It’s good that, at last, we are giving due recognition to our Armed Forces

Mercian Regiment emblem.

Mercian Regiment emblem.

I don’t have a personal connection with 3Mercian, or The Staffords, as we call them in these parts.

Not unless you count the fact that my great-grandfather was with the North Staffords, fighting in France during the First World War.

Or the fact that the last commanding officer of The Staffords, before they became 3Mercian, is a mate of mine.

But I’ve always felt an enormous sense of pride in our local regiment, in its history and honours, and in the lads who don the uniform and do what must be one of the toughest jobs imaginable.

That was why I thought it was so important that we fought to save the name of The Staffords earlier this year when Ministry of Defence (MoD) cutbacks almost led to the name being erased from the Army’s Order of Battle.

During the summer I took my girls to the Staffordshire Regiment Museum at Lichfield.

We enjoyed looking at all the exhibits – from Great War machine guns, Waterloo colours and battle dioramas to medals for valour and the terrific Coltman VC Trench – a faithful recreation of a WWI frontline British trench, complete with sound effects.

What came across to me during that visit was that The Staffords is, and always has been, a collection of remarkable individuals, rather than simply a regiment or a unit – each man as important as the next.

When the news broke on Tuesday evening that one of the lads from 3Mercian had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan I experienced a strange mixture of emotions.

I found it incredible that anyone would be mad enough to do such a thing.

I felt desperately sad about such a tragic waste of life and the heartache that it will bring to the soldier’s family and friends.

I also felt enormous pride at being reminded that the fallen Stafford and his comrades have been out there in Helmand again, gutsing it out, and under no illusion that they may have to make the ultimate sacrifice for Queen and country.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Ian Fisher, who lived in Werrington, was killed doing the job he loved in the certain knowledge that his family and friends were justly proud of the man he was.

The loss of any British soldier is an absolute tragedy but it will always be felt more keenly in the areas where recruiting for his unit is strongest and that bond with a city, town or county will, to my mind, always be priceless.

That we view them as ‘Our Boys’ (or girls) has to be a good thing.

It is good to know then that this newspaper has always supported our troops – from as far back as the Zulu Wars to last week’s update on operations in Helmand province.

I’m told that soldiers on operational tours love to hear news from back home, whether that’s Stoke and Vale results or the stuff of day-to-day life that fills the column inches of The Sentinel Monday to Saturday.

By the same token, our readers – not simply relatives and friends of services personnel – are genuinely fascinated by the work they do and love to read about local lads ‘doing their bit’, as we say round here.

It’s a mutually-beneficial relationship and one which I value enormously. Long may it continue.

Last night I was asked to officiate at the signing of the local Armed Forces Community Covenant at the in Stoke.

This is an MoD initiative whereby local authorities across the country pledge to do more, in conjunction with other organisations (and, ultimately local businesses), to offer help and support to ex-services personnel who settle in the area.

This help and support can include guarantees to give job interviews, provide assistance with benefits and housing needs and generally help ease the transition from military life to a civilian one.

It was pleasing to see so many people at the King’s Hall last night and to hear that so many local organisations are prepared to give a virtual hug to some very worthwhile individuals who have served their country.

It is well documented that ex-services personnel, given the demands of their unique roles, often find it hard to adjust from military to civilian life, put down roots or start a new career.

In my view the least we can do, as a society and – more pertinently – as a city and county, is to offer them our full support and acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe for the job they’ve done.

I’ve always felt that we should be more like America in our attitude towards services personnel.

The job they do is extraordinary and it is one which, in truth, very few of us are cut out for.

Perhaps, at last, we are starting to recognise this.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Just look at what COULD happen in our neck of the woods in 2013

Port Vale striker Tom Pope is set for a big year in 2013.

