Water Voles Protected by Boro Beck Improvements

A new project has been launched to benefit local communities and wildlife in West Middlesbrough.

Pupils from St Thomas More Primary School joined representatives from Middlesbrough Council, Middlesbrough Environment City, the Environment Agency and Tees Valley Wildlife Trust at the Municipal Golf Centre for wildlife activities and a game of golf with a water vole and an otter!

The West Middlesbrough Becks Project will run over two years to improve stretches of Marton West Beck, Newham Beck and Bluebell Beck.

The project will see the creation of five new ponds, planting eight new reed beds and removal of dense scrub to encourage more vegetation along the beck sides.

The project has received a grant of almost £50,000 from Biffa Award, a multi-million pound environment fund managed by the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT), which utilises landfill tax credits donated by Biffa Waste Services.

It is being delivered by Middlesbrough Environment City, working with Middlesbrough Council and Tees Valley Wildlife Trust.

The project will create a more varied local environment along the becks for residents to enjoy. It will also help to improve water quality and reduce the risks of flooding and pollution incidents.

Wildlife will also benefit, including the nationally scarce and protected water vole. This small mammal is still found along Marton West Beck and will benefit through the creation of new feeding areas.  Other species likely to benefit include birds such as sedge warbler, reed warbler and kingfisher as well as frogs, toads and newts.

Councillor Nicky Walker, Middlesbrough Council’s Executive Member for Environment, said: “I am delighted that this new initiative is taking place in Middlesbrough.

“It demonstrates well how different partners and organisations can work together to improve the local environment for both local residents and wildlife.”

Councillor Julia Rostron, Chair of Middlesbrough Environment City, said: “Thanks to the grant from Biffa Award of almost £50,000, we will have exciting opportunities for local people to enjoy wildlife close to their homes and also help improve water quality in the becks.”

I interviewed Mark Fishpool, Director of Middlesbrough Environment City and asked him about the new project.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about the project please.

A: Yes what the project is going to do is to create some new habitats long the becks here at the golf course and over at Bluebell Beck, reed beds and ponds. The aim of the project is to improve the habitats for wildlife, particularly for water voles. But also to create better places for people to enjoy, where they can come into contact with wildlife more readily but also to help reduce flooding and improve water quality along the becks.

Q: These are green ribbons very close to the urban area aren’t they? And I guess many of us drive past them almost every day and not aware of them.

A: Yes we are very fortunate in Middlesbrough we have a series of these corridors along the becks, Marton West Beck, Ormesby Beck, Middle Beck and Bluebell Beck all have these green spaces with them and a lot of people aren’t aware that they are there and yet there are footpaths along them and there are cycleways along them and they are great opportunities for people in the town to actually get out into the countryside.

This beck valley in particular has National Cycle Route 65 running along it. The cycle route runs all the way from the Transporter Bridge, right the way out through here toHemlingtonLakeand then out into the countryside south of the town. So they are excellent opportunities for people to get out and about.

Q: We have seen the water vole this morning playing golf is this signposting the fact they are an endangered species?

A: That’s right. Water voles have had a 90% plus decline over the last 20 years in Britain through changing habitats, introduced mink and all sorts of issues that have affected them. Middlesbrough still has a really good water vole population. It is something for us to celebrate. But in order for them to thrive we do need to look at the becks, we need to improve the habitats to give them better places to live but also in particular now because some of the populations are quite isolated its about creating stretches of suitable habitat so that they can start to move up and down and the populations can mix a bit more.


Meccano Transporter

I think most of us are big kids really. Except if we are still little kids. Last weekend down by Middlesbrough’s own giant sized Meccano bridge, the Tees Transporter, there was an exhibition held by the North East Meccano Society (NEMS) Exhibition designed to bring out the child in all of us.

The Exhibition at the Transporter Bridge Visitor Centre featured fascinating Meccano working models, including a 6ft Tees Transporter Bridge. It was amazing to watch the little gondola passing from side to side just a Meccano bridge span away from the full size version.

Next to the Tees Transporter model was a working replica of the former Runcorn-Widnes Transporter Bridge. Demolished in 1961, this is a bridge I have only ever seen in vintage photographs. Sitting squatter than our own Transporter the Meccano model certainly gives a far clearer indication of what the Mersey Transporter would have looked like.

Also part of the exhibition was a Meccano replica of the Sans Pareil one of the losers to Stephenson’s Rocket at the famous Rainhill Trials for locomotives on the Liverpool-Manchester Railway. Its wheels were spinning round again but on its big day Sans Pareil trailed well behind The Rocket.

Sans PareilOutside I could occasionally hear the yells as people hurled themselves off the top of the Transporter, bungee jumping for charity. Brave people!

The bridge is closed to cars and pedestrians on a Sunday and instead thousands of pounds are raised for charities as the only licensed bridge to bungee jumpers in the country.

This was the first exhibition the North East Meccano Society held at the Tees Transporter since the North East Meccano Society was set up in 1975. So appropriate that is should be right next to the full size Meccano like structure.

The free two day event – was part of the wider £2.6m Heritage Lottery Fund award supported activities at the Bridge, which will include the introduction of lift access to the 160ft high upper walkway, refurbishment of the gondola and the already installed Winding House Viewing Area.

More information on the Tees Transporter Bridge can be found at www.teestransporterbridge.com


Aimee’s aiming for the top

Teesside swimmer Aimee Willmott was given a rousing send-off by local schoolchildren before she heads for the World Championships in Barcelona.

Middlesbrough’s most successful swimmer since Jack Hatfield a century ago will compete forGreat Britainin the 400m individual medley (IM) on Sunday, August 4.

Aimee WillmottHaving been disqualified in the heats of the trials two years ago, the 20-year-old is looking forward to taking part in her first World Championships.

But first many of those who have helped in her achievements are set to gather atMiddlesbrough’sNeptuneswimming baths, where she trains, to wish her luck.

Also in attendance will be pupils from nearby St Pius X Primary School, where Steve Gibson and Chris Kamara, two more of the town’s sporting heroes, once studied.

London Olympian Aimee, who is currently studying atTeessideUniversityand has been a member of Middlesbrough Amateur Swimming Club (MASC) since the age of eight, says

“It’s my first World Championship so I’m excited. I had a bit of disaster in the qualifying heats two years ago when I really fluffed it so it was nice to erase that memory by qualifying this time around.

“But qualifying was just the first step. Now I want to do well when I get there. My target is get the best possible time in the morning heats to qualify for the final that same evening.

“I’m pretty sure I will need to go close to my best time to secure a place in the final but that’s the target. If I can improve on my Olympic finishing position then I’ll be delighted.

“If everything goes to plan over the next couple of years I can drop a few seconds off my best time and then, who knows? The next step would be a medal at next year’s Commonwealth Games inGlasgow.”

Aimee, who is coached by MASC director of swimming Lisa Bates, insists a massive team effort has helped her qualify for the World Championships despite training on Teesside, away from most of the Loughborough-basedGreat Britainsquad.

She trains twice a day at Middlesbrough Council’s Neptune with fellow MASC members, while she carries out specialist strength and conditioning work in the hi-tech gymnasium at Teesside University, where she is part of their elite athlete scheme and is studying for a BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise (Coaching Science). The elite athlete scheme offers a comprehensive support package including physiotherapy, sport psychology and sports science support to athletes of international calibre.

Aimee is also grateful for the support she receives from Studio 21 in Yarm, where she takes regular pilates sessions.

“Training has gone really well and I can’t overstate how helpful and supportive so many people have been to me.

“I’ve been training at the Neptune since I was eight when I first joined MASC so the people there are like part of the family. The staff there bend over backwards to help me train at hours to suit me and I’m always made to feel so welcome. Middlesbrough Council has always been massively supportive, right from the start when I began their swimming lessons at the Neptune as a young girl.

“Equally, everyone is so supportive at MASC. I get on so well with the swimming squad and I would love to do well inBarcelonafor them and everyone else who has helped me.”

MASC chairman Sue Campion, who coached Aimee in her younger days, said: “Aimee is an absolute credit to herself and her family. She is an exceptional swimmer and a lovely girl, who has worked so hard to make the most of her talent.

“The swimming club has been on the go since 1886 and the great Jack Hatfield was a member when he won three medals at the 1912 Olympics, but Aimee is the best we’ve had since then – even better than her dad, Stuart!”

Neptunemanager Stephen Falconer said: “It gives everyone at theNeptunea real  buzz to have an Olympian training with us every day so I can speak for everyone here in wishing Aimee the very best of luck at the World Championships.”

I asked Aimee about her hopes for the Championships.


Q: It is fantastic to see you swimming Aimee at the Neptune Centre which is where you do all your swimming training isn’t it?

