Monday, January 31

A Stoke Prior Appointment

Many of you may recall the calamity of that Christmas outing down to Worcestershire where Woody, Rog, Andy and myself very nearly became snowbound in Bromsgrove. Never ones to be defeated by the weather, we were soon planning a return visit with Saturday 29th January 2011 proving to be the designated date. This time around the elements were much kinder and the day was memorable for all the right reasons...

* A combination of local trains from Wolverhampton and Smethwick delivers me safely to Stourbridge Junction where I meet up with Rog and Woody, but no sign of Andy as yet. We debate whether Mr Lunn will indeed make an appearance as Mr Wood tries to get himself a perm using the heater in the Junction waiting room - as ever his hair is set solid using his industrial supply of Brylcreem.

* 9:19 and the train down to Kidderminster. Still no Andy but no white stuff either so it seems safe to proceed with caution. We alight at Kiddy and I just have time for some shots of the Railway Bell before the X3 collects us for the journey to Redditch. The bus is noticably fuller than our last attempt so the omens are good, especially as we can actually see the road today!

* The passage to Bromsgrove gives Woody the chance to test out his D9 driving skills (and Roger's dodgy foot), making serene progress down to the bus station where Andy announces his arrival with a sharp tap on the window - rumour has it that Woody's hair actually moved with the shock. With Mr Lunn on board we have a full complement and the banter continues unabated.

- Heading for Redditch on the X3 -

* Redditch then, alighting amongst various Red Diamond vehicles much to Woody's chagrin. The Golden Cross gets the WME photo treatment then we call into Wetherspoon's The Royal Enfield for our first group pint of 2011. A welcome Guinness always provides some sustenance for the day ahead as Andy teases me with talk of modal shifting to thick blue lines on the Wolverhampton bus network. We decide to see if the Golden Cross is open yet - it isn't, but Andy did make sure by shouting through the window just in case - and so a further pint in the Royal Enfield is required as we prepare for departure. Rog even has time to relive a previous Redditch bladder nightmare when he finds the Kingfisher toilet is occupied once more, I must admit that episode was quite amusing...

* Our exit from Redditch comes courtesy of the X3 back to Bromsgrove, a quick little run back past the Foxlydiate Arms. We alight handily for access to the Golden Cross Wetherspoon's where bladders are becalmed and luncheon is served. As ever for me its a gourmet burger meal deal, this time washed down with some very moreish Titanic Stout, a hearty winter tipple.

* The main business of the day concerned our much anticipated visit to Stoke Prior. With food digested we make our way onto the Red Diamond 141 Droitwich service, taking us down past Aston Fields (with all it's traumatic 'Bromsgrove' Station memories) and then on an extended tour of a Morrisons supermarket car park. We alight by Stoke Prior Church where we christen the new Worcestershire hub and then engage in some D9 racing as Andy and Rog battle each other with a kamikaze sprint down Hanbury Road.

- Stoke Prior, The Navigation Inn -

* We arrive somewhat breathlessly at The Navigation and head inside for a recovery pint, in my case Fuller's London Pride, and a pool tournament. First up it's Roger vs Mr Wood (or was it Freddie Boswell vs Stephen Fry) with Roger's wild hair securing victory, then it's over to Andy and myself whereby Mr Lunn progressed to an easy triumph by modelling himself (apparently) on Hurricane Higgins. The final pits Rog against Andy but a bit of black ball skulduggery left the title undecided, the only wonder was that neither of them noticed the missing ball earlier.

* Next stop is the Boat and Railway, via a walk along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal where the towpath was marginally less treacherous than last year. The pub lives up to expectations with a warming fire and the chance for a Cheers photo where Roger does his best to block me out of the shot with that infernal coat of his!

* It's now just after 3pm so we track down the return bus to Bromsgrove, where more bladder concerns necessitate an emergency visit to the Red Lion for a swift half (of cola I might add). From here our final X3 run connects us back to Kidderminster, where even more bladder concerns result in a limbo dash into the Tesco supermarket, it must be the cold weather!

