24 December 2011

Volunteering does not replace service

Letter Published in Northampton Chronicle & Echo
I’m in full agreement with the views of Dominic McClean, chief executive of Northampton Volunteering Centre (ViewPoint, December 17). I would like to add that while there are financial savings from the work of volunteers, volunteering should not be viewed as a replacement for core services, rather it should be providing the additional support that can give a more personal and local focus to services for the community

As Dominic wrote, using volunteers is not without its costs both financial and in terms of staff time; many of these costs are up front, the benefits don’t accrue until later. There is no point in the county council calling for volunteers if it has not budgeted for their initial and ongoing support as the effort is unlikely to succeed and only muddy the water for the future. This is probably the worst time to be thinking about recruiting volunteers; the ground work should have been done long ago as part of a wider strategy.

Reasons for volunteering are many but if an emphasis is on filling gaps left by cutbacks then I feel it is likely to discourage rather than encourage volunteers to come forward.

Having questioned the recent awakening of interest in the use of volunteers by the council, I nevertheless hope people will think about becoming involved in their neighbourhood, not just for the saving on their rates, but for the friendship, the sense of community and the satisfaction of a job well done.

Anyone interested in environmental and conservation volunteering can visit our website at www.northamptonspaces.info

17 November 2011

First Friends Form Meeting

One hundred years ago the parks of Northampton were the envy of other towns and whilst there are still a good number the quality has greatly declined. In recent years groups have grown up around town to try to improve their local spaces and while they have had some success it has been an uphill struggle against declining budgets and management changes.
To make the task a little easier in the future group representing ten of Northampton’s parks have come together to pool their resources and form a Northampton Opens Spaces Forum where they can share their ideas and problems.
Their first meeting last night, organised by Groundwork Northamptonshire and Northampton Borough Council, was attended by the support groups and addressed by both the leader of NBC and the Director of Environment and Culture. The meeting was used by groups to share their experiences with each other as well as with the Borough Council. Further informal meetings will be arranged for next year.
The Forum also aims to support the formation of groups in those parks without one at present, as well as welcoming individuals and groups with an interest in the more local parks, play areas, sports areas and green spaces.
A survey of Northampton parks is taking place, go to www.surveymonkey.com/s/79Z3NVL to take part

1 November 2011

New support for parks

Back in Victorian and Edwardian days the parks of Northampton were the envy of other towns. Whilst we still have the good quantity of that era, the quality has greatly declined. It’s not possible to place the cause on anyone or anything in particular; we must all take a share of the blame. TV means that we now take a large portion of our leisure indoors and financial pressures mean that the Council no longer make the necessary investments. These of course are exaggerations because people still do visit local parks in smaller numbers and the Council does what it can, but with no statutory requirement to maintain parks it is an easy area to cut when times are hard, the only cutting now left is the grass.

Within the Borough Council organisation there is no longer anyone with overall day to day responsibility for open spaces, Neighbourhood Wardens take care of the community aspect, Regeneration is concerned with planning, Estate with buildings and Enterprise (the same company that empties our bins) with maintenance. The result has been that there can be confusion even within NBC itself, let alone for those outside.

Over the last decade local residents have come to the defence of the parks they enjoy, helping with minor maintenance work, clearing litter, raising fund for equipment and where possible putting pressure on the Council to do more.

At present around half of our parks are supported by Friends Groups, but they have tended to work in isolation. However, following talks over the last few months, with the support of the community support charity Groundwork Northants, a meeting has been arranged to bring them all together to discuss their ideas and problems. Through co-operation it is hoped that the Forum can pool resources and expertise to achieve more as a group than they can seperately. It is also planned to encourage the formation of new Friends Groups in those parks that don’t have one at present.

Many of the smaller parks, play areas and open spaces are cared for by Resident Associations, it is hoped that they too will be able to benefit, along with those individuals who take it upon themselves to do whatever they can.

The first forum meeting has been arranged for 16 November, where the speaker will be Julie Seddon the Director of Planning & Environment at NBC. If you would like to attend then email NptSpaces@Gmail.com for details and an invitation.

