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Closed but not forgotten: a worthy history of East Kennet school

Close a school and you’re closing the door on a whole history of learning and community life.  When East Kennet school closed this summer, it was a sad day for the village. But its history has been rescued by Ruth Lamdin in her book A Village Education.

From 1990 the primary schools in East Kennet and in Lockeridge operated on a federated basis – sharing heads and resources.  Now the two schools have been united on the redeveloped Lockeridge site and East Kennet school’s one hundred and fifty-four year story is over.

The school was founded in 1857 by Maria and Anne Mathews who lived in East Kennet Manor.  It was a totally independent foundation catering partly for local children and partly training girls to work as domestic servants – in the ‘big house’ and beyond.

After Anne died, Maria set up an endowment for the school of £2,300 (equivalent to about £111,000 today) and the school was to be known as ‘Miss Mathew’s School’.  But neither the name nor Maria’s wish that the school be independent lasted long.  Soon after her death in 1892, it became a Church of England Public Elementary School.

Of course the school has gone on changing. The original school building (photo left) – fronting the road and opposite the manor – is now a private house, but it still has its ‘1857’ brick plaque.  Behind it stand classrooms ancient and modern - in various styles and of varying quality (see photo below.)

Ruth Lamdin, who has been a governor of Kennet Valley School, has traced the school’s story using records kept in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.  Her book gives a wonderful insight into the conditions and teaching methods in a small rural school over the years.

Today inspectors from Ofsted strike fear into teachers and produce headlines for the newspapers.  Mrs Lamdin reminds us that English schools have been inspected since 1839 and she uses to great effect reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectors and by diocesan inspectors – as well as the school’s own log books.

In 1891 the school possessed twenty slates (on which the children wrote their exercises) and three maps: “The World, England, Palestine” - days when much of the world was Empire red, most of England was green and pleasant and Palestine was ‘the Holy Land.’

And in 1900 the headmistress reported that because of the lawn was in a sodden state all winter “I have found it necessary to make the children use the road for a playground.”  That’s enough to send shivers of health and safety rules through any modern staff room or PTA.

The earliest school photograph (left) – with all the pupils in their Sunday best  –  is from 1915 when Mrs Billeness was headmistress and the school leaving age was twelve.  Agriculture was still king in the Kennet valley: in July 1900 “Elsie Ellis came and asked for some work (sums) to work at home as her mother could not let her come to school owing to the haymaking.”

This group photo (left) is from 1920 – two years after the school leaving age was raised to fourteen.  Mrs Lamdin has used records which don’t just show us how the school developed, but also remind us how slowly village life changed.  In 1942 the school log reflected the lack of central heating: “15 January: 26 degrees [fahrenheit – six degrees of frost] at 9 a.m.  Ink in wells frozen hard. Ink in stone bottle frozen solid so that when room thawed the bottle had cracked and ink ran across the floor.  Children exercised until room warmed up.”

Even by 1959 the headmistress, Mrs Freeman, showed great frustration at the lack of facilities: “During this term, Russian space rockets have reached and encircled the moon…We use radio and TV for school purposes and before long hope water and proper sanitation will be laid on at this school.”

The newly enlarged school in Lockeridge is certainly not short of up to date facilities and will be able to give the children of the area a great start in life.

Mrs Lamdin’s book also includes the testimony of several former pupils and is very well illustrated.  And for those who want to dig even deeper into this little corner of Wiltshire history, she has included a full list of her sources.

The paperback book costs £5 and can be bought from Mrs Lamdin. You can contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">mailto:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by ‘phone 01672 861550.

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How many of Wiltshire’s new homes will be built in our back yards?

Is there a housing crisis in Britain - or is it a planning policy crisis?  With the number of new homes being built falling ever lower and the coalition government’s new planning policy still in its final planning stages, fears have been raised that there is about to be a free-for-all which will see great parts of the countryside covered with new homes.

The first round of consultation on Wiltshire’s ‘core strategy’ plan for the next fifteen years of development has now ended. It has raised some fury. The draft plan calls for 37,000 new homes across the county by 2026 – with 20,000 of them concentrated in north and west Wiltshire.

Vociferous protest movements in Devizes and Chippenham have been joined by the twenty-five organisations, including the Wiltshire branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, which have written a joint letter to the council. 

Under the draft plan the Marlborough area is expected to take 4,500 new homes between 2006 and 2026 (of which 895 have already been completed.) All but 500 of those would be in the town itself. That means that from the end of 2010 until 2026 the town needs to have 3,215 new houses built – with 385 beyond the town boundary in the community area.

Area plans are one thing, national planning policy may allow something quite different. And the government is changing the planning system to insist on a presumption in favour of sustainable development – planning becomes solely a tool of economic growth.

On top of that the government has instructed local authorities to increase their building targets by twenty per cent. So when the Wiltshire plan comes back for final consultation in a few months’ time, the number of houses to be built in the Marlborough area may have gone up not down.

