An Eco-innocent Abroad

The big blue bike is heavy, and I have trouble moving through its 3 gears. I puff along on the warm English morning, moving past the grass, the flowerbeds, the dirt of Rotten Row, along and around the park’s water features. The bike takes a lot of energy to get/keep going, but I persevere. It’s my second-to-last day in London and I’m determined to make every moment count, especially since I’ve been dreaming of riding a Boris Bike ever since I booked my airline ticket and began to research what’s new in London, especially as far as sustainably.

I’m in the park because as much as I’d like to think I’m perfectly fine dealing with less-than-peachy riding conditions, as I’ve been riding in Alabama, a state not particularly friendly to bikes and cyclists, for the last two years, London traffic makes me nervous. While I could have rented a Boris Bike anywhere in town, as there are fleets of cycles positioned throughout the city, I thought I’d try a park for my first go. With no helmet included in Boris rentals, I felt better in the safety of a park, though I noted many people racing round busy London with nary a helmet in sight—what brave—or perhaps foolish—folks. And the park—or parks, given that I move from Hyde to Kensington Park and back—looks like even more of a pastoral wonderland by bike.

The “Boris” Bikes are nicknamed thus for Boris Johnson, the mayor of London under whose watch the bike-sharing program began, and sponsored by Barclays Bank, though another company will soon take over. The rental bikes see a good deal of use, for since my last visit to London, more than a decade ago, biking has become very popular. The busy London traffic now includes copious amounts of cyclists on both their own bikes and on Boris bikes. Green asphalt marks bike lanes, and cyclists, often in pelotons, move through these at speed. London seems both an ideal and a perilous place to bike. There’s a huge amount of traffic, but bikes can often move more quickly through the narrow, winding streets, and collecting into peletons offers a measure of protection.

My interest in Boris Bikes—and cycling in general—is connected to my interest in sustainability, and my recent US-UK round-travel was my first time trying to put ideas of sustainability into practice during an extended trip that took me from southeast America to England to Scotland and back again. I traveled through a variety of methods: air, bus, train, subway, and car, not to mention biking and walking. Doing all of this with a brain keyed in to practicing/observing sustainability not only gave me some new insights into sustainable living, but provided this trip back to some familiar haunts from my youth an interesting twist.

My focus on sustainability began with my planning and packing. I offset the carbon for the plane trip on TerraPass, though I confess to still feeling guilty about such a long (albeit long-wished for) trip. I tried to pack light, not only because I knew I’d be on foot a good deal, moving from place to place, transit to transit, but because doing so would save some weight on the plane, avoiding just a bit of carbon. I also wanted to try to make things simple by really paring things down—one sweater, one pair of pants, one dress, that kind of thing—to create a minimal wardrobe. Of course by the time the three weeks were over I was very, very tired of these clothes. I admit to cheating and buying a few things on the way: particularly socks (somehow, I never have enough of these). However, my small suitcase and the limitations it presented kept me, on the whole, honest.

I packed a few things directly applicable to my goals re: sustainability: a collapsible cup, a utensil kit (a neat little plastic case with a plastic spoon, fork, and knife that break down in half for maximum space-saving), and a couple of People towels: small, colorful reusable towels. The cup was my effort to cut down on the many plastic cups handed out on the airplane, with the work of the artist Chris Jordan in mind. Jordan uses often-discarded materials such as vast numbers of plastic cups as a medium for fascinating, beautiful art pieces that explore the problem of consumption and waste.

My hope to use my reusable cup exclusively was dashed at times, for example when flight attendants just automatically handed me a plastic cup even as I held out my bright orange collapsible cup to be filled. However, I had some success. The utensil kit was great for picnicking: a good way to save some money in expensive locales. Just buy some cheese, fruit, bread, and maybe a little something sweet and you’re good. However, it was often hard to find the time to picnic on the go, so I confess to buying some pre-made sandwiches, which are very easy to find in the UK, or going into restaurants for a snack. In the US I use my People towels to avoid using multiple paper towels each day. In the UK most bathrooms only contain hand dryers, ranging from super strong to ineffectual, so the People towel saw little use except as the occasional napkin.

The first challenge I faced for my trip was just getting to the Birmingham airport given the lack of any kind of public transit in most parts of Alabama, but I was lucky enough to snag a ride with a friend. My flight plans were snarled due to weather and mechanical problems, but I finally made it to London. My first choice then was how to get into London. Luckily, there are lots of options, and I chose the slow and cheap one: the tube (subway). The Piccadilly line runs from Heathrow airport right into—and through—central London, so if you don’t mind visiting a lot of stops on the way and spending some quality time with a bunch of commuters, it’s the way to go.

Riding the tube is a great way to immerse oneself in London. It is noisy, really crowded at rush hour, more than a bit chaotic, but an amazing feat of engineering. While London’s Tube is the famous one, with its own extensive merchandise line, Scotland’s Glasgow, reputedly the world’s third oldest subway, has its own charms. It runs in two circles around downtown—an inner and outer circle. The round orange subway cars pull in and out of modern stations, quickly whisking one around to Glasgow’s museums, parks, and pubs.

