Saturday, October 24

Oldswinford in October

For October's swansong outing, I speculated that something from Stourbridge or thereabouts might work well. Oldswinford duly stepped up to the mark for a dash of drizzly photography plus some bostin' Bathams ales - here comes the tale of the trip...

- The Bantock Bull -
Friday 23rd October brings with it almost the archetypal autumnal morning: dull, dank and dripping with dew. There's precious little brightness around as I begin at Bantock Park, kicking up the leaves and bidding good day to a certain carved bull that keeps a stern eye on Bantock House happenings. The museum presents elegant Edwardian interiors from the time when Baldwin and Kitty Bantock lived here - the Billiard Room being a particular favourite of mine - while the bull sculpture recalls the days of cattle grazing on the parkland pasture.

- Intriguing Underpasses -
After that brief burst of Bantock, I make tracks via Smethwick Galton Bridge to arrive at Stourbridge Junction just after 11am. I'm hoping I might catch sight of George the station cat (something of a famous feline with an extensive Twitter following) but alas he must be out on 'pawtrol' somewhere or tucking into his supply of Dreamies. Instead I venture along Chawn Hill and find a network of footpaths beneath the platforms, cue for some spooky underpass tunnels enlivened with street art. 

- A Churchyard Creature? -
One of the footpaths brings me out into the graveyard of St Mary's, the parish church for Oldswinford which originally was the principal place of worship for the whole of the Stourbridge area. A sense of history is certainly palpable with parts of the church dating from the fourteenth century, the nave and east end having then seen Victorian improvements. The adjacent Rectory is impressive in its own right, and the churchyard is home to a number of cute creature sculptures fashioned out of logs and timber. 

- Mary Stevens Park -
Swinford Road takes me past the King Edward School playing fields to reach the romantically-titled Love Lane, from whence I can nip into Mary Stevens Park. Stourbridge's flagship public open space, the park officially opened in 1931 and is named in honour of Mary, wife of local industrialist and benefactor Ernest Stevens. Features include Heath Pool, the Stourbridge town war memorial, a bandstand and Grade II listed wrought iron main gates. I tiptoe through the trees in gathering a few pictures despite the generally overcast skies before Heath Lane allows glimpses of the Old Swinford Hospital boarding school and the Shrubbery Cottage pub.

- This looks promising! -
Did I say pub? I've managed to sample many of my favourite Black Country ales since the first wave of lockdown eased in July but there was one notable exception - Bathams. Thankfully the Bird in Hand on Hagley Road can redress that situation as I partake of an excellent pint of Mild (I usually go for the divine Best Bitter so this was a turn up for the books). £4.20 covers both the beer and a stonking cheese, onion and black pudding cob, beat that for value if you can! Such is my satisfaction I don't even mind a bit of Baggies banter, and the glowing hearth adds a warming hug of cosiness too - just lovely.

- A Doghouse Denouement -
The sun tries its best to make an appearance as I head next for Stourbridge town centre, noting that the Labour in Vain on the corner of Red Hill is being converted into apartments. The drizzle soon returns though once I near the bus station so I seek shelter in the Dog House, a micropub based in the former Rock Station (or for older readers, the Vauxhall Tavern). I have many fond memories of drinking here with Roger and Woody, not to forget Chris's Disco or Blade the dog prowling about, so it's great to add this new chapter to the mix before catching the number 16 bus home. Cheers!

Monday, October 19

Lost Pubs from the WME Archives: Part 16

The recent tightening of Covid restrictions which categorise much of the West Midlands as a Tier 2 High Risk area means that socialising inside pubs or other hospitality venues is banned for the time being. It's going to be a hugely challenging time for those in the licensed trade and I hope that as many establishments as possible can survive to see the end of the pandemic; if not, I fear there could be scores of watering holes joining the likes of this quintet in being consigned to the history books...

- Old Crown, Brettell Lane -
A particularly sad loss as far as I'm concerned is the Old Crown on Brettell Lane, an unspoiled traditional boozer just up from the former Harris & Pearson works. There are several excellent watering holes in the area but I had a soft spot for this one after Rog and I called in during Mr SBI's 40th birthday bash; no-nonsense M&B Mild, a pool table and an antique jukebox were the hallmarks of that visit. It closed for good in August 2016 and nothing much has happened with the place since. 

