Saturday, 12 December 2015

ICE Triennial #1: On Desmond and Destruction

It was a dark and stormy night...
So I began my blog two years ago in December 2013 telling my engineer's tales of how climate change is affecting UK infrastructure through storms, floods and landslides. This week, as the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris have worked through many stormy nights (literal and metaphorical) to try and hammer out a deal, the ICE hosted the Triennial Summit with the American and Canadian societies of civil engineers, a conference about resilience, climate and meeting the infrastructure needs of the future for cities around the world.

A review of 2013/14
2013/14 was a bad winter for the railways, as I wrote about in more detail a few months later in March 2014, when it had been confirmed as the wettest three month period in UK history in some places. The railway at Dawlish was wrecked by ferocious waves caused by the St Jude storm's high winds, cutting off rail access to Cornwall and it was only reopened in time for Easter.
There were over 100 landslides on the rail network, including several places like the Hastings line where multiple incidents happened on the same line. A presentation by a rail engineer for Kent at the Yorkshire Geotechnical Group in May told a sorry tale of fighting the elements to get the lines reopened again, but in some cases it took many weeks because it was impossible to get materials in or out by rail where the line was blocked in both directions.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Wildlife Watching at St Nick's Field

One of the best ways to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon is nature-spotting, so I was pleased that there are regular opportunities to join organised wildlife-spotting walks at one of my favourite places: St Nick's Fields nature reserve in York. A few weeks ago, twenty of us enjoyed a pleasant walk with the help of expert volunteers who pointed out insects, plants and birds, including frequent stops to look at things more closely or get excited about something a little way off the path. 
The walk was at the start of the Big Butterfly Count, an annual fortnight-long initiative to record sightings of butterflies around the UK, and therefore understand the geographical spread and frequency of different species. Butterflies are particularly vulnerable to pollution and habitat loss, so make a useful marker for the health or otherwise of our natural world. 

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Living Life in Orange

As the time approaches for me to renew my Personal Track Safety (PTS) accreditation, here's a summary of the things that I get asked most frequently about how the railway really works. 
Disclaimer: this post is obviously NOT intended to be a substitute for the PTS course! If you want more information on railway safety, see the videos and resources on Network Rail's Safety Central site or read some of the incident reports produced by the RAIB.
One reason for the course is that most people underestimate just how dangerous the railway environment is. After all, from the perspective of passengers, the railway is as safe as we can possibly make it, and you are considerably less likely to be killed or injured as a train passenger than by driving to your destination. But this leads to problems at level crossings, the one place where members of the public interact with trains travelling at their normal speed. People tend to assume that the stopping distance for a train is similar to a bus or a lorry travelling at 30mph on an urban road.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Inspiration and Ideas: Transport Books

Looking for more book reviews or reading suggestions? Follow posts tagged "Inspiration and Ideas"...
Being a rail engineer, I read plenty of books about transport (as previously noted, these are not usually the ones featuring steam trains!) So here are my current favourites:

1) Planning Sustainable Transport, Barry Hutton (Routledge, 2014)
This is currently my favourite book about transport, because it really opened my mind to concepts that make a great deal of sense but are rarely discussed. For example, consider the space budget, beautifully illustrated by this sequence of images showing how much space 200 people take up in 170 cars, two buses, on foot or bike or on a tram. Or, consider how transport planning usually assumes that people have a fixed start and end point and a choice of the way in which you get there. This isn't actually true, for example out-of-town shopping centres which assume you travel by car: people avoid congestion in central York by changing their destination as well! So land use is intimately linked to transport options, but are usually considered completely separately.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

In Fog 5: The Changing Face of Railway Safety

It's fair to say that if you want to create drama about the railways, this usually involves staging a crash of one form or another. So it should be no surprise that both productions at the Railway Museum this summer feature either a crash averted by waving some famous red knickers (The Railway Children) or a financial and physical train crash (In Fog and Falling Snow). 

You would think that watching this happen night after night, we would become inured to it, but I wasn't expecting the emotional impact. I spend every working day maintaining railway earthworks to protect the travelling public. Part of my training is to read the detailed Rail Accident Investigation Branch reports which detail the consequences of not doing so (including the many minor incidents which could have been so much worse). So watching people scream for help amid the wreckage of a train (even one made of large wooden boxes) is literally my worst nightmare, and it frequently made me cry during the show. It probably didn't help that the news was full of sad stories from "7/7 ten years on" during the last week of the production.

