Travel photography tips from a Greek adventure

I’m a casual photographer with no formal expertise. I learn through mistakes and lucky shots.

Hydra quaysideA two week trip to to Greece in 2009 was an action-packed holiday with lots of opportunities for photography. A week of watersports and mountain biking with Poseidon Sports was followed by a week of island-hopping towards Athens. I came home with several thousand images on my memory cards. Some shots were good. Many were not. I learned some useful photographic lessons from the adventure, and here I’d like to share them.

If you want professional opinion on photographic technique, you’re probably best speaking to experts like lomokev or Garage Studios about some training.

But here are some simple little travel photography tips I’ve picked up through trial-and-error while travelling in Greece. If you’re a photographer, feel free to correct, criticise or add to anything I say here. I’m still learning. And I’m loving it.

Cameras and lenses

I only have a modest pair of basic cameras, so the task of selection for my trip to Greece was not difficult. My Canon EOS 400D DSLR came with me, accompanied by its three lenses – a Canon 18-55mm, a Canon 50 mm f/1.8 (great for portraits and low light) and a Sigma 70-300mm (with macro). I used all three lenses and I’m glad I took them, despite their bulk. If you are blessed with a greater number of lenses, consider which ones you really use and which ones you’re willing to carry. It may be a hard decision.

My Canon PowerShot S70 compact is getting old but has helped me to take some of my favourite photos, particularly while mountain biking. Its toughness and portability means I often carry it in situations where I may not have my SLR to hand.

'Yakking MelAs an accessory, I have a waterproof case for the Canon PowerShot. This housing enables photos in or near water. On a watersports holiday, that brings huge opportunities.

Additionally, a mobile phone with a decent camera is no substitute for a real camera, but often helps to capture fleeting moments, and can be handy for instant uploads of travel photos to blogs and social networks.


While travelling, access to electricity may be unpredictable, so a good handful of spare batteries is a worthwhile investment for your camera bag. Bear in mind that unbranded ‘pattern’ batteries are often priced far more keenly than original batteries from camera manufacturers.

Carry a charger for the times you are able to plug it in, but be aware of the voltage in the country you’re visiting. UK and mainland European voltages are inter-compatible, and some, but not all, UK-bought chargers and appliances can operate on the 110 volt supplies used in Canada and the USA. Check the label. If your charger plugs in via a detachable ‘figure of eight’ lead, try to obtain an equivalent mains lead with the plug of your host country – saving the weight of an additional UK plug adapter.

Polarising filters

Moni inlet 2If  using an SLR anywhere in the sunshine, polarising filters are virtually essential. Harsh sunshine can overwhelm the camera as well as the eye. A polarising filter acts like a pair of sunglasses, moderating the harshness of strong sunlight. Polarising filters are particularly worthwhile when photographing water scenes, cutting reflections and capturing clear blue seas. Polarising filters are available in sizes to fit the diameter of lenses, measured in millimetres, so get the right ones for your equipment. Screw onto the end of your lens and rotate the filter until you see an improved image through the viewfinder.

It’s tempting to leave polarising filters on your lenses semi-permanently when in sunny places, but don’t forget if you have one fitted. Action photos or shady scenes can be made harder to expose correctly by the presence of a polarising filter, so judge the need of each photo individually.

Data storage

After taking great pictures, you need to keep your data safe until you get home. With large files, enthusiastic clicking and some precautionary bracketing, it’s likely you’ll end up with several gigabytes of files. The first step is to invest in some good-sized memory cards. Keep them in their little plastic cases and protect them in a dedicated bag, pouch or pocket. Then consider back-up. Will you be carrying a laptop? Will you have access to a computer during your trip? If so, you can back up your files to DVD, to a hard drive or an online service like Dropbox or MobileMe. Halfway through my trip to Greece, while visiting a friend, I backed up all my photos onto her computer and onto a portable hard drive I kept in my camera bag. If using public computers in places like internet cafés, be especially wary of viruses that may be carried on memory sticks or flash memory cards. A sound anti-virus package on your home computer should reduce the chances of bringing home an unwanted infection.


