Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Tree

Northfield Ecocentre in their Sustainable Christmas Tips
recommends getting a real Christmas tree with roots. We have been doing this successfully for well over ten years. We have just finished decorating the tree shown above. The tree spends the rest of the year in a big plant pot in the garden and is then lifted in just before Christmas each year. We have the decorated tree in the conservatory so that it does not get too hot and shed its leaves. Our particular tree started smaller but has grown a bit each year.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Climate Change

The last few weeks have brought out the sceptics about climate change. I suppose it is the build up to the Copenhagen talks that has made them realise that there is some publicity available for outlandish statements.

I wonder where all these people have been living for the last few years or is it just me that is showing my age.

When my children were young we bought two sledges because each year it was fun to go to the hill local park. Before they were teenagers we found we never got the sledges out of the loft as the snow was not thick enough! That was only twenty years ago. About the same time every year I would anticipate waking up at least a couple of times in the morning and find the snow too thick to even try and get to work. Only ten years later it was never a problem.

I keep some notes about when my trees and plants first flower or bear fruit. Over the years this has steadily been getting earlier. There is an occasional year which bucks the trend but the warmer weather is clearly there in my records.

Yes none of the above stand close scientific scrutiny but it convinces me that there is something happening. Surely all the sceptics can see the changes as well or do they not look out the window?

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Wave

Occasionally there is an event that attracts people’s attention. The one that is coming soon is “The Wave”. This is an event that is happening in London on December 5th.
Activists from all over UK are coming together to show that they are concerned about Climate Change and want our elected leaders to do something about it.
Ahead of the crucial UN climate summit in Copenhagen, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life will flow through the streets of London to demonstrate their support for a safe climate future for all.
Part of a global series of public actions, The Wave will call on world leaders to take urgent action to secure a fair international deal to stop global warming exceeding the danger threshold of 2 degrees C.
The Wave, organised by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, will show mass support by people from all backgrounds for a better, low carbon future for the UK and the world.
We want the UK Government to show leadership at Copenhagen. We want them to Protect the Poorest, Act Fair & Fast, and to Quit Dirty Coal now, to inspire the deal the world needs..
I will be at "The Wave” - the UK’s biggest ever demonstration in support of action on climate change so far. There are buses going from all round Birmingham.
Hope to see you there.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Made in Birmingham

Esther Boyd describes in her Birmingham Mail – Lighter Footprints Blog visiting the Ecohouse in Balsall Heath last Saturday. I also went during the day but was impressed with some different issues.
It is a great achievement to build a house that conforms to Sustainable Homes Code 6. It is even more of an achievement to incorporate an existing Victorian house into the design. John Christopher the architect and owner of the house described the effort he had put in to achieve the standard. What we have to remember is that by 2016 this house has not to be the exception but the norm. Every new house will have to achieve this standard.
The house is very much a building that will be appreciated by architects both for its layout and aesthetics but it was not that which impressed me. What I thought was especially special was the way materials had been chosen. Some were recycled, some were local but all had a low embedded energy content. For instance the floors were made of clay from the site instead of using cement that uses a lot of energy to produce. A lot of care had gone into each detail but I was left wondering what will happen when houses to Sustainability Homes Code 6 have to be mass produced.

A great effort and one that should put Birmingham on the Eco-homes map.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Growth or Degrowth?

The forthcoming Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December is encouraging many people to put forward their suggestions and comments. These include Nick Stern who was one of the first to write about the economics of Climate Change. He has now said that ” the current economic depression gives the world a unique, unrepeatable opportunity to tackle climate change and poverty.”
Oliver Tickell in the Guardian follows this up with “one thing we do not need is an early recovery which raises demand for fossil energy, creating new spikes in the price of oil, gas and coal, so sowing the seeds of its own destruction. For the high price of fossil fuels was surely one of the triggers that created this global depression in the first place. That is why we need to to bring about huge investments in renewable energy technologies and the associated infrastructure
Not to forget energy efficiency and conservation: making our homes, offices, industries and transport systems more frugal in their energy demands. In this way when the recovery comes, we will have the clean, green energy to supply it, and lower demand to avoid pushing up fossil fuel prices. And in the meanwhile we will have created millions of jobs in the new green industries, civil engineering and construction, putting skilled but idle hands to productive use.”
All this may sound rather academic and you find yourself asking “What can I do?” Magazines and newspapers are full of adverts encouraging us to take advantage of offers about insulating our homes. At least we should each look to see if we have brought our own properties up to scratch. Also remember that this encourages employment in the local green industries.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


The colours in the leaves that have fallen off the trees is always a pleasure to see. To walk through leaves rustling under your feet is a memory that goes back to childhood. Its also amazing that the trees do it in the same order each year. The ash tree in my front garden is now clear of leaves but the one I can see through my back window still has almost all its leaves present. Its always that way round. What does vary is the date that it occurs. This year is almost exactly the same date as the last two years but about a week earlier than the few years before those.

