Sunday, 22 December 2013

Paul Spurgeon creates waves in St Ives

A wave of gold curves sensually to grace a woman’s neck and completes a final graceful swirl gently caressing a large single South Sea pearl. Paul Spurgeon’s style as a Fine Jeweller and Master Goldsmith is distinctive and renowned for its simplicity and elegance.

The modest window at 1 East Street, St Ives, Huntingdon, seeks not confuse the eye with an excess of distracting sparkle and sell-now products. It is an invitation to those looking for exquisite bespoke jewellery, designed for the individual client.

Paul’s workshop is visible and accessible next to the studio where you might visualise your dreams in platinum and sparkling diamonds.

Paul Spurgeon’s apprenticeship to David Pearce led onwards to commissions for Elton John & Suzi Quattro and to his own independent business in 1984.

Inspired by the work of other master jewellers, Paul is a two-time UK Jewellery Award winner, with De Beers promotional campaigns under his belt.

Coming from a background of over the top and richly detailed influences, he has evolved is own unique pared down aesthetic of simple, beautiful lines.

Paul commented on being featured in the 2012/2013 Goldsmith’s review, “What’s an Essex lad doing in here!” His wonder and appreciation, that becoming a master in your art can be life changing, has led to Paul devoting time and effort to encourage and develop new craftsmen in disadvantaged regions in South Africa and Afghanistan.

In 2009 he formed a partnership with Soweto born jeweller Nqobile Nkosi to create Cornerstone. The result is a coming together of creative ‘hearts and minds’ from the African communities fused with a European influence, expressed in silver and stone.

With his own craftsmanship and through collaborations, Paul Spurgeon in St Ives has something to offer the discerning client, whatever your pocket,.

“But why come to St Ives?” I asked Nicola, who has worked with Paul for nearly a decade.

“He loves the river and the town!” Was the simple answer.

And who can blame him. St Ives is a jewel in the East of England.

Visit Paul Sturgeon' site or gallery in 1 East Street, St Ives, Huntingdon.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Angry cyclists v Christmas Spirit: You reap what you sow on social media



The headline of your social media message can have a profound effect on both the tone and way people respond. Two personal examples follow. In each case I had quite a number of responses - but with totally different outcomes.

1. The Angry Cyclists


I have to start with an apology to Cambridge Cyclists. My obviously eye-catching blog title “80 percent of Cambridge cyclists are illiterate! A cultural survey”, in true Red Top Newspaper style, immediately got a response – primarily through Twitter. Cyclists were deeply offended!

I thought I’d written a light article on the different ways people would respond to the sign “Cyclists Dismount” in the UK and Germany. Message: In the UK you basically ignore it; In Germany you would probably ignore it – unless there were other people around.

What I’d actually done was land in an existing pool of simmering rage within the cycling community about meaningless advisory signs, such as the “Cyclists Dismount” one.

Most responses were educational, generally negative and verbally robust – along the lines of “insult me – and I’ll give as good as I get!” Some respondents managed to reply simply or even with some humour and they have my special thanks.

The post with 93 hits had 4 comments and at least 21 twitter responses within 24h. Of these, 2 did state that they would choose to dismount if there were pedestrians.

Do have a good look at the responses in the appendix below. They are in the public domain – just summarised here.

2. The Christmas Spirit


I would like to thank all respondents on the Anglo-German Business Network in LinkedIn. With Christmas coming up and remembering the German Christmas Markets, I posted a question to the group, “Do you have a favourite (German Christmas Market)? Which ones would you recommend? Which ones will you be going to?”

LinkedIn items have a longer response time and are still coming in after 12 days of the original post.

So far, this has resulted in 16 responses (including my own). All are positive and informative. In fact, if you want to visit a German Christmas Market, whether in the UK or Germany, there are some great personal recommendations there.

Again, as the items are in the public domain, they are summarised below for your convenience.

You reap what you sow


The question you have to ask yourself when putting material out on social media is – what sort of response do you want?

A Shock-Jock headline is likely to get a lot of robust responses. Great if you are trying to boost radio show responses. Bad if you are trying to make a positive connection. Humour is a double edged sword. Not everyone may share yours and you could equally well land face down in the mud.

Appealing to people’s better nature will generate a positive response, but only if it is relevant or of interest to them.

So what am I going to do? Definitely tread more carefully!


Cyclist responses

Christine Jones (Carter)26 November 2013 10:55
Blue signs are advisory, legally you don't have to dismount. Yes this sign is optional and you are an ignoramus.

Cab Davidson26 November 2013 11:01
The blue sign there is entirely advisory, carrying no compulsion. A no cycling sign has a bike on a white background with a red circle around the outside.
I put it to you that most of the cyclists there know this - and you do not. Neither conclusion you draw - Brits see rules as optional or that cyclists are illiterate - is reasonable. 
Your blog post reveals your own ignorance of the rules as they stand - nothing more.

William NB26 November 2013 11:30
Really? You're accusing cyclists of being illiterate, when actually you are the only one that appear to be. And if you're not illiterate, then you are certainly ignorant of the law.
As others have pointed out, "Cyclist Dismount" signs are advisory. This means it is like a request, and cyclists are under no obligation whatsoever to adhere to it. Moreover, as is the case nationally, that sign is used contrary to DfT guidelines. This means it simply should never have been placed there. 
But don't take my work for it - go do some research, eradicate your ignorance regarding this and then do the right thing: publish a new blog post that clearly admits how wrong you have been, and also go post several tweets on Twitter, again admitting your ignorance.
And while you're at it, why don't you read the Highway Code - yes, ALL of it.
Then go write a ranty, insulting post on driver that don't yield to pedestrians crossing the road that the drivers are turning into, drivers that park on pavements, drivers that encroach on ASLs and similar everyday occurrences that are a WHOLE bunch more important and dangerous than cyclists (justifiably!) ignoring a Cyclists Dismount sign.

rich25726 November 2013 12:38
All you have demonstrated is that 'Cyclist Dismount' signs cause confusion. Cambridge Cycling Campaign have been asking for 'Cyclists give way to pedestrians' signs here and elsewhere http://www.camcycle.org.uk/campaigning/papers/legality/.


Rob Haynes favorited a Tweet you were mentioned in
26 Nov:  .@miltoncontact sign is advisory carrying no compulsion. The cyclists are not 'illiterate' - they simply know the rules better than you do

abby chicken ‏@photochicken 26 Nov
@miltoncontact that's nothing, 87% of your tweets are meaningless #madeupstats

 MJ Ray ‏@mjray 26 Nov
@hushlegs @gnomeicide @miltoncontact if I either dismount or wait at the one nearest me, walkers panic, rush and glower #noWin #betterToRide

Mike the Moustache ‏@MikefromLFE 26 Nov
@WilliamNB @miltoncontact Well said William! I always thought that those signs were giving information ­čśä'some cyclists dismount here'

Cycling Front ‏@cyclingfront 26 Nov
@miltoncontact @gnomeicide Lots of innumeracy and colour blindness in Cams too. Signs with a 30 inside a red circle

 Cab Davidson ‏@gnomeicide 26 Nov
@SpanishPirate1 highway code also tells you right near start blue rectangle signs are information. @AsEasyAsRiding @miltoncontact

William ‏@WilliamNB 26 Nov
@miltoncontact You, sir, are an idiot for a) calling cyclists illiterate and b) launching such an attack on incorrect information.

