Anna Shepard, Eco Worrier

What it’s like to live in a green house

Monday 21 March, 2011 at 7.31pm one comment so far

When I told my family we were going to spend the weekend in a brand-new zero-carbon house, there were stirrings of enthusiasm. That was before we looked up where it was.

Greenwatt Way is in the Slough suburbs, just off the M4. The complex — made up of ten prototype homes, and funded by energy provider Southern Electric — is directly under the Heathrow flight path, nestled between a Murco petrol station and an electricity depot. Not quite living the green dream after all.

On the way there, my boyfriend complained bitterly about the location, while our two-and-a-half-year-old son, Owen, repeatedly asked what would be “special” about our new house.

According to the Government, homes like these will soon be the norm. It has pledged that all houses built from 2016 will be zero carbon, hoping to reduce CO2 generated by domestic homes, which accounts for 27 per cent of overall CO2 emissions. But this is not just a green solution. The nuclear crisis in Japan, combined with the instability in the Middle East over recent months, throws into sharp relief the importance of supporting renewable technologies. Now, more than ever before, Greenwatt Way seems like the way forward.

As a green writer and eco enthusiast, I’ve visited lots of low-carbon houses, but this is the first time I’ve spent a night in one. I’m curious to find out what it’s like to live here; do all those tiny green tweaks and energy-saving appliances get in the way of daily life?

Except for the electric Mini that is charging outside our front door, our three-bedroom house looks like any other modest new-build. Inside, it’s modern but not in a chrome, minimalist kind of way. We love the open-plan kitchen and dining room. While I cook, Owen can watch cartoons on the eco-friendly flatscreen.

Upstairs, it’s comfortable and simply decorated with a spacious double bedroom with a shower room attached, another bedroom with bunk beds, and the smallest being used as a study. There’s also a family bathroom. There are few obvious signs of green virtue, except we notice that the building feels more solid than most new houses.

My biggest relief is that it doesn’t smell. The last zero-carbon house I stepped inside was so stupendously airtight that it gave off an unpleasant pong. Here, there’s a clever ventilation system that gets rid of stale air once its heat has been extracted to warm up incoming air.

Owen spends the first afternoon racing up and down the stairs, declaring that the bath makes monster noises. This turns out to be a pump that sucks up water when you run the taps, storing it in a tank to use later for flushing the loos. Some of the other houses use rainwater, collected in a vast underground tank in the garden, to flush the loos. And there’s a button to press if you dye your hair, as the chemicals disturb the system.

Our neighbours are mostly employees of Slough council and Southern Electric who have opted to live here for a year, renting the one, two or three-bedroom homes for a bargain price (£570 a month for a three-bedroom) in return for monthly feedback.

“Very little is understood about what these kind of houses are like to live in,” explains Wendy Pringle, zero-carbon homes development manager at SSE (the parent company of Southern Electric). “It’s an important part of the project to get normal people, particularly families, living in them, to find out what they think.”

We’re impressed by how warm it is. There is no central heating, only one tiny radiator that is barely switched on, but the house responds magically to body heat. One of its main features is a virtually airtight structure with enhanced insulation and triple-glazed windows. The walls are so thick, we can’t even hack into our neighbours’ wi-fi account (with permission, of course).

This means it retains warmth brilliantly. Turn on the oven, hob or the low-energy TV and you soon notice the difference. Compared with our draughty Victorian terrace in London, which is generally freezing except when you hang the expense and blast the central heating, our eco-home maintains a steady temperature day and night. We become increasingly obsessed, running over to check that the radiator is still off, then checking the thermostat, which is generally around 21C. It’s the eco-marvel of our stay.

Since there’s no gas, electricity is crucial. It comes from PV (photovoltaic) cells, an efficient breed of solar panel, but you can’t store it up, so if you’re out during the day, when it generates power, it will send the extra energy back to the grid. During the evening you may need to draw on the grid, but it will be offset by your contributions during the day. “Residents get used to trying to do things slightly differently … doing your vacuuming and washing before it gets dark, for instance,” says Pringle.

If our weekend home goes beyond current definitions of zero carbon, that’s because no one can decide what they are. Over the past few years there has been endless squabbling about how strict to be; whether to include energy costs involved in construction, and whether a truly zero-carbon house must have emitted no carbon by the end of its lifespan.

Last week the Zero Carbon Hub, set up to co-ordinate green housing policy, announced its recommendations. A “zero”-carbon home — a level 6, the highest in the Government’s Code for Sustainable Homes — must have an energy-efficient structure but it is allowed to have a small carbon footprint (2 tonnes per year, compared with 8 tonnes produced by an average modern house). However, it must mitigate its emissions in some way, for example with off-site renewable technology. This clause is still being worked out (despite a pre-election promise from the Minister for Housing, Grant Shapps, that he would define zero carbon once and for all within weeks of winning the election).

