After a good breakfast cooked by Richard Clegg of the Wall Hill farm guest house, when I talk about my walk and pass on details of the Transition web site, I set out south westwards, heading to Ashon Hayes as a special visit off my route to see the village that won half a million pounds in a bid to become UK’s first carbon neutral village, in the same government scheme in which TTT won its funding for solar panels.
As I walk I think about Cheshire’s history; I have discovered that the “wich” to be found in so many place names but especially here in Cheshire, was wych, which referred to salt producing areas. Northwich produced so much salt by extracting the brine from beneath it to dry in giant salt pans that its houses subsided so badly that some of them simply collapsed and fell down. One area of town particularly badly affected had to be completely rebuilt by the Victorians who erected timber framed mock Tudor structures as they were lighter. It really is fascinating to learn of the disconnected thinking that has occurred around the country in the desperate plundering of the earth for substances in large quantities, and its often terrible consequences. After a lifetime of feeling vaguely guilty for being so disparaging about large scale production of anything I find that trusting my own sense stands me in much better stead than having any faith in those that would make decisions that affect large numbers of people; that there needs to be depth as well as breadth in any future planning, as well as a firm grounding in the past, along with an acute understanding of the present.
My eight and a half mile detour takes me through the Delamere forest, which is another one of those royal forests; plantations from after the time of the Norman Conquest, and I read, in the guide to Cheshire walks I have seen in the Wall Hill Farm, the old days equivalent of our golf courses, providing large leisure areas for the well resourced at the expense of everybody else. In the case of the royal forests ordinary people were not allowed to enter them to collect twigs to light their fires, and nor were the clergy who resented the elitist attitude.
I have often wondered why I have not experienced a felt sense of magic, wonder, and well being in some forests, and now I understand why; a plantation of conifers no matter how old now, is not going to have the same life force as a native woodland growing naturally where it always has, nor are we going to feel the same sense of connection to it.
This one has interesting edges; species that John Lamb has taught me recognise as ancient woodland indicators are present, some of the ferns are almost as tall as I am, and there a few oaks growing by the side of the road. Further in, nothing but a carpet of pine needles in the dark centre.
I am just emerging from the forest when a plain car with two policemen in it stops and they ask me if I have seen a young boy, missing from his grandmother’s, dressed in a blue anorak and carrying a dog lead. I cast my thoughts back to the children I saw being dragged up in the town and my heart goes out to that boy wherever he might be, no doubt escaping a situation beyond his ability to process.
Coming into Ashton the first thing to be noticed is wealth. I am passed by large 4 wheel drive vehicles, and see them parked in driveways of big detached houses with tall hedges being trimmed with loud petrol driven strimmers. I am struck by the paradox; I have come to visit a village aiming at becoming carbon neutral, and here, as everywhere, the double standards of our times, wanting to make a difference, to work for a better world, but not now, today, in the present, and not by my having to give up what I am accustomed to. I doubt if many of us even realise most of the time when we are doing it; saying one thing, and doing another. I hope our children and our children’s children will find it in their hearts to forgive us as we stumble our way step by step into a new way of being in the world, slowly removing the yoke of our bondage to a system designed to run on huge amounts of the earth’s resources.
A brand new wide pavement seems to link Ashton with Mouldsworth, the next village where there is a train station. Suddenly, on a blind bend where the road markings are missing it vanishes; I can’t believe it and look around for where it goes and see only a farm track which brandishes a sign proclaiming its private status proudly and, just to be sure there’s no doubt, beneath, a “no public footpath” sign.
I walk in on the road and find the pavement starts up again after the bend. The amount of times on this journey I have encountered this phenomenon of private property taking precedence over public safety is startling. How is it that such a thing as compulsory purchase orders are possible when evicting people from their homes to build roads, yet they are not to ensure a coherent and continuous network of safe places on which to walk? An alien visitor might be forgiven for assuming that pedestrians have lower status in society than car owners; a curious thing that our descendants may well question.
