Sunday, 18 December 2016

Birds in the Great Frost in early 1895

Here is a memory of old Stoke, when Boothen was still meadows. Describing local birdlife during the bitter cold of a two week Great Frost in early 1895...

"Stoke Churchyard in front of my house was the rendezvous of a large number of sparrows, a good many rooks, a few starlings and chaffinches, and a robin or two. We fed them daily and derived great pleasure from observing their movements. Since the adjacent rookery was destroyed rooks only visit the Churchyard in severe weather. My brother noted a jackdaw early one morning, and this record is interesting as I have hitherto never observed this species in the Churchyard except during the breeding season. About half-adozen years ago a small colony came to the Church Tower and nested for several seasons in succession. For two or three years back, however, none have been seen. One sunny day at noon, towards the middle of January, a golden plover flew over the Churchyard at a very low altitude, uttering its beautiful soft clear whistle. It circled round as if about to alight, but at last flew off towards Boothen meadows."

"During the week of open weather about the middle of January, I observed two swans on the canal by the Stoke sewage farm." (the implication of the mention is that they were then a great rarity in Stoke)... "On the 7th of February my brother saw a blue tit in Shelton — quite [remarkable for being seen] in the heart of the Potteries." ... "By far the most interesting of our feathered visitors was the snow bunting, a specimen of which was shot on January 22nd at Cliffe Ville, close to Stoke, whilst feeding in company with some larks." ... "On the 21st January a kittiwake gull was picked up in an exhausted condition in Stoke meadows, and died soon afterwards. On [an] excessively severe [cold] morning, early in February, I observed five rooks at Trentham, each perched on a sheep's back. ... close association with sheep was a marked habit with them throughout the cold weather." ... "Mr Holdcroft's son found a rook with its wings frozen to its body. It was not dead, and he carried it home."

North Staffordshire Naturalists' Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions, 1895.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Ukip plans a win in Stoke-on-Trent Central

Though I don't have any special affection for conservative vote-splitters like Ukip, this is interesting. "Ukip targets trophy seats" (The Times, 9th Dec 2016, $ paywall) because they can probably win the seat with someone like Nigel Farage...

The party will look to oust “trophy” targets such as Tristram Hunt, who is viewed by Ukip insiders as a figurehead of the metropolitan liberal elite ... the party is ready to scrap the “scattergun” approach [to focus] on a far smaller number of seats ... Ukip came second last year in his [Hunt's] staunchly Eurosceptic seat, Stoke-on-Trent Central, where 65 per cent voted Leave in June.

The city as a whole voted for Brexit by 69.4%, with Newcastle-under-Lyme at 63%...

Incidentally, there's a debunking of Hunt's claim — made a few days ago at Stoke Minster — that here in the Midlands we built the Industrial Revolution with the profits of the slave trade.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Labour wasn't walking

There are actually around twice as many footpaths in Stoke-on-Trent, compared to what Labour had mapped...

From a Staffordshire Ramblers report for April 2016.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Hartshill twinkles

Hartshill twinkles, and not only because all the Stoke MP's have seen sense at long last and have just voted for Brexit...

A community group has helped to brighten up a neighbourhood with Christmas lights after being awarded £10,000. Hartshill and Harpfields Occasions (HAHO) has strung up decorations on trees at the top of Hartshill Road towards Newcastle town centre to help bring some festive cheer to the area. It comes after members were given the money from the Big Lottery Fund – Celebrate England.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

"Penkhull in the 1960s" - free screening

"Penkhull in the 1960s" is a free screening at the Stoke Film Theatre, set for Wednesday 1st February 2017 (7.30pm for a 7.45pm start)...

"Penkhull is a picturesque village within our city. Fifty years ago it underwent great changes physically – caught on film by Alan Dodd. Historian Richard Talbot MBE comments on newly digitised films showing the old Penkhull, a period of brutal demolition and new building – and extracts from some of his own documentary videos."

Richard Talbot's full film is two hours long and documents in detail the wanton destruction of Penkhull in the 1960s by the City Council. A DVD...

"can be obtained from price £12.95 (£15.00 inc. P&P, overseas £20) by mailing richard.talbot88@btinternet.com "

Not sure if he takes PayPal via that address, or not. I'd imagine there may well be DVD copies on sale at the Film Theatre screening in February, but that's just my guess.

I'd say we need a similarly pinpoint and well-researched documentary on Brendan Nevin and the Labour City Council, in relation the destruction of Middleport and other parts of Stoke-on-Trent in the 2000s, if anyone is looking for a good topic for an investigative historical documentary...

Stationary Road

"Public consultation starts on University Quarter improvements". Oooh gosh, look at them pretty pictures of Stoke train station and the Leek Road...

Er... hang on a second. So, where did all the heavy traffic go in those pictures? The noise, the fumes, the roaring buses, frazzled taxi-drivers, the continual stream of cars? Are they planning to put it all into a tunnel or something? Er, no, it seems not. Actually the traffic seems to be set to get heavier and faster...

"Key elements include increasing capacity at Joiners Square roundabout and changes to the Leek Road/Station Road junction to reduce queuing ... [(implying increased speed and volume of traffic) and] widen Leek Road" (my emphases)

So they're effectively lying with those ridiculous pictures, by not showing the heavy traffic. Traffic that it seems is going to get even heavier than it is now. Who are they hoping to fool? Surely not the local Planning Committee, who must be savvy to such wool-pulling. Presumably it's the local residents who they think are gullible, and who they're worried are going to write letters of objection.