* Time for a bit of driving nostalgia as Mr Wood relives his previous existence courtesy of the Whittles 125 service to Stourbridge. Memories abound as we recall his days at Stourbridge Garage thrashing the D9s and S16s past the Broadwaters and the Park Gate then down the Stourbridge Road to Iverley - Andy is on hand of course to bring the whole experience to life with his own brand of heavy duty steering.

- Back at the Bell -

* We arrive back in the West Midlands and indulge in a little Stourbridge crawl to while away the evening. Rog and Woody reminisce about their days working in the Bell, telling tales of various misadventures and seeming quite at home despite the pub having had various refits since. The Talbot is another former Rog workplace, then the Chequers Wetherspoons delivers another round of decent pub grub. With Andy then Woody bidding us farewell, it's over to Rog and myself to complete proceedings with a half in both the Mitre (with Ken Dodd bizarrely on the jukebox) and the Duke William (some Duke's house ale as we accepted a late nomination for barmaid of the day). 8pm and Roger heads off home, and before too long a 256 and a bag of scratchings ensure I have a safe return to Wolverhampton. First group trip of the year done, more of the same and we'll be in for a cracking 2011.

Sunday, January 30

Getting Plastered

Friday 28th January 2011 heralded the first Chip Foundation outing of the New Year, which saw Stephen, Nick and myself descend upon Darlaston as I displayed the dressings resulting from my recent nose operation…

- Plastered in the Old Blue Ball -

* 1pm and time to get going. Mr B meets me in Wolverhampton and we’re off onto the Metro for the short ride into Bilston. The town seems reasonably busy on a Friday afternoon and a quick stroll brings us to The Trumpet, where Nick is already in situ with his pint of Golden Glow. The pub is renowned as a venue for live music (especially jazz) and Stephen and I admire the various gig tickets adorning the bar area. My beer has the rather jazzy sounding name of Flo Jangles and constitutes Holden’s opening monthly special brew of 2011, hence being entirely appropriate for our setting. George Benson provides smooth musical accompaniments to our conversation - all in all, an excellent opening gambit.

* After a bite to eat we make our way to Bilston Bus Station and track down the 339 bus for an interesting ride down through Moxley and Herberts Park. Nick also uses the journey for some covert chipmunching having smuggled the remainder of his lunch on board. We alight in Darlaston at 2:45pm hoping to sample the Prince of Wales, but despite the chalkboard outside suggesting a 2 o'clock opening (not to mention Nick's valiant attempts at breaking and entering), there is no sign of life and we have to fall back on a standby selection.

* Thankfully salvation was at hand just down the road as The Springhead Tavern came to the rescue. Last time I was across this way the pub had closed and it’s future was uncertain, but Black Country Ales have taken it on and even secured it a spot in the 2011 Good Beer Guide. We receive a friendly greeting from a couple of locals and then pick out our ales: Blue Monkey’s Ape Ale for me whilst Nick is on the Imperial Russian Stout and Stephen the customary lemonade and black. The pub feels fairly open plan and quite basic, with one nice feature being the Rogues Gallery picture board immortalising some of the regulars.

* Safely past 3pm now we decide to give the
Prince of Wales another go. I did have high expectations of the place and was hoping for another special Holden’s Good Beer Guide experience, but it never quite transpired like that. At least the pub was now open, meaning we could stage the momentous occasion that was the ‘Prince of Wales in the Prince of Wales’ with royal lookalike Nick posing gamely for the photos. We did this sitting in the lounge, which soon qualified as one of the shabbiest rooms I’ve ever had a drink in. In some cases a bit of rusticness can add an authentic quality to a pub but here it seemed more like neglect, and we left with the sense that the place was tired and struggling. I have no wish to do the place a disservice and I would love to be corrected if necessary, but I aim to be honest when writing this blog and my first impressions of the Prince of Wales simply weren't favourable at all.

