Monday, 4 December 2017

Best Before: Time to re-educate ourselves about food

Tinned food

A good move at the right time. 

This was my immediate thought when I learned that East of England Co-Op is to relax its policy on the highly misleading 'Best Before' (BB) advice that applies to its tinned and dried foods. BB dates are 'quality' dates and are set by food manufacturers. In a bid to address the chronic problem of food waste in England, the chain of convenience stores is starting to sell food that is beyond its BB date at knock down prices. This is good news on a number of fronts.

20,000 tonnes of thrown-away food PER DAY

I recently wrote a blog about food waste in the home, but it's long been the case that another major contributor to Britain's food waste problem is retailers. For far too long, shops have thrown away food that is past its BB date, even though the BB date doesn't necessarily mean the food is inedible. Now, when the BB date on certain items of food has expired, East of England Co-op will reduce the price of the food to 10p in many cases. This has many benefits to the local community:

  • Less food waste on the part of the retailer
  • More affordable food for local people
  • Consumers' buying habits will change as people get used to the idea that an expired 'BB' date does not mean the food is bad 
  • One hopes there will also be a positive impact on local producers of food, if this move by Co-op signals a more sensible attitude towards the kind of food it finds acceptable to put on its shelves.

What about Peterborough?

This is where it gets confusing. Although Peterborough is in the East of England, there are no 'East of England Co-Op' stores here. Currently, only Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex benefit from the scheme. It is not clear at the moment whether other Co-op supermarkets will take part in the scheme. 

Our local Co-op is in Ortongate (aka The Orton Centre) in the heart of Orton. It is perceived by many residents to be pricey, and now that an Iceland Warehouse has opened nearby one wonders what the impact on our local Co-op will be, given that it is an important employer of local people as well as as one of the largest food outlets in this part of Peterborough. 

I really hope that Co-op will extend the scheme to cover Peterborough. It would surely be a winner for its business and for local residents. 

It's up to us

East of England Coop's scheme could create a revolution in the way we regard our food and drastically reduce food waste. It could also save residents a great deal of money on weekly food shopping. But this initiative can only succeed if we are all willing to embrace it. It takes a while to change habits, and it has long been drummed into us that food that is beyond its BB date is inedible and potentially dangerous which, for the most part, is simply untrue.

Manufacturers also have a role to play. BB labelling is past its sell by date. It confuses consumers. It's time for BB dates to be removed from packaging altogether (except in cases where safety is a genuine issue).

At a time when food prices generally have increased, and as we worry how Brexit will affect the price of food, this East of England Co-op scheme really is good news. The way we consume food from supermarkets isn't sustainable and has to change. It will be very interesting to see the impact this bold move by the East of England Co-op will have on its business. Here's hoping that it is a success and that other food retailers and manufacturers will soon follow suit.

Read more about this on the BBC News website: 

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

City Council Consultation on 'No Waiting' Zone in Orton Northgate

Update 11th December 2017

Great news. The City Council has heeded residents' requests:

"The general consensus received support to the double yellow lines on both sides of East of England Way, but requested that they stopped before the entrance to the residential area. We will therefore amend the plan to reflect this and recommend that this reduced scope is approved by our Head of Service. It is our intention to stop the practice of  lorries parking in Joseph Odam Way which we would be keen to prevent, but unfortunately we cannot extend the double yellow lines onto Joseph Odam Way within the current Legal Order. I will therefore include the proposal for additional restrictions at this location on our next Traffic Order which is due in the new year."

Original article

Although this Peterborough City Council consultation has only been sent to some residents of East of England Way, I feel that everyone who lives on the Orton Northgate estate should have their say.

Peterborough City Council is proposing to introduce new parking restrictions along part of East of England way. This is welcome, as it will prevent the kind of anti-social parking that residents of that street have been forced to tolerate for way too long now. In particular, large vehicles that have arrived 24 hours early to visit the Showground have been parking up on East of England Way, making it more difficult for residents, bin lorries and emergency vehicles to access this part of the Northgate estate.

The council has supplied a map as shown below.

Map of East of England Way
The red shading indicates the area of 'No Waiting At Any Time' proposed by the city council

While the introduction of the proposed 'No Waiting At Any Time' zone is welcomed, many residents feel that it extends too far into the residential part of East of England way.

If you are a resident of Orton Northgate, you may wish to support East of England Way residents by responding to the consultation to indicate that you strongly disagree with the proposal because you feel the suggested area is not correct. Contrary to the city council's suggestion, residents feel that the zone should end just past the turning into the Holiday Inn and not extend into the residential area. It would also be helpful if the zone extended down Joseph Odam Way down to the junction with Oundle Road.

I urge everyone who lives in Orton Northgate to respond to this consultation.

Send your comments to Judi Anderson, Technician - Traffic Management at Peterborough Highway Services at

If you're pushed for time, you may wish to take advantage of this letter template that I have produced. Do personalise it and include any additional comments that you wish to make.

[Your address]

Judi Anderson
Technician – Traffic Management
Growth & Regeneration Directorate
Peterborough Highway Services Network Team
Dodson House, Fengate
Peterborough PE1 5XG


Dear Judi,

Re: The Council of the City of Peterborough (Civil Enforcement Area) (Waiting Restrictions and Street Parking Places) Amendment No.40 Order 2017 East of England Way, Orton Northgate

With reference to this proposal please take into account the following comments.

While the proposal to create an area of ‘No Waiting At Any Time’ on East of England Way is welcomed, I strongly disagree with the proposal as presented in your letter of 12 October 2017.

