Changing Spark Plugs

I changed the spark plugs on my car last week. Changed each one. Took out the old one, examined it, looking for soot deposits or too thick a coating of oil that I had learned to do back in seventy eight which was the last time I had changed a spark plug.

Back in seventy eight it was on an old mark three Ford Cortina. A rust bucket that wouldn’t be allowed on the road these days, but back then no one seemed to mind what condition a car was in so long as you never knocked anyone down and even then it was debatable whether the car was a contributory factor. You could push your finger right through the wings, which seemed held together with the paint I had lovingly applied in my zeal as a first time car owner. The windscreen washer was worked with a foot operated pump that you had to press with your left foot, which could be confusing in wet weather when having to brake. Many was the time I was stunned too see blue jets of water hitting the screen but the car still sailing gracefully towards the tight right hand bend and the solid brick wall that bounded the other side of the pavement. Turning the fan heater on had me having to duck to avoid the dried oak leaf that spewed forth from somewhere deep in the bowels of the front of the car. I never knew where the leaf came from and it became a joke with my then girlfriend, each of us shouting ‘DUCK’ as I switched on the fan, so that we could avoid being peppered with particles of dry leaf. In the rear was a large bench seat where we would retire to, having found some tree covered pull in, usually a field, and then we would get to messing around having not quite got to where we both wanted to be, or maybe it was just me that wanted to be there. I don’t know. Anyway, we would have some fun and then sit in the front and watch the sun going down over the fields whilst smoking a Benson and Hedges. Then we would find something, somewhere to eat, then I would drive her home and go home myself, back to my parents house. And all this before eleven at night, because that’s when the pubs had shut and what time we had to be in before her dad started pacing up and down in front of the house trying to decide if he should get in his car and go on a search for his daughter.

Somehow, changing the plugs on a two thousand and thirteen Mini just didn’t feel like it should have done.

In lockdown the countryside went local.

As restrictions on travel in England are relaxed, the nation’s National Parks are preparing for an influx of visitors wanting a change of scenery. The release of lockdown is something that has been viewed with some trepidation by communities within national park boundaries. But it need not be a mass onslaught by town and city. One of the great benefits that has arisen out of lockdown is the countryside has returned to be a local resource. For many years, ‘The Countryside’ was that chosen to be designated special, ring fenced inside a human made geographical boundary, given status by government funding, and a nice logo. National Parks were the biggest and most prominent areas in receipt of funds from the public purse.

Come the Coronavirus, ‘The Countryside’ closed to all but residents, ‘stay away’ was the call to dwellers of city and town. And, we did. Forced to take our daily exercise locally Alison and I began to develop a deeper acquaintance with our local commons and surrounding woodlands. What we found was our own local version of ‘The Countryside’ and it both thrilled and relaxed us. Daily walks became an exploration of nature, botany, birdlife and local history. Alison bought and downloaded apps to help identify plants and wildlife, and found things we never expected. We recorded woodland sounds, uploading sound projects onto Twitter, creating other worlds in the ether. Instagram became a reflection of our growing sense of local countryside. Wild foraging added taste to our sensory explorations. Did you know that the young leaf of the European Birch refresh the mouth when chewed, tasting a little like Beech Nut. Nettle soup and wild garlic became lockdown delicacies on the table. We began to dwell in woodland dells, bathing in the peace and relief from a life put on hold. Our own special place where we can breath free from the anxiety of viral transmission from passing people. Staying local and immersing ourselves in local nature has become something to look forward to. Gradually, we realised that ‘The Countryside’ was a few steps outside our own front door and we love it.

What happens once life returns to whatever normal will be, remains to be seen. But having rediscovered what local nature is, may well determine how people look at ‘The Countryside’ for generations to come.

