Darwin’s Origin

Darwin's Origin

So, on Wednesday, despite appalling weather, a small band of enthusiasts gathered to toast the birthday of Shrewsbury’s most famous son; Charles Darwin.

It’s a tradition that began back in 2003 when I founded the Shrewsbury Darwin Festival. The venue is the courtyard in front of the Morris Hall. Darwin’s birthplace is half a mile or so away and it may seem odd that we don’t toast his birthday there. Truth to tell, the former Darwin family seat is not open to the public. It’s the offices of the District Valuer. But that’s not why I chose this alternative venue for the birthday toast.

Beside the gates to the hall stands a smooth boulder just over half a metre in width. It’s known locally as The Bellstone and may have once been used as a parish boundary marker. It’s what’s known in geological circles as an erratic. That’s to say, it ‘aint from around these parts. In fact, you’d have to travel as far north as Cumbria to find this stone occurring naturally (over 180 miles).

Back when Darwin was a fresh-faced (clean shaven) youth, a local amateur naturalist, Mr Coton said to the youngster “the world will come to an end before we learn how this stone came to rest here”

The assumption being that because there is something we don’t presently know or understand, we will never know or understand it. At this point it may be useful to be reminded of Darwin’s lineage.

His grandfather on his father’s side was Erasmus Darwin; physician, inventor, poet and philosopher. On his mother’s side, it was Josiah Wedgwood; innovator, amateur scientist and founder of the Wedgwood dynasty. And both of them were members of the 18th century group known as The Lunar Men; polymaths, revolutionaries and free thinkers all. The nature/nurture debate has been a long one but if Darwin picked up even the merest essence of his grand-parental DNA it would help explain his young enquiring mind. And this young enquiring mind would not have been content with Mr Coton’s take on scientific understanding. In fact, Darwin remembers this incident in his autobiography and recalls sitting in a geology lecture just a few years afterwards and learning about the brute force of the encroaching glaciers during the last Ice Age . How they re-painted the landscape beneath them like a palette knife through oils. And how boulders even bigger than The Bellstone were left dazed and displaced when the ice sheets retreated. And as the explanation unfolded in that Edinburgh lecture hall, Darwin ‘marvelled at the progress of science

It’s also the tradition at the birthday toast to read an extract from the final two paragraphs of Darwin’s greatest work ‘On the Origin of Species’. He’d worked on the book for decades and planned a might tome but when a letter arrived from Alfred Wallace  outlining Darwin’s own theory in startling brevity, he was rushed into print. It could be argued that the result was a better work for all that. Concise and written for the lay man, it was an instant best seller and arguably the first work to further the public understanding of science. After explaining how tiny changes over generations lead to new variations in nature by likening it to man’s breeding of race horses and pigeons to create desirable traits he comes to a simple, startling conclusion; this is what is read out at the birthday toast:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into new forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”

Charles Darwin:On the Origin of Species 1859

 So that’s why we toast Darwin at The Bellstone at noon on the 12th of February every year come rain or shine. Perhaps you’d like to join us next year?

The Darwin Festival is currently run by The Shropshire Wildlife Trust.

Jon leads a Darwin Walk around Shrewsbury for small groups, underlining the importance of early influences on the later development of the great naturalist. Use the contact form below for enquiries.

Telford Brewcamp

Last night I attended the second Telford Brewcamp. The venue was HOME: Bistro and Coffee House, Lightmoor Village. It was a fitting location for a gathering that featured a lot of community action and social enterprise. Their business model is one founded on sourcing local produce whenever possible and using profits for charitable action…and the carrot cake was gorgeous!

The evening was ably facilitated by Peter Jackson (@pete62jackson).We were honoured to have Brewcamp veterans Dan Slee (@danslee) and Simon Whitehouse (@siwhitehouse) with us to add an air of authority to the proceedings and it was good to catch up.

But on to the business of the night – A few years back there were a lot of articles and papers written on the subject of social capital; the notion that within every community there is latent talent just waiting to be tapped. It’s true that there is passion and pride and often in unexpected places. What last night proved was that Telford has it in spades. Example: Telford Memories. Marcus Keane   created a Facebook group back in November to help people share memories and photos. It’s three months on and a staggering 8,000 plus people regularly follow or contribute on a regular basis. We heard from @dawleysue that her partner complained so bitterly about the amount of time she spent reading posts and viewing old photos on that site that she introduced him to Candy Crush so at least now he understands the nature of online addiction! But it’s not all about nostalgia. Telford Memories has spawned a number of community action groups. There’s a group wanting to save The Anstice, a much loved social venue in Madeley. There’s another group aiming to restage All Hands Round the Wrekin – a dramatic illustration from the early 80’s of people coming together on a grand scale.