I request that the area is amended as follows:

  • That the area does not extend into the residential part of East of England Way. Rather that it terminates immediately after the right turn into the Holiday Inn Express.
  • That the area is extended to include Joseph Odam Way, which is the road that links East of England Way to Oundle Road. Joseph Odam Way is the sole access road to the Orton Northgate Estate. 
Recently, articulated lorries and transport carriers have been observed parking overnight on Joseph Odam Way, presenting a potential hazard to both residential traffic and emergency vehicles. The extension of the No Wait zone to include Joseph Odam Way would vastly improve the safety of Joseph Odam Way for all residents.

Yours sincerely,

[Your name]

Monday, 18 September 2017

Waste Less Live More

This is Keep Britain Tidy's 'Waste Less Live More' week.

Over the course of the next seven days we are encouraged to try out different things so that we create less food waste.

I'm very interested in this challenge as I reckon I'm pretty fastidious when it comes to reducing food waste at home. However, I know there are areas that need improvement as my grey food waste caddy is never empty.

Throughout this week, I'll share Keep Britain Tidy's advice with you. I'll let you know how I'm getting on with the challenge and I'll share what the experience has taught me.

Monday: Buy some wonky veg

Sweet potato
This sweet potato is the wonkiest vegetable
I could find in Peterborough Waitrose.
It's just begging to have a face drawn on it.

Monday's challenge is to buy mis-shapen food!

This doesn't sound like much of a challenge, but apparently supermarkets and greengrocers throw away a lot of fruit and veg each day because we consumers won't buy anything that's not the 'standard' shape. Isn't that crazy? All potatoes are equal when they're mashed!

I'm obviously a bit odd, because I prefer mis-shapen food. In fact, I find it hilarious. A weird-looking carrot in the supermarket crate makes me want to buy that one! Different is special in my book.

So I went to the supermarket and took up the challenge.

I use different supermarkets depending on where I am and what I'm doing that day. On this occasion I went to the Waitrose by Peterborough rail station.

What I found there genuinely shocked me:

Waitrose in Peterborough does not sell mis-shapen vegetables!

Everywhere I looked I saw perfectly straight (or perfectly rounded) fruit and veg.

And it gets worse. The majority of fruit and veg on sale was in plastic wrapping.

And it gets worse still. A lot of the fruit and veg has clocked up considerable travel miles to get here.

So this isn't just about the food that supermarkets discard based on shape, it has also brought home to me how the choices we make have a direct effect on our planet through the carbon footprint created by our food.

The only vaguely mis-shapen veg I found was the sweet potato shown above. Everything else was depressingly 'standard'. Oh dear, what have we become and what will become of us if we don't change our silly ways?

So even after one day, Keep Britain Tidy's Campaign has had an effect on me: I'm now obsessed with only buying wonky veg.

Three straight carrots
No wonky carrots in Waitrose.

Tuesday: Perfect your portions

Today we're being encouraged to think as we cook and only make as much food as we need.

I've become pretty good at cooking the right amount of food and not wasting any. The problem tends to happen when my cooking 'goes wrong' and I have to throw out the inedible burned mess I just made and start over (I'm getting better with practice).

I'm fortunate to live with both a man and a dog who have very high tolerance when it comes to meals that didn't quite turn out the way I intended. If I can't or won't eat what's on my plate then there is a high chance that one of my housemates will. This means that what goes in my food waste caddy does tend to be genuinely inedible, yet there is still too much going in there.

Looks cute, will hoover up virtually anything put in his path - if I let him, which I don't.
Scraps from the table is a naughty habit and not good for him other than very occasionally.

I have a condition that makes swallowing a problem at times and this has meant I've had to adjust my own portions recently. I can't eat a lot of bread or meat, for example, and I have to chew my food a lot to make sure it goes down. A positive consequence of this has been that it has forced me to think about portions more carefully and I've developed a good habit of not cooking more food than I can realistically cope with at one sitting.

Attempts to regulate my diet also mean I'm in the habit of weighing some of my foods to keep the calorie intake down. This also helps me to avoid food waste.

Weighing out 75g of pasta
Weighing your food can be a helpful way of getting portion sizes right.
75g is the right amount of pasta for one person.

Another good habit I recently picked up from my partner is keeping leftovers for another time. This may sound like an obvious thing to do. However, I was brought up in a household where leftovers were always put in the bin, never re-used. As an adult in charge of what I do eat and don't eat it has taken some effort for me to change my attitude towards uneaten food but I'm quite proud to say I've done it. We have a range of air-tight plastic tubs in our kitchen of various sizes. Now, when we're full, the leftover food goes into one of these and into the fridge to be eaten the following day.

Bought more fresh meat than your meal requires?
You can freeze it for several months.

If I realise that I've bought too much of a particular meat, I pop it into a plastic bag and freeze it. Most meats are good for several months if frozen (defrost fully in the fridge before use and eat that day). This is another thing my family never used to do and means I save quite a lot of money as well as reducing food waste.

How you're brought up really influences your attitude to food waste. I'd never fully appreciated this before thinking about it just now.

Wednesday: Have a use-it-up night

Today's challenge has me feeling all pleased with myself as it's something I've been doing for a while now. As you can read in this blog post, for a few years I lived in poverty with very little money for food. During this time, no food at all was ever wasted and I will probably now carry this habit with me forever.

Potato in a fridge
We can all find ourselves struggling for money to buy food.
Knowing how to make the most of what we've got is a key life skill.

I cook the meals in our household and meal plans start by looking in the fridge to see what needs to be eaten before it spoils and making a meal based around that ingredient but without purchasing any other ingredients if I can avoid it.

My partner makes the occasional Sunday roast and when he does we always eat the leftover roast potatoes with whatever meal we're having the following day.

