Sunday, 28 December 2014

A sense of place


Early morning walks - Two Plank Bridge across the Vernatts drain

As well as writing for a living, the author of this blog is also a keen photographer and many of my blog articles are illustrated, where possible, by my own photos. Some of my pictures are also published alongside magazine and online media articles.

It's a useful trait as a freelance journalist to be able taken your own pictures on occasion for either a news or feature article - and it often helps when pitching a piece.

Of course, unless the photo is of extreme or uniquie news value, I'm not talking about shots grabbed on a smartphone camera, though I have to confess I have recently witnessed local reporters using such.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I thought it would be good to end a year of blogging, writing and reporting by publishing some of my photos taken during 2014.

It's a rather random selection of a few favourites, and I've called the piece 'A sense of place' as most of the pictures evoke that in some way. Enjoy!
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Peace and tranquility on a summer's day in the Fens
Waiting for its catch - a beach tractor at Cromer in Norfolk
Looking the other way - from Niagara Falls viewing tower
Fenland barn and treescape on my way to Peterborough


Great dining at the top of Toronto's very high CN Tower
Toronto skyscrapers and the tower from across Lake Ontario
Early Sunday morning in downtown Detroit
Inside Detroit's opulent Fisher building
Big music came from a little house
Detroit's derelict and eerie Packard Motors plant

Coming to life - Willow Tree Fen nature reserve near Spalding
Premiership promotion - 2015 might be our year
Farewell to the Bittern 4464 - at Spalding on 30 December

Fenland sunsets - big skies make them unbeatable

I hope you liked my selection. And here's a final thought for the year - if a picture is worth a thousand words then a few well-written words might also be worth a thousand pictures.

So if you are ever stuck for words in 2015 - whether it be for a business or company website, blog, article, news item or even a book - I'm here to help. Please do get in touch. And in the meantime, have a very happy and prosperous New Year!

Friday, 5 December 2014

Back to the future


 Photos: Nasa
Today's first-ever test flight of NASA's Orion deep-space capsule is all about the future of America's space effort - but it's also about reviving the past.

"I feel like the Blues Brothers - we're getting the band back together," Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, told a pre-launch news conference in front of Orion's Florida launch pad.

After a 24 hour launch delay the Delta IV Heavy and Orion cleared the tower in just a few seconds to begin a carefully choreographed climb skyward.

The core stages on either side of the rocket burned their propellants and fell away at T+3minutes, 56 seconds. The central core stage continued for another 94 seconds as the rocket and spacecraft climbed higher and picked up more speed. The first stage fell away and the second stage took over to put Orion into an initial orbit of 115 miles by 552 miles.

Orion is Nasa’s successor to the Space Shuttle and the agency hopes it will take humans further into space than ever before, possibly as far as Mars. The test flight is the start of a “new chapter in human space exploration”, the agency says.

Primary purpose of the mission was to test a new 16 foot wide heat shield aimed at protecting the capsule, which can carry up to six astronauts. After two orbits, Orion plunged to Earth off the coast of Baja, California, travelling at 20,000 mph and generating 2,200 C as it plunged through the atmosphere.

Nasa confidently asserts that Orion will send people to an asteroid and onward to Mars, but the first astronauts are not scheduled to travel in it for at least seven years, which is a long time in space politics.

Even this crew-less outing - known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) - carried echoes of Apollo. The 4.5 hour trip sent Orion 3,600 miles out from Earth, the farthest that a spacecraft meant for humans has flown since 1972.

And it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean - just like NASA's last Apollo spaceship that returned to Earth at the end of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

For NASA, even the fact that people are paying attention to the Orion test flight comes as a welcome blast from the past. The space agency said more than 500 journalists were accredited to cover the launch, which is more than for any other Florida launch since the Shuttle fleet's retirement.


Orion is being developed by Lockheed Martin alongside a powerful new rocket that will have its own debut in three or four years' time. Together, they will form the core capabilities needed to send humans beyond the International Space Station (ISS).

Today's flight therefore was on a stand-in Delta IV-Heavy rocket - currently the largest US launcher which duly delivered a fiery launch spectacle to the millions of people watching Nasa’s live internet broadcasts.

At this point immediately after the mission it seems that just about everything worked perfectly. The test will go down as a huge success as analysing the data begins in earnest.

However, in the background, there are still worries about the strength of political commitment  underpinning to the Orion programme - and any resulting lack of money could mean the momentum of successive missions becomes hard to maintain.
       
Space rarely seems to be out of the news these days. Hot on the heels of last month’s Rosetta and the inspiring  Philae comet lander we've also had an ESA ministerial meeting (at which decisions are made on the funding of future European space programmes) this week .

The UK has committed over £50 million to the project that has an estimated price tag of €340 million. But with promises extending to €180 million for funding, the ExoMars plan is still short of all the funds it needs.

According to ESA's pragmatic director general Jean-Jaques Dordain that is more than enough to be getting on with, thank you very much. It means that Britain will likely take the lead and build the rover on these shores.