Kudos to the Council and the University for trying to do something with the area, I suppose, but certainly not for trying to fool the public into believing that the scheme will make the traffic vanish or the area safer or nicer for pedestrians. Such behaviour recalls the worst propaganda excesses of the Labour years in Stoke, and it should be firmly stamped on by the current Council as they try to take the city forward in an honest manner.

So, increased traffic. But at peak times Station Road and related bits are already a car-centric nightmare to walk, with a few concessions to pedestrians here and there (45% of Stoke households do not have access to a car: ONS). It's not a pleasant road for drivers, either. The journey times for a car to get down the short ⅓-mile stretch of Station Road are already long, with The Sentinel newspaper reporting in June that...

"It is horrendous. It can take you 20 minutes to get down Station Road."

This problem doesn't seem likely to be fixed by their plan to simply move the short-stay parking spaces from directly outside the station, down the same road to a spot barely thirty yards away... "next to the taxi rank and the rear car park" (that's a Sentinel-ism — the journalist should have written the "side" car park). It might make the first glimpse of the city very slightly prettier for the traveller leaving Stoke station, but over time increased traffic seems likely to eat up most of the time savings that arise from moving the short-stay parking spaces.

There probably will be a speed boost, resulting from moving the short-stay parking places and speeding up junctions. But it seems very likely to be a temporary boost — any effect will likely be swamped by the rise in overall vehicle traffic as the city's economy grows further...

"Stoke-on-Trent has seen the biggest increase in rush hour congestion, at 44%." [among UK cities, according to the 2015 Traffic Index from TomTom]

As well as growing congestion, the overall volume of traffic is also growing — the city's Local Transport Plan 2011-2026 forecast a total of 94,280 peak-time vehicle trips each morning in the city by 2026, compared to 68,684 in 2007. Those figures were factoring in the good work that is being done to try to manage this growth, most of which I agree with, but in the end it just comes down to: we need less cars on the road if we're not going to eventually gridlock.

As to the area around the train station, I'd also worry that the new uncomfortable and uncivilised backless seating opposite the station will, in fairly short order, mean the removal of the proper civilised benches that are currently there. The new seating also looks like it's too low and too near the road, re: fumes and particulates.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Dib, dib, dob...

Hand-turned wooden dibbers for your garden, available now at Two Doors Studio in nearby Alsager...

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Penkhull Wassail, January 2017

Penkhull Wassail and a processional Morris in January. Apple and fruit-tree wassailing is an ancient tradition, taking the form of a New Year procession. I was pleased to see it revived recently in Stoke-on-Trent, and it's happening again in January 2017. Traditionally, the apple and fruit trees of a district are each visited in turn. The men sing to them, toast their health in cider and the boys tap their trunks with whippy sticks in a sun-wise direction, in order to ‘wake up’ the trees and ‘turn them back toward life’.

Art by Steve Shaw.

2015 route map below. Given the 2017 start time and the same starting point, it looks like the arrival times at various points will be much the same in 2017.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Monday, 21 November 2016

Widgemas

This is so very 'Stoke'! :-)

A place to sit...

A new charity report on the importance of places for the public to sit down... "The decline of basic amenities such as street benches and sofas in shops is forcing millions of older people to think twice about venturing into shopping areas".

This is the first report to quantify the decline of older shoppers the high street due to lack of seating. Stoke is fairly well served in that regard, but more might be done. Local traders might have a standard sign made, that they could display in their shop window, indicating that they offer their elderly customers a seat inside. Given that 45% of Stoke-on-Trent households do not have access to a car, which means that many people have to walk to the shops, being able to rest before one starts shopping is especially important in the city.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

"The State of Staffordshire's Nature" report

"The State of Staffordshire's Nature" report has just been published (PDF). It's a useful and nicely formatted overview, but it's really difficult to find recent hard trends in it. A lot of the sections open with comments like "county-level data is not available" and "it is not possible to provide trends" for the county. Even something that seems clear at first glance, like the Staffordshire Mammals Table shown below, turns out to be based on "limited knowledge"...

That's not the Trust's fault, of course, it's just a by-product of the lack of funding.

Some of the Staffordshire-specific highlights I noticed...

* Only 2% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the most important and monitored sites in Staffordshire, are classed as "declining".

* Frogs and most types of newt are common, sometimes very common, contrary to popular belief in their rarity. Staffordshire's eels are also doing rather well, another species one might have assumed was rare.

* Otter numbers are increasing after being thought "absent" in the 1980s, despite the fact that "46% of waterbodies are classed as either in Poor of Bad overall status". ("Waterbodies" are not the same as "watercourses", of course).

* As a whole the county has very slightly more woodland cover (approx. 9%) than the average in England. Just under 15,000 acres in Staffordshire is registered as ancient woodland.

* It seems to be a mixed picture on habitats. Many new habitats are being created from scratch, albeit often rather small ones. Farm management is a lot better than it was in the 1970s and 80s, and leaving the straitjacket of the EU may open up new options to promote wildlife on farms. Lowland heath seems to be being much better managed than before. But management of large woodlands declined sharply in the 1990s and 2000s under Labour, and it seems that our woodlands are still recovering from that neglect.

* As is well known, a few flagship species are having major ongoing problems — such as: honey bees; hedgehogs; water voles; native crayfish.

* Anything that lives in a niche appears to be possibly at risk through habitat loss or degradation, while adaptable 'generalist' species are likely to thrive.

There's a useful two page summary at the end, outlining what needs to be done.


A few observations:

It would have been interesting to see a table listing the exact causes of decline for that 2% of SSSI sites. If only to get Staffordshire's farmers 'off the hook', since many among the public will casually assume that such SSSI sites get damaged or destroyed by grumpy farmers.