A very experienced local planning expert has become involved in the national debate over these policies.  Graham Warren who lives near Marlborough, was a partner in the Swindon-based planning consultancy Chapman Warren which had offices around the country. He is now a freelance consultant.

Graham Warren  wrote to The Times to calm anxieties that the government’s plans would lead to a development free-for-all. He believes that the localism legislation will give new power to local communities to decide how much development they do and don’t want in their area.

And he points out that the government’s new planning framework is a policy not a law, so existing planning laws still hold good.

There is no doubt that the planning system is creaking and needs reform.  As Mr Warren pointed out to Marlborough News Online, the costs of obtaining planning permission can be excessive – up half a million pounds for a major development of 2,000 houses.

And council departments, already struggling with the load of planning applications, are now faced with staff cuts and the employment of cheaper, less qualified people.

Right now, Graham Warren says, there is inertia in the building industry, what he calls an ‘interregnum’ while the government’s new planning system squares up to localism: “The schism between localism and the planning system - whatever that’s going to be - is a huge unknown.”

As he put it in his letter to The Times: “The government wishes to see more houses built, but has set out with a localism agenda that will have precisely the opposite effect.”

One of the factors in the ‘unknown’ will be the government’s New Homes Bonus.  This has been developed to reward councils that permit new building and to counter what was feared would be a major epidemic of nimby-ism brought on by the localism legislation.  One LibDem MP has described the Bonus payments as "bribes".

In the unlovely language of government, this Bonus will be “unring-fenced”. So the money can be used by councils to make improvements to the infrastructure that new homes need or it can be used to re-decorate county hall.
Whatever happens nationally, how will Wiltshire council balance the government’s ‘wants’ with the legally backed localism agenda?  On the evidence so far localism does not seem to be winning in Wiltshire.

It is widely known that the council’s Tory majority incurred the wrath of senior party spokesmen who, while they were preparing their localism policies in opposition, argued against Wiltshire becoming a unitary authority.  The demise of the district councils was seen as a blow against the party's localism agenda.

More recently, the Council put costs and economies of scale ahead of localism when they disregarded the work of local charities and volunteers and awarded contracts to run all but three of the county’s thirty Sure Start centres to national rather than local organisations.  Following that precedent, the New Homes Bonus will be a tempting financial incentive to bypass local opposition to housing developments.

So watch out for the council’s response both to the local protests at their draft plan and to the government’s planning policy.

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Pewsey Music Festival books a date for 2012

Here’s a date for your 2012 diary: Saturday, August 4 will see Pewsey’s sixth music festival at Cooper’s Field.  Never mind the London Olympics - if the responses to this year’s festival are anything to go by, that’s the day in August 2012 to be sure to keep free.

The Festival is rapidly gaining a reputation across the country for showcasing a wide range of original music – with groups from the south-west and from afar.

On August 6, with some sunshine and lots of clouds, the main stage featured seven groups playing hour-long sets: Dolly and the Clothes Pegs (pictured above and left), Will and the People, Melodramas, Bite the Buffalo and Slagerij - topped off with the headliners Charly Coombes and The New Breed. 

In all twenty groups covering a multitude of musical styles filled the Festival’s twelve hours.

 Bite the Buffalo, two brothers who grew up in Zambia and are now based in Bath, stepped in at the last moment when The Bohemian Embassy were unable to make their slot. Stos (guitar/vocals) and Dimitri (drums/vocals) only started performing at the beginning of 2011. They call themselves a ‘soulful rock duo’. After Pewsey, Bite the Buffalo played slots on three nights at the London O2 Arena.

Five groups took to the main stage for twenty minute sets: The Banzukes, Not Rocket Science, The Racket, Nudy Bronque and Southwest central.

In addition there was an open mic tent with nine musicians and groups competing.  The four judges named Mark Nelson the winner.  His prize was a slot on the main stage at ten in the evening, just before Charly Coombe’s headlining set.

Besides the music there was a beer tent, food from Pewsey outlets and plenty for the children to do – including some wild face painting.

Organiser Liz Boden reports a blizzard of appreciative messages.  Festival fan Laura Thomas wrote: “Fantastic day, best music line-up to date and the whole family had a wonderful time. Thank you. We are still humming the songs!” And Matt Dennehy from the Swindon-based ska-punk act Slagerij sent a message:  “Blimey! What an ace day at Pewsey Music Festival! Truly an epic load of fun and an awesome fun crowd.!”

Liz has publicly thanked the Festival’s sponsors: Wessex Print Centre, Pewsey Spar, Stowell Farms, Mike Williams of Outlook Private Hire, Pewsey Area Community Trust and Richard Dewey.

