A Trail in the Making

Sir Percival was one of the legendary knights of the round table. Even though he was born to noble blood, most of his family had died from knightly misadventures, so his mother took him away as a small child and raised him deep in the forests of Wales in a very simple, down to earth sort of way.

However, on the eve of Percival’s 16th birthday, a group of knights rode by and from that instant, Percival wanted to become a knight and go questing. His mother reluctantly agreed. So Percival went off to train as a knight. He was a marvelous horse rider and hunter and but had not been raised with the right noble etiquette. The thing that really annoyed other knights was his inclination to ask questions. They made it clear that if Percival wanted to succeed he would have to respect highly ranked knights and not question them or their judgment.

Time passed and Percival learnt his lessons and at last, on a fine morning, the newly knighted Sir Percival set off from Wales on his first quest. After a long ride through green forests and up steep mountains and across rushing rivers, Sir Percival noticed the land had  begun to change. It was not so lush. It was not so green. Eventually Percival came to a castle moat, where he found a man hunched over a fishing rod in a small boat. This man was a king. All around the king was his kingdom, but it was a grey wasteland –  bare and barren.

Some called him the  Fisher King –  but sadly his favourite pastime of fishing was pointless, because all the fish were gone.

Sir Percival was invited to stay at the King’s castle.  He was made much of and promised lovely things. Trade deals and such. There was a feast and entertainment, but Percival longed to ask the King what had gone wrong with this kingdom – on the tip of his tongue danced that important question “What ails thee?” but he knew that he shouldn’t ask questions, nor even suggest that anything was wrong. So he bit his lip and carried on partying and when he awoke the next day the land, the castle and everyone at the castle had disappeared. Such is the nature of questing.

Attached to the legend of the Fisher King is the idea that a ‘king’ is so tied to the land that when he is ‘ill’, the land itself falls ill as well. In the original story, the question “what ails thee?” was not asked and the story is regarded as unfinished. Many people have written different endings to the legend but perhaps it is better – more challenging – less comfortable – unfinished. And perhaps it is unfinished because it’s still career suicide to ask a leader “What ails thee?” Ask – and it disappears.

Also still unfinished – A Trail in the Making. Arriva Trains Wales recently funded a study for a walking trail, weaving between stations along the Heart of Wales Line. The study was carried out by Professor Les Lumsdon and Alison Caffyn, working closely with local walking groups. They came up with a fantastic long distance route – that starts (or finishes) in the old railway town of Craven Arms,

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Photo near Llanwrtyd Wells. Les Lumsdon

passing through stunning countryside and intersecting walks that include the Shropshire Way, Offa’s Dyke Path and Beacons Way

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Photo:Offa’s Dyke. Visit Wales

and finishing (or beginning) at Llanelli with a final stretch alongside the estuarial salt marshes of the Loughor Valley, en-route to the Millennium Coastal Park.

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Photo: Loughor Estuary. Stephen Miles

And so a trail is in the Making. The trail steering group are working with Rights of Way teams across Powys, Carmarthenshire, Shropshire and Swansea to make the trail a reality. A crowd funding appeal runs from January till April. https://localgiving.org/heartofwaleslinetrail

Sponsors’ names will appear on a special Roll of Honour at Llanelli and Craven Arms stations. Don’t let this brilliant idea disappear.

Rachel Francis

Published in BroadSheep

Riversimple custodians


If you are a start up company, and you set out to design a radically new car and take it to market – pitched against the established giants of the automotive industry – you need a plan. The business structure underpinning Riversimple is described as disruptive, but what does this really mean?

Peter Lang is one of 6 custodians who advise the operational board at Riversimple. The custodians represent investors, users, environment, staff, commercial partners and communities –as founder Hugo Spowers puts it, “the interests of society in microcosm.” Peter is Riversimple custodian for the environment. He is an experienced environmental consultant, working with charities, NGOs, governments and key influencers such as Jonathan Porritt and Caroline Lucas.

On Purpose

 “The company purpose has always been to eliminate environmental impact. Hugo (Spowers) felt that to produce a sustainable product we first needed to change the governance. That is how the 6 custodians came to be.  My role as custodian for the environment is to make sure that the board and staff work continually towards the primary purpose.”

On Motivation

“We need to be sure that board and staff are motivated to uphold the purpose of eliminating environmental impact.  Lots of companies have an environmental policy, but how far does it reach – does it reach to the shop floor, for example? How much do staff know about it? Is it taken seriously? At Riversimple the staff are all focussed on environment – that goes far and beyond a standard policy.”

On Supply Chain

“We would like all suppliers to share our environmental commitment. Some already do. A quality product may not be branded sustainable but if it lasts longer and performs well then we are interested. If we have a good quality supplier with limited commitment to environment maybe we can leverage better commitment which means we can have a long term supplier relationship.  

On Hydrogen as a Storage Medium

Petrol and diesel are primary fuels – you can dig them out of the ground – but if you think of Hydrogen as a fuel you can make the wrong choices. Hydrogen is a storage medium. It can one day be used to store energy from solar, wind and tidal energy at times when supply outstrips demand. At the moment however, most hydrogen comes from natural gas. Our sale of service model means that we have more choice over where the H2 is purchased, and from what resource.”

Wish List for ramping up the business

“It’s going to be vital for us to maintain a good connection with staff as the business grows.  And I’d like to develop a method for measuring environmental objectives with research teams and data to back up assumptions.”

Nugget of Wisdom

“Environmental decisions are dynamic and multi faceted. We need to know how a decision will impact across Riversimple.


There is no other business model like Riversimple. Lang feels that the model could be widely replicable and profitable but, he stresses, it must be a streamlined business structure for decision taking.

Custodians contribute meaningfully to overall business strategy and execution. They take part in regular teleconferences, facilitated by the company steward, Estelle Clark. This includes an update on progress and an opportunity for each custodian to feed in questions and issues. Custodian input is collated and fed back to the board. It has a direct impact on all decision making, paving the way for a business model that is answerable to the bigger picture and can hold its own in the marketplace.

Written for Riversimple, interview with Peter Lang by Rachel Francis at Sharpening Pencils

Published in “Knowledge” – by Chartered Quality Institute

Directing Change

little cheyne court wind-turbines

“Just as the world is rushing towards clean energy, our government wants to run away …”  


Five years ago, not long before he was promoted to editor of Positive News, I was talking with Sean Dagan Wood. We were discussing whether or not the world was going to stop climate change in time. Dagan Wood felt it was do-able. He saw a global smorgasbord of green business and innovation, bubbling away beneath the surface … a parallel, and properly sustainable society … almost ready to step across to.

And this ‘parallel society’ has grown.  Committed people have worked, often beneath the radar, researching, developing and ultimately establishing the infrastructure and systems that allow us to address climate change, not as individuals, nor even individual countries, but as humanity.

UK were leaders in this change for many years. Now other countries take up the mantle and always the work continues across borders, in business and outside of business – drawing in all kinds of people,with all kinds of skills. Together we can change the world. Together we can create a brighter future for the generations that follow.

Funding for the change makers is often tight, and so they learn to work with lean budgets, making the most of not that much. Those working outside the security of big business have placed much hope in the potential for cooperatively owned renewable energy to fund R&D in other areas of green development and systems innovation. They have crafted triple bottom line business plans and burned the candle at both ends because they cared about what they were doing. Sometimes some of them had to supplement meagre income with tax credits. Paving the way is what this is about.

The voices are growing for action on climate change. Big voices, heads of churches, leaders of continents. Paris in December beckons a great and historic decision. It seems tangible. Canada votes in a new government. Mark Carney, manager of the Bank of England stands up to be counted. President Obama, Google, Apple, Unilever, The Pope and the Dalai Lama. Action on climate is in the air.  So why now, UK?  The Feed in Tariffs are under the axe, building for zero emissions is undermined and funding streams  for vital clean tech R&D have dwindled. Investor confidence in green tech may be growing in other countries, but not the UK. In this country it is as if we are swimming in a different direction. Still pouring  forlorn hopes into dirty fossil fuels and de-regulation. Its anti business say the proud political dinosaurs. Global warming? pah!

Mariana Mazzucato is Professor of Economics and Innovation at Sussex University and recently became one of a small group of progressive economic advisors to the Labour party that also includes Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Picketty.

Mazzucato makes the point that ‘the market’ is only able to influence the rate of change not the direction of change. This is important. We have to get away from the notion that any growth is good. How can growth that causes deep, lasting and irreparable damage to essential ecosystems or human wellbeing be good?

In order to re-direct change you have to intervene. Mazzucato points to the story of Silicon Valley for inspiration. In the early years of computer technology, before we had even dreamed of I-pads, smart phones, social media and superfast broadband packages from BT, it was government investment … i.e. public investment … that made early development in Silicon Valley possible. Government bodies helped to kick start the digital revolution. And by dint of an incredible surge of human creativity and sharing of skills something amazing began to take place. It was only when the potential for success became apparent that private investors stepped in.

So this is the thing. In order to bring green technology and systems innovation through the risk stages, to the point where we have mature technologies, green infrastructure being established at a suitable rate and business models with environmental and social justice stitched in, we need public investment. In the UK subsidies still seem to go into the wrong places. Marketing strategies to sugar the pill of environmental degradation are no solution. Investment is needed to re-direct the economy. The longer we leave it, the more difficult it will be to pull back. UK don’t run away from renewables.

Written by Rachel, http://www.sharpeningpencils.co.uk

This article was first published in Broad Sheep Magazine, November 2015. Broad Sheep is distributed across the region of Mid Wales and the Marches and is also published online.


In the past, wealthy Romans used powdered mouse brains for toothpaste. During the 19th Century, King Ludwig II of Bavaria spent all of his personal funds on the construction of fairy tale castles.

Sultan Ibrahim l of the Ottomans tried to force feed his fish with money. And Ivan IV, Tsar of Russia spent his spare time torturing small animals. What madness, you’d think people in power would know better, wouldn’t you?

And then this letter arrived …

Hi All,

 I’ve been amazed at crazy behaviour of this present Government. In the last few weeks the following has been announced:

1.The Zero Carbon Homes standard set out in 2006 for all new houses to be net zero carbon by 2016 has been scrapped. So we can still build the leaky energy inefficient new houses like we have been building. The homeowner’s costs will be higher as well as the GreenHouse Gas (GHG) costs.

2.The climate change levy exemption for renewable energy has been scrapped from 1st Aug 2015 – this means that the renewable energy industry now has to pay for the carbon produced by the rest of the fossil fuel industry. About £1billion per year by 2020. Significant financially and ethically.

3.New Onshore Wind has been effectively stalled due to the subsidies to encourage it being removed. The Gov. admits that this will certainly reduce the volume of our cheapest large-scale renewable energy (Onshore Wind) and so we will not meet the 2025 targets. The UK still pays £28 Billion per year in Fossil Fuel subsidies (although it was promised to phase this out from 2010)

 4.The Department for Energy and Climate change (DECC) has seen its budget cut by £70M, with staffing levels likely to be cut by 90%. Since the majority of its budget is used for trying to clear up the Sellafield nuclear mess there will not be much left for anything related to climate change.

 5.Low Emission vehicles will now be charged the same road tax as standard cars. Good for Chelsea tractors.

6.The long awaited Green Deal for households to reduce their fossil fuel energy consumption has been cancelled.

7.Meanwhile the fracking situation seems increasingly undemocratic 

 8.And the latest news is that the Solar PV feed in tariffs will be suddenly reduced (again) by 85% at the end of December, and if this happens to cause a sudden rush to install (as it has already) then they have introduced the caveat that the FITS will suddenly be ended completely in January. No exemption for any community energy projects.

 When challenged with the 20,000 job losses likely, Amber Rudd simply said ‘ Employment levels were not in their evaluations’

 All the above was actually described as ‘Totally Bonkers’ by other members of parliament.

Fortunately I’ve just returned charged up with optimism following a workshop at the Centre of Alternative Technology (CAT) on the Zero Carbon Britain model and how this links to over 120 other countries similar work. Information in this letter comes from their Autumn 2015 issue of their magazine, Clean Slate.

Best Wishes


Thanks Gordon, great letter.

Rachel Francis, http://www.sharpeningpencils.co.uk

First published in Broad Sheep  Oct 2015 edition

Have you signed this petition asking DECC to urgently review the current approach to the solar feed in tariff? https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/106791?reveal_response=yes

TGV Hydro gain national award

Brecon Beacons based TGV Hydro has just received an Ashden Award for its work on community renewable energy.

(This news comes with thanks to Chris Blake for the press release and Ashden / Andrew Aitchison Photography for the photos)

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The hills and streams of rural Wales make an ideal location for generating sustainable electricity from hydropower. But many potential sites are too small for the big hydropower developers to touch. TGV Hydro, wholly owned by The Green Valleys CIC, is filling this gap. It’s developing microhydro projects for private and community ownership across South Wales, working closely with the local authority to create a model that could be replicated elsewhere. Local labour is used to build projects where possible, and TGV has helped a new manufacturer of hydro turbines to start up.

