Update on all things Bell

Here goes, for an update on everything climaty (climatey?) going on in my life.

Let’s start from the inside as ever, in true permaculture style.  I have been working on my self-control and freewill.  I’m able to avoid too many biscuits, although the tin does go down too quickly, and haven’t allowed myself to fall into the trap of too much coffee or alcohol. Mrs Bell was away last week during half-term, and a bottle of wine stayed unopened on the sideboard.  Well done me.

I’m going to use nicknames for the kids from now on in the blog, so they will be Tall, Small and Bubs.  Bubs has just got over a bout of chicken pox, which we’re expecting to pass over to Small in the next few days.  I’ve been walking around London with a very muddy jacket after a kick-about with the kids and a few new friends from nearby Tring – I was in goal but only using my head.

I’ve been excessively busy with my business, but still have managed to find the odd day here and there to keep the climate related projects on the move.  The allotment is pleading for my attention, though, with the compost heap sprouting weeds and nothing being sown so far this year.

In Berkhamsted, organisation for the B-Hive public meeting continues apace.  We have sent out invitations to all of those organisations, groups and businesses we have identified as stakeholders in the town, as well as those on the mailing list.  The public meeting will give us a chance to let the people of the town know what happened as a result of the town consultation we organised last year, and for them to influence what happens next.  Interestingly, a survey run by one of the town councillors (and founder of Transition Town Berkhamsted) on the subject of a proposed multi-story car-park (please, no) showed than no matter what our opinion on car parking we all seem to want a more holistic plan for the town – something like 97% of us.

The opportunities seem to be opening up for a community energy scheme in the town as well, with Seb Beloe starting up a team looking into prospects building on the successes down the road in King’s Langley.  Couple that with some possible interest from a local secondary school and we may be looking at lift-off.

Which will tie in well with the upcoming Transition Beds, Bucks, Herts conference on 23 March.  We’ll be meeting up to talk about how to scale up the movement, while avoiding burn-out and taking time to celebrate.

Further out still, the Power Shift UK conference is getting close to having a date and venue in April.  If you get emails from 350.org, you may have seen something about it.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


Me, my family and out from there

Where am I?  This post is an update on all the various projects I am trying to keep afloat.  I have a little too much on.

Some deep thinking over the Christmas period, while North Wales was battered with 100 mph gusts, has lead me to conclude that I need to prioritise from the inside out.

What does that mean?  It means I first need to make sure I am taking care of my inner self, then my health, then family, friends, home.  After that I can start to look at my local area, town and then further afield to the rest of the UK and abroad.  Unless I take that approach, anything I do that reaches too far from myself will be built on shaky and uncertain foundations.

So, what I should be doing is training myself to be in the moment, with a grounded understanding of where I am pointing.  Then making sure I get enough sleep, a decent diet and exercise.  I’ll give myself a 5 out of 10 for that – too many late nights, not enough exercise and ending up ahead of myself all too often.

Family life is fun and fulfilling at the moment.  Rowan and I are in a very good place, and the children are a laugh a minute, while still growing fast in all regards.  Little James is enjoying standing, not yet walking.  I’d like to spend more time with them.  8 out of 10 for family.

Rowan and I are trying to sort the house out, with a major, if slow, de-cluttering exercise underway.  An aversion to waste has lead us to hoard leads, toys, magazines, off-cuts, you name it.  So we are trying to be ruthless in clearing it all out.

In Berkhamsted, there is the B-Hive project as well as the Transition Town.  The B-Hive is the community initiative to give a voice to the people of the town to have their say about how it develops, and is now becoming the vehicle to help deliver those needs.  After a town consultation and a 96-page report, we’re now lobbying local government and building up the capacity of the team.

On 22 January, Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB) are hosting the second Ashlyns Lecture, with the incredible Polly Higgins coming to the local secondary school.  Polly is one of the top 10 most visionary people in the world according to the Ecologist, and I am looking forward to her visit.  We’ve been out at the market raising awareness and selling tickets.  Book your place now!

