Family on a Bike goes Eco-Touring
A Family on a Bike Tour 2006
This feature article, written by Kirstie Pelling, was first published in Cumbria Life Magazine, June 2006

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Lake and mountains

The eco warriors ride out

A Cumbrian family hit the road in search of an answer to the question: Is Cumbria really ‘green'?

‘We'd organised our fortnight long eco-tour as part of a drive to look at our household impact on the environment. We had already replaced light bulbs, reused clothes, refused supermarket plastic bags, and resolved to cut down on air miles, but I wasn't convinced our efforts would prevent climate chaos.'

Kirstie Pelling set out with her family on a 300 mile eco-tour of the county to discover just how green Cumbria really is. But of course no self respecting eco-tourist could possibly travel by car . . . so they did it by bike. Here's Kirstie's eye-opening report.

Photography by Jonathan Becker
Kirstie Pelling set out with her family on a 300 mile eco-tour of the county to discover just how green Cumbria really is.

Ow! That hurt. Mum, can you believe it's raining snowballs? The children caught hailstones in their gloves as the sky darkened and the road became an ice rink. Our procession of wheels lost traction, brakes screeching in frozen air. We pulled our travelling circus of tandem, bicycle and two trailers over into what would have been a broadleafed copse had spring decided to join us.

Coiled tightly as spring buds, we shielded our wind-blown faces from the icy pellets cracking sharply on cycling helmets. This was early April on the road to Dufton in Cumbria 's Eden Valley , and we must have looked like April fools.

“How about a fortnight in Centerparcs next Easter?” asked my husband Stuart, wiping nuggets of ice from the top of one of the brightly coloured trailers while our seven month old baby slept on, shrouded in blankets. Three days into our eco-tour of Cumbria and we'd had it all - rain, wind, sleet, snow and now hail.

Spring, Dufton and global warming all felt a long way off.

We'd organised our fortnight long eco-tour as part of a drive to look at our household impact on the environment. We had already replaced lightbulbs, reused clothes, refused supermarket plastic bags, and resolved to cut down on air miles, but I wasn't convinced our efforts would prevent climate chaos. Even if we stopped tumble drying forever and reused bags until they fell apart; everyone else was still creating emissions with their SUVs and fancy spotlights. But Stuart maintained averting a global crisis was all about taking personal action and responsibility, so we decided to track down some community based people and projects tackling global warming at a local level.

Of course, from the safety of the living room this all sounded easy. We began planning for the trip at tourist information centres around the county, but our eco-theme stumped most assistants and it was impossible to even get a recommendation for a green guest house. Each gave a short pause before tentatively suggesting Sellafield, Ostrich world, or the Alpaca Centre. It was an uphill battle, but as we researched deeper we started to unearth some hidden environmental treasures. Buried amongst the lakes, mountains, fells, becks and forests we began to discover micro generation projects, innovative recycling schemes, renewable energy cooperatives, conservation projects, sustainable community programmes, eco teams and eco streets, organic farms, fair trade towns, community food cooperatives, farms committed to environmental stewardship, and yes, even the odd green guest house.

Back on the road to Dufton, our camping plans were falling through as the hail created a layer of ice on the grass. A quick phone call located a guest house for the night: Hall Croft Bed and Breakfast run by Ray Walker, who crammed our bikes and trailers into a barn stacked with sheets of polystyrene. Ray was insulating his house, cramming polystyrene into the walls and roof. And when he brought us home made cake, organic chocolates and fair trade coffee to settle us in, we realised we had stumbled across our first eco-guest house. The children ate the chocolates while Ray explained his mission to educate by example.
Kirstie Pelling and family

At any time during a stay at Hall Croft guests might see Ray trundle into the village centre with a wheelbarrow to pick up food ordered on a community basis from a wholefood cooperative, or collect food waste from neighbours to add to his own compost heap. Visitors eat home made bread, jams, marmalade and organic vegetarian food, and are offered lifts to and from the station if they leave the car at home. Ray's main aim is to minimise waste and he works hard to keep the rubbish down to one bag a month. Even our own children's tiny chocolate wrappers would soon be disposed of in a responsible way.