We collect all our leaves up and put them in plastic bags so that they will rot down into compost that we can use on the soil another year. However we are not the only ones who collect leaves. Here in Birmingham there is a company who collects leaves from parks etc and compresses them into logs that can be burnt on an open grate. They do this in conjunction with a number of local authorities in the area and are now selling them in some of the bigger DIY stores. To read more about them go to

If you have a clever use of leaves let us know and we will pass on the tip to others.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Apple Day

Today was not only the day we changed the clocks but it was also Apple Day. Changing the clocks seems to herald the start of the dark nights but Apple Day draws are attention to the fact that soon most of the fruit will have gone off our trees for another year.

What we often forget is the huge variety of apples that this country enjoys. There are hundreds of varieties. Some are ready to eat in August whilst others are still not quite ripe. There are eaters and there are others that are much better cooked. I was reminded today that we used to have apples wrapped in pastry served with custard. Whatever happened to them as I have not had one for years nor have I heard of them for years.

Around Erdington they are plotting all the places that there are apple trees and are trying to identify all the varieties. Some are in peoples gardens others in allotments and even waste ground. Lets hope they find some long lost variety that can be restablished.

If you have to buy apples during the coming months, look at the variety and try and find out a bit more about it. Is it grown in this country? Is it grown in the Midlands? Could it even have been grown in Birmingham? Remember the more local it is the less carbon used to get it to you.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Last Sunday I woke up realising something was different. It took me a little while to realise what it was. There was no traffic noise. We can normally just hear the almost continuous traffic on Pershore Road. It is one of those things you notice when it is not there.
The reason for the quietness was that all the roads around here had been closed for the half marathon.
The previous time I had had the same sensation was on September 11th 2001. I was in the States at the time. All aircraft were grounded for several days and again it was quiet strange looking up into the sky and seeing no vapour trails. The sky was suddenly perfectly blue and clear.
Both of these instances have shown me how much we take pollution for granted whether it is noise or just vapour trails across the sky.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Simple advice

It is good that everyone is handing out advice on saving energy now that the cooler weather is beginning to show up. The Mail has just featured two people giving such advice including our own Luke from the Northfield Ecocentre.
However it is the simple things we must do first in order to keep warm and also save energy and money.
· Draw the curtains as soon as it gets dark. Tuck them behind the radiators.
· Ensure the curtains are lined.
· Stop the draughts.
· Make sure the hot water tank is insulated and set at a temperature that is not too high.
· Put foil behind the radiators to reflect heat back into the room.
· Turn heat off in rooms that are unused.
· Set the heating timer so it is only on when you need heat. There is no point heating the house when you are out or snug in bed.
· Put on a sweater rather than turning the heat up.

The list above is not exhaustive so add your own in the comments below and I will add them to the list.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Getting Colder

We have all noticed the nights drawing in and getting cooler. It will be soon time to be tempted to put the central heating back on. However do you really know how much it takes to keep you warm? If you do not know how much energy you are using how can you judge whether you are making a saving. The Campaign 10:10 is asking everyone to reduce their consumption by 10% by 2010.

Now is a good time to start trying to find out how much you energy you are using. There are two key things you need to do. Read your electric meter and then read your gas meter. The electric meter reads in kilowatt-hours but the gas one probably reads in cubic feet or cubic meters. This means that the two readings are not comparable in energy terms. To convert cubic feet of gas to kilowatt-hours multiply by 31.3 or if it is in cubic feet multiply by 11.12 if it is in cubic feet.

I suggest you then take readings about every fortnight. To see how you are progressing it is easiest to convert the readings to KWH per day. You will find, as the winter gets colder the figure gets higher and then starts reducing in the spring. If you keep this up then next year you may be able to see whether you have made a reduction. Perhaps you can find a way of drawing a graph of your usage. At the Ecocentre we keep records of our electricity, solar panel, and heat pump performance. You can see them here.

If you can borrow an energy meter from somebody then you can compare electricity use day by day or even minute by minute. They display the energy you are using and it changes as appliances go off and on. Some energy companies give them away as special offers or they can also be bought.

Next time I will make some suggestions for actions that can help save home energy.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Food for Thought

I have just been reading that Michelle Obama is concerned that she cannot get local food around the White House. Having lived on takeaways whilst campaigning she is keen to have good local food introduced into their kitchens. Perhaps the next thing is a Farmers Market in the White House grounds.
However around Northfield there is not quite the same problem as Tom Baker has found out. He lives in Cotteridge and is compiling a directory of locally produced food which is well worth a look at. Tom goes one better and instead of buying bread he bakes his own in an earth oven he has built for himself in the back garden. He is also very keen on cooking and is hoping to set up cookery classes to help ween people away from packaged precooked food.
Buying local and cutting down on packaging is one of the things we need to do to cut down on our carbon footprint and make us more self sufficient.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Local Food

Why do people buy fruit and vegetables from abroad when at this time of the year there is so much local produce available?
A walk in the countryside or even down an urban canal towpath will reveal backberries galore all waiting to be picked. Mixed with some local apple what is better with custard! For later in the winter some blackberry jam or jelly is reminder of the past summer.
A stroll round the market will reveal that most local produce are in abundance at present. Runner beans are dripping off the plants and courgettes and sweet corn are being sold by the bowlful. All are lovely cooked straight away but make ingredients for other things that keep. We have just made and stocked up with chutney because we had more rhubarb and victoria plums than we knew what to do with.
Bringing food in from faraway countries at this time of the year is producing carbon dioxide that we are trying to reduce so lets ask ourselves “is it really necessary” before we buy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ministers to act to reduce food waste?

