All posts by Howard Osborne

A curious person in a curious world

The accidental eco-restaurant

“The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?”

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


I’m at Terra Nova, a restaurant in Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

The staff are friendly, the music’s fine and there’s a reasonable selection of drinks with complimentary nibbles. The American-themed menu makes a change from curry-wurst, so it’s nice to order a burger and fries.

Outside there’s a sun-deck and beyond that sun-loungers and parasols. To the side, there’s a kids’ adventure playground for them to amuse themselves while you kick back, relax and take in the view… of the Hambach opencast mine.

That’s quite a USP

Terra Nova makes a point that all the food is freshly prepared so there’s plenty of time after ordering your burger, chips and beer to take a stroll to the sun loungers while they make it.

Approaching the pit is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. You have no sense of what’s in front of you until you are near the brink when up looms one of mankind’s largest achievements. A hole. The sense of desolation was compounded by a raging wind which whipped around me.

The sun loungers, that looked quite inviting from the restaurant, now seemed absurd. They are understandably made of steel and bolted well down, which is why in this staggeringly strong wind they are still here and not flying towards Belgium.

It’s a struggle to keep your eyes open on a day like this and sure enough I get a bit of grit in my eye and retreat back to the restaurant.

Since it opened 6 months ago, the owners have had plenty to contend with. The storms in February caused havoc outside and it looks like large parts of the sun-deck screening have had to be replaced.

Back indoors, all the adversity is gone and wind is replaced by the soothing muzak.


No burger yet, so it’s time to learn some fun facts:

  • Since 1978, RWE has been digging a 500 meter deep pit on the site of the former Hambach forest to extract coal.
  • Seven bucket wheel excavators dig out up to a quarter of a million cubic meters of earth and coal a day. For every tonne of coal, 6 tonnes of earth (or overburden in technical terms) has to be moved first.
  • The lignite or brown coal used to be trees that grew between 5 and 25 million years ago when the planet was several degrees warmer and it’s the lowest rank of coal due to its relatively low heat content.
  • 1,500 wells pump 577 million cubic meters of water a year to prevent the mine turning into a giant lake in fact, the long term plan is to let the hole fill in with water.
  • The Hambach forest was around 12,000 years old when it was cut down to make way for the mine,
  • The coal extracted provides 40% of the electricity used by the state of North-Rhine Westphalia.

That still leaves some questions unanswered:

  • How much coal is being removed per burger wait?
  • What would I need to do to reduce my energy consumption by 40% and keep the bit of coal I’m using in the ground?
  • Could choosing a vegan burger count as carbon offsetting?
  • Isn’t Terra Nova a bit of an odd name and would one of these names suit it better?

Caeli Nova – New climate

Suus ‘ubi magna silva abiit? – Where’s the big forest gone?

Lacuna quod velit mens – Please mind the gap

But these thoughts are put aside as the waitress brings my grub.


My burger arrives sporting the star-spangled banner and is pretty darn good.

As disconcerting as it is having a ring-side seat to watch the frittering away of the climate, it’s good that this restaurant is here.

The mine is open for all to see what is going on. It isn’t a dirty secret hidden away in pipelines running along seabeds from oil-rigs or the shale sands of the frozen north.

We need more places like this.

How easy would it be for us to practice cognitive dissonance if high street fashion stores had their sweatshop child labourers sleeping in the changing rooms or restaurants had petting zoos where you can meet your meal first.

With a clean plate and empty beer glass it’s time to head out into the world outside feeling rejuvenated and ready to make a difference.

A lasting legacy of the last pandemic

Covid-19 has made us all change our habits.

And whilst most of us have not felt the urge to lick church floors or shrines, the WHO have still found it necessary to issue a list of things that don’t help protect against coronavirus.

So will our new found habits stop when a vaccine becomes available?

By mid 2021, will we all be back to our old ways or will there be a longer legacy?

In the wake of the Spanish Flu epidemic (and First World War…) the Panacea Society was formed and soon started a healing mission.

People could apply for a free pack of muslin squares which had been breathed on by their leader Mabel Barltrop.

Each pack came with instructions for use, which generally involved popping a square into a jug of water to dissolve/transmit some of the ‘healing’ before drinking or applying.

This rather bizarre and, in light of current understanding, somewhat unsanitary practice continued long after Mabel (who was meant to be immortal) had died. In total 130,000 people applied for the cure.

The last squares were sent out in 2013 with a rather sad letter informing them that as all the Panaceans were now departed, they were now on their own.

Maybe in 2113, there will be another letter like this informing the recipients that they too will have to find another cure.

If you would like to learn more about the work of the Panacea Trust, visit their website or read my article.

