British cuisine entertainment, food, food and drink, history, lifestyle

Is the end nigh for our Great British staples?

I’m not entirely sure what it says about the Great British People, but the top  symbols of nationhood that make our chests swell with collective pride relate to food and drink.

 

First on the list of iconic delights is the inevitable Sunday roast, complete with meat and two veg, roast potatoes, and of course, Yorkshire pudding, said by many to be our national dish. Second is greasy takeaway staple fish and chips, followed by the BBC, the Union flag, Wimbledon and that most enduring of British cliches, the “nice cup of tea”.

 

So it was with shock that I learnt recently that sales of our national beverage are actually in decline – between 2010 and 2015, it seems, overall black tea volumes slumped by a huge 22% from 97 million kilograms to a mere 76 million. And according to market research agency Mintel, this outrage was attributable to one key thing – dwindling teabag purchases.

 

Sales of your bog-standard black teabag nosedived by 13% between 2012 and 2014 to £425 million as people such as myself forsook them with gay abandon for healthier, trendier – or, in my intolerance-scarred case, caffeine-free – alternatives ranging from green tea (sales up 50%), fruit and herb (up 31%) and speciality blends such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Assam (up 15%).

Nice cup of tea
Nice cup of tea

The increasing popularity of coffee, stimulated by premium-priced coffee shops springing up on every street corner – more than 20,000 such establishments now exist across the country, it seems – also didn’t help, of course, but did serve to create a market currently valued at more than £1 billion per annum.

 

Incidentally, coffee when first brought to Europe in the 16th century was apparently viewed with suspicion, being as it was the drink of choice in a Muslim world that Christendom had been at war with for centuries. On rather adventurously giving it a go though, Pope Clement VIII, under pressure from his advisors to declare it the “bitter invention of Satan”, is said to have stated: “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

 

And this ringing endorsement led to it it taking off all over the region pretty quickly after that. Europe’s first coffee house opened in Vienna in 1645, while the UK’s followed in Oxford seven years later – and still exists to this day under the name, The Grand Café.

 

Within as little as 25 years, some 3,000 or so such concerns had sprung up across the country, becoming popular places to meet and chat about the news, politics and gossip of the day – to such an extent, in fact, that Charles II tried unsuccessfully to get them banned in 1675 for being hotbeds of sedition. Unusually coffee shops were open to all men irrespective of their social status and so were associated with such dissolute notions as equality and republicanism, which obviously didn’t go down too well.

 

Anyway, even though the devil’s drink may once again be trying to assert its  fiendish grip on the nation, reassuringly according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association, black tea is still by far the country’s most popular hot drink. More than 165 million cups are imbibed every day compared to coffee’s mere 70 million.

In fact, more than half (54%) of the population drink at least one cup each day, with men aged between 16 and 44 being the biggest fans (four out of five indulge their vice on a daily basis). The only people that drink more of the stuff per head than us apparently are the Irish.

 

Great British bangers

 

Another staple that seems to be falling equally foul of the current migration to all things healthy, however, is the Great British Banger. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of sausages sold has slumped by more than a quarter – or a huge 260 million packs – since 2008 – although the value of those sales has dropped by a mere 2.1% to £820.7 million.

 

The problem seems to lie in the fact that shoppers are now moving to healthier, non-processed meats such as chicken and steak, put off by reports of sausages’ high fat and salt content as well as the inclusion of cheap fillers such as breadcrumbs or wheat rusks.

 

But people also didn’t appear too keen on reports last June that the superbug MRSA had been found in sausages and minced pork sold in UK supermarkets. Or on last October’s revelations from the World Health Organisation that processed meat was a major cause of cancer – all of which, when taken together, has unsurprisingly done a fine job of hammering sales.

 

But it’s a shame in a way because sausages are, apparently, one of our oldest processed foods. A culinary gift from the Romans, their name is derived from the Latin word “salsus”, which means something salted.

 

Sausages
Sausages

They gained their nickname of “bangers’ during the First World War though, when food shortages led to a big reduction in meat levels. As a result, they were packed with scraps, cereal and water, which made them pop, hiss and even explode when cooked over open fires in the trenches.

 

But despite the sausage’s demotion in status in the national diet, thankfully all is not lost – last month, we were able to stand proud once more when the humble black pudding was dubbed a “superfood” by online health retailer, MuscleFood.com – and the word seemed to spread like wildfire.

 

Packed with protein, practically carb-free and rich in iron and zinc, the (pig’s) blood sausage and staple of the ever-popular full English breakfast was ranked among black beans, sprouted grains and kohlrabi (the new kale) in terms of health-giving properties.

 

Although various spoilsports have since burst the bubble by indiscreetly mentioning its high fat and salt content and equally high calorie count, that doesn’t seem to have put off sales of the Stornoway Black Pudding, for one. This particular titbit was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status in 2013, putting it on a similar footing to champagne in France and tea in Darjeeling.

 

As a result, Charles Macleod Butchers in Scotland’s Western Isles told the Mail that it had seen postal demand for its iconic delicacy jump eight-fold in the days after the story broke, and the expectation is that sales will as much as treble over the next five years on the back of it.

 

So despite ongoing fears of obesity epidemics, endless food and drink fads and all too frequent food scares, it seems that at least some of our Great British staples could triumph yet.

Christmas, entertainment, history, theatre, Uncategorized

Discovering British pantomime

I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do love a good pantomime. Oh no you don’t, I hear you cry. But I do. I really do.

 

So it was with great delight that my Beloved and I took ourselves off to Saffron Walden town hall last weekend to view the annual festive season Spectacular in all its camp glory. And this year, it took the form of Beauty and the Beast – an esteemed work that I must confess I wasn’t previously familiar with. Dick Whittington, yes. Aladdin, yes. But Beauty and the Beast, no.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

After swallowing the mild embarrassment of being more or less the only people there without young kids in tow, we quickly got into the swing of things and settled down to enjoy a fine selection of Carry On-style innuendo and the usual “he’s behind you” tomfoolery.

 

My favourite character wasn’t so much the hero and heroine of the piece though but the cocky but ultimately thwarted suitor of Beauty (or Belle) named Jean-Claude (it was all set in a French village, which might have been random or could also have been in honour of the French woman who originally wrote the fairytale down in the 18th century, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve – who knows?) who modelled himself on surreal TV comedy the IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm, boss of Reynholm Industries.

 

I was also quite taken with Madame Cruella, who seemed to have made a surprise appearance from 101 Dalmations and did a cracking job of being evil, keen as she was to get her sinister claws into young Prince Ferdinand aka the Beast. All very entertaining.

 

But, despite the consummate daftness, it turns out that pantos are actually a pretty old form of musical comedy theatre – and one that, as it happens, is unique to the UK, although it does make an imported appearance in former British colonies such as Ireland, Jamaica, and even Canada and Australia now and then, apparently.