A Myriad of Parts

“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” Margaret Thatcher. Woman’s Own 1987

The King family of Milton Keynes receive the deeds to their council house from Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Photograph: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Early 70’s Britain was a turbulent place to be. Rampant inflation, a declining economic base, shockingly inept management, and growing discontent in the workforce. As a country we were woefully unprepared for any onslaught. The oil producing countries of the middle east started to hike the price of a barrel and soon after Britain’s were eating cold beef dripping sandwiches by candlelight. It wasn’t good.

There have always been two standout moments for me from the period.

The first was a strike for pay by the Yorkshire Miners in the early part of the decade. There were lots of strikes in them days as people tried to keep pace with inflation and management tried to keep a lid on costs. This strike was different. The miners were not striking for themselves they were striking for nurses working in the hospitals. The nurses needed better pay just to exist but wouldn’t go on strike because that would hurt the patients. The management knew this and played on it refusing any pay increases and generally treating nurses terribly. I said management was bad and it was dire and not much has changed in that respect. The miners had power, they also had a sense of community and society, so they fought for the nurses to get their pay rise and won. It was the perfect example of working people standing together and looking out for each other because they understood social cohesion, that the whole is made up of a myriad of parts and if you harm one you harm all.

The second was the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and almost instantaneously the unseen web that held society together began to unravel. The nation became a selfish, self centred, greedy place. A place of ‘some’ being better than others and the longer it has gone on that ‘some’ has got smaller and smaller. A place where looking away was common, if it wasn’t your industry being decimated then don’t get involved. And if it was, look out for yourself and try and get the other persons job. Buy the council house, stick on a new front door and proclaim to the whole street how much better you are.

When I look back to ascertain how we got to where we are today it is in 1987 where the wedge finally got rammed home. How could a human being, someone who was part of a community of people say ‘there is no such thing as society’. That was the tipping point. The point that brought us to Trump and Johnson and Farage and Robinson.

In the next few days lecturers across the country will be taking strike action to protect their livelihood with pensions, pay, and conditions all points of contention with management. How it has come to this in a place of academia that is supposed to hold our brightest people is beyond comprehension. I do know a little, quite a lot actually, about the conditions that lecturers work under and it is bad. Put upon by management, stressed to the point of illness, this is not a safe or fruitful working environment. At some point the two sides will have to come together but in the meantime the management are not covering themselves in glory. Asking students to inform them of the non attendance of lecturers is not a good move.

Students attend university to learn, to have their minds expanded, and to experience the new and seemingly impossible. That requires the very best teachers our country has to offer. And, for what it is worth, as a student that is what I have received in my time at university. If university management is allowed to undermine the quality of teaching, the country as a whole will pay the price. I will support the strike and not cross a picket line.

We are a society. If you harm one you harm all.



I recently spent a few days in Montreal working on a film/poetry collaboration with fellow students from Sheffield Hallam University. Each day I walked across the city choosing a single route without deviation. I had a sense of the colour red, the cold, the rich and the poor. I discerned a confidence in the place on my first day, a day of -20 degree temperatures and a clear blue sky. As the weather warmed to +4 degree on our last day I was starting to become familiar with the city, noticing how frayed at the edges it was. The warmer weather had brought the homeless and the beggars back on to the streets.

Walking down the 8 mile Rue Ontario I passed through the layers of a modern society many times as though the road was punching out the vagaries and fortunes of human life like Morse code. At times the city seemed to hesitate, unsure of what to be. The Olympic Stadium on the edge of the metropolis nudged the edgelands between Montreal and the other worlds. It felt like something the city was trying to hide as though it’s attempt on the world stage had fallen short so the inhabitants decided to hide it away like one of those kitchen appliance fads that everyone has in the back of the corner cupboard.  Yet a community had grown up around the stadium and gave it a sense of belonging, as though people were saying you are ours we won’t abandon you like the rest have. 

Perhaps the lesson the city wanted me to learn was the fact that everything needs to belong, to have a place.

