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Losing our bottle – long-term plastics reduction

Plastics reduction has really caught public attention recently, with the “Blue Planet” effect and with some people in the UK giving up single-use plastic for Lent. LittleEcoFlat doesn’t observe Lent particularly, but this wave of interest does tie in with one of our aims for around a year now to reduce our plastic waste. So we thought we’d share some changes we’ve made – if any of you have been ditching the disposables and want to keep your momentum going, maybe some of these ideas will be useful for you!

We were surprised to see the theme of toiletries and cosmetics come up repeatedly, and realised we were wasteful here because we were stuck thinking this area “doesn’t count”. Finding that my actions and my ideals clashed made me feel pretty awful, but I think overall it’s best not to get disheartened; looking for these blind spots in your thinking is an ongoing part of being human, and an opportunity to grow.

(Apologies to anyone who received a notification about the draft version of this article – a mess-up on my part and I hope you enjoy the finished article below)

Reduce > Reuse > Recycle

The biggest gains we made were by “levelling up” from recycling to making sure the plastic doesn’t enter the house in the first place. But recycling is a good, simple place to start. If you want an easy guide you can find videos on how to recycle different items from recyclenow linked here, and a guide to what recycling bins you get and what you can put in them here, just enter your postcode here.

At LittleEcoFlat, we have drop-off points but no specific collections from the household, so we take everything off to the larger neighbourhood bins. We have set up a stack of IKEA Sorteras which sort all our cardboard, plastic, aluminium, glass, and tetrapak. Tetrapack, WEEE waste, other metal, and batteries all go to special collection points in the local area. Wood and any useful cardboard goes to our allotment to be reused.

Not all plastics are equal

Some plastics are easier to recycle, like PET, polyethylene, and polypropylene (a nice summary linked here). Others are hard to recycle, like Polystyrene. Generally rigid plastic packaging is single-type and recycle-able. But foams and plastic films/wraps are rarely separated for recycling or incineration and end up in landfill. Mixed materials also pose a big issue; any paper or card which is plastic film coated (tetrapak, disposable coffee cups) is very difficult to recycle or compost, and needs to be kept separate and taken to a special drop-off point.

Cleaning Products

Before – Plastic contentedness rating 4/10
After – Plastic contentedness rating 8/10

Setting up a food group last year allowed LittleEcoFlat to join LittleEcoTerrace’s habit of getting all the laundry liquid, fabric conditioner, washing up liquid and hand wash in bulk. Our 5 litre containers massively reduce the plastic coming in with these products, and we use a funnel and re-use a set of small containers to decant it out for easy use.

For surface cleaning I use washing up liquid and a sponge, and make up bicarbonate of soda scrub for anything stubborn. For window/shower cleaning I make up solutions of lemon juice and vinegar in a reusable spray bottle. These reduce incoming one-use spray bottles and a side effect is better indoor air quality. Two papers published recently found firstly that VOCs in cleaning products have a higher impact on city air quality than previously thought, and secondly that cleaning products reduce the lung function of women cleaning regularly, with a particular concern over spray bottles making cleaning chemicals easy to breathe in. I’m planning to follow their recommendation to get a microfibre cloth and do more cleaning just with clean water.
The dishwasher tablets are bought in bulk but still come individually wrapped in film pockets which is clearly an area to keep working on. We still buy toilet cleaner in individual bottles.

Food

Before – Plastic contentedness rating 5/10
After – Plastic contentedness rating 7/10

Not masses has changed here, buying food in bulk and storing it in glass jars means the kitchen is a fairly low plastic zone. For years we used emptied jam jars of various sizes, last year we decided it made sense to get a “proper set” from IKEA.

Early in the year we completed a gradual shift away from tetrapak to plastic juice bottles – easier to recycle. We still have tetrapak cartons for the soya milk. Our loved local Co-Op seems to be lagging behind other supermarkets in switching away from tetrapak juice but we hope they will soon.

We bought ourselves an infusing teapot to make it really easy to use loose leaf black tea instead of teabags. You may be surprised to learn (I was!) that most paper teabags have plastic in the binding which doesn’t decompose and will leave plastic fibres in the compost. We use allotment-grown sage and mint for herb teas last year and aim to up production this year.

