Monday, 8 December 2014

Local newspapers and the internet - where did it all go wrong?

April 1995: The  South Bucks Star goes live on the internet. It was the dawn of an age that offered so much for local newspapers - but in the end has delivered very little of worth. Below - what a local newspaper front page typically looks like in 2017; this one from Norwich Evening News.

I REMEMBER the excitement of the internet arriving in our lives, way back in 1994. The biggest technological development since Johannes Gutenberg tripped over a wine press and said 'Oh, that gives me an idea'. The internet promised (and delivered) publishing instantly, in full colour, around the world, for just a few pence. It was to herald a new age in publishing. So where did it all go wrong?

I look at the clunky, cluttered and chaotic websites of almost every local paper on the web and I just get depressed.  I recall the vision of 20 years ago and then see what we ended up with. The dream was smart design, instant news, links to background stories and other websites, moving pictures, interactivity... But take a look at any local newspaper website today and I suspect you will share my disappointment. 

First, you must work out what on earth the website is all about. Almost none of them say 'We are a (local newspaper) website publishing news and information about Seahaven'. And if they do, they don't tell you where Seahaven is or even which country it is in. Then you must fight your way past the flashing in-your-face ads (only advertising, it seems, has taken up the opportunity of moving images) and chaotic design to find out what you need. Even in 1984, early web designers were telling editors good navigation was vital. Why did no one listen? And why aren't they listening now?

When you get to the story you want, the disappointment is palpable. The story (and all the others on the same page) was published a few minutes ago but it relates to an event that took place a week ago. What happened to 'instant news'? There is only one static picture but it's tiny. I want to click on it and order a print but I can't.

There are no hyperlinks in the story. Was Tim Berners-Lee's work all for nothing? I want to click on the name Truman Burbank and access a quick biography - but I can't. And I want to click on the venue for a map - but again I can't.  I can only comment on a handful of stories and I need to register to do it. I'm amazed at how many papers still don't hyperlink the reporter's byline with their email address. Surely, that's a basic first step for publishing news on the web? Even when a story is uploaded with a web address, few bother to hyperlink it.

"Oh we don't want to link to other websites," say the publishers. "We might lose our readers". Too late. This short-sighted suicidal strategy shows you just don't get it. And we readers are long gone.

It's clear local papers are still publishing papers the way they have always done. The fact it's on a website makes little difference. It's like being show the discovery of television and then just sitting in front of a TV camera slowly turning the pages of a newspaper. If you think I'm exaggerating, find out how many "e-newspapers" are just pdfs of the print edition.

And don't get me started on those online stories that end... "Read the full story in this week's Seahaven Times." Did no one tell you the internet is global? I can't buy the Seahaven Times in Cumbria. Give me a link to your digital edition at least.

The adverts are 10x2s which do little more than direct me to the advertiser's website. Dull, annoying and unimaginative. The only success story is the database-driven property, jobs and motors sections which allow you to specify the type of house, price, location etc. But if this is the advertising success story, where is editorial's shining example?

And as for easily navigating around the website, forget it. "Find me a bag of potatoes," said Bob James to editors as he threw their disorganised newspapers back at them. In 2014, I should be able to type 'bag of potatoes' in a box on the home page of any local paper website and be shown local sellers, a map of where they are and a one-click buy-now button. Visit your local paper website now and try the Bob James test. Try and find potatoes, what's on at the theatre tonight, how to place an advert, or a number of other items that should be easy to find.

I'm yet to come across a good local paper website (if you have found one, do let me know) but given the state of the nation, I doubt many of them will be around for much longer. Worse, I doubt many people will miss them.

  • Alan Cleaver has spent a career in regional and national papers. With Rob Whittlesea, he published the South Bucks Star on the web in April 1994 - one of the first weekly papers in the UK to go on the web. He now lives in Cumbria.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Spotting the miraculous on your doorstep

I WAS talking to a gentleman in Cumbria a while ago about the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and he was bemoaning that you need to live in some obscure far-flung part of the world to stand a chance of winning. I pointed out that to a photographer in the rainforests of Borneo, a lonning on Britain’s north-west coast is about as remote as you can get. It’s just harder to see the unusual, miraculous or the exotic when you live beside it everyday. To me, walking down Seacross Lonning, near Cockermouth, on a spring morning with Sale Fell in the distance, a tunnel of hazel ahead of you, stitchwort and harebells on the bank and for a lamb to then come trotting down the lonning towards you is about as miraculous as it gets.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Wildlife champions

LESLEY and I are now Wildlife Champions. I can say this with certainty because we have yellow fluorescent jackets with "Wildlife Champion" emblazoned on them. And I've also taken to walking around with a clipboard just to leave people in no doubt that I am someone important. I saw a story in The Whitehaven News for Sustrans - the cycle path people - seeking volunteers to monitor the number and variety of wildlife going up and down the local cycle paths. It sounded a lovely way to spend a summer's evening: Walking the cyclepaths, counting the number of lesser spotted nightjars and waving my clipboard menacingly at any cyclists going too fast or ne'er do wells misbehaving. As it turns out, cyclists can be a bit scary when they zoom past so the fluorescent jacket is a valuable item of clothing to put on.

Yesterday was our first day out on our patch - a kilometre stretch from Cleator Moor to Moor Row station (well, the remains of it since the disused railway line now forms Route 71 of the Sustrans cycle path). It was heartening to see that Mother Nature could resist all that the worst of humanity could throw at it. Litter is everywhere - so too is dog dirt. No doubt many users of the cycle route will rightly point out that there are no rubbish bins and no doggy-bag bins. But I and many others manage to carry our rubbish home so I'm not sure that's much of an excuse. I like to see the rubbish as a positive though: it's a clear indication of how well used this route is. Indeed there were cyclists and walkers passing us at the rather of four or five every 10 minutes. I met two people I know for God's sake! There's also the added advantage that there are no cars or motorbikes to run you down. It is indeed a haven away from the mad, mad world of the A66 and A595.

We set off armed with the Eye-spy books of trees, flowers, butterflies and those weird-looking buzzy things. We're not experts but feel confident to say that the Tesco bag is probably not a native species. Fortunately, most of the birds that turned up had the decency to be ones we could identify: The Great Tit, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Robin - amazingly the hedge sparrows (dykies as we Cumbrians call them) was strangely absent. The only one that had me puzzled was this one...
Willow warbler or chiff chaff?
which is either a Willow Warbler or  its identical twin brother, the chiff chaff. I'm minded to say Willow Warbler since there were several of them on willow trees. But also because its song was not very chiff chaffy at all. Let me know if you can identify it correctly. It was a hot sunny day so there wasn't much in the way of mammals - one dead mole to be precise. Hawthorn and willow bushes abounded along with a number of butterflies (oranged-tipped, peacock and the green veiny, black edged white ones). We'll be out about on Route 71 throughout the summer so if you're cycling down the path at furious knots beware of the Wildlife Champions in the yellow jackets - and the willow warblers.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Reviving Cumbria's holy wells

St Catherine's Holy Well, Eskdale - one of Cumbria's holy wells in danger of being lost through neglect
HAVING - with a very few other stalwarts - waxed lyrical about the beauty of Britain's holy wells for the last 30 years, I am delighted to report that a project has been launched in Cumbria to celebrate and renovate these endangered landmarks. The good news came from Father John Musther an Orthodox priest who lives in Keswick. His plan is to select a number of Cumbrian holy wells for cleaning and restoration. Then, from September 8 to 17 2014, to use volunteers from around the world along with local volunteers and expertise to restore and celebrate those wells (and bless them). It's an astonishing project but is already well advanced. I visited Fr John and his wife Jenny to find a chart with many holy wells already marked out. He has visited many of them and started speaking to the parish councils and land owners about what he wants to do. The project is led by Grampus Heritage based at Threapland in Cumbria and involves partners in Germany, Iceland, Romania, Slovakia and Turkey. There is support and funding from the EU.

