Wednesday, January 27

Winter in West Wolverhampton

I've commented before that one of lockdown's rare joys is being able to record the changing of the seasons in my little corner of Wolverhampton. Having accounted for springtime blossoms, summer sunshine and autumn's golden hues, the natural cycle of the year now brings forth the icy blast of winter...

- Willow Pond -
I haven't ventured very far at all during January, preferring to stay close to home whenever cobbling together my occasional pieces of photography. Wintry weather has certainly been my inspiration of late, including on Thursday 7th when a hoar frost combined with moody mists to give the Smestow Valley Nature Reserve an extra layer of eeriness - it felt as though a ghostly apparition could skate across the ice-topped waters of Willow Pond at any moment. 

- Smestow Valley Snow -
Sunday 23rd January saw the arrival of significant snowfall so I once again headed for the chilly tranquility of Smestow Valley, taking in the shrouded spectacle where the former Environmental Centre used to be. Children with sledges (or in one case an ironing board) were keen to make the most of the white stuff, gleefully hurtling down the hillside or building snowmen complete with the statutory carrot nose.

- Old Nursery Pond -
A soft hush had descended upon Old Nursery Pond which - like Willow Pond nearby - has given me a steady supply of pictorial content over recent months. On this occasion the reeds were draped with snowflakes while the background trees had a skeletal quality, quietly watching on as the skies threatened further flurries. Thankfully I made it back home before the next batch of blizzard came along. 

- Castlecroft Gardens -
Much of the snow was still lingering on Monday 24th, enticingly tempting me into a little circuit covering Finchfield and Merry Hill. Crisp lunchtime sunshine smiled down as I surveyed Castlecroft Gardens, a model residential development first conceived in the 1920s by the Canadian builder Major Kenneth Hutchinson Smith. Timber framing is to the fore in giving the arts and crafts houses a chocolate box appeal that would later result in conservation area designation by Wolverhampton Council. 

- The Merry Hill -
Tiptoeing my way via The Avenue and Bellencroft Gardens, I reach Merry Hill roundabout where several routes converge (Bhylls Lane, Coalway Road and Langley Road among them). A longserving Trysull Road landmark here is the Merry Hill pub, currently part of the Mitchells & Butlers 'Sizzling' brand; the bus stop outside has been a timing point for many years, served by routes such as the 513, the 4 and nowadays the 15. 

- Farewell from a Frozen Friend -
Woodland Road leads me then to The Coppice, a patch of preserved woodland complete with a snow-capped log pile or two. Last but not least I call in on Meadow Road in order to make the acquaintance of a certain scarf-wearing snowman - despite all the difficulties of the Covid pandemic, it's always good to finish with a smile. Cheers!

Friday, January 22

Lost Pubs from the WME Archives: Part 18

In all the chaos of a Covid Christmas, Santa must have forgotten to bring us our regular supply of bygone boozers (he was probably extremely busy with his normal toy and gift deliveries to be fair). My series of archive extracts therefore resumes with some New Year goodies from the West Midlands, Staffordshire and Shropshire...

- The Hop Pole, Oxley Moor Road -
2021's opening assault on the West Midlands Exploration back catalogue begins with the Hop Pole, a sizeable suburban specimen from an area I know very well indeed - Oxley. Many is the time I've used the alleyway beside this building as a shortcut through to Probert Road and the Rakegate estate. Formerly a Mitchells & Butlers roadhouse, it was known for a short period as the Oxley Moor Hotel before ultimately getting converted into a One Stop convenience store. 

- The Buck, Lichfield -
To Lichfield next and an establishment I must confess I'd completely forgotten about! The Buck - historically the Bald Buck - could be found on Greenhill at the crossroads where Birmingham Road and Church Street meet Rotten Row. After spending most of its pub life as a Banks's/Marston's house it briefly turned into a sports bar but would then become a 'Richer Sounds' outlet (retailing in TV and audio-visual equipment) and a Papa John's takeaway. 