Much of our single-use plastic film arrives in the flat as food packaging. Growing some of our own veg on the allotment and salad on the windowsill has helped a bit. An unexpected result was ending up in the Co-op, having just come from the allotment, trying to explain to the cashier why I had a leek with no barcode on it. We still have a fair bit of film in the landfill bin and we’re scratching our heads what to do about it. Meat is a tough one to crack for this, but certainly for veg it’d be nice if paper bags were more prevalent in shops.

Both of us have got ourselves a travelling coffee cup over the past year to kill off our disposable coffee cup use. We take trains a lot and often treat ourselves to a coffee in the station, but these paper cups are again plastic coated making them a nightmare to recycle or compost.
We still don’t do amazingly well with convenience food, such as packed sandwiches when we’re on the move. To improve we can keep taking packed-up food and reusable cultery with us on our wanderings, as well as reducing how often we buy these things.

Toiletries & Cosmetics

Before – Plastic contentedness rating 3/10
After – Plastic contentedness rating 8/10

The biggest change for us was installing a shower dispenser for shampoo/bodywash and conditioner. We bought 4 x 5l containers from Suma in grapefruit and in rose scents, rather than 40 x small bottles. Most of my extra odds and ends (moisturisers, body scrubs, face masks etc) are from Lush and they sell things in paper or take the bottles back. With 5 empties = 1 new face mask this is definitely my favourite way to recycle.

We skipped the whole microbeads thing. It genuinely confused me why companies thought we would want plastic rubbed all over us, and I feel it was irresponsibly marketed. If you are after a good replacement exfoliant try making a sugar scrub or buying something where the exfoliating media are biodegradable like rice granules.

For toothbrushes, the plastic handled and bristled ones are difficult to dispose of responsibly and are one type of plastic waste found in the great ocean garbage patches. Initially we landed on an alternative of bamboo handled ones but unfortunately matters are rarely simple and we found out from this article that some of the ones which we thought were plastic free actually have plastic rather than bamboo viscose bristles.  We’re taking caution now and aiming for options with genuine bamboo viscose bristles, or pig bristles, the latter of which obviously won’t work for vegans or vegetarians.

Now to the bad stuff. I was buying cotton buds with plastic sticks, like the one that this seahorse is clinging to for support. I hadn’t used my brain and realised how horrible these are. The central bits end up in the sea, they don’t degrade, and they get stuck in the ears and mouths of turtles. There isn’t even any functionality by that being plastic, it’s just that these are the type available in the shop. We quickly found you can get these perfectly fine and inexpensive cotton buds with a cardboard stick. I felt very upset that I’d not realised this was a problem sooner. When we sorted out our supply, paper stick buds were rare so we got them online from Ecotopia (now closed), but it looks like pressure is working on mainstream supermarkets to offer paper options.
For deodorant we tried solid powder and solid cream types but to be honest they didn’t deliver. So we’re still using plastic roll-on containers which is not amazing and we will keep looking for options.

When it comes to makeup, I have a personal dislike of most of it, so this doesn’t generate much plastic. I use a couple of lipsticks, eyeliner kohl, and solid perfume. I have a lot of nail varnishes because it helped me get my nails long and nice, but overall these and the remover are stuffed with nasties so more recently I’ve stopped using them and use a buffer bar which just keeps them neat and short. I work with a lot of grease and dirt so my nails get stained if I grow them long, if anyone has a handy eco tip for avoiding that do let us know!

Point where the article diverges

So, that’s our general household plastic reduction efforts, I hope you have found something of interest. The last section of this article is about a large source of waste for many women, which is monthly products like tampons and sanitary towels. If that’s not something you find relevant or interesting, this is your stop, and thank you for checking out the article!

Monthly products

Before – Plastic contentedness rating 1/10
After – Plastic contentedness rating 10/10!!!

