Elspeth Thompson


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October - November - December 2006

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30 Sep 2006 - OFF THE RAILS

Most people would have knocked it down and put up a nice brick bungalow in its place. A pair of dilapidated former railway carriages, parked up on a concrete plinth with a makeshift roof slung between them and a tiny galley kitchen tacked on to one end, it looked more like a hut than a habitable dwelling. Storm damage had left a large part of the exterior boarded up, with sheets of flapping plastic as impromptu double glazing, the once-white paint was peeling and the place looked small, squat and scruffy beside the new two-storey house next door. Whenever I walked past, I wondered how the elderly boat-fitter and his wife, who had rented it for the past 34 years, were able to stand up in it, let alone raise a family there. And yet, when we heard the place was coming on the market, something made us take a look.

From the moment I set foot inside I was hooked. The space, though cramped, was quite magical – as my husband, Frank, commented, standing in the long central room was like waiting on a railway platform with a train pulled in on either side. Rows of doors, the windows mostly painted over, but with the original heavy brass handles, opened on to room after room – some just one original compartment wide, with wood-panelled walls and coved ceilings, and others opened up to make larger living spaces. The tour de force was the sitting room – the old guard’s van, a good foot or two higher than the rest, with a semi-circle of glass windows at either end of the raised roof, so that the guard could see along the top of the train as it trundled along. Sunlight poured in through these, and slanted down from skylights in the long central room. Double doors with blistered black paint and worn leather straps at the windows opened on to a covered verandah; the rooms on the other side may have had rotting ceilings, but they gave on to a garden filled with old apple trees and roses. We made an offer on the spot.

It was not such a rash decision, in the end. We had fallen in love with this forgotten and unfashionable part of the Sussex coast while renting a weekend cottage nearby, and were looking for a permanent base along the narrow unmade track that runs parallel to the sea. Properties there don’t come up often, and those we had seen were way out of our price range (we weren’t yet ready to sell up in London, and our work kept us tied to the city). In addition, I had harboured a longstanding dream to create an eco-house – a home fuelled by natural resources, and built using environmentally-sound principles and materials. (We’d tried our best when renovating our London house, but ten years ago, money was tighter and, like many people with more good intentions than cash, we’d had to compromise ourselves out of the running).

Here, though, was a house in a prime position, with only a field of horses between it and the sea wall, going (because it was deemed uninhabitable) for the price of a plot. There were plenty of rooms (we tried counting them on our way home and came up with a total of ten – a six bedroomed shack!), an abundance of sun and wind to harness for power, and a large roof area for siting solar panels and harvesting rainwater. And, after all, what could be more ‘green’ than a house that was, itself, recycled? The carriages, one of which we are told dates back to the 1870s, used to run on the now-defunct South Eastern and Chatham railway before being brought here, in 1919, as cheap homes for soldiers returning from World War I. People would buy one carriage or maybe two, tacking on extra sheds as their families expanded.

As the sale slowly progressed, I made notes and scribbled sketches of our dream house in a notebook, along with a list of “must haves”: renewable energy, underfloor heating (more energy-efficient, and with all those train doors, where would we put radiators anyway?), a “green” sedum roof (for insulation and as a wildlife habitat), composting loos, an underground tank to collect rainwater and “grey-water” (from baths and washing machine) for recycling, and an interior restored and furnished using eco-friendly products. By the time the sale finally went through eight months later (delayed by the fact that the garden as we saw it bore little resemblance to what appeared on the deeds – thanks to generations of stealthy fence-moving as is apparently common in such parts), we had a baby on the way and had hatched a plan to move down permanently in a couple of years. Time to start making our dreams into reality. Through friends we found an architect who not only had an interest in eco-building, but also a skilled carpenter as a stepson. And so the work began.

