Friday, April 27

Chip Foundation Chronicles: Ironbridge

I'm still playing catch-up after a busy week of exploring, and in between the Rail Rover and cricket action comes the small matter of a Chip Foundation visit to Ironbridge...

- Coracle Contemplation -
Friday 20th April 2018 and there's no need for my train ticket today as I join a five-strong Chip contingent for the number 9 bus from Wolverhampton to Ironbridge (via Bridgnorth). Ken, Nick and I have bad memories of Broseley's tight turns but we make it through unscathed, alighting at the Wharfage car park where the Museum of the Gorge awaits. This particular attraction provides a general introduction to the history of Ironbridge Gorge with examples of coracles, Coalport china and dramatic flood levels - we can also find out about Captain Matthew Webb from Dawley, the first person to swim the English Channel unaided. 

- A Merrythought Moment -
Our visit to the Museum of the Gorge means we've accounted for another location off our annual passport tickets - hopefully we'll have got around all ten come September. Back across the car park is the Merrythought Village, an arts and antiques emporium which includes the Merrythought Teddy Bear Shop. This family firm have been making teddies the traditional way here since 1930 and we can't resist posing with one of their larger specimens outside the shop, Mr B Senior doing the honours for the purposes of the blog photo.

- The Tontine Hotel -
Pubs are always an integral part of Chip Foundation proceedings and our opening choice on this occasion is the Tontine Hotel, situated slap bang opposite the Iron Bridge itself (which is still encased in protective cladding as restoration work continues). Judging by the gallery of vintage photos in the public bar, the Tontine has been a fixture of the local community for many years - the hotel opened in 1784 and is reputedly one of Shropshire's most haunted buildings. Admittedly we don't detect any paranormal activity (unless my rapidly disappearing pint of Three Tuns XXX counts) but we do ponder a proposed cure for baldness involving onions, honey and - in extreme cases - electrification!

- On the Iron Bridge -
The full spectacle of the Iron Bridge may be hidden from view at the moment but we can still enjoy a stroll across this most seminal of structures. A mid-span group photograph makes the most of the sunshine before we consider the site of the old Ironbridge & Broseley railway station; this was part of the Severn Valley line when it linked Kidderminster and Shrewsbury but closed in 1963 (a decision made prior to the Beeching Report). There aren't any surviving remnants of the station to be seen so we concentrate instead on the Iron Bridge Tollhouse, educating ourselves on how the bridge came to be constructed and what levels of toll charges would have historically been applicable.

- The Golden Ball -
Lunchtime means it's chips all round as we convene at a riverside bench just below the war memorial, certainly a nice spot to watch the world go by. Time for another pub and we can work off those chip-induced calories by clambering up the Madeley Road where - despite some heckling from the back - I correctly navigate our way to the Golden Ball on Newbridge Road. This cottagey free house offers a range of ales so I partake of Butcombe Original while Nick and Ken grapple with the Holy Grail (we didn't expect to find that in deepest Shropshire). Further entertainment comes in the form of Mr B Senior's childhood memories; we suspect a name-check for Ronnie Corbett might have been a slip of the tongue. 

- Jackfield Sidings -
The descent back down the hill is slightly less onerous albeit Newbridge Road is still steep in places, emerging beside the Bird in Hand on the approach to Jackfield Bridge. We would have done the Bird had it been open but Ye Olde Robin Hood is always a safe bet for quality Holden's, both the Golden Glow and Black Country Mild meeting with considerable approval. Venturing next across the modern bridge, we take a closer look at Jackfield where the former sidings site off Lloyds Head gives Nick his fix of railway remains; some short lengths of track have stayed in situ here along with crossing gates and a signal mount.

- Jackfield Tile Museum -
The sidings would no doubt have been used by the major local industry, that of tile manufacturing whereby Jackfield was at the epicentre of production with the Benthall Works of Maw & Co being the largest tileworks in the world. Nowadays the Jackfield Tile Museum pays tribute to this heritage by featuring galleries of ceramic creations along with the recreated interiors of a butcher's shop, a pub and a tube station (Covent Garden). We secure our third Gorge passport tick of the day by perusing the decorative collections with Stephen on the lookout for any cricket-themed designs. The homeward 9 bus is due at 16:25, giving us just enough time for photos of the St Mary the Virgin Church and the village hall, plus some final moments of reflection by the river. With that we board the bus and the day is done but there are more museums for us to meet before our passes expire so... watch this space!

