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.

IMG_1339 (2)

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.

IMG_1350

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.

IMG_1334

“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.

IMG_1338

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.

IMG_1358

“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.

IMG_1379

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.

IMG_1380

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.

IMG_1337

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.

IMG_1352

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.

IMG_1369

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.

IMG_1371

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…

IMG_1375

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

 

.

 

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.

IMG_1224

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.

IMG_1223

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.

IMG_1199

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.

IMG_1217

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.

IMG_1205

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.

IMG_1213

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.

MCDSHAD EC006

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.

IMG_1212

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.

IMG_1228

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.

IMG_1236

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.

DANNY LUCAS

“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.

IMG_0994

“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.”

waste 2

“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.

40159028_260235737948914_7216420972910346240_n

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.

40374907_10156756065047533_4080764546665414656_n (2)

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.

IMG_1156

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.

IMG_1158

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.

IMG_1162

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.

IMG_1163

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.

IMG_1159

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.

IMG_1149

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.

IMG_1153

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.

IMG_0928

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.

Quiz Night 1 (4)

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.

IMG_0932

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.

IMG_0933

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.

IMG_0936

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.

 

Secret wonders in the woods

BACK in 1990 the bare field next to Roy and Marie Battell’s house didn’t look too promising as a potential nature reserve…

MAR 1991

But anyone sceptical about the couple’s plan to transform around two acres of cow pasture north of Milton Keynes would be amazed to see just what can be achieved when you undertake a labour of love.

Flash forward more than a quarter of a century and today there are around 800 trees – plus four ponds and meadows attracting a huge cross-section of wildlife. What’s more, over the years the ‘Moorhens’ website depicting life in the Battells’ nature reserve has developed something of an international reputation.

Moorhens were the first waterbird to adopt the ponds that were dug to encourage wildlife – hence the name chosen for the website.

“They successfully raised one to three broods each year from 1991 to 2011,” Roy explains on the site.  The delight of all that activity earned the shy water birds the URL ‘dedication’ for the website – which since then has attracted more than 94,000 visitors intrigued by different aspects of the project the couple were undertaking.

“Planting, digging and caring for this lot has provided more, and more interesting, exercise than ever before in our lives,” says Roy.

Roy and Marie in front of Round Mound(r+mb Sample@576)

When the couple started to dig out the ponds they vaguely anticipated that this would attract the sort of visitors – ducks, coots and dragonflies – that they had been used to seeing at their previous homes, from Watford to Welwyn Garden City.

A then-and-now picture sequence chronicles the development of the reserve from early 1991 to the summer of 2007 – starting with fencing and hedge-planting and moving on to plant bare-root stock and digging out the ponds.

“The first 10 years were very slow with basically a sea of plastic tree shelters in grass that needed endless mowing,” Roy recalls. “But the trees suddenly took off and have become a dark canopy in summer.”

NOV 2007

The hedging is predominantly hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, dog rose, elderberry and blackberry, but the native hedging of the area includes a lot of elm, which shoots and dies in rotation.

“Of the 50 or so chestnut and hazel trees we planted on the site, the squirrels do not leave us a single nut!” says Roy. “However nothing can decimate the blackberries we hack back each year and Marie makes gorgeous jam from the crop.”

‘The Field’ quickly evolved into an intriguing wooded area providing a surplus of wood for willow wands and similar coppice products, as well as offering home to all types of birds, wildlife and insects, from bluetits and swallows to foxes, badgers and the tiniest insects.

“The sky too is full of interest with breeding by corvids and occasional visits by buzzards, red kites, sparrowhawk and kestrels,” says Roy. “Of course we are delightfully infested by tits, finches, thrushes, robins, sparrows and in recent years tawny, barn and little owls.”

An avid photographer, Roy has not only posted a series of animated sequences showing the landscape and flowers changing through the seasons, but has been systematically chronicling visiting wildlife in a weekly newsletter distributed to dozens of loyal followers

His archive of daily wildlife pictures – including birds and insects in flight – dates from 2005 and has attracted more than 2,500 visitors since 2016.

His latest selection is pretty representative, it seems – from a young magpie with downy feathers to a hungry badger, a little owl, bustling butterflies and dragonflies, clustering rooks and feeding woodpeckers.

ROOK

But the event of the week was the repeated appearance over one night of a polecat on the hunt – possibly moving a kit in her mouth and then then carrying two dead rabbits back into her burrow.

It’s the quality of Roy’s photographs, coupled with his painstaking attention to detail in chronicling and recording the animals’ movements, which has attracted the interest of enthusiasts and academics around the world.

