Allotmenting pt. II – A quick update

Since our last allotment post we’ve obtained and reclaimed the second part our allotment plot. This adjoins to the north of the bit we already had. We’ve managed to grow a few things and eat them. Here is a little update on our efforts and some of what we’ve learnt so far…

The empire expands! – taking over the 1/4 plot next-door

So, we got the second part (1/4) of our allotment, making us up to a 1/2 plot, or 5 poles. For reasons of demand, allotments are split typically into 1/4s and 1/2s these days with only veterans really having whole 10 pole or multiple 5 pole plots. Annoyingly if we’d known we’d expand I wouldn’t have wasted 1/2 a day re-building the beds that slightly went over the half way mark. Regardless actually wrestling the site to a state where things could grow took several cumulative days of effort. From speaking to others, this is pretty much always the case…

Allotment friends!

As well as a really interesting and lively group of local people who have allotment plots, we got a few critter friends too! We have numerous slow worms, birds, frogs, pretty insects (inc. dragonflies), and even a cat. We are particularly fond of our frogs, who seem to be very happy with our pond (made from an up-cycled bath as discussed in our last post). I was less positive about the allotment cat (as they are responsible for a vast amount of bird deaths – see CSE’s graph comparing to death’s from buildings/wind turbines), but after noting how many mice it caught (who might eat our mange-tout!) I might be slowly coming around.

Cooking from the allotment

We are amazed about how much we’ve got off the allotment so far. We are well on track to beat the money we’ve spent on the allotment with worth of crops off. A lot of it has been fortuitous, we’ve cashed in on what was grown in the soil previously and that amazingly survived our rebuilding of plots and re-taming the space. The highlight of this was a surprise asparagus, that provided many happy additions to dishes over a month period.

We’ve grown a ridiculous amout of courgettes and marrows.  As you may have seen, we even posted the favourite three of the marrow recipes we cooked (blog post: “Don’t feel Marrow-se about your courgettes!”).

 

Pestos & salads…

We tend to prefer lightly cooked vegetables anyway, but particularly from the allotment we’re finding the tastes and textures of them raw a real delight. Our first red cabbage went into a huge coleslaw, and we’ve already had an experiment with making a herb pesto using marjoram, oregano and garlic from the herb bed crushed up with bulk-bought pine nuts (from the lovely guys at Suma) and olive oil. Major plus point; you can make it dairy free, if you are lactose intolerant, as long as you put in some salt – we discovered the cheese is counterbalancing a lot of sweetness from the pine nuts. We’re now working on a little basil factory on our windowsill at the flat where it’s warmer in order to do version 2.

A spiraliser proved to be useful and we did a huge salad of courgette, onion, cabbage (all from allotment) with carrot, cashew, and sweet chilli sauce (not from allotment).

Finally, sorrel is a bizarre, intense and lovely lemon-tasting leaf which has really thrived and we’ve enjoyed flavour-bombing salads with.

The kindness/glut of others

In addition to our own growing, we’ve been kindly given a variety of things from other allotmenteer’s gluts. This has included parsnips, beans, and raspberries; all have at become the foucus of a meal. We’ve enjoyed returning the favour ocasssionally, but the the largest glut we’ve had was courgettes/marrows (there are still >10 marrows in our kitchen) and nearly everyone had enough this year (but we did manage to give a few to friends and family). Foraging bushes near the allotment has yeilded many kilos of blackberries, which hopefully will remain a nice addition to breakfasts and smoothies for many months.

Lessons learned

My wife and I have a rather low opinion of our gardening knowledge and general green fingered-ness, but as we keep up our ~2hrs each per week we are pleasantly surprised at how much we seem to be able to grow. Slowly we seem to be making progress and working out how to get more out of our space. A few things we’ve realised:

  1. Things grow. Particularly potatoes. Often the things you didn’t intend to grow do the best and you just have to work with that.
  2. Research is good. Getting allotment was a surprise and we decided to just take the chance and run with it, rather than our normal approach of hitting the books/internet beforehand.
  3. The more setup your site is the easier it is to look after and therefore the less time per week you need to spend on it.

So we went with the flow with (1) and are working on some plans for (3). For (2): We’ve slowly doing more research, but a lot of the big lessons learned have been experiential and on our plot.

Links

Don’t feel Marrow-se about your courgettes!

When does a courgette (or zucchini to our American friends) become a marrow….  

When you go on holiday!

In our little journeys into growing your own, there’ve been lots of surprises. Certainly the biggest (by weight) surprise has been the mad expansion of our courgettes whilst we were on holiday!

The 1st Haul

We returned to harvest seven handsome marrows and promptly realised we had no idea what to do with them.

Look at these beauties, the 1st seven weighed a total of 10.5kg!

Here’s what we’ve been doing to beat the glut without getting bored; if you have recipes to add we’d love to hear them.

Roast ’em

Our first point of call was roast marrow. We had two tries at this, both turned out well but definitely the second was best.

Falafel-stuffed Marrow

Ingredients

Recipe

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (fan)
  2. Mix the falafel powder with 150ml of water (slightly less than normal)
  3. Cut the marrow in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds and pulp
  4. Brush the oil thinly over the marrow inside and outside
  5. Roast the marrow for 20 minutes on a pizza stone
  6. Remove and fill with falafel mixture
  7. Roast for 30 minutes
  8. Serve

We found that the falafel went crispy on top and steamed underneath, which is what we were after. However we concluded the marrow was not too interesting on its own and could really carry more flavour.

