Diary

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The Independent Online
One of the outcomes of travelling is that you make discoveries about your everyday life. Each year at the same time I travel to Lancaster. Sitting opposite my two daughters on the train last week, I was struck by something novel: for the first time in four years they were not passing the three hours of train tedium by playing computer games (to be precise, Sega, the hand-held game which runs off batteries). Nor were they gleefully speculating about which of the new Super Nintendo games the children of our hosts might entertain them with.

Jane Hewland, the talented programme maker who keeps a resolute finger on the youth pulse (she picked up a Bafta innovation award for Channel 4's Network 7 in the eighties and then devised Gamesmaster and Gamesworld for Channel 4 and Sky television) confirms that the great computer games craze is over: one more example of the terrifying speed with which children switch enthusiasms.

What will they do instead? Well, Jane Hewland is devising a range of programmes around all sorts of new enthusiasms, including Kung Fu. When we reached Lancaster, the children showed considerable affection for the good old telly and the odd video film. And on the train? They spent hours quietly reading.

Lancaster is a sinewy place, stone-built and unspoilt, with a working glue factory that occasionally emits pungent smells just to remind you it is still there. Even the great castle on its mound is a grim-looking working prison and court.

We were staying with an ecologically minded Lancaster University academic, John Rodwell, and his family, who dine on organic meat garnished with organic vegetables. (The vegetable grower supplies another family in their road, who then divides up the crop weekly into bags, in which, for £5 or £7.50, you get earthy parsnips, turnips, curly kale, carrots or whatever is in season).

But what really impressed me was their new stair carpet. Not for the Rodwells the simple option of going down to Allied Carpets. Their carpet is made from the wiry undyed wool of Herdwick sheep, the hardy native breed which Beatrix Potter promoted on her Lake District farms and which the National Trust raises on its preserved Lakeland slopes. The trust's attempts to find commercial outlets for Herdwick by-products have led it to make carpet, which comes in a limited range of colours and is presumably as durable as these rugged animals. As William Morris might have said: have nothing around you that is neither beautiful nor environmentally sound.

The best part of our visit was a Lake District stroll on the bleak hills above the village of Staveley. Here we inspected, with great excitement, hundreds of little twigs clad in plastic tubes. On two large fields donated by a local landowner, a group of conservation bodies has organised what will, in the 21st century, be a new wood. Dr Rodwell devised the planting scheme, drawing up the recipe of ash, elm, oak, birch and juniper (for the rocky parts). But our stroll was the first opportunity he'd had to view this demonstration project. It is hard to overstate the thrill of knowing you have created something worthwhile for future generations, which will come to maturity long after you are dead.

Next week, Dr Rodwell brings out volume four of his five-part study British Plant Communities (Cambridge University Press), on which such planting is based. He has pioneered a method of studying plant life by staking out areas of terrain and minutely documenting what is growing there. This snapshot can be used as a base to measure deterioration and change from, say, pollution, and to recreate a habitat, such as a Lake District wood. His approach is attracting attention from countries keen to preserve threatened landscapes: he has even been asked for advice by Albania.

After Lancaster, my regionally correct week took me west to Cardiff, where the Centre for Journalism Studies, founded by the late Sir Tom Hopkinson, is celebrating 25 years of existence. I was on a panel at a public seminar discussing the future of newspapers.

Asking a newspaper journalist whether newspapers will survive the electronic superhighway is, of course, rather like asking a dinosaur if it expects to be become extinct. I am sure newspapers will lose some influence during the next century as new forms of communication grow in importance. But there are many private moments (on trains, for example) when newspapers come into their own. And there will still be lites (businessmen, Eurocrats, lawyers) who need detailed written reporting of key policy issues. Nor do I see any sign of television or cable being able to offer the sheer volume of entertainment and sleaze that the tabloid press has so perfected.

I was stunned to discover that the centre, which had 24 postgraduate pupils in my day in the 1970s, now has more than 500 (though these are mainly doing first degrees, some in new areas such as public relations.) And, Welsh politics permitting, it is likely to house the first Welsh Film School. I'd like to think Tom Hopkinson would be rather proud of the way his acorn has sprouted. Let's hope the world can supply enough news stories to go round.

From west to east: I spent two mornings last week in East Sussex watching my five-year-old, mounted on a Welsh pony, learning to do the rising trot. It is because I love riding and horses that I feel so irritated by the pro-hunting lobby, out in full force on yesterday's Radio 4 phone-in discussing this Friday's private member's Bill which seeks to ban hunting with dogs.

The fox-hunters seem to assume that if you like to ride at an advanced level, you will naturally support hunting. But it is just not so. Many instructors and professionals, including those at the various stables I patronise, spend their lives working with horses, preparing them for cross-country, dressage and show jumping, but never go near the blood sport.

The current issue of Horse and Hound says that Britain owes its cross- country riding expertise to the hunting field. In fact, this experience can be built up by using ready-made courses, which are proliferating around the country. And, as Horse and Hound has the grace to admit, hunting has militated against the controlled art of dressage, a key part of three- day eventing and true horsemanship.

The irritating assumptions of the fox-hunting lobby were mirrored in last week's Channel 4 Cutting Edge programme, "Jumpers", all about the enclosed world of show-jumping. In it we were shown two grandees at the Christmas Olympia Horse Show. One was explaining ostentatiously how the show was full of Tory supporters. He obviously failed to spot me there.

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