Model village reopens for business

THE miniature world of Bekonscot reopens to the public next month, with some craft activities to keep youngsters busy during half-term week.

The 2019 season is a special one for Beaconsfield’s timeless tourist attraction because this August marks 90 years since Roland Callingham welcomed the first visitors to the model village and railway he built in his garden.

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There will be special celebrations in the summer to mark the event, but in the meantime the doors reopen at 10am on Saturday February 16  ready for the half-term holiday.

Special attractions include a chance for youngsters to make their own fridge magnets to take home on Monday, and a 45-minute workshop on Thursday where children can help to recreate one of Bekonscot’s animated models.

The model village actually comprises six little towns stuck in a 1930s timewarp with more than 200 buildings, 3,000 animals and features ranging from coal mines to great castles, aerodromes to farms, docks to cable cars, racecourses to escaped convicts!

Latest attractions include new models based on local businesses as they would have looked in the 1930s and a range of interactive activities for younger visitors in the EdShed, as the education centre has been re-branded.

Keep an eye on our What’s On pages for details of forthcoming attractions – and find out more about the tiny world of Bekonscot here.

 

The tiny world of Bekonscot

GENERATIONS of children have delighted in the extraordinary miniature world of Bekonscot Model Village.

Before the war, a teenage Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret were among early visitors to marvel at the village landscapes created by accountant Ronald Callingham in the back garden of his home at Beaconsfield.

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Originally, Callingham’s swimming pool and tennis courts had been used for garden parties attended by London’s high society, with politicians and aristocrats escaping from the city for a breath of country air.

But when Mrs Callingham intimated in 1928 that either his indoor model railway went or she would, his model railway moved outdoors and Bekonscot was born.

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The world’s oldest model village was not conceived as a commercial visitor attraction but as a plaything to entertain Callingham and his guests.

Named after Beaconsfield and Ascot, where he had previously lived, it was only after 1930 that the existence of his garden empire became widely known, capturing the imagination of the press and public alike. It was formally opened to visitors in 1937 – and since that time has attracted more than £15m people through its gates.

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With the help of his gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur, Callingham set about the business of painstakingly recreating the landscape of Britain in the 1930s, with local buildings and personal favourites of the staff providing much of the inspiration, all constructed from memory, photos or imagination.

Gloriously eccentric and intricately crafted, Bekonscot was always full of fun and character, rather than an exercise in precision, and that spirit lives on today in the countless tiny vignettes and terrible puns captured in the names of village stores.

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It’s the challenge of spotting all those small humorous details that still gives visitors so much pleasure today. And yet, although Bekonscot’s founder never intended his creation to be taken too seriously, there was nothing small about the scale of his vision – his miniature world boasts some 200 buildings with more than 3,000 tiny people living in them.

And that’s not to mention one of the largest and most complex model railways in the UK, covering 10 scale miles at 1:32 scale.

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This ultimate Gauge 1 train set was built with the help of the model railway manufacturer Bassett-Lowke (and the current computer control system was programmed by the same expert who programmed the Jubilee Line extension to London’s underground).

Overall, the site covers around two acres, much of it crafted as a miniature 1:12 landscape, with buildings constructed in natural materials, concrete or dense foamboard, and many dating from the 1920s.

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There are pubs and cottages, shops and railway stations, cricket on the village green and even a zoo, circus, funfair, castle, port, colliery…well, perhaps it’s easier to think of a scene that hasn’t been recreated in miniature.

Bekonscot has seen many changes in its long history, but the biggest came in 1992 when it reverted back in time to the 1930s – where it has remained ever since.

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That timewarp is also reflected in the education centre, which boasts an array of 1930s memorabilia and encourages children to find out more about the era – and even dress up in period clothes.

A dozen full-time staff maintain the village throughout the year and successive generations of modelmakers, gardeners and craftsmen have left their mark on the landscape and buildings.

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It’s easy to see how these surroundings could have inspired the series of Borrowers books by Mary Norton, because in each of the six model villages are an array of tiny vignettes depicting different aspects of village life – from cricketers to choirboys and from railway passengers to rugby players.

An increasing number of small models are also mechanised, bringing further life to the scenes, whether in the form of a waving coal miner or a painter falling from his ladder.

