The National Trust has a target of producing 50% of its energy from renewable sources on its land by 2020. It’s a challenging target. The new biomass boiler which was installed at Ickworth Park near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and which was switched on in July 2015, is one of five pilot renewable energy projects that will address that goal. This is the story of how trees on the 1,800 acres estate are being turned into fuel.

ickworth park, national trust, ickworth rotunda, nikolaus pevsner, gervase jackson-stops

Completed in 1829, the Rotunda was later described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘a crazy idea … it makes for a lumpy appearance outside and creates very unsatisfactory shapes for rooms inside’. More recently architectural commentator Gervase Jackson-Stops said the Rotunda was like a ‘huge bulk, newly arrived from another planet’ and an ‘overgrown folly’.

The 199kw boiler is fuelled by wood chip produced from timber taken from the 600 acres of woodland on the estate and it will supply 100% of the fuel for heating the Rotunda and the West Wing. These are the main buildings in the centre of the park, and were the idea of the 4th Earl of Bristol, Frederick Augustus Hervey, who intended to use them as a place to display the treasures he gathered during his 30 years of travel in Europe. The Earl was seen more in Italy than in Suffolk.

Incidentally the Hervey family became more eccentric and more notorious right up to the 20th century; read more here. But ever since Ickworth was passed to the Trust in lieu of death duties following the death in 1951 of the 4th Marquess (and 8th Earl) , the buildings have been a nightmare to heat and the bills for the heating oil have been enormous.

Around 156 tonnes of wood chip fuel would be needed each year in addition to the 40 tonnes that was currently being supplied to the boiler at the Regional Office of the Trust at Westley Bottom a mile away. An independent assessment concluded that extracting this amount from the estate on rotation would be sustainable.

Removal of timber from the estate first started in autumn 2014 when ‘harvesting’ machines extracted non-native softwood trees like Western Red Cedar, Norway Spruce and Larch, from a small area of Lownde Wood in the south of the estate. The logs had to be stacked nearby as the wood chip store still had to be built. This was to be located next to the existing wood store in the north of the estate. In September last year, harvesting of softwood resumed in Lady Katherine’s Wood on the east side of the estate (photos 1 & 2). The harvester cuts the tree at its base, and as the trunk is lifted up, it is fed through rollers. Knives strip the branches off the trunk, and a chain saw cuts the trunk into 12′ lengths. This all seems to happen in just a few seconds and it is fascinating to watch.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lady katherines wood, tree harvester

These plantations of softwood were likely planted forty or fifty years ago but they had not been managed for a long time. Not all of the softwood is cleared, no more than 30% of the canopy in fact (photo 3). This is to keep some cover for wildlife until the wood is replanted with native broadleaf species that will improve biodiversity. It also serves to protect the wood from strong winds which could blow down thinly spread trees. Standing and fallen deadwood is left, again for the benefit of wildlife.

The land for the wood chip store had by this time been cleared so all the timber, including that from Lownde Wood, was taken up to wood store in the north of the estate (photos 4) where it was piled into five long stacks (photo 5), enough timber to last Ickworth’s needs for an estimated three and a half years. Ideally the timber needs to be stacked for 18 months to 2 years to dry out before it is chipped.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lownde wood, timber stacks

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The Christmas tradition of putting a plastic net bag of gold-foil wrapped chocolate coins in children’s Xmas stockings along with a satsuma or clementine took a bit of knock in 2014. Cadbury’s announced in October that year that it had stopped making its chocolate coins. The chocolate-maker said shoppers had switched to cheaper, own-brand versions sold at supermarkets such as Aldi, Lidl and Poundland, leaving its own sales in decline.

cadburys chocolate coins

As well as declining sales, Cadbury’s said that wrapping the foil around the coin-shaped chocolate was ‘quite fiddly’. Wasn’t fiddling with the foil and trying to remove it intact, part of the attraction of the coins at Christmas. Apparently the last remaining box of 24 bags of coins were snapped up on eBay for £100, well before their sell-by date.