The government's pledge to the ExoMars programme amounts to £55 million, alongside a similar amount to help keep the Space Station operating in orbit. This more than triples the sum offered as a ‘one-off' payment to the ISS two years ago.

Eager to join the positive band wagon, even George Osborne managed to work in a quip or two about Mars exploration and his great support for space when introducing his budget deficit this week in the House of Commons.

Joking at the expense of the opposition benches, Mr Osborne said: "We on this side of the house have often gazed at the barren and desolate wastelands of the red planet. We have long given up hope of finding intelligent life there. But signs of any life at all would be a major advance."

The country's growing space industry is at last getting the recognition and investment it needs - not just ‘because it is there’ but because politicians now recognise it is a pretty shrewd investment for the country as a whole.

Credit must be given to all political parties. The good work in space was started by the last labour government and has been continued by the coalition in a true example of what joined up, long-term thinking should be about. If only this could be applied in other areas - like the country's energy policy.

It does remain to be seen, however, whether Nigel Farage and his Ukip brigade have anything like a space plan scribbled on the back of a fag packet should they get anywhere near the final countdown during next May's elections. I guess we just have to say, ‘watch this space’.

Report by Clive Simpson

Farmers fight flood threat

High tide for the newly formed Wash Frontagers' Group

Vast swaths of the Fens in eastern England could be catastrophically flooded by the next North Sea surge if nothing is done to shore up sea defences.

Much of the country’s prime arable land around the Wash is below sea level and farmers say that more than 80 miles of neglected sea defences need urgent attention.

The £2.3bn spend confirmed by the government for flood projects around the country this week earmarks nothing for raising defences across one of the country’s most at risk areas.

Farmers of land around the Wash marked the first anniversary of last December’s tidal surge with the formation of the Wash Frontagers' Group (WFG) and an urgent call to action.

They are concerned that the region’s farming and food production industry - worth an estimated £3bn to the UK economy - would be fatally damaged if sea walls are breached.
           
Stafford Proctor, who farms at Long Sutton and is WFG chairman, says the Wash sea defences protect some of the country’s most productive farmland.

And he described last winter's floods across the Somerset Levels as being like "a drop in the ocean" compared to what could happen in the Fens.

"Last year's tidal surge showed just how vulnerable our land, homes, businesses and the whole area is to sea water inundation,” he says.

“In Boston alone, 700 homes and businesses were affected. Just think what the effect of a massive inundation would be on the economy of the whole Fen region. It would be devastating.”
           
Recent figures show that behind the protective seawalls there are 365,261 hectares of farm land, more than 80 per cent of which is classified as at risk of flooding.

The region, which includes South Lincolnshire and parts of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, is known as the Fens Strategic Area and is home to around 655,000 people spread across remote rural communities in towns and villages.

“We were very close a catastrophe across this area and we don't want people to revert back to the status quo as though nothing had happened,” says Proctor.


Stafford Proctor - WFG chairman

According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) county adviser for South Lincolnshire, Simon Fisher, raising the sea defences is not just about protecting the future for farmland.

“It includes everything else that makes life tick - people, communities, towns, industry, agriculture, environment, utilities, energy generation and transport infrastructure,” he says.

“A huge amount of fresh produced is produced from South Lincolnshire and the financial contribution this county makes to the economic well-being of this country is worth billions of pounds.

“If we look at the true value of local agriculture and its upward supply chain, it is £3 billion plus and supports in excess of 60,000 jobs in the Fens.

“We need to protect the land and businesses surrounding the Wash and find the funding to raise the sea defences that so many people depend on.

“If you had a major sea inundation around here, no matter how well defended the towns of Boston, Kings Lynn, Wisbech and Spalding are, they are going to be cut off and sat in the middle of a giant pond.”


WFG members (from left): Nicola Currie, Simon Fisher, Simeon Disley, Stafford Proctor, Gavin Lane

Fisher is also dismissive of the concept of ‘managed retreat’, a suggestion put forward by some wildlife organisations, including the RSPB and Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

“There are some very good examples of tiny bits of land being left to the sea and that is probably perfectly feasible,” he says.

“But when you are talking of the Fenland area as a whole you'd be heading inland to Peterborough before you get to a point where it wouldn't flood anymore.”

Proctor is sceptical too. “The argument for managed retreat is creating more ‘green’ areas to try and dissipate the waves - but if anyone was down here last year they would have seen there weren't any waves.

“It was like a silent invasion,” he recalls. “The water just came up flat and got higher and higher. No amount of green marsh will protect you against that.”

Negligible sea bank maintenance work on this part of the coast has been carried out since the mid-1908s and WGF estimates the cost to fix the most needy parts of the sea banks would stretch to around £100 million.

“Compared to what is at stake everyone says this makes a lot of sense,” adds Proctor, who farms 2000 acres of Crown Estate land.

“But in order to do something we need public support and funding - the whole point of what we are trying to do is to raise awareness of the need to do something urgently.”

Country Landowners Association (CLA) eastern regional director, Nicola Currie, believes the WGF will only succeed if it garners support from the Environment Agency and Natural England.