B-roll, mindfulness and the art in science documentaries

Why are unfathomable science and maths documentaries so watchable?

Let’s look at an example:

Have you any idea what the documentary is about?

Me neither, but the reason it is still watchable lies deep in the history of Hollywood.

In the early days of movie-making, there would be two film crews on set. A main crew would shoot the scripted scenes with the big expensive equipment and pricey film known as the a-roll.

A second unit would get to work on shooting all the other things needed to tell a full story. They would be given a cheaper set of kit and film – the b-roll.

While the main unit had the great responsibility of keeping the stars in focus, the second unit had to use creativity to fill out all the parts of the story not being told by the actors. So who has the better job? Shooting b-roll sounds more fun and creative to me, especially on bad movies.

Which comes to the tricky subject of science documentaries. How do you make them watchable to the widest possible audience?

One possibility is good content, but that’s a-roll mentality and it relies on the boffins actually saying something interesting – a risky strategy for anyone who found science boring at school.

Any filmmaker, having done their research, could find clues on what to do in the most unlikely places – 1970’s Open University lectures. Take this little gem:

Did anyone, including students who are meant to be paying attention to the lecture, notice anything other than the beard?

And how about this one:

I’m sure most of us could watch this entire lecture, even if we’re only looking at the shirt.

Incidentally, the presenter for this one was the Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s son and the OU was his dad’s pet project. Nepotism isn’t what it used to be.

Getting into the b-roll mindset means realising that Einstein had great hair and E=mc2 works really well in so many different fonts.

However, even artsy b-roll has to obey some fundamental rules for filming an activity – five, in fact:

  1. Shoot a wide shot to establish where the activity is happening.
  2. Include a closeup on one bit of detail
  3. Also shoot a closeup on the person doing it
  4. Take a point of view shot to put yourself in the place of the activity doer and linking together the previous three concepts
  5. Look for an alternate shot, showing what else is going on in the same time and place

Can anybody make boring things watchable by obeying these five laws of b-roll?

I decided to put this to the test, by trying to make something watchable out of the most boring tasks I had to do that day – ironing, vacuuming and washing up.

Did it work? You decide.

It is perhaps unsurprising that I got very little housework done. But what I did get was a strong sense of living in the now. I was looking around for the filmic qualities of everything around me from the textural differences between a cup and a tea towel or the way light plays on a scratched vacuum cleaner.

It involved a level of observation that might make someone a good scientist. It also felt like a rather pleasant exercise in mindfulness and the opposite of that rather pleasant mindlessness of dozing through a documentary.

In any event, I’ll never watch a documentary in the same way again

For some more info on making b-roll try this:

And for an alternative view, try this:

Waiting for God

Albany Street in Bedford, England looks like a typical British street.

For the people who lived here around 100 years ago, it was the centre of the world. A world they believed was coming to an end.

They called themselves the Panacea Society and the 50-60 Panaceans lived in a collection of houses centered on Albany Street. Their leader, Mabel Barltrop, lived here at number 12.

Towards the end of the First World War, Mabel had become convinced that the apocalypse was imminent and that God would come to live on earth among his chosen few, the Overcomers, for a thousand years.

Her followers believed she was a modern prophet, the eighth (and final) in a line which they called the Visitation and which included Joanna Southcott. To mark Mabel’s special status they called her Octavia.

The Society offered to help people ‘overcome’ sin whilst also carrying out other important preparations before God came.

One task was to open a box of prophecies that Joanna Southcote had written a hundred years earlier. The box was to be opened at a time of national emergency and would help prepare for the end of days.

Joanna Southcott had specified the box shouldn’t be opened by just anyone. It had to be opened by 24 bishops of the Church of England. So while they were petitioning the Church to come and open the box, they made meticulous preparations for the bishops’ arrival.

They bought a large house adjacent to their commune and furnished it accordingly. They created a meeting room where the bishops would convene to open the box and discuss its contents.

And as it would take time to go through the details, they needed to provide a dining room where the bishops would eat.

Kitchens would be needed to prepare the bishops’ meals

And they would need places to sleep

with furniture to allow the clergy to say prayers before bedtime

and bathe.

Even holy men need to make calls of nature…

but they would get the latest in modern conveniences.

The Society put a great deal of time and effort into organising petitions for the bishops to come.

The bishops never came

…which was probably fortunate for the Society as at that time they didn’t actually have the box, or know where it was. (It was hidden under a bed in Morecambe, Lancashire and is now in the care of the Panacea Trust).

But there was only so much effort they could put into preparing to receive bishops who refused to come and open a box they didn’t have.

The Society busied itself with other activities.

Octavia discovered she had healing powers after a pill she tried to take kept jumping out of her hand. She interpreted this as God telling her she did not need pills but could cure herself, and anyone else. With help from an effective press agent, they created a global healing ministry that reached 130,000 sufferers.

