Listening to our landscape

NOISE is all around usand much of the time it’s not even the sort of sound we want to hear.

Even if it’s not the intrusive irritation of someone else’s music on the train or other people’s children arguing, we frequently want to tune out of the environment around us by plugging into a podcast or our favourite music.

But what about all the noise we are not listening to which might just have huge benefits for our mental health and wellbeing? That’s where Echoed Locations comes in, a project aiming to create the first ever sonic map of the Chilterns. 

Initiated by the Chilterns Conservation Board as part of the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership, the aim is to establish a sound map of the Chilterns which can be used as a resource for years to come.

The project has designed sound recording workshops for local schools and community groups which focus first on attentive listening before moving on to practical recording techniques.

Elizabeth Buckley, communications and community engagement officer for the partnership scheme, explains: “It’s the seemingly ordinary sounds which make the Chilterns a unique and special place to live.

“Echoed Locations was developed because soundscapes are unique and important and inform how we feel about a place.”

The sounds they hope to collect for the project might range from birdsong in the local park to rush-hour traffic, a babbling stream or hoot of an owl at night. It might be a steam train in the distance, rain on a window pane or even a poem, song or interview.

“When you step off the bus as you arrive home, it is not just the smell of your neighbours’ garden or the sight of your front gate that makes you feel at home,” says Elizabeth (below).

“It is likely also the steady hum of a radio nearby, your mother’s voice calling you inside, far away traffic rumbling by.

“It is only when these sounds are lost from our day-to-day lives do, we really begin to listen. For example, when you arrive in a wood where no birds are singing, it feels odd and we notice the absence of a familiar sound. “

From the chatter of children walking to school to the buzzing of insects or hum of traffic, the project aims to encourage residents, visitors and especially young people to contribute to the sonic map. 

Anyone can participate by adding audio recordings via the Echoed Locations website page and schools, local community groups and youth groups are encouraged to reach out to book a free sound recording workshop in 2020, although spaces are limited.

Volunteers willing to act as ‘Sonic Champions’ in High Wycombe, Amersham, Aylesbury and Princes Risborough (or the surrounding areas) will help promote the project and be given full training.

Contact Elizabeth on lbuckley@chilternsaonb.org to sign up for a sound recording workshop or as a volunteer, or with any other questions about the project.

Zoo for all seasons

YOU don’t expect to find good food at a zoo. You certainly don’t expect to be tucking into a venison ragu or fish stew sporting the sort of seasonal organic credentials you’d expect from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage.

But then ZSL’s Whipsnade Zoo is full of pleasant surprises, it seems, even on a wet and windy day in January. And if seems odd to start talking about catering facilities before mentioning the 2,500 animals on site, it’s just that food can make or break a family day out, as any parent can testify.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. It’s a wild January day, so what possible logic is there for picking this as the perfect time to visit’s the UK’s largest zoo, which boasts 600 acres of land to explore, including areas where some animals can roam free, safari-park style?

One of the biggest surprises, perhaps, is the open outlook of the zoo’s location, which provides visitors with some stunning views over the surrounding Bedfordshire countryside.

If it feels odd to find penguins flourishing in this environment, it seems even stranger to see rural England laid out as a backdrop.

But this is “Europe” on the zoo map, a corner where lolloping wolverines rub shoulders with bears, wild boars and lynx – not to mention the penguins, who are clustered around looking a little disconsolate that the keepers are sweeping their rocks and giving their pool area a bit of a tidy up.

You don’t bump into too many wolverines in the Bedfordshire countryside these days. As with so many mammals, they were hounded out of England centuries ago by hunting and habitat loss, and now you would normally need to go to the Nordic countries or Russia to see the sturdy bear-like animal in the flesh.

At Whipsnade they appear quite happy frolicking in their paddock, but the largest member of the weasel family is a pretty tough customer with the capacity to travel 40 miles in a day and jaws that can crunch through bone – reindeer bone. Ouch.

A stone’s throw away are the zoo’s brown bears, but they are lying low at the back of their enclosure and not easy to spot. One of the great dilemmas for any zoo wanting to put their animals’ welfare first is that this may frequently mean guests can be a little disappointed when their most sought-after inhabitants don’t turn up on cue.

It’s clear from some of the more critical TripAdvisor guests that such problems can leave a sour taste, especially if the family has left the car outside the zoo in the free car park and is trekking around on foot only to find apparently empty cages.