AW: Yes I do all my training at the Neptune Centre and it is nice that the kids from the school have come down to have a little watch as well. So it is nice to have a few more people about and to see what am doing.

Q: Coming through the door I caught site of the photo of Jack Hatfield surrounded by his swimming trophies. That legacy must have inspired you as a young girl at the swimming club.

AW: Yes it is quite nice to know that there was somebody else that swam at this club at such a high level. Coming here when I was little I always wanted to be at the Olympics and now two of us have managed to do something quite special from being atMiddlesbrough. It is quite nice to know there are a couple of people in the area and we are now known for swimming.

Q: Last time I spoke to you was at Teesside University and you were training to try and qualify for the World Swimming Championships but now you have qualified. You must be really excited.

AW: Yes and I am quite relieved as well. Obviously 2 years ago things didn’t go to plan and I messed up in the heat and I didn’t manage to make the final and didn’t have the chance to qualify. So this year when everything fell right and I finished second and made the time it was a relief and now I’ve just got to get out inBarcelona and go as fast as I can in the morning to make sure I secure a place for the final.

Q: So is that your aim to get into the final?

AW: Yes, the main aim is to make the final. If I make this final I will be probably over the moon but I guess when I’m in there it is anyone’s game and if I can swim as fast as I can in the final and maybe say come fifth or sixth then that will be pretty good for me. But the main aim or now is to make sure I can swim as fast as I can in the morning and just make sure I make that final spot.

Q: What is your programme between now and the Worlds?

AW: I go away to Barcelona on Monday for a bit of  training camp just before the competition starts and then because my race is on Day 8 of the competition I will just be training through that and watching everyone else. Hopefully if we can have a good start to the meet I’ll carry on that momentum and try and keep hold of something for the last day and try and swim as well as I can then really.

Q: You seem to have really good locations for your major championships don’t you?

AW: (laughs) Yes,Barcelona. I will catch a little bit of sun beforehand but obviously not too much as I’m not really there for the holiday, I’m just there for the training.

Q: You don’t need to go anywhere at the moment to catch the sun.

AW: It is nice at the moment but it will be nice just to go to Barcelona and be on the stage with a lot of other top athletes and see if I can put my name in there on the water.

Good luck and I hope you get to that final.


Instruments of Medieval Torture at the Dorman Museum

There is a fascinated but dark and disturbing exhibition of Instruments of Medieval Torture at the Dorman Museum until December 31.

The exhibition features accurate replicas of over 50 torture methods based on objects amassed by private collectors and historians across Europe.

So many of these instruments of restraint and torture are the stuff of nightmares and horror films, except they were actually used to exact punishment, retribution or extract confession. These include notorious devices such as the interrogation seat, the witches chair, the rack and the iron maiden.

Trussed into some of these appalling contraptions, confession might have flowed but just how accurate it would have been is open to debate.

In the 21st century torture is prohibited under international law and the domestic laws of most countries as a violation of human rights. However Amnesty International maintains that there are still 70 countries in the world carrying out torture so this look back into our darkest of times is still highly relevant to the present. Implements to gain confession through pouring water over and into the victim resonate with CIA water boarding scandals in recent times bringing us right back to the 21st century.

There are garments and masks to be worn by people to be ridiculed and shamed, possibly in the stocks. Crimes could be minor, just standing out in the crowd, wearing of clothing or behaviour thought inappropriate in a society strictly regulated by church and state.

But if you fell foul of the Inquisition the punishment could be savage. A suspect of witchcraft could be broken on The Wheel. They could be slowly cooked on the grid iron or restrained upside down on The Throne.

The mere names still strike terror. Another implement of death, The Garrote was actually last used in Spain in 1975!! It is easy to forget that Franco and the fascists still ruled in Spain right up until relatively recent times.

A frightening piece of apparatus The Vigil was thought to be progressive because its use did not lead to broken bones or strained joints, it wasn’t pleasant though. We’ll leave it there.

An axe in the corner showed just about the most compassionate form of capital punishment but very much reserved for the nobility. Next to the axe a saw was probably deployed for the most brutal. The spikes of the Iron Maiden were designed to miss all vital organs and so prolong the agony of anyone trapped inside. In the first recorded use of the Iron Maiden in 1515 the victim took three days to finally die.

There is an example of dark humour from the Fife a restraint of head and fingers that could be applied by nobility to bad musicians!

The privately owned torture instruments were expertly made in Italy in the 1970s and it has toured Europe since but only once before has been exhibited in Britain and never ever in the north east.

