Saturday, January 30

WME Flickr Focus: January 2016

Afternoon all! January's dying embers mean it's time for the first Flickr update of 2016, and I'm pleased to report that the New Year has brought with it a flurry of new content on the WME photostream...

Exploration Extra has received a veritable avalanche of activity with arrivals from right across the country; much of the new stuff actually dates from 2011, a year hitherto under-represented on my Flickr archives. These include a Rail Rover 2011 album containing specimens from Alsager (the Mere Inn), Beeston (the canal lock cottage) and Ledbury (the Prince of Wales) as Cheshire, Nottinghamshire and Herefordshire all enter the mix.

Merseyside muscles into the action with a July 2011 shot of the famed soap opera setting Brookside Close plus some Aigburth cricketing scenes from August that same year. Vintage bus rallies at both Weymouth and Torbay also merit a mention (I hope to add further images to these fledgling sets in due course), while Yorkshire demands attention in the form of Ilkley railway station and Grassington post office.

2011 hasn't completely dominated proceedings though, as some relatively recent extractions from 2015 have also made the cut. Chief among these are items from last Easter's Cornwall holiday (featuring a view from Falmouth's Prince of Wales pier) and some December diamonds courtesy of Weston-super-Mare and Bath, where the Kennet and Avon Lock flight bring things almost bang up to date.

Admittedly, offerings from within the West Midlands have been somewhat scarcer thus far. The 27 route at Pool Meadow Bus station has joined WME Coventry, the landmark Swan pub at Burntwood has surfaced on WME Staffordshire and a springtime shot of Dawley Park deposited itself into WME Telford. Add in a Bridgnorth-bound 890 at Wolverhampton Bus Station along with an overview of Droitwich railway station and you pretty much have the measure of everything for now. February is poised to build further on these whenever the opportunity arises, so until then please enjoy the pictures!

Saturday, January 23

An Acocks Green Circular

It's been a case of 'so far, so good' where my New Year's resolution is concerned, although admittedly it is still January! Nonetheless, there was some fine exploring to be enjoyed as I completed a South Birmingham station sweep setting out in a loop from Acocks Green...

- 172 336 at Acocks Green -
For those that might need a gentle reminder, my resolution this year is simply to cram in as much memorable exploring as possible. This trip starts (and indeed finishes) at Acocks Green station where I battle the morning rain for a few train pictures, class 172 units seemingly on hand at regular intervals.

- Yardley Cemetery Lodge -
A soggy stroll along Yardley Road brings me to my first major location of the day, Yardley Cemetery. Although I can't locate a sleeve closet (sorry D9) there are World War II memorials to take note of, while the lodge building opposite Mansfield Road is handsome in its own right.

- Tyseley Station Sign -
I almost encroach upon Swan Island in gathering photos of South Yardley Library and the Yardley Ex-Servicemen's Club, but I soon retreat to Stockfield Road as I make my way to Tyseley Station. Wharfdale Road passes industrial units and corner cafes as I reach the station itself, pausing to pick out some of the finer GWR details of the main frontage and side lettering.

- Tyseley Working Men's Club -
Tyseley has a longstanding connection with the railway having been the location of engine maintenance facilities for several decades. The Birmingham Railway Museum is based at Tyseley Locomotive Works while London Midland also have a modern depot servicing their current fleet here. This heritage is reflected in the presence of two local clubs situated off Warwick Road - the London Midland Railway Club Association premises next to the museum entrance, and the Tyseley and District Working Mens Club and Institute (dating from 1923) opposite the London Midland complex.

- Former Fox Hollies Site -
Reddings Lane leads past the Eaton Works as I home in on Spring Road Station, now deprived of the rusty tin ticket office shack I was rather fond of photographing. The station is not far at all from Acocks Green Bus Garage (Summer Road) with a recreation ground opposite, although I'm more keen this time around to document the Lidl store that stands on an old pub position. Indeed, the old Mitchells & Butlers carved Fox Hollies plaque has been retained as a feature on the supermarket wall.

- Memories of The Moorlands -
Curtis Gardens (with a Homemeadow House flats backdrop) and the York mark my arrival into Hall Green, whereby I bypass the greyhound stadium in favour of Brooklands Road. I'm only nibbling at the edges of Hall Green today, hence Southam Road quietly connects to Sarehole Road and then Robin Hood Lane. On Sherwood Road I track down the housing estate that now occupies where The Moorlands once stood, the site having served as the non-league home of Moor Green FC until 2005.

