Underinvestment in Railways

Level Crossing

I’m a big fan of railway transport – it’s greener, it’s generally safer than by car, and enables those that can’t drive to get around.  However I wish more of our politicians were regular users, as I think there are a lot of changes needed.

The cost of HS2 is currently estimated at £56 billion.  I think this money would be much better spent improving the existing network.

Take my local station, Nantwich:

Nantwich station

for instance.   The old station buildings are now an Indian restaurant, and there’s no proper station car park. The only shelter is very small.  So when there are 80 people waiting for a delayed train and it’s chucking it down, the majority will get wet.  The operator (Arriva Trains Wales) has ancient rolling stock (see here).  The newest of their fleet are 17 years old, and some of their trains are over 40 years old.  It’s a steep step onto some of their trains, which would be awkward for elderly or disabled passengers.

The screen announcing train times is a joke, and regularly gives inaccurate information (the savvy know to look at their mobile phones, to find out what’s really happening).  For instance there was a tragic fatal accident affecting a Nantwich to Crewe service, when a train hit someone near Shrewsbury just after 5:30am.  The service was due at Nantwich at 06:07.  At 06:18 the screen was still saying that the train was expected at 06:16, and only later decided that it had been cancelled!

I think Arriva Trains Wales is by no means the worst operator.  Why would they make significant investments when their franchise is scheduled to finish next year? At least they’re not using the Pacer trains made from modified buses!

A new feature in Rail News has some rather disturbing stories from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch.  I’ll pass over this story, about how a locomotive ran away and travelled 880 metres when the driver was unable to stop it!  There was another story about how a train travelling at 73 mph almost collided with a tractor and trailer at Castle Cary.  The tractor driver had been given permission to cross the track, and mistakes were made. But why, in the 21st century, do we have a situation where the signaller doesn’t know where exactly a train is in a 15.2 km long section?   If you look at the report here, the crossing looks like an accident waiting to happen.

The small boy in me is excited by the prospects of the fast travel potentially offered by HS2.  In reality, like first class travel, it will probably be too dear for me to use regularly.  I  think the £56,000,000,000 cost would be a lot better improving the existing network.

Veg Crisis

Empty fruit and veg shelves in a supermarket

Apparently we’re having a veg crisis!

My local supermarket had empty shelves and a sign explaining why it had happened:

Sign explaining the lack of fruit and vegetables is due to flooding in Spain

However when I went to my local market the next day, it was a different story!  Both of the excellent fruit and vegetable stalls had full displays:

Fruit and vegetables in Nantwich marketIt was also the same story at my lovely local greengrocer (which I’m very fortunate to still have):
P & J Salmon Greengrocers in NantwichThe only reason why there’s a gap in the display is that a customer had just chosen a cauliflower, but I know the display will be topped up soon.

How has this come about?  The problem with the supermarkets is that because they operate on a huge scale they cannot deal with small producers.  My local specialist shops frequently deal directly with the growers, or even grow it themselves.  This means they can be cheaper and sell better quality produce.

My local shops also tend to sell what’s in season.  It’s a delight to look at their colourful displays which change continually through the season.

Eating runner beans from Africa, and asparagus from Peru, in the middle of winter is both damaging to the environment and your bank balance!  It’s sad that, as a result of poor education, many people don’t even know what should be in season!

I’ve got a new site to help you here:

Amazon Dot – a cheap way into voice activated Smart Home control

Before Christmas I didn’t even know I need such an Amazon Dot, now I use it all the time! It’s relatively easy to set up, I was soon up and running.  However I am still learning about the more advanced features.  It works with Alexa voice recognition and the Alexa app – which integrates well with other things.

If the voice recognition mishears you, you can try again (with different words) and give feedback via the app.


In less time than it takes to get my phone out, I’ve asked my Echo what the weather forecast is, and what my commute is like. The Echo reminds me of appointments, and I can dictate items on shopping lists whenever I spot I’m running out of something.

It’s turned my elderly HiFi into a voice operated Internet radio. As I happen to have a Nest thermostat, I can also ask my Echo to ask it to turn the heating up or down. As soon as smart light bulbs become cheaper, I’ll be telling it to turn the lights on and off!

