Wednesday May 2nd 2018
May has finally brought some sunshine with record temperatures for the Spring Bank Holiday in some parts of the UK. It is time to do some two-wheeled catching up to kick-start the season.
I might not feel like much of a cyclist of late, with the injury crisis and enforced layoff, so I have been busy getting the bikes in shape for the summer season. This one has been fitted with a large rear cassette to help with my post-op recovery and, more importantly, because there is one horrific climb with a gradient of around 35% that I want to tackle this year.
Thursday May 3rd 2018
The first ride of the post-op comeback was a local affair but a few thousand feet of elevation up the likes of Mucklow Hill at Halesowen and Turner's Hill up and over Rowley, along with the excellent training climb from Merry Hill to Lodge Farm Reservoir and on up to Saint Andrew's Church at Netherton. Passing through Old Hill I couldn't resist seeing the blossom trees at Haden Hill Park, a key landmark throughout much of my life.
Friday May 4th 2018
After a long struggle against the economic tide, The Gate at Cradley reached the end of the road in 2017. The site of the pub, that once included a bowling green, is a reasonable size. However, I was still surprised to learn that the developers are going to shoe-horn seven properties around the old building which is going to be survive. I did hear that it was going to be divided into flats but local intelligence now suggests it is going to be one large detached house. A nice size for a house but not a location where one would benefit from some peace-and-quiet - the traffic is pretty much non-stop.
Saturday May 5th 2018
A lovely sunny day for cycling. I was on a mission - for some reason I had not visited the Stables Tea Rooms at Broad Lanes, not too far from the Cider House at Quatt, a popular café that has often been closed when I have cycled past on many occasions. Unusually, the place is closed on Sunday so this is possibly the reason I have not patronised the tea rooms - until today that is! By the way, the proprietors choose to close on Sundays to have a life - and I don't blame them. They are better off having time with family and friends rather than pandering to the moaners and groaners who post unfair comments on Trip Advisor.
I elected to ride an unusual route in order to pedal past Bratch Locks, through Trysull and Seisdon, over to Claverley and Worfield, before heading towards Broad Lanes. It was perfect cycling conditions. I met up with La Goddess du Vélo at the tea rooms and we enjoyed some very nice quiche, going half-and-half as there were two vegetarian options on offer. We could have done with more salad and less bread but the meal was enjoyable and not too pricey. The cake selection looked good. Indeed, some may have been homemade but I didn't confirm this.
The owners of these tea rooms, Mark and Lisa Wellings, used to train horses - hence the name of the establishment. It was in 2012 that they made a career change and converted Broad Acre Stables into a relaxing place to enjoy a lunch. Although the tea rooms are en-route during one of my training rides, they are fairly well tucked away in the narrow lanes around Quatt and Tuckhill. The latter features a well-hidden church worth a visit. So, overall, well worth calling in for quiet lunch. Well, that is if the chavs patronising the Cider House aren't roaring around the lanes with their car stereos blaring!
Sunday May 6th 2018
It was hard to fit in a ride today but I have to try and get a bit fitter so I found a window in the late afternoon and early evening in which I could toil up St. Kenelm's Pass at Clent to Walton, and then work up a sweat climbing from Shut Mill to Romsley up the dreaded Winwood Heath Road.
Winwood Heath Road is one of the hardest climbs in the local area so I went around a few times for good measure. The pain in my legs was compensated by the glorious sight of the bluebell carpets in Dales Wood and Great Farley Wood. The tarmac, by the way, is much better of late. It used to be pretty terrible but there is currently a decent rolling surface. Good enough for a K.O.M. if you have the legs. Unfortunately for me, I am currently a lump of lard grinding up the slopes. Incidentally, Winwood Heath Road is up there with some of the county's hardest slogs - almost as hard as Wynniatts Way at Abberley. Indeed, maybe the equal of this due to the length of the climb. Although steep, Wynniatts Way is done-and-dusted in no time at all whereas Winwood Heath Road can sap the legs two-thirds of the way up.
Monday May 7th 2018
Another glorious day of sunshine - too good to waste on gardening or other chores when there is a bicycle begging for a spin. So we went Bluebell hunting around North Worcestershire.