I took a Lowepro Flipside 300 and a CCS Warthog pouch. I stored all my kit safely and conveniently in my Flipside, while using the tough waterproof Warthog for day trips and mountain biking. So while travelling between locations, I had two bags to carry – one bag of camera kit and another containing the Warthog and my other possessions. During the second half of the holiday, I was constantly mobile and the extra luggage became tiresome. I wish now I’d just taken the Warthog, and carried spare lenses and accessories in pouches stored in my main baggage.

Take equipment you will use, not clutter you won’t

The bulkiest bit of equipment I took to Greece was a tripod, yet I rarely used it. My current tripod is of low quality. I don’t enjoy using it and it gives variable results. In retrospect, I should have either bought a good quality tripod before my trip, or simply left this awkward kit behind.

On the other hand, the waterproof housing for the Canon PowerShot is admittedly bulky and heavy. Am I glad I took it? Yes. Watersports and swimming were significant aspects of my trip to Greece, so my housing enabled me to get pictures that capture some of the best moments of the adventure.

Judge each item of equipment realistically, assessing how likely you are to use it and whether you really want to carry it.


Correct exposure can be tricky at the best of times. With the added factors of bright sunlight, strong shadows, whitewashed buildings and possibly the use of a filter, it can be very difficult to pick the right settings. So have a go at ‘bracketing’ your shots. If you think you’ve got a good picture, take some more that are underexposed and some that are overexposed. Take lots. When you get home you’ll have variously exposed versions, one of which will be the basis for your finished picture.  Find the exposure compensation control on your camera, sometimes marked Av +/-, and play with it.


When spending time on the coast, the sea becomes an inevitable background to many photos. And where there are seascapes, there are usually horizons. The goal of a level horizon, straight from the camera, is virtually impossible to achieve. Leave adjustment ’til you get home, but give yourself something to work with: If your photo includes a horizon, don’t zoom right in on your subject unless you have to. Straightening and cropping a photo will sacrifice areas around the edge of your photo, so bear this in mind when composing a shot with a visible horizon. Don’t zoom in too much.


Maybe it’s a cliché, but many people choose to take photos of flags while visiting foreign countries. If you do this, take a few shots. Fluttering flags give unpredictable results. What looks like a proudly flying Greek flag may, when photographed, come across as an awkwardly folded sheet of stripy cloth. So grab several photos, allowing you to later select the one that best shows the flag.

Military Areas

Greece has a reputation for sensitivity regarding photography around military areas. An incident at Kalamata airport in 2001 shows how serious this can be, so be wary of photography near any military equipment or personnel. Bear in mind that many smaller Greek charter airports, such as Kalamata and Preveza, double as military airfields, even if this is not immediately obvious.

Whether in Greece or anywhere else, be careful.

Tagging and keywords

Once you’re home, you will possibly process and archive your photos. You may choose to share them on a social site like Flickr. In most cases, you’ll tag your photos so they can be easily found, by you, by website visitors, by search engines or by stock agencies. Tags might include words like Sailing, Sea, Catamaran, Greece and Sunglasses as well as words that describe the location in which the photo was taken.

In some countries, including Greece, this presents an interesting language situation. Many places in Greece have multiple spellings using the Greek alphabet. When transliterated into Roman text, as read by English speakers, the various possible spellings multiply still further. If you’re tagging your photos comprehensively, it makes sense to use all the variations you know of.

For example, I spent half of my Greek adventure in the town of Porto Heli (Πορτο Χελι in Greek). This can be spelled in several different ways, so my Flickr photos have been tagged with:

Porto Heli, Porto Cheli, Portoheli, Portocheli, Πορτοχελι, Πορτο Χελι

This may seem like an unimportant detail, but it maximises the chance of my photos being found by other people. If you’re visiting a location with several names, or with various spellings, use them all for your tags and keywords.

The photos of my 2009 trip to Greece can be seen on Flickr.

Posted in photography, travel | Leave a comment

A brand new bag

Two courier bags. One black, one red.

I’ve owned one of them for around 7 hours. I’ve owned the other for for about 12 years.

One is brand new. The other is rapidly falling apart.

One of them has just been bought from the howies shop in Carnaby Street. The other came from a bike shop in Liverpool.

One of them sports crisp new buckles that click loudly. The other has long since lost the working parts of all its buckles and has twice been repaired by a shoemender in Brighton.

