Is it really healthier to live in the countryside?

But evidence-based research that can help us identify the healthiest environments to live is surprisingly scant. As scientists begin to tease apart the links between well-being and the environment, they are finding that many nuances contribute to and detract from the benefits offered by a certain environment – whether it be a metropolis of millions or a deserted beach.

“What we’re trying to do as a group of researchers around the world is not to promote these things willy-nilly, but to find pro and con evidence on how natural environments – and our increasing detachment from them – might be affecting health and well-being,” says Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter Medical School.

White and other researchers are revealing that a seemingly countless number of factors determine how our surroundings influence us. These can include a person’s background and life circumstances, the quality and duration of exposure and the activities performed in it.

Generally speaking, evidence suggests that green spaces are good for those of us who live in urban areas. Those who reside near parks or trees tend to enjoy lower levels of ambient air pollution, reduced manmade noise pollution and more cooling effects (something that will become increasingly useful as the planet warms).

Wellington, New Zealand

The research shows that green spaces are good for urban dwellers, which should be welcome news to residents of Wellington, New Zealand (Credit: Getty Images)

Natural spaces are conducive to physical and social activities – both of which are associated with myriad benefits of their own.

Time in nature has been linked to reduced physical markers of stress. When we are out for a stroll or just sitting beneath the trees, our heart rate and blood pressure both tend to go down. We also release more natural ‘killer cells’: lymphocytes that roam throughout the body, hunting down cancerous and virus-infected cells.

Researchers are still trying to determine why this is so, although they do have a number of hypotheses. “One predominate theory is that natural spaces act as a calming backdrop to the busy stimuli of the city,” says Amber Pearson, a health geographer at Michigan State University. “From an evolutionary perspective, we also associate natural things as key resources for survival, so we favour them.”

This does not necessarily mean that urban denizens should all move to the countryside, however.

City residents tend to suffer from more asthma, allergies and depression – but they also tend to be less obese, at a lower suicide risk and are less likely to get killed in an accident

City residents tend to suffer from higher levels of asthmaallergies and depression. But they also tend to be less obese, at a lower risk of suicide and are less likely to get killed in an accident. They lead happier lives as seniors and live longerin general. (Read more aboutfive of the world’s healthiest cities).

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors (Credit: Getty Images)

Although we tend to associate cities with pollution, crime and stress, living in rural locales may entail certain costs as well. Disease-carrying insects and arachnids can detract from the health factor of that otherwise idyllic cabin in Maine, for example.

In other cases, rural pollution poses a major threat. In India, air pollution contributed to the deaths of 1.1 million citizens in 2015 – with rural residents rather than urban ones accounting for 75% of the victims. This is primarily because countryside dwellers are at greater risk of breathing air that is polluted by burning of agricultural fields, wood or cow dung (used for cooking fuel and heat).

Indonesia’s slash and burn-style land clearing likewise causes a blanket of toxic haze that lasts for months and sometimes affects neighbouring countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Meanwhile, smoke pollution from fires lit in South America and southern Africa has been known to make its way around the entire southern hemisphere. (That said, the air in the southern hemisphere is generally cleaner than in the northern hemisphere – simply because there are fewer people living there).

Pollution can kill more people in the countryside than the cities

Because of practices like agricultural clearing, pollution can kill more people in the countryside than even in cities (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s not just developing countries, either: wildfires in the western US are wreaking havoc on air quality, while pollution from fertilizers used on farms are detracting from air quality in Europe, Russia, China and the US.

What about the idea of that pure mountain air? It’s true that black carbon aerosols and particulate matter pollution tends to be lower at higher altitudes. But trying to move above air pollution may cause other issues.

While people who live in in places 2,500m or higher seem to have lower mortality from cardiovascular disease, stroke and some types of cancers, data indicate that they also seem to be at an elevated risk of death from chronic pulmonary disease and from lower respiratory tract infections. This is likely at least in part because cars and other vehicles operate less efficiently at higher altitudes, emitting greater amounts of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide – which is made even more harmful by the increased solar radiation in such places. Living at a moderate altitude of 1,500 to 2,500 meters, therefore, may be the healthiest choice.

