Friday 27 August 2010

Some very big thank yous

I'm feeling very emotional this evening!

A week ago, the charity I work for was burgled. The thief or thieves kicked down our front door and broke the cupboard which contained our safe in order to make off with it. It was locked, of course, but I suppose they'll get into it . . . It contained all our donations, all the hire fees and deposits people had left for equipment they're using, our paying in book, and various useful records kept by our Queen of the Wheelchairs (as I call her). Not only that, but also several of the keys to our mobility scooters (so they can't work now!), all our stamps, and the biscuit tin!

We were all pretty shocked as you can imagine. I've lost count of the number of people who've told me of their disgust that someone would choose to do this to a charity. For my part, I feel a huge amount of personal loyalty to my current workplace. (I'm employed by them - I can't afford to volunteer!) Not only because it's a charity and one very much used by locals and holidaymakers, but also because the people working there are terrific and they mean a lot to me. We've only just had to stump up a large sum to be at the Pembrokeshire County Show and coped with major cuts to our budget - etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, I'd been thinking for a while of giving some fundraising astronomy talks, and had gone so far as to ask the local library about the price of hiring their gallery (which has held some great exhibitions and events such as a Writers' Day). Following this break-in, I found myself possessed with a major drive to get on with it.

I asked on Twitter if anyone knew of any good cheap venues, explaining what it was for. Stephanie (@stephmog) pointed me to the Pembrokeshire Tea Company. A couple of e-mails later and Tony, who works there, gave me a call to offer me their upstairs gallery for free!

I was gobsmacked. I told the others in my office with great excitement. Then, today, I paid Pembrokeshire Tea a visit. They're based at Nant-y-Coy Mill in Treffgarne Gorge. Pembrokeshire is mostly full of steep rounded hills, and its roads have rather unique hedgebanks. Driving along them can often feel like driving on top of the world: you see the banks and the hedges, and beyond them, just sky. Treffgarne Gorge, however, is a huge deep crevasse of sharp-looking rock, with spiky formations hundreds of feet above the winding roads, the River Cleddau well hidden behind bushes and trees. (The geology of Pembrokeshire is stunning - Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, I believe, have far more variety than the rest of the UK put together!) Just beyond the village of Treffgarne is Nant-y-Coy Mill, and that is where the Pembrokeshire Tea Company and some other small businesses are based. Besides tourist attractions such as a nature walk, a water wheel and (less touristy) tea plantations up the hill, it's a collection of beautiful old stone houses. It appears out of the cliffs quite suddenly.

Tony met me at the counter and showed me the gallery upstairs. It's currently full of textile artwork and is an interesting shape (for example, it seems to have a boarded up hole in the middle of the floor with banisters round it!), but it has a projector and tables and enough seating room. It also has a computer with delicious sound-effects: converted-to-audio radio waves! Tony offered to play that as people arrived, presumably drinking Pembrokeshire tea. I hope there'll be a way to let them all know what it is, but even if anyone misses that, it'll be very atmospheric. There'll also be wi-fi, so if I can get enough people to bring a laptop in, they can start classifying galaxies right there.

The idea of just giving a talk about Galaxy Zoo (which I should mention is in no way affiliated with my workplace - I'm simply talking about it because that's my expertise) promptly expanded hugely . . .

It turned out Tony is an astronomer - a real one, far more learned and professional than I am. He's worked on Sir Patrick's books, and lectured in the UK and US about non-standard cosmology. To cut a long story short, this subject suggests that the Big Bang, the expanding universe and (I think) relativity are wrong interpretations of what we've observed. "Human life has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that's what the theorists have imposed on the Universe," Tony explained as we and an artist chatted outside - that, or something along those lines (correct me if I'm wrong, Tony!). I asked him how we account for the abundance of hydrogen in the Universe and he suggested that perhaps this was simply how things naturally occur. I then asked about redshift and Hubble's constant, and his response was that we cannot prove redshift is due to an expanding Universe. It might be something getting in the way of the light and "tiring" it. It did occur to me that photons' energy is greatly sapped during their journey from the centre of the Sun to its surface, and indeed that visible light reaching the Earth is often absorbed and re-radiated as infra-red. I've no idea whether that is what Tony or non-standard cosmology has in mind. But Tony's very keen on using as many observations as possible.