 

Traditionally performed over the Christmas and New Year time, pantomimes are believed by some to have their roots in the so-called Mummers Plays of the 13th to 16th century. These consisted of a kind of processional dance and mime show, to which dialogue was added over time. They were performed during the festive season by troupes of amateurs known as ‘mummers’, a word thought to be derived from the eponymous old German term meaning ‘disguised person’.

 

Ancient traditions

 

The name was assigned to them as many of the performers wore hats or painted their faces red or black to obscure their features out of fear of being recognised (this custom is also associated with English Morris dancers). As mumming was a means for agricultural labourers to raise extra money for Christmas, they went from big house to big house in the area to do their thing. But they didn’t want to be associated with begging – hence the disguises.

 

Nonetheless it seems to have been a lucrative business – it was said that they could raise as much as a whole month’s wages by performing for as little as three evenings.

 

Mummers play
Mummers play

The performances themselves, meanwhile, were broadly-speaking short comic dramas with themes based on duality and resurrection. Generally involving a battle between a couple of characters who are believed to have represented good and evil, one would inevitably be killed and then brought back to life by a doctor wielding a magic potion – an activity that some believe has pagan symbolism relating to the death and rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.

 

Others hotly dispute the notion, however, attesting that a lack of extant Mummers Play texts prior to the mid-18th century can only mean that they did not exist in drama form before then. They believe that while mummers may have cavorted around in masks, it was actually “guisers” who performed the traditional folk dramas, which were themselves actually influenced by early versions of English pantomime rather than the other way around.

 

Whatever the truth of the matter though, the plays seemed to contain a bunch of elements similar to today’s pantos such as stage fights, coarse humour and gender role reversal (the lead male role generally being performed by a young woman and the dame by an older man).

 

Incidentally, this role reversal, although a later Victorian addition after it went out of fashion for a time, actually reflects a tradition relating to Twelfth Night. It marked the end of a Medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and ended at the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Samhain, which is celebrated today as Halloween took place from sunset on October 31 to sunset on 1 November. It was a period when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds was said to be thin and the natural order of things reversed.

 

Pantomime history

 

Interestingly though, mumming and guising were also a key part of this festival too. People went from door-to-door dressed up in costumes or disguises as a way of hiding and protecting themselves against the spirits of the Other World, often reciting verses in exchange for food – all of which suggests to me that the whole symbolism of the thing could be much older than it is generally given credit for.

 

Anyway, it seems that during the 16th century, English folk drama, whatever name or form it took, began to be absorbed into a form of Italian travelling street theatre called the Commedia dell’arte. Productions, which had become really popular by the middle of the 17th century, included music, dancing, acrobatics and general buffoonery and were put on in fairgrounds and marketplaces around the country. They were based on a repertoire of comic, and often satirical, stories that contained moral lessons and also included a series of stock characters.

Harlequinade poster
Harlequinade poster

 

From the 1660s onwards, these stock characters began to appear more and more in English plays, until by the first couple of decades of the 1700s, actor-manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre, John Rich, made one of them in the shape of Harlequin the star of his shows.

 

Rich, who has been dubbed the father of pantomime, was also the inspiration behind the chase scenes that became a key part of an early version of panto called a ‘Harlequinade’. These Harlequinades, which dominated the scene for the next 150 years, saw two eloping lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, being pursued by other adapted Commedia characters including her father Pantaloon and his comic servants, Clown and Pierrot. And the pantomine traditions of slapstick, chases and transformation are still based on Harlequinade antics to this day.

 

By the 1870s though, the Harlequinades began to die a death and were replaced by dramas based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’. These productions became so popular and elaborate, in fact, that they sometimes lasted as long as five hours and boasted up to 600 performers.

 

The most extravagant were held at the still thriving Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden, London, which was responsible for adding many of the panto elements we still know and love today such as principal boys and pantomime dames, the appearance of celebrities and the use of popular tunes – in those days, Music Hall songs, but today pop ditties.

 

All of which appears to imply that what goes around does seem to end up coming around eventually too.

 

 

British cuisine entertainment, conservation, food and drink, tourism, wildlife

North Norfolk: From coast to cuisine

It’s become something of a tradition for my Beloved and I to spend a couple of days between Christmas and New Year up on the wild and rugged North Norfolk coast – although inevitably there was a bit of a hiatus for a couple of years when we lived in South Africa.

 

But things haven’t half changed there over the years. While a healthy tourist trade always meant that it was never exactly down at heel, the place is now oozing with rich Londoners to the extent that the average asking price for a (second) home in celebrity-strewn Blakeney is over £500,000 and an expansive dwelling in the bird-watching capital of Cley-next-the-Sea (pronounced ‘Cly’ rather than “Clay”) just went for £1.5 million.

 

Which is all very well, but it means that, like all too many places in areas such as Cornwall and the Lake District, the locals, many of whom have minimum wage jobs, can no longer afford to buy there. So they have to try their luck with council homes or social housing instead.

 

It also means that these charming little villages with their narrow streets bursting with Dutch-gabled houses and flint-pebble former fishermen’s cottages become the equivalent of ghost towns for much of the year, springing briefly to life only over the summer holidays and at big festivals such as Christmas and Easter. Which doesn’t really seem right to me.

 

DDutch-gabled house and flint cottages in Cley
Dutch-gabled house and flint cottages in Cley

One thing that this influx of wealth is doing for the county though is transforming it into quite a culinary mecca – often with prices to match. In fact, to reflect this phenomenon, a new monthly magazine called Feast has just been published in a bid to tap into foodie interest in the area. Dishing up everything from restaurant reviews, interviews with up-and-coming chefs and a selection of gourmet recipes to try at home, its advent makes sense in a region intent on making the most of what it’s got.

 

And what this flat and fertile land has most of, apart from tourism, is food and farming, which accounts for more than 20% of local jobs. The biggest arable crops around there are sugar beet, oil seed rape, wheat and barley (for brewing – as well as the more established Woodforde’s, Norfolk now boasts an impressive 25 microbreweries). But you’ll also see lots of plump, pink pigs snuffling around in big, open, muddy fields and generally seeming to enjoy life, which is good to see.

 

More than one of them though is likely to make a star appearance at the annual, six-week-long Norwich Food and Drink Festival in the Battle of the Bangers competition. Here members of the public vote for their favourite sausage from a selection provided by 10 local butchers.

 

Norwich, Norfolk’s county town and England’s first Unesco City of Literature  (Edinburgh in Scotland sports a similar accolade), has for the last decade been hosting the festival, which also invites local schools to participate in the Tallest Jelly Competition – an event sadly cancelled last year for reasons unknown.

 

But the whole Festival is all very professional, it seems, jelly setbacks notwithstanding. Run by not-for-profit organisation Norfolk Food and Drink Ltd, the key aim – very sensibly – is to encourage visitors to come to the region at a time, in September and early October, when the whole tourism thing is cooling down after the summer rush.

