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7 December 2015

Raising Cash for Solar Aid

Yard sale

I'm exhausted this morning after doing the grunt work for my sons' yard sale yesterday. Every year the boys raise cash for Solar Aid, but this summer they saw the multifarious yard sales in Portland and decided to import a little of that to Newcastle. It was a lovely event with friends, neighbours and the occasional passerby having a good rummage through our old stuff.

solar lampThey raised £168 – enough for 54 of Solar Aid's signature solar lamps/phone chargers (right). These bring clean electricity into remote villages allowing kids to study at night without choking on kerosene fumes and people to charge portable electronics. The lamps aren't given away, instead Solar Aid creates social enterprises, creating employment and ensuring the recipient values them. That hits all kinds of buttons for me (I believe hand outs can often do more harm than good).


It was a good introduction to the world of commerce for the boys – these guys would skin The Apprentice candidates with nary a shiny suit in sight!

You can see more about Solar Aid & donate here.



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7 September 2015

One photo beats a million statistics

me and charlie IILast Thursday morning, with a lump in my throat, I finished the newspaper and folded it carefully. I didn't want the kids to see the pictures of the lifeless body of three year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lying in the surf on a Turkish beach. Later in the day, I came into our living room to find Charlie, our three year old, snoozing on the sofa in almost the same position, bum in the air, one arm along his body, the only difference his thumb stuck firmly in his mouth. I lifted him up and hugged him close, tears in my eyes.

Many people have asked why it took these pictures to make so many sit up and take notice when the refugee crisis has been building for so long. Countless other little kids have drowned in the Med, out of sight, their parents trying to get them to physical and economic safety, yet it is only now that the on-line petitions have started, charitable donations have surged and politicians have started to do something more than mouth platitudes.

The answer is human nature – we relate emotionally to individuals, not numbers. We cannot comprehend the six million-plus who perished in The Holocaust, so we focus on Anne Frank. By all accounts, Anne Frank was a perfectly normal little girl, who happened to keep a diary, caught up in one of the blackest periods in history. Her posthumous fame doesn't detract from the suffering of the millions of others, it simply helps us get out heads around it by scaling it down to the personal level we can engage with.

I've been aware of the refugee crisis for a long time, but the photos of little Aylan made me act - if only to sign petitions and pledge some cash. I feel guilty that I didn't made these small efforts months ago, and I'm certainly in no position to criticise others for 'jumping on the bandwagon' now. At the end of the day, we're just being human.


If you'd like to make a donation, The Guardian has a list of appropriate charities here. The petition to the UK Government is here.



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10 August 2015

Getting off the grid


Anyone noticing/blessing my absence on social media action for the last 6 days need fear no longer, I'm back on-line after 6 days camping at Lost Lake, 950m up in the Oregonian Cascades. It was absolutely wonderful too, with the backdrop of old growth forest and the towering Mt Hood like one of those cheesy 70s wilderness posters that many of us grew up with.

lost lake mt hood
Amazing wildlife, too. Just after I took the picture above, an Osprey dived to scoop a fish out of the lake and head back towards its perch. Our daily campsite routine was tolerated by ever entertaining chipmunks doing their chipmunk thing. The potential, if unrealised, appearance of a bear or even a cougar gave the stay a frisson we don't get back in Northumberland.

Despite the compromises of staying in a camping trailer on a site with running water, (compost) toilets, garbage bins and a store, I do like the way camping makes you very aware of your relationship with nature and the benefits/impacts of modern life. There is no way we could have survived here for more than a few days without food supplies. Finite gas/electrical power and a single rubbish bag and the need to empty waste water manually makes it very clear what you are consuming/wasting.

The absence of my favoured deluge of bite-sized internet information forced me into doing something I've let slip recently – reading books properly, 50-60 pages at a time, rather than in 10 page chunks. I'll be bringing something from one of those books, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, back to the business later in the week.

Anyway, this morning we're packing for an afternoon flight and I'll be home with the little 'uns tomorrow. Blogging will continue slightly erratically for the rest of the summer.