I wasn’t initially sure about sharing this bit but it’s important; well performing monthly products are critical for a huge chunk of humanity, but the main options – conventional tampons or conventional sanitary towels – create large amounts of plastic waste. The Women’s Environmental Network says in their “Environmenstrual” campaign that pads are around 90% plastic. It’s not a practical or sustainable situation, and women need functionally excellent options which don’t commit them to such heavy waste production.

This is one area that I was highly resistant to looking at for many years, I lacked confidence that eco alternatives would deliver and I didn’t want to take risks. This is a personal area so I’m glad I took time and came around to considering it in my own way, but I needn’t have worried. The option I use now is much more comfortable and to my real shock, much more pleasant and sanitary-feeling. Specifically I get less irritable skin during my period, something I’d incorrectly chalked up to my contraception option not my menstrual option. I now feel that the options in shops impose this idea that everything needs to be clean perfect white and seem desperate to work against, not with, something that’s a reality every four weeks for a huge chunk of the population and isn’t all that bad. I’m not sure how this has happened but it’s rather odd. I’m sure women will have been involved in development of the plastic-y options too, but it feels like a new wave of products are more loudly and boldly being designed by women for women.

The main alternatives are menstrual cups like MoonCup, and washable menstrual pads or underwear like CheekyWipes. I was confused by Thinx, because their adverts imply it replaces tampons/sanitary towels completely, but their product pages use hedging language over whether it’s truly an alternative for heavy flow days which I found unhelpful. That said, I really recommend that this area is up to you and you should research and decide what’s best for your unique case. The manufacturer websites are friendly, not scary or gross, so it’s safe to do a quick search and find out what’s out there. Remember that considering how much you spend on the disposable stuff over your life, it makes financial sense to buy a couple of options and decide which you like. If that helps you find the right one, you’ll still be saving money and plastic overall. That’s what I did and waited until I happened upon a correctly timed weekend about the house so there was no risk in trying something new.Reuse means whichever option you take you’ll be washing what you use. This is not the Carrie-like scenario you may be envisioning. I was sceptical, and yes it’s not the most glam, but it’s fine and it’s comparable to the faff of wrapping and disposing things. To be honest we all know blood is a thing and we deal with it each month, this is not shocking or weird to anyone who experiences it.

I’m really glad that I made a switch in the end, I genuinely feel I have something not just equivalent functionality but actually better for me, and I hope that in the future we’re going to get better as a society at offering environmental options to our teenage girls so that they don’t get locked in, like I did, to generating plastic waste for many years and lacking confidence to try alternatives. If you haven’t considered a switch yet, please don’t feel pressured, I needed time myself. My message is you deserve to have an option that works very well for you, and also slots in with your environmental ideals.

Links

Now for Suma-thing different

It feels like today, many of us are becoming quite distant from the origins of the food we eat. We’re not shopping in the butcher’s, the baker’s and the grocer’s, and this means in general our food is travelling further to get to us, and we know less about the wellbeing of the people who make it and how they make it. It’d be easy to bemoan the march of the supermarkets and a valid response could be to only shop local for some. However there are other factors here: mass food has become more varied, less expensive, and its quality is policed with exceptional rigour (…even if taste is occasionally the innocent bystander hit by this focus). Thankfully there are lots of gems of local producers all around the UK, but I’ve found since moving to London trying to shop local now carries a hefty price tag. It seems to have become a pretension. Shopping eco and organic similarly can get pricey very suddenly, with alternative supermarkets like As Nature Intended and Wholefoods stocking hard-to-find eco goods in London but also charging well above the odds for them also.

So, how do you get your diet and groceries to be low food miles, fairtrade, organic, low meat, eco-friendly, varied and exciting, and yet not cost you an utter fortune?

What is Suma?