I’ve only had it a few days, but I can see that using it with If This, Then That (https://ifttt.com) I will be able to use it with all sorts of things.  It would be particularly useful for people with failing vision, for instance you can turn a radio on and select stations purely by talking to it.

It amuses me how many say they can’t see the point of such a device. I remember when TV remote controls first became available, my parents were shocked that people would be too lazy to get out of a chair to change channels. I suspect many of us wouldn’t be without our TV remotes and predict that devices like this will soon be thought of as indispensable.

Nantwich Tales by Susan Church


If you’ve ever been lucky enough to attend a talk by Sue Church you’ll know already that this book will be a thoroughly good read!

It’s well researched and easy to read, I can’t put my copy down! There are tales of murder and madness, but also some very positive tales about people who’ve lived in this wonderful South Cheshire town.

So if you want to know more about Wesley Knowles (the armless signal man) or the Nixon sisters (who lived with their dead mother for several years) I thoroughly commend this book.  You can buy a copy in Nantwich bookshop or Nantwich Museum.

Bill Pearson \ Nantwich History

Bill Pearson’s Home Page

Funding the NHS


In the news this week (see here) I learnt that the NHS in Cheshire and Merseyside are spending £300,000 on fees to Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) to cut frontline services.  There have been many similar stories up and down the country.

I’m well aware that, thanks to wonder drugs like statins etc, we’re all living longer.  As a result costs for healthcare are increasing. However I’m getting concerned about how much money is being spent in the wrong areas.

Take the Stafford Hospital scandal for instance. I’m a big believer in a NATIONAL Health Service and wonder how much money has been wasted setting up NHS foundation trusts?  Stafford Nurses at Stafford were struck off for falsifying information to avoid breaches of targets.  Why would any nurse want to do this?  I suspect pressure was put on them by managers and their accountants.  Some services were transferred elsewhere, which may have saved that hospital costs – but may  not help the NHS as a whole, if the costs simply go to another centre.

There seems to be an increasing emphasis in paying highly paid people to run our hospitals as businesses, rather than trained healthcare professionals looking at preventing ill health.

I’m very proud of our NHS, and accept that I may have to pay more for it in the future. I’m fed up with politicians (and others) meddling with it.  If I’m seriously ill I want a consultant with medical qualifications looking after me, not a consultant who’s an expert on Balance Sheets and Net Worth.

Today I heard here that a nurse took her own life after becoming stressed from work.  I hope that even the accountants will realise that that is a cost that is too high.

Obesity – a time bomb that’s already going off

There’s been a lot in the press about obesity and health recently, with an NHS body controversially proposing to restrict obese patients (and smokers) from non-emergency surgery.  It made me think why would so many people get themselves into such a state.

Bad diets

The NHS recommends added sugar should not make up more than 5% of the total energy we get from food and drink each day.  However the National Diet and Nutrition Survey tells us that we are having far too much. Children aged 11 to 18 years are getting 15% of their daily calories from added sugar!

We’re not eating enough fruit and vegetables – over half of us intend to eat five a day, but only 14% regularly eat the rcommended five a day (see here).

What are the consequences of this?  Diabetes is thought to cost the NHS about £10bn, once the cost of treatment, including amputation and hospitalisations for life-threatening hypoglycaemic attacks, is included.

Obesity is a major cause of heart disease.   Three-quarters of people are unaware being overweight increases the risk of developing 10 different types of cancer, Cancer Research UK has said.

This article in the Guardian tells us there are now one million morbidly obese people in Britain. Trends suggest that without effective intervention nine out of 10 adults, and six out of 10 children, will be overweight or obese by 2050.

Who’s fault is this?  It’s easy to say it’s the fault of individuals who are eating a bad diet and too many calories – but people who are eating healthily are becoming a minority.

Better Education

It must start with better education – there are many families now where the parents don’t know how to cook properly and so the children don’t know how to cook either.  Cookery lessons in most schools are, in my opinion, a joke.

If cookery was taught in an engaging way in our schools, it would be also be a great way of improving the skills of our children.