But you have to take your chances when you visit Whipsnade and for us, the distant glimpse of those wonderful brown bears is strangely moving. We are also taking advantage of the fact that the fee to take your car into the zoo – normally an eye-watering £25 – is £12 until mid-February and worth every penny, even if it does mean worried parents keeping a wary eye out for the slow-moving traffic.

But we’ve made a day of it, arriving at opening time (10am), allowing plenty of time to meander around those rolling acres. In “Africa”, the lions may be asleep and the hunting dogs curled up in a family ball, but the white rhinos are getting a little frisky and the meerkets are obligingly cheeky.

We are also suitably refreshed with mid-morning sausage baps from Base Camp. Not all visitors have sung the praises of the new cafe set-up where you order by tablet, but we found the service cheerful, efficient and friendly, and the snacks freshly made and affordable.

While we are talking about moans, some guests seem to find the zoo layout confusing, but the colourful map gives you a clear overview of where everything is, and you can always retrace your steps if you feel you have missed a highlight.

To be fair, the complaints are clearly in the minority, with most guests happy to sing the zoo’s praises. It’s just tough to keep everyone satisfied…

Breakfast behind us, it’s a little easier to join the giraffes as they take their time savouring their food, delighted younger guests watching each ball of leaves travelling back up that long neck for some more grinding.

The wind may be blowing hard on top of the escarpment and there’s plenty of mud to wade through but the younger guests are all well prepared with their hats and wellies, and everyone seems happily reconciled to the cutting wind and occasional shower.

It’s something the zoo is keenly aware of because they do like to advise visitors of the range of indoor options available – not just cafes and an indoor play area, but other refuges dotted around the park, like the hippo enclosure – hot and smelly, it’s true, but a fascinating place to escape a shower if the residents are enjoying a satisfying wallow.

Other hot spots include a tropical butterfly house where 30 species of colourful and exotic butterflies flutter around and a new aquarium which discovers some of the secrets of freshwater fish, explores unusual habitats from flooded forests to mysterious caves, and tells the story of conserving some of the world’s most critically endangered species.

Back in the open air, it’s time to soak up the view again – and consider whether lunch River Cottage style is a sensible investment at this point. It has to be said that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed the best of reviews since it opened, but if previous guests have found the food disappointing or the restaurant closed, we found the reverse.

Yes, £25 for two main courses is on the dear side, but our dishes were good – and on a sunny day, the setting would have been breathtaking.

You don’t have to eat in the restaurant to enjoy the view, either – there are seats and picnic tables all around the grounds for picnickers on a tighter budget, and other cafes on site to choose from, including the cheaper adjoining deli section.

But for our visit the welcome was warm, the meals inviting and the overall experience enjoyable. And families with young children seemed to be coping well too, despite some of the reservations about the menu expressed online.

From this hilltop outlook it’s easier to get a feel for quite what an inspired investment this was when Hall Farm, a derelict farm on the Dunstable Downs north of London, was bought by the Zoological Society of London in 1926 for a little under £500.

The site was fenced, roads built and trees planted, with the first animals arriving in 1928 and the zoo welcoming its first guests on Sunday May 23, 1931.

The Zoological Society of London had been founded in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles with the aim of promoting the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats, at to that end London Zoo was established in Regents Park. Almost a century later, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, then the long-term secretary of the ZSL, was inspired by a visit to the Bronx Zoo in New York to create a park in Britain as a conservation centre.

The rest, as they say, is history, except that today the conservation message is stronger than ever and central to everything the zoo does, as the website explains. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the zoo’s breeding programme, so it seems like a good time to head off to “Asia” and meet one of the newest arrivals.

This cheeky female greater one-horned rhino was born to mum Behan and dad Hugo in December, weighing in at 70kg, more than twenty times the average human at birth.

Along with other babies, including a couple of wolverine kits and a reticulated giraffe, these are the newest arrivals at Whipsnade, ready to be added to the annual census when the zookeepers welcome the New Year by dusting off their clipboards and calculators to take stock of every creature, great and small, from lemurs and lions to fast-moving vampire crabs and Madagascan hissing cockroaches.

With the total now topping more than 2,500, things have come a long way since author and conservationist Gerald Durrell worked as a junior keeper here after the war, with Beasts In My Belfry recalling events from the period.