That first cold winter, we used to drive down at weekends, sleep with our coats on in front of the old wood-burner (the house had no hot water or central heating), and eat fish and chips off old tin plates. To keep the worst of the weather out, Ben the carpenter wrapped most of the house in a Christo-like shroud of extremely unecological polythene, enclosing a section of the verandah so he could begin the exterior renovations. After blustery walks along the beach with the dog, we would stare back from the sea wall, straining to picture a dream eco-house emerging from this bundle of flapping plastic and rotting timber. We weren’t the only ones to lack confidence. “Oh look,” we heard a passer-by exclaim to her small son, “A house made out of old railway carriages!” “But Mummy,” came the disdainful reply, “Why would anyone want to live in a broken down old train?”

By the following summer the exterior had been lovingly repaired and re-painted and the main rooms made habitable by a lick of (eco-) paint (see pxx). After endless discussions with the architect, and late evenings scribbling amendments on the sketches, we are now awaiting planning permission for a large timber-built extension (to house a kitchen/living area opening out on to the garden), with a bedroom on top and a balcony looking out to sea. The leaky asphalt roof will be replaced by a “living roof” of sedum plants, with a glass lantern bringing natural light down into the interior and a solar panel that should provide most of our hot water. And the main entrance will be enclosed in a glass-fronted porch that will (if all goes according to “passive solar” principles) provide shade for the main living space in summer while in winter, when the sun is low, let warmth and light deep inside. We can’t wait to get started.

I’ll be charting our progress over future weeks - for the first “Diary of an Eco-Worrier” column, see pxx. The title may have been chosen mainly for the pun, but embarking on a project such as this does embroil one in an endless series of conundrums and (perhaps inevitable) compromises. Is wind-power greener than solar? Can we (not to mention our visitors) cope with a composting loo? And (even if our limited budget would allow it) is an Aga beyond the pale? I am fully aware that there are eco-builders out there who have done this sort of thing with far more thoroughness and conviction than I can lay claim to. Absolutely the last thing I want to do is to set myself up as an “eco-expert” or advisor on things green (I still drive a Volvo estate, for goodness sake). But I know I’m not alone in wanting to live a greener life without giving up completely on style, comfort and quality. And if my thoughts on the progress of our work can help inspire, inform or even just entertain others in some small way, then that’s not a bad start.


30 Sep 2006 - ECO-PAINTS
The old railway carriage house had looked cosy and eccentric when we’d viewed it over tea with the previous tenants. But the removal of 34 years-worth of their possessions left it looking shabby and unwelcoming. A lick of paint was required. But which paint? When decorating our London house, I’d elbowed my concerns about the toxicity of synthetic paint into the background, aided and abetted by a chap at our local paint shop who mixes Farrow & Ball colours at Dulux prices. But the imminent birth of our baby was ringing alarm bells.

First port of call was Auro, a German-based company that claims to be the ‘greenest’ natural paint producer, eschewing harmful petrochemicals in favour of organically-grown linseed oil. Unlike the draconian warnings on most paint cans (do not inhale; do not dispose down sinks or drains), Auro products carry the reassurance that any excess can be composted. Not for nothing is it the only paint recommended by the Centre for Alternative Technology, and voted Favourite Ethical DIY Product of the year by Ethical Consumer Magazine. None of this comes cheap, however – a couple of 5 litre cans, together with trial sizes of their primers and varnishes, left me little change from £100 (B&Q’s cheapest emulsion is a laughable £4.37 for 5L). Never mind, I thought, as I choked on the cheque; at least we’re doing the right thing for the baby. Trouble was, it smelt just as larynx-gagging as the cheap polluting stuff.

I turned to Ecos Paints, who describe themselves as “the world’s only range of solvent-free paints and varnishes” and offer a colour-matching service alongside their range of ‘historic’, ‘tropical’ and ‘Shaker’ shades. By the time I’d factored in the £19 matching charge, the total was even more expensive, added to which, the coverage was poor, meaning we used more paint. Squinting at the bill for the second order (which, infuriatingly, didn’t quite match the first), my husband remarked that, environmental concerns obviously aside, it might be cheaper to use Dulux, open the windows and fly to the Caribbean for a fortnight while the fumes disperse.