- The Anchor, Madeley -
The small Shropshire market town of Madeley is home to several tempting taverns (most notably the All Nations of course) but sadly the Anchor is no longer among their number. It stood on Court Street just up from the Barley Mow but ceased trading circa 2011. The premises subsequently found use as an undertakers base for the C.J. Williams Funeral Service, complete with the addition of a prominent protruding clock. 

- Pear Tree Cottage, Brownhills West -
January's fourth selection takes us to the northernmost extremities of Walsall Borough whereby Brownhills West used to play host to the Pear Tree Cottage Inn. Occupying the junction of Allbutts Road and Hednesford Road, it is seen here as photographed in June 2008 when it had already been shut for some time. Google Street View suggests the site had been cleared by 2012 with the patch remaining empty ever since. 

- Struggling Man, Paradise -
Not so long ago there used to be two Dudley area pubs called the Struggling Man, both of which have sadly expired. One was on Salop Street, Shavers End (which as per the Buck has fallen prey to Papa John's fast food empire) and the other was this Paradise premises that overlooked Buffery Park. It was still soldiering on at the time of this March 2008 picture but within a few years had been flattened to make way for houses. Until next time, cheers!

Saturday, January 16


2021 is now a couple of weeks old and January thus far is proving to be a very challenging month, what with Lockdown Mk. 3 and ever-rising rates of Covid infection. Exploration antics have by necessity gone onto the back burner again but I still get out and about with my camera when I can...

- Wightwick Lock -
I'll kickstart my 2021 trip reports with news of a circular walk I completed on Friday 15th January, revisiting the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal down to Dimmingsdale. Slate grey skies are hardly conducive to quality photography but I'm just glad to get out of the house in truth, meaning Wightwick Mill Lock is a very welcome sight regardless of the overcast conditions. The towpath soon takes me to Wightwick Lock where the accompanying keeper's cottage nestles amidst a mass of foliage; I remind myself that the section of the canal south of Compton first opened in 1771, making some of these structures around 250 years old!

- Mermaid Hire Cruisers -
Ducking under Windmill Lane, I note the Wightwick Wharf base of Mermaid Hire Cruisers seems very intent on promoting the availability of their winter moorings. Over to the left, Castlecroft Lane presents the final vestiges of suburban Wolverhampton before I enter South Staffordshire, Castlecroft Bridge (No. 55) having a distinctive pitched appearance in carrying a farm track into neighbouring fields. Mops Farm Bridge is overlooked by Pool Hall, a building which lends its name to the nearby fisheries where a couple of anglers are busy tending to their respective catches. 

- A Castlecroft Character -
Throughout the stroll I've been amused to spot a series of funny faces cropping up at regular intervals - it appears that no unsuspecting stump or tree trunk is safe from being given bottletop eyes or a mouth crafted out of wire casing. I've covered the canal around here several times previously without realising just how many of these characters there actually are - they're literally everywhere! I'm also pleased that conditions aren't too muddy despite recent rainfall, so I shouldn't look like I've waded through a swamp by the time I get home. 

- Dimmingsdale Bridge -
Enough of this frivolity, I have serious exploration to report. Dimmingsdale Bridge is flanked by the local garden centre (currently closed until late January pending any further lockdown announcements), and fishing is clearly a popular Lower Penn pastime judging by the amount of people trundling tackle trolleys around. The pool of the J Sankey Angling Club is close at hand which may explain the number of cars parked up along an otherwise quiet stretch of country lane. 

- Dimmingsdale Lock -
A short distance on from Dimmingsdale Bridge is Dimmingsdale Lock, the farthest point of today's endeavours. The towpath switches sides here with the lock bridge acting as a mossy turnover while the balance beam ends are carved with the number 28 (the canal has 43 locks in total). After attempting photos from a succession of angles and saying hello to some passing dog walkers, I retreat back to Dimmingsdale Bridge and prepare for the homeward plod via Dimmingsdale Road. 

