Sunday, April 28

Rail Rover Week 2019

April is always a highly anticipated month on the WME calendar as that's when I usually try to stage my annual Rail Rover set of adventures. For 2019 I've dedicated the few days immediately after Easter as my time to see where the train can take me...

- Towards the Peak District -
Rail Rover is my chance to cast the exploration net slightly further afield, so come Tuesday 23rd April I arm myself with a Heart of England ticket and dip into Derbyshire courtesy of the Derwent Valley line. This picturesque route connects Derby with Matlock, offering rugged views of river and crag - a popular journey during the school holiday it seems. Matlock itself lies within the Derbyshire Dales and is close to the Peak District, so I can admire the scenery (and try to catch my breath!) when climbing up a steepish hill to the Thorn Tree Inn high above the town centre. This pub was highly recommended by Britain Beermat earlier in the year, the Draught Bass rewarding my exertions and worth every step.

- Mosaic Moments at Belper -
Tuesday afternoon is spent in Belper, not a place I've ever stopped off at before but it soon grabs my attention with its station set in an obdurate cutting. I have a soft spot for traditional unpretentious market towns so I quickly feel at home, teasing out photos of landmarks such as the Lion Hotel, St Peter's Church and Colledges Furniture Stores. Pub-wise I'm drawn towards the Market Place area where the Nags Head has a St George's Day promotion on pints of Pedigree - £2, that'll do nicely. The Pedi also scores well in the Old Kings Head, a lovely timeless backstreet boozer that I happened across on Days Lane. 

- Isis Lock -
Rail Rovering is usually a solo occupation so it is great to have some company when Wednesday 24th April heralds an Oxford outing. Nick and Ken have come along for the day and we begin with a gentle wander along the Oxford Canal, investigating Isis Lock which provides a waterways link towards the River Thames. We then exit the towpath near Jericho Wharf in order to sample the Old Bookbinders, a quirky backstreet Greene King establishment bedecked with nicknacks aplenty. Here Ken ponders the plight of print newspapers as we sample the Betty Stogs and Black Sheep ales.

- The new intake at St John's? -
Continuing into the centre of Oxford, we're keen to soak up some of the rarefied educational atmosphere of the 'City of Dreaming Spires'. A call into the Lamb & Flag thus seems highly appropriate - the pub is owned by St John's College and has a dimly-lit snug where we wonder how many fumbling romantic assignations may have taken place down the years. St John's itself is practically next door and was founded in 1555; a sharp shower cannot dampen our enthusiasm for exploring the prestigious surroundings, making sure not to tread on the lawn!

- All Souls College -
Our quest for collegiate culture takes us next to All Souls where the sun appears just in time for some pictures of the historic quadrangle architecture. Our pub tour comprises calls at the Chequers (for dirty chips of dubious delight), St Aldates Tavern (quaffing 8 Porter from the XT Brewery) and the Castle (relatively recently renovated in becoming Hook Norton's Oxford flagship). Arguably the most memorable boozer however is the Bear, a Fuller's gem on Alfred Street which hosts a remarkable collection of club ties from around the globe. Add in some crossword action on the way home and a rare Wolves victory over Arsenal, I doubt things could have gone much better!

- The Pryce Jones Warehouse -
Thursday 25th April isn't strictly speaking a Rover day as I'm using a separate ticket to venture into Wales (i.e. going beyond the bounds of Heart of England validity). Newtown in Powys is my desired destination so I travel across using the Cambrian Line via Shrewsbury, pitching up at a neat provincial station with a lattice footbridge. I'm instantly taken with the Pryce Jones Royal Welsh Warehouse, dating from 1879 and historically home to the world's first mail order catalogue company. The building is nowadays utilised as a business hub but still has a very striking presence.

- Robert Owen's Statue -
Newtown came to prominence as a centre for wool, flannels and textiles, and is also famed as the birthplace of the philanthropist Robert Owen (1771-1858) who has a sculpture and museum dedicated to him. I enjoy a breezy stroll beside the River Severn and make sure to sample the Sportsman, taphouse for Monty's Brewery - the Dark Secret Stout and customer service from the expert publican are both impeccable. I can't resist breaking my return journey with a pit stop at Welshpool, finding more exceptional beer at the Green Dragon on Mount Street; they only usually have one ale on at any given time but the Clun Loophole is absolute nectar!

