Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

A Football Tourist’s Guide To The Black Country – Part One

It was an 0545 start on Maundy Thursday for our first Football Tourist Guide weekender since Cardiff. Now I’d been in the fridge of doom at Shipwreck Brewhouse the night before…

12%!!!

…so I’ll confess I wasn’t feeling particularly sprightly; nonetheless I crawled out of bed, thinking I’d be able to get ready at my leisure, as Lee is always late anyway. But no – he had been up since 0500 and was bright as a button, already filming his intro to the accompanying video and practically ready to go an hour early. Who was this man?

Thankfully, Past Me had already done most of the packing, so I only had to throw the toiletries into a bag after I had used them and I was ready to go almost on time, just after 0630. Today we were heading to the Black Country (we were playing at West Brom tomorrow), where I had lived for 20 years until recently.

Southbound

To get us in the Black Country mood, who else could we choose to accompany us on our journey but Slade?

I got a sore throat from just listening to Noddy sing/shout and speculated that maybe the band never reformed because his voice would be shot now if he’d kept that up all these years. Still, it was great to have an excuse to listen to a Christmas song at Easter.

As this was only a pretty short hop today (relative to some of the trips we’ve done this season), we soon found ourselves on course for a too-early arrival in the Black Country, having not stopped at the services for breakfast. We decided to look for a caff en route to our destination. As we drove ‘around the Wrekin’ (the scenic route) off the motorway and in the direction of Dudley, I found myself slipping back into the local lingo even before I’d got out of the car.

‘Ooh, it’s looking grim over Bill’s mother’s.’ (The sky’s looking a bit grey over there).

It took a while – and I needed the assistance of Google Maps – but we did eventually find a little gem of a caff.

Caffe Grande, Dudley

We had actually intended to visit a nearby caff but this one looked too inviting to miss.

And what a delight this place was. It was so successfully French-themed that I expected the counter to resemble a chocolaterie. We didn’t get to the counter as it was table service only, so I’m delighted that that dream remains alive.

There were no customers when we arrived, so we were offered our choice of seats. I initially wanted to move further into the caffe (sic) where it might be a little warmer, but I couldn’t resist these comfy chairs at a table towards the front.

I loved this wall, with its brickwork and French art.

Also note the little pineapple thing on the table.

French jazz was playing and Lee was Shazamming away, adding the music to his collection. The ambience in here was delightful. We really felt like we were overseas on hollibobs.

I ordered a full English (mercifully the menu wasn’t French, as a croissant would not have hit the mark this morning) and an Earl Grey. My disgust at the latter being delivered with the bag still in vanished as soon as I saw this.

I barely had time to read it before the bag was plonked on it.

There was also a little Biscoff biscuit served with my tea. I ate this immediately, which was the first sign that I had forgotten to pack my SlimmingWorld hat this weekend…

And then breakfast arrived.

I’ll deconstruct this because that seems to be what I do these days.

Bread – Too thick and poncy. Why don’t caffs ask if I want white or brown bread?

Egg – Decent.

Beans – Little pan cute but unnecessarily creating extra washing up. I’d rather have the heating on than generate extra washing up.

Bacon – Decent.

Hash brown – Don’t think I ate this. I normally move on to the hash brown after the toast to soak up the remaining beans/tomatoes but I couldn’t finish all the bread as it was so thick.

Sausage – Had a cursory nibble but it wasn’t for me. I prefer Lincolnshire or Cumberland.

Mushrooms – Decent.

Tomatoes – The star of the show! Surprised me with a hint of herbs, which were invisible to the naked eye. I like my tomatoes ‘neat’ but will definitely try this at home. Yay for tomato innovation!

Google had informed me that our next stop was just through the arcade across the road, so we settled the bill and headed out to explore on foot.

Dudley Town Centre

We emerged onto Market Square, where the market was still open. I spotted a statue and headed over to investigate.

This chap was seated on a bench, on which the following poem was etched:

We were terrified of the fish on this impressive water fountain.

In the market itself – in between the stalls – was this wonderful mosaic.

But it was this famous son of Dudley who we were here to see today.

We have found ourselves moved by a lot of statues this season – in particular Kes in Barnsley – but this one was particularly haunting. Duncan Edwards tragically lost his life in the Munich Air Disaster aged just 21 and that was no age at all.

