laurence

Places

Curious Places: The derelict Tudor fort

If only every assignment went like this: Hey Laurence, could you do a picture feature on an abandoned fort out on the Essex coast? Alas, it has only happened once – last week. But what a place to photograph!

It was also a great opportunity – on a sunny largely cloudless day – to see how the new Nikon D810 dealt with high contrast scenes.

Anyhow, the story of Beacon Hill Fort goes a bit like this:

  • The first fortification at Beacon Hill Fort was built in the 1530s during Henry VIII’s reign
  • The original Beacon Hill battery from 1889-90 included 10in (25cm) and 6in (15cm) breech-loading guns which popped out of their encasements to fire
  • By World War One, the original guns had been replaced by mounted 6in guns and a third emplacement was built on the northern side of the fort
  • After 1945, the fort was put into “reduced” status by the War Office
  • The battery was finally abandoned in 1956, when military jet aircraft and missile systems rendered coastal defences, in the view of the War Office, obsolete

It has now been bought by Paul Valentine and his friend Barry Sharp. They want to turn it into a tourist attraction/adventure centre, primarily aimed at children.

Eventually they hope to set up a heritage trust to run the centre and pass this incredibly piece of coastal history back to the people of Harwich.

Uncategorized

Leaf frozen into a leaf

leaf fro\en into another leaf

Leaf frozen into another leaf

I was very pleased to have spotted these leaves ossified by frost. It took me a couple of seconds to see beyond their sumptuous autumnal colours to realise that one leaf had actually been melded into a large one by the the sub-zero chill.

Journalism, People, Places, Stories

Dead Ends: Life and work in the shadows of unsolved murders

Loose ends make a fertile breeding ground for rumour, suspicion and fear. And few loose ends linger in quite the same way as an unsolved murder. But what is it like to live and work in and around the scenes of unresolved horrors?

The case files of more than 1,400 murders currently linger unsolved upon the shelves of England’s police stations – their pages a chronicle of human endings in which the modes of killing – blunt force trauma, shooting, stabbing, strangulation – are stuck on grim repeat.

The oldest case dates back more than 100 years to 1905 and span every decade since.

Each killing wreaks immediate devastation on the families and friends of victims.

But these unsolved murders also leave more subtle psychological legacies upon the communities in which they take place, occasionally etched so deeply into the communal memory that they can come to define a place.

Neighbours

Denis Byrne

Denis Byrne

Within seconds of setting up the tripod, a man appears and asks protectively, though politely: “What are you doing here?”

You explain you are taking a picture of 98 Greswolde Road in Birmingham’s Sparkhill area, the former corner shop building where pensioner sisters Alice and Edna Rowley were found murdered 30 years ago.

Their killer stole just two boxes of chocolates, a bottle of Tia Maria and a radio cassette player.

“Ah yes, Edna and Alice” says Lloyd Archer, the man asking. “Terrible.”

He beckons over a second man – Denis Byrne – who is out walking his diminutive, three-legged, dog.

It might seem peculiar, but these two men not only know about the killing, they also know what others in the street know about the murders.

This network of knowledge, refined and agreed over many years through myriad neighbourly conversations, spans suspected culprits, theories as to what happened and knowledge of the sisters and their murder.

They were two old ladies who never interfered with anybody, kept themselves to themselves. Denis Byrne

“There was a terrible feeling locally here,” says Mr Byrne, who lives opposite the corner shop. “They were two old ladies who never interfered with anybody, kept themselves to themselves.”

He tells of the ‘ha’penny jars of toffees’ and how they would sometimes treat children to a few freebies if they didn’t have enough money.

Eight years after the murders, the building was bought by Ahmed Khan and became an Islamic cultural and education centre. Mr Khan, who is also chairman of the centre, said he was fully aware of the killings when he bought the property.

He believes whoever killed the sisters – and he has his suspicions – was now dead. In the network of knowledge about the killings, some in the street defer to Thelbert Alleyne who, having moved in opposite the shop 63 years ago, is one of the area’s most established residents.