It looks like the Love Food Hate Waste campaign is gaining support, with Ministers saying that supermarkets' buy-one-get-one-free offers should be scrapped and replaced with half price offers.

It is estimated that cutting out unnecessary wastage would be the equivalent to removing one fifth of traffic from the UK's roads.

It was only a few months ago that Birmingham City Council pledged their support to the Love Food Hate Waste campaign as a study by revealed that £10 billion pounds worth of food is being thrown away each year.

WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) state that we throw away one third of food we buy each year, roughly £420-£610 dependant on the household.

One of the reasons behind the readiness to throw unused food away is due to the lack of knowledge on the subject, as most people believe that food waste is a benign substance and that it just rots away in the landfill, so perhaps this move will bring the problem to the public’s attention.

Love Food Hate Waste also have their top ten tips on how to reduce food waste.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bottled Water

Have you heard that the town of Bundanoon in Australia has banned the sale of bottled water because of the concern of the environmental impact.

They had a public meeting to vote on the matter and 300 people turned up and only one person voted against the ban.

This follow on from Leeds University students who voted to ban bottled water at the end of last year During the academic year 2007/08, Leeds University Union sold 180,698 bottles, making water its top-selling product. Without those sales, the Union will forfeit £32,940 but they still felt it was worth doing.

Environmental activists argue tap water uses 300 times less energy to create and distribute than bottled water and produces much less waste.

Environment minister Phil Woolas joined in the criticisms of bottled water, arguing it was "daft" for Britons to consume six million litres of it when tap water is safe and cheap. "It borders on morally being unacceptable to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on bottled water when we have pure drinking water, when at the same time one of the crises that is facing the world is the supply of water,"

Bottled water is a comparatively modern thing. Twenty years ago it was a very small market. Perhaps we should all consider whether we really need to buy a new bottle. Could we not just fill up an existing one if we need to carry a bottle around with us.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ed Miliband in Birmingham

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was in Birmingham yesterday. In the speech that I heard, he made the following points.
· There is a large proportion of the UK population that are still to be convinced about why there is a fuss. He illustrated this with a short video of interviews taken at random with people in Birmingham yesterday.
· Action is urgently needed now but this is so that things will be OK in 30 years.
· We must stress the positive things that present actions will bring to enhance the quality of life. Eg Renewables will give energy security.
· The Green New Deal will bring job opportunities.
· In cutting down on carbon use it gives us an opportunity to redesign parts of our cities. Eg public transport and Combined heat and Power.
· We must accept that there will be costs.
· We must make the actions as fair as possible. Fuel poverty must be reduced.
· Every onshore wind farm is a battle with the planners and locals. New planning laws may improve this but if we want to survive we have to be more flexible.
· Low carbon economy can be a way out of recession especially for the manufacturing base of the West Midlands.
· He urged campaigners to keep the pressure on the politicians before Copenhagen. Copenhagen will be a struggle as other countries are not as progressive as the UK. He mentioned the tck tck campaign.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Know Your Food ?

At a recent Big Lunch event in one of the parks in Birmingham I was helping on a stall encouraging people to grow their own food. One of our activities aimed at children was a quiz naming fruit and vegetables.

For the vegetables we had a pea pod, a runner bean, an onion, a broad bean, a courgette and a beetroot.
The fruit was cherries, black currant, red currant, gooseberry and rhubarb.

We had numerous young people browse the stall from teenagers to just school age. The result was similar for most of them. They could name the pea and the cherry and virtually nothing else. Parents were a little better but not much. In some cases prompting parents were saying to children “ I give you those every day: you must know”.

How is it that we are so detached from our food that children do not recognise what they are eating? Is it because so few people grow, prepare and cook their own food these days?

The positive side of the event was people did want to know how they could grow their own and the workshop we helped sixty children to sow fun pots of cress and jars of sprouting seeds were very popular.

For those who do want to learn to grow, prepare and cook their own food there are teachers on School of Everything who will help you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Little Things Matter

We have an allotment so need freezer space to keep the surplus until it is needed.
In order to balance the space we have a fridge freezer for everyday use then another small stand alone freezer for when we need the overflow.

Last week I switched on the second freezer and started loading it up. Twenty-four hours later I could hear it still humming away and not seeming to be cutting out at all. I plugged in my energy meter to check this out and sure enough it was running all the time. Could the thermostat have gone wrong I thought? A temperature check showed it was not reaching its proper freezing point.

