Changing Times

Walk round the centre of one of our big cities these days, and if you haven’t been there for a year or two, you’re sure of a surprise.

Take Manchester, Cumbria’s nearest big city. Whole urban areas there have been prized open, smashed and then rebuilt. The Spinning Fields area running down to the River Irwell has now risen phoenix like as a glitzy new office and shopping zone, with adjacent Law Courts.

Near Victoria Station, the old Coop Century Building has been demolished and replaced by a futuristic gherkin shaped structure below Red Bank; and on Oxford Road the demolition of the BBC site has left a huge gaping hole as the broadcaster has moved to Salford and ‘Media City’ (See photo of the author opposite) on the site of the old Manchester Ship Canal docks.

I was reflecting on this just recently as I found a watercolour (below) my sister, Penny had done of The Larches from the Ravine Road, looking NE across the Seldom Seen hamlet with Skiddaw in the background. Painted exactly 25 years ago, the scene is now scarcely changed.

Of course rural areas don’t need the infrastructure and capital investment of cities with large populations, but it would be wrong to think nothing is happening to the economy of rural areas

While Seldom Seen and Thornthwaite have not physically changed all that much, the use made of buildings has altered. The Swan local pub beside Powter How has been turned into apartments, as have Thornthwaite Grange and Ladstocks, along the lane south from The Larches.

Sheep farming subsidies are being reduced and Increasingly in Cumbria, farming alone does not provide a living for a family. Commonly people have to hold down two jobs and offer B&B to make ends meet.

Looked at In the longer term it’s possible to see even bigger changes. Children no longer attend the School House opposite us and the Old Sawmill was long ago turned into six separate dwellings. A 1938 Kelly’s Directory of Cumberland shows too a much more stratified society 75 years ago, with a local land owning gentry and a ‘lord of the manor’, together with mining, more varied local industry and more diverse occupations.

The cobbler has gone now as has the miner, the bleacher, the dairyman, the game keeper and the mole catcher. Despite the size of our local Whinlatter forest, even the forester is becoming an endangered occupation, as mechanisation and funding cuts reduce regular full time jobs. The one clear area of growth has been that of teleworkers, who can use the internet to exchange digital material with colleagues or clients anywhere in the world. What will things look like in another 25 years time?

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?

Harnessing waterpower

With heavy storms and 6 cms of rain predicted, you’re most likely this weekend to have been thinking of flooded towns, marooned houses and spoilt travel plans. Essential for life, water can also of course destroy. Torrential rivers, tsunamis, melting icebergs and rising sea levels pose huge problems and threaten lives.

But these last two weeks I’ve been intrigued by two apparently unconnected examples of how the power of water has been harnessed to improve living conditions, grow produce or promote new industries.

The Romans were famous for their aqueducts, which were illustrated in Vitruvius’ treatise De Architectura, the only surviving book on Greco-Roman building techniques. Written between 30 – 20 BC, it was rediscovered in 1414 by the Florentine, Poggio Bracciolini; and was discussed recently in Melvyn Bragg’s In our time Radio programme (15 March 2012).

On a walking holiday in southern Turkey this month, we climbed on the hills above Patara, an important Lycian seaport c 120 BC in Roman times and had the opportunity to explore a huge aqueduct there, made up of hundreds of massive precisely shaped square stone blocks. (See top photo)

Their ‘cuff and sleeve’ design for each stone, which involved the male end of the first stone entering snugly into the female cuff end of the second stone and so on down the chain, enabled the Romans to transport via a syphon system over undulating land, huge quantities of water from the hills down to the port. (See second photo)

The surprise came this last week while I was doing some clearing at the top of the garden at The Larches.

Just over the wire fence behind the seat on the Buena Vista crag, I noticed a rounded moss covered shape on the ground.

Investigating further with a spade and brush, I discovered within a few minutes two lengths of cast iron pipe. Each one was 12½ feet by 12 inches diameter, with virtually the same cuff and sleeve design we had seen in Turkey.

I had known there had been been a pipe line from the old dam at the top of Comb Beck from sections I had seen further down the valley. This had been used for the Thornthwaite Lead Company’s mine at the bottom of the road and had been built in 1908.

Later in the 1930s when the mine was closed, the water pipe was used to power a small hydro-electric scheme for people living in Seldom Seen.

It’s fascinating to think that technologies developed by the Romans almost two millennia earlier were being used a century ago to develop new industries here in Cumbria on our doorstep.

Laptops for Nepali schools

Seven years ago we went trekking with our son Barney and daughter Chloe through the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunaan, China. We marvelled at how as travellers we were able to communicate with the outside world.

The photo below shows Barney with his Blackberry high above the mighty Yangtze River, conferencing ‘on the hoof’ with colleagues in Beijing. The photo opposite of all our mobile communication devices was taken at the Halfway Cafe in the gorge and features in my book ‘Digital Nations in the Making‘, published in 2006, on the uses of technology with adult learners.

Yesterday provided an exciting follow up to all this, as we met up with Chloe and her partner Henry at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. She had stopped over in London on her way from Seattle to Katmandhu in Nepal, where she plans to set up a technology project with an initial three primary schools.

Fortunately Barney has helped here by arranging for Orbitz Worldwide (NYSE:OWW), the online travel company in Chicago where he works, to donate ten reconditioned Thinkpad laptops. These are ideal for piloting this learning through technology scheme in the high mountains of Helambu.

We ourselves had already transported five of these laptops across from the US two weeks ago and Chloe brought a further five with her.

The Nepali partners in the project will include two of Chloe’s students whom she taught in 1993 at the village school in Shermathang (3,000 m). They now work for local NGOs there and are keen to explore with the schools and children the environmental and sustainability issues which affect upland communities in the Himalayas. The laptops provided by Orbitz Worldwide will be of particular help for the teachers.

The photo above shows Chloe yesterday with her iPad, displaying a picture she had taken 19 years ago of a young girl at the school, sowing seeds brought from the UK. It will be useful as an information resource as they visit the different schools.

There’s plenty to organise for the project like ensuring the children carry out a census in each area and checking that each of the schools has reliable electricity. Internet connectivity is another hurdle to overcome – a problem familiar for adult education bodies in the UK even now.

The challenges facing the project are considerable which is why the New York based Explorers Club – where Chloe is one of the youngest members – has agreed to loan one of its coveted flags for the expedition.

“Does everyone get one”, I asked her. “Oh no”, she replied casually, “you have to put up a good case. Best known perhaps is the flag, which Neil Armstrong took to the moon. He’s one of our members you know.”

The photo opposite shows Chloe and Henry displaying the flag at the Wellcome Collection. If you are interested in finding out more, making a donation for the project or helping in some other way, drop me a note at

Our thanks to the Wellcome Collection and staff for their help and provision of space for us to meet and plan arrangements for the project.

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.