- With 'Nickolenko' in the Cottage Spring -

* Moving on, let's have a little wander towards Wednesbury. Cobden Street leads to Franchise Street where I was pleased to see that the Forge Tavern was still standing, and just down the road is another Holden's, the Cottage Spring. Given the sad state of the Prince of Wales I was seriously wondering what this place would be like – actually it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The front bar was noticeably busy and the back lounge was comfy and pleasant with the pub dog providing curious entertainment by chasing its own tail.

* 4 pubs down and still more Wednesbury to come, but first a slight detour so that I can add the closed Scott Arms to my Darlaston pub archive. Kings Hill Park and Methodist Church are other notable features en route as Nick's wintry appearance leads us to christen him Nickolenko Pubalotovich as our best attempt at passing him off as a Lithuanian.

* The clock on Wednesbury Church in the distance has ticked round to 5pm and beyond as we pitch up at Hall End. We were taking a risk by revisiting some of our thwarted haunts from our Metro trip (when Wednesbury was memorable for all the wrong reasons), but this time the pub was open and our faith was about to be restored. Indeed, the
Old Blue Ball proved to be a nice little free house that soon won me over. It feels quite compact inside, with a particularly snug front bar room accessed through a sliding door. From a good selection of beers Nick chooses Reverend James whilst I take a punt on Everard’s Original and very nice it was too. We decamp to the larger lounge area on the left hand side of the building, finding a cosy corner where we can admire various shields and trophies and discuss the local canals.

* Next up we're out into the darkness to try out the other pub that escaped us on that previous Wednesbury visit. Vicarage Road brings us to the
Olde Leathern Bottel, reputedly an old building where the low ceilings and beam effects do add a hint of olden charm. Hobgoblin and Salopian Shropshire Gold are the tipples here as Stephen studies the menu for future reference. I'm glad we made the effort to drop by.

* Our final call of the day sees us heading back to Bilston, timing our walk to perfection just in time to catch the 79. We alight just after 7pm and make a beeline for the
Olde White Rose, a place Nick and Stephen both have a certain affection for. As ever there are plenty of real ale aficionados congregated around the main bar, eyeing up the wide selection of tipples including a mixture of local brews and those from further afield. Last Rites catches my eye until I realise its 11% so a timely swerve brought us to Backyard Brewery’s The Hoard, celebrating the Roman treasure found in Staffordshire the other year. The pub interior has changed a little as the raised section has gone and the carvery servery is now at the far end of the main corridor. It does feel more spacious and we find a decent perch at which to ruminate on the day’s events – a good place to finish.

* 7:30 approaches and with that it’s time to leave, shuffling around the corner for a 525 from an almost deserted Bilston Bus Station. The bus arrives fairly promptly and gives us a handy ride homewards, with Mr B departing at Wednesfield and me then leaving Nick to the remainder of his journey. On reflection it had been a good afternoon out, full of interest and some excellent ales. Wednesbury came through strongly and Darlaston was memorable, but my pub of the day crown this time around goes to Bilston and the Trumpet, a true pub classic that deserves further visits in future...

Wednesday, January 19

Exhibition Exploration

The second part of my weekend double-header with Rog took place on Sunday 16th January with a visit to the combined Autosport International and Pistonheads Performance Car Show being held at the NEC...

* An early start sees us leave the Walker residence just after 7am to head up to Wolverhampton Station. We were hoping to get to the NEC well in advance of 9:30 but that plan was soon scuppered when we found out a replacement bus service was in operation, and that wasn't due until 8:45.

* Rather than wait around for three quarters of an hour, we decide to catch the Metro to Birmingham Snow Hill and then hotfoot it to New Street for a train to Birmingham International, Rog using his Blackberry to inform his avid followers of our progress.

* Getting to International Station is one thing, getting into the exhibition is another. The route to the hall involves various corridors, escalators and travelators until we finally arrive at our destination. Our tickets are scanned and in we go - welcome to the show!