It was lean pickings at first as we trundled through Belbroughton. But once we hauled our backsides over Broom Hill into Dordale the carpets appeared in Waterpit Coppice. Further glorious sightings were enjoyed at Big Wood near Chaddesley Wood before we headed towards Tanwood and Bluntington. The coppice close to Wannerton Farm at Blakedown had the best display on this route and this is where this photograph was taken. Inevitably, we found ourselves calling at the King Arthur at Hagley where the beer is very good, courtesy of Georgina Jackson who had previously kept the nearby Station Inn for many years.
Friday May 11th 2018
The Spring training is not going to plan and I am completely behind schedule. Unlike previous years, I am not so much interested in distance or hours on the bike as I wish to concentrate on elevation. The hot Bank Holiday weather may have vanished but there is still plenty of dry spells, albeit a tadge cool for the time of year. Still, you don't feel the cold when you are riding uphill.
Today I pointed the bike in the direction of Abberley simply to ride up one narrow lane where few cars venture. The circuit there and back clocks up over 4,000ft of climbing which was ideal for a mid-morning ride before meeting up with La Goddess du Vélo for a late lunch.
Riding through Cookley and Wolverley is always enjoyable and I pedalled over Habberley down into Wribbenhall. I was slightly taken aback at the sight of the Waggon and Horses which was draped in two massive Wolves flags - well, hard to call them flags really, more like those huge things they use to pass over the heads of fans on the terraces. In celebration of The Wolves winning the Championship and promotion to the Premiership, the Waggon and Horses had one flag the gable wall and another on the frontage. My immediate thought was that it must be rather dark inside that part of the pub! This is what you can truly call nailing your colours to the mast. However, surely this is problematic in terms of the pub's trade - I cannot imagine many fans of West Bromiwch Albion or Aston Villa wanting to patronise a boozer that is so blatantly a Wolves house. Surely they would wander along the road to the Rising Sun. By the way, both pubs have a good range of real ales.
I rode across the River Severn at Bewdley and headed up Winbrook or the B4190 towards the Wyre Forest. I love the steeper climb of Wyre Hill but my current regime is more about long steady gradients as these are perfect for Alpine training. The Bewdley by-pass alleviates the traffic on this once-busy road and, as a result, the climb is highly enjoyable. Well, at least until the roundabout when the road rejoins the busy A456. From here the gradient up Long Bank remains steady but one cannot help holding up some traffic even with best efforts on the pedals. The climb measures 3.28km and has a maximum gradient of 13.2% - I am reasonably happy that I sit in the Top 10% of 1,140 riders who have registered a time on this ascent out of Bewdley. I turned left at The Royal Forester and headed towards Bliss Gate which has the forlorn-looking tavern at the road junction. This pub has been closed for a while now, possibly as long as five or six years.
Following the contours, the road from Bliss Gate to Heightington affords fabulous views across the Worcestershire countryside. The Malvern Hills can be seen in the distance and Abberley Hill can be seen on the right to the south-west. After whizzing down the aptly-named Hurtle Hill, there is a right turn that skirts Birch Hall and winds its way to Abberley. The climb up to the Manor Arms is hard enough but there is worse to come. Much worse. The above photograph of Wynniatts Way does not really illustrate the difficulty of the gradient. The Ordnance Survey map however has three chevrons on this devilish climb. Any cyclist climbing this hill using a 39 chainring with a race cassette can consider themselves fit. I have a friend who lives nearby in Stourport and he loves to lead a group ride of unsuspecting souls up and over Wynniatts Way, many of whom have sworn to kill him - that's if the climb hasn't killed them first.
I think I have a love-hate relationship with Wynniatts Way. I always enjoy the challenge of the climb but each time I make the right turn onto the steepest gradient I usually gulp at the wall of tarmac rising before me. Sometimes I wonder why I steer my bicycle towards this bugger of a climb with such regularity. Having recovered on the downhill section, it is a pleasant ride back to the Dog at Dunley. There used to be another pub en-route but the historic Hundred House at Great Witley was sold in recent times and will form part of a gated development of luxury apartments and houses. Replacing an earlier inn, the hotel was built in 18th century by Lord Foley of Witley Court.
Tuesday May 15th 2018
We decided to head over to Coventry today, mainly to have lunch at Falafel Corner, one of our favourite fast-food joints. We transported the bikes on the train so that we could complete a nice little loop and stop off at an award-winning pub that we have not patronised.
