A stoop stones story

Ok so what’s so interesting about the two pictures below? Just a couple of stones and a pretty young Nepali girl? What’s the story?

One cold January morning five years ago I remember carrying the large stoop stone on the left of the picture up the bank at The Larches with four other friends to where we planned to erect it beside the breakfast terrace. I had found it in a neighbouring farmer’s field and the owner kindly allowed me to take it for our garden.

It fascinated me because of its age and construction. Made of a huge piece of Lakeland slate, it weighed well over 2 cwt and had six beautifully crafted square holes. This stoop stone, one of a pair, was designed – in the days before hinged gates – for holding cattle in enclosed fields and keeping other animals out. It was probably 200 to 300 years old. It became evident from my research that similar ones could be found in Cumbria, but otherwise they were not widely known or found.

The stoop stone system allows a farmer to place bars in the holes at either side of the opening and remove them again when access was required. One of the stoop stones has square holes to prevent rotation of the pole and the other has round ones to facilitate opening and shutting of the gateway.

I had definitely not thought that this kind of stoop stone gate was found outside the UK, until last month, when I walked through a narrow cobbled pathway in a small village in Nepal near Pokhara. On the track that was leading up towards the Annapurna Sanctuary I was approached by this young girl, who was happy to be photographed beside this lovely old three holed stoop stone.

Is this an example of quite independent technological development in two different countries, or adoption of a practice as a result of travellers or others spreading information and promoting the idea? If you can tell me of other countries, where you’ve seen similar old stoop stones, I’d be really interested! Better still, send me a photo of it!

Dumping solar panels

We were invited over last May by our friend Thomas for a long weekend with his family in the Black Forest area of southern Germany. As we drove around the rolling countryside and woodland, I was surprised by the number of houses, with roofs covered with solar panels – see photo below. Green energy was really taking off. Why couldn’t we do the same in the UK?

He explained Germany had got into production of photo voltaic cells for the panels at an early stage. As a result a number of companies had started producing the panels and generating new jobs in the area.

It was great for the German economy, but the good news had been quickly followed by the bad news. Chinese companies began ‘dumping’ panels at such low prices that local companies couldn’t compete and collapsed. It was alleged the price of the Chinese panels was the result of large subventions from local and provincial Government.

Last weekend a story In the New York Times International (28 July 2013), “Europe and China agree to settle solar panel fight” provides a follow up. The EU trade commissioner reported that a deal had been done with the Chinese to settle for a minimum panel price of €0.56 for every deliverable watt; and that as a consequence no tariffs would be charged on Chinese panels.

It sounded OK til the EU manufacturers angrily pointed out that this was the same as the ‘dumping’ price of the panels now being sold by the Chinese. They promised to sue in the courts.

In the US meanwhile tariffs have already been slapped on the import of ‘dumped’ Chinese panels; and China has retaliated by announcing plans to put on 50% tariffs on polysilicon from the US and South Korea, from which the panels are made.

It’s clear that the Chinese have offered substantial incentives for solar panel production, including the provision of huge loans from state owned banks. As a result their production costs are a quarter of what they were five years ago and the industry represents over 6% of all Chinese exports to Europe.

It’s clear too that a solution is needed, but hammering out compromises on environmental and trade issues is tough work. Retaliatory tariffs won’t help the US, the EU or China. Who’s betting on how this will end?

USA and green targets

For months there’s been accumulating evidence that targets suggested in Copenhagen in 2009 for CO2 emissions and energy diversification are being quietly sidelined by Governments and companies alike.

With the recession hitting economies across the world, the focus in Europe has shifted to reducing debt levels and painful cutbacks in public services. With lay-offs common and unemployment at high levels, green activists are having a hard time to make their voices heard.

Arriving in the USA last week to meet our new grandson in Seattle, we had little confidence that things would look that much different here.

But we were in for some surprises. The first came on Day 1 with a knock on the front door. Two young men from Environment Washington were there to seek support for a campaign to get a vulnerable area of the Cascade mountains incorporated into two adjoining national parks; and show Jim McDermott, local member of the US House of Representatives the strength of local support.

“Why two of you?”, I asked. “That’s an easy one”, said Max, who had already persuaded me to join the campaign with a $15 contribution. “We have got 43 new graduate volunteers out on the streets this morning and I’m showing one of them, Ryan how we do the canvassing. You’ve been a great catch!”

Environment Washington is a NGO running local campaigns on environmental issues, and is affiliated to Environment America. I was impressed by the numbers involved and the time they were spending on door knocking to gain support for local environmental issues. Think global, act local!

But the next thing that got my attention just after that knock on the door, was a trailer appearing on the front page of the NYT (20 April 2013). President Obama was planning an announcement shortly of new regulations to limit carbon dioxide omissions from existing and future power plants across the country – potentially a highly significant move.

This afternoon the NYT report of his speech at Georgetown University earlier today (June 25th) came through on the web. Stating that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction”, the President made clear his view that the effect of human activity on climate change was beyond doubt.