Montreal. Sheffield Hallam University Film/Poetry 2018

Woodland management

These summer days have been stifling, particularly in the afternoon, so we have resorted to dog walks early and late in the day through the forest. The later walk I suspect is the most favoured by the dogs as it always involves a dip in the river and a game of sticks.

There are no other humans around that I can see this morning, but I can hear chainsaws working somewhere deep in the interior. I choose a favoured route along wide forest roads that gives long vistas down through the trees. Scout works from side to side, sniffing out the scent of numerous animals, sometimes darting into the trees and disappearing for several minutes. I listen for the rustle of the leaves and bracken, the tell tale signs he is following some scent track. Eventually he will re-appear back on the track, sometimes he comes from behind his paws cantering along like a racehorse as he blasts past.

The track takes me through plantations of pine, larch, oak and birch. In small clearings ash is also evident and in the older woodlands there is a preponderance of Holly from the days when this was a hunting forest and holly was a mainstay winter feed for cattle. We skirt the edge of grazing land; there is no stock today. I notice near the fence a charred and blackened area where fire has taken hold. It isn’t too large so must have been extinguished quickly, but maybe this is why the stock have gone.

The chainsaws are louder now so we must be near them. Turning the corner of the track we enter an area of birch and ash, lots of saplings and young trees. Piled along the side of the track is a long line of twigs, bundled together and stacked chest high. This is what the chainsaws are cutting. The twigs are all the same length as I look at the ends a breeze brings their scent to my nose. It smells of freshly brewed tea. I stand there and take it in. The aroma ranges from fresh green tea of the newly cut saplings to full on thick builders tea of the oldest stacks.

I notice Scout has gone ahead and is sniffing around a car parked at the side of the track. Then I see a man knelt on the ground filing a chainsaw. I call Scout back before he starts to make a nuisance of himself. As I get up to the man he stands and says hello. I ask about the twigs and he tells me it is brush for racecourse jumps. I see it now; it makes sense.

The long read…Trust your dog

Scout. Trainee border collie search dog.

Experienced handlers say that training a dog is as much about trust as anything else.

I’ve asked Paul to walk down a footpath for 200 paces then go right into woodland for 100 paces and lay down. Scout strains at the lead, knowing that the game is on; I let him off and tell him to “go find”. He barks and does his little dance and I tell him to “get on” before he shoots off making ever-larger circles searching for the scent cone of Paul, occasionally blasting past me on his next orbit as we work our way through the woodland.

Suddenly Scout disappears into undergrowth. I stay on the path listening to his falconry bell as it jingles through the bracken. Then it stops. Silence. Eventually the jingle starts again and I see bracken moving as Scout makes his way back to me. He reaches the path and looks around, spots me and heads with purpose towards me as he gets close he barks then immediately turns around and heads back the same way. I have learned that heading back the same way means he has found a person. I follow him as the woodland engulfs him till eventually I am standing by the side of Paul. I give Paul the reward command and he pops up with Scouts toy and has a game of tug, this is Scouts reward and as he plays I tell him what a great dog he is and let Paul know where to go next.

Minutes later Scout and I are heading for a logging track that winds through the forest. Paul will be hiding at it’s top end and I want to approach from the bottom to extend the amount of time for searching. Scout is ahead and I watch him closely looking for any sign that he has found a trace of Paul. He turns sharp right into trees, when I get to the place there is no sight of him. I stand on the track and wait. Minutes pass and nothing. I have told Paul to hide on my left, but Scout is on the right. I whistle for Scout to return. A minute passes then I hear the bell and soon Scout is heading to me. But it’s with a purpose, the look on his face says he has found Paul, but that cannot be right, it’s the wrong area. He barks telling me he has found. I hedge my bets and tell him to get on and he heads straight back along the same line eventually leading me to a tree, but no Paul. There is nothing here I tell him. He looks up, so do I. Nothing. I start to move back to the track 400m away. He refuses to follow, looking at me in a serious way I have not seen before, he barks again, telling me he has found then heads back to the tree. He keeps looking up or at least I think that’s what he is doing. I look around.