We made our way back to the car in solemn reflection before taking back to the road, in the direction of the castle on the hill.

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

Now I had been here before a couple of times, maybe 20 years ago. I didn’t remember much about it but I knew it was an ethnographic museum, a bit like the brilliant St Fagans National Museum of History we’d visited in Cardiff, but on a more localised basis. But I’ll confess this visit took my breath away with just how great this popular museum has become in the intervening years.

The museum opened at 1000 and we arrived shortly afterwards to find the car park rapidly filling up and queues to get into the museum. Granted it was the Easter holidays but Lee was taken aback by just how busy this place was. We’d been going to museums all season and this was (I think) the first busy one we had visited. This was lovely to see (much as it is lovely to see the pubs getting busier).

Our Black Country journey began in the gallery, which deconstructed the Black Country into individual towns and boroughs. I’ll confess that, despite living in the Black Country for 20 years, I was always somewhat confused as to its actual boundaries, so this display was useful in clarifying this.

This little dig at Stourbridge really med me loff. I seem to recall a recent interaction on Twitter when I’d asked if Stourbridge was part of the Black Country and was told in no uncertain terms that it was ‘Worcestershire.’

I was excited to see maps of Darlaston and Walsall and I spent ages trying to find the streets I used to live on (I only got a D in GCSE Geography because what sort of stupid subject expects you to stand in a river to measure its depth? Fuck that.)

Can you spot our old house Evo?

I was also pleased to see this old photo of the mine in Brownhills, The Gateway to the Black Country, where I ended my time in the region.

I learned that pigeon racing was a big thing amongst the locals. Here’s a pigeon racing trophy.

I’m always on the lookout for trams in museums and was pleased to see two here today.

Sadly the Midland Metro seems to have been out of action for a while (not sure why) so this would be the nearest we would get to a tram this weekend.

We learned from a very informative five-minute video that the Black Country was so-called because the landscape changed from green to black with all the industrial work and coal mining that was going on. That was a revelation, as I’d always thought it was because the air was black with smoke.

Before heading out into the main part of the museum, we visited the gift shop, where I picked up a bottle of water to keep us hydrated and a Black Country pin for my hat (which I wasn’t wearing today, because it was a scorchio 19C).

As this is A Football Tourist’s Guide, I’m always on the lookout for football stuff to bring in for you, and here we found this fab little retro football gift set.

This tangerine and white miner was another highlight.

Sadly I couldn’t see a Black Country Living Museum Top Trumps so we’ll have to keep playing the Barnsley Museums one for the time being.

Right now it was time to head outside. The weather was perfect for an outdoor museum today. It was mild but cloudy so it was comfortable but not too hot.

Seen one in Sheffield, mate.

I took a cursory look inside the mine building and noticed people seemed to be queueing up for a show, which was due to start in a few minutes. I grabbed Lee and we soon found ourselves seated theatre-style in a little room, where a man began telling us about the history of mining in the Black Country.

He conducted a number of dramatic science experiments to demonstrate how dangerous the mines were and it was mesmerising. Shortly after this picture was taken, he set his hand on fire. You’ll have to watch the accompanying Football Tourist’s Guide video on Lee Charles TV for the full drama of that one.

It was here we also learned that coal is comprised of compressed wood; and limestone is the remains of sea creatures. How did we not know that? I love the learning element of these museum visits. I have always loved learning and now realise that my darkest days of depression were during those years when I wasn’t actively studying. Now I have taken my learning on the road and it’s utterly joyful. I suppose one good thing to come out of choosing Geography (boo) over History at school is that I can now enjoy learning about British history through these museums on our travels.

No thanks…

We took a ride on the circular buzz to see what else there was around the museum grounds.

When we disembarked we were getting a bit peckish again. The aroma from the chippy was alluring.

But we had no intention of queueing for half an hour for battered chips. I was never happy with the Black Country concept of battered chips. The ones I had back in the day were orange – practically neon – and I didn’t think the battering improved the chips at all. Chips are lush just as they are, if prepared properly.

Pah! No gravy on the menu either…

There were actors all around the museum, inviting conversation so they could tell us about the Black Country traditions. There was a couple going for a picnic, a policeman, an Easter egg pacer and various shopkeepers. One shopkeeper told us that the man in the motorcycle shop was a West Brom fan, so we made a point of calling in on him.