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Priming the Marlborough area’s parish pumps

At a meeting in the Town Hall on September 6, Wiltshire councillors on the Marlborough Area Board will be voting on whether to make a grant to a local organisation most people will have never heard of.  And that’s how the ‘parish forum’ likes it.

The Marlborough area parish forum is a very lower case organisation.  It has no logo, no website and a chairman who is determined to chair no more than four of its meetings.  In the words of the song, it’s a ‘loose affiliation’ of the chairmen of the area’s eighteen rural parishes.  They work behind the scenes as facilitators and advisers.

The forum was started this year by James Keith (Broad Hinton & Winterbourne Bassett and current chairman) with Mary Spender (Fyfield & West Overton) and the assistance of Jemima Milton (Wiltshire Councillor for West Selkley - covering a swathe of villages.)

As the Marlborough and Village Community Area Partnership (MAVCAP) faded away, James thought a fairly informal organisation which would meet just four times a year and do most of its business by email, could help parish councils.  All but two parish councils attend the meetings – but all parishes are on the forum’s email circuit and receive minutes and papers.

(Marlborough council which sits as both a town and a parish council, was asked to join but declined, and this was accepted as appropriate for the time being.)

The forum has three main aims: to hold the area board to account and add parish input; to share knowledge, experience and resources among the parishes; and help resolve issues which affect more than one parish.
On the first aim James Keith told Marlborough News Online: “Something we want to bring about is to give the parishes a stronger voice in the Marlborough area board.”

Examples of the second aim have been the sharing of details of the legal hoops and processes one council has been through to provide new allotments in their village and the compilation of a central register of parish assets, services and issues solved so that each knows where to look for help.

An example of the third aim is finding solutions to the common ‘running sore’ of speeding drivers and traffic flow in villages.  Through the forum parish councils with experience of successful traffic initiatives are already sharing details on this topic.

The forum can help with specific issues.  The proposed Great Stones Way linking Avebury and Stonehenge will cross through Avebury and East Kennet parishes and the forum is helping bring together expertise to advise on the likely problems.  But it will do nothing to bind any parish council.

Councillor Milton told Marlborough News Online that “The Marlborough area board is hugely supportive of the new parish forum.”  And she points out that it is not only about parishes working together and sharing knowledge and good practice: “The forum also helps the area board to consult with the parishes as it offers an excellent conduit for cascading information and gaining opinions.”

James Keith says that the coalition government’s localism legislation – now before a House of Lords committee – gave “a sort of green light for us to get [the forum] going.”  Greater devolution down the chain of government will put more responsibilities onto parish councils and increase the need for their voices to be heard clearly by town and county councils.

“I hope,” says Keith, “the actual provisions within the [localism] bill will in time prove to support the spirit of the bill and not be used to prevent a bottom-up system.”

One longer term challenge for the forum is how to increase the electorate’s interest in parish council affairs.  A recent parish council election in Avebury saw a turn-out of just over twenty per cent (almost exactly the same, incidentally, as the recent ward by-election for Devizes Town Council.)

James Keith admits this is a problem.  But he says that when important issues arise then the public will get involved.

While it is hard to get people worked up about a consultation for a long-term local development plan, the priority the government is going to give to pushing through housing projects may well get people in the villages out of their homes and pubs and into the polling stations.

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Vintage fair steams in to town

A reminder of Mop Fairs gone by was visited on Marlborough at the weekend, with the arrival of the largest original touring vintage fairground in the world.

Carter's Steam Fair features pre-1960's equipment, transport, sideshows and rides – and its appearance at The Common on Saturday and Sunday created an atmosphere that makes it obvious why older residents get misty-eyed about the Mop Fair of days gone by.

The Mop's pounding Euro-dance and gravity-defying rides were replaced by steam-driven attractions, set to a soundtrack of pipe organs and rock 'n' roll.

Attractions included a helter skelter, complete with rush mats, and a merry-go-round. Thrill seekers were invited to ride the Divebomber (pictured) and put their stomachs in the hands of centrifugal force.

Some rides, of course, haven't changed since the 1960s – dodgems are still dodgems, and hook-a-duck is still hook-a-duck, but one thing that wasn't vintage about the fair was the ticket prices – with rides costing anything up to £3.50

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Unsung no more – SWIFT ‘Heroes’ win accolades

The unsung heroes of Wiltshire’s highways aren't so anonymous anymore –after recently receiving a clutch of accolades from across the county

The winning streak peaked when Marlborough-based Swift Medics were crowned Wiltshire Community Group of the Year in the Wiltshire Life Awards.

The three nominees for the award were Swift Medics, The Longmeadow Residents and Tenants Association of Trowbridge, and Wiltshire Air Ambulance.

Team chairman Dr Adam Brownhill (left), who collected the award with the charity’s secretary Clare Bliss, said: “It is fantastic that our team of volunteers have been recognised for the selfless acts that they perform on behalf of the people of Wiltshire.”