The cycle and pedestrian route from the railway station and the city centre can incorporate a visit to the memorial to James Starley, a monument of great importance for two-wheeled adventurers. Why? Well, this was the Sussex-born inventor credited with being the father of the bicycle industry. The son of a farmer who ran away from home went on to become a great innovator and was responsible for the differential gear and developing the chain drive. Motoring enthusiasts can also come and doff their cap to this former sewing machine manufacturer for his differential gear was later used in the rear axle of every automobile. His nephew John Kemp Starley was responsible for the Rover car company, a firm that started off producing bicycles.
We rolled into the shopping centre for one of the most enjoyable food experiences in the Midlands. The guys at Falafel Corner totally rock - they deliver the most friendly customer service you are going to find in Coventry ... and beyond! The falafel wraps are fantastic - no wonder they can claim they are the best this side of the Middle East. Having seen reviews of Falafel Corner on Happy Cow, most seem to mention the friendly nature of the team behind the counter. During our visits we have met guys from Palestine, Egypt, Holland, Algeria and Yemen. They are great ambassadors in the City of Coventry and have introduced marvellous flavours from their homelands. Prepared in front of you, the large vegan wraps are excellent value. They also serve fresh juices but I recommend you try the Fresh Mint Tea which is most refreshing - and stimulating. Falafel Corner is a must-visit experience in Coventry.
We managed to find a relatively traffic-free route from the city centre that took us to the Lunt Roman Fort, an archaeological site discovered in the 1930s and is now open as a visitor attraction near Baginton village. Following extensive excavations started in the 1960s, the site has been reconstructed using tools and techniques that the Roman occupiers may have deployed. This includes a gyrus or wooden stockade thought to have been used to train horses.
A short distance to the east is a graveyard of electrical multiple units of the Electric Railway Museum Limited, a museum that closed in October 2017. For those who enjoy examining old metal machinery the units stand awaiting relocation. Next door is the Midland Air Museum where you can see exhibits of weaponry once paid for by UK taxpayers in order to bomb people.
We headed for the old part of Baginton and the Church of Saint John the Baptist. This is where we discovered that most of the churches in rural Warwickshire are locked - a sign of the times I guess. In this instance it was particularly disappointing as there are some unique features within the church on our list of to-do elements of our ride, notably traces of 14th century wall decorations partly discernible despite later wall coverings. The sandstone church dates from the 13th century and has a bell-turret with a square base corbelled out on the east and west sides of the nave wall above the chancel arches. From this square base it has an octagonal tapered spire. Beyond the church, but now within private land, is an ancient site thought to be that of Baginton Castle where Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, was imprisoned following the defeat of his son, Harry Hotspur, at the Battle of Shrewsbury.
Heading south-east from the church there is a noted old oak tree known simply as the Baginton Oak. Thought to be one of the most ancient trees in the county, its age is uncertain. I have seen reports that it is 350 years old. However, a newspaper article from 1976, when restoration work commissioned by Coventry City Council, reported that it was up to 1,000 years of age. Whatever, it is little surprise that a tavern called The Oak stands across the road junction. Actually, The Oak is more than a pub and has a wide offering with 13 bedrooms and formal dining room. However, it is possible to nip in for a pint of beer and, despite being a little upmarket, they do welcome walking boots and dogs. The full name of the pub when it opened for trade on October 1st 1926 was the Baginton Oak Inn. The licence for the pub was transferred from the New Bull and Butcher at Ryton-on-Dunsmore. To draw custom from afar bus services served the pub from Barracks Square in Coventry on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays a similar service operated from the Three Tuns. In those days, The Baginton Oak offered spacious lawns, bowling greens and a dance hall. In the late 1960s the Baginton Oak was the venue of the Skyliner Discotheque Club, a popular night out with those living in the local area.
We cycled the short distance to Bubbenhall over the River Avon, the source of power for the mill recorded here at the time of the Domesday survey. We rode around to the Church of Saint Giles, a building with a chancel and nave dating from the 13th century and a tower dating from a century later. The different building materials can be identified from the exterior with the 13th century elements of red sandstone. We were particularly disappointed to find the door locked as the interior features two late 13th century Green Men as head corbels of the old Baptistery arch, a Norman font and stained glass by Kempe. An interesting feature of the porch is the date of 1616 on the beams in addition to the initials of the churchwardens who served at this time.