Well, he will have ample opportunity to tell me a lot more about non-standard cosmology. As of today's introduction, I'm certainly not convinced (and haven't asked him quite a lot more questions, such as about the Cosmic Microwave Background!), but he did make two extremely good points with which I can't disagree. One was that the Big Bang leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as how it happened - how "something" came out of "nothing" (and that the laws of physics break down at the point of a singularity). Secondly, he reminded me, just because an expert scientist says something is true, that does not make it true. The human race is still learning about a lot of things. Cosmology seems to be being turned upside down every few decades with the latest astonishing finding, and who says we aren't in for a lot more of those?

Ample opportunity, I say . . . Yes - because we've decided to hold regular public astronomy gatherings! Probably on Thursday nights, we'll start with a talk and, weather permitting, go on to an observing session, open to all. He's got telescopes, a meadow, and beautifully dark skies. I will do some talks, I expect Tony can do some, and you never know - perhaps more people will want to give them too. We'll probably advertise on the local radio, and I'll look into where else will do it affordably. And Tony's quite happy for my charity to benefit financially from these evenings. "Oh, I'm not worried about money, I make enough running Pembrokeshire Tea. And I want to help," he told me in his upstairs office just behind the gallery. Well . . . suffice to say, I have few words. I was quite blown over, and hope very much that Pembrokeshire Tea benefits greatly as well!

The only snag is that the gallery does not have disabled access. That is a big nuisance, considering what charity I work for! Tony is also interested in making life easier for the disabled, and has been in a battle to get planning permission for some kind of stairlift to be installed. Because it's a historic building, however, this permission keeps being refused - even though nothing would show on the outside. This seems like misplaced priorities to me. We hope our events raise awareness of this as well as astronomy . . .

I drove back to Haverfordwest feeling thrilled. I can't wait to get started! Pembrokeshire is a place where astronomy should be celebrated - we have some of the best skies in the UK. As soon as these events start taking place, I'll let you know - if you live in or near Pembrokeshire, I hope you can make it.

In Haverfordwest I stopped at the Pembrokeshire Mobility store. Today was its last day - not enough of their stock was being bought, and they were selling off everything they could. (Pembrokeshire Care, which shares its premises, is not closing.) Steph, who I mentioned earlier, is one of the staff. She told me they'd far rather see things go to my charity than to a shed for several years, and gave me what must have been hundreds of pounds' worth of equipment to take along! Wheeled walkers, a bath hoist, a walker with two trays, spare scooter keys (in case they fit any of the key-less scooters), a wheelchair, a special perching chair to allow you to sit without bending your legs and not have to stand up again, bath chairs, toilet raisers, crutch bags to carry on your scooter, and equipment to get you from your wheelchair to the bed and vice versa . . . these all went into my car. I had to make two trips. There seemed so much, so many things, so many lovely brand-new items. I felt even more speechless than at Tony's generosity. It is awful to think of the amount Steph's family's business is losing - and very emotional to think that rather than auction it they are happy to give it to the local community through us.

I arrived an hour before closing time, and decided to give them that last hour to see if any more stock could sell and use the time to obtain chocolate and iced latte and give piggyback rides to a seven-year-old! I don't feel I can even begin to repay this huge debt - I guess the best way will be to use it all well. There are always people in need - it's a matter of letting them know we're here, and doing our best for them.

I hope to see people use our new equipment, and lots of people come to the astronomy talks at Nant-y-Coy Mill!

Things are certainly going to get busy in Pembrokeshire in the next few weeks!

Tony, Pembrokeshire Tea, Steph, Pembrokeshire Mobility, you've done some wonderful things:

Fireworks myspace profile -

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