Friday, 24 July 2015

In Fog 4: The Out-Takes

You may have noticed I've been taking a rest from blogging while I was performing in "In Fog and Falling Snow", so this is a chance to reflect on how it went. June and July were fairly intense, with choir rehearsals or performances most evenings and every Saturday, and family visiting me to come and see the play. It was worth it, because we produced something amazing. Indeed, one person who came to see it told our choir director they were so engrossed in the choir, they totally missed some of what happened on stage, like Richard Nicholson's suicide...
The lovely choir with choir director Maddy in the middle

We got fantastic write-ups including four stars from the Guardian and a full set of reviews are available here. The choir was a great group of friends, many of whom had sung in York Theatre Royal's previous community productions (the Mystery Plays and Blood and Chocolate). When not on stage, most of the choir are members of other choirs around the city, so there's a great culture of invitations: I can be sure that if I try out any choir in York, there'll be someone I know! We'll be reconvening next year for the Mystery Plays, to be held next May in the Minster for Corpus Christi.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Acomb Garden pitching for funds at York Soup!

It's been an exciting month at Acomb's community garden project. We have been selected to pitch for a grant of £1000 at York Soup, a new initiative by York CVS where 100 people donate £10 and over a soup dinner on 25th June listen to 4 great local causes make a pitch for the money. There's still 30 tickets left, so get yours today and come along to support us!
We're fundraising for the next stage: installing full disabled access so that everyone can get involved (it's really sad for all of us that our friends Gerry and Denise can't join in because the only way into the garden is via steps). We also want to construct a meeting room/log cabin which will be the heart of the garden, for making tea, holding events or prayer times and including a tool store as well.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

In Fog 3: Railway Jobs You’ve Never Thought Of

This is the third in a series of posts about my role in the choir in York Theatre Royal's production In Fog and Falling Snow (26th June to 11th July). See links below to follow this series!

Ask any 10-
year-old to suggest a couple of jobs you could do if you want to work on the railways, and you’ll get three answers: train driver, ticket collector and station staff. Ask most adults, and you’ll get the same three answers, with the possible addition of “the man who opens the level crossing gate at Poppleton station” (in places with antiquated signalling systems like the Harrogate line!) or “manufacturing trains” (especially if you happen to ask people in places like Stafford, Derby or York with a long history of train building, although the UK's biggest train factory opened earlier this year in County Durham).

Hitachi Rail Europe has won a £5.7bn contract to supply the intercity express programme
Hitachi's new IEP train, being manufactured
in County Durham and coming soon
to a mainline near you!
I mentioned previously in this series that since York’s carriage building workshops closed down, the rail workforce has been spread around the city’s offices out of sight, so many people don’t realise that the rail industry still employs thousands of York (and Yorkshire)’s brightest and best. So here’s just a few of the more unusual jobs that happen behind the scenes here in York. If you want to know more, see the great videos here (including my friend Philippa Jefferis!).

The biggest cause of safety incidents on the railway is human error. So how can we predict what a driver will do when she’s done this route 50 times, but today something is different? Or whether the many alarms and flashing lights on a signaller’s workstation will lead to action or just distraction, with too many things to concentrate on at once? Or how a crowd of passengers will behave in an emergency situation? Railway safety depends on psychologists who are experts in human behaviour and can ensure that systems work as designed when faced with real human beings!

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

In Fog 2: An Engineer Who Loves to Sing

This is part of a series of posts telling my stories as a choir member in York Theatre Royal's show "In Fog and Falling Snow" (tickets available here). 

Given there are 150 people in the cast & choir, there's not much room in the programme, so here's my long answer to the question people are frequently asking me at the moment: how exactly did you get into singing at the National Railway Museum?

My first theatrical outing in York was the Poppleton Panto in Feb 2013 shortly after we moved here, where I played a “Scottish Doll” and rather surprisingly managed to convince quite a few local people I was Scottish (much to my amusement). This was where I first formulated the York Railway Game: since it is impossible to attend any social function in York without encountering someone who works on the railway, the game is to see how long it takes to find that person at any given gathering. Being in panto means that whenever I need to talk to Network Rail’s Head of Track for the whole North East region, our conversations now start with “How’s your daughter doing with her singing?” Based on her star performance as the lead in this year's Sleeping Beauty, I’d say rather well…!

