumbledown quality to it and an evocative name, especially when paired with Catchems Corner Bridge nearby – we speculate whether the locality had links to public hangings or other associations with villainy, although such thoughts might just be the guesswork of two overactive imaginations! The canal is flanked by Bilston factories to one side and the modern residences branching off Coningsby Drive on the other, making for quite an architectural juxtaposition.

- Jibbet Lane Bridge -

Time ticks on so we exit onto Ettingshall Road, swiftly passing the Booker Cash and Carry store followed by a potato bungalow I remember from childhood. The New Inn stands prominently on the Bilston Road – Dixon Street – Ettingshall Road junction where it currently operates as an oriental buffet restaurant. We then leave Ettingshall behind, briefly heading back through to East Park before the clock defeats us and my shift at work awaits. Nonetheless, it has certainly been a productive morning with plenty of transport and local interest crammed in – a couple of hours very well spent!  

Tuesday, January 23

The Bumble Hole Bash!

The Chip Foundation Chronicles receive their first 2018 indentation courtesy of a trip that reaches deep into the very heart of the Black Country. Canals, chainmaking and of course chips all feature on an adventure that combines Blackheath with the Bumble Hole…

- Ready for action at Mousesweet Brook -
Friday 19th January 2018 and episode 51 of the Chip Foundation Chronicles begins with Stephen, Nick and myself converging upon Cradley Heath Station. The chaps then nervously await their instructions as Sergeant Major WME plots a wander through the Mousesweet Brook Nature Reserve (with a little bit of Charles Road for good measure). The brook forms part of the borough boundary between Dudley and Sandwell as we follow the tracks to Mushroom Green.

- Mushroom Green Chainshop -
Mushroom Green is a historic little hamlet (originally a nailmakers settlement) that has been protected as a conservation area. We wander around a warren of cottagey cul-de-sacs before happening across a proud survivor from the Black Country's industrial past - Mushroom Green Chainshop. Here visitors can witness the traditional skill of chainmaking in action every second Sunday of the month between April and October; alas there are no such demonstrations to be had today, but at least Nick can marvel at the knobbly chimneys!

- Bishtons Bridge -
Delving a little into Dudley Wood, we spot the Bunch of Bluebells (sadly fenced off) and former branch library (now a pharmacy but still with a coat of arms on the wall). The Dudley No. 2 Canal then awaits as we join the cut at Saltwells Bridge, bearing east towards the Bumble Hole via Primrose, Bishton and Griffin Bridges. Added interest is provided by a sculpture trail whereby items appear at regular intervals along the towpath; fabricated from steel, the designs reflect local heritage and landmarks with examples detailing Hingley's Anchors and Lloyds' Proving House.

- Chip considerations at Darby End -
As with all Chip Foundation outings, lunch is a prime consideration so a Darby End detour brings us to The Fryer as positioned on the crossroads opposite the Red Lion. Chips are a must so we take up a perch on Fox & Goose Bridge and tuck in despite a stiff breeze, Stephen posing with fork in hand as is the established custom. St Peter's Church is just the other side of the bridge, but with food devoured we turn our attentions swiftly back to the canal.

- Bumble Hole Boatyard -
As a self-confessed canal enthusiast I have a particular fondness for Bumble Hole and the various stretches of watery navigations in the vicinity. We start our survey with the Bumble Hole Branch itself, passing beneath Dunns Bridge for views looking out over Bumble Hole Pool (an old clay pit that has since become a wildlife haven). The branch used to form a complete loop with the Boshboil Arm but nowadays terminates at the site of Harris's boatyard, an atmospheric spot with a collection of random artefacts including a gypsy caravan.

- A classic Black Country scene -
Beyond the boatyard, the tall chimneystack of Cobbs Engine House entices us towards the Netherton Tunnel Branch. The tunnel's southern portal is guarded over by the remains of the engine house, which when operational housed a steam pump that drained water from nearby mines and collieries. We then pause a short while at Windmill End Junction, admiring the picture postcard scene that seems to evoke the very essence of the Black Country - bostin!