A further look round found it had been pushed back tight to the wall so the air could not circulate around the coil at the back. Adjusting it so there was room for the warm air to get out solved the problem.

The result of this was I halved the energy consumption by this small action.

I pass on this experience in the hope that others might check their fridges and freezers and be able to reduce their energy consumption and save carbon.

Monday, July 6, 2009

We are Changing

We don’t always notice when things change for the better. A few years ago those who suggested that reducing our need for plastic shopping bags were thought of as cranks.
I have just come back from staying in a small Cumbrian town where the use of plastic bags was obviously disapproved. Each shop we went in asked us if we really needed a bag and this included the chip shop. In most shop windows hessian/ jute bags were available as the alternative. Looking at the locals doing there shopping it was quite noticeable how many had these alternative bags. In the same town they had also taken to Fairtrade in a big way with many of the local shops displaying a Fairtrade logo. Driving into the town I noticed that the town sign had written on it “A Fairtrade Town”.
This only goes to show that things are changing if we only look. If the population of this one town can be so progressive then there is hope for all the others who are hesitating.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Think of the consequences of your West Midlands Safari Park trip

Like many Brummies are planning to this summer, I visited the West Midlands Safari Park a few weeks ago, but it was in order to see the activities that they had going on for World Environment Day in their own little World Environment Weekend. The event itself was praiseworthy; I saw children using recycled materials and asking questions about it, using a computer to calculate their carbon footprint and learning how to reduce it.

But I couldn’t help but feel that it is slightly hypocritical of the West Midlands Safari Park to promote such environmental care when I saw how many cars there were riding the four-mile route, many with half empty cars but all trips being wholly unnecessary and purely for entertainment. It’s not exactly a step forward for our carbon awareness, is it?

Since returning I have used one my University tutor’s new project Help Me Investigate, a website where people can ask for investigative journalists, to ask for help in calculating the West Midlands Safari Park’s carbon footprint.

As you can see by visiting here, we were not able to get very far! The Press Office refused to tell us how many people visited the park every year, claiming that they do not release this information to the public, which makes me wonder if it is because they are scared of people seeing how much damage the institution does to the environment?

They do have mini busses but when I enquired about them, they said that they do not run every day and that on the Saturday we went, it was running a scheduled three times. So only three times in a busy day did they push to get people out of their cars and into a larger vehicle to reduce the carbon emissions. Obviously it would be a lot better if it there was more of this opportunity and that they pushed for this alternative method by publicised the times of running. Maybe they could offer a discount as an incentive instead of charging more?

So, what I am saying to you is that if you happen to visit the West Midlands Safari Park, I hope that you too don’t turn a blind eye to the massive oxymoron that is a safari park that conserves the environment.

And a big plus point for the mini busses is that they get much closer to the animals, so you will end up with more close ups of whose beautiful white tigers!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Green City

It is easy to think that a green city can only be a pipe dream. This is not true as there are cities in the world that have led when it comes to the environment. Success in greening a city can sometimes be a mixed blessing as more and more people then want to live there which then makes it difficult to keep up the momentum.

I have just returned from seeing Frieburg in the Black Forest in Germany. It claims to be the greenest city in Germany if not in Europe. It’s a city of over 200000 people who have supported the move to green policies from well before most people had even heard of climate change. Some of the things they have done:

  • 70% of the population travel locally by walking, cycling or public transport.
  • Built up a thriving renewable energy business including, solar panels and wind farms
  • The ecologically oriented new district Vauban is a model project. The whole quarter´s construction method follows the main idea of saving energy and space.
  • City centre developed for pedestrians not cars.
  • Green party got 25% vote and voted in a green mayor.
  • Insisted on high energy efficiency in new buildings.
  • 62% of waste is recycled.

Looking at Frieburg shows what can be done if the whole community gets behind an idea. It has become a place that now attracts both people and industry because it is both go ahead and attractive to live.

Can Birmingham do the same?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Northfield Ecocentre is supporting Friends of the Earth's campaign for a 20mph speed limit in residential areas. Click here to see Joseph Chapman's video on the very good Birmingham Recycled webiste.


A quote from Chapter 7 of 'The Spirit Level' by Wilkinson & Pickett:

"Because behaviour changes are easier for people who feel in control and in a good emotional state, lessening the burdens of inequality could make an important contribution towards resolving the epidemic of obesity."

