Posts Tagged ‘eco’

North Yorkshire Walk – Thornborough Henge

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

On Thursday 1 July 2010, I did one of Axel’s Random Walks near Nosterfield and Thornborough in North Yorkshire.  I recently bought myself an Ordnance Survey Explorer Map of Ripon & Boroughbridge (#299) and in the top left corner you can just find the outlines of the Thornborough Henge, somewhere I had always wanted to explore. 

The Thornborough Henge has been described by David Miles of English Heritage as “the most important prehistoric site between Stonehenge and the Orkneys”, yet hardly anyone has heard of it outside of enthusiasts like the Friends of Thornborough Henges, Timewatch and a small group of new age pagans – they celebrate an annual Beltane event in the central henge, camping at a nearby farm.  How unknown it is can be best shown by a search I did at The Open University Online Library, where there was 1 document mentioning Thornborough Henge, Avebury Circle has 190 documents and Stonehenge 963.  Even worse than this, local people have had almost constantly to fight a rearguard action against Tarmac who own much of the land and want planning to quarry for roadstone.  But we, the people of North Yorkshire and Riponshire, do ourselves no favours as the website for the Friends is not very complete and some of the links are broken on its site and that of Tarmac, including the microsite at Newcastle University on finds at the site.

While the Thornborough Henges site are now a national monument, this prehistoric site from about 5,500 years ago is on privately owned land.  No-one really knows why it was built, but our region of North Yorkshire is very rich in ancient history, including many prehistoric monuments, including the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge and other henges at Hutton Conyers and Nunwick, Roman monuments at Aldborough and York and Viking archeaology at York; I even reckon that Ripon Cathedral was probably the site of something beforehand as it’s just too prominent a site to have been ignored by people for thousands of years prior to St Wilfrid turning up to build a monastery.  Some people do claim that the henges are aligned with Orion’s Belt, but that is only speculative.  However, the region has always been very fertile and the River Ure has an important place in the heart and soul of North Yorkshire, becoming the Ouse before York and flowing into the Humber.  The River Ure is equivalent to the power of the River Tyne for Northumbria and the Tweed for the Borders.  And the henges are located close to the River Ure and seem to mimic the shape of the river as if they are seeking to pull energy from the river’s curves; I think the power of rivers was just as important to people as the stars, so you often find prehistoric sites close to water.

I started by parking at Nosterfield Nature Reserve which is a wetlands and bird sanctuary built on reclaimed land that has been mined out by Tarmac for roadstone.  I will write about my walk there in my next blog.  I walked around the edge of the nature reserve on the permitted pathway and then walked out on the public footpath that would take you to Nosterfield, but doubled back and then walked off the road into the Northern Henge which is nowadays a copse.  It was planted up in the 1800s as a fox covert, meaning that ironically it is a wood whereas in prehistory it would have been open to the elements and covered in white gypsum to allow it to stand out in the green landscape.  I walked around and had a peaceful time, listening to the rustle of the leaves from the elder, beech and sycamore trees and the chitter-chatter of the birds singing away to themselves oblivious of mankind. 

I was alone with nature and sat and thought of life while sitting on a decaying tree trunk roughly in the centre of the henge.  I wondered about how blasé we are with the past, perhaps as an embarrassment of local riches, or just the fact that the north is ignored and unimportant to the political power that centres on the south and more specifically London.  I imagined the people who built these henges, tamed the countryside, drained the swamplands, built all the local villages and fought many skirmishes and battles to shape England as it is now constituted.  There was nothing to show that there was an important ancient monument nearby, no information, no signs and no access; if this was the south, it would have been bought for the nation and visitor centres would have been built.  All these forebears of the north have been forgotten, shadows in the past, for whom no-one sings their histories.  I apologise for my sentimentality but trees do this to me; they have a power that sends tingles down my spine – churches, mosques and temples do nothing for me as they are just stones, but give me trees and I connect to the earth, the planet.  Perhaps religions should start building their places of worship outside, sticking up a cross or mihrab in some copse and then I may believe in something bigger, some overriding power.  But stones are just cold and dead for me; sorry.

Trees In Thornborough Northern Henge

Trees In Thornborough Northern Henge

Tree Swing And Graffiti Etched Into Trees At Thornborough Northern Henge

Tree Swing And Graffiti Etched Into Trees At Thornborough Northern Henge

Diggers At West Tanfield Landfill Site

Diggers At West Tanfield Landfill Site

From here, I drove past the West Tanfield Landfill Site, parking just beyond there and walking along the road towards Thornborough.  Here you can see the cursus running along a North-South axis with the Central Henge in the middle.  I left the road and snuck into the field where the Central Henge is located and sat on the edge of the earth mound edges, sharing the day with rabbits who have made the earth embankments their home.  It is in this site that New Pagans celebrate their modern version of Beltane.  I measured the diameter of the circle as about 150 medium steps and the embankments are about 2 metres high; the official diameter is 250 metres and the circle of the henge has 2 entrances facing North and South.  Looking Northwards, you can see the Northern henge as trees in the distance, while the fields have been left to become wildflower meadow which was very pretty; there was a cock pheasant that flew away in alarm as well as 4 partridges that came out of some gorse.  It was peaceful sitting on the bank, even with the throbbing sounds of the digger in the distance and the regular rattle and crash of the trucks coming to collect the earth.

I will need to go back another day to find the Southern Henge as it isn’t easy to access (well you shouldn’t really access it at all).

