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One week to go … and I have done nothing about Christmas. Squat. Big fat zero. No cards written. No presents bought. No tree up. And am I panicking? Nope. Well, not much.

There is far too much hoo-ha about Christmas. Too much time and money and stress invested in it. We give it a massive build-up, work ourselves into a lather over gifts and food and parties and family get-togethers and end up several pounds heavier on the scales and several hundred pounds lighter in the wallet.

But are we any happier? Marooned in a sea of ripped wrapping paper and quashing one’s own disappointment (who actually wants candles or soap or – my all-time low – an owl hooter?), it is hard not to ask yourself: “Is that it, then?”. Especially when the bickering over batteries from kids allowed Quality Streets before breakfast kicks in.

And, to cap it all, the Doctor Who Christmas Special never quite lives up to our feverish festive expectations. But that’s my point: Christmas rarely does.

The best Christmas I ever had was when my then boyfriend (now husband) and I set off on Christmas Eve for a long drive to my parents and we were forced to return home due to bad weather. Having cleaned out the fridge before we left, we had nothing but tinned ham and oven chips for Christmas dinner, but he made us some crackers and paper hats and there was plenty of booze (originally intended as familial gifts) and chocolates (ditto) and we had a blissful time.

I don’t want to sound all Scroogish and mean. Perhaps my problem with Christmas is that I peak too early. I play in two brass bands, which means that I’m out carolling from the end of November onwards. By the time it gets to the big day, I’m Christmassed out. Plus, I’m so busy playing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day that it’s very hard to find a day when I’m actually free to do any shopping.

Luckily, the husband has taken care of the daughter’s stocking-filler presents courtesy of eBay and her main pressie – tickets for the two of them to see her favourite band – does not require any wrapping. I did insist on recycled wrapping paper and most of my greetings cards will be of the virtual variety. Our Christmas tree – fake, about eight years old now and still going strong – will be dusted off and decorated this weekend, so all in all, I may just catch up in time.

Christmas excess can generate a massive amount of carbon emissions, and here in the South Bank area of York we’ve been running a campaign to promote awareness of this and to suggest lower-carbon alternatives. According to How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint Of Everything, by Mike Berners-Lee, a full-on Christmas could cost up to 1,500kg of CO2 per adult; by contrast a low-carbon scenario equates to about 4kg CO2 per adult. The calculations are based on unwanted presents, wasted food, avoidable travel, fairy lights and cards, so it doesn’t even show the full picture.

If you add in the emissions from all the plastic toys and electronic gadgets made in China and supermarket produce sourced from around the world it would be way higher.

I am shunning supermarket bun-fights and have ordered our turkey (locally reared, free-range) from the butcher down the road. Together with a few treats from the deli and our regular vegebox delivery, which, this time of year, is always full of Christmassy things like sprouts and parsnips and walnuts, we should be pretty much sorted.

My mother-in-law, who is coming to stay, very sweetly said that was all she would need, and then added, with a great deal more emphasis: “I hope you’re going to turn the bloody heating up.”

This is a reference to the fact that she finds our house freezing (the thermostat is usually on 17 or 18 degrees) and the concept of turning down the thermostat by one degree is not one she goes along with. One Christmas, she took herself off to M&S to buy extra jumpers.

Of course, one shouldn’t let older people get cold, and I don’t want her to be uncomfortable, so we’ll probably have the heating up to a broiling 20 degrees while she’s here. I’ll do a bit of self-flagellation with a cabbage stump by way of penance afterwards.

Only joking. Those big stalks of kale from the vegebox work much better. Happy Christmas.

From The Press, 17 December 2010 – http://bit.ly/gxFssy

‘Did I hear you say you were foot passengers?’ The man sitting next to me on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from the Isle of Arran to Ardrossan regarded my rucksack-laden family. ‘How did you get here?’

By train, I told him.

‘I suppose you hired a car when you got to Arran,’ he said. It wasn’t a question.

‘No, we used buses,’ I shouted, over a chorus of car alarms from the decks below.

‘Did that work?’ he asked, clearly sceptical.

‘It was brilliant,’ I said. ‘Sustainable travel. It’s the best way to do it.’

He muttered something about getting a coffee and did not return. Pity. I’d only just got started.

We took buses every day in Arran, and it came to a quarter of the cost of hiring a car. It was much more relaxing than having to drive and the views, which you don’t appreciate when you’ve got your eyes glued to the road, were stunning. The trip around the north of the island was the best: a scenic rollercoaster ride with several stomach-plunging moments, at which I held my arms in the air and cried ‘Woo’, to the extreme embarrassment of the daughter.

You can, of course, hire bikes if you’ve got thighs of steel. However, we weren’t up to puffing up mountains and the advantage of the buses was that they would drop off and pick up even if you weren’t at a designated bus stop. This was a novelty to townies like us, but it was explained that it was all part of the ‘Arran way’.