* I must admit I don't have a huge fascination with cars, so I wasn't too sure what I would make of the exhibition. We start by meandering around the memorabilia stalls in the Autosport section whilst making our way to the F1 area. I was impressed by a display of McLarens, including racing cars of various vintages alongside their latest road car, and the F1 grid was also a popular attraction featuring a selection of the cars from last year's championship. The main stage was hosting interviews with assorted luminaries throughout the day and we spotted Martin Brundle signing autographs.

* Mid-morning and the place is starting to get busy. We continue our circuit of the hall with Rog on the lookout for freebies and 'pit babes' - there were gorgeous girls everywhere, draping themselves over bonnets or walking around in lycra hotpants and making it very difficult to concentrate on the cars, although as distractions go we were hardly complaining. The girls weren't shy either, and Rog didn't miss the opportunity to get a few photos when the possibility arose.

* Pausing momentarily to catch our breath, we do a loop of the Pistonheads zone where glamorous sportscars are on show along with trade stands displaying various products to present your motor in tiptop condition. Rog is persuaded to fill out a survey (which takes his mind off the girls for all of 30 seconds), and we could also see the latest technological developments being brought out by manufacturers and universities.

* After midday and it's getting rather crowded so Rog and I decide to seek out lunch. The in-house Wetherspoon's had prices aimed at a captive audience (i.e. extortionate), so it seemed wiser to say goodbye to the exhibition and head back to Birmingham. We'd had a good two to three hours milling about and I think we saw everything we wanted to see and more, so thanks to Mrs W for winning the tickets in the first place.

* Travelators and escalators take two, then a train to New Street. Our hunger pangs are sated with a visit to the Briar Rose, which was actually not as busy as we'd expected. I enjoyed my customary gourmet burger, accompanied this time by some Folded Cross bitter from the Beowulf Brewery based in Brownhills - I always like to try a local pint where possible.

* The afternoon is spent dodging heavy rain showers as we wend our way to Stourbridge. The Longlands Tavern was mysteriously closed so we take shelter in the Garibaldi, a pub that will forever now be associated with the infamous darts match of 2011. Rog and I both soon abandoned any pretensions we had of being able to throw the arrows, and the prospect of hitting a double looked increasingly remote with every attempt. In the end we counted down from 101 just trying to hit anything we could, with the result being that I won by 3 legs to 1. I had two crowning moments - a shock dart that actually hit the treble twenty, and a 38 outshot where I hit the outer bull followed by a deadly 13 to leave Roger 'The Dodger' Chance absolutely stunned.

* Proud with my darting prowess, our next port of call takes us around the corner or thereabouts into the New Inn. Having sat in the bar previously I was surprised by how luxurious the lounge area was, very nice indeed. Purity's Mad Goose does the trick here as we consult a copy of Ales and Tales.

* The evening sees us catching up with Mr Wood for some closing pints, starting in the Old White Horse (Harvester) then decamping to the Plough and Harrow. The latter was my favourite of the two, supping some of the Nottingham Brewery's Extra Pale Ale and perusing a fine array of pump clips dotted around and about. A final cheers photo or two and then it's time to head home courtesy of a Diamond 256. What a weekend, what a great start to the New Year!!

Monday, January 17

Chaddesley Corbett and Cleobury Mortimer

How best to christen a new year of exploration? Well a weekend double-header with a certain Mr Chance isn't a bad way to start, and so that's exactly what we did. Sunday's adventures saw us visit the Pistonheads Autosport Performance Car Show at the NEC (more about that in a later post), whilst Saturday's contingent involved a couple of places with names that sound like they've been plucked straight out of a register of posh public schoolboys...

Saturday 15th January then and a bit of leg power before the horsepower as Rog and I make our way out to Worcestershire and Shropshire and back, all topped off with a Black Country flourish.