 

Norfolk wildlife

 

Conveniently though, it also fits in nicely with game season. So if you’re partial to a bit of pheasant or even the odd teal, which I must confess I’d never eaten before but which my Beloved and I picked up for a song in a local butcher’s in the charming market town of Holt, then treat yourself.

 

The teal, which is a small freshwater duck with a green-coloured band on its wing, was lovely by the way – not that dissimilar to partridge, and definitely less ‘gamey’ than something like woodpigeon. We indulged on New Year’s Day.

 

Anyway, scrummy food isn’t the only thing that Norfolk’s developed a reputation for. The other is the largely unspoiled nature of much of its coastline and the nearby wetlands, marshes and lowland meadows. These account for just over half of the 65 habitats listed in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan as being priorities for conservation and are havens for all kinds of plants and animals.

 

Cley-next-the-Sea, where we stayed, is in fact an internationally renowned destination site for birders and twitchers, and the adjoining Cley Marshes were even nominated as “Nature Reserve of the Year” in the BBC’s Countryfile Magazine’s awards towards the end of 2015.

 

But the Marshes have got a bit of history behind them too. After a bunch of friends, under the leadership of one Dr Sydney Long, got together in the George Hotel – which still exists to this day and was, as it happens, where we resided during our trip – for a conflab in 1926, they purchased an initial 400 or so acres of land on today’s site for an impressive £5,160 (around £2 million in today’s money).

Cley Windmill
Cley Windmill

The aim of the Norfolk Naturalists Trust as they called themselves, was to create a bird-breeding sanctuary. And the idea proved such a success that the Norfolk Wildlife Trust as it is now known, will celebrate its 90th anniversary this year after having acted as a blueprint for a further 47 such native conservation charities up and down the country.

 

But the original site also now houses a pristine Visitor Centre, from which you can sit and spot everything from marsh harriers and terns to spoonbills – and where you can even treat yourself to a mean bacon sandwich. Not that we spent the entire break eating, I hasten to add.

 

But even if we had, a hearty walk along the pounding seashore to visit the seals at Blakeney Point will soon sort that kind of thing out. The colony there is a lovely, honk-y mix of common and grey seals of all ages and persuasions. But about 15 or so years ago, the former were badly hit by an outbreak of distemper, which cut their numbers to as few as 400.

Seals at Blakeney Point
Seals at Blakeney Point

Now though, thankfully, their fortunes have revived and by the start of 2015, Blakeney Point had become the largest seal colony in England. Which also implies that fish stocks must have recovered at least enough to support them too. And that can only be a good thing – on all counts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

conservation, countryside, wildlife

Keeping Britain wild and free

It does strike you that human beings can be a contrary bunch sometimes.

 

On the one hand, you’ve got the whole re-wilding movement currently going on in the UK. Its aim is to try and restore and protect key wilderness areas and return various habitats and species to the British countryside after they disappeared years ago, mainly through our own fault.

 

On the other hand, we’re now also trying to eradicate loads of other things that we’ve introduced from elsewhere over the years either by accident or design, but which we no longer like. Surprise, surprise, just like the scenes we’ve witnessed so often in horror movies, we’ve found that, once out of their own natural habitats, such immigrants have a habit of becoming dysfunctional, getting all invasive and starting to kill off the locals.

 

Prime examples here include the infamous Japanese knotweed , which can grow up to 20cm per day and apparently costs the UK economy £166 million per year both in terms of getting rid it and in house price devaluations as a result of it.

Japanese knotweed
Japanese knotweed

Another nightmare is the North American signal crayfish, which is killing off its native white-clawed cousins in our streams, rivers and lakes by being bigger and more aggressive, and grabbing most of the food supply for itself. To make matters worse, it’s also spreading some awful disease that’s proving deadly to its smaller and more genteel relations.

 

Anyway, to get back to the notion of re-wilding for a moment: although creating and conserving green spaces full of indigenous flora and fauna for everyone to enjoy might not seem a particularly controversial idea, in practice, it’s caused a firestorm.

 

One of the problems is that the term itself seems to mean different things to different people, a situation that’s led to lots of heated debate among conservationists and wildlife lovers alike, some of it rather ill-natured.

 

The launch of a charity called Rewilding Britain, which claims George Monbiot, environmental activist and Guardian newspaper columnist as its unofficial figurehead, for instance, seems to have been particularly divisive. It launched itself onto the national stage in July by making a headline-grabbing call for the reintroduction into Scotland of Britain’s former apex predators – lynx, wild boar and wolves – which had previously been hunted to extinction.

 

In fact, its aim is to see three core areas of 100,000 hectares of infertile land across the UK rewilded by 2030. About one million or so more would then follow by the end of the century to be given over to these predators and the natural ecological processes that support them.

 

The apex predator debate

 

The charity’s argument is that, as important keystone species, they would help to make the country’s natural ecosystems stronger, not least as a result of hunting overpopulated species such as deer, which are causing massive damage to forests and woodland across the country.

 

The farmers, on the other hand, have been up in arms about it all, protesting that wolves, in particular, would kill too many sheep. They have also refused to be pacified by protestations that most European states acting as home to such predators have compensation schemes in place.

 

A passionate supporter of the rewilding viewpoint, meanwhile, is Paul Lister, a multimillionaire, heir to the MFI fortune and founder of The European Nature Trust. He bought the Alladale Estate in Sutherland, Scotland, about 10 years ago in order to turn it into a wilderness reserve, which he has been in the process of doing ever since.

 

To that end, he’s planted 800,000 trees, restored 224 hectares of degraded peat-land and, happily, reintroduced our native red squirrels. But for him, such progress is still not enough. The vision will not be complete until he introduces large predators in the shape of lynx, wolves and bears, not only to control the rampant, resident deer, but also to create an ecotourism attraction and generate local employment.

Wolf
Wolf

But the idea hasn’t gone down too well in some quarters, to say the least. Ramblers who have a legal right to wander on Lister’s land, are unhappy at the thought of it being fenced off to create a so-called “giant zoo”. A few locals are also fearful that the animals will break out and end up snaffling livestock – or even people.

 

Some conservationists are just as concerned about the potential impact on the animals themselves of being released into territory now unfamiliar to them.

 

Anyway, the upshot of the outcry has been that Lister now plans to conduct a six-month study into the socio-economic impact of his proposed move – a scenario that means it’s probably unlikely to happen any time soon.

 

But not everyone in the conservation movement is convinced that rewilding advocates should be placing quite so much focus on reintroducing big beasts. Instead some believe it should be much more about expanding natural habitats, increasing biodiversity and helping communities reconnect with nature.

 

Andrew Bachell, Scottish Natural Heritage’s director of policy and advice, for one, told farmers’ publication FG Insight: “Rewilding isn’t just about releasing large animals. It’s also about regenerating natural woodland or allowing areas of coast that flood naturally to flood again, and creating wildlife corridors.”