- Bumblehole beer in Ma Pardoe's -
From one quintessential Black Country location to another now as we set our sights upon Netherton's Old Swan, affectionately known as Ma Pardoe's after a legendary landlady. We may have been numerous times previously but a visit here always seems special, the chance to sample the pub's home-brewed ales being far too tempting to resist. On this occasion choosing our beer is very simple - given the title of the trip it can only be Bumblehole Best Bitter and a cracking pint it is too!

- A Pale Rider in Cradley Heath -
So what else is there on the ale agenda for the afternoon? Well a ride on the 243 (via Timbertree) has us bound for Lyde Green, home to the Vine where a half of Wye Valley HPA keeps us lubricated in the lounge. Cradley Heath offers shots of the forlorn Labour Club on Graingers Lane (closed for two years and counting) while Corngreaves Road presents the Plough & Harrow where Nick comes over all Pale Rider. Relaxing in the bay window, we chat about cricket, Nick's unreadable handwriting and the distinction between Cradley Heath and Cradley.

- Seeking Shell-ter! -
The plan has gone pretty much to schedule so far but you can always rely on the Friday afternoon bus timetables to throw a spanner in the works. Sure enough our intended 129 connection is heavily delayed and any ideas of going to the Waterfall have to be scrapped. All is not lost though, so when the bus finally decides to grace us with its presence, we can squeak in a Shell Corner session starting at the Fixed Wheel brewery tap. A dose of Mild Concussion proves a pleasurable experience when accompanied by a stilton cob, and our final port of call turns out to be the new Shell-ter Micro Bar on Nimmings Road where (whisper it quietly) I sampled a West Bromwich Albion pale ale. One Rowley Regis train connection later and our day is complete - cheers!

Wednesday, January 10

Investigating Ironbridge

Out with the old and in with the new as they say, but for me the 2018 exploration year begins much as my outings from 2017 had concluded - with a little something from Shropshire...

- Sporty sign in Bridgnorth -
Fresh from my Shrewsbury session at the end of December, I have Salop in my sights once more. I'm on a mission to make further use of my Ironbridge Gorge Museums annual passport (a ticket that has remained untouched since September), so I set out on the number 9 bus from Compton to Bridgnorth hoping that the morning showers don't turn into more serious rainfall. High Town sets the photographic ball rolling for January, my camera collecting up sports club shots and pub portraits. The Woodberry Inn appears to have had a makeover, losing the 'Down' part of its name in the process, while the Golden Lion by Northgate Museum is now a Holden's establishment.

- The Old Furnace, Coalbrookdale -
The next 9 along has me homing in on Ironbridge (via Broseley with all wing mirrors thankfully intact this time). I actually stay on board through to Coalbrookdale before alighting to locate the Darby Houses and a Quaker burial ground. My first museum of the morning is Coalbrookdale's homage to all things iron - I inspect the furnace remains out in the grounds then head inside to peruse the informative exhibition floors. The Darby family were pivotal in the development of ironmaking techniques during the Industrial Revolution, while John 'Iron Mad' Wilkinson was another notable pioneer. 

- Enginuity -
Part of the same complex as the Museum of Iron, Enginuity is an interactive engineering emporium that enables children to get hands-on with the way things work. There are plenty of inspired youngsters in attendance at the time of my visit but I still get chance to work the robotic arms and spot a Sinclair C5. I tear myself away from all the fun by next hiking up an Ironbridge hillside where the steepness of the incline took me rather by surprise. St Luke's Parish Church helps me get my breath back in readiness for a mooch along Madeley Road, tracking down the Horse & Jockey and Golden Ball as tempting taverns for future reference.

- Is the Iron Bridge in there somewhere? -
Venturing back down the hill, the centre of Ironbridge presents a selection of interesting shops including Bears on the Square (for all your teddy bear needs) and Eley's 'World Famous' Pork Pies. My hopes for any scenic snaps of the Iron Bridge itself are dashed as the structure has been encased in protective cladding during repair works, a scaffolding shield I can admire from the comfort of the Tontine Hotel. A pint of Three Tuns XXX goes down nicely here as I look out from the public bar, then I set off on the next stage of my walk by joining the Severn Valley Way on the opposite side of the river. I always enjoy rummaging around railway remains so this footpath is a treat, following the course of a disused line from the Station Hotel towards Jackfield.