Time for a clever co-operative to step in. Suma have been running since the 70s and they are one of the most successful workers co-operatives in the UK. Their business model is very interesting; their main purpose is to sell organic, fairtrade, and environmentally friendly groceries wholesale to shops. However they also actively encourage sales to food-buying groups; individuals banding together to get to the same Minimum Order Value (MOV) as a shop would have, and then sending through one group order. Suma have strong principles about what they will and won’t stock; they are strict about products being environmentally sensible, paying a fair price to those who grew/made the food (whether that is Fairtrade label or other forms of worker protections), they don’t stock meat, and most (but not all) of their food is organic.

https://i2.wp.com/littleeco.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/suma-shop-set-up-768x620.jpg?resize=660%2C533
A selection of organic & wholefood goodies – Credit: Suma.coop

Over the years Suma have grown and are now an experienced brand in their own right; many of their staples are Suma branded and sourced. Suma practices what it preaches by paying all of its staff an identical basic wage of £15.60 per hour (~£32k p.a.) regardless of role, and all staff equally share profits and have equal stakes in deciding how the business develops. Staff are encouraged to turn their talents to whichever combination of roles they prefer; this radio program said tasks like picking and stacking are partially on a rota, but equally some workers are more accounts-based and others are more packing-based. I’m really fascinated by their model; it’s unabashedly utopian and logically one would say ahh, economics will mean one day they won’t be able to fill a skills gap and will have to pay one person more, then it will all fall apart. However they’ve been doing just fine for the past 40 years. My instinct says the answer to the puzzle is they’re offering a model of diversity and equality that really is worth more than money to some very capable people out there. Well, anyway, if you just read that and want to join the utopia, they’re over in Elland, West Yorkshire, and they’re hiring as I write this.

http://www.suma.coop/resources/images-3/
The Suma Co-operative team – Credit: Suma.coop

Back to the food; Suma stock a huge range of grains, staples, canned vegetables, nuts, fruits, drinks, oils, dairy goods, toiletries and cleaning products. If you have a special diet eg. low meat, dairy free, gluten free, vegan, they have a ton of specialist foods and meat replacement foods. Quality is very high and prices are comparable with budget supermarkets, i.e. it may not necessarily beat Aldi/Lidl/Asda/Morrisons but it’s great quality and great ethics for that same price. It’s excellent value.

There are a few other co-operatives doing something similar: Lembas in Sheffield and Rainbow Wholefoods in Norwich are notable examples and similarly have an ethos of equality and co-operative running. They’ll also sell in bulk to food buying groups. I believe there are a few more but I don’t know them by name, feel free to comment and flag some others up.

What is a Food Buying Group?

A food buying group is where a bunch of individuals get together and place group orders for food, so that they can access it cheaply. Some food buying groups can be purely cost motivated, but around the UK there’s a really big trend of these groups also being about getting more environmental, more ethical products, particularly if you live somewhere where those items are not in the shops around you. The group normally has a focal point that makes it a natural little community; a certain cafe, or school, or allotment site. The group can be a co-op, with a constitution, members, bank account – or equally it can be a Whatsapp group and one person willing to have a pallet delivered to their house now and then.

Deliveries come via Suma’s own fleet of green machines – Credit: Suma.coop

When I was little we used to get our Rainbow Wholefoods supplies (inc. soya milk and un-sulphured apricots) from the delightful Fruits Of The Earth in Upper Orwell Street, Ipswich. It was my favourite shop because its smell was just incredible, all of the cooking spices oozing together, and to a child it seemed stunningly exotic. I have a treasured memory of watching the Chinese New Year parade passing whilst we stood on the high doorstep of the shop. Unfortunately for us this rarity in Ipswich disappeared, leaving us without a particularly good source of wholefood products for a while. A few years later my parents joined the allotment’s food group – this is a really popular type of food co-op – and used to order in all the bulk items that a big family gets through; pasta, laundry liquid, loo roll, tinned tomatoes.

 

Scoop food co-op logo – Credit: scoopyork.blogspot.co.uk

When we lived primarily in York, we were part of the University of York People and Planet Student food co-op (SCOOP, @YorkSCOOP). They have a sophisticated setup where they run a price-by-weight shop called SCOOP at cost out of the University. Most food groups don’t have enough admin people to do this, but the students provided a big enough group that it made sense to “pony up” for the bulk and let people come and grab what they want. If you wanted something rare you might have to commit to taking a whole case of it before they’d order it in, but most stuff was very easy to get from there.

