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Life has its way of providing food for thought – sometimes more than it is reasonable to expect a person to digest. And much as a good walk can provide suitable repair after a heavy dinner, so a walk is often the best way to get one’s head around the various challenges that life throws up. Between national and local politics, happenings to friends, and other personal events, a long walk was long overdue.

I have a favoured route.

I walk along Nethermayne and past the hospital, turning into Dry Street. I head past the farm where I spent so much of my childhood, past my church and on to One Tree Hill Country Park. From there I walk through Northlands Woods, around Sutton Woods and in to Coombe Woods. Finally, I arrive back on to Dry Street, before ending up at Hillcroft for coffee.

On the way you can’t help but be moved by the beauty and serenity of the countryside. I think I have reflected previously that you could never imagine that you are just twenty-five miles from London. The sounds of traffic on the A13 is blocked out by trees and hills and fields. The sun was glorious this morning, and the sky blue. The rape fields were bright with their yellow crop. The bluebells are at their height, though they seem fewer in number than in previous years. A lack of sun, perhaps, or sustenance for the elusive muntjac deer that live in the woods?

Between Northlands and Sutton lie ancient administrative boundaries with interesting purposes and delineations. Thankfully, there are still a few people about the hills who know the stories of the past. Local social histories are fragile things and there seems less and less time for them in this increasingly busy and technologically-demanding world. With so much emphasis on the future, we often forget that there is a rich seam of learning to be had in investigating the history of the places about us.

Anyway, I thought I would share this morning’s walk in pictures.

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Each morning the C2C trains trundle into London, beginning their journey in Shoeburyness, the end of the line that lies in close proximity to the secrecy-shrouded MOD facilities of the tidal island of Foulness. One hour and ten minutes later they arrive in Fenchurch Street, the oft-forgotten commuter terminal for East Essex that hides between the contradiction of gleaming office blocks and ramshackle reminders of older, darker London such as the East India Arms.

These trains pass through the seaside excitements of Southend, on past the old-now-fashionable fishing town of Leigh and then through the connurbation of Pitsea, which, with the closure of the Motorboat Museum, has almost lost its struggle to retain a sense of its own maritime connections. From Pitsea the journey enters the sprawl of Basildon, the brash young upstart neighbour of both Pitsea and Laindon, both of which were the principal local urban centres prior to the Whitehall social laboratory experiment which was the New Towns Act 1946.

Between Laindon and the sleepiness of West Horndon lies my favourite part of my daily commute: the Bulphan Fen.

Yes, I love the bleak industrial landscape of the detours via the loop line, forced on weary travellers by endless engineering works: the vast and towering complexes of Dagenham; the faded, crumbling decay of Tilbury’s dockside menace; and the empty mystery of Purfleet and its invisible military history. Yes, I love, too, the changing landscape of East London, where clean, proud new build sits between the higgledy-piggledy tangle of scrap-yards, brick-arch businesses and the shells of now-forgotten commercial giants of Britain’s imperial past.

However, for me, nothing touches the vast, rural emptiness of the Bulphan Fen for its capacity to reassure, by reminding me I have truly left the loud metropolitan chaos of the city behind me. Perhaps it is because it is the stretch I have travelled for more years than any other, the daily schoolboy journey to Upminster a daily and extravagant adventure that took me far from the country comfort of Langdon Hills. Whatever the reason, nothing gives me the calm reassurance of the prospect of home as much as this small stretch of a rural England that is quickly vanishing.

In Summer, the setting sun casts long, warm shadows that stretch from field to field, heralding barbecue-weekends, the easy company of family sharing a glass or two under the reaches of the old vine and the wistful strains of Finzi or Vaughn-Williams teasing our souls with the melancholia of English poems and promises.

In Autumn, tendrils of mist snake between the trees and hang low in the fields. They lend the landscape an ethereal shroud worthy of Tolkein that disguises agricultural purpose and hides the pylon sentinels in their silent vigil over this corner of South Essex.

In Winter, icy frosts glitter on earth as hard as iron. These last two years such frosts foretold the blizzards which saw our landscape reborn white and pristine, the dangers of broken road and path buried by snows that harbour their own cruelties and hazards.