Nowadays there are cheetahs and zebra, herds of camels, yak and deer romping across open paddocks and even a farmyard where visitors of all ages can get a little closer to rabbits and hens, miniature donkeys and baby goats – not to mention a shaggy Poitou donkey, with a larger-than-life character and distinctive coat.

Outside the farm there’s even another unexpected visitor pulling in the crowds, with birdwatchers from all over the UK dusting off their telephoto lenses to pay tribute to an Asian avian visitor blown off course by winter gales during its migration.

The black-throated thrush innocently gobbling berries by the farmyard gate has attracted up to 40 ‘twitchers’ a day since it turned up in December, and seems to have been enjoying all the attention.

It might seem ironic that the surprise arrival could fly off at any time it wants, unlike most of the inhabitants at Whipsnade, but this is not a zoo that leaves you feeling sorry for its animals.

The pioneering conservation work, glorious location and acres of rolling paddocks make it pretty clear here what the top priorities are – and just how much affection and respect the staff have for their furry, feathered and scaly charges.

From the tiger’s enclosure a hungry growl echoes around the park, a sound to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. But the Bedfordshire neighbours must be used to some strange sounds echoing down from the hills…

With the light fading, it’s time to head off, and allow Whipsnade’s motley assortment of wonderful animals to get a good night’s sleep away from prying human eyes.

For more details about tickets and opening times, membership packages, keeper experiences and overnight stays, see the zoo’s website.

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.

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.

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SAVING 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.

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COMMUNITY 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.

Another zero waste enthusiast is healthy living blogger and vegan Joshua Howard of ecolifemaster.com who has published a guide to waste-free living.

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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 Plastic

RUBBISH 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 
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​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.

Nights round the campfire

THERE’S an almost primeval pleasure about cooking over a campfire that appeals to all ages.

No one knows that better than David Willis, whose bushcraft courses and other outdoor events encourage families to get out into the woods and reconnect with the natural world.

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We meet at his Buckinghamshire base, an 18-acre expanse of private woodland near Little Chalfont where Winnie the Pooh and Piglet would feel very much at home.

Owned by a builder friend, this provides David with a base camp for bread-baking and wood whittling, foraging and other outdoor adventures for families, small groups and corporate clients.

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It’s  quite a change of direction for someone who spent 30 years as an IT consultant, but at 58, David is showing no signs of missing the corporate world. In fact it has been a welcome opportunity to rediscover the simple pleasures that played such an important part of his childhood.

As a boy, he  loved being outdoors and would spend many happy hours exploring the local woodlands, building camps with his friends. As father to two sons, those camping experiences were fun to share with the family too – and today he is clearly getting just as much pleasure helping other people recapture some of those lost childhood experiences.

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“There was woodland at the end of our garden and as a young boy still in short trousers, this provided a wild place to play,” he recalls in a blog posting about his childhood. “A child of the 60s, I found my own amusement. There were a few large trees that were great for climbing, balancing on limbs, that would no doubt now send many parents racing in, to save their children from any potential harm. I’d happily play there in the trees for hours, only to be called in when it was time for dinner.”

Nowadays he delights in guiding families on woodland walks, showing children how to light a fire and cooking over an open fire, perhaps helping to restore people’s confidence about coping in the great outdoors.

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Genial, enthusiastic and immensely knowledgable about his natural surroundings, his invitation to families and corporate clients to escape from their computer screens and mobile phones and get back to nature is clearly one that resonates with his guests.

More than 1,000 people have joined him for his woodland wanders, learning about a variety of things on the way – from recognising different trees to appreciating the uses made of different types of wood and the delights of foraging.

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“It’s a very primal thing,” grins David. “There are half a dozen different ways of lighting a fire.”

Guests needn’t worry about having to hunt, trap and enviscerate cute woodland creatures though. Although he has spent time in the army – he joined the Royal Engineers as a teenager and spent six years as a surveyor, serving in Belize – there’s nothing military or survivalist about his courses.

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He launched this outdoor events business back in 2010 after years of studying bushcraft and leadership skills, culminating in a year-long course with John Rhyder’s Woodcraft School in West Sussex, which he enjoyed immensely.

Teaching experience with the Scouts was consolidated through trips abroad – like a visit five years ago to spend time with Maasai tribes in Kenya’s Rift Valley, which confirmed the pleasure he gets from imparting knowledge to young people.

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When he was growing up, he learned through play – building structures and making things, then improving them when they fell down or broke. Those practical skills are still in demand today as a new generation of woodland adventurers learn how to tie ropes, erect hammocks, light fires and make shelters. They might even end up making bows and arrows.