He sends these out every week to around 100 subscribers, some of whom are in regular contact. The couple also receive numerous requests from around the world for the original pictures.

“Our pictures are in about 10 wildlife textbooks,” he reveals. The couple are also in regular contact with the Bucks RSPB and other local enthusiasts and supply images to a variety of non-profit organisations and for use in museum displays and educational spreads. There is usually no charge, although those making commercial use of the images are asked to donate to the RSPB or Woodland Trust.

Vegans since 1972, the couple used to grow much of their own food in an allotment area: Marie is a painter who is also mad about gardening – as well as “collecting scruffy old books about the world before it was shrunk by modern communications”.

In recent years that became a little too much to maintain with all the rest of the maintenance and photographic work, and a third of the area has become a little apple orchard using 100 unwanted trees rescued and replanted from a nearby farm.

“We have a little salad bed near the house that used to be a huge cage for a golden
pheasant and his girls (that we inherited with the house 27 years ago),” says Roy. “We enjoyed their company for a couple of years before a fox tunnelled in and killed them.”

The Battells’ website is a modest one, but the archives provide an invaluable day-by-day record of the natural world around them – and an inspiring pictorial backdrop to the extraordinary transformation they have achieved on their doorstep.

 

 

Fresh case for the waste detectives

The Beyonder meets waste enforcement officer David Rounding on Buckinghamshire’s front line in the war against illegal dumping

IMG_0849DIRTY WORK: David Rounding investigates a fly-tipping incident at Burnham

AN IDYLLIC single-track lane in the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside sounds like an unlikely place for a crime scene.

But it’s surprising what goes on in our leafy rural backroads – and for David Rounding there’s sadly nothing out of the ordinary about the location of today’s investigation.

Responding to a tip-off from a concerned local, we’re standing in a small layby on a backroad near Burnham studying a pile of debris dumped at the side of the road.

It’s pretty standard household stuff – a sofa, bed, rug and other assorted bits and pieces. Infuriatingly, it’s less than half a mile from a household recycling centre where the items could have been unloaded legally for nothing.

Instead, they’ve been dumped here – spoiling the sylvan setting and posing a headache for South Bucks District Council, who will now have to clear up the mess. But David’s on the lookout for clues – and is not disheartened.

The waste enforcement officer is part of a small team employed by Buckinghamshire County Council – and he has quite a few weapons in his armoury that can help him solve this latest unpleasant ‘whodunnit’.

IMG_0854FRONT LINE TROOPS: waste enforcement officer David Rounding

“When I started out it was really, really hard to prosecute,” he recalls. But times have changed – and for the past 15 years Buckinghamshire has led the way in the war on illegal waste dumping.

When David took up his job here in 2003, dumping was at a record high and rising, with more than 4,000 incidents a year across the county. By 2013 that had been reduced to under 1,500, partly as a result of an upsurge in prosecutions resulting in substantial fines, compensation payments and even jail.

Sadly fly-tipping is on the rise again – back up to more than 3,000 cases a year locally and costing taxpayers across England more than £57m.

Like other shire counties around London, Buckinghamshire is seen as an easy target because of good transport likes and easy access via the M40 and M25 to deserted country lanes like this one – the sort of idyllic country setting seen in so many episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

From selfish householders leaving mattresses or fridges and rogue traders unloading tyres and plasterboard to criminal gangs dumping waste on an industrial scale, an increasing number of fly-tippers are littering fields, woods, roads and verges with unsightly piles of rubbish like this one.

For nature lovers and local residents taking a ramble or walking their dog, this sort of eyesore raises strong emotions. More than 11,000 fly-tipping cases – six a day on average – have blighted the local countryside in the last five years, costing tax-payers £500,000 a year in clear-up costs.

But it’s not all bad news, and as David Rounding launches his latest investigation, there’s a definite spring in his step.

After starting his career in Halifax he was working for the Environment Agency in 2003 when the various councils in Buckinghamshire first got together to combat the fly-tipping menace.

They realised that proper enforcement of the law was an invaluable deterrent and in the 15 years since the county council and four district councils launched their anti-fly-tipping campaign – ‘Illegal Dumping Costs’ – David and his fellow investigators have successfully prosecuted more than 600 fly-tippers.

As with most crime, a handful of individuals can cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the environment – and in serious cases prosecution can result in imprisonment, as well as hefty fines and compensation awards.

Don’t be fooled by the remote locations, either – in recent years hidden cameras have increasingly helped the team catch the criminals in the act.

waste 2REPEAT OFFENDER: John Keenan dumped waste across Buckinghamshire

Like Letchworth builder John Keenan, 33, who was convicted in 2017 after CCTV twice caught him dumping waste from his tipper truck in local villages. Four other incidents of fly-tipping in rural Buckinghamshire and west Hertfordshire were traced back to him and work done by his company in and around London.