And in today’s Spring morning, green fields sparkled with dew under cloudless blue skies and commuters burred quietly with refreshing wonder about the sunshine, its bold appearance vanquishing the greyness of February’s dying season.

I love the Bulphan Fen – and its enduring promise of home.

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A picture is worth a thousand words

Brooke House, Camera, Light

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With some gusto Basildon Council announced that the Clock had been returned to the town. It was erected where The Woodsman stood – and whilst I can accept that the clock is a piece of artistic engineering, I find it hard to think of it as public art. It certainly wasn’t created for the space in which it now stands.

But that is by-the-by.

The Council has determined this is the structure that will preside over St Martin’s Square. (Actually, I am a little confused as to whether or not we still call it St Martin’s Square, since it appears to have been arbitrarily renamed Compass Square. Clearly, whichever fourteen-year old PR whizz thought that up hadn’t looked closely enough at the stone-set round in front of the Towngate. It is actually a sundial.)

It had been taken down from its original location because it was not working and was repaired by the Cumbria Clock Company.

However, you might be a little confused if you take a look at this picture, snapped earlier today.

Town Centre ClockI am not sure how most people define a working clock, but I am pretty sure that it has hands… Still, I guess I might have been expecting too much.

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If you’ve not yet noticed, Basildon Arts Collective has launched a brilliant new website. If you are interested in the arts in Basildon, then get yourselves over to BAC’s site and register ASAP.

And look out for Basildon Arts Collective at the Bas Fest 2010. More on that to come!

And don’t forget, the campaign for the Woodsman to be put back on display in the town is as strong as ever.

Congratulations to everyone involved in getting Basildon Arts Collective off the ground. Truly impressive. When work calms down I hope to finally make a meeting.

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They look faintly sinister, Orwellian almost, like something that would be more at home in 1984 than 2010. These new cameras with I presume 360 degree vision are designed to make us feel safer.

Forget North Korea. Britain is the most surveilled state in the world. We have 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras in the UK – over 4 million cameras watching us as we go about our daily business. Now three more in Basildon.

In 2006 you may recall that members of the Surveillance Studies Network produced a report on the surveillance society. It makes for shocking reading:

And what do these cameras do?

They don’t deter the petty anti-social behaviour that plagues most ordinary shoppers – kids on bikes were still racing dangerously and recklessly through the crowds at the weekend. How do they improve the quality of our lives?

In 2005 the Home Office published a study into the efficacy of CCTV. It’s results were far, far from conclusive:

I find this continual erosion of personal space alarming.

And the Tories show their true colours when they come out in favour of the surveillance state.

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As one of the councillors who voted in principle to bid for and accept the money from government to put new lighting in St Martin’s Square and the Town Centre, I am shocked and embarrassed by what the administration have done.

Purple Poles, St Martin's Square

Who on earth thought that serried ranks of purple poles, with the off-cuts of Robbie the Robot perched on top, could possibly improve the look of the area or the quality of the public space?

And in an age when we worry about light pollution and climate change, why do they cast light up but not down? And why are they on in the day?

Who advised them?

How ironic that at last week’s Cabinet we considered a report on Basildon’s open spaces which rated St Martin’s Square very highly – before the bulldozers moved in. It is very sad that the Tories placed petty local politics above even their own administration’s assessment of the value of this civic space.

A friend at dinner joked that maybe they were landing lights for the aliens coming to collect their purple squid tentacle lights… If only.

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As a commuter and regular weekend passenger it is very easy to vent about the state of the railways.

Make that rant about the state of the railways.

I have always resented the insidious shift in terminology that, over the years, has seen me redesignated as a customer. I can choose where I buy my fruit and veg. I can’t choose who provides the train I get on. (More on that another time).

My family will have lost count of the number of occasions I have erupted on the phone about the basket-case services provided on the railways at weekends. Why is it that in one of the most prosperous Western countries, in the 21st Century, we still can’t run a comprehensive week and weekend service? It is a pathetic indictment of our national capacity to organise.