Nick Kocharhook favorited a Tweet you were mentioned in
26 Nov:  @AsEasyAsRiding @gnomeicide Hilarious! You obviously never seen this mockery, @miltoncontact, long since removed.  http://homepage.ntlworld.com/pete.meg/wcc/facility-of-the-month/September2007.htm …

Spanish Pirate ‏@SpanishPirate1 26 Nov
@AsEasyAsRiding @gnomeicide @miltoncontact page 36 confusing https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/222621/dg_191955.pdf … #cyclistsdismount

christine jones ‏@christabelaroo 26 Nov
@cotnm @AsEasyAsRiding @gnomeicide @miltoncontact Wow. How did we get engineers this stupid? I thought Gove said we are a clever lot?

christine jones ‏@christabelaroo 26 Nov
@gnomeicide @miltoncontact Blue signs are advisory, you don't have to dismount. Clearly you are not an academic, best keep away from stats.

Gill Cooper ‏@Tw1tterati 26 Nov
@miltoncontact Erm, the "rule" in question is indeed optional.  Blue signs are advisory only.

Cranky Acid ‏@CrankyAcid 26 Nov
@miltoncontact You have very little idea what you are talking about. Do your research before inflicting your prejudices on the world

Cab Davidson ‏@gnomeicide 26 Nov
@HushLegs ...because like nearly all the cyclists and unlike @miltoncontact I know what the sign means :)

 Cottenham Cyclist ‏@cotnm 26 Nov
@AsEasyAsRiding @gnomeicide Hilarious! You obviously never seen this mockery, @miltoncontact, long since removed.  http://homepage.ntlworld.com/pete.meg/wcc/facility-of-the-month/September2007.htm …

Cab Davidson ‏@gnomeicide 26 Nov
@HushLegs yep, me too. If it looks busy I dismount there. If it isn't busy I ride over.  @miltoncontact

Hush Legs ‏@HushLegs 26 Nov
@gnomeicide Entirely advisory. I would dismount or wait if there was a ped, but would continue if it was clear. @miltoncontact is ignorant.

Mark Treasure ‏@AsEasyAsRiding 26 Nov
@gnomeicide Yep, all @miltoncontact has demonstrated is that he doesn't know the meaning of the sign. It's advice, not a rule

Cab Davidson ‏@gnomeicide 26 Nov
@miltoncontact and, frankly, to call others illiterate from a demonstrable position of ignorance is offensive. Retract please.
Cab Davidson ‏@gnomeicide 26 Nov
@miltoncontact sign is advisory carrying no compulsion. The cyclists are not 'illiterate' - they simply know the rules better than you do
 Cab Davidson retweeted you
25 Nov:  80 percent of Cambridge cyclists are illiterate! A cultural survey http://aweber.com/t/IEMr3 



Christmas responses

John Grant
I like the Christmas market at Gelsenkirchen Buer......especially the Gl├╝hwein stands

Susanne Jones
My favourite Christmas market is in my hometown, Bad Wimpfen. The medieval surroundings add extra charm and atmosphere.

Chris Thomas
Thanks John, Thanks Susanne :)

Waclaw Slezak
Birmingham is a great success; crowded, vibrant and all the trimmings. 
German Christmas markets - just those three words create a thousand pictures, hundreds of aromas and decades of memories - from child to adulthood for those lucky enough to have that experience; mine was limited to just a dozen or so years.

Lee Hubbard LCGI EngTech InstRE MCMI
Any Christmas Market, Paderborn, Hannover, Koln, Celle ...... the list goes on. I think I would like to visit a different town or city each year! Germany is defiantly the best place to be in December which ever market you manage to visit!!

Chris Thomas
Now of course we have an additional factor, do you prefer the modern German Christmas markets, or the ones adhering to the older mediaeval form! Essen had both last year.

Colin Perry
K├Âln had a medieval market, but it hasn't been there for the past two years. My personal favourites are K├Âln's markets at the Dom and Alter Markt. My son is going there on a school trip next month - I wish I was going too.
Alex Wieck
Does anyone know of any good ones in Dusseldorf or near to Dusseldorf?

John Grant
There is bound to be some within the D├╝sseldorf altstadt area, a great place that i frequented a lot when I lived in D├╝sseldorf for over even years.

Alistair Starling
Having just moved to Berlin with Cambridge English, I'm really looking forward to the Berlin Christmas markets...

ROSS JC WATSON
Der N├╝rnberger Christkindl Markt!! Absolutely fantastic. Spent a week down there at Christmas time two years ago and it made a big impact! The highlight for myself was the "Biggest Feuerzangbowle in the World", with the famous German Christmas Classic "Die Feuerzangbowle" from 1944 projected onto a white building next to the Pegnitz river that meanders through the town. We also make a point of visiting the Goslar Weinachtsmarkt near the Harz Mountains once every year. It´s not so big and crowded, and is in a nice picturesque setting. I LOVE GERMANY AT CHRISTMAS TIME!!!!! http://tourismus.nuernberg.de/erleben-geniessen/events/christkindlesmarkt/d/christkindlesmarkt-der-beruehmteste-weihnachtsmarkt-der-welt.html

Robert Partridge
I would say Koln was pretty close, but Dusseldorf will have it's own. 
Personally I like Koln, adore Monschau a little village between Koln and Aachen but for a really interesting experience the Valkenburg Caves in Limburg in the Netherlands just over the border takes some beating...especially when you reflect on its historical background during WW2 and that it could accommodate seemingly 35,000 people in the event of a nuclear attack during the Cold War!

Robert Partridge
Koln is without doubt the best in Germany we have visited along with the pretty little village of Monschau, but you should try the Valkenburg Caves in Limburg just over the border in The Netherlands...natural caves where soldiers took cover during more troubled times and also where seemingly there was accomodations for 35,000 people in the event of a Nuclear Attack during the Cold War...quite a venue for a Christmas Market I can assure you....plus the prices are cheaper!

Michael Clarke
Manchester's Christmas German Market is huge, thousands of people from all over the North West of England are drawn to it, its so big they have added a French section and a Spanish section too. It is also a great opportunity for lots of small artisan supplies from all over the UK to take advantage of the Christmas trade in the UK's second biggest city.

Barry Davies
There is an excellent market in Kempen (near Krefeld) which specialises in 'home-made' goods. The town itself is also very interesting. Check first though for dates/times. If you do go to the K├Âln market go by public transport (the parking is horrific). 
Of the Berlin markets the one around the Gendarmenmarkt is the most spectacular. But do get out to Spandau for a contrasting experience.

Marleen Mertens CertRP
Dresden!

Monday, 25 November 2013

80 percent of Cambridge cyclists are illiterate! A cultural survey

Green Dragon Bridge, Cambridge, showing signs and two cyclists


When you cycle downstream along the Cam, you eventually come to the Green Dragon Bridge. Signs on either bank ask cyclists to dismount. I conducted an impromptu survey of 102 cyclists last Friday, on whether they dismounted or ride across. 80 rode across, 22 dismounted.

