Sidney Cooper Gallery, 22-23 St Peter’s Street, Canterbury
I am delighted to be taking part in the Writing Comes Alive festival run by Canterbury Christ Church University. Come and see me get enthusiastic over the marshes. on Tuesday 7th November between 6.00pm and 7.30pm
The woods around Canterbury are dotted with the tents of people sleeping rough but BBC One’s Inside Out programme chose to visit two really interesting examples of enterprising people living outdoors. Homeless is a label that covers a huge range of circumstances but this report shows that, for some people, outdoor living is a life choice.
Walking around the shop with my partner Pete I am confused. The usual products I grab from the supermarket shelves are rejected by him and in their place he loads the trolley with brands I have never heard of. Dale Farm yoghurts, Tayto crisps, a whole world of wheaten bread and tray bakes, all of which appear to be produced by local farms and business’s.
We are in Northern Ireland, a country effectively isolated from the ravages of big business by the ‘troubles.’ A country at war with itself presumably does not attract investment but neither, it seems, does it attract Tesco.
This latter absence can only be positive. Instead of Tesco and it’s brethren dominating every high street and out pricing the local butchers, bakers and greengrocers, Northern Irish High Streets are full of the local. Shops where the food is created by the neighbours, livestock is slaughtered close to farms, not shipped around the country in viscous, freight trucks, people have time to stop and talk.
The food Pete picks is delicious, full of flavour and character and people relish their local produce but I fear for it. Fear that as things settle down a little in this country the march of homogeneity will begin.
Outside, on the edges of larger towns, big business circles ready to pounce, Harry Ramsdens, KFC and of course Tesco. Outside town it is 2017, in town it is still 1960. Unless the Northern Irish learn from England’s mistakes their quirky and healthy and local will go the way of our own, only available to those who can afford high prices and ‘gourmet’ food halls. Their farmers, like ours, will be made slaves to the supermarket giants and their price controls.
I want to shake the people with their trolleys of soda farls and say ‘please keep valuing it. Resist the twinkle and free parking of out of town malls. See what the troubles have bought you. Sanctuary. A chance to do right what we got so wrong.’
September and the weed cutting season for the River Stour Internal Drainage Board is well under way.
The banks and weed are cut every summer as part of the general maintenance programme and one of my key jobs is advising on the best cut to maintain the wildlife interest of the channel and work with the contractors Rhino Plant to advise on particular areas of importance such as management for white clawed crayfish.
This month I worked with the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership volunteers to tackle an invasive plant, Parrot’s feather, which has colonised ditches on Chislet marshes.
A small amount of this pond plant found its way into a roadside ditch and has spread quickly. Removing the plant needs to be sensitively managed so as not to cause disturbance or damage to other wildlife. Therefore spraying and vigorous weed cutting is not an option as both these methods would leave ditch edges bare of cover for other species.
Instead the River Stour IDB has approved a programme of mechanical weedcutting followed up by hand pulling of parrot’s feather from the margins. KSCP volunteers have already spent two days wading in the channel or paddling in boats as dragonflies buzz overhead.
An eagle eye is needed to spot the tiniest fragment of plant and a boom net has been installed to catch plants floating downstream. Despite their best attempts all involved know it will take many years of work to combat this plant.
Towards the middle of the month I attended an excellent course in wet grassland management run by the RSPB at their Otmoor reserve. Over two days I learnt about the precise needs of different waders and came away with lots of ideas to take out to farmers this autumn.
Simple changes such as rotovating foot drains can make a big difference and hopefully, by implementing these measures, we can continue to improve the fortunes of birds such as lapwings on the north Kent marshes.
Now all we need is a wet winter to top up the ditches and flood the grassland fields ready for the following spring.
In the centre of Stockholm, on a busy thoroughfare, there is a monument. Waving lights bounce up and down the obelisk showing passers by the current levels of air and water pollution in the city.
passers by stop and learn and the city says openly ‘look there is a problem here. We’re not denying it but together we can get those lights going in the right direction.’
I cannot imagine the British government erecting such a monument in London where an estimated 9500 people die prematurely due to air pollution each year.
Instead our government would rather bury the fact and polish them away with spin instead of rolling up it’s sleeves and taking strong action to stop the main cause of air pollution in cities, diesel traffic.
Jenny Bates, air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “People have no choice with the air they breathe. This means we have to redouble our efforts, stop tinkering around the edges, and take really bold immediate action with a mix of cleaner vehicles and cutting traffic levels, massive investment in safe cycling and walking, and London-wide road charging.”
Raising awareness would also help but the last thing I can imagine the British Government doing is raising a monument to bring the issue of air quality to the public consciousness. Our Government hides in the shadows which others face the facts.
This week I visited Dr Vish, in the woodland home shared with his partner and experienced home envy once again.
I was envious at the woodland turning to autumn and the deer coming to visit. Envious at the pattern on the canvas sides as I sat on the bed made of pallets and foam and Vish obligingly danced around outside showering the tent with handfuls of leaves and a kaleidoscope of woodland life played across the walls and made me laugh. Envious that that they had found a spot to live this life and I had not.
I was envious of their youth and energy. That they could hack three months in a tent, chop wood, cycle miles to work, survive on a diet of foraged apples and, in Vish’s own words, “crotch washes.”
Mostly I was envious that they were doing it, living a life close to nature in the woods. That he had dreamed it up one weekend on a camping trip in Devon, had a partner who wanted it too, had asked around, taken the risk, made it a reality.
Over green tea and satsumas we dreamed some more, of owning land, of creating a place of peace where others could connect back with the earth. Our own personal dreams feeding off each other.
Vish said my life in the caravan had inspired them, that he and his girlfriend Prag had hope in the fact that someone almost 20 years older than them had not succumbed to expectations but still attempted to live a life true to their values but really the admiration was all mine.
Their youth, their energy, their ideals, their dreams made mine a bit closer to being fulfilled.
Great news yesterday that the planning application which proposed 5000 houses on one of the best nightingale sites in the countryside has been withdrawn.
Lodge Hill, a SSSI woodland and former MOD site is a fabulous local resource for wildlife and people. Purple emperor butterflies have recently been discovered breeding there and early purple orchids grow along the damp shady paths.
Despite all of this the site was earmarked for development. A position championed by Medway Council. 12,000 people protested, spearheaded by the RSPB’s Save Lodge Hill campaign and now the developer, if not the council, has listened to local people and withdrawn its plans.
This is great news but we all know the way these things go. Tomorrow I fear will come another application and then another and another. One ‘No’ is never enough. Developers attempt to wear people down. Planners have no fight left in them even when they know developments are wrong and the government does nothing of any real worth to protect our countryside and resolve the housing issues by capping prices in London and making sure all new developments are 100% affordable.
Shame on Simon Jones Medway Council’s leader for condemning the developer for pulling out. For once common sense has prevailed and today at least Lodge Hill is safe.