Monday, 22 October 2018

A Long Weekend Away

On Friday morning before dawn Susan and I climbed into the car, and drove along the Routes Nationales to Calais, a trip which took about 8 hours (including stops). We had two nights booked at the Ibis Budget hotel at la Coquelles, and a plan...

On Saturday we were on the 06.50 Eurotunnel Shuttle to Folkestone, from where we drove to Swanley in South-East London, and caught the train to London Victoria. My cousin Linda was waiting for us there, and we went to the pub for breakfast, to be joined later by my nephew Kippa (Christopher to his Grandmother).

Checking in to Eurotunnel

We then walked to Speakers Corner, and waited. And waited. There were many, many people of all ages, sizes and shapes, all with one aim -- to demonstrate in protest against Brexit. Eventually (1 hour and 45 minutes late) we set off down Piccadilly towards Parliament Square. We never made it -- there were so many people that Whitehall was full all the way back to Trafalgar Square. Figures range between 700,000 and 1.2 million.

Susan in the midst of the crowd.

The two of us in St James's Street.

Susan and Linda with a not over-stressed policeman outside St James's Palace

We then caught the train back to Swanley, and drove to Eurotunnel at Folkestone (via Tesco). The nice lady at the help desk put us on a shuttle 4 hours earleir than the the one we had booked, so we were back at the hotel in Calais by 11pm.

The Cabinet Office was re-decorated for free.

Yesterday we got back into the car at 9.00am and were home by 4.30pm. In total we travelled 1406km in 52 hours.

I finally got a sticker!!

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Fort Denison

Fort Denison is an island in Sydney Harbour, and has long been somewhere I have wanted to visit. When my family moved to Sydney it was something to look at and imagine ghost stories about - it is only relatively recently that plebs like us have been allowed to visit. We didn't get there last year, so I guess we have to write it on our list. My father and brother have been so I feel I am missing out. (To be honest, I didn't even investigate visiting because I didnt think it was possible.)

Fort Denison. Most people only knowing from passing it on a ferry.

The fortress features a Martello tower, the only one ever built in Australia and the last one constructed in the British Empire. It is built from sandstone and the walls are between 3.3–6.7 metres (11–22 ft) thick at the base and 2.7 metres (8 ft 10 in) thick at the top, but the fort was obsolete by the time it was completed. The tower had quarters for a garrison of 24 soldiers and one officer.

Before the tower was built the island was known as Pinchgut and served as a prison (and as the town gibbet) but as far as I can tell only one person was ever sent there. These days there is a navigation light on top of the tower.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Holidaying in Klosters

When we were in Switzerland earlier this year we stayed in an apartment in Klosters. Accommodation in the ski areas of Switzerland is remarkably inexpensive in summer, as the tourist industry tries to turn itself into a year round enterprise.

We rented through AirBnB, and for 945€ stayed in a two bedroom apartment in a newish ski lodge. It had an enormous lounge/dining area, a balcony with amazing views and a fully equipped kitchen (it even had a fondue set) and everything we needed was provided. When we arrived our Davos-Kolsters cards were on the table, along with a welcoming bottle of wine.

The view from our Balcony of the cable car terminus, 3km away

The view of our bacony from the cable car terminus.
It's the large white building in the very centre of the picture

Susan, hard at work

We really enjoyed our holiday (you might have guessed...), and having spotlessly clean, spacious and comfortable accommodation in beautiful surroundings really helped.

We're writing about Switzerland - but as this posts we will be in the car on the M20 heading towards London. Someone has to try stop this Brexit stupidity.

Friday, 19 October 2018

The Wind Turbine Project at Le Petit Pressigny

About six months ago I started hearing about a proposal to erect ten wind turbines along a ridge between Le Grand Pressigny and Charnizay. Everyone I spoke to at that point assumed I would be against the project, as they were. I was encouraged to go along to the town hall and look at the documentation for the project and to sign a petition against it.

Members of the Association de protection de l'environnement Pressignois at a local food and art fair.

I never got round to checking it out at the town hall, but slowly more and more information started to be widely disseminated. My natural inclination would be to be for wind turbines, unless they are sited inappropriately. That means breaking up important habitat. It does not mean spoiling my view or being located too close to my home. Nothing I read about the project raised particular alarm bells.

