Getting out of bad habits

I’ve made a commitment to improve my photography, I’ve made a list of areas where I want to improve this year, I’m all set to go but, oh no, what’s this?


Look at all those dust spots in the top of the photo (hides in shame)

One of the things I was determined to (I mean, I am determined to) try this year is better landscape shots. I needed to practice getting more of my photo in focus – wider depth of field. I whacked up the F number to maximum and hoped for the best.

When I got the photos up on my laptop I noticed two things – grainy images, and blotches in the sky that appeared in the same place in different photos. I still think of my camera as new, but I’ve actually had it for three years. This was the first time I’ve noticed dust in my images, and I’m ashamed to admit, the first time I’ve even thought about cleaning the sensor.

Cue mild panic and much internet searching. There’s lots of advice about sensor cleaning on the internet. The best site I found is Cleaning Digital Cameras. Then I had to gather my materials (easier said than done). Finally, today, it was time to clean my sensor.

First I had to mop the downstairs floor and hoover upstairs. The environment has to be clean and dust-free. I was not simply trying to find distractions, honest. Eventually I ran out of other-things-to-do. Time to get this done. I’ve been ‘looking after’ my Dad’s camera ever since I moved Up North. With noble intentions (no, I was not using his camera as the guinea pig) I cleaned the sensor. The process was embarrassingly easy.

Hands trembling, I did the deed on my own camera. Two swipes of the sensor swab and the job was done. I promise to take more care of my sensor in future.

Now I just have to tackle the grainy-image problem.


My sensor cleaning kit

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Wilful destruction

Here are some photos taken in January 2015. It took a long time for my border collie Holly to get bored of the garden pond, but she never gets bored of ice. Holly’s job (as she sees it) is to remove all the ice from the pond. Unfortunately for the pond, ice is sharp, and there’s a puncture somewhere. My mission this winter (if we ever get one) is to find and fix it. Wish me luck!

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Time for a new plan

I’ve been neglecting my blog. Again. I’ve been thinking about what to do, and I’ve come up with a plan. I like taking photos, and I’ve reached the point where I need to give my photography more attention. Do I give up on the blog? I don’t want to, so I’m going to try and turn Muddy Tracks into a photography blog. I don’t know if this plan will work, but I’m going to give it a good try. Watch this space…

Oh, and Happy New Year!

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Goodbye to Top Hen

More sad chicken news to report. Willow Chicken – always Top Hen – stopped laying a couple of months ago, so I’ve been expecting a downward turn. She suddenly looked very unhappy last week, with a very swollen abdomen, and knowing she was not going to get better, a fellow poultry-keeper very kindly Did The Deed for me. Willow is the fourth bird out of four to get what I (and the vet) believe is egg yolk peritonitis. Bred to lay, lay, lay, breeders aren’t really interested in longevity in the birds they produce. Willow was only three, and until two months ago laid an egg virtually every day. Too much for any system to take.

I now have four leaderless ex-batts. There was a bit of squabbling for top position, but that was quickly sorted out. All is not normal however. They are now avoiding the nest box and laying their eggs under the hedge, and two have become very noisy and broody. I hope things will settle down to a new normal soon.

RIP Willow Chicken

RIP Willow Chicken

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A natter and a chatter and a bit of Weardale history

Our border collie was having an off day, so we jumped at the chance to reluctantly had a dog-free day up the Dale. I may have mentioned before that Weardalians love Facebook, and the Weardale Museum had posted that morning that visitor numbers were down and the Council someone was nicking their road signs (the museum is too small to be allowed the brown tourist info signs).

The Weardale Museum is in a pretty Upper Dale village called Ireshopeburn. I’ve wanted to visit for ages, but always felt guilty about leaving the dog at home in such beautiful walking country. Finally the opportunity had arisen.