Chorizo, tomato & paprika roasted marrow

Ingredients

  • 1 huge marrow
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 3 tbsp of olive oil
  • 2 tbsp of ground paprika
  • 1/2 ring of chorizo
  • 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tsp Bouillon powder
  • 1 tsp soy sauce

Recipe

  1. Admire your marrow
  2. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius fan
  3. Cut the marrow in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds and pulp
  4. Peel, crush and finely chop the garlic cloves
  5. Brush a little bit of oil thinly over the marrow skin
  6. Mix the rest of the oil, the garlic, and the paprika in a small bowl
  7. Score the inside of the marrow deeply in a diamond pattern
  8. Drizzle the oil mixture on and spread it out all over the insides with the back of a spoon
  9. Roast the marrow for 20 mins on a pizza stone
  10. Whilst that’s cooking, chop the chorizo into bitesize chunks and fry for 5 mins in a large thick-bottomed pan.
  11. Tip in the tomatoes, puree, Boullion and soy sauce. Simmer & reduce until the marrow is done
  12. Put the tomato & chorizo mix into the marrow
  13. Roast for 30 mins
  14. Serve

Definitely go overboard on the paprika – the resulting oil paste soaks down the scored sections and gives the marrow colour and flavour. We loved this and it stored really well for lunches.

Bon Appétit!

Give Them Away

Next we dealt with another two by giving them to friends who eat healthily, but don’t have a growing patch of their own. One of them tried roasting their marrow with nut roast stuffing which they highly recommend. The other is still considering their options…

Bolognese

We also made our normal bolognese recipe (lots of veg, soya protein instead of mince) and put most of a marrow chopped up in that as a nice bulker. It’d also disappear into soups in a similar way.

Marrow & Stem Ginger Cake

I enlisted my work colleagues to eat and rate V1 for me and came up with V2 today. Based on the feedback, this is my optimised recipe. It comes out sticky and with a powerful gingery kick, I recommend it as a loaf cake but it also works as an iced circular cake.

As we all know, cake is a serious business and benefits from the application of SCIENCE (or at least, graphs) and so here is my peer-reviewed cake:

Gingery vs. Moist assessment

Based on this I put more ginger and more marrow into version 2!

Ingredients

  • 300g marrow, skinned cored and grated
  • 200g self raising flour
  • 200g butter
  • 100g brown sugar
  • 227g (1/2 jar) Lyle’s golden syrup
  • 175g (1/2 jar) stem ginger & ginger syrup (tried 4 places for this and eventually found it in Morrisons)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 thumbnail-sized chunk of ginger root, fine grated

Recipe

  1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius fan
  2. Line your tin, I use a silicone one so I just put a thin coat of butter on it and toss a teaspoon of flour in it
  3. Beat the butter and sugar together. Brown sugar is a right pain if it’s got lumps in so it’s really worth crushing those out first.
  4. Whisk the egg and beat it into the mix in little bits. The butter I use is Pure Soya Marg and it has a tendency to curdle when mixed with egg, so to avoid this I sieve in just a bit of the flour first.
  5. Pour in the syrup and mix
  6. Chop the stem ginger into chunks about 4-5 mm wide. Make sure to keep at least one or two pieces back and cut them into bigger bits, about a cm wide, so that there’s concentrated bits of ginger to bite into. This was a key innovation introduced after version 1!
  7. Stir the stem ginger pieces and grated root ginger into the mix.
  8. In a dry bowl stir the flour, baking powder and spices together. Sieve into the mix and fold in gently
  9. Tip in the grated marrow, and stir in as gently as you can (don’t want to lose too much air)
  10. Fill the tin and bake for 40-50 mins or until a skewer (or knife, if like me you don’t have any skewers) comes out clean with no cake mix on it
  11. Place on a cooling tray for about 5 mins but if you’re using silicone don’t let it cool all the way in there; turn it out fairly promptly
  12. Cover with a tea towel and allow to cool
  13. OPTIONAL – ice with buttercream. 1 qty butter to 1.5 qty icing sugar
  14. Enjoy the sweet victory of your work colleagues insisting you feed them more of your glut item

Our Other Ideas

Our Mums have been sending us lovely recipes and we’ve also had some recommendations off friends. We want to try courgette fritters, spiralised courgette noodles, ratatouille, and much more besides. But that is a matter for to-marrow…

The Situation Is Now Under Control

Its been a bit of a marrow-thon, but of our mighty glut only one marrow remains – handily when they get big their skins get thick, so it’s safe to store it for a couple of weeks. In the meantime our courgette patch has been giving us civilised normal sized courgettes which are sweeter and firmer. These are now slotting into our normal cooking habits (steamed with a meal, fried/roasted in slices, grated in salad, chopped in risotto) and saving on our grocery bill!

Links

Expanding our growing allot(ment) – pt. I

A few months back, we got a call out of the blue asking if we wanted an allotment. We suddenly remembered we’d put ourselves on the allotment waiting list about a year and a half prior to this, thinking (rather optimistically!) by the time we got to the top of the list we’d have finished up our flat renovations and read a bit on growing things. However, as we knew it’d probably be ages before we’d be asked again we decided we’d give it a go with a fixed amount of time each week (2hrs each) and muddle our way through.

The overarching thought was for Ele and I to get some experience trying to grow our own food. We’ve been doing lots of daydreaming and some planning about a hypothetical self build (at least partially…) “eco-home” in the future for a while now. As part of these ideas there’d be an element of growing our own food, so here is a little summary of the first few months of our experiment…

What do you get?

For our £37.50/year we got a “plot” of land of area similar to that of many of the 1-bed flats we looked at when we moved to west London (~25 sq. metres). The plot was rather over-grown, but obviously had been loved at one point. There was lots of wood, which we could re-purpose to build our things.

Pulling a plan together

We started putting together an plan of what to grow where and how to use the space before “breaking ground”. We got lots of useful info from the Royal Horticultural society (RHS)’s guide for newbie allotmenteers, and pulled together a little map our plot (below)…

Planning out the space…

We then started trying to work to our plan. The first thing was a lot of tidying up, collecting up wood on site, and seeing how good the raised beds were…

The raised beds were mostly OK, but had a lot of rotten bits and needed a fair few screws to get them to hold earth again. We built a couple of sturdy new compost heaps so we could start being able to enrich the soil back to state for growing and make new beds from the areas of the plot that were mostly just London clay instead of top soil.

