Wednesday, February 26

WME Flickr Focus - February 2020

Calculators out folks, it's time for your monthly maths lesson courtesy of the WME Flickr photostream. Don't worry, we're not talking algebra, trigonometry or calculus here, just a few straightforward sums and a tallying up of running totals...

The general pattern established over recent years is for there to be on average 30 new additions (give or take) each month. That rule was certainly borne out in February thanks to 32 arrivals, although you might not expect WME Warwickshire to be heading the update charts. It does so after the collective input of Kenilworth (the Lion pub and a 'Walter Scott was here' plaque), Leamington (the Somerville Arms plus the New Inn) and Long Itchington (two similar sightings of the Buck & Bell). 

Crunching the numbers, we can also see reasonable accumulation from WME Dudley and WME Staffordshire. Dudley drops Kingswinford - specifically the British Oak - into the equation while Staffordshire does likewise with Horninglow and Lower Penn (the former through mileage markers and fishing permits, the latter through canine street art). Not to be outdone, WME Telford samples St Leonard's Church in Malinslee whereas WME Coventry tries to figure out the square root of Lentons Lane.

Arithmetically speaking, WME Wolverhampton usually accounts for a higher proportion of my published pictures. It has maintained this ratio by summoning forth snapshots of the Harp at Horseley Fields, the Yew Tree at Merridale and a meeting hall peek inside Long Knowle Community Centre. The Mander Centre meanwhile supplies some multiplication of its own with a sequence of artistic angles showcasing one of the mall's murals.

Finally from February, those cumulative totals I promised: Wolverhampton (777 photos), Walsall (314), Birmingham (537), Dudley (397), Sandwell (290), Coventry (116), Solihull (130), Staffordshire (491), Worcestershire (176), Telford & Wrekin (151), Warwickshire (132), Shropshire (168) and everywhere else (Exploration Extra at 619). All of which mounts up to the not insignificant number of 4,298 with hopefully many more to come, starting in March...

Sunday, February 23

Navigating Nuneaton and Bedworth

It's strange how little patterns can sometimes emerge as I build adventure upon adventure. Take for example the fact 2020 is barely two months old and already I've visited Warwickshire three times, what with the Leamington and Curdworth outings now being augmented by a day spent in Nuneaton and Bedworth...

- Felicitations from Bermuda Park -
Saturday 22nd February 2020 and the trilogy-completing trip will see me joining Nick for a foray into North Warwickshire. I start aboard the 8:57 Euston train leaving Wolverhampton, whereupon I find myself surrounded by Girl Guides all heading to a convention at the National Exhibition Centre - Captain Tawny seems particularly formidable! At Coventry I intercept Nick on the local train up from Leamington and we both then alight at Bermuda Park, giving me my first ever look at a station that first opened in early 2016. An unstaffed facility, the stop serves the adjacent industrial estate including a Booker Cash and Carry outlet.

- Crayfish Calling? -
Eager to explore Bermuda more widely, we follow a footpath over the A444 to reach the 'Phoenix' community centre and a bus turning circle served by occasional routes to Atherstone. Bermuda Village is particularly interesting as a preserved collection of miners houses originally constructed for workers at the Griff Colliery. Habitats of a different variety are however evident at Ensors Pool although flooded paths mean we can't get close enough to spot any endangered white clawed crayfish ourselves. We therefore backtrack towards Heath End for photos of the Hare & Hounds (an Edwardian boozer dating from 1904), a modern church, and a dance studio housed in the former Free Methodist Chapel. 

- Coventry Canal at Queens Road -
To Stockingford next and an encounter with a White Lion, albeit not as dangerous as it sounds (clue: an opening half of Sharp's Atlantic whets the palate nicely). Nick has a nose at a trophy shop, wondering if a certain Mr Beardsmore would deserve a bronze cricketing trinket, and there are hints of residential estates off The Raywoods or Northumberland Avenue. Our immediate target is the Coventry Canal and a section neither of us have walked previously, namely from Queens Road to Bull Ring between Bridges 21 and 20. It's not the most scenic stretch of towpath in truth but there is a traditional little wharf facility operated by Star Line Boats complete with Calor Gas and other fuel supplies. 