98 Greswolde Road, Birmingham

98 Greswolde Road, Birmingham

The day after the murders, his son Frank was stopped by police on his way back to the family home for Christmas.

It was there, in the middle of the street, that Frank learned the two old “lovely ladies” (whose chin whiskers had intrigued and fascinated the area’s younger residents) had been murdered, “It (the shop) is part of my childhood and memories,” he said.

“If you had five or 10 pence you’d pop over to Rowley’s for sweets, and if you didn’t have enough they’d always let you have something.

“You’d go in through the door and see into the back, they’d be in the back area and would come through and serve you when they heard the bell.”

“In those days it was a very close community,” he says. “Everyone on this street, everything on this street, was known to everyone.”

He raises his head and beams a knowing smile at the suggestion this still seems to be the case.

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PrettyWindows-9.jpg

The Successor

Shortly after midnight on 8 September 1963, pub landlord and former miner George Wilson took his dog out for a walk.

Just 20 minutes later, his wife Betty found him outside their Nottingham pub with horrific stab wounds to his face, neck, head and back.

Mr Wilson died at the scene.

His death – which came to be known as the Pretty Windows murder (because of the attractive glasswork at Mr Wilson’s Fox and Grapes pub) shocked the city and triggered one of the biggest manhunts ever carried out by Nottinghamshire Police.

A few months ago the pub – whose name changed to Peggars after the murder – re-opened under its original name: the Fox and Grapes.

Danylo Semak

Danylo Semak

The new manager is Danylo Semak, born and raised in Nottingham.

“I thought I would be asked about it,” he said. “Some people have asked me whether I am feeling lucky.

“But in general people do not talk about the murder quite as much as I thought they would.

“It happened and we understand it happened, but as far as I am concerned it was many years before I was born.

“That is one thing we have tried to do – be sensitive towards it and acknowledge it but not sensationalise it in any way.”

The urban landscape surrounding the pub is shifting. What was, in Mr Wilson’s day, an enormous wholesalers’ market, is now being re-imagined as the city’s ‘Creative Quarter’, an incubator a new breed of independent businesses.

But the process is incomplete. New artisan shops and coffee houses sit within a stone’s throw of terraced rows of derelict red brick units. This flux exists not just in the bricks and mortar but in the community’s collective memory of the Pretty Windows Murder.

Fox and Grapes

Fox and Grapes

Step into the offices of those directing the Creative Quarter initiative and the chief executive officer Stephen Barker will explain how the murder is rarely mentioned partly, he says, because of many years of incomers into the city post-1963.

But linger for 10 minutes in that same office, and people’s memories, questions and stories about the murder start to seep out: theories as to motive; whether the killer knew Mr Wilson’s dog walking routine; whether it was a targeted murder.

Just one of the original ‘pretty windows’ from the Fox and Grapes remains – preserved within a wooden frame inside the pub.

No plaque proclaims its presence. But those for whom this ‘pretty window’ matters – or to those curious enough to ask about it – know it is there, rather like the unsolved murder that bears its name.

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GristonRoad.jpg

A Mother

Carol Young

Carol Young

As the crow flies, the mother of Johanna Young lives less than a mile from the water-filled pit in which her 14-year-old daughter’s body was found on Boxing Day in 1992.

Yet in the 25 years since the killing Carol Young has never visited the scene in Griston Road, in the small Norfolk town of Watton.

“I have never felt the need to,” she says.

Most of the time it is fairly quiet. But then there is a piece in the newspaper about it, or a fresh appeal, and then people will talk to me about it, saying things like they wish us luck or hope the police find something this time Carol Young

Johanna’s parents last saw her on the cold and foggy evening of 23 December.

Two days later the teenager’s shoes were discovered in undergrowth by a dog walker. Soon after her body was found nearby.

Johanna was lying face down in water with her lower clothing removed. The cause of death was drowning and a fractured skull.

Her killer or killers – Mrs Young believes more than one person was involved – have never faced justice.

Remaining in the place where a daughter had been murdered might have been too much to bear for some families.

The Youngs have stayed put, Mrs Young says, in part to look after her mother but also because Watton is their home.