 

Different angles

 

Moreover, Rob Bushby, UK manager of conservation and rewilding charity the John Muir Trust’s environmental award scheme points out in a blog that to put so much focus on the predator message is potentially damaging to the entire movement by making it “overly focused, niche and confusing”.

 

It has, he believes, resulted in the term ‘rewilding’ being “associated with ‘conservation nut jobs’, slaughter of livestock, and even absconding of babies (Scotland on Sunday). It’s alienated and antagonised many that would be our natural allies”.

 

As a result, says Busby: “By focusing on one dimension and one or two species, ‘rewilding’ is in danger of becoming a tarnished brand associated with polarised and rancorous debate.” Which would be a shame really as its intentions are good and its aims actually relatively modest.

 

Another set of people with equally good intentions but coming at things from quite a different angle are the invasivores. A movement born in the US, it involves people going around eating invasive species in a bid to control burgeoning populations.

Signal crayfish
Signal crayfish

A pioneer of, and cheerleader for, this novel approach is Joe Roman, a conservation biologist who works at the University of Vermont and set up his own website called ‘Eat the Invaders (Fighting invasive species one bite at a time!) in 2003 to spread the word. It is packed not only full of information about individual species, but also about their nutritional value and possible recipes that can be used to cook them.

 

Although Roman acknowledges that dining out on invasive species alone won’t solve the problem, he believes that it’s a useful, and also enjoyable, entry point into the issues involved.

 

As he told US news broadcaster CNN: “I spent my career trying to control people’s appetites, to manage native species so we don’t deplete them. Here is a case where voracious appetites do the environment a favour. You want it not to be a chore, to be fun, and tasty!”

 

And you can see his point – according to the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat, non-native invasive species actually cost the UK economy about £1.7 billion each year in damage and clearing up the mess. A fact making it surprising perhaps that we haven’t seen more invasivore restaurants springing up here a la US.

 

In fact, the nearest thing we’ve got to it so far that I’ve been able to discover anyway, is environmental campaign Crayaway’s Crayfish Bob pop-up restaurants. They travel up and down the country dishing out signal crayfish for people to feast on at festivals such as Glastonbury.

 

Which certainly puts a whole new spin on the phrase, “Eat and drink for tomorrow you may die”.

 

 

 

 

 

Essex, heritage skills, history, lifestyle, tourism

The hidden gems of Essex

Essex has got a bad reputation, unfortunately.

As soon as you mention to anyone that you live there, out come the unkind stereotypes about “Essex girls” and, should the perpetrator be of a certain age, their fake tan and white stilettos. Or if they happen to be a bit younger, vajazzling and TOWIE.

Which is all a bit unfair really. Because, although some of the more deprived areas that many people over-identify with the county such as Dagenham and Harlow leave a lot to be desired, the same could be said of any post-industrial or new town anywhere in the UK.

And I can’t say that the majority of people I’ve met since moving here are any louder, brasher or more promiscuous than anywhere else either – although I must confess that I’m not that taken with the local form of Estuary English, which, like the grey squirrel, has now more or less supplanted its more traditional rural counterpart in the more urbanised south of the county and is starting to wend its rather whiny way to the green and pleasant lands of the north.

Saffron Walden, North Essex
Saffron Walden, North Essex

Anyway, the problem with stereotypes is that they tend to mask the hidden charms of a place (or person for that matter) under layers of prejudice and misunderstanding – and that’s definitely the case here. But to fail to see Essex for what it really is means that you end up missing a trick, not least due to the diversity of its landscapes.

There’s little similarity, for example, between the nature reserve-protected salt marsh and mudflats of Wallasea Island near Southend-on-Sea, with its native oyster community; the ancient, former royal woodland of Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, and the charming, rural, rolling north, with its tiny, innumerable picture-postcard towns and villages.

But that’s Essex for you – ram-packed full of unknown, or underestimated, little gems. And I was lucky enough to discover one of them on a Sunday afternoon jaunt to Coggleshall, a pretty, antique little place between Braintree and Colchester –incidentally the oldest recorded town in Britain – in the company of my mam a few weekends ago.

Coggeshall lace

We’d decided to make a visit to Paycocke’s house and garden, a National Trust property that was built by wealthy clothing merchant, Thomas, in 1509. The aim of this sojourn was to observe a lace-making demonstration for Coggeshall Lace Week as we fancied seeing how it was done.

Paycocke's House
Paycocke’s House

But it wasn’t necessarily quite what we’d expected. For one thing, Coggeshall lace isn’t actually lace in the classic sense. Instead it’s net that’s been decorated in chain-stitched embroidery using cotton or silk threads, and even beads in some cases.

This style of “tambour lace” – so-called because workers in the Far East where it originated, used a round frame like a drum that they gripped with their knees to stretch the net in order to work it – was brought to Coggeshall by a French emigre called Monsieur Drago along with his two daughters in 1812.

They taught the craft to the good women of Coggeshall and surrounding villages, albeit on a rectangular rather than round frame, who in their turn sold it on to dealers and manufacturers as a cheaper alternative to the more traditional bobbin lace being made in places like Nottingham.

It was at the time used for everything from handkerchiefs; collars for blouses; frills and flounces for dresses, and even wedding veils – and in its heyday was stocked, among others, by the upmarket Liberty department store in London.

Interestingly though, the industry was given a bit of a boost by Derbyshire-born inventor and entrepreneur, John Heathcoat. He had pioneered the bobbinet tulle net-making process in 1808 and set up a factory seven years later in a converted mill in Loughborough, Leicestershire to mass-produce it.

Which was great for the Coggeshall lace ladies as not only was this kind of net a lot cheaper than the more traditional “pillow lace” – so-called because of the pillow used to create it – but its octagonal rather than round holes also made it much less likely to sheer when worked.

Unfortunately for the domestic workers of south Nottinghamshire though, this very same innovation massively undercut their hand-produced goods – and so the Luddites paid Heathcote a visit and wrecked his precious machines. At which point he scuttled off to Tiverton in Devon, taking what was left of his inventions with him and turning the town’s fortunes around in the process.

Strange but true

In fact, his factory still exists to this day in the form of Heathcoat Fabrics, which sells engineered textiles to industries such as transport, aerospace and the military and employs more than 400 people.

Anyway, after this little blip with Heathcoat, the market for machine-made Nottingham lace took off and continued to thrive until the First World War when global trade was hammered, a scenario that the industry never really recovered from.

Coggeshall lace production, on the other hand, had started suffering as early as the 1860s, when the first chain stitch sewing machines began appearing on the market. An already difficult situation was made even worse 20 years later, however, when the first of the Anglo-Boer Wars kicked off. The big problem here was that the fabric on which the lace was based ended up being used to manufacture mosquito nets and so became really scarce.