Port Vale striker Tom Pope is set for a big year in 2013.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day and a New Year to boot.
As we shrug off the hangovers and stare balefully into the slate grey skies I, for one, am determined to be positive.
You know, I think 2013 might be alright if my crystal ball is anything to go by.
Here’s what COULD happen in the next 12 months…

*Stoke City qualify for the Europa League two months before the end of the season on account of not having lost a game at the Brit since 2003.
Sir Alex Ferguson gives Tony Pulis ‘the hairdryer’ for not having the decency to sell England defender Ryan Shawcross back to him – muttering something like: “He forgets all the favours I’ve done him” and mentions Stoke being “just a wee club in the Midlands”.
Potters striker Michael Owen then wins the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. Like his three predecessors – Tony McCoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins – Owen takes the crown after spending his entire sporting year sitting down. (Joke © The Sentinel’s Sportsdesk)
*Sir Alex Ferguson is left tearing what’s left of his hair out as Tom Pope turns down a multi-million pound move to Old Trafford as a like-for-like replacement for Wayne Rooney.
Explaining his decision to The Sentinel, the Pontiff – whose 40 goals fire Port Vale to automatic promotion – said: “What’s Salford Quays got that I conna get in Sneyd Green, youth?”
Port Vale Supporters’ Club begins fund-raising for a statue of Pope, scheduled to be completed to coincide with the 27-year-old’s 40th birthday celebrations.
Meanwhile, in honour of the Burslem club’s success, the city council lifts the ban on Vale players urinating in the bushes at Hanley Forest Park.
*In a bid to save money Stoke-on-Trent City Council ditches plans to relocate its Civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley in favour of a move to neighbouring Newcastle.
Explaining the decision, council leader Mohammed Pervez said most people considered Newcastle to be in the Potteries anyway, even it was “a bit posher”.
However, councillors in the Loyal and Ancient Borough start a petition against the proposals – barricading themselves into the Guildhall until those riff-raff have gone away.
*In an attempt to improve Stoke-on-Trent’s image in the wake of the disastrous BBC documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank, council leader Mohammed Pervez agrees to star in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
After successfully completing several Bushtucker trials councillor Pervez is narrowly beaten into third place by the pretend opera singer off the Go Compare telly adverts and a kangaroo named Dave.
Mr Pervez, however, remains upbeat – claiming he has “put the city on the map” and reveals he has persuaded Ant and Dec to appear in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime.
*Buoyed by his appearance on ITV1, city council leader Mr Pervez unveils the authority’s latest cost-cutting initiatives.
These include only four out of five council workmen being allowed to loaf about for two hours at lunchtime.
*Staff at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery are put in celebratory mood once more following the discovery of a further 700 pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard in a field near Lichfield.
After farmer Fred Johnson ploughs the earth deeper than a Rory Delap throw-in, he churns up Excalibur, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail as well as the missing tail fin from the city’s Spitfire RW388.
The museum’s Principal Collections Officer Deb Klemperer tells The Sentinel that experts hope to have worked out what the new finds actually are before she retires in 2050.
*Staffordshire’s new Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis unveils his radical new idea to solve the force’s acute staffing shortage.
After appointing his sixth deputy, Mr Ellis tells the media he will be handing out police uniforms to anyone who wants one, adding: “This is the Big Society in action. The genius of the idea is that the crims won’t know who’s a real copper and who isn’t.”
The Sentinel’s crime reporter thinks he’s joking until he hands her a canister of CS spray some flashing blue lights for her motor.
*Local radio stations run another story claiming The Sentinel is closing down.
The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief responds by publishing a 148-page supplement to mark the paper’s 148th anniversary – including all the stories the paper has beaten the radio stations to during the previous week.
*Developers of the new multi-million City Sentral retail complex on the site of the former Hanley Bus Station announce they have attracted another big name store to the development.
Poundland confirms it will be employing up to six part-time staff at its new superstore.
A spokesman for the shopping complex reveals the name is also to be changed after a huge public outcry because City Sentral is “clearly a bit daft”.
Expect the new Jonny Wilkes Centre to be open in
time for Christmas.
What are your hopes for 2013?

Titanic’s captain was just a bloke from Stoke in the wrong place at the wrong time

I was lucky enough to be enjoying a tour of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery as staff were putting the finishing touches to its new Titanic exhibition.

As the centenary of the disaster approaches, bosses at the city centre venue are understandably hoping for an increase in visitors riding, if you will pardon the pun, on a wave of nostalgia for the ill-fated liner.