- Bulls Head -
Almost accidentally I've stumbled across a pocket of Hall Green I can't remember taking pictures of before, this being the junction of Stratford Road with Highfield Road and Fox Hollies Road. Besides a wide range of local shops on various sides of the junction, the Bulls Head pub is a prominent landmark now operated under the ownership of Ember Inns.

- The Oak as was -
The Gospel Oak estate is a place I have frequented before, whereby visits usually involve me charting developments with the Oak public house in the process. Lakey Lane is my approach route today, passing St Ambrose Barlow Church to see what has become of the pub more recently - a Co-op food store is now in residence but at least the building has been preserved as a local landmark.

- Fox Hollies Park -
Gospel Lane has two shopping sequences on the border between Birmingham and Solihull as I make a mental note to sample the Olton Chip Stop on a future outing. No takeaways today though, just play area pictures courtesy of Fox Hollies Park. Here we have a 'wheeled sports' activity area (a posh way of saying a skateboard zone) plus Round Pool before I exit onto Dolphin Lane.

- Acocks Green Station -
My stroll has brought me full circle back to Acocks Green as intended, with an Aldi supermarket marking the spot where the Dolphin historically served local drinkers. The Warwick Road is a busy place these days so I'm relieved to branch off along Station Road, passing a brace of hotels to return to Acocks Green station in readiness for my 3pm train home. How's that for some proper Brum exploration!

Saturday, January 16

Nick Turpin's January Jaunt

Having recovered from our festive frolics in Warwickshire during December, the dandy highwayman Nick Turpin and I set our sights upon Warwick Castle for our first incursion of the New Year...

- Sent to the Stocks! -
After riding across to Birmingham with a work-bound Mr Beardsmore, I surprise Nick by arriving at Warwick Parkway early in readiness for a bonus look at Hatton Bottom Lock on the Grand Union Canal. My over-eagerness is quickly punished once we decamp to Warwick Castle, whereby I am banished to the stocks from the moment I enter the castle grounds - one wonders if they receive a regular supply of drunkards in these parts, although in my defence I was very much sober at the time and always endeavour to promote responsible alcohol consumption!!

- Castle Gatehouse -
Warwick Castle is simply magnificent. An intact medieval fortress that traces its history back over a thousand years, the sheer scale of the place is mightily impressive. There is plenty to see and do so Nick Turpin and I have much to keep us occupied, starting with the gatehouse and towers as we stroll through to the courtyard.

- Daisy Darling -
The Great Hall certainly merits our attention, featuring displays of armoury, waxwork royalty and oversized porridge pots. Artefacts on display include Queen Anne's death bed and a clock reputedly owned by Marie Antoinette while the opulent splendour of the State Dining Rooms have played host to many monarchs. We visit the chapel and the servants quarters, although our most memorable encounter comes in Daisy Greville's chamber where the young countess seems to take rather a shine to our highwaymen hero.

- Warwick the Kingmaker -
If the Great Hall boasts the grand interiors of a stately home, the Kingmaker exhibition transports us to the world of medieval warfare as we take in the sights, sounds and smells from the Wars of the Roses. Once again there are Madame Tussauds waxwork characters to add a sense of drama to proceedings, none more so than Warwick the Kingmaker brandishing his sword ready to anoint the next royal figurehead. Sadly for Nick Turpin, his resemblance to a certain current prince did not gain him an instant promotion.

- Meeting Merlin -
Besides the main castle buildings there are extensive parklands to explore, including gardens designed by Capability Brown and a soothing stroll beside the River Avon. We are drawn towards the Birds Of Prey enclosure where prime predators can be seen, notably Merlin the bald eagle and Bruce the buzzard. Avian life of a more sedate variety can be found over by the conservatory where an ostentation (or muster) of peacocks roam around among their carefully-trimmed topiary counterparts.

- Gunning for passing peasants -
Gripped by a sense of adventure (or in my case, plain vertigo) we take to the ramparts and battlements to enjoy the views from on high. Spiral stone staircases lead us to the top of Guy's Tower from whence we can survey the panorama over Warwick town and surrounding lands, although luckily for our fellow visitors we don't have to hand any excrement to hurl down from the gatehouse murder holes. The Guard Room contains examples of various ammunition as Terror Turpin prepares to unleash his arsenal on any misbehaving riffraff.