“It’s great just generally for mental health,” says David. “It does everyone a lot of good to be outdoors.”

These events are all about pitching in and getting involved, so even as we speak, the flour, yeast and water is being mixed so that we can try our hand at bread-making.

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It may not be the most sophisticated of kitchens and the woodsmoke is swirling everywhere, but we make a decent fist of kneading a couple of small loaves that can be baked in David’s Dutch oven while we discuss the relative merits of hornbeam, burch, cherry and larch wood.

A local lad, David and his friend started to cycle further afield as boys, exploring Black Park and Burnham Beeches before his family moved to the New Forest for a while,  helping to cement his love of wild places and woodland surroundings.

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So is it the solitude, the sound of the birds, the grounding in nature, the safety of a home-made shelter among the trees that makes this feel like home? Probably all of these reasons, he confirms.

He’s clearly never happier than when rustling up a tasty meal over a campfire, especially if it means having the chance to share the skills needed to enjoy living the outdoor life to the full.

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Our bread is beginning to rise rather impressively and tastes divine. The lamb kebabs take only minutes to cook and are equally delicious, all the more so for being speared on hand-whittled sticks and rotated over the roaring fire. Ah, simple pleasures.

But then this sort of experience is at the heart of David’s woodland events, which can be tailored to suit all ages, abilities and tastes.

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From rustling up tasty campfire treats to wood-whittling skills and uncovering the magic of trees, he runs a variety of day and longer courses both here in Buckinghamshire and further afield, while his own thirst for adventure has seen him travelling as far away as Namibia to spend time with the bushmen of the Kalahari.

The learning never stops it seems – although the same might be said for his visitors, as they lap up his wisdom on how to make nettle risotto, which berries are poisonous or which trees are best for warding off witches…

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Go down to the woods

To find out more about David’s bushcraft courses, including whittling and woodcraft, campfire bread baking and The Art of Fire, or to arrange private family or group sessions, visit his website.

David’s free guided family walks (booking required) are the first Sunday of the month. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

To see David in action, see the Sorted Food Youtube channel

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At home with C S Lewis

BRILLIANT scholar, poet, philosopher, internationally renowned children’s author – CS Lewis was many things to many people.

And although it’s as the author of his Chronicles of Narnia fantasy fiction that he is best known, for millions of believers it was his inspirational writing and broadcasts about Christianity that had the most lasting impact.

Whatever the motivation for finding out more about the prolific Irish author, a great starting point is the house where Lewis lived from 1930 until his death in 1963, The Kilns in Headington, outside Oxford.

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This is where he wrote and worked, where he sat and smoked and debated philosophy and religion with his brother ‘Warnie’ and great friend and fellow fantasy novelist JRR Tolkien, creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tours of the home are conducted by appointment only, but those joining a small group to explore Lewis’s life and legacy are not entering a museum but a study centre which is also temporarily home to a number of young scholars.

The American foundation which runs The Kilns wanted to honour the author’s memory by encouraging its continued use as a quiet place of study, fellowship and creative scholarly work, much as it was during his own period of residency there.

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The Kilns was built in 1922 on the site of a former brickworks and the lake in its eight-acre garden was a flooded claypit.

CS Lewis bought The Kilns jointly with his brother and Mrs Janie Moore in 1930 and the extensive wild grounds would provide the inspiration for the Narnia chronicles, which started off as a tale told to children evacuated from London in 1939.

Although the house had been totally transformed by the time the foundation bought the building in the 1980s, much has been done to achieve an authentic recreation of how it looked during the years when Lewis lived there.

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Few authors of fantasy literature are as beloved as Lewis – or Jack, as he was always known to family and friends from childhood. Born in Belfast in 1898, he created an unforgettable, magical world to which readers return again and again, both as children and adults.

He wrote more than 30 books which have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. And of course many of those books were produced here at The Kilns, including the philosophical writings widely acclaimed by Christian apologists from many denominations.

A brilliant academic, he was educated at Oxford University and returned there after service in World War I to become a fellow and tutor of English literature at Magdalen College.

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He had been wounded in France during the Battle of Arras and his former friend and roommate Paddy Moore was killed in battle. As part of a pledge the pair had made, Lewis looked after Paddy Moore’s mother and her daughter, living with them in Oxford from the early 1920s.

