Why not explore Britain’s best cottage holiday destinations this summer

On a dull January day, nothing beats the blues like booking a cottage for a short break or summer holiday. The UK has some great holiday destinations and a wide range of self-catering options, many in our beautiful National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  And, although it’s early to think of a dip in the sea, how about considering the cleanliness of the beach and the water quality? A must if you have young children. You can search for Blue Flag beaches on Cottage World, as well a looking for properties in National Parks, holiday cottages that allow dogs, or are near a pub! There’s lots of choice, from a Grade II house in Pembrokeshire that sleeps 10, with it’s own hot tub to a cosy barn conversion in Exmoor for just 2.  

How to spot Ash dieback?

Out walking the dog this morning, I thought I would look for how many ash trees I could spot along my usual route and imagine the impact on the landscape if they fell prey to ash dieback fungal disease or Chalara fraxinea to give it it’s proper name. Ash dieback, has been found across Europe since it was first identified in 1992 after a large number of ash trees in Poland were reported to have died. If it takes hold in the UK, it could have a devastating impact on our countryside as ash is our third most common species of broadleaf tree, and provides an important habitat for flora and fauna.  It is quicker growing than oak. So over the short distance of my walk I spotted at least eight mature trees, and one that appeared dead, it looked as though it had been dead for some time, but how would I know if had ash dieback?  What do the symptoms of ash dieback look like?  Time to consult the Woodland trust website. Helpfully they have a video showing the symptoms of Chalara fraxinea on young saplings, and a leaflet with photographs of the disease on mature trees, which I will consult in more detail.  The government have been criticized for not acting quickly enough to ban imports of ash trees, as the Horticultural Trade Association raised this as a serious issue in 2009.

The government have been criticized for not acting quickly enough to ban imports of ash trees, as the Horticultural Trade Association raised this as a serious issue in 2009.  This isn’t, of course, the only disease to threaten our native species Sudden Oak Death (Phytophthora ramorum) was first recorded in the UK in 2003, and Natural England have a list of over 30 plant diseases of pests that may require intervention in order to protect England’s biodiversity.  In September 2012 Natural England established a plant disease and pest prevention control scheme.  Let’s hope it isn’t too late.

How can you reduce your energy bills?

Now that the clocks have changed and the chances of a late Indian summer diminished, thoughts of staying warm and saving money come to mind. And whilst high energy prices rather than the worry of climate change may be the main motivator in reducing our energy bills, for some, reducing their ‘carbon footprint’ will be what it’s all about.  So, it won’t be saving money in order to afford flying to a ski resort in the Alps, it’s about looking at the bigger picture and reducing our overall impact. The complexities of how you can develop a thriving economy whilst reducing our carbon emissions are for those with bigger brains than mine, but it seems not Lord Heseltine’s: “No stone unturned in the pursuit of growth”  makes no mention of the need to create a greener economy – not even the words “green shoots” appear!

And it’s surprising how much energy we still waste, and at the same alarming that people are scared to use their heating because of cost. So what can you do to reduce your energy usage?  Nothing revolutionary to offer here, just some suggestions…..

Stop the heat escaping if you can –  free loft insulation is still available in many areas.

  • Check draughts around doors and windows and fit draught excluders
  • Turn off appliances and lights when not in use and don’t forget all those ‘phone and laptop chargers left plugged in.
  • Try to use appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines only when full.
  • Fit curtains with thermal linings.
  • I don’t want to say put on a cardy and some thick socks – but and the same time don’t be tempted by the “Hollyoaks” effect and expect to swan around in a bikini – TV studio’s are hot places!

Heat pumps prove a big draw at eco open homes event

Taking in part in the recent eco-open homes event which coincided with the nationwide Heritage Open Days proved again to be a worthwhile experience, with lots of interest in our ground source heat pump.

Ground Source Heat Pumps

I must admit, opening our house up to strangers, is not something we really look forward to, but it’s a big incentive to tidy up and it is good to discuss the pro’s and con’s of energy efficiency measures with others; whether it’s about saving money and reducing energy bills or about saving the planet. There was some interest in the wind turbines, and in the way the house was built and designed re-using materials, maximising solar gain and minimising heat loss, but the heat pumps – both ground source and air source certainly seemed to be an area of growing interest. We installed our heat pump seven years ago as part of our new-build eco-house. It involved sinking 160 metres of pipe in two loops 1 metre down out into the field. The actual heat pump bit sits in the utility room, looks a bit like a fridge freezer and works like a fridge in reverse! It provides all the hot water and heating; underfloor downstairs and radiators upstairs. The questions most people asked apart from How does the heat pump work? Were – How efficient is it? Well, we know that for every one unit of electricity put in we get about 4 units out and that it performs well – but we can only go on our experience of running a heat pump to service a house built with high insulation values, so investing in insulation measures has to be a starting point for most homeowners. Another frequently asked question was, how noisy are heat pumps? I know some people have had noise issues with air-source heat pumps, but our ground source is fairly quiet running and no more intrusive than your average central heating boiler. There is obviously some debate about how green heat pumps actually are given that they still rely on carbon producing electricity to run on (even if they are using it more efficiently). One solution is to install PV solar panels to generate some of the electricity then they are a greener alternative to oil.

And heat pumps were given a further boost today when the Government published proposals for the long term support for householders who install renewable heating systems such as heat pumps, biomass boilers and solar thermal in their homes. The consultation which ends 7 December 2012, proposes that the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) for householders, would be managed by Ofgem, is aimed at any householder seeking to replace their current heating with renewable heating kit or householders who have installed any such technology since 15 July 2009, (shame we were before this!). The plan is that householders will get paid for the heat expected to be produced by their installed technology. The Government have also published consultations on expanding the RHI scheme to commercial, industrial and community customers and also on the Air to Water Heat Pumps and Energy from waste.

See here for further details.

Hoe, hoe, hoe it’s magic! The joy of a japanese razor hoe.

Oh the joy of weeding! As fast as you get rid of them 5 foot high thistles appear from nowhere and all the rain has meant that the garden seems to be turning into a jungle, with giant fox gloves, poppies and holly hocks (yet to flower). At least we are not having to water anything and the apple trees are enjoying the extra moisture.

Our soil takes a lot of the pleasure out of gardening – it’s heavy clay and whilst it’s very fertile and great to work with when ‘improved’ it is usually either baked solid or clumped together in an impenetrable mass. I usually sigh enviously on Gardener’s World as Monty Don, effortlessly turns over the soil. However, a wonderful little razor hoe from the Worm that Turned is turning me into the gardening equivalent of Edward Scissorhands – it feels just like an extension of my arm as I joyfully slice through the weeds and chop through the clay soil with ease. I can’t say I relish the task of weeding – it’s relentless – but at least with this little tool I’m more enthusiastic about attacking it.

Holiday in the UK is a green choice

At last the temperature has risen and the sun is out, and thoughts of a trip to the beach in the UK instead of jetting of to the sun enter our heads.  A change of scenery can be great to lift the mood and England has some stunning beaches, Wales some glorious coastline as does Scotland and Ireland and the beaches in the Channel Islands are some of the best to be found.  Taking a holiday in the UK, and not flying abroad, is a far greener option.  Camping – either in taking your own tent, or more up market glamping in a yurt, tepee or camping pod is a great way to lessen the impact of your holiday.  There are so many styles of self-catering accommodation to choose from many of which are listed on the EcoHolidayShop from cottages in Cornwall to log cabins in the Lake District, this website lists lots of holiday properties that have green credentials, many of which are part of the Green Tourism Business Scheme, which accredits properties working to be eco-friendly.  For a wider choice of UK based holiday cottages or log cabins Cottage World has a whole host of properties to choose from.

If you have a dog lots of places let you take your pet and that saves on kennel fees too, although as well a choosing a pet-friendly accommodation, if it’s near the beach, it’s worth checking that the beach allows dogs too. Some beaches don’t allow dogs during the summer months, however I was amazed how many beaches in Cornwall allowed dogs on them even in the middle of August!

Another advantage of a UK holiday, if you’re into cycling, is that you can take your bike with you, and that enables you to explore a wider area, without the use of a car.  There are lots of cycle routes around including some great off-road trails and forest cycle paths that are family-friendly.  And whilst walking might not sound that exciting, it is a great way to get to know an area. What could be better than an exhilarating walk along a coastal footpath finishing at a pub for lunch?

Fish and chips by a harbour, rock-pooling with the kids, canoeing along a river, surfing the waves, swimming in a loch or lake, fishing off the peer: simple pleasures worth experiencing.  We are fortunate to have so much variety of holidays to choose from. As well as camping or caravanning holidays, staying in a cottage or log cabin can be a green choice, or how about a canal holiday? or sleeping under the stars in a shepherd’s hut? Whatever you choose, even if it’s just for this year, taking a holiday in Britain, not only helps the UK economy but is also better for the environment.

The forest schools experience

We often think that when it comes to education the Scandinavians can teach us a thing or two and the Forest Schools approach, an innovative way of teaching individuals using the outdoors as a “classroom” to enrich their learning experience, is one such example.  Since it was first pioneered, in the UK in 1994 by Bridgwater College in Somerset, taking the lead from Scandinavia, the forest school ethos has gained momentum and is fast becoming accepted as part of mainstream education.  It’s not about outdoor education in the traditional sense,  but about delivering the whole broad curriculum – maths, English, science,  history and all – within a woodland setting.

The philosophy of Forest Schools is to encourage and inspire individuals of any age through positive outdoor experiences.  And the positive experiences include encouraging them to take risks.  Lead by qualified leaders the sessions might include learning how to use a bow saw or whittle a piece of wood with a potato peeler, whilst learning about the Romans and how they lived and found food.

bluebells

Bluebells by Issi Lammas 2011

One school to embrace the approach is Hartpury Primary School.  They are fortunate to have extensive grounds in which to run Forest School sessions in, and also a local wood a short walk away. The are also lucky to have to the talents of Leigh Sladen as their Forest Schools Co-ordinator, rated as Outstanding by Ofsted.  The children get really absorbed in their tasks and learn skills that help boost their self-esteem, which in turn helps in their learning in other areas.

I think the approach has a lot going for it and offers so many possibilities – not just learning about nature or geography but the ability to inspire ideas from environmental art to story telling.

Clearing clutter and is the meaning of life 42?

I presume that it’s a mainly Western problem that having too much ‘stuff’ causes us ‘stress’.  It seems crazy that whilst some people are starving and living off rubbish dumps, others are amassing huge amounts of possessions that require ‘management’. Numerous websites and magazine articles exist to help us ‘clear clutter’.  Yet in our consumer driven society we seem to be programmed to go on creating more and more waste.

They say you arrive in the world with nothing and leave the same way.  But it’s not strictly true, in the western world, at least.  I was surprised, on having my own children how a small baby suddenly creates a load of ‘stuff’ – cribs, cots, car seats, changing  mats, portable changing mats, baby baths, feeding bottles, sterilizers, mobiles, baby rockers, high chairs, slings, baby carriers, prams, pushchairs, potties and that’s before you take into account the nappies, clothes and toys – babies are big business, and whilst some things can be bought or acquired second hand and passed on, the consumption pattern starts.

At the other end of things, I was struck, as I put the last carrier bag of my dying fathers cleaning wipes into the wheelie bin, how futile possessions can seem, and what is it in life that we really need. Two places that depress yet fascinate me are shopping centres and ‘civic amenity sites’.  In Julie Hill’s book, The secret life of stuff, she gives an insight into the true costs of the products we buy, and some hope that the future could be different.   I wonder how Micheal Landy felt when, in 2001, he bravely shredded all his possessions in the name of art, Breaking Down.  Did it liberate him?  It must be my age (nearing 50), – but are we just born to consume?  I’ve started thinking – how many fridges will I own in my lifetime and what’s the average number of washing machines an individual will own? (I need to get out more!) What is our greater impact and legacy? and is the only answer to the meaning of life 42?

Composting – can you keep rats away?

I have always been a keen on composting – so much so, that I shudder if I’m anywhere and I see veg peelings going in the dustbin. I compost everything from tea bags to cardboard; I don’t include cooked food or egg shells until they have been dried out in a cooling oven. However, there is an issue which deters many from composting their kitchen waste – and that’s rats!  There is no getting away from it – rotting food will attract them, and I know we’ve had them in ours.  I always give the bin a good kick before opening the lid! We’ve now put chicken wire underneath our plastic bin, but I guess they will chew through that eventually.  If you don’t fancy composting at home, many local councils have started kirbside collections of kitchen waste or you could set up a community composting group.  There is help available from the Community Composting Network, who have lottery funding to run a series of training events on Community Composting for Local Food, or from the Master Composters

Green Endings – eco-funerals

Spookily, just after I had updated a page on Green Choices about green burials, I turned on the radio to find a new woodland burial ground being opened in an episode of ‘The Archers’. There is certainly a growing interest in greener funerals, from wicker or cardboard coffins to woodland burial sites. I can remember when I ran the Countryside Trust on behalf of the Countryside Agency, receiving a funding application for a Green Burial site, it opened up lots of areas of discussion – the pro’s and cons of cremation and burial, impacts on the environment, land use etc. I know the Woodland Trust considered the feasibility of a woodland burial scheme, but decided not to proceed. However, there are now over 200 green burial sites around the country, and a growing choice of more environmentally friendly coffins, such as those made of recycled newspaper . I know death and dying aren’t subjects many of us a comfortable discussing. If you can plan your choices or those of your loved ones, in advance it is helpful; searching around for wicker coffins at a time of grieving can be difficult, and if they are imported from China are they a green choice? Better to have done your research first. When my father died last year I was surprised how much there was to organise and how many decisions we had to make – if you throw in is “environmentally friendly?” at this stage it can be too late – it’s hard to think about reducing the crematoriums emissions by the choice of clothing, or the handles on the coffin, but they do have an impact. If a green life is important then a green ending should be too!