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!

Saturday, April 17

Did Somebody Mention "Pub"??

Hasn't it felt like a particularly long winter this year? The Covid crisis has put so many things on hold for so many months that you begin to wonder what 'normality' ever really felt like. The roadmap out of lockdown is however gradually inching us along the path to recovery, and last Monday saw the milestone moment when pubs could start to reopen (albeit only those with appropriate spaces for outdoor service). My first proper pint of the year was therefore in the offing during a local walk on Friday 16th April...

- Compton Lock -
We're having a prolonged spell of decent weather for a change so it's chilly but bright as I set out along the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. Compton Lock enables my camera to limber up accordingly with balance beams and the lock sign to capture; I've been here several times before of course but it's always good to add a new layer to the archive. Closer to Tettenhall, the canal echoes to whistles and shouts from the Wolverhampton Wanderers training ground while slightly more sedate sporting activity has resumed on the tennis courts that back onto the waters off Newbridge Crescent. 

- Towards Aldersley -
Tettenhall Old Bridge provides my excuse to switch the cut for the Smestow Valley railway line path, aiming for Aldersley on this occasion. The Cupcake Lane tearoom has sparked back to life in Tettenhall's former station building (it appears to be pretty popular too), and a street art version of Santa Claus unexpectedly adorns the recesses below the A41. I stick with the line as far as Hordern Road, exiting for a repeat glimpse of the Wildside Activity Centre which I'm pleased to see has resumed its educational mission; visits are strictly by appointment only at the moment pending further increases in provision when permitted. 

- Christ the King Church -
As for Aldersley, I'm keen to cover any items that might have fallen through the gaps during previous explorations. Aldersley Road's tight terraces precede the suburban semi-detached scenery of Burland Avenue (complete with a shortcut into Sandy Lane allotments I'd not noticed until now), then Pendeford Avenue presents Christ the King Church, dating from the mid-1950s and rather functional in appearance. The church is overseen by the Parish of Tettenhall Regis and has a standalone bell gantry at ground level; the accompanying hall is used by the Helen Richards Dance School for ballet, tap and freestyle lessons. 

- That first pint at last! -
Anticipation is building as pub o'clock draws ever nearer, but firstly I peep into Palmers Cross to account for a couple more Lake District-themed thoroughfares (Derwent Rd and Ennerdale Rd among them). The magic hour has now arrived so the honour of providing my first proper pint of 2021 goes to the Claregate, a sprawling roadhouse with plenty of tables outside. Facemask ✓ NHS App ✓ Beer ✓, the Banks's Amber being on fine form although I half-suspect anything would taste great after nearly six months without cask ale. A packet of crisps seals the deal as I keep watch over comings and goings at the neighbouring Tesco store.

- Lower Green -
Never has a simple pint of Bitter meant quite so much to me, a symbolic moment that suggests better times are ahead - if the roadmap holds, pubs should hopefully be allowed to host indoor trade from mid-May onwards. Fingers crossed I'll soon be waxing lyrical again about the joys of Holden's Golden Glow, Bass and Bathams but for now I'll sign off with the walk home via St Michael's Churchyard, Lower Green and Henwood Road. The hospitality industry still faces many challenges and life won't be normal for a good while yet, but being able to enjoy a pub pint again is definitely a step in the right direction - cheers!

Saturday, April 10

Towpath Turpin's Grand Union Getaway

For our first joint outing of 2021, Nick and I carried on where our two most recent adventures had left off, hence we set about investigating more of the Grand Union Canal's Solihull sections. We'd covered Knowle Locks in October and Lode Lane to Damson Parkway in December, so now it was time to join up the dots in between...

- Wolverhampton Station Redevelopment -
Thursday 8th April 2021 and the trip starts out at Wolverhampton railway station which continues with its grand redevelopment scheme. It had been a few months since I last caught up with progress here and the old 1960s breezeblock frontage has vanished from view as the second phase of the rebuild gathers momentum. Automatic ticket barriers have been installed and the facility already feels much brighter and more approachable. In time the Midland Metro will terminate outside, better linking up the different modes of transport.