One smells of new shoes and outdoor shops. The other smells of biscuit crumbs and sweaty cycling kit.

One has a fleecy pocket for an MP3 player. The other was made before the iPod had been invented.

One has a handy sleeve for my laptop. The other was made at a time when I would carry a small box of floppy disks.

When I pick up one of these bags it feels unfamiliar and a little awkward – like it belongs to someone else. The other one moulds itself perfectly to the shape of my hip and lower back, like it’s part of my body. It has been with me virtually every day for over a decade, going to work, going travelling, going on bike rides and sharing adventures.

Let’s see what the next 12 years has in store.

Posted in design, travel | 3 Comments

Nick Meadows and his Eco-Trike

Last night, as I set off for an off-road ride through Alice Holt Forest, I was distracted by an unusual-looking wheeled contraption in the corner of a Forestry Commission car park. Intrigued, I rolled over to investigate.

What I saw fascinated me. I found a vehicle the size of a small car, with three bicycle wheels. It had a sturdy roof and a cockpit enclosing a recumbent seat within flexible transparent walls. The forward-facing pedals were connected via several chains and mechanisms to a rear wheel that seemed to feature suspension and electrical assistance. Attached to the rear of the bodywork was a further baffling assembly of wheels and cranks.

As I examined this impressive machine, a figure emerged from a folded-down seating area at the front of the vehicle. The man introduced himself as Nick Meadows, and proceeded to proudly show me around his creation – the Eco-Trike.

Nick eagerly showed me the TIG-welded chassis, the electrically assisted drive mechanism and the solar panels covering the roof. He explained how a bed could be folded down from the ceiling and how the Eco-Trike could hold enough water, food and power to enable several days of self-sufficiency.

I was ushered towards the back of the vehicle, where I received an explanation of the assembly strapped to the roof. Three windmill-style sails could be attached to a bike wheel, which then drives a marine alternator as a supplement to the power provided by the solar panels and human exertion. A quick blast from the Eco-Trike’s sound system demonstrated capabilities of the impressive electrical system.

It seems Nick likes an adventure. He told me of his love of travel and how, after spending a year building the Eco-Trike, he intends to ride to Dover and onward through Europe. His ultimate goal? Gambia in Africa.

I’m no stranger to peculiar bike-powered assemblies (I’ve seen bicycle sound systems and pedal-powered garden machinery) but I’ve rarely seen anything as elaborate, as intensively engineered and as passionately built as Nick’s Eco-Trike. I wish him all the best with his travels.

Nick’s website is called The Other Way, where he has more information about the Eco-Trike and his travel plans.

Posted in cycling | 1 Comment

Compulsory insurance for cyclists: Why not?

In the UK, if you ride a bike, write about bikes or work with bikes, there are certain thorny debates that crop up repeatedly: helmets, insurance, licensing, red-light-jumping and road tax are the usual favourites for discussion with journalists, motorists or fellow riders.

This morning was the turn of insurance. Oddly prompted by government proposals around compulsory insurance for dog owners, an exchange of views broke out on Twitter, debating the pros and cons of mandating third party insurance for cyclists. Such a move would ensure that in the event of a cyclist being at fault in an accident, compensation could be made available to injured parties. There seemed to be some firmly held, and sometimes opposing, views on the subject among @carltonreid, @velofello, @markbikeslondon, @FatManonaBike, @John_the_Monkey, @cyclepod1, @breadedcod and me, @CliveAndrews.

On the face of things, this looks like a reasonable idea. An equitable idea. Motorists are required to have third party insurance, so by taking responsibility in the same way, cyclists can be seen as equal to their four-wheeled contemporaries.

Will & Kate. London Junction.But there is a huge flaw in the idea of compulsory insurance for cyclists:

Of those who believe cycling to be a good thing for our society and our environment, most would like to see greater numbers taking to two wheels. With this in mind, we owe it to ourselves to ensure cycling remains as approachable, as accessible and as ‘normal’ as possible.

Committed cyclists may think nothing of investing a few quid in third party insurance. Many of us, through membership of cycling organisations, already hold insurance, so a compulsion to obtain third party cover will be no obstacle to our riding.

But what of those millions of people on the brink of deciding whether or not they should drive a little less and cycle a little more, and who would never define themselves as ‘cyclists’?