- A naughty nun! -
Reaching Coton we break for lunch at the Horseshoes, a Good Beer Guide-listed pub that for a while was the taphouse of the Tunnel Brewery but has now reverted to an Everards establishment. The lighter bites menu keeps hunger at bay while Nick is lured away from the ales by the prospect of Thistly Cross Cider (the whisky cask version). Just down the road is the Griff & Coton Club which hosts a number of sports teams - cricket, netball, bowls, rugby - and is an enduring legacy of the local mining industry which exploited the reserves of the North Warwickshire coalfield. The club grounds have been daubed with some very startling graffiti including a nun with a hot dog fixation. 

- Black Swan in Hand -
Continuing into Nuneaton's main centre via Edward Road's multitude of corner shops, we keenly reacquaint ourselves with the Lord Hop on the corner of Queens Road and Dugdale Street. As an award-winning micropub we have high expectations but these are ably met by a spectacularly good half of Elliswood's Dark Night Winter Porter. Such quality is a hard act for the other town pubs to follow although the Blue Bear (with O'Neill's Barn Owl Bitter) and the Black Swan in Hand (Jennings Cumberland) both serve up a decent drop; the latter is very sports-centric with the Italy v Scotland Six Nations fixture in full flow.

- Bedworth Station Sign -
Successfully sprinting for the 16:16 train (made with seconds to spare), we proceed to Bedworth where prior research tells us we might struggle to find much in the way of cask contentment. These suspicions are confirmed in the Prince of Wales on Bulkington Road, a friendly community local that was mooted to close in January but is carrying on trading for the time being at least. No real ale on this occasion and the Guinness is off too, hence Nick does the unthinkable and opts for some Carling - in all the ten plus years I've known him, I've never seen Nick drink lager before so I've had to hide the photographic evidence in order to protect his reputation!

- Admiring the Ashby Canal -
We're not in Bedworth purely for the pubs though as there are also waterways we're intent on investigating. The Coventry Canal makes its second appearance of the day care of a dusky walk out to Marston Lane, and there's just enough daylight left with which to marvel at Marston Junction and the early reaches of the Ashby-de-la-Zouch Canal. Furnace Road then connects us to the town centre only to discover that the Bear & Ragged Staff Wetherspoons is absolutely heaving, and our final port of call becomes the Travellers Rest back near the station as a quick Quadhop (Downton Brewery) precedes the train home. Cheers!

Saturday, February 15

Waterways Walks: Curdworth Locks

Storm Dennis is howling outside as I bring you news of a St Valentine's Day venture along a stretch of Warwickshire's waterways. What follows isn't quite a love letter although I do now hold the Curdworth Locks flight in considerably high affection...

- The Boat, Minworth -
I'll spare you the boring initial logistics of getting to the other side of Sutton Coldfield and pick up my tale in Minworth. The X4 drops me off at an Asda Supercentre but I manage to extricate myself from the retail park in order to join the canal beside the Boat pub. The initial section of my walk is familiar from the Curdworth stroll I did last year, passing Minworth Green and Broad Balk bridges as I leave the West Midlands behind. Muddy patches and pesky puddles mean the towpath resembles an assault course in places, especially when I have to limbo under a fallen tree near Curdworth Church.

- Curdworth Tunnel -
New exploration awaits once I've negotiated Curdworth Tunnel, the murky innards of which put me at risk of getting coated in cobwebs. The tunnel was designed by the canal engineer John Smeaton and features 'horse tread' towpath ridges to prevent slippy situations while a wrought iron handrail also assists with keeping my balance. Baylis's Bridge is my first new discovery of the day and in turn precedes Curdworth Top Lock, these days sited almost in the shadows of the M6 Toll motorway - let's just say I prefer 18th century transportation routes to their modern counterparts!

- Lock Three -
Next up, Dunton Wharf serves as a water point as the canal passes quietly below Wishaw before plotting a north-easterly course towards Kingsbury. The M42 is a constant companion although surrounding fields help reduce the intrusive effect of traffic noises as I continue through a sequence of further locks. Each one has a little number stump so I've plenty to keep my camera occupied, and the sun is even threatening to put in an appearance. Lock Four (at Marston Lane) is accompanied by keepers' cottages and an outhouse plus a disused kayak reclaimed for horticultural purposes. 