My band The Spectacles features my husband Ed on guitar, folky vocals from me, with songs mostly written by Ed inspired by Dido and Kirsty McColl. We've played several gigs in York, including events for York Fairtrade Forum and Christian Aid Collective at City Screen Basement and at various open mic nights. If you're looking for a band for an event you're planning, feel free to leave a comment! 

Monday, 1 June 2015

In Fog 1: York's Railway History on Stage

This is the first in a series of posts about my role as part of York Theatre Royal's production In Fog and Falling Snow (26th June to 11th July). See links below to follow this series!

Something exciting is happening in York this Summer and I'm really glad to be part of it by singing in the choir. York Theatre Royal have a history of organising top quality productions with a large community cast, including the Mystery Plays (which I saw in 2012) and Blood & Chocolate, a promenade performance around the city centre in 2014 telling stories about how World War One affected York's chocolate makers.
The Signal Box Theatre under construction at the NRM

How did York become the centre of the rail industry that it is today? The answer rests on one man, as hated as he was loved, George Hudson, and his story will be told this summer by the people of York around the steam engines and carriages of the National Railway Museum in a new play, "In Fog and Falling Snow". The play will make use of a new temporary "Signal Box Theatre" (built around existing rail lines in the South Yard at the NRM and includes a genuine signal box where the stage manager will be keeping us in order...) 

Sunday, 24 May 2015

In the Footsteps of St Cuthbert

Waves crashing around the rocks at Amble.
Coquet Island is behind the rock
My visit to Northumbria at the beginning of May was shaped by its connections to holy places and people that played a part in the history of how we came to know Christ in Britain. We stayed in a B&B with a view over the bay including Coquet Island, where Cuthbert once lived as a hermit until he was persuaded to become bishop of Lindisfarne. We walked along the bay to Alnmouth, where the ancient church in which Cuthbert was ordained bishop has now been washed away.
 A highlight of the trip was a visit to the Franciscan friary at Alnmouth (which I had heard much about from friends who are members of the Third Order of Franciscans, following the way of St Francis in everyday life under vows but not in a residential community). We had tea and conversation with a range of people staying with the friars as a retreat house, before evening prayer filled us with a sense of peace and the presence of God. St Cuthbert in particular resonates with me, and I read much about him before my birthday trip to Durham a few years ago to see the Lindisfarne gospels.
One place remains to be visited on another occasion: the holy island itself, perhaps next Easter with thousands of other pilgrims.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Acomb Garden: Inspiration From Helmsley

View of newly planted wildflower
meadow, with hedge now starting to
grow and lawn laid!

 As the weather has improved, Acomb's community garden is starting to take shape as you can see in the photos here. Many hands made light work of planting a variety of flower seeds in the wildflower meadow on Seed Sowing Saturday in April, while leaves are appearing along the lines of veg (supplemented by any unsold plants from the church plant sale on 9th May, which raised a fantastic £850 for the charity Madalitso in Malawi - more on their stories here).

A couple of new fruit trees have been planted along the boundary fence which will soon come into leaf (though we'll be lucky if we get any fruit this year). A generous gift of turf has meant that Janette now has a good lawn within her new hedge (where a large patch of brambles once stood!) Apart from that, the patient work of weeding and digging continues, with a growing pile of bricks and other obstructions removed from the soil. It has been a very dry spring, so the garden team has been popping round at regular intervals to water different sections of the garden, especially to encourage areas of new planting (our best protection against weeds is vigilance and planting things we WANT to grow in their place!)

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Energy and Transport: How the Railways Moved From Freight to Passengers

When the railways were first built, they were conceived as a method of carrying goods efficiently from one place to another, and passengers were something of an afterthought. The opposite is now true: most people think first of passenger trains and freight has often seemed the "poor relation" (for example, freight-only routes are usually designated "secondary" with a lower standard of maintenance and investment than high speed passenger routes such as the East Coast Mainline). 

While freight continues to be a vital part of the rail network (and estimated to grow by 30% over the next 5 years), what and how materials are transported are a world away from the original design. This can be illustrated by the small goods depot at Poppleton station, which I photographed on my way home. Under the original model, railways were statutorily required to accept any and all goods at all stations to any destination, whether a crate of chickens or milk churns going to market or coal to factories, homes or local "town gas" plants/power stations. 