People could write to the society and ask for healing linen squares which had been breathed on by Octavia.

There was no charge but they were encouraged to report back on their progress. All correspondence was carefully catalogued.

The society had a printing press and ran an efficient office producing a mass of publications, pamphlets, petitions and adverts.

Members also wrote to each other, kept diaries and made confessions, much of which has been saved.

Unsurprisingly, Octavia had plenty to say and her words give an insight into the mind of a bright, frustrated and troubled soul.

Every afternoon at half past five, God would speak through her and this would be dictated into the Daily Script.

An hour later, there was the Daily Service which was mostly compiled from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer but would also include Octavia’s new insights. It could also at times be quite informal and a joke or two might be shared (to the surprise of visitors). She was good at telling funny or whimsical stories.

Octavia had a view on almost everything and gave meticulous instructions to her followers that had to be obeyed.

This included how to eat toast and make cakes. True to her time and class, she wrote a Manners Paper to make sure her followers all had good etiquette.

In a telling insight into her own insecurities, it included an instruction on not calling table napkins ‘serviettes’ – a transgression she had made herself to the embarrassment of her visiting son.

Despite her higher calling, she was not above party politics and Octavia was a fiercely loyal Conservative.

When the Labour Party won the 1929 General Election, she appointed her own ‘Spiritual Cabinet’ headed by the Conservative party leader Stanley Baldwin. When it became obvious that God wasn’t going to intervene and install her Cabinet, she changed her tune.

‘Asked if we are sorry that Labour has got into power, quite the reverse. It will give God an opportunity to show how disquieting it is to the Earth for servants to rule.’

The Panacea Society had servants like Gladys Powell.

These were Panaceans who did not have the means to pay their own way. Like many domestic servants of the previous century, the hours were long and the pay low.

One servant, Amy Smart, recounted in a letter pleading for time off that she had only had 12 days off in 4 years. She also had to learn her place and was reprimanded for not calling Octavia’s daughter Dillys, ‘Miss Dillys’.

Servants were not even given time off to attend the daily services, except at weekends. Attendance was not considered important for them as they were not as far on in ‘overcoming’.

Life for most Panaceans wasn’t that austere. Octavia said they were to ‘Use all God’s gifts abusing none’.

Good things could be enjoyed albeit in moderation, or at least Octavia’s idea of moderation and clearly she had a sweet tooth.

‘It is a huge mistake to assume that chocolate sweetens… Chocolate cakes and puddings need a lot of sugar.

‘Treacle does not sweeten… add plenty of sugar‘

Peas were served with mint, butter and a lump of sugar.

Octavia ended up diabetic and she died in 1934. Given she and the other ‘overcomers’ were meant to live with God on Earth for the next thousand years, this event should have been the end of the Society.

Although some left the Society carried on with Emily Goodwin, the ‘Divine Mother’ taking the leading role in this matriarchy. They continued their daily tasks and waited.

They tended their communal garden, which they believed was on the same spot as the original Garden of Eden.

They would entertain themselves in the evenings with games or listening to the radio.

Time passed, members of the Society grew old and died.

The Society were forced to rent out houses including the Ark which had been reserved for Jesus. However, the tenants were kept on a short lease and would have to vacate in the event of His arrival.

In 2012 the last member, Ruth Klein, died and the final consignments of healing squares were sent out with a letter to say this was the end.

But it isn’t the end.

As the Society faded away, a Trust was formed to help future generations learn about the Society.

A museum was opened using the Panacea Society’s buildings to tell their story.

As well as curious members of the public, academics have also been keen to learn more. There were more requests for access to the archives last year than in the previous 15 years put together. Why?

The Panacea Society is a good example of both a Southcottian sect and also a matriarchy. Other Southcottian (male) prophets like John Wroe needed seven virgins to ‘help’ him with his ministry. James Jezreel had to build a big tower.

But Octavia seemed to employ a less testosterone-based approach to saving the world and while the Society had male members, it was the women who were firmly in charge.

It also provides a well documented example of cognitive dissonance – how do people come to terms with their fundamental beliefs being completely undermined?

When the immortal leader died some stopped believing, others joined a different sect and some found a way to continue believing despite the obvious facts. It’s through this we learn more about ourselves and the things many or most of us do. Who hasn’t patted a calf or lamb and also eaten a burger?

The healing archive has only been partially explored, but may be here there is a big data opportunity. Who knows what some data scientist will be able to uncover, whether it be hand writing pattern shifts across the British Empire or pre-internet meme dissemination?