A spokesperson explained that the coins, which were made by a ‘separate contractor’, had proved difficult to sell and that the process of wrapping the foil around the coins was not easy, adding ‘we are sorry to see the coins go, but that’s business’. Making chocolates has always been a business where continuous reinvention seeks to repeat the success of earlier forever popular chocolate bars.

The first company to make a moulded chocolate bar as we know it today was J S Fry & Sons in 1847 at their factory in Bristol, England. Joseph Fry found a way to mix cocoa powder and sugar plus a little melted cocoa butter extracted from the beans, to produce a paste that could be moulded into a chocolate bar suitable for large-scale production. It was coarse and bitter by today’s standards, but it was still a revolution. The paste could also be poured over fillings and in 1866, Fry’s Chocolate Cream was launched (image below).

frys chocolate creamDuring the late 1800s, and early 1900s, the manufacture of cocoa and confectionery in Britain was largely dominated by Cadbury’s in Birmingham, Fry’s in Bristol, and Rowntree’s and Terry’s both in York, all of whom were Quaker families. This wasn’t just a coincidence. The Quakers were social reformers, and extracting cocoa from cocoa beans to make drinks was a reaction against the perceived misery and deprivation caused by alcohol. Then the companies turned to the making of chocolate. But today these names exist only as brands owned by international companies. Cadbury (the ‘s’ was dropped in 2003) and Terry’s are now owned by US-based Mondelēz International, the second-largest confectionery manufacturer in the world after Mars (though Mondelēz is looking to sell the Terry’s brand). Fry’s was taken over by Cadbury’s in 1919, and Rowntree’s is owned by a Finnish company, Raisio Group.

Confectioners Are Swallowed Up 

sharp's super-kreem toffee, sir kreemy knut

Sharp’s introduced Sir Kreemy Knut in 1919 to promote their Super-Kreem Toffee, a dapper aristocratic character with cane and bowler hat. After WWII, Knut was resurrected as a live diminutive sales rep Nobby Clarke, a regular visitor at shows and seaside resorts during the 1950s, who arrived in a Rolls Royce. Sadly none of the brands made by Sharp’s survived for long after its sale to Trebor in 1961.

Though Fry’s was swallowed up in 1919 it wasn’t until the 1960s that other major confectioners went the way of Fry’s, or merged, often a euphemism for a take-over.

Trebor bought Sharp’s in 1961, and Clarnico in 1969. Bassett’s bought Pascall in 1965, and Barratt’s in 1966. Bassett’s then merged with Maynards and Trebor in 1990, and were then bought by Cadbury Schweppes in 1998, and finally by Tangerine Confectionery in 2008 (now the largest independent confectionery company in Britain).

Mackintosh’s bought Wilkinson’s in 1964, Fox’s in 1969, and then merged with Rowntree’s in the same year. In 1988, Rowntree-Macintosh was bought by Nestle, and Paynes was bought by Northern Foods. Fox’s (still owned by Nestle) was bought by Northern Foods in 2001, then Fox’s and Payne’s were bought by Big Bear Confectionery in 2003, which was then bought by Raisio in 2011.

Cadbury’s and Terry’s came to be owned by Mondelēz as a result of Kraft Foods buying Terry’s Suchard in 1993, and Cadbury’s in 2010. A year later, Kraft Foods split in two with the confectionery arm, which included Cadbury and Terry’s, becoming part of Mondelēz.

Some Sweets Still Live on

Though the original confectioners have long gone, their names live on as brands as do some of their most popular lines. Each sweet and each company has its own story, but here are a few snippets.

tangerine confectionery, barratts sherbet fountain

When Tangerine Confectionery, owners of Barratt’s Sherbet Fountain, updated the sweet’s packaging in 2009, they faced a predictable backlash from customers. The new, hermetically sealed fountain may have protected the product from moisture and avoided spillage on newsagents’ shelves, but generations of kids delighted in its original, eccentric, sherbet sucking and tongue tingling form. Tucked in the back pocket, the yellow paper tube looked pleasingly like a stick of dynamite.