Rail Rover 2018

Having made a triumphant return to my exploration calendar last year, I was determined that Rail Rover Week would be retained for 2018 as an essential set of adventures. My leave is booked, my ticket is bought and all I need is some kind weather as the Heart of England railway network is once more at my disposal...

- Holy Trinity Church, Hartshill -
Monday 16th April: there's certainly plenty of sunshine as my week begins in Staffordshire, the Potteries to be precise. From Stoke-on-Trent station I enjoy a wander into Newcastle-under-Lyme, passing through Hartshill where I can admire Holy Trinity Church among a carpet of daffodils. Newcastle itself offers photo possibilities courtesy of the Ironmarket and St George's Church while the Lymestone Vaults on Pepper Street is my opening pub, settling in with a pint of Stone Faced.

- The Holy Inadequate, Etruria -
Talking of pubs, Monday's afternoon activities centre on a long-awaited visit to an Etruria free house that I've heard good things about. It doesn't open until 4pm so I have a look around Basford (Polite Vicar and the New Vic Theatre) followed by a stretch along the Caldon Canal focusing on Bedford Street staircase locks. The wait is more than worth it when the Holy Inadequate becomes an instant Paul favourite - alongside guest ales, the pub has its own microbrewery wares so I partake of the Nut Brown and the Porter, both superb. The Trent & Mersey Canal then brings me back to Stoke Station with a nod to Twyford's former Cliffe Vale Pottery works along the way.

- 'Towpath Turpin' in the White Bear -
Tuesday 17th April: Tuesdays of Rail Rover Week are traditionally reserved for Shropshire and that rule applies again this year; what's more, there is a guest appearance from Towpath Turpin who has been enticed by the prospect of the Llangollen Canal. It's an overcast morning as we make our way to Whitchurch, and some annoying drizzle means we have a half in the White Bear (Hobson's Shropshire Stout, lovely stuff) before commencing our walk. The pub is a homely market town inn set back through a courtyard off Whitchurch High Street.

- Grindley Brook Locks -
Hoping that the rain will relent, we set forth on our circular route, plotting a path across a golf course to reach Grindley Brook Locks. Unfortunately if anything the weather is getting worse and Nick's purple umbrella is struggling to shield us from the squall. Another shelter stop is required so we pop into the Horse & Jockey on the A41, sampling Merlin's Spellbound merely yards from the county boundary with Cheshire. The return leg is just as damp although we do enjoy seeing the Whitchurch Arm, the restored stub of what was once a longer branch serving a wharf at Mill Street; it is hoped to extend beyond the current Chemistry Bridge terminus to a new basin area. We then dry out again at the Black Bear, sipping Stonehouse Station Bitter in the shadow of St Alkmund's.

- Barnards Green Memorial Shelter -
Wednesday 18th April: no rain in sight as a Worcestershire-themed Wednesday gets underway at Great Malvern once I've caught the 9:52 across from Smethwick Galton Bridge. Rather than do the hillside spa town, I head east of the station to investigate Barnards Green where a prime landmark is the War Memorial bus shelter overlooking a kidney-shaped junction. It seems unseasonably warm for April and I'm literally sweltering as I happen upon the Morgan, a Wye Valley establishment on Clarence Road. A refreshing pint of Bitter helps me cool down while I peruse the various references to the Morgan Motor Company, an iconic local firm renowned for car craftsmanship since 1909.

- St Ecgwin's Church, Honeybourne -
Wednesday afternoon means a Worcestershire wildcard as I take a punt on Honeybourne simply because the Cotswold Line train I'm on stops there. First impressions are reasonably favourable: the station is functionally pleasant, and there's a Co-op near the 'All Things Wild' activity centre - it's not every day you have a giant dinosaur head staring at you as you walk down the street! The heart of the village completely steals my heart thanks to a combination of St Ecgwin's Church (looking spectacular in a setting of springtime fields) and the Thatched Tavern (said to date from the 13th century, although I doubt Fuller's Southern Star was the ale being imbibed by folk back then).