Mind you, this advice from Keep Britain Tidy has got me thinking about whether I can use leftover food more creatively: vegetables and meat can be added into pretty much any dish - the easiest is adding them to pasta, flung onto pastry for a tart or chucked into a curry. Pasta and rice can be put into oven bakes, salads and wraps. Potatoes can be fried up as a side dish or turned into hash browns or latkes.

Hmm. Food for thought.

Thursday: Make a list

Making a shopping list is rarely a problem. Sticking to one is another matter.

We know the supermarkets invest heavily in research to discover how product placement within their stores influences our shopping choices. We may think we're creatures of habit but we're also creatures of impulse and we like variety. So it takes a strong will to resist something new, especially when it's on special offer. However, it's these unplanned, impulsive purchases that also put us at risk of wasting food, simply because they encourage us to buy more than we need.

Since I started planning meals I have become better at only buying the food I need. I look at the use by date on any impulse purchases and also check to see whether the food may be frozen. The freezer really is your best friend here (no wonder the residents of Orton are so excited about the new Iceland that opened in the Orton Centre this week!). If you buy something to see what it's like, but it's additional to what you'd planned to buy, knowing you can freeze it for consumption as part of a planned meal helps you to avoid wasting it or any other food.

Shopping list
I can resist anything but temptation, but if I stick to my shopping list I know I'll waste less food.

When you make a list - and stick to it - you also save money. When I shop, I use the 'shop and scan' facility so I have a running total of what's in my shopping trolley. The most expensive things I buy tend to be joints of meat and I aim to buy these only when they are on offer and always freeze them.

Sometimes, making a list means buying off-season food that is more expensive and has travelled further (not good!). Buying food in season and freezing it does save money, but also requires careful management to ensure that food doesn't ultimately go to waste because you've bought it, put it away and then forgotten about it. I regularly look through my freezer to see what's in there and aim to use all food before it becomes inedible.

As Keep Britain Tidy points out, if you're following its advice about using up leftovers then you may not need to buy food for fresh meals every day.

There are some meal 'staples' that last a long time and are safe to stock up on, such as pasta, tinned chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, herbs - but that's still no excuse for buying way more than you need. If there's one foodstuff that I regularly find myself throwing out it's dried herbs and spices that have gone out of date. I wish it was possible to buy these in smaller sizes.

Lists are a great idea, but take practice. Fall into the habit of really knowing what's in your fridge and freezer and you'll get into the swing of it. And never, ever go shopping when you're hungry - that's a guarantee that you'll buy way more than you need!

Friday: Organise your fridge in nine easy steps

I lived alone for ten years.

When you live by yourself you know what's in your fridge as the only person putting things into it and taking things out of it is you.

In 2015, I began living with someone else again and this meant some things would change. Suddenly, my fridge wasn't all about me. It became a shared space, and without looking I couldn't be sure what was inside it nor what had been 'taken'.

Today's challenge is to organise your fridge 'in nine easy steps'. This sounds like a lot of stages to me, particularly as I had no problem managing my fridge when I lived alone!

Red onions
So where do you keep your onions: fridge or cupboard?

Step 1: Put new food at the back so the food that will soon go out of date is near the front in plain sight.

This is something I do instinctively, being as I am probably a bit too obsessed with food being fresh and 'safe'. I have multiple sclerosis, which is quite enough on its own, and I have a fear of becoming ill with anything else as it can take my body a long time to recover. This fear isn't totally unfounded.

In 1991, when I was a student in Brighton, I experienced a bout of food poisoning so severe that a doctor had to be called out to see me. The cause: a warm fridge. I was at my then boyfriend's house and we'd cooked spagbol. When I took the mince from the fridge I looked at it and felt unsure, but my boyfriend, who was three years older than me (which was a lot in those days) assured me that it was fine, and like the naive young woman that I was, I believed him. Much unpleasantness was to follow. When the doctor arrived he went straight to the fridge and declared 'This fridge is not cold!'

Ever since then, I've been paranoid about food being off and am meticulous about checking and re-checking that fresh food is okay before I start to prepare it.

Step 2: Keep items that go off quickly at eye level

This is also good advice. Given my paranoia about food being off it's vital that I keep fresh food where I can see it so that I remember to eat it while I still trust it not to kill me.

Step 3: Keep condiments in the bottom drawer as you don't need to keep seeing them.

OMG. I've had an epiphany. This is so obvious but the thought had never struck me. Once I've finished writing today's post I'm going to go to the fridge and do exactly this. It makes perfect sense. It's safe to put the safe stuff out of sight. So obvious, I can't believe I never thought of it.

Step 4: Keep meats well wrapped on the bottom shelf

For the most part I freeze meats on the day of purchase and only thaw them 24 hours before use. This means I plan my meals and waste less food. But sometimes even the best laid plans go awry.

Occasionally, I'll buy fresh meat and think I'll eat it within a couple of days but don't, perhaps because an evening meeting has meant I've eaten out or had a takeaway to save time. These are the occasions when I'm most at risk of forgetting about the food I'd planned to eat. Ensuring that food is visible whenever I go to the fridge is vital.

Step 5: Dairy products last longer if kept on the top shelf

This is a revelation to me! As soon as I read this tip I dashed downstairs to the kitchen and moved all the milk products up to the top shelf.

I'm loving this list. I feel that I'm really achieving something!

After I'd moved the jars to the bottom and the dairy to the top,
but before I'd separated the fruit from the veg or taken the onions out.