Although the weather is foul all weekend, we’re determined to enjoy the secure communal garden. As well as a private area for each house (shed, compost and recycling bins, water butt), there is a bike store and raised beds for vegetable growing. Our neighbours all speak up for the outdoor space: from the sofa in the open-plan living room and kitchen, you can keep an eye on children as they tear around outside.

The only complaint that trickles our way is about the noisy ventilation system. On our first night we notice a gentle hum. It’s a bit like going to sleep with a bathroom extractor fan left on. In the attic, pipes are sucking out damp air while warming up the fresh stuff. The noise doesn’t bother us; we sleep like logs and we’re grateful in the morning, when we fry bacon and eggs, that the greasy smells quickly disappear. It is just one of many gadgets that make the house feel alive. Unlike most inert buildings, there is a constant whirring of one sort or another.

Yet I’m surprised how discreet and unimposing most of the green technology is. It comes across as being efficient and clever rather than green. The induction hob heats only the saucepan, not the area around it. Smart meters gently remind us how much electricity we’re using, flashing red, amber or green. Meanwhile, the washing machine uses renewable energy from the energy centre to heat the water.

When we leave the house for a few hours, we remove a card near the front door and all the lights and electrical equipment power down, except the fridge and freezer.

A big question is price. These homes need to be affordable but no one can tell me how much they cost to build or how much they would sell for. The closest I get is learning that one of the builders said he could build a zero-carbon home for roughly £135,000. These prototypes have cost more because they are designed to showcase different technologies.

In the energy centre, an offsite control room that houses different renewable technologies that provide hot water and heating for the ten homes, there are five different methods being trialled. These include a wood-chip biomass boiler and a hydrogen fuel cell; you would normally require only one.

Everything here is set up for living more closely within a community. From the shared car and garden to the energy centre, there is little chance of escaping your neighbours, although some residents seem to be trying their best to live as privately as possible.

Southern Electric has another motive. The two-year research project will also reveal how electricity companies might operate in a zero-carbon future. Quite rightly, providers are wondering about their role. What needs will they fulfil when solar panels and snazzy heat pumps do all the work?

That’s not to say that this is a cynical scheme to ensure electricity providers are kept in pocket. The project is one of the first to produce a detailed study of what it’s like to live in a zero-carbon house, plus there will be published research on energy management, conducted by a researcher from Reading University who is living in one of the houses with his family.

The best thing is that pioneering technology has been incorporated into modest, affordable housing. These are not elitist eco-palaces, nor do they offer Swampy-style living with compost loos. If as much care is given to all the zero-carbon homes rolled out after 2016, I’ll be the first in the queue. So long as it’s not near Slough.

This article first appeared in The Times on 21st March 2011

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A guide for austerity mums

Tuesday 25 January, 2011 at 9.31am leave a comment

Anyone struggling with their weekly budget, and wondering whether to peel those soggy vegetables off the back of the fridge to turn into soup, would be forgiven for thinking that a blog called Austerity Mum might help. It sounds so promising; if nothing else, recession has made us alert to innovative ways of saving money.

Sadly you’ll find no such nuggets of wisdom here. Last week, the blog was revealed to be written by Lisa Unwin, the wife of Ashley Unwin, who heads PwC’s £200 million-a-year consulting business. It succeeds only in showing off her family’s extravagant lifestyle, which, I suspect, is the point. In updates, she ponders whether to cancel her family’s helicopter ride from Nice to St Tropez. Suggestions to “buy a lawnmower and sack the gardener” or “wash the car by hand” are dismissed as “totally cruel”.

Unwin defends her blog, claiming it was tongue-in-cheek. But for parents facing real financial struggles, it’s hard to keep a sense of humour about one woman’s battle to tighten her Gucci belt.

While I wouldn’t want to depict my family as anywhere near as squeezed as some, I’ve always celebrated thrifty living and relish the chance to count the pennies, if only to prove that it’s possible to have a happy family on a shoestring.

A is for art

Many leading art galleries, including Tate Modern in London, have children’s zones offering free activities at weekends. Make the most of the National Gallery’s Free Family Sundays. Or, at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, enjoy its mini-museum for under 7s. To find out what’s going on near you, visit kidsinmuseums.org.uk

B is for bulk cooking

Along with a weekly menu plan, the best way to save money while serving healthy meals, is to cook double or triple quantities. Don’t make one bolognaise, make three. Freeze the extra in old takeaway tubs or yoghurt pots.

C is for childcare

Forget nannies with diva-ish demands for month-long holidays and posh cars, childminders are cheaper for tots (average £60 a day); most nurseries are cheaper still (£40 a day). Later on, team up with other mums to do the school run and call in favours from friends.

D is for donations

Given that children grow out of clothes before their outfits have returned from the wash, there is no point in styling them in Stella McCartney’s kids’ range. Don’t even bother with a trip to John Lewis. Instead, prompt friends with older children to pass on cast-offs — the main reason that people don’t offer hand-me-downs more is for fear of causing offence.

E is for eBay

No one wants their child to be the one to go without, but don’t think that you have to buy every toy brand new. eBay should be your first stop, and is great for children’s shoes, too. Visit a shoe shop to have little feet measured, disappear muttering something about needing a cash machine, then whiz home and buy correct size shoes on eBay (ebay.co.uk).

F is for Freecycle

Not just a source of unwanted electronic tat, but a treasure trove of children’s clothes, toys, DVDs and baby equipment. Sign up for the daily digest in your local area and keep an eye out for discarded gems (uk.freecycle.org)

G is for gardening

Grow your own rocket to spruce up supermarket salads. What’s more, heading outside in wellies, armed with a watering can, to sow seeds is the kind of activity that small children love. It’s creative and mucky, not to mention free.

H is for holidays

The rising costs of air travel makes it a stretch for penny-pinching parents. Opt instead for a “staycation”, ideally in borrowed accommodation. While you may yearn for a sunny beach, children are just as happy on a soggy Welsh hilltop. Or check out Eurostar offers (short-breaks.com/eurostar).

I is for internet

Selling stuff on eBay is one of those things that many of us intend to do but feel intimidated by the process. As long as you are able to upload pictures on your computer, it’s not that bad. For a simpler option, try gumtree.com.

To read more, visit timesonline here

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Do we need body armour for skiing?

Tuesday 14 December, 2010 at 8.31pm leave a comment

Having not been on the slopes for a few years, it was inevitable that at some point I would fall over. But when the collision took place, next to the button lift at the indoor ski slope in Milton Keynes, my main concern was for the person whose skis lay tangled with mine. That I would emerge unscathed was obvious, but my victim had felt the full force of an unyielding armoured outfit and took a little longer to stagger to his feet.

Today, I’m a bulkier, tougher version of myself. Clad in action pants, a back protector and a protective vest, I’m a superhero on skis. Feel my arms and instead of the normal flab there is something firmer and less natural.

It’s called Nitrex and it is the magic ingredient used to make Forcefield skiing body armour, which is designed to prevent injury on the slopes.

Forcefield started life as a company that made shock absorbers for shoes, but quickly realised that it could use the same technology for extreme sports clothing. Six years ago the company launched a range mainly for motorcyclists, but before long it acquired a winter sports following. In 2005 it launched its first official ski and snowboard ranges, which are now worn by the UK ski and snowboard team.

These days it’s not just professionals who are choosing to pad themselves out with protective clothing, but also everyone from cautious elderly skiers to families. Early next year the company launches its first junior range for young children — the perfect option for anxious parents reluctant to let their little darlings loose on the slopes.

In the past year, sales of protective skiwear have soared by almost 25 per cent, according to Forcefield’s sales and marketing director Matthew Dawson. The winter sports section of the business now represents more than a third of overall sales. The clothing — which looks part scuba-diving suit, part S&M rubber armour — sells in most winter sports shops, including nationwide chains such as Snow+Rock and Ellis Brigham.

Nitrex is a form of soft rubber that absorbs the shock of the impact so that your body doesn’t have to. “Because the material is soft, unlike most body armour that is made from hard plastic, it is flexible and comfortable, while it also outperforms hard body armour in independent tests,” says Dawson. “The ultimate aim is to protect your body and reduce injury, but it also needs to be practical. It’s no good if you can’t actually ski in it.”

This was my first concern when I was handed the pile of gear. I’m not a stylish skier at the best of times, but trussed up like an amateur boxer, would I manage my parallel turns? Then there was image to worry about. As I collect my skis, I can’t help feeling a bit of a wally; someone who takes her skiing outfit a little too seriously.

Surprisingly, I don’t receive any funny looks and when I pass a mirror, I look quite normal. Although I’m wearing action pants, padded all around the buttocks and down the sides of the leg (£84.99) as well as a vest that protects my elbows and shoulders, in the process giving me bulging biceps (£139.99), and a back protector (£109), once I’ve got my ski jacket and salopettes on top, the gear is hardly noticeable. Yes, I look a bit stockier than normal, but I’m never one for looking svelte on the slopes. I’m usually far too busy padding myself out with layers to combat the cold.

Satisfied that I’m not committing heinous fashion sins, my next concern is trying to ski. I’m impressed by how quickly I forget about my sturdy underclothing. I’m both warm and comfy — two priorities when skiing. Dawson explains that as you warm up, so too does the rubber and it moulds to your body. It’s also light and breathable, so I don’t feel that I’m heaving extra weight around the slopes. As I hurtle past a snowboarder, I wonder if I’m skiing a little more dangerously, safe in the knowledge that I’m protected.

When I mention this, Dawson shakes his head. “That’s like saying you drive more dangerously when you wear a seat belt,” he says. Obviously if I ski off a precipice, body armour might not save me, but Dawson is confident that it would reduce the risk of serious injury. “All our clothing is CE-tested, which means that it undergoes strict tests to check that it does reduce the incidence and severity of injuries,” he says. “50 joules of energy is impacted into each garment to see how much it absorbs. The energy transmitted into a body is then measured. One of our back protectors has the lowest reading on the market.”

Confident that the clothing has spared him injury, Pat Sharples, one of the leading names on the British ski scene who is currently coaching the Olympic freestyle skiing team, is a body armour fan. “When you ski off-piste, you can’t see the rocks under the snow and if you come down and land on one on your back or hip, it’s game over,” he says. Sharples believes that our attitude towards skiing is becoming more safety- aware. “Helmets are popular now, not just for kids. I think people are realising how vulnerable you are when you’re skiing or snowboarding,” he says. Partly this is because we’re more ambitious about where we ski. “Skiing off-piste is so popular; everyone is encouraged to live the dream and embrace adventure. It’s fine to push yourself, but you have to take safety seriously and have the right equipment.”

Cruising down the single slope at Milton Keynes, I’m not convinced I’m living the dream. While there’s no question the gear would be invaluable for professionals such as Sharples, I’m not sure it’s worth it for cautious on-piste skiers like me.

My main problem is that it adds to a sense of exclusivity that hangs around winter sports. There’s a curious trend in Britain to turn something simple, such as walking, running or skiing, into a high-end pursuit that demands gadgets, gear and the latest high-performance clothing. Gone are the days when you could pack your anorak and whiz down the slopes in a pair of waterproof trousers, although I can’t help feeling it would make a refreshing change.

So would I invest in body armour? Probably not, although I’d consider it for my children. Given the considerable cost of a skiing holiday, I’m more likely to be hunting down eBay bargains and borrowing ill-fitting jackets from friends. Should disaster strike, I might regret it, but any skiers I collide with will have had a lucky escape.  (This article first appeared in The Times, visit here to see full version)

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Stem the pressure with flower arranging

Tuesday 7 December, 2010 at 3.31pm leave a comment

Katie Warriner is a sports psychologist who works for a business consultancy in London. Today, she’s taken a day off to learn flower arranging. “I like the idea of winding down by doing something that brings you back to basics,” says Warriner, 28. “Although my friends had a giggle about me coming here, they’ll all want to know what I learnt. To be able to arrange flowers in a way that does them justice is a brilliant skill.”

Not many of us have the time or inclination to devote ourselves to time-consuming floral displays. But in the swell of enthusiasm for home-making hobbies, such as knitting and jam-making, flower arranging is being rediscovered. Judith Blacklock, author of the best-selling Encyclopedia of Flower Design, who is running today’s session, has noticed an increase in the popularity of her classes, especially among younger women. “When women reach their late twenties, they begin to appreciate nature, the garden and the satisfaction and therapeutic qualities of working with flowers,” she says. “In the past few years, it’s been rare to have anyone over 50.”

Gathered today at Blacklock’s flower school in Central London are a dozen young women, mostly in their late twenties and thirties, none of who seem remotely bothered by the mumsy reputation of flower arranging.

Just as Nigella brought glamour to cake-baking, flower arranging has also found the perfect pin-up. In the November issue of Red magazine, Mad Men star Christina Hendricks admitted that flower arranging was her favourite hobby, as well as confessing to being part of a knitting group.

A self-proclaimed home-maker, Hendricks revealed that before her acting career took off, she worked as an intern at a florist in LA and more recently considered doing the arrangements for her wedding.

If the thought of Hendricks sensually arranging her dahlias isn’t already enough to spur you towards an evening course, then perhaps the UK’s poster-girl for flower power, Kirstie Allsopp, will. Another enthusiast, Allsopp, whose TV programme Kirstie’s Homemade Home is now on its second series, was taught basic flower arranging techniques by Blacklock for the first series. “Kirsty was a natural,” Blacklock remembers fondly.

By encouraging us to improve our homes with traditional yet thrifty skills, Allsopp has tapped into a post-recession mood that gives respect to people who have made things rather than bought them. This resonates with Blacklock’s students. “I love the idea of taking flowers to a dinner party instead of wine or chocolates, and being able to say that I’ve arranged them myself,” Warriner says.

Apart from celebrity endorsements, the role models who appear to have had the biggest impact on the class today are female relatives, particularly grandmothers, who were a dab hand with flowers. For others, the appeal is in the fact that it’s the indoor equivalent of gardening. What is clear is that it’s not about the final display as much as the process. Blacklock is passionate about its therapeutic benefits. “You concentrate so hard on where to put a flower, whatever problems you have disappear while you’re doing it,” she says. “I see how absorbed everyone becomes and the calming effect that flowers have.”

Earlier this year, Japanese researchers at the National Institute of Floricultural Science reported that arranging flowers helps to reduce tension and anxiety in schizophrenic patients. When I tackle my first bouquet, I can see why. I’m lulled by the repetitive action and forced to focus hard on remembering which way to criss-cross the stems.

The day’s most important task is to make a hand-tied wintery bouquet of red and orange roses, combined with foliage and a few dramatic orange proteas flowers (see picture above).  The traditional arranging technique involves taking cut flowers, one stem at a time, and laying each one diagonally across the last to build up an elaborate posy. All you need are flowers, foliage, scissors, some string and a vase half full of water. One common downfall is to ruin an arrangement by putting it in a vase that is not tall enough; your vase should be half as high as the stems. Another grave error is to neglect to remove leaves that end up in water. These will rot, produce bacteria and kill the flowers. We’re also advised to remove 10 per cent of the stem ends before we start, cutting diagonally across the stem.

Building up an arrangement looks simple when Blacklock does it, but takes concentration and strong thumbs. There’s also the crucial job of weaving the right blend of colours to create a balanced effect. Mine somehow clump together and look amateurish. Just as I consider giving up, Blacklock dashes over, tucks in a few spiky orange protea stem, and suddenly it looks amazing. I feel a rush of pride and start fantasising about taking up flower arranging at the weekends, instead of spending the time clearing up my toddler’s squashed food.

Where would I buy the flowers, I wonder? For cheapness, Blacklock recommends supermarkets rather than markets, but says to make sure there is water in the buckets when you buy flowers, otherwise they won’t last long. To make an economy bunch, her suggestion is to use space wisely, making fewer flowers go farther by arranging them in a way that uses up space. As an example, she shows us how to criss-cross sticky tape over a wide bowl and poke a single flower in each square.

Although Blacklock is cautious about telling us to raid local parks, she does suggest that a little surreptitious snipping, particularly of plants such as tree ivy and privet hedges, can provide free foliage. Then you need only the odd flower to make a display. “Never be greedy,” she cautions. “If you take from the wild, take from something in abundance and never take so much that you leave a gap.”

By the end of the day, Blacklock has created a towering creation from amaryllis flowers, resembling a Lady Gaga headpiece, and we have honed the art of poking hydrangeas and foliage into water-soaked oases to create small but no less charming displays. But there’s no avoiding that I’m not a natural. What I like best is the atmosphere in the class. As with learning anything, whether it’s how to crochet or bake bread, it promotes gentle bonding. There’s intermittent chatter while we work and peals of laughter when things go wrong. Blacklock is right: working with flowers is relaxing.

Jackie Thomas, a flower arranging teacher based outside Edinburgh, tells me her classes have become popular with hen parties: “We do some flower arranging in the morning, then stop for a boozy lunch, then make another bouquet, which you can imagine isn’t as good as the first. It’s popular because it’s a great way to spend time with your close friends and family.”

Thomas says there has been an increase in the number of women signing up for courses with a view to setting up as a florist or working with flowers. “In the past year, I’ve taught lots of people who have been made redundant or got sick of their high-pressured jobs,” she says. “It’s a popular career move for people who want something completely different from a desk job.”

And don’t imagine that it’s only women who work with flowers. “It is a mistake to say that arranging beautiful things is feminine,” Blacklock says.

To prove it, she wheels out Tom, her 24-year-old assistant, who, she says, combines his love of designing flowers with football, chasing girls and smoking and drinking. This may be true, but I can’t help feeling that, the odd philandering florist aside, classes are blooming because younger women don’t feel the need to cast off the shackles of domesticity.

While I may not be receiving commissions for wedding bouquets quite yet, I can’t deny that when I catch the Tube home, clutching my dazzling array of home-made bouquets, I do feel absurdly cheerful. (This article first appeared in The Times, visit here)

Ring it up: how to make a Christmas wreath

You will need
A 12in oasis ring 20-25 roses Snippets of holly Conifer Heuchera, or ivy leaves Cotinus rhus or other foliage

Method
Fill a sink with water. Place the ring on top, foam side down. Soak until the foam turns dark green ( about a minute). Secure a loop of paper-covered wire through the ring. Twist the wire to secure. Cut short snippets of conifer and insert into the foam leaving equal spaces between them. Angle the sprigs to follow the shape of the wreath. Insert the heuchera leaves at different angles, still following the ring’s outline. Make sure there is equal coverage over all parts of the foam. Repeat with the holly and cotinus rhus to fill any gaps. Cut the rose stems short and tuck them between the leaves at regular intervals. To finish, you could add a ribbon, or Christmas baubles, secured with wire.

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Why it’s experience, not money that makes you happy

Friday 19 November, 2010 at 4.30pm leave a comment

A few years ago, I looked at my bulging wardrobe and overstuffed drawers and decided to stop buying clothes for a year. I had more than enough to keep me going and it had started to infuriate me that I kept buying more. As well as being a statement about excessive consumerism and waste, I wanted to see how I’d survive without that addictive post-shopping high after a high-street raid.

What I found was that I had to look elsewhere for my daily hit of happiness. Instead of rewarding myself with a dash to Topshop, I had to work harder. I organised boozy lunches with friends, trips to the cinema, weekend walks and pub outings. I did things rather than bought things. Compared with the brief rush that you get whipping out your credit card, all these things provided a deeper, more satisfying level of happiness. And it was one that carried on for weeks, often months, instead of ending soon after the prized item joined the ranks of others in a closet or drawer. I felt better than I had for years.

David Cameron may want to take heed. The Government is poised to poll us on our feelings about how happy we are. It has asked an independent statistician to come up with a set of questions, the answers to which will be used to create data on our psychology and attitudes. It is unclear what part money will play in the questionnaire, but if my experience is anything to go by, it should be an important one.

Household saving in the UK continues to rise. It reached 6.9 per cent of disposable income in the first quarter of 2010, up from less than zero in the first quarter of 2008, according to the Office for National Statistics. But by the end of my fashion famine, as well as being desperate for new underwear, I had reached the same conclusion as the Canadian psychologist Elizabeth Dunn: spending money on experiences, not possessions, will make you happy.

Dunn, based at the University of British Columbia, is at the forefront of research in this field. Her recent paper If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending it Right, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, concludes that how you spend money is as important as how much you have. She has come up with eight ways to improve your happiness by altering your relationship with money. The most potent suggestion is that we’re better off spending money doing things, say, trips away or evenings out, rather than buying material items. Why? “Because experiences are more likely to be shared with others and other people are our greatest source of happiness,” Dunn says. Her research also suggests that experiences are more self-defining, as they are connected to our identities. We are more likely to mentally revisit experiences and get pleasure from them, than from objects that we’ve acquired.

And we adapt more slowly to experiences. “After devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood floor, homebuyers find that their beloved floors quickly become nothing more than the unnoticed ground beneath their feet,” Dunn writes. “A memory of seeing a baby cheetah on an African safari continues to provide delight.”

She points to earlier research on the subject by the psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich, who published a paper in 2003 called To Do or To Have? That is the Question.

In one of their studies, more than 1,000 Americans were asked to think of a material and experiential purchase that they had made with the intention of increasing their own happiness. Only 34 per cent reported greater happiness from the material purchase.

“We encouraged people to define what they meant by experiential and material,” Van Boven says. “Experiences tended to be vacations, travel, day trips, evenings out, artistic events . . . material possessions were likely to be clothing, jewellery and electronic equipment.”

This is something that we can apply to our own lives. When faced with a choice of ways to dispose of your cash, choose the cooking course or holiday you’ve always dreamt of, not the new car or carpet. Yes, your home may still look tatty when you return, but you’ll have gained experiences that will provide a reservoir of happiness for years to come.

It’s a theory that seems particularly relevant when you apply it to parenting. In some ways, it lets you off the hook — it’s an excuse to stand firm and resist pressure to constantly fork out for new trainers and games consoles. But it also drives home the importance of spending time with your children, not just flinging money at them. For some, a decision to plough money into private education is the ultimate form of paying for experience over material goods. When John Pearson, 34, was growing up in West London, he shared a room with his younger brother and his parents couldn’t afford family holidays abroad. All their savings were spent on boarding school for the three boys.

Of course, they were relatively well-off to be able to afford school fees, but money was rarely spent on consumer goods. The car was a clapped-out Volvo and summers were spent in Wales. Pearson remembers the joy of visiting friends’ houses in which he’d be able to play with the latest toys and gadgets.

Now a solicitor with two children, he can make sense of how his parents prioritised spending. “At the time, it seemed unfair, especially when many of school contemporaries’ parents were able to pay the fees and buy their children all the latest stuff. But as you get older and you go to a good university and realise how many career choices are available, you see the value of education — it’s an experience that lasts a lifetime,” Pearson says. “If I can afford it, I’ll make the same decisions for my children.”

James Wallman, editor of the online lifestyle site LS:N Global, agrees that flashy is no longer cool. “Having less is something that people are now showing off about,” he says. “It’s cool to suggest that you can resist consumer pressure and live a more simple existence.”

And when you look at the science, it makes sense. A study by Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, Georgia, revealed that it’s the anticipation of a purchase that releases the feel-good chemical dopamine into the brain, not the actual process of buying. By the time you’ve bought the item, the rush is almost over. This means that window shopping or ogling online stores can be as satisfying as parting with cash. And, of course, you avoid what retailers have dubbed “buyer’s remorse” afterwards.

Having spent a year stepping off the consumer treadmill, I can agree that resistance is hugely empowering. You feel as if you are carving out your consumer choices rather than giving in to the desires that motivate everyone else. And by choosing to invest in experiences instead of things, you feel that you are getting a better deal. Often, you spend less — digging the garden and tea with friends are easy on your bank balance — but with a higher return on happiness.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for splashing out now and again on the odd delicious item. The mistake is to overestimate the impact that this will have on your overall happiness levels: a lesson worth remembering as we gear up for the annual present-buying bonanza next month. This year perhaps we should think about giving gifts that offer experiences: theatre tickets, gallery membership, or perhaps a couple of cocktails. In the place of toys, clothes or gadgets, these could offer a route to longer-lasting happiness for both giver and receiver. (This article first appeared in The Times on 16th November 2010; to read it, click here).

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Bang bang pigeon

Thursday 11 November, 2010 at 9.30am leave a comment

James Banbury hates pigeons. They make a mess of his father’s barns and eat the crops. He does what he can to reduce the local population, but there’s not much interest in eating them and he usually dumps the corpses in a hedge. So he finds my quest to shoot, cook and eat one faintly amusing.

At this time of year, it’s a shame pigeons are not consumed more enthusiastically. As well as being cheap (you can get them from an online game suppliers or Waitrose, which sells a bird for £2.99), they are fat from feasting on corn left behind by the combine harvester, plus all the berries and seeds around. Once winter has properly set in, and the ground freezes, they’ll be forced to fly farther afield to find food, which will turn their fat into muscle. For now, though, they are plump and ripe for roasting.

As the sun sinks behind the Devon farmland, I take aim at a wood pigeon flying low towards the trees. Expertly, my 17-year-old shooting coach has shown me how to move my entire body to follow the path of the flying bird, while squinting down the barrel of the gun. I aim just in front of a pigeon’s head, so that by the time the shot reaches the bird it hits the head and leaves the body intact. With pigeon breast being the main bit of meat (in fact, the only bit), it’s important not to blast it to smithereens. That’s the theory, anyhow. In practice, by the time I’ve heaved the 12-bore shotgun into position — nestled against my shoulder to avoid its vicious kickback — I’m so desperate to pull the trigger and get the ordeal over with that I miss by a country mile.

After a few attempts, it’s obvious to everyone, including the pigeons that swoop overhead, unperturbed by my mission, that I’m not going to fill tonight’s pot. Banbury tactfully points out that ponderous pheasants would have made easier targets.

Luckily, the top Devon chef Tina Bricknell-Webb, who runs Percy’s, an award-winning country hotel and restaurant, set on a neighbouring 130-acre organic farm, has a back-up plan. Anticipating my incompetence, she asked Banbury to bring down a brace of birds the day before. When we return to her kitchen, we get to work plucking them. With black labradors yapping at our heels, leaping to gobble the feathers, I’m soon feeling like a female Ray Mears.

Percy’s is not a place for the faint-hearted. There’s a pig’s head in the oven and a pile of trotters in the sink. I can just make out a pig’s nose peeping out of the top of a stock pot. Almost everything featured on the menu lives, grows or flies around here, and not a scrap is wasted. READ MORE ON TIMESONLINE

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Jamie Oliver for the under-5s

Thursday 21 October, 2010 at 2.31pm leave a comment

Katy Ashworth is showing me her lemon face. The CBeebies presenter purses her lips tightly as if she has eaten something unbearably sour and tries not to giggle. She follows it with an impression of a wrinkled raisin, before she’s called back to the studio kitchen where the second series of children’s cookery show I Can Cook is being filmed.

In today’s show, a small group of four-year-olds are creating blueberry and banana ice cream. After bashing bananas and counting blueberries, they visit the I Can Cook vegetable garden, where Ashworth, 23, reveals that blueberries grow on bushes. Each episode serves up a simple, healthy recipe — yesterday, fish fingers, dipped in egg and rolled in polenta. Fruit and fudge buns replace fairy cakes.

Under Ashworth’s instruction, five preschool volunteers prepare the dish using methods that cunningly bypass sharp knives and oven hobs. They visit the garden to explain where ingredients come from. Then they tuck into their creations and Ashworth reaches for a guitar for a final song.

My son, Owen, loves it. Aged 2, he’s fascinated by the children’s exploits in the I Can Cook kitchen. Although he’s at the younger end of the show’s target audience, he enjoys mimicking Ashworth’s actions, mixing, whisking or sprinkling when she does, and he shrieks at her food faces, puffing his cheeks out to pretend to be a pea.

Shows like I Can Cook and Big Cook, Little Cook, also on CBeebies, are an educational step up from the shows I loved as a child, but I’m not expecting them to make a mini masterchef of Owen: watching them is still passive.

There are also enough health-and- safety restrictions to threaten to overwhelm a cookery show for young children, removing the fun and chaos from the kitchen. The shows tries to communicate worthy messages using rhyme (“When using scissors, everyone knows, it’s best to point them at your toes”) but reminders to wash hands and watch out for hot ovens seem repetitive.

When I put this to I Can Cook’s executive producer, Christopher Pilkington, he denies that the show is heavy-handed. “What goes on behind the scenes is serious, but we do everything to make sure the show is fun and exciting, showing what children can do, not what they can’t.” Ashworth is his magic ingredient. “She has a wonderfully light touch,” he says.

Pilkington admits that younger children respond to the games and songs rather than the actual cooking — “It’s as much about educational and physical development as it is about learning to cook” — but as evidence that watching leads to doing among older ones, he points to the 10,000 recipe downloads since the first series in October 2009. And it’s not just children who enjoy it.

“There’s a generation of parents, some of whom are not very confident cooks, who are watching this show with their children and thinking, ‘Actually, I can make that for supper’,” he says.

But what of the food? When I speak to parents, many praise the show’s efforts to connect ingredients on a plate to the world around, but mention the peculiarity of dishes that result from ticking so many boxes. Fish Triple Decker, made with ketchup, grated cheese and olives, might satisfy the creative yearnings of a toddler but won’t necessarily have the rest of the family in raptures of delight at suppertime. Cheesy chicken reminds me of school home economics. The recipes won’t impress Gordon Ramsay, but the methods are suitable for youngsters. TO READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE, VISIT  TIMESONLINE

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BBC Fast Track on refurbishment of the Savoy

Wednesday 13 October, 2010 at 4.31pm leave a comment

To see me talking about whether or not the uber-luxury Savoy can also be classed as an environmentally-friendly hotel, watch this episode of Fast Track, a program for BBC Worldwide. I’m representing Green Traveller, as its co-editor.

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In search of the perfect sausage

Monday 27 September, 2010 at 1.30pm leave a comment

Whether it’s bratwurst in Berlin, chorizo in Mexico or merguez in North Africa, there are few foods as universally popular as the sausage. According to Homer’s reckoning, Odysseus the King of Ithaca, dined on goat bangers (“sizzling here in the fire … packed with fat and blood to have for supper”), while centuries later Queen Victoria claimed the dish as one of her favourites, although she apparently insisted the meat in her sausages was chopped by hand rather than minced.

In the UK, almost three billion sausages are now consumed each year, and bangers and mash remains a quintessential British dish, one that is as popular with fussy chefs serving it with oriental spiced cabbage and sweet chilli sauce as it is with time-pushed families, or anyone who yearns for traditional, quick-to-make comfort food. And yet, as our interest in animal welfare, sustainability and healthy eating has grown, we’ve become increasingly suspicious about the humble sausage. Are they just too tasty, too salty, too convenient, to be good for us?

Earlier this year, a Harvard study of more than a million people found that eating just 50g of processed meat a day raises your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, and blamed the salt, preservatives and nitrates used in the process for the health problems. A similar report by the World Cancer Research Fund two years ago claimed that eating one sausage a day could raise your risk of bowel cancer by 20 percent. Meanwhile, Jamie Oliver’s schools crusade ended with sausages being restricted and caterers only allowed to serve them twice a month.  TO READ THE REST OF THIS POST, VISIT TIMESONLINE

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Kids and festivals: do they mix?

Tuesday 3 August, 2010 at 8.31am leave a comment

Having always enjoyed a muddy romp in the fields with a backdrop of music and fairy lights, I wanted children and festivals to mix. I really did. I had seen others do it. For as long as I have been going to festivals there have been hippy parents with toddlers in tow. They may not have been the ones staying up all night and watching the sunrise, although in some cases they seemed to be, but I had seen them getting drunk on cider and roaming the fields. It looked fun — proof that life didn’t stop when you became a parent, that you didn’t have to spend all summer confined to a playground.  To read more, visit here on timesonline

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