Happy New Year! 2012 has arrived, bringing with it the prospect of the Olympic Games and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, but before we look to the future let's pause and reflect on the twelve months just gone - here are the highlights from the 2011 exploration calendar...
January: a busy start to the year with two Worcestershire themed outings. Rog and I began with a Chaddesley Corbett, Bewdley and Cleobury Mortimer trip (during which the Swan staked an early claim for having the barmaid of the year) followed by a Sunday visit to Autosport Internaional, whilst the full WARP brigade resuscitated our aborted Christmas 2010 adventure by visiting a thankfully snow-free Stoke Prior. Closer to home, I documented the final days of the Phoenix Rise flats in Blakenhall and the Chip Foundation launched 2011 with a Darlaston pubcrawl that featured me sporting a very fetching sticking plaster accoutrement.
February: The shortest month was by no means light on adventure as I joined Rog for a tour of Eccleshall and then Mr D9 Andy for a Smethwick selection. The WARP crew ventured into Shropshire but Highley didn't make much of an impression, and my local trips included a roaming ramble around Aldridge, Castlefort and Brownhills. The Chip Foundation checked out some of Wolverhampton's finest pubs and I even took part in a Radio WM outside broadcast by meeting up with the BBC bus live at Bilston Market!
March: Into spring with my latest London Midland 'Great Escape' taking in Tamworth and Stone complete with an ELO soundtrack. The Chip Foundation brought its 2010/11 winter season to a close with a Walsall visit featuring the Manor Arms at Rushall and the Turf Tavern in Bloxwich. Andy and I rummaged around the canals and pubs of Oldbury, then I took stock of the bus routes of East Birmingham prior to a network review - rumour has it I even deigned to return to the Bromford Bridge estate! I joined forces with Mr B to have a look around Barnt Green, and March will also go down as the month when five years of hard work went up in smoke as the old WME Fotopic galleries disappeared.
April: it's Rail Rover time with a stunning week breezing around the wider Midlands area - Burslem, Beeston, Ledbury and Rugby all figured prominently, all topped off with a call at the Coventry Beer Festival. The WARP guys tackled Shropshire once more with a mooch around Bridgnorth, Shrewsbury and Newport on Grand National Day, then there was the small matter of some Eastertime cricket at Worcester complete with cathedral bells and the sounds of the BBC commentary box. Staffordshire beckoned for my solo tour of Cannock and Hednesford, plus I enjoyed a spare day investigating the Beechdale and Bentley areas of Walsall.
May: and cricket comes to the fore as I join the Bears on Tour in sampling Grace Road (Leicester), Wantage Road (Northampton) and Trent Bridge (Nottingham), the latter seeing us being treated to a masterful innings from Ian Bell. Rog and I dodged the rainclouds around Hockley Heath and Balsall Common (not forgetting the Hawne Tavern) whilst the D9 bandwagon rolled into Netherton and Rowley Regis, searching for tunnel vents around Warrens Hall and Windmill End.
June: Pride of place here has to go to the Weymouth weekend with Rog and Woody, despite the weather doing it's best to dampen the rally spirit on the Sunday. Visits to Lyme Regis, Bournemouth and Swanage supplemented a selection of Weymouth taverns (the Globe was a personal favourite), and the rain even made its way to Canada where Jenson Button won surely the longest grand prix on record. Back on Midlands territory, Rog was also on hand for a hike around Belbroughton and Clent whereby another deluge brought about some colourful comments from a local chap in a hedge. All of that left me just enough time to join Andy for the Digbeth Closet Hunt during which we braved Bordesley and did justice to the Jewellery Quarter.
July: The outings are coming thick and fast now, making the most of the extra sunshine. The full WARP crew are in attendance for two trips - a Liverpool filming locations tour paying homage to Brookside and Bread, then the Keeping Up Appearances visit to Hyacinth's Binley Woods bungalow plus a side order of Stoke Aldermoor. Wonderful Warwick was the Chip Foundation's summer destination as Nickolenko guided us around pubs including the Punchbowl and the Cape of Good Hope - Nick also starred in a couple of Beer Festival pitstops courtesy of Bromsgrove and Stafford (I still haven't forgiven him for winning the monkey on the tombola). A quick mention for my Staffordshire stroll around Featherstone and Shareshill, and finally July was a big month here in Wolverhampton as the city's new bus station was opened and a new network of bus routes came into operation. Once a few tweaks had been applied, I think the revised services have generally been acceptable and the bus station was well-received on the whole.
August: more cricketing capers with a visit to Aigburth, Liverpool where Warwickshire took on eventual title winners Lancashire. The D9 blazed a trail around Great Bridge and West Bromwich as the Hub Marketing Board submitted it's first full minutes, and the remainder of August was then given over to Yorkshire. A family holiday in Richmond included the glorious scenery of Wensleydale and a dip into Darlington, plus the two breweries of Masham, then it was over to Headingley with Mr B to see Warwickshire demolish the home side with an innings victory whilst the likes of Harrogate, Leeds and Ilkley kept us occupied in between the sporting action - even now I still get cravings for a Betty's Yorkshire Curd Tart!
September: the second major rally weekend of the year and this time the weather is kinder as I join Woody and Rog for a few days in Torquay, Mr Wood claiming the comedy moment of the year when a rogue tree interrupted his D9 demonstration on the Totnes open-topper (it wasn't just the hair moving quickly on that occasion). The Severn Valley Railway was the setting for the Bridgnorth Beer Festival (with a morning weave around Worfield), and the Hub Marketing Board tackled Telford in style with a glorious day down by the Ironbridge Gorge.
October: autumnal offerings here include... a Nickolenko visit to Oldbury and Blackheath (sampling the local fayre in the Waterfall with seriously chunky chips); a D9 half-day where Andy and I called at Codsall before a whistle-stop wriggle around Whitmore Reans and Wednesfield; the Chip Foundation's Birmingham Bash where the Bull in the Gun Quarter was one of 2011's finest pub discoveries; and finally a visit to the Birmingham Beer Festival that was bookended by a tantalising morning trail around Tipton and some memorable chip-munching exploits in Stirchley during which Nick managed to damage his prized lunchbox.
November: further Chip Foundation exploits involved a return visit to Darlaston (Nick revealing an alarming obsession with baubles) followed by a successful strike on Pattingham (the Crown seemed to open up especially for us). The D9 was cranked into gear for a run-out around Brownhills and Chasetown (a day that marked the Hub carrier bag's last stand), and there was the delight of the Dudley Winter Ales Fayre with tipples including Batham's XXX and Banks's Barley Gold. My solo tour of Coombeswood and Cradley Heath maintained the Black Country flavour with segments of Leasowes Park and the Dudley No. 2 Canal.
December: squeezing in at the death, my annual visit to Coventry was as spectacular as ever with Whitefriars Olde Alehouse proving a star find - it was also great to track down the Brandon speedway stadium and have a closer look around Cheylesmore. Nick and I sampled more winter ales courtesy of the Pie Factory, Park Inn and the Beacon, rounded off with some jazz at the Trumpet (our adopted Wednesday evening home), and last but not least was the festive fun of that D9 classic taking in Moseley, Ladywood and Smethwick with closets and ales galore. Superb!
Well what can I say after all of that? It really has been a fantastic year and my thanks go to everyone who was involved - Rog, Woody, Andy, Nick and Stephen plus the various other characters we met along the way. It's been a year of beer festivals, Wednesday Nickolenkos, classic cricket, bald spot baiting and above all some vintage moments of exploration discovery - can 2012 maintain such dizzying heights? I can't wait to find out...