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place (Credit: Getty Images)

There is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water

On the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water. Those in the UK who live closer to the ocean, for example, tend to have a better bill of health than those who live inland, taking into account their age and socioeconomic status. This is likely due to a variety of reasons, White says, including the fact that our evolution means we are attracted to the high levels of biodiversity found there (in the past, this would have been a helpful indicator of food sources) and that beaches offer opportunities for daily exercise and vitamin D.

Then there are the psychological benefits. A 2016 study Pearson and her colleagues conducted in Wellington, New Zealand found that residents with ocean views had lower levels of psychological distress. For every 10% increase in how much blue space people could see, the researchers found a one-third point reduction in the population’s average Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (used to predict anxiety and mood disorders), independent of socioeconomic status. Given that finding, Pearson says, “One might expect that a 20 to 30% increase in blue space visibility could shift someone from moderate distress into a lower category.” Pearson found similar results in a follow-up study conducted near the Great Lakes in the US (currently in review), as did White in an upcoming study of Hong Kong residents.

The more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety

Researchers found that the more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety they experienced (Credit: Getty Images)

Not everyone can live on the coast, however. So Simon Bell, chair of landscape architecture at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and associate director of the OPENspace Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and his colleagues are testing whether restoring neglected bodies of water throughout Europe can help. They are interviewing residents before and after restoration, including at a rundown beach outside of Tallinn, Estonia and an industrial canal near a Soviet bloc-style apartment complex in Tartu, also Estonia, among other places in Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

The team’s second analysis of nearly 200 recently redeveloped water sites will allow them to tease out how factors such as climate, weather, pollution levels, smells, seasonality, safety and security, accessibility and more, influence a given water body’s appeal. The ultimate goal, Bell says, is to find “what makes a great blue space.” Once the results are in, he and his colleagues will develop a quality assessment tool for those looking to most effectively restore urban canals, overgrown lakes, former docklands, rivers and other neglected blue spaces to make residents’ lives better.

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, when it comes to wellbeing, researchers do not know how lakes compare to oceans or how rivers compare to seas. Nor have they compared how beaches in, say, Iceland measure up to those in Florida. What they do know is that complex factors including air and water quality, crowding, temperature and even high and low tides affect how something as seemingly simple as a visit to the beach can influence us.

“There might be a million other important things besides weather and daylight that influence someone in Hawaii versus Finland,” White says.

People who live in less regularly sunny places, like Vermont or Denmark, tend to have higher rates of skin cancer

In terms of health, data also suggest that, counterintuitively, people who live in more intermittently rather than regularly sunny places – Vermont and Minnesota in the US, for example, and Denmark and France – tend to have higher rates of skin cancer, likely because sunscreen is not part of daily routines. (Read more aboutfive countries where people live the longest).

Just as some green and blue spaces may be more beneficial than others, researchers are also coming to realize that the environment’s influence on well-being is not evenly distributed.

People living in lower socioeconomic conditions tend to derive more benefits from natural spaces than wealthy residents, White says. That’s likely because richer people enjoy other health-improving privileges, such as taking holidays and leading generally less stressful lives – a finding with important real-world implications. “Here in the UK, local authorities have a legal obligation to reduce health inequalities. So one way to do that is to improve the park system,” White says. “The poorest will benefit the most.”

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s also important to point out that simply moving to a relatively pristine coast or forest will not solve all of our problems. Other life circumstances – losing or gaining a job, marrying or divorcing – have a much greater impact on our health. As White puts it, no matter what environment you’re in, “It’s more important to have a house than to be homeless in a park.”