* We meet at Stourbridge just after 9am, and it's another progress update on the bus station redevelopment. The site is now a pile of rubble with the bus stop cafe and the enquiries office now just memories whilst part of the subway has also been closed off.

* Onto the Parry's People Mover and a quick change at the Junction brings us to Blakedown, a station we'd never previously stopped off at. It's only a basic halt with some bus stop style shelters, but the white wooden fences and old fashioned running boards do offer a nod to tradition. The signal box and the level crossing add neatly to the scene too so I'm glad we called by.

* Let the walk commence! The first stage takes us into Blakedown Village, passing the primary school, a church and the post office/Crumbs store. We pause momentarily so I can photograph the Old House at Home pub, then Belbroughton Road takes us out into the countryside as we wonder whether the drizzle is going to get any heavier.

* It seems that the strong winds have blown the worst of the rain away, and three miles later we emerge into Belbroughton, a pretty Worcestershire village with notable landmarks including Holy Trinity Church and The Queens and Talbot pubs. Rog leads us on a little loop of Church Hill, High Street and Queens Hill and I can add some scenic photos of cottagey streetscapes.

* More country lanes take us on to Drayton, where Rog inspects random bits of discarded clothing and footwear on the grass verges, and thence to Chaddesley Corbett. The walk hadn't actually taken as long as we'd expected, so there's plenty of time to get our bearings and further photos. Again there's a pretty main street, an impressive church and a selection of pubs (the Swan, the Talbot and the Fox) to admire.

- Chaddesley Corbett with the Swan -

* The Swan was our choice, tempted by the prospect of adding to our Bathams collection. This proved to be an excellent decision as we enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere, traditional surroundings (surprisingly spacious too) and a decent pub lunch, although our attention was also drawn towards an attractive barmaid - Rog is unsurprisingly very keen to return.

* Tearing ourselves away, we flag down the X3 on the main road and soon alight in Kidderminster, where my attempted photos of the Town Hall generate interest from a local archaeologist who approaches us with the greeting "1869"!

* To Bewdley next courtesy of a quick ride on the 2A down past the Safari Park. Bewdley is an elegant riverside town and I enjoy the opportunity to photograph some of the fine buildings here. Resisting the temptation to throw Roger in the cells, we undertake the very steep climb up Wyre Hill in order to sample the homely delights of the Black Boy Inn (not to be confused with the Black Boy Hotel elsewhere in the town). The ascent was well worth it to visit a pub that features in the 2011 Good Beer Guide, even if my pint of Soggy Bottom was a reminder of my Gorsty Hill fall a few weeks ago.

* Back down the hill to Load Street where we catch the delayed 292 - the route links Kidderminster and Ludlow and provided our connection to Cleobury Mortimer via the Hop Pole Inn and Far Forest, tiptoeing into Shropshire in the process.

- In the Bell at Cleobury Mortimer -

* Cleobury Mortimer has long held a fascination for me as a small, quiet kind of place renowned for the twisted spire on St Mary's Church. The town has a tempting collection of pubs so we decided to try a couple. First off we had The Bell, looking very understated and plain on Lower Street, no ostentatious signage here just a proper drinker's local. We followed this with the Kings Arms, the designated taphouse for local brewers Hobson's, where I enjoyed a pint of Mild in the more trendified surroundings.

* Time to catch our bus back to Kiddy, getting a buffeting from strong winds whilst waiting on High Street as darkness arrived. With the bus seemingly not imminent, the bladders were starting to get impatient so it was necessary for a cheeky visit to the Talbot Hotel, and we still made it out with time to spare. Eventually the 292 did appear and the journey back revealed that Wolves had lost 4-3 in a high-scoring encounter with Manchester City.

* Alighting by Kidderminster Town Hall once more, a walk to the station means we time it nicely for the train, then the Parry's People Mover and the 246 bus also slotted neatly into place. We can now look forward to a Black Country evening, beginning with our old friend The Swan in Amblecote. It was very relaxing sitting in the lounge reflecting on the day so far over a pint of Black Hole's Asteroid.