View From Central Henge To Northern Henge

View From Central Henge To Northern Henge

Top End Of Central Henge At Thornborough Near Ripon

Top End Of Central Henge At Thornborough Near Ripon

Southern Curve Of Central Henge At Thornborough

Southern Curve Of Central Henge At Thornborough

View From Central Henge Towards Southern Henge

View From Central Henge Towards Southern Henge

Inspired And Humbled By Jennyruth Workshops

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Sometimes you visit some people, who really are so good and wonderful that it shames you a bit.  The people at Jennyruth Workshops are some of those unsung heroes that underpin every society in the world; they just get on with it, doing good work, day in day out and neither expect nor want any huge praise.  About a fortnight ago, I had been driving through Ripon as I do almost every day, but this time I had my eyes open when I stopped at the traffic lights on North Street and there was a display in one of the windows about Jennyruth Workshops and I thought I wonder whether they could craft us some spice racks.  So I arranged to meet with them and wow were they lovely, amazing people.

Jennyruth Workshops is a wood and metal craft workshop that provides people with disabilities the opportunities and skills to make things for sale.  Currently, there are about 16 colleagues with disabilities and 30 carers, most of whom give a little time here and there, but some are more permanent like Mark, one of the permanent helpers, who showed us around yesterday with Jonathan, one of the disabled workers, who has been there since the start as his father founded the place.  Jennyruth Workshops is based at Red Farm on the Newby Hall Estate in a large building that looks nondescript on the outside, but has been well built and finished inside with help from prisoners and soldiers.  Although Jennyruth Workshops has been around for some time, having been founded about 15 years ago by Jonathan’s father, it was opened in this new complex in 2004 by the Countess of Wessex

At Jennyruth, they make all sorts of items from bird and bat boxes through to meditation stools, as well as rainbow crosses and wooden clocks; they also make cards and sew products including some brilliant shopping bags from empty, hessian coffee bags donated by Betty & Taylors in Harrogate, who are big supporters of theirs.  They also do a lot of one-off items, for example there was a wooden sign for a toy library in Sharow in progress that was shaped as a giant teddy bear with each letter for “Borrowers Toy Library” being individually cut out and painted.  And Jonathan proudly showed us a farm that he had made with buildings and animals all cut from wood, pieced together and painted; I was awed by Jonathan’s pride, skill and enthusiasm for what is being done at Jennyruth Workshops.  Yesterday, there were also 2 teenage boys from The Forest School in Knaresborough (another amazing place) who were working on a week’s work experience and were busy screwing in the hinges on the kneeling-style meditation stool. 

What I love about the concept of what is being done at Jennyruth and many other similar places is they are trying to ensure that all the disabled workers get involved with every stage in the process from the cutting, through to the piecing together, the painting and varnishing, the packing up and dispatching, so there is no Smith-style division of labour.  It is, therefore, a fun and meaningful place to work.

I was humbled by them all and hang my head in shame that I never help enough, getting so wrapped up in our own relatively mundane and small problems of the daily grind.

What Sophie and I would like to do is start by selling a few of their items on the Steenbergs web site, such as bird and bat boxes and perhaps meditation stools and hopefully spice racks.  We would simply sell them at Jennyruth’s retail price, so making not a penny on these ourselves, and see what happens.  If it becomes popular, then we may add a few extra items, but more importantly we would seek to widen the circle of other great places that also work with people with disabilities and bring their products to our customers on the same “no profit for Steenbergs basis”, since we are all concerned that customers are aware that making such products takes time and that neither Jennyruth Workshops nor places like Botton Village up at Danby are factories but wondrous, traditional crafting places for people with disabilities who should be treated respectfully.

I think it is sad that we as a culture are great at buying ethnic products from the developing world that are fairly traded, but that there is not such a great network for selling products made by people in our own country whether with learning disabilities or just trying to get started and out of a poverty trap.  As they say, charity starts at home, so let’s see if we can develop this more. 

What do others think?

Other Climate Change Indicators

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Other than temperature, there are a few more indicators of climate change that are studied, which I will cover in overview here as promised in one of my earlier blogs.

Firstly, there is sea level rise.  The first thing to say about sea level rise is that the melting of the Arctic Ice Sheet does not increase the sea levels as you are simply replacing the volume of ice with the same of water.  Sea level rise comes mainly from the expansion of the water volume as the temperature of the oceans rises, plus just under half from the melting of land based ice such as on Antarctica or Greenland’s glaciers or over North America.  However, while there is definitely sea level rise, it is not that scary being of the order of centimetres rather than metres.  So we have historic sea level rises of 1.7mm to 3mm (after 1993) per annum  during the 20th century, or 20cm over 1900 to 2000, with forecast sea level rises of about 4mm every year reaching a total rise of 22cm to 44cm by 2090 from a base date of 1990. 

There is the remote possibility of a massive ice sheet melt from the Antarctic but this is viewed by the IPCC as a millenium scale event, i.e. really, really unlikely; in fact, increased precipitation is expected to continue with extra snowfall falling onto the Antarctic and so thickening the ice cap on the South Pole!  For a more detailed and easy to understand slide show go to this one on Slideshare.

Next, there is the increasing acidity of the oceans.  As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, so more of this in dissolved in the oceans and waters of the world; other gases like nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide also dissolve in water creating further acids, but here I am focussing on carbon dioxide.  The oceans act as an important sink or buffer for human activity, having absorbed over 80% of the heat added to the climate system and 30% of the human-derived carbon emissions over the last 200 years.  This point which has passed me by probably goes some way to explaining my earlier query as to why the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is not so direct, i.e. because the water in the oceans, rivers and lakes dampens the impact [pun unitended but I like it] and takes up much of the initial heat and some of the increase in carbon dioxide and other gases. 

