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