Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Simply Majestic

Sitting idly in the waiting room at Blackett's surgery last week, I spotted on the wall a grainy photograph cut into a ceramic montage of scenes from the Bondgate area. One of them was of the old Majestic Cinema, which later became the Odeon and is now occupied by Riley's Snooker Club.

The original front to the Majestic has to be one of the most beautiful buildings in town. The top photograph above was taken in 1951. Beautiful stained glass windows occupy almost half the frontage, painted brilliant white, which must have looked great when the five huge floodlights on the canopy roof were lit.
Opened on Boxing Day, 1932, at the height of the art deco period, the cinema crammed 4500 people in to see three shows on its opening day. It was the height of luxury and became the most popular picture house in town. The Majestic was one of eight cinemas in the town, where there were more seats per head of population than anywhere else in the country.

In 1943 it changed its name to the Odeon, which it kept until its closure in 1981.
At some point, unfortunately, the owners of the Odeon decided to box in the art deco frontage. They erected a number of vertical end-on planks of wood above the entrance, completely hiding the original frontage, which they had painted black, so that it was impossible to see it through the planks of wood.

Now look at it in the third photograph. The planks of wood are rotting and in some cases missing. Plants have started to grow out through the slats. It's a sorry sight indeed.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine, Cllr Dot Long. She told me there might be money available to fund the restoration of buildings like this. It is such a shame that this glorious frontage is hidden from view, yet with a little work it could be returned to its former glory and be a delight for everyone passing by.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Work starts on new Primary School

Last week, as North Road ward councillor and a Governor of North Road Primary, I was invited to the Turf Cutting ceremony for the new school. North Road Primary, built 100 years ago, is an attractive building which unfortunately, according to the educationalists, no longer provides a suitable environment for modern schooling.

Its replacement, unlike the garish, cheap ugly boxes so beloved of the PFI companies, is of a cutting edge design, incorporating the latest thinking in environmental sustainability. Built on two levels, with rammed earth walls, a living sedum roof and a bio-mass boiler, the building will have virtually no negative impact on the environment.

There are rooms and changing facilities for the local community, who will also have access to the new school playing fields. The existing Grass Street Park play area will be rebuilt with new play equipment: an essential facility in an area where most of the houses have just a back yard.

In the turf-cutting ceremony, the Mayor joined some of the pupils in a muddy corner of the field, with JCBs performing graceful piruettes in the background. After a nice speech, the mayor plunged his blade into the sod and, after the obligatory photos for the builder's PR company, we all retreated to an exhibition and a reviving cup of coffee in the old school hall.
It's going to be great seeing the new building take shape.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Good news for honeybees

It surprised me when my post a few weeks ago about the plight of the honeybee generated the second largest number of visits to my blog (beaten only when the supporters of Darlington Football Club descended on the blog after I criticised the club for their happy hour beer policy).

And now there is good news: research into the decline in the British bee population has been boosted this week as Defra has announced a £4.3 million plan to attack the problem. The money will be used to support the National Bee Unit in its work to research the health of bees and to protect them from dangers of disease.

Announcing the plan, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said: “Bees are vulnerable to a number of threats. Pests and diseases, when combined with poor summers can leave colonies unable to survive the winter. We must get to grips with this, to see just how serious a problem it is, what the impacts on pollination are, and what we can do in response.”

Harrowgate Hill Primary School Treasure Hunt

This morning the School Council from Harrowgate Hill Primary, in North Road ward, visited the Town Hall to take part in various activities. They were welcomed in the Council Chamber by the mayor who answered the many questions thrown at him by what was a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable bunch of kids.

Then David Allaway, the Mayoral Support Officer, who turns out to be a fount of historical and anecdotal knowledge about the town, gave them a history of the town and its Council. For me the most interesting part was his dissection of the coat of arms. I hadn't realised how many of the pubs in the town centre are named after aspects of Darlington's history which are also represented on the coat of arms.