The Instruments of Medieval Torture exhibition is open for the rest of the year – Tuesday to Sunday,10am to 4pm and please note that there is a £3.00 charge for adults, £2.00 concessions and under 13s accompanied by an adult are free.


Allison Agius – Local Writer Inspires At Thorntree Hub

Alison AgiusOne Monday morning when Middlesbrough Libraries were buzzing from Middlesbrough Literary Month,Darlington writer Allison Agius came to chat with users of Thorntree Hub. This was reading group open day when groups and individuals could see the resources available to them at their local hub.

Seated in the library we heard a fascinating story unfold of a life disrupted by parents leaving, moving back and forth geographically and undergoing a less than ideal formal education.

Yet coming through it all Allison Agius has become a successful writer and with something to say on how we might all attain our goals and if necessary turn our lives round as she has done.

Allison began by unwrapping her philosophy on seizing the day to attain targets in life, chronicled at more length in her first published work. Hidden Secrets Buried Treasure and then had masses of advice and encouragement for writers and indeed readers in the audience.

Afterwards I grabbed Allison for a brief chat about her life and literature.

Q: Allison did you enjoy giving the talk today at Thorntee Hub?

AA: I loved it. The people were so warm and welcoming and the facility is fantastic as well. It is an amazing building full of fantastic things. I just had a quick peak looking around and it is just brilliant. The library is wonderful, all of the reading books here for the reading groups as well, it is just great.

Q: Great to see so many active reading groups here. Libraries find themselves very much under threat at the moment don’t they?

AA: I think we need our libraries because I remember it being a real sanctuary for me as a child, the library in Darlington. And it is where I took my children when they were really young as an introduction to books, being able to take lots of different new books. And I think they thought it was really quite exciting that they could go into this place and just choose anything they wanted and take it away. It was quite a refreshing change for them as opposed to going to a toy shop where they couldn’t have anything (laughs).

Q: And unfortunately there are less and less book shops as well.

AA: There are. I think for writers it is getting more difficult. Having said that we have ebooks now and that makes it easy to get your work out to the public but then that needs your readers to be able to have access. Either have a kindle or some electronic apparatus to download on.

So, I suppose it is like any revolution, it is swings and roundabouts, we have got ebooks which is great but less high street and especially independent book shops, where they were more keen to take local authors. The mainstream book sellers, only take from distributors and if you are not on the distributor supply list then you don’t have a chance of getting into a book shop.

So libraries like this are really important for local authors because they can get their books out direct to the public.

Q: You have given a talk about your life and background and how you started writing. Would it be fair of me to describe your early life and upbringing as unusual?

AA: Yes you can. It was very chaotic. I don’t know how unusual it was because where I grew up most children came from… I don’t like to use the words dysfunctional family because I don’t know what a functional family is. Families are just families and they have their own idiosyncratic ways, regardless of where you grow up or regardless of whether you have two parents living in the house or whatever.

For me when I was a child it wasn’t unusual it was just the way it was. But it was an adventure. It wasn’t the same thing everyday and probably gave me a lot of material to work with as a writer. Perhaps had I grown up in the kind of environment that I think writers are supposed to or used to think, you know, middle class with book shelves and parents for teachers etc maybe I wouldn’t have had quite so much material to work with. But growing up as I did being the eldest of five children and having an alcoholic mother and being a carer and having that level of responsibility and the chaos of people coming and going in your life it means you live a lot of lives in a few years.

Q: It is a bit like a blues singer, where they say you have to have lived it.

AA: Yes, that is true, I like that idea.

Q: You said you first attempted to write when you were 14 but you got some discouragement which was a real knock back for you.

AA: Yes. When I was 14 I wrote my first book and showed it to my step father at the time. I think he was genuinely trying to help but he returned it to me full of red marks because my grammar and spelling were poor. It is tricky one, how do you critique someone’s baby, their creative endeavour without destroying the creative impulse? And it did for several years. For three or four years I just stopped doing it because I thought I wasn’t very good at it. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realised that very few writers are very good at it straight away. You have to learn how to do it. I have written eight novels but only two have gone into the public domain, the third one is coming out soon. That is my apprenticeship. I think what we need to instil in our children is you will make mistakes, they are inevitable and that is how you learn and just keep doing it. If you have a passion for anything, regardless of what it is, just keep doing it. Keep practising.

Q: I was interested when you were talking about the process of writing about getting up at 5am to write when the day has not begun yet.