- The Trent Valley, Lichfield -
Staffordshire beckons for our second selection whereby the Trent Valley used to be handy for its namesake railway station on the edges of Lichfield. The station architecture is hardly the prettiest (think lots of paving slabs) yet the pub offered little visual improvement when photographed in April 2010, boarded up and awaiting its new use as the Humpty Dumpty Day Nursery and Pre-School facility. 

- Somerset House, Stourbridge -
To Stourbridge next and an establishment that was part of the 'Enville Street Run', a challenging crawl that included several pubs between Wollaston and the town centre. The Somerset House was a Banks's number where full pint glasses were said to stick to the walls unaided; I never tested the phenomenon myself but there were some intriguing theories as to why it happened, varying from wallpaper glue to poltergeists. The building was repurposed into a community care office although I'm not sure what's become of it recently.

- The Antelope, Sparkhill -
We finish off with a couple of Birmingham offerings, both from the A34 Stratford Road. Standing on the corner with Baker Street, the Antelope is a very handsome landmark having been built in the 1920s by Mitchells & Butlers; the Grade II-listed features include mullion windows, an archway door and a relief carving of an antelope superimposed over a tree. Many of these original elements have been retained in its subsequent guise as the Hajees Spices buffet restaurant. 

- The Shakespeare, Stratford Road -
Last but not least is another Stratford Road stalwart whereby the Shakespeare could be found at the junction with Henley Street, south of the railway bridge and Camp Hill Circus. This would have been popular haunt with the Irish community back in the day, but alas it has joined several of its Sparkbrook counterparts in failing to survive when the demographics of the district changed. A rather crude conversion for possible residential or office use meant this was at risk of becoming an eyesore when last I saw it - such a shame. 

Sunday, October 11

Packwood House and Knowle Locks

After a certain Mr D9 made his comeback on the WME blog last week, I'm very pleased to report that another of our favourite people has likewise returned to exploration action. Yes folks it's a huge 'welcome back' to our resident royal Nick who reports in for duty, ready to guide us around deepest Solihull on a walk that will cover Dorridge, Packwood House, Heronfield and Knowle Locks...

- Widney Manor Cemetery -
Friday 9th October 2020 and I reckon it must be getting on for seven months since I last saw Nick in person. Our first meet since mid-March hits a potential snag almost immediately when Nick's train up from Warwickshire is cancelled; no matter, we simply rearrange our Dorridge rendezvous to be an hour later instead. This gives me an unexpected window for some Widney Manor wanderings, gathering a few station photos before crossing above the M42 motorway and spotting the local lawn cemetery. The latter is a relatively new facility, opening in 1992 and notable for a cartwheel layout within part of the cemetery grounds. 

- Bentley Heath Level Crossing -
The bonus discoveries continue in Bentley Heath where Widney Road introduces me to a community centre next to a spectacularly autumnal recreation ground - a riot of golden leaves for me to capture on camera here. Bentley Heath C of E Primary School lurks down Widney Close whereas Slater Road junction offers assorted shops including a post office and a newsagents. I meander my way through the estate to reach Mill Lane with its railway level crossing as accompanied by a traditional lattice footbridge - sadly the old signal box was demolished when the crossing became remotely operated from Saltley. 

- Packwood Church -
Poplar Road helps me reach Dorridge Station in time to meet Nick at the agreed revised hour (11:30) and the trip proper commences among the posh properties of Arden Road, leading via a private drive into Dorridge Park. If anything the houses get even more exclusive along Windmill Lane - triple garages, intercoms, room for a pony - as we proceed to the hamlet of Packwood. Nick is always one for rummaging around country churchyards so he gets his fix at St Giles's off Glasshouse Lane, beguilingly nestled within a wooded glade and boasting a centuries-old sundial painted onto the 'Tower of Atonement'. The tower was financed by the infamous landowner Nicholas Brome as part of his penance for murdering the parish priest. 

- Just Making Oneself At Home -
Further sundial treats await at nearby Packwood House where Nick could easily imagine himself being Lord of the Manor. Owned and maintained by the National Trust since 1941, Packwood is Tudor in origin having been built by the Fetherston family in the late 16th century. Purchased by the industrialist Alfred Ash in 1904, it was his son Graham Baron Ash who is largely credited for the house's subsequent restoration. We haven't booked in advance and so can't get entry under the current Covid restrictions but the splendour of the place is still apparent, as are some of the topiary yews for which the formal gardens are rightly recognised. Sweetcorn and sheep are then part of the scenery as a tree-lined avenue stretches forth to Chessetts Wood.

