Thursday, June 10

The Chip Foundation Reunion

We have to go right back to February 2020 for the last time the Chip Foundation were able to stage one of our excursions, but fifteen months worth of Covid-induced hibernation are now about to end - hooray! Our much anticipated reunion trip is a gentle Black Country affair that takes us to Sedgley, Woodsetton and Bilston...

- Beacon Tower -
Wednesday 9th June 2021 and all the gang are here as we rendezvous at Wolverhampton railway station - Nick, Stephen, Ken, Mr Beardsmore Senior and yours truly. Not wishing to be overly ambitious, the plan is to revisit some favourite haunts we haven't been to for a while, so the number 1 bus brings us to the foot of Sedgley Beacon. Nick is chief navigator for our stroll over the hill, the clear skies allowing excellent views for miles around (Birmingham, Walsall, The Wrekin and Baggeridge included). A key feature is the Beacon Tower, said to have been built by Lord Wrottesley in 1846 and nowadays dwarfed by a transmission aerial. 

- Dark Ruby Delight -
We've timed our walk so as to arrive at the Beacon Hotel pretty much as soon as it opens, with the absolute classic brew that is Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild awaiting within. Sedgley's finest does not disappoint, getting Nick all nostalgic for his 'Woodcross Years' whereas Mr B Senior tries to confuse us by talking about characters in EastEnders. The snug with its William Morris-styled wallpaper remains a fine setting even in this era of social distancing, and our conversation otherwise randomly covers cricket, satirical cartoons, funerals and canal eels. 

- Turls Hill Road -
I'm in charge for our next segment of Black Country sightseeing whereby Turls Hill Road gets everyone's seal of approval in the greenery stakes. The two detached ends of the road are connected by a gravelly track that passes horse paddocks with hints of allotments. Emerging by the former Hurst Hill Tavern, we note the Coppice Baptist Chapel (built 1804) on Caddick Street - places such as Sedgley, Coseley and Gornal were a hotbed for non-Conformist denominations so this is just one of several such chapels in the wider area.

- The Cottage Spring -
Continuing along Brook Street, our Woodsetton whereabouts are put to good use with calls at both the Cottage Spring and the Park Inn. The former these days is a Black Country Ales establishment where we variously partake of Pig on the Wall, Hair of the Dog and Pheasantry Pale Ale, whereas the latter surely needs little introduction as my appreciation for the Holden's brewery tap is a matter of longstanding record. We are pleased to report that the Golden Glow is on top form as we collectively take a liking to some bright yellow beermats. Mr B Junior meanwhile confirms that Wolves have appointed Bruno Lage as the next manager at Molineux - fingers crossed for a very successful 2021/22 season...

- Deep Debate at The Trumpet -
The final stage of our agenda involves Bilston whereby we need to get a wriggle on if we're to make it to the Trumpet before late afternoon closing. The 229 route appears to be operating buses in tandem as we negotiate the after-school traffic through Coseley, and an array of nimble footwork ensures we make it to Musti's back yard with time to spare. Debate abounds when John conducts an experiment to see if it's easier to drink two separate halves quicker than a whole pint - we're not convinced his conclusions would be scientifically valid but his Glow certainly disappears more quickly than Nick's does!

- The all-important chip shot -
Having stoically put his jazz aversions aside in allowing our Trumpet interlude, Stephen's reward is our customary chip shop stop. Major's has a queue so we try Chaplin's Fish Bar opposite St Leonard's Church, the resultant meal getting the critical Beardsmore thumbs up. Perhaps unwisely, we then give John the task of picking our final boozer of the day, hence the Market Tavern is selected on the basis it sells John Smith's at £1.60 a pint. The bleach isn't too bad in fairness, and with that our reunion is complete and we respectively head home - hopefully it won't be another fifteen months until the occasion of our 64th Chronicles. Cheers!

Sunday, June 6

Kendal Calling...

In these strange pandemic-afflicted times I've barely ventured out of the West Midlands over the last year (an occasional incursion into Staffordshire and Shropshire excepted), so actually going away somewhere on a family holiday would be a real novelty. Our Whitsun escape therefore sees us based in Kendal, a Cumbrian town that would prove perfect for exploring the Lake District...

- Kendal Market Place - 
Day One - Saturday 29th May: an early start from Wolverhampton sees the M6 taking the strain, the traffic being mercifully kind so the journey takes a shade under three hours. Settling into our cottage, we get some Kendal bearings thanks to the Market Place - where the coffee shops seem permanently popular - the Westmorland Shopping Centre and main streets such as Stricklandgate. An interesting feature of the town's historic development is the presence of numerous 'yards', old passages named after bygone residents, tradespeople and professions. A couple of River Kent walks are also part of our induction process.