Now we’re in London and surprisingly we’ve not naturally drifted into any food groups here. It seems to be a bizarre desert for food groups. For a while that puzzled me, but I’ve noticed a few factors in the dearth of food groups here:

Free from foods – Credit: lemenu.co.uk

Specialist diets have become normal – It used to be difficult to get dairy free/gluten free/meat replacement/vegan fare in most UK shops, and seeking out somewhere that would sell these to you would be the thing that originally nudged you into the wholefoods universe. Now Quorn is everywhere, and with 1/3rd of British customers now buying Free From products, even my convenience shop stocks soya milk and gluten free bread. It’s far easier to get this stuff.

Combo of availability and money – London already has a lot of shops catering to eco food and cleaning products, they charge a lot but they are convenient and people here get constantly psychologically battered into thinking food costs a lot of money, so they don’t seem to notice the markup.

Don’t talk to other Londoners – our rep across the UK for ignoring each other in London is not entirely undeserved. Our community is simply too large to emotionally cope with, so I’ve noticed socialising becomes more focused; there’s a club for literally any activity, but x club only does x activity specifically. Food groups seem to arise more naturally where the community is smaller so a successful club/society needs to accommodate a more disparate group of people attending and be a focal point for a broader range of activities. People then chat more about neighbouring interests and work out they’d like a food group.

What do you need to start a food group?

  • £0 – no startup costs
  • A group of people who can all communicate easily
  • Enough interest to generate orders of minimum value £250 (total, not each)
  • Someone who can drive a spreadsheet and knows super-basic accounting (i.e. if you do your own bills, you are totally qualified enough for this)
  • Someone who feels confident reminding people politely to pay (can be consolidated into the same human as above skillset)
  • A bank account to marshal the money up in
  • Somewhere that a huge Arctic lorry (think double-decker bus size) can drop a pallet off

Read through Suma’s “Start your own Food Group” guide to find out more. I used their web resources for lots of advice and help and found they were excellent. They had a “Top 100” list, which helped me show the possibilities to people unsure about jumping in.

Our food co-op: Musette

Our order arrives!

Musette is the food co-op I set up for the employees of Brompton Bicycle Ltd. I’m really proud of being able to set up a co-op of our own, and I’m thoroughly impressed with how enlightened an employer Brompton has been through the process. I’m also just blown away by how stunningly friendly Suma are as a company, and as individuals, which I’ll say more about in a second.

I’ll do another post sometime describing the nuts and bolts of how we run, and how orders come together, but for now I want to just chat a bit about how Musette came to be.

The food group grew out of necessity; LittleEcoFlat gets through lots of TVP, soya milk, Boullion powder, Ecover washing and cleaning things, tinned chickpeas, and we were getting this all from SCOOP. As we spent more and more time in London we were having to take more and more of these foods down on the train from York. It’s a ridiculous situation that this was still so much cheaper than buying those things here. So we had a think about who would make a good group; we thought maybe the allotment, but we were concerned on two counts. First was we are newbies. Rocking up and then starting to organise people who’ve been doing this a lot longer than you is rarely wanted or needed. Second is the allotment group is quite loosely connected and its organisation appears mysterious from the outside. Our secretary clearly has an excellent handle on things, but we really lacked the confidence that we could get this gang pulling together, communicating well, and placing big enough orders.

Instead I started to think about my workplace. The factory is massive; pallets and lorries coming and going is the day-to-day reality. My immediate colleagues include several who love to cook and like good quality ingredients, and the wider company is big and could get a minimum order together even if it’s only a small % buying one or two items each. My colleagues include people who eat low meat, no meat, organic, palm oil free, and who use environmentally friendly laundry liquid etc., making them a decent fit for Suma’s catalogue. Brompton isn’t a campaigning organisation and doesn’t have an environmental agenda, but the staff is heavily made up of cyclists and that has a correlation with many of us feeling quite environmentally conscious.