Two curious dog walking passers-by asked what I was surveying, to which I solemnly replied I was monitoring cyclist literacy. One commented that surely it was alright to cycle across the bridge - as long as it was done safely and with due consideration to pedestrians. The other reflected that this survey was actually a reflection of cyclist fitness. Those who dismounted did so because they could not cycle up the bridge incline!

Later that day I was in two separate Skype conversations to Germany, where I asked what the German response would be. One replied that they would only cycle across if no one was there to see, as otherwise someone would object. The second posited that this situation would not arise as all pedestrian bridges they encountered naturally ─žad a cycle path.

So, we Brits assume that rules are generally optional, with leeway for interpretation by our common sense whilst in Germany sensible construction makes regulation unnecessary.

What do you think?

Baits Bite Lock on the River Cam



Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Moonlit cycle ride home along the Cam



Out of the warm room, departure from the friendly bloggers group. I wheeled out the bike, all wrapped up against the chill on Burleigh Street.

Dropping speed for the approach to Elizabeth Way bridge, I made a split moment decision to go back via the river. Seventeen swans silently swam down the silver stream of the Cam, towards the gibbous moon.

Cycle tyres thrummed past the new Chesterton bridge, the last of the road, then across the cattle grid onto the tree shadowed towpath. Across the Green Dragon bridge, a right turn to ignore the warm invitation of the pub lights. Soon I was back on the river path, with a swerve to miss the last of the night's lovers on their romantic walk.

No city lights, just the bright moon, cycle headlight and the occasional golden squares from moored riverboats. The hard dirt path sparkled as its route mirrored the river's ribbon. Now dark adapted, eyes had no problem finding the way under the tree-framed starry sky. The only sounds were the crackling gravel under the tyres, the air rushing past the anorak hood and the steady breaths of aerobic exercise.

On the opposite bank, the sodium glare of garden floodlights marked The Plough at Fen Ditton. Back in the welcome night, it was under the A14 flyover until the guillotine shadow of Baits Bite Lock heralded the return to a tarmac path.

Then a left turn onto Fen Road, leaving the river behind. A night train crossed the fields under the now open sky and, with windows glowing, continued like a slow horizontal firework towards Ely.

Into street-lit Milton. Harsh frost glittered on the car in the drive. The bike was safely parked in it's Apple-store-scented garage. Glasses suddenly misted over on opening the kitchen door to find the promise of a hot, streaming mug welcoming me home.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Wizards, Manga and Role Play at Cambridge’s CamCon 2013

Manga, cartoons, role-play and lots of fancy dress, how could I resist! I heard about CamCon 2013 when Sue Dougan of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire was interviewing Ziggy aka Sonic, the head organiser of Camcon’s event. Arriving at about 10:30, Saturday morning, the queue was already snaking across the square in front of The Junction with the patient but eager set of visitors.

You can see my video impressions below or by visiting the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPCTQz3VERA&feature=share&list=UUkwwvTB6RbAGmdH3N33BWgw



The dealer’s room was already bustling with crowds of visitors around the tables and displays. Hat makers, comic book sellers, fancy dress costumes and artists displayed their skills and wares. Pikachus, heroes - both male and female - and the occasional Doctor Who in his various incarnations mingled amongst the more conventionally dressed population.

The Maids of England, the epitome of cute in Japanese, were first on the stage in Junction 2, dancing away to Maids’ tunes that will have been played in tens of thousands of Japanese Maids cafes. Later they would be providing a full Maids’ service to hungry and thirsty CamCon visitors in the upstairs cafe.

They were followed by a range of special interest panels, from the world of Manga via indie web comics to Doctor Who. The first floor gallery had been turned into a variety of gaming events where the aficionados and a novices could try out their hands on the latest games and equipment.

But for me, as a novice to a convention like this, the most enjoyable things were the costumes and the role-play game.

People didn’t just dress up, they also immersed themselves in their roles and characters. So one moment I could find myself interviewing Pikachu and her abductor Japan, and the next moment I was talking to Esmeralda from the hunchback of Notre Dame.

Dungeons and Dragons had up to now simply been meaningless words to me. Seeing a role-play of the game, conducted with humour and audience participation, not only gave me an insight into the fun can be had but also had me chuckling along.

Above all, it was the friendly, open atmosphere and the buzz that surrounded this second CamCom convention in Cambridge. Next time round, I’ll also make time to visit some of the films. Perhaps I might also pluck up the courage to go as a character myself.

If you couldn’t make it to CamCon 2013, then keep a lookout for next year and book your tickets early as they sell out like hotcakes!

Chris Thomas, www.miltoncontact.co.uk

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

German Cloud descends on London

Night on the ThamesThirteen German IT and cloud companies came to London mid-June, to find UK partners, distributors and other useful business contacts. Long time partners, Milton Contact had been invited to assist Mark Dodsworth of Europartnerships http://europartnerships.co.uk/ , who was managing the project for the BMWi http://www.bmwi.de/EN/root.html.
 The visiting companies were:


On the Monday, Jane Thomas and I found ourselves taking the London train and then walking from bustling High Street Kensington station to the quiet leafy Kensington Square.  Briefly distracted by the film crew shooting a motorbike scene, we arrived at St Jame's house where Goodwille had made their rooms available http://goodwille.com/.

Petra, Nora, Carolina and team were running a hectic schedule, trying to meet the needs of visitors, guests and language support.  Mark was already on the road with one of the companies with a meeting outside London.  Jane, new to this type of event and providing German-English facilitation, was understandably apprehensive.
"Be your usual sensible self and simply spread calm!" was my advice, and so it proved that Jane soon complemented the skills of our multinational team of Germans, Colombians, American and Brits.

Our German companies all had exemplary English skills and were able to represent their businesses and offers coherently in the one to one conversations with British companies. Our skills were in assisting understanding with fast speaking and unfamiliar (to Germans) UK accents, and in facilitating the flow of the business meetings.

Wednesday’s events were held at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, 44 Belgrave Square http://www.ipa.co.uk/.

The day comprised a morning of 16 presentations plus Q&As before lunch and one to one free networking in the afternoon. Mark delegated me as chair for the presentations. In advance,  I had advised the German Cloud and IT companies to:

  • Prepare an informative 7 minute presentation
  • Use no more than 7 slides
  • Send presentations to us in advance so we could plan a seamless delivery

Full credit to our German guests who kept to time on the day, making this an interesting and varied program for the audience.  We had presentations ranging from business support software, though totally secure cloud hosting, to specialist software for the steel industry. It was with good humour that I noted the imaginative interpretation of "7 slides" to mean any number between 5 and 17, or seven slides but with multiple click actions.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. So we also ensured a good time together in the evenings in the pub or restaurant. Our Columbian contingent certainly provided us with laughter and entertainment to break the ice on the first night in the  Star Tavern, Belgrave Mews http://www.star-tavern-belgravia.co.uk/.  Relaxed conversation filled the air at the Del Aziz Restaurant on Tuesday http://www.delaziz.co.uk/.

Amongst my charges were Sebastian Schulze of KMS, Hans Peter and Andreas of Novadex and Britta & Dirk von Pechmann od Seneca Business Solutions.

Sebastian and I made an excursion to the Science Museum, where we had an interesting time in the basement with the Google interactive exhibit. My handsome face managed to confuse the drawing software that sketched portraits in sand from snapshots of visitors.