But what struck me most about the display was the way in which people were being asked to vote on who they thought was to blame for the demise of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic.

Pictures of some of the ship’s officers are pinned to the wall – along with details of their role in the doomed maiden voyage.

This is a novel approach to telling the Titanic story through the people whose actions (or lack of) contributed to a catastrophe which captured the imagination of the public in 1912 and which endures to this day.

Among the suspects is the skipper who is, of course, the sole reason why one of the most land-locked cities in England is staging an exhibition to mark this most horrific of maritime disasters.

Captain Edward John Smith, from Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, was given the plum job of sailing the White Star Line’s luxurious new ship from Southampton to New York.

When news of the liner’s fate first reached the UK, my predecessors at The Staffordshire Sentinel wrote in glowing terms about the man dubbed ‘The Millionaires’ Captain’ – so favoured was he by the great and the good.

Smith was described thus: “He is one of the most experienced commanders and his knowledge of the Atlantic and its moods and phases is perhaps unique”.

Our report of April 15, 1912 – the day after the Titanic struck an iceberg – went on to speak of him as “exceedingly popular with his officers” and admired for his “tact, firmness and professional skill”.

Sadly, I reckon our city’s relationship with Captain Smith and, indeed, with the Titanic will always be a uncomfortable one.

It should have been a voyage that went down in history as a feather in the cap of our city.

Instead it was the great ship itself which went down in the icy waters of the Atlantic – bringing ignominy to one of our most famous sons.

Despite various inquiries and new evidence unearthed since the wreck was discovered in 1985, many questions remain about an event which has been immortalised in poems, books and by Hollywood.

The bottom line is that, like it or not, Captain Smith, from Hanley, was in charge of the Titanic on the night it sank with the loss of 1,517 lives.

No attempt to apportion blame on outdated safety procedures, inadequate numbers of lifeboats, missing binoculars or various members of the crew can free our man from that heavy burden.

You cannot rewrite history and I, for one, am glad that Captain Smith’s statue is in Lichfield.

I can’t think of any reason why Stoke-on-Trent would want to commemorate this unfortunate man beyond the plaque tucked away in Hanley Town Hall.

Our connection to the Titanic is nothing to be proud of – rather it is a quirk of fate.

Captain Smith just happened to come from Hanley and just happened to be the top man on the Titanic when it sank.

He didn’t design the vessel. He didn’t build it and, despite various romantic stories, we don’t know for sure how he conducted himself during those final two hours after his ship struck an iceberg.

It would be a different story entirely if he had personally rescued third class passengers from below decks, carried a dozen children to safety or ensured better use was made of the pitiful number of lifeboats the Titanic had.

The fact is we just don’t know what happened to the man who was at the centre of this awful human tragedy.

As a city we understandably celebrate the fact that the man who designed the fighter plane which helped to turn the tide of the Second World War comes from our neck of the woods.

But Captain Smith of the Titanic is no Reginald Mitchell of Spitfire fame.

To my mind, he was simply a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The church must start talking about what really matters to families nowadays

It seems incredible to me that in the year 2011 the Anglican Church is still having meetings to discuss whether or not women should be allowed to be bishops.

The Lichfield Diocesan Synod met at the weekend to debate and vote on this motion.

In fairness, three quarters of church leaders in Staffordshire said they supported the idea.

Presumably the rest were concerned about who was going to do the washing up.

Joking apart, I do understand the need for considered debate when a faith organisation is seeking to overhaul long-established hierarchical systems.

There will always be those who oppose such changes as they strike at the very core of their beliefs.

Thus, I respect the position of people like The Reverend Prebendary Paul Lockett, of St. Mary and St. Chad’s in Longton who spoke for the minority at the Synod when he said that he “can’t acknowledge a woman bishop”.

Or, as The Reverend Stephen Pratt, of St. Michael and All Angels Church in Chell, put it: “Jesus didn’t appoint female apostles… Jesus did not make women as leaders of his church”.

In answer to that I would say that 2,000 years ago there were an awful lot of things women weren’t allowed to do which they are today.