- Broseley Telephone Exchange -
Jackfield Bridge (a relatively modern river crossing which opened in October 1994) provides the ideal approach to my second Ironbridge pint of the day, bringing me to the doorstep of Ye Olde Robin Hood for some Holden's hospitality. One Golden Glow later, I decide to explore a place I last visited nearly ten years ago. Broseley has been absent from my archive since June 2008 so - after a short ride on the 9 - I set about correcting that omission by gathering glimpses of the telephone exchange, the King & Thai (formerly the Foresters Arms) and All Saints Church. The church was erected between 1843 and 1845 using stone quarried just the other side of Bridgnorth in Highley.

- Broseley Pipeworks -
Continuing my Broseley town tour and a landmark I'm especially keen to find is the Pipe Museum on Duke Street. This former factory celebrates the fact that Broseley was a prime producer of clay tobacco pipes, although seasonal opening times mean I'll have to wait until May before I can take a look inside. In the meantime, High Street allows for some sculpture spotting as I find a few of Gerry Foxall's creations depicting local industries (these were previously located at Ironbridge Power Station until the plant was decommissioned). A Lancaster Blonde in the Duke of York is my liquid finale as dusk descends upon Shropshire, and with a closing ride on the 9 my first trip of 2018 draws to a close. Here's to many more fine outings over the coming year!

Wednesday, January 3

WME Review of the Year - 2017

Happy New Year one and all! As 2018 arrives kicking and screaming, I shall keep to my usual custom of having my first January blog posting be a retrospective looking back over the preceding twelve months. 2017 wasn't such a bad year as it turned out, and there were certainly many exploration highlights...

January: the old year got underway with a brace of Wolverhampton wanderings, seeking out the familiar (and not so familiar) around Finchfield, Castlecroft and i54 - I paused to ponder the final passing of the Goodyear tyre factory before investigating the new focus of manufacturing as represented by Moog and JLR. A solo Saturday stroll saw me rummaging around canal remains in Halesowen, popping along to Hasbury for a crafty pint in The Crafty Pint prior to meeting up with Rog and Rachael in the Waggon & Horses. The Hub Marketing Board opened their 2017 account with a Desi Day (the curry in the Red Cow stole the show) whereas the Chip Foundation braved Bearwood and Harborne courtesy of the Outer Circle bus route.

February: judging duty saw me focusing on the Dudley and South Staffordshire area in February with Mr D9 appearing in full courtroom regalia when we pitched up in Kinver and Enville. Trysull made its presence felt, walking out from Wombourne with a bonus peek at Bratch Locks, while Stephen and Nick were summoned to tour some classic Black Country boozers: the Bull & Bladder, Ma Pardoe's and the Beacon Hotel = pub heaven! Nick was also on hand for the first beer festival of the year with Rugby claiming that particular curtain-raising honour; Hillmorton at dusk was our memorable finale that day, tracking down the Bell for some good old Draught Bass.

March: Spring is in the air and there's a spring in my step as I linger in Langley, calling in at Causeway Green to sample the Old Dispensary micropub. It was then D9's turn aboard the Outer Circle although he nearly got sent to the scrapyard when some Handsworth hospitality had us staying out much longer than anticipated! We were much better behaved in Meriden and Olton a couple of weeks later, the prospect of Bedders fish and chips (plus those delectable onions) making sure we kept to schedule.

April: the major headline here has to be the long awaited return of Rail Rover Week, three excellent days of train-related adventures that took me to Leominster, Tutbury and Nantwich among other places. A couple of Stephen strolls kept the archive ticking over, Rocket Pool and Codsall Wood being the respective destinations. Micropub magic is to the fore in Burton-upon-Trent (another festival special with Nick Turpin) whereas the Hub Marketing Board's Easter Extravaganza encompasses Good Friday in Great Bridge.

May: a month with arguably the most memorable sight of the year, Mr D9 in a bright pink wig during the Hub Marketing Board's Bloxwich bash - not for the faint-hearted that's for sure! Two Thursday morning taster trips otherwise have me occupied; the first comprised Northycote and Underhill with newly-born lambs, the second was a Wednesfield walk stopping off at Long Knowle and Ashmore Park gatherings shots of Co-ops and Corpus Christi.