The first question has to be why Orthodoxy has an interest in holy wells (the established church has had something of a love hate relationship with holy wells over the centuries!). It's probably a question for Fr John to answer himself but to quote a draft of a booklet he is producing alongside the project:

"If, as we travel around Cumbria, we become aware of the early saints who lived here, of the churches they founded, of the monasteries they began, of the crosses they erected and the innumerable holy wells they used the landscape of Cumbria takes on a spiritual aspect as good, say, as the best of Wales, Cornwall and Ireland."

You won't find any arguments from me on that score! I am sure many of my holy well friends will want to help in one way or another. For now, drop me an email to to express your interest (and say how - historical research, admin or rolling your shirt sleeves up to clean up those wells!). I'll update my holy well map nearer the time with more specific  information on the wells most suited for restoration but feel free to suggest any you know about. Fr John and I are aware there are more wells than marked on this Google map but don't assume we know about your one!

This is a wonderful and exciting opportunity. Hopefully it will see many holy wells currently in danger of being lost for good, rescued and restored. I'll post here again when I have more information.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Hag Lonning, Keswick

I FEEL obliged to include a lonning from the Keswick area. After all, thousands of tourists visit this town each year so if visitors are going to want to visit a lonning then they want it within trekking distance of Keswick. But good lonnings are hard to find in this locality. However, I stumbled across Hag Lonning the other day and it is in easy reach of Keswick. I knew it was in the vicinity of the hamlet of Wesco on the way to Threlkeld and stopped to ask a 'local' if she knew where it was. She had to admit she'd never heard of it but since she was from "the other side of the valley" she was not a true local. As it turned out, we were standing in Hag Lonning when I asked her the question. It was another 'truly local' couple who identified it. The lonning is the steep climb from the disused railway up to Wesco Farm. This was, in fact, at one time the main road into Keswick. But then the A66 was built and landslides led to this road becoming only a farm track. It is still tarmacked today but happily returning to a more greener state. The lonning is not the prettiest in the world but it's quite sweet and does offer fantastic views of Blencathra and the surrounding fells. Wonderful when they have their snow caps on. 

The route is a nice circular walk, about eight miles long but very easy to do. Leave Keswick east on the disused railway path and continue until you just before the tunnel. You'll see a stone railway man's hut beside a gate leading to Wesco. N.B. There are sheep running loose through this gate so put your dog on a lead and keep the gate shut after you. Head through the gate (a former railway crossing) and very quickly you'll go through another gate onto the road. Turn right and you are now on Hag Lonning. You'll cross a delightfull stone bridge before make the steep trek up to Wesco. Once at the top you have reached the end of the lonning (they typically led to farms and were used by people going for milk or meat) but carry on and you'll eventually reach Threlkeld. You can then return via the A66 (only for a few feet) and then drop down again on to the disused railway.

Why is it called Hag Lonning? I have no idea but hold our a secret wish that it's due to some hag-like ghost. I suspect, however, it will turn out that 'hag' is Old Norse for 'very steep hill'!

News on my lonnings project and more lonning links to be found at the Florence Arts website.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Pleaslands - a true lonning

PLEASLANDS lonning near Blencogo, Cumbria is a 'real' lonning. A path to a farm. The word 'lonning' is thought to have come from the ancient word 'loan' meaning a quiet or still place and was the term used for the side of the farm where the milking took place. For villagers visiting the farm for milk or meat they would have taken a path up to the 'loan', hence lonning. Pleaslands lonning is one of those curiosities which is marked on the Philips' Street Map of Cumbria. Whoever compiled this street map obviously had a soft spot for lonnings. Neither Pleaslands nor the many others they include have a sign up saying that is the name but the cartographer must have sought out the farmers to find out what they called their lanes. Coming off Pleaslands Lonning is Stone How Lonning and Outfield Lonning but these appear to be 'private' lanes. Pleaslands itself is a well-used farm track but with sizeable hedges at many points giving good habitat to the local wildlife.

For details of this and other lonnings see Cumbrian Lonnings Map.

After the storm...