Next steps for TTB are to identify a big project or two to rally the troops around.  My preference would be either community energy or Transition Streets.  I’ll give myself a 7 out of 10 for the local town.

Beyond that, I’m organising two conferences.  The first is for the dozen or so Transition Towns in the area, so we can share our stories and ideas.  The second is the UK Power Shift, part of the Global Power Shift, which links strategically in with the UK climate movement.  The aim of the latter is to link the climate change activity in the UK with each other and to the rest of the world, so we can all feel part of a major movement towards a more responsible future.  I’ll give myself a 7 from 10 for UK and abroad, but this could slip if we don’t get more support.

Oh, and there is the ongoing idea of creating an online platform to allow people to challenge the misleading climate change articles that appear all-too-often in the press.

In general, I’m wanting to build up the number of people involved in the projects in the local town, UK and abroad.  I don’t want to see any of the initiatives collapse, and so I’m trying to make sure there are enough people behind each before I can start to take a back seat and concentrate on one or two priorities.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Glimpse of the future on a Welsh mountainside

Could this be my future?  Do I want it to be?  We passed via a Welsh mountain settlement on the way up to see my folks for Halloween (some ghostly pictures below – brace yourself).

A few weeks ago I bumped into a good friend Rachel in the local Waitrose.  Yes, I was buying a few things, I hate to admit it.  Rachel introduced me to a couple she has known for years – Mandy and Adrian.  We only spoke for a minute or two, trying to resist the gently urgent tide of people going about their shopping chores.  In that short time we realised we shared life ambitions.

And so it was that I was driving my family up a winding lane in the mountains of North Wales, with my mother behind, following the complicated instructions Adrian had just given me over the phone as to how to get to Ty Newydd from Bodelwyddan.  We parked up hopefully at the bottom of a muddy, rock strewn drive in the hope I’d managed to break a habit and follow some directions.
Ty NewyddAfter a few minutes of comfort breaks for the little ones and debates about footwear, we trudged up the hill, and were relieved to be met by our hosts.  We were invited into their welcoming, rustic house for a welcome mug of tea.  After distracting little baby James with a box of dominoes, which he decided to deliver to me one by one, we got on to their life story.
Mum and MandiOver 20 years ago the couple moved into a shell of an old farm house on the Welsh mountainside.  They set to work covering up the open windows and fitting a ramshackle Rayburn stove to cook and keep warm.  They had little money, less paperwork and no experience.  But with determination and the help of the wooded mountainside, they slowly turned their inhospitable abode into the idyllic place to live that it is now, bringing up their family into adulthood at the same time.

They built their wood timber home and barn themselves.  It’s completely off-grid, with power generated in the main from solar panels – they have a room full of batteries.  They do have a back-up petrol generator in case, with the tensions that brings when the grown kids want to use that little extra electricity.  Most of their food is grown on site.

Adrian has built up a business managing the wood, with his own saw mill.  He has designed a house that can be built truly affordably – no more than £40,000 – in a way that doesn’t compromise the future.  He works hard to keep costs as low as he possibly can.  Mandy and her daughter weave the most exquisite baskets from willow.  Their two sons carve beautiful objects from the trees, in their barn workshop.

They are now looking to expand the settlement.  The idea is that they build a number of these low cost houses across the valley, again off-grid and with food grown on-site.  They are in the process of looking for planning permission from the council.
Ty ElwyAt times, this life can be difficult.  When the sun is covered and there is little wind, the battery power can start to wane they can struggle to get enough electricity.  They can run into problems with other local people who have a different value system.  They also had the ordinary, day-to-day issues to deal with such as squabbling kids.

They see the future as being one where people migrate back to the country from the cities and are looking to help get it started.

I agree.  When we can no longer rely on fossil fuels to run our farm machinery, fertilise our crops and transport the results to our door, we will need to find another way to feed ourselves.  Small scale, high yielding, low machinery food growing methods such as permaculture become the way forward.  That will mean a lot more people growing food.