Old Lace Shop, Coggeshall
Old Lace Shop, Coggeshall

By the 1930s, things had got so dire for the lace makers that they made a last desperate attempt to secure royal patronage in a bid to revive their fortunes. This led to three handkerchiefs being specially created for Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark when she married Prince George, the Duke of Kent and fourth son of King George V, in 1934. Dresses were also made for their subsequent child, Princess Alexandra, as well as the current Queen and her sister Princess Margaret. But to no avail – the financial return was simply too meagre.

As a result, the only person left in Coggeshall making lace these days is a lady called Sue Game. She still teaches the craft to anyone in the area who’s interested but, happily for tradition, it’s also possible to gain instruction as part of a City & Guilds vocational skills course in lace making apparently. It’s an art that’s also practised by a few members of the Lace Guild so it’s not quite over yet.

Anyway, a final thought on the wonders of Essex – or at least my top three favourite facts about the place:

1 The first crocodile was brought to the UK in 1701 by Richard Bradley who kept it in the lake at his home in Braintree

2 Paper Lace’s 1974 hit pop song “Billy don’t be a Hero” was written in the lounge bar of The Old Dog Inn, Herongate Tye near Brentwood

3 People living in Essex are 38% more likely to be hit by falling aeroplane parts than anywhere else in the UK.

What more can I say.

Briitish industry, employment, regeneration, tourism, UK

Durham: An historical theme park in waiting?

Durham, the county in the North East of England where I grew up, is barely recognisable these days. Gone are the pits and the slag heaps and the steel works to be replaced with fecund sweeps of arable crops, fluffy, white sheep and trees – lots and lots of trees.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

But even though most of the ugly scars that pitted the landscape are gone, that’s not to say the county has buried its industrial heritage in the same careful manner – in fact, it’s still very proud of it, and rightly so. Because without the coal riven from its mines by men who sweated, suffered and, in some instances, even died to produce it, the Industrial Revolution could never have taken place.

 

So, aptly, memories of the past are still held onto and treasured not only by individuals, but also by organisations such as Beamish. Beamish is an open air, working museum that provides fascinating insights into the daily life and employment of North Easteners during the early 1800s and 1900s, and one, it must be said, that gets bigger and better each year.

 

But a former pit village in East Durham called Horden is also doing its bit to honour its heritage. The Parish Council has just bought an iconic sculpture of a nine-foot tall miner for the princely sum of £19,000 in a bid to try and spark some interest in the place and promote regeneration – something that should also be helped by the tourism generated by Durham Heritage Coast Partnership’s attempts to conserve and enhance the nearby flora- and fauna-rich coastline.

 

Fittingly though the statue has been called “Marra”, an old pitmatic word for a good mate or member of a crew of miners who worked together and watched each other’s backs. Pitmatic, meanwhile, for those not in the know, is a local dialect that was used extensively in mining communities across Northumberland and Durham.

 

It’s based on the ancient, traditional language of the countryside, which the men were still using when they migrated to the pits to work in the 17th and 18th centuries, simply adapting it to their new requirements.

 

So this language of theirs was, and is, special in that it had retained lots of words from the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and the Old Norse of the Vikings – Durham, belonging as it did to the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, had been part of the Danelaw.

 

Although pitmatic was predominantly a male dialect, the language of a working pitman in fact, lots of the more general-purpose rather than work-specific words were also employed by the rest of the community, and were certainly still in common parlance when I was a kid – people were still eating their “bait” (packed lunch), for instance, poking “spelks” (splinters) out of their fingers with a needle, and walking through fields of “claggy auld clarts” (sticky old mud) after the rain.

 

Marras

 

As the old miners continue to die off though, pitmatic’s usage is now, sadly, almost as defunct as the pits that shaped it, and you hear its descriptive, onomatopoeic phrases employed less and less these days, particularly by the young ones.

Banner at Miner's Gala, Durham
Banner at Miner’s Gala, Durham

But anyway to get back to the point, the Marra in question is particularly emotive because he has his heart ripped out. A telling metaphor to illustrate what the demise of mining meant to the North East, it is particularly poignant in a place like Horden.

 

Horden Colliery was one of the biggest mines in the country, employing 4,000 men at its peak before being closed in 1987, two years after the miners’ strike.

 

The statue itself, meanwhile, which was unveiled in Horden Welfare Park on Saturday 21 November, was the brainchild of local artist, Ray Lonsdale.

 

The idea behind the piece was apparently a news story revealing that a statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose regime was responsible for wiping out the British coal industry without putting any plans in place to support the communities dependent on it, was to be erected in Westminster to celebrate the good she had done for the country. But as Lonsdale drily put it: “That’s not the way it’s seen up here.”

 

Thankfully though, after years of neglect from Westminster by parties of all political stripes, Durham now seems to have got itself a champion in the shape of Jonathan Garnier Ruffer. On paper Ruffer, a financier who speaks the Queen’s English and made his millions in London, may not be an obvious advocate. But he was actually born in the North East in a village near Middlesbrough on Teesside and so was aware of the issues.

 

A committed evangelical Christian and member of the Church of England, he credits English merchant and philanthropist William Rathbone VI as the inspiration for his good deeds. But of what do such good deeds consist?

 

They’re essentially about transforming Bishop Auckland, a pleasant, if somewhat deprived post-industrial market town 12 miles south west of Durham City, a Unesco World Heritage site, into a huge historical theme park to pull in tourists and help regenerate the area, not least by creating lots of jobs. And the latter is vital in a region where unemployment stubbornly remains the highest in the country at 8.1% compared to the UK national average of 5.6%.

 

Historical theme park

 

Although in 2012 Ruffer had never even visited Bishop Auckland before, he’d heard that the Church Commissioners, who manage the Anglican Church’s finances, were selling a dozen 17th century paintings by Spanish artist Francisco Zubaran. They hung in Auckland Castle, private home of successive Bishops of Durham for 900 years, who incidentally from 1071 until 1836 were unique in England for being Prince Bishops – and the county is still known as the “Land of the Prince Bishops” to this day.

Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland

Given the strategic position of the county, which acted as a buffer between England and its enemies in Scotland, the Prince Bishops were awarded secular powers that enabled them to raise their own armies, mint their own coins and levy their own taxes – as long as they stayed loyal to the king and diligently performed their role in protecting the country’s northern frontier, that is.

 

Anyway, Ruffer felt that the Zubaran paintings should stay in the region and so he bought them, and the castle they were hung in, for the tidy sum of £15 million. But he didn’t stop there.

 

He’s now not only restored the castle and opened it up to the public as a tourist attraction, but also purchased the site of the little-known but extremely important Roman fort of Vinovia or Binchester nearby, dubbed “The Pompeii of the North”. The aim is to make it into a major heritage destination too.

 

But Ruffer’s piece de resistance is his decision to set up a £100 million historical leisure park on a 115-acre site in the shadow of Auckland Castle. Also in the offing is a Night Show, inspired by the internationally renowned one at Puy du Fou in the Vendee region of the Loire in western France.

