Friday, 21 September 2012

Open for Business

Today I walked through tunnels where coalminers would have cursed and shovelled under lamplight 150 years ago. Now it’s lit by the sky and the passage has become a trench since the covering 40 metres of earth - and half the seam - was torn away by huge excavators. It’s brutish, accidental archaeology but still uncovers the occasional artefact like a nineteenth century soda bottle. 

This is Potland Burn opencast mine in Northumberland – or ‘surface’ mine as the owners UK Coal would prefer. Whatever the name, it is still a huge hole in the ground where giant trucks shuttle back and forth like worker ants. Until you get up close, when they become ‘ma-hussive’ (my youngest son’s word, strangely apt). From about ten foot above the driver, Ian, waved me to climb up the ladder to his cab. It took me eight rungs just to clear the wheel. Before the growling engines fired up he went through a series of ‘pre-flight’ checks which mainly comprised testing the three separate braking systems – when you are in a £900,000 vehicle on steep slopes with a 100 tonne load you don’t want to let gravity get the whip-hand. Then we were off and bouncing along the packed earth tracks. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face but had the disconcerting feeling that I might be in the dream of a seven year old who had spent the whole of Christmas day playing with his toy quarry set. 

The availability of these monster machines and the relative absence of union power in the surface digging world means ripping the ground away to get to the coal is now preferred to deep mining in shafts and tunnels. Changes to planning regulations suggest that we might see a lot more of them as the national appetite for minerals and energy appears to be overruling local objections and concern about coals hefty global warming impact is ignored. 

Well-managed modern workings can come and go quite quickly: returning scarred land to forest, farmer’s field or parkland within five years. Tomorrow, I’ll be rolling out a giant map of the UK illustrating where some of the new open pits might be with well-placed bits of coal. We stored the props in the back of the car before driving for dinner in the shadow of St James Park prompting our sound man, John Gilbert, to point out “You’ve brought coals to Newcastle.”

Monday, 10 September 2012

Kids in the country

Today’s story, for me, has evolved from indifference to fascination. ‘Children should be outdoors more’ sounds like a familiar homily usually delivered by a man with stout socks giving way to hairy calves and then ignored. But under investigation – and that’s what we do on Countryfile – a gripping tale emerges of aspirations shackled by fear.

The National Trust are launching their Natural Childhood initiative to encourage kids to get out more. As an organisation that thrives on visitors to outdoor properties, there is clearly some self-interest in encouraging the next generation of customers, but they insist they’re driven by what’s good for the youth: gaining confidence, tackling obesity, enjoying Britain’s natural assets and simply feeling happier and healthier.

We’ve been road testing this with a family from Plymouth – a lively clan of two parents and six offspring squeezed into a housing association semi. I’d been with them about one and a half minutes before the 8 year old was showing me trapped moths and offering me a magnifying glass to study what lurks in a spider’s web. A little later we were in the woods across the estate and the children fizzed with enthusiasm for dens and conkers while Mum and Dad looked on and spoke wistfully about playing out from dawn to dusk in fields and parks when they were young without parents standing guard.  But they felt unable to give their own brood such freedom and what’s keeping them inside is fear: danger from strangers. A widespread belief has evolved that public space is perilous for kids, despite most evidence to the contrary.

The next dose of natural medicine came as a liquid: the sea. Mum was never a natural swimmer and lacked the confidence to thrust her children into the waves. But we met up with the Blue Sound project, an outreach scheme run by the Marine Biological Society, which tries to get the locals acquainted with the wet stuff. The family arrived intrigued but uneasy. The young ones had hardly ever touched the sea. By the end of the afternoon, with guidance from the Blue Sound volunteers, they were like water babies. The two year old was splashing in the shallows while the teenage lad, who could barely swim at lunchtime, was snorkelling off the coast. As they packed and dried they made plans to return at the weekend.

Natural space is not without risk as its rules aren’t made entirely by us. It’s slightly beyond our control and that’s the buzz. But, with just a little guidance, this family’s pent-up passion for nature broke through the fear barrier. And that starts a journey with infinite destinations.

Summer washout

2 August

What would be this summer’s most forlorn profession? Ice cream salesman. Lapping away at chilly, sweet, flavoured goo has never been my favourite dining experience but get some sun on my neck and I’ll soon believe it is an essential ingredient of a balanced diet.

So we’ve been filming with a Yorkshire based ice cream business as the hub of our investigation into the cost of the summer that wasn’t. Their sales have been cut in half: eroding the workforce, hitting their milk suppliers and even the builders and decorators who’ll not see the work from their now cancelled parlour expansion scheme. It’s a snapshot of what I suspect is a massive blow to rural Britain.

From farming to fell running, from bird watching to beekeeping, music festivals to county shows
they are all at the mercy of the elements. Making money from the outdoors is the USP of rural
Britain and this year the climate has been hostile. For cities the weather has been miserable; for the
country it’s been merciless.

We are marshalling as many figures as possible including crop losses, tourism woes and flood
damage to try and reach a credible total cost for the washout. But the more you look the further the
ripples spread. In wet fields, the feet of cows and sheep can get soft, infected and overgrown. It’s
like pastoral trench foot. We saw a three inch wooden shard take advantage of this weakness to
drive up into a cows hoof. A man equipped with a machine to clamp, lift and tilt one tonne of cow
removed it but his bovine pedicures are becoming regular and costly.

Insects have suffered too. Now, I know they may not be the primary object of your sympathy when that rain spattered sphere appears at the beginning and end of the CountryFile weather forecast but we will share some of their pain. To find out how you’ll have to watch yet also wait as we take an Olympic break and return in the golden afterglow of our medal harvest!