All that changed when energy started being supplied differently: rather than having a power station for every town, we now distribute electricity via pylons and the National Grid from a few large power stations miles away.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Springing Into Action on Acomb Community Garden

As the days get longer, work continues on the Acomb Community Garden project at Acomb Methodist Church. After successful work with a digger and tree surgeon in February, the focus has turned to preparing the ground and putting some shape to the garden at the beginning of the growing season.   
View over the garden following clearance and levelling
There are two reasons for this approach: firstly, as this is not a domestic garden there is no automatic "permitted development", so planning permission is required to install structures or hard landscaping such as paths. While this is achievable and unlikely to be refused, it will take time and require fundraising to support the production of detailed plans for the planning application. 

The second reason is that we are currently tendering for the ground source heat pump (see previous post here - further updates to be published soon!) This will require drilling and pipe installation, but the exact location of boreholes/pipework will to some extent depend on the chosen contractor so it is wise to allow the garden to be shaped around the boreholes rather than vice versa.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Holiness in Action: The Girl in Black

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town… …But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back, Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black. (Johnny Cash, Man in Black)
This year I discovered another resonance to the Good Friday tradition of wearing black for the day, as my husband asked me if I was aiming to look like Johnny Cash, who famously wore black as a constant reminder to all who saw him that not everyone had riches or fame to rely on. 

His song was in my head all day, and got me thinking about how fasting and mourning can help us to connect with those who are on the edges. On the day which Jesus died, it seemed all hope was gone. Evil had triumphed, the authorities had had their way and fear and injustice was all you could expect if you happened not to be rich or powerful. So this seems like an appropriate theme for Holy Saturday: Even if by definition hope refers to the future, for the Bible it is rooted in the present. Anne Lamott puts it like this:  
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.” 
So will we take up the challenge? Will we learn to lament the state of the world as it is, where the powerful usually triumph and the poor are forgotten? 

Friday, 3 April 2015

Holiness in Action: Were you there?

Fellow blogger Beth Routledge has been writing eloquently this week about our need to live out the drama of Easter, to experience the emotions and set the reality of God’s story in our hearts as well as our heads. Holy Week starts with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem in time for the Passover feast, where Jesus and his whole community were not only a retelling of the story of the Jewish people being liberated from slavery under the Egyptians, but reliving it with unleavened bread, sandals on your feet and ready to leave quickly to start a new life in freedom.

Indeed, the story began long before this point as I have been reminded by following the tradition of reading Luke’s gospel from start to finish during Holy Week. After Jesus’ closest friends realised who he really was and Peter declared he was the Messiah, he started telling them what would happen to him but they couldn’t take it in. He set his face towards Jerusalem and there are 12 chapters of story telling what happened along the way – challenging stereotypes with stories like the Good Samaritan and the prodigal son, staying with friends like Mary and Martha and teaching the crowds who came to see him.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Availability - do we really need a 24 hour health service?

The ICE has been trying to stimulate debate about the availability of infrastructure: for example, to what extent is it more resilient or cost effective to allow trains not to run or close a main road in cases of extreme weather? During the 2007 floods, most of Gloucestershire lost power (some people were not reconnected for 12 days). Most people believe this is not acceptable, but the answer may not lie solely in making the national grid so robust it can cope with high winds and powerful water currents, but also by beefing up secondary sources of power (whether generators or solar panels) and accepting that no system works 100% of the time.

After all, there is no railway signal box in the country that relies on only one source of power: most have some combination of having two cables in from different power sources, an 8 or 12 hour battery, a small transformer to get low voltage supply off the 25kV traction power lines and a plug at the back where you can turn up and plug in a generator. And business continuity matters too: suppliers to Network Rail must demonstrate that they have a business continuity plan in place.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

For the Love of Malawi: Why I'm Fasting for Climate Action

Buildings at Maoni Orphanage damaged by flooding
Last month, climate change got personal. This year I have been fasting on the first of every month in solidarity with the victims of climate change, from the Philippines to Vanuatu but it was the stories from my friends in Malawi which have absolutely broken my heart. This year, Malawi and Mozambique have been hit by serious flooding on a scale rarely seen before in the country’s history. 
Two members of my church (Acomb Methodist Church) run a charity called Madalitso providing education and training for young people in Malawi, and almost everything has been destroyed. The orphanage we fundraised for ages to help build has been damaged (see photo), and thousands of people have lost their homes, possessions and crops. Celebrating Fairtrade Fortnight in York, we watched a film telling the stories of two tea farmers in Malawi, who have also found their farms devastated by the floods.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Holiness in Action: God at Work

"People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening” (Ps. 104:23). 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it another way: 
"After the first morning hour [of prayer], the Christian’s day until evening belongs to work." 
Indeed, for many of us a full hour to pray before our work starts would be a blessed luxury! This balance of our time has been the same for centuries. When the Benedictine order of monks was founded on the principle of "work and prayer", where work informed prayer and vice versa, without holding one of these to be more important than the other. But have we lost this perspective today? Do we instead consider them to be totally separate activities?