Step 6: Separate fruit and veg

Ooh now, am I the only person in the world that didn't know this? And where do the tomatoes go, with the fruit or with the veg? According to Keep Britain Tidy, some fruits give off ethylene which makes veg go off more quickly. Really? Ethylene? I've never heard of it! Back down to the fridge to fix that as well, then.

Step 7: Cheese lasts longer when wrapped in cheese paper

Now this is well-timed advice. Mr Julie has a preference for cheese slices and I've earned myself a telling off more than once for failing to wrap the cheese slices back up and allowing them to go hard. Cheese paper (whatever that is) shall be added to the shopping list.

Step 8: Onions don't like being in the fridge

WHAT?!!! Oh no. Now I'm beginning to feel foolish. Apparently you shouldn't put tomatoes or garlic in the fridge either (or bananas or citrus fruits, but I knew about them). Okay, well that will free up more space in the fridge.

Step 9: Bread goes stale in the fridge

What a relief. Step 9 is not news to me. I was starting to feel a bit stupid. We keep our bread on the bread board (and let it go stale there instead). The best advice is to freeze bread before it goes stale. We do keep a sliced loaf in the freezer, but we're suckers for fresh bread and inevitably we end up throwing half of it away. Clearly, we need to put half the fresh loaf into the freezer as soon as we get it home. If Mr Julie is up for it I'll do this from now on.

Saturday: Freeze it

Just when I thought there was nothing more to learn...

Not only are bananas freezable (I had no idea) but to my embarrassment I discover that I've been freezing fresh herbs the wrong way.

I knew that freezing fresh herbs was the right thing to do. No person exists who has ever used up a whole bag or bunch of fresh herbs in one meal. But, like a fool, I've been putting the herbs into a small plastic bag and putting them into the freezer. This is not a good idea, as I discovered when I tried to use the frozen herbs months later and they crumbled to dust between my fingertips.

It turns out that the correct way to freeze fresh herbs is in olive oil. Cut the herbs up and put them into an ice cube tray. Then fill the ice cube tray with olive oil. You can later add the cubes to whatever meal you're cooking. It's so obvious now it's been pointed out.

I would also suggest freezing mint leaves in water. When the mood takes you, you can add the cubes to a mojito. That's one of your five-a-day taken care of too! Possibly...

Sadly, the lime and mint in this mojito do not count towards your five fruit a day.

Sunday: Delicious odds & ends

I would be sceptical of the advice on the final day of the challenge were it not for the fact that I've recently become a fan of the Discovery show 'Ed Stafford: left for dead'.

In it, Ed is left in some far flung wilderness location and given the challenge of reaching a particular place on his own in a certain number of days. He has no food and no water and has to use his wits and his survival skills to keep himself alive.

Ed Stafford
Turns out Ed Stafford and I have loads in common.

This isn't quite the same as me standing in my kitchen wondering whether or not to eat a carrot top (I know what Ed would do), but like our hero I'm finding out that there's plenty of nutritional value and flavour in the parts of our food that we usually throw away. Chicken feet, ox cheek, the stems of most herbs, all perfectly edible.

I thought carrot tops were just for rabbits. Turns out not. People can eat them too.

Rabbit eating carrot tops
This rabbit's got the right idea.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Improving Debdale Pond

Julie Howell holding loppers
Not sure I intended to be so 'hands on' but I really enjoyed it!

An exciting update for you.

Just over a year ago I wrote a blog entitled 'Watch These Spaces'. In the blog, I talked about the pond at Debdale in Orton Waterville and the parish council's plans to return it to a better state for the benefit of local wildlife.

This is how the pond looked then, in August 2016...

Debdale pond a year ago was in a mess

Fast forward to August 2017 and work has begun.

On the Sunday of the August bank holiday, I joined members of Peterborough Conservation Volunteers as they raked out the pond and cleared the scrub, using pieces of wood that might otherwise be discarded to reinforce the boundaries around this important site.

It was a very hot day and it was very hot work. Those of us working raking out the pond were given very long rakes and the conditions we very stinky and very muddy. I joked about falling over... and then slipped over, but no one avoided a good coating in mud.

Julie Howell raking Debdale pond
Whatever your ability you can have a go!
I did my best and like to think I made a modest difference.

Roger Proudfoot raking Debdale pond
Roger Proudfoot, Orton Waterville Parish Councillor and
joint coordinator (with me!) of Peterborough Green Party
Julie's dirty hand
Inevitably I slipped over. Sadly no one filmed it - I might have raised £250 from You've Been Framed.

Posted by Julie Howell on Sunday, 27 August 2017

Making progress

The pond is a former agricultural pond. Most of Waterville parish was farmland a century ago. Peterborough Conservation volunteers told me that when working on the pond in the past they had retrieved a number of old cattle bones from it. We retrieved an animal bone on this occasion too, although it is more likely that this one was thrown into the pond by someone who had just eaten takeaway food.

At the start of the day the pond looked like this. The pond has good tree cover which means many dead branches had either fallen or been thrown into it. There was also a fair amount of rubbish in the pond, hurled in by passing humans.

A group of volunteers raking Debdale pond
Hard at work to clear the pond of branches and debris.

At the end of the day the pond looked like this! All of the harmful and potentially harmful debris has been removed and the pond is now a safer and more suitable environment for local wildlife, including great crested newts.

Debdale pond after being raked
Wow. What a difference.

Pile of wood used to create a dead hedge
Fallen branches are used to make 'dead hedges' to improve protection of the site.

Peterborough Conservation Volunteers

Peterborough Conservation Volunteers break for tea
They even make the tea!