Whilst moving the beds we saw a few toads! So this led to the acceleration of one of our biggest additions to the plot, the pond. Someone kindly fly-tipped this near our house, prematurely cutting short its noble life, so we thought a new lease could help! We thought the toads might help with slugs eating up our crops…

With the site closer to our ideas, we then put in some crops. As it was early in the year at this point, we mostly just got in onion sets and garlic. We also got some plants kindly given to us by other allotments and family, which made our rather barren plot really start to feel more alive. A highlight was strawberries which had grown in someones path and were free to use if we dug them up and re-planted them…

…and from here?

We started the with the idea that ~£40 to give growing a go in London was reasonable and we would be happy if we just managed to grow a few edible things. After a few months slowly preparing the site and starting to plant more things we’re cautiously optimistic. We seem to be very good at digging things. We’re starting to get edibles off the plot, and see what works and doesn’t. We still have a great deal to learn, and we don’t know yet what to do when things go wrong with our baby plants.

That said, we also got the second (north) part of the allotment, so our empire has doubled and now includes the skeleton of a shed (below, which I am re-building)! I’ll do a blog in the near future (pt. II) about the second plot and what we’re actually growing now in main season…

Links

Skyrocket salad! Attempts at growing high-rise food

After looking at our carbon footprints via a nice (and relatively quick ) tool called REAP-Petite a while back, we realised that food was an area we needed to really work on. When life moved us to be based in west London, getting a home with a garden was off the cards, as it is for most. However, we’ve found that we can get a remarkable crop just from some window boxes (even through the winter once!).

We’ve also been looking at a load of other things to bring down our food carbon footprints, including setting up a local Suma wholefoods buying group, exploring new veggie/vegan recipes, and trying to take our growing a bit further. So here’s a little post on seeing our first attempts at food production skyrocket…

The setup

We just have a “Juliet Balcony”, so there isn’t somewhere outside for us to put plots. If you do have somewhere for boxes, then many people have shown that you can really produce a lot! (e.g. @VerticalVeg, who grew £900 of veg in six foot of space in London) We started with four boxes. There were a lot of options (including much cheaper ones), but we ended up choosing ones in zinc to fit with balcony for ~£15 a pop (links at end of blog).

Since this was our first attempt we just jumped in and got supplies from shops near us, hopefully with time we’ll get a better idea of what works well. We also choose to focus on the more expensive and “easy to grow” crops of cut-and-come-again lettuce, rocket etc. After getting the boxes, next on the list were seeds and compost.

  • Seeds – we’ve tried a mixture of sources, e.g. IKEA (Vaxer), Wilkinsons (Wilko), and the organic gardening catalogue. The ones from IKEA and the organic gardening catalogue grew well, but we didn’t rate those from Wilko.  We even tried buying the reduced cut and come-again salads from supermarkets, but although cheap, they never lasted that long.
  • Compost  – we just got a load delivered cheaply from a local chain hardware store, Wickes (avoiding peat compost for carbon reasons).

We started with four boxes, then expanded to five to use the whole top balcony rail. I’m still deciding whether to put up the second row, which would double the amount we could grow. The really essential addition, post buying off-the-shelf boxes, was drilling a line drainage holes about an inch up on each side of the boxes to make sure the soil didn’t get too wet (photo below).

The results

First we planted up baby spinach, rocket, cut-and-come-again salad leaves and some herbs. These grew well and even through the winter in the first year (2015 was mild). We’re still amazed with how much grew and the sheer amount of salad that we had. Considering the kind of salad we were growing  would cost around a £1 or more a bag in the shops (e.g. rocket and mixed leaves), the savings/worth per week could probably be ~£3 or more.

We did have a time when we got a lot of coriander, more than could be used at once.  However, we found that any extra is easily preserved and led to some interesting recipes (e.g. see this guide on 5 ways to preserve ‘Cilantro’).

However, after our thoughts of giddy success our vigilance dropped and we failed to notice the drainage holes were slowly blocking up. We then re-seeded the plots with only an little extra compost, but the seeds didn’t even really germinate. This was in all likelihood due to the soil just being used up and we started looking into how to improve the soil choose to add some fertilizer (100% Vegetable ingredients), which improved things. Window boxes are a very different eco-system to growing in soil and we probably had naively not though about this enough… We were kindly given some small herb plants too which got us going again. However the streak did not continue through the winter as it was harder that 1st year we have done this and the drainage still wan’t good enough so we lost our herbs and our salad stopped growing.

So we’ve had some highs and lows, but are learning slowly how to keep the window boxes growing well.  We’ve upped our game a bit now and are growing with the aim of having a constant supply of the special salads (e.g. radicchio, mustard leaves etc) as-well as cut-and-come-again lettuce/rocket. It may seem obvious, but keeping an eye on the plants is the main thing and most of the issues we’ve had could have been avoided if we’d been better with this all along…

Overall the money in (seeds, compost etc) vs. money out (cost savings/worth) is very good once the initial outlay the for the window boxes is paid off. Buying the seeds and seeing them grow is definitely a lot cheaper and more rewarding that just buying from a shop. The fresh salad also taste a lot better, there is less packaging and the carbon emissions will be lower.

Where next?

We’ve been cycling the soil and looking into how to improve it/make it more appropriate for what we want to grow. We now always germinate the seeds inside after sowing inside (just by a window).  This seems to really help give them a head start.

Although I recently bought enough boxes for a second row and started hatching a plan of how to attach them, we just got a call saying we were being offered a local allotment! (if allotments aren’t something you have heard or know much about, here is a nice explainer.) We put ourselves on the list about a year and half before we were called, which is notably fast as often the waiting list is several years or more. Getting an allotment has really upped the magnitude of what we can grow and meant that our window boxes are now transitioning to be full of delicate leaves and a few herbs for salads as we can now plant anything more hardy on the allotment.

A downside of all this is if we keep on getting better at growing I might need to remove “non-green-fingered … gardener” from my twitter handle

Links

 

 

Hitting the Wall (Insulation)!

It’s been an intense few months for everyone in the UK (and now globally too…), and a lot has changed for me personally too. I’ve made a decision about “LittleEcoTerrace”, and I’m going to do my best to “finish the job” and see if we can make Superhome status. We already moved the house from a D to an A (CO2 via EPC) for ~10% of its value, but I know there are lots of things we can still do that might just be enough to push our CO2 saving to the 60 % required to get Superhome status.