Individuals from the team have also received praise. James Dunn, emergency medicine specialist registrar from Swindon, along with Marlborough GP Jonathan Glover, have been named as recipients of the Chief Officer's Commendation from the Great Western Ambulance Service.

Mr Dunn (right) won an award for his immediate and lifesaving actions in the treatment of the victim of a stabbing in Swindon. The hospital teams praised Mr Dunn with the comments that patients with injuries as severe as this rarely make it to hospital alive.

Dr Glover (below) was commended for his actions in the recent serious road cash at Rowde.

Though three young boys lost their lives, Dr Glover and the Wiltshire Air Ambulance provided the cohesive teamwork and critical care which managed to prevent further tragedy.

Swift Medics is a charity of volunteer doctors from hospital and general practice who provide what is known as ‘pre-hospital emergency care’.

Formed in 1996, and registered as a charity early last year, Swift Medics provides emergency care at the scene of serious road traffic accidents and other life threatening medical emergencies including falls from a height, serious burns and incidents where casualties are unconscious or trapped.

Supporting the paramedics of the Great Western Ambulance Service and Wiltshire Air Ambulance, Swift Medics work on a voluntary basis using their own vehicles.

Nine doctors, supported by four volunteer management staff and trustees, enjoy nearly 100 percent success rate in reaching the scene of accidents within 20 minutes – a period during which treatment is considered vital for survival.

At times Swift Medics are first on the scene and are trained to fully integrate into the emergency services' teams. They are also trained and experienced in management of the medical aspects of major incidents.

Swift Medics enjoy an excellent working relationship with The Wiltshire Air Ambulance; they regard working with this team as a privilege. However Swift Medics do not receive funding from the air ambulance charity and although the two charities professionally complement one another they remain financially separate organisations.

Meanwhile, the organisers of the Emergency Services Show have announced that Swift Medics will be the chosen charity of this year’s event. It is the second time in as many years that Swift Medics has been proudly associated with the event.

In 2010 £2,500 of the proceeds from the show were donated to SWIFT Medics – a most vital boost to the charities finances. The show, which features arena displays and demonstrations from all of the county's emergency services, will be coming to Hullavington Airfield near Chippenham on Sunday, September 11, 2011.

Dr Adam Brownhill, who is based in Chippenham, said: “Swift Medics are very proud to be involved with such an important event, which helps to showcase the best of the emergency services.”

Anyone unlucky enough to be involved in a serious road traffic accident in Wiltshire, may owe their lives to a Swift Medic but, they will probably never know it, as the involvement of the Swift Medics doctors is rarely publicised.

Despite their vital role in saving lives, Swift Medics receive no funding from local or central government, health trusts, or the NHS. It costs £10,000 to train and equip a new member of the team, and costs a further £3,000 per team member, per year in training, equipment and insurance.

People whose lives have been touched by the work of Swift Medics sometimes go on to help the charity in its fundraising endeavours.

Back in March the family of Chris Cowie, a 25-year-old Corsham man killed in a car crash in October 2010, ran the Bath Half Marathon and raised over £17,000. Royal chartered silversmith and watch designer Simon Benney ran the Marathon des Sables last year also raising another £17,000 after his critically injured son Todd was treated by Swift Medics.

To find out more about Swift Medics, or to learn how to help the charity, log on to  

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Scarecrows join speed limits in villagers’ armoury against speeding drivers

While Wiltshire waits for a programme of mobile speed cameras to replace the fixed speed cameras which were withdrawn last year, and for the results of the county’s 20MPH pilot schemes for village centres, parishes are working to reclaim their streets and make them safer.  In the second of our articles on how villages are tackling the problems of speeding traffic, Marlborough News Online visits a parish with two very different problems to solve.

No two parishes have quite the same problems with traffic and speeding drivers. But the parish of Fyfield and West Overton has more than its fair share of those problems: it includes Fyfield which has a straight stretch of the A4 running through it, and Lockeridge which has something of a rat-run as its main street.

In the area of this parish council, only West Overton, with no through traffic, is spared the blight of speeding drivers.

Before the M4 was built, the A4 was the main artery between London and Bristol.  When it was widened to cope with increased traffic, Fyfield lost some houses and was in effect split into three parts. There are Upper and Lower Fyfield and the part of Fyfield across the A4 on its north side.  Importantly, this part includes the villages’ only village shop.

Indeed if you add to the village shop, the petrol station, two turnings onto the main road and the lack of a stopping place for the school buses, Fyfield and the A4 do not mix well at all. In recent years this stretch of the A4 has seen several serious accidents and fatalities.

The parish council’s traffic committee have won approval for a 50MPH speed limit along the stretch of the A4 that includes Fyfield.  This won’t come into force until November 2012.

