Had a great day yesterday, enjoying a long tour through tunnels and locks on canals around Dudley with the Dudley Canal Trust, followed by a meal at Mad O’Rourke’s famous pie factory (pub). and then a drink at The Crooked House. This was a surprise treat from my brother for my recent birthday.
My brother had asked me some time ago if I was free on the 4th of June as he had something in mind for my birthday. He wanted it to be a surprise though so would not tell me what it was going to be. He checked with my wife if she thought I would enjoy it and she confirmed I would. Partly it was a treat for her as well as her birthday is a month after mine but as he has not historically been the best judge of what I might or might not like, he did not feel he could keep it secret from her.
I suffered increasing paranoia as I got closer to the day. My brother and I have very different takes on life and completely different personal situations. He has long been somewhat critical of my desk-bound, computer obsessed, indoors style of working and living (rightly so, as I have suggested elsewhere). Thus, I was very doubtful that he would actually come up with something I would enjoy. Sad, I know. But the truth. Even with my wife and both of my children assuring me that I would enjoy the day, I became more and more convinced that they were trying to encourage me to make the best of something that would not be that high on my list of fun things to do. I could be confident it would not be something I would hate (as my wife would not have let that happen) but, sadly, not much more.
Wow. How wrong can one be!
Getting there turned out to be something of a trauma. My brother picked up my wife and me at 8.30 ready. He then headed to Telford to pick up his girl-friend, and the four of us headed off to an unknown destination. I realised after a while that we were heading towards Dudley. The only thing I could think of that might be of interest to me there was the Black Country Museum. That did not seem to fit the bill though as I knew we were to be out and about in the sun for several hours, and also likely to get wet. My brother had taken me there many many years ago (when I was a kid) when we climbed through some of the old mine workings and stood next to one of the canals that goes through the mines. I remember shining our lamps into our faces and making lots of ghost noises for the entertainment of the tourists on a narrow boat in the tunnel. I also recall my brother cutting his hand as we climbed out of the mines and having to go to hospital for several stitches.
Generally my elder sibling is very good at finding his way around. This day, under pressure of a departure deadline and without help from the passengers who either did not know or were keeping secrets, he started to get more and more frustrated as he drove hither and thither to locate the mysterious venue of my treat. His control of the vehicle got, er, more adventurous and time ticked by. My wife and his girlfriend were by now sharing ticket information, and doing web searches for addresses to feed into the sat nav. We did pass Mad O’Rourke’s famous pie factory pub several times. Michael had talked about this place many times over the years and he revealed we would be going there for a meal later in the day.
My brother’s girlfriend suggested we could go to the zoo if all else failed. At one point, I did wonder out loud if the venue was the canals around the Black Country Museum, but this was ignored, as were all the many brown signs pointing to this location. My brother stopped and hopped out of the car a couple of times to get directions, but this did not help much. Eventually, we entered just the name of the road he thought he needed and found the location pretty quickly. We arrived exactly at the time we were due to leave the moorings. My brother insisted his girlfriend ran from the car park to the boarding point and make sure they waited for us. As he had not turned the engine off, the doors were still locked and she only managed to get the windows down at first (I really thought she was going to clamber out).
We made it with plenty of time to spare as they waited for a booked couple to arrive another 20 minutes. In fact, they arrived as we set off and boarded at the well entrance to the tunnels.
The Dudley Canal Trust is a charity and is run by unpaid volunteers. They do employ a few people, special trades such as sparkies (our driver was one). The boat was a pretty standard steel hulled narrow-boat 70’ long (the size we have usually hired in the past for our many canal holidays). The tour guide was excellent. He managed to keep us entertained and informed (not always accurately outside of the core topics) for over 7 hours (the tour was only supposed to last 5 hours). The first tunnel, the Dudley Tunnel, includes a couple of audio-visual presentations in chambers within the tunnel. Somewhat dated but nevertheless, informative. The tunnel is pretty old, has no towpath and has a lot of bends and minor size changes where the workings from work on different faces met. The other tunnel, Netherton Tunnel, is newer, straighter and wider. Boats can pass each other and there is a towpath on each side. When not in tunnels, we got to enjoy a little bit of the town canals and some countryside. Sadly, as is usually the case with large town/city canals, the amount of rubbish floating around is horrendous although many of the water foul make good use of some of the materials to build their nests. I do find the history of places relating to canals very interesting, but I prefer to relax on the much cleaner country canals.