Either way, I am interested in the lifestyle.  Even if a mass migration to the country isn’t part of the future, my family doing so would mean that we would further reduce our impact and would be sheltered from the coming storm.  I’m not necessarily sure my wife would agree, but that’s a different story.

We finished the visit with a tour of the managed woodland and a look at the saw mill and the designs for the houses, before heading to my childhood home on Anglesey with my mother.  Thank you very much to the wonderful Mandy and Adrian for showing so much hospitality to a vague acquaintance.

A few days later we were in a Halloween party in the Canolfan, organised by said mother.  Maddie looked very realistically ghost-like.  I wonder if you can guess what I am dressed up as? (and, yes, that is Maddie getting more ethereal by the minute in the foreground).
Maddie Ghost
John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

A bit about me

I thought I’d let you know a little about myself.  In particular I’d like to mention what I have done (or not) to lessen my impact, and how I have benefited (or not) from my actions.  If any of this comes across as self-righteous then I’m sorry about that, I’ll try to avoid it.

shoot me studios-8660 10x8

As I mentioned in my first post, I am a father and husband, living in the commuter town of Berkhamsted.  I live in a smallish three bed semi with my wife Rowan and three children Maddie (nearing 7), Emily (verging on 4) and baby James.  Yes, I do feel a little guilty about my part in growing the population in the greedy west, particularly with the arrival of number 3 – so much so that I invested in a scheme to avoid deforestation in the Amazon that should offset all of the carbons that will be emitted due to James’ life.

Rowan thinks I am mad to attempt what I am attempting, but is supportive.  The kids haven’t really noticed.  As a family we are quite risk averse, and so that is why I have started the business alongside this work, so we can keep the wolves away from the door and allow me to continue to spend time on this going forward.

When it comes down to it, I’m doing this for the sake of my children.  We have a responsibility to leave the world in a better state for the inhabitants of the future than we ourselves found it in, and we are failing massively in that responsibility.

I first got aware of climate change when doing a geography project 20 years ago at school.  I was out there with a theodolite measuring the contours of the beaches around Anglesey where I grew up, and mapping how many times the local coast road would be flooded depending on the different projections of sea level rise at the time.  Difficult to remember exactly, but I think it was going to go up from being impassable a handful of times per year to a third of the year by the end of this century.

Like many people, it slowly dawned on me over the intervening years what sort of an impact I personally was responsible for, and I decided to change my ways.  I used to drive too fast and fly abroad regularly, something I wouldn’t dream of doing now.

At home we have had the house insulated and the 20 year old boiler renewed.  We’ve got solar panels fitted.  The loft insulation could be better: there is room for improvement.  I took part in an Eco-Team and reduced my waste, water, gas and electricity usage down by quite a bit.

Our water bills have a very useful graph on the back showing what typical usage looks like by size of household, together with what efficient use looks like.  With reduced flushing of the toilet, fitting of Hippo bags to reduce the size of each flush and general awareness, we use about a third less water than an efficient two person household.

With care we are now in the position where our revenue from the solar panels and our outgoings on gas and electricity balance off with one another.

I no longer commute to London, and we take holidays in the UK.  I’ve got a lot more time for the family, immediate and extended.  As a family we spend about £25000 a year in total.  That includes mortgage, bills, food, clothes, socialising, travel, holidays, the cats (two of them, Albert and Noodle), everything.  I have no useful barometer – does that sound low to you?

That has meant we have been able to save, and I have been able to make the step of leaving full-time employment.  If we’d carried on spending as we were, I’d still be working full time.

All in all, looking at the simplified calculator on the WWF website as to the impact you are having on the planet, I am still using up resources at a rate that would require 1.79 Earth’s to sustain it should everyone do the same, so more still to do.  Give up the car completely, maybe (great health benefits if I can)?  Become a vegetarian (I need some meat, surely)?

Please do let me know what you think.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke