A hive of possibilities in Manchester

b5mNext to a canal in Manchester is a five story building, converted from a mill, where lots of different environmentally minded organisations live. It’s called Bridge 5 Mill, it”s run by MERCi and it’s a hive of possibilities. I’d like to share with you a little of the story of this building and a couple of the groups who use it, from hydrogen fuel to peace campaigns.

Back in 1995 two friends in their twenties dreamed of making a sustainability hub for Manchester.  After 6 months of consultation, gathering a team, and years of searching they succeeded in finding a building and gaining funding, purchasing the building in 1999. The old mill was renovated using trainees and volunteers as part of courses using reclaimed and recycled materials and won an award for it’s energy efficiency. It now has offices, conference space and a garden. Tenants include the International Coalition to ban uranium weapons, Black Environment Network, as well as bee keeping cooperative soap makers Three Bees, and Planet Hydrogen.acfdcd_5d91d7dcaf9743fd8657f26f0d1819d1.jpg_srz_p_435_301_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srz I interviewed Tom from Three Bees last year and a year on they are now planning to add soap making courses to their services.

With hydrogen we can store renewable energy by separating water into hydrogen and oxygen. When you want electricity they can recombine to form water again. Mike from Planet Hydrogen kindly demonstrated a hydrogen cell in action for me in a transparent container so we could watch the gases form.

Over the years spaces like MERCi provide so many positive groups with the basics they need to function. When a town has such a hub for a long time you can almost forget the importance of it. Once it’s built, everything slows down, it stops being so exciting, the four walls become a new norm. But most towns have no such space where groups can meet, grow and collaborate. It’s hard to imagine all the meetings, all the events, all the projects that have happened in that building so far. To speed up the social change we wish to see, one of the first things we need is to take care of the basics, to shelter these groups and give them a home. Long may MERCi continue to do so.

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They’ve made it in Stroud

I2015-07-17 13.43.14t’s comforting when things you love are stable, and in Stroud it was mostly the things that hadn’t changed which caused a contented smile on my lips.

The shop Made in Stroud is still thriving (but with a few more awards), still selling locally made goods and making positive influences everyday.

The Stroud Valley’s Project is still promoting conservation and offering educational courses. They recently ran a scything workshop after seeing it done wrong on Poldark! Scything is less damaging to the environment than mowing and also helps you to easily leave rare species. The day I visited they were about to run a bat ecology course and head out with bat detectors. 2015-07-17 14.23.11

Those creating positive change in Stroud had a higher average age than people I met in other towns, and had been in the town for longer. As Julie, the fundraising manager for Stroud Valleys Project says, “Who would want to move once you’ve landed here?” The town has a more stable, developed feel to the community than other places I visit. In the Stroud Valley’s Project office they have a reciprocal arrangement for work or rent with the Car Club and Transition Stroud. Transition Stroud have been running open eco-home event and open garden tours with about 1000 house visits. A new addition by Transition Stroud at the back of a closed pub is a pop-up “rain garden” to make efficient use of rainwater runoff from roofs. So simple it makes you wonder why on earth we normally pipe it all down the drain.

Stroud Against the Cuts has had a great turnout at its events and Stroud Co has become a thriving hub for selling home grown food surplus.

It feels like there are lots of people steadily making improvements in Stroud and the cumulative effect of that over many years is to have made a very special place and a very special community.

 

 

What bees like

11752093_686502058149249_6071243100509987930_nVanessa has some fascinating insights about bees. A natural beekeeper for many years, Vanessa focuses on the natural ecology and well being of the bees and encourages not just honeybees but many other species including solitary bees. She does not prevent her honeybees from swarming as she views it as an important part of their life cycle for maintaining their health. Instead she anticipates where bees may swarm to and provides lots of baited hives for them to move to.

When a swarm leaves a hive, interestingly they take almost no varroa mites with them. When bees are stressed by the use of chemicals, frequent hive opening or being fed sugar syrup instead of eating their own honey, they can become unhealthy and susceptible to disease. When they do get ill the hive can become dirty and attract varroa mites. Vanessa’s latest hive, a sun hive,  is intended to mimic the natural preferred habitat for honeybees.