* A short walk takes us to the remains of the Oakfield Tavern, which had been demolished barely hours earlier to leave a pile of wreckage, a sorry sight. Thankfully the Bird in Hand was much more appealing, a backstreet corner local with a quiet lounge where we pose for a cheers photo or two (once Rog had worked out how to set the flash with the timer!) before wandering up the road for a quick half in the Queens Head, an Enville Ales taphouse.

* Finally, its the old 256 run back to Wolverhampton and a quick drink in the Giffard completes proceedings before we retire to the Walker residence at the end of a very successful day. What would Sunday have in store?

Saturday, January 1

WME Update Digest: December 2010

As I seem to be in the mood for reviews and reflections, let's have a quick look at what happened on the WME galleries during December...

First off I shall draw your attention to WME Walsall with it's new Exploring Darlaston collection. My snapshot of this small Black Country town currently features the Horse and Jockey pub, the Staffordshire Knot and Rough Hay post office as my chosen foundation layers. I note too that a further instalment of the 171 at Mossley series has squeaked its way onto Walsall by Bus, and there has also been that rarest of occurrences where a photo taken in 2010 has been homed already - the culprit in question is a crafty peek at Caldmore Green on Exploring Caldmore, a very honoured photo indeed!

Moving next to WME Birmingham where Exploring Sheldon takes its bow as a fledgling collection thanks to pictures of the pub sign for the Arden Oak along with a couple of views of the Wheatsheaf traffic lights, surely the height of glamour! Acocks Green Station has resurfaced from hibernation with another look at the station frontage, a very welcome addition to a collection that has been virtually dormant for the past five years.

A new collection too for WME Staffordshire as Exploring Rising Brook touches down with the local Co-op and the Nesbitt Arms pub - it's nice to feature more of the wider Stafford area for a change. I'm very pleased to see that the number 2 bus at Uttoxeter is now making an appearance, providing the racecourse town with an overdue first taste of WME recognition.

What else have we got? Well WME Wolverhampton is quietly ticking over - here we have additions to Exploring Bushbury (a festive St Mary's Church scene along with the snow-capped churchyard), Exploring East Park (a view in the park itself and a streetscape shot of Hollington Road) and Exploring Bradmore (a quiet look at St Philip's churchyard), not forgetting the introduction of Exploring Low Hill comprising the old Methodist Church and a wintry Showell Circus.

Elsewhere, there have been welcome returns to form for WME Telford and WME Coventry. Telford chips in with some handy bus shots of the 92 and Green Bus 3 at Telford Bus Station, whilst for Coventry a return for Canley's Herald pub accompanies a florists shop from Tile Hill South. WME Worcestershire has been a little more active recently but it's still encouraging to see further additions to Exploring Cofton Hackett (the Oak Tree pub) and Bewdley's Severn Valley Railway station (a platform view and a closer look at the station entrance).

Right then, it's time to bring on the stragglers. This month around we find WME Sandwell avoiding detention with photos of the George pub on Exploring Wednesbury and a railing-dominated peek at the Metro stop at Guns Village. I've started so I'll finish, and bringing up the rear is WME Dudley with its solitary acquisition being another Ludlow's 002 at Halesowen Bus Station.

That just about draws a line under 2010, and it wasn't such a bad year for the galleries in the end. Updates are a painstaking process, but my scattergun piecemeal approach has at least resulted in exactly 300 photos being slotted into place this last twelve months. 300 doesn't sound too shabby a number, but the fact remains that with my range of galleries to cater for things will be spread thinly at times. It might not be ideal, but there have been many positive additions to WME over the last year so there's plenty for me to build on in 2011.

WME Review of the Year - 2010

Happy New Year and welcome to 2011! As is customary for my first January blog post, it's time to look back over the exploration highlights from the previous twelve months. 2010 was another vintage year of classic outings and memories, so let's get reminiscing...

