New Year; Same Rain

Mid January already, but for the first time in 2014 it really does feel like the start of a new year.  Today the sun is shining: yes, really, even to the extent of having to close the top floor curtains in order to see the iMac screen.

Hardly earth shattering news: certainly not comparable to the continuing depressing events seen on our screens every day. But up here, in the submerged north, a morning without any precipitation, let alone one also with a glimpse of the sun, is something to sing about.

Halloween marked the end of our delightful and unexpected Indian summer; subsequently, there has literally not been a day without rain.  Temperatures well into the high teens and water falling from the sky in biblical proportions, combined with entire days of almost total darkness, gave late autumn and early winter an apocalyptic feel.

Christmas came and went with barely a hint of frost, let alone a flake of snow and New Year heralded the return of the deluge to levels previously reached at the beginning of December.

The swollen river
The swollen river

 

Living with a major river flowing past the sitting room window, the fear of flooding has been a constant anxiety.  Fortunately, so far, and touch wood, although an angry, caramel-coloured tide has thundered past, at times widening the river to three times its usual size and submerging the banks and overhanging trees with frightening ease, the drainage system has worked and the water has not risen any higher than the lowest-lying parts of the cycle path.  Fingers crossed, the short term forecast will prove accurate and the next couple of weeks will bring some drier, colder conditions.

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On the positive side, a brief, dry window yesterday morning allowed for a a quick survey round the garden and brought the welcome evidence of buds on the magnolia and acer, plus a scattering of bulbs across the front flower bed: small, but unmistakeable, signs that spring is on the horizon.  Sunset is now a full 45 minutes later than in mid December and the beginning of spring  – in seasonal terms – is only 46 days away!

But if you have to endure a British (or, even worse, Scottish) winter, then make sure you’re in a city, especially one where the bright lights, busy shops and wide variety of culture are more than adequate compensation for wet pavements and cold bus stops.  Having a wonderful film theatre on the doorstep and world-class musical venues four stops along the train line really does hit the spot.

The Armadillo added an extra slice of atmosphere to Jools Holland’s ever-excellent winter tour and Celtic Connections looks mouth watering.  After that, the film festival will run through February and Aye Write will arrive soon after..

Glasgow has always been renowned for its culture and innovation.  Let’s finish with perhaps the most appropriate tribute to the musician who defined my adolescence at the venue that illuminated my childhood.

 

 

 

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Autumn: even more depressing than usual this year?

 

I must admit that autumn is my least favourite season. I always mourn the end of summer; dark mornings and evenings hamper my cycling time and make walking and running over my well-trodden cross country route well nigh impossible, while I equate falling leaves and withering flowers with death and I’ve never been a great fan of fireworks and bonfires.

But while I accept that not everyone, fortunately, shares my depression at the onset of winter and, indeed, for many, the russet kaleidoscope and misty vistas make it their favoured time of the year, for everyone with any kind of concern for our wildlife and environment the last few months have, arguably, witnessed the most worrying and threatening period in living memory.

dorsetoct2007 047

Economic austerity is now being used effectively by politicians and others as a convenient excuse to justify scaling back and abandoning necessary environmental measures, such as withdrawing subsidies for solar energy and blaming so-called ‘green taxes’ for high energy bills.

Meanwhile, according to the  UN  the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen to record levels, again,  while all corners of the planet face increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather conditions.  However, politicians across the globe, from George Osborne, to Canada’s Stephen Harper and the avowed Australian climate sceptic Tony Abbott, have become increasingly vocal in their attempts to rubbish the idea of man-made climate change, contending that we currently cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of environment concern.

Well, we don’t need to look too far to find the influence of the fossil fuel sector, desperate to preserve their profits from their carbon-heavy polluting industries and only too happy to sponsor mouthpiece politicians in Westminster and Washington: climate scepticism now joining creationism as the poster boys for the most irrational politics of the 21st century.  Meanwhile, over the last five years, Canada and Australia have swum against the tide of economic austerity on the back of their reserves of dirty oil and gas, abandoning any pretence of environmental concern in favour of making a fast buck or two.