Hans-Peter and Andreas were lured into a meander across the centre of London, starting at the Royal College of Surgeons (where they had attended a Postal Exhibition with my my good friend Richard Wishart in attendance), via St Pauls, the Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern to the Restaurant.



Dirk, Freiherr von Pechmann  and Britta, Freifrau von Pechmann  introduced me to their intriguing family history as knights created during the 17th Century, after the battle for Budapest. Their knighthood was awarded both in the Holy Roman Empire and in Hungary (http://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz94335.html).

As ever, London always provides me with fascinating photographic opportunities and you can see the results of my occasional diversions or views on the way in the picture slideshow here.
If you cannot see the slideshow, visit the album here:  https://picasaweb.google.com/107595387761034666575/GermanCloudITVisitEuropartnerships?authuser=0&feat=directlink


After the three full days, we said goodbye to new friends, shared a farewell drink with Mark, Petra, Nora and Carolina, before making our way back home to Cambridge on the train.


Some of the Europartnerships Team


Sunday, 23 June 2013

How German banks support business

In D├╝sseldorf with Sandra & Leif at Toll├ę GmbH, I was also introduced to the business investment routes provided by the German banking system and the federal state. The banking system is dramatically different to that in the UK.



Overall, retail banking in the UK has been consolidated into a small group of large banks with familiar names right across the nation. They work in a highly competitive purify driven market and have been shaken by the financial crisis. British firms are all too aware of the significant drop in willingness to invest in them by the banks. Despite efforts by the government, there was less lending to business so far in 2013 than in the previous year.

The situation in Germany couldn't be more different. Apart from private banks, there are over 420 savings banks and 1100+ cooperative banks. What's more, lending to small and medium sized businesses continued throughout the recession. The savings banks or Sparkassen are each associated with towns and cities. They are not profit oriented and do have an ethos of encouraging both saving and assistance to business start-ups.

At a federal state level, there is also a bank associated with the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW). This channels grants and financial support available from NRW, from the national government and from EU funding. The objective is to support innovation and entrepreneurs. The NRW Bank does not make the funds available directly to businesses. Instead, the funding is open to competitive approaches by the 'Hausbanken', i.e. either the private retail banks, the Sparkassen or the cooperative banks.

Once Germany's banking system was regarded as a quaint parochial system of small banks that should really have been consolidated, as elsewhere in the world. However, these parts of the banking system have survived the past dark years and continued to support small businesses in particular.

Other countries are taking notice.

Other articles arising from June visit to Toll├ę GmbH:
Toll├ę GmbH off to a running start
Toll├ę GmbH: Seeking better solutions for ageing populations

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The UK EU Relationship: Divorce, separation or reunion? Discussions at the GBF

I’ve been concerned about the singular lack of any real debate on the proposed UK referendum  on Britain’s role in the European Union. Thus, this year’s annual conference of the German British Forum (www.gbf.com) was a real magnet to me. The topic was “The European Single Market and the Future of British Manufacturing”. High level keynote speakers from both Germany and the UK promised some real relevant information.

The event took place in Stationers’ Hall, a stone’s throw from St Pauls. A little gem in itself, there is an article on the Hall with photos available here: http://miltoncontact.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/stationers-hall-brief-visit-to-london.html

The event covered four main sections:
  1. Competitiveness challenges in the European automotive sector – German and UK industry strategies
  2. The vital place of the single market in the new Europe – Keynote speech by Rt Hon Lord Owen
  3. The European economy and the importance of the single market
  4. The future of the Euro area – What kind of Europe do we want? What kind will we get?

Looking back on my notes, the insights gained came in a slightly different order.

1. The future of the Euro area

There was one clear message here: The current economic crisis was on the one hand pushing the Eurozone harder towards centralisation and on the other, revealing the stress fractures between and within nations. Indeed, there was a clear fear that under the pressure to survive, the Eurozone was dropping economic elements of “competitiveness” and “subsidiarity” and replacing them with a political “harmonisation”. At one particular point I was reminded of the poem by Baldrick of Blackadder fame: “Doom, Doom! Doom, Doom, Doom…”.

This was of course contrasted with the economic realities in the UK and Germany.

2. Competitive challenges in the European Automotive sector

Speakers from major automotive companies and their 1st and 2nd tier suppliers actually had a more optimistic note now after the harsh recession in the past decade. Transport is one of the major industries in the European single market. The German automotive sector is on the up again and Britain’s suppliers to the industry are also increasing trade. Three aspects were seen as of major importance to the future of the industry:

  • Major investment in Research and Development
  • Training of highly qualified staff
  • The need for a period of political stability and longer term thinking.

Moving on, we considered the broader aspects of the UK’s benefits of being within Europe

3. The European Economy and the importance of the single market

This session began with great humour by our Eurosceptic UK delegate, John Redwood; Joking that where before he was seen as on the far right and now he is being criticised for being too middle of the road.

However the highlight for me was the presentation by Dr Rebecca Harding of Delta Economics. Her talk was full of more real data than I could record. Here are just some of the key points:

  • 34% of world trade originates in Europe ($55 trillion).
  • Europe predominately exports to itself.
  • New accession countries like Poland and the Czech Republic are undergoing dramatic growth
  • The economics of scale affect logistics and supply, thus the EU dictates patterns of trade in pharmaceuticals, cars and oil globally.
  • The EU uses its union to strengthen its global supply chains . 

The remainder of the session echoed the need for longer term political and economic stability. The proposed UK referendum on Europe and the current negative political agitation were introducing a level of uncertainty.

So what was the solution that would address both concerns of the UK’s Eurosceptic majority and allow businesses and the UK economy to benefit from the European single market?

4. The vital place of the European market in the New Europe. A Solution?

Lord Owen’s speech suggested a practical and welcome solution (see further down). Taking us back through some of the EU’s history, Lord Owen reminded us that the current “In or Out” black and white perspective of the EU was inaccurate. The different nations within the EU had always had a plethora of sometimes conflicting attitudes and required solutions. This was reflected by the different agreements in place; from the Schengen free trade area, the EU Customs Union, the Eurozone to the European Economic Area.

Wikipedia has this excellent graphic illustrating this point by author Wdcf:

Lord Owen recognises that

  • All European countries benefit from the single market.
  • A number of EU countries are working towards political and economic union, as the Eurozone.
  • The UK and some other countries wish to retain control over their own political and economic affairs.

The proposed solution is:

  • To use the current framework of existing agreements to strengthen the membership and voice of countries within a restructured European Economic Area, as the single market.
  • Whilst allowing the economic and political union of the Eurozone members to continue as one major bloc within the restructured EEA.

This requires strong but constructive negotiation by the UK prior to the proposed referendum.

At the meeting itself, I was initially sceptical of the proposal.  This was primarily because it may be difficult to get the message across to a Eurosceptic electorate. The current public thinking is simplistic in terms of “in or out of the EU referendum”.

Now, I am gradually coming around to the idea.

Conclusion

For the UK business community, it is essential that we give our political leaders a clear message: The UK economy is far better off within a European single market with a UK voice, than out on a limb on our own.

This meeting of the 18th Annual Conference of The German British Forum was a timely event prior to the run up to the future UK referendum on Europe.