Big new long-term surveys seem to be desperately needed. I wonder if they've looked into a big rolling endowment fund, built up from bequests in wills?

The report's Invertebrates page is annoyingly vague at one point, stating "some species have increased in abundance and/or population size or have colonised the county" but not saying which species.

It seems a pity for the report to have lost a focus on "trees" — often much-loved by the public — by lumping them in with "woodlands". I would have had a separate page for free-standing, garden and park trees. There the ongoing impact of specific tree diseases could have been properly summarised, and the real impact of the various tree-planting schemes addressed.

I would also have had a separate "Invasive Species and Rats" page. Also a page on county trends in "Pollution and Litter", re: impacts on local wildlife. Invasive species and pollution must be especially well documented, and also major threats, surely? As such it seems they should have more prominence in the report.

Rather surprisingly, the authors commit climate heresy by saying that climate change "may benefit some species". One suspects that someone will be marched off to a climate re-education camp soon, to chant the dogma that: 'there are no benefits from increased CO2, there are no benefits from increased CO2...'

For the city of Stoke-on-Trent the report suggests there needs to be: dedicated wildlife corridors (especially important for the new Wolstanton-to-Festival Park flyover, I'd suggest); more ponds (of course); and we need to improve polluted streams (exemplified by the highly polluted Trent-bound Fowlea, which has silently shamed the Etruria Valley for decades now). [Update: I've been reminded that there is some low-key work quietly going on to make the Fowlea cleaner, so kudos to the people doing that...]

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Google deletes sidebar links, I put them back...

Google has deleted all sidebar 'blogrolls' (Web links lists) across all their Blogger blogs. But, with a bit of work, I've restored the blogroll for this blog. Thanks to the WayBack Machine, and a HTML widget in the sidebar. WordPress.com is now the much better option if you want to start and run a blog. Though perhaps that's the reaction Google wants? They seem to hate bloggers and blogs for some reason, and probably want to run Blogger down so they can close it.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Interactive map of around 400 community orchards in the UK

The Orchard Network has a new interactive map of around 400 community orchards across the UK. Can you help tell them about community orchards in Staffordshire? We're currently just a big gap on their map!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Burslem Park allotment

"Changing lives: how park life helped Matt, Pat and Tom", a long news story on the Burslem Park volunteers, and their allotment...

"A new allotment in the park provides a sustainable project to utilise their skills. They grow potatoes, vegetables and summer fruits, which are made into hearty meals and tasty puddings in the park’s new Pavilion CafĂ©. The profits are then used to buy seeds, creating a virtuous cycle."

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Gardiners Reclamation

Added to the sidebar Web links: Garden Ornaments at Gardiners Reclamation in Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent. If you just want old ceramic chimney pots, there's also the vintage chimney pot shop by Longport train station.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Gardeners Journal, from Royal Stafford

15% off when you place an online order for the fine tableware made in Burslem at Royal Stafford. Just use the code 'SUMMER16'. Their Gardeners Journal range seems very suitable for allotment gardeners...

Step Up To Higher Education - new access course for mature students

Interested in getting a university education in Stoke? Staffordshire University has a free "Step Up To Higher Education - University Foundation Certificate" course. On completion, this lets adults access the first year of a degree as mature students.

Those considering this course can now have a drop-in chat on any Wednesday (9.30am to 12 noon) at One Smithfield (the new Council building in Hanley). Or just email them direct on: stepup@staffs.ac.uk

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

New allotments site in Biddulph

A new 31-plot allotments site is planned for Biddulph, to partly fill what the council has identified as a need... "for approximately 50 allotments within Biddulph". Given the very large amount of new homes that the Staffordshire Moorlands is set to build over the next decade, I'd guess they'll be needing a lot more allotment plots than that in due course.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Stoke Foodbank

Stoke Foodbank (in Hanley) has launched a "100 Friends" campaign. The volunteers and supporters will each find one person they can encourage to become a 'friend of the Foodbank' and commit to a regular donation. Could your shop / allotment / workplace make a regular donation? More info at: info@stokeontrent.foodbank.org.uk

Monday, 11 July 2016

Hartshill Park in 1928

What a total pain the Britain from Above website's payment system is.

How it should work: See the aerial picture I want, send PayPal payment, get instant download.

How it actually works: See the aerial picture I want, send them an email. Wait 36 hours for a reply. Then click on link they give me in their email. Request a licence at that page. Wait for another email, containing a new link. Then purchase on the Web via an infernally complicated and very tiny pop-up VISA box, with microscopic text-entry boxes. (No option for PayPal, of course). Then get another email. Go to a page with a download link... Ugh. After the process failed twice, I just gave up.

Anyway, here's Hartshill Park and its land-use in 1928, shown as the valley-side in the distance...

Monday, 4 July 2016

Penkhull Mystery Play

Coming soon, the Penkhull Mystery Play 2016.

About those hordes of EU university students...

Oh dear, there's yet more fudgy Brexit reporting from our local newspaper The Sentinel. This is turning into a regrettable trend at the newspaper — "how might we be affected by Brexit?" articles that are subtly slanted against Brexit...

"In 2015, Keele, Staffordshire and Manchester Metropolitan [MMU, which has a campus at Crewe] universities [together] accepted 315 EU students onto degree courses, who came from outside the UK."

Woah! Over 300 per year! Big, scary number! But it's very misleading of the journalist to include all of MMU's students in Central Manchester. Only a few of MMU's students are actually out on its small Cheshire campus, which is located just over the Staffordshire/Cheshire border near Crewe.