- Cheltenham Spa Station -
Thursday 19th April: more stunning sunshine as I glide into Gloucestershire for a day in glorious Cheltenham. The station here was designed by Samuel Whitfield Daukes and opened in 1840, the frontage retaining a Regency elegance to this day. With a brief look at the nearby Stagecoach depot, I wander the mile or so into the town centre via Montpellier Gardens and passing the Ladies College.  Among the resplendent parades and terraces I'm on the hunt for the Sandford Park Ale House, CAMRA's National Pub of the Year 2015 no less, where the Clout Stout is worthy of such lofty accolades.

- Gustav Holst conducts proceedings -
Cheltenham boasts several examples of impressive architecture and yet I suspect I've barely scratched the surface of what there is to see. One landmark I am pleased to discover is Gustav Holst's statue, poised for conducting duties in Imperial Gardens - the composer was born in Cheltenham in 1874 and achieved acclaim with The Planets orchestral suite. Another Good Beer Guide entrant is music to my ears next and the Kemble Brewery rewards a bit of backstreet navigation with some Prescott Chequered Flag amidst a gaggle of guitars - very nice indeed. My Cheltonian conclusion is a stroll along the Honeybourne Line footpath, tracing the course of a lost railway where there formerly was a station in the vicinity of Malvern Road.

- Play underway at Wantage Road -
Saturday 21st April: fast forward to the weekend and my Rail Rover ticket comes in handy for some 'Bears on Tour' cricketing action. Warwickshire are playing Northamptonshire in an early season clash so Stephen and I head nervously to Wantage Road, hoping the Bears can get last year's dismal relegation out of their system. Having bowled Northants out for a mere 147 on Friday, Edgbaston's finest are accumulating steadily thanks to the efforts of Sam Hain (85) and Tim Ambrose (103). Perhaps most crucially, the ice cream van is present and correct for our all-important vanilla cones!

- Eagle in the Eagle -
Somewhat unexpectedly, the Warwickshire tailenders pile on some valuable runs as Henry Brookes contributes an impressive 70 to a final total of 413 all out. The home side bat out the remaining ten overs without alarm but Mr B and I are still hopeful of an overdue victory as we decamp to the Spread Eagle on Wellingborough Road. This is a Charles Wells pub where the Eagle IPA slips down well while the Spurs v Man Utd FA Cup semi final rumbles along in the background. Still on a football note, we make sure to raise a glass to Wolves who have secured the Championship title in style after a 4-0 win at Bolton.  

- Train at Northampton -
Sunday 22nd April: alas my final day of Rail Rovering for 2018 as Stephen and I resume our spectator shift at Northampton. The town's station has been overhauled since we first saw it a few years ago - gone is the rather plain black box building to be replaced by a large glazed frontage that serves as a much more welcoming sight for incoming visitors. We say hello to Charles Bradlaugh's statue on our way to the ground; he was the Liberal MP for Northampton from 1880 to 1891 and founded the Secular Society in 1866.

- Closing in on a rare win -
There's something timeless about watching cricket on a Sunday morning - church bells on the wind, the rustle of newspapers, people dipping into sandwich boxes and pouring flasks of tea - that kind of thing. From our perch in the Turner Stand we can watch with quiet appreciation as Warwickshire gradually proceed to an encouraging innings victory - Ryan Sidebottom (a namesake of the former England bowler) took ten wickets in the match while Northants wicketkeeper Rossington offered the most resistance with a defiant half century. An ice cream or two caps things off in fine fashion, and when Henry Brookes sends stumps-a-flying the win is sealed. A power supply issue makes for an eventful journey home, crammed in sardine-style among runners returning from the London Marathon, and that's all for Rail Rover this year - what a week it was!

Saturday, April 14

That Was The Wycombe That Was...

Buckinghamshire beckons as I join forces once more with Nick Turpin, our highwayman hero who having recently returned from a Scottish sortie is now referring to himself as 'Mad McTurpin' - he must have overdosed on haggis or something. Anyway, he is present and correct for some dastardly deeds as we prepare to explore the town of High Wycombe...

