Seasonal Area August 2012, Mensch, White, Gunnislake and Okehampton

The August Seasonal Area has managed to find its way online, with some discussion over whether I can remember how to spell “Ise”. Ah well.

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The first response to the August Seasonal Area was “At least you didn’t mention the MP for Corby”. She has apparently resigned. Well, that’s the end of that line of entertainment.

My personal bet is that Labour will buck the town’s trend in the ensuing by-election and for the first time in a considerable while Corby will not be represented by the governing party. The swing required to get the Labour candidate in is 1.9% which, when there is only one major opposition party and the Government is somewhat unpopular, should not be difficult to achieve in a by-election.

At the same time, Labour’s finances are in the red and there are several by-elections likely to be floating around by November, what with MPs walking out to become Police Commissioners and so forth, so Corby may manage to be held by the Tories. Particularly if they get the campaign to be handled by someone who is allowed to create a coherent message and run with it. (Still not very likely mind.)

The plus side for the Tories of keeping Corby is that it will provide the party with a much-needed morale boost. The downside is that if Ed Milliband can’t lead his party to victory in a key marginal against an unpopular Government in a by-election then he obviously can’t expect to lead them to victory anywhere much in a General Election and his party may start to have funny ideas about leadership elections. (The Tories have been known to reckon that Milliband should be their greatest electoral asset in 2015, though this didn’t do them terribly well when they said the same thing about Gordon Brown.)

Except they’re not the Tories and it’s the Tories who like to knife their leaders for the sake of something to do on long winter evenings, so he’ll probably survive to 2015 either way. That is assuming that the next election is in 2015. Who knows, at the current rate we may end up having a summer election.

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In response to Louise Mensch deciding to head for pastures elsewhere, Michael White of the Guardian penned an article on how terrible this is for David Cameron. It’s a fun little article with one peeving comment in it:

Myself, I still take the view that anyone old enough to vote should nowadays be expected to hold a driving licence and own a mobile phone which is normally switched on. Mensch scored only 50% [the mobile phone bit] on that test.

Isn’t the Guardian supposed to be a progressive paper? Does he know how much it costs a child’s parents for them to learn to drive, even before they try to cover a car’s extortionate running costs? The amount of folding money my driving instructor wandered around with, one almost got an impression that it cost more than a university degree. (Actually, vaguely mentally totting up, parental contribution wise, it may work out as more per hour of contact time.)

And what sort of country does he think we should be living in? If everyone over 18 has driving licences, the road lobby will expect us to provide accordingly and our green and pleasant land will be covered with motorways blocking all the sensible routes for high-speed railway lines.

It’s not even like roads contribute to our economic well-being, so why the bananas should I want to have the means to use them?

(An attitude which I would encourage all people coming up to their 17th birthday to adopt, since it means that your parents may feel obliged on some level to buy you the lessons for your birthday in the knowledge that otherwise you’ll spend your life cycling around at night and whining about Dr Beeching’s rail policies.)

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To back up this controversial comment about roads, I would like cite a not exceptionally scientific comparison between two attractive places that I have been ambling around lately in the South-west of England – Gunnislake and Okehampton.

Gunnislake is basically the name used to cover a collection of hamlets – Albaston, Drakewalls, the Dimsons, Hatches Green and Gunnislake itself. Located in the Tamar Valley north of Plymouth, it is not a very large place and its primary attractions are its insignificant mining museum, its collection of pubs (at least 6) and its scenery. Road access is by means of the A390 – a not very major road which doesn’t seem to start anywhere and doesn’t go anywhere much either.

Okehampton is a small but historic market town, located to the north of Exeter. It is one of the great Gateways to Dartmoor and is readily accessible by means of the A30, the main road from London to Penzance. It also has a castle, several hotels, a youth hostel and various other places to stay scattered around its centre and the surrounding area. Public transport is provided by an express bus to Exeter which then connects to various other places. (Gunnislake’s bus service links Tavistock with Callington and seems a trifle uncertain as to where else there is to go.)

Gunnislake has an economy, however. Walk into a pub on Sunday and you will find that inside there are a reasonable number of locals and possibly some other visitors. There are signs of extra-curricular activities like darts providing community enjoyment. And people will be seen bustling around with an air that there are things to do. You may even find that the odd shop is open.

Okehampton, by contrast, has little sign of such affairs. The football pitch is there but quiet. The main pub – actually a hotel, which Gunnislake doesn’t really have – contains three people who are uninterested in visitors (and stop talking when you walk in). Some children are wandering around, but the adolescents look bored and the adults are in hiding somewhere. The shops are shut, as is the discretely-placed tourist information centre. It should be noted that Okehampton was visited at the height of the tourist season and Gunnislake at a shoulder.

This is despite the fact that Okehampton’s splendid scenery is littered with public footpaths and predominantly open access, whereas Gunnislake’s less well-known scenery is scattered with minor roads and is relatively inaccessible on foot. Okehampton is a convenient point on a major cycle path (about halfway between the north end at Barnstaple and the south end at Plymouth), a form of transport much applauded for boosting the local economy, whereas Gunnislake is not.

Okehampton has a bypass and Gunnislake does not, but the Gunnislake traffic shows little enthusiasm for the two stops that it may have to make as it passes through (once at the traffic lights in the village centre and once to leave or enter Cornwall over the somewhat ancient New Bridge) and so does not appear to be contributing to the trade any more than the Okehampton traffic which bustles through on the A30 above the town.

On all of these popular points – history, accessible landscape, tourist attractions, sizeable places to stay and good road access – Okehampton should be booming. Based on this little round of anecdotal investigation, it is not.

The only other difference is that Gunnislake has a direct year-round rail link to Plymouth, taking about 45 minutes for the 12 miles. By contrast, Okehampton has a rail replacement bus and a Summer Sunday rail service – the train takes 40 minutes for the 20 roundabout miles and the bus takes 50 minutes for what one feels should be a more direct journey, seeing as it leaves Okehampton heading south to Exeter rather than heading north towards the great metropolis of Sampford Courtenay.

Gunnislake station, in the pouring rain on my first visit. Passengers huddle in the shelter and a bus deposits a few more. Trains have an occasional habit of being full, despite the line serving four remote villages which are not very convenient for the stations.
Okehampton station, also on my first visit, with passengers bustling around the Pacer unit from Exeter. Trains tend to peak at around half full. Both lines tend to be better used by locals going to the local city, but Gunnislake is a little more balanced in loadings.

Gunnislake’s railway is not exactly criticised – more the subject of mockery for its sedate nature. It is the last of the nation’s light railways – a form of transport otherwise abandoned to make way for cyclepaths and major roads. The interesting thing is that if Gunnislake and neighbouring, prospering Calstock are anything to go by, that lightly served light railway from 1908 is doing a lot more for the area’s economy than anything brought to Okehampton since.

If you want a really simplistic approach, compare the quality of life and economic vigour in Calstock – which has a railway and very poor roads – with Okehampton – which great roads and an appalling rail service. You’ll probably find Calstock does rather well. (It certainly looks much more friendly.)

Anyone fancy some more light railways? It’s much cheaper to start using a light railway than it is to get a driving licence, you can chat to your friends on the move (I’ve tried, it’s great) and they really bring people into an area.

This post has been brought to you by a member of the rail lobby.

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