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With 23 schemes completed across Wales and permissions for another 20 secured, TGV Hydro has been at the forefront of developing clean electricity from mountain streams. The renewable electricity generated can be sold into the national grid, so farmers and communities can diversify their income. And as Chris, who is one of the co-founders of TGV Hydro, explained

there is scope to build low impact microhydro schemes in any upland area – there are thousands of suitable sites across the UK, taking advantage of the energy in water as it runs down hill

The Ashden Awards have been going for fifteen years now. The very first award was presented to a Rwandan organisation that had designed a clean, energy-efficient oven to help counter the country’s serious deforestation. The Award was front-page news in the country’s press and the winner was met off the plane by President Kagame of Rwanda.
Since 2001, Ashden has rewarded over 170 sustainable energy champions across the world, helping everyone from those lacking electricity, to those suffering the consequences of cities that are choked with traffic fumes and congestion. These awards go to the people who are making sustainable energy more accessible, affordable and aspirational.

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Massive congratulations to Grenville Ham, Chris Blake and all at TGV Hydro – local people who are responding to the call for more action on climate change with practical solutions that also help to sustain farming and rural ways of life.

First published in Broad Sheep Magazine

Local by Rail

Sugar Loaf Station on the Heart of Wales Line

What if

It’s June in the year 2020 and you are standing on a Railway Station early in the morning. You are dressed for work and heading for Swansea, and you have purchased a Heart-of-Wales-Line- Saver online, so you have ticket in hand, jacket over one shoulder, and the birds are singing. Also it’s not raining.

Just beyond the platform, the Local By Rail Hub is opening up. Operated from a building reminiscent of the old GWR wagons, the hub acts as a distribution point for local produce. Local by Rail staff manage and receive orders and then re-distribute freshly gathered and prepared food to chefs, hoteliers etc.

The 8.15 into Swansea draws into the station and comes to a stop. Behind two smart passenger carriages is a guard van. A man in his twenties, wearing a “Local by Rail ” tee shirt and pushing a large trolley open up the door. Inside – lamb shanks from Builth Wells, strawberries from Craven Arms, apple juice and pear schnapps from Knighton, stone baked pizza from Llangybie and gourmet cheese from Llandysul. Crates labeled for different restaurant chefs and hoteliers are neatly transferred to the trolley. The door is closed again.

You board the train in one of the clean and airy passenger carriages and take a seat. The familiar whistle sounds and the train pulls out of the station.

You arrive by train into Swansea at 8.15 am – time to grab a coffee along by the Waterfront before your first meeting. A text message from your boss – “Stuck in traffic. Please send apologies”


Later, on Shrewsbury station

Your old mum and dad are on their way back home after a few days holiday.   They’re waiting for a train with all their suitcases and paraphernalia and your mum listens carefully to the announcement in Welsh and also in English whilst your dad grapples with the suitcases and drops his smart phone:

The next train to arrive at Platform 4a will be the 10.45 from Crewe, travelling from here along the Heart of Wales Line, stopping at Church Stretton, Craven Arms, Hopton Heath, Bucknell, Knighton, Knucklas … the microphone crackles loudly … passengers wishing to visit the Elan Valley Dams should leave the train at Builth Road where they can hire an electric bike for the last leg of the journey.

Passengers are also advised to tap old mud from their walking boots before boarding the train.

For passengers wishing to bring mobility scooters on the train please use the cycle carriage. This facility is located between the second carriage and the buffet.

The buffet on this train is run by third year students on a Powys catering course. This award winning service has been especially popular and the home-made “Breakfasts-by-Rail” are delicious.


Weekend Special

On your way home, you pick up a leaflet from Swansea station about the Local by Rail Weekend Special. You think it would be perfect for your Cousin Elise and her friends who are coming over from the US for a month and you haven’t a clue what to do with them.

There are different options and this one sounds good – travel on the first day from Swansea along the line to the Local by Rail Hub, catch a hydrogen fuel-cell powered local network taxi to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales, stopping off at Wright’s Emporium for an extraordinarily good lunch not to mention the cakes. Back on the train and a short journey to Llandovery. Evening meal and stay over at “The Level Crossing” which is a posh bunkhouse.