Auro (01452 772020 www.auro.co.uk)
Ecos Paints (01524 852371 www.ecospaints.com)
Centre for Alternative Technology (01654 705950 www. cat.org.uk).


I love porches – think swing-seats, stacked woodpiles and mint juleps rather than poky double-glazed lobbies – and the plans for the eco-renovation of our railway carriage house will extend the existing roof out on three sides to create a wrap-around porch or verandah. This will not only protect the Victorian carriages from the elements; it will also, we hope, provide pleasant places to sit, shaded from the sun in summer and sheltered from the worst winds. More importantly, the extra protection should reduce our heating needs. It’ll be hard to insulate the carriages efficiently, so we need all the help we can get. At the front of the house, we’ve adopted “passive solar” principles to enclose a south-facing section of the overhang in glass, creating an entrance porch that should help heat and light the adjoining rooms in winter.

Passive solar design is nothing new: the ancient Greeks used it, as did the Anazani Indians, who carved dwellings in the south-facing Colorado canyons 2000 years ago. Natural rock overhangs sheltered them from the fierce summer heat, but in winter the low-angled sun could shine straight in to give them light and warmth. I first saw the theory in action in the home of the architect Richard Burton, which he built around a tree in north London in the 1980s. A long south-facing conservatory running between the garden and main living rooms helps heat and light the interior in winter, while in summer the space is easily ventilated by opening sliding glass doors on both sides. I’m hoping our entrance porch will work in the same way – as well as providing a warm place in which to grow tender plants (to one side of the door) and store and dry coats, wellies and beach paraphernalia on the other. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows in the kitchen extension should work in a similar way.

A common problem with passive solar architecture is over-heating in summer, particularly if the proportion of glass to building is too high. We aim to avoid this with careful design, ventilation and shade in the form of an overhanging roof for the porch and a vine-covered pergola outside the kitchen. It’d be an awful irony if, having gone to all this energy-saving effort, we were to resort to electric fans to keep cool.

The Solar House by Daniel D Chiras (Chelsea Green £25) is available through Green Books (01803 863260 www. greenbooks.co.uk)



One of the most pressing tasks on taking on our converted railway carriage house was to repair and weather-proof the exterior, particularly the seaward side. Though protected to some extent by an overhanging roof and verandah, the old train had borne the brunt of almost a century of winter storms, and we were faced with damp rotting wood and a flurry of flaking paint. Ben, our carpenter, spent much of the first winter painstakingly removing and replacing the damaged wood until we had a patchwork of old and new – happily, much of the original frame remained intact, with only the fiddly sills and curving door panels beyond repair. After a generous slap of eco-friendly wood-primer (from Auro), we just had to decide on paint.

Inside, in spite of often unsatisfactory performance and escalating costs, I’ve stuck to my guns about using environmentally-friendly paints, but when it came to the exterior, I found my nerve faltering. London friends had spent a small fortune having the outside of their house painted with one of the better-known eco-paints, only to have to re-do it after a couple of years. (When questioned about this, the makers of Auro and Ecos Paints said that with proper preparation – that old decorating bug-bear - their gloss should last from four to seven years, compared to regular paints’ five to ten.) But this was a 130-year-old hunk of Victorian mahogany less than 200 yards from the sea, and in an area prone to sea squalls and force 9 gales. Reader, I compromised. It was to be eco-paints inside, and whatever could cope with the worst the weather could throw at it without. I gave Ben the cash so I wouldn’t have to do the dirty deed myself and poked my nose back into an article about eco-insulation.

The only decision now was the colour. I was all for keeping the exterior plain white, Nantucket style with, perhaps, a pale blue or green for the front door and verandah. Frank, on the other hand, was making alarming noises about restoring the original livery of cream and maroon with a gold trim. What is it about men and trains? Next thing I know, he’ll be dressing up in uniform and charging our friends to come on board. We’ve stuck at the white undercoat, with the top coat still open to debate.

Auro (01452 772020/ auro.co.uk)
Ecos Paints (01524 852371 ecospaints.com)


How do you choose an eco architect? The sensible thing would be to contact the Association of Environment Conscious Building (0845 4569773/www.aecb.net) or consult the listings in the new 3rd edition of the Green Building Bible by Keith Hall (Green Building Press, £18 – see www.newbuilder.co.uk for details). Another good idea is to visit “green” buildings in your own area – either off your own bat or via organizations such as London Open House (www.openhouselondon.org) or the environmental network Sponge (www.spongenet.org). I, however, did none of these things. We employed our architect, Mike Stott, because a) we’d heard through friends that he had an interest in preserving old railway carriage houses like ours; b) I’d admired his offices – a stylish and sympathetic conversion of a 19th-century wool warehouse; and c) he was the only other person (bar one) I’d met who’d come across Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art by Boericke and Shapiro (Scrimshaw Press 1973, try Ebay or Abe Books) – a hippy handbook of log cabins, huts and hideaways that display the quirky self-build spirit we wanted our project to preserve. As far as green credentials go, he’s never designed an eco house as such, but has incorporated sustainable features and materials into various projects, and is currently building himself a house in Sweden, where environmentally-conscious building is streets ahead of us. Most importantly, he’s enthusiastic – and patient enough to stick with us as our plans evolved from a small signal-box-style viewing tower to a large eco-extension housing a kitchen, extra bedroom and bathroom, complete with solar panels, cedar cladding and sedum roof. The drawings are now with the local planners. Fingers crossed!


One corner of the railway carriage house is so decrepit that Frank and I vowed not to show pictures of it to our parents lest they worry we’d bitten off more than we could chew. Currently home to a woodpile and several species of beetle, it is completely rotten along one wall, with damp patches in the roof where rain seeps in. But whenever I question our decision to turn an old train into an eco-home, I come out thinking positive. Sure, it might be exciting to build from scratch – and Grand Designs has dragged self-build from the style doldrums. But apart from the costs involved, building – even eco-building – can be incredibly unecological. Unless you use straw bales or cob, or create an “earthship” from old tyres and rubbish, the materials used in the average building consume vast quantities of natural resources (wood), produce highly toxic emissions (metal smelting) and have a terrible record for water pollution. And that’s not even mentioning u-PVC windows… The joy of converting an existing building (or vehicle) is that our home is, itself, recycled. And we love its rambling, ramshackle charm.

But how much of the original appearance should remain? Few barn conversions have even a whiff of the farmyard about them, while city lofts bury all trace of former occupants – from schoolchildren to factory workers, beneath shiny new cement and stone. We are restoring as much of our trains as possible - that rotten wall will become glass doors on to the garden. But in spite of Frank’s hankerings, we’ll stop short of reinstating its maroon and cream livery – except in one place. Where the new extension leads off the rear carriage, the compartment housing our daughter’s playroom will open directly into the kitchen. And in homage to our house’s history, that one door will be restored to its former glory – brass handles, gilt insignia and all.

Recycled Spaces: Converting Old Buildings into New Homes by Vinny Lee (Ryland Peters & Small) £30)


04 Nov 2006 - WATER BUTTS

The average roof collects 85,000 litres of rain a year – enough to fill 450 water butts with free water. A pity, then, that our railway carriage house didn’t even have gutters, let alone a water butt, when we bought it. The rain used to drip off the roof of the verandah on one side, and straight on to the rotting timber faÁade on the other. This summer, spurred on by heatwaves and hosepipe bans, I finally got round to installing a water butt. Part of the delay was that it is hard to find one that is not made from hideous – and deeply un-ecological – green or black plastic. The Organic Gardening Catalogue (0845 1301304 OrganicCatalogue.com) do handsome wooden slatted tanks which go up to 600 litres (the average butt takes only 210), but I went for the recycled option in the form of a couple of ex-distillery oak barrels (220 litres each) from Plantstuff (0870 7743366 plantstuff.com). At £145 apiece they are certainly not the cheapest choice – for that contact your local council who may do offers on regular butts, OR FIND AND CONVERT AN OLD BARREL YOURSELF. But they certainly do the job – and look good, too, with their rusted metal bands and smart brass taps. The only trouble is the boozy smell. My husband inquired if I’d been on the bottle, and worried that the residue might harm our plants. When you walk up our path you’d think we’d been holding an all-night party. Added to which, it has done nothing but rain since they came.