* January: and the year gets off to the best of starts as I join Woody and Andy for a visit to Droitwich and Stoke Prior, where the Bowling Green pub provides the first pint of the year and I also get accused of having a bus fetish! Birmingham clocks in early with a tour of Yardley and Sheldon, and I introduce Dad to the weathered surroundings of the Waggon and Horses in Halesowen.

* February: Local trips this month included a Sandwell mystery melange around Hamstead and Great Barr, a wander along the Dudley Road in Wolverhampton and a fascinating Saturday morning study of Cradley. February also heralded the first excursion of the Chip Foundation as Nick, Stephen and I descended upon Gornal to begin our series of ale adventures. Elsewhere I was Shropshire bound for a look around Oswestry and Ellesmere, and there was also time for some Merseyside magic thanks to a London Midland Great Escape to Liverpool and Runcorn.

* March: The away-days continue as Woody, Andy and I take in the delights of Gloucestershire, calling at Gloucester, Stroud and Cheltenham with some enlightening discussions about cheese-rolling amongst other subjects. The Chip Foundation were in action again with a visit to those bastions of beer, Ma Pardoe's and the Bull & Bladder, whilst my solo stuff kept me very occupied indeed, sampling the varied offerings of Caldmore and Aston, Nechells, the Titford Canal, Tividale and the Fens Branch - although obviously not all on the same day!!

* April: Pride of place here has to go to Rail Rover 2010, a glorious week of exploration indulgence that included calls at Wrexham, Ludlow, Henley-in-Arden and Fenton, plus well deserved pints in Little Stretton (The Green Dragon) and Atherstone (The Old Swan). Bridgnorth provided a further Shropshire serenade whilst Walsall scored highly with a tour of Gillity Village, Goscote and Pelsall as I set about recording routes such as the 374, 347 and the 380. April brought with it the return of the cricket season, so it's over to Old Trafford Manchester where the bright red 'Point' development proved memorable for all the wrong reasons. Finally, it was time to say goodbye to Wolverhampton Bus Station, a fond(ish) farewell to a place that had been a regular feature of my daily routine - will the opening of the new interchange become one of 2011's highlights I wonder?

* May: Into May then, where the opening exchanges are punctuated by rain, precipitation being a notable feature of trips to Oswestry (with Andy and Woody) and a Gornal pubcrawl with Dad, not that it stopped the beer flowing mind. I found time for a Sandwell shuffle incorporating Windmill Lane, Cape Hill, Smethwick and Warley, and the month was concluded with a peek at the Peak District courtesy of a family walk around Ashover.

* June: Summer sizzlers heading far and wide. Sheffield for starters sees Woody, Andy and myself braving Yorkshire for an expensive round by the Crucible and the chance to tackle Rotherham and Hillsborough. Mr Wood was also on duty for a weekend in Weymouth; in a year that provided an abundance of stiff competition, I have to say that those few days in Dorset and Hampshire were the absolute pinnacle of my 2010 explorations. From the man-eating sofa in Bridport to the perplexing plethora of pirates in Poole, there were plenty of memories to savour and some to induce the odd shudder too, notably the hotel 'entertainment'. A close challenger to Weymouth's crown was the week Stephen and I spent in Chester-le-Street, stoically supporting Warwickshire as they battled against Durham only to meekly capitulate on the final morning before I'd even had chance to eat my pasties. My token bit of local exploring was a sweep of Stourbridge and Lye, surveying the local pubs as they got ready for the World Cup - given England's performances they probably wish they hadn't bothered.

* July: and the headline act this time sees us pay tribute to the MCW Metrobus on it's final day in service at Acocks Green Garage - the West Midlands bus scene still doesn't feel the same since the old workhorse of the fleet has gone. Andy, Woody and I also called in at Lea Hall Garage as it prepared for closure, a sad occasion that was lightened by the arrival of David Harvey with his vintage Birmingham City Transport Daimler. In other news, West Birmingham was set for a Network West Midlands Bus Review, so I was on hand to record such routes as the 21 and 69 with a roving recce around Bartley Green, Rednal and Wythall. The Chip Foundation hit Stourbridge with a vengeance whilst Dad and I sampled the Holden's Brewery Tap during an eventful crawl around Tipton and Sedgley.