Take a ride in the acclaimed “viewing carriage” with floor to ceiling windows which make for great viewing, especially across Cynghordy Viaduct. Arrive at Llanwrtyd Wells with an option to try out bog snorkeling or explore Wales’ “smallest town” before cycling back to Llandovery on electric bikes and catching the last train back to Swansea. Final meal at swanky hotel and inclusive overnight stay in rooms overlooking Swansea Bay.

Perfect for your visitors. You book it.

Just as you pull into your station a helpful announcement

“This train will stop at Sugar Loaf Halt. For passengers leaving the train at Sugar Loaf please remember that the new compost toilets at the station still don’t have locks on the doors. The Train Company apologises for any inconvenience that this may cause.”


You arrive home, tired and hungry. You have received a text message from B, who was supposed to be cooking a special dinner for you.

“Stuck in traffic. Please buy chips”

Written by Rachel Francis. First published in Broad Sheep Magazine. June 2015


Reflections over coffee with Hugo Spowers, founder and chief engineer at Riversimple

riversimple TdeP2009

Sometimes, small changes are not enough and you need change that is transformational ~ something that makes it possible for everything around to shift with it.

Riversimple is a business that designs cars. Despite having a designer working out of Barcelona, the heart of the business is actually in Llandrindod Wells. I met Hugo Spowers, founder and chief engineer for Riversimple, over coffee at The Workhouse Presteigne and we talked about the company’s new local network car.

This new car, not yet released, is designed around hydrogen fuel cell technology. A hydrogen fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity – the only by-products are pure water and heat – so it has the possibility to be very efficient and clean, with minimal environmental impact. Fuel cells have been used in NASA space-craft since the Gemini program in the 1960’s and even today they provide electricity and drinking water for astronauts on Space Shuttle flights.

Hugo and the team at Riversimple have put sustainability at the heart of their business. The first fuel cell car they created was the LIFE Car, developed by a consortium that Hugo brought together with Morgan and presented at the Geneva Motor show in 2008. This same car later made a local appearance at the Tour de Presteigne 2009 (see pic).

Beyond Business as Usual

“Take the anchor. The first meaning of that is hope, because hope holds you fast like an anchor, so you don’t give way” Northern Lights, Philip Pullman

A business whose purpose is to create-profit-for-shareholders is standard stuff and has proved very successful as a model. But without any anchor to people and place or to taking responsibility for the future, businesses can justify activity in financial terms alone, and so you get a situation in which meeting social and environmental needs is compromised on the grounds that it’s “ too risky” for the financiers.

But as soon as businesses place a meaningful value on social and environmental objectives as well as financial ones, you start to see how it’s possible to make society more sustainable and stop climate change.

Since it began 7 years ago, Riversimple has been committed to taking the longer view. The company has created a new business model to support their work and this is a big part of their achievement, resulting in a business that is owned by and operated on behalf of staff, customers, suppliers, investors, and anchored into community and the environment.

Making transport zero carbon is a challenge, although there are some green shoots ~ the average distance travelled by a person in the UK by car or van has started to level out after years of average increases. And car manufacturers have worked hard to make cars more energy efficient to save fuel and cut carbon emissions. But one day soon we will need an alternative to the combustion engine.

Which is why it is great news that Riversimple are preparing to unveil their new local network electric car, designed by Chris Reitz, former design chief for the Fiat 500.

It’s really about how you put the whole thing together

For more than 80 years, cars have been designed around the internal combustion engine. And to an extent society has designed itself around the car. The hydrogen fuel cell car offers the same freedom as any other car. Its quick to fuel, easy to drive, it can go fast. But as Hugo explained, once you take the heavy petrol engine away, all sorts of new stuff is possible:

  • The bodywork can be lighter because it doesn’t have a big old engine to house
  • The space inside the car can be freed up so that a small car can still be nice and roomy
  • By using modern composite materials you can build streamlined cars, without sacrificing strength or durability
  • The last Riversimple model placed four light electric motors, one in each wheel, and these motors can even regenerate electricity when the car is braking
  • If all this is sounding a bit expensive then you can look at changing the approach to ownership

And the main point of all this is you can create a really modern car that does what we need it to do, but move away from the heavy toll on the environment caused by petrol and diesel cars.

How to find out more

Visit the website at www.riversimple.com to find out about Riversimple or to watch for the release of the new car. There is currently an opportunity to put names forward as pioneer drivers of the new model.

First published in Broad Sheep magazine