Although this should make a real difference for villagers, some think 40MPH would be more appropriate.  Changes to speed limits come at a cost: in 2009 Wiltshire Council identified 116 changes to speed limits and estimated they would cost between £900,000 and £1M.

However, one solution brings another problem. Once the 50MPH limit is in force, you will turn off the A4 towards Lockeridge and have a 500 metre stretch of 60MPH speed limit before you meet (in some cases ‘hit’ would be the better word) Lockeridge’s 30MPH sign.

Ruth Scriven, who chairs the parish council’s traffic committee, wants the 30MPH limit pushed northwards, out from the village, past the houses of Upper Fyfield, to meet the A4.

But Wiltshire Council have offered a 40MPH limit between the village's 30MPH sign and the A4.  However, Whitehall rules say you cannot have a different speed limit that runs for less than 600 metres – so can the limit between the village and the trunk road be set at 40MPH?  Are you following this so far?  Rules are, after all, rules and have to be followed.

Lockeridge have put up village gates to show drivers they’re entering a village.  But the start of the 30MPH limit is at a very tricky bend and it’s become something of an accident black spot with several accidents – and smashed village gates – in a year.

When you get into Lockeridge the problem changes radically.  The main street is narrow and in places very twisty.  It has a busy pub, lots of driveways and a newly enlarged school all emptying directly onto the village’s main street. 

The road through the village is too narrow and used by too many large agricultural vehicles to install chicanes.  Anyway, though they’re supposed to calm traffic, they’re often taken as a Top Gear challenge.  Though it must be said that parking along Lockeridge’s main street sometimes presents a chicane-type of obstacle course – not, it should be said, an obstacle race.

Several years ago the villages became really fed up with speeding drivers taking short cuts from the A4 towards Salisbury and Devizes – a problem made much worse with the introduction of ‘satnavs’. So they called in an internationally recognised traffic management expert, Ben Hamilton-Baillie.   Based in Bristol, he puts forward unorthodox ways to calm traffic and share spaces between cars and people.

In some places, he’s even proposed doing away with markings in the middle of the road. As Ruth Scriven told me: “Instead of providing information so a driver knows where to go, you take the information away so a driver has to think what he’s doing and realise where he is.”

Hamilton-Baillie came up with solutions that avoided sprinkling flashing signs and lights around the village.  He wanted the villagers to show drivers that they were entering a living village and not driving along some kind of ring road. 

He proposed ‘mental speed bumps’ – ways to encourage drivers to slow down as they passed through the village. In the words of parish councillor Judith Woodget, they had to “make the village look inhabited.”

One scheme that attracted a great deal of comment was the scarecrow competition.  Two years running villagers were asked to make scarecrows that would sit about the village  inviting drivers to slow down and notice them. The competitions – apart from revealing some striking hidden skills among the villagers – were deemed a success.

But even the scarecrows and a number of very visible village events held beside the road – Christmas drinks, an Easter bunny show and art hung on the school railings - did not do enough to solve the problems.

The flow of traffic – even with frequent examples of inappropriate or illegal speeding – was not deemed large enough for a community speed watch scheme to be launched in conjunction with Wiltshire police.

Ruth Scriven would like a 20MPH speed limit through the village. This has become more urgent with the increased number attending the school after the closure of its East Kennet branch – more children walking to school, more being dropped off in the narrow road and more buses.

There was some dismay that Lockeridge was not chosen to be one of the county’s five pilot schemes for 20MPH village limits.  Of those chosen, three were in the west and north-west of the county (Biddestone, Limpley Stoke and Westwood.) The other two were Great Cheverell (on the edge of the Plain) and Great Bedwyn (the only one in the east of the county.)

Twelve villages put themselves forward for the pilot, but Wiltshire Council says Lockeridge was not one of them.  The pilot schemes will last at least until April 2012.


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Triffids they’re not – but these plants are dangerous invaders of our countryside

You’re driving along Wiltshire’s country roads and the hedgerows are still green and lush.  Then all of a sudden you notice a patch of brown and wilting foliage – and in the middle of it a small white notice.

You’ve just passed a patch of Japanese knotweed that’s been treated by Wiltshire Council.  It may look dead, but underneath it may still be alive.  The Council will be back to see if the treatment’s worked.

Japanese knotweed is one of the most invasive and destructive plants at large in Britain.  It has thick bamboo-like stems, grows into large clumps, has bright green leaves and pretty, fronds of wispy flowers. But under the ground its rhizomes (or underground stems) spread widely producing new plants which can lift up asphalt and damage buildings.

These plants smother all other native plants and spread very quickly.  Tiny fragments of a stem can be carried away by mowers, strimmers and flails, and start new plants.  It is a perennial and although it dies away in winter, it comes back to life in spring with renewed vigour.

Under an act of parliament it is illegal to plant or otherwise cause Japanese knotweed to spread into the wild.  And you can be taken to court if it spreads from your land to a neighbour’s.

Wiltshire Council has had 416 Japanese knotweed sites reported over the last four years and last year its contractors treated 181 sites.  By the end of 2010’s growing season 58 sites were still thought to be live and were treated again this spring.  Most reports come from council contractors as they carry out the twice yearly cutting of verges.

Wessex Tree Care are contracted to treat the county’s Japanese knotweed sites and they no longer have to use dangerous sprays.  Instead they inject the stems with a commercial pesticide called Tordon. A pigment in this pesticide turns the plants blue for a couple of hours as the liquid is carried own the stems to the rhizomes – which it then kills.

But it’s very resilient.  Wiltshire Council’s expert on knotweed is Graeme Hay.  He calls it ‘a remarkably effective plant’ and told Marlborough News Online: “You never give up on knotweed – you always have to go back and look again.”

The Council’s work to eradicate Japanese knotweed from the county is important. South Wales provides the lesson of what it can do when left to its own devices. There it has taken over abandoned industrial and mining sites in the valleys and around major towns – and has got into the water courses where it flourishes.  On that scale it is very hard indeed to overcome.

The other plant that is giving local authorities a headache is common ragwort.  As a defence, this wild plant has evolved strong toxins that can damage the livers of grazing animals.  It can be lethal to horses – especially when included in hay.  Humans are advised to wear gloves when handling it.

Unlike knotweed there is a positive side to ragwort. It has a key role in the wild environment, supporting many insects – especially the cinnabar moth whose orange and black striped caterpillars cover the plants in late summer.

Each ragwort plant can produce up to 30,000 seeds and though they won’t be carried much more than five metres away, the plant spreads through fields at an alarming rate.  Graeme Hay says that it’s impossible to eradicate ragwort, you just have to keep it to a minimum.  His aim is to keep it out of the county’s grass verges and so prevent it infesting farmers’ fields.

Control of ragwort comes under two acts of parliament – the Weeds Act (1959) and the Control of Ragwort Act (2003.)  These put responsibility for control squarely onto the owners of land where it grows.

The last government published a code of practice on how to prevent the spread of ragwort. This will probably end up on the coalition government’s bonfire of red tape. Last summer the agriculture minister, Jim Paice, announced that “Tackling common ragwort can be a practical example of the Big Society in action.”

So if you see the yellow heads of ragwort thriving in fields or on verges, you’ll know the Big Society hasn’t reached them – yet?

For further information on Japanese knotweed  click here to visit the DEFRA information section on Japanese Knotweed 

You can report knotweed sites in Wiltshire via CLARENCE (Customer Lighting & Roads Enquiry Centre) from landlines within Wiltshire call 0800 232323. From mobiles or outside the county call 01225 777234. Or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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Robert Harris has no need to hedge his bets for the launch of his new financial thriller

Best-selling author Robert Harris  seems set for another stunning success with his new novel, The Fear Index, his first truly contemporary thriller after a string of historical ones taking in Imperial Rome, Hitler, Stalin, code-breaking and Tony Blair.

The Fear Factor, due out from Hutchinson in September, is set in the dizzy world of high finance and competing hedge funds.  Already the film rights have been sold to Fox and Harris is shortly to begin work on the screenplay.

And researching the novel – Harris was a Newsnight and Panorama reporter before becoming a Fleet Street columnist – gave him a totally new insight into the lives of high flying hedge fund managers.

“It was an absolutely eye-opener for me – to go into these hedge funds and find that the people working there were all PhDs,” 54-year-old Harris, who lives in Kintbury, tells The Bookseller.

“I felt I was at the cutting edge and I felt, I may be wrong, that nowhere in fiction – either in films or in novels – has anyone really written about how the financial world is ticking.”

“Of course there have been novels set in hedge funds, but no novel that shows it as it really is – which is so dependent on science, physicists and mathematicians and computer programmers.”

His central character is Geneva-based Dr Alex Hoffman, a former CERN physicist turned spectacularly successful hedge fund manager who develops a secret system of computer algorithms to trade on the world’s financial markets – and attempts made to destroy him.

He describes The Fear Index as a sort of 21st century Frankenstein or “gothic realism”, as he prefers.

“The gothic novel is generally about the hinterland between  human beings and the other, the supernatural,” he explains.  “But our hinterland, in quite a realistic way, is now between being human and being a machine.

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Baydon’s volunteers take the problem of speeding traffic into their own hands

With the decision last year by Wiltshire Council not to fund speed cameras, the issue of traffic speeding through the county’s villages has become more serious. Wiltshire council have started talks with the police and others to bring back mobile speed camera units.

Dick Tonge, Wiltshire Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, told Marlborough News Online: “We are putting together a business proposal, but this must be cost neutral for the council taxpayers of Wiltshire.” There is no target date and “there is a long way to go.”