Over the last month or so the wind turbine project has been the super hot topic at social occasions. I know and like many of the people who belong to a new association dedicated to stopping the project. They are quite visible and vocal, to the extent that at a party a few weeks ago my friends Dominique (female) and Denise were delighted to find that I was for the project. Like me, they had been starting to think they were the only ones.

Flora Pastre (second left) answering questions from the public.

There have been a series of public meetings to allow the wind turbine company to inform and consult with the locals. I went along when the representative from the company was at Le Grand Pressigny, answering questions and presenting the project. Of the half dozen people present, four of them were friends and several were against the project. Later that day I accidentally gatecrashed the landowners meeting with the company in Le Petit Pressigny, which was a somewhat different affair. They were offered drinks and nibbles and were generally for the project.

I've now had a lot of contact with both sides and can summarise the situation thus:

Those for the project point out that
  • Indre et Loire currently has no wind turbines at all (the implication being that they are not doing their share).
  • We need to start moving to renewables.
  • The land chosen is open farmland.
  • This is a poor rural area and it is an opportunity for small scale low income farmers to earn a bit of extra income. (Here is a link to a blog post that I wrote about one of the farmers in the area of the project.)
  • The venture is low risk as the regulations say that at the end of their 25 year lifespan every part of the turbines must be removed and recycled.
  • Two years of ecological and biodiversity surveys have been completed to assess impact on the natural environment and inform the placement of the turbines.
  • Wind levels across the site have been monitored to ensure they will be sufficient to make the project worthwhile.
Those against the project say
  • This isn't Berry or the Beauce with huge flat expanses of open cereal culture. The scale of the turbines is too large for the system of small fields that exist on the proposed site.
  • Wind power is too unreliable to be useful.
  • The landowners are being offered 2% of profits, so if there are no profits the landowners will get nothing. 
  • Wind turbine companies have a reputation for gathering in lots of public funding and private investment, erecting the turbines, but then going bust.
  • If the company goes bust then the low income small scale farmers will be left with the responsibility to get rid of the turbines at the end of their working life. 
  • People visit this area because it is an unspoilt small scale mosaic of fields, woodland and villages and the turbines don't fit this bucolic scene.
  • Wind turbines kill birds and bats. The biodiversity surveys were done in a period of vole population crash, therefore there were no nesting raptors on the site at the time, but there will be when the voles recover in a couple of years.
  • The project appears to be borderline profitable, according to the wind turbine company's own information.
  • Wind turbines reduce real estate values.
  • Wind turbines cause noise pollution.
My own observations would be that
  • The project has split local opinion about 50/50. Feelings are running high, with the antis going to the effort and expense of setting up a formal association to fight the project, and the pros slashing the antis banners.
  • Some of the anti wind turbine feeling is, inevitably, nimbyism.
  • There is a strong tendency amongst those against the project to simply not believe anything the wind turbine company says and to not accept the project because it isn't perfect.There is no acknowledgement that projects and technologies necessarily develop over time. There is no acceptance that the wind turbine company is acting in good faith.
  • There is a strong belief amongst those against the project that it is a done deal and any consultation is lip service. There is no acceptance that their own arguments might not be relevant, strong enough or have been dealt with appropriately already.
  • The person who has impressed me the most over the course of my various discussions is Flora Pastre, the project manager in charge of prospection. She's young, she's sassy and she answered everyone's questions lucidly, at length and without hesitation. Occasionally she admitted she didn't know the answer, but mostly she had obviously encountered the questions before and had the answers at her finger tips. 
  • The two people on the side against the project whose opinions I find most credible are both retired from careers where they were involved with dealing with wind turbine companies. Neither are French (one's Dutch, one's Canadian). They are both deeply cynical about the wind turbine company's motives and the long term outcome of the project.
  • I've worked in the heritage and nature conservation sector for many years. I am well used to big lumbering consultative projects and the fact that they take ages to get to the action bit. It can be hard to accept that just because your ideas weren't included in the final project it does not mean you weren't listened to and your input considered seriously.
  • It has been a lesson in how important the French concept known as la vie associative is. Joining a club is not just to enhance your social life, it is to achieve change for the better. It is to engage in your community by working together collaboratively and is one of the pillars of French society. It's why when you apply for French citizenship you are quizzed about whether you belong to any associations. There is an expectation that you do and in all likelihood there is a political element at some level. The associations give their members a voice in public affairs. That's why those against the wind turbines formalised their group by creating a legal association. That's why the pro wind turbines mayor of Le Petit Pressigny is muttering about creating his own association to promote the project. 
  • The problems involving wildlife and habitat can all be solved by good consultative processes. The turbines can be sited in such a way as to avoid or minimise disturbance to wildlife once the ecological studies have been done.  This is not new science and wind turbine companies are well used to dealing with this issue now.
  • Wind turbines, given time, will become industrial icons of our age, just as 19th century railway viaducts did in the 20th century.
  • Studies looking at actual sales figures rather than real estate valuations show that nearby wind turbines have no statistically significant impact on prices overall, although they may impact on individual properties (both negatively and positively).
  • The latest regulations and recommendations regarding noise pollution from wind turbines in France is dealt with in this article (in English). Basically, sometimes there might be a problem, in which case the expectation is that it is monitored and ultimately dealt with.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