How many are there at the Crewe campus, anyway? Difficult to discover, but I see that the campus allotted only a mere 90 minutes in September 2015 to enrol and register all of its overseas students. The MMU followed this enrolment with an Irish Ceilidh dance, suggesting that most of the new overseas undergraduates were actually from Ireland.

What happens when one looks at just Staffordshire University and Keele University? Well, in February 2016 the very same reporter at The Sentinel newspaper reported that at...

"Keele and Staffordshire [universities], relatively few [applicants from overseas in 2015] were offered undergraduate places. Between them, they accepted 70 EU students from outside the UK and 230 'international' students."

So... just 70 EU students per year. Hardly enough to fill two classrooms.

Consider also that these were accepted students. But how many actually arrived in the UK to take up their place? How many dropped out and went home for good (as many students do) at the end of the first year of their degree?

My guesstimate would thus be a rolling total cohort of around 190 EU undergraduates across Staffordshire University / Keele University / MMU at Crewe, across all three years of their degrees. Probably about 100 of those are from Ireland.

But these EU students will still be able to come here after Brexit, as will those studying for a Masters or a PhD. If current arrangements don't suit then we'll set up some kind of arrangement for them, alongside the new international trade deals. For half of them, we may not even need to do that — on current trends Ireland may well be back in the UK soon after 2020.

If anything, it's possible that Brexit may stimulate overseas students applying for places at Staffordshire University and Keele, something which seems to be sorely needed. Especially if students know that they may be offered a ten-year UK work visa if they get a good 2:1 or 1st class degree classification (we'll need the workers circa 2020, as the UK moves onwards and upwards from being the fifth largest economy in the world). The UK's new trade deals, with other booming places around the world, may also run alongside educational aid. Aid that will allow our universities access to a whole new cohort of overseas students.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Wanted: Heritage Gardens

Heritage Open Days: Celebrating the English Garden, 8th-11th September 2016. Register by 1st August 2016. They're signing up venues now, and as well as heritage gardens they are specifically looking for other types of...

"green spaces in your area. From formal, prize winning horticultural landscaping, to allotments, pub gardens and community planting projects..."

The fate of ceramics in Stoke

There's an interesting article in The Financial Times today. I won't link to it, because it's behind a very heavy paywall. Mostly it's just a rehash of the news on the Steelite buyout, plus a bit about today's saving of Hudsons. But it also has a very interesting snippet from the British Ceramics Confederation. To summarise it...

   'The UK tableware industry as a whole sold £87m of goods to EU markets in 2015, of which Eire is by far our largest 'EU' market.'

That 'Eire' bit is probably significant in the longer-term, circa 2023. Since Eire may well see itself leaving the EU and joining the UK again. A newly vigorous UK that, unshackled from the dead hand of the EU, will have gone from being the world's fifth biggest economy to the fourth or perhaps even the third biggest.

In the shorter term, let's say that the UK somehow couldn't re-join the Single Market at all after June 2019. That's highly unlikely, but let's say that some crazed Eurocrats from Kamikaziia manage to scupper a trade deal, in the face of huge German and French opposition. That would mean that our goods faced an 8% to 12% trade tariff, in order for us to enter the European markets. Under World Trade Organisation rules, the EU can't stop us selling goods into Europe, only put a certain globally-agreed percentage of tariff on our trade with them.

In that worst-case situation, even that loss would surely be made up for by the lifting of the EU's crippling green regulations (effectively taxes) on the ceramic industry's energy use. Ever-growing taxes which, before the vote, looked set to kill off much of the city's ceramics industry within the next ten years. About two weeks ago The Sentinel reported of Stoke that the new energy rules... "would lead to a drastic fall in profit and the loss of thousands of jobs as the heavy clay industries struggle to meet the financial requirements".

So, worse case: a 9% tariff, but no mega-costs added to the cost of energy needed to make the pots and bricks? Sounds like a sweet deal, for a very energy-intensive industry.

But that's the worst case, and an unlikely one. Much more likely is that we do get a full trade deal with the EU once they calm down, and that it should be firming up by June 2018. In the meanwhile, we'll be set to junk the green energy taxes (which, by the way, will make almost zero difference to CO2 levels). The industry's profits should then be looking very nice, even better than the current good earnings. So I'm wondering if that's why the Americans were so keen to snap up Steelite, and why Hudsons has just been saved?

When we get out of the EU, Stoke-on-Trent's potteries would still have to abide by the world's common-sense materials rules — like, "don't put lead in the pottery glaze for breakfast bowls". But we abide by those rules anyway. That's obvious. Lead and gold might be a touch more expensive, but as for other materials... nearly all of our clay comes via train from Cornwall. News moves fast these days, but last time I looked Cornwall was not applying for EU membership.

As for Chinese dumping of cheap mugs and vases into the UK market, our MP's have long been very concerned about it. So it's obviously a serious and ongoing problem, though I don't follow or understand all the ins-and-outs of it. But it seems logical to hope that we should try to include some anti-dumping measures in our new trade deals with the Far East. If that's not possible, then a newly vigorous UK would just have to have a big public-awareness and marketing campaign from circa Autumn 2018, including bold national-flag labelling of ceramics products. Once we're stepping out, public sentiment will be very strongly on the side of something like that. On current trends, our national Buy British Champion might be named 'Boris'.

Of course I could be wrong. I wrote here after the General Election that the smooth-suited Blairies would likely take back Labour and that the extreme leftists would probably flee into the Green Party. But, as things stand now with Corbyn, it's possible I was only a year astray on that prediction.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

About those 'Euro billions' for Stoke...