- Our noble steed -
Friday 13th April 2018 and hopefully our luck will be in as we make tracks for Bucks. Nick Turpin has foregone his usual stagecoach in favour of a Chiltern carriage today, hence the 9:55 departure from Birmingham Moor Street delivers us to High Wycombe just on ten past eleven. Served by the Chiltern Main Line, the station is quite a spread-out affair comprising two through platforms and a bay (the latter is utilised by local stopper trains to London Marylebone).

- The Brunel Railway Shed -
Upon alighting we can immediately savour some railway heritage with a vintage running board recalling a lost line to Marlow and Maidenhead. Just across the forecourt from the current facility is High Wycombe's original station building, dating from 1854 and now known as the Brunel Railway Shed complete with appropriate mural depicting the age of steam. We start to get some town centre bearings by spotting the Bootlegger pub for later and then strolling along Castle Street towards a prominent church.

- High Wycombe High Street -
All Saints is certainly a handsome landmark accompanied by the town's war memorial as next we weave through Church Square for a look at the High Street. A few market stalls add a liveliness to proceedings while we admire the 18th century Guildhall (Grade I listed) and the adjacent Little Market House, known affectionately as the Pepper Pot with inscriptions detailing distances to London and Oxford. If this is the historic heart of High Wycombe, modern malls are represented by the Eden Shopping Centre as we briefly locate the library and bus station - the main operators here are Arriva and Carousel. 

- 'Mad McTurpin' meets Mad Squirrel -
McTurpin is now ready for a drink or two so our first watering hole is the Mad Squirrel Tap and Bottle Shop on Church Street. Eager to get to grips with some 'unhinged' beers we partake of the Mister Squirrel Premium Bitter (nice notes of toffee) and London Porter - an upstairs pizza kitchen perch provides grand views of the parish church. Nick must also have learned some Scottish thriftiness on his recent holiday as our second stop is the Antelope for £2-a-pint Rebellion IPA, a decent brew at discount prices!

- The Dyke -
Sustenance for our afternoon endeavours comes care of the Falcon Wetherspoons (Bingham's Brickworks Bitter is duly imbibed) before the Three Tuns allows for Aintree racing action over some Shepherd Neame Early Bird. We follow this with a scenic roam through the parklands of The Rye where The Dyke is a stretch of open water culminating in a little waterfall and stream. High Wycombe bowling and cricket clubs are also in the vicinity while the River Wye meanders its way towards Wycombe Marsh and Loudwater.

- Bouncy beer in the Bootlegger? -
Our final two pubs are both within close proximity of the railway station hence Gordon Road leads us to the Belle Vue (passing vintage Courage/Greene King signs at the Pheasant and the Gordon Arms along the way). The 'BV' is a curious place with a swallows-themed art gallery in the snug; for once Nick Turpin is the victim of highway robbery when the Theakston's Olde Peculier costs £4.80 for two halves - ouch! Thankfully there isn't similar fiscal pain in the Bootlegger where the Rebellion Zebedee has a certain zingy bounce to it - the bar here includes several craft keg lines, international bottled ales and some games consoles.

- Haddenham & Thame Parkway -
With that our Wycombe wanderings are complete and it's just a case of getting ourselves back to the Midlands - easier said than done given the gaping hole in Chiltern's early evening timetable where direct services from High Wycombe to Brum are concerned. We end up having to change at Haddenham & Thame Parkway, one of those stultifying stations where the large car park is about the only note of interest apart from the modern booking hall. Saying that, it somehow seems appropriate to land here on Friday 13th of all days and the twelve minutes we are here waiting for our connection is plenty long enough. Happily our Snow Hill service arrives pretty much on schedule and the highwayman can head home - cheers!

Friday, April 6

Ladywood, Moorpool and Weoley Castle

The second half of my Easter Exploration double-header sees me Birmingham-bound with the intention of picking out previously untapped pockets of photography alongside some favourite haunts...

- Joseph Smith & Sons -
Tuesday 3rd April 2018 and my first stop is the Jewellery Quarter to put my new Sony camera through its paces. I'm intrigued to see that the Jewellers Arms on Hockley Street is now a Black Country Ales pub (a revisit is most definitely in order) but my focus is on capturing remnants of the Quarter's manufacturing heritage. Vittoria Street proves productive as I spot the Municipal School for Jewellers and Silversmiths, swiftly followed by Joseph Smith & Sons, while Caroline Street has the former offices of William West & Sons Ltd.