We came to be very grateful for Arran’s support network on the one occasion that we could have done with a car. The daughter fell quite seriously ill on our first day and had to be taken to hospital in Lamlash by the island’s only ambulance. By the time she was fit to be discharged it was late in the evening, the buses had stopped running and regular taxi services had ceased.

The hospital called up a driver, who made a special trip out to get us. He gave the daughter some gamekeeper’s lore for avoiding heatstroke in the future and told us that helping each other out was the Arran way. It certainly was. Everybody from the paramedics to the duty doctor was lovely. The nurse even made us poor wilting parents a pot of tea.

Aside from the dash to hospital, the rest of our car-free holiday went without a hitch. Ironically, we couldn’t have afforded to have a holiday at all if we hadn’t given up our car because it was the savings that we’ve made that paid for it.

A report, Towards a Zero Carbon Vision for UK Transport, just published by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, estimates that opting out of individual car ownership can save people as much as £4,000 a year. Not only does this have obvious benefits for individuals, but that money tends to go back into the local economy by increasing spending in nearby shops.

I can vouch for this. When we gave up the car we also gave up on doing big supermarket shops and we now get a vegebox delivered and buy locally. It has the advantage of preventing you buying more than you need and produces far less packaging and waste. Plus, we’re healthier for all the walking and cycling – fortunately, you don’t need buns of steel to cycle round York – which is another perk of going car-free.

There are disadvantages, of course. Lots of places aren’t accessible by public transport, so we’ve joined the City Car Club and car-share with people. Neither can you take off for a Sunday afternoon drive, should you feel like it.

To which I say, ‘why bother?’ As the August Bank Holiday weekend kicks off with more than 17 million motorists reportedly facing a ‘perfect storm’ of travel chaos and three-hour delays, I’m happy to stay at home. It may not be much comfort if you’re travelling today but according to the SEI report, ‘Traffic congestion and time wasted stuck in jams will be a thing of the past’ in a zero carbon transport future.

As I write this, an email has just popped into my inbox inviting me to buy a VIP hospitality package to Top Gear Live. ‘Sit back and experience a tyre-screeching performance … ‘

Look, we already had that with the ambulance ride. And on the switchback bus. Who needs cars, eh?

‘Did you actually grow these? In our garden?  In the ground? Seriously?’ The daughter poked a potato with her fork (less than enthusiastically, it has to be said).

‘Yes, and the lettuce.’ I beamed in bountiful, Earth Mother-ish fashion.

‘Oh,’ said the husband, toying with his salad, equally unenthusiastically. They are both rubbish at eating vegetables at the best of times. The fact that their lunch had been pulled from the soil only that morning was not working in its favour.

This is what I, as the ‘gardener’ in our family, am up against. That, and the garden itself. Things that I plant do not tend to do well. The peas shrivelled, the spring onions were stunted, the spinach bolted and the plum tree is looking very poorly indeed. And things that I haven’t planted do fantastically well. Russian vine, cleavers, bindweed, spurge, thistles . . .  and, oddly, tomatoes.

I thought these were weeds too, at first, but decided to leave them, just in case. Now we have a bed full of thrusting tomato plants, which have apparently sprouted from my top-dressing of home-produced compost. It must be potent stuff: they’ve completely dwarfed the carrots, crowded out the broad beans and are starting to challenge the apple tree we planted in the Spring. Isn’t Nature just marvellous?

I only hope the tomato plants produce actual fruits. At least then I can make chutney. Chutney is the one thing – apart from a massive courgette plant that resembled Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors – I managed to make from my time as an allotmenteer. I started to chart my experience in my blog on 1 January 2009.  Tellingly, the final entry for ‘Diary of an Allotment Virgin’ is written one week later. I did stick it out longer than that but the couch grass-weeding and mono-diet of courgettes eventually did for me.

Allotments are great if you’ve got the time to devote to them and I’m in total awe of those folk with organised, well-tended plots. However, we found that even with three busy people (me and two mates) sharing one half-plot we couldn’t keep up. The digging was therapeutic but if you left things for more than a week it started to revert to its previous hayfield status. I tried to rally the family to help, but all they ever did was wander down and singe marshmallows on a smouldering bonfire.

Still determined to grow veg, I abdicated from the allotment team and decided to dig up half the back garden instead. My parents have already done this back home and are almost self-sufficient already. They are now experimenting with all manner of exotic crops, though I got a bit confused when Mum started mentioning their ‘rabbi’ (turns out they’re growing kohl rabi, a turnipy kind of thing with weird stalky leaves that looks a bit like an alien spaceship).

If you don’t fancy digging up your back garden – or don’t have one – you can help yourself from Edible York’s first communal bed, inspired by the Incredible Edible movement in Todmorden, Lancashire, which has got the whole town growing. I went along to visit it in Paragon Street, next to the Barbican, and was delighted to hear how keen the council’s Neighbourhood Pride team is on collaborating with the scheme. More sites and opportunities are already being planned.

