Changing climates in South London

October 16, 2008 / Science, Showcase, Writing / 0 Comments /

So, the government has committed the UK to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by the middle of the century. And we thought we were having a tough time reaching 60%. I’ll try to withhold judgment until I see how they propose to achieve this laudable target, but it does appear contradictory to the plans announced last week for expansion at Stanstead Airport.

I fear they may be putting all their eggs in a nuclear-powered egg basket. My childhood years spent marching through the street of London with CND and trudging the perimeter fence of Greenham Common with a “Hamsters Against the Bomb” banner have ingrained a mistrust of nuclear power deep in my psyche. I cannot countenance the idea of an ever-more nuclear Britain.

Perhaps the government are banking on increasing energy costs and the clear link between environment, conservation and Jo Public’s back-pocket to get the message across. Better that than the alternative that Google have mooted. The idea that the digital generation can use their carbon footprint as legitimate excuse to speak gibberish makes me shiver. It is possible to get your point across succinctly, without resorting to txt spk. Although I did have fun emulating web-speak in a recent article for Mary Glasgow. Not only did I earn my mother’s envy at being asked to write about Bob Dylan, but also had the welcome opportunity to rip the piss out of LolSpeakers. All in the name of education, don’tcha know.

That same mother who dragged my hamster poster and me on those 70s marches has inspired me once again. Ever the pioneering-Kiwi, she is proposing to build a straw-bale extension in her back garden. Having spent a week in her company, alternately working on my laptop in her fabulous wildlife garden and touring the straw bale buildings of Oxford and industrial compost plants of Dorset, I’m smitten with the idea.

Her first thought was to use old tyres and cob foundations and avoid the slog of digging into pure Oxfordshire clay. Having previously spent the best part of two days with her and my brother digging out a hard-won eighteen inches to plant a log pile, I can understand her reluctance to dig out the area necessary for house foundations. However, I can’t help but picture her straw house floating down the hill into the city centre without them. The first straw bale building we visited is built on just such a tyre and cob foundation. But, as one of the volunteer builders explained, the foundations are dug in. And unfortunately, the cob is susceptible to erosion from water run-off.

The second building more closely resembles what my mother now hopes to achieve; a small extension at the bottom of a garden, with compost toilet and rain-water shower. Built on a timber frame, wooden piles are driven and support the building about six inches from the ground. Something that seems eminently sensible to me in a place as damp as Oxford, and which reminds me of the Maori pataki – storehouses built on stilts to foil the rats.

It is beautiful. So simple. My photographs don’t do it justice. There’s something very appealing about that hand-finished lime rendering. Kevin McCloud, eat your heart out.

When my mother asked if I’d like to join her community action group on a visit to an “in-vessel” composting project in Dorset, I imagined gum boots, secateurs and garden-sized vessels. New Earth Solutions more closely resembles an industrial plant, recycling everything from … well … everything, to … everything else.

NES have adapted German technology to meet UK standards on processing municipal waste. From the vast quantities they gather from their clients (councils, local supermarkets and others) NES recover recyclables, produce high quality compost and, when these possibilities are exhausted, from the residue they make solid fuel. All in, they recover some 80% of the waste they process. Even the energy generated in the process is recovered, with 60% going to heat some 17,000 local homes, with plans to divert another 20-30% (close to 90% in total) to heat on site greenhouses that will be run by local agriculturalists, using NES compost.

New Earth Solutions, green waste


My own garden has been undergoing something of a make-over, although on a much smaller scale. A lot of pruning, shifting and splitting of plants that have outgrown their space, and much digging and spreading of my own small-scale compost. Working from home definitely has advantages. While London’s commuters spend their mornings inhaling each other’s armpits, I feel no guilt spending that time having a bit of a dig before I settle down to work. Sadly, a small garden can only take so much digging. Perhaps I should offer to excavate my mother’s foundations.

Instead, I’ve turned my attention to my olive tree. When I put it in, earlier this year, it was laden with small green olive-lettes which have slowly but surely ripened over the summer. Crikey. I expect, having been hot-housed before it’s arrival in South London, it simply had enough of a good head start to achieve this extraordinary feat. I don’t expect it to do the same next year, so I have spent this evening preparing 119 olives for ‘curing’. They are currently soaking in a bowl of cold water on the kitchen bench, awaiting the next stage of processing in ten days time.

South London olives

The reason I’m going through this palava for the sake of a single bowl of olives, rather than doing my usual “I’ll try it next year”, is because I believe it will be the only opportunity I have to do so. I hope that the government will provide a firm enough steer on climate change that this is the only olive crop I ever have.


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