* August: August means Arnside and a family holiday on the shores of Morecambe Bay, a great base from which to explore Lancaster and Lake District destinations like Grange-over-Sands, Barrow and even Sellafield. Our apartment was lovely with particularly stunning sunset views, and to top things off we won the pub quiz on our final night. Slightly closer to home, Woody and I took in the dreaming spires of Oxford and the not-so-dreamy aspects of Swindon complete with it's magic roundabout. My solitary Midlands adventure this month was an investigation of the 68A/C Birmingham North Circle prior to the route's withdrawal, an outing that introduced me to Castle Vale.

* September: a month defined by Shropshire and Showbus, starting with my long-awaited return to Telford and a special day exploring Oakengates, Coalport and Ironbridge, not forgetting a cracking pint in the All Nations in Madeley, fantastic. The Beardsmobile got a run out when Stephen and I went to Bridgnorth, sampling the Cliff Railway and stopping off at the Cat in Enville for a drink on the way home. I crossed the border into Wales for a day in Welshpool, traipsing along the Montgomery Canal and admiring the grandeur of Powis Castle, and then there was Showbus - Rog's first appearance of the year and typically he brought along the rain, although we still enjoyed the exhibits and made sure not to drip on the photos.

* October: onwards into autumn now and more landmark days out. I joined forces with Andy and Woody once more as we went all Scouse over in Liverpool, Birkenhead and Southport. A visit to Worcester saw me take my first ever look around Diglis Basin, and the canals also featured heavily in a Staffordshire tour of Trysull, Seisdon and Greensforge. I made my annual pilgrimmage to Coventry, complete with calls at Coundon, Keresley and Chapelfields, and spent a final morning at Stourbridge Bus Station giving the old place a fitting photographic send-off before it too closed for redevelopment.

* November: London came calling as the prospect of the Lord Mayor's Show enticed Woody, Rog and myself down to the capital and I survived a harem scarem day of tubehopping. Solihull staked it's claim for some attention as I dropped in on Dorridge and Knowle, seeking out the locks on the Grand Union Canal before pitching up at Balsall Common. Nick demonstrated a hitherto hidden talent for table football when the Chip Foundation cracked Coseley, and he was also in attendance for some Wobbly Wabbit at the Dudley Winter Ales Fayre, a great evening.

* December: with the winter comes the snow and didn't it just! The white stuff ensured Rog and I postponed our planned walk to Chaddesley Corbett in favour of a local day around Hall Green and Digbeth, although the less said about the Gorsty Hill slip-up the better! No such postponements a couple of weeks later though as I met up with Rog, Woody and Andy for an ill-fated attempt to reach Stoke Prior - if it hadn't have been for Diamond Des we might still be marooned in Bromsgrove now. In between times, the Chip Foundation's Christmas Crawl was a jolly affair trundling back around Gornal and Pensnett - and that's the final word on 2010.

Looking back on all that lot, I think there were two overarching themes to the year's explorations - a more concentrated focus on pubs, and a general trend towards widening my horizons further away from the West Midlands. These are difficult times for the pub industry as a number of closures will testify, hence I made it more of a mission to photograph what I could of the pubs, inns and taverns that help define our local communities (and of course popping in for an occasional pint or two). As regards broader horizons, 2010 was a year that saw me travel more than ever before, from Weymouth to Newcastle via London, Oxford, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield - it really has been absolutely fascinating, although my heart still remains firmly rooted in the Black Country. Overall though, 2010 quite simply has to have been my best year yet - so many trips, so many memories, so much fun, such excellent company (thanks guys). More of the same in 2011 and I'll be very satisfied indeed...