“It always seems impossible until it’s done.’ Nelson Mandela.
Through this tour I cycled across the north of England, following a belt of land that changed the world through the Industrial Revolution. This was the land of ‘dark satanic mills’ in cities like Preston, Manchester and Huddersfield. Other cities like Liverpool and Lancaster were major trading posts of the British Empire with links to the Slave Trade. This region was fuelled, largely, by coal which was mined in Lancashire and Yorkshire.
This belt is also rich in its history of people who believed that a better, fairer world was possible. Lancashire is the home of the Rochdale Pioneers who formed an early co-operative in 1844. In 1863 the North of England Co-operative Society, made up of 300 co-operatives in Yorkshire and Lancashire was formed.
In Manchester I performed less than one hundred yards from the site of the Peterloo Massacre, where the army attacked 60,000 peaceful protesters, killing 18 people. Manchester was central to Chartism (calling for votes for the people) and the first rally took place – attended by 250, 000 people- on Kersal Moor in 1838.
The trade union movement and labour movement was, and is, strong in this part of the country. I passed through the Yorkshire coalfield where the Miners’ Strike was being fought exactly thirty years earlier.
The tour will end in Hull, home to William Wilberforce, who led the movement to abolish the Slave Trade in the 1790s and 1800s.
On this tour I wanted to witness the ‘Goliaths’ that I pass on the route: the places where drilling and mining are taking place as well as the places where coal – and, more recently, industrial biomass- are being burned to generate electricity.
But I also wanted pay tribute to, and, where possible, meet some of the ‘Davids’- people directly challenging the fossil fuel industry and people living a life that is having a lower impact on the planet and their environment- and frequently with other benefits too! I visited eco-housing villages, anti-fracking protest camps, community wind and hydro projects, community allotments and wildlife gardens, transition towns and campaigning groups.
Of course, I don’t want to ‘co-opt’ these groups and individuals. Some will share my concerns about climate change, others are concerned about local environmental impacts or about developing their community. They are all, however, taking action in ways which in some ways improves their environment.
Here are their stories:
Thursday 10th April: Sprint Mill and South Lakes Action on Climate Change Towards Transition
The first performance of ‘Giants’ took place in Sprint Mill at Burneside, near Kendal. This is a beautiful nineteenth century water mill and smallholding. Its owners, Edward and Romola are committed to living in a way that is living alongside nature instead of trampling it. They have a small-holding with an orchard and keep livestock and bees. They also develop the biodiversity of the area through managing wildflower meadows and woodland coppicing.
Sprint Mill also celebrates traditional rural crafts like green wood working and old fashioned hand-powered machinery. It has also been the showcase for the works of several artists and craftspeople. Edward himself creates beautiful artworks using natural and industrial materials like sliced basket willow and chopped bale string, sawdust, river and goat de-barked ash branches. Sprint Mill is a place of peace. It felt like a place where the visitor might come away refreshed and inspired to tread a little more lightly on the earth.
Edward kindly gave me a catalogue of an exhibition of his art work. Its title was ‘Another world?’ It made me think of the words ofArundhati Roy: ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.’
My other partner for the performance was South Lakes Action on Climate Change Towards Transition. http://slacc.org.uk/ I don’t know of any group that combines campaigning with projects more typically associated with transition town groups. It is currently campaigning on fracking, supporting Killington Wind Energy project and promoting cycling. South Lakes Action on Climate Change Towards Transition has had its own book club, run energy saving fairs, celebrated active travel and developed a Sustainable Garden Award as part of the Kendal in Bloom competition.
It seems like a group that has great strength through diversity.
Friday 11th April Lancaster Co-housinghttp://www.lancastercohousing.org.uk/
The energy we use for our homes is responsible for one third of the UK’s carbon emissions so one way we can address climate change is through our homes. I stayed the night at Lancaster Co-housing. This is a housing project in a beautiful location on the banks of the River Lune in Halton, near Lancaster. The houses have been built to passivhaus standard, resulting in a 90% reduction in fuel bills. They are south facing, have high levels of insulation and airtightness as well as mechanical ventilation and heat recovery.
But it doesn’t stop there. The project combines individual houses with shared communal facilities (such as laundry and social space). This has social and environmental benefits. Vegetarian or vegan meals are produced and it is a car free environment. My host explained that hydro power will be installed in the future.
This seems a wonderful compromise between fully communal living and the totally separate lives that most people live in their neighbourhood. Not only are there more connections and less loneliness, but it is more sustainable too.
Monday 14th April. Barton Moss camp.
When I visited Barton Moss Community Protection camp protesters were preparing for packing up the camp. Exploratory drilling was just about finished and so, for the time being, it would soon be time to move on. As I was there the news came through that the camp had been nominated for the Observer Ethical Award.
The Barton Moss Community Protection camp has stood on the verge on Barton Moss Lane in Salford since November. It has protested against the exploratory drilling that I-GAS is undertaking in search of methane deposits, with the potential for coal bed methane extraction. This might or might not involve fracking.
Each day the protesters or ‘protectors’ have walked in the lorries delivering equipment and walked out the same lorries as they exit. Policing of the protest by Greater Manchester Police has been controversial and several claims against them are going through the legal system. The camp has also witnessed numerous direct action blockades, usually taking the form of ‘lock ons’ in the road to prevent access of lorries.