Replace the last three words with 'environmental crisis' or 'problem of climate change' and there are some interesting implications:

1) Social change (reducing inequality) is a prerequisite for significant progress on averting climate chaos.
2) People need encouragement and support rather than chastisement and criticism.
3) Building and fostering confidence, skills and resilience in our communities is an important task for the green movement.
By the way, do yourself a favour and READ THIS BOOK - it's profoundly important. Selly Oak library already has a copy and Northfield is getting one. We now have a set of books you can borrow from the Ecocentre, too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


...but fortunately not planes!
Last week Mrs Ecocenturion, the little ecocenturion and yours truly popped down to Devon for a short break. We stayed with our friends in Exeter and then youth hostelled for an extra night by the beautiful River Dart in South Hams. As we don't own a car, I researched the different travel options. From a green perspective, the comparison wasn't very encouraging at first sight...
Mrs E had picked up a free promotional family railcard, so I began by looking into train travel. The railcard reduced the price of a return ticket from Brum to Exeter for the three of us from £177 to £107 (a whopping 70 quid discount), but we needed to add around £20 in bus fares to and from the station at either end. Of course we'd have to lug our own suitcases around unless we splashed out on taxis and paid considerably more!
One-way rail travel time: Local bus: 1 hr + inter-city train: 2 hrs 30 mins + local bus: 30 mins = 4 hrs
Total return travel time: 8 hrs
Cost of return travel (Birmingham - Exeter) = £127
I next turned to coach, bringing back uncomfortable memories of tortuous National Express journeys back in my student days in the late 80s. No family railcard this time, so even an apex return would set us back £94. And things don't seem to have improved much in the last 20 years - the travel time made me wince, particularly with a stir crazy 6-year-old in tow!
One-way coach travel time: Local bus: 1 hr + inter-city coach: 4 hrs 30 mins + local bus: 30 mins = 6 hrs
Total return travel time: 12 hrs
Cost of return travel booked at least a week in advance (Birmingham - Exeter) = £114
Ruling out hitch-hiking or air travel, I finally checked out car rental, using Enterprise Car Hire in Stirchley, a firm I've rented from a few times before. They offered me a brand new Vauxhall Corsa hatchback with only 200 miles on the clock for £15 a day all inclusive. They also offered to pick me up and drop me home at the end of our trip. The only extra would be petrol. From previous hires, I factored in a price of around 10 pence per mile for the three of us plus luggage.
One-way car travel time: Car journey (160 miles door-to-door): 3 hrs
Total return travel time: 6 hrs
Cost of return travel (Birmingham - Exeter) = £75 car hire + 320 x 10p = £32 petrol = £107
Which one would you have picked? There really was no contest!
In the next post, I'll be analysing these results in more detail. What do you make of it so far?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Win-win-win! This is what Northfield Ecocentre is all about! These are all things I’ve been trying out. They may not all suit everyone, but I’m hoping at least one idea will grab you:

1) Make full use of your local library – you might as well as you’re paying for it anyway. Not just good for borrowing books but also for surfing the Internet, reading the papers, loaning CDs, maps, etc.

2) Leave the car in the garage and get on your bike – now’s the perfect time of year to repair that puncture, oil the chain and enjoy the summer weather. If you're daunted at the thought of competing with the traffic, sign up for a Bikeability course (run by the Council) to help you cycle safely and confidently.

3) Make an effort to get to know your neighbours better – they may be a big help when you need to borrow a cup of sugar…or a lawnmower. Knock on the door and say hello or, better still, invite them round for an evening drink out on the patio or organize a party.

4) Try growing your own fruit and veg. Get hold of a few seeds and a little organic compost and pop them in old yoghurt pots or margarine tubs. You may be pleasantly surprised how easy it is to get results! You are cordially invited to the Ecocentre to see our very own warts-and-all urban garden.

5) Join Birmingham Freecycle (or your local equivalent) and get stuff for free instead of buying it new. You’ll be amazed at what you can find on this website!

6) Unplug the clothes dryer (which uses around 2 kilowatts of electricity per hour = 30 pence) and use your washing line - a great excuse to get outside and hear the birds singing.

7) Get rid of the car and hire one for when you really need it: that half-term camping trip to Wales or visiting old friends in deepest darkest Devon.

8) Set up a weekly box delivery of organic fruit n veg – good for the environment, good for local farmers, less shopping for you, and (surprise, surprise!) cheaper than supermarkets. I can personally recommend the delicious produce of Boxfresh Organics based in Herefordshire & Shropshire.

9) Recoup your TV license fee by ditching the telly and listening to the radio instead. Watch films on DVD, and if there’s something you or the kids really want to watch, arrange to pop round to a friend’s and enjoy their company.

10) Get composting! It’s fun, slashes the amount of rubbish you leave out for the binmen, and provides great food for the hungry new plants sitting on your windowsill. There are a few important basics but Recycle Now will tell you everything you need to know.

11) Get those endorphins coursing through your veins by taking regular exercise! Make sure it’s something you enjoy and won’t just give up after a few weeks. Yoga is great for relaxing and warming up first thing on a cold morning. Hiking gets you out into the great outdoors. I’ve already mentioned cycling. How about swimming, gardening…salsa?

Hey, that was actually eleven good ideas - but who's counting anyway? Looking back through the list, I could pretty much have summarized the whole lot in three short maxims:

1) Work with nature rather than against it (see Duncan’s last post about bees)
2) Be prepared to share, exchange & socialize with others
3) Enjoy some healthy physical exercise

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Counting Bees

Have you ever tried counting bees? Not an easy job as they move from plant to plant. However somebody from Birmingham University is trying to count them in Birmingham and has included our allotments.