Many people put a very hard distinction between work and prayer saying "I can feel God close to me when I'm in church, but God can't really be interested in what I do all day, can he? It's only what I do to pay the bills." But the Creator of the universe delights in what we do, because our work reflect the image of God himself as we engage in creating and maintaining order and beauty in God's world. 

So does God care whether the trains run on time, or if a whole community like Western Cornwall are cut off by rail because of a collapsed sea wall (as happened at Dawlish last year)? Does God care whether the law is upheld, justice is done, people are served, children are educated?

Friday, 13 March 2015

Rail electrification at last for the North?

I have previously written about the Harrogate Line and thesignificant barriers which it presents to people who want to travel between Leeds, Harrogate and York without resorting to a car, and about the difficulties that short-term thinking has presented to our efforts to improve the line (not least bridges which are not wide enough or high enough). So it’s time for some good news, and over the last few weeks there has been a flurry of it!
Firstly, engagement with bidders for the various franchises has resulted in a promise by Virgin East Coast to provide a two-hourly direct service from Harrogate to London and back (7 trains per day in each direction) which is a vast improvement on the current situation where there is only one early morning train to London and one late evening train back again.   

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Acomb Garden: Day of the Digger

This is my third post about the creation of a new community garden at Acomb Methodist Church. For the beginning of the story, see A Journey of Transformation.

A pile of logs ready for
wood-burning stoves
We had spent a productive morning two weeks ago clearing the weeds (see The Transformation Beginswhere many hands made light work, on 21st Feb we continued with tasks where a smaller number of skilled hands were needed.

Having previously addressed anything small enough to succumb to loppers and shears, this was a day for trimming branches or even whole trees where these were dead or poorly placed. For this, we needed James and his chainsaw, with half a dozen adults to move the cuttings.
The digger ready for action!

We sorted by use: really big logs in one pile to make chairs and so on, logs for wood burning stoves in another and twigs, thin branches and weeds on the bonfire.

We had a digger to level the site and remove weed roots and stumps, but I had to leave before it was digger time (I'll add some photos of the finished work another time!)

Sunday, 8 March 2015

In the Footpaths of the Pilgrim Fathers

The Pilgrim Fathers museum
in the oldest house in Leiden
(built in 1372)
Ask most people round here to name three Dutch cities, and you'll usually get some combination of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft and Den Haag (aka the Hague in its anglicised form). This means when I tell people that my parents live in Leiden, the next question is always "where's that?" (It's about 20 minutes south of Amsterdam and east of Den Haag).

To be fair, I didn't know where Leiden was either, until my parents moved there 5 years ago, so I thought it was time to share a little of Leiden's rich history. Leiden is an ancient city at the place where a river splits into three branches. To the extent that any river in this flat land can be said to flow (rather than simply resembling a wide, deep canal), the city is encircled by two branches of the river and the third runs through the middle, facilitating trade. Of course, this means a lot of bridges (engineer's paradise!), some of which can open to allow tall boats through to the markets.

It turns out that one thing Leiden is famous for is the Pilgrim Fathers, who settled in the city between 1609 and 1620 as refugees from England in search of religious freedom for their Puritan faith. Last week we visited a tiny museum behind one of the main shopping streets, housed in the oldest house in Leiden (dated via tree rings in the oak beams to 1372). 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Following the Yellow Train!

“Yellow Car” is a good way to keep children quiet on long journeys, as you score points if you’re the first person to shout whenever you spot one (and other than my friend Miles, there aren’t that many yellow cars on the road. I like playing a different version when I’m out on track, because spotting the yellow train is even more rare (there is only one which covers the whole country!)

So why is it painted yellow? This is Network Rail’s colour, chosen to look like no-one else’s livery and probably also because most of the “yellow plant” (rail-mounted kit for maintaining the track and wires) and engineering trains (essentially freight trains transporting ballast or track) need to be visible in the dark, because we rail engineers rarely have the luxury of being able to do construction work during the day!