Upper Weardale villages

Upper Weardale villages

Another item on my list of ‘things to do without the dog’ was to pop into Chatterbox Cafe, St John’s Chapel (one village before Ireshopeburn). More than a mere cafe, Chatterbox is a real hub for Upper Weardale. It has become a mecca for cyclists and acts as a Tourist Information Centre (something else Durham Council no longer provides). We’ve sat outside the cafe with the dog before, but I’ve never actually been in.

st johns chapel-2843

Cue surprise when the cafe owner Cameron walked in and informed me that he’d run out of Wolsingham Wayfarers walk leaflets. As the Official Unofficial Photographer for the Wayfarers, photos of me are almost as rare as hens’ teeth, and I’m still scratching my head as to how he recognised me (did I mention that I’d never been inside the cafe before?). Chatterbox is renowned for its welcoming and friendly atmosphere. We had a delicious lunch (there was even gluten free bread for My Taller Half), and by the time we were ready to leave, it felt like we were lifelong friends with everyone else in the cafe.

Weardale is a small place (metaphorically speaking) and Andrea Holmes, otherwise known as Snap Happy Hippy, popped in to see how her new mugs were selling (check them out, they are awesome). I discovered Andrea while listening to BBC 6 Music when she phoned in to take part in Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie’s The Chain (“officially the longest listener-generated thematically linked sequence of musically based items on the radio”). She mentioned her website so I checked it out and said Hi on Facebook. She sells Weardale-themed art and crafts up and down the Dale, so we’ve met a few times, but I wasn’t expecting to bump into her in the cafe.

That was enough nattering and chattering. Off to the museum.

The Weardale Museum

The Weardale Museum

The Weardale Museum opens at 2.00pm, so we dallied in the cafe (free tea and coffee top ups) and then headed up to Ireshopeburn. A tiny museum (basically a small house) packed to bursting with treasures, it is a unique experience staffed entirely by volunteers. I wasn’t totally surprised to find that I knew the steward on the door. This time it was Mike, who I used to volunteer with (before we got the dog) at Durham Wildlife Trust at Low Barns. The first room is crammed with bits and pieces from typical Weardale homes. We could have stayed there all day – visitors are encouraged to handle the items, and Mike was on hand to answer questions (“what’s that?” “and this?”).

Multi mouse trap

Multi mouse trap

Cockroach trap

Cockroach trap

Weardale was a stronghold for Wesleyan Methodism, and there is a room dedicated to John Wesley. Upstairs there is a crash course in Weardale history. There is the famous Weardale Tapestry (not as old as you might think), beautiful silk postcards sent home to Weardale during the First World War, and of course lots of information about Weardale’s mining heritage.

A close up of the Weardale Tapestry

A close up of the Weardale Tapestry

Silk postcards from the 1st World War

Silk postcards from the 1st World War

My personal favourites were the two spar boxes. Weardale miners were after galena (the raw material for lead), but found the non-valuable but shiny mineral deposits irresistible, and arranged them into beautiful boxed displays. There are more spar boxes on display at Killhope Lead Mining Museum, but the two in Ireshopeburn are pretty impressive.

A spar box

A spar box

Saturated with Weardale history, we went home satisfied but determined to spend more time in the Upper Dale. In fact, we went back to St John’s Chapel, this time with dog in tow, the next day. We even took Holly into Chatterbox Cafe, where she behaved impeccably. We will be visiting again, and soon.


The Weardale Museum

Chatterbox Cafe

Snap Happy Hippy

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The Sad Tale of the MUGA and the Trees

July. High summer. Fledglings everywhere, but plenty of nests still active and more to come. Birds nest in trees. So maybe July is not a good month to begin major tree felling?

According to the actions of our County Council and local comprehensive, July is the best time to fell trees.

Wolsingham School and Community College is going through a major period of redevelopment. Like it or loathe it, a new modern building is being surgically attached to the original 1911 structure. I never got to look at the plans, but there was no outcry (lots of grumbles) and it sailed through the planning process. Then on 6 July the news broke: “That beautiful copse of 100 year old trees that shields walkers from the ugly sports centre? It’s getting the chop tomorrow to make way for a MUGA.” “OH NO! HOW CAN THAT BE? And what’s a MUGA?”

Contractors look up into the trees before felling starts

Contractors look up into the trees before felling starts

A MUGA, it turns out, is a Multi Use Games Area. Basically a football pitch with artificial turf and floodlighting. Planning permission was granted, no objections. Shame nobody realised it was going to be at the expense of twenty five 100 year old trees.