16 October 2011

Apple Pressing at Wilsons’ Orchard

Though I’ve lived in Northampton for over 30 years, and must have past by many times, I never knew about Wilsons’ Orchard until this week.
At Rushmills, trapped between the A45 and modern housing, the orchard dates back 100 years to days when British apples were a major crop. The orchard is named after a Mr Wilson who lived in a cottage by the site and Rev. Wilson who obtain spare apples trees from a local tree nursery man.
The site is now owned by South Court Environmental having been donated to them by Persimmon Homes. Work continues to revive the orchard which last saw commercial use at the end of the 2nd World War.

The warm sunny afternoon brought out a good crowd to view the orchard and sample the freshly squeezed apple juice.

13 October 2011

Reed cutting at Stornton’s Pits

Spent the day at Stornton’s Pits with Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust.

The day’s task was to cut back part of the reed bed which was becoming too dense. Parts of the bed are cut back in on a 9 year rotation so that the new growth will provide improved nesting opportunities for sedge warblers and reed warblers to name but two of the bird that prefer this type of habitat.

Left to nature the bed would become more dense and the dead vegetation would provide the conditions for willow to take hold and in time take over the reed bed.

The reeds were cut down with a brush cutter, piled into long rows and then burnt.

12 October 2011

Work progressing on Connect2 Cycle Way

Work is progressing on the latest phrase of the Northampton Connect2 cycle ways. A new bridge has been installed over the Nene to connect the Briar Hill paths to the one running beside the river behind Cosworth. Work on the foundations and kerbs for the paths between Briar Hill and St James and Duston Mill Lake is under way. On completion this will receive a tarmac surface, giving a continuous tarmac route from Brackmill, though the town by Carlsberg and out to Pineham with off shoots into St James and the southern district.

Foundations are also being constructed for a bridge over the canal and Nene linking Upton Valley Way with Upton Country Park.

8 October 2011

A busy day in the parks

It was a joy to see Delapre Park in full use today with keep fit sessions, 6 a-side football, kite flying, model aeroplane flying, even someone with a model car on the roadway, as well as the usual dog walkers.
It was also a busy one for volunteers, planting snowdrops, crocuses and bluebells in the arboretum. Nothing to see at the moment but we can look forward to extra colour in the spring.
Volunteers busy planting whilst Cllr. Mick Ford
& Brian Bingly MP look on

It was not only Delapre that was out working, Eastfields Park also had volunteers out planting bulbs in an area by the main pond that had previously been prepared by the Groundwork team.

New bedding area

3 October 2011

Last day of Summer?

Today may have been the last chance  I get this year to take a walk in shorts and T Shirt. So made the most of it with a 8km circular stole through some of Northampton's parks and open spaces, with hardly the need to use a road.

Started off from Queen Eleanor Cross and down through the Delapre Woods that separate the London Road from Delapre Golf Course, now with the horse chestnuts dropping their conkers and those that have been diseased shedding their leaves. Cut across Delapre Park for a quick look at the nearly finished restoration of the water garden before heading out to Delapre Lake with sun bathers on the grass and grebes on the water.

Headed around the south side of the lake before cutting through into Beck's Meadow then along to the Canoe Club. Turned west along the Nene Way towards town, with a diversion through Barn's Meadow to get me off the cycle path.

Crossed over into Midsummer Meadow then on to Beckett's Park, the facilities at the marina look almost complete, it will be good to get the park back to normal and be able to walk on the marina island. After refreshments at the cafe, continued on along the river before crossing at the foot bridge and onto the London Road for a short distance before regaining Delapre Wood.

A very pleasant afternoon and all within a couple of miles of the town centre.


9 September 2011

Delapre Estate – a work in progress

The preservation of Delapre Abbey, park and gardens for the benefit of the town is a story of hard work and persistence by a number of dedicated people, who in 2001, responding to the threat of the Abbey being sold to a developer, came together to protest and then form Friends of Delapre Abbey – FoDA.

Restored is a word that crops up continually when talking about Delapre, 10 years of work has seen vast improvements in the site. The water garden is currently being restored, the Victorian greenhouses are part way through their restoration and funds are being sort for restoring the Grade II* listed building.

With 190 acres (77 hectares) of grounds, Delapre Estate is the largest park in town providing a mixture of settings from formal gardens to open parklands that is often used for events, water features (again under-going restoration) and shrubbery fill in the gaps.