Of course I also tried out another favorite form of transit—walking. I love to walk in London, often getting myself a bit lost and then finding myself again. I tend to walk further than I should, sometimes getting a bit sore and frustrated in my peregrinations, but my wanderings often lead to wonderful discoveries, one of which is how close things really are, relatively, as well as the excitement of finding curious, winding little streets, peculiar shops, and strange-smelling alleys. During my wanderings I find myself encountering a Gay Pride celebration, the homes of many famous people (and some of whom I’ve never heard), and the locations for historic firsts, such as the location for the first surgery with anesthesia or England’s first family planning clinic. I also discover a pub called the Jeremy Bentham where, despite the lure of delicious English lager, I’d be afraid to lose my head (to science, of course, per Bentham’s donation of his body for study) or be viewed without will in a panopticon (per Bentham’s design for institutions where one is constantly monitored, discussed so eloquently by Michel Foucault); of course one could argue that London, even the UK itself, is one great panopticon thanks to all of the CCTV cameras.

One of the best things about London is the relative ease of transit around the city, though fighting the scrum of people going in and out of the tube stations or visiting high-traffic areas such as Oxford Street, shopping central, can be an exercise in frayed nerves and near-claustrophobia. In this vein, another good thing about London is that it is easy to escape from the city. To do so I choose the train, booking a ticket from London to Edinburgh. I have a bit of a thing about trains, and being in the UK allowed me to fully indulge my trainphilia. Trains run frequently, are clean and quiet, and can be very quick: I got from London to Edinburgh in 4.5 hours. I compare this to the US, where it is often difficult to find train service (see my previous posts on the travails of train travel in Alabama). If train travel does exist in the US, it is frequently slow, with passenger trains all-too-often deferring to freight trains rather than the other way around.

One of my favorite aspects of trains is that they allow a sense of camaraderie, even if one never speaks directly to the other train riders, for one sees families, friends, and whole groups of old age pensioners riding on trains. Trains seems particularly beneficial for older riders, who don’t have to worry about driving with dodgy eyes or ears or depending on friends or family to pick them up. They are also good for folks such as myself, people who don’t want to pay for a car year-round just to get to the nearest town. There’s something about the combination of the rocking motion of a train and the sight of farmhouses and fields, windmills and power plants, gardens and schools that give one a sense of the countryside in a way that spending time on the motorway does not. This is especially so given that trains often pass by people’s gardens, right by their homes, and move right into and out of town centers. And of course, one has the leisure to examine all of this, instead of gripping the wheel and worrying about giant trucks and careless drivers. For example, Edinburgh’s train station is right underneath Edinburgh Castle on its high hill, and only a breath from Princes Street with its park, shops, hotels, and museums.

The windmills I viewed from the train were another sign of something quite different sustainability-wise from my everyday life in the South. In Alabama, there’s an effort to restrict—one imagines perhaps to squash—the effort to get wind power going in the state. The conspiracy theorist in me imagines that this is due to the strong influence of the coal producers and coal lobby in this region. And I’m not back in AL long before I hear of the demise of plans for the first windmills in AL due to concern from residents about the “aesthetics.” This in contrast to the UK, where one sees lots of wind turbines on hills and fields, often in groups, sometimes singly. Despite their numbers/presence, an English friend tells me there are still protests based, at least in part, on, you guessed it, the issue of aesthetics, protests placed by people who give nary a thought to the source of their electricity. One wonders what these protesters would think of the aesthetics of a coal mine or a drilling platform in their backyard or a little oil spill in their drinking water. As a former Alaskan I’m still haunted by images of oil-covered wildlife and the sight of oil lingering years, even decades, after the Exxon Valdez spill. The more recent BP spill in the Gulf continues to create economic and environmental hardships, as students and friends who live in areas affected attest.

Recycling is much more advanced in the UK, on the whole, than in the US, with recycling containers on city streets, albeit still misused through carelessness or outright stupidity, even malice, by some people. Buy a pack of sandwiches, such as from the chain Marks & Spencers, and the container lists the materials used in the packaging, as well as how much is recycled; it also records what can and cannot be recycled. I was surprised to see that most stores still provide plastic bags to customers, but many sell reusable bags, which are placed near the cashiers, and when I chose to use my own bag they didn’t look at me in surprise or wonder if I really wanted to do that as so often happens in the South.

There seems much more of a focus on fitness and health than I remember from the past, with serious considerations of sugar in the newspaper and people in the parks not just walking but running, my favorite runner being a woman running in Kensington Park, her running shoes almost hidden by her black chador. I couldn’t see her face and note whether it was bare or covered, but as I watched her back, seeing her disappear down one of the park’s lanes, I could feel her determination through those long garments. And people in the UK really use their green spaces: picnicking, walking, sunning on rented seats, and playing on the large number of playgrounds/play structures that have spread, many very intricate and inviting: making me want to be a kid again.

Hopefully, I’ll get back to the UK soon and observe even more work towards sustainability, lessons that I hope I can apply, at least in some measure, to my life in the US.IMG_0145

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