So is the north of England really getting an enormous new forest?

A forest in Scunthorpe. Image: Getty.

The dendrophiles of northern England have something new to be excited about. The Northern Forest is a green megaproject which will see the planting of 50m trees over the next 25 years, creating a forest stretching from Liverpool to Hull along the M62 corridor.

Projects of this kind are long overdue. Forest cover in the UK is one of the worst in Europe at an estimated 12 per cent, compared to an average of 36 per cent across the rest of the EU. In the last few years, what’s more, levels of planting have been abysmal: the Woodland Trust claims that 2017 saw the lowest levels of new trees planted in England for years.

So the need is clear – and the benefits many. First up, deforestation is the world's second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. A new forest will thus help combat climate change.

The forest will also open up space for the reintroduction of wildlife long since absent from the north of England, like beavers and even lynxes, an indigenous British wildcat. (Perhaps we could have a lynx on the Royal Crest rather than the wildcat we pinched from the colonies?)

Trees also do wonders for soil protection and mitigating of flood risk: with all this green infrastructure, the Woodland Trust hope to reduce flood risk for 190,000 homes. That’s especially good news for the residents of beleaguered towns such as York, which have been hit repeatedly by flooding.

For those living in the great cities of the north, the trees would improve the quality of the air. At present, thousands in the region die every year from pollution (630 per year in Manchester; 1,000 across Yorkshire and Humberside).

In the US, where they have the money to test this sort of thing, it was found that trees deflected $6.8bn in healthcare costs. For the cities that will be enveloped by the Northern Forest, lives will literally be saved by these trees – and it will certainly alleviate pressure on the ever embattled NHS.  


On top of all that, the new forest would provide an estimated £2bn boost to the local economy through tourism, recreation and timber production. Oh, and it’d provide a lovely space for the 15m inhabitants of northern England, too.

Hold on though northerners, don’t start putting your walking boots on quite yet.  

Despite very keen to throw their names behind the project Theresa May and environment secretary Michael Gove have so far committed only £5.7m of government funds to the £500m project. This is going to pay for little more than a thin line of trees on either side of the M62 – more of a ‘Northern Hedgerow’ than the great forest imagined.

The rest of the money is to be raised through charitable contributions. That means raising a little under £20m a year, every year for the next quarter century: if it’s to succeed, the Northern Forest project will have to step up into the top 1.3 per cent of charities in terms of income, which sounds pretty challenging.

As Austin Brady, Director of Conservation at the Woodland Trust, wrote: “It’s not a government led initiative – it’s a bottom-up initiative.” The bottom will have to really step up to make this woody pipe dream a reality.
Planting 50m trees, though, is plausible. In 2016,the residents of Uttar Pradesh in India planted that same number in a day – we’ve got 25 years. 

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.