Recommended reading: “Europe Restructured” by David Owen- For a more considered view of Lord Owen’s arguments than could be presented here. http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00994MZS8

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Stationers' Hall, A brief visit to a London Gem

A rare sunny day in London as I walked past st Paul's cathedral. Tourists were picnicking in the festival gardens and chatting on the west entrance steps. Just around the corner was Ave Maria lane, but I had to ask a nearby doorman where to find the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper makers. The unassuming gateway led to a secluded courtyard and the cool shadow of the hall.

I was attending the annual meeting of the German-British Forum. Arriving early, and with permission of the manager in charge, I had the great opportunity to wander around and take pictures from the stock room, the main hall and the court room where the event was to take place.

If the slideshow below does not play on your device, visit the image collection here: https://picasaweb.google.com/107595387761034666575/StationersHallLondon


The current hall was rebuilt over 1670-1673 after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and has gone though several internal decorations. Glowing stained glass, rich panelling and the shields carried by Liverymen in the Lord Mayors procession of 1749 are some of the images I captured in that short half hour.


As a publisher and writer, it was a particular pleasure to visit the Stationers' Hall. The Stationers ' Company was formed in 1403, when the scribes and lymners (book illustrators) were granted the right to a single trading company to oversee their affairs. They set up their stalls in St Paul's Churchyard and were known as 'stationers', for being at a fixed site rather than itinerant vendors.


Later, the stationers, obtained a royal charter from Queen Mary in 1557 giving them the exclusive right to print and sell books. The right to control all printing and the need for all new books to be authorized by the company meant that a register of approved books was held at the hall - a system of control and censorship for the government. This right continued through till 1695.


In 1710, the Copyright Act came into effect and this gave those who registered their books with Stationers' Hall protection, along with a requirement to provide a legal deposit in one of the copyright libraries. This tradition of mandatory and then after 1911, voluntary registration with Stationers' Hall finally came to an end in 2000, ending 450 years of tradition.


Now the company continues its other long interest, the administration of charity through the Stationers' Foundation. This assists young people with the cost of education and helps schools with printing equipment etc. They also offer help to those in the industry suffering hardship.


The fact that these premises can be hired is an additional benefit to the lucky visitors who can enjoy the preserved heritage.


A special thank you to Stationers' Hall which let me take these quick snapshots of one of London's gems. Please do visit their pages at http://www.stationers.org/

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Think Global for your IP (intellectual Property) Strategy!

This was the tenet running through an excellent presentation at the St John’s Innovation Centre, by Zeev Fisher (FreshIP, Cambridge) and supported by Cliff Hyra (Symbus Law Group, USA).



A key point to reiterate before the rest of the article: If you think you have an idea worth protecting DO NOT TALK ABOUT IT OPENLY TO OTHERS. Ensure that when you do discuss the ideas, you have a non-disclosure agreement in place. Otherwise all your later efforts will be for nought! Get an IP/Patent Expert involved as soon as possible.

IP (Intellectual Property) is the core element of any innovative company and yet strangely undervalued or overlooked in the UK. The US experience is that typically, a granted patent has an average value of $300,000 and can form up to 75% of the company’s market value. Not only can IP become a revenue stream, it can support lending.

The processes of patent applications have moved on in the decade since I was involved in them as part of a research company. Whilst it is still important to determine where in the world your existing and potential markets are, patent offices are beginning to communicate more effectively. For example, there is now the Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH) to speed up patent processes for further countries - if your claims have been found patentable in one country.

Patents are also covered by a variety of conventions, such as the Paris Convention and PCT. It is important to know whether your target markets are inside these or not as this can also impact on applications. This can work to your benefit as follows: If you submit a patent application to the European Patent Office (EPO), you have a years grace to submit in another country outside of the EPO if it is under the Paris convention. If the new countries are also part of the PCT, then you may also have an additional 1.5 years within which to apply.

However, in this supposedly increasingly globalised world, the examination of your patent will still undergo examination and processing specific to each country or at best, regional block. The differences and experiences can be significant. Getting expert help to navigate the potential pitfalls is essential.

Good news for micro-businesses though (Less than 500 employees and $150,000 income). If you are below this threshold, you can submit 4 patents with a 75% reduction in fees in the US!

We also had a good introduction on the potential uses of IP for defensive and offensive purposes. Using IP to protect your assets is the process we are most familiar with. Using IP more proactively to secure a market presence and protect against future encroachment of the competition into your areas included some novel strategies that I had not considered before.

Whilst patents and trademarks are familiar to most businesses, I was interested to learn of another  form of IP used in other countries, “utility models”. Utility models provide protection for functional designs – relevant in manufacturing. Whilst not used in the UK, utility models are used in Germany and very extensively in China as a form of IP.

At the end of the 2h Seminar, Zeev and Cliff had given me new insights into applying IP globally – and a healthy respect for their expertise. If you are working in the field of Medical devices, Electronics, Optics, Software and Cleantech and have IP queries, I recommend getting in touch with Zeev  Fisher in the UK at zeev@freship.co.uk and Clifford D. Hyra in the US at chyra@symbus.com.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A Trans-National train journey in conversations

I've either flown or driven backwards and forwards to Germany. This time, I was going to try the train

If the slideshow does not play, please view the album at https://picasaweb.google.com/107595387761034666575/ToGermanyByTrain




Waterbeach - Kings Cross = Nuts

Nuts. despite trying not to notice the screen of the laptop next to me, the word 'nuts' registered, as the smartly dressed woman tapped away on her key board. I resisted till past Royston, enjoying the sunlit scenery flashing by. At last everything was green after the overlong cold winter.

"Do you work with nuts?" was my unoriginal first enquiry.

Indeed she did, for a client food company.

Nuts are one of those foods where special care has to be taken in handling and preparation, because many people have a nut allergy. From a practical point of view, they were divided into two broad categories, groundnuts such as peanuts and tree nuts such as Brazil, hazel, walnut and almond. Each species is capable of capable of generating an allergic response in humans, though by far the most common is peanut allergy. Any company dealing with nuts therefore has to have strict protocols to ensure that there will not be any cross contamination with other foods.

All to soon we arrived at Kings Cross and parted with a friendly goodbye.

St Pancras - Brussels Midi = Immigration

My first Eurostar trip! There is a thrill in boarding a train that will take you through the Channel and across national borders with relative ease. This is one of the benefits of an open market within the EU. It is also a concern for those worried about immigration from the rest of the EU into the UK. However, I learnt about the flip side of immigration controls for non-EU persons coming to the UK from my next traveling companion.

He was a senior executive with a major international charity, working in a specific health sector. Far from the UK sitting in splendid isolation, local health is impacted by criminality and drugs from half-way across the globe. This means that, like many international businesses, the organisation needs to employ specialists from across the four continents. However, the dramatically tightened immigration restrictions and significant backlog with an under-resourced immigration authority means that it can take up to 6 months to leap the hurdles before that employee can come to work in the UK.

Reactive politics to immigration concerns is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Brussels Midi - Cologne = clouds & rings

Uncharacteristically, we left the sunshine in the UK to arrive a rainy, grey Brussels Midi station. Exiting the Eurostar, it was over to Platform 9 for the German ICE. A red and equally streamlined Thalys train pulled in photogenically on the opposite platform.