PCV is a local nature conservation group who help manage wildlife sites in and around Peterborough. They meet every Sunday to carry our many varied activities. They practice traditional skills and over a period of time you will find yourself helping them with coppicing, hedge laying, fencing and dry stone walling. Over the years they have formed close working links with the local Wildlife Trust, Natural England, The Woodland Trust and the local council. Much of their work is closely linked with the protection of locally or nationally rare species.

To find out more, visit Peterborough Conservation Volunteers.

Get involved

The next pond clearance will be on Sunday 22nd October 2017 from 10am. This time, Cherry Orton Pond at the top of Cherry Orton Road will be getting attention. Residents are very welcome to come along. You can watch or you can get directly involved - just be sure to wear appropriate clothing for getting wet and dirty.

Don't worry that you don't have much ability when it comes to this kind of work. I have multiple sclerosis and another condition known as sjogrens syndrome (tennis player Venus Williams also has this one) that mean I have pain in my shoulders and very little upper body strength - although I have very strong legs as I walk everywhere! I generally feel a bit left out from physical activity, but the PCV volunteers made everyone feel very welcome and stressed that we could all so as much or as little as we wanted to do.

Although I really enjoyed raking the pond it made me tired very quickly, so I switched to clearing the forest path for a while. I am very proud to say that I cleared the little stretch of path that you see in this picture.

Section of path cleared by Julie Howell
I cleared this section of path ALL ON MY OWN. Very proud. 

So don't be put off by lack of ability. Most of the volunteers are aged 50+ and it's your willingness to improve your local area that counts. If you can't join in as fully as you'd like to, that is no problem as the team is clearly very pleased that local people show an interest in conserving their local nature reserves.

FACT: The 'proper' name for Cherry Orton Pond is 'Top Town Pond'. Cherry Orton Road only got its name in 1950. Before this, the road leading up through Orton Waterville village was known as Town Street, although it seems local people tended to refer to it is 'the village road'. I'm told that some residents of Orton Goldhay know the pond as 'Black Pond' but no one seems to know how this name came into use. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: I’m in Debdale pond in Orton Waterville this morning with some volunteers and people from the Wildlife Trusts to clear out this pond because there’s a lovely pond here that could be made into a feature for residents to enjoy to an extent but most importantly it’s a nature pond and we have great crested newts here. So I’m doing really sweaty work clearing out the pond. I’ve got my welly boots on even though it’s August. I’ll show you what we’re doing here. So I’ve got this great long rake to rake the muck out and we’re just removing branches, you see the branches, well some have fallen from the trees but a lot have been chucked in by human beings. We’re also clearing the paths around here so that people can easily get through to here so they can enjoy what nature provides. But we’re not turning it into a municipal type of pond. If you look up you’ll see there’s not an awful lot of daylight comes through because of the tree cover. There’s quite a lot of us here today. It’s lovely. It’s really hot actually. Sunday morning. Something I can’t get across to you. I’m using this rake in order to pull out all of the debris that’s in the pond. But it stinks. My goodness, does it stink. So it’s not the most pleasant. But it’s really, really worthwhile so I’m very pleased to do this. And it’s great to be out on a Sunday morning. It’s fantastic.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Dog Poo: Get the Message

Just last week I told you about my encounter with an Orton resident whom I had observed throwing a bag of dog poo into a tree. We're getting pretty used to this kind of behaviour in Orton, sadly. But today I learned that it's a big, stinky problem in Ferry Meadows too.

Julie Howell by the dog poo tree
Not what you expect to see when you look up into a tree

In a bold, brave and eye-catching move, the team at Ferry Meadows has 'decorated' a tree and the area around it with bags of 'dog poo' to show visitors how much poo the rangers have to pick up in a single week. Given there are dog bins everywhere you look in Ferry Meadows it really is very disappointing to learn how big this problem has become for the park.

Dog poo sign in English
It would be great to have signs in other languages 

I think the installation is great (not everyone agrees). However, I think there is one key way in which it could be improved. As far as I could see, the only signage explaining the point of the dog poo tree was in English. Very many visitors to Ferry Meadows do not have English as their first language, and some do not speak or read any English at all. To be truly inclusive, and to make sure the message reaches everyone who walks their dog in Ferry Meadows, the Nene Park Trust should create sign language in all of Peterborough's most frequently spoken languages. We take it for granted that everyone appreciates that dangers of dog poo but I'm not convinced that this is so.

Dog poo tree
That's an awful lot of dog poo.

p.s. the bags in this installation contain stones, not dog poo - I checked!

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Farewell Waterville Ash

Ash tree
Waterville Ash Tree.
How we'll all miss it when it's gone.

UPDATE Tuesday 1st May 2018

The end. The last of the ash tree was carefully and skilfully removed by the city council contractors today. Just look at the girth of that trunk. A young oak tree has been planted next to it which will watch over the people of Waterville for centuries to come.

Felling of the Waterville ash

Felling of the Waterville ash

UPDATE Friday 1st December 2017

I appeared live on BBC Radio Cambs at the foot of the tree (at 7am!) to talk about why trees like the Waterville Ash are so important for Peterborough.

UPDATE Wednesday 11th October 2017

Some wonderful news and some sad news.

Let's deal with the sad news first. The branches have now been removed from the tree and it now looks like this. The gloomy sky says it all.

Ash tree with branches removed
It's very hard to look at this without feeling emotional.
And now for the wonderful news.

Peterborough Green Party Chairman Roger Proudfoot's photograph has won the Peterborough Environment City Trust's (PECT) 'iconic trees' photography competition. Roger's wonderful photograph of the tree in all its magnificence will be framed and placed somewhere for the public to enjoy for years to come.