- Abbot Hall Art Gallery -
Day Two - Sunday 30th May: another day dedicated to Kendal as we pick out more prime local landmarks, most notably the Abbot Hall Art Gallery next to the Parish Church; the gallery is situated within a Grade I listed Georgian house and showcases the work of artists including the portraitist George Romney. The County Hotel with the railway station opposite are other top targets, even if the station house is these days a medical practice and the platform is an unstaffed facility. Naturally enough, I'm beginning to discover Kendal's pubs too whereby the Rifleman's Arms (worth the steep climb up to Greenside) and the New Union both make excellent first impressions.

- Sizergh Castle -
Day Three - Monday 31st May: blessed with brilliant blue skies, we indulge in some wider sightseeing by visiting Sizergh Castle. The castle interior is out of bounds due to Covid but the grounds are a pleasure to wander around, with a kitchen garden, an orchard and a lilypad-covered mirror lake. The surrounding parkland offers plenty of scope for a stroll so we opt for the route to Helsington Church and back, meeting a flock of inquisitive cows along the way. Monday's Kendal pub discovery is the Castle Inn, a traditional Tetley's branded tavern on the Gooseholme side of the river - perhaps I'm a sucker for a proper fishtank!

- Hughie McIlmoyle's Statue -
Day Four - Tuesday 1st June: a special day in more ways than one, for not only is it my birthday but I'm treating myself to a Carlisle classic. The briefest of branch line rides conveys me to Oxenholme from whence I make my mainline connection, arriving at Cumbria's flagship city to be greeted by Thomas Telford's Citadel towers. Castle photographs then precede a call at Brunton Park, home ground to Carlisle United FC complete with statue of star Scottish striker Hughie McIlmoyle (he had a productive spell at Wolves too). An unusual aspect of the city's history is that Carlisle's pubs and breweries were state-owned from the First World War through to the early 1970s, an 'experiment' initially introduced to prevent drunkenness among munitions workers. Several local watering holes were improved under the direction of architect Harry Redfern, one such being the Cumberland Inn on Botchergate which gives me an intriguing heritage insight into the scheme.

- Coniston Launch -
Day Five - Wednesday 2nd June: from nationalised boozers to the National Trust as Wednesday culminates at Fell Foot, a country park with Gothic boathouses on the southern shores of Lake Windermere. Prior to that we'd sampled the spectacular scenery at both Keswick and Coniston, not to mention negotiating various twisty lanes guided by a sat nav that kept on losing its signal. Keswick's Moot Hall and Friar's Crag were standout features from my morning photography whereas my afternoon snaps focused on Coniston's Black Bull Hotel and the John Ruskin Museum, not forgetting the various bodies of water. 

- The Swan Inn, Ulverston -
Day Six - Thursday 3rd June: the only grey day of the entire holiday but I still put it to good use with a bus ride over to Ulverston, a town famous for being the birthplace of comedy legend Stan Laurel. The X6 route is my steed for the day, connecting Kendal with Barrow via Grange-over-Sands, and somehow the brooding slate skies seem well suited as a backdrop to Ulverston's Hoad Monument (resembling a lighthouse minus an actual light, it was built in tribute to the geographer and writer Sir John Barrow). The Ulverston Canal meanwhile is a mile-and-a-quarter long waterway stretching out towards Morecambe Bay; I simply have to investigate that, rewarding myself with a pint of Hawkshead's Windermere Pale Ale in the superb Swan Inn afterwards - arguably my favourite pub of the whole week. 

- Sedbergh School -
Day Seven - Friday 4th June: our final Cumbrian fling involves a saunter over to Sedbergh, a market town that falls within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Apart from the atmospheric Main Street, a defining item here has to be Sedbergh School as an independent boarding establishment founded in 1525; the cricket pitch alone is a picture postcard in the making, framed by craggy hills and fells. St Andrew's Parish Church likewise catches my eye, as does Morphet's Garage and a trio of coaching inns (Red Lion, Black Bull, Dalesman). We save our closing pints for when we're back in Kendal however, toasting our glorious getaway over a Swift Best at the Barrel House (Bowness Bay Brewery's on-site taphouse). All too soon our seven day stay has flown by but the holiday will live long in our memories - cheers!

Saturday, June 5

WME Flickr Focus - May 2021

Even though the West Midlands Exploration photostream is an entirely online operation, it has nonetheless observed the social distancing 'rule of six' over recent weeks. This has meant that only a select sextet of my constituent collections have been attending to additions business of late - here's a quick summary...