But even more alarming is how much of the population have been taken in by the disingenuous argument that we cannot afford green measures – particularly given that the truth is we simply cannot afford, either environmentally, or economically, not to move to more sustainable forms of energy.  Recent polling shows categorically that concern about the environment and support for green measures have fallen considerably over the last six years; tragically at the very time when it is needed more than ever.

Unfortunately, not only are we enduring the least green government ever – any party who awards the environmental portfolio to the hapless, odious and useless Owen Paterson deserves nothing but contempt – but neither can we look for any real environmental leadership anywhere else within traditional politics, with one or two honourable exceptions, such as Caroline Lucas and Mary Creagh.

But, however depressing the situation, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of sitting back, hopelessly accepting there is nothing we can do.  We are dealing with the future of our planet and nothing – not economic activity, not international terrorism, as a recent poll in the Guardian confirmed – is more important than that.

Instead, we should look to the growing army of activists, from No Dash for Gas to the heroic alliance of decent, ordinary people opposed to the invidious badger cull and those brave enough to blow the whistle on the illegally killing of our indigenous wildlife who, through organisation, resourcefulness and courage, have faced down intimidation and the threat of arrest to bring home to the public just what is happening in and to their countryside.

And it is these brave and committed people who offer a optimistic chink of light, even to this self-confessed pessimist in this dark and dismal autumn. We need to look at the protests taking place throughout the country, read the majority of comments about fracking and the cull, even within media outlets that usually support the establishment and do whatever we can to continue our fight to preserve and protect our environment and those who live in it.

We won’t have the luxury of a second chance.

 

 

 

 

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Welcome, but still not nearly enough

 

Following today’s announcement of  the government’s plans to boost cycling, this is Boot and Bike’s response to our local MP, Michael Fabricant

 

 

Dear Mr Fabricant,

 

I am very happy to read of your government’s very welcome, if belated,

acknowledgement of the need for more investment in provision for

cycling.  Let’s hope this is only the beginning of a more holistic and

pro-active approach that recognises the health, social and

environmental benefits of cycling.

 

However, in order to encourage as many people as possible to start, or

resume, cycling, there also needs to be an equal recognition that the

current unfair benefits that motorised transport enjoys cannot continue

(compare today’s £77m for cycling with the recent £28b for road

building).  In addition, as many recent cases have tragically

illustrated, the law does need to be reviewed to ensure that those

drivers found guilty of causing death and serious injury to cyclists,

pedestrians and other road users are adequately punished.

 

In your own constituency there is much to be done.  As a volunteer

ranger with the Lichfield Sustrans group, I witness, first hand, the

chaotic and inadequate provision for cycling within the city.  For

example, even where there is a cycle lane (Walsall Road) it is arguably

more dangerous to use because of the cars parked illegally along it.

Provision for cyclists (and even more importantly for disabled and

elderly customers) at Trent Valley Station, is as I know you agree,

risible.  There is also no safe and straightforward route from City

Station into the city centre.

 

On a more positive note, it is a delight to cycle from the city (once

past the dangerous junction at Upper/St John’s Street) to Waitrose –

where provision for cycles and their riders is excellent. However, here

in Barton it is very sad to hear friends complain they are not able to

allow their children to cycle to school because of the absence of any

dedicated cycle routes.

 

Over the last few months Sustrans has re-routed NCN 54 away from the

Main Streets in both Barton and Alrewas to avoid as much traffic as

possible, but it is only the creation of dedicated cycle lanes,

separate from other traffic, that will really improve the safety of

cyclists.

 

I hope you will give your support to improving provision for cycling,

both nationally and in your constituency.

 

Yours sincerely,

Jill Phillip

 

You can email your MP about cycling via Sustrans 

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Bye Bye 2012, Hello 2013

Well the sharp, sunny days of early December didn’t last long and, since I penned my last blog post, I doubt there has been a day free of rain in this part of the world.

Shiny new bike about to get soaked!

At least 2012  has been consistent, certainly as far as the weather was concerned, and the first month of winter has followed the same dreary pattern set out in the summer and autumn. So, little chance to get used to the new bike and the few recent rides I have attempted have characteristically ended in soaking rain and/or complete darkness.

