Austerity January: How was it for you?

A Winter Dawn

January is never many people’s favourite month and this year, at the onset of  of Austerity 2012, it was forecasted to be even worse than normal for most people.  Indeed, each year we are reminded that the middle Monday in January (this year the experts couldn’t quite agree if Blue Monday would be the 16th or 23rd) is the most depressing day of the year.  So,on this, the last Monday of January, how was the most miserable month for you?

When wishing the days of this, or any other month, away as quickly as possible, I am always reminded of my grandmother’s repeated maxim: “Life isn’t a rehearsal girl; make the most of every day you can because you’re a long time dead.” But, for as long as I can remember, the short, bleak days after New Year, when the decorations come down and the weather usually worsens, have always been a time to endure, not enjoy.

However, this year, having given up the day job and now in a position to determine my own days, I was actually relieved to leave the artificiality of the festive period behind and looked forward to the new year as a new beginning. And I have not been disappointed.

Dawn and Dusk: having foregone the daily commute, I have been able to appreciate the two best periods of a winter day; sunrise and sunset. Most of us miss sunrise in the spring and summer because we are not up and about early enough, but in January, the sun rises around 8am and maybe it’s because of the sun’s low trajectory in the sky, or the lingering morning mists, but there is always a mystical wonder to a winter sunrise. And at the end of the afternoon, the pink pastiche in the south western sky can transform even a Midlands gravel pit into a Turneresque landscape.

Sunset's Pink Pastiche

The Weather: for the traditionally worst month of the year, it actually hasn’t been that bad. Although the mild temperatures have tricked some wildlife into believing it’s spring and the rain has turned fields into quagmires, at least heating bills should benefit.  And the short cold snap towards the middle of the month provided some ideal walking conditions, along with stunning frosty vistas.

January at the Movies: cold, short days provide a great excuse to escape to the cinema and the last three weeks have seen the release of some estimable movies. Warhorse defied the hype, a pocketful of hankies and my misgivings about surviving a sad animal film to at least remind us of the heroic sacrifices of animals in warfare and the enduring relationship between man and beast. The Artist is a gem that only the most miserable curmudgeon could dislike (Uggie the dog for the oscar) and, much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed The Descendants, where George Clooney gives his best performance yet – and despite the greying hair, Hawaiian shirts and flip flops, he’s still worth looking at.

Living on a Budget: yes, even that has had upsides! Having to think about, and justify, what I spend for the first time in over a decade has certainly made me much more financially disciplined. But, it has also encouraged me to be much more inventive. And January is the ideal month to experiment with new recipes for comfort food and more efficient ways to cook them. Waitrose, for example, has introduced a range of ‘forgotten cuts’ of meat like brisket and silverside that can be cooked slowly and more economically, as in this delicious pot roast recipe from Delia: And, as a strange Scot who doesn’t like traditional haggis (or whisky either!) this tasty (and cheap) recipe for vegetarian haggis resulted in a memorable Burns’ Night.

Misty Shadows on a Frosty Dawn

Ditching the Car: no more commuting and not as much money = thinking very carefully about when and if I need to drive. During January my total car mileage was 90 miles and that included one trip to a medical appointment at a location far off a bus route and one journey to transport friends to the cinema. Now the wrist has mended and I’m back on the bike, I can cycle to the market and do the bulk of my food shopping online.

One important task for the next few months is to assess whether I can get rid of the car altogether – not easy living seven miles from a station and without a decent bus service. Maintaining a car is going to be the biggest drain on my resources, and that’s not just because of petrol costs. Pedestrians’ charity Living Streets has highlighted research from the Department of Transport  showing the fixed costs of car ownership are now around £40 per week – about £10 per trip if you only use the car two or three times a week.

Assignments for February and beyond then, now include helping Sustrans maintain and improve the local cycle routes and lobbying for car clubs and neighbourhood car rental schemes in my locality

So, at the end of January, the cold, rosy-fingered dawn of 2012 has opened up some new, exciting possibilities. How has it been for you?