Griston Road, Watton

Griston Road, Watton

“Some people speak to me about it, some people don’t,” says Mrs Young. “I don’t really mind either way.

“Most of the time it is fairly quiet. But then there is a piece in the newspaper about it, or a fresh appeal, and then people will talk to me about it, saying things like they wish us luck or hope the police find something this time.”

The Youngs remain haunted by the many unanswered questions.

“She was still alive when she was dumped in the water,” says Mrs Young.

“They should have sought help or at the very least just left her. She might still have died but maybe not.

“It is with you all the time – why did they dump her in the pond? Who did it? Why? Were they alone?”

The poster

The poster

The Youngs know their daughter’s killer is not only still at large, but is probably nearby.

“You do wonder if the person you just passed in the street was the killer.”

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EdnaHarvey-1-1.jpg

The ‘old guard’

Edna Harvey, who lived alone in a ground-floor flat in the horseshoe-shaped Finchley Road in Ipswich, was not well known to most of her neighbours.

This was not because the 87-year-old was in any way anti-social, but because she was nearly blind and extremely frail and rarely ventured beyond the confines of her flat.

That frailty, and the fact Edna lived a simple life with meagre possessions, made the brutality of her murder in August 1984 all the more shocking.

Edna’s killer or killers strangled her before setting her alight on her mattress.

Molly Adams

Molly Adams holding a photograph of the street party the community once enjoyed

More than 30 years on, Frank Culham remembers the murder vividly.

“The police were going around knocking on all the doors asking whether anybody had seen anything.

“It was so very sad. Back then it was so nice and quiet here. Things altered.”

This used to be a really strong community Molly Adams

Memories of Edna are vanishing fast, but unlike with the Pretty Windows murder, or the killing of the Rowley sisters, it seems the story of her death is not being passed on to newcomers.

The reason, according to the street’s self-proclaimed “old guard”, is that the sense of community they once enjoyed has long been shattered.

Edna’s death and the suspicions it aroused are felt to have played a role in the dissipation of that social cohesion.

Molly and Michael Adams, who live a few doors down from Mr Culham, moved into Finchley Road more than 50 years ago.

Back then, they say, neighbours would sit out in their front yards sharing their news and views.

The view down Finchley Road in Ipswich

The view down Finchley Road in Ipswich

“We do still think about her,” says Mrs Adams.

“Whenever there is an unsolved case on television or in the paper, we wonder what happened to her and who could have done such a thing – she didn’t have much and she could barely see.

“This used to be a really strong community. In 1977 the whole street organised a party and we had the whole road closed off. On New Year’s Eve we would get together and do the conga in the street. We’ve drifted apart, things have changed.

“We knew about Edna from Sylvie, who was her carer. Sylvie has since died, as have quite a few other people who remembered the case.

“There are not many of us left who remember what happened.”

_________

This piece was published on the BBC news website on 20.1.18

People

Gosh, a woman with a comic shop

We were trying something a little new on the BBC news website a few weeks back.

The idea – called ‘Slides’ – was to try and tell a story horizontally in words, pictures and video.

Intended for mobile devices and aimed at a younger audience, I thought a quick jaunt with of one of the UK’s only (I think there are two) women comic shop owners might work well.

If you’re reading this on a mobile device, check it out here. If not, here’s the bog standard feature (which is different to the Slides story.

The short film was shot on a Fuji X-Pro, which is great for images but less so for sound!

People, Stories

Faith Spear: The Prison Monitor Who Spoke Out

I recently wrote a piece about a former prison monitor who had raised concerns about the state of prison monitoring.

As a result of her concerns – voiced anonymously – she was urged to step down as a chairman of the monitoring board she chaired.

And when she then spoke to a newspaper about this, she was suspended and eventually fired.
I was very grateful to Faith Spear – the woman concerned in the case – for taking the time to tell her story.
In age in which dogs riding skateboards appear all the rage, I had not expected the piece – about a prison whistleblower – to generate much interest.