It a good job that we have still some left to count. In a recent pamphlet written by Jonathon Porritt he says “As regards pollination, scientist have estimated that if we had to do by hand what is currently done for us free by bees, bugs, birds and bats, the annual cost would be well in excess of half a trillion dollars. Sounds crazy doesn’t it? But in the province of Szechuan in China, that is exactly what they are having to do right now. Having wiped out most of their beneficial insects through the over application of pesticides, they are now having to collect pollen by hand and apply it (using feather dusters) by hand to keep alive their hugely valuable orchards.

Here in this country our bees are struggling to survive. The numbers are falling rapidly but nobody knows why. Chemicals or a virus may be the problem. The Coop as a precautionary measure have eliminated pesticides from all their farms.

We must also remember that some bees do not only pollinate but produce that lovely golden colour runny honey. We used to keep bees and the jars and jars they produced for us were wonderful.

So next time you see bees around plants in your garden be thankful that they are doing the work not you.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

18 May 2009

Dear Northfield Ecocenturion

Thank you for your letter about solar power. I appreciate your taking the time to get in touch to raise this issue with me.

I just wanted to let you know that I have signed the Early Day Motion urging the Government to ensure that the potential for solar electricity is supported in the Renewable Energy Stratergy. This motion has now been signed by 224 MPs and I enclose a copy for your information.

If I can be of further assistance on this, or any other matter, please do not hesitate to get in touch again.

Yours sincerely

Richard Burden MP
Birmingham Northfield

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


It's 8am on an overcast Sunday morning in May
But the Friends of Manor Farm Park are already congregating by the old barn
They've come to enjoy a gentle stroll around the park
To listen to the birdsong and identify the birds
Fortunately for me there are some good pairs of ears amongst us
Almost straight away a distant song thrush announces its presence
Mimicing an insistent telephone then bursting into melodious voice
As we near a patch of woodland a shrill wren and a fluty blackbird launch into song
Now a faraway chaffinch approaches the crease like a swing bowler
To everyone's delight a sharp-eyed companion spots a greater-spotted woodpecker
Clinging improbably to the side of a tree next to the road
But it's interesting how many more birds we can hear than see
We turn into the Long Meadow and someone picks out the distinctive call of a chiff chaff
A great tit is added to the list
We come across a few interesting plants too
Wild garlic and red campion nestle under the trees by the brook
Altogether our master of ceremonies Tony notes down 21 species in just an hour or so!
Finally by the lake we spot a static heron beadily eyeing the still water
A couple of attentive Canada Geese parents shepherd their little brood of yellow goslings on a picnic

I'll need a lot more practice before I can hope to lead a walk like this
But one day I'd love to try it!

Friday, May 15, 2009


To reverse the old cliche: 'Money is time'
It follows that an expensive lifestyle will eat into your time
While those able to make do with less
Can free up time for worthwhile pursuits other than paid employment
Until quite recently I earnt a good wage
But spent 60 hours a week trapped in the office
I was comfortably off
But not surprisingly painfully short of leisure time & energy
These days I choose to work fewer hours and earn much less
But interestingly I find I need less too
For now time is on my side...

Time for family and friends
Time to make new acquaintances
Time to read
Time to take stock
Time to reflect on how I live
Time for regular exercise
Time to cultivate compassion for others
Time for interests
Time for creativity
Time to reconnect with nature
Time to garden
Time to campaign for change
Time to walk or cycle to where I want to go
Time to shop around for good food and drink
Time to care
Time to volunteer my time
Time to stop and chat
Time to stop and smell the roses
Time to count my blessings
But I'm not sure if I could live for a year on just a pound a day!

Where are the stars?

No I don’t mean the film stars or the TV stars , I mean the ones that twinkle. Those of us who live in urban areas forget what the sky really looks like when the stars can be clearly seen. If you go out into the wilderness of parts of Wales or Scotland on a clear night you suddenly realise how full the sky is of stars and how magnificent it can look.
The reason we don’t often see it like this is because of light pollution. Street lights, security lights and floodlights all throw light into the air and mask the heavens. We seem intent on having more and more night time lights as we get obsessed with security.
I was therefore appalled when the chief planning officer of Birmingham suggested that we light up Spaghetti Junction so it can be seen in space. This is the man whose department is supposed to be ensuring that light pollution is controlled and kept to a reasonable level. Environmental Protection UK suggests that if people think they are affected by light pollution, they should complain to the local authority who are legally required to investigated it. Here in Birmingham the pollution may well be the local authority if Clive Dutton gets his way.
It is not clear whether we should be worried or not. At a recent street hustings in Harborne the Council Leader, Mike Whitby was challenged about the Spaghetti Junction scheme and he gave an assurance that it was not council policy and would not happen. A senior Lib Dem Councillor, Alistair Dow gave a similar answer when challenged at the same event. Both the councillors seemed to be embarrassed that a senior council employee had made the suggestion in the first place.
Perhaps we all need to reinforce the Councillors views by telling them ours.
In Esthers Blog she is already doing this.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Tricky times

Those of you who have done some gardening before will know that this time of the year is always tricky. In the last few weeks we’ve sown seeds in pots, germinated them in the airing cupboard and nurtured them on the windowsill, conservatory and greenhouse.