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23 July 2015

Greetings from sunny, sustainable Portland, Oregon

jimmy beer
So, I'm in sunny Portland with the family, recently declared the most sustainable city in the US by the Mother Nature Network and the second most sustainable in the world by Grist back in 2007 (annoyingly Portland wasn't included in the recent global sustainability ranking of 50 cities – other US cities were – so it is difficult to judge how it stands up against, say, Copenhagen.)

The city is renowned for being achingly hip, so much so it has even spawned its own sketch show, Portlandia. I overheard an unwittingly hilarious conversation at a cafe about the traumas of trying to survive on a vegetarian, gluten-free diet which could have been straight from the show. But the upside is organic food aplenty, craft beer (OK, we took the kids to a beer festival... above) and more people on bicycles than I've seen anywhere else  in the US (albeit in my limited experience).

Portland seems to be the Prius capital of the world – I've certainly never seen so many in one day's walking. But through European eyes, any carbon savings from the Prii will be more than obliterated by the sheer number of humungous SUVs which many Portlanders seem to drive for no discernible reason other than because they can. Even the hipsters seem to prefer unhealthy sounding elderly station wagons than something leaner, cleaner and more modern.

There's a drought on here. Not enough snow in the winter or rain in the spring has depleted reserves. Most people in this neighbourhood have respected calls not to water lawns – most are parched brown.

Last but not least, the people we have encountered so far are delightful. Not just the 'have a nice day' clichés, but ordinary passers -by going out of their way to be helpful to a family of Brits trying to negotiate a strange city.

Next week, I've got a meeting with the City Council to hear how they are delivering sustainability in the city – expect a post next week.


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20 July 2015

The holidays start here...

grass feet small

As of today, I'm on my usual summer mixture of holiday, work and childcare - blogs will be less frequent, less regular and more informal.

The good news is that for the next three weeks, I'll be based in Portland, Oregan, renowned as a sustainable city, and I've got a meeting booked with the City Council to hear what they've done and how they've done it. Salves my conscience a little for the most carbon-hungry trip I've taken in a decade...


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15 June 2015

The Wonders of Nature

We've had a very educational Spring chez Kane with our camera-rigged bird box hosting its first blue tit family. The video clip above shows the mother – 'Melody' – bringing in food and removing a fecal sac. Having watched the parents build the nest, lay the eggs, feed and brood the young and, finally, a quick glimpse of the fledgelings making their way in the world, we feel a bit sad that they've moved on.

But our attention has now moved on to our Painted Lady butterflies. A friend gave our boys a kit where we could see the caterpillars fatten themselves up and then move into a chrysalis and now the first one has emerged, stretching its wings, fastening the two sides of its proboscis together and expelling shockingly bright red meconium – basically all the poo it has stored up since it last ate. As Mrs K put it, when you see the magic a caterpillar does to become an adult, there's a long, long way for technology to go.

mands green wallNow you can watch all this stuff on Springwatch – and we do, religiously – but there is something about experiencing the joys of nature right in front of your eyes which can never be replicated. It is no surprise that 'eco-therapy' has been shown to help those with mental health problems, that nature is an interesting start point for engaging employees or the general public in sustainability (our local Nestlé factory kicked off the process with a butterfly garden), or that bringing nature into the urban core is becoming the in thing (see M&S's living wall in Newcastle, right).

But you don't have to think about all that, you can also just relax and enjoy it!


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26 May 2015

Going Wild in Northumberland

humbleton hill

I've just spent a wonderful long weekend doing exactly the same thing I've done on the spring half-term the last 2 years – camping in Wooler at the North end of the Cheviot Hills with varying numbers of family (and, this year, friends). The picture was taken at the top of Humbleton Hill, at just under 300m, a modest climb for adults and a challenge for the kids, but, given its 'last high ground' position, graced with stupendous views across Northumberland and up into Scotland.

Our boys had a fantastic time, largely ignoring the new adventure playground on the camp to go splashing along the two streams which run through the campsite. We had an 'emergency iPad' hidden in the car in case of traditional British Bank Holiday weather, but it went unused. No screens for 72 hours is quite an achievement for this generation.

jimmy ternAfter a couple of days of rambling around our campsite, we decamped to the Farne Islands. With tens of thousands of nesting pairs of puffins and guillemots, not to mention over a thousand psychopathic Arctic Terns (right), the islands are a Mecca for anybody who loves nature – yet on a Bank Holiday Monday we had no problem rolling up on spec and getting tickets. There's nothing like seeing with your own eyes a puffin land with a mouthful of sand eels and disappearing down its burrow to feed its young.

I've realised in recent years that the wanderlust of my younger years has dissipated significantly – nothing to do with carbon footprints, more I've realised just how spoiled I am by all the treasures on my doorstep!


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14 April 2015

Five go mad in London

boys in London

I'm down in our capital city with the family for a short break. The two bigger boys were very keen to come because of various school projects, and the little one – well as usual he just has to lump it!

As usual, on holiday, I have my eyes peeled for anything sustainability-related.

I remember musing on my way back from Bruges back to Newcastle by train in 2009 that in Belgium you saw at least one solar array in every village or suburb, but virtually nothing on the English side of the Channel. Oh, how that has changed. Not only is there a huge amount of roof-mounted solar along the East Coast Mainline, but we passed at least 3 field-sized solar farms and plenty of wind turbines dotted here and there. It is no surprise to me now that UK solar installed capacity doubled in 2014 – you can see it.

We're staying at a genuine Airbnb house – a real family home as opposed to a regular rental – and our first proper use of the new sharing economy. The house is lovely, but you do have to put up with your host's tastes – there is no cafetiere, garlic press or, believe it or not, wine glasses. We can improvise on the former two, but bought them 4 cheap wine glasses (I hope that isn't taken as an insult as we can't take them with us). The other problem is trying to stop 3 rather excited and rambunctious boys from trashing the place...

Another thing I've noticed is you can now use a contactless debit/credit card in lieu of an Oyster card for London transport. This opens up the flexibility of London public transport for the casual visitor. Anything to remove barriers to the greener option wins in my book and, when my Oyster card runs out/gets lost again, I think I might give up on it.

As well as the tourist traps, yesterday we went to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London in Barnes, not that far from the heart of the City - amazing to see what you can achieve if you leave a little space for nature in our urban sprawl.

I know I'm an irrepressible optimist, but going on a holiday allows you to see things afresh in a way you don't on a business trip. I am utterly convinced that, no matter what the doomsters claim, we are moving in the right direction.


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22 December 2014

Merry Christmas to all our readers!

robin snow

And so it comes to my last blog post of 2014. It's been an interesting year here at Terra Infirma Towers, and here are some of the highlights:

  • We have continued to work with long established clients including Johnson Matthey, Newcastle University and the NHS.
  • Along with some new clients including University of Sunderland, NEPIC and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
  • The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) had another fantastic year, debating everything from 'making sustainability sustainable' to 'communicating sustainability'.
  • This month saw the publication of my 5th book (and 3rd DoShort): Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule.
  • I launched my Ask Gareth sustainability agony uncle series.

Not bad, given that I also got myself re-elected to Newcastle City Council in May - and had to deal with the loss of my dear Mum in October. It's been a roller coaster of a year and I'm eternally grateful to family for always being there for me. I am blessed.

Looking forward to 2015:

  • I'm working on a different version of Green Academy which will be rolled out through the year - in the meantime make sure you sign up to our taster session: '15 Kick-ass #Sustainability Ideas for 2015'
  • I'll be giving an overview of the new book on another free webinar 'Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule'
  • I'm looking forward to welcoming some new faces to the Mastermind Group and debating some tantalising new topics.
  • Ask Gareth will continue as long as you keep submitting the questions!
  • And, there's another, full-length book on the go (as always).

That just leaves me to thank you all for all your support, banter and comradeship over the last 12 months and to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous and sustainable New Year!


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28 October 2014

Inspiring the Next Generation


My Mum died last Monday.

That's why this blog has been largely quiet for the last week - I've been in that weird bereavement hollow zone where only family matters and everything else - news, entertainment, work - just seems irrelevant, not to mention irritating. But we gave her a great send off last Thursday - it was standing room only at the funeral service - and I'm getting back into my normal routine.

My Mum was a nature lover and it definitely rubbed off on me. I remember her running the Nature club at my primary school and we went on many nature hikes along the Lagan in Belfast where I grew up. In her later years her passion for the birds which visited the garden meant that there was only one option for charitable donations in lieu of flowers - the RSPB. Her passion also inspired my kids, particularly my eldest, Harry, who would trade bird lists on a regular basis on our Sunday morning phone calls.

The closing stanza of Mum's funeral service went like this:

You can remember her and only that she is gone,
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back,
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

And that's what I intend to do - not only work for a better future for the next generation and the one after that, but to inspire them to take up the torch themselves. Not that kids need much encouragement!


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19 August 2014

Greetings from the Green Dales of Yorkshire

tdf yellow bikeI'm into phase II of my summer holidays - back in our favourite spot of Askrigg in Wensleydale. In the past, I've always refused on principle to holiday in the same place twice, but we love this old croft house so much, this is our third visit. First time we had one child, second time two, this time three. And no, we won't be continuing that particular trend...

You can't miss the Tour de France paraphernalia still adorning every house from the Grand Depart almost six weeks ago. I've been pedalling up hill and down dale a couple of times already, giving the old muscles a warm up before I hit the 'Côte de Buttertubs' that Nibali, Froome, Contador et al made look like a speed bump. Unlike them, I'll be stopping for tea and cake or a pint halfway around my circuit.

Naturally, I like to seek out local sustainability efforts when I'm on holiday. The amount of rooftop solar installed had increased once again, but the biggest permanent change I noticed was this fantastic archimedes screw on the river Bain in nearby Bainbridge - capable of powering 45 houses and generating £35,000 per annum for the community group which installed it - once the investors are rewarded, the profits are being invested in the local environment.

I remember reading an article in New Civil Engineer about a decade ago suggesting that hydro-projects at this scale are very cost-effective and avoid the impacts of large scale hydro. Nice to see a good, (presumably) successful community energy project too.

Another thing I like about Askrigg is the local produce, whether Wensleydale Cheese, local bread and honey, and, of course, the eponymous local ale. Don't worry, I'll have one on you!

askrigg ale

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24 February 2014

The Green Economy IS Happening

walney wind farm


Last Thursday, on the last full day of my Cumbrian holiday, I took the elder two boys back to Hodbarrow nature reserve and, after an hour's Biblical battering of wind and rain, the clouds parted for a few moments and, lo, the Walney Wind Farm appeared on the horizon. The sheer scale of the installation was breath-taking - and we could just make out two other distant farms, all turning, all generating clean power.

It is very easy to get caught up in the hurly-burly of the sustainability debate and forget that we are winning, if only by a nose. But seeing is believing - and  it was a scene of ecological devastation that drove me into this career and it is the sights of such progress that drive me on. Let's do it!


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18 February 2014

Greetings from not so sunny Cumbria

millom lighthouse

Half term holiday and our family - extended to include my parents - are staying in a farmhouse in the South West of the Lake District. We're pretty much off the  tourist trail here - the towns and villages have something of a Wild West feel. The weather hasn't been too kind so far, but I've got some short cycles in and a fantastic if wind/rain beaten trip to Hodbarrow Nature Reserve (above) - featuring a huge brackish lagoon created by old ironstone mining. For the birders: Slavonian Grebe, Goldeneye and more Red Breasted Mergansers than I could shake a stick at.

On the way here, we got a fantastic view of one of the new wind farms off Barrow. I'm not quite sure which one as there are about three or four in that area, but if it was the Walney Wind Farm then it was the largest in the world when commissioned in 2012 but its title has already been usurped a couple of times by bigger British installations. That just illustrates how fast renewable energy is expanding in this country.

The least eco-friendly thing we've seen so far is the outdoor hot tub here at the farmhouse - who on earth would want to sit in a hot tub when it's 6°C and pouring with rain? Apparently it can't easily be turned off, but I have asked for it to be turned down to salve my conscience...


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24 December 2013

A Big Shout Out to SolarAid!