The area is also the site of the Battle of Northampton when in the afternoon of 10 July 1460 a Yorkist army under the Earl of Warwick attacked the defensive encampment of the King's army on the southern side of Northampton. King Henry was captured and a number of the leading Lancastrian noblemen were killed.

Take a walk through the Charter Wood to the east of the house and you will reach Delapre Lake used by Northampton Water Ski Club with a public footpath to the north and a less formed return path to the south. A walk leaflet for the area can be downloaded from the Northamptonshire County Council web site.

When you have finished exploring the park there is the tea room in the Victorian walled garden, where on a sunny day you can sit out and enjoy the flowers and statues, or if you need to sit inside then browse the second hand book shelves.

There is still much to do, if you would like to help then go to their excellent web site - where there is also further information on the estate.

7 September 2011

Volunteers clear Barns Meadow Nature Reserves of ragwort

Barns Meadow and Becks Meadow Nature Reserves, managed by the Wildlife Trust,  laying beside the Nene on the east side of town had become infested with ragwort in recent years. The yellow flowering plant which is often seen on waste ground and along roadways is poisonous to livestock, though it has been some years since it killed any there have been cases of sickness.

While the plant is growing it doesn’t present too much danger as it has a bitter taste, though the cattle seem to keep trying it just to make sure! But when the plant has been cut and died off it loses its bitterness and animals will eat it.

Cutting and removing ragwort is no help as it will only return. There are only two options – spray it or pull it out, including the roots. These being nature reserves and already being grazed by cattle the first option couldn’t be used so it had to be hand pulling, which is where volunteers come in useful!

By hand and with homemade heavy duty weed pullers the team spent over 120 hours during the summer removing the ragwort and returning at interval to deal with any that came through late.

‘Unfortunately this will not be the last year of hard work’, said the volunteer warden for the meadow, ‘ragwort is a biennial plant, taking two years to flower and we’ve only removed this year’s flowering plants. But we hope that we have prevented any of them setting seed so we will see the benefit in two years time. Next year will probably need the same amount of work again’.

Volunteering with the Wildlife Trust is not all weed pulling, see their programme leaflet for how you can enjoy a day in the outdoors as well as keep fit.

5 September 2011

Is the National Trust being hysterical?

Who do you think should determine what local need are, the people who live there or those that just visit?

At present the National Trust and others are waging a campaign against the governments ‘National Planning Policy Framework’ (NPPF), they seem to think that it will allow developers to take advantage of naive country folk and build new housing estates all over their green fields.  From what I’ve seen of reactions to proposals for incinerator, wind farms etc they are quite capable of protecting their neighbourhood.

That’s not to say that the NPPF is perfect, whilst Greenbelt, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are specifically mentioned in the plan, agricultural land isn’t and if a community doesn’t have a clear development plan then there is a presumption that development will be allowed. But should the plan be opposed because some local authorities have been lax in drawing up a development plan? Surely what should happen is that the presumption to develop should not come into force for a period of time that allows local authorities to complete their plans.

Northampton, jointly with Daventry and Towcester have put together a Local Development Scheme, which would seem to meet the requirements, though I’m no expert. However, what seems less certain is whether local authority plans will over-ride those of local communities. Even Wootton & East Hunsbury Parish Council, which is a front runner in local democracy, is not sure how much the views of its residents, as express through a Neighbourhood Plan, will be heeded.

The village where I grew up was strangled by a boundary outside which no building was allowed. With houses only being built on spaces within the village such as large gardens and farm yards the density increased spoiling the former character. And still there were not the homes that young people could afford to remain in the village. Giving a community the ability to decide what’s best for itself could have solved these problems.

There would seem to be much to iron out in the NPPF, however the National Trust appears to be taking the stance of shout first and talk later. The consultation on the draft plan has only part way through and I’m sure the NT and others can make a valuable contribution to the final plan, but banging the table is not going to get a sympathetic hearing. Depicting a Los Angeles sprawl as what could happen to our countryside is not helpful.  Let’s hear what the NT proposes as alternatives are rather than their hysteria.