But when is the right time to plant them outside? The old stagers all used to have a date set in their minds for the last frost. It might be the wife’s birthday, the bank holiday, or just the middle of May. Global warming has thrown these traditions, old wives tales or good old fashion experience into confusion. Days have got warmer but we can still be caught out as I realised when I looked out of the window a few days ago to see hail (or was it snow) piled up in the garden.

This is the time of the year when many community groups have plant sales. Those who have spare plants bring them along and sell them to boast local funds. The prices are often much lower than the shops and the range much bigger. If you are a beginner pop in and pick up something to grow in your garden and you willingly be given advice as well. If you are experienced its amazing what you find that you may not have seen before.

Remember its all local.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Hannah's been riding her bike for over a year now
We decide it is high time to discard the stabilisers
And let her have a go at riding independently
After a few shaky sessions where that front wheel just won't do what it's told
Hannah suddenly nails the balancing act
And she's away - laughing and giggling as daddy struggles to keep up with her
It takes me back to childhood
That feeling of being alive and free as the wind brushed my face
And the ground beneath me passed by in a blur
I still get that feeling as a grown-up
And it makes me sad when I pass another queue of grim-faced motorists
Trapped in their sedentary metal boxes
Maybe they were happy care-free cyclists once too
Maybe they have a bike in the garage
Just waiting for a squirt of oil or a bit of air in the tryes
It strikes me what a big step this is for Hannah
I remember watching proudly as she first learnt to crawl
Then as she took her first tottering baby steps
And in a way this newly acquired skill and confidence is just as significant
It's another big milestone on the path to independence
From the tyranny of the car and the school run
More than that
It's healthy and exciting and fun
And I feel pleased as punch!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


'be the change you want to see in the world'
that's what gandhi said
i want respect for the awe and wonder of nature
i want tasty locally grown organic produce that hasn't polluted the ecosystem
i want an end to factory farming and the slaughter of innocent beasts
i want a cosy home powered by renewable energy
i want clean air
i want quiet local streets where my daughter can cycle in safety
i want conversations with my neighbours
i want an excellent public transport system
i don't want my wife having to wait long hours in draughty bus shelters
i want a comfortable efficient coach service to take me on longer journeys
i want an ethical banking system
which rewards honest endeavour and shuns greed
i want justice for the poor and disenfranchised
i want compassion for those less fortunate than myself
is all of this unrealistic and impractical?
let's make it happen - today

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Where Does the Rain Go

I recently fitted up a couple of water butts to collect water from a roof. The first day it rained both butts were nearly full giving us enough water to keep the plants happy for some time. If I had not put in these butts all this water would have run off down the drains and have quite quickly ended up in the River Rea. In times of heavy storms it is the water from our roofs and drives that cause the river to flood as it can’t cope with the water coming so quickly. This means that anything we can do to slow or stop the water getting to the river will reduce flooding. The water butt helps prevent flooding and gives us water for the plants. Likewise to make any paved area permeable so the water goes into the ground rather than into the drains also prevents flooding. Block paving is now available that assists the water to soak away. So when you pave over your front garden try and think how quickly the water will get to the river.

Friday, May 1, 2009


A couple of things have struck me about media coverage of the current swine flu pandemic. We have received regular updates about numbers of confirmed cases, details of cancelled holiday flights, Gordon Brown's latest reassurances about the readiness of the UK to tackle the illness. We have even learnt how many extra face masks the NHS have put on order. But as far as I know, very little seems to have been revealed about the causes of the outbreak. Why Mexico? Why now? Who are the victims and how did they become infected? One interesting story I did come across perhaps provides a clue. The pig farming industry is apparently objecting to the use of the name 'swine flu' as opposed to the less troublesome 'flu virus'.

The truth is unpalatable. Our seemingly insatiable appetite for cheap meat and the intensive way we rear pigs on factory farms is putting workers in the industry and the public at large at considerable risk, never mind the associated animal welfare issues. The Ecologist Film Unit has made a short film called Sick As A Pig, which sheds light on this murky state of affairs. As for me, I'll stick to my meat-free sausages, thanks.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


A few months back I finally gave up shopping at supermarkets...

I'd come across a pretty damning report by Corporate Watch about the effects of supermarkets on people & planet and decided to do what I could to challenge the status quo. I'd read about the 'cheap food myth' whereby the consumer really pays three times over: once in the store, a second time in taxes to subsidise farmers and a third time in more taxes to clean up the pollution left by industrial agriculture and subsidise the road transport infrastructure. I discovered how supermarkets guzzle their way through as much energy as factories with their bright lights & open chiller cabinets. (Imagine leaving your freezer door at home permanently open!) I was already aware of how supermarkets bleed small farmers dry. How they cut a swathe through the High Street and suck money out of local communities to far-away shareholders. How 276 jobs are lost every time a large store opens in the UK. How buyers select products for maximum shelf life and appearance rather than taste. I could go on... The question was: How was I going to do it?