A full timeline of his life and works also appears on the HarperCollins official website, but it was here in Headington that Lewis and fellow novelist and Oxford academic JRR Tolkien became friends.

They were both active in the informal literary circle known as The Inklings, who for 16 years from 1933 held regular discussions about their work in a corner of the local Eagle and Child pub. The pair also argued about philosphy and religion in the “common room” at The Kilns, where the carpet was ingrained with pipe ash and the curtains fashioned from wartime blackout blankets.

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Christened Clive Staples Lewis, Jack and his older brother Warren, or ‘Warnie’, spent long hours in their childhood creating and chronicling the adventures of the inhabitants of their combined imaginary kingdom of Boxen.

Tribute is paid to that early creativity in an upstairs attic room here at The Kilns, next door to the bedroom where young wartime evacuees would hear stories paving the way for the seven Chronicles of Narnia, which were written and published between 1948 and 1956.

Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was not a sudden experience: in his 1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy he likened the process to being hunted down by God, or even being defeated by him in a game of chess.

But his influences were, as always, books and a few close friends, and the final stage in his conversion took place here. By the age of 32 he had become a ordinary layman of the Church of England and began writing his Christian apologetic books, with Warnie recruited to painstakingly type out his handwritten manuscripts.

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Lewis also gave a series of talks about Christianity on BBC radio between 1941 and 1944 which brought him wide acclaim, the text of which would later be published in a book called Mere Christianity.

His literary output in these years was considerable and as his fame grew, many people wrote to him – including the American writer who would become his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, whom he married in 1956.

Their love story formed the basis of the celebrated 1993 film Shadowlands, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough and starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

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Joy was a New York teacher of English literature and a recent convert to Christianity. Outspoken and witty, she had been corresponding with Lewis for two years before moving to England with her two sons, where they became frequent visitors to The Kilns.

She was divorced in 1954, but two years later her work permit expired and she faced having to move back to America. Lewis decided to marry her and claimed the civil marriage ceremony, quietly performed in a registry office, was a purely legal measure to allow her to stay in the country.

Whatever their feelings for each other might have been at this stage, shortly afterwards Joy was diagnosed with advanced cancer and Lewis realised he loved her and decided to make their marriage public.

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The ceremony was performed around her hospital bed and when she was able to leave hospital, she and the boys moved into The Kilns.

Miraculously, her health improved and they enjoyed more than three years together before her cancer returned and claimed her life in July 1960.

Her death hit Lewis hard and tested his Christian faith, as he revealed unflinchingly in a record of his thoughts and feelings throughout the grieving process, published as A Grief Observed.

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He himself died on the 22nd November 1963, a week before his 65th birthday. He never wanted his death to be widely acknowledged and he got his way: American president John F Kennedy was assassinated on the same day.

On the 50th anniversary of his death, he was honoured with a memorial in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, but his grave lies much closer to home in the peaceful surroundings of nearby Holy Trinity church in Headington Quarry, where he and Warnie worshipped over the years.

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Inside the church are many reminders of his life and legacy – from the ‘Narnia window’ installed  in 1991 in memory of children George and Kathleen Howe, who died young, to the small plaque on the pew where the brothers chose to sit.

Another peaceful oasis nearby is a small nature reserve around the corner from The Kilns which is now maintained by BBOWT, the wildlife trust for Oxfordshire.

Whether or not this location played any serious role in inspiring such fantasy worlds as Narnia and Middle Earth perhaps is not perhaps too important. But The Kilns itself provides a restful setting to reflect on the life and legacy of an extraordinary writer whose work was to prove such a lasting and pervasive inspiration to future generations.

Tours are held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and cost £12.50 per adult and £10 per student, senior (60+), or child. See The Kilns website for details.

Danny lambasts litter apathy

THE Kent businessman who invented a pioneering new app to tackle the country’s litter crisis admits it’s been a long, uphill struggle to get people to take his idea seriously.

Launched in a blaze of publicity back in 2015, the idea was a simple one, as Danny Lucas explains: “I decided to tackle the UK litter crisis in a way that had never been done before.

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“As a child of the 70s I remembered public information films at school and Keep Britain Tidy logos on every crisp packet and sweet wrapper.

“Whilst that worked back then, it was clear that it had no effect today and I knew a new approach was needed.”

His solution was a simple, free app for smartphone users that allows individuals to tip off their local council with information about litter, dog fouling and fly-tipping. It was accompanied by a two-minute animated education film that could be shown to the kids at school assembly.

