Believe it or not, this very day - 17th May 2016 - marks the tenth anniversary of the creation of the West Midlands Exploration blog. This milestone achievement has crept up on me almost unheralded, but it does present an opportune moment to reflect on what those ten years have meant in terms of life and exploration...
So it was that back in May 2006 the WME blog was brought into existence as a companion piece to what was then my Fotopic photo gallery website. The fact that I am still here prattling away one entire decade (and 559 posts worth) later is quite a feat of endurance if nothing else! Plenty of things have changed over the intervening years but I'd like to think that the core purpose of the blog remains intact - a sounding board to record memories and ponder my photographic direction. I've always thought of the blog as essentially a personal space written by me for me; whether other people read it and like it has been and still remains merely a secondary issue.
The bedrock of the blog's content is the West Midlands area and its public transport connections (bus, train and metro), not forgetting the canals and also allowing for an increasing focus on pubs in more recent years. I've certainly enjoyed detailing my various adventures whether solo outings or in the company of my cast of characters - D9, Stephen, Nick (a.k.a Nickolenko Pubalotovich, Nick Turpin and HRH), Rog, Woody and others. So what can I say about the period 2006-2016? Here are a few musings...
There is always the risk with retrospective reflections that things seemed better in the past, but I do think the local bus scene in 2006 was more interesting than it is now. Back then we still had Metrobuses, Leyland Nationals and the distinctive orange livery of Chase Bus Services gracing our streets - things are more corporate these days although there have been undoubted improvements in passenger comfort and information provision. I also think the route network had more variety with local estate links and socially necessary services which have latterly been streamlined through commercial approaches and the march of austerity.
In terms of train and metro there is less of a comparison to make, although the eyecatching transformation of Birmingham New Street is a notable development. I have gradually made my way around almost all of the railway stations in the West Midlands area; Earlswood is the only station that has consistently eluded me although the recently opened Coventry Arena has yet to be sampled either. There have been rolling stock changes such as Class 172 trains on the Stourbridge line while I'll always have a soft spot for the grunting class 150s that first introduced me to the network. The Midland Metro has had a fleet overhaul too but still remains a solitary line, even allowing for extensions at either end - I do wonder if we'll ever see the construction of accompanying branches as the proposed link through to Dudley and Merry Hill seems no nearer now than it did ten years ago.
Canals have been a constant source of fascination as I've steadily chipped away at my photographic coverage of the BCN. The jigsaw is by no means complete, and it's often the bleakest locations that prove the most memorable (Oldbury Junction or Salford Spaghetti for example, perfectly hideous). Recent endeavours to trace the Bentley Canal last September and the Balls Hill Branch on Good Friday have maintained this waterways theme, the chance to uncover lost history proving ever-alluring. I intend to keep a watching brief on restoration projects and am intrigued by the potential resurrection of the Bradley Locks Branch near Bilston.
Pubs didn't feature that much during the early days of the blog but have gone on to become a more prominent aspect of my writing. I am very much a fan of traditional Black Country boozers (and traditional Black Country beer) whereby the pub is often one of the defining landmarks within a local area. I have long lost count of the number of pubs that have sadly closed, either converted into alternative use or demolished completely - admittedly not all of these losses are to be regretted but there is a sense of a way of life gradually disappearing, hence imbuing in me more of a mission to visit and photograph those that have survived thus far. The trend for suburban pub closures is well exemplified by the situation on my own Bushbury doorstep, where casualties have included the Staffordshire Volunteer and King Charles (both Northwood Park) and the Bushbury Arms at Showell Circus. However, there has been positive pub news too with new establishments arriving on the scene - in Wolverhampton alone I can think of the Lych Gate Tavern and Hail to the Ale, the latter being a flagbearer for the new breed of micropubs.
There have of course been other themes too - cricket trips, family holidays, even the very occasional dabble with dodgy poetry - but one thing the blog has done unstintingly is document my pictorial progress, firstly with Fotopic and then with Flickr. I must have taken several thousand photos over the years, of which only a tiny fraction get to see the light of day on the wider interweb. The WME blog has provided a running commentary of update digests (usually involving rather silly extended metaphors), and the current Flickr photo count currently stands at 2,914.
On a personal level the last decade has certainly been eventful, the customary mix of wonderful moments interspersed with times of great sadness that together form the very fabric of life. Since 2006 I've largely made progress professionally, coming out the other side of a redundancy situation although the current plight of public libraries nationally remains a matter of grave concern to me. I've learned to drive, said a final goodbye to my dear grandad and had the privilege of getting to know my little nephew, plus accomplished many other things besides - the blog and my photo outings have been a thread throughout, helping me through all the various ups and downs.
Finally, it seems appropriate to conclude with a quick reference to my blog beginnings. My very first post back on 17th May 2006 identified that the blog was intended to serve as "part diary, part personal planner, part memory bank, part discussion board" with the promise to "post any ideas, news, comments and other trivial nonsense that I can think of". After all this time I still believe that this holds true, and - while the internet remains transient and temperamental in nature, thus meaning I can never make any guarantees - I look forward to continuing in the same vein for however many years there may be to come!