What happened when I tried to book a holiday without flying

My extended family are meeting up in central Italy this summer. “Aha,” I thought, after reading one too many reports about the contribution of air travel to an environmental apocalypse, “let’s see if we can avoid flying. It might be a challenge with a small child, but what a great way to see Europe.” Surely it couldn’t be that hard? Could it?

“Agatha Christie would be delighted,” declared Michael Binyon in The Times recently in an article about cross-Europe train travel, because, “The age of the sleeper is returning”.

Perhaps it has left the sidings and is chuntering towards us, but there is little sign of it yet. I am not a train nerd, but I am trying to avoid flying after reading one too many reports about the contribution of air travel to an environmental apocalypse.

My extended family are meeting up in central Italy this summer. “Aha,” I thought, “let’s see if we can avoid flying. It might be a challenge with a small child, but what a great way to see Europe,” and, I modestly said to myself, “And what an example we’ll set!”

In April I started with the ever-mysterious-sounding Seat61.com, but the routes highlighted were already selling for 15 times the €29 the site publicised. And the timings would have sliced through our little one’s daily routine, with the risk of causing pain to all of us.

I searched online for “no-fly travel” and found carefully curated tours of European idylls, accommodation included, but the photos were of wine glasses and sunsets, not swings and miniature trains.

I contacted a no-fly travel agent (there is such a thing), and spoke to the helpful Catherine Livesley, founder and director of the No-Fly Travel Club. For her to get us off the starting block, she required a one-year membership fee of £79 for an individual or £149 for a family which “includes up to 2 hours of support on the itineraries of your choice”. If we wanted her to book the tickets, that would cost extra.

This came as a shock after the ease of airline and domestic rail websites. But we were dealing with a business model that required work by a human rather than a search engine, and paid up. And it would be worth it – the aviation industry is responsible for around 5 per cent of global warming, after all. And what an achievement if we could steam in to our holiday destination flight-free and brimming with tales of rewarding French stopovers!

Livesley quickly came back to us with two routes: one via Paris and Milan, back on a sleeper train from Nice, and a second via the ever-picturesque Swiss countryside. A sleeper train from Paris to Nice was already booked up, so we could only take it on the way home. She had thoughtfully broken the journey up into short-ish chunks to suit a young child, but these would require more hotel stays than if we were prepared to travel at any hour for any length of time.

So we turned to the possibility of driving. Around 1,000 miles. We looked up tips for long distance driving with little ones and asked friends and family and the internet. We found exciting looking car-trains that had ceased running in the pandemic. We found a car train that for some reason offered to transport your car – a day or so after transporting the passengers. Then we found a Motorail service that reached Italy via Düsseldorf and would have transported our car as well. My husband called out as he scrolled through the timetable, “What does ‘Nicht verfügbar’ mean?” “Not available,” I replied with an increasing sense of resignation. There were technical problems on the line.

What if we did the drive by ourselves – surely it couldn’t be that hard? Au contraire: it would mean 19 hours’ (at least) driving on the unfamiliar right, with the risk of Little One getting fidgety or uttering the words, “I need a wee.” After we had begun our investigations and many evenings of discussions, we did a four-hour drive that was twice punctuated by those peace-shattering words. Both times, into action we flew, eyes peeled for the first sign of a service station, cartoonishly skidding in to race towards the facilities. The thought of executing this manoeuvre in a foreign country was not appealing.

Exhausted, we gave up. Reader, I apologise. We have booked air tickets. We are already paying for our weakness – a lack of weekend flights means that our already expensive tickets (more expensive than the train) will require several nights in a hotel. We had an option to carbon offset when we paid for them and I confess, I felt so sore to be paying more that I declined. (I’ve since made a donation to Friends of the Earth.) And yet any peace of mind about our journey was quickly swept away: the airline with which we booked has been cancelling flights.

So what to conclude? That for all our efforts we are – this year – contributing to the problem, and that our spending habits are no different from those of people who don’t care about the environment.

But also that the age of sleepers can’t come soon enough, and that car trains need to get up and running in sufficient volume; that governments may need to offer subsidies to help companies to scale up quickly so that even those with little concern for the environment are persuaded to avoid the airport. And that one way to reduce the carbon footprint of a holiday is to reduce the journey distance so that no-fly options are more feasible. In the mean time I wish Livesley and her ilk all the very best in weaning us off fast, child-friendly, easy-to-book, cheap-if-you-get-in-early, air travel.

Top image: via Queens University, Ontario

The Science Museum needs to catch up on the climate crisis

My three-year-old has developed a passion for wind turbines. Where better to show him one than London’s Science Museum, alongside all the other technologies that are helping to solve the climate crisis, I reasoned? I was wrong. And rather alarmed.