The ocean pH is about 0.1 pH units below the pre-industrial averages at around 8.1 and is forecast to fall another 0.4 to 0.4 pH units by 2100.  The impact directly on humans is minimal, however there is concern as to the impact on calcifying organisms that require carbonates to build their shells; a falling pH reduces the availability of carbonate in the water for corals, bivalves, crustaceans and plankton, which would then have implications on marine food webs and ecosystems.  These are simply explained at the following link and then there’s more detail on the oceans and coral reefs at the great web site Climate Shifts and on the BBC.

So we have further climate indicators that are showing that man is shaping the earth’s climate through his/her agricultural and industrial activity.

Sprouting Beans

Friday, June 25th, 2010

We have just put Just Wholefoods Organic Sprouting Bean Mix onto Steenbergs web shop.  I remember my mum used to grow mung bean sprouts in a Kilner jar at home which was quite fun and tasted really fresh and crunchy in salads or used in a stir fry.  So in memory of those angry days in the late 1970s, we have been growing the seeds in large jars in Steenbergs office to see how well they work.

Sprouting Seeds - Day One

Sprouting Seeds - Day One

Day 5 - Smaller Seeds Sprouted

Day 5 - Smaller Seeds Sprouted

Day 5 - Enjoying The Small Seed Sprouts on Spelt Bread

Day 5 - Enjoying The Small Seed Sprouts on Spelt Bread

Big Seeds Starting To Sprout

Big Seeds Starting To Sprout

How Do Global Warming, Greenhouse Gases And The Earth’s Orbit All Link Together?

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

I’ve written a number of blogs now where I try to get to grips with some of the numbers underlying global warming.  So far, I agree that the historic figures do demonstrate global warming over the last 100+ years within a relatively wide band of possible growth rates, and that the evidence shows that the levels of carbon dioxide have increased since about 1950.  Furthermore, the science behind the link between carbon dioxide, methane and the greenhouse effect (and so global warming) is simple science that has been known for many years; in fact, global warming/the greenhouse effect is science that enables life on earth as without it our planet would have an inhospitable temperature closer to -18oC, i.e. it heats up the earth by about 33oC already to 15oC.

What interests me next is how have temperatures and greenhouse gases moved in the past? I will try and analyse this by looking at some neat science that analyses climate data over a longer period.  This will get to the nub of the issue, i.e. what is driving global warming, plus may answer my two current quandaries: (i) why isn’t global warming being driven exponentially by the very obvious and definite growth in CO2 per the Mauna Loa graphs? (ii) why do the predictive models of climate scientists suggest that we should be preparing for increases of 2 – 4oC for the next 100 years, while history shows global warming is more like 1oC over the last 100 or so years?

To work this out, some scientists look at what happened at the end of earlier ice ages as this hints at the mechanics of atmospheric and other climatic changes.  There are several pieces of research that suggest how temperature and greenhouse gases interact – one strand looks at climate data in stalagmites in caves in China and the other is a series of classic pieces of climate change science around ice core data from the Antarctic.  I’ll deal with the Antarctic first.

The first one is pretty neat.  It is based on the fact that when snow falls it traps air in small bubbles within its structure.  Then as more snow falls the next year, this new layer not only brings its own store of information about air quality, snowfall, temperature and levels of greenhouse gases, but it permanently seals off the information stored in the previous year’s snowfall.  Over time, we get left with an annual layering of data that goes back for ages and ages in the Antarctic, as well as in the Arctic especially on Greenland.  Scientists have now dug vertical small circular shafts into the ice and then, after chopping up these ice cores, have analysed the information from them – there’s a video on Youtube that shows you what the scientists do.  Data collated from other similar projects basically corroborates information found in this much earlier paper, which was published back in 1999 by Petit et al (detailed reference at end).

In essence, Petit et al were able to drill down 3,130m, covering 420,000 years and providing a climate record through four climate cycles.  They found that temperatures are constantly changing, but always within given maximum and minimum levels.  They found that when concentrations of greenhouse gases (specifically CO2 and CH4) in the atmosphere went up, global temperatures, also, went up and vice versa.  They concluded “[f]inally, CO2 and CH4 concentrations are strongly correlated with Antarctic temperatures; this is because, overall, our results support the idea that greenhouse gases have contributed significantly to glacial-interglacial change.  This correlation, together with the uniquely elevated concentrations of these gases today, is of relevance with respect to the continuing debate on the future of earth’s climate.” (Petit et al, 1999).

However, they also stated earlier that “[t]hese results suggest that the same sequence of climate forcing operated during each termination [of a glacial period]: orbital forcing (with a possible contribution of local insolation changes) followed by two strong amplifiers, greenhouse gases acting first, then deglaciation and ice-albedo feedback.” (Petit et al, 1999).  This suggests to me that greenhouse gases, the melting of the ice caps and the positive feedback caused by white ice turning to dark seas usually act as amplifiers of changes in temperatures caused by other factors such as changes in solar energy caused by changes to the earth’s orbit, which gets me back to one of my original quandaries – what is driving climate change and so what happens when you have the amplifiers without necessarily the increased temperatures resulting from either a more active sun or a change in the earth’s orbit?

The next paper I read was in New Scientist only a couple of weeks ago and is also pretty cool.  This work is trying to understand the end of glacial periods by analysing stalagmites in caves in China and interlink this with known changes in the shape of the earth’s orbit – now how amazing is that?  Since then, I have been reading the original scientific papers, hence the time delay in writing this blog.