Another example – the live streaming of council meetings by community volunteers. If your local authority is still naval gazing about the ins and outs of citizens tweeting from council meetings, this story may either depress you or give you hope. Jon Farmer (@viperdudeUK) told us about his small band of tech-savvy residents who approached Telford & Wrekin council with the idea of live-streaming council meetings and the council said yes. It seems they were pushing at an open door. A few tech iterations and they’ve settled on Google Hangouts as the medium of choice. The videos are archived on YouTube and key issues flagged with timings for easy reference. That’s accountability. As an aside, the team were a little disappointed when the viewing figures were only in three figures. But ask yourself, when was the last time over 100 people attended a council meeting? There’s a whole other discussion to be had around engagement in the democratic process but surely this demonstrates that there is another way; one that engages with citizens via the media they choose. A public meeting is an appointment to attend but if I can’t be there, I don’t have to be excluded if web technology is harnessed. Telford Memories didn’t get 8,000 followers by calling a public meeting; the meeting is on Facebook, whenever it’s convenient for you.

We heard from Jake Bennett (@JakeSnr) that Telford Crisis Network (formerly Telford Food Bank) organises support almost exclusively through Twitter. It led to one resident taking it upon herself to organise a fundraising charity ball and raffle. And they in turn have been promoted through another grass roots, social media driven idea, #telfordtogether. This micro-volunteering group was created by @telfordlive; a Twitter newsfeed trusted by 6,285 followers. The news is provided and shared in seconds by the TelfordLive community and is a good deal more agile than established news outlets.

I was there in my capacity as a trustee of the newly formed Clifton Community Arts Centre Ltd. We’re a group formed as a direct result of an Ideas Farm organised by Rob Francis (@ThinkingRob). The trick was to get the right group of motivated people in the same room and set the agenda early on. That’s to say, no negativity, no problems, only ideas and solutions and a will to step up to the plate. We wouldn’t have started The Clifton Group without it. We’ve launched a Community Share Issue and we’re building up a head of steam, so watch this space.

And whilst reflecting on all these ideas, it occurred to me that it may be the fact that social capital exists in communities but it takes a particular type of trigger to set it in motion. It may be local history, a sense of identity or shared experiences and values. But they are powerful things. So, if authorities wonder why there’s so much apparent apathy for engagement, perhaps you’re asking the wrong question. Rather than ‘do you agree that XYZ is an important priority to this locality’ try ‘what do you think is an important priority to this locality’

Perhaps the real work and energy isn’t in planning for delivery but helping people share their stories. If Telford Brewcamp demonstrates anything, it’s that a common sense of place can unlock social capital and set exciting things in motion. That’s the kind of place-making that’s sustainable.

Relevant articles:

Dan Slee on Brewcamps

Rob Francis on Ideas Farms

Bully for You

Bully for you

Bully for you

I’ve watched the flurry of Twitter traffic surrounding the abusive online comments made recently with some interest. The media coverage and even Twitter’s own apologies frequently made reference to the real world as somewhere that exists outside the social media bubble. It seems to me that in discussing or even beginning to understand the phenomenon of trolling, one needs to dismiss the idea of that bubble even existing.

A bully is a bully on any platform; from the blog forum to the schoolyard. Funny how they will often defend their position by suggesting that the person on the receiving end should ‘get a sense of humour’ as if it’s somehow the victim’s fault. I’m sure I’m not alone in having been a victim of schoolyard bullying and it’s no fun to be on the receiving end but it has taught me a thing or two. The latest incarnation may have the gloss of technology but it comes from the same dark corner of the human spirit. Comments are all too often directed at things the victim can’t change such as colour, ethnicity, sexuality or gender. Children are even bullied for being bright.  The primary difference is that the schoolyard bully will attack when no one is watching whereas the online bully attacks where everyone is watching. And for me, that’s the key. As I’ve often said when training, ‘If you act like a prat on social media, you look like a prat on social media’. So, Kudos to all those who’ve spoken up about being bullied and to all those who simply retweet the offending message to their followers to illuminate the coward raising his fist behind the bike sheds. Kudos too to The Mail newspaper for naming the unnammed in an example of what investigative journalism should be doing. It isn’t really about new legislation or censorship because that won’t change people. If these people are dumb enough to broadcast their ignorance, let’s help them by spreading their sorry words to even pore people; people who can see them for what they really are – bullies. My late father taught me that you can’t expect to change other people, only the way you feel about those people. As soon as I realised that, that’s when the bullies started to lose their power and it changed my life for ever.

