A Tale of Two Chairs: Adventures in ‘Upcycling’

Fuelled by a heady combination of Pinterest and ‘Fill Your House For Free‘, I’ve taken to upcycling in rather a manic way. Why upcycling? Isn’t it just a fashionable pursuit for the privileged with too much time on their hands? Well, maybe. Though being a full time carer of a small child, I’d dispute having too much time on my hands…

But I also rather believe in conscious consumption. As someone with a ‘green’ ethos, I worry about our disposable society and what kind of environment our baby son will inherit. And well, I just like old things, I love things with quirk and charm and character. I love things that are unique and if I can achieve some of those things through a good old bit of re-loving, then that’s just fine with me.

school chairs Made in Britain

The chairs came from a playgroup, via a reclamation yard in sunny Margate for a whole Four British Pounds (tip: avoid the ridiculously overpriced ‘vintage’ shops in the Old Town and head up the hill past the Shell Grotto to the real thing).

Covered in rust and grime, but proudly Made in Britain, I bequeathed them a stay of execution from the scrap heap and after lugging them home on the train (that lovely parquet floor above is in Ramsgate station), set about transforming them for our little boy.

Chair makeover in progress Chair makeover in progress

It took me HOURS to sand all the flaking plastic paint and rust off the metal legs. It took me ages to scrub the plastic clean with sugar soap, so they could be primed and painted. But, after a lot of hard work, a couple of emergency trips to Wilkos for more cans of paint and a lot of cursing, they were transformed in to my primary coloured dream.

Yellow upcycled school chairs Play area

Can I be honest with you? Was it worth it? In principle, I still believe – yes. These perfectly useable chairs have been saved from landfill and given a new lease of life and I love the colour of them. But, to get this finish on them took two cans of Plasticote paint (not including a coat of primer and lacquer) and two cans of spray Hammerite on the legs. That’s not only a huge amount of money to spend on £4 chairs, that’s an awful lot of VOCs released in to the atmosphere! After all the materials needed to save them from landfill, do they really have better environmental value than new chairs? What is the real environmental impact of the upcycling trend?

The environmental cost may have been down to my own inexperience. Even though I have repainted furniture many times before with a brush, I found the spray paint very hard to handle. I wasted loads of it spraying the thin chair legs. It didn’t dry in the time stated on the the can, the paint is uneven from where they were knocked over on to the grass by rampaging cats (that never happens to Kirstie Allsop…) and one chair has an amazing imprint of my finger prints for prosperity from where I had to pick it up, wet. Which is useful as a crime deterrent as there is absolutely no mistaking they are mine, but it wasn’t exactly the ‘Pinterest’ perfect polished finish I was hoping for. So despite, having green motives, I still wanted them to look shop bought. Is that conscious consumption? More food for thought…

However, despite the resulting costs and imperfections, we really do love them. And paired with a table from IKEA (I had planned to upcycle a table but this one was just too perfect. IKEA appear to have quite strong environmental credentials. And it cost a lot less than all that spray paint…), we think they make the perfect pieces for our little boy’s play area. And to him, that’s really all that matters.

This post originally appeared on my personal craft blog.

Advertisements

The Nuttery

What do you think of when you think of the Reading Festival? Rock and roll? Loud music? Mud and debauchery? A haven for biodiversity? Perhaps not. But the Festival site, known the rest of the year as Little Johns Farm, a working cattle farm, has some hidden secrets. One of which is an old nuttery, a nut orchard, which Reading Borough Council, The Conservation Volunteers and Reading Tree Wardens are restoring.

IMG_0105 IMG_0102IMG_0154

As part of the Biodiversity Management Plan for the site, Reading Borough Council proposes to plant nearly 300 hazel trees in the nuttery. However, before the new trees can be planted, existing trees and shrubs – such as blackthorn – need clearing and coppicing to open up the site enough to accommodate the new trees. It is hoped that the nuttery will increase biodiversity on the farm, which is largely grazed pasture in the floodplain of the River Thames. Habitats, such as badger setts and log piles for invertebrates are also being created. Little John’s Farm is a private site (apparently the Council work closely with the site owners due to the community interest in the Festival). It is a shame this nuttery won’t be accessible for public use.

However, nuttery creation can be an effective way to increase biodiversity on public sites. Like fruit orchards, nutteries can also be used to create community orchards, which can complement and create diversity in community resources. Some examples of community nutteries can be found in Bath and in Clare, Suffolk. Advice on how to start a Community Orchard can be found here and if you are in the Reading area and would like to learn more about planting fruiting trees, you could join in the restoration of an orchard in Prospect Park with Transition Town Reading on 2nd February. Details can be found here.

The power of joining in?

Back in June 2012 I wrote about taking part in my first Green Gym session. Today for the first time I led (on my own) a Green Gym session, which was the first of a programme of Green Gym activities that I have arranged for The Conservation Volunteers.