Feeling powerless, but determined to stand witness, I recorded the fellers at work the next day. They took down four trees. The school carried on as if it wasn’t happening, leading to the bizarre scene of World Challenge participants practicing their camping skills in front of the falling trees.

The first tree is down

The first tree is down

World Challenge participants practice their tent skills in front of the falling trees

World Challenge participants practice their tent skills in front of the falling trees

Despite having less-than-adequate broadband throughout the dale, Weardalians love Facebook, and many a page feed (sorry, Wall) was crammed with shocked and angry outcries. “What? I didn’t know! No one knew!” There were reports of children crying, birds shrieking, even a lone protester protesting. The editor of the Weardale Gazette was on the warpath. As was our MP Pat Glass.

The next day news broke: the felling had been stopped. The remaining trees had a temporary reprieve.

As I write, only the first four trees have been felled, but unless Durham County Council has a sudden change of heart, their fate is sealed. The chain of events sheds a dim light on the murky business of planning, and the way decisions are made based on the weighting of competing values.

Early in 2014, a planning application was prepared for the new school building, including the MUGA. There was lots of publicity for the new build, and the MUGA (if anyone noticed) was A Good Thing. Planning was approved, amid a blaze of publicity, for the school building, but the MUGA application was withdrawn. There were two problems with the proposed siting: the bat survey ruled that the floodlighting would interfere with the flight path of some resident bats, and Sport England declared that no existing sports facilities could be lost, even if the overall facility was increased. The MUGA would shave a bit of land from the existing playing field, so a new position had to be found.

The school looked around their grounds. “Where can we site this thing? All our land (that the Council is not selling to developers) is covered in sports fields. Oh, look, here is a patch of 100 year old trees. Generations of school pupils have memories associated with these trees. We can put it there.”

The new MUGA application was duly submitted. Residents were notified, and notices were glued to nearby lamp posts. If your neighbour has ever sought planning permission, you will know that the notice says something vague like ‘replace windows’ or ‘build MUGA’. There are no details, and only the very committed will venture to the Planning Portal and wade through the many documents to find out just what is going on. I’m betting that no one realised that the MUGA (good thing) would lead to the loss of twenty five 100 year old trees (very bad thing).

Locals muttered under their breath as the construction of the new school building commenced, but forgot all about the MUGA (if they’d even noticed), so it was only when someone on Facebook raised the alarm on 6 July that anyone realised what was about to happen.

After the first trees came down on the 7th, there was no felling on 8 July. This was apparently due to ‘protesters’, although the only protester I am aware of left the site upon request by the police.

The scene after a day's felling

The scene after a day’s felling

This brief reprieve gave the “Tree Huggers of Wolsingham” hope. A collaboration on Facebook (nothing so formal as a group) wrote letters, scrutinised planning documents, followed up leads, and set up a petition. The school issued a statement (“We have no choice, it’s a small sacrifice, for the greater good, etc.”). A front (and back) page article appeared in the Weardale Gazette. Pat Glass MP managed, with no notice whatsoever, to arrange a meeting at the school, on the last day of term, with some of the more vociferous letter writers (including me) and the Head Teacher, Mrs Merrett; DCC Head of Planning, Stuart Timmiss; and DCC Education rep, Sheila Palmerley.

There are two aspects to the Tree Huggers’ campaign: save the trees, and save the birds. We’d rather save the trees, but at the least we want to save the birds. This business has been a sharp learning curve. I’ve had to scrub up on my knowledge of the planning process and wildlife law just to write this blog.

Save the birds

Nesting birds are protected in England by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Act states: “Any person who intentionally […] takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird, he shall be guilty of an offence.”. In essence, if a contractor fails to make proper checks, and fells a tree leading to a nest being destroyed or abandoned, they are in breach of the Act.

The Act is one thing, but how is it applied in practice? Various bodies place blanket restrictions on tree work during the bird breeding season to ensure compliance with the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The breeding season is defined by Natural England as between March and August, and their standing advice for local planning authorities simply states “No works should be undertaken in the breeding season (March to August)”. However, and here’s where it starts to get murky, Durham County Council deviates from Natural England, as their standard planning advice to developers states “Non-urgent major tree work involving tree removal/reduction and hedge cutting operations should not normally be undertaken during the bird nesting/breeding season, which is considered to be from 1 March to 31 July.” The statement also fails to provide a definition of ‘urgent’, but as the Head of Planning confirmed to me that economic reasons count as urgent, it’s pretty easy to fell trees during the nesting season with the Council’s blessing in County Durham.