The post-war development of Bubbenhall may have spoiled its medieval layout but the increase in population possibly saved the two historic public houses. The Malt Shovel is the older building, as it incorporates part of a 17th century half-timbered structure. Additions to the building's core started early as, in 1801, it was described as the "newly-erected malthouse," suggesting barley was being processed here at least two centuries ago. In the 1870s the Malt Shovel was operated by the Coventry Brewery. The Malt Shovel was later operated by several larger brewery concerns. Indeed, during our visit the pub still had an Ansell's inn sign. These days, you can often find a beer from Church End or Purity on sale in this establishment that is popular for its food. Incidentally, Bowling for a Pig was once a feature of the Bubbenhall's village fete during the inter-war years but I am not sure if this competition was held on the bowling green to the rear of the Malt Shovel.
The Three Horseshoes is around the corner from the Malt Shovel. The building stands of Spring Hill, an old water source can still be seen across the road near the corner of Pit Hill. This forms an attractive village green. The Three Horseshoes is another pub of some antiquity. The property was originally part of land and property belonging to Pisford's Charity, established in the early 16th century by William Pisford, a grocer and Mayor of Coventry. In the early 19th century two of the cottages were leased to Thomas Walton, yeoman, who was described as a brewer at the sign of the Horseshoes. A smithy did exist here in the 18th century. Whilst Bagington has its oak tree, the Three Horseshoes was once famous for having a massive walnut tree. A report from the mid-1960s suggested that the tree had the widest spread of branches in Warwickshire. Mrs. Plant, wife of the licensee, told a journalist that she had seen at least 16 horses sheltering under it at the same time. These days, the dog-friendly Three Horseshoes offers a wide menu with Black Sheep Bitter and a guest ale.
From the Three Horseshoes Inn, we continued along Spring Hill and around to Ryton Pools Country Park where we crossed a cycling line of forbidden fruit, that of an ice cream. It has been a couple of years since the last ice cream cone passed my lips but the delicious taste was still tinged with guilty pleasure. I can remember reading in the autobiography of Geraint Thomas that he, along with a team mate, were once caught by his directeur sportif when in the act of buying an ice cream. He got THE look. Another cyclist reaching the end of his racing career was asked what he most looked forward to in retirement. His reply was "not feeling hungry." Of course, I am not in the same league as the cycling gods but, like many a committed pedalling obsessive, weight is always on the back of my mind. Of course, it would help if I didn't patronise public houses. Indeed, if I didn't drink I might be a half-decent cyclist but ... one has to enjoy life and let one's hair down from time-to-time. Well, as long as it doesn't create aero drag! Fear not folks, I punished myself the next day with a bruising hill-climbing session in order to work off the calories of my interdit crème glacée.
Ryton Pools Country Park was lovely. Despite knowing the story of the pools, we were still amazed at how nature has reclaimed the site. In the mid-1960s the land was designated as a landfill site for the towns of Leamington Spa, Rugby and Coventry. Waste was dumped here for some 27 years until the local authorities made a dramatic u-turn in policy and decided to develop the site as a country park. In the early 1990s the pits were flooded and 2,500 trees and shrubs were planted before the park opened to the public in 1996. Further development included the creation of additional pools and a visitor centre. This was our first visit and could hardly believe that it was once a landfill site. The methane gas from the waste is used as an energy resource.
There is little choice but to use the main road for part of the journey to Stretton-on-Dunsmore and we passed the sites of the Old and New Bull and Butcher public houses on the Oxford Road. The derelict Old Bull and Butcher is a right mess and needs putting out of its misery. It was nice to escape the traffic on Fineacre Lane which leads to Stretton, an ancient settlement on Fosse Way. Indeed, the old Roman Road is the reason why the village once had a large number of taverns. In the 21st century only the Shoulder of Mutton Inn and the Oak and Black Dog remain. However, back in the day the traffic passing through sustained the Dun Cow, Frog Inn, George Inn, Red Lion, White Lion, Wheatsheaf Inn and the Cold Comfort Inn. 19th century workers at the local gravel pits and brick works would also have required much refreshment after a long shift.
