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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2007, 11:24 GMT
Gone to ground
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Air travel may be increasing yet a small, but growing number of people are turning their backs on flying in favour of land travel, in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. Two share their stories of so-called "slow travel" holidays.


Barbara Haddrill at start of journey (pic from Centre of Alternative Technology)
Ground breaking: Goodbye, Machynlleth...
When Barbara Haddrill, 28, was invited to her friend's wedding in Australia in October, she had a dilemma. She had promised not to fly any more for environmental reasons but as bridesmaid, she felt obliged to attend.

"I'd said that was it, I wasn't going to take the plane any more and wasn't going to travel long distances," she says.

"But then this came up and it wasn't something I could immediately say 'No, I'm sorry, I'm not flying any more and not coming to your wedding.'

"Then I spoke to friends and it became apparent it was possible to get there using another route."

So instead of a departure hall at Heathrow and a possible stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Barbara went via Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi, Bangkok, Singapore and Darwin in an epic journey taking nearly two months and taking in train, boat and bus.

The decision reflected changes Barbara had made to her everyday life during the last five or six years, due to her concern about the effect humans were having on the environment, especially in carbon emissions.

She no longer drives, buys organic, locally-sourced food and uses a wood-burner to heat her home, which is a caravan near Machynlleth, in a forest in mid-Wales. And while the 51 days Barbara spent getting to Oz would be longer than many tourists' holidays, as a part-time worker at the Centre for Alternative Technology, she has the flexibility to build such a journey into her life.

Barbara at Great Wall of China (pic from Centre of Alternative Technology)
...hello, Great Wall

Speaking from a farm in Adelaide, where she is planning her journey home and appealing for anyone who can help her get from Darwin to Singapore, she said it had been a very rewarding experience.

Overall she found it more comfortable than an economy class plane seat and she met lots of fascinating people on the way. As well as seeing new places, she had also learnt a lot about herself and stuck to her green principles.

"You have to believe it's worth doing something yourself. You have to take personal responsibility and can't wait for someone else to do it.

"You can't think you're only one person. I've met other people doing things like me so it's good to know you're not on your own.

"Perhaps it's not for everyone to think they're going to go on a boat to Australia but maybe they can think 'Do I need to go to Australia in the first place?' And look at things in your day-to-day life."

Map showing Barbara Haddrill's route to Australia

Cost Distance Time CO2 emissions
Barbara 2,000 14,004 miles 51 days 1.65 tonnes
Plane 450 10,273 miles 25 hrs* 2.7 tonnes
*plus transit time, security, customs
Sources: Climate Care, Defra, Choose Climate, Expedia, BA


For the West family, who live near Petersfield in Hampshire, a walking holiday in Tuscany gave them the chance to put into practice their green principles.

"We are very green in the way we live and the work I do and that's the way we think," says Jonathan West, 49, who runs a woodland management company. "There's every reason to avoid flying and this mentality that has come about that we must get there in the fastest possible route because cheap air flights cost less."

The West family on Eurostar
On the way to Paris

So last August, Mr West, wife Alice and children Bede, 14, and Fritha, 11, boarded their first train at Petersfield for Waterloo. Another two rail journeys followed - the Eurostar to Paris and a sleeper to Rome.

Because they missed their rail connection in the Italian capital, the company behind their walking holiday, ATG Oxford, laid on a minibus. They disembarked just outside Pitigliano to walk into the town before the start of their five-day trek to Orvieto.

"It's hard to over-estimate how good it was," says Mr West. "The mentality required to catch a train is very different from the precision you need to catch an aeroplane. The availability of a train is much greater and it's very liberating compared to 'I must get to the airport.'"

Snubbing the flight meant the family could have a night in Paris, which they loved, but the couchette to Rome was very hot and stuffy.

Being green is becoming as significant as cost in planning a holiday
Jonathan West

A walking holiday is regarded as the best form of sustainable tourism in terms of carbon emissions. But Mr West says eco holidays are not sustainable if they require a flight to get there.

"It's one's responsibility but it's also a nice way to think. Being green is becoming as significant as cost in planning a holiday."

He admitted it is not always straightforward to avoid flying and a family skiing holiday would not be as easy.

One unexpected benefit of choosing the train was that Mr West, a botanist who usually carries a knife, was able to avoid the security problems associated with airports.

Map showing the Wests' route to Tuscany

Cost Distance Time CO2 emissions
West family* 719 1,112 miles 2.3 days 0.07 tonnes
Plane 288 750 miles 2 hours** 0.56 tonnes
*= 4 people **plus transit time, security, customs
Sources: Climate Care, Defra, Expedia,

Should I Really Give Up Flying? Wednesday 24 January, BBC Two, 21:00 GMT. Thanks for your comments on this story. The debate is now closed.

I think that this article illustrates that if you are travelling to Australia then there isn't a practical alternative to flying. However, if you are travelling from London to Edinburgh or Birmingham to Paris, the train is a viable alternative. I would be all for banning short-haul flights as unnecessary. This would clear some space at the airports for longer-haul flights where there isn't an alternative. Being green should be about sensible sacrifices that ordinary people can make, not about forcing people to do impractical things
Tim, Bath, England

I don't see what the point in wasting all that extra money and time on going by land!! Air travel only accounts for a very small amount of the co2 levels! Every office I have ever worked at always leave lights, computers servers etc on 365 days a year and no doubt the vast majority of other offices/places of work are the same! Air travel is a much less polluter than wasted energy

Lloyd of London it is your choice to have a mortgage, debts and a job to pay for it all. Granted most of us (including me) make similar choices because it's hard not to but it's not the only way. Barbara from Machynlleth has made different choices (working part-time and living in a caravan) that's all. That's how she can take six months to travel. Good on her.
Ieuan Phillips, Derry, NI

