Saturday, April 14

That Was The Wycombe That Was...

Buckinghamshire beckons as I join forces once more with Nick Turpin, our highwayman hero who having recently returned from a Scottish sortie is now referring to himself as 'Mad McTurpin' - he must have overdosed on haggis or something. Anyway, he is present and correct for some dastardly deeds as we prepare to explore the town of High Wycombe...

- Our noble steed -
Friday 13th April 2018 and hopefully our luck will be in as we make tracks for Bucks. Nick Turpin has foregone his usual stagecoach in favour of a Chiltern carriage today, hence the 9:55 departure from Birmingham Moor Street delivers us to High Wycombe just on ten past eleven. Served by the Chiltern Main Line, the station is quite a spread-out affair comprising two through platforms and a bay (the latter is utilised by local stopper trains to London Marylebone).

- The Brunel Railway Shed -
Upon alighting we can immediately savour some railway heritage with a vintage running board recalling a lost line to Marlow and Maidenhead. Just across the forecourt from the current facility is High Wycombe's original station building, dating from 1854 and now known as the Brunel Railway Shed complete with appropriate mural depicting the age of steam. We start to get some town centre bearings by spotting the Bootlegger pub for later and then strolling along Castle Street towards a prominent church.

- High Wycombe High Street -
All Saints is certainly a handsome landmark accompanied by the town's war memorial as next we weave through Church Square for a look at the High Street. A few market stalls add a liveliness to proceedings while we admire the 18th century Guildhall (Grade I listed) and the adjacent Little Market House, known affectionately as the Pepper Pot with inscriptions detailing distances to London and Oxford. If this is the historic heart of High Wycombe, modern malls are represented by the Eden Shopping Centre as we briefly locate the library and bus station - the main operators here are Arriva and Carousel. 

- 'Mad McTurpin' meets Mad Squirrel -
McTurpin is now ready for a drink or two so our first watering hole is the Mad Squirrel Tap and Bottle Shop on Church Street. Eager to get to grips with some 'unhinged' beers we partake of the Mister Squirrel Premium Bitter (nice notes of toffee) and London Porter - an upstairs pizza kitchen perch provides grand views of the parish church. Nick must also have learned some Scottish thriftiness on his recent holiday as our second stop is the Antelope for £2-a-pint Rebellion IPA, a decent brew at discount prices!

- The Dyke -
Sustenance for our afternoon endeavours comes care of the Falcon Wetherspoons (Bingham's Brickworks Bitter is duly imbibed) before the Three Tuns allows for Aintree racing action over some Shepherd Neame Early Bird. We follow this with a scenic roam through the parklands of The Rye where The Dyke is a stretch of open water culminating in a little waterfall and stream. High Wycombe bowling and cricket clubs are also in the vicinity while the River Wye meanders its way towards Wycombe Marsh and Loudwater.

- Bouncy beer in the Bootlegger? -
Our final two pubs are both within close proximity of the railway station hence Gordon Road leads us to the Belle Vue (passing vintage Courage/Greene King signs at the Pheasant and the Gordon Arms along the way). The 'BV' is a curious place with a swallows-themed art gallery in the snug; for once Nick Turpin is the victim of highway robbery when the Theakston's Olde Peculier costs £4.80 for two halves - ouch! Thankfully there isn't similar fiscal pain in the Bootlegger where the Rebellion Zebedee has a certain zingy bounce to it - the bar here includes several craft keg lines, international bottled ales and some games consoles.

- Haddenham & Thame Parkway -
With that our Wycombe wanderings are complete and it's just a case of getting ourselves back to the Midlands - easier said than done given the gaping hole in Chiltern's early evening timetable where direct services from High Wycombe to Brum are concerned. We end up having to change at Haddenham & Thame Parkway, one of those stultifying stations where the large car park is about the only note of interest apart from the modern booking hall. Saying that, it somehow seems appropriate to land here on Friday 13th of all days and the twelve minutes we are here waiting for our connection is plenty long enough. Happily our Snow Hill service arrives pretty much on schedule and the highwayman can head home - cheers!

Friday, April 6

Ladywood, Moorpool and Weoley Castle

The second half of my Easter Exploration double-header sees me Birmingham-bound with the intention of picking out previously untapped pockets of photography alongside some favourite haunts...

- Joseph Smith & Sons -
Tuesday 3rd April 2018 and my first stop is the Jewellery Quarter to put my new Sony camera through its paces. I'm intrigued to see that the Jewellers Arms on Hockley Street is now a Black Country Ales pub (a revisit is most definitely in order) but my focus is on capturing remnants of the Quarter's manufacturing heritage. Vittoria Street proves productive as I spot the Municipal School for Jewellers and Silversmiths, swiftly followed by Joseph Smith & Sons, while Caroline Street has the former offices of William West & Sons Ltd.