Faith Spear on Ipswich Quay

Faith Spear

It was not a ‘sexy’ story or, I imagined, a particularly shareable one.
But I strongly believed it worth telling.

That about 700,000 people took the time to read the story has both reinvigorated my hope that people really do care about issues that matter and that time spent on such stories is time well spent.

People, Places

‘Little America’: Where the Stars and Stripes fly high

Many years ago, when I worked in Suffolk, I had an idea for a feature about the peculiarly American feel of north west Suffolk. Yes, it is home to the USAF bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath.

But the cultural, social and monetary reach extended far beyond the gates and fences of the bases. With July 4 in mind, a few weeks I finally set about doing something about writing that long-imagined piece. It was a great experience to work on it with a colleague, who brought a fresh vision and voice to my work.

The end product, which attracted about 1.4m unique views, was a stripped down version of the original. So, here’s the original – for anybody who fancies it.

With its picturesque villages and quiet country lanes, the county of Suffolk embodies a vision of a certain kind of Englishness. Yet nestled away in its north-western corner lies a pocket of pure Americana, where the cars are suddenly huge, you can pay for a haircut in dollars and the Stars and Stripes flutter proudly. Welcome, this Independence Day, to “Little America”.

Beck Row sign

Beck Row sign

The accent is unmistakably American.

The man, elderly, slightly hunched but with a freshly cut short-back-and-sides, hauls himself out of the black leather barber’s chair and places some money in Steve Snazell’s palm.

“Until next time,” he says, heading out of the door with a sense of purpose honed from years in the military.

“He’s a regular,” says Mr Snazell, a second generation barber whose shop sits directly opposite the wired fence of RAF Mildenhall.

The American community here was established here during World War Two and the years immediately afterwards when the US military coagulated into a crescent of RAF bases that stretch across southern England from Lakenheath in Suffolk to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.

Gary Snazell

Gary Snazell

West Suffolk is home to both RAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall, with RAF Feltwell perched just over the Norfolk border to the north.

In the past seven decades, tens of thousands of US military personnel, their spouses and their children have set up home in this Suffolk enclave for postings lasting between between two and four years.

The United States Air Force in Europe claims RAF Laknheath and Mildenhall are worth a combined £700m ($910m) to the local economy. The influence of the American dollar stretches far and wide – from the local property rental market to the pubs and restaurants, where US patrons are noted for eating out earlier than their British counterparts.

About half of all Mr Snazell’s customers are Americans – either those currently serving in the military, or retirees who have settled in the area.

Recent years have ushered in a subtle revolution in the follicular topography of his American clients, he says.

The “high and tight” haircut, so traditional of the US military, has been largely replaced by a simple short-back-and-sides, or the intriguingly named “local”.

To have a “local” is to have one’s hair cut in the manner of a typical west Suffolk native, one that will prevent its bearer being noticeably American. It is, says Mr Snazell, one of the more unusual responses to the fear of being targeted in a terror attack.

The cost of a “high and tight” or a “local” is £8 – though Mr Snazell is equally happy to take payment in dollars ($12).

VAT free

VAT free

One of the current batch of Americans living in the area is Jolene Jeffers, an aspiring photographer currently working for a car rental company.

She and husband Caleb, originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, are almost three years into a four-year posting. He works on the Lockheed C-130 Hercules at RAF Mildenhall.

“It is a different experience but still a really cool one,” she says of life in west Suffolk.

“Sometimes I just want to go to Walmart at 03:00 for ice cream and socks, and you can’t do that here.

“I miss home but it’s amazing to be so close to London and to Paris.

“It’s very small compared to what I’m used to, but Suffolk is so cosy and the people are so nice.”

Ros Hamill

Ros Hamill

Such appreciation is reciprocated by retiree Rosalind Hamill, who is one of the thousands of British people to have made a living working on the the bases.

In earshot of a slate-grey Hercules C-130 refuelling tanker in slow turn, Mrs Hamill is rolling up her sleeves and sets to work turning a derelict corner of a field off Jarman’s Lane into a community garden.

Called the Shed Project, Mrs Hamill’s vision will be built upon a microcosm of the “special relationship”.