11 Nov 2006 - DISHWASHERS

One of my more esoteric guides to green living is Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City by Christopher and Dolores Lynn Nyerges (Chelsea Green Publishing, available through Green Books (01803 863260 greenbooks.co.uk). No Welsh tepee-dwellers this pair – they live an admirable version of the good life in downtown Los Angeles – a “Thoreau does Tinseltown” affair featuring wild and scavenged food, solar power, an urban orchard and a pig, goose and chickens in the back yard.

One of the first moves Chris and Dolores made was to chuck out their dishwasher – a near heretical act in a place where no one does anything a machine can do for them. “We find the quiet time spent washing dishes is a waking meditation,” they muse. Myself, I find it a time of quiet waking resentment that someone else isn’t doing them instead, so when a friend offered us her old Miele for the railway carriage house, I jumped at the chance. What a bizarre luxury it seemed, while still cooking on the woodburner and boiling kettles to wash with, to have a purring machine do our dishes. It was obviously the source of much sheepishness, however, until recent research from the University of Bonn revealed that A-rated dishwashers use up three to four times less water and less energy than washing by hand. Nice news for the lazy. But not even Chris and Dolores can tell me the energy expended in making the machines in the first place….

The Energy Saving Trust (0845 7277200 est.org.uk) keeps a database of energy-efficient appliances, identifiable in shops by the ‘Energy saving Recommended’ logo.

18 Nov 2006 - LIGHTING

I read somewhere that if everyone in the UK was to convert to energy-saving light bulbs we could talk about closing a couple of power stations, rather than building new ones. Conventional light bulbs are relics of Victorian design, with 90 per cent of the energy they use wasted in producing heat. But until recently, their only substitutes looked like long white egg whisks and protruded from all but the largest fittings. Fortunately, compact fluorescents (which last up to 12 times longer and save around £7 each in electricity per year) are now available in more convenient and attractive forms, including globes, candles, dimmers and mini halogen substitutes. (Megaman on 0845 408 4625 www.megamanuk.com offers a wide choice.) LEDs (light emitting diodes) have also improved, making good replacements for low-voltage lights.

††† Of course, the most eco-friendly option is not to use artificial light at all, where possible. So our plans for the railway carriages (which pre-date electric bulbs and would originally have had gas or oil lamps) include many more rooflights, especially in areas where what interior designers call “task lighting” is required: above desks, kitchen counters and so on. We’ll still need lights for evening use, but often use candles to eat and bathe by. I dream of a bathroom with an opening rooflight so we can wallow in flickering candlelight and stare up at the stars. But that reminds me of something else I read about excessive candle use and global warming… Oh dear.

The Energy Saving Trust (0800 512 012/ est.org.uk) sends out free energy-saving light bulbs on completion of its Home Energy Efficiency Questionnaire.

25 Nov 2006 - FENCING
The first summer in the railway carriage house, rabbits devoured the vegetable patch and our neighbour’s horse would wander in through gaps in the hedge to eat the apples in our absence. High time to construct a fence. Creosoted larchlap was clearly a no-no from both the aesthetic and the ecological point of view; picket was too twee and hurdles too rustic. In the end, we decided to echo the simple cleft post and rail fencing in the surrounding farmland, and rabbit-proof it with chicken wire dug in to a depth of 2 feet and at right-angles to the ground. As luck would have it, the chap who delivers our firewood makes fencing from timber harvested from his own sustainably-managed woodland, and he suggested sweet chestnut as, like cedar, it contains its own natural preservative, requiring no treatment to last at least 20 years. While the trench for the rabbit-proofing was being dug, I seized the opportunity to fill the gaps in the hedge with bare-rooted native hedging plants such as hawthorn, hazel and guelder rose, with scented honeysuckle at the gate. A year and a half later, the wood has weathered to driftwood silver, the plants have grown and we’ve only one cause for complaint. We’d wondered why we never see our neighbours mowing their lawns, while we’re out every weekend in high summer in an effort to keep the grass down. And then we realized: they still had nature’s petrol- and power-free alternative to the lawn mower, complete with floppy ears and fluffy tail…