The Sentinel newspaper is reporting today that Stoke-on-Trent "may miss out on £157m of European cash" for the 2014-2020 funding round. That's a paltry £22m per year. It'll be easily replaced...

"... the West Midlands paid in £3.55 [to the EU] for every pound it gets back [in European grants]" — Open Europe Director Mats Persson, giving evidence in Parliament to the Communities and Local Government Committee, 2012.

Not that it'll have to be replaced, as the funding to 2019 looks fairly secure (due to the way that EU funding rounds operate). We're anyway unlikely to exit fully until spring/summer 2019.

Keep in mind, also, that we probably wouldn't have got another tranche of £157m for 2020-27 — the EU would have shifted ever more funding over to Eastern Europe after 2020, regardless. We'd have been lucky to get a measly £60m for 2020-2027.

Of course, the government (at various levels) will also need to reassure about match-funding and other similar provision. But, understandably, it's doubtful they'll be in a position to give assurances on that point for some months yet.


Update: The EU funding body (Special EU Programmes Body or SEUPB) today said it is "business as usual" for our EU funding application bids, so we can still get and apply for EU funds that run to 2020. (We're likely to finally leave in June 2019).

Friday, 24 June 2016

We're leaving the EU

It's 4:30am and the cities are falling. The Leave vote is surging ahead. Great news deserves great poetry. To very slightly tweak a poem by T.S. Eliot...


On a summer's afternoon, in a secluded booth
History is now and England.

With the casting of this Vote and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.


Friday, 27 May 2016

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Gateway Shed Open Day

This event may interest some readers, who can get to Leek on a Sunday...

Gateway Shed Open Day (Foxlowe, Leek). Sunday 5th June 2016, 10am to 4pm. Foxlowe Arts Centre, Stockwell St, Leek, Staffs, ST13 6AD.

"A communal shed in which men and women can meet up, share hobbies and make friends is set to open its doors from next month. The Gateway Shed is inviting people to join them on Sunday 5 June from 10am to 4pm, to look around the workshop facilities and be inspired as to what they could make, create or build with recycled and re-purposed items."

Sunday, 1 May 2016

A Staffordshire Day survey of good news on the local environment

On a wet Staffordshire Day morning it seems appropriate to do a quick blog survey of some of the recent good news for our environment.

Ash trees that are highly tolerant to ash dieback have been found in England, and research has shown the resistance is genetic, which promises new disease-resistant hybrids. Locally, it seems that Keele University is leading the scientific fight to map and save the ash trees over in Ireland.

In late summer 2016 the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust is set to launch the new £3m Central Rivers Initiative, which will selectively re-wild and improve the River Trent (downstream of Stoke's bit of the River Trent and the Trent & Mersey Canal). Hopefully the authorities in the Moorlands and Stoke will also play a part in helping such downstream sites, especially in relation to improving the polluted Fowlea Brook which runs through Stoke-on-Trent and into the Trent.

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee was of course marked by the planting of 6m trees, including several large new woods in North Staffordshire. These will now be several years old. Today's baby-boom toddlers will be able to enjoy them in just a few years, when the new paths go in.

Out to the south-east of Stoke there's already the maturing and ever-growing National Forest, the success of which is now proving the 1990s pessimists and doubters quite wrong.

With help of local firm St. Modwen, the National Forest has just added a new 21,000-tree bluebell wood alongside the Trent at Burton upon Trent.

Pioneering re-wilding work is being done in various places from the Moorlands to the Trent at Trentham...

Much unsung work continues to be done regarding the picking up of litter each year, and also the wildlife-friendly maintenance of hedges and trees along the canals. Much good work has been done recently to repair the erosion caused by the over-use of the paths and car-parks on The Roaches. Thousands of volunteer conservationists are at work throughout Stoke and North Staffordshire, each in their own way — as can be seen by looking at some of the many Web links over on the right.

The city of Stoke-on-Trent continues to make the most amazing 50-year natural recovery from 100 years-worth of damage by heavy industry. And that's without wildlife having had much by way of strategic planning from the local council, in the 20 years between 1995 and 2015. But despite that period of neglect the city now has a good claim to be one of greenest in England, and almost certainly has more large healthy trees than any city outside London.

Further afield, The Sunday Times has news today (£) of a bold Woodland Trust plan to reintroduce 20m trees into lowland hedges and copses onto farmland over the next decade, starting with the areas of Suffolk and Essex most affected by ash dieback, before continuing across the rest of England's most denuded lowland farmland.

The National Trust is also doing great work around the country. For instance, it is well under-way with a mammoth project to re-forest denuded parts the Yorkshire uplands with 50,000 new trees. This is part of a general move to re-forest uplands, now that the scientists and historians have shown that such areas were not always naturally tree-less. Hopefully big plantings such as this will soon be seen in the Moorlands and the Peak.

Much still needs to be done, especially in relation to farming and farmland, and ensuring that new housing in the countryside is locally suitable and eco-friendly. In Stoke we need more small ponds and litter-free ditches, and to pay more attention to the health of the River Trent and its tributaries. But we've come a very long way from the dark days of early 1980s eco-doom.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Stone creates five easy-access allotment plots

If you want some advice on making your allotment site friendly for the disabled, a short trip from Stoke to Stone might be in order. A site in Stone has created five new purpose-built 'easy access plots'.

"Stone allotments offer access for all"...