The Big Bang

Seventy-five years ago on this day, at 11:03 am 1943 an immense explosion destroyed the national gunpowder factory at Ripault and the hamlet of Vontes near Monts, just outside of Tours. It seems to have been an accident, but the factory had by that time been requisitioned by the occupying Germans. A crater 40 metres wide and 12 metres deep appeared, revealing the force of the explosion. Flames raged in the warehouses and workshops, followed by eerie silence. A mushroom cloud of smoke and dust obscured the ruins. Dazed survivors staggered out of the rubble of stones, beams, wood and steel.

Overlooking part of the gunpowder factory from the grounds of the Chateau of Candé.

The initial official report stated 71 dead, including 17 men unloading wagons whose bodies were missing. Not included in the figures were the young men of the Chantiers de jeunesse, members of a volunteer civilian labour force formed after the surrender of France. The final total was 345 people injured, 147 of them critically and several died of their wounds. The total death toll rose to about a hundred. They are buried in the cemetery at Monts.

 The ceiling of Fern Bedaux's bathroom came down in the explosion and was only reinstated in 2009.

The explosion was so great it could be heard throughout Indre et Loire, as far away as Chatellerault in the south and beyond Chateau-Renault in the north. You would have been able to hear it in Preuilly. The Chateau of Candé, just across the road, suffered damage. Windows were shattered in Tours.

The Poudrerie Nationale, as it is known in French, was set up on the eve of the Revolution by Antoine Lavoisier on the site of a mill that made saltpetre for Louis XV's navy. By the mid-19th century it was known as the 'most beautiful gunpowder factory in Europe' (!!). During the First World War the facility employed 6000 workers and by the Second World War covered 120 hectares. After the explosion it was partially rebuilt and reopened in 1945. With a reduced need for explosives after the war the site diversified, making furniture, paint and antibiotics until its closure in 1959. Like a phoenix, it rose again in 1961, rehiring most of the former staff and occupying the whole site. This time the controlling body was the Atomic Energy Commission on behalf of the military, and they continue to operate the site to this day (just -- there was a move to close it a couple of years ago, but local protests resulted in a stay of execution).

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Cat on a Canvas Roof

The other day we dined with clients at Les Grottes, a troglodytic restaurant in Azay le Rideau. While we were waiting for our meal to be served I heard a scrabbling noise behind me and realised there was a cat on the umbrella at the next table. The waitress rushed over and flapped a bit. The cat jumped down and confidently sashayed up to diners, including our clients.

 Cat on a canvas roof.

The waitress said the cat didn't belong to them, but it wasn't a stray. It must live in one of the neighbouring houses but she didn't know exactly which. She said she often arrives to open the restaurant to find it snoozing in a sunny corner of their courtyard.

Luckily our client liked cats.

The cat is doing rather well, as in order to get it to stop bothering diners the waitress took it aside and fed it. If that pattern continues, very soon it's going to be too fat to get up to the sort of antics it displayed last week.