In the spirit of self-sufficiency, and in an effort to avoid pre-Christmas consumer melt-down, I’m doing a spot of “knit-your-own” present-making this year. I’ve been planting lots of ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi bulbs in glass bowls of pebbles (add water to the base of the bulbs and they’ll be in full, fragrant flower in just four weeks), and boiling up vats of chutney (decanted into recyclable glass Kilner jars and tarted up with brown-paper luggage labels and a big ribbon bow).

The truly worthy pick presents from one of the increasingly popular “alternative gifts” catalogues. Choose carefully and you can still match the right-on gift to the right person (Protecting a Sloth’s Natural Habitat £20; Peace and Quiet (peace-making projects around the world), £15 per moment’s peace) from The Good Gift Catalogue (goodgifts.org 0207 794 8000); a ‘Real Woolly Jumper’ (ie: a sheep for a Senegal family), £29 from World Vision (greatgifts.org 0845 600 6446)), and so on. But for those who require more tangible gifts, I’ve ordered solar-powered LED torches (from £24.99 from Buy Green by Mail (mail.order@cat.org.uk) 0845 330 4592); soft hemp and alpaca scarves and hats (from £11.50 from Greenfibres (greenfibres.com 0845 3303440)) and ‘Green Christmas’ boxes (including ladybird and butterfly breeding kits) from £19.99 from Green Gardener (01603 715096 greengardener.co.uk).

Commissioning creative friends or supporting small businesses is also a good way to buy gifts, and my younger godchildren will be getting handmade toys and book bags from Monkey and Sofia, a company set up by an English couple endeavouring to live the self-sufficient life in Portugal - visit their website monkeyandsofia.blogspot.com and see if you’re not enchanted.

09 Dec 2006 - SINS OF STANDBY

“Think of the starving children in Africa,” implored a handwritten sign by the phone when I was a child – positioned, presumably, to curtail my constant yacking with school friends. Looking back, I can’t quite see how the two were connected – unless money saved on bills was sent directly to Oxfam – but it did instil an early awareness of how behaviour at home can have an impact half way around the world. Having seen Planet Earth’s haunting footage of a polar bear swimming miles in search of solid ice only to be set upon, exhausted, by murderous sealions, my new mantra is “Think of the polar bears,” as I tear about our house turning off computers and other appliances. In the average UK home eight appliances are permanently left on standby, with many DVD players and set-top boxes never turned off at all, according to Energy: Use Less – Save More: 100 Energy-Saving Tips for the Home by J Clift and A Cuthbert (Green Books £4.99) greenbooks.co.uk. With most appliances using 85 per cent or more of the power on standby that they consume when in full use, it’s easy to see how accumulative effects can mount up – computer equipment alone left on at night and weekends emits as much carbon a year as 120,000 4x4s. “Do it for the polar bears,” I scrawl on countless post-it notes, hoping that these magical creatures will still be around when my little daughter grows up. And, more to the selfish point, that our eco-house project on the beach will still be above sea level.