What did they achieve? Some might say that I-GAS did not fall behind its schedule of finishing by March. Others might say that this schedule, itself, might have been estimated to allow for protests and that, without them, the work would have been finished much more quickly. It has certainly raised awareness of the risks of fracking and coal bed methane and, presumably, further deterred investors. Some of the protectors are moving on to new anti-fracking protest camps, either Upton in Cheshire or Daneshill in Nottinghamshire.
Tuesday 15th April High Torrs community hydro project. http://www.torrshydro.org/
Torrs Hydro is a community energy project in New Mills, Derbyshire. The group’s secretary, Jan, showed me around the site in the beautiful gorge below the town centre. The leaflet that she gave me opens with the sentence, “Torrs Hydro New Mills is an example of the power of communities to take action and begin to address the challenges that climate change presents to us all.” Jan showed me the reverse Archimedes screw turbine (named ‘Archie’ by local school children). The water from the River Sett is held by the turbine, gravity pulls it down and the turbine is rotated, producing clean electricity. Most of the electricity is bought by the local Co-operative Food Superstore, with the remainder being sold to the national grid.
The turbine is designed to produce around a quarter of a million units (Kwh) of electricity over a typical year. This is equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of around 50 typical British homes and saves over 150 tonnes of CO2 emissions compared with conventional electricity generation.
The project is community funded and owned (through share ownership). Future profits will fund a community grants programme.
Jan explained to me the wider benefits locally and beyond. The project is regularly visited by local school groups and by those planning similar schemes across the country. Although Jan says that the Torrs Hydro scheme is not perfect in terms of design or position, they have a useful role in advising and inspiring others.
Thursday 17th April Stop Opencast Sharlston, near Wakefield.
‘Coal built Sharlston but now it wants to kill it’. These are the words of Parish councillor George Balaam and member of Stop Opencast at Sharlston (SOS) reported in the Wakefield Express just over two weeks before the Giants tour began. http://www.wakefieldexpress.co.uk/news/local-news/coal-built-sharlston-but-now-it-wants-to-kill-it-opencast-mine-is-too-much-too-soon-for-village-1-6514753 By the time I met with George Balaam in person, the planning application –by UK Coal- had been turned down.
Sharlston is an ex- pit village. At New Sharlston you can see the monument to the mine that was closed in 1993.
I hadn’t realised the scale of the proposed opencast coal project until George showed me round. It would have been 138 hectares in size and would have come within 100 metres of houses on Crossley Street. George explained that the application was turned down on health grounds. He said that campaigners had highlighted the risks of air pollution, continuous noise and extra traffic. George also spoke of the history of the area, telling me how sections of a road we travelled on were Roman and Saxon.
Local residents opposed the application by organising the SOS group, holding meetings, writing letters of objection and speaking at the planning meeting.
There’s still a chance of an appeal by UK Coal. George and other campaigners plan to do a survey of the village to be able to judge the level of respiratory problems. The Stop Opencast at Sharlston is staying together and George Balaam is keen to find ways to bring the community together.
Saturday 19th April Longley Community Wind project. http://www.hott.org.uk/
At Longley Farm near Hade Edge, Holmfirth, stands the UK’s first commercial wind turbine. It was installed in 1986. Now at the end of its life, it may be replaced by a community wind turbine. Longley Farm and Holmfirth Transition Town (HoTT) are jointly organising the project which is currently going through the planning process. If successful it will provide enough electricity to meet the equivalent needs of forty houses. The revenue from the generation is hoped to provide up to £ 50,000 per year for community projects. Here’s coverage in the local newspaper, the Huddersfield Examiner: http://www.examiner.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/its-world-longley-farm-launch-6473929
Sunday 20th April Growing Newsome www.growingnewsome.org.uk
Even on Easter Sunday, the Growing Newsome volunteers were at work on the community allotment at Ashenhurst. Growing Newsome has existed since 2009. Apart from the ongoing work on the allotment, looking after planters in Newsome village and beds at the nearby Stirley Farm, Growing Newsome organises numerous events throughout the year. These include a Potato Day (where you can buy your seeds potatoes), a Plant Swap day in May and an autumn event. Diane Sims from the group says that Growing Newsome is all about “making connections between people by growing food and eating together. It is a community of people connected through food.”
She adds, “We started by describing ourselves as a growing project but now we describe it as making connections between people though food.”
Thursday 24th April Inglehome, Hull. http://inglehome.co.uk/
For my final night of the tour I stayed in ‘Inglehome’ an ‘eco home’. My hosts Richard and Isy had bought an ordinary terraced house in Hull and ‘retrofitted’ it to high standards of efficiency. They put insulation in the external walls and under the floors, while increasing the amount in the loft, installed solar PV and solar thermal and they now use an air source heat pump and a wood burning stove. They went from emitting 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and spending £1,500 per year on utility bills to having zero net energy bills, zero net greenhouse gas emissions and receiving £1,400 per year for the energy they generate.
Their ‘Inglehome’ website states that one third of UK carbon emissions comes from the energy we use in our homes and adds that the UK’s housing stock is one of the less efficient in Europe.
Although it’s a long term project, Richard tells me that they will make back their money after several years- the exact number changes according to energy prices and rates of green incentives. In the meantime, Richard and Isy use it to ‘spread the message’ about one form of environmental action people can take. They organise open days and do talks to explain the project. It’s not the only form of action- Richard himself is heavily involved in the Yorkshire East Greenpeace Group and in Hull and East Yorkshire Against Fracking http://notofracking.blogspot.co.uk/ – but it’s part of the mix.