I find it easy to get enthusiastic about the Green Gym. My motivation to work with The Conservation Volunteers is to gain experience in running community projects and in leading activities that are focused on improving local surroundings plus learning how to teach and improve my own environmental conservation skills. But the Green Gym also considers improving helping the self through conservation work, both physically and mentally. A free for participants health resource that I think is much needed in a lot of communities

In October 2012, The Guardian Healthcare network published a fascinating article about the work Green Gym programmes have done in Leeds and Birmingham. It is well worth a read. I have been keeping this article in mind when working on this season’s programme for our Green Gym. I am minded of the importance of keeping sessions interesting, varied and, most importantly, fun and friendly. But I also believe that it is important that our Green Gym session are accessible. Unlike many other Green Gyms around the country we do not work on a single site, and cover a large part of West Berkshire, a predominately rural area. We now have some fantastic and wonderful ‘regulars’ but I don’t want location to preclude more participants joining in. Participants that might not otherwise get involved in other conservation activities in the area, but would really benefit from the scheme. So the new programme includes reducing the number of sites we visit and having as many sites that are accessible by public transport as possible, while still keeping interest and variation.

Transport isn’t the only hurdle to accessibility, and am continually looking for other ways to help the project reach as many people as possible. But it is a start. And hopefully some of our Green Gymers will get the benefits those in Leeds and Birmingham have experienced.

If you have any suggestions how to make community projects accessible to as many of the community as possible, I’d love to hear them?

The 2013 programme for the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym can be found here.

The Community Orchard

This part of West Berkshire is now most famous for being the kind of place that produces princesses. But amongst the grand houses and rolling countryside, one West Berkshire Parish Council is working on a unique community resource – a community orchard.

Cold Ash Community Orchard

An orchard is a collection of fruit trees. In particular, a community orchard may be owned or leased for or by the community (or held by agreement) by a community group, parish council, or by a local authority or voluntary body. Community orchards should be open and accessible at all times. As well as enjoying the place, local people can share the harvest or profit from its sale, taking responsibility for any work in the orchard (Source).

Cold Ash Community Orchard is run by Cold Ash Parish Council. We visited the site with the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym, to help the Parish Council by planting a new hedge along one of the orchard boundaries. The new hedge comprises native species, such as Spindle, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Cherry and Dogwood Rose. As well as planting the hedge whips, the Green Gym also protected them from hungry wildlife with rabbit guards.

Hedge planting

The habitat values of hedgerows are well documented. But what particularly interested me about this site was the community resource being provided. Community orchards are currently being actively encouraged by the Department for Communities and Local Government as part of the localism and decentralisation agenda. Community orchards strive to be the focal point for community activities. As well as the provision of acessible open space, they can promote the health benefits of fresh produce and outdoor exercise. Additionally there are opportunities for access to land for food growing and opportunities for assisting those who want to grow their own food (Source: DCLG).

Despite being a relatively affluent area, this part of West Berkshire, like many rural areas, still has residents that don’t have access to open space and places to grow food, which can have health implications and also increase vulnerability to food poverty. It will be really interesting to see how this community project developed and how similar schemes might be able to be implemented elsewhere.

The Department for Communities and Local Government produce two guidance documents on community orchards: A PDF ‘How to’ guide can be found here and a collection of case studies about of community orchards around the UK can be found here.

A303: Highway to the Sun

Originally posted 2nd October 2012

nLast night one of my favourite documentaries was shown again on BBC4 – A303: Highway to the Sun.

A documentary about the road between Basingstoke and Honiton, you may think? But the beautiful thing about this documentary is that it goes much deeper than the tarmac and white lines, used everyday as a route to the West Country. It is a fascinating landscape study and cultural history of the area the road travels through, showing that roads are much more than highways but are also an important part of place-making.

If you have a spare hour, do give it a look. It is beautiful made and one of those slightly eccentric documentaries that make you grateful that we have a national broadcaster that is willing to make things like this. You can find it on the BBC iPlayer, for the next seven days, here or I have also found it uploaded on Vimeo here.

Enjoy.

Days like this

It’s hard to be motivated sometimes. Especially on a day which is forecast to be the wettest day of what has already been one of the wettest years on record. It’s hard to be motivated when the rain breaches your raincoat and your waterproof trousers start leaking. It’s hard to be motivated when there is no longer any point wearing your glasses because they need windscreen wipers and your hands are covered in nettle stings, because all you have done is cut back nettles for over two, wet, long, soaking hours.

Some days are like this.

But what you need to remember is why you are doing this, why you are out in the pouring rain. And it’s to make something for everyone. People now have access to a bird hide, along a path that has probably been inaccessible all summer. People are now able to safely go and watch birds, maybe see a bird they have never seen before, maybe learn something they never knew before, maybe they can just be able to take some rare moments away from their normal lives and enjoy something different. With clear paths and improved accessibility you create access for all, you take access to wildlife and nature and beautiful places away from just those with privilege. And that’s something that can keep you going, even in leaky trousers.

Well at least until tea break anyway.