I reach the village church, church hall, and primary school and there, beside the road, are two cherry trees full to overflowing with luscious dark burgundy red ripe fruit. There are cherries on the grass, on the path, and cherries squashed on the road, staining it black. I pick and eat as many of the sweet juicy berries as I have an appetite for, all the while lamenting the waste. Cherries are, as they always have been, expensive to buy and yet here are two beautifully abundant trees growing on the wayside. I am amazed; I was always told as a child that cherries couldn’t grow in our climate; too cold they said, either there was ignorance about what occurred just one county south, or global warming has happened in my lifetime.
I muse about a community project; that the locals could have a cherry picking session, bake pies and get together for a July Jacob’s Join.
The first indication that this is a “going carbon neutral village” (…) after the signpost at the start of the village is a large public notice board crammed full of facts, figures and graphs. The University of Chester have research students studying the village’s progress by conducting annual surveys. They have figures from 2006 – 2009 displayed. A careful reading of the information tells me that though more than 200 households completed the survey forms in 2006, less than 60 wanted to do it again last year meaning that though 20 odd new households participated the figures cannot really show what kind of changes have occurred. In fact my hunch would be that if well over 100 decided not to participate anymore they were probably finding it difficult to keep making the changes required.
The survey declared that the amount of carbon the village spent on transport has gone down, yet a closer look at the graph show less flights taken but more car usage. Given that the group surveyed contain different respondees this information either suggests people choosing to drive rather than fly (the survey did not measure amount of journeys taken on foot or by bicycle) or the different respondees were more car drivers than foreign travellers to start with.
When measuring carbon usage in relation to housing where most households seemed to be using less the overall figures show it had gone up due to a 12% rise in converted agricultural buildings into dwellings. I have noticed that though there are lots of boarded up and derelict properties in Cheshire, it seems there is a trend for moneyed people to convert and move into former farm buildings.
There is a distinct feel here of Cheshire playing commuter home to Manchester much as Cambridgeshire does to London; two of our most flat and fertile growing areas being terribly misused by the short sighted view that work in cities will continue and that there is no need for using good land for growing. Are these essentially city dwellers going to become the next market gardeners I wonder?
I reach the village pub, still closed, and a sign advertising the community shop. I don’t see where the shop is and ask a lady with a shopping basket who is walking past. She says, bursting with pride
“It’s there,” gesturing just around the corner “and it’s a real community shop too”
We both go in and I take a look around. To all intents and purposes it is a very ordinary village general store. It sells magazines, ice creams and chocolate, fruit and veg, meat, chilled sandwiches and cheeses, jams and chutneys, cleaning products, and has a Post Office at the back. There is also another University of Chester display showing the same graphs I have seen outside in the village. Next to this are a pile of leaflets advertising the village time bank – the Ash-worth.
This simply worded leaflet advertises the scheme simply: “village time banking – do you ever need help, or could you give some? Suggestions are made as to the sort of things people might be prepared to offer; babysitting, taking care of pets, gardening. It makes it clear that you don’t have to worry if you need to receive more help than you are able to offer. There is a contact name, Susan Ross Turner, and her office is just above the shop.
I go the counter to buy a stick of liquorice and introduce myself to Trevor Scadeng and Lucinda Strudwick who are serving and shelf stocking respectively. Trevor, in between training a young teenage volunteer in using the till, and Lucinda, who stops shelf stocking for a while, tell me all about their shop. I have been lucky in my timing, they were the ones who first came up with the idea, when as parish councillors they discovered that the local shop was about to close down. They immediately told the community about it and conceived of the idea to maintain the shop as a community concern.
The shop project has a steering group and the process of taking over the running took eighteen months. They sold shares at £10 for one share. No one was allowed to have more than one share; all money paid in excess of £10 was considered a donation. They raised £16.000.00 and were match funded by the Plunkett foundation (…). First the shop was refurbished then it finally opened in January of this year. They anticipated making a profit in eighteen months, but the shop, which retained the post office and has a section for the carbon neutral display, has already started to make money. They intend to use this money first of all to start a contingency fund for the shop, for any future repairs it might need, and then to put it to good use elsewhere in the community. They were not able to be more specific as the steering group were to meet that evening to talk about this unexpected bonus.