A bit over a month ago, I passed my final exam (viva) on to become a Dr. of Chemistry, for which I focused on atmospheric chemistry motivated by Climate Change and Air-quality. A personal hero of mine is an American lady called Katherine Heyhoe (and she even liked one my of tweets once… *swoon*), who recently publicised a study showing climate scientists’ credibility is affected by their actions (insideclimatenews article). I strongly believe this, but I think it is more poignant that if even those who can start to understand the sheer scale of impacts climate is having don’t act… then who does?

There are some obvious things that we should be doing for our LittleEcoTerrace project, but we won’t as they should have been done earlier in the project if they were going to be done at all. One of these is extending our insulated floor through our 70s kitchen/bathroom extension, another is installing full mechanical heat recovery (MHR). There are some little ideas that might happen in the future too, like putting a light well in at the top of the stairs… But below are my loose plans for work on the house over the next bit. I am very open to any  suggestions or comments!

Phase 5 – Doing the bathroom

This is the most simple and standard bit of work I want to do. Our bathroom needs some love and most people end up doing this at some point. In our place it has been workable, but not great, since we moved in. We spruced it up a bit with some paint and added the active ventilation (see “Its draught to let hot air escape“). However the whole extension remains hard to heat due to large heats sinks of the floor and ceiling (which I want to tackle in Phase 7). As well as generic aesthetics, I will insulate the (metal) bath.

375_4
bathroom on arrival… a few things have changed, but not much…

Currently the bath touches two external walls and un-insulated tile floor. It keeps its heat for a mere few minutes. So i intend to move it slightly away from the walls and put some insulation in the gap and around the bath. I want to replace the metal legs with plastic ones to insulate from the floor too. It’s been an aim ever since we arrived to one day have a proper hot bath!

Phase 6 – Insulating the two internal walls

Two of the large heat sinks are the two solid external walls of the old terrace. The simple and cheapest option would be to do external insulation, but we are rather fond of the traditional Victorian brickwork. Therefore we are looking at internal insulation, and one that doesn’t take that much space from the room. The one that we are often recommended is called SpaceTherm. It is a aerogel, like the insulation used by NASA on the Space Station, it is high performing and takes up little space but is quite expensive.

 

Phase 7 – Insulating the extension

The extension is a massive heat sink in the winter and overheats in the summer. It is very common and most extensions and badly thought out conservatories you see around will suffer from this. To sort this I’m looking into insulating the walls and ceiling. The floor also needs doing (currently just tile on scree), but I can’t do this without ripping out the kitchen that was put in only shortly before we arrived.

The simplest option would have been to put insulation atop of the flat roof, but as we have solar panels there (see blog post “To PV or not to PV“) it would be troublesome. I’m still looking into this and open to ideas. However, currently the winning idea is to attach kingspan inside to the ceiling of the extension. To make this happen I will have to be convinced that we won’t end up with/can avoid condensation.

I also am keen to have a go at doing external insulation, but as we already have the cavity wall insulated this would have less impact. making sure the (flat) roof covers the extra depth of wall might also pose some challenges.

The story before?

Just for completeness and to put the new work in context… here is a brief history of the work we’ve done so far ( inc. previous renovation and “eco-renovation” ). To summarise the changes to the original house to date i’ve clumped together the broad “phases”. Technically some of these overlap, or the timings are mixed between phases, but for the sake of this blog article I will pretend that I had more of plan…

Phase 0 – From the beginning… 

Many years after the original (~1899-1902) construction of the 2-up-2-down terrace, a 70s extension with was added to the back. This had no insulation. The house also went through a typical modernisation with electricity and central heating.

Phase 1 – Recent updates to house (up to ~5 years before we moved in)

A bit had been done to the house in recent years. Double glazed  windows ( not very good PVC )… and I am disappointed by this, especially as the house had a beautiful wooden and stained glass door about ~1 year prior to moving in… However costs limit the ability to replace these and this highlights the need to do things right first time with the large expenses. A new (modern, but non-condensing) boiler was fitted, which unfortunately died within 5 years. And a recently installed IKEA Kitchen. This is the point it was at when we moved in.

Phase 2 – Floor 

We dug up the whole downstairs floor to deal with a damp problem and added lots of insulation and a new solid wood floor at the same time. (described on blog post “Floored by insulation”).

Phase 3 – Ventilation/Insulation boost

The house was very leaky and poorly insulated. We boosted the insulation in the walls, roof, ceiling hatches, and installed bathroom active extractor at the same time as insulating up all vents (as described in blog post: “Its Draught to let Hot Air“)

Phase 4 – Added solar panels (PV)

We are very fond of these. They produce ~3.3MWh a year (record so far: 3.53 MWh), which approximately equals the gas from our 1st year in the house and the electricity from the year before we moved in (total: ~3.3 MWh). Nowadays we consume a very variable amount of electricity and gas,  depending many people are in house/usage/etc but generally it is a lot lower as we are using energy off the panels. (described on blog post: “To PV or not to PV“)

img_3359
Solar panels on the main roof

Phase 5 – Yard (Not yet complete!)

An underplayed part of sustainability is lifestyle change. It’s not that sexy, unlike fancy tech solutions but it can make a very large difference to a carbon footprint. We are most of the way through redoing the back yard to make it easy to be a base for cycling. So far this has been re-making the shed into a seat, building a bike shelter, and finally we aim to lay the Victorian quarry tiles we took up from inside the house (upcycle!).

Summary

I am not sure whether we will be able to make it to the 60 % Co2 saving requisite for being a Superhome with these savings. My approach to everything so far has been piecemeal and been a big learning journey. I am very keen to reduce the footprint and learn how to do a few things along the way. Whatever happens LittleEcoTerrace is definitely, in a plodding way,  moving towards being an “Aspiring Superhome”.

 

Links

Another track for work and holiday travel? ; Would a train work for your trip?