Award-winning photo of the ash tree by Roger Proudfoot
Award-winning photo by Roger Proudfoot

UPDATE Monday 9th October 2017

The tree will be felled today. The city council and the parish council acknowledge how much this iconic tree means to local people. After 4:30pm today (NO EARLIER) residents are welcome to visit the site to collect a piece of felled wood as a memento of this historic tree. Only the crown (the branches) will be removed. The trunk will be left as a monolith while the parish council decides what to do with is after consultation with local residents.

I nipped down there earlier and collected a piece of a branch that was taken down today.

Slice of ash tree branch
I counted roughly 110 rings.

Ash tree being felled
If the branch is 110 years old the whole tree must be at least 300 years old.

Ash tree logs
Residents are welcome to visit the site after 4:30pm daily and take a piece of wood away as a souvenir. 

It's something of an icon in Orton Waterville. So we were all really sad to be told that our beautiful, cherished ash tree, that is somewhere in the region of 300-650 years old, is due to be felled. Not only is the tree old, it has become diseased, and its close proximity to traffic on the corner of Oundle Road and Cherry Orton Road means it cannot be left to stand where it poses a risk to human life.

Everyone who lives in or passes through Orton Waterville will be familiar with this tree. Residents born here have known it all their lives, as did generations before them. It's possible the tree was here when Henry VIII was a lad.

The fungus that has destroyed the ash is plain for all to see.

Having listened very carefully to the opinion of Peterborough City Council's Tree Officer we understand that the tree is now in its last days and that nothing can be done to reverse its decline. Rotten branches could fall at any time, while the fungus at the tree's roots has caused enormous damage to its structure.

On Wednesday 23rd August 2017, a group of Peterborough Green Party members, parish councillors and local residents gathered to say farewell to this mighty ash tree.

Farewell Waterville Ash
Posted by Julie Howell on Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Like many of you, while we accept that the tree will be taken down, we are concerned that the wood is used in a way that benefits the local community and we also hope that a suitable, mature tree is planted in its place.

If you would like to add your voice to ours, let the city council know what you would like to happen to the wood (note that ash isn't suitable for outdoor furniture) by contacting the council at or call 01733 425 425.

Video transcript: Julie Howell: We're at the site of a beautiful tree in Orton Waterville in Peterborough with members of Peterborough Green Party and also other parish councillors and friends who love this tree. The reason we’re here is to support the Woodland Trust which has a fundraising initiative called Invite a Tree to Tea and it was very obvious to us which tree to choose because this beautiful ash tree in Orton Waterville is much loved and sadly it’s come to the end of its life. So we gather here today to celebrate it. We accept that it has to go but it’s a good opportunity to talk about the tree. If I just give you a glimpse of the tree you'll see it’s an absolute beauty. As you can see there are birds up in the tree. As you can also see it’s near a very busy main road which is one of the reasons why it’s deemed a problem now that it’s in trouble. It’s one of those things, isn’t it… it wouldn’t be the cultural icon that it is if it was in the middle of nowhere but because it’s by a road it poses dangers now that it’s in trouble. Local people were meant to be alerted to the problem by this tiny little sign that no one could read so now this new sign has been put up to warn everyone that the tree’s removal is imminent. I’m going to have a chat with a few people about what’s happening with the tree and what it means to them. Peterborough has ambitions to be an ‘environmental city’ and the Peterborough Environmental City Trust (PECT) has planted a ‘Forest of Peterborough’ and is just about to plant its 100,000th tree in Peterborough and is asking for photos of iconic trees. What a shame this is one that is about to go. Local residents I’ve spoken to are concerned that it’s replaced with something just as iconic and beautiful. So now it’s come to the end of its life I’d like to talk to a couple of local residents about how they feel about the tree. The first person I’ll speak to is Neil Mitchell and Neil is a local historian in Peterborough. Neil, what do you know about this tree?

Neil Mitchell: It’s been here ever since I was a small boy coming to visit my relations in the village. It is an iconic tree. I’m sorry to hear that it’s going to come down due to diseases. It saddens me.

Julie Howell: Barry Warne is a local to the area as well. What are your thoughts about the loss of this great tree?

Barry Warne: It’s very sad. I often get a bus into town from the stop just up there and I would stand there admiring it. It’s beautiful the way it covers the road and seeing the snow and frost on it. It just looks marvellous. I’ve got an old friend who cycles to The Windmill (pub) every day up the hill and he’s noticed when they’ve made changes to it and lopped branches off it and such like and it’s a conversation piece in The Windmill. A lot of people do care about it around here.

Julie Howell: Notice how busy the road is. I think thousands and thousands of people must see this tree every day and I would imagine that when it’s lost people are going to notice. People may think oh it’s just a tree, just replace it, but when this is gone – as you can see it stretches right over the road – people are going to miss it. I’m going to turn now to Roger Proudfoot of Peterborough Green Party and also a parish councillor here. I know Roger has been speaking to the tree officer at the city council about why the tree has to go. What do you know, Roger?

Roger Proudfoot: Basically, it’s quite a sick tree. It’s got this fungi at the bottom of the tree that’s eating into the main buttress roots which is weakening the overall structure of the tree. Potentially in the next winds or gales there is a concern that the tree could come down. Obviously we’re on a busy junction, you can hear the vehicles going past. Obviously there are pedestrians going to and fro about their business. It’s a very sad occasion because we estimate the tree is about 20 feet in girth. We’ll try and measure it in a moment to get a better idea, which could put it anywhere between 300-500 years old. And when you think about the history that this tree has overseen it could even go back to Tudor times and Henry VIII. It’s quite amazing really. That’s why we’re here today, to acknowledge the contribution the tree has made to the wellbeing of all the residents who have lived here long before we all came around and we should note its passing. It’s very unfortunate. We’ve spoken to the tree specialist at the city council and he’s never seen as sick a tree as this with this particular fungus in all his experience. He’s as passionate about trees as we are and he’s very sad to see it go too. But the risk to the public outweighs the tree being left. If it was in a field or woodland it would probably last maybe 50-100 years longer.  But it is a sick tree, you can see some of the branches that have died. There could be other factors as well. It is a tree that’s coming to the end of its natural life. Sadly, even the mighty ash tree and oak trees do come to the end of their lives at a certain point.