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From rock climbers in the fishing village of Southpool to George and Anna getting married in Hanton, from the Brownies dancing round their maypole to the gravediggers in the churchyard, there’s always another small detail to spot or drama unfolding in miniature – like the fire fighters struggling to put out a blaze in the thatched roof of a local cottage.

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For railway buffs young and old the railway is a delight, with up to a dozen trains running at a time, including some original stock from the 1930s. Some trains have been running for over half a century, each covering about 2,000 miles per year.

There are a seven stations in total, two based on local examples, with lineside features including tunnels, a working level crossing and even a scaled-down replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, traversed by the branch line to the coal mine.

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The model railway has changed many times over its history but the impressive signalbox at Maryloo incorporates lever frames from Purley and Ruislip Gardens which control the points and signals across the gardens to provide a large selection of different routes. The village website even features a driver’s-eye view of the journey.

Another miniature railway runs round the perimeter of the site, giving passenger rides. The 7¼ inch gauge Bekonscot Light Railway was extended in 2004 to a new terminus.

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Equally impressive are the water features around the canal basin, warehouse and locks, the working tramway and cablecars, the sailing boats out on the lake (and even the real fish under their keels which dwarf the tiny sailors!).

Immortalised on TV in shows from Blue Peter and Countryfile to Midsomer Murders, Bekonscot is one English tradition which has clearly stood the test of time – and the children peering into the windows of the church and hospital seemed as delighted today by its quirkiness and eccentricity as they’ve always been.

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Bekonscot has been run by the Church Army since 1978 and has raised millions for charity.

For full details of the attractions, prices and history, see the main Bekonscot website.

 

 

A feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

But as the Springwatch 2019 Almanac reminds us, February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

presian-nedyalkov-445146-unsplashSYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]

As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”

Squirrel acrobats in the spotlight

IT’S Squirrel Appreciation Day, apparently, so a suitable occasion to be celebrating the agility of our furry grey visitors here in the Chilterns.

Sadly my camera can’t really do justice to the incredible acrobatics of the pair doing their best to steal the peanuts and seeds from the blue tits and robins outside our kitchen window.

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Nonetheless although the grey squirrel has plenty of detractors, it doesn’t seem a bad idea to have a day dedicated to the little rascals, bearing in mind the extraordinary variety of squirrels, with more than 200 species around the world, many of them capable of some quite extraordinary feats.

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Squirrel Appreciation Day is observed annually on January 21, it seems, thanks to Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina who launched the day in 2001.

But the timing could not be better given the recent screening of the BBC Nature Watch programme The Super Squirrels, originally broadcast last summer and still available for a week on BBC iPlayer.

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The Nature Watch episode introduced us to such exotic variants as the Malabar giant squirrel in India and put some home-grown varieties to a gruelling hazelnut-laden assault course to help demonstrate just how clever, ingenious and adaptable they are.

Of the various species, Christy confirms these fall into three types – ground squirrels, tree squirrels and flying squirrels.

The former include the rock squirrel, California ground squirrel and many others which blanket the prairies and deserts of North America.

Tree squirrels like our own red and grey squirrels make their homes in the trees and can be found all over the globe. The third type of squirrel leaps farther than the others with flaps of skin between the legs.

Flying squirrels glide greater distances giving the impression they can fly. When they leap from tree to tree or building to building, they spread their legs wide and float on the breeze to escape predators.

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Thankfully there are plenty of better photographers around to do justice to the cheeky visitors, including the wonderful Roy and Marie Battell (or the Moorhens), whose weekly newsletter contains a host of high-quality images like the one above, taken in their own miniature nature reserve near Milton Keynes.

Their most recent round-up of visitors to their back garden includes not only squirrels, but deer, a tawny owl, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, woodpeckers and fieldmice.

To sign up for the Moorhens’ newsletter, visit their website. And check out the BBC to catch the Super Squirrels while you can. You can also look up the programme on Facebook to find out more about the tiny orphaned red squirrel featured in the programme and named after Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

 

 

Peter brings the Wild Wood to life

WRITER and environmentalist Peter Owen-Jones doesn’t need much encouragement to start singing the praises of the great British countryside.

That ensures the maverick Church of England vicar is in his element exploring the landscapes, history and wildlife of the New Forest, one of the UK’s most important ancient woodlands, for his latest documentary outing.

The Big Wave film follows a similar BBC4 walkabout last summer which saw the author donning his familiar hat to wander around his beloved South Downs, where he has his parish.