16 Dec 2006 - A HOUSE IN WAITING

Waiting for planning permission is like living in limbo. After months of thinking and talking and drawing and deliberating, the broad outlines of the eco-extension and conversion of our railway carriage house are up at the town planning office, awaiting a yeah or nay from the powers-that-be. And until we get the go-ahead, any further decision-making – where to put the wood-burner and walk-in larder; raised bed or bunks for Mary’s room, etc – may well be a waste of time should we have to start from scratch again. In the meantime, we inhabit a house in waiting – a ghostly no-man’s-land where our visions for the future overlay the present reality like tracing paper sketches over photographs. When I come in through the front door - ancient rusty Crittall french windows, running with condensation - I imagine a sunny glass porch filled with flowering plants and buckets and spades. Passing the most dilapidated compartment, currently devoted to firewood storage and beetle-breeding, I see a lovely little sun room, with floor-to-ceiling french windows on to the garden and the other walls lined with books. Mangy old carpet in the main room becomes polished salvaged wood with under-floor heating in my mind’s eye, and the skylights are fringed with plants on the sedum roof. But until the elusive “approval notice” arrives in our hands, we can’t do much more than dream. And the other night, wandering out into a chilly garden with a sliver of moon and clear starry skies overhead, it was easy to do just that.



A surprise hit among my group of friends last winter were my friend Ros’s wreath-making workshops. A dozen or so working mums found time to troop around to her house to learn the lost art of weaving whippy willow stems into large circles with wire, adding rosehips, trailing ivy and old man’s beard gathered from the garden until each had a wild and wonderful handmade wreath to hang on the front door – a far cry from the tight little trussed up numbers on sale in the shops.

One of the best bits of Christmas, for me, is unpacking the treasured box of tree decorations – some old family favourites, some brought back from travels abroad, some laboriously crafted from pasta and silver spray-paint by long-grown-up godchildren. But I’ll be doing some of my own DIY decorations this year, inspired by a new book called Nature’s Playground by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield (Frances Lincoln £16.99). Packed with activities, crafts and games to encourage children to get outdoors throughout the seasons, the chapter devoted to winter includes making ice-mobiles (freezing colourful leaves and berries in jam-jar lids – either in the freezer or outside on a cold night – and stringing up outside a window) and natural tree decorations. My daughter and I have spent a jolly afternoon fashioning twiggy five-point stars, rings of rosehips and rosemary leaves threaded onto wire, and even an angel made from translucent honesty seed-cases with a poppy seed-head head. Our twig stars looked a bit Blair Witchy until I painted them gold, but they beat tinsel any day.


Number one new year’s resolution for 2007 is, of course, to get our eco-house by the sea off the planning papers and onto the ground. We hope to be in by the end of the year. Others, in no particular order of importance, include:

¤ Get the compost-making under control. The festering caddies, cartons and carrier bags that litter our kitchen because it’s too dark/I’m too lazy/tired/unsuitably shod to take them outside are beyond a joke.
¤ Ditto the recycling. But I know that the minute I get organized with neatly segregated bins for paper, glass, cans and plastic our local authority will follow the trend to have us dump it all (food scraps included) in together.
¤ Switch to an alternative electricity supplier. How hard can it be to visit www.greenelectricity.org (which gives impartial information on the various green tarrifs) and complete their on-line sign-up? But still I procrastinate….
¤ Investigate the alternatives to our gas-guzzling Volvo estate. Duel-fuel technology still has a long way to go where larger cars are concerned, but running an estate on bio-diesel or LPG is always an option (energyshift.co.uk). And for shorter journeys -
¤ Get that bike out of the shed. I used to cycle everywhere before my daughter was born – but that was two and a half years ago and my thighs, as well as the planet, will be grateful.
¤ Get a greenhouse so that we can continue growing our own food into the winter. Price of rocket seeds 99p per packet of 200; price of organic rocket in supermarket £1.79 for a measly 75g - not to mention the food miles involved.
¤ Buy local, wherever possible – including (gulp!) English wine, beer and cider.
¤ Find some eco light bulbs that actually enable me to see. Their soft golden glow is all very romantic for ambient light, but not for fiddly tasks.

I’ll be letting you know how I get on….

¤ click a title

Green House

Introducing Elspeth Thompson’s diary of the transformation of two dilapidated former railway carriages into a state-of-the-art eco-home/ the eco-home of her dreams.

Jan - Feb - Mar

Oct - Nov - Dec
Jul - Aug - Sep
Apr - May - Jun
Jan - Feb - Mar

Oct - Nov - Dec

¤ more to come soon!

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