In a system with compulsory insurance for cyclists, the only people riding bikes would be those who take the deliberate decision to label themselves as cyclists by making the effort to obtain insurance. Do we want a small number of committed, legally paid-up cyclists feeling smugly secure in their legal parity with motorists, or do we want cycling to be accepted as the easy, affordable hassle-free way for everyone to get around?

We are all road users, making our own decisions about which vehicle to take to school, work or to the shops. If we want more people to use two wheels for short journeys we should not do anything to take cycling further out of the hands of the average citizen and into the hands of people who have chosen to commit to cycling as an officially documented lifestyle choice.

Some arguments on the politics of road use fall into the trap of adopting an ‘us and them’ mentality. We are the cyclists. They are the drivers. This ill-advised idea has a similar effect: We are the cyclists. They are are the non-cyclists. And if they want to join our club they will need an official piece of paper to show they are serious.

A very bad idea.

(Disclosure: When I wrote this blog post, I worked for CTC, the national cyclists’ organisation, but this post was unconnected with my work role)

Posted in cycling | 19 Comments

Why wait all summer for the mountains? Plan a biking trip now for next year

I was asked by Carolyn of Chalets Direct to contribute a post about biking in the Alps for The Ski Blog.

I first met Carolyn in 2001, when we were both living and working in Chamonix, so she knows how much I love mountain biking. I was happy to write a few words.

Here’s the blog post I wrote, originally posted on the Chalets Direct Ski Blog:

It’s that time of year when the days shorten, the temperature drops and you realise it’s only two or three months until your annual trip to the mountains, right?

But where have you been for the last six months? The mountains you long for each winter are there the whole year round and, if you’ve never visited in the summer, you have been seriously missing out. Don’t spend your time from May to October dreaming of the Alps, Dolomites or Rockies when you can experience them amid the beauty of green meadows and sparkling lakes instead of snow and ice.

If you love the excitement of skiing or snowboarding, the best way to enjoy the slopes during the warm snowless months is clear: mountain biking. Skiing, boarding and biking share a similar buzz, and all three let you pick a route down the mountain to suit your appetite for excitement. Challenging gradients or easy cruising – it’s up to you.

And like just like the après-ski of a winter holiday, there’s no better way to reflect on a day’s biking adventures than over a meal and a couple of beers with friends.

If you have concerns about your level of off-road cycling skill or about the necessary equipment for Alpine cycling you needn’t worry. Many ski shops become well-equipped bike hire shops in the summer and ski instructors can often be found offering their services as bike guides once the snow has melted.

But why talk about this now? This may seem entirely the wrong time of year to be oiling the chain and pumping up the tyres as the snow starts to fall. Well, yes, but now is the time to start planning a week in the mountains for next summer. That way, when you fly home from this winter’s alpine excursion, you can smugly remember that it will be only a few short months before you head out for some clear mountain air once more.

So where to go? The choice of summer alpine destinations is no less overwhelming than the question of where to ski or snowboard.

Here are just three I have ridden and loved:

Verbier, Swiss Alps

The beautiful bowl that surrounds the Swiss resort of Verbier is criss-crossed with singletrack trails that swoop down and around the hillside. Flower-filled meadows, icy streams and small furry mammals are all part of this Alpine paradise. All levels of mountain biking are on your doorstep, but intermediates find Verbier a particularly rewarding arena for improving skills and taking on new challenges.

Verbier Self-Portrait 3 Stu and Sal Traverse

Verbier Bike Park features several impressive downhill mountain biking routes, though a wider network of trails may also be shared with walkers. Verbier’s mid-mountain location, with lifts and trails stretching both up into the hills and down into the valley, means that, much like a day of skiing, trails can be picked off for multiple short rides, with frequent refreshment stops in the resort centre.

Longer rides that traverse the higher slopes are also worthwhile, and the new resort of Tzoumaz is just a lift ride away in the next valley, welcoming bikers with its freshly built downhill routes.

Good for:

  • Intermediate riding
  • Convenient resort layout
  • Frequent short rides

Not so good:

  • Expensive eating and drinking
  • Can get busy

Chamonix, French Alps

The grand-père of the Alpine resorts, Chamonix in the summertime is a fabulous green valley flanked by dazzling blue glaciers reaching down from the giddy heights of Mont Blanc.