- Pure UBU at the Kings Arms -
Next on Nick's masterplan is a stretch of the Grand Union Canal which means we join the towpath at Turnover Bridge (No. 67), close to Chapel Lane. Bearing north towards Knowle, we enjoy the timeless tranquility that often comes with a waterways walk. The stroll is punctuated by two pub visits with both hostelries having regal elements to their names; the Black Boy harks back to King Charles II in supplying St Austell Tribute Ale and restaurant vibes, whereas the Kings Arms (formerly the Herons Nest) provides Pure UBU, a spiky tabletop potplant and a wall mural depicting an ancient map of Warwickshire - no wonder Nick approves!

- Inspecting Knowle Locks -
Onwards we go for the gentle climb up Knowle Locks, a superb sequence of five broad locks that were constructed in the 1930s to replace the original narrower flight of six (the remains of which are still very much visible). The total rise is roughly 42 feet between Bottom Lock (No. 47) and Top Lock (No. 51), and I'm in photographic paradise with so many interesting angles to entice the eye. There are keepers' cottages at either end of the flight while a rustic little wharf offers boat building and dry dock services. We pass beneath Kenilworth Road before arriving at Bridge 72 for Kixley Lane from whence we can exit into the centre of the village.

- Knowle Library -
Although technically within the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull, Knowle seems very much a Warwickshire locality at heart. There are some gorgeous buildings such as the Parish Church (said to have been consecrated in 1403), the Guild House (next door to the Church) and Knowle Library (otherwise known as Chester House, a timber-framed gem). Besides the architecture there are more pubs to consider, hence we pop into the Vaults to partake of Somerset Scrumpy cider - potent at 6% - then finish in the excellent Ale Rooms with a Giggle and Titter, Nick getting into the Halloween spirit amidst some comedy pumpkin ornaments. Station Road is tasked with returning us to Dorridge in readiness for our homeward connections, and fingers crossed it won't be another seven months until Nick and I next meet!

Saturday, October 3

Masked Marketing in Soggy Stafford

Hub Marketing Board happenings have been on an enforced hiatus due to the Covid pandemic, meaning the Chairman hadn't been sighted since going 'clubbing' around Wolverhampton back in February. However, you can't keep a good bald spot down so an emergency October session is called for - the result being an afternoon adventure over in Stafford trying to avoid the worst of Storm Alex...

- Yes folks, he's back! -
Six months or more on from their last meeting, Chairman D9 and Secretary WME are reunited at Wolverhampton railway station in the driving rain. The weather cannot dampen our enthusiasm for this much-anticipated outing and neither can the necessary Covid precautions, with Mr D9's facemask covering up the last vestiges of his lockdown beard (neatly shaved into some kind of goatee). The 12:41 Crewe train conveys us to Stafford where things are marginally drier albeit still with slate grey skies. 

- Snooker Memories at the Sandonia -
Initial Stafford photo targets include the Broad Eye Windmill (standing sailless beside the River Sow, it operated as a mill for 100 years before having a variety of subsequent uses including hosting a community radio station) followed on Foregate Street by the former Staffordshire General Infirmary. Sandon Road then allows the Secretary to get reacquainted with the Sandonia, an abandoned old cinema that also saw life as a bingo hall and a snooker club, the latter explaining the above depiction of a youthful Jimmy White. 

- Beardsmore bleach in the Four Crosses -
Our first pub of the Hub resumption turns out to be the Four Crosses, distinctly curving around the junction of Sandon Road and Marston Road in Stafford's North End. There is an Irish vibe here as we dodge the window cleaner and settle in with some John Smith's (Mr B Senior's favourite tipple of course). Keeping a close eye on the time, the Chairman sets his alarm in order to pay tribute to Two O'Clock Ken who was a bus company character noted for making prompt mid-afternoon getaways. 

- Glancing through the football ground gates -
The Marston Road area is actually well blessed for local boozers as the Joiners Arms and the Kings Arms (Peel Terrace) both strike us as being friendly community hostelries. Industrial heritage is evident in the form of the Stafford Box Company, converted into apartments but with a Carton Makers ghost sign still proudly showing. Another famous name in the vicinity has to be Stafford Rangers Football Club whereby a peek at the pitch puts the Chairman in peril of leaving his bald spot unprotected - oh dear!