As a small child I gained numeracy skills whilst I learnt about weights and ratios, whilst baking with my mother. I had an introduction to biology, when dealing with poultry giblets (which sadly typically are no longer included – as people prefer to buy more expensive pâté).  I already knew about acids and alkalis when I did chemistry because I’d made cakes and used baking powder, or mixed bicarbonate of soda with lemon juice and vinegar.

I also learnt about home economics – food waste was minimal in our house, and dishes made with left overs were some of my favourites.

Today families rarely cook together, but the country watches cookery programmes like MasterChef whilst eating a microwave ready meal on their lap, or munching a bag of crisps.

Politicians and the Food Industry

The food industry must take a lot of the blame.  It’s highly profitable to sell fat, flour, salt and sugar (with artificial flavouring and colouring to help disguise what you are doing).

For too long the food industry has had too much influence on our politicians. That’s as clever as putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

As recently as 1979 45% of the British population smoked, but this has dropped to under 20% by 2013.  The politicians can learn from this.  The politicians need to implement bans on advertising for junk food and drinks, and have much better rules on food labelling.  Sponsorship of sporting events etc. should not be allowed by the pedlars of our bad diet.

Some taxes on unhealthy food and drink could also help.  This report tells us the cost to the NHS, and to society, of obesity-related illness is predicted to reach £50 billion by 2050.  With better education, and more controls on our food industry, I’m sure we could reduce this if we wanted to.

Traceability and local food

It always surprises me how many people regard shopping as a chore! This weekend I got most of what I need from our local market.

My first stop was for some bread. My supplier is Charles Ormrod, who (when he’s not selling bread) is a professional pianist. He’s got interesting views of all sorts of things, so I’d like to chat for longer – but I don’t like holding up his queue. The bread comes from London Road Bakery in Stoke, which is one of Britain’s last coal-fired bakeries. Their loaves are hand-moulded and baked each morning in their 130-year-old ovens. Their GI bread is good for you, and lasts well (if you don’t eat it first)!

The next stop is Stuart Hornby, my fishmonger.  There’s always a long queue for Stuart – because he popular, and also he spends ages preparing your fish (and removing bones if you want). He drives down from Fleetwood and knows exactly where his fish comes from. Although there is a queue you can usually have an interesting natter with other customers, and we always have a laugh with Stuart! I often buy off Stuart some of Ray Edmondson’s Morcambe Bay Potted Shrimps.  Here’s a picture of Ray’s shrimping boat:

Shrimping boats

Ray’s other customers include Adrian Edmondson (no relation), Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All, and Rick Stein.

At the cheese stand we had a chat about the Appleby family – who make the best Cheshire cheese you can buy. She’s very happy to let you have a taste – as she knows you’ll buy more! They also have some nice blue cheeses:

Shropshire blue cheese

I bought some Longley Farm Jersey cream – which tastes wonderful and keeps well.

Next door to them is D & K Welch Poultry.  You can get your old egg boxes refilled here – which cuts out waste. I bought some of Brian Bennion’s beef here. I know it will be tender – because Brian looks after his animals. I often buy chicken livers here (a lot of supermarkets either don’t sell them or only have frozen ones). They’re incredibly cheap here (and tasty). When I’m not using them in a risotto, I’ll make pâté. Yesterday I was feeling lazy – so I bought some of their own home-made chicken liver pâté (with Cointreau) to try.  The cost for quite a big container was just £1.50. I know it will taste good (because another customer told me).

We’re spoilt for choice with butchers in Nantwich (there’s one at the other side of the market, two excellent shops in the town and a superb farm shop just off the bypass). I try and give them all a bit of my trade – the stiff competition keeps them all trying hard.

carrots and cauliflowers

There’s three fruit and veg stalls in the market, and another great shop in the town.   At one a lot of stuff is home grown. Unlike the market traders of my childhood (who had good stuff on display but filled your bag with more dubious stuff hidden below) the quality is top notch. They’ll tell you which fruit is the sweetest and which has the best flavour.

I often keep meeting the same people at different stalls, because those in the know often shop in the same places.

Occasionally I do go to the supermarket. I can normally do my shopping their faster than I can get through the tills! My hear sinks when I hear someone bleating on the tannoy “will all till-trained staff please go to the checkouts” as I know the company accountant has decided they’d rather save money and have queues!

Supermarket shopping does keep you brain alert though. Is that item in the same buy three things you didn’t want three of and only get the cheapest item free as the other items?

You may have the “privilege” of a machine to serve you at the check out. Here, in the close to mugging experience, the machine may bark at you “have you got a loyalty card” so that it can learn how to extract money out of you more efficiently. When it’s finished not recognising items it will have to ask you how many bags you’ve used – as it’s not that bright!  I usually prefer to find a staffed till, where members of the staff (who’ve just been on a marketing course) may even compliment you on your purchases! There’s no normally jokes here, but I always mange to smile wryly when the youth serving you asks what sort of fruit or veg you’ve got. Presumably it doesn’t look like that in Mcdreadfuls!

I don’t feel shopping at local shops is a chore, it’s more like meeting up with friends!

Web: http://goodfoodshops.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/nantwich-market.html

Blood testing for people with diabetes

3 readings

I was rather concerned to hear today that there are more than 3.3 million people with diabetes in the UK – an increase of nearly 60% in the last decade. There’s a clear link between Type 2 diabetes and bad diet, and it worries me that many youngsters have unhealthy diets which could lead to them getting this disease.

I’ve had Type 1 diabetes for 35 years. The perfect balanced diet for me – plenty of fruit and vegetables, but low in fat and avoiding highly refined carbohydrates (and especially sugar), is a good one for everyone to follow. I am very well aware of the consequences of not having a good diet – diabetes can cause blindness, heart disease, kidney failure, and result in gangrene and amputations.

I’m writing this post to tell you about what I consider to be the one of the biggest things I’ve discovered to help people with diabetes in 35 years – the Freestyle Libre glucose monitor. Now I know exactly what is happening to my blood sugars 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The system involves me applying a sensor to the back of my arm:

Freestyle Libre Sensor

You wouldn’t normally see it, as even a short sleeved shirt will hide it. To check my glucose levels I merely hold the reader over where the sensor is.

Scanning glucose levels using Freestyle Libre monitor

In a second it shows the current glucose reading, the latest 8 hours of glucose data and a trend arrow showing if glucose levels are going up, down or changing slowly. The trend arrows are particularly useful – a reading of 4.1 and going up is within the normal range,  but a reading of 4.1 and going down could mean I’m about to go into a coma (if I don’t take any action).

I can see trends:

Daily graph of glucose levels from Freestyle Libre sensor

and already I’m changing my diet to improve my control.

If this sounds like a commercial, I can assure you I’ve received no money from the manufacturers. I think it’s an exceptionally well designed product, it’s very easy to use and there’s good support from the manufacturers (see the videos here).  My biggest complaint about this product is the cost (it costs me nearly £4 a day). I’m hoping the price will come down, as more people use it, and also that the NHS might provide some help – as I believe it’s helping me to avoid all those undesirable complications….

Web: http://www.freestylelibre.co.uk

Independents’ Day

Today (the 4th July) is Independents’ Day. I believe there’s another, similar sounding festival across the Herring Pond, but the one I’m talking of aims to help independent retailers and those who serve consumers to get and stay open for business!

How did I celebrate Independents’ Day? I visited Cheerbrook Farm Shop
The Marquee at Cheerbrook
my local independent farm shop. We’re very lucky where I live – I could have gone to many other excellent small independent traders.

Andrew and Sarah Shufflebotham opened this award winning shop 15 years ago, and it’s gone from strength to strength. Today we had a chance to meet many of their (local) suppliers. They all take a pride in what they do, and are even anxious for you to have a free sample, because they know you’ll enjoy it (and hopefully buy it again in future).

That’s the beauty of shopping local. They don’t have expensive transport costs (or blocking motorways) and if something isn’t perfect they’re keen to know how they could improve it! There are no expensive accountants (saying we can’t afford to do that) and marketing teams who are more about conning you, than informing you.