- A highwayman homage -
Our closing castle call is at the gaol with claustrophobic conditions that include an insanitary oubliette - you wouldn't want to be incarcerated here for any length of time. Thankfully there isn't a warrant out for Nick Turpin's arrest today so we can escape into wider Warwick in search of refreshment. The Thomas Lloyd Wetherspoons offers Fish Friday deals and sightings of a Byatt's 'Big Cat' while the Kings Head delivers Warwickshire's Best accompanied by Masters snooker. Two Saltisford murals then take our eye - the first (outside the Black Horse) depicts the notorious Bendigo Mitchell preying upon stagecoaches much as our own highwayman aspires to do, while the second (at the Antelope) depicts a Warwickshire Regiment battle scene, the pub being named from the use of antelopes as the regimental mascot.

- Saltisford Canal Arm -
Sunset in Saltisford brings with it the prospect of a stroll along the local canal arm, a residential moorings offshoot from the main line of the Grand Union. Glorious pink skies add a peculiar hue as we peruse the narrowboats and make the acquaintance of Bernard the wicker bear. The Dun Cow pub serves this particular stretch of waterway and does us nicely for a splash of Duck Soup.

- Poised in the Old Post Office -
As dusk falls, a steady saunter across the racecourse leads us to our final handful of pubs. The Old Fourpenny Shop is a relaxing bar/hotel on Crompton Street, while the Vine on West Street feels particularly upmarket as we attempt to handle a Purity Mad Goose. Last but certainly not least comes the Old Post Office, a crowdedly popular micropub where a swift half of Prescott's Winter Best stout sets us up perfectly for the train journey home. So concludes our jolly jaunt - just the job for January!

Thursday, January 14

Widney Wednesday

Wednesday 13th January 2016 sees me summoned to Solihull where I indulge in a solo stroll from Widney Manor to Olton. Here comes the tale of the trip...

- D9 on route reconnaissance -
The day begins with a chance meeting on the bus when none other than Mr D9 just so happens to be aboard my morning 32 into Wolverhampton. It seems the bald one is out on official business recording route performance but he does have time for a quick pose at the bus station while clutching his timing sheets.

- 172 343 at Widney Manor -
Bidding the bald spot farewell, I proceed to Smethwick Galton Bridge where the Stratford-upon-Avon train I require is soon on hand. One speedy journey later and I alight at Widney Manor, a place that - as one of my lesser-visited West Midlands railway locations - could do with a bit of a photographic top-up. Historically the station did boast some inviting GWR architecture but the current incarnation isn't especially exciting or characterful, essentially comprising two platforms, a modern footbridge and a fairly boring ticket office.

- Shelly Farm Shopping Centre -
A bus turning circle (served by the number 5 route) is positioned just outside the station as I join Widney Lane for a wander towards Monkspath. The Fieldhouse is a familiar Ember Inns pub that I once visited with Nick then Shelly Drive allows me a closer look at the Shelly Farm estate. The local shopping precinct contains a Co-op store, a fish bar and a pharmacy while nearby amenities include a primary school and a community centre. The most impressive feature however is the Farm pub as housed in an historic grade II listed farmstead.

- Hillfield Park -
Emerging onto Monkspath Hall Road I plot my way back to Widney Lane via Hillfield Park, a popular area of open space that has received Green Flag accreditation. It's rather nice here enjoying a moment or two of tranquility by looking out over the lake as some geese swim by. Getting back to explorational business, I note the Blossomfield and Solihull Municipal clubs in quick succession as I shuffle towards Shirley.

- Sizzling at Sharmans Cross -
Longmore Road leads me past the Woodman's Rest pub (another Ember Inns establishment that Nick and I have sampled) before Yoxall Road stretches up to Sharmans Cross where there are shops and a Sizzling chain pub to contend with. I seem to remember coming through here on the 30 and possibly the 49 during bus rides past but being on foot allows me to dig a little deeper, discovering playing fields and the sinister-sounding Cut Throat Coppice.