So, without dwelling too long on the 2012 negatives – take your pick from, amongst others: fracking and the undermining of the green economy, more cycle deaths and serious injuries, increasing polarisation of the haves and have nots – number one hope for 2013 is for a drier, sunny year. Although one positive, if  idiosyncratic, effect of the extreme weather, is that more people might just begin to accept the reality of climate change.

Celebrating some of our Olympic heroes

But 2012 hasn’t all been doom and despondency: indeed, the past 12 months  have produced some amazing experiences that lifted the spirits and defined the year in a really positive way. Danny Boyle’s sublime Opening Ceremony that perfectly and spectacularly epitomised, to a global audience, the true achievements of British history, kicked off an unbelievable Olympics. And, while in no way diminishing the fantastic performances of the competitors, for me the greatest achievement of the Olympics was its inclusiveness; that it was about all of us, not just the traditional, ceremonial Britain of Tudor monarchs, Winston Churchill and the Red Arrows.

One of our greatest cyclists - and a superb role model for cycling

My particular sporting highlights? Celebrating the continuing supremacy of Britain’s fantastic cyclists, particularly Bradley’s wondrous Tour victory, was certainly near the top.  Andy Murray’s deserved gold medal and first grand slam were more than worth the wait and the perfect response to the ‘once a year tennis “fans”’ who rate media friendly drones over true talent and authenticity. And, for a dyed-in-the-wool Hoops fan, seeing Celtic beating the best club side in the world was as incredible as it was wonderful.

Away from my grand stand seat in front of the telly, 2012 will always be a landmark year for me, as it marked my long-awaited release from having to work for someone else. And I sure took advantage!

The idyllic Crinan Canal

Freed from the constraints of crowded, expensive school holidays, I travelled to Argyll in early March and enjoyed the best weather of the year, visiting some of the UK’s most important pre-historic sites in Kilmartin, before walking the length of the delightful Crinan Canal.

A belated return to Florence, four decades after its treasures first blew me away as an impressionable schoolgirl, followed in May. It did not disappoint and nor did the train journey there and back, a weekend in Rome, a week’s eco-camping at the delightful Kokopelli Camping in the breathtaking Majella National Park, followed by taster trips to Bologna and Turin.

Rooftops in Florence

Italy in the spring, courtesy of western Europe’s superb high speed rail network, would be difficult to beat and it took another landmark trip to compete. Walking the West Highland Way in early September realised a lifetime’s ambition and it too did not disappoint. Loch Lomond, Rannoch, Glen Coe and Ben Nevis all lived up to their legendary status, but for me, the highlight of the trip was to walk from Scotland’s biggest city along the drovers’ paths and military roads, beside the shimmering lochs and magnificent mountains that encapsulate the history of my native country.

Another day, another view on the West Highland Way

So, as we say goodbye to 2012, what hopes are there for 2013? On a personal level, loads more travel, finances permitting. A return trip to Knoydart (preferably in winter) is top of the list, followed by another mountain trek: the East Highland Way looks interesting. Scandinavia and Poland are possibles for 2013’s European Rail Odyssey and hopefully the immediate winter days will be lightened by a forthcoming trip to God’s Own City either to enjoy Celtic Connections or February’s Film Festival.

Let’s hope the new year sees far more joined up thinking about the priorities of all our road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians and a halt to the decline in public transport services, particularly in rural areas. Transport poverty is a real, but under-publicised, issue and one whose solution could also provide answers to the equally-important problems of inactivity and obesity. And encouraging as many of us as possible to swap our cars for our bikes and walking shoes  could well be the the most effective and longest-lasting legacy of 2012.

Happy New Year, hope it’s drier!

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Wet, Wet, Wet…….

Craighouse, Jura

Until last Friday (the 13th as it happened) the wettest cycle I had ever completed was an eight mile ordeal from Jura’s Feolin ferry to Craighouse, the island’s only settlement. I had been promised that the undulating route enjoyed stupendous views and the steep climbs might be rewarded with a sight of some of Jura’s many red deer. In the event,  the only view I had was of water cascading down my glasses and the visibility was so bad it was only the smell from the eponymous distillery that alerted me to my eventual arrival at the island’s hotel next door.