Back then women simply didn’t hold positions of authority in any walk of life – a situation which mortal men of the time were more than happy to perpetuate.

You see, I’d like to think that if Jesus were alive today he would use whatever means necessary to get his message across to people.

Maybe he’d be a rock star, win X-Factor, or have his own TV channel and website.

I don’t think the battle of the sexes would even be on his radar because he’d recognise that civilised society has moved on a wee bit.

Indeed, I think that most impartial observers would agree that the Holy Bible – which tells the story of Jesus’s life – is full of inconsistencies and contradictions and is very much rooted in the time it was written. That is not a criticism – more a statement of fact from a lapsed Methodist who views the Good Book as a guide rather than a rulebook.

I can already hear the nay-sayers shouting that the Bible isn’t a menu from which you can choose the bits you fancy.

However, there are things in the Bible which I can’t, in all good conscience, agree with. To be frank, to me the debate over the ordination of women bishops going on within the Church of England is much ado about nothing.

I suspect most people – even those who attend church – don’t feel strongly either way.

Why? Because it doesn’t really affect them. It is an issue which the shepherds may be debating but I’m pretty sure it is of little consequence to their flocks.

I’ll tell you what the Anglican church should be debating and it’s not whether or not women should be allowed to smash through the ‘stained glass ceiling’.

It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the officers on the RMS Titanic discussing who should sit at the Captain’s table for supper as the stern of the ship is rising out of the water minutes before it sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Surely the real debate should be centred on how the Church of England – indeed the Christian church in the UK – makes itself more relevant to families in 2011.

They should be holding crisis meetings about the falling attendances and the half-empty Sunday services.

They should be asking themselves why such a small percentage of the population in this country actually bothers to attend church.

They should be asking why so few young people and children are sat in the pews.

Last week a friend of mine, a local Christian leader, invited me to attend one of a number of local churches which he assures me are vibrant and thriving and bear no resemblance to the gloomy picture I’ve just painted.

I may yet take him up on the offer but I know that for every church he suggests I could find another 10 which are either mothballed, half-empty or only used every other week because the congregation is so small that it moves around.

Just one look at the photograph taken by The Sentinel’s photographer at the Lichfield Diocesan Synod speaks volumes.

It may as well have been taken in a church because no-one in the audience is under the age of 30.

The fact is, and it genuinely grieves me to say this, the church is becoming increasingly removed from modern society and pointless debates over its internal workings serve only to underline its impotence.

Never mind the election… what about our manifesto?

As Gordon Brown and David Cameron are busy peddling the policies they hope will propel them to 10 Downing Street, I thought I’d have a dabble at my own manifesto – specifically for North Staffordshire.

As Stoke-on-Trent celebrates the centenary of the federation of the six towns, what better time to take stock of where we are as a city and a region and plot a vision for a brighter future?

With a newly-arrived chief executive at the city council, a new face arriving in the role of the Stoke-on-Trent Central MP and a transfusion of new blood via the local elections, I think opportunity genuinely knocks for our neck of the woods.

Let’s hope we don’t ignore it.

This is my wish-list to drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century…

*Forget parochialism and create a North Staffordshire authority serving nigh on half a million people – including the city, Newcastle, Leek, Biddulph and Cheadle and do away with the present, inefficient hotchpotch of local councils. Let’s face it, we’ve all got more in common with each other than we have with Stafford, Tamworth or Lichfield. I would suggest it is better to start speaking with one voice which would give us far more clout nationally. Such a merger would also enable us to get rid of many of the public sector non-jobs created in recent years. Perhaps then we could balance our budgets.

*Get serious about regeneration and deliver the key foundations to our economic recovery and future prosperity. How many times have we been shown plans of glass bottle kilns and the like which never come to fruition? Hanley desperately needs the long-awaited new bus station and the East-West shopping precinct so let’s ride a coach and horses through the bureaucracy and get them built. The University Quarter, or UniQ, and the Business District must become a reality rather than limping along as artists’ impressions. By the same token, our MPs and councillors must lobby like their lives depend upon in it in the coming months to ensure that, irrespective of which party wins the General Election, the hundreds of millions of pounds of funding currently transforming our estates via regeneration agency Renew North Staffordshire doesn’t dry up halfway through the process.