- Robin Hood Cemetery Chapel -
Escaping from the coppice with my throat thankfully very much intact, I do a circuit via Woodlea Drive and Ralph Road to reach Palmers Rough whereupon my walking boots take a splattering in crossing swampy football pitches. Olton Road brings me to the main entrance gates of Robin Hood Cemetery and Crematorium with the sight of the chapel prompting a few moments of solemn reflection.

- Olton Friary -
A sporting selection comprising Moseley Cricket Club and Old Edwardians Rugby Club sends me happily onwards to Olton with St Bernard's Road being home to the fascinating Olton Friary (complete with the Catholic Church of the Holy Ghost & Mary Immaculate). St Bernard's Grange can be found near the corner with Grange Road as a Dovehouse detour has me briefly on the trail of lunchtime supplies.

- Olton Station Lamp -
Snack sorted I return to St Bernard's Road hoping to catch a glimpse or two of Olton Reservoir. Mereside Way gets me closest but there isn't any public access to the waterside, meaning the best view is probably from the train. Talking of which, Olton Station now beckons along with a final flurry of pictures showcasing St Margaret's Church, Broughton's fireplace showrooms and the local library. The station itself retains some nice little details such as entrance lamps and a tiled windmill mural, while the prospect of a passing 37 bus photo adds to the fun. With that my wanderings are done for the day and the 14:40 train home provides the closing note to an excellent Wednesday workout.

Wednesday, January 6

A Roaming Resolution

The arrival of a new year is always a time to reflect on previous achievements (and bad habits) then set yourself some goals for the weeks and months ahead. For 2016, my resolution is a ‘more of the same’ approach, trying to squeeze in as much exceptional exploration as I can... 

A Monday Mission seems like an ideal launchpad by which to put my intentions into practice, so I set my sights on North Walsall with a specific focus on the former South Staffordshire railway line around Pelsall. The plan was simple – visit a few old haunts, get the photos flowing and sprinkle in some previously unseen bits and pieces, so I eagerly board a misted-up 89 bus for my initial ride towards Bloxwich.

- Signal Feature at Bloxwich North -

The Mossley estate is first on my agenda, Cresswell Crescent being my cue to alight so I can get to grips with the local shops and St Thomas's Church. Two former pubs are also on my radar - I’d already heard that the Leathern Bottle had been flattened, so rather than an M&B dive there is now only a pile of rubble to record on the corner with Margam Terrace. The Eagle is still standing but very much closed as some 301s do the rounds at the adjacent bus terminus, while Bloxwich North station is always a favourite for a few quick railway photos (even if on this occasion there weren't any trains due).

- Bulls Head detail -

Bloxwich itself beckons with the prospect of pictures of the Promenade Gardens with their Victorian fountain (dating from 1891), not to mention another smattering of buses and pubs. The Bulls Head looks more depressing than ever, the exposed roof timbers indicating a state of advanced dereliction. Victoria Avenue connects me to Field Lane where I pause to remember the Stag (a lost landmark demolished ten or so years ago) before catching a fleeting glimpse of Bloxwich Cemetery with its lodge and chapel.

- Knave no more -

The next stretch of my walk involves a zigzag either side of the A4124 Lichfield Road. I encounter a Co-op store (housed in the former Knave of Hearts) on route to Selmans Hill, then gently stroll down towards Stoney Lane on the fringes of the Lower Farm estate. Blocks of flats accompany a Costcutter store as yet another old pub site tweaks my memory (this being the Bridgewater, replaced by housing on the side of the canal). Little Bloxwich and Goscote follow in close succession as I drop in on Mallory Crescent where a children's play area bears the hallmarks of 'New Deal' funding.

- Goscote Works Bridge -

Goscote these days is somewhat different from the place I first encountered back in 2005. Notorious streets have been bulldozed, factories have disappeared and new housing has sprung up as part of wholesale regeneration. Both the Dolphin and the Barley Mow are no more but the Wyrley & Essington Canal provides some continuity, snaking its way between Goscote Works and Goscote Hall bridges to link me to Slacky Lane.

- Pelsall Villa FC -

The open spaces of Goscote Valley precede my arrival into Pelsall, or Heath End to be more precise. On Allens Lane the Red Cow has been turned into a private residence, and things aren't looking that much better for the Old Bush on Walsall Road either (it's currently boarded up and looking sorry for itself). The pub gives its name to the Bush Ground, home of Pelsall Villa Football Club as I savour some sporting shots, aided and abetted by the village cricket club being next door.

It is now time for me to concentrate on the disused South Staffordshire Line, a rail link that once connected Lichfield with Dudley and Stourbridge. The Railway pub and Station Road are clear hints as to Pelsall's previous transport pedigree as I locate the old track bed which is now in use as a long distance footpath. I join the trail at the site of Pelsall Station albeit there is little trace of the platforms, station buildings or footbridge that once graced the spot. Heading north I squelch my way to Ryders Hayes where a rusty pole is the only lingering indication of the former level crossing.

- Pelsall Memorial Clock -

I've had enough mud for the time being so I make my way into the heart of Pelsall where the Village Centre building (which opened in 2013) is home to a doctors surgery and the local library. Lunch on the Common is a relaxing pleasure (even with some pesky gulls hungrily circling above) and the memorial clock looks very striking indeed all clad in remembrance poppies.

- Heath End Railway Bridge -

Resuming my railway ramble, I now bear south towards Rushall with the line crossing Vicarage Road and then passing beneath Heath End Bridge. On a remarkably mild January afternoon I must admit I relish the stroll, working off a few Christmas calories and enjoying more Goscote Valley greenery complete with galloping ponies. It doesn't take long at all to reach the environs of Rushall as visited on my Beacon Way Mission last August; having already covered the stretch towards Walsall back then, today I decide to exit the line and continue with some local exploring.

- Site of Coalpool Library -

Wrenching myself away from the railway, I creep into Coalpool via Harden Road, noting where the Harden Hall nursing home has occupied the grounds of another ex-watering hole. On Coalpool Lane I had hoped to reacquaint myself with the local branch library only to discover it has been demolished, leaving me with shots of some bollards and a solitary silver birch by way of compensation. The local shopping parade includes a convenience store, a post office and a pharmacy with the tower of St Thomas of Canterbury Church completing the scene. Arriva's number 19 bus happens by so I hop aboard for a lift into Walsall (via Dartmouth Avenue and Beddows Road), thus bringing my opening mission of the year to a close. For once my New Year's resolution has remained intact beyond the first few days of January, so wish me luck as I aim to maintain the same level of dedication!

Sunday, January 3

A few loose ends...

Although the stage is set for 2016 and any opening adventures that may arise, I firstly need to account for some lingering items from December, namely a Roger Reunion, the Chip Foundation's Christmas Chronicles and a short break in Weston-super-Mare...

- Getting Desperate in the Pie Factory -
Saturday 12th December saw Roger and I embarking upon a tour of Tipton taverns in search of good old fashioned Black Country hospitality. We certainly weren't disappointed as firm favourites like the Fountain and the Noahs Ark were on hand to deliver some seasonal cheer. The Pie Factory allowed us to unleash our inner Desperate Dan while the Wagon & Horses presented a perky pub parrot and a cheap pint of Mild.

- Tipton Conservative Club -
A bonus entry on our reunion itinerary was the Tipton Conservative Club on Union Street, a place where Winston Churchill's portrait watched over us as we enjoyed a Prescott winter ale - Rog very much approves of the brewery's celebration of the golden age of motor racing, although we did speculate that it was strange to see the name Prescott in such Tory surroundings!

- Midland Metro at Bull Street -
Wednesday 16th December saw the Chip Foundation converging upon central Birmingham for a Cube rendezvous where a suited Stephen descended from the offices in readiness for a Craven Arms calendar unveiling. Five Ways chips also featured before a look at progress with the Midland Metro extension; trams no longer serve Snow Hill but are currently terminating at a new stop on Bull Street prior to the full link to New Street becoming operational.

- Grinning in the Gunmakers -
Two previously unexplored pubs made a good impression - the Trocadero on Temple Street with a beautiful tiled frontage and the Crown Hotel on Corporation Street where the ales included the cheekily-titled Hoof Hearted. However, our top target was the Gunmakers Arms on Bath Street which has recently been taken over by the Two Towers Brewery and served up a delicious drop of Bhacker Ackhams porter.

- Weston Station Sign -
My exploration endeavours for 2015 culminated with a couple of days in Somerset between Christmas and New Year. The seaside town of Weston-super-Mare was my base for some promenade pictures, notably focusing on the Winter Gardens Pavilion and the restored Grand Pier. I also made sure to investigate the town's railway station with its sprinkling of period GWR features.

- Birnbeck Pier -
Tuesday 29th December had me booked in for a day trip to Bath, but before boarding the coach I enjoyed a morning stroll that revealed the atmospheric remains of Birnbeck Pier. The structure is largely derelict having been closed to the public since 1994 and is now considered endangered, especially since storms and high winds the day after my visit caused part of the decking to collapse.

- Bath Locks -
And so to Bath on a sunny and unseasonably mild day, just ideal for a wander along the delightful Kennet & Avon Canal with the Bath lock flight providing oodles of photographic opportunity. Pulteney Bridge also proved utterly beguiling while a pint of Twelfth Night in the compact confines of the Couer de Lion (Bath's smallest pub) was a mighty fine manner in which to round off the year. Cheers!

Saturday, January 2

WME Review of the Year - 2015

Happy New Year! It has become custom here on the WME blog that the first post of the incoming year should be a retrospective summary of the preceding twelve months. Let's therefore stick with tradition by looking back over 2015, a year of Monday Missions, hub hilarity, Chip Foundation Chronicles and plenty of photographic discoveries...

January: a steady start saw me enjoying a Sutton Park Sequel outing, picking up where October 2014 had left off by wandering from Wylde Green to Wyndley Gate by way of Boldmere. Mr D9 joined me in Walsall town centre when the Hub Marketing Board opened their annual account with discounts (courtesy of the Katz) and dominoes (courtesy of the Fountain), whereas the Chip Foundation crept into Coventry so that Nick's banned baseball cap could memorably fall foul of the Establishment's dress code!

February: one month later and the Chip Foundation could be found clocking in at Chasewater, rambling around the reservoir then making the acquaintance of the Bloxwich Showman (a new Wetherspoon's outlet that had recently opened). It was a case of Walkers United for a Lichfield lookabout, taking the Cross City line to a captivating cathedral city with pub stops in the George & Dragon, the Angel and the Bowling Green. The Monday Mission series plonked me in Pleck and Wood Green (discovering sleeve closets I would be cashing in later on) while the Redditch Winter Ales Festival saw the bald spot becoming a bona fide CAMRA member.

March: plenty to report from a month that had me haring here, there and everywhere! St Patrick's Day in Shrewsbury involved some excellent craic with the Chip contingent (and a particularly 'smashing' time in the Loggerheads); there were Hub Marketing moments from both East Birmingham (reciting Val Doonican songs along the old Coventry Road) and the Delph (with a side dish of Saltwells nature reserve); Monday memories from Moxley followed by a Friar Park ferret; a Wordsley workout from the first Roger reunion trip of the year, and a Thursday treat in Leamington and Warwick with Prince Nickolenko that featured a foot protruding through the ceiling of the Old Post Office micropub.

April: the crossover from March into April saw me contented in Cornwall, enjoying a family holiday based in Looe with visits to Liskeard, St Austell and Falmouth. April's assortment then went on to include two more Monday missions - Hamstead (with Perry Hall) and Aldridge (with Rushall and Ryecroft) - and a Hub Board blast around Darlaston and County Bridge that had the remains of the Bentley Canal echoing to a Des O'Connor soundtrack.

May: putting a spring into my step among the buds and blossoms were a Big Lizzy adventure whereby Mr D9 sniffed out some steelworks heritage around Bilston and Sedgley - the bald spot would also be present and correct for our Talisman trip complete with sugar hubs and the Springfield Brewery closet. Elsewhere, Nick Turpin was on hand for our popular pilgrimage to Long Itchington (which in 2015 included more of the Stockton Locks and a photocall at Southam's Holy Well), while my solo sights were set upon the extremities of Sutton Coldfield, happening across the site of Hill Hook Corn Mill during a roam towards Roughley.

June: enter the summer and the cricketing fixture list sees Warwickshire in County Championship action at Lords, a historic ground with a unique atmosphere I'd long yearned to experience (although perhaps my most abiding memory from the match is the rare sight of Nick wearing a tie). The Bears completed a two-day triumph in Worcester, the speed of the victory meaning Stephen and I had a spare day with which to explore the Black Country Living Museum (savouring the simple joys of pork pie and chutney in the Bottle & Glass inn). Nick meanwhile adopted the guise of 'Towpath Turpin' during a sun-kissed Shropshire Union Canal stroll involving Brewood and Wheaton Aston, the weather holding nicely for our Stratford-upon-Avon session the very next day - we simply had to pay our respects to Shakespeare's final resting place in Holy Trinity Church. The D9 was stoked up for a visit to the Potteries, uncovering the fascinating industrial heritage to be found in Burslem, Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme, not to mention gatecrashing a zombie film set and calling in at the Coachmakers (one of my favourite pub finds of the entire year). Quite a month!

July: comparatively a quieter few weeks, with the main highlights being a Hub Marketing Bloxwich bash and a sedate stay at the Stafford Beer Festival. The former also comprised Caldmore hubs and minion meetings while the latter nibbled on Newport and Gnosall in the company of Nick and a tombola teddy bear. Furthermore, July will go down as the month when I witnessed first hand the demolition of the King Charles pub at Northwood Park, meaning another Bushbury area boozer passed into the annals of history.

August: there are cricketing capers in Nottingham to report although the Bears were ultimately soundly beaten at Trent Bridge (much to Mr Beardsmore's distress). The hub bandwagon rolled into Telford only to find that none of the pubs around Wrockwardine Wood were open (we did recover the situation in St George's and Woodside) - Mr D9 might have wished the Crown at the Wergs had been shut to save him the shock of an especially expensive round! The Chairman got his own back by subsequently leading Secretary WME on a River Tame trek before locating Wincy Willis in a West Bromwich watering hole during our second bout of August activity. My Monday Mission momentum is maintained by nature reserve reconnaissance around Aldridge Airport and Goscote Valley.

September: into autumn and there is an overt owl theme thanks to the Big Hoot project taking place right across Birmingham, providing the cue thereby for some sculptural silliness in Sutton Coldfield with D9 and some city centre statue-spotting with Nick. The beer festival focus falls upon Hinckley and Cannock Chase, while Stephen provides the company for a walk charting the course of the former Bentley Canal - tracking down Hills Bridge in the grounds of the Tata Steel factory made for some highly prized photography.

October: another canal-centric mission saw Mr B and I wrestling with the Wyrley & Essington between Short Heath and Birchills, detouring momentarily to plot a route through Rough Wood where many years ago I undertook some Geography fieldwork. October contributed two of the finest Hub Marketing excursions of the year, respectively revelling in South Birmingham (Highbury, Hazelwell and Hawkesley pretty much sums that up) and Coventry (complete with monster quiffs and Halloween hats), while the Chip Foundation chose Wellington as the starting point of their autumnal agenda (leading to an already infamous sausage shot involving Stephen). In addition, a Solihull outing with Nick introduced me to one of the strangest West Midlands locations I've ever visited, so take a bow Dickens Heath with its arresting take on Italianate architecture. 

November: nuggets here include the Dudley Winter Ales Fayre (where D9 purchased a bagful of beermats) and a Chip Foundation afternoon at the Black Country Museum (during which we said hello to the Tipton Slasher and posed at the Pie Factory). My most recent Monday Mission served up the prime photographic potential of Sandwell Priory and Handsworth Old Town Hall, while Sandwell Valley had likewise been a Hub Marketing destination complete with goats, billboard climbing and some Perry Barr pubs.

December: some festive fun to finish off a rousing year. The Hub Marketing Christmas collection and Nick Turpin's Warwickshire forages have both been recently reported, but there was much more besides. Roger and I toured Tipton for a back-to-basics Black Country day out (we even went into the Conservative Club) whereas the Chip Foundation were tempted to Birmingham by the prospect of the Trocadero, the Crown Hotel and the Gunmakers Arms (the last of those being the new tap for the Two Towers Brewery). My final exploration action of the year took place not in the West Midlands but down in Somerset, spending a couple of days in Weston super Mare and enjoying a cracking canal walk in Bath - the Kennet & Avon on a crisp winter's morning, just brilliant!

I know I say this every time I do one of my annual reviews, but it really has been quite a twelve months filled with magnificent memories. My thanks as always go to everyone who has been involved in my adventures - especially Nick, Stephen, Andy and Rog - and here's to more of the same in 2016...