But Friday 13th July 2012 easily surpassed the worst that Jura had thrown at me. And this time, I wasn’t cycling in the West of Scotland, Wales, the Lake District or any of Britain’s other notable wet spots. My 20 miles return ride was from Barton under Needwood to Lichfield, in the Midlands: until this jet stream summer, generally regarded as one of the drier areas of the country.

Determined to attend a local Sustran’s Volunteer Rangers’ meeting and equally intent on cycling there, I set out, complete with spare gloves and socks wrapped carefully in my panniers. The outward journey wasn’t too bad: although soaked by deceptively soft rain – “wet drizzle” as my granny used to call it – I was pleasantly surprised by the water repellence of my cheapskate Lidl jacket and after a coffee, tea cake and pleasant hour  in the Chapter’s Coffee Shop, set off with renewed vigour, for the return journey.

Now, the wet drizzle had developed into stair rods – another West of Scotland expression used to describe prevailing weather conditions – and by the time  I had crossed Trent Valley railway bridge, Netherstowe Lane had acquired enough water to attract some opportunist ducks, who were amusing themselves watching the trains flash by on the adjacent West Coast Main Line.

Around 75 minutes later – the usual journey time doubled by frequent stops to empty my shoes – I stood dripping for a few moments in the garage before removing my sodden layers. The LEDs were illuminating the dark interior and, although the calendar said lunchtime in mid July, in reality it seemed like late afternoon in November.

But, with that peculiar lack of logic that affects cyclists, I felt happy and pleased with life: happy that I had made it without mishap and I could now justify soaking in a hot bath in the early afternoon, before indulging in some well-earned comfort cakes and coffee. And, while I regularly return from a cycle seething about the idiocy of many drivers, today my faith had been restored in human decency, thanks to the two road workers on the A38 who offered me a cup of tea and the British Gas van driver who tailed me patiently along Dogshead Lane to avoid engulfing me with a tsunami of dirty surface water.

And after all, if this wet summer is a portent of our climate-changed summers of the future, then we may as well get used to it.

What I’ve learned about cycling in a deluged summer:

There is no such thing as a truly waterproof jacket and my expensive Gore-Tex jacket performed worse than my cheapy model (see above), despite assiduous proofing

The fewer layers you can wear, the better, particularly on your legs as your skin always dries out quicker

I do need to invest in some overshoes after having to dry out my shoes for the last 72 hours (and trainers are the worst possible option in the wet)

Spending on expensive Ortlieb panniers has paid off as they have easily resisted all this jet-stream summer has thrown at them

Wet gloves are worse than none at all: the only exception being my woolly fingerless ones bought en route in Arran during my Scottish Island Circuit

You do get wetter in a wet summer, than in the winter: just like walkers get wetter from longer grass in the summer, if you’re riding in country lanes and the hedgerows are of rainforest proportions, then your left arm will get much wetter than your right!

 

Postscipt: my ride through Jura was part of a Scottish Island Circuit that also included Arran and Islay.  Although it rained on most days, it was a great way to see these three breathtaking islands, and when the clouds cleared, there were views like this:

 

 

 

 

Lamlash Bay, Arran

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Knockangle Point, Islay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2012: Could it really be the Year of the Bike?

Despite the endless rain and generally miserable weather, the early summer of 2012 has seen some positive developments, as far as cycling is concerned. Indeed, adopting the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, it’s been quite a successful year for the bike, in many ways, so far.

On yer bike

Two massive bike rallies, the London ride and Scotland’s  Pedal On Parliament in April, the effective offensive against Addison Lee cabs and the odious sentiments of its CEO, the brilliant Times’ Cities fit for Cycling initiative, and the ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign  that gave cycling issues such a high profile in the London mayoral, election have all kept cycling, and the need for greater safety for cyclists, in the headlines

Indeed cycling world champion and odds-on favourite to be Britain’s first gold medallist in the London Olympics, Mark Cavendish, has added his voice to the fight for greater protection for cyclists and called on Britain to adopt Dutch-style laws on harsher penalties for drivers

The contrast between the Netherlands – where riding a bike to travel from A to B is regarded as perfectly normal – and the UK – where cyclists are frequently regarded as collateral damage by motorists convinced of their “entitlement” to unrestricted use of our roads – could not be more stark, particularly for those trying to negotiate our crowded city junctions, or narrow country lanes.