My eldest son Harry came home a couple of weeks ago and announced that he wanted to collect money for "poor people in Africa." This gave me a wee bit of a dilemma as I worry that much of our 'charity' locks developing countries into poverty by undermining the very local markets they rely on for that development, but I wanted to encourage my young son's philanthropy, so choosing the right charity was paramount. I put a request for suggestions out on Facebook/Twitter for suggestions and my good friend Neil Bradbury suggested SolarAid.

SolarAid distributes solar powered lamps to villages without electricity to allow school kids to study in the evening without relying on highly polluting kerosene lamps. The lamps go out via a network of local entrepreneurs and they have to be purchased at a subsidised price which allayed my fears that a donation could be damaging in the long term - plus the renewable energy angle rang my bell.

Anyway, Harry collected £24.00 and we sent it off to SolarAid with a note from the man himself. Yesterday a card arrived with delightful personal messages to Harry from the SolarAid team thanking him for his efforts. Cue misty eyes from his parents.

So if you do want to make a contribution to those less fortunate this Christmas, my whole hearted recommendation would be SolarAid!


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13 December 2013

All your sustainability/CSR questions answered!


I've got an exciting new resource for you coming next year - Ask Gareth - a sustainability agony aunt, for want of a better term.

Here's how it works. You send me tricky questions regarding implementing sustainability/corporate social responsibility, I pick those I think will appeal to a wide audience and answer them. Simple as that.

So what are you waiting for? Submit your questions here.


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4 November 2013

Building A Sustainable Supply Chain hits the shelves/ether!

BASS C loresI'm delighted to announce that Building a Sustainable Supply Chain, my second DōShort eBook/short book, goes on sale this week. If you haven't come across DōShorts before, the idea is to give readers a 90 minute high-impact read on critical sustainability issues.

And what could be more critical than the supply chain? It's where much, if not most, of the impact of your organisation lies, you have only indirect control of those impacts, you often have precious little visibility and, if an issue blows up in the supply chain, it is the big brand at the top that gets it in the neck either through reputational damage or soaring costs.

What I have set out to do in BASS-C is to show how building a sustainable supply chain requires going way beyond the plethora of frameworks that have sprung up to embed sustainability in purchasing decision making, and link it to strategic business planning - corporate philosophy, business model, product design etc. After all it is those functions that determine the shape of the supply chain.

To get some fresh case studies and perspectives, I carried out a number of interviews with leading sustainability practitioners, extracts of which I've been posting up here on the blog over the last few weeks (there's a couple more in the pipeline). As usual these uncovered some real gems, worth the cover price alone.

Here's the five pieces of advice with which I conclude the book:

  • Make sure you are dealing with the big issues in your supply chain – nobody will thank you for tinkering around the edges;
  • Be ambitious. Incremental targets lead only to incremental improvements; stretch targets lead to breakthrough solutions;
  • You won’t solve these problems on your own: bring everybody concerned with an issue on board, get them thinking in the right direction and ask for their help in generating solutions;
  • Be prepared to get tough. If a supplier won’t play ball, find another supplier;
  • Relish the challenge. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. Perseverance is the key to success.

Do you need to know more? Then what you need to do is sign up to The Low Carbon Agenda, as on Thursday readers will get a smorgasbord of extracts, offers and insights.


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1 August 2013

Happy Birthday to Us, Happy Birthday to Us!

Terra Infirma is 6 years old!Yep, it was 7 years ago today that we metaphorically smashed a bottle of champagne (the smashing was metaphorical, not the bubbly) on the hull of the good ship Terra Infirma and set sail into unknown seas. And with the great financial hurricane of 07/08 hitting us soon after, we learnt our seamanship the hard way.

Dropping the half-baked nautical metaphor, and pushing modesty aside, here's some of the highlights over the last year:

  • Bringing on board some great new clients such as Viridor, News International, Innovia Films and the Natural Resources Research Council;
  • Continuing to work with established clients such as BAE Systems, Johnson Matthey and the NHS;
  • The publication of my ebook/short book "Green Jujitsu" and the development of the associated animation The Art of Green Jujitsu;
  • The continuation of our ever-popular Green Academy webinars, attracting attendees from around the world, and the first full year of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM);
  • And to crown it all, getting shortlisted as Green Consultancy of the Year 2013 at the prestigious Business Green Leaders awards.