The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood, screened on January 9 on BBC4, provides a similarly personal portrait of a landscape shaped by man since Neolithic times.

Presented in collaboration with the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority, the film follows a year in the life of the forest meeting many of the people who work to preserve and protect it.

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Although that gives the documentary a slightly promotional feel, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the reverend’s enthusiasm for the extraordinary landscape, with its gnarled ancient woodland, purple heathland and boggy mires, and his particular empathy towards the role of the “commoners” whose lives have been inextricably intertwined with the landscape for centuries.

Opinions about Owen-Jones are divided, with some finding the intensity of his presenting style a little irksome at times; others find his approach much more charismatic and endearing, with online threads on mumsnet divided over the relative merits of his unkempt ‘wonderfully ravaged’ appearance and resonant public-school enunciation.

Whatever your response to his asides to camera, there’s no doubting his total enjoyment in the majestic sights around him – from a goshawk jinking through the trees in search of prey to a stag bellowing amid the autumnal foliage.

A national park since 2005, this is a timeless place with few fences where ponies, cattle and pigs are allowed to roam free. It covers 566 square kilometres and stretches from the edge of Salisbury Plain through ancient forest, wild heathland and acid bog down to the open sea.

The heathland is home to dazzling lizards, our largest dragonfly and carnivorous plants. And some of the trees in these ancient woods were planted by man to build battleships for the British Empire.

As the backdrop changes with the seasons, the Sunday Times’ walking correspondent strives to find out more about the lives of the Commoners, a group of around 700 people who have retained grazing rights for their animals which date back to medieval times.

From the first foals born in spring to the release of the stallions and the annual herding of the ponies, he reveals a hardy people who, despite the urban development around them and the pressures on the landscape of 13 million visitors a year, retain a deep love of the land and a determination to see their way of life survive.

He discovers how the brutal Forest Laws imposed by William the Conqueror were used to crush the Commoners in order to preserve the forest as a royal hunting ground. Yet it was these same laws that inadvertently helped protect the New Forest that exists today.

The Commoners now face perhaps their greatest threat as the cost of property spirals and rents increase beyond the reach of a new generation wanting to continue the ancient traditions.

“This has been an incredible year. I’ve met people who, against all odds, have retained this ancient way of life and a deep connection to and love of the land. It’s what shapes and defines this extraordinary place,” says Owen-Jones.

A passionate author and environmentalist, he started working life as a farm labourer, became an advertising executive and gave up the London lifestyle to become a vicar, moving with his wife Jacs to Cambridgeshire, where the couple brought up their four children on a fraction of their earnings in London.

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Described in a Telegraph interview in 2001 as a “sort of Worzel Gummidge in cowboy boots”, Owen-Jones soon began to become a regular face on TV when he was commissioned to present a series on atheism.

Since then he has presented a number of BBC programmes, including Extreme Pilgrim and Around the World in 80 Faiths, as well as How to Live a Simple Life, a three-part 2010 series in which he turned his back on consumerism

Having served as a rector of three parishes just outside Cambridge, he is now a house-for-duty part-time vicar on the Sussex Downs.

Recent books include Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain and Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul.

Pathways is an anthology of walks, part travelogue, part celebration of the secret paths and bridleways that criss-cross rural Britain. It’s also a reminder of the importance of walking as part of the meditative process and very much part of Owen-Jones’ own spiritual journey – which includes a daily hike up Firle Beacon where he says his prayers and, he insists, where every morning is new and different.

Perhaps it’s that meditative power that makes Owen-Jones such a natural choice for this sort of documentary – and, along with his thoughtful appreciation of the natural world, which makes him a perfect companion to introduce us to such an unusual landscape and a unique way of life.

Originally screened on BBC4, The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood is available on BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks.

Liz faces the terrors of the deep

THERE’S something truly extraordinary about being hundreds of metres down in the depths of the ocean in a tiny submersible, surrounded by sharks.

But add to that the fact that you are hundreds of miles from civilisation and that the swell is suddenly threatening to smash you against the rocks, and things suddenly get a whole lot scarier.   