This is really good news because we are going to need to become more self-sufficient in the future and food growing is one way to create local resilience. Some schools have already got going with raised beds and allotment clubs, which a group of enterprising pupils is hoping to link up through a York Edible Schools co-op. The Yorkshire in Bloom judges were shown around some of the school (and other) projects yesterday. Perhaps these could they be the forerunners of something new? How about a  ‘York in Season’ competition next?

There are already loads of initiatives going on locally, from YUMI’s new multicultural garden at the Danesgate Centre to a community orchard in Fulford, and from guerrilla gardening by a sub-station (anyone spotted the rogue gro-bag?) to food-gathering expeditions organised by Abundance York. Keep a look out for the latter distributing the spoils of their urban harvest in York on the Day of Kindness on 13 August.

And if you see a woman handing out tomatoes, it might be me. After all, there is only so much chutney a person can make.

If there is one place you don’t want a cab driver to announce ‘Taxi for Lock’, it’s in a room full of delegates venting about gas-guzzling motor vehicles.

This was my dilemma last week, when I had to get from the Towards Carfree Cities IX conference at York’s Priory Street Centre to an interview with the Climate Change Minister, Chris Huhne, on the other side of town.

Chris Huhne

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne during a visit to Solarwall, in Clifton, York

I would have hopped on my bike, but I’ve been ill and I wasn’t up to it. Neither was the venue close to a convenient regular bus service. This is a typical problem I’ve had since giving up our car – public transport is, frequently, pants – so I seized the moment (they were discussing car-sharing), and the microphone, and asked, ‘Can anyone give me a lift?’

There was an embarrassed silence and, unsurprisingly, no takers. Compost John did offer to take me on the crossbar of his bike, which was kind but not practical, even if the image of me bowling up to the minister like a street kid in a sun-dress did appeal.

In the end, I legged it to the station and slunk into a cab, compounding my carbon emissions (and my guilt) by getting another taxi home. This got stuck in a massive tailback and we sat there, spewing out pollution, while fit-looking cyclists whizzed past us and I contemplated the happy day when York does, eventually, become car-free.

What, you didn’t see this option in the council’s latest traffic consultation exercise? That’ll teach you for being in the 90 per cent that throws those surveys in the bin (I do hope you recycle them, at any rate). OK, so it wasn’t actually listed as an option for LTP3, but having listened to the urban planners and transport specialists from around the world at the conference this week, I’m convinced that, one day, it could be.

Professor John Whitelegg, a keynote speaker, said in his address on Tuesday, ‘There’s an enormous missed opportunity in York. It could easily be car-free within the city walls.’ He pointed to exciting developments in cities such as Berlin, Basel, Freiburg and Copenhagen and said that urban space could be ‘radically re-engineered at relatively little cost’ to produce ‘human-scale, people-centred environments with a massive improvement in quality of life.’

It sounds good to me, though I realise the mere mention of doing away with cars is deeply provocative to some. But if York wants to realise its stated ambitions of becoming ‘a leading environmentally friendly city’ and ‘an exemplar low-emissions city’ – as opposed to a congested and polluted city with air quality so poor that it’s killing three people a week – then it has to do something bold. The fine words have been going on for long enough.

As Professor Whitelegg said, it’s time to start buttering parsnips.

My emissions-per-quote ratio didn’t work out too well with Chris Huhne, who had come to Solarwall’s Energy Centre in Clifton to announce that the Government was going to get more homes insulated, paving the way for a new Green Deal to come.

I only had five minutes with the Climate Change Minister, so I asked him what this would mean for York residents like me living in Victorian terraced houses that don’t benefit from existing deals. He said there would be ‘extras’ available for pre-1930s housing, such as solid wall insulation, which could be installed with no upfront costs, the repayment coming from a charge on a home’s energy meter, offset by savings on fuel bills.

Fine as far as it goes, but since the environment barely rated a mention in the budget, this ‘greenest Government ever’ will have to do much more to convince that it’s taking positive action on climate change, rather than simply letting poverty reduce emissions by default.

Fortunately, the team of young people I helped to mentor (with Andy Chase) through a Dragon’s Den-style challenge last weekend restored my hopes.  The students – bright sparks from both independent and state schools in York – were given the brief to come up with an idea ‘to make York fit for the future’.

Our team came up with an idea for an organisation to promote food growing in all York schools that had our ‘Dragons’ slavering (in a good way). Congratulations to Xavier, Simon, Peter and Ed from Bootham, Canon Lee and Fulford schools respectively on being made joint winners.

A future that involves growing parsnips and buttering them. Now that’s just what York needs.

http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/features/columnists/8251231.Car_free_York_and_the__Green_Deal__for_Victorian_terraced_houses/

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