My first step was to gently float the idea hypothetically to a couple of close friends at work. They seemed keen and thought others would be too. After building up my confidence a bit, I went to our MD and pitched for permission. My argument was that his employees get access to a seriously good deal on good quality food, and all it’s going to cost him is a pallet spot for 1-2 days which isn’t even going to be a hassle. He didn’t know much about Suma or food buying groups but was immediately keen. He gave me permission and said this is the kind of employee community activity they want to have, he was really encouraging. I’m glad I spoke to Brompton’s management really early; if you are considering doing something similar, I would recommend doing it this way. I felt it was important to show my respect for the company before steaming ahead, and it definitely set the right tone of enthusiasm. I also appreciated that the MD showed his support by making sure he joined in on the first order, and spreading the word about Suma.

The first order was a solo affair on the admin side; I phoned Suma and set up an account alone, and did the promoting, order collection, money admin. When I first spoke to Suma the size of the task felt really daunting. But I needn’t have worried – I had the pleasure of Lynne (from the New Business Team) taking me through the process with warmth and charm. She signposted me to all the info I needed and it genuinely was really easy to get started. Something I hadn’t anticipated was Suma were so excited by Brompton getting in touch. Lynne was really impressed that our staff were up for this sort of thing, and Suma staff have a great love for cycling. Regardless of that, everyone I’ve had contact with at Suma has made it clear that they’re so happy to have us, and that they genuinely love new customers coming along and getting to include them in something everyone at Suma deeply believes in.

Some of our items stacked up for collection

My first order was a bit gunky, I made mistakes, I didn’t know which foodstuffs were VAT chargable (it’s seriously weird). I didn’t check if things were in stock, and on the first order you don’t have a credit line yet which means you need to pay for everything and then process a refund for anything which isn’t able to be sent for whatever reason. But Brompton staff were excited and positive, whilst Suma staff were quietly efficient and dealt with everything very smoothly. The order was a big success overall, people loved it and made it immediately clear that they wanted to do it again. Meanwhile, the lady who packed our pallet for us slipped in a handwritten note which we proudly put up on the noticeboard:

Big love to Brompton Bicycles! Best in the world! Jane, Suma xxx

Thank you Jane!

After that there was a long hiatus due to me getting married, which rather maxed out my admin capabilities. But when I got back, we set about creating Musette. It’s a constituted co-op with four Brompton employees making up the management committee. I’m chair and realistically I still do most of the order side, but it’s lovely having the others to seek advice from, to help publicise the group, and to help me split out the goods when they arrive. I wanted to set up a full-blown co-op, rather than an informal group, partly so that the admin wouldn’t all fall on one person, but mostly so that I’m not handling loads of my colleagues’ money all on my own. The orders can easily break £1k each, and whilst my colleagues clearly have trust in me and have been happy with my management of the money, having a co-op means it’s more accountable and transparent if any confusion ever did arise. Best to keep a healthy boundary between work world and money world.

A musette bag – Credit: bicycling.com

The name refers to a musette bag from the world of road cycling, which is a light cotton bag with a very long strap so it’ll sit on the rider’s back easily, filled with snacks that gets chucked to pro riders in the feed zone, or generally taken on rides to snack from (See also: nosebag, bonk-bag). It took us a long time to come up with it, we were initially trying for a bad pun or slightly naughty acronym, but being a co-op based on the intersection of bicycles and food, Musette is such an appropriate name.

Together with the committee it’s going really well. The hardest thing about it is that it involves payments and so people forget, or don’t really want to pay, and you have to keep firm about the boundaries there. We’ve set a simple rule of payment before order, and the order’s on a hard deadline. If anyone misses payment, their stuff doesn’t get ordered, but we’re really gentle about it and encourage them to try again next order.

Overall this experience has been excellent. LittleEcoFlat has enough food tucked away in it to weather the apocalypse, and I’ve gotten to see the enthusiasm from both Brompton and Suma employees. It reinforced my feeling that I’m really lucky to work at a place where people are interested in having a community, and are interested in having integrity and principle in how they live. I had no idea how a community that isn’t primarily eco-focused would take to Suma; but it turns out my colleagues are open-minded and interested in the world, and they bloomin’ love cut-price pine nuts.

Lots of lovely pine nuts – Credit: sumawholesale.com

Links

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“)

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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