June: into summer then and that can only mean cricket. Chelmsford was where Stephen and I witnessed the future County Champions in action - sadly for Warwickshire it was opponents Essex who would go on to lift the title, the Bears ultimately suffering an ignominious relegation. The beer festival bandwagon saw Nick and I roll into Nuneaton (sampling the Lord Hop in the process for some superb Lucid Dream stout) whereas Dad was introduced to the delights of Stone for his Father's Day treat - he still gets misty-eyed thinking about the outstanding Titanic Plum Porter he drank in the Royal Exchange. Wednesbury ensured that the West Midlands was not forgotten, the resultant Patent Shaft pubcrawl came complete with a guest appearance from Roger.

July: who could forget all the fun of finding the various animal artworks dotted around the region as Big Sleuth Bears and the Wolves in Wolves all awaited discovery. An initial bear hunt took Mr Beardsmore and myself to the esteemed environs of Bournville and Sutton Coldfield although Shakesbear in Birmingham City Centre had a neat line in Twitter proclamations - has a sculpture ever uttered the word forsooth before? Nick and I made the most of the summer sunshine for a Lapworth circular stroll (via Baddesley Clinton), and I was likewise blessed with excellent weather when investigating the remains of the Hatherton Canal between Calf Heath and Cannock

August: next up is the WME 2017 family holiday which entailed seven days in Scotland, Edinburgh to be precise. Given that I'd never been further north than Newcastle before, this was a seminal week that dabbled with Dunfermline and pottered around Prestonpans - I very much enjoyed venturing into Inspector Rebus territory too with a pint in the renowned Oxford Bar. Hub Marketing happenings mean a mention for Worcester, roaming around the racecourse to the tune of 'Waf Woof' by the Springfields, not forgetting the D9 Wolf Watch trip in Wolverhampton trying to track down the ever-elusive Claude.

September: the approach of autumn tells us it is time for some sculptural swansongs, seeking out final fleeting glimpses of bears and wolves. It's not every day you get to meet Elvis Presley, Mary Berry and Richard Branson in quick succession but that was the fate that befell the Hub Marketing Board over at Resorts World and Solihull - we even saw Citizen Khan! In other news, a certain Nick Esq celebrated a notable birthday so the Chip Foundation converged upon Blists Hill Victorian Town in order to mark such an important occasion (thankfully the Beardsmore contingent were still able to join us after missing the bus).

October: now this was a month bookended by beer festivals, Solihull at the start balanced by Birmingham towards the end. Nick was present on both occasions while Mr D9 attended the latter and developed a taste for the stronger end of the brewer's spectrum - half pint scratching mugs in Olton and Celery Sour in the Clink will be among my abiding memories of those two excursions. In between times came the smaller matter of the annual Hub foray into Coventry, the Chairman exceeding himself yet again in terms of quiff creation. The Cheylesmore Social Club inscribed itself into HMB legend that day as we contemplated the finer arts of the bagatelle table.

November: Coventry was also quick to make an impression in November, this time with the Chip Foundation for company. Fargo Village has to go down as one of the quirkiest destinations of 2017, where else can you meet pink gorillas and rusty robots then sample the wares from the Twisted Barrel Tap House - wonderful! Lower Penn was the recipient of one of my Thursday morning missives but undoubtedly the most personal photo session came when I bade a fond farewell to Bushbury, my former home of nearly 30 years. 

December: and finally to those outings that are still very fresh in my mind. Nick Turpin's 2017 Festive Forage turned into a Leamington and Warwick showstopper that was especially notable for coffee taverns and cellar bars. The Hub Marketing Board made Willenhall their Christmas setting before unleashing Charles Pemberton Rowbottom III on the unsuspecting Beehive complete with complimentary brandy. December also supplied a couple of doorstep duties (Frozen Finchfield; a dalliance with Dovecotes) then concluded with a Shrewsbury spectacular as I sought out the remains of the old Gay Meadow football ground (replaced by an exclusive housing development) - and that's a wrap! 

Tradition dictates that at this point I should say a heartfelt thankyou to those brave souls who have been such a huge part of my escapades over the last twelve months. My gratitude once again therefore goes to Nick, Stephen, Andy, Ken, Dad and Rog - here's to more of the same in 2018...