- Penstone Lane -
Dimmingsdale is little more than a hamlet so besides the garden centre the other main features are a Severn Trent pumping station and then a short row of houses near Penstone Lane. It isn't far into Lower Penn so I quickly reacquaint myself with Greyhound Lane, Victory Hall and the Greyhound pub, ignoring the South Staffordshire Railway Walk in favour of Market Lane and Langley Road. Merry Hill indicates my arrival into Wolverhampton territory once more and the whole circuit took two hours or so, just ideal for stretching those lockdown legs of mine - cheers!

Sunday, January 10

Two More From December...

Before I get stuck into whatever 2021 has to offer outings-wise, it's only right and proper that I give December 2020's final couple of adventures the attention they deserve. Both trips involved Black Country canals and chilly temperatures...

- Round Oak Interiors -
This two-pronged tale begins on Christmas Eve with a dose of the Dudley No. 1 Canal, although I started out by getting pictures around Bromley and Brockmoor first. Perished pubs were chief among my thoughts at this stage, most notably the Commercial (derelict for many years but still with some Hanson's signage intact), the Brockmoor House (also rotting away after being seemingly abandoned) and the Royal Exchange (a Bankwell Street Banks's that became 'Chimera' specialising in Japanese card games). Another prominent bygone boozer has to be the Round Oak on the junction of John Street and Dudley Road - it stood empty for ages but has been resurrected as an interior design showroom.

- Woodside Junction -
Joining the Dudley No. 1 Canal at Level Street, I made swift progress through The Waterfront (largely deserted except for some folk at the moorings) and on into the wider Round Oak regeneration zone. There are still hints of industry here, particularly as regards the Tata Steel Terminal which continues to be a significant rail freight operation. Woodside Bridge preceded my arrival at Woodside Junction from whence the Two Lock(s) Line historically connected with the Dudley No. 2 Canal at Blackbrook Junction. Unfortunately this shortcut was plagued by subsidence issues, effectively closing in 1909 and latterly built over with the Narrowboat Way/Navigation Drive business park. 

- Parkhead Viaduct -
Peartree Lane Bridge and near-namesake Peartree Roving Bridge kept me occupied through to Blowers Green where a pumphouse marks the meeting point with the Dudley No. 2 Canal. The stately span of Parkhead Viaduct looked majestic in the sunshine - this Victorian example of railway engineering dates from 1880 having replaced an earlier wooden structure - and there were a trio of locks to contend with before I found the southern portal of Dudley Tunnel. My walk concluded with sightings of the disused Claughton Centre (a former schoolhouse on Blowers Green Road) and a dart through Dudley town centre prior to the number 1 bus home.

- Pudding Green Junction -
We'll now hop forward a few days to Wednesday 30th December when my post-Christmas treat was a slippery stroll along the Ryders Green end of the Walsall Canal. The icy residue of recent snowfall was refusing to melt away as I pick up the story at Oldbury, taking the Birmingham New Main Line from Bromford Lane to Pudding Green Junction. It's treacherous underfoot as I join the Wednesbury Old Canal, Izons Bridge having an immediate industrial flavour with the J B & S Lees Trident Steelworks close at hand. Operations at the Albion Road site began as a family business in 1872, going on to specialise in rolled strip steel although  these days the brand is owned by the Liberty Group. 

- Lock 2, Ryders Green -
Having slushed my way over Izons Turnover Bridge and then beyond the very grey Belper Bridge, I made it precariously to Ryders Green Junction. Here the Wednesbury Old Canal veers off towards Swan Lane whereas the Walsall Canal commences its route to Birchills; the junction is watched over by the Robinson Brothers Chemical Works which may explain the distinct whiff of something vinegary. A daring descent of Ryders Green Locks was next for my consideration although I did pause to account for the Eight Locks pub, potentially closed for good as at least part of the building is now a beauty parlour. 