Who can predict what catches the imagination of small children? For my three-year-old, a lengthy trip up the M1 has ignited a passion for wind turbines. Otherwise endless grey miles were punctuated by cries of, “I want to see a windmill,” followed by squeals of excitement when the piercing blades became visible from the back of the car.  

I sought to capitalise on his new focus by taking him to the Science Museum. Where better to see a wind turbine if you live in a built-up city? And what a great age to start caring for the environment: I’ve heard plenty of parents say they have been nagged into better recycling habits by their conscientious children.

So, I thought, surely there would be a wind turbine on display at the Science Museum – full size, hopefully, alongside solar panels and all the other impressive ways scientific innovation is helping us out of the climate crisis.  After all, the UN says we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, so the clock is ticking. And maybe, I thought, we’d see a model of a windmill.  

But no. The same steam engines and beam engines greet visitors that have done so for years, still churning out the narrative that scientific progress has saved us from hard manual labour and slow productivity. This is course true, and we live in their debt every day. But there was no word of the problems caused by those engines’ unruly heirs. When I asked where I could find a wind turbine or a windmill, one member of staff asked around and eventually recommended I take my son to London’s last working windmill, in Brixton.

Only one part of the museum really focused on climate change: at one end of one floor, is a modest temporary exhibition called Our Future Planet that looks at technologies being developed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and includes such quirky exhibits as “air vodka”. The museum’s Kids’ Handbook contained two pages on green energy, and photos of what were absent from the displays – a wind turbine, a solar panel and a hydroelectric dam.

Oddly, the handbook also devoted two pages to the jet engine and two to various single-use plastics, without any mention of the colossal environmental damage they are known to cause.

Photo: Blue Planet 2/BBC

Had the authors not watched those heart-breaking 2017 documentaries Blue Planet 2, in which Sir David Attenborough revealed the extent of marine plastic pollution? Had they not read the many news stories linking popularised air travel to dangerous levels of global heating? A government survey last autumn found that three-quarters of adults in Britain were worried about the impact of climate change.

Curious, I read around. I found that the sponsors of the museum, much of which is free to enter, include oil companies BP and Shell, and the coal conglomerate Adani. According to the Guardian, its contract with Shell included a clause committing the museum not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of the oil company. And last autumn a member of the museum’s advisory board resigned over the museum’s “ongoing policy of accepting sponsorship from oil and gas companies”.

At the time, the head of the Science Museum Group, Ian Blatchford, said: “We respect his decision to step down from his advisory role and he will remain a critical friend, his view much valued in our assessments.”

More positively, I found the website to contain more of the messaging I would have expected from scientific expert, including a thorough treatment of the problem of plastic pollution, and videos of talks about climate change from last year.

Yet it still felt too little, too piecemeal. The climate disaster is the biggest science story, the biggest story, in a century – especially if it as allowed to burgeon into the catastrophic proportions we are told inaction and denial will lead to. What is going on?

The museum told me a new climate change gallery focusing on “energy transition” is planned for next year, and a temporary exhibition in the autumn celebrating technicians “includes a to-scale wind turbine tower” and was designed with input from local teenagers. It added that the Kids’ Handbook had been published in 2013 whereas the online article on plastics appeared in 2019, and that films, talks and blogs on the website demonstrate the museum’s commitment “to engaging people in this vital issue”. It added that the contract clause “appears in most sponsorship agreements the museum … drafts”, adding: “In all of our work we maintain editorial control.”

So, mystery solved: if you want to learn about climate change through the Science Museum this summer, you’ll have to wait a few more months or stay at home and switch on your computer. By the time the new gallery opens, one-eighth of the time left to reach the climate target will have passed. I hope the new gallery will report the ignored warnings honestly and outline the reimaginings and breakthroughs inspiringly, even if it is decades too late to be ahead of the curve of public opinion. If not, they risk losing credibility in the eyes of the generation whose lives will be most affected by the climate crisis. As for my son and me, we’re off to Brixton.

Photo: Wind turbines at Whitelee Windfarm outside Glasgow. Credit: Bjmullan via Wikimedia

What the snow isn’t telling us

The thermometer outside my window this morning read minus 3 degrees Celcius, or so I discovered once I had dusted off the overnight snow fall from it. A mile from central London.

People say we’re experiencing a winter “how it used to be”. One could dream that Nature had forgiven us our decades – centuries – of burning excesses and had graciously turned the clock back.

Continue reading “What the snow isn’t telling us”