But the yellow train I like to watch out for is an HST (that’s your average intercity-type passenger train to non-trainspotters) painted bright yellow and marked “New Measurement Train” on the side. This one train is a piece of technology that has revolutionised how we maintain the UK railway because it travels the whole passenger network over a regular cycle and measures the condition of the track and the overhead wires (are they in the right place and delivering the right amount of power?), saving thousands of hours of track inspection time. 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

A Windy Wildlife Walk in Leiden

Continuing a series of irregular posts about wildlife-spotting (see also Learning to See and If There is No Home for Nature), today I went for a walk with my dad through the polder behind his house in Leiden, which means binoculars are in order.
Sheep grazing next to the lake
As always in Holland, water is never far away – there is a golf course where most of the holes are sandwiched between dykes and open water (which probably makes completing the course fairly challenging unless you have several spare balls handy!) and a nature reserve with lakes and spits of land giving lots of opportunities to spot birdlife. 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Fairtrade history in the Netherlands

Yesterday I visited a little piece of Fairtrade history: while visiting my parents in Leiden, we visited the Wereld Winkel, literally "world shop". Wereld Winkel was the world's first ever Fairtrade shop, founded in the Netherlands in 1969 and now has 250 branches across the country. The focus was upon fairly traded handicrafts that give people the chance to use traditional skills to create products for the Western market. However, this was relatively limited in its impact at first, since a lot of learning was required on both sides to predict what people wanted to buy (with variable strands in fashion) and to achieve the quality that consumers desired in return for the slightly higher price. 
Max Havelaar, the first Fairtrade mark
York is home to a groundbreaking Fairtrade shop too: Shared Earth was founded in York as one of the first UK retailers to follow in the footsteps of Wereld Winkel in 1986, with a similar range of wares: predominantly craft items and clothing.
One major change in buying habits over the last 45 years was the move towards Fairtrade food as well as crafts: firstly long-life products like tea, coffee and chocolate and then more recently perishable items like bananas. Initially, fairly traded tea and coffee were only available in ethical shops like the Wereld Winkel or via stalls like the one I set up at my church aged 17, because there was otherwise no way for consumers to tell whether food sold in supermarkets or elsewhere was fairly traded. 

Holiness in Action: The meek shall inherit the earth

This is the second in a series of Lent meditations considering the concept of "holiness in action" - how do we apply Jesus' teaching to today's world? 

This week I read a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings on the Sermon on the Mount which I found very challenging. Jesus said:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matt 5:5
But who exactly was Jesus talking about and how should we apply this principle today? Bonhoeffer wrote that the meek are: 
"those who renounce all rights of their own for the sake of Jesus Christ. When they are berated, they are quiet. When violence is done to them, they endure it. When they are cast out, they yield. They do not sue for their rights; they do not make a scene when injustice is done to them." 
I am not sure that I agree. Was Jesus meek? While he went "like a lamb to the slaughter" and championed non-violence when Peter tried to free him by cutting off one of his assailant's ears, his previous form was distinctly combative. Does a meek person go to a respected rabbi's home to declare that his host and others at the table were like "whitewashed tombs" that made great effort to be outwardly holy but were rotten underneath, doing nothing to help the poor or support people in their faith?  

Saturday, 21 February 2015

How Fairtrade creates essential infrastructure

This weekend marks the start of Fairtrade Fortnight (23rd Feb to 7th March 2015) so this is a post which takes an engineer's perspective on what Fairtrade is all about. Later this week, I'll be considering the history of Fairtrade, and particularly how people of faith have played their part in bringing Fairtrade from niche to mainstream.

I've supported the Fairtrade movement since I was a teenager (indeed, my first ever campaign was to turn my high school Fairtrade with assemblies, displays and Fairtrade chocolate in the vending machines).
That means I've always been keenly aware of the difference Fairtrade makes: rather than an exploitative relationship between individual farmers and big retailers (with several middlemen taking their cut),

"Fair trade is…a pragmatic response to unsatisfactory outcomes of the market by changing the nature of trading relationships…" (Judith Sugden)

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Holiness in Action: For the Love of God

"How great is the Father's love that he has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" 1 John 3:1

Welcome to the first of a new series of weekly reflections for Lent about faith, work and sustainable living inspired by Wesleyan theology.

