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

Where

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 and then up looms one of mankind’s largest achievements. A bloody-great-big hole. The sense of desolation was compounded by a raging gale.

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.

Why

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.

How

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.

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

the unpopular populist train

If there’s one thing populists like Victor Orban should be good at, it’s making things popular. So when it turned out that a pet-project of his, the Vál Valley Light Railway was attracting less than 70 visitors a day, with some days no tourists coming at all, I went to Felcsút near Budapest to find out what was going wrong.

Spoiler alert: Diverting wads of EU cash to build a choo-choo train through your home town from your dad’s newly acquired mansion to your very own football stadium isn’t really at interesting to other people. Perhaps spend the money next time on the nearby school where the leaky roof is affecting kid’s health…

Anyway, here’s a tourist’s-eye-view of what may be going wrong and 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.

Links

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/07/a-village-fit-for-a-king-how-viktor-orban-had-a-football-stadium/

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/19/hungarian-prime-minister-viktor-orban-investigated-over-2m-eu-fu/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2016/03/10/the-scandal-of-viktor-orbans-secret-estate/

https://www.valvolgyikisvasut.hu

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A1l_Valley_Light_Railway

https://blog.atlatszo.hu/2019/08/eddig-17-millios-veszteseget-termelt-a-felcsuti-kisvasut-az-elmult-evben-17-nap-jart-uresen/

https://blog.atlatszo.hu/2017/07/tavasszal-meglodult-a-felcsuti-kisvasut-utasforgalma-friss-adatok-az-utasforgalomrol/

https://444.hu/2019/08/01/felcsuttol-16-kilometerre-penzt-gyujtenek-a-peneszes-tantermek-rendbehozatalara

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:
http://trifoliumkajo.ro
https://ecoruralis.ro
https://www.acceslapamant.ro
https://wwoof.org.uk/

Or see the goats in action…

The sundial that became a moral compass

“Lay me quietly in the earth, place a sun-dial over my grave, and let me be forgotten.”

– John Howard, on his deathbed January 1790

How do you memorialise someone who should be remembered, but has explicitly said they don’t want a memorial?

For the creators of the memorial to John Howard in Kherson, Ukraine, the solution was to take his dying words literally.

John Howard was a curious chap, as Tessa West observed in her biography. As a single-mined man of means, who today may well have had Asperger’s Syndrome, he was the Greta Thunberg of his day. Shaped by his own experiences of incarceration at the hands of the French, once he was in a position of authority in Bedford, UK, he set about inspecting the local prison. What he found was not only squalid, but dysfunctional. The state did not pay prison warders, so they had to make their money from the inmates, which created a cycle of debt and misery.

After coming up with some practical solutions, which could be applied to both prisons and hospitals, he published his findings. They became a bestseller and this spurred him on to set off around Europe knocking on the doors of prisons and telling the local bigwigs what he thought.

But rather than alienating himself, he seems to have been become something of a celebrity. This may have had as much to do with his reputation of also being a brilliant, albeit self-taught, doctor and was asked to help cure the sick while he was in the area.

Eventually his travels took him to Kherson in the new Russian lands where he finally contracted gaol fever (typhus) and died. The funeral was grand, as was his grave and ultimately his sundial memorial, which was built a couple of decades later.

Having been restored in 1990, the sundial has been maintained pretty well which, given the difficult times Ukraine has been through, is a mark of how it is valued.

So what possible use has a sundial now – they were out-of-date even when the memorial was built?

For anyone who likes their time-pieces to have features, this comes well-stacked. First, it is two sundials for the price of one, as the monument is an obelisk with a circular wall which is great for those who like precision or perhaps anyone who happened to be passing by in a newly invented hot-air balloon.

Second it is adorned with a nice picture of a slightly grumpy gilded John Howard.

Third, it comes with a number of inspirational mottoes.

  • ‘Alios salvos fecit’ (He saved others)
  • ‘Vixit propter alios’ (He lived for others)
  • It also says in Russian ‘Rest in peace, People’s friend’.

On my visit it also had two red carnations from an unknown admirer.

But there is one final feature. After visiting it, you become sensitised to other thoughtful monuments.

In Slavy Park, amongst all the heroic Soviet stuff, two memorials stand out despite being rather hidden away. Who could walk past the suffering of this mother who, presumably lost her son in Afghanistan and now seeks solace in religion without a twinge of sympathy?

And who could see this monument to the Chernobyl catastrophe and not just remember their sacrifice, but also that we are all part of the same world.

Back in the UK, John Howard’s wish to not be remembered has also been ignored. Here he is in Bedford.

He seems to be thinking a lot about something.

In his shoes, I’d be thinking why am I standing on top of a bunch of cherubic kids playing around with theatrical Greek comedy masks?