One amusing story featured a previous Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who many will remember as a firebrand social reformer. As he entered the diocese over the bridge at Croft to be installed as Bishop, the tradition is that he is welcomed by being presented with the Conyers Falchion, the sword used to slay the Sockburn Worm (or dragon). This slaying is represented on the coat of arms. David Jenkins, as befitted his radical image, began waving the sword around his head on the bridge, little realising that if he dropped it, a couple of million quids worth of metal might plunge into the river.

The pupils then held a meeting of their School Council, where amongst other things they discussed school dinners and their next charity day. The discussion was excellent: polite and well-informed, and extremely well moderated by their enthusiastic young teacher.

Various other activities including a town hall treasure hunt, and an exercise to decide the best qualities a local councillor should have were admirably led by Paul Dalton from the Democratic Services Department.

All in all an excellent three hours which I think the kids really enjoyed too.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Talking Together: Station Travel Plan

Last night the Council's Connecting with Communities Team held its latest consultation event in the Dolphin Centre, open to all residents to attend. This time the topic under discussion was the Council's need to produce a travel plan to provide sustainable access to Bank Top Station.

Research shows that fewer people walk to Darlington station than in other towns taking part in this national scheme, while most people are dropped off by car. The aim of the scheme is to reduce the reliance on the car as a mode of transport.

Representatives from Arriva, the bus company, and National Express, who run the station, were on the panel, together with Cllr Lyonette and two officers from DBC. I guess there were about 50 to 60 residents present, including 5 councillors.

Some useful suggestions were made, particularly in relation to bus access, where one suggestion was for a shuttle bus to operate between town centre bus stops and the station.

Interestingly, there was much criticism of National Express for their decision to install barriers to keep everyone without a ticket off the platform. This is something I blogged about recently. Subsequently there has been a story in the Echo about a mother who was upset at being unable to say goodbye to her son, who was off to Afghanistan, on the platform.

Cllr Veronica Copeland (not a lady whose appearance would suggest she was about to freeload a ride to London) complained at being unable to help an elderly relative on to the train with her luggage due to the refusal of the NE employee to let her on to the platform. A commuter to Newcastle said that delays caused by the barrier had made her miss her train and that the crush to get off the platform through the barriers in the evening was potentially dangerous.

The National Express representative was unrepentant and just waffled on about income streams. Yet these are legitimate concerns and I feel NE are being obstinate in their refusal to take on board travellers' views on the matter.

Friday, 9 January 2009

The latest craze: snorting New Era H

New Era Combination H is a homoeopathic remedy for Hay Fever. Each tub contains 450 tiny sugar pills infused with homoeopathic potencies (ie the merest, virtually undetectable trace) of various different minerals. So, why have I sold out of all my stock twice this week - in January!?

Well, it seems the latest craze among teenagers in Darlington is to crush the pills and snort the powder. Apparently it gives them a buzz.

Now I, like most health food shops and chemists, no linger stock citric acid, which is sad for the home brew enthusiast, but means the addicts have no reason to come into our shops to get this stuff, which they use somehow as part of their drug-taking regime. And we keep a close eye on our Vitamin C powder, which apparently is cut with other drugs to enhance their potency.

But the kids coming in for Combination H don't look like the pale, unkempt, unhealthy ones who shuffle sadly in asking for citric acid. They're just normal looking kids. So, what to do? Keep it off the shelf? But is it harmful? If they use this, could it lead to experimentation with more harmful substances?
Is it just a craze which will die away as quickly as it started? How do these kids know about the stuff and who first discovered its unexpected properties?
It's a mystery to me.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

People go missing in Post Office queues

Well, not really, but clearly the problem of excessive queue lengths at Darlington's Crown Street Post Office is not something exclusive to this town, and not something that only happened in the last couple of weeks before Christmas.

Lynne Featherstone , our excellent MP for Haringey, makes the same points as me about her local post office. The Tottenham, Wood Green and Edmonton Journal reported the problem thus.

My readers may recall this recent blog post. The Echo used this post as the basis for a story in which a spokesman for Post Office Ltd apologised for the length of time people had to wait and said that work was under way to ensure that more counter service points were kept open. The spokesman blamed the pre-Christmas rush, when in fact the real reason is that since three other post offices in the town have been closed down, there have been more customers visiting Crown Street.