- Cambrian Wharf -
After an admiring look at St Paul's Square, I make my way to Fleet Street where the atmospheric Newman Brothers premises have been preserved as the Coffin Works Museum. The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal beckons for a wander up Farmers Bridge Locks, pausing at Cambrian Wharf to survey the moorings with the Flapper pub close at hand (albeit I hear this well-known music venue could sadly cease trading in June). Farmers Bridge also boasts a little toll lodge and the Cambrian House canal offices, all in the shadow of the Barclaycard Arena - I remember when the 'Gladiators' TV series was filmed there, proper 1990s Saturday evening nostalgia!

- Twin Towers, Ladywood -
From the arena its but a short hop, skip and a jump (or a dash through the Gladiators gauntlet) to enter Ladywood where I'm on the trail of a closed precinct pub Mr D9 has often told me about. The Twin Towers is duly located on one end of the King Edward shopping parade and still has some intact Ansells signage even though part of the space is now occupied by a pharmacy. My photos are all the medication I need with the nearby Spring Hill Library ready to administer its terracotta dosage.

- Shakespeare Garden, Lightwoods Park -
To Bearwood I now go, clambering aboard the number 82 bus for a ride past City Hospital and the old Cape Hill Brewery site. Bearwood Bus Station means I'm handily placed for a Lightwoods Park visit, catching up with restoration project progress. Lightwoods House is now open again having been renovated for use as a community cafe and meeting space while the adjacent Shakespeare Garden is a lovely oasis of tranquility laid out in Elizabethan walled style using plants mentioned in the Bard's works. 

- Moorpool Shops -
One area of Birmingham I'm particularly keen to commit to camera is Moorpool, an attractive estate near Harborne which was established between 1907 and 1911 as a Garden Suburb. Arts and Crafts-style architecture is to the fore and the estate was designated a conservation area back in 1970. My only previous visit here came when passing through on the 647 bus over ten years ago, so effectively I'm seeing everything afresh. A selection of amenities are clustered around The Circle (including Moorpool Hall, the Estate Office, a couple of local shops and some tennis courts) whereas Moor Pool natural lake is a popular beauty spot off Ravenhurst Road.

- The Court Oak -
Carless Avenue connects me with Lordswood Road for a glance at the Old House at Home (Greene King establishment on the corner with Gillhurst Road) before Croftdown Road conveys me to the Court Oak junction. The landmark pub here is part of the Sizzling chain and is quietly watched over by St Faith and St Laurence Church, mainly dating from the 1930s when the current building replaced two previous mission churches. Queens Park meanwhile was established in 1898 as a public open space in celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond jubilee; the children's play area is certainly a busy spot during the Easter holidays.

- Weoley Castle Ruins -
April is notorious as a month of sudden showers and one such downpour strikes on Tennal Road, making for a soggy stroll setting as I squelch past Harborne Golf Club. I drip my way along Northfield Road and have almost dried out by the time I reach the ruins of Weoley Castle, a moated medieval manor house built by the Lords of Dudley circa 1270. I glimpse some of the stonework as the sun briefly comes back out, but the onset of another deluge has me scurrying for the shelter offered by the 48 bus. With more rain forecast I call it quits, riding through to Smethwick via the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Harborne and Warley Woods. Despite the damp finale the outing was still very successful, exploration just the way I like it - cheers!

Monday, April 2

Waterways Walks: The Lichfield Canal

Resuming my occasional series of towpath trails with this Easter-time solo Staffordshire stroll, which will serve as a companion trip to the Hatherton Canal investigations I did last summer. My focus now is on the other waterway the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust are aiming to reinstate...

- Lichfield City Station Sign -
Yes indeed, the Lichfield Canal will be taking its turn in the WME spotlight. Originally part of the Wyrley & Essington system linking Ogley Junction (near Brownhills) with the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford, the branch was abandoned in the mid 1950s but is gradually being brought back into existence thanks to the sterling efforts of the LHCRT. It is thus with eager anticipation that I make my way to Lichfield City station, a personal favourite railway location which feels enticingly traditional with solid booking hall benches and weatherboarded platform architecture.

- Saxon Penny, Darwin Park -
From the station I head for the fringes of the city, passing through part of the Darwin Park development along the way. This new estate has grown steadily over the last few years and building work is still ongoing; local amenities include Darwin Hall Community Centre, a Waitrose supermarket and the Saxon Penny pub (one of those identikit modern Marston's retail park efforts). An attractive avenue view makes the most of a distant cathedral horizon while Sainte Foy Avenue boasts a compact little park with children's play area.

- Canal Construction at Fosseway Heaths -
After a brief encounter with the Lichfield Southern Bypass I can pick up the trail at Fosseway Heaths where a stretch of canal is being restored as part of a nature reserve. Being the morning of Good Friday, it's relatively quiet on site but I can still see the digging and mixing equipment alongside the earthen channel that will in time form the resurrected waterway. A boardwalk structure is in the process of being fabricated to serve a planned wetland area while work continues on crafting the canal wall.

- Fosseway Lane Crossing -
It requires long-term dedication to restore a lost canal, and the fact LHCRT have been active for a number of years is demonstrated at Lock 18 which was repaired back in 1995. The lock precedes my emergence onto Fosseway Lane where I'm pleased to discover an abandoned signal box and level crossing formerly served by the South Staffordshire Line - it's all rather ramshackle these days but nonetheless constitutes an interesting remnant of a railway I've previously traced at Pelsall and Brownhills.

- Darwin Walk -
A gentle stroll back along Fosseway Lane connects me once more with the Lichfield Southern Bypass - the plan is that the restored canal will flank this road for a short distance because the original course (which weaved through by the Duke of Wellington pub) has largely been built over. My next target therefore becomes Darwin Walk off Shortbutts Lane where a grassy corridor marks the resumption of the historic route; the open space must be popular with dog-walkers judging by several polite notices instructing folk to clean up after their pets.

- St John's Bridge -
The trail is already proving fascinating and added excitement comes in the form of St John's Bridge where the old canal meets London Road - apparently there used to be adjacent wharves and a basin here while the bridge itself was rebuilt in the 1930s. Tamworth Road then keeps me company as the towpath track crosses open ground among springtime daffodils to reach Cricket Lane, one of the access points for Borrowcop Locks Canal Park.

- Borrowcop Locks -
Borrowcop Locks is the centrepiece of LHCRT's restoration activities and it's great to see what has been achieved, most notably the work on Locks 25 and 26. A stretch of the canal here has been rewatered (hurrah!) complete with resident ducks, making for a lovely spot to pause and contemplate life. Beyond the pound, the channel sweeps left ('Bobbie's Bend') to meet Tamworth Road which is as far as I'm going on this occasion. It is possible to walk right through to Huddlesford via Darnford Park, Darnford Lift Bridge and Cappers Lane - plenty there to tempt me back in future I should think!

- Dr Johnson -
An excellent walk deserves to be rewarded with a pint or two so as I make my way into Lichfield City Centre I seek out the Wellington on Birmingham Road for a quenching pint of Fuller's London Pride. Previously known as the Duke of Wellington, the pub is firmly part of Lichfield Canal heritage with an infilled bridge on the edge of the car park. A recent makeover means the place isn't perhaps quite as traditional as I'm expecting but I still enjoy my visit, reading L.A.S.T. Orders and keeping abreast of the Oxford v Scunthorpe football action. Lichfield's historic centre is always a delight to explore and as ever I make sure to say hello to Dr Johnson's statue, the renowned lexicographer having been born in the city in 1709.

- A Bitter-Suite Finish -
The afternoon is fast disappearing but I have time for one final treat before my train, and my chosen establishment is very handy for Lichfield City Station. The Bitter-Suite micropub only opened at the tail end of last year but already seems to have attracted quite a following; situated on Upper St John's Street in the shadow of the landmark railway bridge, I'm intrigued to find it is positioned directly opposite the former Lichfield Brewery building. I partake of the house ale from Burton Bridge Brewery, the name 'Bridge Strike Bitter' referencing the number of incidents that the adjacent bridge has been involved in with unwary lorries! Table service is part of the offer here so I persuade myself to stay for a Dark Drake stout (Dancing Duck) which also proves very drinkable. Home I must then go but it has been a superb day of Easter exploring, and I wish the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust all the best with their ongoing projects.

Wednesday, March 28

WME Flickr Focus - March 2018

Would you believe it, we're at that time of the month again where I subject you to the usual diet of photostream progress. Several of my West Midlands Exploration collections have been limbering up and getting fit ready for their next intake of pictorial nutrition...

First with a finger in the salad bowl this month is WME Worcestershire which has admittedly suffered from a severe lack of appetite thus far in 2018 - a solitary portion of the Gate Hangs Well at Headless Cross in Redditch is probably not much by way of nourishment but it is a start. Exploration Extra meanwhile has itself been on rations of late but avoids going hungry by taking a bite out of the beer festival shuttle bus at Derby.

WME Wolverhampton has certainly been piling on the pictures, although where the photostream is concerned any extra weight is always a good thing. A hearty meal has been devoured comprising Dudding Road bus stop, Fallings Park's Co-op store, some George Street signage and Dunstall Park Bridge on the Birmingham Main Line Canal. Dessert comes in the form of some bus garage demolition with two shots of the former Cleveland Road depot meeting its fate.

Approaching the scales somewhat nervously are WME Birmingham and WME Sandwell with their respective weigh-in reports now imminent. Birmingham succumbs to the temptation of Cotteridge (the Grant Arms), Falcon Lodge (the Anvil) and a dragon bench outside Hall Green Library, whereas Sandwell secretively tucks away the Greets Green Sports Bar and Cradley Heath's Mary McArthur Gardens. 

Finally we have a handful of collections reaching for the juice smoothies and the vitamin pills. WME Dudley seeks out supplements such as the Little Chop House at Colley Gate or some shops at Cotwall End, Sedgley; WME Walsall puts Darlaston through the blender, resulting in sign snaps for Middleton's chip shop, the Vine and the Horse & Jockey; WME Coventry is on the cod liver oil care of Fords Hospital almshouses, and last but not least is WME Staffordshire taking a recreational stroll around Chasewater Reservoir. That concludes a healthy month on the photostream, more of the same in April will do very nicely indeed...