Matthew Parris

It’s not all Twitter mobs – the internet can be a force for good

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

3 March 2018

9:00 AM

Few readerships of any intelligent national magazine will be more alive to the perils and downsides of 21st–century cyber-life than you, fellow Spectator readers. Many of you might share my use of the generalised expression ‘the internet’ for the whole damn thing — while not being quite sure what we’re referring to.

Few, on the other hand, will be more likely to show a lively appreciation of community, locality, the sense of belonging and of place that even in this fast-paced and mobile age, our country at its best can still nurture.

You might think those two dispositions make comfortable bedfellows. The faithful little band of stalwarts at Evensong, the public–spirited pensioner out on the lane collecting litter, the retired major logging each developing pothole… these are not people you would expect to want to know much about Snapchat, or how to link Spotify, their smartphone and their domestic sound systems to bring them highlights from Iolanthe at breakfast.

Now in respect of age you might be right. Older people tend to be more rooted, ‘somewheres’ rather than ‘nowheres’. And because the internet age arrived later in their lives, they’re more likely to feel baffled by it. That, we must grant.

But will it be so in 30 years? Is there anything inherently citizens-of-nowhere about people on easy terms with cyberspace? Must people whose lives revolve in small orbits around the little suns of village, town and region be digitally challenged?


I think the answer is no, and that as a generation that grew up with the internet settles down, grows roots and notes its own wrinkles, it will be more and more alive to the possibilities of cyber-communication as a tool of, in the very best sense, parochial concerns. The internet can, famously, widen horizons; but it can also help us bring the focus in.

For some time now, living in the Derbyshire Peak District, I’ve come to enjoy as well as rely on a site called Buxton Weather. If you have internet access, take a look: buxtonweather.co.uk. At first sight you may think you’re looking at a rather amateurishly produced parish magazine. A metropolitan web-designer would groan: there’s far too much going on on the page, too many colours, the italic typescript is distracting, everything squeezes up against everything else, and it rather looks as though somebody had devised a means of committing one of those old-fashioned wax-based Roneo manuscripts to a digital platform.

But start reading. A good mind, a lucid pen and a detailed grasp of meteorology, road traffic and the local topography — a central intelligence served by a thousand elves reporting continuously from all corners of our little patch — presides over this. Michael Hilton has been publishing his online Buxton- Weather for a few years, and it has grown in both reach and ambit. This winter, if you wanted up-to-the–minute news on roads and traffic, or whether the Cat and Fiddle pass is closed due to icy conditions, Mr Hilton’s ‘snow desk’ was the fount of latest reports. People email in their hundreds to keep him up to date. They send him photos of overturned cars on the A515. He publishes comments. Browsing his site, you quickly feel part of a network of good neighbours.

You can access his live camera overlooking the Cat and Fiddle pass at 1,689 feet; another up in the moors on the A53 Leek Road junction; and another overlooking Buxton town square, updated every minute. On bad weather days the site is getting 50,000 to 60,000 page loads a day, and the peak (he told me) can be 100,000 on a working day. And if you want trainspotting-type local facts (and I do) he can tell you that (for instance) over this winter the Cat and Fiddle was closed due to snow ten times in December, eight times in January and six (to date) in February.

‘For Local People,’ says the banner at the top of the site, ‘Visitors, Hill Walkers, Ramblers, Climbers, Cavers, Holiday Makers, Anglers, Kayakers Canoeists, Paraglider Pilots & Lovers of the great Outdoors’. As I write, Buxtonweather has a page explaining the stratospheric origins of the ‘deep freeze’ hitting us now. You can check where the jet stream is this minute. The current phase of the moon is detailed, and there’s a comprehensive long-range and short-range weather forecast for the whole area.

Weather is something Buxton and the High Peak have plenty of: the only place in the northern hemisphere where a cricket match has been snowed off in June. On Mr Hilton’s site you can discover how much rain we had in 2017 (49.23 inches), how much sunshine this January (24.95 hours), and every-thing you could want to know about wind speeds and directions and maximum and minimum temperatures.

But there’s more than that. Care to know what’s on at the opera house? The website will link you to ‘Things to do in Buxton’, and to the Buxton Advertiser. Hilton has walking correspondents, too, bringing news and snapshots of footpaths and hiking conditions in our lovely part of England, where Derbyshire, Cheshire and the Staffordshire Moorlands meet. Advertising on the site is modest and confined, so I really don’t know how Hilton funds it, his cameras, and his weather equipment. Or where he finds the time. This seems to have become a personal obsession with him, yet he’s no crank. His coverage and explanations show a quiet rationality combined with a vast enthusiasm for facts.

I’ve never met him but there’s a photo on the website of its author clinging to a rooftop camera he’s inspecting. In spectacles and braces, he looks like a benign cobbler in a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale; and in his sixties like me. The kind of chap who could be slumped in front of the telly being grumpy about the internet, ‘the social media’ and people who stare at their damned smartphones all the time. Instead, he’s right in there, turning technology to the good of the community. In 50 years there will be millions of grandads and grandmas like him.

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