- St Alphege's Church -
Enough of that Wolverhampton stuff, this should be a Solihull post so let's crack on with the main event. Meeting a bemasked Nick on schedule at 10:25, we plot a course around the edges of Solihull town centre. Homer Road is where many key facilities are located, including the registry office, the police station and one end of the Touchwood shopping centre. We narrowly avoid gatecrashing a wedding then take Church Hill Road up to St Alphege's, looking absolutely spectacular when framed by pretty cherry blossoms. The church is over 800 years old and is dedicated to a martyred Anglo-Saxon former Archbishop of Canterbury. 

- Towpath Turpin reporting for duty -
The canal is calling to us so Malvern Park, Hampton Lane and Damson Parkway combine to get us to Elmdon Heath amidst an encouraging amount of sunshine. From Damson Parkway Bridge we take the towpath eastwards, effectively running parallel to Lugtrout Lane; the Grand Union has an appealing tree-lined aspect here, and although we're in something of a cutting we can still get glimpses out over the fields towards Bickenhill. Conversation is peppered with thoughts of cricket, Covid and Scottish independence as we approach Catherine-de-Barnes, long lockdown hair also being a major talking point!

- Bridge 78, Catherine-de-Barnes -
Sure enough we reach the place which sounds more like a Tudor noblewoman than a Solihull village, albeit the colloquial name for the area is the altogether less-glamorous-sounding 'Catney'. We briefly leave the canal at Bridge 78 in order to check out some of the principal features on Hampton Lane, notably a Nisa convenience store, Longfellows restaurant and the Boat Inn (resembling a building site while the outdoor spaces are made ready for the resumption of trade from April 12th onwards). A narrow track to the rear of the pub passes a clutch of cottages to reveal the whereabouts of the local cricket club, a nice discovery. 

- River Blythe Aqueduct -
Back on the Grand Union, we meander in a roughly southerly direction to encounter Henwood Bridge (No. 77) close to Henwood Mill Winding Hole. We then cross above the River Blythe on an intriguing two arch aqueduct - the river is a significant water course, rising near Earlswood Lakes and winding its way past Cheswick Green, Brueton Park and Hampton in Arden before meeting the Tame at Coleshill. We scamper down a set of wooden steps to survey the brickwork prior to contemplating Copt Heath Wharf (a fuel pump, an outhouse and several moored narrowboats seem to be the sum of its components on this occasion).

- Castle Bridge, Knowle -
From Copt Heath it isn't too much further to Knowle, the scenery improving again once we get beyond the M42 motorway. A couple of field bridges keep the camera occupied (No. 74 being a fine example) until we reach Kixley Lane where Bridge 72 marks our exit point, just as it did in October when we'd walked up from Chessetts Wood. There's time enough for a Penguin pit stop at Knowle Church - other chocolate biscuit brands are available - then the final leg into Dorridge has us discussing our favourite culinary moments, Banbury schenkstroop and Hockley jambalaya chief amongst them. Dorridge station brings the curtain down for now, but fingers crossed we'll be seeing more of Nick/Towpath Turpin on the blog as lockdown eases. 

Saturday, April 3

Key Hill, Ladywood and the Birmingham Main Line Canal

Eastertime exploration is the order of the day as the Hub Marketing Board continue their roadmap-easing endeavours by brushing up on their Birmingham repertoire...

- Key Hill -
After resuming Board proceedings with two trips in March, Chairman D9 and Secretary WME now join forces for an early April adventure that starts off at Jewellery Quarter railway station. We're pleased to see the glorious Chamberlain Clock has been restored to its spectacular Edwardian splendour following a recent repaint, and D9's favourite 'Temple of Relief' ranks as another gem fabricated out of cast iron - luckily he manages not to prang into the urinal when road-testing one of the new fleet of street scooters. Hylton Street has a ghost sign for R.M. Pugh & Co's window display business before an archway alley craftily connects us to Key Hill.