Firstly, we need to start with the concept of Milankovitch’s theories on the earth’s orbits.  Milutin Milankovitch undertook detailed calculations on the earth’s three main orbital cycles.  So, for example, every 41,000 years the tilt of the earth’s axis increases and decreases, making summers hotter and colder respectively.  It’s summer temperatures that are important as this is what drives the potential for ice packs to melt over time, rather than winter temperatures which just create more ice.  So from 2.5 million years ago to about 1 million years ago the ice ages occurred based on these cycles.  However, around 1 million years ago to the end of the last ice age, glacial periods started occurring every 100,000ish years.  This links in potentially with another orbital cycle of 95,000 – 125,000 years, but here the science is less strong and debate still rages as to what is actually happenning. 

Liu et al have measured oxygen-18 in stalagmites in several caves in China.  Water containing oxygen-18 is heavier than normal oxygen-16 and so condenses more easily, so heavy monsoonal air loses much of its oxygen-18 as it moves inland and each year a record is left on the stalagmites.  As each glacial period ends, the summer monsoons became much weaker than normally and so the oxygen-18 levels in stalagmites increased.  Their evidence showed that monsoons failed in the last four glacial terminations, or as they write “[t]his climate pattern, broadly resembling other cave records from China, appears to correlate with multi-decadal to millennial changes in Greenland temperature and the general pattern of the wind-borne calcium ion record in the ice.”  In fact, work on a stalagmite from the Dongge Cave in China agrees exactly (within error) with the Vostok ice core records of Petit et al, showing methane rise in the atmosphere at 129,000BP.

Further work has shown that CO2 and CH4 levels increase at the same time as the ice packs at the poles decrease, suggesting that the reduction in ice is actually causing the rise in CO2 and CH4.  It is suggested that as the tilt of the earth’s axis changes this increases the temperature of the earth and the ice sheet over North America flows into the Antarctic, which interferes with and then stops the circulation of water around the oceans, which normally keeps the southern hemisphere warmer and the northern cooler (the so-called Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation).  As the southern seas warm up, CO2 is released into the atmosphere as CO2 is less soluble in warm water than cold and so further increasing the impact of the higher temperatures from the sun.  In effect, over the last 400,000 years, whenever the tilt of the earth’s axis reached a maximum, the intensity of sunshine increased (based on insolation in July at 60o north), CO2 levels increased to a maximum, relative sea levels also increased to maxima, all correlating with the strength of the Asian monsoon.

All of this comes from ice core data, analysis of stalagmites and other stores of climate data like coral reefs.  That in itself is amazing.  Then there is agreement in climate records going back many hundreds of thousands of years that correlate with each other across the world and using different techniques and types of ancient, geological record.

Finally, I would like briefly mention another set of amazing work by Zachos et al in the US which tries to get to grips with temperature and atmospheric gases in deeper time in the order of millions of years ago.  They have analysed various types of proxy data in deep sea cores of rocks to determine temperature and carbon in earth’s history and have tried to relate this to events in the geology of the earth and evolution, so developing a framework for the development of the earth’s climate over a much longer timescale.  What I like about these pieces of research is not just how clever they are, but also because Bjørn Lomborg uses them in a section trying to refute the science within climate change work in his book “Cool it – the skeptical environmentalist’s guide to global warming” – he has a tendency to misquote, or at least to quote out of context, as well as jumble up numbers and data to make his own points, which are often at odds with what the original scientists actually have stated.  Just like Nigel Lawson, Bjørn Lomborg has authority when it comes to economic and political discussions around climate change, but they sometimes get it wrong when they try and refute the science; most of their errors stem from two simple problems: (i) they don’t understand the scientific process; and (ii) they mistake/confuse weather for climate.  I will try and get back to Lomborg’s book “Cool It” some time and show how he shoots himself in the foot at times by blatantly altering the available research to suit his arguments.

The research by Zachos et al shows that carbon and temperature are correlated at least to about 34 million years ago at the edge of the Eocene and Oligocene Ages, which is when the Antarctic Ice-sheets became fairly permanent, and that there is correlation with the orbit of the earth around the sun even if the impact is sometimes relatively weak over millions of years.  Prior to then, getting clarity in the temperature and carbon dioxide levels gets ever harder and we find that the linkage between carbon levels and temperature is much less clear and even perhaps non-existent, however later research by Zachos et al indicates that this lack of correlation may not be as extreme as some researchers have indicated and is perhaps simply a result of lack of experimental data.  The other interesting occurrence is that whenever there has been a sudden change in temperature this has also been accompanied by a similarly sudden change in carbon; these occurred at 23, 34 and 55 million years ago.  Later research at the 34 million years ago tipping point suggests that carbon dioxide is a key factor in climate transition; Pagani et al (2005) showed that “[i]n detail, a trend toward lower CO2 concentrations during the middle to late Eocene, reaching levels at the E[ocene]/O[ligocene] boundary that could have triggered the rapid expansion of ice on east Antarctica; and work by Pearson et al (2009) indicates that there was a fall in atmospheric carbon dioxide at 34 million years ago that triggered climate transition to an ice-house world and “[t]his study reaffirms the links between cryosphere development and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at the largest and most important climatic tipping point of the last 65 million years.”

However, when you look at research into climate over such a long time period, you realise pretty quickly that long term climate progression is the sum of many different processes and that it is far more complex than any of the commentators and scientists would have everyone believe, plus that correlation does not necessarily mean causation.

In overview, we know that the earth’s general temperature, hence climate, has gone up and down over time dependent on the earth’s tilt and orbital shape, i.e. effectively how close the earth gets to the sun during its orbit and so how much solar energy gets to the earth.  These changes in temperatures are then further affected by the earth’s environment, especially the levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, the ice sheets and the ice-albedo effect.  In addition, climate gets impacted by a whole raft of other factors ranging from geological through to biological, which is a point that I will get back to in a later blog.