Bell adds that proximity to nature actually tends to rank low on people’s lists of the most important factors for selecting a place to live, after things like safety, quietness and closeness to key locations like schools and work. But while the benefits of green and blue spaces should not be overplayed on an individual level, they are important for the scale at which they work.

And even so, one takeaway seems obvious: those living in a clean, oceanside city with ready access to nature – think Sydney or Wellington – may have struck the jackpot in terms of the healthiest places to live.

By Rachel Nuwer 1 June 2018

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How a German city changed how we read

Despite the far-reaching consequences of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history.

The German city of Mainz lies on the banks of the River Rhine. It is most notable for its wine, its cathedral and for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced the printing press to Europe. Although these things may seem unconnected at first, here they overlap, merging and influencing one another.

The three elements converge on market days, when local producers and winemakers sell their goods in the main square surrounding the sprawling St Martin’s Cathedral. Diagonally opposite is the Gutenberg Museum, named after the city’s most famous inhabitant, who was born in Mainz around 1399 and died here 550 years ago in 1468.

The printing press marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world

It was Gutenberg who invented Europe’s first movable metal type printing press, which started the printing revolution and marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world. Although the Chinese were using woodblock printing many centuries earlier, with a complete printed book, made in 868, found in a cave in north-west China, movable type printing never became very popular in the East due to the importance of calligraphy, the complexity of hand-written Chinese and the large number of characters. Gutenberg’s press, however, was well suited to the European writing system, and its development was heavily influenced by the area from which it came.

Mainz, Germany, is the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable metal type printing press (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

The German city of Mainz is most notable for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable metal type printing press (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

 

In the Middle Ages, Mainz was one of the most important cathedral cities in the Holy Roman Empire, in which the Church and the archbishop of Mainz were the centre of influence and political power. Gutenberg, as an educated and entrepreneurial patrician, would have recognised the Church’s need to update the method of replicating manuscripts, which were hand-copied by monks. This was an incredibly slow and laborious process; one that could not keep up with the growing demand for books at the time. In his book, Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age, Dr Bill Kovarik, professor of communication at Radford University in the US state of Virginia, describes this capacity in terms of ‘monk power’, where ‘one monk’ equals a day’s work – about one page – for a manuscript copier. Gutenberg’s press amplified the power of a monk by 200 times.

At the Gutenberg Museum, I watched a demonstration of a page being printed on a replica of the press. First, a metal alloy was heated and poured into a matrix (a mould used to cast a letter). Once the alloy cooled, the small metal letters were arranged into words and sentences in a form and inked. Finally, paper was placed on top of the form and a heavy plate was pressed upon it, similar to how a wine press works. This is no coincidence: Gutenberg’s printing press is thought to be a modification of the wine press. Since the Romans introduced winemaking to the region, the area around Mainz has been one of Germany’s main wine-producing areas, with famous grape varieties such as riesling, dornfelder and silvaner.

The page that is always printed at the Gutenberg Museum replicates the original style and font (Gothic Textura) of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, the first major book ever to be printed using movable type in the Western world. It is the first page of St John’s Gospel, in the Bible, which begins: “In the beginning was the word…”

Gutenberg’s printing press made it easier for the Church to replicate religious manuscripts (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Gutenberg’s printing press made it easier for the Church to replicate religious manuscripts (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Writing is often considered the first communication revolution, while Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication. After about 15 years of development – and huge capital investment – Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1455.

“Gutenberg’s Bible is an extraordinary work of craftsmanship,” said Dr Kovarik, who suggests we can read a strong religious motivation into the perfection of his work. “This wasn’t unusual at the time – for example, a stonemason would try to achieve a perfect sculpture in a remote corner of one of the great cathedrals, not really for the people who would be worshipping there, but rather as an expression of personal faith.”

Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication

Of his original print run of about 150 to 180 Bibles, only 48 remain in the world today. The Gutenberg Museum has two on display. Both are slightly different, because after printing, the pages would be taken to a rubricator (specialised scriber) who would paint in certain letters according to the tastes of their customers. Gutenberg’s Bibles turned out to be bestsellers.

At first, the Church welcomed the new availability of printed bibles and other religious texts. Printing enabled the Church to spread the Christian message and raise cash in the form of ‘indulgences’ – printed documents that forgave people’s sins. However, the disruptive power of the printed word soon became apparent. With the rapid spread of printing technology – by the 1470s, every European city had printing companies, and by the 1500s, an estimated four million books had been printed and sold — came the spread of new and often contradictory ideas, such as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, in which he criticised the Church’s sale of indulgences. Luther is said to have nailed his text to a Wittenberg church door on 31 October 1517. Within a few years 300,000 copies of it had been printed and circulated, leading to the Reformation and a permanent split in the Church.

Of the 150 to 180 Bibles Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 remain in the world today (Credit: Credit: Ann Johansson/Getty Images)

Of the 150 to 180 Bibles Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 remain in the world today (Credit: Ann Johansson/Getty Images)

But despite the far-reaching consequences of Gutenburg’s press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history. A plaque marks the place where he was born on corner of Christofsstraße, but the original house is long gone. Today, a modern building stands there, occupied by a pharmacy.

Another plaque outside the nearby St Christoph’s Church marks the place where he was likely baptised. The church was bombed during World War II and remains in ruins as a war memorial, although the original baptismal font from Gutenberg’s time is still intact.

The graveyard where Gutenberg was buried has been paved over, and even though there are statues of him are everywhere in the city, we don’t know what he looked like. He is commonly depicted with a beard, but it is unlikely that he had one. Gutenberg was a patrician and during his time, according to my tour guide Johanna Hein, only pilgrims and Jews wore beards. In fact, the man we all know as Johannes Gutenberg was actually born Johannes Gensfleisch (which translates to ‘goose meat’). If it weren’t for the 14th-Century trend of people renaming themselves after their houses, we would perhaps be referring to his invention as the Gensfleisch Press today.

Despite the far-reaching consequences of his printing press, little is known about Gutenberg today (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Despite the far-reaching consequences of his printing press, little is known about Gutenberg today (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

But although the traces of the man have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere: a poster advertising cosmetics; a woman reading a newspaper in a cafe; the menu on a restaurant table. Furthermore, our current communications revolution, made possible by the internet, digital technology and social media, is a progression of what started with Gutenberg.

“Every time the cost of media declines rapidly, you enable more people to speak out, and you have a greater diversity of voices,” said Dr Kovarik, explaining that this impacts the distribution of power in society, and sparks social change.

Although the traces of Gutenberg have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere (Credit: Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Although the traces of Gutenberg have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere (Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Paradoxically, however, our digital revolution can also be seen as a return to the pre-print era, according to a theory called The Gutenberg Parenthesis by Dr Thomas Pettitt, affiliate research professor at the University of Southern Denmark, who argues that there are parallels between the pre-print age and our own internet age.

In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour

“Print conferred stability on discourse; works in books were authorities; news in print was true. In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour. We are now in a post-news phase, where purveyors of fake news can accuse the legitimate press of purveying fake news and get away with it,” Dr Pettitt said.

Whatever the impact of the 21st-Century digital revolution, just like the printing revolution before it, the effects will reverberate for hundreds of years to come.

By Madhvi Ramani 8 May 2018

The Amazon’s solar-powered river bus

Children on the solar canoe on their way to school
Image captionA school commute with a difference

How can you create public transport in the jungle without polluting it? The isolated Achuar peoples of Ecuador have created an ingenious solution.

A couple of hours before dawn in Kapawi, a village in a remote corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a group of men gather to drink litres of tea made from the guayusa plant. One by one they then disappear into the dark to vomit.

This ritual, known as guayusada, is designed to purge and energise and culminates in a sharing of dreams from the night.

It was during one of these ceremonies more than half a century ago that a dream was shared of a “canoe of fire”.