Marlborough News Online will be taking a look at how some of the area’s villages are trying to cope with and to deter speeding traffic. First, we went out on patrol with Baydon’s Community Speed Watch volunteers:

Baydon sits in Wiltshire’s far north east corner. And it sits astride the Ermin Way – a Roman road that entices drivers to travel faster than they should through the village. The Ermin Way divides Baydon – on one side are most of the houses, on the other are the village school and the recently opened children’s play area.

 It has been found that the drivers most likely to be breaking the village’s 30 MPH limit are those travelling through the village from the east – from Newbury and Lambourn. However, drivers have been found to be breaking the 30 MPH speed limit entering Baydon on all three approach roads.

 Mark Austen (on the right in this photo), who heads the Community Speed Watch (CSW) volunteer group, is especially concerned about traffic driving at speed past the entrance to the play area. The entrance to the play area is at the edge of village just a few yards after the gates, rumble strips and the new and larger 30 MPH signs put in place by the Parish Council’s traffic calming working group.

Baydon has for some years had a sign that responds to your speed with a warning; as you near the school, they’ve had flashing lights at the beginning and end of the school day; and they did not have enough pedestrians crossing Ermin Street throughout the day to warrant a pedestrian crossing. What else could they do?

A group of Baydon residents decided to apply to set up a CSW – a police sponsored scheme. To make sure Baydon qualified the police did an audit of speeds along Ermin Street – one of those impact pads across the road attached to a recording box (also known as a Metrocount.)

This audit in May 2010 showed 78 per cent of vehicles crossing the pad were speeding – about two thousand a day. Of these nearly half were doing 36 MPH or more – and that’s the speed at which police will prosecute. If Mr Tonge wanted an income flow, he could have had over one thousand speeding fines on an average day.

In response to those figures Baydon put up white gates and rumble strips on the road to impress on drivers that they were entering a village. Then, after training, Baydon CSW started operation at the end of February 2011. They have eighteen volunteers and currently are fortunate to have sole use of a speed checking device.

These devices – sometimes rather recklessly known as ‘speed guns’ – cost £2,000 each and need annual servicing and re-calibration. They have a range of seven hundred metres and can record the speed of an advancing and a departing vehicle. The speed shows up in the eye piece and shows on the external display panel until the next vehicle is checked.

The volunteers do get a certain amount of disapproving looks and shouts, and the occasional rude hand or finger signal. Some motorists think they are having a photo taken and complain loudly. But when told the devices only record speed they tend not to mind being checked.

It is not at all like collecting engine numbers on a station platform. On a damp and rather chilly July morning, I watched a team of three volunteers recording speeds on Baydon’s Ermin Street from 7.30-8.30. (Pictured left to right: John Cockcroft, Mark Austen and Alison Bocock.)  When a vehicle is registered as speeding, that is travelling at or above 36 MPH, the volunteers have to note its registration number, make and model, colour, direction of travel and time.

 The all important question? What happens to those logged as speeding? First time they get a letter from the police. Second time they get a much sterner letter. And the third time they attract the direct attention of the police. But a prosecution cannot be based on data collected by the volunteers.

 And be warned: CSW information is kept centrally at Wiltshire police headquarters. So your ‘third time’ could have been logged by any one of the forty-seven active CSW schemes across the county.

And, of course, there’s the important deterrent effect of the CSW signs and the random appearance of the CSW teams.

The morning I watched one of Baydon’s teams at work, 114 vehicles passed us and twelve were logged at or over 36 MPH. One Friday evening session (5.30-6.30 pm) earlier this month logged forty-four speeders in an hour – the fastest was travelling at 51 MPH and two at 50 MPH. They were coming into Baydon from the Lambourn/Newbury direction and driving right past the children’s play area. The top speed recorded so far is 58 MPH.

The police have strict rules for the way CSW’s operate. Teams must be visible to traffic and can only use roadside places approved by the police. The police have to be warned well before a monitoring session takes place. And volunteers are told to walk away if a motorist gets angry with them.

When Baydon’s population of about 560 people was consulted for the parish plan, the speed of traffic was deemed to be by far the most serious problem facing the village. The volunteers of the CSW believe they are making a real difference and hope their statistics will encourage Wiltshire Council and the police to do more to make their village safe from passing traffic.

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The winding pathway towards re-shaping the NHS in Wiltshire

As the coalition government’s plans to bring radical change to the NHS advance by fits and starts, it’s now clear how Wiltshire will be divided into the newly termed “Clinical  Commissioning Groups” (CCGs) – which just a month ago were called “GP Consortia”. These groups will be given most of the county’s NHS budget which is currently administered by the Primary Care Trust (PCT) – in our case by Wiltshire NHS which is due to be abolished after April 2013.

At the start of the government’s reform process, Dr Helen Kingston (pictured left) wrote the application for what were then five Wiltshire GP consortia to start the process toward official formation.  Now she has told Marlborough News Online that there will be just three CCGs in Wiltshire.