A group of American volunteers will be joining her to clear the broken bricks, remove weeds and renovate the ramshackle outbuildings.

“We’ve always worked together, the base and the local community,” says Mrs Hamill, a West Row councillor who left school aged 15 to work at RAF Mildenhall,

“The young ones are so polite – it’s all yes ma’am, no ma’am.”

And then there are the Americans who have not only settled into, but embraced, village life, she says.

One of them, Brian, is widely lauded across West Row for growing the best sweetcorn in the area.

“People have to accept there’s an American airbase here, that sometimes they’ll go round the roundabout the wrong way,” she says.

Terrence Grinling

Terrence Grinling

Sometimes, they end up in your family, as 76-year-old Suffolk native Terence Grinling found out.

Mr Grinling started on base as an electrical contractor before being made a permanent member of staff at RAF Mildenhall.

“I enjoyed every minute of it – so much so that when I reached retirement age I did an extra four years there.”

As well as a living, the base gave him a son-in-law in the form of Kenneth, from Ohio.

“He did not want to go back to the US and Hayley (his daughter) did not want to leave,” says Mr Grinling. “So they settled here and live with my grandson William in Red Lodge.”

Even without a family connection, the bonds between Americans and this little corner of Suffolk can be strong and long-lasting.

Little America

Little America

Steve Balkan runs a pizzeria in Rothsay in Minnesota.

But 13 years ago he was stationed at RAF Mildenhall, leaving with the rank of major.

When he bumped into us he was emerging from Webb’s sandwich shop in the centre of Mildenhall.

“Webb’s was my favourite place, the food was fantastic,” he says, having introduced its charms to his partner Karie and his three children.

His younger daughter Chase, 13, was actually born at RAF Lakenheath.

“This was by far the best assignment in my whole air force career,” he said.

“We love the Brits, the sense of humour. And the countryside around here is so beautiful.

“I’ve always wanted to come back and show the kids where they came from.”

Talk to people in this area of Suffolk and the conversation will at some stage invariably turn to cars.

Huge American Chevrolets, Fords and Chryslers are commonplace. But driving left-handed cars along Suffolk’s often narrow winding roads can prove problematic.

So much so, in fact, that the USAF tells its service personnel driving in the UK is “a challenge” and that they are not allowed to overtake other vehicles within a certain distance of the base.

The speed limit on the Eriswell Road – which connects RAF Mildenhall with nearby RAF Lakenheath – was cut from 60mph to 40mph in 2015 after it emerged this single stretch accounted for more than half of the 61 traffic accidents involving airmen between 2012 and 2014.

Terry James in his ofice

Terry

Terry James, who runs Mildenhall Car Sales with his stepson Mike, says many of the airmen pop into their showroom for advice about negotiating Suffolk’s roads.

Within is a wall-to-wall celebration of the best of British and American: the flare-wearing Beatles crossing Abbey Road, a framed Osprey helicopter print – a gift from the base – the night glow of a Manhattan skyline.

Portraits of Mildenhall’s senior military staff share the spotlight with Mohammed Ali, Steve McQueen and Barack Obama.

As well as selling cars – nearly all automatic – to the Americans, Mr James’s staff prepare US cars for the roads in the UK and for their MOTs.

But many Americans have an ulterior motive for visiting Mr James’s car showroom: his dog, a velvety grey three-year-old Weimaraner called Charlie.

Charlie the dog

Charlie

Most service personnel have to leave their pets at home. For many Charlie has become a much-loved surrogate.

Terry’s wife Sylvia, who helps with the office admin, says the airmen and their families feel a “strong sense of belonging” in their offices.

“Sometimes people just happen to come in here,” she says. “We listen to them, we’re here for them, even if it’s just for a chat.

“We push the boat out and make an effort. You have to remember nothing is familiar to them here – even mince pies at Christmas time. They didn’t know what they were.”

Scratch beneath the service with anybody connected with the base and there is a sense of uncertainty.

In 2015, the USAF revealed it planned to pull out of RAF Mildenhall, RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth by 2020-23.

