I have written this column in worse places.
Right now, I am sitting on the shore of a tiny lake in Normandy. There are fish coasting in the shallows of the water, lazily co-existing with ducks, who are hoping I might spare a few crumbs of the baguette bought fresh from the boulangerie this morning. All I can hear is the breeze through the leaves, and birdsong.
Behind me are tents and other campervans, nestled at a discreet distance from each other in the orchard. The orchard was planted when the ‘big house’ was built, it’s an 18th-century hunting lodge for French noblemen and kings. The lodge was bombed during the second world war, and the current owner’s grandfather allowed campers to pitch in the grounds to raise money to rebuild. It might be one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever visited beyond the Highlands.
Come September, the apples will ripen and fall from the trees. Most of them will be collected, pressed, and the juice either sold fresh from the campsite shop, or made into calvados. We’ll head up to the bar later and probably drink too much of it.
The apples that aren’t collected will ferment where they lie, and the ducks will gorge on them. They’ll then stagger around, drunkenly, their quacks sounding even more like laughs. We know this because the last time we were here was September 2019. It’s instantly relaxing to be back.
But what’s the real cost of our holiday?
But at what cost? I drove down to the Central Belt last Friday afternoon to collect Mr Marr before we started the long hoof down the M6, M1 and M25 to Folkestone and Le Shuttle. The channel tunnel is amazing. 20 minutes after the train starts to move you get a text alert welcoming you to France. Then all you need to do is remember to drive on the right side of the road. You can also pay for the tunnel with Tesco Clubcard points. Every little helps.
The cost, of course, is the eye-watering price of diesel, but it’s also the cost to the planet. The day before making the 645.5-mile trip from Inverness to Folkestone, I was co-hosting the annual Highland and Islands Renewable Energy Conference and Awards, SHREC, with law firm Harper Macleod. Our theme was ‘Climate Change versus Energy Security’.
Climate Change -v- Energy Security
Can we have a greener economy and meet essential climate change targets while at the same time ensuring we have enough affordable energy to heat our homes, travel to where we need to, and get every household out of the ‘heating or eating’ bracket? The conference raised more questions than it answered, as all good conferences should, but the conclusion was that yes, we can be greener, if we’re smarter about it.
I guess I could calculate the carbon footprint of driving our 3-litre diesel engine all this way, and then on to the Alps, but I’m afraid to. I’m digging my head in the sand. I’m part of the problem.
But – and I hate it when people say this – ours wasn’t the only car, van, lorry on the road. The nearer we got to the M25 corridor, the wider the roads were, and the denser the traffic. We were nose-to-tail and a maximum of 40mph on the 60-mile stretch from the Dartford Crossing to Folkestone. Eight lanes of traffic going slowly nowhere. Burning fossil fuels. Emitting carbon.
Is there a solution?
So, what’s the solution? We didn’t have to come on holiday, but we wanted to. So do you. In an ideal world we should get rid of our van and take a public transport or active travel holiday closer to home. But whoever we sold the van to would probably drive it to France too, and while we might have salved our own conscience, the world – as a whole – would be no better off. Our van would still be travelling around emitting carbon. It would just be someone else who was enjoying our holiday.
We tried to lessen our footprint by booking a long ferry from Hull or Newcastle to the continent, but the cost was prohibitive – £850 each way. And what about marine diesel? Is that better, or worse? Or we could have taken a plane, or a train to France… but we wanted to take our van. I’m going round in circles.
We need investment in public transport and greener fuel alternatives
What we need are global changes. Investment in proper public transport infrastructures – bring back the old ‘car trains’ between London and the Highlands, as they have in France – and investment in cleaner fuels. I heard a whisper that the old Rosyth to Zeebrugge ferry will be revived next year – I hope it’s affordable, otherwise we’ll still all hot-foot it south. I know what I’ll choose between a fare of £850 x 2, or using my Tesco Clubcard vouchers.
And I’m excited to hear more about the new H2 Green Hydrogen fuel network in Inverness – will that really revolutionise how we drive? Could we convert our cars? The van?
But until then, I’ll enjoy my holiday, and try not to feel guilty. Now that we’re here, it’s bikes and walking all the way. And laughing ducks, cheese, baguettes… and too much local wine and Calvados.
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