- Kingsholm Stadium -
I resume my Heart of England remit on Friday 26th April by getting to grips with Gloucester. The city's railway station is a bit of a disappointment (think 1960s whitewashed office block) but at least the hideous former bus station has been demolished. I'm not entirely sure of my bearings so it's something of a happy accident that I stumble across Kingsholm Stadium, the headquarters of Gloucester Rugby. Naturally there are quite a few pubs in close proximity to the ground, including the White Hart, the Queens Head and the Coach & Horses.

- Gloucester Docks -
Aside from such sporting settings, Gloucester Cathedral is an unmissable principal landmark where I line up various angles from across College Green. The weather is threatening to take a turn for the worse but I simply have to examine Gloucester Docks, rain or no rain. The warehouses are a monument to the industrial age and have been repurposed for leisure and retail uses; my intended walk along the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal is curtailed due to the elements so I console myself with some Six Malts Porter in TANK (the dockside tap of the Gloucester Brewery). Last but not least comes the Pelican, a Wye Valley house that is a multiple CAMRA award winner - the Aethelflaed's Ale is a perfect way on which to end a stellar few days of terrific train travel. Cheers!

Sunday, April 21

Riding around Redditch with Mr D9

This Eastertime episode from the Hub Marketing Board sees Chairman D9 and Secretary WME unleashed upon the estates of Redditch, armed with a Diamond Daysaver and a thirst for flat-roofed finds...

- A Brum-based bald spot -
It's Good Friday 2019 (19th April to be precise) and there are blue skies all the way from West Bromwich to Worcestershire as our quest gets underway. A Midland Metro starter sees us safely to New Street for our Cross City connection, the train journey then being enlivened by a pop chart challenge - how many hit songs and artistes can we name from this very week in 1966 and 1980? Mr D9 is still racking his brains when we linger briefly at Longbridge, hence the bald spot is left unattended on platform two.

- Where are we again? -
We'll be checking our musical answers during the rail ride home, thus ensuring we can give Redditch our full focus from the moment we arrive. The town grew rapidly from the 1960s as an overspill area for Birmingham but does have a proud needlemaking heritage plus hints of history among the model housing estates. A station mural is on hand to greet us and we keep things train-themed a while longer by seeking out the Railway on Hewell Road, scene for an opening Carling and some dubious darts prowess. The pub is located in a small district known as Enfield, named in reference to the former Royal Enfield bicycle and motorcycle manufacturers which used to be a major local employer.

- Set for steering on the 67 -
Redditch Bus Station is positioned beneath the Kingfisher shopping malls (complete with its own hub) and is where we catch the 67. A Diamond day ticket costs a mere £2.80 so the Chairman has a saving to celebrate when strapping himself in for driving duty. The route covers Lakeside, Greenlands, Woodrow and Studley although we're only going as far as the Mayfly, an older estate pub on the Studley Road that has a 1930s look about it. Greenlands Post Office is next door and the afternoon sunshine entices us into a stroll, exchanging Russ Abbott and George Formby silly songs while heading for Woodrow.

- The wonders of the Woodrow -
We've done some places in our time but Woodrow really does take the biscuit, possibly making me feel the most nervous I've ever been when trying to take photos. There's no getting away from it, the architecture here is grim and the precinct has an offputting air of menace. The eponymous boozer is about as stark as you can get, buried underneath some maisonettes with only a narrow strip of windows by way of natural light. We go in undaunted (probably due to bladder necessity) and partake of more Carling while watching the Sheffield Utd v Notts Forest match from Bramall Lane. I doubt this one will be troubling any future editions of the Good Beer Guide but there is a true sense of community so it's not all bad.

- Matchborough Centre -
Woodrow Centre also includes a Costcutter store and a branch library as part of the main square, and the bus service is certainly regular as confirmed when we test out the turn-up-and-go (TUAG) credentials of the 57 circular. Our next target is Matchborough for further flat roof fun, alighting by Christ Church and the Latham School of Dance. The shops wouldn't win any awards for artistic merit but do seem more approachable than where we'd just been; among the units are a pharmacy, McColls convenience store, Piccolo Pizza and the Golden Carp Chippy.