The science, therefore, does show that the basic greenhouse effect has impacted climate in the earth’s past and present and so will affect it in the future, but that it is not the only factor that impacts climate nor perhaps the most important climate factor over longer time periods.  Furthermore, while the research does indicate that sudden changes in carbon dioxide often occur with quick moves in climate, it doesn’t explain the consequences of these amplification or forcing impacts on our future climate, so that’s my next journey and is where I will need to start investigating the computer models devised by climate scientists to predict the climate in the future.

Before I go there, however, I would like to round off this section of my journey around global warming /climate change with a look at some of the other indicators of current global warming, such as sea levels and sea acidity just to round off the historical and current status of climate indicators.


Battersby, S. (2010) Meltdown: Why ice ages don’t last forever, New Scientist, issue 2761, 24 May 2010, Available on the Internet at (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Kelly, M. J., Edwards, R.L., Cheng, H., Yuan, D., Cai, Y., Zhang, M., Lin, Y., An, Z. (2005) High resolution characterization of the Asian Monsoon between 146,000 and 99,000 B.P. from Dongge Cave, China and global correlation of events surrounding Termination II, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 236 (2006), 20 -38, Available from the Internet at (Accessed 2 June 2010)

Liu, D., Wang, Y., Cheng, H., Edwards, R.L., Kong, X., Wang, X., Hardt, B., Wu, J., Chen, S., Jiang, X., He, Y., Dong, J., Zhao, K. (2010) Sun-millennial variability of Asian monsoon intensity during the early MIS 3 and its analogue to the ice age terminations, Quaternary Science Reviews 29 2010, 1107 – 1115, Available on the Internet at (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Pagani, M., Zachos, J.C., Freeman, K.H., Tipple, B., Boahty, S. (2005) Marked Decline in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentrations During the Paleogene, Science 309, 600,  22 July 2005, Available on the Internet from (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Pearson, P.N., Foster, G.L., Wade, B.S. (2009) Atmospheric carbon dioxide through the Eocene-Ologocene climate transition, Nature 461, 1110- 1114, 22 October 2009 Available on the Internet from (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Petit, J.R., Jouzel, J., Raynaud, D., Barkov, N.I., Barnola, J-M., Basile, I., Bender, M., Chappellaz, J., Davis, M., Delaygue, G., Delmotte, M., Kotlyakov, V.M., Legrand, M., Lipenkov, V.Y., Lorius, C., Pepin, L., Ritz, C., Saltzman, E., Stievenard, M. (1999) Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica, Nature, Vol 399, 3 June 1999, Available on the Internet from (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E., Billups, K. (2001) Trends, Rhythms, and Aberrations in Global Climate 65 Ma to Present, Science 292, 686, 27 April 2001, Available on the Internet from (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Review of Mens Shaving Range at Steenbergs

Monday, June 14th, 2010

I have been looking at our range of shaving and other mens products at Steenbergs over the last few weeks to see whether we can improve it further.  As modern hippies, I like being clean shaven so growing a beard was never on the cards, but I have tried to pick some different products that are not available on the high street.  For example, I like the Somerset’s range and have been recommended it by various punters as being great for sensitive skin, but you can get their products in Boots, Ocado, Sainsburys, Waitrose and on their own web site already, so I didn’t get the point of those as we could never get near their prices.

I  – Axel Steenberg – like the Lavera range of men’s products as these have been devised by Thomas Haas at Laverana, who has been making natural cosmetics since 1987.  As a sufferer of neurodermatitis, he is very aware of making skincare products that are delicate on the skin and moisturising.  Laverana uses natural raw plant materials as the base of its skincare ranges, which are grown organically as much as possible, and their products are completely free from classic nasties like industrial chemicals such as perfumes, colourants and preservatives.  And everything is tested on volunteers, as well as by skin and allergy specialists.

These Lavera Men’s Products are some of the most ethical products you will find on the market, and they work.  I have been shaving with the Shaving Cream for some weeks now and it gives a great close shave that’s comparable to my normal traditional soap and brush shave, and is not as aggressive on your skin.  I tend to finish the shave by using a natural coconut oil moisturiser that replaces the lost oils during the harshness of the traditional single blade razor that I use, but we also have the Lavera After Shave Balm for anyone who would prefer a more refreshing and disinfecting after shave experience.

These new Lavera shaving, after shave balm and deodorants complement very well Steenbergs Weleda range of Shaving Creams that are based on biodynamic herbal products.  Both ranges are excellent and far superior for the skin and the environment compared to high street brands and own label supermarket brands.

I have also been trying the Thermal Mud Range of Male Grooming Kit that are based on thermal mud from boiling mud pools around Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island.  The thermal mud is sterilized, then refined to remove any traces of volcanic ash.  The Thermal Mud is packed full of natural minerals and has a high affinity for moisture, so is highly restorative for the skin. 

Parrs Shaving Gel gives a nice clean shave – it looks a yucky, grey sludgy colour that comes out clear on the skin and allows the razor to run smoothly over your face.  It’s a bit strange actually seeing your skin whilst shaving, having spent the last 25 years scraping away at white foam or soap from a classic shaving cream or soap.  I found that it was easier to shave with than the soap that I normally use and did not irritate the skin; overall, it gives a slightly less close shave than the Lavera Shaving Cream but the upside is that you will get fewer nicks while shaving.  I then treated my face afterwards with the Thermal Mud Moisturiser which usefully comes with a sun protection in it – something I like all men are bad at putting on.

In addition, Steenbergs has included other Thermal Mud products including After Shave Balm, Soap, Shower Gel and a Facial Scrub.

None of these products need a shaving brush and can be used like a normal shaving cream from the high street, so you can replace your Boots  or Gillette shaving foams with these.  They are much less aggressive on your skin and pretty quickly will make your skin much happier, less dry and more glowing.