I ask about the carbon neutral project and if this is a project of that initiative. It does not appear to be; Lucinda explains that the situation arose that they were going to lose their shop and they acted on it; they do, however, try to follow the principles laid down by the carbon neutral initiative and so they stock as much local food as possible; jams and chutneys made locally, meat from the butcher in the next village, village people come in to bake the bread, veg is brought in by a group of villagers led by Carol, who comes into shop as we speak , from nearby Northwich.
The shop is run by 1 paid manger and a part time assistant manager and works with 30 local volunteers including Lucinda and Trevor. They also pay 2 local youngsters as part time help.
The shop is a hub of socialising and they talk to each and every customer that comes in during my visit. They would like there to be room for a table and chairs so that people could sit down for a proper chat rather than having to stop and chat in the aisles which they do now. There is no space currently for this and they joke about removing the carbon neutral display board. Personally, having experienced this meeting and talking in the local shop with its narrow aisles phenomenon myself in Greenlife, our organic and wholefood supermarket in Totnes before it moved premises to an old Boots and totally lost its character and no one wanted to linger anymore under those dreadful strip lights so favoured by clone shops, feel that making space for the table and incorporating the display into it somehow, on the walls or in bite sized chunks in the form of table top flyers, would retain the familiar feel to the shop.
The display itself is very piece- of- school- work- looking and would instantly put off any one who is phased by numbers and graphs. More and more I feel that information presented in this way is only accessible to a particular segment of society, frightening some off altogether, and inviting criticism by others. Many more people would be likely to read it a display of this nature if it contained photos of local people and showed what they are actually doing and gave practical information about how to get involved in a fun way; like this community shop for example, where everyone I met was proud of their involvement, be it as a shopper, or a volunteer for anything upward of 2 hours a week. To know more about this shop and how to start up a community shop in your locality see http://www.ourvillageshop.org/Community%20Shops.html .
I learn that the pavement between the 2 villages was funded by the carbon neutral initiative to facilitate train use and to promote more contact between the two neighbouring settlements. I tell Lucinda about my experience on the bad bend and she tells me there is a path through, and that they had better get a signpost put up to signal it. I am delighted by this instant can do response to a problem.
I am inspired by this project, heart warmed by the enthusiasm and ownership of the project exuding from the locals. I have to admit that the carbon neutral project is a bit too graph orientated for me and I still haven’t forgotten a little book I read from Bowden Library not long before I set out called “How to Lie With Statistics” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Lie_with_Statistics which explains very simply how you can get numbers to tell you anything you want them to depending on the slant you give your stats. For me it’d be lovely if the going carbon neutral project found ways of engaging other people, and not just those that love graphs. To find out more about the scheme see http://www.goingcarbonneutral.co.uk/
What I shall take away with me from Ashley Hayes is not that it is a going carbon neutral village, but that it has a vibrant close knit caring community and that what they are interested in is each other and their shop.
I go to the village pub for lunch. I hear the proprietor and a regular discussing the fresh meat and veg supplies and where to get the best local fish delivered from. The locals’ favourite here is beer battered fish with real chips (ie not frozen, I never thought that distinction would need to be made, that anyone would dream of selling frozen chips, but they do, and have got away with it for far too long now) and mushy peas. I try this local delicacy and find it is delicious; like the fish and chips of my childhood when fish was always fresh, the batter freshly made and fried, and the chips always freshly fried out of potatoes and not an unhealthy mixture of so called convenient potato starch and whey powder.
It is both laughable and tragic to think that real chips are now a luxury item; the pub are offering frozen chips and burgers as a cheap world cup deal; aimed, apparently, at the younger lads.