And this dream has recently been realised for the Achuar.

Ecuador's solar canoe in the Amazon

Since April 2017, a canoe powered solely by solar energy travels back and forth along the 67-km (42-mile) stretch of the Capahuari and Pastaza rivers that connect the nine isolated settlements that live along their banks.

The boat Tapiatpia – named after a mythical electric eel in the area – gives the Amazon its first solar powered public transport system.

A map of Achuar territory, South East EcuadorImage copyrightALDEA
Image captionAchuar territory, Ecuador

“The solar canoe is an ideal solution for this place because there is a network of interconnected navigable rivers and a great need for alternative transport,” says Oliver Utne, a US environmentalist who has been working with the community since 2011.

The community previously relied entirely on gasoline canoes, known as peque peques, but they are expensive to run and only owned by a few families per village.

The canoe costs passengers just $1 (71p) each per stop, whereas peque peques cost $5-10 in gasoline for the same journey. Gasoline costs five times more here than in the capital Quito because there are no roads and it needs to be flown in.

Solar technician, Oliver Utne
Image captionSolar technician, Oliver Utne

Of course there is an environmental impact too – the canoe means no pollution in one of the world’s richest areas of biodiversity.

With a roof of 32 solar panels mounted on a traditional canoe design of 16 x 2-metre (52 x 7-feet) fibreglass, Tapiaptia carries 18 passengers.

Its navigator, Hilario Saant, tells me how the canoe is changing lives.

Navigator and community elder, Hilario Saant stands on the solar canoe
Image captionNavigator and community elder, Hilario Saant

“We are helping the community when there are sick children. They call me on the radio and we take the children to the health centre,” he says.

Similarly, more children are now at school because it is more affordable, and there are more inter-community sports events too.

Suddenly, our conversation is interrupted by the excited scream of one of our fellow passengers as they spot a school of pink dolphins. Another advantage of the boat is that its relative quiet doesn’t scare the animals.

The solar canoe tied up at a village port
Image captionThe solar canoe tied up at a village port

Back on dry land Julián Ilanes, a leader of the Territory of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador (NAE), tells me about the wider opportunities provided by the canoe.

Numerous territorial wars have severed the connection between the Achuar in Ecuador and their cousins over the border in Peru. Mr Ilanes hopes to re-establish trade between the two, something that has thus far been economically impossible due to the distance and the cost of gasoline.

“We can bring clothes and rubber from Peru, and they need green bananas, chicken, and peanuts from us,” he explains.

Presentational grey line

The Achuar

An Amazonian community who span the Ecuador-Peru border, numbering around 19,000 people in total

Their culture centres on the importance of dreams and visions and they believe in Arutam – the spirit of the rainforest

Semi-nomadic until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1940s, they now live in small villages, sustaining themselves through hunting, fishing, and arable farming

Their remote location has allowed them to preserve their lifestyle

Presentational grey line

And the canoe helps strengthen the community’s resilience against the construction of roads.

“Having no roads helps us to maintain our culture, to have the wisdom not to forget what the Achuar culture really is,” says René Canelos, a 27-year-old from Sharamentsa, one of the villages served by the canoe.

René Canelos, resident of Sharamentsa village
Image captionRené Canelos, resident of Sharamentsa village

The arrival of roads in indigenous communities in the north of Ecuador and in Peru has led to development and oil exploration, and with it, deforestation.

Ecuador’s government has argued that roads will improve the Achuar’s access to health care and education, so the canoe helps the community prove they can manage without them.

“The neighbours who let the oil companies in not only saw how this destroyed their forests, but also how it created a lot of internal conflicts because not everyone knew how to take advantage of the money that came in,” says Felipe Borman, a traditional canoe manufacturer.

Mr Borman has come to work with the Achuar on a new prototype of the boat because its current engine, originally designed in Germany, is struggling with the Amazon’s hot sandy stick-strewn waters.