“Under the current cost benefit system, farm land and rural areas miss out because government funding for flood and coastal defences is prioritised for schemes that protect people and property,” she says.

Defra minister Dan Rogerson has indicated his support for the WFG project andsuggests that up to 25 per cent more schemes for coastal defence work could go ahead through partnership funding than if costs were met by central government alone.

“There are real challenges to raising funds locally, which is why the CLA is calling on the Environment Agency and Natural England to be fully supportive of this innovative group,” adds Currie.

“If we continue to do nothing eventually we are going to have a major disaster - we just can't keep carrying on having nemesis like this.

“The only solution is a stitch in time - we have to keep going on sea flood defence and this is why we are calling upon government to help both financially and with changes to legislation to make it easier to get this work done.”

Climate change and rising sea levels mean that storm surges are expected to become more frequent in years to come.

They occur when a rising area of low pressure takes pressure off the surface of the sea allowing it to ‘bulge’ upwards before being pushed down through the North Sea by strong winds.

During last December’s surge parts of the North Sea reached higher levels than the devastating floods of 1953 but sea wall defences around the Wash area largely kept the water at bay.


A new blue plaque marks the level of last December's storm surge
The WFG chose to launch its campaign this week alongside the giant sluice gates of a tiny settlement called Surfleet Seas End, where water is poured into sea channels to keep farm land from flooding.

Here, the Welland and Deepings Internal Drainage Board has just erected a small plaque several metres above the normal sluice gate water level.

It serves as a stark reminder of how sea water came to within just a few inches of bursting these banks at the height of the storm surge during the night of 5 December last year.
 
Report and photographs by Clive Simpson - please contact for further information


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Countdown to launch


Launch of the first flight test of Orion, NASA’s next-generation spacecraft that will send astronauts to an asteroid and onward to Mars, is now less than an hour away.

The Orion will launch, uncrewed, on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Heavy rocket at 0705 local time (1205 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.

The window for launch is two hours and 39 minutes, and weather at both the launch and splashdown sites is currently showing ‘green’.

During its 4.5 hour trip, Orion will orbit Earth twice and travel to an altitude of 3,600 miles into space.

The flight is designed to test many of the elements that pose the greatest risk to astronauts and will provide critical data needed to improve Orion’s design and reduce risks to future mission crews.

United Launch Alliance operates the Delta IV-Heavy, the largest rocket in the American launch inventory.

The first stage includes three core stages, each one 134-feet-tall and 16.7 feet in diameter. An RS-68 engine is at the base of each core stage to give the rocket a combined thrust of about two million pounds.

The stage holds super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants. The second stage of the Delta IV Heavy is powered by a single RL10B-2 engine that also uses a combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The Orion spacecraft is bolted to the top of the second stage.


The Spaceflight Meteorology Group at Johnson Space Center is saying the weather looks good off the coast of Baja, California, where Orion will descend and splashdown to end the flight test. Navy ships are waiting in the area to recover the Orion spacecraft.

Live coverage of the launch from Nasa can be viewed by clicking here

Ready for blast off


Sunrise at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and a new era is about to begin. Today is probably Nasa’s biggest day since the final Space Shuttle launch in July 2011.

There are no people on today’s test flight of Orion, the capsule that is planned to take humans once again beyond the confines of Earth into deep space. Whether such a small capsule will ever make it as far as Mars is another question.

Launch weather officer Kathy Winters says conditions “are promising” with a 70 per cent prospect of favourable weather for the opening of the early morning (1205 GMT) launch window.

Heading into the final hours of countdown the mood in Houston mission control is upbeat. “On the vehicle side everything is extremely clean. We're ready to go,” says Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion programme manager.

Flight director Mike Serafin hasn’t experienced this kind of feeling around Nasa since the end of the Space Shuttle programme. “We are launching an American spacecraft from American soil and beginning something new,” he says.

“It’s a new mission and there are some things I'm sure we're going to learn from this unmanned flight test that will enable us to fly humans into deep space.”

With the launch of Orion, Nasa is about to claw back some of the ground it lost after the premature cancellation of the Space Shuttle programme by President Bush when there was nothing on hand to replace it.

The short, unmanned flight of Orion - a conical vessel reminiscent of the Apollo command modules that carried men to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s - will test key technologies.

Orion is being developed by Lockheed Martin alongside a powerful new rocket that will have its own debut in three or four years’ time. Together, they will form the core capabilities needed to send humans beyond the International Space Station (ISS).

Today’s flight will be on a stand-in Delta IV-Heavy rocket - currently the largest launcher in the world and so the blast off will be spectacular.

Shortly after midnight local time the 330-foot tall mobile service tower was retracted from Cape Canaveral's pad 37B and the wheeled gantry structure moved along rail tracks to its launch position about the length of a football field away from the rocket.

Crews then worked on securing the complex for launch before leaving the danger area around the pad.

All workers had to be clear prior to the start of hazardous operations in the countdown - which include fuelling the Delta IV's Common Booster Cores and the second stage with supercooled liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants - which began shortly before 3 am.