- Conquering the Key Hill Closet -
Inspiration for our outings comes from various sources and in this case the seed was planted by a post we'd spotted on a Facebook local memories group. Key Hill Cemetery is the older of the two burial grounds serving the Jewellery Quarter, having been established in 1836 (the Warstone Lane equivalent was founded in 1847); several notable figures from Birmingham's great and good are interred here, including the politician Joseph Chamberlain, the poet Constance Naden and Alfred Bird of custard powder fame. Of particular interest to Mr D9 however are the remains of a gents conveniences, quietly tucked away in a corner just down from the Gem Building. 

- Lodge Road Shops -
Closet duly collected, we cross over into Lodge Road where a parade of old shops make for a relatively rare Hockley survivor, so much of the area having been overhauled from the 1960s onwards. Not all of the stores seem to be in current use but among the frontages we find references to Rotagrip, H V Smith's Bakery and Mills' Wines & Spirits. Checking the time, we realise its nearly Ken O'Clock which can only mean one thing... Popmaster! Compared to last week's Coseley efforts we make a much better fist of our answers this time around, boosted by impressive knowledge about the Emotions, Alvin Stardust and Neil Sedaka.

- The Pig & Tail -
Doubling back to Icknield Street, a brief blast of Brookfields brings us on a loop past a primary school with views over New Spring Street open space. Keen to nibble a little more on the Jewellery Quarter, we pick out Pope Street which takes us from the Kettleworks up to the Pig & Tail, a rather refined establishment that used to be known as the George & Dragon in its M&B days. Legge Lane then supplies tantalising reminders of the quarter's renowned trade by revealing the location of Manton's (a former silversmiths works) and Alabaster & Wilson (which wound down in 2017 after 130 years of skilled craftsmanship). 

- Spring Hill Library -
Via a combination of Albion Street and Powell Street, we emerge onto Summer Hill Road which is one of the important western radial routes into Birmingham City Centre. The Chairman is convinced there was a closet around here somewhere but we couldn't see any evidence, despite being impressed by the looming presence of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Another fine landmark in the vicinity has to be Spring Hill Library, a red brick and terracotta masterpiece of Victorian construction which officially opened in January 1893. The library continues to serve the Ladywood community and nowadays shares a glazed atrium with the neighbouring Tesco superstore. 

- 'Spotted' outside the Confucian Society HQ -
Speaking of Ladywood, we're keen to see what else the area can tempt us with. King Edwards Road has Mr D9 sorrowfully lamenting the demise of the Twin Towers, an Ansells precinct pub that's been partially taken over by a pharmacy (the other half appears to be a family outreach centre). A further bygone boozer is detected on Ledsam Street, the Pied Piper premises now being home to the Birmingham branch of the Confucian Society. The bald spot may or may not approve of that but it definitely likes the factory fascination conjured up by the Ledsam Works, where Belliss & Morcom were based for many years. 

- Roaming around at Rotton Park -
Our Good Friday gallivanting will be brought to a canal-themed conclusion as we join the Birmingham Main Line at St Vincent Street Bridge. The towpaths on either side of the cut are proving popular in the sunshine with joggers, cyclists and fitness fanatics very much out in force. Keeping an eye out for subversive street art, we pass beneath Monument Road and beside Biddle & Webb's auction house to reach Rotton Park Junction, an unusual canal crossroads where the Main Line is intersected by both the Soho and Icknield Port loops. The latter of those is subject to ongoing regeneration with modern apartments springing up rapidly.

- Winson Green Junction -
Sticking with the Main Line on this occasion, we note the presence of Northbrook Street and Lee Bridge before proceeding to Winson Green Junction - this is where the other end of the Soho Loop comes out, next to the train maintenance depot. Pink Panther and blue unicorn graffiti is entertaining as we then close in on Rabone Lane, calling it quits at Handsworth Booth Street for the tram ride home. Somehow or other we've contrived our earliest ever finish but we certainly packed a lot into those four Good Friday hours. Fingers crossed we might even have some pubs to sample next time - cheers!