It has been a few years since I have been on a narrow boat. I am pleased to say I was pretty much instantly relaxed. I know some people were probably getting bored on the boat as we were buzzing (batteries, rather than diesel engine) along for so long, but being on the canals has always relaxed me greatly. At one point I was enjoying reading a free newspaper, Towpath Talk (guess what that is about), which we picked up at the Tea Rooms in the Bumble Hole conservation area (great value tea, by the way, and a good range of cakes for those inclined to indulge). The Cobbs Engine House would probably have kept my brother occupied for hours had we had change to pop in, but as it was we were taking too much time on the canal tour – a stop just after the flight of locks at Parkhead whilst a whole boat load of people took it in turns to make use of the singular British Waterways toilet rather delayed us. It is a shame the guide had not thought to make clear how soon we would have another stop and a better location to eat our sandwiches.
At this point, having helped on the gates of a few locks, I suggested to my wife that it was far too long since we had been on the canals. She agreed. The trip had given us the appetite again. We decided to arrange to hire a boat for at least a weekend or a short week in the near future. We then came to the problem of who to take with us. For many years, the easy choice was our kids, both of whom really enjoy travelling on the canals and are great at both operating locks safely and driving the boat (unlike my wife, who has never really got the hang of it, and just does not like it). The obvious choice seemed to be a university friend of my wife’s, who will be living with us shortly (her student digs) and her husband. My wife texted her to see if she would be interested and got an instant positive response. [Just asked the kids, as I write this, and they are somewhat upset to hear that we are thinking of doing a canal holiday without them!!! Looks like we need to think again.]
After the very enjoyable and long canal cruise, my brother took us to Mad O’Rourke’s famous pie factory & pub. He found it very quickly, which astonished the rest of us (and I think, him). There were a lot of corny notices around the outside, such as “Wham, Bham, thank you Lamb.” He has spoken about this place for many years, with a particular reference to their Desperate Dan’s Cow Pie, a huge 4lb Steak & Kidney pie with pastry horns on top and seasonal vegetables included inside. I have been avoiding pastry dishes for the last couple of months, but I felt on this special day, should go for the top meal. My brother did the same. However, I asked my wife if she would help and my brother ordered an extra plate so I could give her some of my pie. In fact, my brother also shared with my wife. She was in danger of having more than either myself or my brother. He was delighted to receive a certificate at the end of the meal to say he had eaten all of his pie, and should seek medical assistance. (They had not noticed him putting food onto my wife’s plate and dumping the uneaten horns on mine). Massive it might have been, but it was the nicest steak and kidney pie I have ever eaten. Fantastic. My brother’s girl friend went for fish & chips. I tasted the fish, and that was incredible. Not overcooked, unlike most fish & chip shops. It is also worth mentioning the beer I had, Lump Hammer. Really really nice.
For a while there was a small chain of Mad O’Rourke’s which the original owner had sold off to some other firm. Things did not go well for them, and most of the pubs closed down. The original ended up being bought by its former manager and seems to be in good hands and doing well. I shall definitely return.
After the meal, my brother took us to The Crooked House pub & restaurant Coppice Mill Off the Himley Road Himley Dudley DY3 4DA. He had a little trouble finding the place, or rather, leaving Mad O’Rourke’s in the right direction and finally resorted to the satnav which took him “on a very strange route".”
They had a strange requirement to pay £1 deposit for every glass you use outside or even inside the pub (not in the restaurant though). You can have a plastic "glass" for no deposit. Very odd.
As suggested from the image of the outside, the way things look inside is also pretty weird. There is a mid-height rail around the main bar room. It looks like it is sloping downwards, but with them help of a marble from the bar staff you realise it slopes downward. Your sense scream this cannot be so, but the evidence is before your eyes.
We had a drink outside. It was nice in the sun, but there was a lot of rubbish around the area sadly. Perhaps they should concentrate on clearing up rather than charging a deposit for glasses. My brother had originally considered this place for our after canal tour meal, but I am glad he chose Mad O’Rourke’s in the end. We did not try the food at The Crooked House but the old rules and the untidiness outside make me think he made the correct choice.
Overall, a fantastic day out.