Adopt, adapt, improve & share


I left my post in local government 3 months ago on the hunt for a new challenge. Shortly thereafter,  I was given a great opportunity to work with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust covering Comms over the Summer. It’s been a good opportunity to see if the enlightened approach we’d been deploying at Shropshire Council would transfer into the charitable sector and nature conservation in particular. Turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it does. An early trick was to create a blog  linked to Facebook and Twitter to provide a fast-track to followers and friends that wasn’t reliant on the vagaries of local media. Becoming your own news agency is a tactic I would highly recommend but with two provisos;

1 All organisations be they for profit or otherwise, need to communicate. Let me be clear, I’m not talking about pronouncements and press releases. The kind of communicating I’m referring to is reflecting the day-to-day business of doing your job, showing people your busy-ness. Not with a spin or ‘look how great I am’; because if you are any good, your customers will do that on your behalf.

2 You can draw like-minded people to your organisation with a well-time tweet or Facebook post but you’ll only keep them there by reinforcing your shared values; by demonstrating them through reflecting your work and providing ample opportunities for people to engage or converse with your through those channels. That’s real communication.

There are lots of cases studies of New Comms practice across the West Midlands in the white paper launched today by IEWM and Comms2Point0. Here’s a LINK to the paper.

Music Hall Part II

Frontage 1

So in my previous blog I reflected on the need to value Shropshire’s historical collection, soon to be housed in the restored and remodelled Music Hall. An outstanding collection in a remarkable range of buildings that are themselves, historical artefacts. It’s not been an easy journey. As the plaster was stripped back, decades of dodgy interventions were uncovered and created a few heart-stopping moments when solid walls were found to be not so solid after all. Armed with my trusty camera, I’ve taken a peak inside to let you see just how dramatic that intervention had to be. Thankfully, the worst is over and there are now real glimpses of just how spectacular the transformation is.

For over a hundred years, the main building was a theatre. The windows were blocked out and a stage took up one end of a room that had originally been designed for dances and mind-improving lectures. Now, the windows are clear, allowing natural light to flood in and reveal a spectacular ceiling. 

Assembly Room

Assembly Room

It’s a great space and will be the main exhibition hall. 

The open plan Assembly Room space

The open plan Assembly Room space

Regulars to the Music Hall will be familiar with the space as a theatre with a stage but the stage has gone and the room is open plan, as originally intended. The second of these two shots was taken from the balcony which will provide another exhibition space and a great view down into the main gallery.

The Music Hall is really a collection of buildings from a range of periods as outlined in part I of this blog. The most significant section is Vaughan’s Mansion, and early medieval residence on two floors. The ground floor would have been storage for goods and livestock. The first floor would have been the accommodation and space for entertaining. For it’s time, it’s an impressive building and a statement only a wealthy merchant could afford to make. In recent years the basement was a small cinema,  the precursor to the OMH which stands outside; a wool-trading hall now a bijou digital cinema and coffee-room – another excellent example of  the effective, complimentary use restored, historical buildings.  

View of the OMH from the conference room

View of the OMH from the conference room

Anyone with any understanding of historic building renovation will appreciate that no amount of pre-planning or setting of budgets can anticipate the surprises you find when you peel back the layers. They’re the kind of surprises that inevitably increase costs and push back completion dates. The Music Hall is no exception as the next few photos attest.

New support in the basement of Vaughan's Mansion

New support in the basement of Vaughan’s Mansion

A central supporting wall was found to end before it reached the ground, requiring substantial engineering intervention and a sizeable quantity of French oak and modern metalwork.

The Roman Gallery room

The Roman Gallery room

This space will become the Roman Gallery, reflecting the period of occupation that included a visit by Emperor Hadrian to nearby Wroxeter. It’s an example of how the collection at the Shropshire Museum will link to the wider landscape.

Support in Vaughan's loft

Support in Vaughan’s loft

In the loft of Vaughan’s, the intervention is even more industrial but necessary, all the same.

I appreciate that these images may not show the Old Girl in her best light and may give an impression that there’s still a mountain to climb but the corner has been turned and it’s the home straight. I’ve followed this project with interest from within the local authority that began the work and now as an interested bystander. I’ve always been passionate about Shropshire’s history and I can think of no better stage on which to display the artefacts that tell that epic story. When the doors do open, I’ll be first in the queue.