- Cambrian Wharf -
After an admiring look at St Paul's Square, I make my way to Fleet Street where the atmospheric Newman Brothers premises have been preserved as the Coffin Works Museum. The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal beckons for a wander up Farmers Bridge Locks, pausing at Cambrian Wharf to survey the moorings with the Flapper pub close at hand (albeit I hear this well-known music venue could sadly cease trading in June). Farmers Bridge also boasts a little toll lodge and the Cambrian House canal offices, all in the shadow of the Barclaycard Arena - I remember when the 'Gladiators' TV series was filmed there, proper 1990s Saturday evening nostalgia!

- Twin Towers, Ladywood -
From the arena its but a short hop, skip and a jump (or a dash through the Gladiators gauntlet) to enter Ladywood where I'm on the trail of a closed precinct pub Mr D9 has often told me about. The Twin Towers is duly located on one end of the King Edward shopping parade and still has some intact Ansells signage even though part of the space is now occupied by a pharmacy. My photos are all the medication I need with the nearby Spring Hill Library ready to administer its terracotta dosage.

- Shakespeare Garden, Lightwoods Park -
To Bearwood I now go, clambering aboard the number 82 bus for a ride past City Hospital and the old Cape Hill Brewery site. Bearwood Bus Station means I'm handily placed for a Lightwoods Park visit, catching up with restoration project progress. Lightwoods House is now open again having been renovated for use as a community cafe and meeting space while the adjacent Shakespeare Garden is a lovely oasis of tranquility laid out in Elizabethan walled style using plants mentioned in the Bard's works. 

- Moorpool Shops -
One area of Birmingham I'm particularly keen to commit to camera is Moorpool, an attractive estate near Harborne which was established between 1907 and 1911 as a Garden Suburb. Arts and Crafts-style architecture is to the fore and the estate was designated a conservation area back in 1970. My only previous visit here came when passing through on the 647 bus over ten years ago, so effectively I'm seeing everything afresh. A selection of amenities are clustered around The Circle (including Moorpool Hall, the Estate Office, a couple of local shops and some tennis courts) whereas Moor Pool natural lake is a popular beauty spot off Ravenhurst Road.

- The Court Oak -
Carless Avenue connects me with Lordswood Road for a glance at the Old House at Home (Greene King establishment on the corner with Gillhurst Road) before Croftdown Road conveys me to the Court Oak junction. The landmark pub here is part of the Sizzling chain and is quietly watched over by St Faith and St Laurence Church, mainly dating from the 1930s when the current building replaced two previous mission churches. Queens Park meanwhile was established in 1898 as a public open space in celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond jubilee; the children's play area is certainly a busy spot during the Easter holidays.

- Weoley Castle Ruins -
April is notorious as a month of sudden showers and one such downpour strikes on Tennal Road, making for a soggy stroll setting as I squelch past Harborne Golf Club. I drip my way along Northfield Road and have almost dried out by the time I reach the ruins of Weoley Castle, a moated medieval manor house built by the Lords of Dudley circa 1270. I glimpse some of the stonework as the sun briefly comes back out, but the onset of another deluge has me scurrying for the shelter offered by the 48 bus. With more rain forecast I call it quits, riding through to Smethwick via the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Harborne and Warley Woods. Despite the damp finale the outing was still very successful, exploration just the way I like it - cheers!

Monday, April 2

Waterways Walks: The Lichfield Canal

Resuming my occasional series of towpath trails with this Easter-time solo Staffordshire stroll, which will serve as a companion trip to the Hatherton Canal investigations I did last summer. My focus now is on the other waterway the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust are aiming to reinstate...

- Lichfield City Station Sign -
Yes indeed, the Lichfield Canal will be taking its turn in the WME spotlight. Originally part of the Wyrley & Essington system linking Ogley Junction (near Brownhills) with the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford, the branch was abandoned in the mid 1950s but is gradually being brought back into existence thanks to the sterling efforts of the LHCRT. It is thus with eager anticipation that I make my way to Lichfield City station, a personal favourite railway location which feels enticingly traditional with solid booking hall benches and weatherboarded platform architecture.