I received an email on 9 July from a senior planning officer stating that felling was halted after a DCC ecology inspection that morning identified nesting birds. One of the planning conditions included in the approval notice stated that “should it be necessary to fell within [the breeding] period, a check for the presence of active nests and nesting birds should be undertaken by a suitably qualified ecologist prior to the commencement of works”. However, Wolsingham School published a statement that claimed: “as planned, contractors have investigated each tree prior to felling. As active birds’ nests have been found, all tree felling is suspended until all hatched birds have fledged”. The school’s approach seems to go against that demanded by the planners, and does not sound like a practical approach: personally, I can’t imagine a tree felling crew turning up ready to go, then finding a nest and going home for a few weeks waiting for the birds to fledge.

At the meeting in the school, Stuart Timmiss announced that felling would not recommence until after July, and that an ecologist would inspect the trees before felling could start. Yay, we saved the birds.

Save the trees

In a weird quirk of the planning process, when a council commissions development work, they are both the applicant and the approver. It is standard practice for councils to prepare and submit school planning applications, even though it is actually the school who requires the development. We therefore have the DCC planning department scrutinising a high profile application submitted by the DCC. This is a serious (but accepted) conflict of interest, not helped by the balancing act faced by planners for every application, where they weigh up different values and make decisions on applications where there can be strong grounds both for and against the development.

As most of us living in Wolsingham also find ourselves in a Conservation Area, we are used to having to beg the planners to let us make minor changes to our homes (changing the colour of our windows, or felling a tree). There were so many reasons for the planners to reject the new siting for the MUGA. Apart from the standard noise and light pollution issues, trees have high status in planning terms, and these trees are a significant landscape feature, with historical and emotional significance to former pupils, and of value in their own right because of their size and age. There were also reasons to just ‘hurry up and get on with it’: funding had been secured for the MUGA, there was no easy alternative siting, the development had already been timetabled and was now behind schedule, and the school was determined for there to be no unfinished works for the grand reopening scheduled for February next year.

At the school meeting arranged by Pat Glass, Stuart Timmiss talked about the three-legged stool of planning. I didn’t take very good notes, but my understanding is that the planning system as a whole now favours economic and social development over the environment (unless you are trying to fell a tree in a conservation area, of course). While on paper the environment should be given equal weighting, in practice the planners simply demand suitable mitigation measures. They can then give approval and be done with it, whereas refusing applications can become costly if the developer appeals.

On the Planning Portal, the delegated report includes extracts from the National Planning Policy Framework. Part 8, Promoting Healthy Communities, states: “the planning system can play an important role in facilitating social interaction and creating healthy, inclusive communities. Access to high quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation can make an important contribution to the health and wellbeing of communities.” Part 11, Conserving and Enhancing the Natural Environment, states “the planning system should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by protecting and enhancing valued landscapes, minimising impacts on biodiversity and providing net gains where possible.” The MUGA delivers part 8, but the loss of the trees goes against part 11.

The landscape report shows that officers were well aware of the significance the trees had to the local landscape, but were placated by the proposal to mitigate through new planting. It states: “The trees standing on the site chosen for the MUGA as a group make a significant contribution to the appearance of the school grounds and are visible from the public footpath that runs to the south and east just outside the school boundaries. As the initially proposed compensatory tree planting in the form of individual specimen around the edge of the MUGA site would be both ineffective and incompatible with the sports facility, a revised scheme that recreates the tree group on the abandoned vegetable garden to the north has been subsequently submitted and is accepted.”

Now to my mind, nothing mitigates the loss of 100 year old trees, as we will all be dead before the new trees are as good as the old ones, and there is no certainty that the new trees will survive long enough for some future generation to enjoy.

Finally, and I think this is what has hurt people the most, the consultation for the re-sited MUGA went completely unnoticed by all the people who are angry right now. I’ve no doubt that proper consultation processes were followed, but I also have no doubt that no one at the school or in the planning department drew people’s attention to the fact that the new site involved the loss of the trees. As I said earlier, planning notices provide very little information, and unless you go to the bother of reading the ‘small print’ hidden in the mountain of planning documentation, you are not going to have the full picture of what is being proposed.