By August 2016 Danny was picking up an environmental champions award from the Mayor of Tonbridge in recognition of the contribution LitterGram had had on improving conditions in the borough.

But although he tries to remain positive, two years on he is the first to admit that the scheme hasn’t grown the way he had hoped when he first wrote about the idea of making “hating litter cool” and getting all of the UK’s 433 local councils involved.

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“Councils are just not interested,” he says. “Behind closed doors they see us as a pain in the arse.”

Having invested £300,000 of his own money in the project, it’s clear that the lukewarm response has been the source of considerable anger and frustration. As the boss of a multi-million pound business in the construction industry, employing hundreds of staff, this is a man who’s clearly accustomed to getting things done.

The company he owns is the same family-run business he joined as a teenager of 15, and for most of his life he has lived in Kent– the so-called ‘Garden of England’.

“I am proud to be British however when I look around Britain I can’t see what’s great about it any more. Littering has increased by 500% since the 1960s and 48% of the population admit to dropping litter.

“We now spend £1bn per year tackling the problem which clearly does nothing as we are now officially the third most littered nation globally behind countries in the developing world.”

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“This is a shocking statistic and purely down to a lack of education and awareness. This has in turn created a culture and attitude across the UK of not caring and has affected the very authorities whose duty it is to maintain standards and set examples. Effectively they now broadcast a message that says “we don’t care” and this fuels the problem.”

Danny was disappointed to find that relatively few head teachers were keen to take up the baton, some insisting that it was parents’ job to teach children about such matters.

Coupled with poor enforcement in many areas of the country, the apathy means that many people become “litter blind”, he believes – because the country is being so trashed and neglected that this is becoming the norm.

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Not all council clear-up teams are as efficient as they could be, he believes. That is another waste of money and a cause for complacency, particularly if councils really don’t want to be told about the scale of the problem.

“Councils have to set standards but no one really cares,” he says. “I saw it as a great way to get the kids on board and I thought councils would embrace it.”

The LitterGram Live message of “Snap It. Share It. Sort It” was envisaged as a dynamic and fast-changing service which would include details of the most littered brands, the most active users and the most responsive councils, with enthusiastic litter spotters able to keep up with latest developments on Twitter @LitterGram.

But it hasn’t quite gone according to plan – even though there are dozens of litter-picking groups up and down the country doing their bit to help, and millions of nature and animal lovers doing their bit to highlight the scale of the crisis.

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There’s been plenty of publicity in the press and on TV and radio, but that has not translated into LitterGram becoming the “fifth emergency service” as Danny might have wished.

Perhaps even more radical solutions are needed? “Take it off the councils. You could halve the costs and keep Britain spotless,” says Danny. And he’s not exactly joking. But nor is he despondent that the battle has been lost.

“I get phoned up all the time about it, so we are obviously getting the attention of a lot of people,” he says. “One way or another we will get there. The problem is now an epidemic that has a grip on the nation like cancer. If nothing is done, the problem will worsen and our children and their children will be swimming in filth.”

It’s an apocalyptic warning, but even a cursory glance along the average English roadside is enough to demonstrate that this is not empty rhetoric. The problem is there for all to see – and while LitterGram may not have become the quick-fix solution Danny Lucas might have wished for, you get the impression this is one campaigner who isn’t giving up the fight just yet.

Escape from the rat race

THERE’S something immensely restful and soothing about Gregorian chant – and the same can be said of the tranquil surroundings of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Here, buried in the depths of the English countryside, is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery founded in Paris in 1615.

Vespers is sung prayer – in Latin. Traditionally this evening sacrifice of praise to God takes place as dusk begins to fall, giving thanks for the day just past, and although guests are welcome and some services and concerts are well attended, it’s not uncommon to find the monks alone at this time.

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Uprooted by the French Revolution, the monks moved initially to Douai in Flanders and settled in England in 1903, when they moved to their current base at Woolhampton.

The Order of Saint Benedict, also known as the ‘Black Monks’ because of the colour of their habits, is a religious order of independent monastic communities like Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and Buckfast.

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They observe the Rule of St Benedict, a sixth-century Italian saint who studied in Rome and then turned his back on the world and lived in solitude before founding a monastery at Monte Cassino.

Here at Douai, under the patronage of the Edmund the Martyr (the East Anglian king who died in 869), the monks live a simple life of worship, study and work, centred around six daily services, from matins and lauds at 6.20am to compline at 8pm.