Our most vocal May member is WME Wolverhampton which dominates proceedings on this occasion. West Park sparkles with springtime scenery whereas some Beatties lettering mournfully laments the loss of a renowned City Centre department store. The Stile at Whitmore Reans lends us a lantern snap, there are street sign snippets from Waterloo Road, Fold Street and Westland Avenue, and why not squeeze in some Birmingham Main Line canal locks for good measure - quite a lot to shout about there!

Also part of our small congregation is WME Staffordshire, concentrating most diligently on Wheaton Aston. The Hartley Arms and a traditional fingerpost both register here, making a change from my usual fixation on Turners Garage whenever village photos were previously in the offing. Elsewhere, the outskirts of Stafford speak to us of Walton on the Hill welcome signage and there's even a glimpse of Wildwood Gate. 

Next to declare their presence within the group is a joint delegation from Sandwell and Telford. WME Sandwell tantalises us with the Waterfall - a Holden's pub that's long been a personal favourite of mine - plus a Cape Hill chip shop (displaying Pepsi branding much to Mr D9's delight) and a West Bromwich carved lion figure. WME Telford meanwhile whispers about Wellington watering holes courtesy of the Park and the Captain Webb.

Finally, completing our collective we have a couple of shy wallflowers in the form of WME Walsall and WME Worcestershire. Walsall quietly ticks along with Kent Street and Whittimere Street signs whilst Worcestershire rustles up some bus stop art from the Winyates estate in Redditch before concluding matters at Wolverley Lock on the Staffs & Worcs Canal. Hopefully more of the other WME collections will be able to join the party in June but in the meantime enjoy the photos - cheers!

Friday, May 28

Lost Pubs from the WME Archives: Part 21

Twenty one is the point at which you should get the key to the door, or so the old saying goes, although these 'Lost Pubs' posts have already spent several months incrementally unlocking the WME archives. The series continues to come of age with this quickfire quintet from the Black Country boroughs...

- The Boat -
May's musings delve into Darlaston first off for a brush with the Boat, the name of which drops hints as to its canalside location on Bentley Road South. This watery setting was far from pretty though, surrounded by the ruins of abandoned factories that presumably cost the pub much of its doorstep trade when they closed. After several years of dereliction and fire damage, the building has been put out of its misery at the hands of the bulldozer. 

- The Bird in Hand -
You may remember that my March selection included the Mitre on Tettenhall's Lower Green, and a short distance away in Tettenhall Wood we can now ponder the plight of the Bird in Hand. This sizeable M&B establishment could be found on School Road at the end of the 501 bus route (a terminus now used by the plain number 1), and though the place still stands it has been transformed into an interior design showroom with a separate CUTE coffee lounge. 

- The Bridgewater -
Another Mitchells & Butlers example no longer in existence is the Bridgewater which served Little Bloxwich near the Lower Farm estate. Set back slightly from Stoney Lane, it would have been handy for the Wyrley & Essington Canal as Teece's Bridge was only a few yards away. A housing development now occupies the site although the neighbouring cottages and a Chinese takeaway hut remain part of the local scene. 

- The Saltbrook -
Next up is a homage to a Hayes Lane hostelry as I remember the Saltbrook, variously known over time as either the Dewfall Arms, Ye Olde Saltbrook Inn or even the Saltbrook End Tavern. It already looked doomed when I took this picture during my Cradley Circuit in early 2010 but the building clung on in this precarious state for a few more years. Latterly you'll find the land is now home to some industrial units owned by the Shipley Group. 

- The Timbertree -
We finish with the only one of these five that I've actually been in, namely the Timbertree near Cradley Heath. A notable landmark on the 243 bus route, the pub was positioned on Valley Road next to the local shopping parade. I rather enjoyed a Hub Marketing visit here in 2012, seeing some of the internal fittings that D9's Uncle Les might have recognised from his 1970s drinking days; alas the Timbertree has since been chopped down, making way for houses.

Saturday, May 22

Wet Weather Wellington

The Hub Marketing Board have quite a tradition for undertaking rain-afflicted adventures, especially when our intended destination begins with a 'W' - think Warley, West Bromwich and Walsall Wood to name but three. That list now includes Wellington after an afternoon spent trying to avoid the worst of the Shropshire showers; thankfully being allowed inside pubs again helped us to stay as dry as possible...

- Bus Station Baldness -
It's Friday 21st May 2021 and a threatening weather forecast doesn't deter Messrs D9 and WME from staging their Telford-based tour. The Chairman's customary station sprint sees him arrive at Wolverhampton in readiness for the 12:19 train, and we touch down in Wellington just before 1pm. It's reasonably dry to start off with as we survey the neighbouring bus and rail facilities, the bald spot getting all excited about two rows of red shelters and a modern toilet block. Secretary WME remembers when the bus interchange used to be further along Victoria Road with staggered bays that were distinctly brown and dated.