The petition that was set up after the felling started has been signed by over 300 people. The comments show that many people feel passionately about the trees. Here are just a few examples: “any school could build a MUGA, but many would be jealous of Wolsingham’s setting, surrounded as it is by acres of greenery and mature trees.” “To remove these trees is a disgrace! My son attends as have all of my children, myself, my partner, sister, etc. and I feel very strongly about the removal of these trees. Our history is being removed bit by bit and for what??” “I think it will be a scandal and disgrace if these lovely trees are lost from the school grounds – they are themselves a wonderful outdoor resource for the children and must be incorporated in the plans for the site and the school curriculum.” 300 people writing letters to the planning department before permission was granted could have made all the difference.

Once upon a time, I lived in Southend in Essex. There was utter outrage from the local media and the public when a line of very mature trees was felled to make way for road improvements. I knew the Conservation Officer for Southend Council very well, and he said to me before the felling, with genuine sadness, “no amount of protesting can change this now, but if the public had expressed themselves before permission was granted, it could have been stopped”. The problem is that planning is a boring and complex business, public meetings are boring, but once the decision has been made, there’s a “bad decision” to latch on to, a controversy for the press to write stories about, and people find out and get angry only when it is too late to influence the outcome.

If you feel angry about the loss of these trees, then next time you see a notice stuck to a lamp post, maybe it’s time to take a closer look.


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Seven Seven

I remember it more than any other day. A hot summer Thursday morning, I was having a slow start and missed my normal train. I reached Tower Hill just as the station was closing. “Power cut, no we don’t know when we’ll be able to open. Give it 10 minutes.” A crowd was starting to form around the entrance, but no one was stressed or bothered. “Do I wait or try a bus?” we were all thinking the same thing.

Impatient to get going, I decided to try the bus. By now, there were a lot of people keen to get to work, and there was such a swarm attempting to board the first bus that I decided to walk. A pleasant hour along South Bank to Waterloo Bridge. I did wonder at all the sirens, but having never walked to work before I had no idea what was normal, and no one around me seemed bothered.

I reached the office. “Your safe! Didn’t you know…  there’s been a bomb.” Oh God, that’s what the sirens were for. The rest of the day was spent listlessly attempting to work, while keeping half an eye on the only PC in the office that had an internet connection. Rumours and counter rumours abounded. No one really knew what was going on, or if it was safe to leave the building.

An eerie silence descended over London, no panic, just a sense of quiet shock “keep calm and carry on”. Only last week half of us had been standing in Trafalgar Square waiting for the verdict on who would host the Olympics (I didn’t bother, I was sure France would win), and the week before that I was in Hyde Park for Live 8. London was absolutely buzzing – the best place to be in the world.

We waited for the all clear, and that evening I walked back along the Thames with a tide of fellow commuters. It felt strangely like the aftermath of a festival; we’d all shared the same experience and were on the Come Down together. Fenchurch Street was still closed, and there was quite a crowd around the front entrance. The bars were busy, and in some ways it just felt like a Friday night, with commuters dallying before getting their train home.

I remember being annoyed that the train barriers were not lifted – surely just this once they could not worry about tickets – but other than that it was a strangely normal journey home. The day’s events were only just starting to sink in.

I took the next day off, partly to appease My Taller Half, who was a lot more bothered about me travelling than I was, and partly to ‘let things settle down’. Maybe also a little bit because I was worried, but You Must Get Back On The Horse. The tube journey on Monday was surreal. Everyone made a point of clutching their bags and rucksacks “No bomb in my bag” and there was a dual feeling of “We are not afraid, we’re in this together” alongside “Are there any terrorists in my carriage?”. Nobody spoke, but it was obvious that everyone felt the same thing.

Gradually normality resumed. We got used to the armed police and constant tannoy reminders to Keep Our Belongings With Us At All Times. And now it was ten years ago. I’ve moved out of the South East, out of the suburbs, and swapped commuting for home working, but that day ten years ago is etched forever on my mind.

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