Stretton-on-Dunsmore, a once-busy village with shops and diverse businesses, has seemingly become a sleepy commuter village during the working week. Well, that's how it seemed as we rolled into the place. All Saints' Church, our third village church of this journey was locked. This was three in a row - would we find an open church today? Being consecrated in 1837, this is a relatively new place of worship. The most famous villager to be baptised in the older church was Joseph Elkington, a farmer who pioneered a drainage technique adopted throughout many boggy parts of Great Britain. For his important contribution to the UK economy he was awarded a gold ring by Parliament in 1795. He was also rewarded with the sum of £1,000 which made him an extremely wealthy man
The experience of the church door locked was compounded by finding the Shoulder of Mutton Inn closed during the day. The situation of this brick building with painted lettering is most agreeable. From what I can gather Linda Wilkie and Lee Carter have got this pub running sweetly. They combine real ales from Charles Wells with genuinely home-cooked food. However, I believe this couple are soon to move to the Millstone Hare at Southam so it will be all change at the Shoulder of Mutton. Back in Edwardian times the pub was run by Billy Lowe, a chap known as "The Popular Caterer." With what he called a 'special room,' he was responsible for opening up the Shoulder of Mutton to women and children. I suspect that there was a family connection with the village shop because in the post-war years the Lowe name was painted on the sign. From old postcards I have of Stretton-on-Dunsmore, this later changed to Lovell's.
We could have nipped into the Oak and Black Dog but we didn't fancy the St. Austell Tribute or Otter Bitter. In recent years there has been a cultural shift in real ale, particularly with younger drinkers, yet some pub groups seem very slow to respond to market trends. Mass marketing and corporate dogma seem to prolong the product lifespan of some traditional bitters beyond their cask life. However, if you venture inside the pub you will find that they proudly badge their handpulls with Casque Mark signs so you can expect decent quality. Like many large rural pubs, the Oak and Black Dog has had to move from being a community boozer to a food-led operation. In the old days the Oak and Black Dog had a games room in which many villagers played cheeses and darts.
We headed north along School Lane in order to cross the horrifically busy A45 London Road. The former Dun Cow Inn stands on this junction. The last business to operate within the building was a Chinese restaurant called Goji. This enterprise failed and the empty building was torched in 2011 and has stood as a burnt ruin ever since. This however was not the original Dun Cow Inn. An older tavern stood a matter of yards from this structure erected in the 1930s. The new Dun Cow Inn was famous for dances held most evenings. The pub also upheld the tradition of hosting the annual wroth silver ceremony which dated back at least 1,000 years. The ceremony took place on Knightlow Hill but participants used to gather at the Dun Cow at the crack of dawn. The event marked the payment to the Duke of Buccleugh and Queensberry of dues from the 28 parishes in the Hundred of Knightlow. By tradition, representatives of the 26 parishes gathered every year to toss the dues, or wroth silver, into a hollowed-out stone on Knightlow Hill. Then they retired to the Dun Cow Inn to drink the Duke's health.
Wolston's Main Street has some of the pretty character of Stretton-on-Dunsmore in that there is a brook running down Main Street. This flows into the River Avon close to the remains of Brandon Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey fortification founded by Geoffrey de Clinton. Wolston also once had a Benedictine priory, the earthworks of which are a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The Red Lion is another building to have vanished from Wolston's landscape - the pub stood next to the chip shop. The Rose and Crown across the road has survived. The Half Moon looked in a state of limbo with the lease being advertised on a signboard.
We actually found a church open at Wolston. Moreover, there was a group of welcoming villagers inside Saint Margaret's who wanted to share stories of the building, particularly the tale of Hugh Clarke who clashed with the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. He appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury who forced the bishop to publicly apologise to Hugh Clarke in front of the congregation at Wolston. If I were living in the late 16th century I would have had little time for Hugh Clarke as, being something of a puritan at heart, he disapproved of Whitsun Ales.
Leaving the church we had to make our way back to our bicycles dressed in camouflage. We also had to crawl through the long grass on our bellies in order that we were not spotted by one of the weeping angels featured in Dr. Who. Mind you, being sent back in time to Hull during 1920 could have the bonus of sampling some long defunct ales from the Anchor Brewery, Moors' & Robsons' Breweries Ltd., along with some of the smaller companies based on the north-east coast.
Once we had escaped the Weeping Angel at St. Margaret's Church we cycled the short distance to the neighbouring settlement of Brandon. This means riding under the historic railway viaduct, a physical barrier between Wolston and Brandon though, of course, the two places are intrinsically linked. The viaduct dates from the 1830s and was part of the original London and Birmingham Railway. The Royal Oak Inn was located close to the railway station that served Brandon and Wolston until its closure in 1960. The Royal Oak Inn was once the tap house of the brewery operated by John Cave. Founded around 1860 the brewery closed in 1906. These days the pub, billed as an eatery, sells Sharp's Doom Bar, St. Austell Tribute and Charles Wells Bombardier.
More on this cycle pub tour to follow ......
More to follow ...