- Perking up in the Plough -
There's already a hint of precipitation in the air so we seek refuge in the Plough, a pub that proudly supports military charities which explains the 'Lest We Forget' remembrance mural and a gallery of RAF fighter planes. John Smith's (otherwise known as Beardsmore bleach) is our opening tipple of the day, paired with a tangy cheese and onion cob and some Eurovision deliberations. Between us we manage to name most of the UK entries of the 60s, 70s and 80s although the 1977 song ('Rock Bottom') almost escaped our attention. I doubt this year's contender James Newman has much chance of victory in these post-Brexit times!

- Leegomery Pools -
Our Eurovision theme continues as we proceed to Leegomery, only this time we're focusing on memorable non-UK compositions such as 'Pomme Pomme Pomme' and 'Dschingis Khan' - we're not short of silly song nominations for this outing, that's for sure. Tracking down a footpath from College Lane to Grainger Drive, we emerge at Leegomery Pools as a kidney-shaped area of open water where elderly couples park up to enjoy the view. Leegate Avenue twists and turns past a BMX track as we gradually approach Hadley, noting how a distinctive concrete footbridge spans Britannia Way like a set of grey tentacles. 

- Hadley Shopping Parade -
That footbridge is one of the few defining Hadley features still remaining from when the Secretary first came here many moons ago. So much else has changed: the Cross Keys is now a Polish supermarket, the old precinct has been torn down and replaced with new units, and the shed-like former Elim Church building has been overhauled complete with its own Hub annexe. Even the Kings Head has had a makeover, transformed into the Hop & Vine for an emphasis on Indian cuisine. Purely out of curiosity, we pop in for a swift Carling and confirm that what had been a tired boozer now feels altogether more up-to-date. 

- The Chairman Reads All About It -
Braving the increasingly soggy conditions, we complete our Hadley hiatus with a nod to the village green (next to the Methodist Church) and then the local Community Centre. We would have sampled the Foresters Arms on Union Street had it been open, but instead we drip along Waterloo Road into Ketley where the Wrens Nest is another no avail (roof repairs seem to be underway as part of wider renovation so we don't know whether this will stay as a pub in the long run). A photocall outside the Shropshire Star offices gives Chairman D9 chance to recall one of his former bus colleagues who apparently hubbed most of the Telford network. 

- The Horseshoes Inn, Ketley -
Many watering holes are tentatively easing themselves out of lockdown-enforced hibernation so it was always going to be a lottery today seeing which ones were able to claim our custom. After a few near misses it's a relief to find a place that is actually open, the Horseshoes on Holyhead Road being a traditional tavern perched on a crest. Chairman D9 is so eager for refreshment that he's ordered our Carlings before the Secretary's spectacles have demisted, meaning poor WME is deprived of any cask ale possibilities. To be fair, the lager is decent as we sit by a couple of dartboards and enjoy the cut and thrust of proper pub banter again.

- Razor Back in the Raven -
The plan from Ketley is to catch the 4 (a thick blue line route in D9 terminology) back to Wellington, only for the buses to be conspicuously absent. It isn't too far to walk though so on we plod, pausing at the Swan Hotel en route; the Cock Hotel opposite is being done out by Joules Brewery hence it's temporarily out of commission. The Railway on Mill Bank earns high praise for the quality of its Butty Bach (the best beer of the day), and we finish in the Raven for some Ringwood Razor Back amidst a succession of hazard tape arrow markings. Sadly for the Secretary, Mr D9 seizes the 'Discount of the Day' award thanks to that last drink but such skulduggery does not detract from what has been a brilliant afternoon - cheers! 

Monday, May 17

Bloxwich with the Beardsmores

With both Mr D9 and Nick Turpin having returned to the West Midlands Exploration fold in recent weeks, it was now the turn of the Beardsmores (Stephen and John) to reclaim their rightful place as part of blog dispatches. A reunion outing is duly arranged and Bloxwich is braced for our collective attendance...

- A Fountain Fellow -
Friday 14th May 2021 is a momentous day in more ways than one as the morning sees me receiving my first dose of the Covid vaccine. Having thus been 'Pfizered' at Aldersley Leisure Village, I am clear to proceed to Bloxwich courtesy of the number 60 bus with the Beardsmore contingent boarding at Heath Town. The journey is a swift one via Bentley Bridge Retail Park, Wednesfield and New Invention, John immediately regaling us with fishing memories. Setting down at Park Road terminus just before 11:30, we admire the Pat Collins Memorial Clock and a gilded Victorian fountain (dating from 1891) as part of Bloxwich's Promenade Gardens.

- Beardsmores on the Wyrley Branch -
Our first real task of the trip is to track down the remains of the Wyrley Branch, an offshoot of the Wyrley & Essington Canal which used to link Sneyd Junction with Landywood and Great Wyrley. Abandoned in the 1950s, the line now forms a pleasant linear nature reserve out into South Staffordshire. We initially venture through the King George V Memorial Playing Fields and negotiate the golf course-inspired closes of the Turnberry Road estate in order to join the branch near Broad Lane. We can't vouch for the angling potential here even if John does predict there may be eels to be plundered in amongst the reeds. 

- Near Long Lane -
The Chase Line railway track keeps us company for a short while as the old canal meanders northwards, passing beside a lawn cemetery and allowing glimpses of the Wyrley Juniors football pitches. Much of the channel has been reclaimed by vegetation although there are pockets of open water, presumably not very deep. An industrial tube culvert carries the waterway below Long Lane before we reach Baker's Bridge as an intriguing surviving structure historically used by local farms. Rather than hike all the way to Cheslyn Hay, we decide to retrace our steps back to Long Lane for a look around Newtown instead. 

- The New Masons, Newtown -
Newtown is a small settlement that straddles the A34 just beyond the West Midlands county boundary. Despite its limited size, the village is home to two pubs and on this occasion the New Masons gets the nod over the Ivy House. Motivational mottoes adorn beer garden branches as we pick ourselves a table, and John then takes great care not to drench himself in IPA when the plastic glasses prove unexpectedly squeezable. Conversation turns to cruise memories (Cairo and Portugal), cricket - as ever with Stephen around - and football hooliganism of the 1970s, much to the bemusement of the unsuspecting barman.

- Wallington Heath Pool -
Next up we follow the A34 Stafford Road straight into Bloxwich town centre, passing a posh-looking Golf Club and the turnings into Lower Farm. Wallington Heath Pool is an attractive little beauty spot with ducks waddling about; it certainly has more aesthetic appeal than the boarded-over shell of the Royal Exchange. Stephen is in charge of selecting our afternoon snacks, hence nominating Allmarks Bakery for flaky sausage rolls which are awarded our considered seal of approval. Trying not to cover ourselves in pastry crumbs, we witness the Friday afternoon congestion along Bloxwich High Street as the schools finish for the day. 

- Mr B Junior at The Bell -
Our own conclusion requires a second pint somewhere and the Bell ultimately claims our custom, tempting us from the Lichfield Road/Bell Lane crossroads. This Banks's boozer has been part of Bloxwich life for generations, and ordinarily I'd love to explore the multi-roomed traditional interior again. The beer garden has to suffice this time around, sheltered under a white tarpaulin as the Banks's Mild hits the spot. Stephen models his blackcurrant and lemonade while John gives the poor barmaid a potted history of Portobello. Mr Beardsmore Senior pulls rank in demanding an extra pint (the Wainwrights is calling to him) but we still make it safely onto the 16:18 bus home - cheers!

Saturday, May 8

A Wombourne Return

Covid has made it inevitable that certain locations are cropping up in my explorations more than they normally would, but there are still new angles to unveil and exciting discoveries to make in even the most familiar of places. Take Wombourne for example, partially covered during February's Trysull Trek and now back for more in May...

- Approaching Penn Halt -
Arguably my most regular haunt of the lot over the last year has been the Smestow Valley/ South Staffordshire Railway Walk which finds itself press-ganged into service yet again. Friday 7th May's outing therefore commences with the section from Castlecroft to Lower Penn, revisiting Penn Halt and generally appreciating the burgeoning greenery with leaves adorning the treetop canopy. Lower Penn itself seems tranquil enough in the sunshine and I can't resist getting a few village green shots near St Anne's Church and pretty Rose Cottage.

- Orton Grange -
By way of variety, I want to pick out a public footpath I last walked nearly fifteen years ago (June 2006, when my blog posts were minimal to say the least!); the turning is just after the church and takes me over the fields to Orton via various kissing gates, a set of wooden steps and a close encounter with some thankfully docile cows. Showell Lane and Flash Lane received the WME photo treatment last August so this time around I concentrate more on Orton Lane, passing several notable properties such as Orton Grange. 

- St Benedict Biscop School -
I reach the fringes of Wombourne much quicker than I'd expected although it takes me a little while to wend my way towards the village centre. Billy Buns Lane is served by the number 15 and 16 bus routes before Wood Lane leads me into a residential estate notable for shops on Bull Lane (the Golden Valley takeaway, a hair salon and a tanning parlour among them). I can hear children's laughter nearby so I'm not surprised to stumble upon St Benedict Biscop Primary School, the playground in full cry at mid-morning break time.