Trains won’t work for every journey and they don’t loop the world, even if the phenomenal cinematographic breakthrough “Snowpiercer” suggests they can (trailer linked here). However, they often could work. They are often cheaper with a bit of research, offer greater chances to see the places alongside the route (both out the window and on stops), more comfortable (leg room, ability to walk around etc), less stressful (no “check-ins” as such, lots of luggage allowance etc) and give substantially lower CO2 emissions. A huge plus for my partner and I is that, unlike driving, no one gets annoyed when you read a good book in transit…

Some people like flying. I have always had childish glee watching the wings every time I have taken off. However, I have always found planes uncomfortable (especially for longer trips), stressful, and find the irony of being an atmospheric scientist and flying often rather too poignant. Without spending too much time on the emissions argument, I would like instead to put time to the argument that trains could be an upgrade to many trips in terms of comfort, experience and holiday time.

  • Logistics & planning

Train travel logistics can be less than obvious to those who do not often use it, and even those who do. A good example of this is my partner and I’s trip to the Balkans by train, in which by just using the Euro-star site for our tickets London to Munich lead to addition £50 charge (We should have used SNCB after Brussels as soon as we were on a line operated by them or LOCO2). I have almost ubiquitously found that buying separate tickets from the country’s provider leads to the best prices, the answer is always to check a least a few providers website’s for the same service and the general sites like LOCO2.

However, with that said there are some phenomenal sites and blogs from people who know the score with trains. My favourite (and the favorite of many people!) is a site called The Man In Seat 61. I’ve tried to list (at the bottom) a few that we’ve found useful over the years, and will happily add suggestions.

  • Work travel

Some professions end up travelling a lot. In academia, I’ve been sent to America once a year for the last 3 years which has rather ratcheted up my travel carbon footprint. I admit that, obviously, I flew across the Atlantic. But the USA actually does have a lot of good train routes (and buses too…) if you are travelling within the states and are willing to spend a bit more time on the travel. My decision to catch the train from Boston Massachusetts to San Francisco made me the subject of much amusement from my colleagues (especially the American ones!). Unfortunately the USA setup for train travel means they travel at a tiny fraction of the speed of their European counterparts (so the direct version of my trip would take ~3.5 days).  However, things like free WiFi on buses and trains puts us to shame in the UK. To do this trip you need to take holiday (only ~1 day if you included the weekend), but I really have to emphasis how much of a wonder doing the trip was. I’ve put a few photos of the trip below, however although the sights are incredible shots through train windows (or photography in general) has never been my strong suit.

 

Apart from the mind-blowing sight of a wolf in the wild whilst eating a (well priced) 3 course dinner in the dinning cart, just the scenery was enough. As Brit who has only been to the USA because of my PhD, I had not seen the USA and its vast and glorious landscapes. The university I was based at in Cambridge Massachusetts was surrounded by fantastic independent shops and the office I shared was actually with scientists from Switzerland and Denmark, suffice it to say I doubt this was representative of the USA as a whole (and after my train trip I know it wasn’t). Neither in fact were the 10 days I spent in San Francisco at a conference following the train trip. I cannot recommend the trip enough if you need to get from Denver to San Francisco (other USA summarised routes here). I guess the point I am making is that the train trip was a great way to see some of “real” America.

There is often an argument about driving being cheaper or easy. Sometimes this is valid in the UK due high rail prices, but often not. Certainly in academia when a lot of trips (e.g. conferences, talks etc) are organized in advance, advance singles are a good match.  Also, in the UK it is often cheaper and quicker to get to close Europe by train (e.g. Paris in 2h20, Brussels in 2h21, Lille in 1h22 etc…) by buying return fares not that far in advance. For instance prices to Paris from London start from £29. On our latest train trip, which was a holiday, we actually arrived into Brussels casually for 9am (UK time). I can’t easily describe my huge endearment to the Eurostar. It is both the big things (like how smooth the logistics work) and little things like dated (but in good nick) upholstery that is enough to transport you back in time, and really make you feel like you holiday or trip has started!

I am actually right now excitedly researching travel for my next work trip (to travel the weekend before) as I have recently been invited to give a talk at Copenhagen university (my 1st invited talk!). However, it is unfortunately a little complicated due to the recent cancellation of the Danish ferry to the UK. It looks like it with be as footpassenger on the ferry to Gothenburg, followed by a train from from Gothenburg to Copenhagen.

  • And holidays too? (and combining with boats…)

By combination with a through deals like “rail and sail” (Which includes any east Anglian train station to any Dutch station – like Flussinger, which is a few Euro ferry and few minute cycle from Belgium), there are lot more travel options (e.g. Bilbao… ). The “rail and sail” option used to be closer to £20 each way a while back, but at £34 from your door it is frankly still a steal. Just think about cutting out all those airport lounges, stressful queues, expensive transfers (ad nauseam…) and just boarding your local train station with a bag and a book. The standard arrival into the centre of cities is huge boon for holidays and work travel (again saving the transfer time,  which with many budget airline airports is frankly ridiculous, and costs. )

We’ve also done quick trips from York to the south France (Eurostar to Avignon, cycled the rest). The similarity times from York to London, York to Edinburgh, and London to Paris really raise questions why anyone would fly UK to Paris. I am so surprised when I frequency here of people doing this, especially from York.

The big eye opener for us recently though, was getting the to Balkans by train. It was a painless trip to Munich in fancy new trains (with a pretty LED speedometer casually reminding us we were at ~250 km/h or faster!), with a lovely evening walking round the city and eating Bavarian food with a friend. Then just another simple trip to Ljubljana (which can be done by bus or train).

The kicker? the cost out was less (£118.75 pp + 1xtransfer, London=> Ljubljana) than the flight back (£133.90 + 2xtransfer, Split=>London). Admitted this was on BA, and took substantially less time. I could have got both the trains tickets and the airfare for slightly less with more advance planning, and arguably we could have taken a budget airline (and paid the extra costs for luggage etc). But there is only so much time…

 

  • Ending thoughts?

There are lots of people who are fanatical about trains, but we just use them to get from A to B and enjoy our longer trips in them. I would strongly argue that most of the time When comparing costs of flying and trains, all costs and times need to included (baggage, transfers, parking). These considerations obviously apply for smaller trips too, and there are of course the arguments of time, experience, and carbon footprints.