Taxi drivers will know my outbursts about the fact that the Germans appear to be able to run (and maintain and repair) a huge national rail network, with far fewer problems than us Brits, and with timetables that link in buses and trams. To the minute. It is astonishing we cannot, bearing in mind our national readiness to computerise and database our entire existence. (Sod the ID card database – lets try and get our buses to meet our trains!)

And on various occasions Em and I have cursed the running of short trains at busy times and the resultant cram into trains which simply aren’t designed for standing.

As I said. It is very easy to rant.

Much harder is crediting rail companies for their successes. And some, with the unlikeliest parent companies, have successes in abundance.

C2C operates the busy commuter line between Shoeburyness and London Fenchurch Street. There is a further loop line from Barking to Pitsea that runs through the old towns along the north flank of the eastern stretches of the Thames. These include the vast industrial wildernesses of Rainham and Dagenham, as well as Tilbury Town and East Tilbury, both of which have extensive maritime histories of civil and military significance, and the towns of Grays and Stanford-le-Hope, each home to a rapidly expanding commuting population.

I use Basildon, Laindon and Pitsea and, on the fastest trains, am a mere 25 minutes from central London.

C2C is owned by Network Rail, the company that ruined the East coast main line. I’ve always been a little schizophrenic on rail privatisation. To me, the railways as a service industry, unlike say HMV, but – as we have privatisation – I have wanted to see healthy and sensible competition to drive up standards. When Grand Central appeared on the scene, challenging National Express (the then principal operator on the East Coast Main Line), Em and I cheered, loving their livery, the uniformed presence of enthusiastic staff and the refurbishment of the well-designed intercities, with seats that line up with windows. Even now, Grand Central are going from strength to strength, introducing refurbished Class 180s and committing to re-engineering their existing High Speed Trains.

The Government were right to strip them of their franchise on that line.

I don’t know much about the East Anglia routes and how they operated. All I know are the anecdotal complaints from friends and colleagues bemoaning the state of their trains and stations. They suggest, unscientifically, that the decision to remove that franchise was justified.

C2C is different.

C2C is one of the very real success stories. And yet the Government has decided, apparently, that National Express will not be allowed to bid to retain the franchise. To my mind it is madness to punish the franchise operator, and a clearly able and committed management team, because of the various sins of the parent company.

When C2C announced that it was to change its livery from the distinctive purple and yellow to National Express’s bland white, I wrote to C2C expressing my dismay. Why on earth rebrand as failure? Why spend tens of thousands of pounds of commuter cash on making yourself look like a company that is despised? It was the most peculiar piece of PR – unless of course you were the owners of C2C and desperately wanted to repair your reputation by having it more closely associated with success.

Unlike the rest of the failed National Express rail enterprise, the team that manage C2C has shown a very real dedication to their passengers and services.

Unlike many lines, C2C manage all the stations as well as the trains. The only station managed by Network Rail is Fenchurch Street. (West Ham is managed by London Underground.) The difference between the investment at Fenchurch Street (minimal) and elsewhere on the line is marked.

New doors, stairs, waiting rooms, information systems and security systems have all been provided by C2C.

The management team engage passengers regularly, with meetings between a representative passenger panel and C2C – and C2C actually respond. C2C produces Commuter News, a monthly ad-free informative newsletter that explains the causes of problems, highlights coming improvements and draws attention to the engineering works scheduled for weekends.

C2C modernised its entire fleet of trains – yet retains a sense of the old romance with trains named after those who have worked their lives on the railways. They have won awards for introducing regenerative breaking across the entire fleet – something that has made them one of the most environmentally-conscious train-operating companies in Europe.

Most ironically, whilst the Department for Transport rail against National Express and C2C, both the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office point to C2C as an exemplar of a UK train success story.

It would seem that this tired and failing Labour Government is either ideologically sclerotic or determined to prioritise a petty retribution over genuine achievement in the passenger’s interest.

If there is any sense left in Government, Adonis and his crew will at least allow National Express to bid. Regardless of their other failures, National Express/C2C know this line, have shown commitment to their trains, stations and passengers.