Keenan pleaded guilty to two counts of fly-tipping and four charges of failing in duty of care regarding waste he had produced. He was sentenced to 16 weeks’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay costs totalling more than £4,700.

The cameras are a welcome boost for the enforcement team, who have seen detection rates improve.  “We are becoming better and better at convicting people. If the evidence is there, we will get them to court,” says David. “Since 2010 we have been averaging more than one conviction a week, and they each pay around £1,500 in fines and costs.”

Signs at dumping hotspots advertise the surveillance cameras but a succession of fly-tippers still get caught out. But CCTV accounts for only 40 per cent of the team’s convictions. Eye-witnesses account for another 20 per cent of convictions, with sharp-eyed members of the public equally keen to help catch the criminals spoiling their environment.

There aren’t many things which ruffle David’s composure, but he does get a little irritated by some of the myths which surround fly-tipping – like the claim that fines don’t get paid and costs aren’t recouped.

Last year alone, the team achieved 72 convictions and court-awarded costs of more than £75,000 towards the councils’ clean-up and legal costs, he points out.

“If you look at the evidence the fines and compensation costs do get paid,” he insists – and on top of that there’s the estimated £3m savings made over the past decade because of not having to clear dumped waste and send it to landfill.

Armed with the sort of evidence his team can gather, the net cost of a prosecution may be only around £300. But while nearly two thirds (62%) of fly-tipping convictions are for the act of dumping, the people who produced the waste can be prosecuted too for failing their duty of care if they do not ensure their rubbish is being disposed of legally.

David believes this is something many people may not realise, which could lead to someone unwittingly facing a heavy fine and a criminal conviction after paying someone else to get rid of their unwanted household items.

And he warns that cash payments to strangers are a recipe for disaster. It’s a trend that has been fuelled in the past couple of years by so-called “Facebook fly tippers” offering cheap waste collection services.

The waste detectives have become experts at finding clues to identify the source of dumped rubbish. And although David recalls late-night raids and dawn swoops with police when known dumpers have been caught red-handed, it is the sifting of rubbish for clues which he excels at and which brings 40 per cent of convictions.

IMG_0851
SMALL PRINT: David’s team are expert at sifting through rubbish for clues

The enforcement team works closely with Thames Valley Police, which can make it easier to trace a vehicle’s movements when a crime has been committed – and there’s close co-operation in more serious cases involving crooked commercial operators and even organised gangs.

Other crimes can also result in waste being dumped in rural areas, from professional shoplifters disposing of incriminating evidence to drugs stashes and paraphernalia from cannabis farms.

Another worry is an upsurge in more serious waste dumping by organised criminal gangs, and David’s next call is to visit a council site in High Wycombe where lorryloads of waste were dumped – the latest in a series of such incidents across Buckinghamshire in recent months.

Such large-scale, serious or organised dumping is investigated and potentially prosecuted by the Environment Agency, but their resources are hard-pressed and such crimes are on the increase, so David is only too keen to provide any practical help he can.

Clamping down on the criminals is also good for legitimate waste carriers, he points out, who potentially lose millions in business. But although the short-term profits may be tempting for lazy criminals, David is keen to make sure the prosecutions count.

One man was fined more than £1,000 for adding to rubbish which had already been dumped at the roadside by someone else. In January a Slough man was fined £2,200 for dumping 19 sacks of rubbish in Fulmer, and last month a Calvert Green man was fined £2,000 for dumping boxes near Aylesbury.

There have been a number of other successful prosecutions, as David has highlighted on his Twitter account.

“They might think the money makes it worth the risk but they can serve up to five years in prison, and we have jailed a few,” he points out.

To report a fly-tipping incident to David and his colleagues, visit the county council’s web page or the Fix My Street website.

Lament for a lost land

51MHmrsc-iL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

PAINFUL at times to read and depressingly prescient, Paul Kingsnorth’s 2008 portrait of England in decline is even more disturbingly relevant a decade after its original publication.

Written with wit and charm rather than as an aggressive polemic, Kingsnorths personal journey around the country was effectively a manifesto against the homogenising forces of globalisation and a top-heavy state.

Following in the footsteps of Orwell and Chesterton, the former deputy editor of The Ecologist embarked on a quest to establish the nature of the ‘real England’ in the 21st century – and discovered a nation in disarray and under siege.

But this wasn’t merely a sentimental or nostalgic harking after yesteryear. In many ways Kingsnorth was as stark and hard-hitting in his portrait of the plight of the little man as Orwell – and at times he finds it hard to contain his anger.