- Lock 6, Ryders Green -
As the pub name indicates, there are eight locks in total on this particular flight with the sequence stretching from Ryders Green Road down to Great Bridge. Greets Green Parish Church and a pallet factory added their presence to the snowy scene whilst I contentedly surveyed through to Lock 7, exiting the towpath at Great Bridge Street in case the ice started to get the better of me. The scattering of white certainly gave the locks an extra photogenic edge compared to their usual relative bleakness, and I finished off passing the George Salter Academy to catch a tram back from Dudley Street (Guns Village). Cheers, brrrr....

Friday, January 1

The WME Review of the Year - 2020

Happy New Year! Yes folks, 2021 is here which means we can all wearily bid a not-so-fond farewell to the traumatic twelve months that comprised 2020. It's bordering on understatement to say that the last year has been dominated by the Coronavirus pandemic and there's no escaping the effect Covid has had on all of our lives; against this backdrop it feels a tad churlish to waffle on about trivial little explorations but I am keen to keep to blog tradition going with my customary annual review...

January: it seems strange now thinking back to a time where we could go wherever we wanted and the pubs were still open. Saying that, one classic Brummie boozer was consigned to history in January when the Eagle & Tun closed due to the HS2 project; Mr D9 and I popped in to say goodbye on its final weekend and also explored more of Heartlands and Highgate into the bargain (the Town Crier still makes me shudder). Elsewhere, I joined Nick for a Leamington jaunt - the candlelit Cellar Club proving especially memorable - and there was an aborted Curdworth trip that landed me in Horseley Heath instead. Brexit of course was the other major news story of 2020 hence D9 and I marked the day the UK left the European Union by wandering around West Bromwich and Wordsley. 

February: Covid was starting to hit the headlines more come February but things proceeded as normal, which for me meant outings to Nuneaton (with Nick, including a certain Bedworth Carling incident), to Old Hill (with the Chip Foundation, partaking of Ivan's chips en route) and to the Great British Beer Festival in Birmingham - this winter gathering would turn out to be the only CAMRA event I attended all year. Curdworth belatedly got its moment in the WME spotlight when coupled with Kingsbury and Bodymoor Heath, then Mr D9 and I went clubbing in Wolverhampton and discovered the shed-like joys of the Penn Fields Bowling premises. Little did we know that this would be our last Hub Marketing meeting until early October...

March: which brings us neatly onto the month when everything changed, whereby the first national lockdown was enforced and life simply hasn't been the same since. It wasn't quite business as usual at the start of March but I did complete a solo Stafford special followed by a tour of Stone with the Beardsmores. The rising tide of infections was becoming very much apparent though and historic decisions were taken by Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues. Home working for me began on Friday 20th March (and continues to the present date), while a short Tettenhall Wood tour was my only other photographic contribution of note.

April: the initial grip of lockdown with its restrictions on time spent away from the house meant I didn't venture far at all in April, limiting myself to just a couple of very local walks. That said, I did relish the chance to make doorstep discoveries that might otherwise have eluded me - Compton Park down by the Wolverhampton Wanderers training ground for example. Amidst all the turmoil I was cheered by the simple joys of spring, my spirits being lifted by the glorious blossoms on display in Finchfield and Bradmore. As the year progressed, I enjoyed revisiting these same locations and capturing the changing seasons on camera.  

May: my Lockdown Log series of strolls was getting itself established by featuring the likes of Lower Penn, Wergs and Aldersley; by this stage I was becoming well-versed in seeing what I could manage within one hour, although it was certainly a relief when an easing of exercise restrictions allowed me to start venturing that little bit further. May also saw the Smestow Valley Nature Reserve come to the fore as one of my new favourite boltholes, especially with Willow Pond and the Old Nursery to investigate. 