St Cuthbert's holy well is marked by the tree
THE dreadful storms and rain of the last few weeks have curtailed any idea of walking in the Lake District but today was the first non-rain day for some time. It was a chance to explore Watergates Lonning near Waverbridge in Cumbria. The lonning is home to St Cuthbert's holy well (and at one time St Cuthbert's stone) so I was keen to discover in what form it still existed. Most 'wells' are springs rather than the ornamental wells associated with Jack and Jill. They were important as sources of fresh water but a number also became associated with healing powers or other miraculous qualities. Some, like this one, are associated with a particular saint. Waverbridge is close to the end of the world. It's about as far north west as you can get without ending up in the Solway or Scotland! And it's remoteness is only equalled by its bleakness. This was a fresh and invigorating walk - and on harsher winter days I can imagine the breezes coming off the Solway would bite deep. It was also a very wet walk with the rain of the last few days lying deep on the ground. It's a lonning well used by the farmer to access his fields so was nicely ploughed up. But for all this, the openness and starkness of the lonning made it a breath of deep fresh air after the weeks of enforced staying indoors. This would definitely be a walk to do to cure a hangover! As to the well itself there was little sign. The spring is marked on the OS map (but only called a spring, not St Cuthbert's well) and the farmer seems to be in the middle of reworking it, probably to avoid too much flooding in the field and lonning. A plastic pipe feeds the spring water from the field into a ditch. It's all a far cry from its hey-day in the 18th century as described by historian William Hutchinson (and retold in the Northern Antiquarian). The future does not bode well for St Cuthbert's holy well.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

All you need to know about hedges

Hedges in West Lonning, Crosby
THE news this week that David Cameron is wielding his scythe through red tape surrounding hedgerow maintenance will be welcomed by many – and viewed with some nervousness by others.
Most people understand that hedgerows are important for the survival of birds, mammals and flora but few perhaps understand the complexity of the humble hedge.
How timely then that the 11th North Cumberland Style Hedgelaying competition is taking place on Saturday, February 15 at Abbeytown. You’ll note that this is a competition devoted to Cumberland-style hedgelaying. Lovers of Westmorland-style hedgelaying should stay away. What’s the difference? Cumberland hedgelayers cut all but the main stems away, while Westmorland enthusiasts retain many of the minor stems – tch! what do they know.
And there are 30 hedge-laying styles throughout the country, mostly divided by county.
Wildlife in Cumbria estimate there are between 16,500 and 22,500km of hedgerow in the county and while some is lost to the axe in favour of barbed wire fencing, just as much is lost because the hedge is left alone. It ‘collapses’ in on itself or simply grows into a line of trees.
So why have hedges at all? Barbed wire fences are effective, of course, at keeping cattle and sheep in a field – although I’ve seen some impressive high-jumping by sheep to escape fences – but they don’t provide shelter. 
And while hedges provide that shelter, the challenge for the farmer is cattle leaning against a hedge to force an escape route and sheep burrowing at the base of the hedge to get out. And that’s where the strategy, techniques and skills of the hedgelayers come in which you’ll be able to witness first-hand at the Abbeytown hedgelaying competition.
A well-laid hedge also provides a perfect ‘corridor’ for wildlife. Wildlife in Cumbria lists the following flora in the county’s hedgerows: hawthorn, hazel, blackthorn, crab apple, dog rose, ash, oak, holly, wild cherry, bird cherry, bramble and guelder rose.
While wildlife nestling inside the hedgerows includes everything form sparrows, bats, bullfinches, spotted flycatchers, barn owls, linnets and – of course – the hedgehog.
In my wanderings down Cumbria’s lonnings, I’ve seen goldfinches and greenfinches pour in and out of hedges in phenomenal numbers.
My heart sinks when I see the lethal barbed wire replacing a beautiful natural hedge and it’s not unusual to see the rotting corpses of birds or mammals hanging from the wire. I’m aware of the story (is it a countryside myth?) that some farmers hang corpses to deter other birds but I’m sure other creatures are just caught accidentally on the wire dying a lingering death.
A good hedge will last 50 years and is a wonderful haven for many species. We may not need all the legislation currently on our statue books but we certainly need the craft and the encouragement for landowners to spend time and money on it.