It sounds like a scene from Jules Verne, but this is a modern-day voyage of discovery with natural history presenter Liz Bonnin following in the footsteps of Darwin in the remote Galapagos islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

LIZ 2UNDERSEA WORLD: Liz Bonnin survives an underwater scare [PICTURE: BBC]

Well, not quite footsteps because Darwin never got this far under the waves. But the three-part BBC documentary series Galapagos had access to the most sophisticated underwater technology, permitting the sort of undersea adventure that Verne could only have dreamed of back in 1870 when his classic sci-fi adventure novel was published.

Not that the cutting-edge technology makes this in any way an easy excursion for celebrity biologist Bonnin, the French-born, Irish-educated presenter tagging along on a pioneering scientific expedition hoping to assess the survival prospects of some of the hundreds of unique species which populate the chain of 13 islands.

Two centuries on from the historic voyage of HMS Beagle, the aim is to explore the ocean depths, journey into volcanic craters and probe ancient forests in search of clues that could unlock the mysteries of these islands and their unique wildlife.

Like Attenborough’s Blue Planet, this is an adventure on a grand scale, as indicated by the portentous and cliché-driven two-minute introduction, which makes much of the fact that scientists know more about the surface of the moon than they do about the ocean depths and pulls in plenty of predictable lines about diving into the unknown on a voyage of discovery.

But if the intro feels a little overblown, we can forgive the documentary makers that self-indulgence once we have actually seen what’s in store for our intrepid heroine.

It’s easy to shrug off talk of dormant volcanoes and life-threatening currents when you’re sitting safely on your sofa at home, but although cheery Liz doesn’t dwell too much on what could possibly go wrong, in the second episode we share in her horror first hand when things start to get fraught under the waves.

We have already met upbeat and experienced submersible pilot Mark “Buck” Taylor earlier in the series and had our first taste of the amazing underwater world that can be accessed in his formidable eight-ton Triton submarine during the Blue Planet series.

LIZ 4DANGEROUS WATERS: exploring the reef beside Darwin’s Arch [PICTURE: BBC]

Buck himself has spoken in the past about his awe for the Triton’s abilities: not only can it undertake dives of up to 12 hours on occasion and reach depths of 1000 metres, but it can film a crab the size of your thumbnail in extraordinary detail.

It’s a machine which has been deployed in numerous scientific expeditions over the years, capturing the first ever footage of the giant squid in its natural habitat in 2013 and being used in a landmark series about the Great Barrier Reef with Sir David Attenborough in 2015, as well as Blue Planet II, which became the most watched UK series of 2017.

It’s clearly an honour to be one of the two passengers joining Buck on his descent into the deep and he does have that reassuring seen-it-all-before nonchalance of the expert which helps to put you at your ease.

But whereas last time we saw Liz’s unbridled joy over starfish, seahorses and coral winning out over sheer terror, this time the threat of impending doom is a lot more imminent and real: perhaps not quite what the Countrywise host envisaged when she embarked on the mission.

It’s all very well plunging into murky ocean depths that have never before been studied by science, posing wonderful questions about why hammerhead sharks school in masses and what sun fish actually do when they are underneath the ocean’s surface.

But when the ebullient Buck stops talking, you lose communication with the ship above and the currents start driving you towards the rock wall, you know it’s time to start worrying.

“I’ve had a few wildlife experiences where you get a sobering reminder of the power of the planet,” Liz said of the incident later in an interview for the Irish Examiner.

“There was this massive wall of soupy, opaque dark green water heading straight for us, and we were trying not to crash into the other submersible. The two of us were just spinning around in these currents like we were in a washing machine.”

Back on dry land, Liz sets off in search of rare pink iguanas and giant tortoises, flightless cormorants and scaly marine iguanas.

LIZ 1FOOTSTEPS OF DARWIN: Liz explores the Galapagos islands [PICTURE: BBC]

The aim is to find out more about the spectacular creatures which inhabit these volcanic islands and find out just how vulnerable they are in our rapidly changing world.

Although much of the environment here appears pristine, we know it is not immune to the effects of global warming and one of the mission tasks is to find out more about the impact of El Niño events on the islands.

In her three weeks on board the research vessel Alucia, Liz finds out more about what different scientists are doing to protect endangered species.

And as well as marvelling at the world’s largest gathering of scalloped hammerhead sharks partaking in a “complex mating ritual”, she takes to the water herself in one of the world’s most dangerous dive locations, Darwin’s Arch, hanging on for dear life to the reef as the currents threaten to sweep her away into the Pacific.