An internal photo of the train initiated the next conversation. Two artists were returning from an exhibition in London: The International Art Fair for Contemporary objects, at the Saatchi Gallery. Bettina Dittlman and partner Michael Jank collaborate in their ongoing partnership FOREVERRINGS.

Using pure metals, whether pure gold, copper or iron, one person begins the work on the ring, passes it to the other who continues the work and then passes it back. The symbolism of giving and receiving is embedded in a true symbiotic object d'art. The rings are chunky and have the impression of only just having  naturally grown from their primal raw ore.

Michael also had a graphic/photographer interest. Our conversation wandered from a shared fascination in clouds to river courses. The path of any river is unique, being determined by the land, climate and altitudes it traverses. I was fascinated by Michael's transposition and superposition of river course patterns as graphic images in their own right.

Whilst my train journey was towards an objective, Bettina and Michael were homeward bound. Their journey was not just a physical one, but a mental transition from an intense exhibition to preparing for coming home.

Cologne to Osterath = crime writers

Arriving late at Cologne, there was a forty minute opportunity to search out an ice-cream parlour. Ice cream in Germany is of a fantastic quality and not to be missed. The first taste to the final crunch of waffle cornet was divine!

Now, I myself took a mental step: From traveling across international borders to joining a regional German commuter train in the evening rush hour. I squeezed myself into one of the last available spaces.

The lady next to me was immersed in a book. An avid reader myself, I waited till she reached the end of her chapter before asking about her read. She was reading an Icelandic crime novel (in German), which she thoroughly recommended. It was called K├Ąlteschlaf, by Arnaldur Indridason.

Our conversation swirled through the rise of Scandinavian crime thrillers in our respective countries. Germany too has a great crime writing and TV tradition. I recently got hooked on the Eiffel mysteries by Jacques Berndorf.

Nine hours after kissing my partner goodbye at Waterbeach, UK, I alighted into my Mother's welcoming embrace in Osterath, Germany.

Yes, the journey was longer than by plane, but it seemed a more natural progression. Instead of an extended wait in sterile airport lounges and overpriced shopping malls and then being crushed into the roaring cacophony of an airplane fuselage, you can actually see the countryside passing by.

The journey to Germany was for a team building event - see article here:
http://ambassadortga.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/tolles-team-building-at-kamp-lintfort.html

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The National Hyacinth Collection - A Visit in April 2013

In April’s capricious clime, travel North from Cambridge along the river Cam, to Bottisham Lock. There, from the Waterbeach bank, you catch a glimpse of gaily flowering rows and perhaps the scent of The National Hyacinth Collection.

If video does not display, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Xu1UtLPUto 



The collection has been established, maintained and grown by Alan Shipp*. His efforts are funded through bulb sales and visitors coming to wander amongst the rainbowed rows of blooms for a few short weeks when the hyacinths are in flower.

According to Homer’s Iliad (8th to 10th Century BC), hyacinths formed the couch of Hera, queen of heaven and earth. As with much of our culture and science, the love of hyacinths and their cultivation migrated to the Romans, were a key element in Arabic culture and came to renaissance Europe in the early 17th Century.  Alan’s collections includes the variety Grand Blanche Imperial, which originates from two centuries century after hyacinths were introduced into the Netherlands (see the “Hyacinth History” http://www.oldhousegardens.com/hyacinthhistory.asp).

From a genetic perspective, hyacinths exhibit a wide range of chromosome numbers, from 2n=16 through to 2n=32, with a wide range of odd numbers inbetween. With a twinkle in his eye, Alan revealed that it was possible to cross varieties with different chromosome numbers and still obtain viable seed – sometimes with an expected new number!

Hyacinth collection is a passion shared across borders and so it is, that Alan Shipps’ collection is in regular communication with collections in the Netherlands and Russia. Together they strive to find lost old varieties and discover new ones. Indeed, as we wandered through the rows arranged by variety, there was one pink sport amongst a row of blue.

My visit opened my eyes to this plant, hitherto seen as a fleeting flower in our (jungle) garden’s seasons.
For others it is a deep passion, best described by the poem found at the bottom of Alan Shipps’ list of varieties in his collection:

If, of  thy mortal goods thou art bereft
And from thy slender store
Two loaves alone to thee are left
Sell one and with the dole
Buy Hyacinths to feed the soul

(Muslihuddin Sadi, Persian poet, c1258)


*Alan K. Shipp, Holder of the National Hyacinth Collection, 
9 Rosemary Road
Waterbeach
Cambridge, CB25 9NB

Monday, 6 May 2013

Redbourn Village - a visit in May


We visited Redbourn to meet up with some family university friends not seen for more than 30 years. A balmy day, we took a walk through the village before a splendid lunch. The village common was marked out for cricket and, emphasising the game's importance, the boundary line crossed the road (where else but in England).

Walking past Redbourn's common into Church End, some of the older houses featured decorative brickwork and the former Workhouse proudly displayed the painted inscription commemorating it being rebuilt in 1790.

Whilst the account of St Alban's Workhouses (http://www.workhouses.org.uk/StAlbans/) appears to represent a constructive image of life, food and occupations in a workhouse, the reality was that they were supposed to be harsh environments (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workhouses) to ensure only the truly destitute would want to live there.

Perhaps rebuilding was a consequence of the innate nature of Redbourn residents to rebel, as exemplified in their long battles back in the 14th Century, resisting obedience and having to pay tax to two successive Abbots of the priory there (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=43297).

Redbourn inhabitants do however have a cooperative nature when it comes to their church, St Mary's. In the 16th Century they held 'A neighbourly meeting or feast in the church house' at Whitsuntide, 'where they made merry together to the maintenance and increase of love and charity amongst them, and at the same time contributed liberally their money towards the reparation of the church and buying of necessaries for the church, and such like uses.' (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=43297). From the well tended church and grounds, efforts are obviously still in place to continue to maintain the church.

Entering Redbourn's St Mary's, which celebrated its 900yrs back in 2010, there were three different features that caught my attention.

The first was a century displayed in stained glass. The three window or lights are:

South Aisle – light dedicated to Reverend W. Seracold Wade, by his widow Isabella in 1896. This window depicts St Albans, St Mary and St Amphibalus.


The Chancel light, behind the alter, dedicated to William Seracold Wade and his wife Elizabeth, by children Mary, Alice, Margaret, Ellen, Elizabeth and Arthur Gregory Seracold. This light depicts Jesus appearing to the disciples after the resurrection. (Note that Isabella is a form of Elizabeth until recently becoming a separate name).


North Aisle – light dedicated to physician Jurin Totton, 1962. The light shows John the Baptist, Jesus and the Leper, St Luke.







The second feature was the rood screen. 

It's delicate tracery had survived the centuries from its origin in 1478, when the vicar of Redbourn left the grand sum of 20 shillings for “the work of the Holy Rood”. If you visit the church of St Mary in Redbourn yourself, there is a very informative sheet on the history of the rood, survival through the reformation and restorations through the ages.




The third feature was three coats of arms. 

The first, over the south door, was easily identified as that of King George III. Interestingly, George III had three different arms during his reign. This one is for George the III King of the United Kingdom and Elector of Hannover, used from 1801 to 1816. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_III_of_the_United_Kingdom).





The other two arms had me stumped. Mediocria Firma is the motto of the Bacon family, including Nicholas Bacon and Francis Bacon. At one point there were three Baronetcies. Until 1755, there were two, the Baronets of Redgrave and the Baronets of Mildenhall. After that, the two were combined. 