*Throw all our weight behind the Next Stop Stoke campaign to ensure the £60 billion high-speed rail network comes to North Staffordshire. We must ensure Stoke-on-Trent is selected as a stop on the flagship HS2 inter-city project or we run the risk of missing out on investment, jobs and tourism.

*If we don’t want to become a cultural desert then we need to stop quibbling about subsidies for The Regent Theatre and accept that if you want a top class venue in the city centre then, like other major cities, you have to be prepared to spend serious public money to help a private operator earn a crust. The benefits to our economy, the social life of the sub-region and the aspirations of future generations are there for all to see.

*Bring our home-grown football stars, role-model Olympic hopefuls and local celebrities together for a campaign to tackle North Staffordshire’s chronic obesity problem run through every single school in the city, Newcastle and the Staffordshire Moorlands. Tie this in with major renovation and promotion of our parks, public open spaces and excellent cycle routes to encourage more people to become active and fitter.

*Act now to capitalise on the huge public interest in the Staffordshire Hoard. As I suggested previously, let’s have a campaign to build a huge, great statue of a Saxon warrior visible for miles just off the M6 passing through Stoke-on-Trent and luring in visitors to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Let’s market ourselves as the home of the Hoard and completely renovate the venue to make the Hoard exhibition a tourist attraction of international significance. The time has come for us to stop marketing ourselves solely on our industrial past and find a new identity.

Do your bit to save the Staffordshire Hoard

Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at The British Museum, examining Hoard items.

Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at The British Museum, examining Hoard items.

The huge, wood-panelled doors opened and we were led down a long corridor flanked with hundreds of books in glass cases.

Our footsteps echoed off the marble floor as we walked.

We halted at a set of electronically-locked doors. Phone calls were made and, after several minutes, they eventually buzzed open.

The room was what you would expect from the bowels of the British Museum.

It was like the library of some stately home in an Agatha Christie novel, or the setting for some vital plot line in a Dan Brown page-turner.

There were wall-to-wall books on two levels and the feng shui of a room devoted to scholarly pursuits was only disrupted by a large, beige, metal cupboard with a chunky electronic lock.

Out of it were carried half a dozen plastic boxes full of smaller plastic boxes. Each one was numbered with a raffle ticket – strange, but completely logical given the number and variety of objects they contained.

The treasure keeper, Ian, took the lid off the first box – and that’s when I got my first glimpse of the Staffordshire Hoard.

It is genuinely breathtaking to be up close and personal to something so old, so valuable and so very rare.

It didn’t matter that some of the objects were tiny or broken.

I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest by the fact that many were still crusted with the earth from which they had been plundered.

In a way, that clinging dirt was symbolic of Staffordshire not wanting to give up one of the most remarkable archaeological treasures ever found in this country.

One by one I viewed the items – some no bigger than your little finger – from every angle.

There were sword pyramids, pommel pieces, tiny golden snake clasps and eye-piece adornments believed to have come from a warrior’s helmet.

None of it has yet been viewed by the public, that is until these items arrive at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley later this week.

All this stuff, the booty of battle or a king’s treasury, was buried about 1,300 years ago by people who took its location to their graves.

History doesn’t come much more raw than this.

As one archaeologist put it: “You know the warriors from Beowulf, or the Riders of Rohan in Lord of the Rings? Those are the kind of people we are talking about when we refer to the Staffordshire Hoard.”

She had me at Beowulf…

“They placed in the barrow that precious booty,
the rounds and the rings they had reft erewhile,
hardy heroes, from hoard in cave,
trusting the ground with treasure of earls,
gold in the earth, where ever it lies…”

Although these 1,600 gold and silver items were found in the most remarkable circumstances in a field just south of Lichfield, they are as important to the people of Stoke-on-Trent as they are to our friends in Tamworth, Lichfield, Stafford and Birmingham.

For, not only is The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery the recognised repository for all archaeology found in Staffordshire, but we are also at the heart of the ancient kingdom of Mercia from where these precious artifacts come.

So what can you expect?