Although we have only recently had our eyes opened to how cheap and easy it is to get to the Balkans via train, we have been using them for a while now and continue actively choosing them in the future. As firefly’s Shepherd Book says, sometimes “how you get there is the worthier part”…

Links:

  • The Man in Seat 61 –  A fantastic go to site for day dreaming about trips all over the world and nailing down exact details. It is a brilliant at pointing where the most update information will be found too
  • LOCO2 – A booking website for trips, which I have used and often found best prices on
  • “Rail and Sail” to holland – A fantastic deal for getting to the continent by ferry and train. Any station in East-Anglia to any in the Netherlands from £34 each way as an adult foot passenger (it used to be closer to £20, but it is still pretty good!), and a bit more from farther afield. There are Ferries to Ireland too from Holyhead, Liverpool, fishguard, and Cairnryan…
  • Eurostar – They have a good website, and lots of good deals to get to the continent.
  • International train travel summary from National Rail (This should stay up-to date…)
  • Greyhound buses (there are often other good local services too) – A cheap, and in my experience very pleasant way to get around the US (contra to the general impression and what a lot of Americans who haven’t used the service will tell you!)
  • Eurolines – A (very) cheap alternative, but less comfortable alternative to trains.

Disclaimer: I am not a travel agent and I have tried to be as accurate as possible. However information will change and I would advise double-checking any information before acting on it.

Pining for a warm floor; Installing parquet in 70s flat

So this is the first blog on “LittleEcoFlat” our 2nd renovation project we’re trying to make as “Eco” as possible. The background is that my partner got a job in the “Big smoke”, which allowed her to bring together her professional life (mechanical design engineering) and love of sustainability to work in bike design in London. Following 1 year of renting a sofa to crash on (from a rather lovely lady), we sought something a little more permanent. Searching for a flat was fun but as I was working in the US for my PhD the time, it was a pretty challenging time. Regardless we managed to find a little place needing some love and slowly started turning it into a home by the only way we know how, flooring 1st! (Although this might be a floored approach… )

The Carpet

The walls and carpets all had a brown tinge only really describable as “nicotine coloured”  (My partner actually came in in rashes from touching the carpet!). The carpets had to go. It would be great to have found a way to re-use them, but unfortunate the only option (I’m very interested in anyone has found alternate options) was to take them to to tip. As they rested directly on concrete they weren’t warm either and we were determined to have a warm floor so we started looking at alternatives and how to add some warmth. Interestingly, in a lot of houses there are often pretty floorboards unearth the carpets. If the house has been insulated to stay warm they can be rather pleasant underfoot, and just need sanding back (as is the case in “LittleEcoTerrace”). As this wasn’t the case in “LittleEcoFlat” we had to look for alternatives…

The Floor

To prepare the flat to get a new floor we got right in by pulling up the old carpet. After the carpet the vinyl tiles underneath had to come up, as many were broken/missing, to give a flat starting surface. This required a lot more effort than we expected, but did allow for a time playing with some of the more destructive DIY kit… We both have a favourite crow bar now.

Local trades

We were never going to do lay the parquet ourselves. We had already learned (from mistakes) that there are certain tasks best left to professionals and have nothing against support local trades. So after finding somewhere local to buy reclaimed floor boards (and settling on Pitch Pine) and someone who do the skilful part, work got started!

 Joseph's incredible sanding machine...
Joseph’s incredible sanding machine…

Seeing Joseph lay the parquet was impressive, like a huge game of herringbone Tetris. Then the oily and burnt reclamed boards were sanded. Once the sanding started the transformation was incredible…

The final floor was then given a protective coat which brought the red of the Pitch Pine out, and hopefully will give it a more hard wearing surface.

This project had opened our eyes to huge options available from reclamation yards and second hand shops, and the sheer number of these. There has been a lot of coverage of re-use and upcycling recent on the TV (e.g. Kevin McCloud’s Man made shed where he made a hottub out of a old aircraft turbine) and i’m always interested new uses of materials that for no good reason now classed as waste (e.g. this old radiator turned into a seat by the BareFootWelder… we have 3 of these and are seriously considering it)

 

We acknowledge that “off-the-shelf” engineered boards would have essentially done the job too. However I find the idea very appealing that for decades and decades to come the floor could just be re-sanded to restore it, then there is the “eco” side of re-use of wood.  They were many sustainable options ( e.g. FSC Cork, Bamboo, upcycled cutlet glass etc ), but for indoor air-quality reasons the choice for us could not be “standard” carpet that is ubiquitous everywhere.

 

After sorting the floor we have been on the search for second hand furniture and found where is good in west London, which I’ll blog about another time. It did take a lot more effort to prepare the floor than we anticipated (which you could say, wasn’t a walk in the parquet),  but we are very happy the end result and how warm the floor feels underfoot.

 

Links

  • Joesph Dohf – The guy who did all the hard work on laying the parquet and deserves the vast majority of the credit
  • Heritage reclamation – Where we bought the parquet from

 

Hello from “LittleEcoTerrace” & also from “LittleEcoFlat”…

So this is a short little update blog on blogs posts to come. It’s been busy times for me over the last bit and will continue to be for a few months more… but I’ve still been doing lots of “Eco” projects and have several draft blogs i’ll be aiming to get posting once work calms down a bit. I guess the big news is that we’ve started our 2nd eco-renovation project. I’m still doing work on “LittleEcoTerrace” and it will continue to be my main base for the foreseeable future, but now there’s a “LittleEcoFlat” too… The reason for this is that my partner got an opportunity to combine her work (mechanical design engineering) with her love of bikes (and sustainability), but the job required a move to London…

So we did it again, we found the cheapest place we could that fitted us generally and needed a some TLC. I didn’t really think we’d be able to do that many “Eco” things in a flat, as we can’t change a lot of the energy systems/building fabric etc. However, it already has shared community heating and we are finding that there are things like sourcing reclaimed flooring, starting a high-rise allotment, getting involved in community projects etc… So although I’m not going to be able to upgrade to place to a SuperHome, I still think we should be able to do quite a bit and continuing working on trying to have lower carbon footprints. Watch this space…

 

 

As well as renovating “LittleEcoFlat” there are goings on in York for us too, with York Open Eco Homes (YOEH) running again this year and us be taking part on May 14th (the event is also happening on the 21st). There is a training event coming up on the 7th if you might be interested in taking part or would like to hear from the organisers and those involved last year (summary teaser video here). Aswell the few bits I have done (like building bike storage etc), I’ve been day-dreaming (and researching) about finishing up some jobs that money or time has put on the backburner. These include tripling installation in the main roof (As well explained by @PostCarbonLife’s youtube video) and choices for internal solid wall insulation

 

Anyway, I hope you are having a nice start to 2016 and hopefully i’ll have time to post project updates soon !

LittleEcoTerrace/LittleEcoFlat

“Eco Show & Tell” – YOEH II

Back in December, York Open Eco Homes (YOEH) and St Nicks hosted an “Eco Show & Tell” where anyone was encouraged to bring items costing less than £50 that had helped make their homes cosier to live in, cheaper to run, and/or more sustainable. The event was a casual evening where successes of smalls items (<£50) were shared. Engaging demonstrations and discussions of how to use and install the items were given, including a energy use of different lights from using an energy monitoring plug showing hugely differing energy use of different types of lights and we even had a lovely cake made in a low energy/slow cooker.

This blog is just a summary of items presented at the event, which you can also find collected on a pinterest board. This will continue to be added to, and all credit and thanks go to everyone who came and brought them along. Please do say if you think of anything that has been missed or you think should be included. Hopefully this list will be of interest to others – maybe some of these items will make your home cosier, cheaper to run, or more sustainable?

 

This event was the 2nd in YOEH’s series of events, following the inaugural event of a talk on “Building Low Energy, Healthy Homes” from local architects (Native Architects). The next event will be a session in April preparing for this year’s Open Homes event in York (on 14th and 21st May), with more information to follow in the near future…

  • Chimney Sheep

This item was 1st of the night, and several people including myself expressed interest in trying it for ourselves. The cost is ~£20-35, it is made 100% Herdwick wool and available from ChimneySheep.co.uk. There is lot of information on the website inc. energy loss and money saving calculations or air escaping up chimneys. One obvious advantage over a chimney balloon (see below) is its natural material and thus breathable composition which may help prevent potential build-up of moisture

Chimney Sheep! Cost: ~£20-35 ( depending on size )
Chimney Sheep! Cost: ~£20-35 ( depending on size )
  • Door sausage

A  way to keep out drafts that many people have used for years. The one presented was bought cheaply (~£6), but it is also possible to make them. Many DIY guides exist online ( e.g. OvoEnergy) and people make different and amusing shapes from snake to sausage dogs.

Coincidentally I was actually given a rather impressive and pretty “Fantastic Fox” one for Xmas that my family had made following a Rowan pattern.

 

  • Slow cooker

This item may have been many people’s favourite of the night as a delicious apple cake made in it that day was brought and shared. Slow cookers have a low energy consumption and require a different approach to cooking but with a bit of planning can make almost any dish. Not many people use them for baking but the tasty cake proved that it’s possible too. They are widely available and costs can vary, with ~£25 being typical.

Slow cooker - Cost: ~£25
Slow cooker – Cost: ~£25
  • Plug socket energy meter

This item puts an exact number on energy consumption of appliances at a point or over a period of time. We were given a demonstration of different power requirements of LED, compact fluorescent, and traditional electric lighting which varied widely. It costs ~£10 and is available from Maplins. Interestingly the person who presented the item highlighted that many items he had tested gave unexpectedly high or low readings during use – manufacturers’ labels are not always true to actual running costs.

FYI Another YOEH host has also put together a guide to choosing the right LED lighting, which is well worth a read if you’re planning to buy some or think your existing lights are too dull or bright.

Energy Monitor How much? £10 Where to Buy: maplan (link) Key info: More Info here? An energy meter that fits a 13amp plug - allows comparison of appliance settings eg washing machine.
Energy Monitor How much? £10 Where to Buy: maplan (link) Key info: More Info here? An energy meter that fits a 13amp plug – allows comparison of appliance settings eg washing machine.

 

  • Keyhole cover

A simple and cheap way of avoiding loss of hot air through key holes (a surprisingly big consideration in Passivhauses). It cost ~£3-5 and is available from lots of hardware stores (e.g. Barnitts in York).

Key Hole Cover How much? £3-5 Where to Buy: hardware stores ( e.g. barnitts )
Key Hole Cover How much? £3-5 Where to Buy: hardware stores ( e.g. barnitts )

 

  • Curtains/Stopping draughts

A cheap (approx.. £40 for curtains + £10 for pole) option to deal with draughts around doors (and windows). I have a similar setup to the one presented in our house, with a thick curtain over the front door (photo below). As with a lot of terraces in York, the front door leads directly into the living room, so as well as the noise/heat insulation we find it actually improves the aesthetics of the room.

Thick Curtains
Thick Curtains

 

  • Chimney Balloon

Another option for stopping loss of hot air from unused chimneys. It differs from the chimney sheep in that it is made of plastic. I have had one for a while now and think it does the job nicely. It cost ~£25 and is available from lots of places, including ecotopia.

 

Chimney Balloon - How much? = £25 - Where to Buy: http://www.chimneyballoon.co.uk/
Chimney Balloon – How much? = £25 – Where to Buy: http://www.chimneyballoon.co.uk/

 

  • Electric Oil Heater

This is an item I brought, and it may be counter intuitive. Since our house has solar panels, any extra electricity from the panels can be directed to heat the house through this electric heater. Obviously cost/CO2 savings would differ if power was used directly from grid.