John Wesley founded the Methodist movement with his brother Charles in 1738 after a deep experience of the love of God which John later described as being "strangely warmed" (my friends in the Cambridge Methodist Society at university had hoodies declaring that they were instead "warmly strange"). 
My husband is a local preacher, and has been telling me for years of the riches to be found in Methodist theology about “holiness in action”, or applying faith to real life. This Lent, I’m taking up the challenge: to read all of Wesley’s 44 sermons (now available to read online!) and explore what they can teach us today. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The circular economy and sustainable concrete

Do engineers need to significantly change how we use materials to make what we build sustainable? I've been thinking recently about this question in the context of concrete, one of the most frequently used materials in construction. In this post I'll be exploring the two main problems with concrete: that it is extremely energy-intensive to manufacture, and it is difficult to re-use without downgrading the quality.

For example, industry statistics show that last year the UK construction industry used 15 million cubic metres (37.5 million tonnes) of ready-mix concrete and 25 million tonnes of concrete products from blocks and pre-cast walls to driven piles.  
Castleton cement works in Derbyshire
(picture by Dave Pape)

Concrete is formed from two materials: cement and aggregate. Quarrying is required for both elements (with attendant environmental and landscape impacts), but the cement also requires a chemical reaction to occur: calcium carbonate (ie limestone) is heated to a high temperature (300 degrees C) to drive off CO2 and form calcium oxide instead. Therefore making cement produces CO2 both from the fuel used for heating and from the reaction itself (although this can be somewhat recovered when used, as hardening cement absorbs CO2 to form calcium carbonate again). 

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Acomb Garden: The Transformation Begins

Digging a trench for
the hedge
Last week I wrote about my church’s dreams of transforming an overgrown patch of unloved ground behind church into a “quiet garden” for retreats, contemplation, encouraging wildlife and growing food. Having emptied and taken down a set of old garages to make a way in and transferred a defunct greenhouse to a friend’s garden (awaiting some new glass), today we made a start on clearing the wilderness. I was pleasantly surprised at how much we managed to do in a morning, with about 15 adults and 5 young people (one very young indeed – Micah didn’t do much other than look cute!) 
By 1pm we had chopped and cleared large areas of brambles (opening up the bottom corner of the garden for the first time), trimmed low-hanging branches from trees and seriously pruned back the bushes and generally created a much bigger space to work with. This is the stuff that memories are made of: working together for a common goal, laughing together as we learn new skills and create something beautiful, eating together when we were done (the local chippy got lots of business today!)

Sunday, 1 February 2015

A Journey of Transformation at Acomb

Acomb Methodist Church is celebrating its 50th anniversary with some big dreams to upgrade facilities to serve our community in York for the next 50 years. This includes renovating the entrance, replacing the boiler with a new ground source heat pump and transforming the small wilderness behind the church. In place of weeds, we want to create more than a garden: a community space for growing food and a space where people can enjoy retreats and quiet days, or just come and reflect in a place of beauty.
View from top of garden, where several garages
have recently been removed
We have lots of ideas to be included in the new garden: Fruit bushes, raised beds for vegetables, a children’s area, a monastic cloister, water feature, labyrinth, 2 watertight shelters/ summerhouses, workbenches, seating, craft areas are all ideas we want to try to include. We hope to create a natural flowing space where wildlife will find a home and plants that will create interest throughout the year. But first, we need to make space. We've made a start by removing some old garages and we'll be creating an access ramp in place of the current narrow steps. 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Life in Community - Reflections from LILAC

This is my second post inspired by a visit to LILAC, an innovative co-housing project in Leeds built in 2013 using straw bale and timber construction. Lilac is an acronym that reflects the initiative's three core values: Low impact living (covered in my previous post),  affordable, community. I'll be writing more about the thorny issues of affordability and housing after attending a workshop hosted by Green Christian on the subject on 24th Jan.
When I try explaining Lilac to others, people usually can't imagine what I'm talking about. Eco-housing, certainly, but living in community?

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Low Impact Living in Leeds: Three Stories

Yesterday I spent a great day visiting three friends in Leeds trying to live more sustainably in different ways. The day was sparked off by Isabelle, who has decided to take up the new year challenge I set myself in 2014 and measure her carbon footprint so I took along some resources I had found useful including George Marshall's book Carbon Detox.