Wildflowers at the Olympic Park

Originally posted 21st August 2012

Wildflowers and the River Lea in the Olympic ParkWildflowers in the Olympic Park

Wildflowers and the Stadium in the Olympic Park

When visiting the Olympic Park in East London last month, the wildflower planting took my breath away. We visited the park the first weekend of the Olympic Games and I’ll admit to expecting a sea of concrete. Instead when we left the Greenway from West Ham station entered through the Park security and ticket checks, we were greeted by Nigel Dunnett’s astonishing golden annual wildflower meadows. A complete move away from the muncipal planting I am so used to.

The Olympic wildflower meadows are the largest areas of annual meadow ever to be used in a park setting and the associated promotion from the London Games Organising Committee encourages people to plant wildflowers in their own area. It will be interesting to see if there is any resulting ‘olympic legacy’ from this endeavour in the Park.

Want to know more?
More information about the planting on Professor Nigel Dunnett’s website.

More information about Wildflower Planting on the London 2012 website.

All photos by Jon Hall

The Green Gym

Originally posted 25th June 2012
An extra dose of The Conservation Volunteers this week as this morning I took part in my first session at the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym.

The Green Gym concept is quite intreging. Most TCV activities are focused on improving local surroundings and sharing and improving environmental conservation skills. But the Green Gym also considers improving the self, both physically and mentally. The TCV website outlines these benefits:

  • 100% of participants interviewed during the current National Evaluation agree that taking part in the Green Gym has benefited their mental health, boosting self-esteem and confidence through learning new skills and completing new tasks
  • Green Gym provides moderate physical activity: People who are regularly active at this level are 50% less likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke than inactive people
  • Working out in green spaces is a great way to relieve stress and can help to combat depression
  • Taking part in the Green Gym improves muscle strength, which is particularly important for older people, helping to maintain independence in later life
  • Participants report feeling fitter and having more energy than before
  • Almost a third more calories can be burnt in an hour of some Green Gym activities than in doing a step aerobics class

I’m really fascinated by the third bullet point, about combating depression. The Mental Health Foundation outlines a huge range of benefits of exercise from the release of mood improving hormones, to providing opportunities to meet people and having an opportunity to escape day-to-day life.

Personally, I enjoyed my first session. Despite feeling rather daft doing warm-up and warm-down in the middle of Newbury’s main park – it was hard work, but I’d rather be outside in the fresh air. Even though the focus of my volunteering has been looking at improving public spaces, I do find it uplifting and invigorating. I get home exhausted but in a really buoyant mood, feeling happy and fulfilled. It’s not something I have considered before but it is interesting that my volunteering might be improving my mental health too. If this looks like it might be working for me, it would be interesting to see what kind of health resource the Green Gym might provide for the local community.

Private Public Spaces

Originally posted on 12th June 2012

I had to quickly share this article from today’s Guardian, about privately-run ‘public spaces’. I’ll write a proper follow up post to this next week (after, what will hopefully be, my last Geosciences exam and a visit to Big Green week in Bristol), but it is quite thought provoking.

Local authorities have been less willing to take on new public spaces for the best part of the last decade, due to ongoing maintenance costs and diminishing budgets – It makes me wonder what is the viable alternative to the privately run spaces, as described in the Guardian today? I’ll give it some thought and get back to you…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jun/11/granary-square-privately-owned-public-space

Greenham Common Peace Garden

Originally posted on 1st May 2012

I’ve lived in Berkshire for just over a year now, but have always feared that, outside of the Reading suburbs, the county is little more than a breeding ground for Princesses. Recently I’ve been determined to delve a little deeper than the royal weddings and polo shirts on the surface and get to know this area properly.

Inspired by the account in George McKay’s Radical Gardening and a recent edition of The Reunion, yesterday I ventured off to find the site of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

During the 1980s, and the Cold War, RAF Greenham was used for siting USAF Cruise nuclear missiles. In protest this deployment, in 1981 a group of Welsh feminist peace activists set up a protest camp, committed to engaging debate about nuclear weapons and disrupting military exercises on the air base. The Women’s Peace Camp remained, continuously, outside of the airbase for 19 years, until 2000. Today RAF Greenham is now a business park, but a commemorative peace garden stands where the peace camp was situated.

Greenham Common Peace Garden

Seven welsh standing stones surround a sculpture that symbolises the campfire, whilst a circular sculpture is bears the enscription ‘you can’t kill the spirit’. The garden is planted with British species and includes an oak sapling that was rescued from the path of the controversial Newbury bypass.

Despite its location between the business park and a roundabout on the A339, the garden is very evocative. It does initially seem strange that somewhere that feels so inherently peaceful commemorates a site best known standing for radical campaigning, direct activism and the pursuit of idealism. But as George McKay describes in Radical Gardening,

“calmer than punk, more permanent in presence than most protest camps… [the peace garden] sought to present an experience of peacefulness and social idea of peace”.

Maybe this small defiant corner, between offices and a roundabout, does go a very small way to creating what the women of Greenham Common were striving for?

The Greenham Common Peace Garden is situated next to the the New Greenham Park roundabout on the A339 (near Newbury, Berkshire). Radical Gardening is available at Housmans.