"STONE'S Tilling Drive Allotments Community Interest Company has been busy over the past year creating an easy access plot for residents with mobility issues who would like to get involved with the allotment community. Five raised growing troughs have been created, which are ideal for wheelchair users or those with bending difficulties, and there is also a seating area and easy access to water on a level plot. The project has been sponsored by county councillor Philip Jones, Stone Lions and Janet Skelton and supported by the allotment site manager, assistant and members."

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Good news for local shops?

Good news for local shops. Disposable income has soared by 13% in Stoke-on-Trent since the recession, according to new research. Disposable income is the money a household has left to spend or save, after their taxes and mortgages or rent. The government's various big tax cuts and similar measures have probably helped to boost that, as well as the jobs boom that West Midlands businesses have worked so hard to achieve.

But what's the extra disposable income being spent on? And is it being spent locally down in Stoke town? Maybe, maybe not... if the nearby Hanley is any comparable measure. The number of shoppers visiting Stoke-on-Trent city-centre (Hanley) was down by 8.1% over the past year (since early spring 2015). That's from new research from IPSOS, which also suggest that these kind of big city-centre dips are because many UK shoppers prefer to spend their new hard-earned disposable income on things like...

* eat out.

* go on overseas holidays.

* enjoy a countryside which has very seriously geared up, since 2008, to attract visitors and to extract cash from them.

But the unusual demographic and geographic arrangement of Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire means that overseas holidays can't be the only reason for a big dip in Stoke-on-Trent city-centre visitors of 8.1% over the past year. I'd suggest this 8.1% dip may be down to a complex combination of factors, with overseas holidays 'in the mix' but with the UK weather likely to be biggest factor...

* the bad summer weather followed by a dismal wet winter. That clothes retailers such as M&S, Austin Reed, Primark and BHS seem to have suffered the most, would seem to confirm this theory about the weather.

* many former heavy shoppers (the female equivalent of "£50 man") are apparently now no longer in the UK for long periods. They go abroad on holiday for three or four weeks of the year, and also shop heavily on the Internet just before they go.

* even shoppers who can't afford overseas holidays are increasingly likely to be motoring out to countryside market towns, or to the rural-urban fringes (places like Trentham Gardens), at the weekend. Part of that will be a direct result of the UK's ongoing and massive 'baby boom', as small kids who are now 3-7 get 'taken out for the day' by grandparents and/or parents, something that IPSOS seem to have overlooked in their report. I mean... no-one in their right mind would want to traipse their poor tots around the shops in Hanley for a day out.

* the increasing number of druggies and alcoholics hanging around in a 'shouty' manner and and aggressively 'kicking off' in Hanley, putting off those who might otherwise have walked into the city centre or taken small kids there. The relentless and lurid news coverage by The Sentinel newspaper probably hasn't helped boost the city centre's reputation, in that regard, over the last couple of years.

* the increasing difficulty of getting anywhere inside Stoke-on-Trent with a car, and then parking once one gets there. Plus the expensive and generally unpleasant bus services, which also get stalled in the city's increasing traffic. If you've ever been stalled in a bus crawling toward Cobridge traffic lights on a hot day, jammed next to 'Sweaty' Greg and his shouty mate, then you'll known what I mean.

* the increasing appeal of the adjacent Stoke town for many students, partly due to the number of indie shops and the town's strong arts and music buzz. At a guess I'd say that many students may no longer be visiting Hanley at all, to shop — when in Stoke town they can access an excellent Sainsbury's, just across the road from a major vinyl record shop and a large Maplins.

* and the ongoing lack of small high-quality indie shops in Hanley, which is of course common in the UK's city centres. The closure of Webberleys (the indie 'department store' for books) and the opening of the huge out-of-town M&S megastore at Wolstanton, probably won't help in attracting upmarket shoppers to Hanley this coming summer. Big changes, such as those two, will likely drown out any overall boost in footfall that might come from the handful of excellent new indie shops that are emerging in the city-centre.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Organise a streetparty on 12th June 2016

Sunday 12th June is the climax of the Queen's 90th birthday celebrations, when The Mall in London will be transformed into a giant street party for 10,000 guests. This will celebrate the Queen's lifelong patronage and service to over 600 charities and organisations.

Those who want to organise their own local street parties on 12th June, to accompany the London event... "will need to tell your local council four to six weeks in advance", so it's probably best to get the form in to the local council by the end of April. The simple forms and practical advice needed to tell the council about a street party can be found here.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Great British Elm Experiment

Famous conservationist David Bellamy is leading The Great British Elm Experiment, which hopes to re-establish... "a new generation of elms" in the UK. English Elms were the giant trees that dominated our fields and lanes until the late 1970s, when they died of Dutch elm disease. Now a new generation of elms is being bred, ones which should be resistant to imported diseases. At Spring 2016 the Great British Elm Experiment... "now has over 2,500 participants across the UK" and they want more.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Roundup and the EU

It appears that the EU intends to effectively ban the use of Roundup weedkiller in the UK, by making people train to use it and by banning its use in open public spaces. Such as allotment sites, possibly. The Telegraph reports...

Gardeners raised fears they would be left with no effective way of tackling persistent weeds if the proposals were adopted, forcing shops to stop selling the most common weedkillers. Bunny Guinness, the Gardener’s Question Time panellist and Telegraph columnist, said: "It seems to me that at the moment there is no scientific evidence that it is dangerous. "It is really the only effective weed-killer against perennial weeds like bindweed, ground elder and couch grass.” She said a ban would be “a real problem for most amateur gardeners” and that the alternative would be “weeding for the rest of your life”.