“I am angry at what is being done to my country, angry at what is being lost and what is being deliberately erased,” he writes.

annie-spratt-160575-unsplashUNDER THREAT: the archetypal English village [PICTURE: Annie Spratt, Unsplash]

Kingsnorth takes his cue from words written a quarter of a century earlier by Richard Mabey in The Common Ground (1980): “Time and again we have seen how most of the naturally rich areas that remain on the farm are now confined to land that is agriculturally marginal.”

But Kingsnorth’s premise is that Mabey’s pronouncement on agriculture can be more broadly applied to our modern lifestyles, where the richest and most interesting remnants of English culture are now only to be found at the margins, away from the shopping malls and busy motorways.

His meander around the country picks up various threads which reflect a litany of loss: of closed pubs, specialist shops and second-hand bookshops on one hand and the destruction of wildflower meadows, chalk grasslands and ancient woodlands on the other – together with the flora and fauna which they supported.

ryan-jacques-465-unsplashLITANY OF LOSS: England’s disappearing wildlife [PICTURE: Ryan Jacques, Unsplash]

The “battle against the bland”, as the book is subtitled, is the battle against the apparently unstoppable spread of a manufactured corporate landscape, where individuality gives way to conformity, uniformity and mediocrity.

This is a world of identikit high streets, privately owned shopping malls and private security companies, where so-called progress destroys traditions, livelihoods and any sense of community.

“We are not a society which appreciates value,” he writes. “We appreciate instant gratification, primary colours, simple answers. We appreciate celebrities and shopping and media scandals and premium rate phone lines.”

Here lies the rub, because amid the bewildering distractions of technological advances, investment opportunities and a plethora of consumer choice, we are in danger of losing our way entirely, he argues:  “We are losing sight of who we are and where we have come from. And we don’t care. Or do we?”

victor-xok-615429-unsplashBRAVE NEW WORLD: inside a shopping mall [PICTURE: Victor Xok, Unsplash]

At the time it was published, the book was not unremittingly bleak and did contain various suggestions for steering a path to a more optimistic future, despite the dire warnings of  local pubs being turned into theme bars or pricey flats and rural villages becoming commuter dormitories or dead collectives of second homes for the wealthy.

Yet many of those warnings seem even more disturbing today after a decade of social networking, of the transformation of city centres and old docksides into high-rise offices and unaffordable penthouse flats.

The gentrification of whole boroughs of London is complete, grubby cafes and other  community meeting spots being swept away by stainless steel and smoked glass.

“The small and the local, the traditional and the distinctive were being stamped out by the powerful, the placeless and the very, very profitable,” Kingsnorth recalled in a Guardian article in 2015 – and not just in England, of course, but around the world, from Delhi to Sydney.

Yes, there have always been those determined to resist the Tescoisation of the land, but the author also believes this is not a straightforward issue in political terms, but about the individual against the ‘crushing, dehumanising machine’.

Back in 2008 the urgency of this book lay in its unequivocal message about the need for us to stop being complacent and do something before it’s too late.

matthew-henry-49707-unsplashSKY’S THE LIMIT: Toronto’s financial district [PICTURE: Matthew Henry, Unsplash]

So is it too late? The onslaught on the whole cultural fabric of England’s local communities has continued unabated. The pubs and dairy farms have continued to close, the skyscrapers, motorways and luxury flats are still being built.

“The population is expected to exceed 70 million within 15 years, all in the name of growth and with no end in sight. Global capitalism is eating the soul of the nation,” wrote Kingsnorth in 2015.

Back in 2008 he lamented how consumerism specialises in creating a fake reality where new ‘needs’ are created by the brand marketing gurus and can be met, at a price, to help us fend off old age, pain, heartache, loneliness.

“We become narcissistic, self-absorbed, atomised. All that is real seems unreal; all that is false seems sublime. Everything is controlled – including us.”

It is a dystopia worthy of Huxley; ten years on and the unfolding tragedy seems to be even more vivid and terrifying. With Donald Trump as American president and Brexit looming, is England able to reclaim any of its lost character? The gulf between the haves and have-nots is even wider than it was in 2008. We live in any age of  suicide bombs and apocalyptic warnings about climate change and mass extinction.

But Kingsnorth still believes if there’s any antidote to the ideology of mass consumption and growing disconnect between human beings, it lies in the essence of the place itself: the woods, fields, streets, towns and beaches.

“We can be surrounded by plastic or be part of something real. We can be Citizens of Nowhere or we can know our place – know it and be prepared to stand up for it, because we understand how much it matters.”