June: the most surreal of summers is underway and you're never too far from a debate about facemasks or the 'R' number. I stayed close to home in filing logs about Furnace Grange and Perton whilst continuing to put a new spin on familiar locations, often preferring Sunday mornings as a good time for taking pictures without encountering too many other people. Stephen and I met up for the first time since March in order to undertake a socially-distanced recce of Springfield Campus developments, the University of Wolverhampton's flagship new Built Environment facility was nearing completion in regenerating a disused former brewery. 

July: the initial peak of the virus had passed now and some of our freedoms were being restored, even if only for a precious few months of respite. Pubs were permitted to reopen from the 4th July - hurrah! - so I needed to get my head around myriad interpretations of the track and trace regulations. My explorational gaze was tentatively cast towards Coseley and Tipton, ferreting about the Foxyards Estate or catching up on Bilston Urban Village progress. It was however Bewdley on the 30th that really stole the show - glorious weather, Severnside scenery and a wonderful pint in the Real Ale Tavern, memories to treasure there...

August: Oldbury and Orton were the key trips in August, the first of those being a canal-based circuit with Stephen (attending to the Gower Branch along the way) whereas the second utilised the South Staffordshire Railway Walk followed by a portion of Penn. Sunday morning snippets included family visits to Priorslee (spotting minion-themed painted stones at The Flash) and Newport (where the town's Bench Trail was more interesting than it perhaps sounds to the uninitiated). I even went back into the office one day a week as another small step towards normality!

September: a perky Penkridge perambulation saw Stephen and I staking out the Staffs & Worcs Canal (cue sausage rolls at Otherton Lock), a day also memorable for Draught Bass in the lovely Cross Keys. Pub perfection was likewise discernible in Kingswinford thanks to superb ale in the Park Tavern, and then via the classic combination of Sedgley's Beacon Hotel and Gornal's Jolly Crispin as savoured on my Colton Hills ramble. The Ruby Mild and Crispin's Ommer that day were suitable reward for some cracking endeavour, scrambling along Hickmerelands Lane and hiking up Moden Hill. 

October: Mr D9 and Nick both made their long-awaited returns to exploration dispatches in October, courtesy of Stafford Hub Marketing and the Packwood Patch respectively. Combined highlights of these trips must make mention of the Sandonia Cinema, Packwood House and Knowle Locks while pub gems such as the Princess Royal and the Ale Rooms were great too. On a solo note, I was out and about in Oldswinford (bagging myself bostin' pints of Bathams at the Bird in Hand), but infection rates were becoming a concern again and tighter restrictions would be just around the corner.

November: indeed, the second national lockdown came into operation during November and my horizons were necessarily reined in once more. Fordhouses was handy for spotting wolf sculptures on the Stafford Road before working my way through Dovecotes and Palmer Cross to reach Tettenhall Green; Whitmore Reans meanwhile featured as part of a Wolverhampton Waterways Walk that gave nods to Wolf Mountain, Wildside Activity Centre and the Tunstall Water Bridge. Beyond those two trips there wasn't much else to report.

December: with the West Midlands in Tier 3, a couple of cautious catch-ups had me crossing paths with Nick (in Solihull, gleaning what we could from the Grand Union Canal) and Mr D9 (playing Popmaster Champions League prior to Bradley Locks, the Walsall Canal and Pleck). Two further waterways-themed wanderings focused separately on the Dudley No 1 Canal and then Ryders Green Locks in bookending my Christmas break (blogpost to be submitted in due course), thus bringing 2020's curious collection of adventures to a close.

It has been a year like no other, and it is clear that the pandemic is far from over. The implementation of a mass vaccination programme offers hope that we can beat the virus but the next few months are likely to be difficult ones; the West Midlands has been escalated into Tier 4 so it remains to be seen how far I'll get with outings in the immediate future. The most important thing of course is staying safe so fingers crossed there will soon be better times to come. My thanks as ever go to those hardy souls who have contributed to my adventures and otherwise kept me sane during the Covid crisis - especially D9, Nick, Stephen, Mr B Senior, Dad and Ken - so here's to a happy and healthy 2021!