- Saxon Penny, Darwin Park -
From the station I head for the fringes of the city, passing through part of the Darwin Park development along the way. This new estate has grown steadily over the last few years and building work is still ongoing; local amenities include Darwin Hall Community Centre, a Waitrose supermarket and the Saxon Penny pub (one of those identikit modern Marston's retail park efforts). An attractive avenue view makes the most of a distant cathedral horizon while Sainte Foy Avenue boasts a compact little park with children's play area.

- Canal Construction at Fosseway Heaths -
After a brief encounter with the Lichfield Southern Bypass I can pick up the trail at Fosseway Heaths where a stretch of canal is being restored as part of a nature reserve. Being the morning of Good Friday, it's relatively quiet on site but I can still see the digging and mixing equipment alongside the earthen channel that will in time form the resurrected waterway. A boardwalk structure is in the process of being fabricated to serve a planned wetland area while work continues on crafting the canal wall.

- Fosseway Lane Crossing -
It requires long-term dedication to restore a lost canal, and the fact LHCRT have been active for a number of years is demonstrated at Lock 18 which was repaired back in 1995. The lock precedes my emergence onto Fosseway Lane where I'm pleased to discover an abandoned signal box and level crossing formerly served by the South Staffordshire Line - it's all rather ramshackle these days but nonetheless constitutes an interesting remnant of a railway I've previously traced at Pelsall and Brownhills.

- Darwin Walk -
A gentle stroll back along Fosseway Lane connects me once more with the Lichfield Southern Bypass - the plan is that the restored canal will flank this road for a short distance because the original course (which weaved through by the Duke of Wellington pub) has largely been built over. My next target therefore becomes Darwin Walk off Shortbutts Lane where a grassy corridor marks the resumption of the historic route; the open space must be popular with dog-walkers judging by several polite notices instructing folk to clean up after their pets.

- St John's Bridge -
The trail is already proving fascinating and added excitement comes in the form of St John's Bridge where the old canal meets London Road - apparently there used to be adjacent wharves and a basin here while the bridge itself was rebuilt in the 1930s. Tamworth Road then keeps me company as the towpath track crosses open ground among springtime daffodils to reach Cricket Lane, one of the access points for Borrowcop Locks Canal Park.

- Borrowcop Locks -
Borrowcop Locks is the centrepiece of LHCRT's restoration activities and it's great to see what has been achieved, most notably the work on Locks 25 and 26. A stretch of the canal here has been rewatered (hurrah!) complete with resident ducks, making for a lovely spot to pause and contemplate life. Beyond the pound, the channel sweeps left ('Bobbie's Bend') to meet Tamworth Road which is as far as I'm going on this occasion. It is possible to walk right through to Huddlesford via Darnford Park, Darnford Lift Bridge and Cappers Lane - plenty there to tempt me back in future I should think!

- Dr Johnson -
An excellent walk deserves to be rewarded with a pint or two so as I make my way into Lichfield City Centre I seek out the Wellington on Birmingham Road for a quenching pint of Fuller's London Pride. Previously known as the Duke of Wellington, the pub is firmly part of Lichfield Canal heritage with an infilled bridge on the edge of the car park. A recent makeover means the place isn't perhaps quite as traditional as I'm expecting but I still enjoy my visit, reading L.A.S.T. Orders and keeping abreast of the Oxford v Scunthorpe football action. Lichfield's historic centre is always a delight to explore and as ever I make sure to say hello to Dr Johnson's statue, the renowned lexicographer having been born in the city in 1709.

- A Bitter-Suite Finish -
The afternoon is fast disappearing but I have time for one final treat before my train, and my chosen establishment is very handy for Lichfield City Station. The Bitter-Suite micropub only opened at the tail end of last year but already seems to have attracted quite a following; situated on Upper St John's Street in the shadow of the landmark railway bridge, I'm intrigued to find it is positioned directly opposite the former Lichfield Brewery building. I partake of the house ale from Burton Bridge Brewery, the name 'Bridge Strike Bitter' referencing the number of incidents that the adjacent bridge has been involved in with unwary lorries! Table service is part of the offer here so I persuade myself to stay for a Dark Drake stout (Dancing Duck) which also proves very drinkable. Home I must then go but it has been a superb day of Easter exploring, and I wish the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust all the best with their ongoing projects.