- A Smallbrook Farm Steed -
Wombourne has expanded significantly even in my lifetime so it's nice to get a sense of a previous way of life. Smallbrook Farm lends a more rural atmosphere with hay bales and inquisitive horses while Battlefield Hill is quietly screened from the A449 dual carriageway - the Red Lion here has always struck me as a particularly homely little pub. The reference to a battlefield is certainly intriguing, whereby it has been speculated that Wombourne may have featured during the 910AD campaign against the Vikings (associated perhaps with the Battle of Tettenhall, the exact location of which is subject to some conjecture).

- Wom Brook Nature Reserve -
There's less mystery about my next target as the Wom Brook Nature Reserve is a popular walking route snaking its way beside the banks of a babbling stream. I did some of the trail years back but hadn't covered the eastern end until now, hence Pool Dam makes for an excellent find near the local scout and girlguiding bases. The nature reserve in full links Rookery Road with the Poolhouse Estate via Lower End and Ham Meadow, intersecting at times with the railway walk and the canal. I branch off via Mill Lane for glimpses of St Benedict Biscop C of E Parish Church and yarnbombing creations at the United Reformed Chapel.

- Enville Ale at the Mount Tavern -
Isn't it great to be able to punctuate outings with the occasional pint again! The New Inn is my choice of Wombourne watering hole for this trip, sitting out the front with a Banks's Amber as the sun beams down, and I break my homeward journey on a spluttering 16 bus by alighting at Penn's Mount Tavern. This is a pub I hadn't been to since 2012 so it was high time for another look (even if it was recently frequented by a certain Boris Johnson MP). I wouldn't normally follow in the Prime Minister's footsteps but an exception is made in order to partake of the Enville Ale, perched on a planked table overlooking the Penn Road. Cheers!

Monday, May 3

D9 discovers the Anson Branch

Canals have been a favourite hunting ground during the Hub Marketing Board's most recent activities and, on the premise of 'if it isn't broke don't fix it', we are more than happy to retain the waterways theme for our end-of-April extravaganza. An interesting offshoot of the Walsall Canal requires closer investigation, plus (whisper it quietly) we're even hoping to sample a pub or two along the way...

- Mr D9 drives to Darlaston -
Friday 30th April 2021 and yes it's true, board members are plotting to pick up some pints for the first time since our Stafford spectacular last October. An ahead-of-schedule Bradley Lane rendezvous punctures any prospect of a cob penalty as the surprisingly punctual Chairman delivers a D9 driving dosage aboard the number 79 bus. Our initial destination is Darlaston, alighting opposite the Asda in order to grab pictures of the Conservative Club on Little Cross Street, tucked away behind a set of underwhelming backstreet garages.

- A riot of red at the Why Not -
Our first drink of the lockdown-easing era however comes at the Why Not just off Blockall. Branded as a Davenports establishment, this has variously been known as the Talk of the Town and the St Lawrence Tavern over the course of its existence, and a red car park tent offers a distinctive setting for sampling some Carling or Worthingtons. The bright scarlet  backdrop might play havoc with the Secretary's intended photos but Mr WME does have the not inconsiderable solace of securing a £5 round, easily the Discount of the Day.

- Rubery Owen Office Buildings -
Supping up, there is local history on our collective radar as we swoop upon a target we somehow contrived to avoid during December's Darlaston ruminations. Even though we specifically featured Rubery Owen on our pre-Christmas tour, we neglected to visit the firm's historic Booth Street head offices - how remiss of us! The building still stands and is currently home to the 'Innovation Works', seeking to inspire the next generation of local businesses. Queen Street and Willenhall Road then combine to take us to The Crescent where the Robin Hood has an impressive lawn and (even better!) a glorious glass of Stout Dwarf.

- The bald spot hunts the Anson Branch -
That Fownes elixir at the Robin Hood was the perfect prelude to the day's canal centrepiece, whereby Bughole Bridge begins our towpath trail on this occasion. The Walsall Canal is quite grim through here despite the presence of NHS-thanking street art and 'Jesus Loves You' declarations. We liven things up by selecting our silly songs - Shag Conners and the Carrot Crunchers meets a Margaret Thatcher impressionist - before Forster's Bridge acts as the gateway to the Anson Branch, a lost line of the BCN that was abandoned in 1961.

- Canal Clues near Bentley Mill Way -
The Anson used to provide a water supply to Birchills Power Station and had a junction with the defunct Bentley Canal; the Secretary has previous as regards exploring the route and it seems even more desolate and reed-choked than he remembers. The Chairman meanwhile is stunned to bump into one of his former neighbours, a chap called 'Mad Matthews' who is out walking his dog - he certainly seems to be quite a character! One extended chinwag later, we proceed to Bentley Mill Way before availing ourselves of a short 529 hop so as to avoid the worst of the Junction 10 bridge replacement works. 