Barratt’s Sherbet Fountains was first sold in 1925, the sherbet contained in a paper wrapped cardboard tube with a liquorice ‘straw’ stuck in the top. The tip of the straw was bitten off so as to suck up the sherbet, though it could get clogged up and the stick was then used a dip. The traditional packing was replaced in 2009 by a plastic tube and a solid liquorice stick which caused a media outcry. The Barratt’s factory was in Wood Green, London. By the early 1900s it had become the firm’s custom to give every worker a Christmas present. In December 1913, this took the form of an alarm clock, and it is said that Mr G W Barratt, son of the founder, personally presented about 2,000 of them.

When sales representative for Bassett’s, Charlie Thompson, in 1899 spilt a tray of liquorice and cream paste samples of chips, rocks, buttons, cubes and twists samples in front of a shopkeeper in Leicester, Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts was born. The resulting colourful mix impressed the chap who placed the first order for ‘allsorts’. Bertie Bassett, Bassett’s promotional mascot was introduced in 1929. Bertie has remained a popular figure ever since and to celebrate his 80th birthday, Cadbury arranged in 2009 for Bertie to marry his sweetheart Betty Bassett in the Sheffield factory where Allsorts were then produced.

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fen-dwellers, reed cutting, lotting fen, the fens, fenland

The livelihoods of many medieval fen-dwellers depended on reed cutting. The rights to cut reed were carefully controlled by manorial courts. Willow and reeds were used in building and thatching houses. In this photo from the early 1900s, Mr Mason of Lotting Fen is still stacking cut reeds in the traditional way.

Around the coast of the Wash in Eastern England lies The Fens or Fenland. Until the early 1600s, it was a vast natural area of marshes and swamps much lower that the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them. Wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, and in the open water fish and birds were abundant. Local people relied on fishing, wildfowling, and the harvesting of reeds for their livelihoods though unpredictable flooding caused many deaths.

To make the land more productive so as to feed a rapidly growing population, the Fens were drained over many centuries. This transformed Fenland from a natural wilderness into miles of intensive farmland with most of the land lying below sea level. It has been described by Ian Rotherham in his book The Lost Fens (2013), as the ‘greatest single ecological catastrophe that ever occurred in England’. Today only four pockets of the original fens survive. The final irony is that the drainage of the Fens has made the land much more susceptible to flooding as a result of the rise in sea levels caused by climate change.

A Potted Natural History

Fenland reaches into four historic counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and a small part of Suffolk, an area of nearly 3,900 sq km (1,500 sq mi). The fens formed about 5,000 years ago as sea-levels rose after the last Ice Age. A fen was the local name for areas of nutrient-rich shallow fresh or salt water in which dead plants did not fully decay. Peat forms from this partially decayed vegetation, and a rich flora of plants grows in this saturated peat. Beavers, otters, water vole and other wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, with abundant fish and birds in the open water.

Nearer the sea were washes, salt marsh and tidal creeks, and in higher areas where the peat grew above the reach of land water, were moors. There were also shallow lakes or meres: Brick, Ramsey, Trundle, Ugg, and Whittlesey Mere. The largest was Whittlesey, which was in Huntingdonshire. It measured 3.5 miles by 2.5 miles, it covered  3,000 acres (1,214 ha) in winter, and it was the largest lake in southern England. There were also isolated areas of higher ground, called ‘islands’, which remained dry when the low-lying fens around them flooded. The largest of the fen-islands is the Isle of Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, which is 39m above sea level at its highest point.

Early Inhabitants

medieval map of the fens, fen meres, fen islands, the wash, artificial river channels

This partly imagined map of the central part of the Fens in 1070 shows vast area of marsh south of the Wash with eight or so meres, and a variety of ‘islands’. The Ouse and Nene rivers join south of Wisbech, although as can be seen from the map below, they now follow separate artificial channels to the sea.