The solar canoe cruising the wide rivers in Achuar territory

The ultimate dream for Mr Utne and Mr Saant is a whole network of sustainable solar canoes navigating these ancient Amazonian highways.

“We really think this can be a model for the rest of the Amazon, and also other places around the world where there is difficulty in accessing gasoline, where there is no road network, and there’s ecosystems that the local people are working to preserve,” says Mr Utne.

But he says the key element is that it was designed first and foremost to work locally.

“Personally, I think that large-scale solutions disconnect us, and I think we get to where we are precisely because we are disconnected.”

“What we need is to create local solutions, and if they work, replicate them in other places,” he says.

Members of the Achuar in Sharamentsa village

At the local level, at least, the difference is palpable.

“I love my boat… it’s a dream come true for the Achuar,” says Mr Saant proudly.

“I’m never going to abandon it, I’m going to continue working for the canoe until I die.”

This BBC series was produced with funding from the Skoll Foundation

The Malbork Castle is the largest castle in the world measured by land area

Featured image

The Malbork castle located in the town of Malbork in Poland is considered to be the largest brick fortress in the world measured by land area. It is one of the many castles built by the Teutonic Knights in northern Poland in a form of an Ordensburg fortress.

The construction began in 1275 and since 1309 it has been the capital of The Teutonic Order of Holy Mary in Jerusalem. It is an astonishing example of a medieval brick castle which fell into decay until it was restored in the early 20th century.

 

It was named after Mary, patron saint of the religious Order and it was called Marienburg. The Teutonic Order built this castle to strengthen their own control of the area and to protect Poland against the attacks of the pagan Prussians of the Baltic tribes. The evidence for the construction can only be found in the architectural studies in the Order’s administrative records and histories.

Siegfried von Feuchtwagen was the Grand Master of the Knights who undertook the next phase of the fortress’ construction when he arrived in Marienburg from Venice. The castle’s construction became more important in 1308 after the conquest of Gdansk and Pomerania.

 

It was 52 acres in size which is four times bigger than the area of Windsor Castle. Through the years, it was expanded several times because more room was needed for the Knights which at one point were approximately 3, 000. The fortress contains three separate castles– the High Castle, the Middle Castle, and the Lower Castle. Built near the river Nogat, the castle allowed easy access for trading ships from the Baltic Sea and the Vistula which is the longest river in Poland.

The Order was mostly trading with amber. In 1410, the castle was besieged after the Order was defeated in the Battle of Gunwald. In 1457, King Casimir IV Jagellon entered the castle after the Order left in 1456 because during the Thirteen Years’ War they could no longer financially manage the place.

 

 

Following severe damage in the Second World War, Malbork castle became a shadow of its former self. After that, the castle has been reconstructed several times. In 1962 it was reconstructed following a fire in 1959 which caused further damage. In 2016, a new restoration has been completed.

Today, it is a well-preserved medieval Gothic castle and museum. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. Visitors can walk through the hundreds of empty corridors and there are wooden weapons for the youngest that can be purchased at the gift shops.

 Marija Georgievska

St Edward’s Church, Stow-on-the-Wold, praised for its architecture, wins special attention for a door that some believe inspired J. R. R. Tolkien

Featured image

A construction effort that likely lasted from the 11th to the 15th century, and was also refurbished during Victorian days, the Church of St Edward, Stow-on-the-Wold, in Gloucestershire, was built on the spot of a former Saxon church. The present-day edifice fuses various architectural styles. There are bits of Norman masonry and Early English types of arches and columns. Distinctive as well is the nave clerestory, a testimony to the late Gothic architectural twist.

While all of these authentic features are of interest in their own right, one that might have fueled the imagination of a famous writer is the church’s north door, flanked by two ancient yew trees. Rumor has it that this was the door that sparked J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Doors of Durin,” the west gate of Moria that appears in a scene in the The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Nevertheless, this is still just a rumor, and nobody has so far authenticated it.