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Despite their crow-like appearance when their black hoods are raised – an indication that they are in silent communion with the Lord – they are individually friendly and welcoming to guests who seek them out.

But “listening” is central to the Benedictine doctrine, so silence is an important part of their daily life – and for guests, a welcome reminder of how important it is for us all to escape the incessant hubbub of the modern world.

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And so it is in preparation for the weekday service that we attend. Beforehand, individual monks sit in contemplation, both inside the abbey church and on benches around the grounds.

They then file silently to their places in the pews for a half-hour of praise and peace,  the two dozen male voices echoing round the impressive arches of the abbey where we are the only other members of the congregation.

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The abbey church was opened in the 1930s but not completed until 1993, and is a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England with marvellous acoustics.

Our simple evening service is without ceremony or accompanying music but is no less moving for that. The individual Latin words  may be indistinct or unfamiliar, but the message of praise is clear – and the underlying sense of self-sacrifice and humility which underpins the monks’ way of life shines through.

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Douai monks still serve in parishes throughout England and welcome guests on retreats and courses,  as well as those seeking space for quiet or study. There are facilities for  conferences and for youth and chaplaincy groups and throughout the year they host a number of  concerts in the abbey church.

Guests may take a peaceful walk in the nearby meadow or sit in a small wooded glade at the foot of a statue of Christ. This is a place of peace and contemplation – and a welcome escape from the unrelenting noise and activity of our everyday lives.

For more information about the work of the monks at Douai, see their website.

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All aboard for quiz night!

THE lights on the country station platform are shining, the semaphore signals are at red and a handful of passengers alight in the drizzle.

It could be a scene from the 1960s, but despite appearances we are firmly in 2018 and just reaching journey’s end after an unusual sojourn through the Oxfordshire countryside.

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The occasion is one of the periodic “fish and chip” quiz nights organised by the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway – but unlike a country train at a platform like this half a century ago, this one is actually packed with passengers, all of whom seem to be in remarkably good spirits.

It’s the culmination of a leisurely three-hour trundle through the local countryside where teams having been pitting their wits against each other for the sheer hell of it.

There are no big prizes on offer here – but for more than 100 enthusiastic diners, that really doesn’t matter. It’s the experience which counts.

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What could be more English than a heritage railway, a pub quiz and a traditional meal of fish and chips? Put them together and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for success, and this train and others like it are sold out long in advance.

The story of the line’s revival has been covered in detail in a previous post on this site, but the return visit is a welcome opportunity to savour the atmosphere of an evening journey in convivial company.

A team of enthusiastic and welcoming volunteers provide a cheerful and efficient table service throughout the journey as our quiz train ambles towards Princes Risborough and back.

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It’s a good time to visit too, because this is a week which sees the railway celebrating the opening of Platform 4 at Princes Risborough station – a long-awaited link up with the Chiltern Railways main line.

Tonight no one’s going anywhere very quickly after the Class 37 diesel-electric engine booked for the service subsides into silence and has to be replaced. But no one on board is too worried as the quiz picks up pace and another heritage engine clanks into place to take the strain.

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This one is a beautifully restored visitor to Chinnor, a Class 20 diesel decked out in the distinctive green livery of British Railways which spent its working life in the Sheffield area after entering service in 1961. It was withdrawn in 1990, one of more than 200 “Choppers” designed to work light mixed freight traffic which earned their nickname from their distinctive engine beat, which resembles the sound of a helicopter.

D8059 proves a more than worthy replacement for the short journey to Thame Junction, but as dusk begins to fall over the surrounding fields, all eyes are on the quiz questions until our return to Chinnor is met with the excited hooting of a driver racing up with our fish and chips.

Serving dozens of people simultaneously with piping hot chip shop fish and chips is no easy task, but our grinning hosts are up to the challenge and the beer and wine is flowing freely between rounds as competitors vent their frustration at being caught out by tricky foreign capitals or elusive logos.

By the time the results have been compiled – and needless to say our four-strong team is no match for some of the expert contestants on board – it’s after 10.30pm and the lights are shining bright at Chinnor station.

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As the passengers disperse into the night, there are sounds of cheerful farewells, train doors slamming and the smell of diesel on the night air.  Surely railway journeys back in the 1960s were never this much fun?

Tickets for quiz night trains cost £19 but the next trip in October is already sold out. See the railway’s website for full timetable details and other special events.