The Music Hall

The Music Hall

The Music Hall Part I

The Music Hall, Shrewsbury

The Music Hall, Shrewsbury

There was a time when every town in England that considered itself to be fashionable would build an Assembly Rooms. The kind of venue in which female characters in a Jane Austin novel would congregate during the season and, if they were lucky, fill their dance card with eligible bachelors and, god willing, find themselves a suitable match. Shrewsbury had one such venue. It was also a place where amateur naturalists would meet and display their latest curiosities to a baffled populace. Such venues were palaces of both fun and wonder. For Shrewsbury, it was the beginning of the creation of a collection that reflected a story stretching back beyond the earliest human habitation. It told of a landscape ravaged by internecine conflict across an ever-changing border between England and its Welsh neighbour. A place invaded and occupied by Romans. And a place where the very ground beneath your feet tells a tale of an epic journey of the land mass from close to the South Pole to somewhere closer to the northern one. Aeons of time and contrasts of climate that unfold in the stones of Shropshire. And over time, the people of Shropshire have contributed to that collection. It’s a collection that tells not only the story of Shropshire but of the whole of the British Isles, because nowhere is a collection so linked to the landscape that surrounds it. Within a matter of a few miles of this venue are sandstone Saharan bluffs and fossilised coral reefs and stone from ten of the twelve geological periods.  For the last fifty years, it’s been known as The Music Hall. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens read from his latest work ‘A Christmas Carol’ from its stage. In the early sixties an up-and-coming four piece from Merseyside via Hamburg pleased, pleased the excited teenage crowd.

The Music Hall is now opening a new chapter. It will house Shropshire’s historical collection and for the first time, the dramatic story will unfold in a way our ancestors could never have imagined but would certainly approve. And what value do we put on such a collection at a time of economic stress and tightening local government budgets? A good question. There have always been tensions between the necessary and the cultural. Between emptying the bins, resurfacing the roads on one hand and museums, libraries and artistic pursuits on the other. But collections are more important than that. They are the story of who we are and the journey we took to get here. They tell the story of our place and the people who built it. They give us a sense of identity and tie us to our ancestors. We are who we are because of those who came before us and it’s worth reflecting on that occasionally before we get to big for our boots. Shrewsbury is the birthplace of Charles Darwin. In his twenties, he set out on a voyage of discovery that eventually led to one of the simplest most profound takes on the story of life. An idea that set Man firmly in his place. It was an idea grounded in observation and born of a perspective nurtured in the Unitarian Church which he attended with his mother and which still stands but two minutes walk from The Music Hall. In a town that produced so radical a son where better to take a stand against a view which places no value on such treasures? The Music Hall has been undergoing a transformation over the last few years and the story of that transformation has been one of struggle and tension. The Music Hall is actually a collection of buildings, parts of which date back to the Early Medieval. The old girl has thrown up a few surprises that couldn’t have been foreseen at the start of the journey. Its meant delays and extra cost. In some cases, costly intervention has prevented catastrophic colapse. It’s a balancing act but it is close to resolution and I’ve been inside to look at progress. In part two of this blog I’ll share some photos. Stay tuned.

April Fooled

Dunce Cap

Reflecting on the consequences of the Associated Press Twitter account hacking , it occurs to me that there’s still a widespread lack of understanding of the nature of social media among some institutions. And it’s costly.

Even a passing observer of the twittersphere will be aware of the speed at which events are reported on Twitter. Take the Hudson River air crash as an example . Note that the story broke with a photograph taken by a passenger on  a nearby ferry on his mobile phone and that the fake message on AP’s hacked account was only text. Now ask yourself how many people are milling in or around the White House on an average day and how many of those are likely to have a smartphone and a link to a social media channel. In this day and age, the odds are pretty high.

If  (god forbid) an explosion did go off at the White House, there would be multiple messages with photos and video flying around the twittersphere within moments. I won’t add a link to the disturbing scenes captured in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings but I think I’ve made my point.

A bomb has gone off at the White House? Go on Twitter and search the hashtag #whitehouse or #obama or #bomb or anything similar. Use your common sense. If there’s tumbleweed blowing across the desert and the sound of crickets, the chances are, it’s a hoax.

Let’s not blame social media or hackers for the market crash. It was an institutional failure of common sense and ironically, social media had the answer all along.