3 September 2011

Thornton Park rejuvenated

It had been quite a few years since I was last in Thornton Park and my memory of the whole was probably coloured by the dilapidated state of Kingsthorpe Hall, occupying just one small corner at the north east end, part of which was used as a community centre.
However, this is now all changed.
The Hall, a Grade II* listed building, which was damaged by fire in 2002 was still on the English Heritage ‘at risk’ register in 2009. Refurbishment of the Hall together with adjacent buildings has now taken place and a new community centre, has also been built.

The park in now well maintained with large areas of grass and many mature trees offering  good shading when needed.  Two modern play areas can be found, one near the Hall and the other at the western side of the park.

The park forms one extremity of an extensive green corridor along the Brampton Arm of the River Nene. Cross the path at the western end of Thornton Park and you will enter Kingsthorpe Meadows leading out to the north of the town and linking in with the Brampton Valley Way.

In 2009 a Friends of Thornton Park group was formed. The group has carried out extensive research into the history of the park and drew up detailed management plan for its long term maintenance.

Now with people to care for it the parks future as a place for families is assured.

1 September 2011

Fly-tipping v Littering

In today’s Chronicle & Echo we hear of the £300,000 spent by the Borough Council in clearing up fly-tipping in the last financial year. Three things surprised me:-
  1. The cost of the clear-up
  2. The poor prosecution level despite the amount spent on combating the problem
  3. The level of fines imposed, at a little over £200 per prosecution, is no deterrent as this in little more than the cost of tipping legally.
The fine needs to be considerably higher. The law allows courts to make an order requiring the offender to pay for the costs associated with the enforcement and investigation of the case, the seizure of any vehicles that were involved in the offence and costs for the removal of the illegally deposited waste. The court may also make an order to deprive the offender of his rights to a vehicle (and its contents) if the court is satisfied that the vehicle was used to commit the offence.

Why isn’t this being applied?

Fly-tipping is the criminal act of a few people discarding loads of rubbish, but on the other side there is the anti-social act of many people discarding small amounts of litter, the sum total is similar. But whilst fly-tipping is contained within confined areas litter is spread though out the town. Many who condemn fly-tipping are not averse to discarding food wrappers.

Littering needs to be attacked through education, which is appropriate because one one the main areas of littering is around upper school

It is impossible to control littering by legal action, there’s just too much of it and as is seen with fly-tipping is mostly ineffectual. Only education can reduce littering, which would be appropriate as a good proportion of it takes place around our upper schools.

As a first step should schools and businesses, particularly those providing food, be made responsible for keeping the areas in their vicinity free from litter? For new businesses this could be done through planning approval. After all it is mostly their pupils or customers that are causing it. Next provide more litter bins which are emptied regularly. And finally bring back deposits on drink bottles and cans.

31 August 2011

Mr Blunkett’s ‘National Volunteer Programme’

Today, it is reported in the Daily Mail, that Mr Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, is proposing a ‘National Volunteer Programme’ for young people who are not in employment education or training, known as NEETs. As well as working with the old and in education they would also be used in conservation, which is my own area of interest.

In the past I have worked with people on such schemes as community pay back and its predecessors and whilst it would be far to say that not everyone of these young people from the point of view of getting anything done were a waste of time, those that did show any enthusiasm were very much in a minority. The ones that did get stuck in already had some interest in wildlife and conservation.

Now I haven’t seen a copy of this proposal which has gone to No 10, but understand that there will be an element of compulsion in this volunteering which reminds me of the old army saying ‘I want 3 volunteers – you, you and you!’ So whatever the scheme is, good or bad, it is definitely not volunteering.

I’m not against the principle of the scheme but it will have to be extremely well thought through, it will not be enough to dump a group of young people onto an organisation and it be expected for them to get on with it. So I would suggest that before they turn up to help with the maintenance of our parks and open spaces they will probably need to have spent time in a more structured environment learning, as Mr Blunkett said “reason to get up in the morning and a pattern of daily life”. Some enthusiasm for the task they were going to undertake would also need to be cultured.
Working with volunteer groups is not going to lead them to a job, there are already people with environmental type degrees working as volunteers in order gain experience and have something to add to their CV. But it could open their eyes to the possibility of going on to places like Moulton College to get the qualifications they need to find a career in the outdoors.