The new men’s skincare products complement earlier additions to Steenbergs range of male grooming items, including safety razors from Parker and Merkur, traditional shaving soaps and creams from Cyril Salter and Taylors of Bond Street.

My top shave currently is: Parker 90R safety razor, Wilkinson Sword blades (simply, still the best), fake badger brush with traditional shaving soap, followed by after shave treatment with coconut oil to moisturise the skin.  But I am about to trial a Mühle R89 that seems like another great bit of German engineering!

Recipe – French Tomato Tart

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

The other day my parents visited from Northumberland, and as it was a gorgeous sunny Thursday, I plucked up the courage to try one of David Lebovitz’s recipes.  It’s always a matter of bravery as I am in awe at other people’s ability to make seemingly perfect pastry as mine rarely seems to meet the challenge adequately, or perhaps I am just constantly craving for an unachievable better taste. 

This particular pastry was a lot wetter than those I am normally used to, but it came out a wonderful rich and flakey texture that was just perfect.  As always, my available ingredients and equipment did not match the original recipe, but they seemed to work pretty well, so here is my annotated recipe. 

This is great summer food and works in the same flavour bracket as my Summer Vegetable Tart, which is one of my stock in trade recipes; I found it in a newspaper so long ago that I have lost the original clipping and cannot even remember who to thank (so thank you whoever created the original recipe).


For the pastry

210g (7½ oz) Organic plain flour, sieved
½ teaspoon Natural sea salt, sieved with plain flour
125g (4½ oz) Unsalted butter, chopped into small cubes and softened
1 Free range egg, large
2 tablespoons Cold water

For the tomato filling

2 teaspoons Grainy mustard
2 – 3 Large ripe tomatoes, finely sliced
1 Small orange pepper or ½ a yellow sweet pepper
2 tablespoons Olive oil
1 teaspoon Sea salt and pepper or Steenbergs Perfect Salt seasoning
2 tablespoons Fresh thyme and chives, chopped finely
125g (4oz) Goat’s cheese, finely sliced

  1. Preheat the oven to 200oC / 390oF.
  2. You can use frozen shortcrust or puff pastry or make your own as we do here in this recipe.  Firstly, you need to sieve together the organic plain flour and the sea salt.  Next put in the softened butter cubes and rub with your fingertips into the organic plain flour until you get to a breadcrumbs’ consistency.
  3. In a separate bowl, add together the cold water and the free range egg.  Whisk together lightly and then tip into the plain flour mixture and stir together using a knife.  This pastry is a pretty damp, glutinous mixture.
    Making Pate Brisee

    Making Pastry - Pouring In Egg/ Water Mix


    Rolling Out The Pastry

    Rolling Out The Pastry

  4. I then quickly greased two 15cm wide flan dishes, then rolled out the pastry and lined each of the flan dishes, using my fingers to get the pastry into the edges.  I kept a little bit of the pastry over the edges of the flan dish, cutting off the remnants and letting the kids eat those – you could use them to make some extra mini tarts or save them for later.  Spread the mustard evenly over the pastry base and then put this in oven to start the baking process for about 10 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, I sliced the tomatoes and goat’s cheese thinly and prepared the orange peppers by chopping them into smallish pieces.  I picked some fresh herbs from the garden and chopped these finely.
  6. Remove the part-baked pastry from the oven and then arrange over this the chopped tomatoes, sprinkle over the chopped colourful pepper and fresh herbs, plus the salt and pepper or Steenbergs organic Perfect Salt seasoning.  Drizzle over the olive oil, then arrange the goat’s cheese over the top.

    Drizzling Olive Oil Over Tomatoes

    Drizzling Olive Oil Over Tomato Tart

  7. Cook for 20 – 25 minutes in the oven.
  8. You can either serve this warm or (as I prefer) cold with new potatoes and salad.
Cooked French Tomato Tart

French Tomato Tart

Steenbergs Has Improved Our Range Of Household Cleaning Products

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Did you know that one of my first jobs was in the Pets & Cleaning Department in Fenwick’s in Newcastle?  And ever since, I have had a strange and haunting obsession for Household Cleaning products.  Well, I am not really that fascinated in them, but we have been keen to get our Household Cleaning products right, i.e. good for the environment and vegetarian and alternative.

Our biggest problem has been that Ecover has the largest and most easily accessible range, but their products are everywhere from Tesco through to small health stores, plus they do add some less than brilliant things into their products and are not vegan anymore.  We’re down to a few pots of Ecover Stain Remover and then we’re done with them as a brand.  Finally and this is a big one, the performance has to be decent as I have found some of the green Household Cleaning products pretty rubbish so you may as well not bother with them – your clothes go grey, your floor never gets clean and they sometimes even curdle in the bottle!

Steenbergs has now got a good range of alternative brands that we feel gives you – our customer – a decent choice of green and ethical alternatives.  You may not like all of them or might find some do not perform as well as you would dream, but you must remember that our choice of Household Cleaning products will never be as aggressive in their action as the traditional high street brands like Domestos or Flash or Cif as these are packed full of industrial chemicals that we just don’t want.  But we use these greener products at home and some of them – for example the Alma Win range – got me positively excited as the floor cleaner actually worked as I worked my mop around on our tiled floor.