The fens were densely settled in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Timber trackways were used in some places to move around the flooded landscape. Helped by a fall in sea levels, the Romans built a road, the Fen Causeway, from Denver near Downham in Norfolk to Peterborough. Gravel was used to raise the road above the marshland to link what later became East Anglia and central England. The Romans also dug the Car Dyke, an 85-mile (137 km) long ditch which runs along the western edge of the Fens, which is believed to have been used as a canal. But other than this, the Fens were generally left unsettled by the Romans.

After the end of Roman Britain, it is thought that peoples from the Iceni tribe of British Celts may have moved west into the easily defended Fens to avoid the invading Anglo-Saxons who were settling in what would become East Anglia. In Christian Anglo-Saxon England, hermitages on the islands in the Fens became centres of communities, and in the 10th century monastic revival under the Saxon king Edgar, these became monasteries and abbeys such as at Chatteris, Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, and Thorney. Ramsey Abbey, which was founded in 969, became a major centre of religious learning. The abbey’s illuminated manuscript Book of Benefactors, described the island of Ramsey.

The island stretches for some two miles in length … and is garlanded roundabout with alder thickets and reed beds, [and there was] flowering ash for building the church. [The island was] encircled by eel filled marshes … fish and swimming birds.

By the time of the Norman invasion, Ramsey was the fourth richest monastery in the country. Of interest, some of the family and servants of the Danish King Canute (or Cnut) were caught in a storm on Whittlesey Mere in 1020 and nearly drowned. And it is believed that Hereward the Wake, the 11th-century leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest, sought refuge in the Fens after his escape from the seige by the Normans of the Isle of Ely in 1071.

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Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown

eric winkle brown, university air unit, edinburgh, naval test pilot

Young Eric Brown, aged 18, in the uniform of the University Air Unit at Edinburgh where he learned to fly.

No one ever had to say ‘he’s gone for a Burton’, but how test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown survived 50 years of flying is remarkable. The only Allied pilot to fly the Komet, a Nazi rocket-powered death trap of an aircraft, he said it was ‘like being in charge of a runaway train’. Captain Brown, born in 1919 in Leith, Scotland, died last Sunday, 21 February, aged 97.

Brown’s claim to unsought fame was that he flew 487 different types of aircraft and made 2,407 aircraft carrier landings, both world records that will never be repeated. He was the most decorated pilot in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The newspapers have been rightly generous in their praise of Captain Brown, the Telegraph and the Independent being just two. Here are the highlights of his spectacular flying career.

Brown’s father, Robert, had served in the First World War as a balloon observer and pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Brown said that he first flew in a bi-plane at the age of eight whilst sitting in his father’s lap. While still at school in Edinburgh, Brown accompanied his father to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His father’s RFC background led to them to meeting the boastful Hermann Göring, the chief of the newly-formed Luftwaffe (the Nazi air force), and Ernst Udet, a senior Luftwaffe officer, both First World War aces. Udet took the young Brown for a flight and declared that Brown had the temperament of a fighter pilot and that he must learn to fly.

At the time of the outbreak of war in 1939, Brown, a fluent German speaker, was an exchange teacher in Munich. He was arrested by the SS and briefly imprisoned, but was escorted in his MG sports car to the Swiss border. Back in Britain, he applied to join the RAF bu concluded that ‘there was no rush for my services’. So instead Brown enlisted in the FAA, the branch of the Royal Navy that operates naval aircraft.

eric winkle brown, naval test pilot, fleet air arm, second world war

Brown (dark uniform) with fellow test pilots in the 1940s.