This Monday, January 5th, there were again only five counter service points open, and the queue literally stretched to the front door. But they can't blame the pre-Christmas rush now, can they.

The Echo article produced a rather incoherent letter in a later edition of the paper from Cllr Kate Davies, who I identified a couple of years ago as one of the "braying" tendency within the local Conservative Party. Her letter lacked the intellectual clarity we have come to expect from the rigorous and well thought out speeches which she carefully reads out in Council. (Hmm, are you sure about that? - Ed.) Now, I like to argue on intellectual grounds, but when someone like Cllr Davies calls me "stupid" in the local press, I take exception.

Cllr Davies thought she was being really clever by spotting that the Echo article had said that I queued up for 45 minutes, whereas my blog clearly says that an employee of mine queued up. Well Kate, you'll have to blame the journo for that: he changed the story, not me, and without reference to me.

Cllr Davies also claims, because the journo said that one of the parcels being posted was for my son in Afghanistan, that I was using my son for political advantage. This is a cheap shot and wholly objectionable, and not the sort of comment one would expect from a person of Cllr Davies' intellectual maturity (There you go again - Ed.).

I write about what I like in my blog. One of my fellow bloggers in the town writes about his son's prowess as a swimmer. I have written a couple of times about my son's achievements in becoming a Royal Marine. This isn't a search for political advantage, it's simply putting a human and personal element into what we write. Cllr Davies probably doesn't understand the concept of parental pride.

Anyway, I have written to Councillor Davies to thank her for giving me and this blog more publicity.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Norman Baker Lead Story in the Echo

The lead story on the front page of today's Northern Echo is Lib Dem transport spokesman Norman Baker's revelation that "Thousands of train spotters are being quizzed as potential terrorists at railway stations across the region." The on-line story is here. It seems that over 13,000 train spotters (I didn't know there were so many!) have been questioned in North East railway stations in a recent twelve month period.

It's great to have the Lib Dems as the main story in our local paper. The last time was a couple of months ago when I described something as "ludicrous" in a conversation with a journalist. The next day the headline screamed "Ludicrous" as I strolled past my local paper shop.

Norman says the figures are a "worrying sign that we are sliding towards a police state".

Of course, train spotters will soon be banned from railway stations on the East Coast Mainline anyway once National Express have installed barriers at all the stations. Then the only people allowed on the platform will be people with tickets to travel.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Save the Honey Bee: Government help needed

The British honeybee is dying. A third of all hives in this country failed to survive last winter. Two billion bees have been lost from British colonies in the last year. There is no British honey from the 2008 crop left, since only around 2,000 tonnes was produced last year compared to a typical figure of 5,000 tonnes.

Why is this? Bad weather stops bees foraging. Secondly, there has been a steady reduction in clover and meadowland, with these traditional fields given over to arable production. And thirdly, there's the Varroa mite virus which now infests over 95% of British hives.

If nothing is done, it is estimated that UK honey bees will be wiped out within ten years.

In my shop I now have only one local supplier of honey, from Staindrop. I can sell every jar I get from him. I used to have five local suppliers. The other four have given up the struggle. Customers love local honey. It has a flavour unique to the area in which it is produced. It is unadulterated and as pure as can be. Unlike some of the massive industries in countries like China and Mexico, British honey is not pasteurised, heat-treated or fortified with extra sugar. British honey incurs minimal environmental cost and is a classic "local food".

But the decline of the honeybee affects much more than just the production of honey. About one third of all home grown food relies of the honeybee for pollination, in particular apples, pears, blackberries, raspberries, broccoli, carrots and onions. More than 50% of wild plants on which birds and mammals depend is pollinated by the honeybee.

On top of this, there's a worldwide honey shortage caused by changes in weather patterns and an increase in the number of parasites and diseases ravaging bee populations.

Research is urgently needed to combat these problems which are devastating the industry. The Government currently contributes £200,000 per annum to the beekeeping industry. It is estimated that £8million will be needed over the next five years to find a solution to these problems. The British Beeheepers Association has recently lobbied Parliament in a bid to highlight the plight of the industry.

You can help by downloading and completing a petition at www.britishbee.org.uk . And please write to your local MP to ask for his support.