From swimming with boisterous sealions to having her mask pecked by a flightless cormorant, Liz is happy to get up close and personal with the local wildlife. Having studied biochemistry and wild animal biology, and with Charles Darwin as one of her “absolute heroes”, it is abundantly clear that this programme represents a dream come true for her.

But as well as serving up plenty of entertaining TV moments, there is also a sense that this mission is actively contributing to science through its ground-breaking findings, something that Liz, who has been appointed an ambassador for the Galapagos Conservation Trust, hopes will be a feature of her work in the future.

“It’s our duty to help communicate what we believe is the most important thing — to understand the wonders of this planet and do everything in our power to protect it,” she says.

Produced by the award-winning independent company Atlantic Productions for BBC Earth in a co-production with Alucia Productions and distributed globally by BBC Worldwide, Galapagos is available for the next three weeks on BBC iPlayer.

 

 

Simple steps towards zero waste

YOU don’t have to be a martyr or a hero to help save the planet. But you do need a certain amount of steely determination.

A few years have passed since California-based zero-waste guru Kathryn Kellogg set out to reduce the amount of waste she produces to almost nothing.

In that time, her eagerness and enthusiasm have also helped her to engage with other people concerned about the future of the planet – to the extent that the 20something’s lifestyle blog attracts more than 10,000 page views a month – and plenty of hate mail into the bargain.

10+Zero+Waste+Tips+for+Beginners+from+www.goingzerowasteSAVING THE PLANET: zero waste campaigner and blogger Kathryn Kellogg

Interview by the Guardian back in 2016 Kathryn, then 25, admitted to spending four hours a day on the blog, posting on Instagram, engaging with Facebook followers  and writing about everything from homemade eyeliner to worm composting.

It was a breast cancer scare during her college years that sparked her interest in thinking about what we put in our bodies. And although the tumours were benign, living with the pain set her thinking about beauty and cleaning products.

“The whole experience really got me thinking about what I put in and on my body. I had never considered it before; I just assumed everything I was consuming was safe,” she recalls.

“What I learned is there’s very little regulation and testing for a lot of the products we buy. Many of these products contain endocrine disruptors which interfere with our hormones. I felt very motivated to take control of my health, try to balance my hormones, and naturally ease my pain.”

She started to reduce her contact with plastic, cooking from scratch, checking her sugar and caffeine intake and making my own cleaning products, and opting for green beauty products.

“After experimenting and moving to a more holistic lifestyle, all of my pain went away,” she says.

10+Zero+Waste+Tips+for+Beginners+from+www.goingzerowaste 2COMMUNITY EFFORT: Kellogg encourages followers to get friends and family involved

The aspiring actress majored in musical theatre and performed professionally after college before moving to California where she lives north-east of San Francisco with her husband Justin and their “fluffball” dog Nala.

Nowadays she buys secondhand, uses cloth bags and glass jars for shopping, composts her leftovers and views recycling as a last resort. Her aim is to fit a year’s worth of trash – anything that hasn’t been composted or recycled – into an 8oz glass jar.

Appalled by the litter and plastic lining the streets around her home, she’s also only too well aware that plastic isn’t just bad for personal health, but for the health of the planet.

Interestingly, back in October the global brands analyst team at Mintel identified concern over throwaway plastic as one of six key consumer trends impacting on industries and markets around the world in 2019 – so perhaps the campaigner’s time has come.

“I started my blog to help others improve their personal health, improve the health of the planet, and most importantly I wanted everyone to know their choices matter. Big or small, the changes you make add up to a huge positive impact,” she says.

“Small actions done by hundreds of thousands of people will change the world. You don’t have to be perfect to make a difference, you just have to try.”

Her followers may not quite be ready to follow in her footsteps as far as having a zero-waste wedding (as she did in 2017) or zero-waste Christmases (since 2015). But Kathryn’s enthusiasm is infectious and her message has always been that every little counts.

And for anyone interested in embarking on that first stage in the journey, her blog posts provide easy no-nonsense ways of getting started.

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Time to start seeing the light

OUT WITH the old, in with the new. After the sombre removal of the Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night, January 6 sees a distinct change of mood with the celebrations marking the feast of the Epiphany.

And anyone feeling a little sad at the lights and tinsel disappearing for another year can always look forward to Candlemas Day on February 2, which since pre-Christian times has been a feast of lights celebrating the increasing strength of the sun as winter gives way to spring.

Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day, originated in the East with Christians celebrating the birth and baptism of Jesus. The Western Church began following it in the 4th century as the day the wise men were led by the star to visit baby Jesus, according to the story of the Nativity.

inbal-malca-53324-unsplash-1THREE KINGS: Christians mark Epiphany on January 6  [PICTURE: Inbal Malca, Unsplash]

The traditional English Christmas has its origins in the ninth century, when King Alfred the Great enshrined in law the importance of keeping the church’s feasts. He commanded that there should be a holiday on Christmas Day and the 12 days that followed, for it was believed that the Magi had journeyed for 12 days to see the infant Jesus.

The twelve days of Christmas would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, as Ben Johnson explains.

As with all good traditions, there’s no universal agreement over the exact timing of Twelfth Night, since some regard Christmas Day as being the first day of Christmas, while others believe the 12 days begin on Boxing Day.

But the Victorians began the tradition that it should be the night that Christmas trees and decorations should be taken down, to avoid bad luck after the season of merriment (and to encourage everybody to get back to work).

There’s similar disagreement over the precise details of the story of the Magi: how many wise men actually visited, for example? And when was this? Some theologians argue that Christ would have been around two years old, since the wise men followed the star for two years and King Herod had all children two years and under massacred; by that time the Holy Family would also have moved out of the stables and into more permanent accommodation.

dan-kiefer-467645-unsplashTIMELESS TALE: the story of the Nativity                               [PICTURE:Dan Kiefer, Unsplash]

Maybe the precise details don’t matter too much – after all, it was Pope Julius I who had the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity, helpfully blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations.

By Shakespeare’s day, as well as the carols and church-going, Twelfth Night would have been marked by music, masked balls and feasting – and it was in this context that he wrote his raucous comedy Twelfth Night (or What You Will), as fitting entertainment to close the Christmas season.

The first record of its performance comes from Candlemas of 1602 to bring down the curtain on Tudor festive celebration which used to last throughout the month of January.

In fact, many of our favourite Christmas traditions date back to the Tudor period, it seems, including carol-singing, present-giving, mulled wine and mince pies, as the BBC’s History Extra magazine explains with the help of Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke – authors of the 2018 book A Tudor Christmas.

So if the sight of those bedraggled Christmas trees got you feeling a little down, don’t despair – the spirit of Epiphany is upon us, and Candlemas is just around the corner!

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Perfect time for a winter’s tale

JANUARY always seems the bleakest, dreariest, greyest month of the year.

But for anyone feeling down in the mouth about the lack of sunshine or suffering a bout of the New Year blues, help is at hand.

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The 2019 almanac from the BBC’s Springwatch team provides a timely reminder that spring is around the corner – and in the meantime offers a host of tips of ways to step outside and make the most of the British winter.

The good news begins with a table of daylight hours: true, it’s a little depressing to be reminded that at the start of the year sunrise in London is after 8am and sunset a whisker after 4pm. But flick ahead to the next chapter and you’ve got pretty much an extra hour of daylight to look forward to in February.

For now, you can take advantage of any mud or snow on the ground to look out for the tracks of some of our more surrepticious wildlife, from hedgehogs to mink, weasels to water voles.

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The bare tree branches make it easier to spot visiting birds and you can always take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which has been monitoring the drastic decline in our bird population since 1979.

The sharp-eared can listen out for the vocal exchanges between little owls or barking calls of flirtatious squirrels, while more intrepid winter walkers may head to the coastline on the lookout for treasures washed upby winter storms.

The chapters are not a day-by-day guide to the natural calendar, but a series of snippets of seasonal delights, with occasional offbeat and quirky facts thrown in for good measure.

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You can find out about an ancient ceremony in Herefordshire to banish evil spirits, for example, or learn some of the score of different regional names for the humble woodlouse, or chiggywig.

Along the way there’s time to recall the horrors of the Big Freeze of 1963 or how the red kite was brought back from extinction to become a familiar sight once more, soaring on the thermals over the Chiltern Hills and elsewhere across the country.

Before you know it, you’ll be in February – the shortest month of the year, with Valentine’s Day a reminder that nature also has an extraordinary array of courtship unfolding during the month.

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True, it’s a little early to say spring is on its way – but the almanac provides a perfect way of keeping the winter blues at bay until those welcome longer days arrive.