After training, his combat flying began in 1941 as a fighter pilot flying off HMS Audacity, the world’s first auxiliary carrier (a captured and then converted German banana boat) protecting Clydeside-Gibraltar convoys. There were no below-deck hangers so the six aircraft had to stay on the deck. Brown received his first decoration, the DSC, for his bravery and skill in defending a convoy during a heavy and sustained air attack by enemy aircraft. On 21 December 1941 the Audacity was torpedoed by a U-boat whilst escorting convoy OG76. Brown was one of the only two aircrew who survived.

In 1942, he was posted to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough where he became chief naval test pilot in 1944, flying up to seven allied aircraft a day, including the Soviet MiG-15. One test was for Brown to dive a propeller-engined Spitfire at a staggering Mach reading of 0.86 (more than 600mph). Brown performed the first landing on a carrier of a twin-engined aircraft, a Sea Mosquito, on HMS Indefatigable in March 1944, and the world’s first landing of a jet aircraft, a de Havilland Sea Vampire, on the HMS Ocean in December 1945.

eric winkle brown, me163, komet, naval test pilot, second world war

A Messerschmitt ME163 Komet of the type flown by Brown. The first test flight of the ME163 was in July 1944. It had a phenomenal rate of climb and speed. With only a few minutes flight duration, and with highly inflammable propellants, it was a very dangerous plane to fly. Brown wrote of his flight ‘there was so much to get wrong and virtually no escape route’.

Ten days after the German surrender in May 1945, Brown was at an airfield in Schleswig-Holstein in north-west Germany testing the ‘Komet’, the rocket-powered fighter Messerschmitt 163, the only rocket aircraft ever to have been operational. The Nazis had begun deploying the plane during the last year of the war. Brown was completely fascinated by the tiny and lethally dangerous plane. Only RAE pilots were exempt from flying the planes, but only for a time, and Brown took his chance, despite the reservations of the German ground crew. Once the fuel in the plane had been used up, Brown glided the plane back to the airfield.

In April 1945, Brown, on account of his fluent German, was asked to help with translation at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Allied interrogations of Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, the commandant of the camp and his assistant. Brown later wrote ‘Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine’, adding that Grese was ‘the worst human being I have ever met’.

Brown also interviewed many Germans including Hermann Göring, Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel, the aircraft designers. But the interviews were brief, his part was limited to aviation matters, due to the need to begin the Nuremburg Trials. He was present at the interrogation of Heinrich Himmler, head of the entire Nazi police force including the Gestapo, who, under forged papers, had called himself Henrich Hitzinger.

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The Queen made a surprise visit on Tuesday to Bond Street tube station in London to be told that Crossrail is going to be named after her: the Elizabeth line.

One shouldn’t comment on how women are dressed, we should be listening to what they say, but an exception must surely be made here. Her Majesty’s colour-co-ordination was spot on. Crossrail purple, sorry Elizabeth line purple, has been deliberately chosen so as to match the Queen’s outfit (though I think the Queen’s attire is closer to lilac).

The colour purple has been associated with power and wealth going back to the Roman emperors, it’s status stemming from the rarity and cost of the dye originally used to produce it. Queen Elizabeth I forbad anyone except close members of the royal family to wear it. Did Transport for London have to ask the Queen’s permission I wonder?

Crossrail by the way is a £14.8bn east-west underground line, the central London section of which will open in December 2018, with a fleet of new 200-metre-long trains. Amazingly the project is so far on time and on budget.

orange army, her majesty the queen, hi-vis jacket, crossrail, elizabeth line, london underground, purple plaque

The Orange Army is out in force, many of them with seats in the circle. The Queen looks genuinely delighted as one would. But why are the top brass not wearing their hi-vis jackets? Lots of women in the front row, but they didn’t get to give the Queen her purple roundel plaque.

But Elizabeth, that’s four syllables. Though that’s the same as the Victoria line and the Piccadilly line, it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, it’s a bit clunky. For instance, you don’t say ‘I’ll take the underground’, you say ‘I’ll take the tube’.

Mmmm, I can’t think what Londoners might call the new line?