There is a fallen tree nearby and a wide gully with a thin stream running down and thick bracken and the outline of the upturned roots of a tree on the opposite bank. A smooth breeze slips straight through us from across the gully. There is nothing else here so I make him reluctantly head back to the track and continue the search. We pass the point where I expect Paul to be and Scout has no interest. It dawns on me that Paul is not here and that the curve in the track I told him about is not this one but the one higher up.

We reach the right curve and head down the adjacent track. Scout runs straight to the bottom then returns and indicates, but it’s half-hearted and I suspect there is nothing there. When I reach him he is down a gully drinking from a stream and I call him out, knowing we have gone too far. I start to work back. The wind is blowing from my right heading for the direction of where Paul should be. Scout is on the wrong side of the wind so will not be able to detect Paul’s scent. Then I see Scout turn sharp left and head into the bracken; I follow him through flattened leaves realising Scout is on Paul’s ground scent. Scout comes back and indicates and in another 50m and I am there with Paul.

As they play I look around. It’s a good spot beneath a huge root ball from an upturned tree, well hidden in the bracken. Downwind is a gully with a small stream and across the gully woodland. As I am looking at this Paul tells me he thought we had him 30 minutes a go when we were the other side of the gully.

What do you mean I ask?

He tells me he heard me saying to Scout that there was nothing there and he points to a fallen tree across the gully. It’s then I realise where I am. We are across from the tree that Scout took me to earlier; it’s less than 20 meters away. It all starts to fit in to place. I realise Scout wasn’t looking up; he was pointing his nose up in the air to catch Paul’s scent. And when he went down to the stream he was picking Paul’s scent up as it drifted down on the water.

I’m stunned. Scout had Paul 30 minutes ago that’s why he would not leave the tree, he was telling me there was something there, that’s where the body was. I think about this and I know I am the weak link in the team. Trust your dog they say.

Later that evening I think about what happened. I’m amazed at Scout and how good he is and I’m disappointed in my performance how my actions let the team down. It is a massive learning experience.

The daily life of a Magpie

Jake, our resident magpie has been hanging around the garden a lot lately. He spends his day driving our two terriers mad, tormenting them from various bits of house and landscape.

One of his favourite taunts is to walk along the roof gutter. He starts at one end, always announcing his presence with a call to arms that get the dogs barking and jumping up and down in a mixture of excitement and frustration.  He walks along the edge of the gutter, gaining maximum exposure until at the other end he drops down onto a neighbour’s roof. From this vantage point, he is tantalisingly close to the dogs but far enough away to be out of their reach. Perfect for strutting and shooting them cheeky looks. The dogs spin around and run up and down the garden maddened by his display of hubris.

After a few minutes of this he gets bored and hops his way up the roof and without looking back goes over the ridge and out of sight.

Such is the daily life of Jake.

Mental Health Awareness Week


Back in 94, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I’d had it awhile but not realised what it was. I think my brother suffered as well, his way of dealing with it was to lock himself away in his room for 7 years. I chose a different, more physically and mentally destructive path that eventually led me to a doctor who prescribed me some drugs and 3 days later I was stalking around the house like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. It wasn’t good, or healthy. I asked to see a psychiatrist or is it a psychologist, and Kathy Whittaker at Rotherham General saw me for 6 weeks and bingo I was back to what could be classed as normal. Kathy has all my thanks for that.

The depression never went away it just lessened in the degree to a point where there were days I didn’t notice it or feel its effects on me. I saw it as a black Labrador dog, probably because I’d read that’s how Churchill saw his. It IS real in my mind. Most days I don’t see it, but I do feel its presence. Other days I see its shadow walking down the corridor to my room and sometimes it stops at my open door and looks in then walks away. I’ve learned that this has connections with the levels of stress I am experiencing in my life at that time, so I try to take steps to reduce the level to keep the dog away.