This makes more sense when you know that the statue was created by Gilbert Allen who also designed the Statue of Eros in London’s theatre district. So in one way this is more in line with John Howard’s wish. It isn’t really a monument to him or his life’s work and, judging by the people walking past, he has well and truly been forgotten.

He should also be satisfied that in nearby Cardington, there is little clue that this was where he lived. However, this may be because his works have been overshadowed by a more recent event. A clue is in the village sign with the big grey sausage in the sky. The R101 airship was housed nearby and after it crashed in France in 1930, the 36 who died were buried here in the graveyard.

However, John Howard has left a legacy here which you can still see today.

A set of cottages which he had built to a high standard made sure that locals could live decently. He charged the going rate in rent which covered the cost of repairs and maintenance. He used his wealth to create the conditions for decent living, but it was then up to the people themselves to keep up to it.

As for his former home, there is little to signify who once lived here other than it being called Howard House.

But Howard’s name does live on in a more significant way through the charities that have been established to promote better prison conditions, such as the Howard League for Penal Reform.

One mystery remains. Why did he want a sundial placed over his body?

Was there a sundial in that garden? Was he trying to recreate a little piece of his home in this distant land? Or was he just expressing his exasperation at local timekeeping.

We will never know.

What we do know is that one person can make a big difference, on issues that might at first seem unimportant to the rich and powerful.

We also know that no-one in Kherson has an excuse for being late because they don’t know the time – as long as it’s sunny.

Learning Swedish in the Ukraine

Four times a week, in the village of Gammalsvenskby in Southern Ukraine, villagers of all ages gather together at the end of the school day. It’s time for their next Swedish lesson. Why?

The clue is in the village’s name:

Gammal – old, svensk – swedish, by – village

Gammalsvenskby is an old Swedish village.

240 years ago, as the Russian Empire expanded southward into Ottoman territories, settlers were needed to populate the newly conquered lands, known as Novorossiya or New Russia.

One group ready to move was the thousand-strong Swedish speaking population of Dagö, an island in modern-day Estonia, who were in dispute with their landlord. The long journey south was arduous and half of them died en route. Cultivating the new lands was difficult and within two years the population was down to 136, but they recovered and made a prosperous village.

The Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, famine, purges and finally the Second World War decimated the village. Most villagers who could leave, went ‘back’ to Sweden or on further to Canada but a few stayed on. Now there are only three ladies left for whom Swedish is a first language, but a new generation of Swedish speakers are emerging. I went to the school to meet their teacher Larisa and some of her students.

I wanted to talk to them about why they were spending their free time learning Swedish. Although Larisa speaks very good English, she was clearly determined to do the best by her students and made sure this was going to be a lesson. Of course we could all talk, but we would do it in Swedish …

I know some basic Swedish, thanks to my other half and her relatives, but now I was in at the deep-end and wondered if I’d be thrown enough linguistic buoyancy aids to ‘swim’.

But I needn’t have worried. With help from Larisa and the patience of everyone, we had a pretty good chat.

My new classmates…

So why are my new fellow classmates learning Swedish? For one 15-year-old girl, it was clear, she wanted to do broaden her horizons and travel to Sweden to study and then maybe work. But for the older students, learning Swedish was a chance to connect with their roots and not just in an abstract way.

Links between the villagers who stayed and emigres (or their relatives) have been fostered through Svenskbyborna, an association based on the Swedish island of Gotland. Every year, Swedes come to the village, many retracing their ancestors’ footsteps, and spend a few days living with one of the families.

I ask what feels like a cheeky question. All Swedes speak English right? So why not learn English and then it would be easy to take in guests from other countries as well? Of course, this would be a sensible idea in the same way it would be sensible for everyone to just give up their own languages and speak English or perhaps Mandarin.

As it stands, non-Swedish visitors to Gammalsvenskby are few and far between and are certainly unlikely to arrive on a tour bus. A couple of years back, Larisa saw a guy standing at the bus stop who clearly wasn’t a local. She asked him in English if he was a tourist. “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller” was his Livingstonian reply.

It was time for me to say goodbye to my new classmates and go for a wander around the village. Gammalsvenskby, which is part of the wider settlement of Zmiivka, also includes three other old villages which had been set up by German settlers. However, none remained after the Second World War so the only evidence they were here is in the buildings.

Zmiivka commands a dramatic view of the Dnieper river and is mostly made up of modest single story houses. Each has a garden to grow fruit and veg as well as a yard for chickens, geese and an apparently mandatory dog.

The most striking buildings in the village are the Soviet-era library and the cultural centre. For a community of around 2,400 people, they are much grander than you might get in Western Europe, but therein lies the problem – maintenance. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the more recent hostilities with Russia, buildings like these have fallen into disrepair.