That decision is now reportedly being reviewed.

Bill

Bill

“If Mildenhall closes, we’d have to change our business model pretty sharpish,” says Bill Flynn, the managing director of removals firm Safepac.

From the porthole-style windows of his office, Mr Flynn, the son of a US a serviceman, can often see the massive refuelling tankers just seconds after they take off from RAF Mildenhall’s airstrip.

“Even though the US government covers their every cost, the dollar goes a long way locally, especially in the rental market,” he adds.

Half of the company’s business involves moving American “members” – the term given to service families – back and forth across “the pond”. Each year they handle some 2,000 US house shipments.

If you have wondered how much the average family’s possessions (excluding cars) weigh, Mr Flynn can tell you. It is about 4,000kg (3.9 tons)

The company was established in 1966 by Mr Flynn’s American airman father Mickey, who spotted a gap in the market when it came to the movement of personnel between stations.

“Service families are so used to moving, the old adage that moving house being the most stressful thing you do in your life doesn’t apply to them”, Mr Flynn says.

“We do everything you’d expect in a normal house move – we pack and wrap household possessions into crates, 10 crates to a container. We organise shipping them to America, where they can then face a couple of thousand miles by road.”

Josh Ivie

Josh Ivie

Josh Ivie, 24, is also the Suffolk-born and raised son of a US serviceman.

He has just completed a graphic design degree at Lincoln University and is currently helping out in the family’s car rental business.

With a curious hybrid Suffolk-US accent, Mr Ivie tells how his “classic happy American dad” Doug fell for a local girl and settled here. When he retired from the USAF, he worked at Air Force Car Rentals before buying the business outright seven years ago.

The company rents out about 250 automatic-gearbox cars each week, almost exclusively to American families.

Rentals often come with a free course in UK driving.

“We often walk through the roundabouts with them and the rural roads,” he says. “Their single carriageways are the same width as our normal main roads.

“With their left hand drive and the dimensions they’re used to, we lose wing mirrors all the time.”

But while his father and others have visited and settled in the UK, Mr Ivie has different hopes.

He wants to head the other way across the Atlantic break into the US music industry and live his own American dream.

Places

The Blazing Colours of Hastings

When it comes to sheer colour, few places in the UK can top the southern coastal town of Hastings on a bright summer day.

I love it.

Steps, Hastings

Steps, Hastings

Homeless Man, Hastings

Homeless Man, Hastings

Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura

Hastings

Hastings

Kayaks

Kayaks

Articles, People, Places, Projects

The school nobody wants to talk about

This week saw the publication of an extended project on a primary school in Essex.

With its austere 1920s red brick design, outdoor playgrounds and dark wooden floor hall, It looks pretty much like any other school. What makes Crays Hill different is that nearly all of its pupils are from the travelling community.

As I reported in my piece, it is a good school, rated highly by Ofsted, with great facilities and hugely motivated and caring teachers. The children are, well, children. They’re precocious, humorous, inquisitive. Most are far more polite than most are in my own children’s school.

Crays Hill pupils

Crays Hill pupils

What made this a particularly interesting proposition/challenge photographically was that the parents did not want any of their children’s faces in the images. But I desperately wanted to share with viewers as much of their clear enthusiasm for learning, talking, making and being as possible.

I did not know there would be this limitation before I arrived to take pictures.

Crays Hill pupil

Crays Hill pupil

Looking over the images in retrospect, I could and perhaps should have done better. But I think I was on the right lines. The children’s own self-portraits are important statements about who they are and I am very pleased to have honed in on one boy’s ambivalent drawing of a policeman. Bearing in mind this boy was present during the evictions at Dale Farm five years ago, I am struck by how his policeman looks like part monster/robot/superhero (not to mention the synchrony of the colours with his wristband!).

It was a privilege to join them for a few hours – enough time to blend into the background – as they worked and I wish all of them every success with their studies.