The range is now based around cleaning kit from Alma Win , Earth Friendly and Ecoleaf (Suma’s brand of cleaning products).  In addition, we’ve got natural incense based fresh smells from Colibri (incense sticks, shoe odour neutralisers and wool protectors), soap nut washing balls and dryer balls from Ecozone , natural fibre nailbrushes, vegetable washing brushes and washing up brushes and scourers made from luffas and coconut shells that do a pretty good job, plus recycled scourers and clothes pegs from Ecoforce – the clothes pegs are brilliant and come from recycled plastics while Traidcraft’s Fair Trade rubber gloves really got me jumping up and down for joy – loved them but then I am a bit sad about these things.  Then there’s Veggi Wash to get all those nasty chemicals and waxes off your fruit and veg that you didn’t manage to grow in your allotment or garden.

For me, it was Alma Win that got me truly excited and finally happy that our range had become pretty much sorted.  A few samples just came randomly in the post, so I tried them at home and found that they were better than most of the other brands we had come across and their range slotted in nicely, allowing us to drop Ecover dishwasher tablets that we had been finding a sticking point in our range. 

Alma Win is a range of German products – in fact some of the things we’re selling only come with German labels so apologies there – and they’re biodegradeable and suitable for vegans and vegetarians unlike Ecover, and they’re kind to the skin and should over time help to reduce the UK’s high rates of allergies like hayfever, asthma and eczema.  They’re also certified as organic by EcoGarantie in Belgium which none of the other ranges are yet, being based on organically grown plant ingredients and not made in a massive chemical plant in Ellesmere Port or somewhere like that.  So their products don’t have any of the following nasty gunk in them that you will find in many of the high street brands – optical brighteners, parabens, petrochemicals, phosphates, chlorine, bulking agents, silicone, borium, colour additives, ethoxylated raw materials and genetically modified enzymes.

Please tell us what we are missing in this range and we will see what we can do.

Ripon Water Walks – Along The Ure

Monday, May 31st, 2010

I mentioned in my first blog about walks in Ripon in North Yorkshire that I did not believe that Ripon had only been settled as a monastery in 650AD.  I believe this basic historical fact about Ripon’s history even less now after walking along the River Ure.  Firstly, wherever you walk along the Ure and also nearly everywhere you are in the Dallamires area south of the River Skell, you are watched over by the brooding presence of Ripon Cathedral.  It seems to be watching you, eyeing you up and saying: what are you doing, where are you going and are you sure you should really be doing that because I am watching you?  Secondly, Hewick Bridge by one of the markers that indicate the edge of the sanctuary of Ripon was an important bridge in the Roman times connecting a settlement near the bridge/river with Isurium Brigantium, the major Roman town that is now the ancient village of Aldborough.  There is no physical evidence just the circumstantial thoughts of someone who has walked the land and feels that this was just too good a location to ignore.

On Saturday 23rd May, which was a warm and sunny evening after a scorching day, I parked my car on Magdalen’s Road and started my walk along the footpath over North Bridge Green.  North Bridge Green is a floodplain for the River Ure that stretches from the north side of North Bridge and follows the south side of the River Ure as it arcs round from the Bridge to where it meets with the River Skell by Fisher Green.  It is public land that floods regularly and is a green swathe of grass, however it would be great if more trees were planted, which would allow the ground to hold more water when the river is in spate and would also give more woodland for local biodiversity to thrive.

It’s a gentle 30 minute walk along the edge of the river, which languidly flows towards the Skell.  The water had a peaty brown hue to it and looked temptingly cool on an evening like it was.  There are shingle beeches every so often that you can wander down to and watch the river flow past, look for fish, watch the ducks swimming and the insects swarming on the water.  There were some teenagers enjoying skimming stones across the water, but most were enjoying the delights of “Over the Rainbow – The Final”  or some other TV delight.

Hidden Bench By River Ure

Hidden Bench By River Ure

Around half way around, the land rises to a small height where you can look across to Ripon Cathedral as it keeps an eye on you, before you slide back down to river height.  As you get closer to the meeting of the Rivers Ure and Skell, there’s an old bench hidden beneath bushes and covered in nettles, where once there must have been a lovely river view – a romantic sign of decay – while a newer bench by the meeting of the rivers has no seat and just the concrete base – a sign simply of neglect.  Once again, you can turnaround and see Ripon Cathedral checking up on you…

View Back To Ripon Cathedral

View From Skell To Ripon Cathedral

At  Fisher Green, we cross over the stepping stones across the River Skell and then follow the footpath along the south side past Yorkshire Water’s wastewater treatment plant coming out on a field called The Green, which is opposite Ripon Race Course.  It flooded here last December after a snow melt in the Yorkshire Dales and covered over the road, and the field itself floods at least once every winter.

Hewick Bridge In Ripon , Yorkshire

Hewick Bridge In Ripon , Yorkshire

Sanctuary Marker By Hewick Bridge

Sanctuary Marker By Hewick Bridge

At Hewick Bridge, you need to be careful as you cross the bridge as it’s busy and there’s no footpath.  Just over Hewick Bridge, there’s a footpath and a sanctuary marker that marks the start of a walk called the Sanctuary Walk, where you can walk around the ancient limits of one league from the monastery.  We just use the part that goes along the northern banks of the River Ure.  A few yards in from the start there is a concrete section that goes into the river and comes out the other side – I always thought this was a car park but apparently this is where tanks used to cross over the river.

This section of the walk to Sharrow and back to North Bridge takes another hour, bringing the total walk time to a good 2 hours.  This section is a decent walk in the countryside, save for the sound of cars constantly moving.  Soon you blot these out and can hear only the sounds of the birds with their evening chorus – swallows, thrush, ducks, blackbirds, pigeons, the high pitched chirrup chirrup of house martins and then the loud honking of a couple of geese as they flew overhead like 2 bombers.  The trees and flowers alongside the river were in full bloom – hawthorn, chestnut, white butterbur, nettles, wild garlic, bluebells and then you had the white parachute seed heads of the the Old Man’s Clock’s and downy female catkins on some small shrubby willow bushes (I think it’s a type of Osier Willow or Salix viminalis as the leaves are definitely spear shaped, but I am not convinced about this), as well as a patch of forget-me-nots in the middle of nowhere as if someone had just dropped a pack of seeds as they wandered idly by.