A fellow Sustrans volunteer, recently back from a tandem holiday in the Netherlands made the following observations:

  • bicycles everywhere, ridden by all age groups
  • school teachers with bicycles, schoolchildren in tow, each wheeling their bicycle
  •  huge cycle racks at stations; bicycles parked at bus tops; outside shops; everywhere you look!
  • the city of Leiden; the centre was full of people and bicycles but hardly any cars!  It was busy yet so quiet
  • can you believe this: first time we went out – on the tandem – we approached a ‘Toucan’ style crossing.  Though well away from the crossing, I was getting ready to stop and put my foot on the ground – but the car had already stopped!! Cyclists seem to have precedence – cars always let you across first!!  Its another world!
  • well maintained cycle paths too – often 2-way – either side of the roads, with excellent signing
  • most of the bicycles are traditional ‘sit up and beg’ style with all kinds of goods attached front and rear – including children and girlfriends riding on the rear carriers!

It’s the culture that’s so different: cyclists are regarded as vulnerable people who have an equal right to the highway – and it applies to pedestrians as well.

But while more recent reports confirm the benefits of cycling to everything from the environment  to the economy  the lessons we should be learning from the Dutch still appear to be falling on deaf ears. Norman Baker, the Local Transport Minister may claim that: “Right across Government it is accepted that there is a hard-nosed business case for investing in sustainable local transport, and that includes cycling and walking.”

But his colleague, Mike Penning, the Road Safety Minister, refuses to even consider changing the law: “Making a motorist automatically at fault for an accident with a cyclist, unless he or she can prove otherwise, would be unfair where someone is driving entirely responsibly — or when there is an accident where no one is to blame.”

This lack of logic – championing the advantages of cycling on one hand, but refusing to do anything to make it safer for the majority of people – is perhaps most clearly illustrated on the streets of our capital. On the face of it, cycling would appear to be enjoying a renaissance in London  – up 70% in some places, with the so-called Boris bikes proving very popular – but the incidence of cycling injuries has also risen  and the general profile of users of the cycle hire scheme tends to be young, well-off and male.

Boris Johnson clearly enjoys being portrayed as the bicycling mayor, but if his claim to believe the “cyclised city is a civilised city” is to be taken seriously then he has to do much more to achieve this.His attitude to the notorious Elephant and Castle roundabout – the junction that received most complaints in the Times’ campaign – is a case in point. His blasé response that it was perfectly negotiable “if you keep your wits about you,” might attract some deluded lycra-clad thrill seekers, but will do nothing to encourage women, older people, parents and those who haven’t cycled for years to get back on their bikes.

These are ordinary people, the same kind of people who ride their bikes every day in Holland and Scandinavia; the kind of people we need to encourage to start cycling to work, or to the shops and to regard cycling as an ideal form of transport, not just a recreational pursuit.

If we can start to do this, then 2012 really will be a good year for the bike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tips for Travelling to Italy by Train

It is incredibly easy to take the train to Italy – or indeed, anywhere else in western Europe – and, when travelling overnight and going direct between city centres is taken into consideration, it can be just as quick and significantly less disruptive than air travel. For example, you can leave St Pancras late afternoon and be in Milan in time for breakfast – this includes time for an evening meal and a comfortable night’s sleep – and this compares very favourably with getting up in the middle of the night, spending a couple of hours in a soulless airport terminal and arriving early morning in another indistinguishable terminal, miles from your destination.

It can also be considerably cheaper (see Fares) especially if you travel as a group with lots of equipment and when the cost of overnight accommodation is taken into account.

But essentially, long distance rail travel is about adopting a totally different perspective about travel by making the journey an integral part of your trip. Sit back, relax, enjoy the changes in culture and landscapes as you travel and your journey will be one of the highlights of your holiday.