Julie Howell: I got an email from a resident today saying that they hope the council will do something useful with the wood because this is a lot of wood that’s coming down. Maybe build something here that’s of use to local people here and also that they’ll plant something appropriate and not saplings.

Roger Proudfoot: There isn’t a plan at the moment so it’s something for discussion and if anybody’s got any views about that they should let the parish council and the city council know. There are contact details on the tree removal sign. Perhaps a more mature oak or another ash tree. I know that ash trees can be affected by ‘die back’ and young ash trees are particularly vulnerable so with this fungus thing here it may not be appropriate to plant another ash here. An older oak tree rather than a sapling might be something more appropriate. But let’s hear what the people would like to see.

Fiona Radic: If you wanted to you could cut straight across that tree and get a table top or twenty out of it. Also, with some timbers if you’ve got an infection it actually adds to the appeal of the wood for people who make ornamental things out of wood. It’s a great pity it’s an ash because ashes are getting ash die back so ashes are really important. If you can keep an ash alive that’s a good thing.

Julie Howell: What’s the measurement? 5.2 metres in girth! So how old is that, Roger? Can we do a calculation from that?

Roger Proudfoot: The average for a tree apparently, the growth rate throughout its life, bearing in mind a tree grows fairly fast when it’s young and then slows down when it’s older, is about 2.5cms per year so this tree is at least 208 years old (depending on the growing conditions). There has been some work done to try and estimate the age of trees and for an ash, if it’s a good site with shelter, which this is, a five metre tree would be up to about 300 years old. If we could class this as a woodland boundary it could be as much as 650 years old. Certainly over 300 years and possibly more. There’s obviously a lot of value in the wood. It’s obviously very expensive to take down. And it is going to be very hard to cut. It’s going to have to be cut in chunks, particularly when you get down to the main trunk. What we’re hoping is that some of the wood can be used to put to good purpose. Ash isn’t a very good outdoor wood but it’s one of the best woods for crafting and maybe some of the local crafters may be able to make something with the wood. That’s something we’re currently discussing with the city council as to whether or not some of the wood can be put to good use to pay tribute to the tree.

Julie Howell: To finish off with some moments of reflection I thought it would be quite nice if we thanked the tree and spent a few moments thinking about what the tree has meant to Orton Waterville. I’m going to ask Peterborough resident Ruth Fiddy to read out a poem in a moment that’s called The Old Ash Tree by a lady called Susanna Moodie, who was born in the UK then emigrated to Canada. It’s interesting to note that Susanna Moodie was born in 1805 and the tree was already here then! That’s how old this tree is. She died in 1883 but the tree has kept on going, which is quite something to contemplate. The Old Ash Tree by Susanna Moodie.  

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Dog Poo: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Dog poo bag hanging from a tree

It's a fairly common sight in Orton, but I'd never caught someone in the act before. I'm writing this in August, with Christmas some four months away, so why are local residents hanging things from trees?

I'm afraid I'm talking about dog poo. More specifically, the bags of dog poo that dangle from trees around Orton.

Why do dog owners do this? Why bother to pick up after your dog and pop the mess into a bag only to then throw the bag into a tree?

As I'd had the misfortune of observing someone do it, I thought I'd ask them (to protect their identity, and because they promised me they wouldn't do it again, I'll keep the identity of the dog owner and the location to myself this time).

The answer didn't really surprise me: lack of dog bins and too much distance between dog bins.

Why are there so few dog bins in Orton?

This largely depends on where in Orton you are.

Residents have complained to me about the lack of dog bins across Orton for some time now (Orton Southgate in particular). Except Orton Northgate that is, where there are five dog bins in close proximity to one another. These red dog bins are infrequently emptied, having put there by the Northgate developer's managing agent. An overflowing dog bin is no pleasure to live by.

The reason we don't have more dog bins in other parts of Orton (and elsewhere in Peterborough) is the cost of emptying them. But should this really make a difference? What happened to 'take your litter home with you'? I wouldn't dream of throwing a bag of dog poo anywhere but in a bin, and I'm quite rebellious.

The city council says that all bins in Orton now double as dog waste bins so if you see any kind of bin you can put your bagged dog waste into it.

"If I hang it on the tree the council will collect it"

Err... not necessarily. Many of the bags are plucked from branches by volunteers like me who don't wish to live in a public dog toilet.

While you may believe that hanging your dog poo bags on trees sends a message to the city council it really doesn't. What it does is make our environment look nasty.

Across our city, Peterborough City Council is introducing PSPOs (public space protection orders) that forbid any kind of littering. If you are caught in breach of a PSPO you will be fined. It won't be a council worker who approaches you, but a member of the Kingdom team, a third party company the city council has contracted to watch us for any wrongdoing and which benefits financially when we do something 'wrong'. Personally, I think it will be a very sad day for Orton if a PSPO were to be introduced here to kerb something as basic as dog poo management.

Find a stick & flick it

So what are you supposed to do if your dog does a poo and there is no dog poo bin nearby?