For the past few years we have holidayed in the south of France and because I don't like flying we take the Eurostar direct service from Waterloo to Avignon, it is an excellent way to travel and only takes 6 hours travelling through some beautiful French countryside and what's more the fares don't break the bank either, I would highly recommend and its environmentally friendly.
Fiona, London

On the rare occasions I have opted for rail travel instead of air recently, I have been struck mostly by the contrast in the standard of service offered. We took the Orient Express to Venice and came back on normal rail services - the outward journey was excellent, though the journey time suffered because we spent ages changing engines at borders. On the return journey, the nature of rail travel was clear - no help with heavy luggage, officious staff on empty trains but nowhere to be seen when overcrowding filled all carriages regardless of ticket class, refreshments a lottery, air conditioning optional. Add to that the extra cost and the lack of through ticketing facilities, and you don't have to look far to work out why rail travel is only an option for the ultra-green, those who are entitled to massive discounts, and people who are thrilled at the thought of waiting for hours in sidings at frontiers.
Andrew, Benfleet, Essex, UK

Why do people need to travel on holiday abroad anyway? After years of doing the air routes around the World, we got fed up with airports, air delays, checking in times, the extra expense of having to stay over the night before, etc., and have rediscovered England, particularly the scenery and beaches of Cornwall - one of by childhood haunts. The kids love it - after all, you can't bodyboard or surf safely in many places in the Med or Caribbean - and there's very little difference between the sand here and there for making sandcastles.
Lord Knowle, Dorset, England

Hmm, get on a plane or spend an extra 431 and waste 2 days, let me think.
Alan, Wigan

Does anyone notice a common theme here with these eco-friendly journeys? Each journey is a journey enjoyed, the journey itself is part of the holiday. It beats sitting around on a beach like an Elephant Seal wasting your life away.
Ian, United Kingdom

I think the point "Do I need to go to Australia in the first place?" is the most important, although I'm not convinced going to a wedding is really a necessity. When people look back at our age of (comparatively) cheap fossil fuels and international transport they'll wonder how we could have been so short-sighted and selfish. The technology is already here to make business travel a thing of the past, but people want the prestige of flying around as it makes them feel big and powerful. We are still living in the shadow of Thatcher's "me, me, me" vision unfortunately.
Tidy, Brighton

The calculations on CO2 emissions are interesting in so far as the are at best guesstimates. Do they take into account the extra CO2 emissions that occured whilst working to earn the additional money to pay for the journey. Extra time in the work place (lights, heating, electricity etc), possibly extra working days (more journeys to work). As Nick said, this is about the technology and not the way we use it (or dont).
Peter Gale, South Molton, UK

I am not clear as to why anyone would really want to spend two months rather than 25 hrs travelling for a fairly marginal reduction in carbon footprint. However, to be fair particularly to the second family, the air time is NOT two hours. Add in time from home to airport, plus 2-3 hours at check-in and boarding, then an hour(?) for passport control and baggage collection, then transit from the Italian airport, I would have thought the Air travel time takes the thick end of eight hours!
Neil , London

I have family that live in Llanellwedd nr Builth and I try and visit two or three times a year, I combine plane and train at a cost of 60-70 return getting to Birmingham no problem but from there to the house takes hours as I have to change trains at New St and Shrewsbury and as there is only 3 trains per day on that line I have to usually have to wait at Shrewsbury for at least 2 hrs, however if I was to train it from Edinburgh to Builth Road (request stop)it would cost me over twice the price. Due to the length of journey I cant make it for a long weekend as two days would be taken up travelling. SO IM NOT GIVING UP FLYING!! Its the only real practical way to see freinds and family.
Jenn, Edinburgh

Wouldn't it be nice to have the time and money to spend six months getting to Australia and back. Unfortunately for most of us, we have jobs, mortgages and debts to pay which negates the entire concept of being green in situations like this.
Lloyd, London

Whilst I am most certainly for reducing carbon emissions, looking at the first example, how many of us can realistically afford to have over 100 days off work (basing it on the same journey as a return) and spend 4000 on the journey alone to Australia? Unless slow long distance travel become commercially viable, i think the age of air travel is here to stay
Chris Morphew, Peterborough, UK

It's not enough to take a bus instead of a plane, or to plant a tree to 'offset' carbon emission. There needs to be a fundamental change in the technology and fuels that propel our travel and drive our engines. Only once this paradigm shift has begun to occur can we hope to redress the imbalance that is at, or maybe even past, the brink of a major detrimental change to the environment of our planet.
Alex, London

As with so many green issues, you need plenty of money. Admirable though these two holiday travelling choices are, for many people, especially families, the additional cost of 'green' travel would far outweigh the cost of the holiday.
Karen, Notts

Nobody should give up flying. Contrary to claims that the science of climate change has been settled, the causes of the past century's modest warming is highly contested in the climate science community. Man made global warming is NOT fact it IS an unproven theory. Incredible is so many people have accepted junk science as fact. Get a grip and go on holiday.
Nick, Berks

I spent last year abroad and flew back and forth between Britain and Austria every few months, increasing my guilt at flying each time. For my final journey back to Britain I decided to change and took the train. It took about 24 hours (compared to a 2 hour flight) but I met some interesting people and had time to enjoy the landscape. Travelling through the Champagne region as they were harvesting in the early morning was fantastic, and something I would have missed completely on a plane. The problem with doing this more often is finding the time to take land journeys and the finances - although I was surprised at how cheap my train trip worked out. The Eurostar ticket was about the same price as all the others put together, in fact. Train travel still has the sense of adventure that aviation seems to lack, and affords an opportunity to swap travel tales with fellow passengers too. If only it was possible to take the time to enjoy travelling as well as the destination more often!
Susan, UK


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