Seat 61 : is your bible when travelling by train. Much of the information and references that follow comes from Seat 61, apart from a few points that I have picked up on my travels. Find out the options of how to travel to Italy

Fares: the same principle of booking as early as possible, now obligatory in the UK, increasingly applies in Europe also. By booking about two months in advance, I secured Eurostar tickets to Paris for £36 each way and paid €32 each way between Paris and Turin, travelling by day. If you are travelling as a group, fares can be as low as £38 for a couchette – remember, this effectively includes your accommodation for the night.

I found Italia Rail the best method of buying tickets. You will be billed in US dollars, but any currency charges are more than offset by the savings made. If you don’t want to pay any currency charges, get yourself a pre-paid currency card, like Caxton

Eurostar : now gets to Paris and Brussels in about two hours. Book in advance and be prepared to travel out with peak hours and you can find good reductions (see above).

You will leave from the stunning St Pancras station, so if you leave during the day you can spend some of the money you’ve saved at the Champagne Bar.

Paris metro tickets are available, but only in books of 10. If you don’t need that many, make sure you have some spare Euro coins available (see below).

Changing stations in Paris: you will arrive at the Gare du Nord and,  will need to take the RER Line D to the Gare de Lyon. Pick up a metro map at St Pancras and work out your route. It’s easy enough, it’s the green line D, just make sure you are going in the right direction by checking the last stop – Melun, Malesherbes on your way there, Orry la Ville Coye Creil on your way back to the Gare du Nord – as you go through the barriers and on the information boards.

A few trains to Italy leave from the Gare de Bercy which is one stop on Line 14 to Bercy from the Gare de Lyon.

Buy a metro ticket from the machines (instructions are available in English). Currently, a single costs €1.70.

Catering outlets are generally better at Gare de Lyon than at Gare du Nord (best to go outside to one of the side streets for a coffee).

Luggage and bicycles: most continental trains have large luggage racks at the end of each carriage – use them and put your smaller stuff in the racks above your seat. Remember, if you are going on an activity holiday, you are likely to have a lot of luggage and you will not be charged extra, as you are on planes.

Seat 61 gives information about travelling with bicycles. Folding bikes and those in bike bags can usually be taken on board with you.

Travelling by day vs travelling overnight: it’s your call, depending on your preferences and available time. If there are only one or two of you, it’s usually cheaper by day and the Alpine scenery is stunning. By going overnight, you use sleeping time to travel and it can be very cheap if there are a few of you.

Getting to Kokopelli: choose your option to Milan, then follow the instructions to Pescara from where you can either hire a car, or travel on to Chieti by bus or train. Use Rail Europe’s search engine  for trains or look at the timetable for the buses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Austerity: the new excuse to discredit a green agenda

How long our green and pleasant land?

In just under two years, the long-promised “greenest-ever government” has metamorphosed into the biggest single obstacle to reducing carbon emissions, creating a green infrastructure and encouraging all of us to adopt a greener lifestyle.

The real truth is that this corrupt government is in bed to such an extent with its wealthy friends in the big, polluting, carbon-heavy industries, the energy providers and shareholders of utility companies, that to adopt a real green agenda would compromise its friends and paymasters.

And undermining its friends in high places would also mean jeopardising its vital sources of income. So, £4m will buy your ear time at one of Dodgy Dave’s Dinners, but this kind of wealth will also buy you influence to poison scientific fact about climate change.

Perhaps the most insidious fact to emerge from the Tory donor – or should that be diner? – scandal, was the revelation that the climate change sceptic mouthpiece, the Global Warming Climate Foundation fronted by the climate sceptics’ poster boy, Lord Lawson (well, OK, I accept that Nigel Lawson and poster boy could well be the oxymoron of the year), is bankrolled by a wealthy Tory donor, Michael Hihtze.

So, the future of the planet is threatened by the Tories’ greed and willingness to indulge their rich donors and incorporate their baseless dogmas into government policy. And, while we might regard Nigel Lawson as a has been, bad taste joke, now best known for fathering the infinitely more famous Nigella, it is a serious, and potentially tragic, matter.

Climate change denial has gained much undeserved credence in recent times and, combined with the pernicious effects of the economic slow down, is now, despite having no scientific basis, being taken seriously and used as an excuse to curtail and slow down the green agenda. The Tories here mirror their right-wing counterparts in the USA by being in hock to the big multi-national polluters, carbon emitters and energy providers, whose donations, in return for a platform for climate change denial, result in another, depressing, nail in the coffin for the planet.