AA: That beautiful stillness when it is undisturbed. You can just sit in that undisturbed stillness and it is almost as if you can pluck ideas out of the thin air because it is unruffled. Then people start waking up and the air gets agitated with noise and movement. But there is something special about it.

I don’t get up at 5 am every morning. I would have to go to bed at 8pm. This morning I was up at 5 and it is a special time. So if anyone is stuck, like a gentleman in the audience who said he had been stuck on a chapter of his writing for 2 weeks, getting up first thing in the morning is a really good time to do it. Or just sitting down and not moving until you have written something.

Just do it. It might come out pants. Sometimes we stop ourselves from writing because we think it has got to drip from the pen in perfection but most of the time the reality is it is just scribble. If you have some paragraphs that are perfection then you are doing well but generally speaking it’s clunky and it’s just dropped on the paper. But actually I find the more I write the easier it is to write. It is like any art, isn’t it?

Q: It is interesting the way you say you might write something roughly then go back to it again and again. You said you could use brackets to stay put description in here later. So, maybe it is like an artist with a sketch and they go back again and again to work up the sketch into a finished painting.

AA: Yes and you build again and again.

Sometimes I get a scene in my head and I know just how it has to go but there is something I need to write before then. I have got the creative impulse to write that scene, so I will write that scene and then write the scene before it afterwards.

It is a bit like painting by numbers where you do the bits you feel inclined to do and then it all starts to join up together in time. Every writer works in a different way. I have a writer friend who is very successful and she starts at the beginning, she has got it all planned out and she knows exactly where she is going. I am different, I start at the beginning and I know where I want to end but I’m not entirely sure where it is going to take me because I’m still getting to know my characters.

Q: You were talking today about your philosophy, of being very proactive to change life in your favour. You first wrote about this but how did you jump from that into writing novels?

AA: Well I always wanted to be a novelist it was by accident that I wrote the non fiction book in the first place because I was teaching. I had a therapy centre. I had small children and I needed to do something but I didn’t want to go out to work. I needed to be there so I could collect them after school and I could wave to them at school plays and I wanted them to be the focal point for the first few years of their lives. So running my own business seemed the obvious choice and I went to the States and trained as a therapist and set it up and it was really successful. I used to run a number of courses, meditation, relaxation and manifesting what you want in your life. And we are going back about fifteen years ago now, it is quite mainstream now but at the time it was a little on the edge.

By this time I had given up on writing. Yet every now and then I couldn’t help myself and I would write something but I just kept it to myself and didn’t show anyone. I had this ache to write but felt I was not equipped to do it and I can’t really understand why that would be… And a student said you should write all this down in a book. And that was the first time that anyone had ever said I should write a book and it really turned everything else on its head. It might be because I was changing my mind and using the techniques to put out a different persona. That could be why that person said that to me. And that is when I started to pull all of this together; started sending it out and somebody said yes we will publish it for you, a UK publisher in the south.

That book in 2001 was the beginning of me thinking maybe I can do this, maybe I can be a writer. Now I am a full time writer. I have two official novels out now and a non fiction. I’ve got my next book coming out in August and I’m already half way through my next book. It is almost like I have taken the hand break off and so instead of revving the engine I’ve just taken the hand break off and you can just move through things so much more quickly.

Q: You were talking about how someone asked you if you were THE Allison Agius?

AA: (laughs) That happened a couple of years ago when I went to the doctors and the receptionist said I know this is unprofessional but I have to ask you are you THE Allison Agius. Had I been Smith or Brown I could understand why I might reply the way I did. But my name is Agius, a popular name in Malta but not in UK and I said “I don’t think so.” Which is probably the only time in my life when anyone is going to say are you THE Allison Agius and I say I don’t think so. And then she said did you write ‘Hidden Secrets’ and I said yes. She said it had changed her life, she said it is an amazing book and it has changed my life.

That is an amazing statement for her to have made and I just hold that really close to my heart and in my low moments when I think I might be kidding myself about all this because I do feel like I’m dreaming sometimes. I feel like my dream has finally come true.  I am writing full time. My books are selling and people are enjoying my work. When I think is this real? Is this worthwhile? Am I doing the right thing? I just have to think, yes you know even if you just make a difference to one person’s life and your own life then that is a life well lived isn’t it?

Q: Absolutely and that is why you are THE Allison Agius.

AA: I don’t think so…

For more information and books of Allison Agius http://allisonagius.com/