I went for an inadvertent swim the other night, walking back from my late night foray to the local store in search of all the things I had forgotten to buy in an earlier shopping trip.
I had missed the press release announcing the opening of a new community waterhole in the middle of the neighbouring street and in the darkness, stepped right into it.
Rivalling the one I used to swim in as a child growing up in northern Mexico, all this water-filled pothole needed to transport me back in time was a tyre on a rope, a few water moccasins and a lizard sunning itself on a rock. Throw in a few corrupt policemen threatening to shoot our car tyres if we didn’t allow them to siphon off some of its petrol and the blast from my Latin American past would have been complete.
It is kind of hard to miss these cratered behemoths when the streets are plunged into darkness, made worse by the fact that our winter appears to be five months of crepuscular gloom. You’d think our eyes would adjust in a kind of super fast evolution, rendering us all creatures of the night like two-legged foxes or cats but no, humans just aren’t that adaptable, especially us townies, accustomed to paying over a grand a year for, um, street lighting and basic road maintenance.
If the potholes don’t get you, then our town pavements fissures just might in their attempts to gain a starring role in a Bury St Eds version of those seventies shlocky earthquake movies where huge rents in the fabric of the earth open up, swallowing cows, cars, people and whole cities. I am exaggerating slightly, I know, and I also realise that, unlike James Franco in the film 27 hours, I am not going to lose an arm down a canyon-sized gap but the possibility of the car keys disappearing down one is not entirely unlikely.
More seriously, over the past few months I have seen several (usually) elderly people sitting bleeding and stunned on pavements and roadsides in the town, having been tripped up by some fairly dangerous pavement conditions, although my husband initially misunderstood me when I came home ranting about ‘bleeding old people’.
The problem is exacerbated where reduced street lighting further obscures uneven paving, compounded by this extra murky East Anglian winter with light levels so low I have been reduced to keeping the lights on in the office all day – something I hate doing. Older eyes than mine, affected by age-related deteriorations in visual acuity, will struggle even more when trying to negotiate Bury by night and day.
The reduction in local light pollution does have some benefits. A few weeks ago we set the alarm for 2am and sat outside in the garden, bundled up in blankets, watching the Perseids meterorite shower. Debris from the Comet Swift-Tuttle rained down, bright and white, and was clearly visible because of the town’s unofficial dark skies policy. Even the orange sodium glow emitted from the nearby cinema complex didn’t obliterate it. We gave ourselves middle aged ricks in our necks after watching for half an hour, before cold and the fear that a giant rat might suddenly run over our feet drove us back inside.
Star gazing is no justification for keeping the town streets so poorly lit though. We’ve been told that St Edmundsbury Borough and Forest Heath District Councils are looking to continue with a freeze in Council Tax, despite having their Government revenue support grants cut nearly in half. The provision of shared services has led to savings in excess of £3.5 million a year across the two councils, savings necessary when tough fiscal decisions need to be made. But if we want high quality town services to match the great performance of our town in comparison to other High Streets, we may have to pay for them. The alternative is to ask some hard questions about why our local government is allowing the infrastructure to deteriorate so badly and whether its priorities are, indeed, the right ones.”
-- Nicola Miller is the author of The Millers Tale Blog