Forget-me-nots Among White Butterbur

Forget-me-nots Among White Butterbur

As I got to the point that the Rivers Ure and Skell meet, I walked through nettles and elder, climbed over an ineffectual fence and clambered down the riverbank and stood over the river on the trunk of an elder tree and took a picture of the confluence.  It was probably not worth the effort as it was decidely undramatic, but it was something I had been keen to do, and it satisfied a curiosity.  I still need to find the meeting places of the Ure with the Ouse Beck and also Kex Beck with the River Laver, having found the meeting between the Rivers Skell and Laver earlier.

Meeting Of Rivers Ure and Skell In Ripon In Yorkshire

Meeting Of Rivers Ure and Skell In Ripon In Yorkshire

Near here it is worth looking east towards the Blackamoor Pub and looking over the perfectly landscaped farmland and the patches of Van Goghian yellow of rapeseed flowers, then to the north a derelict farmhouse that I will explore another day.

View Back To Blackamoor Pub

View Back To Blackamoor Pub

Beware Of Witches And The Gruffalo

Beware Of Witches And The Gruffalo

Two-thirds of the way along, you follow a pathway off the river bank and upwards onto Bell Bank, which is a National Trust owned wood that’s about 30 metres above the Ure.  It’s a steep slope upwards covered in trees clinging to the riverbank, so there’s an out-of-place sign warning those who enter the wood that they do so at their own risk – what of: witches or the gruffalo or that I might not notice the steep slope down to the river.  The wood was shaded and dappled with the setting sun and with patches of bluebells here and there, adding a colour contrast to the greens and browns of the woodland.

As you come out of the wood, you get a good glimpse of Ripon Cathedral staring at you, then you are down and nearly out at Sharrow.  As you follow the path along, you go under the Duchess of Kent Bridge, then out and over North Bridge.  Cross over to the opposite side of the bridge and look over the floodplain at one of Ripon’s curiosities – a white wigwam, why?  And you’re back at Magdalen’s Road.

White Teepee Near North Bridge In Ripon

White Teepee By North Bridge In Ripon In Yorkshire

Thinking about it, do you know what I hardly have seen when I do these short potters – people fishing.  Only once have I seen someone and that was in the centre of Ripon, but few people seem to be sitting on the bank, idling their time away trying to catch brown trout or whatever is in the river.  I know there are fishers out there, but where are they hiding?

PS: I must get a filter for my camera as I regularly get the blue sky whiting out in the photos I am taking.

Can We Save Ourselves From Global Warming?

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

I went to a public lecture by Professor John Beddington who is currently Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government.  He was lecturing on Climate Change as a University of York Biology lecture.  And yesterday he was back in London attacking climate sceptics who mistake weather for climate change and so on.

I am slowly trying to understand the science in more detail, having understood the basics since I did science way back when, plus I have even set myself out on doing an Open University degree on Environmental Science/Studies to improve my understanding of these issues.  So I guess I am now an advanced layman rather than much further on than that.

So what came out for me in his lecture was not whether or not climate change or global warming exists – it does and the science is clear, even if there are gaps in getting to a total understanding on the subject.  We know that quantum physics works even though there are gaps, while we know that evolution occurs and that alternative routes co-exist with it, such as horizontal gene transfer.  Gaps and alternatives do not necessarily negate the core scientific theory.

What struck me were 2 slides:

  1. One slide on annual deployment rates for alternatives, lower carbon emission energy sources.  I didn’t have time to take down all the data but it did include 32 new nuclear plants per annum, 215 million m2 of solar panels annually, 3750 offshore wind turbines every year etc etc.  That’s just an awesome task.  It chimed with some thoughts in Stewart Brand’s recent book “Whole Earth Discipline”.
  2. His final slide – which Professor Beddington called The Perfect Storm, where he stated that we must not forget that there are more scientific issues impacting environmental issues than just climate change.  He said that we have the interaction of the following – population growth and a population that will peak at 8-9 billion people, increased urbanisation and the fact that most people live in cities now and this will continue to increase, a lower relative number of poor in the world which will increase levels of consumption and (finally) climate change.  Once again that’s a tough set of environmental drivers to deal with.

For me, this begs the question whether you can marry up the economics that building all this new energy infrastructure requires with the fact that increases in population, urban living and consumption (as a by-product of reduced relative levels of poor) will demand ever greater levels of electricity and they want it now.  Also, if we need these levels of deployment, we better get a shift on and start sorting it out really, really fast.

Which brings me on to nimbyism (the not-in-my-back-yard syndrome) – how will all these new alternative power sources be put into place within the UK’s current planning regime.  Nuclear power – which must be in the energy mix – is hated by people near proposed plants while even near us in Melmerby in North Yorkshire, people are already campaigning against a putative wind farm nearby (it’s not even got further than a bit of scoping by a possible wind energy business).  If we all go around saying, we need to sort out climate change but we ain’t going to let you put your wind farm or nuclear plant next to us, we will never get off first base.  To get this scale of change in the energy supply for the UK, and other countries, politicians will need to become heavy-handed and force through building, while also making the financial returns more pallatable for businesses as these new forms of energy do not have acceptable short term returns, rather a very long and dull economic return.  This all chimes against my own views on liberalism – personal and economic freedom.

Good luck to you all – politicians and scientists.  You have my full support, but it’s going to be really hard to get this all done, especially when you have so many other shorter term demands on your empty pot of money.