That was his rallying call in 2008 and despite all the changes during the intervening years, it still makes a great deal of sense. All is not lost – not quite. And perhaps the growing resonance of that message in a world gone mad is that it’s never too late to stand against the tide – if we really want to.

Real England: The Battle Against The Bland by Paul KIngsnorth was published in paperback in June 2009 by Portobello Books at £8.99

steve-harvey-530335-unsplashIDENTITY CRISIS: can England rediscover its soul? [PICTURE: Steve Harvey, Unsplash]

 

 

 

Waging war on plastic

scott-warman-525481-unsplashGOING GREEN: vegetables without plastic wrapping [PICTURE: Scott Warman, Unsplash]

IT WAS a health scare that started Kathryn Kellogg first thinking about what she was putting in and on her body.

“I had never considered it before; I just assumed everything I was consuming was safe,” she says. “There’s very little regulation and testing for the products we buy. Cleaning companies don’t even have to release the ingredients they use.”

After starting to cook from scratch and starting to make her own cleaning and beauty products, the aspiring actress moved to California as was shocked to see all the litter and plastic in the ocean.

“I knew I had to do something; so, I decided to be the change I wanted to see. I stopped buying plastic and wanted to create a sustainable life. It felt like a really natural progression,” she recalls.

Living in the Bay area and spending her free time hiking and cooking, she worked a 9-5 job and is one of a number of young millennial women responsible for promoting a zero-waste lifestyle revolution that has taken off in a big way.

Kathryn’s blog, Going Zero Waste, was launched in March 2015 and by the time she was profiled in The Guardian a year later, was attracting 10,000 page views a month and had 800 subscribers.

The focus of her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts is all about homemade products and simple shopping tips that can help avoid unnecessary waste. The goal is to ensure her trash for the past year – anything that hasn’t been composted or recycled – fits in an 8oz jar.

She’s not alone – over in Chicago, Celia Ristow of Litterless espouses a similar zero waste vibe.

And it’s got to make sense. One of the best things about her blog is her desire to make things accessible and attainable: so that for anyone starting out on the zero waste journey or just wanting to be a little more eco-friendly, her first suggestion is always the ‘Big Four’ simple, easy swaps popularised by Plastic Free July, an initiative which originated in Western Australia but which now involves participants around the world.

Kathryn advises that these four items – plastic bags, straws, single use water bottles and takeaway coffee cups – are easy to avoid and make-up a huge portion of waste in landfills and the ocean.

It’s a great starting point for reducing litter at the point of consumption – and just one of a series of straightforward tips on Kathryn’s website.

heder-neves-177219-unsplashLESS IS BEST: steering clear of plastic [PICTURE: Heder Neves, Unsplash]

In fact, this is just one of more than 300 blog posts full of zero waste tips. For anyone starting out on the journey, Kathryn’s Beginners’ Guide is as good a place as anywhere to start.

Vivid view from the ridge

5tx4w3UP TO THE RIDGE: one of Christine’s AONB landscapes

PLENTY of artists draw their inspiration from the beauty of the Chilterns countryside.

What makes Christine Bass’s contemporary landscapes so unusual is the vividness of her tropical colour schemes, which betray her Trinidadian roots.

More than 30 of the paintings on her website feature extraordinary scenes across the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty from Ivinghoe Beacon to Bledlow Ridge.

Near BledlowNEAR BLEDLOW: original acrylic and mixed media

Her landscapes are characterised by strong lines and shapes, flattened planes and the use of vibrant colour. She grew up in Trinidad and it’s easy to see how the bright light and vivid colours of the tropics still exert an influence in her paintings.

She draws inspiration from the countryside where she lives, on the Buckinghamshire border with Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire – and her work is on show until Sunday June 24 as part of this year’s Bucks Arts Weeks displays.

She is one of nine artists and craft workers currently showing their work in the atmospheric surroundings of St Dunstan’s Church in Monks Risborough.

Track beneath Ivinghoe BeaconFAVOURITE WALK: a track beneath Ivinghoe Beacon

Although other parts of England feature in her paintings too, from the South Coast to Cornwall and the Lake District, the gentle beauty of the Chiltern Hills provides a constant source of pleasure, her pictures capturing the patterns of fields scored by furrows and bounded by hedgerows, the bare trees of winter, the colours of crops and of the seasons.

Christine’s blogsite contains more details about her work and career. The show at St Dunstan’s runs until 5pm on Sunday. Other Bucks Arts Weeks events take place across the county throughout the week, with more than two dozen artists featured on the Princes Risborough Art Trail, which includes venues at Askett and Bledlow.