Crossrail has been called Crossrail for the past five years so it’s going to be some time before people start calling it something else. And what happens when Crossrail 2 is built. That’s something to keep you awake at night; the ‘Charles line’ or the ‘William line’.

her majesty the queen, mike brown london transport, buckingham palace, bomb shelter, crossrail, elizabeth line, london underground

Queen (Her Majesty). The Victoria line goes right under my house [Buckingham Palace]. But there’s a kink in it to avoid our bomb shelters. I opened that line you know, in 1968.
Mike Brown (London Transport Commissioner). Yes Ma’am. A bit before my time, that’s the year I was born

 

PointofViewThe Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain said in 1886, and the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson said much the same in 1964, that ‘in politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight’. We will soon know the reforms that David Cameron has been offered by the European Union as a result of his around the clock diplomacy. If he accepts what is offered, selling it to a bitterly divided Cabinet and to his party, let alone to voters, will be a nightmare. It is like a box of fireworks, which when lit will go off in unpredictable directions. But the government stands to lose either way.

Following its unexpected general election victory in May 2015, and no longer restrained by its coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative government is moving Britain towards a one-party state, in which the free market must be allowed to reign unchallenged. But leaving the EU risks a collapse in confidence in Britain’s financial markets. Many right-wing MPs believe that regaining parliamentary sovereignty is paramount and want to leave the EU regardless of whatever concessions are made by the EU. They are even more in thrall to a laissez-faire economy, and they also believe that by leaving the EU, Britain’s economy will flourish.

The future of the Conservative government is on the line, not just on the referendum, but on many other critical issues right up to the next general election in 2020. My own predictions out what is going to happen in that time are at the end this post. But first, how are we drifting towards a one-party state?

The Path to Power

ParliamentVotesPerMPThe Conservatives won the general election in 2015 with 37% of the vote. Labour got 30% of the vote, the Liberal Democrats 8%, UKIP (the UK Independence Party) 12%, and the Greens 4%. Yet under the first-past-the post-system (FPTP), the number of MPs voted in had little to do with the number of votes cast for a particular party as the picture to the left shows.

There was of course a referendum in 2011 on changing the electoral system, but the only voting system that the coalition government, led by the Conservatives, would agree to be put to the people was based on the Alternative Vote (AV). This had previously been described by Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a ‘miserable little compromise’, and it was loved by no one. The Electoral Commission’s explanation of the AV system was hideously complex, whilst that for FPTP took only three sentences. In the end, the No campaign, supported by the Conservatives opposed, was dirty and deceitful, whilst the Yes campaign, half-heartedly supported by the Labour Party, was lack-lustre and muddled. The outcome was almost 70% voting against a change and 30% in support.

Despite there being electoral systems elsewhere that link a party’s tally of votes to its tally of seats, mention anything to do with the constitution to many people and their eyes will glaze over. Unsurprisingly the turnout in the 2011 referendum was only 42%. But the reality is that under FPTP a small number of swing voters can decide who is in government.

There is a good explanation here, published by the Electoral Reform Society, of why FPTP is such an undemocratic method of electing our MPs, and why it doesn’t deliver what it claims.

Holding On To Power

The government has made or is making major changes to political processes so as to ensure that the chance of opposition parties forming a government, whether one party or as part of a coalition, is dramatically reduced.