Here we met Dave, who was happy to chat with us at length about the football. Indeed, we came away quite encouraged, as he bemoaned the Baggies being slow and generally a bit rubbish of late. Perhaps we might win tomorrow after all?

Dave explained how he organised coach trips to matches and asked us to pop to the away ticket booth tomorrow, where he would also be working.

I didn’t know Preston was part of the Black Country?

There was much development going on here, which was great to see. There’s a whole new 1940s-1960s village being built, including a new pub.

Oh did someone say pub?

It was lunchtime now, so here’s what lunch was.

Lee had the scratchings, I had the pint of mild.

It bugged me for the rest of the day that I didn’t know who had brewed that mild. The beer board wasn’t much use and I hadn’t thought to ask. It would be revealed later, though.

We were joined at our table in the beer garden by a couple of lads, who we got chatting with. One was an English teacher working in Austria and the other was an Italian on his first visit to the Black Country. They had been for fish and chips so I was able to photograph these for you.

They had no cutlery or napkins and the Italian picked up his fish and was biting into it in the vain hope of actually getting to some fish (it seemed to be predominantly batter). We did of course ask to nick a chip and they were ok but not Blackpool/Cleethorpes standard.

We got chatting about weird food customs (as you do) and his friend explained how the Italian had been appalled at the concept of a pizza topped with bolognese AND pasta. I’ll confess that was shocking even to me. We checked and he was ok with pineapple on pizza – but not chicken.

Next we headed to the cinema, where a Laurel and Hardy film was about to start.

Here’s the full (short) movie that we watched.

We had a proper chuckle at this and Lee marvelled at how they had managed to film some of the scenes.

Here we also learned that the first ODEON cinema was opened here in Brierley Hill. We were told that ODEON stood for (founder) Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.

By now I was hungry and thirsty once again and Lee had spotted a caff with a balcony across the canal, so we headed over there. We realised there was no escaping chips today, so made do with these. They weren’t as nice as the ones from the chippy – and I had to make do with salad cream and ketchup in the absence of gravy – but they filled a gap. And at least they were served quickly (almost as soon as I’d sat down).

Whilst relaxing on the balcony I overheard the family at the next table discussing their visit to the school in the museum. Ooh we must have missed that. It sounded really good and I mentioned it to Lee when he got back from the loo.

‘It sounds great. You get the cane and everything.’

‘But I don’t want to get the cane. I’m terrified of the cane.’

‘Oh…well I don’t think it’s compulsory. We need to go, anyway – it sounds ace.’

But now it was time for the boat trip which we were booked on at 1500. You must not miss out on this during any trip to the Black Country Museum (although technically it’s not run by the museum itself).

We donned our hard hats, boarded the boat and set off down the canal, through the man-made tunnels in the hills.

They host weddings and concerts here in the singing cave.

There were little movies to watch along the way – much like the Mail Rail at the Postal Museum in London – and the man on the boat also told us lots about the history of the canals and these tunnels.

Now we had to get to school before we left the museum. By the time we arrived it was 1600. We’d already seen the schoolmistress roaming the streets looking for pupils skipping school and she’d told me off then for having my hands in my pockets. Would we escape the cane this afternoon?

We took seats right at the front of the classroom because I’d wanted us to be picked on because it would make for better material for the Tourist Guide.

This is why we learned our times tables up to 12, long after decimalisation.

Early on, I failed a hand inspection and was called up to stand at the front of the class.

‘You’ll stay behind after class and write 100 lines: Paint is for walls and furniture and not for my nails. What do you need to write?’

‘Paint is for walls and furniture and not for my nails. Sorry Ma’am.’

I returned to my desk. Meanwhile Lee was being such a swot, firing his hand in the air to answer every question we were asked. But it was all in vain.

Teacher said that she was 2p short on the school subs for this week and asked the class who hadn’t paid. She approached Lee and said he had been seen spending money on sweets. He was called to the front of the class.

‘How should we punish him, class? Should we give him lines?’

‘Noooooooo!’

‘Should we shame him?’

‘Noooooooo!’

‘Should we give him the cane?’

‘YEEEEESSSSSS!!!’

I was rather enjoying this.

Lee stood facing away from the class and held his hands out in front of him. The cane came crashing down and he yelled out loudly. It’s all on the video so do tune in to the Football Tourist’s Guide To The Black Country on Lee Charles TV.