The Marlborough Medical Practice will be part of the CCG that brings together the East Kennet (Marlborough, Great Bedwyn, Burbage, Pewsey and Ramsbury practices) and the North Wiltshire areas.   It stretches from Corsham in the west to Ramsbury in the east, south to Pewsey and north to the border with Swindon.  It will take in a population of about 167,000 out of Wiltshire NHS’ total of 455,450 people.

[The other two CCGs are Sarum – the south and south-east of the county based in Salisbury. And the CCG temporarily known as WWYKD – pronounced ‘wicked’ – which includes west Wiltshire, Yatton Keynell and Devizes.  Dr Kingston is joint chairman of this CCG.]

Dr Kingston, who studied at King’s College, Cambridge, and trained in Oxford and Bath, qualified as a GP in 1990. She’s a partner in the Frome Medical Practice which has a branch surgery in Warminster.  And she’s now working with lead doctors in the three groups on some Wiltshire-wide plans.

Dr Kingston acknowledges that there is a ‘tension’ between the demands stressed in the government’s health White Paper that the new structures to deliver the modernised NHS must be local and the whole service ‘patient centred’, and the tight state of the public finances.  She says there’s a difficult balance between being small and ticking the ‘local’ box and the need to find economies of scale to achieve the huge and obligatory savings within the NHS. 

With that in mind, the three Wiltshire CCGs are moving towards setting up an ‘over-arching’ organisation to provide essential management and administrative back-up right across the county.  Some will undoubtedly say this looks like the ghost of the PCT.
Others will whisper that it might even mean that eventually there will be just one CCG for all Wiltshire.  And that would not look good for a government that has made so much of its drive towards localism – pushing decision-making further down the democratic ladder.

Dr Kingston takes a positive view of the coalition government’s response to the parliamentary ‘pause’ and ‘listening process’ that followed the trenchant criticism – from within the health service and from outside – of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s original plans.  She’s especially pleased with the new attitude toward managers  - no longer seen as a “waste of space”.

She also backs the switch from the reliance on competition towards more “co-operation and coordination” to find the best ways to treat patients and improve care.  The ‘year zero’ approach of the White Paper has gone: “Lots of good things are happening already [in the NHS] – let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.”

However she does admit that the drawn out uncertainty amongst so many NHS employees is not good: “We need the new order put in place so we’re not distracted.”  And she explains that the silence on the changes from the groups isn’t because people at local level “haven’t made up their minds, the structures haven’t been decided centrally yet”.

The process of these reforms has been slowed considerably – perhaps Andrew Lansley (pictured left) thinks of it as another over-long waiting time for treatment.  And the new governance requirements for the CCGs are putting extra layers into the structure – in Dr Kingston’s words “frameworks and frameworks within the frameworks.”
“If the governance arrangements become very complex – it would drive us towards a larger grouping – because the infrastructure and expertise to manage it would need to be of a higher calibre and the resources for that would become too costly for small groupings.”

There’s that hint again that in the future they might need to be a single CCG for Wiltshire – the ghostly PCT walking abroad again.

But she fully acknowledges that, even when reinforced by boards that will include a hospital doctor, a registered nurse and two lay members, the new groupings of GPs will be responsible for such huge sums of taxpayers money that they must be seen to be properly set-up and accountable.

The Wiltshire’s CCGs’ next hurdle is for their business plans, accountability and governance structures to be signed off by the PCT at its July board meeting.  If the PCT is satisfied they will become ‘interim CCGs’.
Final authorisation can only come in 2012 once the new NHS Commissioning Board comes into existence and has its say on what the government calls the groups’ “skills, competences and behaviours to do their job well.  Skills that they will need to be able to commission high quality care within their allotted resources” [from ‘Government response to the Future Forum report’ – 3.93.]

There are now a lot of people whose official job – never mind the journalists, politicians and busy-bodies – will be to peer over the GPs’ shoulders and make sure they’re doing the job properly.  And then, of course, there’s the public, the patients.

The government’s new plans for the CCGs put a tremendous onus on them to involve “patients and the public in their commissioning decisions”: “Clinical commissioning groups will be required to consult on their annual commissioning plans to ensure proper opportunities for public input…[and] will have to involve the public on any changes that affect patient services, not just those with ‘significant’ impact.”  [from ‘Government response…’ - 4.41.] (That would certainly include any future changes to the use of Savernake Hospital.)

Dr Kingston is determined to have proper consultation processes in place:  “Most people will be happy if there’s transparency.  We have to explain prioritisation and then be consistent. We have to have very careful communications with the public.”

“People would get understandably cross if they thought they’d get a different treatment in a neighbouring practice.  This involves consulting people before decisions are taken.” And for consultation she wants a reference group of the public in her area to include a “broad range of ages, geography, jobs and a balance of the sexes.”

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