This was also an opportunity to see her newly insulated house, having followed her blog (with photos!) describing her efforts and lessons learned.

Thinking Long Term: Learning from the Railways

This post is part of a series inspired by the book "Sustainable Infrastructure: Principles into Practice" (see the introduction to the series here). Having examined the issue of intergenerational stewardship and thinking long term about infrastructure (Principle 3) in my last post, how can we put this knowledge into practice in real civil engineering situations such as the railways?
Putting it into Practice 3.1: Plan for the Long Term
There is a need for future proofing, but all our predictions are scenarios: we need a clear statement for each line of what it would ideally look like in 20 years time, such that all projects work together to either facilitate the vision, or at the very least not get in the way. For example, the Harrogate Line was reduced from two tracks to one between Poppleton and Hammerton in the early 1970s, which means that it is now only possible to run one train per hour between York and Harrogate and any delays quickly escalate because the train in one direction can't pass a train which is running late in the other direction, so only 85% of trains run on time. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Thinking Long Term: Why "Doing it for the kids" is not good enough

Principle 3: Intergenerational Stewardship (or Thinking Long Term)
This post examines the concept of intergenerational stewardship, the 3rd principle of sustainable infrastructure (see the introduction to this series inspired by the book “Sustainable Infrastructure: Principles into Practice”).
We don't inherit the world from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children (Anon)
The concept of protecting the earth for our children has been one of the key ways that people have understood the environmental movement over the last 30 years. It has been posited that as a direct appeal to people's emotions, this is a strong motivation for people to act. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't seem to support this view.

Friday, 9 January 2015

What is Infrastructure For? Social and Economic Sustainability Goals

Principle 2: Social and economic development

‘If you’re asking me to choose between conservation and development, I’m going to choose development every time.' Community worker in Democratic Republic of Congo

This is part of a series inspired by the book Sustainable Infrastructure. What is infrastructure for? And do we really have to make a choice between meeting people's needs and protecting the environment, as the quote above suggests? 

The purpose of most infrastructure is to improve social or economic outcomes (and let's face it, when one third of the world's people have no access to sanitation, there's no shortage of need) and that's why economic issues have traditionally been the biggest influence over project scoping and delivery.

For example, many projects are justified on the basis of a cost-benefit ratio, which may consider only benefits within the organisation (eg reduced maintenance and operation costs for a railway) or may additional calculate the wider economic benefits to users (eg the business case for HS2).

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Putting it into practice 1: How do we live within our limits?

This post is part of a series inspired by the book "Sustainable Infrastructure: Principles into Practice" (see the introduction to the series here). Having examined the issue of planetary boundaries (Principle 1) in my last post, how can we put this knowledge into practice in real civil engineering situations? 

Two "operational" rules of thumb are proposed to ensure that all our buildings, transport etc protect rather than damage our planet's capacity to support life:

1.1: Set targets and measure against environmental limits
"If you can measure it, you can manage it"

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Living within our limits: Exploring Planetary Boundaries

Sustainable Infrastructure - Principle 1. Environmental Sustainability - Living Within Our Planet's Limits 
This post explores the concept of planetary boundaries, the first principle of sustainable infrastructure (see the introduction to this series inspired by the book “Sustainable Infrastructure: Principles into Practice”).

Environmental Capacity:   
Sustainable development has often been described as the "triple bottom line" of financial (or economic), social and environmental impacts, with a lovely Venn diagram showing these three ideas working in harmony. However, this doesn't reflect the relative importance of the three elements: cost or economic benefits are usually considered to be the main driver for development, but there's little point having lots of money if the result is destroying the capacity of our one and only planet to support life! 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Advent Reflections 7: Finding Our Purpose

 “For we know that nothing we do for the Lord is ever useless” 1 Cor 15:58 
At the beginning of a new year, many of us have hopes and dreams as well as fears for the future. So now seems like a good time to consider our purpose. A sense of purpose can be powerful enough to keep us motivated through difficult times, but it can be hard to find, especially when we are demoralised. The simple fact is, much of what we do feels pointless and too small to make a difference, a drop in the ocean.
Over the Christmas period, we have considered God’s awesome creation, made with love, the frustration of living in a world of sin and death (and the need tolament the tragedies of life) and his great plan for redemption through Emmanuel. This is where the final part of the Bible’s story comes into play for us: the consummation of all our hopes, the resurrection and redemptionof the whole world.