1. Ideally, bag the poo and carry it with you to the nearest bin or take it home with you. This is the best thing to do. Dog poo is dangerous and not just to humans. It can cause harm to delicate ecosystems too. Taking it home and disposing of if with your household waste or placing it into a council public litter bin is the best thing to do. Please note that ANY public bin will do. It doesn't have to be a designated dog bin. If disposing of it at home, it should go in your black 'general waste' bin to be taken to landfill.

2. If you are unable to carry it to the nearest bin or to your home then, please, DO NOT BAG IT. When you throw bagged dog mess into a tree or hedgerow you introduce plastic to the natural environment that takes many years to biodegrade. It also looks horrible when, come autumn, the leaves fall from the trees. Instead of bagging it, find a stick and flick the poo it into the bushes. While this is not the ideal solution, it is infinitely better to do this than to throw a plastic bag into a tree.

3. If you have forgotten to bring dog poo bags on your walk, use the 'stick and flick' method to flick the dog poo away from places where people walk.

Julie flicking dog poo into undergrowth with a stick
No dog poo bags?
Flick it into the undergrowth with a stick.
Suitable for keen golfers (put, don't pitch).

What about 'biodegradable bags'?

Biodegradable bags still look awful hanging from a tree or on the ground and they still take several months to biodegrade. The introduction of dog poo to the natural environment, whether in a biodegradable bag or not, is harmful. Dog poo contains many toxins that hurt the environment, and harmful bacteria found in dog poo can pass from other animals to people and can also pollute our waterways.

Do use biodegradable bags, but bin them so they will be disposed of in landfill sites where they will biodegrade, not in our trees or hedgerows.

If you can't find a public bin, it is better to leave the dog poo where it is than to bag it and throw it in a tree. Better still, bag it and take it home with you for disposal in your black bin. Failing that, find a stick and flick it away from the path. Please stop adding to the amount of plastics in our environment. Out of sight may be out of mind as far as you are concerned but the harm that plastics do to our wildlife and natural environment is far greater than you might imagine.

Dog poo bag on the ground
The bags often fall out of the trees onto the forest floor where they
suffocate the earth and take years to biodegrade

Friday, 28 July 2017

Bus Services in Orton: Not a Fair Fare

Julie standing by a Stagecoach bus
Stagecoach is the bus company that serves Orton

***UPDATE*** Stagecoach Dayrider prices in Peterborough to increase to £4.50 on 29th April 2018.

Peterborough is becoming horribly car-centric. I'm not anti-car. There are some journeys where a car is more than desirable, it's essential. But if you don't drive or if you choose not to drive unless it's absolutely necessary then you rely on a safe, convenient and affordable local bus service.

The problem facing people who live in the Ortons is that we don't have an affordable bus service. The lack of an affordable bus service is becoming a big problem, not only for local people but for the independent businesses in Peterborough that rely on our custom.

Many (not all, but many) of the people who rely on buses have lower incomes. The price of a return ticket to central Peterborough from anywhere in the Ortons is £4.30. This is the price of a Dayrider, which is the ticket that will allow you to make unlimited journeys in the area on a single day. Put like that, the price sounds like good value for money. However, if all you want to do is travel into town and back, it's expensive. For some people, prohibitively so.

It is little surprise that local people are turning to each other via 'buy and sell' sites on Facebook rather than travel into town by bus to pick up the items they want to buy.

It is also little surprise that people give, trade or sell on their Dayriders when they no longer need them. For some people £4.30 is the price of a daily meal. People should not have to choose between food and fares.

I can think of many occasions where I've decided not to travel into town to go shopping or attend an event as I cannot justify spending £4.30 to do so. If I'm not the only person faced with this decision then it's clear that the shops and events in Peterborough are missing out on custom. I wonder whether they are even aware of it.

Julie reading a bus timetable
Our bus services are infrequent, unreliable and expensive

Does this sound reasonable to you?

If you think £4.30 for a return into Peterborough from anywhere in Orton is reasonable, I wonder what you think of this....

Bus ticket
My 1.3 mile return journey cost £4.30.
I only had a fiver on me and was thinking I could buy a paper 
and a drink after the litter pick with the change.

I take part in a voluntary litter pick group one Wednesday morning per month. I do not drive, so to get to Orton Waterville I need to take the bus. The closest bus to me is the hourly 23/24 from Lynchwood and I get off the bus outside The Windmill pub on Cherry Orton Road in Orton Waterville. This is a journey of 1.3 miles.

I have multiple sclerosis, and while I can walk 1.3 miles, it's a little bit too far for me to walk to then walk a few more miles carrying an increasingly heavy bag of litter. The journey by bus takes three minutes to take me there and a further three minutes to take me back. The price? £4.30. So it costs me exactly the same for a ticket that allows me to make unlimited journey across the city in a single day as it does for me to make two 3-minute journeys of just 1.3 miles. This is not reasonable.

It is costing me the best part of a fiver to volunteer in my community. £4.30 flat fare for a return of less than 2 miles each way is not a fair fare.

Map of bus journey
The blue line shows the 1.3 mile journey that takes just 3 minutes but costs £4.30 return

The private bus company that operates in the Ortons is Stagecoach. As passengers, we can't choose a cheaper bus company because their isn't one. There is no competition between bus companies in Orton (there is in other parts of the city but not here), so prices have been allowed to climb and climb.

This is all about profits over people. Yet if the bus was more affordable surely more people would use it.

I don't expect to ride the bus for free at my age. But smaller journeys should be affordable. A journey of 6 minutes total journey time should be £2.50 tops in my opinion.

Do you rely on the bus service to get from Orton to Peterborough? Do you find it prohibitively expensive? Let me know what you think.

On 18th July 2017, I gave an interview to BBC Radio Cambs about the problems created by expensive bus fares in Orton.