Unfortunately, I could not find out online whose arms are depicted on the two different shields. If anyone wishes to take up the challenge – a good place to start is here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacon_baronets

All too soon, it was time to return. The walk back took us through the common along the green avenue, towards a the sumptuous roast lunch awaiting us and an afternoon of catching up on our own histories.



Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Chalkboards - Ephemeral Art for the Waggon and Horses, Milton

Some messages are irresistable - such as "Chalkboard writer wanted" outside the Waggon and Horses in Milton at the end of last year. But I resisted! Then the milton-chat e-mail came around with "Chalkboard writer wanted, would suit student". So I went to visit the Waggon and Horses for a chat and get to know David and Louise, the new publicans. A fortnight later, no students had volunteered and I found myself amongst the bustle of a pub in full redecoration and renovation by not only Louise, David and Batty, but by their family and friends. I was about to tackle my first chalkboard.

But Why?!?

1. They were (and still are) a friendly bunch. 2. The challenge of a new art form and 3. I like the thought of ephemeral art. You create something with a limited lifetime.

View full album of chalkboard pictures to date

Chalkboards are done with chalk pens which are like giant felt tips. The chalk colour is either waterproof or at least water resistant to rain. This means that you are working on something that will look quite rough close up as you cannot do very fine detail. However, that is not a problem - you want to create an impact at a distance.

Half the work is sorting out your layout and lettering. The message has to be as minimal as possible, so the writing does not get too small to read. If possible create additional features that also give the message, perhaps as a picture or decoration. I had naively thought that a board would take about an hour to do. For me as a novice with the medium, it takes longer!

Apart from the pleasure of making a new Chalkboard, the thing that I really learnt was an appreciation of other chalkboard artists.

Chalkboard Art

Next time you are out and about, look out for the chalkboards outside the pubs and restaurants. You will find three distinct groups. 1. Do it yourself by the owner. 2. Commercially made, over-precise signs and 3. Work by artists who may have traveled halfway across the country to spend a day or half a day at a venue to create signs to order, on site or back in their own workshops.

Chalkboard signs have to grab your attention, albeit fleetingly, generate thirst or hunger. Signs make you subconsciously decide - this is a place to stop. They give an impression of the quality and type of an establishment.

When you look closer, you then see how a good chalkboard artist cleverly uses colour, bold strokes, shading and blending to create the unique and yet ephemeral images and writing.

Chalkboard art is a successful commercial art form that survives in a highly digitised and graphically precise and visually educated world. Each writer or artist will have their signature strokes and designs. And the work will last until the next offer, season, change of menu or beer hosted at a pub.

I enjoy the challenge of chalkboard and cheerfully acknowledge that now I can appreciate those who are far far better at it than me. If you cannot get out at the moment to sample what is near you, or if you are interested in becoming a chalkboard artist, here are some random links and inspirations, starting with John Neal, who also shows you some of the techniques and skills:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5HLI8j4fXI
http://gwenmossblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/10-things-you-should-know-about.html
http://www.wordupsigns.co.uk/chalkboard-art/
http://www.bobbydazzlersigns.com/chalkboard-art/
http://www.pubchalkboardartist.co.uk/pub-chalkboards.php
http://rhonnadesigns.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/chalkboard-art-cheer-rhonna-style.html
Chalkboard pictures on Google Images


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Observing sunspots with a camcorder and home-made filter


The moment I saw a TV demonstration of how to view the sun safely with a simple, affordable home made filter, I knew I had to have one. Observing the sun has always had its fascination for me. It is our nearest star and we are entering a period of increased sunspot activity. In the past, I had been able to film the sun at high magnification, simply on a camcorder. However this was at sunset when its brilliance was greatly diminished.

The video below shows how I made a filter and used it to record sunspots on a Panasonic HC-V700 camcorder. If you have problems viewing, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUbNgma2e2I.

WARNING: do not look at the sun directly by naked eye or through any type of telescope etc, even when using filters as you can damage your eyes.

The almost magical material is a thin film that cuts out 99.9% of light passing through it. AstroSolar (TM) is made by Baader and it arrived as an A4 sheet by post after ordering on Amazon a couple of days later.

Useful instructions to make a sun filter that could be slipped over the front of a telescope barrel were included. My problem was going to be the fact that camcorders do not have much of a barrel. There was a simple solution.

To make my filter:

  • I first cut out two equally sized squares of stiff cardboad, about 10cm x 10cm.
  • I then drew diagonal pencil lines from opposing corners on each card, to find the centre.
  • My camcorder front lens aperture was about 4cm.
  • I therefore cut out a 4cm diameter disc from the centre of each card, using a circular cutter.
  • The A4 Astro Solar film was sandwiched between two sheets of paper to protect it.
  • Using scissors, I cut out a square of about 6cm x 6cm from the paper-film-paper sandwich.
  • The side of one of the pieces of card was coated with glue from a glue stick (Prittstick).
  • The glue covered card was placed sticky side uppermost on a table.
  • The AstroSolar film square was carefully placed on the glued card, completely covering the 4cm diameter hole.
  • The second piece of card was then placed on top of the first card and film.
  • I now had a Card- Film-Card sandwich with the filter exposed where the card had a hole.
Frustratingly, it was another few days before cloud cover broke and the sun shone through and I could try out the new filter with my camcorder.

To use the filter on the camcorder, I made a roll of Blutack and placed it to create a ring on the cardboard, around the filter aperture. The camcorder face was then pressed gently and accurately onto the Blutack to create a light-tight seal.

Mounting the camcorder onto a tripod, I dashed out of the house and prepared to record the sun. Despite there being a light high altitude haze that might blur any sunspots, I had a go at finding them.

Using the Panasonic HC V700 to zoom in on the sun's disc, I could see two faint islands of sunspots. These corresponded to those numbered 1683 and 1686 on the daily images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/

Conclusion

Modern camcorders can have a sufficiently good optical and digital zoom to observe sunspots with an appropriate filter!




Thursday, 3 January 2013

A drive across flooded England at the end of 2012


J. G. Ballards “The Drowned World”, but without heat, that's what came to mind looking out of the car window. Saturday 29th December was another torrential downpour in a months of floods, in the wettest year in UK weather records. I set out that morning for Cambridge from Hereford.

Hereford Playing Fields
Wye at Hereford
The River Wye had passed it's flood peak at Hereford but the fields by the river were still mirroring the leaden skies as water could not soak away in the sodden ground. The Lugg meadows at the start of the road to Worcester (A4103) were still flooded as the route gradually climbed higher in a series of undulations. Small streams ran down the side of the tarmac or in the tracks created by the traffic. Where they pooled in the dips in the road or changed from one side of the road to the other, the car would suddenly experience drag and generate fountains of spray. Definitely not a day for fast driving. You could even be unexpectedly caught out at the top, for example when clearing the impressive incline at Fromes Hill.

Initially, you could not see the Malvern peaks, just the roiling clouds rushing around them. But breaks in the clouds were rushing up behind me. By the time I reached the Cowleigh Road junction to Great Malvern, I turned off the main Worcester route for a deviation in anticipation of a better view coming off the hills.