For mountain biking beginners, the riverside trails of the valley lead from Les Houches, through Chamonix town, up to Argentiere and toward the Swiss border. Keener riders can explore some of the Alps’ most dramatic landscape using the lifts to gain altitude before following challenging trails leading from the snowy ridges back down to valley level.

IMG_4560 IMG_4585

Chamonix is not perfect for everyone. Intermediate mountain bikers may feel caught between the easy riding of the valley and vertigo-inducing lift-accessed descents.

The town’s authorities have a self-confessed ambivalence toward bikers, tailoring the valley’s infrastructure toward walkers and climbers. During the peak summer season, when the lifts re-open for a couple of months, a defined network of sanctioned routes is enforced. Riding ‘off piste’ is frowned upon and bikers have been known to receive fines for infringements.

But despite a few limitations, the Chamonix valley remains one of the Alps’ best summer biking destinations, especially if you’d like to mix your holiday cycling with other activities like walking, paragliding or rafting. The arrival of Chamonix Bike Park also suggests promising new developments for mountain biking.

Good for:

  • Amazing landscape
  • Beginner mountain biking
  • Expert riding
  • Walking, climbing and other Alpine pursuits
  • Excellent dining and bar scene

Not so good:

  • Intermediate riding
  • Limited route map
  • Lifts limited to peak season

Whistler, British Columbia, Canada

When you arrive in Whistler, you instantly realise that Canadians take mountain biking very seriously. Whistler in the summertime is certainly not a ski resort simply making do until the snow comes – it’s a full-on mountain biking playground where the whole infrastructure has been  designed to make off-roading huge amounts of fun.

In Whistler Bike Park, chairlifts are equipped to ferry bikes with ease, and ski hire shops become sources of serious mountain bikes and accessories. Whistler is a popular spot for some of the world’s best riders, and has featured on some amazing mountain biking films like The Collective and Roam.

Whistler Bike Park - Si in the Air Comfortably Numb - Sal

The easy, efficient lift system helps bikers access a superb array of world class trails. Graded green, blue, black and double-diamond routes encourage you to advance your skills and surprise yourself with wooden ramps, see-saws and other new challenges.

Whistler isn’t all about gravity-assisted riding, however. The packed trail map includes a range of stunning cross-country routes, from the fun trails of Lost Lake to the epic excursion known as Comfortably Numb.

Good for:

  • The breathtaking British Columbia landscape
  • Efficient infrastructure
  • Some of the world’s best trails
  • Combining with visits to British Columbia’s wild interior, and/or some time in Vancouver

Not so good:

  • 10 hour flight from UK to Vancouver
  • Depending on your tastes, Whistler resort feels like Disneyland, whatever the time of year!
  • Evening dining and entertainment can lack variety
Posted in cycling, travel | Leave a comment

Get up early before it’s too late – Don’t miss the best time of day at the best time of year

OK, spring is here. However you judge it, however you measure it, winter is gone, spring is upon us and summer is impatiently knocking at the door with a pair of flip-flops, a rolled up towel and a cheeky grin.

The annual forward movement of the clocks, two weeks ago, was an obvious cue for our summer lifestyles to begin. That extra hour of daylight in the evening puts a smile on the face of even the most cynical among us. We have managed to gerrymander our way into an additional hour of whatever we love to do of an evening – walking, cycling or just enjoying an outdoor pint with workmates in a pub garden.

But what about the other end of the day? The mornings that, theoretically, have lost an hour of daylight? Do we mourn the temporary loss of the morning sunshine? Of course we don’t – most of us are still in bed. We don’t notice it. Which is a shame.

Seize the morning

Morning LightEarly summer mornings are beautiful. There is something magical about the way the first rays of sunshine fall on dewy grass and chilly windows. Something is very life-affirming about leaving the house feeling the chill on your skin, only to notice the warmth of the sun’s rays a short time later.

Here’s where, if we’re observant, we can reap the overlooked bonus of the springtime time-shift. It takes a full month for the hour of ‘lost’ morning to be recovered by the natural extension of the summer daylight. So for that month, the wonderful spectacle of a chilly summer morning is brought an hour closer to us and our waking hours.