- Reedswood Park Blossoms -
Pargeter Street is our prompt to leave the bus behind and plot a path through Reedswood, passing the little tent hire shop on the corner with Edward Street in the process. It's nearing home time at the local Primary Academy school so we dodge the parked-up parents by seeking further refreshment at the Alma. We could get used to this beer garden lark you know, especially with the sun beaming down and PopMaster on the BBC Sounds app; we score very respectably this time around (even getting the Boyzone 3 in 10). Our 'prize' is a peek into Reedswood Park, admiring the springtime blossoms looking out over Bentley Lane. 

- Carling Concentration in Birchills -
Birchills now awaits but neither the Four Ways (converted into a Premier convenience store) nor the Rose & Crown (presumably still closed due to Covid) can claim our custom today. We pitch up instead at the New Navigation, not exactly the prettiest of places despite its canalside location. The outhouse vibe on the back yard has the properly pubby atmosphere we've so craved during lockdown, particularly with whiffs of coal smoke and boat grease on the breeze. A Carling each is adequate refreshment as the Chairman reminisces about classic Hub dives. 

- Walsall Top Lock -
We're not being too ambitious with this trip and are aiming for an early evening finish, meaning we've just got the small matter of Walsall town centre to come. A steady look at the lock flight pays photographic dividends until we detour via Birchills Street and the Crown Wharf retail park. Our final calling point is Bar 10 (The Wharf) where a table beside the basin pontoons gives a good view of both the New Art Gallery and a 'Deep Water' buoyancy balloon. Closing Carlings in plastic glasses set the seal on our comeback crawl and we make our way back to Moxley satisfied with an excellent afternoon's work - cheers!

Wednesday, April 28

WME Flickr Focus - April 2021

Dust off that ancient abacus folks, we need to count up the beads of recent photostream progress. Statistically speaking April has been another steady month of solid addition, if never quite veering towards exponential multiplication...

It doesn't take a master mathematician to work out our top performer over the last few weeks. WME Staffordshire has outscored all of the competition by reeling off a spate of newbies, most of which involve Stafford one way or another. Gaolgate Street and Greengate Street plus more sightings of W.G. Grace at Victoria Park equals tangible accumulation, and that's not to subtract from the valued input of Trysull (Holden's at the Bell), Stoke (the White Star), or indeed Upper Bratch Bridge on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.  

Also piling up the numbers are WME Birmingham and WME Wolverhampton. Brum tots up its tally thanks to arrivals from Stirchley and Sutton Park, hence the appearances of Lea House Road, Attic Brewery and a repeat showing for Town Gate. Wolverhampton's rolling aggregate now includes the likes of Upper Vauxhall, St Stephen's Primary School, a Summerhouse Bass lamp in All Saints, and an intriguing piece of automotive artwork homaging Sunbeam speed records at St John's Retail Park. 

Elsewhere, my calculations show some encouraging activity from WME Walsall, particularly as regards the attendance of Hoppy the concrete hippopotamus complete with painted Saddlers football shirt; the Victoria/Katz and the Walsall Arms ensure the pub quota is suitably stocked up here. WME Telford meanwhile has been busy practising its times tables, thus resulting in successful sums from St George's (the Albion) and Town Park (a fishy favourite).

The update equation looks less rosy in terms of our remaining collections but any evidence of enhanced numeracy is still to be applauded. WME Sandwell tackles a trio from Tipton - the local building society, Factory Road and the Pie Factory's in-house 'newspaper' - whereas WME Warwickshire studies Studley in claiming a Shakespearean bus stop with a Bell pub sign. That's about all the maths I can cope with for one month though so we'll see if May is any more arithmetically gifted - see you then!

Saturday, April 24

Towpath Turpin's Beer Garden Safari

For our first joint pubfaring outing of 2021, Nick and I intrepidly rove the wilds of Warwickshire for a day of locks (aplenty), stocks (of ale at last) and barrel-roofed cottages. Here comes the tale of the trip...

- JFK Memorial Mosaic -
Friday 23rd April 2021 is a sunkissed St George's Day blessed with cloudless blue skies. Having arranged to meet Nick just before noon, I have the morning free to dabble around Digbeth by stocking up on street art photography. The area around the Custard Factory is always a surefire bet for gathering graffiti, hence I duly encounter Inspector Gadget, Spongebob Squarepants and Pat Butcher (of EastEnders fame). Another key target is the John F Kennedy memorial mosaic as designed by Kenneth Budd; the artwork was originally located at St Chad's Circus but has latterly been recreated on the corner of Floodgate Street.