“The chocolate thing may seem obsessive,” Ray told us, “but I'm thinking every one of those chocolates has a paper which can be recycled or used for fire and a bit of aluminum foil which could go in the aluminium recycling bank nearby.”

He pointed to a radiator, decorated with logs drying out to make the fire more efficient, and a bucket of ash ready to go on the garden.

“What you do on your own isn't going to make much difference but if everyone did it . . ?” says Ray. As we left I placed the chocolate wrappers carefully in the small wastepaper basket for recycling, but took the baby's nappies with us, that landfill twinge of guilt growing stronger by the day.

“Look, a fork, a fork! Who would possibly want to throw away a fork?” The children brandished rusty items of cutlery in two layers of gloves. On an industrial estate in Penrith, nappies were about the only thing not being recycled by the Eden Community Recycling Project. We left our bikes next to a rack of neatly stacked cubes of crushed tin and aluminium cans and hoped no one would mistake them for trash to be recycled.

It occurred to me that many of Ray's aluminium chocolate wrappers were probably in the bag stuffed with foil and Chinese take away cartons squatting on the warehouse forecourt, next to chunks of recycled plastic bags, their ragged edges flapping in the wind. General Manager Ian Collingwood gave us a tour of the centre in a yellow jacket as bright as the smile on his face. With one ear piece keeping him in constant communication with the hub of recycling, he explained how the scheme began as a charity project 25 years ago when a local fireman collected newspapers on the fire station car park to raise money for good causes. Now a not-for-profit limited company it has five members of staff, seven volunteers and a contract with Eden District Council to collect and process domestic recycling from 24 banks around the district. Ian was passionate about putting sustainability before profit, and pointed out how each section of domestic waste would be reused. Kirstie Pelling and family

“The carrier bags are made back into black bin bags,” he said. “That lot are off to Leicester tonight for processing. The bottles will be milled down into granules, most of which are then sold on and turned into polyester.”

He emphasised their relationship with the general public of Eden, who benefit from profit being ploughed back into schools and good causes. “Whatever they want we try and do it for them,” he added, “they wanted plastic so we gave them plastic, they wanted aluminium so we gave them foil recycling. Now we're getting lots of those orange juice cartons . . . “

As Ian went off to take delivery of a car load of cardboard boxes I caught sight of the disposable nappy we were still carting round.

“I don't suppose the Eden public want to recycle that?” I said as Stuart tried to coax our sons out of their new found plastic and aluminium wonderland and back on the tandem and trailer.

As we moved on around the county our experiment with low impact accommodation continued at campsites that turned into Glastonbury swamps when the rain set in overnight, and a caravan on a farm with an air temperature colder than the stables. But our next appointment was thankfully indoors, where the ground beneath our feet apparently stored enough natural energy to heat a village hall using a Ground Source Heat Pump.

Inside Gamblesby Hall we thawed out with the luxury of underfloor heating while Committee Secretary Bill Mitchell explained how the building work came about after someone “leant back on a chair and fell through the floor.”

The community fundraised and applied for grants to tackle refurbishment in an environmentally sensitive way, then designed, managed and installed the project, forming a working party to dig two metre deep trenches in the car park and put in the coils of pipes that would move the stored solar heat into the building. Bill and I left the warm sunflower yellow interior of the hall and took a walk around the side of the hall to view a box the size of a small fridge. This unpretentious heat exchanger allows the people of Gamblesby to enjoy their low running cost village amenity.

Bill told me how one community member is now a world expert in this technology, and that the project bonded them all together, created local employment and developed new skills and expertise within the community. Now the hall is about to become even more self sufficient as work begins on an eight metre wind turbine to help pre-warm the liquid circulating through the pipes, with any excess electricity being sold back to the grid. But Bill says they'll be using the hall to relax in while professionals do the hard work.

“When we'd done phase one there was a certain amount of project fatigue,” Bill added. “This time we've employed an architect and builders; we're not getting our hands dirty.”