St Edward’s Church is a great attraction and place of interest, protected as a Historic England Grade I listed building. The small town of Stow-on-the-Wold can take pride in having such an architectural masterpiece within its boundaries.

Some praise of the church’s earliest features can be found inside, like the ornamental nailheads of the columns. These are among the church’s segments that hint of a church of similar proportions occupying the site before this one was completed.

Other portions of the church testify to it not being an ordinary architectural construction. The aisles of the nave are rather uneven. Different corbels, some plain-looking and some grotesque, can be noticed in the nave, perhaps depicting notables of the day.

The chancel is much restored, and it bears elements from Victorian days. The low part of the nave’s west wall further reveals the earliest masonry in the church, likely Norman style.

A grand picture depicting the Crucifixion scene, the work of Gaspar de Crayer, a Flemish painter active in the early 17th century and noted for his various altarpieces, is seen in the church’s south aisle. The piece was presented as a gift here in 1875. Some of the windows of the church are reputably an early 14th-century effort, distinctive for their pairs of trefoil panels that also embed tinier quatrefoils.

The tower gives an imposing feeling too; erected by 1447, it rises more than 80 feet in the air and contains probably the heaviest bells to be found across the county. While the current clock of the tower was installed by the mid-1920s, there was another clock that chimed the hour before, at least since 1580.

Architectural admirers will certainly enjoy all these various aspects of St Edward’s, and likely they will come across more great details upon visiting the church. Another striking element is the pair of old yew trees hugging the north door that is dated to either the 17th or 18th century.

This door, looking as if it had emerged from a fantasy world, perhaps inspired Tolkien in his writing of the memorable door he described in the first part of his famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, there isn’t any written account proving any connection of the Oxford-based writer with this site.

Tolkien included in his book an illustration of the west door of Moria, crafted by both dwarves and elves according to the books, and this was the entrance to Khazad-dûm. After the Dwarven city was left deserted, the manner of how the door could be opened was forgotten. When someone compares Tolkien’s illustration of the door with the actual door at St. Edward, there is only a slight resemblance between the two. More likely, what has heated the debate is the book’s adaption to the big screen, and how the door was depicted in the film.

St Edward’s Door is also known as the Yew Tree Door. Similar-looking doors, perhaps not as impressive as this one, can be spotted at other places in England. Tolkien could have been inspired by this door, or by several others, or possibly from something entirely different–for that, we can never be sure.

 Stefan Andrews

Lake Chad: Can the vanishing lake be saved?

Lake ChadImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Lake Chad – a source of water to millions of people in West Africa – has shrunk by nine-tenths due to climate change, population growth and irrigation. But can a scheme dating back to the 1980s save it?

“It’s a ridiculous plan and it will never happen.” That’s the reaction many people have to the idea of trying to fill up Lake Chad and restore it to its former ocean-like glory by diverting water from the Congo river system 2,400km (1,500 miles) away.

Sceptics in Nigeria, who have seen successive governments fail even to make the lights work, wonder if the region’s politicians have nodded off and have been dreaming a little too hard.

But the government ministers and engineers who were recently sipping mineral water in the capital, Abuja, at the International Conference on Lake Chad had good reason to be thinking outside the box.

Lake Chad

Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s, due to climate change, an increase in the population and unplanned irrigation. Its basin covers parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and has been a water source for between 20 million and 30 million people.

But with the desert encroaching further every year, it is getting increasingly difficult for families to make a living through agriculture, fishing and livestock farming. The UN says 10.7 million people in the Lake Chad basin need humanitarian relief to survive.

“We used to pass fields of maize on our way to the lake and there were vast numbers of boats bobbing up and down on the water back then, and huge fish markets,” says Bale Bura, who grew up by the lake in the 1970s and now works for the Lake Chad Fishermen’s Association.

Drawing of Transaqua planImage copyrightGROUP BONIFICA
Image captionTransaqua would cost tens of billions of dollars to build

Now far fewer farmers are able to earn a living on the mineral-rich but bone-dry shores.