I was off to a running start in as much as I don't eat meat or dairy products and base my diet around fruit, vegetables and pulses. I was already getting a reasonably priced weekly delivery of tasty Herefordshire-grown organic veg from Boxfreshorganics, who I can phone to order delicious extras ranging from mushrooms to apple juice to fair trade coffee. To fill in the gaps, I got on my bike to do a tour of the local independent shops. Unfortunately Northfield and Selly Oak, my nearest shopping centres, are dominated by supermarkets and poorly endowed with independent shops. But over in Kings Heath I found a marvellous wholefood store called Thyme Out, run by a friendly couple called Jo & Gareth, where I buy items like pasta, tofu, cooking sauces and spices at reasonable prices. If I can't be bothered to bake it myself, Leverton & Halls in Bournville do lovely fresh bread and stock organic veg grown in the UK. They also have bins of rice, flour and sugar and a barrel of washing-up liquid, allowing you to refill your own container and avoid packaged goods. Just over the road there's an organic butcher, where I can buy meat for my wife & daughter. For heavier, bulkier items like 2 kilo bags of muesli and cartons of soya milk, I pop into Holland & Barrett during my lunch hour or on my way home from work.

So, all in all, after doing a bit of scouting around, giving up supermarkets has been no great hardship. I might spend a little more on organic food but as far as I'm concerned the quality of what I put in my family's mouths is a top priority. In fact, my new weekly shop has become a real pleasure -it's good exercise, gets me out & about, and it's lovely to meet shopkeepers who really care about their customers, their food and where it comes from.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


As a complete novice, I wasn't quite sure where to start. I knew very little about soil or compost. Or what grows where and when. What I did have an inkling of is that our current food system is not in a healthy condition. I wanted to make my own small contribution to 'digging for victory'.

We've been lucky enough to move to a house with a sunny south-facing garden, most of it lawn and flower beds, but with one obvious asset for growing our own - a small glasshouse on the patio.

Keen to get started, I bought a little book from Oxfam about organic gardening, which explained the benefits of compost and its key role in nourishing the soil. I also came across a helpful leaflet from the Council which emphasised the importance of getting the right mix between 'green' kitchen waste and 'brown' drier stuff like torn up bits of cardboard. I fashioned a rudimentary compost heap in a large bin bag with holes punched in it for ventilation. It won't be any good this spring, of course, but I'm looking forward to using it next year.

A few friends suggested I buy some grow bags as an easy way to get started. At the local garden centre I found some labelled organic and peat-free (J A Bowers New Horizon range). Deciding to play it safe, rather than buying seeds, I opted for some small plants that were already established in pots - cherry tomatoes, green & yellow peppers, marrow and some mange tout peas.

Back at home, I simply followed the instructions on the grow bags, making some small holes in the bottom for drainage and cutting some larger holes in the top for the plants. I watered the bags through the holes and then transferred the tomato, pepper & marrow plants to the grow bags, using my figures to dig away and mold the compost - nice grimy fingernails! To plant the peas, I poured some loose compost into a freestanding container and used some sticks to support the climbing stems.

All this was only a couple of days ago but already I've spotted some small flowers on my tomato plants. I feel like a proud parent! This is all exciting uncharted territory for me. Up to now my growing ambitions have extended no further than sprouting a few seeds on the kitchen windowsill. Now I'm taking my first baby steps to becoming an organic vegetable gardener.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


london-midland whisks me clickety-clack
through rolling fields
from university
to droitwich spa
swiftly out of town
via quiet country lanes
where startled baby rabbits
scamper into hedges
and bluebells line the verges
gaining momentum
shifting through the gears
up hill and down dale
fleet through holt fleet
then a lunchstop by the severn
through the trees
witley church spire crowned in gold
proclaims the glory of its secret treasure trove
climbing steadily now
getting into the groove
no pain no gain
up up up and away
over the crown of kingswood common
to misty vistas of clee
punctured by abberley clocktower
the wind of an exhilerating descent
rushes through my ears
down down down
to the banks of the teme
where mistletoe hangs from orchard boughs
saddle sore to martley
the comfy curves of the seat
yielding to the bumps and bruises of the road
feet up and a refreshing pint of pale burton ale
then back through the lanes
to my waiting train

Friday, April 24, 2009


no coats today
buds bulge on chestnut trees
and on the doorstep of a big old house
a young man stands and plays his flute
i watch the silver notes fly up
and circle in blue sky above the traffic
travelling where they will
and suddenly this paving stone
midway between my front door and the bus stop
is a starting point
from here i can go anywhere i choose

new season by wendy cope