- HS2 Construction at Eastside -
Still having half hour spare before my train, I decide to catch up on HS2 progress over towards Curzon Street where the Woodman pub stands as an island amidst all the hoardings. Some local road closures are in force as construction gains momentum, with Park Street now permanently shut and part of Fazeley Street also affected. There are various gates for works access, including one at the top of Bordesley Street, and mounds of aggregate piled up where land is being prepared for the arrival of the high speed line. Eastside has already seen rapid change in recent years and is set to be transformed again as the project continues. 

- Towpath Turpin: Bridge Inspector -
Lapworth is today's designated meeting point and the 11:34 departure from Moor Street has me clocking in on schedule. In keeping with his billing as 'Towpath Turpin', Nick has plotted out a walk that will make extensive use of Warwickshire waterways and we immediately make tracks for the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, joining at Bridge 34 (Mill Lane). We couldn't have asked for better weather and the conditions are just perfect for enjoying a leisurely stroll through a prolonged slice of lock heaven - the Lapworth flight is certainly extensive so my camera goes into overdrive recording each structure between Lock 15 and Lock 31. 

- Fleur de Lys, Lowsonford -
The architecture along this section of the Stratford Canal is particularly distinctive. Many of the lock bridges have central slits that historically allowed towropes to pass through unhindered, and we also spot several lovely examples of barrel-domed keepers' cottages - you don't tend to see this rounded roof design elsewhere very often. With the photo count soaring, we reach Bridge 41 for lunchtime in Lowsonford whereby the Fleur de Lys has a magnificent hay-lined marquee as well as a superb beer garden. A pint of Proper Job provides ideal refreshment for the opening stage of our 'Beer Garden Safari', making the most of outdoor drinking zones. 

- Lowsonford St Luke's -
The next leg of Nick's plan requires us to utilise country lanes towards Shrewley, and it seems no matter how far we walk we always seem to be six miles from Warwick - I guess distances are never an exact science in these parts! Coining the term 'flexible mileage' as a result, we try our best to ignore the distant drone of the M40 motorway. Narrow Lane introduces us to St Luke's, a quaint Victorian chapel (built in 1877 we believe) that acts as Lowsonford's principal place of worship. Despite the temptation of various public footpaths, we stick with the lane and emerge onto Shrewley Common, passing above a notable railway tunnel.

- Harry's Heifer at the Durham Ox -
It's turning into a relatively warm afternoon so we're delighted to see our second safari stop up ahead. The Durham Ox claims to have been established in 1764 and the main farmstead building certainly appears to have some age to it; more importantly for us today, there are plenty of outside beer tables not to mention an ornamental vintage Ferguson tractor. Towpath Turpin is very partial to a local ale so Harry's Heifer from the Church Farm Brewery gets a considered thumbs up, slaking our thirst in readiness for further canal coverage. 

- Surveying Shrewley Tunnel -
Besides the beer, Nick has promised me an engineering 'treat' and his star attraction is revealed to be Shrewley Tunnel as we join the Grand Union. I've explored a number of tunnels over the years but what makes this one memorable is that the towpath at the northern portal separates off into its own atmospheric passage - I imagine this would have been somewhat claustrophobic when frequented by horses! A combination of tree-lined cuttings and sweeping embankments then convey us into Rowington, noting the presence of a sizeable conifer plantation and admiring the cuteness of some newly-born lambs. 

- Rowington Church -
The sight of Bridge 62 prompts a detour into Rowington village, which remarkably maintains the theme of being six miles from Warwick. St Lawrence's Church looks delightful framed by carefully-tended topiary bushes, and a churchyard bench proves an appropriate setting for Nick to nibble on his customary mini Cheddars. Returning to the canal once more, we proceed to Bridge 63 at Turner's Green whereupon the Tom O' The Wood takes its turn in the beer garden safari spotlight. Church Farm's Pale Ale tickles our tastebuds here, shaded by a grey jumbrella as we discuss the relative merits of Englishness versus Britishness. 

- Weston Hall Bridge (No. 64) -
All good things come to an end they say and our safari swansong sees us back in Lapworth, hoping that the evening popularity of the Navigation won't preclude us from having a final pint. Time is tight in terms of the trains so my glass of Lapworth Gold disappears very quickly indeed; it's a good job it was nice and fresh so it slipped down rather easily, purely out of necessity of course! With that I bid Nick farewell and the safari is deemed a resounding success, no doubt helped by the faultless sunshine, and it really was wonderful to be able to meet up, cover a few miles and enjoy some ales again - cheers!