As an insurance policy Gamblesby Hall kept the old heaters in case the new system failed to generate enough power, but they haven't been used despite the prolonged winter. Bill puts this down to a combination of the heat pump and high insulation, courtesy of the Herdwick sheep, whose wool has been packed into the walls and roof.

We followed the wool trail to Dacre, where a company called Second Nature has returned to the old principles of insulation, with a little help from new technology. Thermafleece is a pioneering Cumbrian product using ‘waste' wool to create a useful natural insulation that's doing its bit to help conserve energy. Just as farmers used to stuff sheep's wool into the rafters and behind the walls of buildings to retain the heat, blocks of Thermafleece are being used to insulate new and newly restored buildings. Unlike some building materials this product can be handled by anyone, torn apart if necessary by hand, is insect proof, lasts a lifetime and is recyclable. The concept of wrapping your house in a big woolly jumper was developed by Christine Armstrong whose family pets snooze on the floor on chunks of Thermafleece during office hours. After a night in a camping barn we were tempted to stay and join them.

We left in the rain, with the air temperature heading back towards zero and turned, along with the wind, towards the West Coast of Cumbria where they are also experimenting with a return to the old ways. People in this region have been burning wood from the local forests to keep themselves warm since the earliest days of settlement and forest clearances. And volunteers in Eskdale have come up with something the same but different; no more grates and ash pans but instead a shiny new Austrian wood burning boiler now getting up and running in the grounds of the village school.

The ‘Eskdale Open' group was the brainchild of the vicar in response to the effect of Foot and Mouth on his village. Like Second Nature, their project uses a ‘waste' product. But this time they hope to generate jobs, heat, and a sustainable community; teaming up biomass heat production with huge areas of woodland that need felling and replanting.

Treasurer Celia McKenzie showed us the new boiler, hidden for the moment under a blue plastic tarpaulin. It's no small piece of equipment and it'll mean a few changes to school life as someone will need to feed it logs every morning to guzzle, but it promises to reduce the school's carbon dioxide emissions by eight tons a year. ‘Eskdale Open' volunteers have a big vision, not just to heat the school greenly but help secure its future and rejuvenate the whole sustainability of Eskdale and they're looking at options to develop the idea further when Sellafield is decommissioned; to keep the technology skills in the community.

“We don't stop thinking about it,” Celia said, “it would be fantastic if we could actually bring the building of these pieces of kit to West Cumbria , because we've got the people with the capability to do that.”

In addition the children are being educated at first hand in sustainable energy sources, and it's hoped they'll in turn go home and educate their parents.

We felt no eco tour would be complete without a visit to Sellafield. But we took a wrong turn and ended up cycling a muddy farm track around the perimeter. Sheet rain battered against steel and concrete domes, towers and chimneys as we tried to explain nuclear fission to a three year old and a five year old.

Finally arriving at the Visitor Centre the children could hardly contain their excitement at the scientific playground that beckoned. We toured the exhibition, watched the monitors and read the literature, trying to figure out whether the benefit of low carbon energy production was worth the potential risk from long-lived pollution. Then we played the interactive games of helping the Minister of Energy cope with a national crisis. When asked to make a choice Stuart opted for solar energy while my elder son chose hydro, swayed no doubt by a comfortable stay in Ennerdale Youth Hostel, wholly powered by water.

”What did you choose?” our five year old asked, as the result flashed on screen that most of the people gathered also chose hydro power.

“I choosed a lolly,” said our younger son, happily sucking on an ice pop.

“And I went for wind,” I answered.

“Based on days of exhaustive first hand experience and months of background research into the future of energy?” Stuart asked.

“No, I just like windmills,” I shrugged.

The rain and gales swept around the gates of Haverigg prison and out into the deserted bay. Turbine towers soared from scrub, tapered blades slicing into the squall, humming with pride at their own power and grace. We weaved across the former air field, towards Jack Heslop, the ‘Keeper of the Keys' for the Baywind Energy Cooperative. Swapping cycle helmets for hard hats we climbed up into the turbine and stood shoulder to shoulder in the metal box room, the turbine above us reaching into the heavens. Jack pointed to a mechanical system on the wall.

