Ways of seeing

Once regarded as our Silicon Valley, the area was just scrubby heathland 200 years ago with a few rabbits & coal pits on the hillside and several workshops on the river bank (See oil painting below of West Newcastle c 1838 looking across the Tyne. A line of smoke shows the passage through Benwell of an early steam train, returning to Newcastle from Carlisle.)

Yet 70 years later the West End of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, fueled by coal mining had become the foremost engineering centre in the world with a population of 70,000. It kick-started the railway age, and produced inventions in hydraulic lifting, bridges, rifling & armaments, electric lighting and coal mining technology. Those who controlled these new industries made, said one commentator, “riches beyond the dreams of avarice”.

Walk now along the Scotswood Road beside the Tyne and you’ll find plenty of unemployed there but few signs of the area’s unique role in powering the world’s Industrial Revolution.

I’ve been reminded of all this just recently, firstly through reading Eric Schmidt’s comments in his MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh last week. Google’s CEO there contrasted the UK’s technophobic attitudes today with the past; and argued that our unwillingness to promote education in science and technology was hindering our capacity to create an economy for the digital age.

The second reminder came when we crossed the Pennines two weeks ago into Northumberland, Tyneside’s hinterland, to visit some of its finest houses & countryside.

Years ago I researched the history of the area (The Making of a Ruling Class: Two Centuries of Capital Development on Tyneside. Benwell Community Project. 1978) and showed the wealth accumulated by a handful of families from coal extraction and engineering. Significant amounts of this were invested in huge landholdings, mansions and castles in Northumberland and the Tyne Valley.

Today there’s little recognition of this process of capital flows. Cragside near Rothbury (See photo opposite), a mansion now owned by the National Trust, is a case in point. It was built in the 1870s by the armaments manufacturer, Lord Armstrong, whose huge factories and shipyards adjoined the Tyne in Newcastle’s West End. It’s fascinating for its use of technologies for the home.

It was the first house in the country to be fitted with electric lighting; and Armstrong is celebrated there for his range of inventions. But there is no mention of the lives and skills of the thousands of workers who created his wealth. I hope the National Trust takes note.

We had a welcome contrast at Longhirst near Morpeth where we stayed. This Georgian mansion and 4,000 acres were bought in 1887 by Baron Joicey, whose family had an engineering company in West Newcastle and were the largest coal owners in the north east coalfields.

Used as a college in the 1970s and now as a hotel and conference centre, Longhirst has a beautiful embroidered banner (See photo opposite) with a colliery’s winding gear towering above the mansion. At the bottom of this riveting image are two pitmen bent horizontal, straining every muscle to move the coal trucks down the track. Check it out – it’s worth the visit from Cumbria!

Broadband cash for Cumbria

Access to the web and internet services has dramatically changed over the last decade in the UK. From 15.4 million internet users representing 26% of the population in 2000, ITU figures show that by 2010 that figure had surged to 51.4 million (82%).

Despite this there have remained parts of the country where internet connectivity has been slow or non-existent. The good news last week is that Cumbria. one of the most disadvantaged areas is to gain from the Government’s plan to provide additional funds for bringing broadband Internet services to rural areas.

From a total pot of £353 million for England and Scotland, €17 million has been allocated for improving access in the most remote parts of the county.

Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt said the investment would ensure 90% of the hardest to reach areas would now be covered (Daily Telegraph 16 August 2011).

This will be excellent for Cumbria, opening up more opportunities for people to engage in the digital economy and to gain the benefit of Internet based public services. No longer the long frustrating delays as you wait for a page to download to your PC!

The Keswick Reminder (18 August 2011) points out there has been a consistent campaign for a better broadband service in the county over recent years.

We are fortunate at The Larches in already having good Internet access because of proximity to Keswick’s main telephone exchange. Visitors to the cottage can use our wifi network in most of the rooms.

Welcome a new smaller world

I’ve always been interested in technology and the uses that technology is put to. Just 20 years ago this month two events occurred which have led to far reaching impacts on how we interact with each other and learn about the world.

I knew nothing about the first at the time, but it has brought dramatic change to all our lives. Tim Berners Lee, working at CERN, published his paper on the creation of the world wide web on 6th August 1991.

It was an invention that has rapidly revolutionised the way we communicate and transformed the jobs and sectors we work in – retail, travel, education, government, newspapers to name a few. The ramifications of this invention still continue.

My second happening in August 1991 was a conversation I had with our daughter Chloe on her return from a British Schools Expedition crossing Iceland’s 80 mile wide Vatnajokull glacier. She  introduced me to the concept and practice of the GPS for determining your position on planet Earth and explained that they had needed a large sledge to hump their heavy GPS device across the snow.

Twelve years later as I crossed the Atlantic to do some research on technology adoption in community education, I found a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review by Sherry Turkle of MIT. She had interviewed a young man who carried with him 24/7 a web connected mobile computer. “I feel invincible, sociable, better prepared” he told her. “I am naked without it. With it I am a better person.”

At the time it sounded almost like science fiction, but fast forward to 2011 and I find (Observer, 31 July, “Google plays catch up with Facebook“) Ben Gomes, Google’s head of the social navigation of search making the following comments about his seeing Kafka’s Metamorphosis: ” .. I took away more because the combination of me plus the Internet made me seem like someone, who in the past would have been regarded as an expert. I became the kind of person I would previously have looked up to.”

This is now normalcy. Smartphones bring information at the touch of a screen and with their inbuilt GPS can tell you the nearest pub or dentist in any neighbourhood or give you room details as you walk by a house for sale.

Even your pocket camera can record your ‘lat’ and ‘long’ on a photo; and this month we’ve been able with iPhone’s Facetime software to watch in real time (see below) a grandson’s first week 3,500 miles away in the USA. Welcome to a new smaller world!

Blog’s first century

We set out in June 2009 to produce a blog posting for The Larches’ website every week or so. We reached our first century of blogs on 12th July, so it’s time for a bit of statistics; and for letting our readers know what we know about them!

Using Google Analytics we’ve looked at the period 1st June 2009 to 2nd August 2011. We have excluded just three days in early May of this year, when we received a hostile attack on the site from hackers and when almost 1600 automated visits were recorded, with hundreds of spam comments.

For this 26 months’ period we have had over 2,250 unique visitors, who have made almost 4,600 visits and had over 15,000 page views of the site and blogs.

Not surprisingly the vast majority of visitors were from the UK with 3648 visits. The USA was next with 488 followed by Canada 55 and Brazil 43. It’s certainly not in the top echelons of websites but nevertheless has been useful and read by a sizeable community, including people staying at the cottage.

What have we written about? We have eleven blog categories and below are listed the numbers in each category. As any one blog can be categorized under more than one heading, the totals in the list naturally exceed 100.

  • Environment 57
  • The Larches 48
  • Local news 40
  • Walking and fells 26
  • International 22
  • Wildlife 18
  • Seasons 15
  • Belvederes 12
  • Recycling 12
  • Technology 9
  • Culture 6

We have provided details of what is going on at The Larches and locally and have linked this to wider issues affecting the environment, walking, wildlife and the seasons. We have wanted also to give an international perspective. We’d love to know what you think about the balance of subjects covered; and whether there are other areas we need to include or where more coverage would be welcome.

We’ve been delighted to receive pictures, photos and comments from visitors. Many thanks to these contributors. For this special century celebration blog why not tell us your favourite blog posting from The Larches by just clicking in the “Comments” (or “No Comments”) section below? Our blog and photos on the November 2009 floods probably has received the most hits.