I muse, as I eat, on mushy peas; it is surprising what you think about when not rushing around on a treadmill of a modern lifestyle. I imagine that mushy peas, made from soaking and slow cooking dried peas must have once been a winter dish; unheard of in the summer when young tender fresh peas in their pods were ripe for the picking. The fat peas till left on the plant at the end of the season must then have been picked and dried to provide much needed nutrients through the hard winter months.
It has been several days now that I have been aware of plant cycles; noticing the first rosy blush on the blackberries in the hedgerows, and the first autumn leaves on the ground; late summer is on its way out and Autumn on its way and I feel for the children whose “summer holidays” are about to start only now due to our lack of awareness of the seasons and the traditional festivals that marked them; Lammas, or the beginning of the Harvest period was celebrated in the first days of August.
Perhaps I am more aware of this as I walk through Cheshire and observe its pub names; the Morris Dancer, The Maypole, and the Bowling Green; all of which are unusual yet must have been common when these things were part of everyday life. On a plaque on the wall of the Bowling Green as I leave Northwich I read that it once boasted n L shaped green, very rare and a real challenge to the players of the time, but it has now been built over.
I feel sad; the town centre of Northwich has been pedestrianised, had its soul paved over, it is a scary place to walk through; groups of skin headed tattooed young men pace its squares; spoiling for a fight, just like they were in Warrington. The whole feel of these places from the Americanised cop I asked directions from to the motel style accommodation I have found for the night is unpleasantly unfamiliar and somehow unreal; removed so far from the natural world that were I to be put here to live I would choose suicide as a preferable option. My heart goes out to those who have been brought up in this environment and have had experience of nothing else.
At the rather misnamed restaurant and motel; respectively the Woodpecker and the Kingfisher, I meet Neil Chadburn, friend and colleague from TTT and now moved to the Wirral and part of their transition group. He has cycled for an hour and a half to come out and meet me, to buy me dinner, and to talk transition.
We talk of the phenomena of blocked up housing; he describes how in Liverpool rows and rows of terraced housing is being blocked off whist homelessness lists rise, and whilst new shopping malls are built and schemes for regeneration and new housing is planned. I have seen blocked off houses in Warrington, in Bolton, and here in Northwich. So many old Tudor pubs too, beautiful and with such value and potential are blocked up, and these towns are becoming desolate.
Neil tells me he is part of a very small Health and Wellbeing group in South Liverpool and we talk about the wall of denial between people and their taking responsibility for their own health. We talk also about the north south divide and how it is so apparent in what I am finding on my journey and also what Neil is finding within the city of Liverpool; the north is very white and reluctant to change; the south is much more mixed and open to looking at new ways forward. Transition Liverpool have a project running in Toxteth.
Neil talks about what has inspired him recently; a talk by the Incredible Edible Todmorden group. Their local high school was turned around when a new head went in and discovered that the school’s most valuable asset was their catering manager who was passionate about local food. As well as the now famous guerrilla gardening that took place in Todmodern where they have started to grow food on central reservations and any available land, the school’s catering manager goes around the town running workshops to teach parents how to cook using fresh fruit and vegetables; it was discovered that they were not buying fresh food because they did not know what to do with it.
We talk about reaching different groups of people and the different modes of communication needed so that where it might be accurate facts and figures that might satisfy a Cambridge don, this same information would be likely to put an everyday person off completely and that it could well be getting involved in local food growing and community building that engages many others. We discuss the Sustainable schools scheme as a possible doorway that Neil is beginning to explore, and Transition Liverpool’s desire to collaborate on the transition cities publication with their Healthy Futures Cities project. We agree that transitioning cities is going to be possible by first transitioning the small communities within them that originally made up the cities, but that before that a strong and vibrant steering group made up of city wide members needs to be active. Transition Liverpool is in this first stage of building this vibrant group.
It is lovely to end my day with a meal with a transitioner, and not even a new one, but an old friend, Neil and I first met in the TTT health and well being group which he facilitated before his university work and interest in public health moved him north to the Wirral.