“That's the box of tricks driving the turbine. But I can stop it, start it, and correct any power failure from a laptop in my living room. No need to come out of the house on a windy day like this,” he told us, pointing to a small box in the wall.

When Jack does come out to his windmills, it's often to show people around, to explain how the turbines work and dispel a few myths.

“People talk all kinds of rubbish about them,” he said. “That they're deafening, like a tractor on a stick; and that they kill birds. Well, we once had an owl who regularly came to feed on the mice droppings and in the summer the sheep shelter in the shade of the turbines.”

For once the weather was in our favour; every one of the machines revolved at full power as if just for us. But on further discussion my grand plan to save the skin of Sellafield's fictional Energy Minister by replacing fossil fuels with wind turned out to be a little naive.

“If there's no wind then there's no show,” Jack told me. “You can't store this kind of power.”

As Stuart cycled off, becoming a speck on the landscape beneath the lofty turbines I reflected on the irony that wind, the enemy of the cyclist, should be the saviour of the world. I asked Jack where he fell in the whole energy debate, assuming he'd recommend a future powered by windmills.

“Well it's one solution certainly, but not on its own,” he said. “My money's also on the tide.”

A small amount of solar energy struggled through the clouds as we continued to pass by or drop in on eco-attractions, schemes, projects and businesses; the water powered mill at Little Salkeld making organic flour, the solar powered school at Keswick, the businessman with a vision of creating an environmental theme park and eco village on Broughton Moor.

We visited Howbarrow Farm in Cartmel where a tour of their permatunnels encouraged us to take part in their weekly organic box scheme (a scheme also being offered by an organic garden at Haverigg Prison) and cycled down one of the UK 's first eco-streets in Penrith. We followed the Cumbria tea trail which offered foods without air miles to sour the experience, and ate home or farm made produce from all corners of the region.

We discovered Cumbria has an elaborate system of cycle routes, although they're mostly uphill and not always car free. We met ‘green' hotel owners who locked their guests' car keys in the drawer in return for a discount, and bakers who use renewable energy to make home made bread and scones, and bought local cheese while being serenaded by a pianist. We stayed in a tent, a caravan, and several very green hostels, turned a camping barn into a fun factory and put up our tent to dry in a range of hotel bedrooms.

And along the way, Stuart's lone voice telling me to compost waste, avoid using the car and take responsibility for my impact on the planet was joined by many others. I always suspected that phrase about small groups of committed people being the only thing that can make a difference was a cliche. But here we were in our own back yard, meeting small communities with big visions and a tireless enthusiasm to pass a healthy planet on to our three children.

There are many obvious green attractions in Cumbria including the lakes, mountains, fells and rivers that bring so many visitors to the area, but these are the very things at risk unless we take action to reduce our impact on the environment. The people we met on our eco-tour are green beyond the landscape, and their schemes and plans are the ‘invisible green,' hard to find and difficult to see. But they need to get more visible if people like me are to be shamed into action. According to Cumbria Tourist Board, the Lake District was the world's first Green Globe 21 destination, a mark of its success in balancing the needs of tourism, the environment, local communities and the economy and its commitment to improved environmental and social performance. Green Globe says we are doing a better job balancing the needs of tourism and the environment than anywhere else in Britain .

But Cumbria, like everywhere in the world is being increasingly painted black with the overuse of depleting fossil fuels and it's going to need a concerted effort to become “as green as the grass” once more.

With the tour at an end, the kids refuse to get into the car and keep switching off our new energy saving lightbulbs, even when we're in the room. Meanwhile I'm eating a more organic diet, considering buying shares in wind power, and have even been prompted to look for some old fashioned non disposable nappies.

My eco-transformation would be helped along if only I could get hold of a wind powered tumble dryer. My five year old tells me it's called a washing line.


This feature first published in Cumbria Life, June 2006
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