Before I used Roundup on my allotment plot (which worked a treat incidentally) I researched it quite closely. I came to the conclusion there was no risk, provided it was handled carefully and used properly. That's also true of its biodegradation in the soil.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

New allotments site at Blythe Bridge

It's always good to hear about a new allotments opening in or near Stoke-on-Trent. "Allotment scheme to transform derelict land opens latest one in Staffordshire" reports on a new site at Blythe Bridge.

Rail fail

Reported today...

"A MAJOR strategic rail hub to boost the West Midlands' economy could be built in South Staffordshire creating up to 8,500 new jobs."

I suggested just such a freight rail terminal for Stoke, several years ago, via a detailed letter to the local paper. Such things don't need to be very large or noisy, and we have the track-side space and road connections. But Labour was fixated on the pipe-dream of getting a big shiny HS2 passenger station for the city.

Now it seems that the much-needed rail Hub for Staffordshire is going to Penkridge in South Staffordshire, rather than to Etruria in North Staffordshire.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Save Our Shire Horses

Save Our Shire Horse. Fewer than 500 foals are born each year, and there's still some way to go to save and secure this breed of magnificent beasts for the future. Corporate donations are sought, as are sponsors (North Staffordshire's JCB seems a natural fit, to me). There are also details of how to leave money in your will. You can also visit The National Shire Horse Society’s annual event at Staffordshire Showground.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Margie's Garden

From The Sentinel...

"NEIGHBOURS were clearly getting suspicious. First they had seen a van arrive and dozens of suspicious-looking plants unloaded and taken into the house. Then, in the dead of night, they witnessed the newcomers to Grosvenor Avenue, Oakhill, digging a grave-sized hole in the allotment. ... "It took us about five hours. It was a full-sized grave, about 6ft long."

"The film tells the story of Margie, a green-fingered old lady, who spends her days tending her cannabis garden [in North Staffordshire, and] made on a budget of £11,500".

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Visiting green space... in Stoke

There's an interesting new academic study of 'green space' visits in Stoke-on-Trent, "Visiting green space is associated with mental health and vitality: a cross-sectional study in four European cities". One of the four cities was Stoke-on-Trent, surveyed using a 1027 person survey. The survey asked people if visiting green spaces in cities boosted their feelings of being well and feeling vitality.

"The associations were modified by level of education and time-spent in nature during childhood. No indications were found that age, gender and attitude towards green space were significant effect modifiers. The robustness of the[se] findings indicates that the relationships [between metal wellbeing and experience of green nature] seem almost independent of different cultural and climatic contexts. The current study support the view that green space should be used [through] purposeful visits to provide mental health benefits."

Of course, paper and telephone surveys will only capture a partial view. Especially of a very subtle aspect of the human experience. Also, as we learned in the recent general election, 1000-person survey-samples can often be heavily skewed by a range of factors. Often factors about which the professional investigators are oblivious. That's especially so when the survey is on a sensitive topic such as mental health or politics.

But the new study does seem to be an interesting partial confirmation of what everyone knows through common sense: that spending time walking in natural space generally helps you to feel a bit better about things. More interesting and thornier questions should now be investigated. Such as what are the best measures to take, so as to reliably boost this effect? I'd suggest these may be things such as...

* reducing the presence of litter, noise, large dogs, drones and other annoyances in natural spaces.

* more benches, or perhaps the provision of subsidised 'sit-sticks' (since fixed benches tend to be colonised by alcoholics), so that older or infirm people can have a much-needed sit-down every half-mile.

* learning the names and habits of wildlife, the plant and flower types, cloud types, perhaps also way-finding and knowing where north is, etc? That may well boost the effect, in terms of feeling 'at home' in nature.

* the ability to discover little 'ways through' and short-cuts, making it easier and pleasanter to walk to the green space.

* being active in the green space, beyond simple walking. Such as picking up a half-dozen bits of litter, doing some light pruning of an overgrowing branch, maybe a little light digital photography. Singing, perhaps, even though the once-commonplace expression of it — singing a jolly song as one walked along — is now unfortunately seen as a sign of madness.

Given the research finding that "time-spent in nature during childhood" is a factor that boosts the effect, one might also ask further questions. Such as...

* at what ages are different types of nature-visits best undertaken, for maximum long-term effect?

* are the long-term effects different in adults who were free-range kids, vs. smothered 'hot-house' kids?

* do we over-tidy places, to suit adults rather than kids? For instance, we might want to educate adults on the vital role of scrubby 'wild margins' near homes, in which free-range children make their autonomous dens during their middle childhood (see the Stoke-researched book Childhood's Domain: Play and Place in Child Development, for details on the vital importance of such places in child development).

* what is the role of the extended and parent-free summer-camp, in embedding 'wild' nature in children's lives?

* what damage is done if children's nature experience becomes too over-rationalised, too nannied, too 'science and education' driven? Many have had the experience of being put off a topic or medium for life (the novels of Charles Dickens, or the alleged 'poetry' of Carol Ann Duffy, for instance), due to having had a bad experience of being badly taught it in school. How can we prevent the same thing happening with nature?

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Tox boxes?

Here's a look at the proposals for the development of the weedy vacant site at the north end of Stoke town, between the former Irish Centre and the A500. The site is to be home to high-rise student flats serving the expanded Staffordshire University. I generally welcome this development, and the expansion of the university.

But I'd question the wisdom of the positioning of some of those balconies and windows, on health grounds. Many appear to be perched directly above the A500, one of our most heavily trafficked roads. Are we really happy to allow young people to live directly above the A500, seemingly without even the benefit of its concrete noise barrier? Especially given what we know about dangerous particulate pollution from diesel engines, and the fumes arising from the city's rapidly rising traffic congestion?

If I were living above the A500 like that, in a small difficult-to-ventilate flat, I might be very wary of opening the windows or sitting out on the balcony. Certainly not without first donning a Chinese-style smog-mask, and turning on a Maplins' gadget that would warn me of high levels of nitrogen dioxide and other toxic nasties.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

On the plant-growing season in UK

In The Guardian today is an article titled "Plant-growing season in UK now a month longer than in 1990". Earlier springtimes are said to be responsible for the overwhelming part of the extension. So, it looks like good news for gardeners.

True, but it's also very very old news in terms of science. Scientists have been tracking the increase in England since 1980...

(Source: Thermal growing season in central England)

Scotland shows much the same upward curve. Though there it appears to have started more gradually, and twenty years earlier in 1960. Possibly the difference is partly also due to their lesser urban heat-islands, and less light-pollution at night...

(Source: An online handbook of climate trends across Scotland)

However, don't go taking today's 'news' literally and merrily planting your potatoes in mid-February. Take a look at the savage ups-and-downs of the actual recorded growing season lengths on those graphs, rather than at the computer-smoothed statistical trend line. Those jaggies reflect what gardeners know all too well, living on an island so sensitive to the warmth-giving powers of the North Atlantic Drift (aka 'The Gulf Stream'). We know that an essentially random tweak of an Atlantic ocean current, or a twist in a vortex of Arctic winds, can often decide the arrival date of spring. As H.W. Linderholm concluded, after surveying all the scientific literature on the topic to 2005...

"... several authors have found strong associations between large scale weather phenomena (e.g. the NAO [North Atlantic Oscillation]) and growing season variability, suggesting that global warming may not be the only explanation. Also, other factors like land use change may have been of importance. It must be kept in mind that the observed changes in GSL [growing season length] are not uniform; while increased GSL has been observed in low-to-mid latitudes, the GSL seems to decrease at some high latitude and altitude sites." ("Growing Season Changes in the Last Century", Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, March 2006).

How does it affect the local wildlife? Our wildlife has evolved to be highly adaptable to the variable timing of the arrival of spring. It thus seems unlikely that such natural variability will phase them, especially given how long it's been happening — the graph above shows it happening long before the Industrial Revolution. In our own time, a few extra years (per decade) in which there's an earlier arrival of a warm spring, and/or an extended Indian summer in Autumn, would seem to me to benefit almost all species.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Block heads

According to the TomTom Traffic Index, which tracks signals from vehicles fitted with TomTom GPS...
"Stoke-on-Trent has seen the [UK's] biggest increase in rush hour congestion, [up by] 44% [since 2010]."
Not good for either the economy (lateness, driver stress), health (think of all the particulates and dioxides, along main roads choked with idling stop-start traffic), or fuel efficiency and the environment generally.

And 1000s of 'old clunker' cars and vans have been taken off the roads over the last five years, already. So that's obviously not a strong solution to the problem.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

New research on dog walking and wildlife

The New Scientist reports on new research that shows the mere presence of dogs changes and unbalances the entire ecosystem of a place. It doesn't matter if they're "always on a lead", it doesn't matter if they "don't bark", any regular dog-walking changes the balance of nature in a place.

Animals don't think: "Oh, that's just cute Mrs. Fluffee Wuffles down there...". They think: "Uh oh, over forty slavering hairy carnivores regularly walk through this area like they own it, and half of them leave smelly shit behind... so I'm going elsewhere..."

Researchers have known for a long time now that dog-walking permanently scares away around a third of all the birds from conservation areas. Now it seems that a wider and clearer scientific case for banning dog-walking is developing. Especially in country parks and nature reserves, and on coastal and river paths. Dog walking in such areas clearly needs to be banned on ecological grounds, if our nature reserves are really meant for nature as intended.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Clean for The Queen - 4th-6th March 2016

Clean for The Queen is a national campaign to clear up Britain in time for Her Majesty the Queen's 90th birthday, which will be officially celebrated in June 2016. The first "big push" for this is set for 4th, 5th and 6th March 2016.

Best place to get a cheap-but-quality litter-picking stick locally is Abelworld, near Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent. You'll also need big bin-bags that are a bit thicker than the usual gossamer-thin ones that will tear.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Charles Darwin on Staffordshire bumblebees

Charles Darwin, on the bumblebees of North Staffordshire...

"I have said that country humble-bees appear to be less cunning than London ones, yet I confess I saw this June, in Staffordshire, some in the act of cutting holes at the base of the corolla of the Rhododendron azaleoides; the greater number entered the mouth of the corollas, as indeed was evident from the quantity of pollen on the stigma, brought by the bees from neighbouring azaleas - this hybrid not having a single grain of pollen of its own. One bee was seen which entered the mouth of some of the flowers and cut holes in others; this shows that the orifices are made simply to save trouble, and not because the bee cannot extract the nectar from the long tube." — The Gardeners' Chronicle, 21st August 1841.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

AirSpace: food and growing residency

Hanley's AirSpace Gallery is offering a £500 artist's residency in June 2016. AirSpace is seeking an artist whose topic is food and growing, in post-industrial cities. They're especially curious about why many artists and creatives in the Potteries are interested in such topics.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Allotment art weekend

Fab allotment arts happening this weekend, a few miles up the valley at Trubshaw Cross, near Burslem.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Old photos of Stoke station

Another selection of Bert Bentley pictures, courtesy of The Sentinel. Many are of Stoke town and Boothen. Here's a selection from this latest batch, showing Stoke train station and the North Staffs Hotel opposite...