But, despite the drip-drip of anti-environmental publicity, it appears that the ordinary public have, fortunately, not been taken in by this misinformation. Polling from YouGov   shows that people believe more should be spent on renewable power and  a survey conducted for Asda   found out that, despite economic hardship, people do continue to care and be worried about environmental catastrophe. Late last year, another survey, this time from the government’s own climate change advisers, found categorically that green measures do not lead to skyrocketing energy bills and placed the blame unequivocally where it belongs: on rising gas prices and from satisfying the demands of utility shareholders

Logically, austerity should lead to a more responsible attitude towards waste and reckless consumption: a timely reminder of how the desperate days of World War Two instigated the remarkable creativity of Utility design and the wonderful graphic art reminding us to Waste Not Want Not, or Dig For Victory would not go amiss. But today, other countries, particularly in Scandinavia and north west Europe also provide excellent role models as to how green initiatives can provide jobs and stimulate the economy. And at the other end of the world, in Australia, large run-off tanks are now de rigueur in homes to catch rainwater that is then used in washing machines and dishwashers – surely a sensible idea to adopt here as much of south east Britain begins a hosepipe ban?

George Osborne was, apparently, “shocked” to find out that many of his fellow millionaires paid little or no tax. Perhaps he will be just as shocked to hear that, despite negative propaganda from his Treasury, a majority of the electorate do worry about climate change, do support investment in renewable sources of power and do want affordable ways of insulating their homes. But, there again, as revealed very clearly from the Asda poll, these tend to be ordinary people who do pay tax, who struggle to heat their homes and find affordable transport options.

Are we still all in this together, George?

It is not a case of Britain not being able to afford to follow a green agenda: we, like the rest of the planet cannot afford not to.

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In Praise of March

March doesn’t usually enjoy much of a good press: noted for its winds, frequently cold and unpredictable temperatures and apart from its daffodils, not traditionally celebrated for its foliage. We normally have to wait until the end of the month to savour the blossom and, even then, blustery, sleety conditions more often than not reduce its delicate, transient buds to shreds within hours.

The delicate, but transient, beauty of magnolia blossom

But this year, as we approach the close of the third month donning sunglasses and shorts, rather than scarves and sweaters, perhaps the time has come to re-consider March and award it some overdue recognition as a better month that it’s usually given credit for.

OK, I know the present premature heatwave is not normal, even by our recent climate change-crazed weather patterns, but the sun is higher in the sky at the end of March than it is in September, so when sunny and in shelter, it can become quite warm.

The Merchant City in the sun

Once the clocks change, of course, we can fit in some walking, cycling, gardening in the evenings, but throughout the month there is an average of 12 hours daylight: more than enough for a day walk or cycle. So March is the ideal month to get out and about and into training for longer, higher days as the spring progresses.

So, with this in mind, a recent week based in Glasgow was planned around a weekend visit to a stunning, but overlooked, area of Mid Argyll  followed by a weekday morning walk up to Loch Humphrey and Duncolm in the Kilpatricks (both easily accessible by public transport) and a day out, museum-browsing, in the capital.

March can be an ideal time to travel. Unless Easter is early, it benefits from being a school holiday-free month and this year ScotRail recognised this by offering their Mad March half price fare promotion on most off-peak journeys. Hence the return journey to Kilpatrick cost whole £1.90  and the museum jaunt to Edinburgh amounted to £6.05.

Calton Hill dominates the Edinburgh skyline

And talking of museums and the capital, March can be perfect month to sample both. With the holiday season not yet in full swing, Edinburgh, if not exactly empty, was at least quiet enough to look round the Scottish Parliament, the new National Museum of Scotland  and have lunch  – can thoroughly recommend the soup and coffee at Peter’s Yard  -without having to queue.

The new National Museum is certainly worth a visit, particularly from now till June for the See Scotland by Train exhibition. With a background montage of 39 Steps, Railway Children, Brief Encounter, Night Mail and more, this well-staged presentation of fabulous railway posters takes us back to the heyday of overnight sleepers, art deco carriages and the seductive power of the Flying Scotsman and Coronation Scot.