 

The open air light show, which will operate as a not-for-profit venture, will dramatise 2,000 years of North Eastern history and, with a cast of 600 volunteers, will apparently resemble the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony – except it’ll be about Viking invasions, Roman gladiators and the like.

 

As of spring 2016, the objective is to put on 30 Night Shows per year and to pull in 6,000 visitors with each one. While the complementary historical theme park itself won’t actually open until 2020, the Show is expected to create 10 full-time jobs initially, rising to 300 by 2024.

 

But plans also include the creation of an Eleven Arches Academy – Eleven Arches being the name of the former golf course, which is crossed by the Newton Cap railway viaduct complete with its eponymous number of archways – which will train 300 young volunteers annually between the ages of eight and 25 in the key skills required to put on the spectacular. These include sound, lighting, pyrotechnics and set construction.

 

So with all of this great work in mind, all I can say is that Ruffer seems to me to be a git canny gadge who’s done hees bit sel’ and hees new hyem proud. Champion.

 

 

 

 

 

environment, UK, waste

Waste: What a load of rubbish

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of Christmas already – and it’s only November.

Too many restaurants and pubs are, in my view, pushing glittering Christmas dos with gay abandon. The shops are full of gift-boxed this and sparkly that. And you can barely get your hands on a birthday card these days as so many have been banished and replaced by their Christmas cousins. Bah humbug, yes. But it’s all a bit excessive really.

Christmas shopping
Christmas shopping

Particularly when you consider the sheer amount of rubbish that the rampant materialism behind it all generates. It’s bad enough during the rest of the year – for example, did you know that the UK produced a vast 200 million tonnes of waste during 2012, the last year that figures were available?

Commercial and industrial activities created nearly a quarter of it, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But households were also responsible for a shocking 14%, and only 44% of that was recycled.

Thankfully though, a lot less is going into rubbish dumps than it used to. While the figure was about 90% in 2009, it’s more like 50% today and is forecast to drop to just 10% by 2020 as a result of positive action. Most notable here is the 1996 landfill tax, which led to a push towards recycling and the introduction of incineration as a means of generating electricity.

Anyway, I don’t know whether you’ve watched celebrity chef-turned-environmental campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘War on Waste’ programme on the BBC over the last few weeks, but it threw up some shocking statistics of its own.

The focus more than anything else, understandably given his background, was on food waste – a particular bugbear of mine too, especially after living in South Africa and seeing the rampant and distressing levels of poverty and deprivation there. People would give their eye teeth for any of the tender morsels we throw away without a second thought, and they routinely feed their families at a minute fraction of the cost – even taking cost of living issues into account.

Food waste

So I was horrified to learn from Hugh’s programme that a massive third of all food produced in the UK is never actually eaten. Resource efficiency charity Wrap  indicates, in fact, that the country’s total food waste amounts to a vast 15 million tonnes – even though a disgraceful 13 million people in a rich country such as ours routinely struggle to afford to eat.

But there’s no single culprit here. For instance, each of the UK’s 26.7 million households waste on average 16% of the food they buy each week. That’s about a day’s worth and is valued at roughly £15 (or £840 per year).

Food waste
Food waste

One issue here is that too many people simply don’t use their five senses to check whether food is still OK but throw it out as soon as the ‘use by’ date is passed. Another is that they often don’t plan their meals and so end up buying too many things they don’t need, wasting lots of money in the process. And natural resources, electricity, manpower etc etc.

But as Wrap points out, a huge 11 million households have access to food waste collection services on their doorstep. So there’s no excuse for any of it going into landfill really.

Equally as bad though are the supermarkets. On the one hand, they only accept produce that is grown to exacting cosmetic standards, which means the rest has to either go for animal feed or is simply trashed.

And this despite the fact that, in 2000 and 2008, the UK lost 40% of its potato yield due to inclement weather and made up the shortfall with ugly veg that would previously have been rejected. And guess what? No one, but no one even noticed.

On the other hand though, supermarkets also seem to have a bad habit of changing orders at the last minute, even if a crop has been pulled, which means that it goes to waste and farmers end up being out of pocket – to the extent that nearly half of British farms are now losing money.

But a third issue is actually the most insidious of all – that is, the deliberate and systematic over-ordering of goods so that stores can guard against empty shelves. Because that means, of course, not being able to make that all-important sale to people who are going to waste loads of what they’ve just bought anyway. It definitely explains the emergence of modern-day pursuits such as skip-diving.

Insatiable demand

And the catering industry’s no better. According to Hugh, it chucks out the equivalent of two billion meals every year. Two billion. Enough food to feed the hungry, in this country at least, surely?

Unfortunately, I can go on. In a disposable fashion society such as ours, Wrap says we now throw away an estimated £140 million worth of used clothing – the equivalent of 350,000 tonnes – each year. That’s just under £400,000 worth each day. Which goes directly into landfill. Not to charity shops or onto our family or friends. To landfill.

Disposable fashion
Disposable fashion

The average UK household, meanwhile, owns around £4,000 worth of garments, around 30% of which haven’t been worn for at least a year. Which means, on average, we possess four times more in apparel terms than we did 30 years ago.

But we’re not the only ones affected by our own rampant consumerism. According to Nick Grono, chief executive of the Freedom Fund, the first private donor fund set up to try and end modern day slavery, our insatiable demand for cheap goods, which rely on finite natural resources, is not just wrecking the environment.

It is also creating incentives for unscrupulous organisations to use illegal, forced labour to avoid the scrutiny of the authorities while indulging in activities that damage the environment still further.

Examples here include the enslaving of desperate migrants from Myanmar and Cambodia on fishing boats in Thailand. They, in turn, strip the oceans of fish, thereby as Grono says, “perpetuating the cycle of devastation and exploitation”. Ditto the gangs of young men in Brazil who are trapped by debt into illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

But the problem, as James Lovelock’s Gaia theory states, is that we’re all interlinked – and very closely. So if we hurt Mother Earth, ultimately we just end up hurting ourselves too.

culture, genetics, history

Celtic myths: It’s all in the genes

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Celt. And being of mixed English-Irish heritage, I’d have said I was least partially entitled to lay claim to such a title.

So it seems a shame that, in some ways, the whole “Celtic” thing appears to be a bit of a romantic myth. Let me explain: according to the British Museum’s rather good latest exhibition entitled “Celts: art and identity”, which I popped along to see with my parents a couple of weekends ago, this ancient people were not so much a single group inhabiting broad swathes of Europe from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

British Museum
British Museum

They were instead more a bunch of individual local communities and tribal clusters, connected by similar worldviews, values, languages and artwork, but also quite distinct from each other. As the Celtic culture was predominantly an oral one though, they left no written records to elucidate or explain themselves.

And so the vacuum was filled by others, notably the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who has shaped our beliefs about these so-called “barbarians” ever since through the rather superior, “civilised” Mediterranean opinions that he espoused in the first century BC.