If the programme can be made to work then we will all benefit, and whilst I suspect it will go the same way as previous schemes we should at least wait until we see the details before condemning it on the basis of Mr Blunkett's previous political and private life.

29 August 2011

Children need the freedom to play

When I were a lad living in a village I had few restrictions on my movement, the only one being ‘be home by tea time’. My parents weren’t being neglectful; the same applied to all my friends. Together we would explore woods, climb trees, scrump apples and get dirty. We would also learn team work and risk assessment, long before we knew what those words meant.

Yes, there were adults we avoided for one reason or another, but it didn’t stop our parents allowing us the freedom to be children at large. I have seen nothing to suggest that there are more adults about now who pose a danger to children than there were in my day, it’s a perception created by the media where  good scare stories are better than good news to sell papers.

There is certainly more traffic about and so children need to be taught its dangers from an early age, but it is no reason to keep them corralled in a back garden. Protecting children from risk does not allow them to learn about dangers, all that happens is that when they do escape they will face risks that they don’t know how to handle.

But for parents to be confident there needs to be open spaces within a reasonable distance from home that children can reach safely. Play areas like Abington Park are great for a trip out but they don’t serve the day to day needs. Play areas don’t need to be all swings and slides; for young children logs and pipes that cater for the imagination serve just as well or better. For older children, as well as areas for ball games there need to be secret places for adventure and den building.

With new housing developments play has been integrated in the design, but in the older areas, built in the days when it was safe to play in the street, there is now little play opportunity. These communities need our support to turn any opportunity they have into safe play areas appropriate to the needs of their children.

The long term result of depriving children of the freedom to be at large outdoors is worse than that of protecting them from risk. We evolved to be outdoors; our physical and metal health are improved by it - less depression, less alleges and less fat.

Play is a child’s way of learning to become a responsible adult and parent. Take the risk and trust the children.

Three subsequent articles
Daily Express
Daily Telegraph
Mail Online 1
Mail Online 2

26 August 2011

Why does new link road need a rail bridge?

So the Ransome Road to Nunns Mill link road has been approved. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour in this eyesore of a brown field site being developed, better this than green field sites. But why oh why does it need a rail bridge? What is the point of replacing one eyesore with another.

Back in the 19th century, when Bridge Street was the only way in to town from the south, a level crossing at Cotton End was considered sufficient. In the 1970s when Brackmills was being developed a level crossing over the same line was considered sufficient. Why now, now that the line has not been used in years is it thought that a bridge is needed? Even if there is a remote possibility that the line will re-open a crossing on the same level as at present would surely be enough.

Concerns have been expressed that the link road will be used as a rat-run, I would have thought that a level crossing, especially if slightly uneven, would have been a good deterrent.

There are some questions that need to be answered:-
  1. Is there some new regulation that says we can’t have new level crossings, even over unused railway lines?
  2. When was the line last used?
  3. Who decided that a bridge is needed?
  4. Who will ultimately be paying for the bridge?
These points I will be putting to Northampton Borough Council and West Northants Development Corporation. If there are further questions that need asking then let me know.

I'll report back as soon as I have some answers.

Link to
Planning application
NBC Planning Committee Paper
Chronicle & Echo Report 
WNDC News Article

25 August 2011

A sunny day at Bradlaugh Fields Nature Reserve

A dry Thursday at last, spent it with the Wildlife Trust on their nature reserve in the hills and hollows of Bradlaugh Fields. The day’s tasks were to cut back the brambles to stop them spreading any further and also to mow the grass, not to make it like a lawn but to maintain low soil fertility suitable for next year’s wild flowers and the nectar and pollen loving insects that feed on them.

The grass was cut with a mechanical scythe and brush cutters and then racked up and removed to the side of the reserve by hand.

As a bonus the bramble bushes were loaded with blackberries so filled my lunch box with some for a blackberry and apple pie.

24 August 2011

Hunsbury Hill – A park to explore.

Some parks have formal gardens, others extensive sports pitches, but not Hunsbury Hill. However what it does have over other parks is a wide variety of nooks, crannies and secluded paths to explore.

Central to the park is the Iron Age hill fort which now has little archaeological interest, having been extensively quarried for its ironstone by the Victorians. Running beside the hill fort and the backbone of the park is an ancient track, claimed by some to be pre-historic but certainly over 2000 years old and in regular use until the 19th century as a drove road, known as the Banbury Lane.

The tree covered banks and gullies of the hill fort provide a natural playground for older children to let off steam, whilst for the younger ones there is a formal playground. Large open areas of grass provide space for picnics and games.

For those who want to stretch their legs there are paths to discover and except for the southern periphery path can be walked with a push-chair, though occasionally a little effort is required. For a more extended walk the Banbury Lane can be followed west from the car park on a well formed path to reach the Grand Union Canal after about a mile.

As well as the park there is the Iron Stone Railway Museum (open to the public on 28 & 29 of this month). Next to the car park off Hunsbury Hill Road and much to everyone’s relief, the old toilet block, which had been derelict for many years, has had a total make over and re-opened as the ‘Drovers Return Cafe’ (with toilet facilities) open daily 9am to 6pm.

Hunsbury Hill Park is maintained by Northampton Borough Council with the assistance of Friends of Hunsbury Hill Country Park

23 August 2011

Nobody picks blackberries anymore

Thirty years ago blackberry picking was a competitive sport. Like small boys trying to get the best conkers, blackberries were picked before they were ready, otherwise someone else would get to them first. Now you can walk past a bush, even at a busy spot, and there will be berries close to hand, no need to hazard pricks and scratches to get to that ripe one just out of reach or risk your health with those at dog leg height.

On a summers walk, what joy to be able to dine on a handful of juicy berries instead of a sip of warm water. So thanks to all of you who can’t tell a fruit from a mobile phone, who prefer to buy your insipid cultivated blackberries from a supermarket and leave the wild tasty berries for those of us who enjoy the delight of a free meal and stained fingers. We are children once again.

22 August 2011

I've been abducted by aliens

"Mum, I've been abducted by aliens, I was just standing there when something gripped me from behind and I was thrust into a large white bag and transported to another place. Here, a hand came into the bag and holding me from behind dragged me out into the light and a shackle placed around my leg, I was also measured and weighed. They must have thought that I wasn't worth keeping for after a while they threw me into the air and I quickly flew home. Phew, it was a close thing!"
This juvenile green woodpecker was caught and ringed by a Wildlife Trust Reserves Officer during the volunteers conservation day at Storton's Pits last week.

Bird ringing or bird banding is a technique used in the study of wild birds, by attaching a small, individually numbered, metal or plastic tag to their legs or wings, so that various aspects of the bird's life can be studied by the ability to re-find the same individual later. This can include migration, longevity, mortality, population studies, territoriality, feeding behaviour, and other aspects that are studied by ornithologists. Wikipedia

19 August 2011

Work starts on next phase of Connect2 cycle path

Only two years after being put down the surface of the Conect2 cycle path linking Pineham to the town centre is being ripped up and re-laid. The work is being incorporated with the next stage of the project which will see the paths linking Briar Hill to St James being upgraded into a cycle way.

Footpaths in the area will be closed while the construction of a triangle of cycle ways takes place. However, there will be alternatives routes during the 10 weeks that will be needed for the work.

A new bridge linking Upton Country Park to the canal tow path which was due for installation last year should now be built later this year, opening up access to the park from the West Hunsbury area.

18 August 2011

Delapre Abbey Water Garden

It's not just a rumour, work has started on renovating the water garden. The area has been surrounded by red plastic fencing, coloured lines sprayed on the grass, concrete prized up and the fountain pumped out. A bit of a mess at the moment but I look forward to seeing the finished job in 6 weeks time.

17 August 2011

Northampton Riverside Development

An article in today's Chronicle report a £1b investment in Northampton's Riverside that should create 17,000 jobs has been approved. This is great news, the jobs are high value and so give Northampton's youth something to aspire to. Our schools and colleges should see this as a challenge to get as many of these jobs as possible for their students.

In the detailed planning the effect on the riverside needs to be taken into account. The landscaping needs to be taken right up to the rivers edge and not separated from it as has happened round B&Q and KFC which as resulted in unkempt eyesores which nobody takes long term responsibility for.

An artists impression of the Innovation Centre shows a 5 story building, on a plot of land between St Peters Way and the river this would seem far too high, we should be opening up the view, not screening it off.

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