This is one reason why the delegates in Abuja decided to dust off a scheme first mooted back in 1982 by the Italian engineering company Bonifica Spa.

It came up with Transaqua – a plan to construct a 2,400km (1,500 mile) canal to transfer water from the upstream tributaries of the mighty Congo River all the way to the Chari River basin, which feeds Lake Chad.

‘Deafening silence’

It proposed the transfer of up to 100 billion cubic metres (3.5 trillion cubic feet) of water a year and featured a series of dams along the route to generate electricity.

“I sent one of our engineers to the USA, to purchase the only reliable maps of Africa, which were made by the US Air Force and were the only maps with contour lines,” says Marcello Vichi, the Italian engineer who was asked to look into the idea during the early 1980s.

“After a couple of months of solitary study, I announced to the then chief executive that this thing could be done.”

He says 500 copies of the plans were sent out in 1985 to government representatives of every African country, as well as international financial agencies.

“The response was a deafening silence,” he adds.

But more than three decades later, minds are finally focusing on the lake’s shrinkage, prompted by its link to the deadly geopolitical crises of Islamist militancy and migration.

Freed schoolgirls in NigeriaImage copyrightEPA
Image captionBoko Haram recently seized more than 100 schoolgirls, before releasing most of them a month later

In 2014, I headed out of the north-east Nigerian city of Maiduguri towards Lake Chad in a new minibus. There were armoured vehicles in front as well as behind, and right next to me was a Nigerian soldier – fast asleep. Our destination was Kirenawa, the latest village that the marauding Boko Haram jihadists had terrorised.

As the road became steadily sandier, we entered a long-neglected area, passing the faded signs of abandoned government projects in ever hotter and sleepier villages.

Buildings had been torched and people had been left terrified, watching as others were killed in front of them.

In all the villages, people complained there was nothing for young people to do, nothing to dream of except getting out.

‘Ugly kinds of jobs’

It had become a perfect recruiting ground for the Islamist militants. The offer of a little cash and the promise of some training and a gun persuaded many to join.

Of course, Lake Chad’s decline is not the sole reason for the rise of violent extremism – a number of factors including poor governance have also played a role – but there is clearly a link.

“I know many young people from my own village who got into these ugly kinds of jobs,” Mr Bura says.

As if the delegates gathering in Abuja last month needed reminding of how dire the security situation had become, more than 100 schoolgirls had just been seized from Dapchi, Nigeria.

At the meeting, it was agreed that Bonifica and PowerChina, the company that helped build the Three Gorges dam spanning the Yangtze River, would complete a feasibility study. They announced that the effort to raise $50bn (£35bn) for the Lake Chad Fund should begin immediately.

Camels crossing Lake ChadImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Bonifica says its plan will use less than 8% of the water the Congo River discharges into the Atlantic and would not be a threat to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s continuing Grand Inga Dam project, which would create the world’s largest hydropower generator if it is completed.

Further engineering work would be needed to enable the Chari River to handle the increased flow of water. The project can be done in a staggered way, with each completed stage immediately adding to the flow of water into the Lake Chad basin.

Other options that have been considered include one which involves pumping the water uphill from Palambo, in the Central African Republic.

As well as the funding challenge for Transaqua, there will be resistance from environmental campaigners to overcome. And even carrying out the feasibility study properly requires peace.

Chinese media has reported the transfer canal would be 100m (328ft) wide and 10m (33ft) deep and would be flanked by a service road and eventually a rail line.

“It is a project which responds to the never-tackled infrastructural needs of the African continent, which maybe will give birth to a real African renaissance,” says Mr Vichi, who sees all along the route of the canal vast potential for agro-processing and transforming agricultural products for African and foreign markets.

Ministers know life is likely to get ever tougher for the people who live around Lake Chad. That’s why they are paying attention to the plans to bring it back to life.