But this time that hasn’t worked. This morning the dog walked into the room and came right up to me; he’s here by my side now as I type this out. The depression is back.

Looking back I can see the pattern forming a year or so ago.

There is no single thing, rather a collection of seemingly disparate events, things and people. It started with lack of trust in an individual and organisation along with a feeling of not being in control of my own life. I was subject to some trolling, both online and off, from someone I thought of as a friend but in reality, wanted to inflict harm on my well-being. Financial worries played a small part, but only when large bills presented themselves. There was nothing, taken in isolation, that would cause any great concern, except perhaps the trolling, but taken together they flipped the switch.

One of the ways I have of dealing with this is talking about it honestly, something that has helped me in another area of my life for decades. So that is what I am doing now. Keeping things bottled up leads to people harming themselves or others, sometimes both. I’ve seen it happen and I have lost far too many friends to suicide to think it cannot happen to anyone.

Another action that helps my depression is removing negative and destructive influencers on the equilibrium of my daily life. I started doing that a month or two ago, there is still some way to go, but already it is having positive outcomes.

I have just spent an hour with a friend over coffee and cheesecake. He doesn’t know it but the chat and the laugh we had together helped me in my day enormously. For a brief period, I felt positive and normal. Spending time with friends like that is something I need to do more because I have begun to isolate too much.

Taking more time with my wife is something I need to do because she is my best friend. Other than my parents Alison is the person I have spent the biggest part of my life with. She really is the one great stabilising influence on my life and a great example of how to live

Lastly is walking. I love to walk. I am fortunate to write about walking in the countryside, two things I love to do. There is always a point on a walk where I feel everything is just right with the world, it’s a physical as well as mental feeling. Walking gives me pleasure and a different view of the world. If I am lucky I get something new to see or experience too. I recently walked through woodland and felt, then saw, a Barn Owl gliding silently across the open space I was in. I have thought of that moment many times.

It took me many years to learn that good mental health was everyone’s right, and no one has permission to take that away from a person. Sometimes it has to be fought for and that is a battle for the individual. If they are lucky it’s a battle fought with the help of good friends and loved ones.

Sheffield Ghost Buildings

The ghost building at the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre St, Sheffield.
The ghost building at the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre St, Sheffield.

Ghost buildings are a sign of a past use gradually diminishing backward as time moves forward. This is the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre Street. It is within my lifetime that this site lived and died as a manufacturing works, in the heart of Sheffield. The company decamped long ago to one of the industrial estates on the outskirts.

I walked around the works in my early days selling them engineering products, but I cannot remember what happened in this ghost building. Women making air inflators and such populated the floor, the men mended machines and managed everything. It was a common setup in those days. Almost everyone was on the clock and those on the floor had a piece rate bonus. People worked in groups and they looked after their own, managing the workflow so no one got left behind. On Saturday nights everyone went to the Working Men Club, had a game of bingo, watched an act and had pork pie and pickled onions with ham sandwiches. It was a micro community that had common social values and standards of conduct. They sorted their own problems out and kept the cohesion in society.

Red Algae on Ash trees

Alison and I had a really nice walk in Wharncliffe Woods today. This is a forestry commission woodland with excellent rails for MTB, horses and walking. The surrounding area also has an ancient Chase, impressive crags and lots of wildlife including deer, owls, and a wide variety of bird life.

There was a hint of spring on the way today, the sun warming the air. I noticed the Red Algae on these Ash trees. It forms on the north side because this is where the bark is most moist and that makes it a good breeding ground for the Algae. It’s a natural way of telling which way is north. The Algae only appears on the north side in the northern hemisphere, in the southern hemisphere its is the southern side of the tree.

Another thing that is interesting about Red Algae is that it used to only really appear in the more temperate south of England, the north being too cold. So this may just be a harbinger of warmer times in the north.