Whilst repairing the village’s public buildings may feel urgent to a visitor, for locals there are more immediate concerns. Since the war with Russia and the loss of the coal mining areas in Ukraine, heating homes during winter has become a real worry. So the
Svenskbyborna association is looking to provide practical support with planting fast growing willow which will make them more self-sufficient, not to mention the environmental benefits.

The association is also planning to set up a museum in the village which they hope to open in May 2020.

As a longer term aim, they have looked into possible land reform to make sure the locals have more than basic subsistence plots. However first things first: a democracy project has been initiated to empower the locals in the village to take charge of and run whatever the association helps to provide.

It isn’t just the buildings that need work. Last summer water from the village wells was sent to Sweden for analysis and found to be not fit for drinking.

So who will carry out the work? A quarter of the villagers are pensioners and about 100 people from the village are currently working in Poland, probably back-filling for the Poles working in Germany, UK or even Sweden. But in the long chain of migration, the village has it’s own immigrant, Enoch from Zimbabwe, although I unfortunately didn’t manage to track him down.

Wandering around the village on a spring day it’s hard not to feel optimistic, albeit slightly impatient that the village hasn’t already opened its museum and thereby had a means of sharing it’s story with the wider world. After all, the Swedes are just one chapter of a story that goes back to neolithic times.

For the Greeks this was on the Amber Road that connected the Black Sea with the Baltic. Archaeological digs have found treasures here which are kept in the Kherson Museum. The story of the Scythian, Tatar, Cossack, Russian, Ukrainian, German and yes, Zimbabwean settlers should to be told.

By telling their story, there’s an opportunity for everyone, visitors and locals to learn about what makes this village special. It is also a chance to rethink our understanding of migration, nationhood and what it means to belong somewhere.

So when the museum opens, I intend to be it’s first visitor – as a tourist and not a traveller.

A Charlton Heston moment in Latvia with putting mixture.

I had my Charlton Heston moment in Latvia.

And by that, I don’t mean waving a gun around at an NRA rally.

It wasn’t that dystopian.

By Charlton Heston moment, I mean that point in the Planet of the Apes where he is staggering through a desert and he stumbles across the last remnants of human civilisation – the Statue of Liberty.

I had been in the process of ticking off one of the lower items on my bucket list and searching for the source of kümmel.

150 years ago, kümmel was every bit the rival of gin and being made with caraway rather than juniper, it had one main advantage. Caraway has a calmative effect, reducing flatulence and that bloated feeling after a heavy meal. This ‘medicinal’ benefit help Ludwig Mentzendorff create a healthy business importing kümmel to Britain to sell to the new breed of entrepreneurs and growing middle class who wanted to show off their new found wealth with groaning dinner tables without showing their lack of breeding with clouds of methane.

It also proved useful on the golf courses where it soon earned the name ‘putting mixture’ for its ability to help golfers steady their nerves whilst its sugary-stickiness helped them keep hold of their clubs.

Kümmel, came from the village of Allažu (Allaschin modern day Latvia, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. It was produced by a Baltic German aristocrat Baron von Blanckenhagen, a hangover from the days of the Teutonic Knights, who owned land around Allažu which included a pure and reliable water source.

The upheavals of the 20th Century put paid to that business. In 1905 amid the turmoil of revolutionary Russia, the Blanckenhagen mansion was burned down. The distillery closed and entrepreneurial Mentzendorff’s opened up production of their own kümmel in France.

Baltic Germans moved ‘back’ to Germany as tension between Russia and Germany grew and several distilleries in Germany produced their own versions of kümmel, where it is still known as Allasch and is a popular digestif. But in Britain, its popularity never recovered.

So, I went to Allažu to see what remains I could find of the distillery. It was the middle of winter and the shortest routes to Allažu from Riga were along ice roads, making it feel like a proper adventure.

When I got there I realised that it was something of a forlorn hope to find anything. With no manor house, factory or any other sign that this used to be the home of putting mixture, what was there here to see?

I trudged around the manor parkland at the edge of the village, seeing if I could find some clue, anything to justify getting this cold when I had my Charlton Heston moment.

I saw some surprisingly lush plants among the grasses which looked familiar. I picked the seed heads with my numb fingers and rubbed them. It was caraway.

This is what was left of all the activity that took place here a century and a half earlier, keeping golfers in Scotland happy and dinner parties flatulence free.

I had a quiet moment of contemplation on what traces of our civilisation may remain after we are long gone. I popped a few seeds into my pocket and allowed the rest to fall from my cold, dead hands.

Then I went to the village shop. I bought some smoked river fish and rye bread. There was a row of spirits behind till and I asked if they sold kümmel.

They didn’t.