A finite volume method based on a velocity-only formulation is used to solve the flow field around a confined circular cylinder in a channel in order to investigate lateral wall proximity effects on stability, Strouhal number, hydrodynamic forces and wake structure behind the cylinder for a wide range of blockage ratios (0.1, < beta <= 0.9) and Reynolds numbers (0 < Re less than or equal to 280). For blockage ratios less than approximately 0.85 a first critical Reynolds number is identified at which a supercritical Hopf bifurcation of the symmetric solution occurs. For blockage ratios greater than about 0.687 and at Reynolds numbers exceeding the first critical Reynolds number a second curve of neutral stability is seen, representing a pitchfork bifurcation of the steady symmetric solution to one of two possible steady asymmetric solutions. Either side of the neutral stability curve for the pitchfork bifurcation our linear stability analysis and direct numerical simulations demonstrate that although the flow is linearly stable it is unstable to finite two-dimensional perturbations. At blockage ratios larger than about 0.82 the steady asymmetric solutions also become unstable through a Hopf bifurcation. In contrast with the first Hopf bifurcation of the symmetric solution at lower Reynolds numbers numerical calculations of the lift coefficient reveal that the oscillations are no longer symmetric in the rising and falling parts of each cycle. Very strong vortices shed from the cylinder and the wall cause drastic increases in the amplitudes of the lift and drag coefficients. A co-dimension 2 point where pitchfork and Hopf bifurcations occur simultaneously has been located in parameter space. Altogether, four distinct regions in the parameter space (beta, Re) is an element of (0,0.9] x (0,280] have been identified, each corresponding to a different class of flow: (i) Steady symmetric flow, (ii) symmetric vortex shedding, (iii) steady asymmetric flow, and (iv) asymmetric vortex shedding, where a periodic-in-time flow is classed as symmetric or asymmetric depending on whether the time-average over one cycle of the lift coefficient is zero or not. Numerical solutions are computed on meshes having up to 1.8 million degrees of freedom. Extensive comparisons are made with the results available in the literature. (C) 2004 American Institute of Physics.