Well, for starters, prepare to be surprised. The wonders of modern photography show up the shiny brilliance of each golden fragment in wondrous detail.

These images are used large in the media and on posters and display boards to enhance the experience for viewers and visitors.

In reality, most of the pieces are tiny – no bigger than a couple of centimetres – fragile and still caked in soil.

Even so, together with the larger mangled cross, helmet cheek piece, and a chunk of gold bearing a latin inscription from the Bible, they are all, in their own way, magnificent.

The craftsmanship is truly astonishing.

However, in order to ensure these windows to our past remain in the West Midlands, £3.3 million must be raised to purchase the Staffordshire Hoard.

But, as well as putting your hand in your pocket, it is equally important that we support the campaign by voting with our feet – as the people of Birmingham did.

Archaeologists, historians, politicians and celebrities all want the bid to succeed.

Now it is up to the people of the Potteries to demonstrate just how much our history means to us.

Please play your part.

Bare-faced cheek of travellers killed off museum fund-raiser

That’s another Bank Holiday break gone – another weekend chock-full of events for families to enjoy.

Did anyone attend the re-enactment event at the Staffordshire Regimental Museum yesterday or Sunday?

No, you didn’t… because you couldn’t. Because the annual event, which raises much-needed funds for the museum dedicated to honouring the memory of those who have served with our county regiment, had to be cancelled.

Why? Because a week before the show, a group of travellers turned up out of the blue and parked their caravans on land where the re-enactment was due to take place.

They refused to move until yesterday, forcing officials at the venue near Lichfield to cancel the show – costing the museum about £3,000.

That’s the cost, of course, before the operation begins to tidy up the mess left by these uninvited guests.

This will involve cleaning up a Second World War pillbox they were using as a toilet.
Charming.

When asked when they would be moving on, a spokesman for the travellers said: “If the museum will provide us with another patch of land – a bit of wasteland will do – we will move before Saturday (the re-enactment was due to take place on Sunday and Monday).

“Otherwise we will probably go on Monday.”

The barefaced cheek of this statement leaves me speechless. Why should the museum lift a finger to assist such a bunch of ignoramuses?

I’m not sure what makes me more angry – the inconsiderate behaviour of this bloke and his clan or the inability of local authorities to tackle the nuisance that such travelling bands represent.

I bet if you and I turned up with a few friends and parked up illegally in a field ahead of a major public event the boys in blue would be paying us a visit pretty sharpish.

Of course, we wouldn’t do that, would we?

Because we wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun for thousands of visitors or depriving the museum of thousands of pounds in lost revenue.

The frustrating thing is that this isn’t a one-off.

Every couple of weeks in The Sentinel you can read stories of convoys of caravans arriving on waste land or in a field somewhere, using it as a base for several days, then vanishing and leaving local taxpayers or private landowners to bear the financial burden of cleaning up the mess.

Last week there were groups of travellers parked in Shelton and off Westbourne Drive near the Tunstall Northern Bypass.

Last month, another group descended on the former Chatterley Whitfield sports centre at Fegg Hayes – much to the annoyance of locals.

And so it goes on.

Some will argue that those who kick up a stink about travellers are simply NIMBYs who should be more tolerant.

But, given the associated noise nuisance and mess, should anyone really have to put up with a bunch of cars and caravans turning up unannounced and parking up on a patch of land near their homes for days or even weeks at a time? Of course not.

Should taxpayers or private landlords have to foot the bill because these unwelcome visitors can’t be bothered to find a toilet or put their rubbish in a bin? No they shouldn’t.

It’s not bloody Glastonbury. There are permanent sites for the traveller community all around the country and, following the Housing Act of 2006, all local authorities have to assess the accommodation needs for gipsies and travellers.

Councils employ traveller co-ordinators to ensure the community gains access to health care and educational support.

This is all well and good and, in this day and age, it is only right that all ethnic and cultural groups are given access to basic services.

However, I can’t help but think that there is something very wrong with a system under which I can be fined for dropping a crisp packet but which allows scores of people to get away with parking illegally for weeks on end, churning up fields and creating thousands of pounds of damage and mess which others then have to pay for.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday