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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Why I’m taking a stand against Uber (with a nod to San Francisco)

Uber – a taxi service with a fab app – was born in San Francisco in 2010. By 2014 it had spread to 290 cities and had 8 million users worldwide. It’s primarily a city service, you don’t find Ubers in rural Britain yet. Ubering it home may seem like a great addition to our life, but look close and you’ll see why it’s a mighty bad habit for London. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

December fog, 2016, over Finsbury Park.
You’ll always remember your first Uber. Mine was a rainy night journey from Shoreditch to East London to a place my work colleague claimed was the ultimate cocktail bar. Turns out he was right (it’s the Bonneville Tavern, E5). We arrived at 10.30pm for a night of Twinkles. By the time I wanted to get home it was past midnight, the traditional hour that public transport parks up for the night. Another Uber ride was offered… but when I wobbled into the street I noticed a bus stop right by the bar. And there was at least one night bus that could take me all the way to my Finsbury Park home, and it was due in just10 minutes (admittedly not Uber’s two). When the bus blazed up I paid with my oyster - as painless, and habit-forming, as paying with the Uber app.

There was no one else on the 253 for a couple of stops, bar the driver. Perhaps everyone else took an Uber home? They might have done as last April it was worked out that every week in London 60,000 people download Uber on to their phone. I’ve been slow to this party, but did put “Sign up to Uber” on my 2017 new year’s resolution list.

Except I’ve changed my mind, because super-convenient Uber – with at least 25,000 drivers and 1.8 million users here in London - is a big part of the London transport problem. Not least because Uber’s target for London was 46,000 drivers (2016, not yet met).  How's that taking polluting vehicles off our roads? And what does it mean for traffic levels on the main roads which ought to be bus super highways, but are all too often traffic jams.

FACTS & FIGURES (2015-16)
Tube – 1.34 billion customers annually. Info
Bus – 9,300 vehicles operating on 675 routes. Info
Bus - More than 2 billion journeys made in London during 2015-16  Info. 

Black cab driver Ray Coggin is interviewed on Islington Faces, see link
I didn’t get it at first. When I saw the black cab drivers blocked the roads around Southwark tube and City Hall in protest against UberX, I thought the old boys in their big black diesel cabs (eye-wateringly expensive and rarely with a card machine) clearly didn’t like the competition new technology brings. 

It wasn’t until I watched Episode 4 of Netflix’s The Crown, spellbound by the 1952 Great Smog of London and suddenly began to make the connections. It’s thought that 12,000 people died as a result of those three foggy days, many as a result of the damage done to their lungs by the air pollution (a thick yellow sulphoric-tasting smog). 

The resulting Clean Air Act of 1956 is probably the birth of the modern environmental movement. But 60 + years on our lovely London is still polluted. The difference is that we can’t see what’s toxic.

In fact London’s air quality is so compromised by vehicle pollution from diesel fuel that its annual limit was broken just five days into the new year. That’s why there will be 9,500 early deaths in London during 2017. And a lot of suffering: think asthma, cancer and even increasing numbers of dementia and Alzheimers’ diagnosis.

Hot air balloon murals at Finsbury Park tube station.
What's hard
I’ve watched my London-raised younger daughter – and her school friends – wheeze with asthma. I’ve seen my mum cope with lung cancer surgery. You’d think there’s nothing harder than trying to help someone breathe when they cannot. But there is, and it’s being brave enough to do something about the toxic air pollution that’s blighting London.

As more than 90 per cent of Londoners live within 400 metres of a bus stop it’s a shame that the London bus fleet (9,300 vehicles) is still mostly diesel-powered. Even if all London's buses were electric - it doesn’t totally resolve the pollution problem. Nor does having an electric car (and we know the win of free parking in central London and not having to the pay the Congestion charge etc).

Only walking and cycling are properly clean ways of getting around our dirty city.

Now when a journey seems too far, and taking a bus or tube too inconvenient, Uber maths takes over. Unfortunately when it comes to cleaning up London’s air quality Uber is a far bigger part of the transport problem than you’d think. Here’s why: not only does a handy Uber ride encourage us to take a car, it is also taking passengers off the bus and tube network – and away from Tfl which does at least have motivation to clean up London. If travel numbers go down then buses will get parked. Night services withdrawn. Permanently. Without an alternative guess what will happen to Uber fares if there’s no competition? (Answer: fares will go up). And London’s ability to crack down on vehicle pollution will lose direction.
 Anything from San Francisco arrives with a buffer around it implying it’s clean, modern, right-on, hip. And yes it’s certainly meeting our lazy genes’ needs.

But if you want London’s air safe to breathe it’s not smart to be an Uber addict. 2017 is the year to step out of the car and say: Uber is not the best way to get wherever you’re going. It’s just another way of messing up London’s already toxic air.

  • ·      Useful info about Uber (critical, but admiring) see:

Monday, 9 January 2017

Air pollution - comparing London and Paris

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. OK this post includes a little mention of Paris (reached by train) but it's mostly about what's got to be done to clean up our cities which are being so polluted by diesel. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Nicola with her daughter in Paris. We drank coffee and talked air pollution.
My 18 year old daughter has moved to Paris, so just occasionally I visit. In August I noticed that it felt much more polluted than my bit of London. It's less green than London, but it is also smaller. When you blew your nose unspeakable blackness appeared.

In October and December my daughter would What's App to say that Paris was so polluted today that it was free to use the metro.

Houses, pedestrians, diesel buses all mixed up in London - the result is poor
air quality that's actually killing people early.
So I was surprised to learn that London busted it's annual air pollution limits in just five days - FIVE - into the new year on 5 January 2017.  You can read all about it in this Guardian report here.
"By law, hourly levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide must not be more than 200 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) more than 18 times in a whole year, but late on Thursday this limit was broken on Brixton Road in Lambeth."
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from diesel engines (including buses, vans and idling diesel cars).
Air pollution is known to cause nearly 6,000 early deaths in London. It's now also thought that people who live close to busy roads are more likely to develop Alzheimer's.

Just to be clear that's not five normal days of traffic - it's five days that actually includes a new year's day Sunday (1st) and a bank holiday Monday (2nd). When London's air is so toxic it seems amazing that we're not all screaming to sort it out. I think London's Mayor Sadiq Khan is on it - but rumours of low-emission zone bus routes doesn't sound like enough for this silent killer.

Meanwhile in Paris the mayor, Anne Hildago, has promised to ban diesel vehicles (by 2025 along with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City) and now, in January, she has promised to halve the number of private cars in the city and keep roads along the Seine closed. An electric tramway is also planned.

Paris is in a strange state at the moment - there are emergency powers in place which makes change, perhaps, a little easier. Closing roads might help reduce the likelihood of runaway lorries through busy thoroughfares. It will also make Paris a very much less polluted city. Win. Win.

I've not had a car in London since my early 20s. I've managed to raise two children without one and saved £1000s of pounds in rental/purchase fees, maintenance, insurance, parking, fuel (petrol!) and fines (obligatory in London's congested city). That doesn't prove much, but it's not been a sacrifice, it's been a boost to the whole family's quality of life: all of us know our way around on foot well, and are possibly fitter and slimmer than our car-owning contemporaries. The one drawback is the air pollution. It gets us all, however little we've contributed to the toxic mess.

CAPTION: Russell Selway at Cycle Surgery Highbury: “I hate working on Holloway Road: the air pollution is horrendous. If you go into the shop you can see the packaging gets covered with dust and dirt by the end of every day. We clean it off every day (see photo of boxes). But the dirt and grime means we can’t sell white clothing in the shop because it doesn’t stay clean long enough.The noise is horrendous too. You can never hear anything on the phone because sirens are going all the time… It’s police and ambulances through the red light. And there are the buses. The stuff they chuck out is horrendous! Never warm up behind a bus… I think diesel should be banned." THIS IS AN EXTRACT FROM AN INTERVIEW PUBLISHED ON ISLINGTON FACES, READ IT HERE.
What next?
This year I'm going to be putting a bit more energy into calling out the nonsense I see about air pollution and cars. For instance when you hear the air is polluted, it doesn't mean the kids shouldn't play out. It means you need to radically rethink how and where you drive. Everyone loves their cars, and always has a reason to be on the roads. But this pretence that "my journey is more important than your journey" really has to stop. Let 2017 be the year that happens. Good luck to all those campaigning on air quality wherever you are in the world.
If you'd like to read more about cars, have a look at my first book THE ESTATE WE'RE IN: who's driving car culture published back in 1998. It's still available as an ebook.
Over to you
What do you do to reduce air pollution? What should government do? What needs to be thought about carefully? Or is any action more important for everyone's health?

Friday, 6 January 2017

Peru is where the best eats are... (via east london)

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Here's a culinary visit to Peru (the first time I've taken a virtual trip here), via a trendy London eatery specialising in south American dishes (but luckily not serving guinea pig). Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Alpaca are on the menu in Peru. This farm is in Buntingford, Hertfordshire - but these animals
are used for their wool and sold as impressive livestock.
Over Christmas I was invited to a few parties and at each one someone seemed to be talking about the wonderful food from Peru. My knowledge of Peru is limited to Paddington Bear who was a fan of marmalade. I assumed that was a code to mean in the "deepest, darkest jungles of Peru" (I'm quoting THE bear) food wouldn't be so good. And maybe it isn't in the forest. But the Peruvian urban centres have quite a reputation for delicious food amongst travellers and the south American expats I met at these various parties.

Dreadful pic, sorry, but here you have plantain (green banana)
chips on the left and deep fried and breadcrumbed plantain on
the right. Both were delicious and served at Andina.
So what's going for Peruvian cuisine? And where can I try it?  Turns out that it's super popular in trendy east London. And it's not just the hip crowd who are there, as it's suitably British-palate friendly offering more indigenous potatoes you could shake a chip fat pan at. It's also the original home of quinoa which is either a super food or a food of the gods, depending on which blogs you follow. I just think of it as pricey but then three work colleagues led me to the fabulous tapas-type dining at Andina in Old Street (just near Shoreditch High Street overground) and tasted near-perfect Peruvian ceviche, quinoa salad with avocado, toasted pumpkin seeds etc. The quinoa had a bit of crunch, so tasty. There was quite a bit of meat on offer - marinated, grilled and served with a sauce - which I don't eat so can't give you feedback on this. But... it seems that Peru has something for everyone: the veggies, the pescatarians and the carnivores.

Plus there's meant to be amazing Chinese food - brought to Peru by railway workers - which tastes just like it did 100 years ago because the locals liked Chinese tastes, whereas in the UK noodles and sauce needed adapting to suit our famously conservative palate. It's a lovely idea to think of a dish like lomo saltado (stir fried beef) being pure to its origins - and still able to offer a - delicious - taste of a different time.

According to the National Geographic if Peru had a national dish then it would be ceviche - raw fish marinated in lime and red onion and then served with sweet potato and choclo (maize with super big kernels).

They are an adventurous lot in Peru - guinea pig (cuy) is often on the menu. You definitely shouldn't try this at home on Chocolate (or whatever cute name your pet has) but when roasted they do still have a lot of bones so it's a dish for chewing and spitting. But you could try making causa - alternate layers of avocado and thinly sliced potato which is given extra interest by adding tuna fish (often from a tin) and hard boiled egg.

Strangely I spent xmas day just by an alpaca farm... In Peru the alpaca is famous for making good dried jerky. It's fun to have learnt so many things about Peru. Of course people know it best for Machu Pichu. Now i just have to decide what's a comparable destination in the UK to this famous altitude-splitting hike? Let me know in the comments...

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The joy of lists & travel wish lists

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Here's a quick piece about the joy of lists written as a result of five long walks around East Hertfordshire that made me think about wildlife. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Which country has the most dangerous wildlife? (Namibia?) Which has the most animals? (Costa Rica) Which is most likely to start World War 3? (Depends on your politics). Have you seen the Big 5? (said on Safari whilst looking for elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros.. .). The internet is crazy for Buzzfeed style lists - and I love them too. So while I was in Hertfordshire for the xmas holidays I kept a little list to share with you. Here's what I saw, and wish I could have shown you:
Late afternoon shadows while walking the dog with
one daughter and one husband.

Plaque at the farm shop.

  • 1 kite hovering
  • 3 dead deer on the roadside
  • 1 farm shop (I adore farm shops and Pearce's farm shop between Buntingford and Puckeridge is fantastic, and has a cafe!)
  • 2 great sunrises
  • 3 gorgeous sunsets
  • 1 frost and fog (frog) filled day
  • 1 herd of deer - utterly beautiful as they crossed a field of winter wheat (about 20)
  • 2 red kites (a moment of joy!)
  • 1 toad kept me awake calling for girlfriends (i didn't see him, just heard the noise)
  • 1 farm of alpacas (llamas have banana ears, alpacas look as if they were put together wrong but they have great colourways - the photo shows them in cream, black and chocolate)
  • 1 dead deer on the roadside (another)
  • 40+ ducks quacking on the river

An alpaca farm in Buntingford, Herts run by Herts Alpacas (farmed for their fleece and as breeding animals).
List champions
Even if I think my list of holiday wildlife spots is pretty good, it pales into insignificance compared with my mum's list abilities. Even the list of what's in the deep freezer (1 packet of peas - 10 servings) is considerably more detailed and more often edited. Perhaps better attention to list making could be my 2017 resolution... I still need to visit more of the countries of the world without leaving the UK and adding to climate change.

Over to you?
So, what do you write lists about? Is it the mundane - shopping lists, what's for dinner? Or is the sublime - all those magical animal sightings or, better still, wildlife connection. Or is it the wish list - the places you long to travel whether by mechanised transport or via books, films and you tube? Let me know. And here are some belated seasons greetings too.

Monday, 7 November 2016

We've got to keep tackling climate change

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Forgive me please for worrying about climate change - whoever gets voted into the White House on Tuesday 8 November 2016. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Steve Malkin, founder and CEO of The Planet Mark
There's this man. Nicholas Stern. He's an economist and 10 years ago he produced The Stern Report (2006) which warned that climate change was going to cause huge social and financial costs. Stern is now an extremely sprightly looking 70 but unfortunately he's clear that his 10-year ago warning has not been acted on in the way he expected.  "It's worse than I had feared," he tells Robin McKie in the weekend Observer. (06/11/16)

Over the past 10 years sustainability services have crept on to the high street - from juice bars,
food waste campaigns, charges for plastic bags and even repair and reuse shop, but it hasn't stopped
carbon levels going up far beyond the level Stern advised had to be the cut off point. 
Thinking back on my life over the past 10 years I haven't exponentially increased my environmental footprint. But I certainly haven't reduced it much either. 

  • I've made just one long plane journey (to the other side of the world in 2011 where my family and I stayed for four months), but that's the only flight. I haven't bought a car or used one much. (I can hear Tim Smit calling me a po-faced do-gooder, but luckily this blog's readers' cannot!).
  • This year so far I've only rented a car for 2 hours and that was to go to the recycling centre.
  • But I haven't improved our house's eco-efficiency for a few years now - and i am a far less fierce opponent in the Cold War battle raged over the thermostat by my husband and I than i was in the year Stern's Report came out.
  • And frankly I haven't done much bigger picture stuff either. My street isn't using less carbon, nor is my daughter's school, the university where I teach or the city where I live, London.

I don't think my suck-it-and-see (aka head in the sand) attitude towards climate change is unusual. For the past few years the climate has made headlines - think extreme weather, unseasonal and violent flooding, the big Californian/Australian drought - but it hasn't inspired corresponding action. As PM David Cameron promised to be green and yet managed to  cut support for solar panels on people's homes; kill the Green Deal which helped people insulate old homes and got rid of green building standards for new homes. All would have fitted in fine to an austerity budget - who knows why they were snuffed out.

The only glimmer of hope is the Paris Agreement - ratified in November 2015 and now, a year on, signed and sealed. It's aim is to get the world reducing their carbon emissions to a safe - or effective level. But now Nicholas Stern says, "I cannot say that I am confident it will happen".  It is all very depressing. So, it was with some curiosity that I went to an event recently celebrating a range of businesses' efforts to be more sustainable via The Planet Mark - a certification system that gives participants incentives to cut their carbon emissions - which was held at the sassy Hospital Club. 

The Planet Mark
The Planet Mark is an idea created by founder and CEO Steve Malkin just three years ago. During The Planet Mark sustainability week (this November) various great and good shared their learning, and on the night I attended it was all about the ways sustainability changes you and your business.

Sir Tim Smit from the Eden Project at The Planet Mark 3rd anniversary

You'll find this at the Lost gardens of Helligan,
close to the Eden Project.
Charismatic boss of Cornwall's Eden Project (a place you absolutely must go), Sir Tim Smit gave a rabble-rousing speech about doing good at the same time as being a capitalist. Tim is smart and funny and woos the new generation of concerned citizens just as effectively as he has done their elder brothers and sisters. This time he looks like he's having more fun though.

Steve Malkin encouraged the audience - predominantly suit-wearers - to go on the Hothouse training that the Eden Project has created in a bid to transform the way business leaders think, react and lead. He urged us to "infect five people" with the sustainability bug. A nice challenge...

Matthew Owen from Cool Earth speaking at The Planet Mark 3rd anniversary.
Cool Earth
And Cool Earth's Matthew Owen talked about the need for a new way to save the rainforest because the old methods weren't working at all. Cool Earth likes to save the rainforest a village at a time by working with the forests' inhabitants. His talk captivated my teenage daughter who is living away from home for the first time and has clearly been starved of eco-bunny conversation. Matthew is an amazing speaker and Cool Earth appears to be doing what it wants - saving rainforest - very successfully in Peru, Congo and even PNG. Saving rainforest isn't just good for those villagers, it's also good for reducing CO2 levels.

Summing up
The Planet Mark is quite a new certification system -  its oldest projects are just three years. As a result I don't know that much about it - and after involvment with organic certification and the Forest Stewardship Council I am surprised that any set up can secure immediate accreditation just because you have a commitment to cut your carbon emissions. But the people in the room are big influencers - including engineers responsible for surfacing runways, building roads and other infrastructure.  To get people behind cutting carbon, dealing with climate change or even tackling sustainability (that old Rio phrase) you have to win their hearts, minds and possibly pockets. These guys definitely are good at doing that.

My daughters in Cornwall
contemplating big plants (a
few years ago).
I don't think it is possible to create the world we need by doing business as usual - especially if that business keeps hopping on to planes, demanding new runways and evading tax. But if business won't change - or certainly won't change enough for Stern to have confidence in it - then efforts to cut carbon have to be the next best approach. Climate change is a huge problem - one no individual can solve on their own. But schemes like The Planet Mark help empower individuals to make changes in their work and life that my mean the world is left a little bit of a better place. And that is enough for me to applaud this fascinating attempt to get businesses cutting carbon.

Besides I love a challenge: perhaps using some of The Planet Mark ideas in my home might mean I could get back on track with my own sustainability mission? The answer to that will be in another post.

But as Sir Tim pointed out - it makes sense to learn to communicate what we know better. 

For most of my working life I've written about saving the rainforest and, frankly, tragically, it hasn't done much to save it. Cool Earth claim to have taken a new direction for saving the rainforest. So when it comes to climate change another method of making a bigger difference might also be to improve the message, perhaps by using the tips in climate campaigner George Marshall's most recent book, Don't Even Think About It

Whatever you are doing to raise awareness about climate change and sustainability - and however you are doing it  I wish you the very best of luck. If Stern is right, we certainly need it.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

It's Marx, undercover in London

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Here's a look at everyone's favourite bearded Leftie, Karl Marx. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
The Marx Memorial Library and Workers' School in Clerkenwell.
This was opened in 1933 and runs talks and walks. An interesting place.
Tours of the buidling are on Tuesday & Thursday at 1pm.
Know your Marx
Is Marx still relevant? Ask that question in a classroom and the students will be busy for hours. Ask it while waiting to collect kids from school and you may find yourself discussing Marks & Spencer.

What I love about the big theme changers of history is that they were just like us. Well, OK, a bit different. But in the case of Karl Marx (1818-43) who lived in London for many years you can piece together a picture of what he was like by a bit of detective work. It's easy to follow a trail of the places he lived, knew well and even drank at - although I find it galling that his work is very  hard to re-interpret with an ecological perspective.

The two photos are places in Islington with links to Marx - for more information about people who live or work in Islington see www.islintonfacesblog.com.

The Old Red Lion, near Angel, was one of Karl Marx's drinking spots.
The Karl Marx Pub Crawl
One pub in Islington, The Old Red Lion, is celebrating 400 years of open doors. It's a lovely pub, with an upstairs theatre and a neat little passageway that allows customers to slip from St John's Road to City Road without being noticed.  It's also a pub that Karl Marx knew well. You can follow a pub crawl from Tottenham Court Road to Hampstead - just like Marx allegedly did - as mapped out by Londonist here.

In the spirit of the useful texts Marx for Dummies, here are five random facts about Marx...

1 A good Trier
He was born in Trier in Germany. Yes, it makes me laugh.

2 Marxism means...
That states are run in the interests of the ruling classes, hence the need for a class struggle. His social, economic and political mash up - refined in The Communist Manifesto - was written by him when he was a stateless person. it must have been galling to fix your central idea on who gets to run the state when you are stateless. Perhaps if German history had been different he'd have had a dull but occupying middle class job  (after all his Dad was a lawyer and owned vineyards in Moselle), and would never have had the chance to think, write, dream, publish - and be damned.

3 Anniversaries for things Marx did
The Communist Manifesto - the political pamphlet written in German by Marx and his financially generous friend, Engels - was published in London on 21 February, 1848.  Here's a link to History Today celebrating this link.  1848 was a very hot political year in Europe - revolution broke out in France on February 22.

4 "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their... "
Marx's magnificent beard suggests that peak beard is not a new phenomena. This is the final sentence of the Communist Manifesto - a fiery synthesis of the materialistic conception of history. But thanks to the way capitalism has developed, and our familiarity with chains of stores it's easy to read a little differently.

5 Workers of the world unite!
Was Marx the first advertising slogan writer? It's catchy, alliterative and a call for action.

Over to you
There are plenty of places that can claim Marx - his homeland of Germany (he was Prussian-born), Paris, Brussels and London. But who else does? And who have the best claims? It's another question to argue robustly about as you find out more about Karl Marx.

Let me know what you find out.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Picking pears in a Kent orchard - timeless European labour

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Here's a look at how picking pears connects you with people from years ago - and the neighbourhood. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Pear Necessities: loaded with pears for the
journey back from a Kent orchard to
organic pear buyers in London.
Pears have always been here: there used to be forests of wild pears in Europe and even the Greeks ate them. Even now, and although I live in London, there are several pear trees planted around the residential streets. About this time of the year the street pear trees seem stacked with fruit which tends to drop off on to the pavement and becomes a favourite squishing point for anyone who walks past. A couple of years I collected a cycle helmet load of these small pears and turned them into a very local concoction - redcurrant (grown in my garden) and pear jelly. It went down well, something to repeat perhaps?

The orchard pear trees are loaded with fruit.
While picking I saw red admiral butterflies and a cricket.
And now I’m picking pears in my friends’ amazing Kent orchard. 

My friends run a social enterprise, Pear Necessities, alongside a number of other jobs. This year their trees are laden with pears which must all be picked.  

Waiting to be moved to cold storage.
I've squeezed just three tiny apple trees into my garden so this looks a big orchard to me – two huge fields of carefully kept pears. However to make the pear harvest every September a success they need keen, strong friends to turn up and work. Picking pears is very enjoyable and certainly puts my thumb nails to use - the best way remove all pears from their tree with a long stalk. The pears that are in good condition – with no wet scarring from bird beaks, insects or squirrels – are As: top class organic pears. Those without a long stalk, or that are in some way damaged, are B pears. Bs are sold for less as they are likely to blemish quicker/store for a shorter length of time. But Bs can make wonderful pickles and also perry (pear cider) and if eaten first are still very delicious.

At the moment all the pears are crunchy. As they ripen they will turn totally juicy.

Partied, pruned & picked
I’ve partied and pruned at the pear orchard before, but this was my first time picking. Shunting quantities of pears from tree to crate the children’s tongue twister got me thinking about measurements. At this orchard it’s all about, wheelbarrows, crates and tonnes. But the nursery rhyme uses pecks:

"Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?"

There’s also an old saying that eating a “peck of dirt” will do you no harm. Turns out that two pecks (dry weight) is equal to four gallons, so that's a big bucket. And four pecks is a bushel… It’s strange how measurements change, but then again most of farming is on such a huge scale and the commercial farmers seen on the TV programme Country File like mega kit. In this human scale in Kent field it's more about how many pears a person can load into a wheelbarrow before it becomes too heavy to lift up and tip into a massive crate… which will in turn be lifted by a forklift truck.

Quick selfie in the Pear Necessities orchard, in Kent, with volunteer pear
pickers Sean, me and Jenny.
Hopefully it’s not trade secrets to share that the weekend saw 4.5 tonnes of pears picked, or that we drove back to London in the Pear Necessities' Landrover with half a tonne of delicious pears which will be sold at the Growing Communities' farmers' market and also go into the box scheme.

Part of the fun of pear picking is the moments when you stop, rest and chat over
a cup of tea and ginger cake. And there is a hearty lunch of soup and bread. Here volunteer pear picker
 Jenny demonstrates how to look both comfortable and erudite in the cosiest camping chair of all time.
September is the season for giving and swapping. Back in London walking the last stretch home with my pickers' gift of a bag of B pears, I was able to swap a few with a neighbour who often brings me wood. In return he seemed eager to give me a few of his windfall apples. And then arriving at my house I found a friend had left a half full keg of beer for my husband, Pete. While in the back office there’s a pumpkin turning from green to orange which my lovely neighbour Sai grew and gave us last week. I do love this custom of giving and swapping - made so much easier if you see your neighbours out and about.

Last year's most interesting shaped pear.
Keep picking
There may not be wild forests of pears to tell stories about anymore, or to get lost in, or scrump fruit, but there is most definitely still a season when all hands are needed to do the picking. Picking pears - or other fruit - doesn’t just link you with a labouring past stretching back 1000s of years, it is also a very companionable way – or contemplative if you are on your own – of spending some autumn hours. It's definitely hard graft, which is perhaps why Pete and our youngest daughter Nell opted to go to a football game instead.

Dog days of summer equals pears at the market
These pears are destined for sale to a Hackney organic fruit and farming scheme. According to the Growing Communities organic market website their producers...

"Pear Necessities sells organic pears at the market from September through to Christmas from their small organic pear orchard near Goudhourst in Kent.  The 10 acre orchard grows four varieties of pear: Conference, Comice, Packham and Concorde. Pear Necessities is a partnership established in 2008 to convert an existing conventionally farmed orchard to organic methods. Pear Necessities aim to grow fruit using carbon-conserving methods of feeding and disease control.  The farm received full organic status in August 2010 and is now planting a new fruit and nut orchard in a 7 acre pasture beside the existing pear orchard. In years to come they will be harvesting (and selling!) apples, plums, cherries, figs, apricots and more." 

The super-fluffy Pear Necessities dog squeezes up to me in the
pear-laden Landrover on the drive home. Soon half a tonne of pears
will be on sale at the market or packed into the local organic box scheme
run by Growing Communities.
Thanks to the pleasure of being in a pear orchard, I’ve resolved to give up saying my most over-used phrase “it’s all gone pear shaped”. It’s just too negative a bunch of words for such a delicious fruit. On a more positive note soon I’ll be eating my pears hot poached - cooked up in a magic mix of cinnamon, star anise and wine, and then polished off with chocolate sauce. Roll on dinner!

  • If you live in Hackney, Haringey or Islington and want to have a regular bag of organic fruit and veg, grown close to home then have a look at the Growing Communities box scheme. 
  • Growing Communities also runs an organic farmers' market on Saturdays in Hackney from 10am-2.30pm at St Paul's Church, Stoke Newington, N16 7UY. It's a fun day out and there are plenty of street food stalls at the market too, including pear offerings.

Over to you
What foods do you swap with your neighbours? Do you grow anything especially to swap?