But he patently didn’t get them. Or their incredibly sophisticated, shape-shifting art forms, which, unlike classical, naturalist styles, hid animals and birds as well as multiple layers of symbolic meaning in their apparently simple abstract swirls. So it was a totally opposite way of looking at the world.

Interestingly though, Siculus, or any of the other Greeks or Romans knocking around at the time for that matter, didn’t ever explicitly refer to Britain or Ireland as the lands of the “Keltoi” or “Keltae”, roughly translated as the “hidden people” or “those who are different”.

The term seemed, in fact, to be applied mainly to the societies of central Europe and Gaul (France) – even though the “Celtic” moniker is now attributed exclusively to the indigenous cultures and traditions of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and, of course, Brittany in France as well as their various diasporas.

In fact, the name was only assigned to their collective languages as late as the 1700s in order to reflect their pre-Roman origins. But by the 19th century, the whole thing had morphed into a revival movement known as the “Celtic Twilight”, which drew on Celtic artistic and literary traditions and recast them in the form of a reimagined, romanticised Celtic past.

Over time, however, the word seems to have become increasingly true to its original meaning of “outsider”. And as such, it has been used widely as a tool to help the peoples it denoted affirm their difference to and independence from their dominant English and French neighbours, becoming in the process a hook to hang their increasingly confident national identities on. Which, depending on your viewpoint, is really no bad thing.

The power of genetics

Anyway, another area in which the Celtic myth comes into further question is in the field of genetics. According to a Wellcome Trust-funded study led by Oxford University over the course of 20 years and published in the journal Nature in March this year, there is simply no genetic basis for claiming the existence of a single “Celtic” group in the UK or Northern Ireland.

In fact, amazingly, inhabitants of the so-called Celtic regions are among the most genetically different from each other when compared with other groups from the British Isles. This is likely because people from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the like diverged over time to form separate genetic clusters – a finding that provides a scientific basis for the idea of regional identity for the first time.

And one which also appears to support the opinion that the Celtic thing these days really has more to do with traditions and culture than it has to do with DNA or race per se.

But that is not to say that certain genetic remnants don’t still remain. Take red hair, for example, which is definitely usually considered a Celtic trait. And interestingly, it is among the Irish that you’re more likely to find a redhead than anywhere else in the world – indeed they account for up to 30% of the population.

Red-haired girl
Red-haired girl

Next come the Scottish at up to 25%, followed by the Welsh at up to 15%. But because red locks are the product of a recessive gene, both parents need to bear it in order to produce a flame-haired baby. So lots more people carry it rather than show it.

Another much more unpleasant hereditary condition though, and one that is even nicknamed the “Celtic disease” is haemochromatosis. This disorder, also caused by a recessive gene, leads the body to store too much iron, which is then deposited on vital organs such as the heart, liver or pancreas and, over time, prevents them from working effectively.

Over the course of years, this situation leads to an iron overload, which can prove fatal. But in the interim, it generates symptoms that are unlikely to become apparent before middle age and that can make it tricky to see a direct link. These include low energy levels, stomach or abdominal pains, arthritis and depression. In reality though, the only reliable way to find out if you’ve got the condition really is to have a blood test.

Meanwhile, although, as its nickname suggests, haemochromatosis is most commonly found among people of the so-called Celtic nations, it is – rather unfortunately for me and my ilk – by far the most widespread among the Irish, and particularly those from the west of the country.

While across Europe as a whole, between one in 300 to 400 have the offending DNA, the figure jumps to a huge one in 83 in Ireland – with a horrendous one in five people being carriers. So when folk say to you ‘it’s all in the genes’, all you can do is hope to God that, in this case at least, it simply isn’t.

British industry, lifestyle, music

Retro trends: Keeping it real

The whole retro thing seems to be massive these days.

Fashion has gone distressingly 1970s – a look that’s no better recycled, in my opinion, than it was first time around – with its muddy brown suede, seriously unflattering flares and hippy/cowboy fringing currently all the rage.

Then there are the nostalgia-driven toys appearing all over the place – everything from 1980s cuddly Care Bears to action-packed Thunderbirds play sets and whistling Clangers to entice those of us brought up in the 1960s and 1970s – let alone our kids.

Even the film studios are in on the act. Items on the current remake list range from 1980s comedy classics Police Academy and Ghostbusters to horror movies such as Nightmare on Elm Street and An American Werewolf in London. And then there’s Dad’s Army, an adaptation of the British comedy series of the same name that was massive here in the 1960s and 1970s, and which will be having its time in the sun again next year.

They’re all at it – to the extent you can now step back in time at retro-gaming events to revisit the arcade game favourites of your youth, whether that be pinball or video giants such as Space Invaders. There’s even a Vintage Nostalgia show in Stockton, Wiltshire, where you’ll find everything from vintage cars and antique fashion to old-fashioned sweet-shop sweeties and traditional entertainment, all played out against a backdrop of classic tracks steeped in comforting nostalgia.

Old-fashioned sweeties
Old-fashioned sweeties

Because that, according to the marketers, is what it’s all about. A recent study led by Jannine LaSaleta, a nostalgia specialist who teaches marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France revealed a strange irony – that the feelings of social connectedness generated by nostalgia make most people – no matter what their age – attach less value to money, which in turn encourages them to spend more freely.

In other words, nostalgia sells – particularly in a social media age characterised by false intimacy where we broadcast our communications to the masses rather than chat with a mate, and calculate our popularity based on the number of Facebook ‘friends’ we’ve collected.

But nowhere is the “nostalgia sells” adage more true than in the case of the music world’s so-called “vinyl revival”. In fact, revenues from old-style albums have jumped a huge 69% year-on-year for the first quarter of 2015, while singles rose 23%.

Between them, they made up about 1.5% of total record sales in the UK last year – the equivalent of 1.3 million discs – compared to only 0.1% in 2007, with rock acts, in popular music terms, leading the charge.

And appropriately the top sellers included vintage rock acts such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and that old crooner, Bob Dylan – although Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds was the most popular choice overall.

Vinyl interest

In fact, in what would appear to mark a significant milestone for the industry, high street supermarket chain Tesco even started stocking the new vinyl album from ageing heavy metal boys Iron Maiden earlier in the year to see how it went, with a view to carrying more if it proved a hit. So to speak.

The UK’s Official Charts Company, meanwhile, has also found a way to mark this new-found interest by adding a vinyl Top 40 to its line-up this year, complete with separate countdowns for singles and albums – an endorsement unthinkable even a few short years ago.

The move was, in fact, made to coincide with April’s Record Store Day, an event that originated in the US in 2007 but migrated to the UK a year later. Held on the third Saturday in April to celebrate the existence of independent record stores, it is currently run by the Entertainment Retailers Association.

The idea is that each of the country’s 220 participating shops, often run by the die-hard vinyl enthusiasts who have been at the forefront of fuelling the revival, throws a party and may even be graced with the presence of artists making special appearances or undertaking performances. They are also sent a number of records specially pressed for the occasion.