Monday, 27 January 2014

Cumbrian young writers competition

Theatre by the Lake in Keswick is launching a competition encouraging budding young playwrights to put pen to paper.

The Young Writers’ Competition is a new initiative which invites short play submissions from Cumbrian writers aged 14 – 25. Theatre by the Lake will select up to five talented entrants who will get the chance to develop their play with the support of experienced theatre makers, before it is performed by the theatre’s Young Actors’ company in 2015. Winners will also receive a pair of free tickets to the opening night of The Comedy of Errors, one of the theatre’s Summer Season productions.

The theme for the competition is ‘Swings and Roundabouts’, which writers can interpret in any way they wish. Throughout February and March the Theatre by the Lake website will feature tips and tricks to help writers construct their plays.

Annie McCourt, Head of Theatre by the Lake’s Education and Participation team, said: “this is a superb opportunity for local young playwrights to get creative and respond to a brief, just like in a real-life writing commission. The winners will receive professional mentoring, which will be invaluable to the development of their writing skills. It’s especially exciting that the finished products will feature in our February Festival of Youth in 2015 – as a writer there’s nothing better than seeing your ideas in action. I can’t wait to start reading the entries!”

Competition entrants must be aged 14 – 25 and live in Cumbria. Submissions need to be playscripts, running at no longer than 20 minutes and suitable for actors aged 14 – 18. Plays should be written for a maximum of 8 performers.

For more information, visit 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Stepping back in time

Watery Lonning, Blindcrake, Cumbria
THE nice thing about researching Cumbrian lonnings (a dialect term for green lanes or footpaths) is that you keep coming across 'new' ones. My map lists all those I have found so far but please let me know of any I have missed out. (I know any 'footpath' is in essence a lonning but I'm only listing those that have been referred to or named as a 'lonning'). At the weekend I picked up a copy of "A History & Survey of Blindcrake, Isel and Redmain" by Horace E Winter. A wonderfully detailed survey of these villages near Cockermouth - and one printed so long ago (1987)  that it was done on a Gestetner printer. It made mention of Watery Lonning at Blindcrake (and Back Lonning) so on Sunday afternoon we headed out to find it. The lonning is delightful but certainly lives up to its name. You'll need boots or Wellingtons if you're going to go down this at the moment. Is this why Watery Lonnings (there are two or three) got their name? It seems to a be a deliberate run-off from the fields above it - probably saving the village from flooding. The village itself is rather nice but I have to admit it has been blighted by a plague of wooden outbuildings and garden sheds. The historic homes are perfectly set around an ancient village green but in almost every garden is some hideous 'office' or conservatory totally out of keeping with the rest of the property and village. Anyway, rant over and back to the lonning. 
It's a lane with a decent stone floor but is currently swimming in mud and water. It struck me as a very English lonning. It's full of bushes, shrubs, trees and remnants of stone walls. It's also crammed full with birds. There are sparrows, chaffinches, blue tits and so much more everywhere you look. Then, we heard what I thought at first was a tractor - a sort of metallic sound - from the adjacent fields. It turned out to be several hundred fieldfare (but I'm no ornithologist so they may have been thrushes!). The 'swarm' was astonishing to watch as it rose from the fields and took off over our heads into the trees. The fields themselves are some of the best examples of ridge and furrow strip fields - a rare remnant of the middle ages. The lonning itself is probably a third of a mile long and a joy to walk down. Stand still every now and again to observe the birds. The end did have a partial gate across it though I'm not sure why. Perhaps people had been driving cars down it as a 'cut through' or sheep had been wandering out of the lane. But as that last stretch looked particularly wet and muddy we stopped there anyway and turned back. The lonning leads to 'Back Lane' which is a narrow country lane taking you back to the A595. The other lonning in the village is Back Lonning which is beside Thorneycroft house at the south of the village. It seems to be a private driveway. This is one lonning I'll be returning to over and over again - just so peaceful (except for all the fieldfare!). If you want to visit Watery Lonning the grid references are NY147 347 to NY142 346.