I enjoyed talking to their producers, and finding out how their products are made and also getting tips on how to serve them.
Local cheeses
Take Wrenbury Cider for instance. Paul and Gill Sweeney are producing Cheshire cider and helping preserve traditional English orchards. Their cider is made from traditional cider apples, grown on their own land just 7 miles away. It’s made with 100% apple juice (the big producers are allowed to use only 30% apple juice and still call it cider)! If you’re counting your (alcohol) units, it’s weaker than wine. It’s also packed full of flavour, without any nasty additives. We didn’t just discuss cider, I had to ask how their Cheshire Shropshire sheep were (they live in Cheshire, but the breed is Shropshire).

My wife didn’t come with me, as she needed to go Nantwich Market. That’s because we think London Road Bakery GI bread is fantastic (and good for your health). They also do amazing gingerbread – but always sell out (by about 8:30am)! However when you shop local you can build up a relationship with your suppliers (so there’s always a bag for our family, providing we’re there by 10:30am).

Similarly our wonderful fishmonger (Stuart Hornby in Nantwich Market), looked after me when I lost my job last year. He suggested cheaper fish (that also tasted great) and occasionally I’d find an extra “gift” in my shopping. I don’t remember getting that sort of treatment in the big multiples, just BOGOF’s of things I only wanted one of…

So that’s way I was only too happy to support Independents’ Day. It makes shopping a pleasure and not a chore!

Web: www.independentretail.co.uk

Why I don’t like foodbanks

Foodbank sign inviting donationsI’ve always felt uneasy about foodbanks. Don’t get me wrong, they’re run by kind and caring people – who care pasionately about some very vulnerable people. However, I watched an academic debate about foodbanks, and realised that I was right to have concerns.

I think it should be a basic human right to be able to have some choice about what you eat. I’m not talking about whether to have beluga caviar or foie gras (and I wouldn’t want to eat either). I’m talking about the right to choose my own basic food items. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if my diet consisted of items chosen by others.

The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, is the main  organiser of foodbanks in this country. They are also the main source of information/statistics (which the debate I watched felt was a cause for concern). Their site shows nearly a million people were being helped last year:People helped by foodbanks

and I fear this figure is rising.

The Trussel Trust ask for donations of the following items:

  • Milk (UHT or powdered)
  • Sugar (500g)
  • Fruit juice (carton)
  • Soup
  • Pasta sauces
  • Sponge pudding (tinned)
  • Tomatoes (tinned)
  • Cereals
  • Rice pudding (tinned)
  • Tea Bags/instant coffee
  • Instant mash potato
  • Rice/pasta
  • Tinned meat/fish
  • Tinned fruit
  • Jam
  • Biscuits or snack bar

So where’s the fresh and healthy ingredients like fruit and vegetables? I realise why they’re not asking for these items – it’s not very practical for the operation they’re running.

So if you’re destitute, our society now thinks you should live on sugary processed goods (to help your health deteriorate)?

I have a particular problem with fruit juice:

Food Bank request for fruit juice
– because it includes the word “fruit” many people think it’s a healthy choice. As someone who has diabetes I know it makes my blood sugars soar (and crash) almost as fast as pure sugar. That leaves me feeling first tired and then irritable, and once your blood sugars become unstable it’s a job getting them right again.

The politicians like foodbanks, as they can pretend the problem is being dealt with – at no cost to them.

The supermarkets also love supermarkets, as it’s an opportunity to increase their sales and pretend they have a conscience! You see messages like “Buy an extra tin and leave it on the way out”. Wouldn’t it be better, from a logistics point of view, to ask for cash and buy exactly what was needed (in bulk from a cheaper supplier)?

In Each One of Us is Precious, Eddy Knasel talks about inequalities in pay, and how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. That article led me to read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  It is hard to think of a more powerful way of telling people at the bottom that they are almost worthless than to pay them one-third of one percent of what the CEO in the same company gets…

So when politicians come knocking on my door, I’ll be asking them what they intend to do about food poverty – so that foodbanks, like slavery, can hopefully become part of our history.