  • the Chancellor in his 2015 autumn statement announced plans for a 19% cut in state funding for opposition parties, the so-called ‘Short money’ named after the former minister Edward Short, who devised the system in 1974. This was to compensate opposition parties for not having access to Whitehall resources and it has been in place for 40 years. The move will hit the finances of Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and other smaller parties, with the Labour Party set to lose £1m. The government though has relatively free rein to appoint its own special advisers paid for by the state, and since 2010 the cost of this has increased from £5.0m in 2009 to £8.4 in 2014.VoterRegistrationStudents
  • the government has changed the method of voter registration so that individuals have to register by 1 December 2015 in order to remain on the electoral list. Previously registration was done on a household by household basis. The government cited the need to stop fraudulent voting and to remove ghost entries, though fraud is almost non-existent. The Electoral Commission warned at the time that this could disenfranchise almost two million voters. The majority of these voters are young people and students, or people from ethnic minorities, people who are more likely to vote for opposition parties. These lost voters, together with the estimated 8 million people who are missing from the register, equates to 19% of all eligible adults not being on the electoral register. No major national campaigns are planned to persuade people to register.
  • in the Trade Union Bill now going through Parliament, the government is attempting to change the basis on which trade unions are able to make donations to the Labour Party. The outcome will be that the party will lose millions of pounds. The Conservative Party’s main sources of funding, corporate and private donations, which include 50 or so multi-millionaires, will remain untouched.
  • the government’s increasing use of statutory instruments as a back door means to change legislation, as opposed to Bills being presented to Parliament, has soared under the present government. George Osborne used a statutory instrument to introduce proposed cuts to tax credits. When the House of Lords opposed this, criticising the government for legislating through the back-door, Osborne attacked the House of Lords as an unelected body. The House of Lords should of course be an elected second chamber, but contrary to its feigned outrage, the government has thrown every obstacle in the path of reform of the second chamber. Osborne with no sense of irony threatened to flood the House of Lords with new Tory peers so that their defiance could not be repeated.

Incidentally the government’s intention to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600, and for number of electors within each constituency to be within 5% of the average number, which was agreed by Parliament in 2011, will now be progressed by the Electoral Commission. Whilst it is estimated that Labour will lose 20 seats as a result, the principle of having constituencies of more equal size cannot be said as such to be undemocratic as has been argued by some.

What is undemocratic is that FPTP will continue to be used to decide the winner in each of the ‘more equal’ constituencies. The winner can take all just by a few voters changing how they vote. The theoretical absurdity of FPTP is that one party could win every one of the 600 seats in Parliament with just a majority of one in each. No opposition MPs at all in Parliament? Just 600 votes could do it.

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Shippea Hill

ShippeaHillUpdateWhat does Shippea Hill, a remote railway station in Cambridgeshire, have in common with Shinjuku railway station in Tokyo, Japan? It’s all a question of busyness. Shinjuku is the world’s busiest station and is used by 1.26 billion passengers each year, whereas at Shippea Hill there is not much going on. In Europe, the busiest station according to recent analysis by the Independent newspaper, which takes account of metro or underground users as well, is Waterloo in London with 200 million passengers a year, followed by the Gare du Nord in Paris with 180 million users a year. So what about the least busy railway stations?

shinjuku railway station, world's busiest station

No photo can do justice to Shinjuku Railway Station, the world’s busiest transport hub with its 11 separate railway lines, 36 platforms and 200 entrances. Here is a pedestrian crossing to just one of those entrances.

World-wide figures for the quietest stations are not available, nor are there any for Europe. But according to the figures for 2014-15 released on 15 December by the UK Office of Rail and Road, there are ten stations on the national rail network that have fewer than 100 passengers a year. By comparison, Shinjuku has 12 million times more users.

The Least Busy Railway Stations

The ten least busy stations in Britain during 2014-15, in decreasing order of the number of users, are

10 Breich in West Lothian, Scotland (with 92 passengers)

9 Elston & Orston in Nottinghamshire, England (88)

8 Buckenham in Norfolk, England(88)

7 Golf Street in the town of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland(86)

6 Pilning in Gloucestershire, England (68)

5 Barry Links west of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland (60)

4 Reddish South in Stockport, Lancashire (54)

3 Tees-side Airport near Darlington, County Durham (32)

2 Coombe Junction serving the villages of Coombe and Lamellion, near Liskeard, Cornwall (26)

1 Shippea Hill serving the hamlets of Shippea Hill and Prickwillow in Cambridgeshire (with 22 passengers)

The reason for these very low levels of patronage is usually the small number of trains that actually stop at these stations. Take Tees-side Airport. You would expect a station apparently serving an airport to have tens of thousands of users a year. Despite the name, the station is a fifteen-minute walk from the airport, so accessibility is a major factor in its lack of usage. The other is that only two trains stop at the station each week, both on a Sunday: the eastbound Northern service 11.14 Darlington to Hartlepool, and the westbound 12.35 Hartlepool to Darlington. Sadly campaigns to highlight the poor rail service at the station, and to persuade rail authorities to move the station 500 metres closer to the airport terminal, have so far been unsuccessful.