- That's what I call a Sticky Wicket -
Matchborough's box boozer is the Old Sticky Wicket, positioned on one end of the aforementioned shopping parade. The initial bar area is busy but friendly as the Chairman gets the round, sticking with lager but opting for Fosters on account of the £2.40 pricetag (Secretary WME forgives these attempts at discount skulduggery because the John Smith's would've been even cheaper). Mr D9 is also quids in on the dartboard, turning his existing Railway advantage into a 5-0 lead before WME Whirlwind finally summons up a leg or three to stave off the threat of a whitewash. We pause a moment to visit Matchborough Pool, a nearby wildlife haven where a moody swan takes exception to a certain bald spot.

- The Winyate -
Not wanting to risk a pecking, we hurry back to the bus stop for a quick blast on the 57. It isn't far into Winyates and the sight of yet another precinct pub means we can complete our trio of horizontally-topped taverns. The Winyate isn't especially remarkable in truth, most of the regulars are keeping tabs on the Villa commentary versus Bolton although the Secretary is not as enthusiastic about Jack Grealish's opening goal. Redditch town centre now beckons (making use of the 57 again, via Church Hill) whereby Mr WME is determined to find some cask ale to counterbalance all the bleach he's been subjected to. Luckily the Black Tap can come to the rescue with the nectar that is Backyard Blonde, hurrah!

- A D9 doppelganger? -
It's been a lot of fun getting to grips with some of Redditch's constituent areas so our reward on the way home is a Stirchley nightcap, plus the tallying up of our chart conundrum task (we did better on 1966 than 1980 but missed out on naming the likes of Liquid Gold, the Lambrettas and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich). For a moment on the Pershore Road, WME thought the Chairman had clambered onto the rooftops until realising he'd actually only spotted a King Kong figurine. Plum Porter in the British Oak (a classic Brummie roadhouse that's seemingly undergone a student invasion) precedes an Attic finale, supping Stout in the brewery's own bar barely a stone's throw from Bournville Station. Cheers to an epic Easter extravaganza!

Sunday, April 14

Lost Pubs from the WME Archives

I've been at this blogging lark for nearly thirteen years now and first started taking digital photos in 2002, so it's fair to say I've accumulated quite an archive in that time. One of the recurring themes over the years has been pub closures with many watering holes having passed into history, not just in the West Midlands but across the country. Here I dip into my back catalogue and remember a handful of those lost pubs...

- The Red Cow -
I was only in Pelsall with Mr D9 last week counting up the local pub casualties we could remember - the Old Bush, the Swan and of course the former Free Trade at Pelsall Wood. Sadly I never got chance to do any of them and the same goes for the Red Cow at Heath End; situated on Allen's Lane, it always struck me as a basic Banks's boozer that has since been converted for residential use. 

- The Tannery -
Regular readers of this blog will probably know I have a particular affection for estate pubs, especially those with a flat roof or similarly stark architectural merit. The Tannery at Birchills was certainly distinctive with a steep wedge-shaped appearance, overlooked by blocks of flats and a shopping precinct just off Green Lane. Demolition was the ultimate fate for this one.

- Good Intent -
Even an area as renowned for pubs as Gornal hasn't escaped the tide of closures, and here we see the Good Intent as located on Vale Street (under new management at the time but latterly turned into flats). Also in the immediate vicinity, the Leopard has bitten the dust and the Cottage of Content became an Italian restaurant in the late 1990s, although the Jolly Crispin is happily still going strong as the base for the Fownes Brewery.

- Hart & Trumpet -
And finally, an example from further afield. The Hart & Trumpet was a railway pub situated next to the level crossing opposite Gobowen Station, and is pictured here during my Rail Rover outing of October 2008. I don't know what's happened to it since it shut but the Cross Foxes on the other side of the crossing still appears to be trading as a traditional Marston's establishment. 

So there you have it, four archive extractions of bygone boozers - maybe they bring back a few memories? I'm tentatively intending that this post might be the start of an occasional series depending on what else might be lurking in my photo collection - no promises but we'll see how it pans out. Cheers!

Sunday, April 7

Roaming Rushall with Mr D9...