Not bad in a year which also saw the birth of my third son, Charlie - who seems dedicated to eating us out of house and home.

Looking forward to the year ahead, I'm predicting a steady development of these themes rather than any radical new departures - although I've said that before! One thing I can announce is I am working on a greening the supply chain ebook which will out in the autumn.

So it just leaves me to say thanks to all our readers - especially those who comment on and share my posts here. Splice the mainbrace!

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12 September 2012

New Arrival at Terra Infirma Towers

I'd like to introduce the new member of the Terra Infirma team who joined us at half past midnight yesterday morning. His name is Charlie Kane and he'll be Vice President for Noise Pollution and Organic Waste. It may take a bit of time for us to get him up to speed, so there may be service disruptions for the next two weeks. But we're very proud of him and think he'll make a great addition to our burgeoning team.



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1 August 2012

Happy Birthday To Us!

Terra Infirma is 6 years old!Terra Infirma is six years old today!

Six years. Blimey. Sometimes it feels like just yesterday that I invested the grand sum of £300.00 in some self-designed stationery and a (self-designed) website and declared the company open for business - other times it feels like another age.

And the last year has been another great one for the company despite the constant backdrop of economic doom-mongering. We are now firmly planted in the FTSE100 zone, continuing to work with clients like Johnson Matthey plc and BAE Systems plc, another two new FTSE100 clients in the project start-up phase, and other big names like the BBC and the NHS. The vast bulk of this work has related to culture change for sustainability.

Our on-line Green Academy continues and now has its own webpages and we continue to get a wide range of participants from micro-businesses up to corporate giants.

One innovation this year has been the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind (CoSM) Group - a small group of senior sustainability practitioners from top companies getting together every quarter for a facilitated exploration of the challenges that they face. I've not been making a big song and dance about CoSM as we are deliberately trying to keep the numbers low, but you can see my notes from the inaugural May meeting here.

And, while I'm not publishing a book this year, my first short e-book is due out in the Autumn. Its provisional title is "Green Jujitsu: The Smart Way to Embed Sustainability into Your Organisation". Needless to say you'll hear plenty about it when it's released.

So, it just leaves me to thank all our clients, partners, friends, followers, subscribers and workshop participants for another great year. I'm looking forward to meeting more of you (online or offline), so don't ever be afraid to come and say hello!

All the best,



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5 April 2012

Greetings from (occasionally) sunny Northumberland

I'm away with family in Budle Bay in Northumberland - just south of Lindisfarne or Holy Island. Budle Bay is part of the Lindisfarne nature area and the estuary is a delight for birders - even my mediocre skills identified curlew, black headed gulls, greater black backed gulls, common gulls, red breatsed merganser, shelduck, mallard, widgeon, redshank, oyster catcher, pochard, kestrel, wheatear along with gazillions of plover-sized waders which are beyond my ken. We had some glorious, if windy and cold weather on Wednesday, but on Tuesday we had a blizzard - so we headed to the worlds best second hand bookstore, Barter Books at Alnwick, then to a soft play facility to let the kids work off their adrenaline.

We're staying in a rebuilt mill cottage at Waren Mill at the head of the bay, which, as the name suggests, had a number of mills dating from the 12th Century onwards. At the back of our garden the old mill race that fed water into the mills has been converted into a water feature which periodically kicks into life, creating a small waterfall. The bigger, more recent mill has been converted into holiday apartments too.

As I mentioned last week, I'm currently reading Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution which about the democratization and distribution of energy systems for a modern low carbon economy. It struck me that in the days of water power, this was very much how the economy worked - industry went where the energy was rather than the other way around. Of course Rifkin's vision is for a 21st Century version of distributed energy generation - creating a hi-tech internet of low carbon energy to get us out of the fossil fuel doom loop. But one interesting part of such a system is the potential for micro-hydro in locations such as this - tapping the same sources of clean energy that our forefathers did. So maybe, just maybe, places like Waren Mill will be going back to the future.

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