“Bees like to be up high,” Vanessa told me, “if you see a swarm naturally they’ll almost always be much higher up in a tree where it’s less damp, rather than on the ground for our convenience.” Then there is the shape – honeybees prefer round spaces and the queen will naturally gravitate towards the top of the hive, so the sun hive allows that to happen by not using a queen excluder.

“If you make a bee hotel with cardboard tubes for solitary bees, they like it to be somewhere fairly shaded and not too damp,” said Vanessa. “The thing to remember is that this is where eggs will be.”

Vanessa was dismayed that beekeeping clothing on the market is very expensive and made in sweatshops so she also now runs a business, Buzz, selling beekeeping supplies which she has carefully sourced herself.

Changing the course of a stream

Scotswood Natural Community Garden sits within one of the most deprived areas in Newcastle. They frequently suffer vandalism and theft yet for twenty years they have relentlessly worked to alter the course of peoples lives in Scotswood for the better. The vegetables get dug up, they replant them, the solar panel gets stolen, they lock things away out of hours, but all the time the garden grows, groups come, and lives are changed.

Walking around the two and a half acre site with permaculture gardens, a pond, bee hives, shelters and woodland it’s incredible to learn that originally it was a bare grass playing field. Over the decades the series of people involved with the land have created, enhanced and maintained a beautiful heart of energy for the community, despite all the flow of sadness around. Children, unemployed and refugees have all found another choice here, a flow going in a different direction that they have a chance to join.

It takes a lot of energy and strength to maintain a course against a bigger flow. The path that all those involved with at  Scotswood have carved over the years is truly beautiful. Long may it flow.

Clervaux Trust Darlington

The weather changed a few days before I got to Darlington, there’s a chill in the air that won’t go, so I know there’s not long on the walk left now. Clervaux Bakery and Cafe was a fantastic refuge from the feelings of autumn, with it’s sunny atrium. The social enterprise cafe has homemade food and a social conscience to warm your heart, providing work experience for vulnerable young adults.

The cafe is partnered with the wider work of The Clervaux Trust, with some of the profits going to support the trust. Clervaux Trust has a 100 acre farm which it uses to give young people land and craft experience, selling veges through a delivery box scheme and crafts at the Darlingtron cafe. When bees fly they have to rest and snack at flowers, which is why it’s so important to have a wide variety of flowers all over the countryside that flower at different times. My sincere thanks to this beautiful flower for its shelter and food 🙂

Sheffield, the largest village in England

It appears that people in Sheffield know each other and I don’t just mean the odd neighbour. The impression I get is that all over the city there are people bumping into people they know. Sheffield has the honour of having one of the highest rates of graduates settling in the city after their studies, a low crime rate and has the most trees of any English city. If you picture Sheffield and an industrial wasteland, allow me to update you.

The centre of Sheffield has gleaming modern buildings next to historic beauty, fountain filled squares and tree lined public spaces. Don’t get me wrong,  hundreds of old industrial buildings remain, some derelict, some reclaimed and thriving, but the Sheffield of 2014 is a varied patchwork of life. There are many hills in Sheffield and each area has a distinctive character which helps you to feel orientated. Many of the old miners houses have a shared yard which means you have to get to know your neighbour, and chats over the laundry lines are frequent.

Barney from Regather is one of the many students who decided to stay on after their studies. An experimental archeologist, he told me of the importance to show people the work that goes into making an object. One project he’s involved with is to make a bicycle from scratch all the way from the iron ore.

I’m convinced it changes your perspective. It gives you more of an appreciation and you are less likely to throw it away. When people see all the effort that goes into making it, it reconnects people with the making. We’re so used to just picking something up that’s pre-made.

Another graduate I met who’s stayed in town is Joe from the center and local produce store New Roots. Many students volunteer at the shop, hold meetings in the ‘Speakeasy’, practice music there or help with the vege box scheme. Now in the summer with the students on holiday they are seeking more helping hands so if you’re in the area check them out.