The main takeaway from our visit to the Black Country Museum today was how hard the local people worked – and how proud they were of this. The more I thought about it – and about the people I met over the course of this weekend – I realised this was still the case. Dave from the motorcycle shop, who also organised coach trips and worked in the away ticket booth at the ground, was just one example. I would later meet others with similar stories of working multiple jobs.

But this museum also brought home to us what St Fagans in Cardiff could have been if only they were allowed to charge for admission (as they can here, not being a national museum). The Black Country Living Museum is a hive of activity and development – and it really is a ‘living’ museum. In stark contrast, St Fagans is decaying and dying, with no funding for the upkeep of the castle and grounds and that is heartbreaking. I do not agree that national museums should be free to enter if it means they go to ruin.

By now it was coming up to 1700 – and we had spent all day at this absorbing museum, putting paid to any plans we had to also take in Dudley Zoo. We were ravenous by now and I consulted the (usually) trusty CAMRA Good Beer Guide app to find us a pub in the vicinity that was currently serving food.

Mad O’Rourkes Pie Factory, Tipton

This was the nearest pub that was serving food. I was aware of the name but I didn’t know much else about it. The menu looked acceptable for both our diets, so we decided to go for it (veering only slightly out of our way to visit Bloomfield Road, one of the main roads in Tipton).

There was so much to look at in here that we had fallen in love with the place even before we had been shown to a table.

Now seated, we studied the menu long and hard. The SlimmingWorld option would have been the hanging piri piri chicken kebab with a jacket potato and, frankly, I would have enjoyed that. However this was a famous pie factory, so I had to have pie, didn’t I?

It was really hard to choose between these pies. I wanted the Steak ‘n’ Kidney Pudding ‘in our famous gravy’. I wanted the faggot pie because I love them and that is traditional black country fayre. But, well, you know me: I can never resist the word ‘curry’ on a menu – so I went for the Andy Murray pie. And I ordered a pint of Lump Hammer to go with it (not realising that was the name of the brewery, who had several beers on). One was chosen for me and whichever one it was (the Gold, I’m guessing), it was very nice.

There was still more to look at in here, as we waited for our food to arrive.

Look at the size of those jugs! Also, note the pigs heads on the wall.
Sawdust on the floor.

Lee was curious as to why they had sawdust on the floor of pubs. I didn’t know but, according to t’internet, it soaks up spillages of drinks, condiments, mucus, blood, etc. I’m glad I didn’t look that up before the food came.

I was pleased this wasn’t a traditional pie because I don’t really like pies. A bowl of curry topped with a naan bread worked fine for me. Indeed the curry was quite delicious and clearly a lot of love had gone into its preparation. I was kicking myself for forgetting to ask for it spicier (the menu stated it was served mild unless requested otherwise) but it was full of flavour as it was and I was very pleased with it. If only I knew how to make a curry like that. I did ask the waitress but she just said ‘I’d have to ask the chef’ and then didn’t bother.

But let’s move on to those chips. Those battered chips. You may recall me saying above that chips don’t need battering. Why ruin a good thing? Well, dear reader, I must now confess that these chips – these battered chips – were the best chips I’ve ever tasted in my life (sorry, Steels). In fact, they tasted so good that (and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this) having anything with them (even gravy) would only serve to impair their flavour; they are simply perfect on their own. I did try dipping one in the curry but I couldn’t taste the chip so that proved my point.

So never let it be said that I don’t have an open mind when it comes to food. There was simply no avoiding battered chips today and it was clearly meant to be. Bravo Tipton for being the new epicentre of my chip universe. We’ll be calling back here for sure on our travels.

And I’ll leave it there for now. But that was only the beginning of our Easter explorations…

Coming Up: Birmingham Pub Crawl (I KNOW BIRMINGHAM ISN’T IN THE BLACK COUNTRY!!! It’s a separate blog. Calm dowun.) & A Football Tourist’s Guide To The Black Country – Part Two & Walsall Pubs.

If you’ve enjoyed this article there are many more to read on this website. You can navigate using the menus above. All of my content is FREE but you do have the option to buy me a beer on a forthcoming trip by clicking on the link below:

Thank you to Mark, Babs and Steve for contributing to my delicate head this morning.

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