A perfect way, then, to spend a cold, but bright, Edinburgh day and avoid running the gauntlet of tourists and cashmere outlets in the Old Town. If you time manage effectively, you can just about fit in a visit to the refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery   as well. It too is impressive and provides a good vantage point to explore the more sophisticated New Town.

March is also, of course, traditionally the month of high activity in the garden and, although our poor seedlings have been well confused by this year’s bizarre range of temperatures, it has been a pleasant change to plant in the warm, as opposed to the normal cold and wet.

So as March 2012 cruises to a balmy, sunny close, let’s hear it for the third month of the year; the true harbinger of spring.

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So Long 2011: Heroes and Villains of the last 12 Months

So, on this Hogmanay as 2011 ends and 2012 fast approaches, how was 2011 – a year when austerity, natural disasters, revolutions and mass movements of all kinds dominated the headlines –  for you? Who were the heroes, and who were the baddies in 2011?

Sunset on 2011

HEROES and good things:

  • John Prescott, for his commitment to dealing with climate change and keeping Britain at the centre of discussions on this vital issue (unlike some other politicians on other vital issues) and for being one of the few genuinely entertaining “celebrities” on Twitter
  • Caroline Lucas, our solitary Green MP, for continuing to fight the Green case in Parliament
  • Grass routes campaigning groups, such as 38 Degrees www.38degrees.org.uk and UK Uncut www.ukuncut.org.uk who taught us all how to effectively channel public anger in novel, entertaining and persuasive ways against outrageous governmental decisions – like the proposed sell-off of public forests and tax exemptions for multi-national corporations
  • An unexpected four-day window of lovely weather at the end of July that enabled me to climb two Munros in three days and enjoy stupendous views over the Trossachs and Southern Highlands http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/2011/08/two-munros-in-three-days/
  • The return of Sarah and her Book Barge www.thebookbarge.co.uk to enhance the cultural life of the Barton area
  • Skinny Kitten Cafe in Barton Main Street, with its sumptuous sausage sandwiches.
  • John, James and Mark at the Glasgow Guest House www.glasgow-guest-house.co.uk for their warm hospitality, unfailing good humour, Glasgow wit and style
  • The always-wonderful West Highland Railway www.railbrit.co.uk/West_Highland_Railway/frame.htm closely followed by Cruise Loch Lomond www.cruiselochlomond.co.uk for taking me through wondrous places, to the other spectacular places I want to get to, without having drive there
  • Damian Carrington and his excellent team at Guardian Environment www.guardian.co.uk/environment including the fabulous Bike Blog and the brilliant new Environment App.
  • Dan Lepard and his mouth-watering recipes – by far my favourite baker
  • Ian Jack for simply being the best newspaper columnist around and for continually illustrating to all would-be scribblers just how to write
  • Finally, at long last, being able to give up the day job!

VILLAINS and bad things:

  • This supposedly “greenest-ever government: it actually would be very funny, if it wasn’t so sad and potentially disastrous
  • And, in a very close competition for the most outrageous example of its hypocritical approach to the environment – Spelman? Hammond? Paice? –  no, by a few stomachs it just has to be that arch-priest of over-consumption, Eric Pickles; the Secretary for Communities who believes the best way to improve our communities is to encourage everyone to eat more take aways and then throw the remnants and packaging into the landfill
  • This misguided acceptance by Caroline Spelman and Defra that bovine TB can be combated by a barbarous cull of badgers
  • The murmurings among the country set and Agriculture Minister James Paice, urging the Government to bring back hunting, despite poll after poll showing that at least 75 per cent of the population back the ban
  • The steady withdrawal of subsidies from public transport in rural areas
  • The constant publicity afforded to the bile spouted by some gross examples of white, middle-aged, middle-class males; eg, Clarkson, Littlejohn, Letts et al who believe they are entitled to ridicule anything they fear, or don’t understand, like women, safety and environmental legislation, the disabled, the disadvantaged and certain ethnic minorities

Sadly, this list could go on and on but, let’s end 2012 on a high note with more good things than bad. Happy New Year to everyone and here’s to a happy, healthy and green 2012.

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