Some thirty years ago, I lived in West Cumbria in north-west England. The whys and wherefores as to how I ended up there don't matter, but I did get involved in the local branch of Friends of the Earth which pushed for the Windscale Inquiry
into the proposed nuclear reprocessing plant and 'won' the only points awarded by Lord Justice Parker.
This had, and still has international ramifications. But it was at the local level I wish to dwell in this post. Because it was this level, the local NGO, which changed national perceptions.
In the late 70's at the beginning of the long reign of Maggie Thatcher unemployment was rife. So much so that a number of short-term employment programmes were set up to reduce the length of the dole (unemployment benefit) queues. John Preedy had an idea.
Why didn't we set up a labour-intensive project to recycle glass containers?
You have to understand that West Cumbria was then and, I understand still is, a wasteland. It was an area which at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution provided raw iron ore which got smelted using the Bessemer process
, which was first used in the area
. With coal from the Haig Pit
, the deep undersea coal mine at Whitehaven, to provide energy, the Workington Steel Works
proved profitable until August this year
This area had seen a long and sad decline for nigh on forty or more years before I moved up there, which is why it proved suitable for Windscale, which must be the subject of another post; not this one.
I got involved with Friends of the Earth - West Cumbria
(FoE-WC) because ... well I lived there and I knew my anti-nuclear credentials would not enable me to get a living wage at Windscale so, living on the dole as I was, I had little to lose. And that's where I met John Preedy. Deeds not words was his credo, something which I appreciated because my primary school, Charlton Manor
, had its Latin translation Res Non Verba
as the school motto was emblazoned on our blazer badges.
I liked John but to be honest I did think that the local authority, responsible for waste disposal, should have initiated any recycling scheme. But they wouldn't. In the late 70's few local authorities would have had the gumption. So FoE-WC went ahead and rented a disused warehouse with a rail siding and set about collecting bottles, jam jars and other glass containers. These were then sorted by hand by temporary workers paid for by Maggie Thatcher's government, which had probably forced them into redundancy in the first place.
The sorted glass was loaded into rail trucks and then shipped off to wherever it was melted down and reblown into bottles, jam jars and other glass containers. And such was the success of this project that soon static bottle banks were seen in every borough throughout the land and Brit folk began to understand that they could be responsible for what they used of the Earth's resources.
I may have disagreed at the time with John's tactics, although we shared a vision. I just wasn't so single-minded. He cared, and a care shared had the power to move millions. I know that now, but I certainly didn't see John, unassuming as he was, as such a person. He was probably the least cynical person I've ever known.
He worked, as I recall, for the Cumbria Water Authority which was responsible for the Lakes. Also, as I recall, he lived a single and single-minded life in Workington. Our FoE-WC base was in Whitehaven and our weekly? monthly? meetings were in pubs in Whitehaven, Cleator Moor, Cockermouth or wherever was convenient. I had a motorbike; John had a push bike.
A couple of years after I had left the area and moved back down to London I heard the tragic news that one night on his way back home from Whitehaven to Workington, John had been knocked off his bike by an errant motorist and that he had died instantly. My instant response was to send FoE-WC a fairly large cheque with the request that the next time the group met they should go the local pub, buy a round and give thanks for his life.
It seemed an appropriate gesture, but they didn't follow through with that. My contribution had gone into a fund to have a bench made, a wooden seat with memorial plaque, overlooking John's favourite view. I don't know where it is; it doesn't matter.
What does, is that folk who wander the Cumbrian fells will rest awhile, admire the view and wonder how one person could have been so respected that he will always be remembered. It's not just me who was touched by him; he made a difference to our lives. His one small step involved us all and his influence can be felt today..
There is an annual John Preedy Memorial Lecture
, but I'm sure, modest man that he was, that John would have felt that the bench was more his mark.