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HS2: Good or Bad?

Rail: the future for sustainable travel?

HS2 has been a difficult issue for advocates of green, sustainable, travel. And, in the week when the government has finally given the signal to begin the project, the strange alliances on both sides of the argument are a good illustration of how divisive this issue has become.

Usually, it would be assumed that environmental groups would support the idea of encouraging more people to travel by train, but concerns about damage to the countryside and wildlife along the route, combined with arguments about just how high its emissions will be, have convinced many environmentalists to campaign against the line.

So, we now have some of the most bizarre and unlikely bedfellows lined up together on both sides. For the pros we have most of the government and opposition, the devolved government in Scotland, the majority of business leaders, particularly in the north, some environmental and green groups and most railway lovers. At the other end of the platform, we have many Tory backbench MPs, local councils and protest groups, the Countryside Alliance, some environmentalists, powerful conservation groups like The Woodland Trust, a few railway buffs, notably Christian Wolmar, Inner London action groups, and of course, Lord Astor.

The arguments are many and complicated, but the most powerful one, as far as the government is concerned, is the need to improve infrastructure and, thereby, stimulate business. This, to those of us on the green side, would usually be considered to be a weary and predictable response that should, but does not, take any account of the environment that is about to be damaged.

Equally, it is too easy to dismiss the concerns of wealthy home and landowners in the Chilterns as nimbyism. Everyone, whether they live in a mansion in Buckinghamshire, or a council flat in Camden, would be devastated should their home be threatened by demolition. And, while it is true that if the proposed line had been drawn through some less attractive and prosperous areas of the country the wails of protest would be less influential and less vocal, it cannot be denied that the route will have huge human and environmental impact.

Despite this, the case for HS2 still outweighs the arguments against it.  We in Britain, are already a laughing stock as far as fast, efficient railways are concerned, in comparison with the rest of Western Europe and, although this investment in infrastructure should have been made years ago, it’s still better late than never.

The most effective argument for HS2 is to look at how ineffectual the alternatives are:

  • upgrading the West Coast Main Line (WCML), the most quoted alternative, would be totally ineffectual, indeed futile. Over the last 10 years or so, this line has been in almost perpetual reconstruction: new bridges, longer platforms and four lanes of track now run through much of the Midlands. In addition to Virgin, there is now a slower and cheaper service from Crewe to Euston, operated by London Midland. But, the early-morning crowded platforms at every station from Crewe southwards tell their own story. Equally, it is well-nigh impossible to find a seat out of Euston from late afternoon onwards. Travelling north to to Glasgow, credit is due to Virgin as the line is now immeasurably better (possibly also to do with the demise of RailTrack), although horrendously expensive. Time wise – three hours from Crewe and four from Birmingham – it compares well with alternative methods of travel, but trains are invariably crowded and packed with both passengers and luggage.
  • abandoning HS2 would not lead to more people walking, cycling and using other trains, but to yet more motorways – and more single-occupancy vehicles – and air travel; both of which are considerably less green than HS2
  • support for HS2 does not mean opposing the improvement of existing railways, or the reduction in fares, or the re-opening of old/new stations and lines, or the extension of bus routes and making cities and the countryside more walking/cycling friendly

Living near the route, I will be affected by its construction, but this part of the Midlands is already defaced by overcrowded motorways, under-used toll roads and noisy, polluting airports.  Unfortunately, there will be an environmental cost for HS2, but the alternatives would be far worse.

Now that HS2 has been approved, all of us who care about the environment should work together to try to minimise its damaging impact.  But, we should also celebrate a decision that shows rail is the mode of land travel for the future and continue to lobby for improved and user-friendly public transport (including trains equipped to carry bikes and more luggage) and re-claim our roads, lanes and streets for safer cycling and walking.

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