The Almanac 2019 by Michael Bright and Karen Farrington features a foreword from Chris Packham and is published by BBC Books at £12.99.

 

 

 

Swimming against the plastic tide

SOMETIMES it’s hard to get an image out of your mind.

For Daniel Webb, that sight was a litter-strewn Kent beach he encountered on an evening run in 2016.

Daniel Webb [Credit line] Photo_ © Ollie Harrop 2018. Image courtesy of Everyday PlasticRUBBISH MOUNTAIN: Daniel Webb                                             PICTURE: Ollie Harrop 2018

The 36-year-old had moved to Margate that summer, attracted by the sea, creative community and small-town feel.

But his plastic-riddled run along the coast one evening that September set him thinking about his own personal impact on pollution – just how much rubbish does one person living alone produce, and how much of it is actually recycled?

Surprised to be told by his local council that no recycling facilities were available at his block of flats, he set out to discover just how much plastic waste he produced in a year.

The staggering answer, chronicled in painstaking detail by researcher and earth sciences expert Dr Julie Schneider, was more than 4,400 individual items of plastic, categorised, weighed and photographed in the form of a huge mural used to launch his Everyday Plastic project.

The pair’s subsequent report, Everyday Plastic: what we throw away and where it goes, created shockwaves around the world as Daniel’s sponsors and supporters helped to spread the word about his key findings:

  • The UK throws away over ​295 billion​​ pieces of plastic every year
  • 93%​​​​ of Daniel’s collected plastic waste was ​single-use packaging
  • 67%​​​​ of his throwaway plastic was used to ​package, wrap and consume food
  • 70%​​​​ of the plastic he threw away in a year is ​not currently recyclable
  • Only ​4%​​​ of his collection would be ​recycled​​ at UK recycling facilities 

Copy of everyday-plastic-leap-design-infographic-1

​Dr Schneider ​​said: “Daniel’s project was a unique opportunity to finally replace vague assumptions with concrete numbers. For instance, we wanted to know how much of our everyday plastic waste is actually recyclable. Plastic bottles can be properly recycled, but what about the plastic film that wraps our vegetables, pasta and sweets? All the plastic packaging stamped with the ‘not currently recycled’ logo? It turns out that 70% of Daniel’s plastic waste is not currently recyclable! This is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

“I wish everybody could have seen the room where we unpacked one year’s worth of Daniel’s plastic waste. In a massive warehouse in Margate, the floor was completely covered with thousands of plastic pots, trays, bags, films, lids and other everyday items. Everyone that entered the room had the same reaction: ‘Wow, that’s just one person’s plastic waste’.”

But what happens now? As Daniel said at the launch of his report: “We can’t just rely on recycling to fix plastic pollution. Most importantly, we need to produce and use much less plastic. Our fast-moving disposable society means that we are using more single-use things than ever, so we need to rethink how we consume.”

The report was released with the support of Surfers Against Sewage, whose CEO Hugo Tagholm said: “The Everyday Plastic report not only exposes the sheer diversity and volume of single-use plastic we all have to navigate daily, but as alarmingly, the inadequacy of current recycling systems, which only return a paltry amount of material back to shop shelves. Reducing the use of pointless plastics is a priority – there is just too much plastic currently being made. Then, all plastics that remain should be fully accounted for, captured and reprocessed by manufacturers. The future health of people and planet depend on drastically curbing plastic emissions.”

But we can all do our little bit to help, Daniel insists. “If I’d have given up plastic bottles, coffee cups, straws, stirrers, cutlery, carrier bags and swapped shower gel for soap, I would’ve thrown away 316 fewer items in 2017. If only half the UK population did the same thing, we could prevent 10 billion pieces from entering the waste system. So don’t ever let anyone tell you that individuals can’t make a difference!”

And what happens now? Last month Daniel hit his crowdfunding target, raising £4,315 to produce hard copies of the report  help set up the Everyday Plastic charity.

“Everyday Plastic has changed my life,” he says. “By doing something weird such as collecting all the plastic I used in a year, I have had the fortunate opportunity to meet, learn from and help hundreds of people. And it’s a journey on which I would love to continue.

“I get to travel up and down the country, sharing my story, my thoughts and learn from amazing people.”

For latest news on how to help the project, see the website and Twitter feed.