Self Portrait by child at Crays Hill

Self Portrait

Police man by a traveller child at Crays Hill Primary

Police man

Crays Hill pupil

Crays Hill pupil

Crays Hill Primary lesson

Crays Hill Primary lesson

Monochrome, People, Uncategorised

What does the future hold for Morris dancing?

early warning signs all was not quite right inside

The men of Chelmsford Morris in full flow

On Wednesday night I had the great honour of joining Chelmsford Morris (the men’s group) to find out what off-season folk dancing looked like. The blinding white suits and buckled waistcoats were nowhere to be seen. Instead, a friendly gaggle of men in jeans and polo shirts were there to greet me.

My reason for being there was essentially an occupational afterthought to a previous piece I had written about this particular club’s concerns for its future given an apparent dearth of “fit, mildly eccentric” men.

Thankfully, since writing that piece, two men have stepped out of their own doors and up to the plate (two women have also since joined).

But it all begged a question – what does the future hold for Morris dancing?

I have a confession to make. I first saw Morris dancing in the Woolshops area of Halifax. I was 11 or 12 years old and out with friends. We mocked the dancers. I felt the whole episode was rather embarrassing. In my mind Morris was consigned to those activities – like shouting about God in the middle of a street (usually atop a box) or walking around as a human A-board sign – that were early warning signs all was not quite right inside.

Invited to join in for a dance, those views formed in mid childhood began to stir.

Ocklebacking with the Chelmsford group

Ocklebacking with the Chelmsford group

But only briefly. Because – and this might be an age thing – I found something quite wonderful in this increasingly anti-social age that a group of guys would meet up, get some exercise, immerse themselves in Centuries-old folk culture without a care of what people thought of them and then go for a pint.

Perhaps, I thought, joining a Morris group is actually an early warning sign that all is very right inside. And looking at the club’s newest members (one is 30 years old), I think the future of Morris might be very rosy indeed.

The bagman of Chelmsford Morris, Celia Kemp

The bagman of Chelmsford Morris, Celia Kemp

Articles, Journalism, People

The public costs of bird control

A few months back I was leaving an inquest and noticed some guys putting up netting around a council building. They told me it was to stop pigeons roosting on the top and defecating downwards onto people like me.

“But once you’ve done this job,” I asked, “won’t the pigeons just move over there?”

“Yes,” was the response.

Followed by an admission of blatant opportunism (or business nous). “And when we’ve finished here, we’ll drop off our card at the businesses over there.”

This made me wonder just how much public money was being spent on bird control. Nobody really seemed to know. So I sent out Freedom of Information requests to every council in the UK. Three months later, I was surprised at the lack of responses I had received back and the number of authorities which said they had no idea how much they did or did not spend on pigeons (it seems to depend on accounting codes and so on).

So, in the piece I did for the BBC, (followed up by the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail as well as local papers and radio) I was keen simply to posit the information supplied by those authorities which provided a transparent and detailed account of their spending (as opposed to criticising them as some have done since).

The total amount spent over the past three years was about £3.5m. I suspect the true figure is a good deal more (not least because a number of London councils were amongst those which failed to respond). One of the patterns which did emerge was the amount being spent had doubled over the past three years. To be honest, I do not know how significant this actually is.

In hindsight, I probably should have asked for the spending over the last 10 years. It may have led to even fewer local authorities responding, but I may at least have been able to factor in the post 2008 austerity measures which have hugely affected councils. It may well be the case that councils were spending far more 10 years ago than they are now and that what we are seeing is a return to normal rather than an apparent massive increase.

Possibly. One of the pleasures of this project has been getting to speak with a large number of pest controllers who I’ve enjoyed learning from and debating all manner of issues with. One theme all of the pest controllers have mentioned is that business is good at the moment. Councils – and other clients – are moving away from lethal forms of bird control to gentler, disruptive forms. This, they say, costs more, which may also explain the possible rise.

So my piece on Friday was more of a first stab at an issue rather than anything definitive. It also looked only at council spending and not the money spent by the many other public sector organisations – hospitals, police stations or, erm, the BBC. Nor does it address the issue of potential multiple spends – the potential chain of expenditure moving on the same group of birds from one public building to the next, to the next and so on. Establishing that might be impossible, but it might be worth a try…