- D9 escapes from HMP Stafford -
Founded in 1876, Stafford Rangers are a well known non league outfit currently plying their trade in the Northern Premier Division. After our brief look at the ground, Astonfields Road connects us once more with Sandon Road where the Tap & Spile has reopened as the Tap Steakhouse; it's just up the road from the Princess Royal, a basic Banks's type of place that secures the Secretary a deviously-deduced discount. Such skulduggery might potentially result in a stay at Her Majesty's Pleasure although we both manage to avoid becoming HMP Stafford's latest inmates. 

- Getting the go ahead in the Greyhound -
Thankfully we're still at liberty to proceed with the pubs and so the Greyhound gets its call to arms. Barely a stone's throw from the gaol, this free house rates highly with a quality drop of Farmer's Pale from the Bradfield Brewery near Sheffield. Mr D9 gets green tick approval by maintaining proper facemask and Track & Trace etiquette at all times, with every pub we visited going the extra mile to provide safe environments for their customers. These are tricky times and you do have to be careful but it is possible to be responsible, stay socially distanced and still have a lot of fun.

- Star & Garter Finale -
Talking of which, the Hub Marketing silly songs make a welcome return courtesy of Valerie Singleton (Solomon's Centipede) and the Fivepenny Piece (Keep Your Hand on Your Ha'Penny). Stafford Town Centre sees us stopping off for chips prior to a well-earned nightcap in the Star & Garter, a Wolverhampton Road watering hole that made the 2020 Good Beer Guide; our closing pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord is certainly worthy of CAMRA recognition. All that remains is for us to catch the 18:44 train homewards and the long wait for Hub Marketing action is over - cheers!

Thursday, October 1

WME Flickr Focus: September 2020

Are we revving up the engine on October already? Surely not! Sadly 'tis true as this Covid-affected year presses hard on the accelerator and screeches ever deeper into the autumn. September slammed the brakes on long enough to wrestle a few photo additions out of our metaphorical glovebox, meaning the West Midlands Exploration photostream is primed for its monthly MOT...

First up for scrutiny by our chief mechanic is WME Birmingham which passes with flying colours. A very healthy turnout of over twenty new arrivals ensures a clean bill of health, among these being several city centre street signs and a few items from Bordesley Green (Cobham Road, World of Pine, that kind of thing). Bournville Warriors junior football club registers its presence at Kings Norton Playing Fields whereas Boldmere Gate gives us a golden vista from Sutton Park.

Also up for inspection is the increasingly reliable Exploration Extra, which scores highly for miles per gallon consumption this month having chalked up visits to Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Cleveleys did most of the driving to be fair, parking up for a Boddingtons sign and an amusement arcade, whilst Boston (the Britannia pub and a Brylaine bus) and Bulwell (the Royal Oak) also shouldered some of the burden. 

Going through the gears nice and smoothly is WME Shropshire with a roadworthy dozen of recent additions. Bridgnorth and Broseley have been busy piling in the passengers here, hence the respective appearances of Cartway Methodist Church, the White Lion pub, Broseley Medical Practice and of course the wonderful pipe museum - not forgetting a certain cheeky scarecrow character I spotted by the ruins of Bridgnorth Castle. Vroom vroom! 

A peek under the bonnet of WME Staffordshire reveals a trio of 'B' locations staking their claim for attention. Brewood supplies pub signs for the Lion Hotel and the Three Stirrups, Burton trundles in with a Calais Road butchers shop followed by some arty Marston's barrel things, and Burslem takes care of the mid-journey snacks courtesy of an oatcake shop. Anybody in need of an escape from the open highway might prefer to drop by Bratch Locks for some canalside relaxation. 

Finally we need to tidy up those odds and ends scattered across the garage floor. WME Wolverhampton avoids a blank month thanks to Brickkiln Community Centre, likewise WME Sandwell musters the solitary spectacle of Bullfield Bridge on the Dudley No 2 Canal. WME Dudley itself picks up Browns Bridge at the Black Country Living Museum, leaving WME Worcestershire trailing behind with the welcome sign at Bromsgrove Rugby Club. With that we turn off the ignition, apply the handbrake and wait to see what October has in store - until next time, enjoy the photos!