shippea hill station, railway map, ely, norwich, east anglia, the wash

Shippea Hill is marked on this railway map with Ely to the west and Norwich to the east. Most of the land to the north of Cambridge is the Fens, which drain into the square area of sea to the north, which is called the Wash.

Why did Shippea Hill however attract just 22 passengers from April 2014 to March 2015? Firstly only one train a day going eastwards towards Norwich actually stops there, the 07.28 which runs from Cambridge via Ely to Norwich (07.25 on a Saturday), and then not on a Sunday. Going westwards there is just one train a week, on a Saturday, the 19.27 that runs from Norwich to Cambridge. The service then is almost non-existent. Shippea Hill is also a request stop, so passengers must inform the driver or conductor if they want to get off, or put their hand out as they stand on the station to alert the driver that they want to get on.

On a weekday over 30 passenger trains, including an East Midlands hourly 125 service between Norwich and Liverpool, pass through Shippea Hill each way so the route itself is a busy one. But why don’t more trains stop there? The simple answer is that it is a remote location where very few people live.

Where is Shippea Hill?

shippea hill mapShippea Hill railway station lies in the east of Cambridgeshire, with the Suffolk border 200 yards to the east, and a triple border with Norfolk a little further to the north-east. The station is on the Breckland Line that runs between Ely in the west and Norwich in the east. The station was opened in July 1845 by the Eastern Counties Railway as Mildenhall Road, the road that crosses the railway next to the station, though Mildenhall itself is eight miles away.

In 1885, with the opening of a separate railway from Cambridge to Mildenhall, the name of the station was changed to Burnt Fen, the name of the surrounding area. Finally in 1905 the current name was adopted. The only settlements are farms, and the nearest hamlet of Prickwillow is four and a half miles away by road. The name Shippea Hill seems odd as being in The Fens, the area is very flat and much of the land around the station is about one metre below sea level as a result of the draining of the fens. It is therefore very likely to be the only station in the world with ‘hill’ in its name that is below sea level.

shippea hill farm, burnt fen, frederick hiam, new covent garden market, new spitalfields market

Shippea Hill Farm © Evelyn Simak / Creative Commons Licence

Shippea Hill Farm (photo left) is a mile and a half to the west of the station (see map above), and stands on slightly higher ground 5 metres high but it is still surrounded by land at sea level. It is one of the few areas within Burnt Fen which rises above sea level, hence the ‘hill’. Potatoes are the main crop today, and the farm is owned by Frederick Hiam Ltd. Fresh produce is still delivered daily to Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets in London.

There are farms that are nearer to the station than Shippea Hill Farm, though they may no longer have lived-in farmhouses. One of the nearest is Bulldog Bridge Farm, less than a mile away to the west along the A1101 to Littleport. Bulldog Bridge, which crosses Engine Drain, is back along the road towards the station. Might Bulldog Bridge have been a more appropriate name for the station?

The Fens, also known as Fenland, cover an area of 1,500 sq miles in eastern England, and they were drained in the 18th century leading so that most of the area lies at sea level or just above. Read more about this here. Incidentally the lowest point in Britain, at 2.75 metres (9.5 ft) below sea level, is also in the Fens at Holme Fen. The land is very fertile and it continues to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps that work continuously. In the 17th century however the land was described as being all above sea level so perhaps Shippea Hill was a more significant hill then.

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