Cowleigh Road (B4219) was a narrower affair, through orchards and then winding into the woods. I pulled into the drive to Cowleigh Park farm, intrigued by the Cowleigh Spring on the opposite side of the road. The rain was letting off enough to get out and take a photo.

Cowleigh Spring
Coming into Great Malvern, I took a sharp left back towards Worcester onto the A449. Large billboards promoted the new retirement villages and the view ahead across the plain towards Worcester looked similarly mundane with no vast floods in evidence.

Worcester Floods
Worcester Floods
This only changed at the roundabout leading onto the A4440 swinging south around Worcester. We entered the Severn's flood plain. Puddles flowed together into a larger sheets with just the occasional tufts rising above the water. The water continued to deepen so that only hedges and solitary trees rose forlornly above the flood. I pulled out of the stop-start traffic into a small service road, wrapped in my anorak against the rain and wind, to take some photos. The west bank of the river could not be seen, whilst on the other, the river boats were moored just a couple of metres below the caravan site that nestled below the A38 leading into Worcester.

Walcot Lane closed
I continued along the bypass and made a choice not to use the M5 up to Birmingham, but to continue cross country. Missing the directions to Evesham, I headed towards Pershore then let the SatNav guide me back to the route I should have taken along the Avon valley. At Drakes Broughton, the suggested route via Walcot Lane had to be abandoned due to a flooded ford that was not worth the risk.

Coming into the Vale of Evesham, the Avon had burst its banks and it was more a case of the flooded plain winding sometimes closer, sometimes further away from the road.

My objective was a stop at Stratford upon Avon as I used to live and work nearby. The rain had not deterred Saturday shoppers and tourists, so it was a crawl to the Rother Street Car Park, where I was lucky to find a space. My first stop was for food; fishcakes in the Hathaway Tea Rooms on the High Street, with a warming cup of tea. A couple on a date to my left and three tables in front taken up by a family group provided light observational entertainment before I grudgingly set out into the rain again.

Stratford upon Avon from footbridge
View to Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Turning down Sheep Street, I reached Waterside where the Avon was in full flow but still within its banks. Crossing the lock, I walked onto the pedestrian bridge to photograph the  Royal Shakespeare Theatre with the swollen Avon, tinted brown by the sediment it had ripped from earlier fields, rushing by.

The colour highlight in this grey day was provided by Dawn and Garry Lloyds's shop on Sheep Street, Gifts & Forget Me Nots (http://www.facebook.com/giftsandforgetmenots?ref=stream).  They are the sole local source of Annie Sloan chalk paints for the area. With Dawn's helpful and friendly advice, I left laden with 100ml pots of rich colours and shades for future chalkboard work.

Back on the road, direction Warwick, I took a turning to Hampton Lucy, drove through to Charlecote. and then on to Wellesbourne, where we used to live thirty years ago. There, left onto the A429 through Barford in direction Warwick. These villages are all in the Avon flood plain and had suffered flooding in November. The river seemed to be within its bounds now but many fields were still full of standing water. Rain kept falling.

Darkness was descending at 4pm as I bypassed Coventry and joined the last stretch of the M6 leading to the A14. Spray from the traffic on the wet roads meant the wipers were on constantly. The first part of the A1 was prone to straight sided, deep potholes, to be avoided if seen in the headlights in time. No doubt the long spells of wet weather increased road damage, especially when follwed by groundfrost that would expand and enlarge any water-filled cracks.

At Kettering, I drove off for a tea break at the Little Chef at the services. With three staff present, I was in a minority of one. It was a case of “Hello, I'm Chris and I will be your customer for the next half hour!”

Flooded Riverbank Park in Huntingdon, 2009
Passing Huntingdon Racecourse, I wondered if there had been any relief from the flooding which had led to the abandonment of the Boxing Day Racing. We were now in the area dominated by the river Great Ouse.  I could see the glint of reflections on flooded areas as the A14 swung past Huntingdon and Godmanchester. I remembered photographing the flooded Riverbank Park in Huntingdon back in February 2009.

Flooded Fen Drayton Lakes
St Ives, Fen Drayton and the nearby lakes in the nature reserve had all experienced high water and flooding earlier in December. When travelling to the special A14 Coffee Morning meeting on the afternoon of the 21st of December, I had made a point of taking the guided bus and getting off at Fen Drayton Lakes with a camera and Tripod. Setting off on foot, I soon encountered the water lapping over the footpath,  right up to the embankment of the guided bus.

Flooded footpath next to guided busway
Carefully making my way above the floods on the embankment, aside of the guided busway, I was reminded of a scene in the film “Spirited Away”, where the occasional train would swish past on a long track through an otherwise submerged countryside. I had walked on to St Ives, attended the enjoyable meeting and then spent an hour photographing the high water and flooded car park in St Ives.

Milton Floods on October 2009
Back to the wet drive in the dark. I was on the home stretch approaching Cambridge. Before I had travelled to Hereford, the River Cam had flooded Grantchester Meadows. However, by the time the Cam reached Baits Bite Lock in Milton, the river was in control again, though very high. In fact the last time we had seen flooding in Milton was back in the days when I still used a film camera, Back in October 2001.

I arrived relieved at our front door in Milton after 7 hours travel. The journey had been a transect through central England both in distance and as an encapsulation of the wettest year on record. I was also extremely grateful that, when buying our property, we had checked that we were outside of any flood plain. If you are thinking of moving house or just want to check how safe you are from floods – check the environment agency's site at  http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/homeandleisure/floods/31650.aspx.

Floods, waterlogged ground, damaged crops and roads, relentless rain and just grey and wet demoralising weather - these had been engrained into our psyche for most of 2012. I could only hope that the New Year would bring relief –

But that is another story
(see https://picasaweb.google.com/107595387761034666575/NewYearsDayMilton2013)

The route taken on this journey can be followed here: 
https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?saddr=Hereford&daddr=52.120422,-2.3330876+to:52.151466,-2.1480559+to:52.1343958,-2.1115681+to:52.2007962,-1.7749123+to:52.1929345,-1.7095134+to:52.2144009,-1.6280155+to:52.2014592,-1.6040888+to:Milton,+Cambridge&hl=en&ll=52.125413,-2.341676&spn=0.003899,0.008948&sll=52.102709,-2.360344&sspn=0.124001,0.286331&geocode=FU5RGgMduo7W_ylBU26qJdRvSDGWbDz9S5qc1Q%3BFWZLGwMdYWbc_ymxkWN7i_hwSDHJ-0ncQc-9Xg%3BFarEGwMdKTnf_ylJJX6oSeVwSDF10cmfPrfiVQ%3BFfuBGwMdsMff_ynlvYRFAeVwSDEN7BC1Qp6rbg%3BFVyFHAMdwOrk_ynPk45NasVwSDFsSbv8XNpmqw%3BFaZmHAMdN-rl_ylV3tUWM85wSDF3VbbnHf8odQ%3BFYC6HAMdkSjn_ykn98ehsc1wSDHRxJPdqpTS1A%3BFfOHHAMdCIbn_ynZ807Wcs1wSDHQXQzGmw1_mg%3BFe8rHQMdoHYCAClHgl4spXHYRzGaqfF4yuEijA&t=m&mra=dpe&mrsp=1&sz=12&via=1,2,3,4,5,6,7&z=17

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