It had been a little while since the Hub Marketing Board last conjured up a Walsall-based adventure so Secretary WME delves deep into his box of tricks and pulls a Rushall rabbit out of the hat...

- Walsall College Hub -
Friday 5th April 2019 and some half-day hubbing involves a Walsall town centre start with members meeting on Leicester Street in the shadows of the Town Hall. We quickly progress to Hatherton Street - where Mr D9 fancies he's found an old toilet block judging by the presence of some blue glazed tiles - and thence Wisemore, setting for our planned photoshoot outside The Hub at Walsall College. This further education establishment used to be based on St Paul's Street but relocated to a brand new facility in 2009, the old site then becoming home to a Tesco superstore.

- A bit of Bass -
Stafford Street is a depressingly neglected corner of Walsall these days although among the rundown remnants you can spot glimpses of faded grandeur - the President Lincoln building being a case in point. We're hoping to sample the Seven Stars, a mid-terrace Desi boozer, but when that turns out to be shut we take a punt on Rock Steady Eddie's instead, no doubt lured by the Bass branding. Alas said ale is conspicuously absent so we make do with Carling, slaking our thirst while studying bus timetables from 1986 when routes included the 571 and 572 Wolverhampton to Coppice Farm services. 

- Closed Closet Consternation -
Walsall Police Station is a very recent loss to the locality, reduced to a pile of rubble on the junction with Green Lane. The Oak Inn is still going (cue for more Carling) and is situated opposite a Salvation Army hall that dates from 1902. Picking up the pace, we catch the 89 into Rushall to see what photo pickings can plundered there. The local branch library has permanently closed due to council cutbacks (darned austerity) albeit the attached public conveniences were taken out of use a few years earlier, much to Mr D9's chagrin. Elsewhere, there's a curious hand sculpture outside Daw End Lane McDonald's whereas Lichfield Road contributes Christ the King, a russet-toned tin tabernacle originally erected as a temporary mission church.

- The Farmers Boy finished? -
The Secretary is hoping to land a sleeve success with an estate watering hole on Barns Lane, only for us to discover that the Farmer's Boy has closed - possibly for good. The Kings Road street sign does at least prompt a silly song selection - Dick-a-Dum Dum from the ever reliable Des O'Connor - so the Chairman summons up a Sid Snot rap (Kenny Everett) by way of retribution. Our Farmer's Boy frustration is quelled by a stroll along the Daw End Branch Canal from Winterley Lane, reaching the Boathouse for some Salopian Fault Line refreshment accompanied by cob and scratchings. The pub makes the most of its waterside location by having part of the lounge laid out like a narrowboat. 

- A pint pose in Pelsall -
Our Rushall rummage resumes with a glance at Daw End Methodist Church before we flag down another 89, this time covering the section through Shelfield and High Heath into Pelsall. The green open spaces of Pelsall Common always strike a chord, as do the traditional wooden bus shelters for a slice of village character. We reckon two pubs here should do nicely so we make tracks for the Railway on Victoria Road, staking out the oche with darts in hand. The 2019 games challenge has been our closest year yet so it remains to be seen whether a 6-4 victory for WME Whirlwind proves crucial come December.  

- Anyone for Body Candy? -
The Railway seems a cottagey but quiet community local whereas the Queens is altogether livelier in offering a standard Banks's experience overlooking the war memorial. A swift half of Bitter is sufficient given that we have a further 89 to catch - luckily for all concerned, the Chairman decides not to model some discarded body candy when adopting his customary steering pose! We're not spared from D9 anguish completely though, the demolition of the Bloxwich closet prompting much sorrowful indignation so we consider it wise to conclude matters in Wednesfield on this occasion.

- Spotted by Graiseley Lane flats -
Secretary WME is counting down towards a quiz curfew though we have time enough for a couple of nightcaps. Graiseley Lane thus presents high rise flats and a bald spot opportunity as we approach the Star, a resurrected flat roof tempter where we're greeted by the strains of D9's favourite 'Don't Look Back In Anger' (Book A Banga) theme song. Last but not least is the Village Inn (formerly the Fisherman), a typical box boozer just down the road from New Cross Hospital that delivers our Carling denouement. Cheers... and as a postscript, Team Bears came a solid 5th in the quiz standings, stumped by leading ladies, Easter questions and a young David Cameron!!!