They have transformed the “misery line” into one that regularly tops the customer satisfaction surveys and became the first in the country to achieve a punctuality score of 96%.

Ditching C2C would be a big mistake.

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With delicious irony, the spirit of Wat Tyler has been stirred in Basildon’s creative communities by the way in which Basildon Council dumped Dave Chapple’s Woodsman Poacher sculpture at the park that bears Tyler’s name. I am sure Wat Tyler, who led a peasant army in revolt against financial dictats from the King (a poll tax, actually), would smile at the way Basildon artists are speaking out in opposition to local politicians who are quite happily rake in our taxes, but appear to have no respect for what the community actually wants.

Yesterday, The Echo reported how on Monday “More than 50 painters, sculptors, performers, heritage bosses, and other members of the arts community gathered for their inaugral meeting.” Liz Grant, who worked with other local artists to convene the meeting, describes it brilliantly:

“We had lots of people from across the arts spectum, which is fantastic for a first meeting.

“The Woodsman has been the catalyst for the group’s formation.

“We see it as a symbol of how the artistic community and the public feel about how the arts are being dealt with by Basildon’s current council and the previous one.

“It’s a symbol of all that’s wrong with how the council is operating.”

To my mind it is quite incredible how the plight of a single wooden statue has brought together Basildon’s creative communities in a way nothing else has. Steve Waters is one of the artists behind Old Man Stan, and his quote in The Echo captures succinctly the way in which the treatment of Dave Chapple’s creation has caused people to take a stand:

“We now have one united voice for the arts community in Basildon.

“The Woodman is what has brought us all together.

“We don’t want it to happen again, or ever be forgotten.”

Too damn right we don’t.

There was unanimous agreement on a motion of no confidence in the way that the Council currently engages those involved in the arts – and the way it looks after Basildon’s valuable collection of public art. As someone who has blogged variously about The Woodsman, public art in Basildon, the Wat Tyler sculpture trail and the Motorboat Museum, it was truly heartening to learn that all these issues were discussed.

What is particuarly exciting about this venture is that it is professionals and amateurs alike who are involved. Quite simply, it’s local people saying they want to have a say in how their public spaces look – and how their interests are supported – in just the same way that sport and other leisure activities are supported.

Politicians might think they can shrug this off. I don’t think they can.

Many of those who enjoy participating in the arts – creating things, making things, acting things, singing things, watching things, listening to things – get fed up with being treated as the Cinderella sector, left to sweep up the crumbs whilst the ugly homogeneous stepsisters “Sport” and “Leisure” receive the funding and the attention.

My own view, as someone involved in local politics and the local art scene, is that we attempt to tell people what they want at our peril. For me it comes back to the “raucous, unpredictable capacity of people” that lends our communities power and vibrancy and which, when untied in a single shout, demands attention as the voice of local people that help pay the Council’s way.

Being involved in the arts, involved in Basildon’s creative communities, is about being involved with each other, in all its glorious messiness.

Some things we’ll love.

Some things we’ll hate.

Some things we’ll think are pointless.

And some things we’ll disagree on.

But some things – like The Woodsman Poacher – will make us realise that we have much more in common than we think.

If you want to get involved, the next meeting is on Monday 22nd March at 7.00pm, St Martin’s Church Hall. Please call Elizabeth Grant on 07939 122864 for further details.

If you think Basildon deserves better than bulldozers and excuses, come along.

And finally, for those politicians who still think that all this really doesn’t matter, there’s a salutory lesson on Facebook.

Friends for the The Woodsman Poacher? 1,651.

Friends on the campaign page of Basildon’s Tory candidate? 150.

The Woodsman Poacher rests his case…

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I’ve not heard any news regarding progress on rehousing the collection of rare boats formerly stored at the Motorboat Museum in Wat Tyler Country Park. However, a friend has sent me three pictures of some of the magnificent boats once displayed there.

Closing down the museum was an act of cultural vandalism – something that Basildon’s Conservative Party seem prone to.

Enjoy the pictures – and if you have any more, please send them through.

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