There are also the personal stories, like that of the Carew-Hunts. Mrs Carew-Hunt had written to the society to ask for healing, but there was something else troubling her. Her husband did not want to have sex. As she put it, he slept badly since returning from the First World War. The couple ended up joining the Society, but whatever comfort they found in Bedford, it didn’t stop her husband’s descent into fascism.

Or the forbidden love story of Rachael Fox and Leonard Tucker – the screenplay almost writes itself.

There is one final untold story. How a group of diligent and motivated women managed to create a record of their time and place which could help future academics add to the body of knowledge.

And by learning more about the human condition and understanding its shortcomings aren’t academics, in their own way, fulfilling the Panaceans’ mission to prepare for a better world?

Even if it isn’t Heaven on Earth.

Further reading:

with thanks to Vicki Manners, archivist at the Panacea Trust

Top 10 tips for Orban’s empty tourist train

I’d heard about the ailing Vál Valley Light Railway in Felcsút near Budapest. It just isn’t attracting enough tourists. It was built three years ago with EU funding and was due to attract between 2,500 and 7,000 visitors a day. So far, it’s been averaging less than 70, with some days no tourists coming at all.

So while I was travelling through Hungary, I thought I would check it out and offer a tourist’s-eye-view of what may be going wrong.

Here are my top 10 tips for getting things back on track.

Tip 1: If you make a tourist attraction, you need to tell tourists how to get there

The railway’s website is one of the slickest I have seen with some very impressive drone footage and text in both Hungarian and English. Unfortunately, the English pages have only been partially filled in with the most notable omissions being the timetable and how to get there.

It feels like a job started with plenty of enthusiasm which just tailed off when it got to the boring details.

To find out how to get there, I had to switch to the Hungarian text and use Google Translate along with Google Maps.

First I took a train to Bicske which is only half an hour from Budapest and gives a glimpse of the real Hungary, warts and all.

That should have been all I needed to do to get the tourist train. After all, this railway was a reopening of a line that ran from Bicske. So what went wrong? See Tip 2.

Tip 2: Don’t employ football fans to build the railway

I find it really hard to simply walk passed any football match, even Sunday-league in the local park. Before I know it, I’m routing for one of the teams and muttering ‘advice and insight’ from the touchline.

And that is what seems to have happened when they rebuilt this part of the old Székesfehérvár- Bicske line. Instead of going all the way to Bicske, which would then connect to the railway network, they stopped short at the mightily impressive Pancho Arena a few miles away in Felcsút.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonder to behold and has a capacity twice as big as the town. If this were in Budapest, the arena would be able to seat 3 million people.

So I was now stuck in Bicske and I had to get a bus to Felcsút.

Asking bus drivers whether they went to Felcsút wasn’t too difficult. Understanding their replies was another matter, especially with a queue of people behind all itching to get on.

The good thing that came out of it was that I was able to sit and talk to a very nice old lady who was also waiting for a bus. No she didn’t know which bus I should catch…

Tip 3: Make the timetable legible

For unswerving enthusiasts like me who still want to go on the little train, publishing a photo of the timetable on your website means it can’t be put it through Google Translate, which is fine if you are only interested in Hungarian visitors.

I tried to catch the train from the top station at the arena, but the train didn’t turn up when I expected, so I filled my time by walking to the middle stop. This took me through the small town, which is incidentally the hometown of Prime Minister Victor Orban. What a coincidence…

The good news about my walk was that I was able to buy an ice cream on the way – I would be grateful for that sustenance later.

Tip 4: Actually open your cafe

I didn’t bring lunch with me as I had read that the middle station has a cafe. It was closed, which I suppose makes good financial sense when you don’t have any passengers.

I had enough time to walk back into Felcsút and past the array of barking dogs whose day I had made by walking past them the first time around. However, I decided instead to wait until the train had actually taken me somewhere and then I’d forage dog-free.

When the train arrived, no-one got off, so I must have been the first passenger of the day on my ride down to the final stop at Alcsút. The train driver and guard were very friendly. They rode in the cab together, presumably for a bit of company until I got on.

I decided to splash out on a ticket that would let me ride the full length of the line up and down. It was the least I could do.

Tip 5: Budget for breakages

Despite the railway being only three years old, it is already showing signs of wear and tear. At the top station, it looks like the wrong type of screws were used for the railings and they are already rusting. The plywood on the accessibility ramp is flaking away and as I later saw, several of the windows in the trains have large cracks in them.

This maintenance is all going to have to be funded somehow.

Tip 6: Tourists aren’t interested in seeing dad’s new mansion

Alcsút is the site of an old Hapsburg estate and an arboretum that is open to the public.

Going into the arboretum actually cost more than the little train and after reading about the dubious purchases of these old Hapsburg lands for Győző Orbán, father of the prime minister, Victor, I felt rather put off of going in.