Independent record shop
Independent record shop

But Record Store Day is not without its critics. Some accuse the major labels of hijacking it, while others complain it is aimed more at record collectors than your average punter – a claim backed up by the fact that an awful lot of the limited releases seem to end up being sold online at jacked-up prices.

Anyway, no matter what the truth of it, it seems that, unlike their vinyl cousins, more modern formats, counter-intuitively, are somewhat in decline. For instance, sales of CDs dropped 6.5% last year, while digital downloads fell by nearly 9%.

So just who is responsible for this surge in vinyl interest? Most pundits agree that it’s a mix. There are the youngsters and hipsters creating record collections from scratch. They buy everything from new releases to classic albums by iconic performers in order to understand the influences on current music.

Then there are the older ones who are genuinely amazed and delighted to see vinyl returning and so dig out their old record players from the loft and continue where they left off 20 years ago.

But there are also others who, like me, bought into the whole experience first time round and are now dining out on the nostalgia of it all. On the pleasure of going into an (ideally) dusty record shop, admiring the artwork on the cover, reading the lyrics on the inside and feeling the physical satisfaction of holding something real. Because no matter how you try, you can’t download that.

British industry, employment, transport

British railways: The march of the machines

When I was a kid, I always loved a nice jaunt from my then home-town of Durham in the North East of England to nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne by train.

Although only a short 20-minute journey away, it was one filled with anticipation and excitement as it always preceded an adventure of some kind in the big city. And no matter how many times I passed it, it always gave me a thrill to see the iconic Tyne Bridge, which was built by the same guys from Middlesbrough as the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and to a very similar design – essentially that of Hell Gate Bridge in New York City on which they were both modelled.

 

Tyne Bridge
Tyne Bridge

After living in London and the South East and undertaking hellish commutes and other assorted nightmare trips for years though, I can quite honestly say that the novelty of train travel has quite worn off. But that doesn’t mean to say that I’m not interested in what happens to the railways, which, even in this age of the autocratic automobile, remain an important means of getting both people and goods around the country in a relatively environmentally-friendly way.

So it was with some curiosity that I learned from my dad, who knows about such things, of a huge change going on in how our railways are managed and run. In what is being billed as the biggest shift since steam trains were abolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Network Rail, the entity responsible for looking after the UK’s rail infrastructure, is going to centralise and automate the country’s signalling operations, axing thousands of jobs and saving millions of pounds in the process.

The move will result in more than 800 Victorian-era and still surprisingly mechanical, trackside signal boxes – 89 of which have listed status in England alone – being consolidated into 12 modern-day, high tech Rail Operating Centres (ROC) in places as far-flung as Cardiff, York, Edinburgh and Romford by 2029.

The move forms part of Network Rail’s so-called National Operating Strategy, which is intended to try and improve both the capacity and performance of our railways while at the same time cutting the costs of running them – by an estimated £1.6 billion, in fact, once the Strategy is fully implemented and which one can only vainly hope will be translated into cheaper ticket prices.

But according to Michael Rhodes, author of “Resignalling Britain”, a recent supplement from Mortons Media Group, which publishes the Railway Magazine, it is these very hopes of cost reduction that are actually top of the agenda rather than any real desire to enhance the passenger experience by making things run more smoothly.

And the easiest way to achieve such goals, of course, is for Network Rail to try and automate all of its many troubles away. Which in this instance means introducing a European Railway Traffic Management System based on two components.

Impact of automisation

The first is a European Train Control System (ETCS), which will enable each vehicle to know exactly where it is on the network and to send that data back to its local ROC on a continuous basis. The ETCS will also enable in-cab signalling – and it is this particular little innovation that will make trackside signal boxes surplus to requirements.

All of this information will then be fed into a new Traffic Management System, which will help operators both optimise network capacity and the movement of trains around that network, particularly if trouble strikes anywhere. The aim here is to minimise delays by an anticipated 20% and improve the accuracy of passenger information at the same time.

“It is this Traffic Management System that looks certain to bring the biggest savings,” Rhodes says. “As train operating companies levy heavy penalties for delays, Network Rail can potentially reduce these fines substantially using TMS.”

But as ever with these things, there will be human casualties as part of the shift too, with the number of signalmen employed across the UK likely to fall from 5,000 to 500 over the coming years.

As Rhodes points out, “the driving force behind the ROC strategy is, of course, the savings on salaries”, otherwise known as cutting operational expenditure. He estimates that if 4,500 jobs with an average salary of £30,000 a year are axed, it adds up to a substantial “potential saving of £135 million per annum”.

Other hefty savings will also emerge from no longer having to repair and renovate ageing signal boxes, which when taken together with staff wage bills had become an unwanted expense amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

Signal box
Signal box

But the move in more human terms will, sadly, lead to the disappearance of a way of life that goes back over 100 years along with its traditional paraphernalia of manual crossing gates, paraffin lamps in the signals and such like – a heritage that many who grew up loving the railways will feel an inevitable nostalgia for.

On the other hand, confirmed materialists may be wondering just what all of the fuss is about – why worry about a few thousand jobs going over the next few decades when one in six UK steel workers are losing their livelihoods now and the demise of the British steel industry is widely feared to be imminent?

The rise of AI

But the move is an interesting one, not least for what it points to in terms of future employment trends. According to a report by Oxford University and management consultancy Deloitte, a massive 35% of existing UK jobs will be wiped over the next two decades due to computerisation and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)-based machines.

AI is a particularly clever kind of software, often referred to as a robot, that can learn what to do based on patterns found in data – in a similar way that a person might learn to play music by ear. So it can be trained to provide particular responses based on the information that it reads – for example, it could be programmed to monitor and deduce whether you are likely to have a heart attack by studying your vital signs over a given period of time.

This means that in some areas, AI-based systems are simply more effective and efficient – and cheaper, of course – at performing labour-intensive, mundane admin tasks than humans. Such activities might include sifting through CVs based on pre-defined parameters for recruitment purposes, or even answering call centre queries and advising remote workers in the field – as is the case with an avatar called Amelia who is currently being trialled at a handful of big corporations such as NTT Group, Shell Oil and Accenture.

 

Robot
Robot

But the implication of all this is that, in the same way that computer automation did for lots of blue-collar jobs in the past, so AI-based automation will hammer white-collar employment.

Some commentators have even claimed that the technology will spark off another Industrial Revolution, with all of the dislocation and social upheaval that this implies.

But others are more sanguine. They believe that AI systems will simply supplant particular roles and tasks that are widespread today, with low-skilled workers, as ever, bearing the brunt.

On the bright side though, other previously unthought-of, higher skilled jobs will inevitably emerge from the ashes to save at least some people’s day. Who would have thought such positions as digital marketer or data scientist would have existed only a few years ago, for example?

And so the march of progress continues, it seems. Which is fine – as long as we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of course.