Measures to limit greenhouse gases from power plants will be put in place as well as federal monies spent to promote renewable energy supplies and support areas damaged by the new weather conditions. The actions will be introduced via executive orders to avoid spoiling action in a divided Congress.

The details have still to be worked out and opposition is certain, but this is a bold and welcome move, which has been widely supported. Five experts including Al Gore and Christiana Figueres, executive director of the UN’s climate secretariat have written in The Guardian 25 June in strong support.

We must hope that Obama can push this one through. If he can, this may become the issue for which he is best remembered when he leaves office at the end of his second term. More details and comment on the speech can be found on the Environment America website.

Our Whinlatter neighbours

Not everyone will think that a meeting of the local parish Council here in Thornthwaite is the best way to spend an evening. But this month’s one showed how wrong you can be!

It turned out to be a fascinating opportunity for finding out what our neighbour, The Forestry Commission (FC) is up to in the huge Whinlatter Forest, which lies immediately behind The Larches. It’s an important driver of the local economy, particularly since the cycle trails were opened up.

Adrian Jones, FC manager for the North West had been invited to the meeting to give residents a glimpse of the issues affecting the FC and how they are responding to financial and other pressures.

In February 2011 we wrote about the forestry policy climb down, which resulted in the FC staying in public ownership after a massive campaign against the Government’s privatisation plans. The policy U-turn however was accompanied by tighter controls and a reduction of Government monies.

The FC now has to generate more funding from selling its services and at the same time has had to reduce staffing levels. Although 156,000 visitors came to the forest last year and there’s pressure to retain facilities, “our business is shrinking all the time”, according to Jones.

He’s worried too that the FC could go the same way as the Waterways, which have been hived off as a separate charity, which receives no Government grant and has to make all its money.

Despite these problems, the forest still has to be managed. One good development for the FC has come from the use of timber as fuel for generating electricity. Until recently it often cost more to cut trees than could be obtained from selling them for timber.

Now it has become worthwhile to thin out plantations and thus create the space and light to grow commercially attractive full size trees.

Expansion of weekend activities at the Visitor Centre would cause more traffic congestion problems in Braithwaite, so the emphasis now is primarily on developments at the week time for older people and families with children.

The FC want to build a new two metres wide “Green Trail” for families and will shortly be making a planning application for two big Zip Wires 500 metres and 450 metres in length.

The talk ended with some good news for Thornthwaite and Seldom Seen. For some time there’s been discussion about developing a new community based hydro-electric scheme using the water from Comb Beck. The picture opposite shows us after a walk up Comb Beck from Seldom Seen to visit the old dam, built in the 1930s for an early hydro-electric scheme for Thornthwaite.

A major issue in such schemes is getting the support of all the riparian land holders. In our case there’s only one, the Forestry Commission; and Adrian Jones is happy to explore this with the village and for the FC to be involved in the scheme. Watch this space for more news.

Amazon’s reach and waste

We are always glad to have suggestions for improvements at the Larches and rapidly decided we needed to get two new knives – a bread knife and cook’s knife – when our New Year guests commented about the existing ones.

Antique? Well not quite but old, pre stainless steel certainly and quick to rust, if not dried after use.

But the decision made us also think about how best to store all the knives for easy retrieval. So this last Sunday after a lunch time discussion of alternatives, we decided on a magnetic knife holder.

They work like magic. I’d always fancied one but we’d never had the right space for it.

So log on to Amazon – yes we could have one and at 3.32 pm an email confirmed the 40 cms long rack had been dispatched with free next day delivery.

As promised, the van drew up a little after 2.00 pm on Monday and the parcel was handed over and signed off.

Amazon had got the rack selected, packed and delivered to a country area in under 24 hours from a Sunday start. Impressive.

No complaints there. This is online shopping at its best and saved me a lot of time.

But the box (opposite) was a different matter!

Slitting it open I wondered first if there was anything there. Loads of brown scrumpled up paper tumbled out, but no sign of the rack.

Finally I found it at the bottom, well packed in its own box. It measured 2 x 5 x 47 cms, so it didn’t take long to work out the Amazon delivery box (11 x 35 x 55 cms) would have held easily 34 of the racks – if I had wanted that many!

And that scrumpled up paper? On inspection it turned into a long seamless sausage-like creation, which flattened out into one continuous length of paper over five metres long by 38 cms wide.

For just one knife rack they had needed, because of the over large box, a length of packing paper that stretched from the eaves of the cottage to the flower bed – as you can see in the photo at the top of the page.

I’m a fan of online shopping because it can save on ‘travel to search’ time and costs. But the calculations from this example about use of resources are pretty scary. Just a hundred similar Amazon deliveries would use up 500 metres of the packing paper, which would either be thrown away or recycled at best. How many trees do you need for this and for the over large packaging?

The knives look great now and I had them installed on the new rack by 3.30 pm on Monday. That’s good going – a 24 hour turn round for job completion is fast. But isn’t it time Amazon looked at its wasteful packaging policies? No gold stars here for good environmental practice.