 Oil Heater - How much? £50 - Where to Buy: Widely available
Oil Heater – How much? £50 – Where to Buy: Widely available
  • Energy Monitor (OWL)

For ~£50 or less it is possible to monitor your electric consumption in real time with an “owl“. This little device works by placing a magnet around the mains cable into the house to measure the electricity flow. This item gives real time and cumulative whole house energy consumption in money and energy terms, as well as useful info like temperature.

Energy Monitor - Cost: £30 "Owl Micro+ Wireless Energy Monitor"
Energy Monitor – Cost: £30 “Owl Micro+ Wireless Energy Monitor”
  • Thermostatic timers

The first of these just plugs into any socket (and costs only ~£17) and allows for temperature controlled settings of anything plugged through it. The  timer is used in a flat with electric radiators, which previously had to be set manually. The second example was wired in to control a radiator without a plug socket.

 

 

  • Immersion heater timer

Energy can be saved by setting a hot water tank immersion heater on timer rather than using a manual on/off control.This “Time guard NTT07 ” cost: ~£35.

Immersion heater timer How much? = £34.40 Where to Buy: = www.timeguard.com/
Immersion heater timer How much? = £34.40 Where to Buy: = www.timeguard.com/
  • Trickle Vents

Cheap (~£7) but require careful work aligning the vents in order to prevent damage to windows.  It was made clear during the presentation that technical help to install these is recommended if in any doubt. Available from hardware/trade stores (e.g. YorkTradeWindows).

 

Trickle Vent How much? = £7 Where to Buy: YorkTradeWindows
Trickle Vent How much? = £7 Where to Buy: YorkTradeWindows

The event was a lot fun and I think everyone who attended got exposed to something new. Hearing about other peoples’ experiences with items, including some that I certainly have had less experience of, was a learning experience for me. Do feel free to get in contact if you want more info and I will try and connect you up with information or with the person who presented the item. I will keep adding to the pinterest board (below) and, like other people, am interested in hearing about other cheap but effective items. Please feel free to send/pin suggestions.

 

 

Further links

DISCLAIMER:

These items were presented by individuals and shared here for reference. By inclusion within this YOEH does not recommend use/installation of specific items. Decisions on energy saving are home specific, and if in any doubt please consult relevant professionals/tradesmen.

4 steps to solar panels – a quick test to see if PVs could work on your roof

Over the last few weeks, I have talked to quite a few people about whether panels for electricity from solar ( photovoltaic panels (PV) ) are plausible for their roof. A lot of this is due to the government consulting on cutting support for PVs from January 1st (by up to 87%), meaning the financial payback on installing panels would typically increase from ~10 to 27 years. I’ve blogged before about when we when through the steps of getting our install together (to PV or not to PV), but I thought I would throw together a more general simple step-by-step…

If you live in a flat, the roof is one you do not solely own, or the install is on the larger side, some further steps are needed ( e.g. structural survey, certificate of easement…) however the general steps below are effectively the same.

      1. Work out a few details about your roof area and angle.

You will need to know roof area, roof angle, what angle it faces, how much shading it has, and whether the building has an energy performance above the minimal criteria (an EPC of D or above).

You can calculate the approximate area from eye or just use satellite photos. I tend to use Google maps through an app on a website like comparemysolar. Using this app you just place pins on the outline of the roof to get an approximate area. Google maps also gives you an compass orientation. As for angle, I would say it should be possible to get a estimate just from looking at the roof and comparing against a few examples. Then check for shading (e.g. chimney pots, neighbours roofs, trees…) and estimate what % of day you think the roof is shaded (another approach would just to check the roof at several times of day, but bearing mind this will change a lot by season). To check an the energy performance of the house according to its EPC certificate, and you don’t know it off hand, you can quickly check it on this website. If you do decide to get quotes, then all these estimates will be refined then anyway.

(e.g.  20 square meters, 30 degrees, south facing, no shading, EPC=D,  and in York)

      2. Estimate the rating of the PV install

There are lots of different panels of differing shapes, sizes, capacity and performance around. Choosing panels for the install may be easiest once you have quotes. I would recommend two sets of calculations, one for a lower capacity (e.g. ~100 W/sq m & cheaper) set of panels and one for higher capacity set of panels (~200 W/ sq m) . To get the peak output ( rating ) of the install just multiply the panel capacity by the area.

(e.g.  20 square metres * 200 W/square metres =  4000 W)

      3. Use some apps to estimate the output and payback of the PV install

We can now just plug the numbers from steps 1 & 2 to one of many online apps that use past solar data to predict how the panels would perform.  There are lots of apps to check whether PV is worthwhile and they give give a variety of different information from just the basic payback, to yearly/monthly break downs of energy production, and ones with lots of technical gory detail. I would personally recommend getting a broad overview from the Energy Saving Trust (EST solar calculator) and the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT solar calculator, Caution: the monetary values were out of date when I last checked so just use for solar). If you are interested in more detail then the Joint Research Centre (JRC solar calculator) provides a lot more technical background.

The payback is made up of payments for generated clean renewable every (feed-in-tariffs or FITs), electricity savings (from use of electricity on site), and export tariffs (price paid per unit exported to the gird for someone else to use). The is more detail on this here and this will be broken down by the apps also. I understand that Installs for a typical residential install are generally between £4-6.5k at present.

(e.g. estimated to generate ~3300 kWh/year and have a payback of 9 years)

     4. Get a few quotes

There is a great list of recommended installers (need to be MCS certified) and a list of good questions to ask on the YouGen site. I also used the quote service from EcoExperts who quickly got us 3 quotes for comparison. The industry has taken a big shock from the recent government proposals to cut the fit in tariff and a lot of people may being trying to get installs before the expected changes to the tariff so it could be quite busy at the moment.

Once you have your quotes you can choose obviously between suppliers/installers, but also the capacity/spec of your install…. and whether you want to go ahead with it. The installs typically take a day for a 4kW domestic install and then the install will need to be registered via the installer through the government’s micro generation scheme (MCS), which installers tend to help with or just do for you.

Our installation was done whilst we were away on holiday; it was done quickly and without disruption.

(e.g.  Ecoexpert say from £3950 for a 4kW install. – Ours cost a little over £6k, but was rather technical and high spec for two years ago)

Links