Instead, I made do with wandering down the lanes and nibbling on a packet of sunflower seeds I had found at the bottom of my rucksack.

Tip 7: Give your staff a sense of purpose

When the train returned to pick me up, perhaps unsurprisingly no one got off and I was the only person to get on.

It made me wonder what it must be like to drive the diesel train up and down these tracks day in, day out with hardly anyone using it. However much you like trains, or at least having a job, it must feel pretty pointless.

So, how about giving your staff time off to go and fix the roof at the nearby school in Etyek where it was reported that mould spore counts exceeded WHO safe levels. Parents have had to club together to pay for basic repairs.

Tip 8: Find a rich benefactor

No, the EU isn’t a wealthy uncle. Or even if it is, they will keep poking their nose into other business interests which could become awkward.

Keeping the little train running, means finding someone with deep pockets who has an attachment to the place. If you can’t think of someone in the area who might want to give something back, how about going further afield?

My advice would be to write a polite letter to ex-pat George Soros asking for help.

Tip 9: Don’t turn away passing trade

I got off the train at the Pancho Arena having been, as far as I am aware, the only passenger that day. But on the platform were four people.

They were work colleagues and one of them was from the Ukraine. The other three wanted to show her some of the local sights after work and they were hoping to go for a little ride.

Unfortunately, this was the last scheduled stop. The train was going to back to the depot. No exceptions could be made, even if it would have quintupled their income for that day.

They didn’t seem too disappointed at missing out on the ride.

Tip 10: Leave this sort of thing to the experts

With my trips up and down this little line, something felt like it was missing, apart from passengers, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Then I realised – enthusiasts.

Train lines that had been closed in places like the UK were reopened by volunteers.

All the little trains I had been on had been run by avid enthusiasts who gave up their free time to pursue their rail-based passion. Where was the gift shop manned by staff grudgingly selling Thomas the Tank Engine toys?

Where were the staff who wince at you for confusing a train with a locomotive and who simply have to tell you their gripe with current national transportation policy.

I love these people.

They keep the wheels on track and their questionably placed passion is, of a sort, infectious.

Let’s be clear, tourist attractions like this could be a great idea. Anyone with kids (or work colleagues from the Ukraine) want things to do.

It’s also not surprising that the local boy, who became prime minister would want to give something back to his hometown. Who wouldn’t?

But benefactors usually give their own money.


The peasant of the future

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon in mid-October and I’ve come to Trifolium Farm in Transylvania to meet Jonas Mertens, a native Belgian, who has moved here to take up peasant farming.

The farm nestles in the Gyimes valley, the Hungarian speaking borderlands of Transylvania and Moldova.

It’s beautiful, but this isn’t why Jonas, is here (although I’m sure it helps).

Jonas looks every bit the part. He has a full quivering moustache that any Hungarian hussar would take his hat off to and a jaunty felt hat that they would probably swap their moustaches for.

He has welcomed me to his ample but modest plot, to come and learn more about why he and his wife have chosen to live here.

At first glance, it does seem like an odd decision and bucks a trend which is seeing many people, particularly the young, leaving rural Transylvania to find easier, better paid work elsewhere.

It becomes rapidly clear that Jonas has his head screwed on and moving here isn’t just some romantic dream. But before learning more, I have some new friends to make. Twenty-four nosey and noisy Saanen goats. In caprine terms, these are the elite.

Fourteen of them provide around forty litres of milk a day, which is used for making on average two six-inch cheeses.

Judging by the way they are walking, it’s time for them to be milked. Levi, a neighbour, does the milking while Jonas’ four-year-old daughter helps in her own way. The milking parlour is modern, clean and compact.

The milk is taken to a small on-site dairy, and stored in a fridge until the following morning when the cheese will be made. It’s now time for dinner and a chance for me to talk to both Jonas and his polyglot wife, Kata, about the life they have chosen.

We have a halloumi, beetroot and mixed leaves salad, which is all from the garden, accompanied by a bottle of wine from another farmer.

The halloumi has the trademark salty squeak, but the texture is less rubbery than the stuff I’m used to from the supermarket. We eat it with bread and ricotta infused with wild garlic. This feels like the life – nice farmhouse, nice valley, nice food, great company.

But it isn’t all cheese and wine parties.

Jonas, in gym parlance, is ‘ripped’. The muscles on his arms attest to the hard work and long hours put in over the summer in gathering hay. Two tons is needed for each goat.

‘I get a bit fatter over the winter’ Jonas smiles.

Hay is gathered by hand from the surrounding hills between July and September. It’s made a little easier by using a modern hay cutter which is like a large hair trimmer on wheels. But it’s still a big job. Wouldn’t it be easier use bigger machines or just take the goats up to the hills?

‘Not if we are to maintain biodiversity’

‘Scientists have been here and studied the meadows. We have to keep to the old ways of making hay to preserve this incredibly rich environment’

In terms of public awareness, biodiversity is the poor cousin of climate change, but it is every bit as important. As the name suggests, it’s a measure of the variety of species within a given habitat. The broader the range of species, the better it is at self-regulating and adapting to change.

Studies have shown that allowing meadows in hilly areas to grow over the summer and then cutting them down is better for biodiversity than allowing animals to graze, or leaving them alone. Otherwise the thuggish plants will dominate.

And here is the problem. Young people are often reluctant to carry on their family farming ways and look to easier and better paid work elsewhere.

The upside for Jonas is that he can have all the hay he wants for free.
So, what are their plans for expansion?

‘We may get up to about thirty milking goats, but no more. It depends on Ludo and Troy’

They are his two male goats who have been taking a backseat role all year. In a week or so, they will need to become the stars of the show and impress the ladies.

‘Thirty? I ask, why not 300 or 3,000?

‘That would completely miss the point,’ he says.

‘There is only so much hay I can gather, even with neighbours or volunteers helping. I also want to demonstrate you can have a good life staying small.’

Rather than building a cheese empire, Jonas has several projects on the go, and more in the pipeline. Jonas and Kata have built a holiday home that will appeal to walkers in the summer and cross-country skiers in the winter. They also run tours of their farm for visitors who want to learn more about what they do and try their products. And being part of a village means neighbours helping each other out.

Finally, I start to see what Jonas means. Instead of putting all your eggs in one basket, maintaining a diverse set of activities makes for a viable lifestyle, much like the meadows he harvests.

If one thing fails, you have other things to rely on. That way you self-insure. You also stay physically and mentally stimulated. You create a more rounded, balanced life. It isn’t an original idea. It’s what peasants have been doing for millenia.

Jonas’ community stretches well beyond the Gyimes Valley. He is an active member of Ecoruralis and ALPA, two organisations that support small scale farming and help promote good practice, share information and seed banking. Last week two volunteers turned up through the WWOOF scheme to help out while they learned more about the farm.

When you factor in the volunteers, his connections with other peasant farmers through Ecoruralis as well as visitors like me, Jonas has a better social life than most of us. Jonas stifles a yawn. It’s eight thirty. Bedtime.

At 5:30 the next morning I get up – surprisingly as fresh as a daisy. Jonas is busy on his laptop and the goats will soon need milking.

We had a breakfast of, can you guess what?

Yep, cheese.

I tried a three-month-old hard cheese which was rich and satisfying, another was flavoured with locally picked chanterelles and a third, the youngster, which was only two months old.

As much as I liked the three-month-old cheeses, the two-month-old was particularly interesting. It had been made in the height of summer and had a bubbly texture, which was as pleasing as the rounded flavour.

I took a few photos, said goodbye to the goats and went with Jonas to the holiday home he owns in the valley opposite, as well as his new project – a barn conversion. It used to be where the local woodsman lived. ‘We had to rebuild his house, which had rotted, but he made the barn from all the best wood that passed through his hands.’

I had a look around and then left a busy Jonas to carry on with the barn conversion.

I wanted to learn more about the science behind peasant farming and so went to Miercuea Ciuc to meet Gergerly Rodics who has been working on studies of biodiversity in the area. Gergerly confirmed what Jonas had told me. He also gave me an insight into the work done over the last decade to learn about and promote eco-friendly farming practices which will be shared in a later post.

Having spent time with Jonas has made me wonder what lessons we can all learn.

We don’t need to become peasant farmers to realise that we are small parts of a bigger whole, socially and environmentally. It may be a cliche, but the sum of the parts can be far greater and we should be aware of the collective impact our own choices make.

Also, diversity is important in our individual lives as well in society. Focussing on one activity and trying to scale up may feel right, but it isn’t necessarily wise. Staying modest in size and using spare time and resources diversifying may provide a better model.

But perhaps the most important thing I have come to realise is:

I love cheese.

To learn more:

Or see the goats in action…

How technology could nudge more Europeans from planes to trains

At a time of climate emergency we want more people to use trains rather than planes, so we need to make looking for journeys as easy as possible. But that isn’t enough. We need to make it fun. Why?

Let me take you on a journey.

I want to show you some of the obstacles that prevent some people from choosing to travel by train across Europe and how they might be removed or even turned into features.

Before we set off, please pay attention to the following information.

  1. We are in a government declared climate emergency.
  2. People use planes for all sorts of reasons. Some people should continue using planes, like fighter pilots. So on this journey we’ll be talking about different ‘cohorts’ – grouping people according to the types of journey they take.
  3. Most of us want to do the right thing, but need a little nudge in the right direction. We want to use less plastic, recycle more, eat more healthily, do more exercise, blah blah blah, but we’ll carry on doing what we’ve always done if the ‘right thing’ isn’t made very easy.
  4. On a personal note, I love planes and I can’t wait to start guilt-free flying again – I’m just waiting for a less carbon intense technology to be found…

Let’s start with one of those cohorts and a story:

A family summer holiday

My other half and I were sitting in front of the laptop on a dark winter’s eve.

We wanted sun – no, we craved the sun.

We both knew that trains were the ‘right way’ to travel, but we looked at the practicality of taking a train down to somewhere sunny. We saw how long it would take, how much it would cost and immediately started looking at Skyscanner for a cheap flight instead.

Let’s call this group, the ‘independent family’ cohort – people who aren’t really into package holidays.

Once we got a vague idea of where and how much, we looked at villas and we booked both. Closer to the time we hired a car and airport parking. Finally a week or two before we set off, we started looking at things to do in the area.

If we were organised people, we might have made a list that looked like this:

  1. Book flight
  2. Book accommodation
  3. Hire a car
  4. Book airport parking
  5. Find things to do in the area (pay for them at the time or book in advance for the stuff we really want to do)

To nudge the ‘independent family’ cohort from planes to trains, this ordering needs to be disrupted. Why?

Because planes are cheaper than trains. The nudge will fail at point 1.

Actually, the perception of being cheaper is probably just that thanks to the Ryanair effect, where costs come in dribbles. It looks like your flight will cost 1 Euro but that doesn’t include a seat… or the costs incurred in points 2-5.

Asking people to take a more leisurely journey to their sunbed by the sea means regaining the idea that travelling to somewhere might even be the best bit of the holiday.

At present, this requires a bit of imagination and a lot of Googling, so for nudging to work, the things to do en-route need to leap out at you. They have to be in your face and appealing enough for you to to trade a few days on that sandy sunbed.

It’s also crucial that the savings you are making are also in your face – a kind of reverse Ryanair effect. Look what you are not spending on points 2-5!

When searching for some sun in southern Europe, we need to see that on the way we could be spending an hour or two e-scooting around Aachen, cheese skittling in Edam or escape rooming in Liege?

This involves a little bit of clever technology. New algorithms that plan in stops to do fun things on the way.

The good news is that the technology and companies to deliver it are already here.

One example is TripAdvisor. You can use their app to pick what you want to do and when, but at the moment, all they can do is offer up things to do at a destination because they don’t have the mid-point data.

Having the technical infrastructure in place, could lead to a whole new form of tourism. Instead of focussing on endpoints, with the bits in the middle being flown over, those parts could become holiday highlights.

So, the ‘independent family’ cohort could be nudged by integrating transport information and allowing companies like TripAdvisor to merge it with other activity data.

Let’s visit another cohort.

The silver horde

Europe is old, and by that I mean it’s population is living longer than ever. Nearly 20% of Europeans are over 65 and this is a cohort with time on their side. At present, algorithms for journey planning focus on speed or cost.

Integrated data can allow more sophisticated algorithms to be devised which cater for people who can take a leisurely ‘cruise’ around the treasures of Europe.

By making surfing for trains easier, we’ll be breaking down the technical barriers that prevent older people from finding their freedom on the rails. Let’s give them easy apps backed up by big data to make them a generation of liberated silver surfers.

What about other cohorts?

I’m going to make a sweeping statement. I think what holds true for ‘independent families’ and ‘the silver horde’ will also hold for the bulk of other holiday makers, including the package holiday companies that serve some of them. However, I may be wrong and I’m happy to work that one through with anyone who is willing to challenge me to a game of chess in a park in Gdansk – just tell me how to get there by the most fun route.

So let’s take a break from the holidaymakers and visit another cohort.

The international business traveller

This year I’ve met and travelled alongside people who need to cover long distances and have made the choice to use the train. I’ve also been doing it myself with mixed results.

Three principal needs are:

  1. The places you are travelling between must be connected.
  2. While you are travelling, you need to be able to work on the train. That means having a seat and blazing fast WiFi. Get that right and it can be better than being in the office.
  3. Being able to use sleeper trains to cover longer distances.

So, how can integrating train (and other transport) data help with making the right services available for business users?

A valuable resource here is the feedback from searching.

Google, Facebook, Instagram and the plethora of other new technologies are free because of the data fed back from people using them.

By being able to gather information on what journeys are being looked for and booked, we get to learn about where the demand is and how services can be modified to meet it. At the moment, this can only be done with surveying and guesswork.

Smarter routes and value-add services like meeting rooms can be planned when we know what journeys are required.

A lack of data isn’t the only issue – many trains run at a loss, and are provided by government because of the economic value they add. Data could help make the case for what services would get used to add more economic value.

By the way, all this additional data gathering might feel quite insidious but it’s a Faustian pact we’re already making, so how about we use it to mitigate against climate change instead of liking each other’s cats on Instagram?

How easy will integrating European transport data be?

If it’s like any of the other integration projects I’ve worked on, I doubt it will be much fun. It will be painful at times, but it will be a step in the right direction.

Finding the lost edges of Transylvania

It was a real pleasure to meet Sandor Molnar the other day.

In his day job, Sandor works on the Via Maria – a cruciform shape of routes which link pilgrimage sites across central Europe. This will go on my to do list, jumping above the Camino de Santiago.

But I was here to talk to him about what he does in his spare time.

Since 2003 Sandor has organised walks along the old borders of what was the edge of a kingdom and an empire.

The Carpathians form a natural defensible boundary which in the east was home to the Székely, who were charged with defending the boundaries of Hungarian lands against the Ottomans.

The First World War and the subsequent Treaty of Trianon, saw Transylvania being ceded to Romania from the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border which had been so important, not just for the Hapsburgs but in earlier times Christendom as a whole, was now an internal border and much of the infrastructure was lost.

So Sandor has been leading expeditions along where the border would have been to see what they could find. In doing so, they have been following in the footsteps of the surveyors who during 1883-4 helped formalise where the border should go between what was then the Kingdoms of Hungary and Romania.

Sandor told me that in the first couple of years they didn’t come across anything – they only had a vague idea of what to look for. But with persistence, they started to uncover evidence, such as the following:

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Trianon is still a sensitive issue for many and some people would rather let sleeping dogs lie, but the artifacts Sandor has found give clues to the past and so have value to all of us, wherever we are from.

For those who want to know more Sandor has produced two guide books. One describes a trail along part of the eastern border from Valea Uzului through to Gyimes. The other follows a route in the south over the stunning Fagaras Mountains. A third is due out soon covering this year’s expedition.

Here are some photos of a recent expedition:

If you would like to get in contact with Sandor about the Via Maria or his border walks, visit or contact Sandor at

Things that could have avoided Brexit #47 – wiener schnitzels

My revelation came to me in a cafe in Vienna.

I was passing through Austria by train and had enough time to get some lunch. So, I went to a cafe on Keplerplatz and (when in Rome) ordered a wiener schnitzel.

I had been thinking about my previous day’s visit to the Parliamentarium, the EU Parliament’s visitor centre. Going there had been something of a pilgrimage, having found myself on the Remainer side of the Brexit chasm. But even without that, surely finding out how democracy works is a noble and worthwhile exercise. The trouble is, it’s all rather…dull.

So while I was in the cafe with a brace of schnitzels, working out how and where to start tucking in, I realised what is missing from the Parliamentarium.

When visiting Cadbury World at Bournville, you get given a handful of chocolate bars to scoff as you walk around. This doesn’t just bribe you into going round the exhibits, it engages your most susceptible senses in an immersive experience that will make you fall in love with Cadbury’s forever.

Every visitor to the Parliamentarium should be given a massive wiener schnitzel on entry.


Bear with me on this.

The Parliamentarium currently starts with an exhibit on the ruins of Europe in 1945. It might at first seem like a reasonable place to start. After all. isn’t that where the EU story starts?


That just shows the motivation for creating the EU.

It would be like Cadbury World starting in 1824 with John Cadbury, but they don’t. They start with the Aztecs and the mighty Montezuma on his throne demanding his upteenth cup of cocoa.

So, while you are working out whether to continue nibbling your Fruit’n’Nut or switch to a Curly Wurly, you have more empathy with the Aztec guys who had no idea that their civilisation was about to come to a devastating end.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire couldn’t sate its appetite for schnitzels and sausages and was a big importer of pork from Serbia.

Being the big-boys of MittelEuropa, Austria-Hungary didn’t like little Serbia attempted to get out of stifling trade agreements and the Pig War ensued in 1906. By 1908 other big-boys like Russia got involved leading to a grudging peace.

The lack of an adequate resolution meant there was constant tension in which it only took one anarchist and a vain archduke who wouldn’t use buttons to provide a pretext for war in 1914.

If we learned all of this while munching our flesh frisbees, perhaps we might get a better feel for why the Hapsburgs would gamble prosperous MittelEuropa in a quest for even more power and control.

We’d also, as with Cadbury World, develop a deep subliminal attachment to Brussels, equating EU directives with porky treats.