- Lock Seven with Marston Field Bridge -
The Curdworth Flight comprises eleven locks in total spaced out over two and a bit miles. I end up accounting for nine of them, including Lock 6 (with White Bridge), Lock 7 (adjacent to Marston Field Bridge) and Lock 9 (at Cheatles Farm, complete with appropriate agricultural aromas). The whiff of manure up one's nostrils certainly seems to be shifting the sniffles I'd been suffering from over the past few days - sometimes an invigorating walk is just what the doctor ordered!

- Dog & Doublet, Bodymoor Heath -
This isn't one of my most pubcentric blogposts although a refreshment stop or two is always welcome. Step forward the Dog & Doublet, invitingly positioned overlooking the aforementioned Lock 9 but otherwise accessible via Dog Lane. Dating from the 1780s, the building is Grade II listed and has been a pub since 1835 or thereabouts; from the four cask ales I opt for a refreshing pint of Wainwright and listen in as some retired folk enjoy their lunches. The traditional interior features sepia scenes of the local area, not forgetting that mainstay of canalside boozers - horse brasses!

- Kingsbury Water Park -
I rejoin the Birmingham & Fazeley for the short distance to Bodymoor Heath Bridge where my exit from the towpath means I won't quite cover the whole Curdworth flight today. No matter, a visit to nearby Kingsbury Water Park ensures I still get an additional fix of watery scenery. Created from the craters of a gravel extraction site, the park spans 15 lakes across 600+ acres either side of the M42 - a visitor centre, miniature railway and children's farm are all part of the attraction. My pictures focus on the expanse that is Bodymoor Heath Water although I make sure to investigate the community wetlands too. 

- St Peter & St Paul, Kingsbury -
Crossing the River Tame into Kingsbury village itself, I can hardly fail to notice the brooding remains of Kingsbury Hall perched high above the riverbank. Perimeter railings prevent me from getting a closer look so I can only ponder the former manor house features from afar. The Parish Church of St Peter & St Paul is close at hand for an extra slice of history while other landmarks in the vicinity include two pubs (the Royal Oak and the White Swan), a small independent theatre and a shopping parade although in Mr D9's absence I won't dwell too much on the crumbling old closet block. 

- Wilnecote Station Sign -
My intended Diamond connection into Tamworth has gone AWOL so, rather than stick around in Kingsbury for another hour or more, I hotfoot it along the A51 to ultimately finish up at Wilnecote Station. Off-the-cuff exploring can be very enlightening and in this case I'm unexpectedly introduced to Dosthill with its Co-op store, fish bar and the Fox Inn (ex-Ansells). Two Gates briefly makes a dusky impression courtesy of the Bulls Head before I avail myself of the 16:37 train home. Thus concludes my Valentine's message, light on romance perhaps but plenty of camera courtship to celebrate - cheers!

Sunday, February 9

Beery Business at the Double!

February bursts into life with back-to-back days of ale-related adventure, starting with a visit to the Great British Beer Festival (Winter) in Birmingham before the Chip Foundation's tenth anniversary trip takes in a few haunts around Cradley Heath and Old Hill...

- Over there to Hockley Port -
Beginning as seems logical with Friday 7th February, I make my way to the Jewellery Quarter where I can attempt some pre-festival photography prior to meeting Nick. The Brooklands area isn't one I capture on camera all that often so Pitsford Street leads me past Warstone Lane Cemetery and out towards the Hockley Trading Estate. The local primary school stretches around one corner with Hingeston Street but my principal target is Hockley Port, a short stub of residential canal moorings that link onto the Soho Loop. Access to the arm is restricted but I catch a fleeting glimpse after braving the driveway of a half-derelict industrial compound.

- GBBFW beckons -
Nick is perfectly punctual for our 10:30 summit and we head straight for the New Bingley Hall, venue for the ale extravaganza that is the Great British Beer Festival (Winter edition). Birmingham is making its debut as host city for this flagship event which has previously been held in Manchester, Derby and Norwich. We join the eager throng pending 11am opening then studiously peruse the plump programme trying to work out which beers we most need to try. First up are Petite Belgique (Nick pining for our European friends post-Brexit) and Harbour's Shoreline Stout, a slightly nutty number from Cornwall.

- Triumphant on the Tombola -
We are spoiled for choice and then some with over 400 beers on show, although we do seek out some quirky brews as a matter of priority. Standout selections include P-P-Pick up a Penguin (Church End's liquid take on the chocolate biscuit bar), Round Corner's Notorious Hooligan (red and 'luscious' apparently), Green Duck's Catch Me If You Can (a gingerbread stout) and Thornbridge's St Petersburg (smoky peatiness in an imperial stout). The hall soon fills up with happy revellers as we take turns on the tombola, both landing lucky for bottled Electric Ale and a pub games polo shirt respectively. 

- Something Sour at the Craft Inn -
The festival proves hugely enjoyable and four hours soon whizz by in a flash. With our Saturday exertions in mind, we won't push the boat out too much thereafter but do track down a couple of intriguing additions to the Jewellery Quarter drinking scene. The Craft Inn is a self-proclaimed nano bar on Warstone Lane by the Chamberlain Clock; it's certainly compact and has an eclectic keykeg offering from which I pick Sweet Disaster, Heist's take on a Cherry Berlinerweisse. The Rock & Roll Brewhouse meanwhile isn't necessarily new but has relocated behind a mysterious doorway on Hall Street (next to the Brown Lion). Doctor Feelgood Stout is an excellent finale as we admire a drum kit and wonder what tomorrow might bring...

- Plough & Harrow, Cradley Heath -
Indeed, Saturday 8th February marks not just the 62nd episode of the Chip Foundation Chronicles but also the completion of a full decade since our inaugural Gornal trip from early 2010. Cradley Heath kickstarts proceedings on this occasion whereby honorable mention goes to the Plough & Harrow, Dudley CAMRA's 2019 Pub of the Year winner and in the running to retain that title for 2020. Of the six or so ales, Cleric's Cure and Shropshire Lad keep us more than satisfied as an appreciative lunchtime trade starts to build. 

- Windswept Chips -
Blustery conditions can't dissuade us from finding food so Corngreaves Road helps us battle the breeze up past the site of St Luke's Church. Reddal Hill Road is then where we find Ivan's, a chip shop that has assumed legendary local status having "bin gooing since 1957". Fresh fish fillets are displayed in the window and the fact all the eat-in tables are booked up speaks for itself; we therefore take our carefully wrapped goodies to a bench at Bearmore Playing Fields, looking out over the sports pitches as preparations are made for a parks football fixture. The roe special thankfully gets the thumbs up from our resident chip critic Stephen while Nick shocks us all by devouring his mini-fish in record time. 

- Thirsty Work in Old Hill -
Another establishment in contention for the Dudley branch 2020 PotY crown is Wheelie Thirsty at Old Hill so we get there via Clyde Road and Trinity Street, spotting Macefield's Mission as an impressive chapel building dating from 1904. The micropub we seek is of a much more recent vintage, opening last year in a former Midland Bank premises as an outlet for the Fixed Wheel Brewery (sadly their sister pub in Lye has recently closed down due to lack of trade). A cycling theme is very much apparent among the resident artworks as I partake of Sniper (a sprightly pale ale) and Nick savours some Blackheath Stout, a brew which this week was declared to be the Champion Winter Beer of Britain - a superb achievement!

- Uncle B at Haden Hill Park -
A wider look around Old Hill proves rather fruitful when Halesowen Street reveals the presence of several landmarks, namely the Regis Masonic Lodge, Holy Trinity Church and the Spring Meadow Social Club. We continue uphill past a modern fire station to reach the Haden Cross, a popular boozer that was saved from closure following considerable community protest a few years ago. We pop in for a swift half  - Bathams' Best Bitter on good form - then double back to Haden Hill Park to make the acquaintance of Uncle B, a Big Sleuth bear sculpture who nowadays welcomes visitors to the Haden Hill House Museum.

- Bowled over by a Long Hop? -
Haden Hill House is a Victorian residence (dated 1878-79) that stands immediately next to Haden Old Hall, a Jacobean-styled manor; together they form the museum complex although winter opening times are limited to special events only. We concentrate instead on the Long Hop Taphouse at Old Hill Cricket Club where we infiltrate the tail end of an engagement party. A gallery of squad pictures suggests the mid-1980s was a golden period in the club's history although today's regulars are mainly watching the Six Nations rugby. Hartlebury Hooker is an appropriate ale choice in the circumstances and we play a little game trying to guess the #1 song this week in 1977 (Don't Cry For Me Argentina by Julie Covington as it turns out). Old Hill railway station finishes things off for our train home and we now look forward to the next ten years of Chip Foundation fun and frolics - cheers!

Sunday, February 2

Brexit Hub Marketing: West Brom and Wordsley

Friday 31st January 2020 will forever go down in British history as the day the United Kingdom finally left the European Union. The ramifications of this decision - for better or worse - may not become clear for a number of years, generations even, but the Hub Marketing Board are on hand to mark the occasion anyway. Yes, leave or remain we'd be combining West Bromwich with Wordsley via a little bit of Stourbridge and Oldswinford...

- A Canal Character -
Chairman D9 issues instructions for a 12:30 meet-up so the Secretary is free to indulge in some morning exploration. Top of the WME wishlist is a snoop around Smethwick, beginning with some waterways heritage on Brasshouse Lane. One piece of commemorative metalwork carries the words of John Freeth in reference to the growth of Birmingham's canals: 'Then revel in gladness, let harmony flow, from the district of Bordsley to Paradise Row, for true feelings of joy must be wrought when coals under 5 pence per hundred are bought'.

- Too close for comfort? -
Halfords Lane then bears down upon The Hawthorns - home ground of West Bromwich Albion of course -where Mr WME feels rather nervous being a Wolves fan in enemy territory. Some furtive photos near the Smethwick End are evidence enough of a fleeting visit and the Secretary soon feels safer tracking down the driveway entrance to West Bromwich Dartmouth Cricket Club. Situated close to junction one of the M5 motorway, the club play in the Birmingham League and there's a pronounced spicy fragrance in the air thanks to the nearby East End food factory. 

- Raising a Glass to 'Wincy' Willis -
Getting down to hub business proper, the Chairman clocks in at the allotted time and an opening pint is called for at the Clock House, a Desi-styled cocktail bar and grill close to Carters Green Clock. Mr D9 wants to pay tribute to one of our bus driving personalities who recently passed away so a toast is raised to Wincy Willis (presumably nicknamed after the former TV-am and Treasure Hunt presenter). A tram from Dartmouth Street means Mr WME is subjected to a few more Hawthorns-related jitters but a favourable train connection quickly has us bound for Stourbridge where our second pub of the day awaits...

- Follically challenged in Oldswinford -
The Seven Stars can be found on Brook Road directly opposite one of the driveways into Stourbridge Junction railway station, and has latterly been given a new lease of life under the ownership of Black Country Ales. The building has some exquisite features including staircase tiles and lovely etched windows, not to mention some Mitchells & Butlers stained glass. The beer isn't bad either, 4T's Busman's Pale slipping down a treat while we sit in the refined surroundings of the snug. Supping up, we navigate the alleyways and cul-de-sacs of Oldswinford with a certain bald spot leading the way. 

- A Classic Black Country Lunch -
Our Oldswinford mission is to revisit the Bird in Hand, for many years a Banks's boozer until Bathams added it to their exalted portfolio of tied houses last autumn. There are few finer pleasures than a pristine pint of Best Bitter accompanied by a substantial cheese, onion and black pudding cob - pub heaven right there! We have a date with Wordsley still to come although the Chairman is permitted to nominate a Stourbridge stop en route - his resultant choice of Barbridge leaves him out of pocket when the Blueberry Lu Milk Stout costs £5.50 for two halves (it's very nice though)!

- The Bird in Hand, Wordsley -
Mr D9 claws back some of his Barbridge outlay by grabbing free pieces of pork pie and then threatens a darting whitewash in the Garibaldi, a backstreet Banks's number squirreled away in the Old Quarter. Our attendance in Wordsley cannot be delayed a moment longer although the Audnam traffic does its best to throw a spanner in the works; luckily the Secretary knows a shortcut past Brook Primary School so the Bird in Hand can be fully appraised. Top quality Town Crier from Hobson's Brewery is suitable reward for our persistence, this John Street corner local being abuzz with community banter - we really are being spoiled pub-wise today.

- Judge D9 drives the 16 -
The fat lady is warming up her tonsils so nightcap matters are taken care of by Wordsley's Rose & Crown (where WME Whirlwind at least gets one leg on the darts scoreboard) and the Glasscutters Arms (more Town Crier as it happens). Finally, renditions of Sucu Sucu keep us entertained aboard the 16 ride home as the Chairman dons his paper periwig especially for the occasion. We'll just have to sit tight and see whether Brexit is going to be smooth or bumpy as the UK enters a brave new dawn, and in the meantime... cheers!