Soon it will be full-strength summer and, regardless of the weather, sunrise will once again retreat into the eccentric realms of the specialist early-riser. By the time June comes, we’ll be waking to a fully sunlit world, and the magic of a summer’s morning will only be available to anyone who makes enough effort to be up before five.

So do it, quick. Go set your alarm now. Tomorrow’s sunrise is just after six o’clock. Pump up the bike tyres, pick a book to take to the beach or warn the dog it’s in for an early walk.

Summer’s coming. And if you blink, you’ll miss it.

Tamina Looks Out

Posted in environment | 2 Comments

Why I’m Glad the Daily Mail Hates Social Media

When social media combines and competes with traditional media, it’s often exciting to watch the reaction to contentious issues spread around the internet as online folk read, digest and debate stories carried on the  TV and print-based media. So this week has been fascinating in the way that the spotlight of the press has been turned on social media itself. The reaction has been predictable.

The Daily Mail chose to run with a batch of technophobic articles including a front page piece suggesting that Social Websites Harm Children’s Brains.

This, as anyone with more than a passing understanding of the web knows, is nonsense. Interaction with other people, whether online or face-to-face, brings obvious opportunities for communication and understanding. That point has been well argued elsewhere, not only by those working in social media but by that fantastic champion of reason and science, Dr. Ben Goldacre.

The online response to the Mail’s stories has been quick and wide-ranging. In particular, Twitter (that particular focus of the mainstream media’s ridicule) has lit up with reaction to recent stories. But then, it would, wouldn’t it? If social media is attacked, social media can only reasonably be expected to fight back.

A knowledgeable grouping of social media experts, headed up by the guys at Content & Motion has even launched an expanding online space intended to refute the stance taken by the Daily Mail.

All good stuff.

But are we missing the point?

Are we really asking the Daily Mail to express an open-minded well-informed view on anything involving change, technology, science or progress?

On the Daily Mail Social Media Fail site, a plea for common sense goes to Mail editor Paul Dacre. Surely, asking the Daily Mail for common sense is like asking the Pope for contraceptive advice.

The Daily Mail serves its purpose very well. It acts as an intellectual meeting point for those who like to panic and fuss about anything that threatens to steer our society away from the traditional or the conservative. The Mail Watch blog has been monitoring the Daily Mail’s coverage for some time.

Social media is simply the latest in a long list of targets such as immigration, vaccination, single parenthood, environmental concerns, multiculturalism and gay rights. Our society has a significant proportion of people who, for whatever reason, fear change and open-mindedness. The Daily Mail does an excellent job of finding topics to satisfy this conservatism. Frankly, I’m surprised it took them this long to turn their focus to social media and its fictional threat to our children’s mental health. Well done them.

But here’s the thing:

To be honest, I find it re-assuring that the Mail disapproves of something in which I believe. It acts as a kind of confirmation that if the Mail doesn’t like it, it’s probably something worth knowing about.

So I say don’t get angry, don’t get even, just feel satisfied. We are but the latest in a long line of people to have incurred the wrath of the conservative media. Social media, in its many forms, is seen by the likes of the Mail as an exciting agent of change. That’s why they are afraid of it, and that’s why we love it.

I’m not worried that the Mail disapproves of something I like. The day it lends its support to something I hold dear is the day I’ll be truly worried.

Posted in internet, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Doing the DO – A weekend with howies – PART 1

I’ve just returned from an amazing four days as the guest of howies for the inaugural DO Lectures.

howies is a clothing company who try to be a little bit different, a little bit thoughtful and to do the right thing whenever they can. They ‘tax’ themselves 1% of their annual turnover in order to do good stuff. And this year, they decided their ‘Earth Tax’ would best be spent hosting a series of lectures where inspirational people got to talk to an invited audience of folks in need of inspiration. Places were limited and applications were by handwritten letter only.

And so it was that a hastily scrawled note gave me a great way to end my planned cycling holiday in South West Wales. The DO Lectures 08 were held near Cardigan at fforest, a kind of luxury campsite with comfy tents, a beautiful setting and great organic food.

The DO speakers varied from philosophers to beekeepers, climbers and surfers to activists and architects. There was tremendous diversity in the range of subjects, but a common thread of inspiration that was clear in everyone we heard and spoke to.

The DO Lectures website has information on all the speakers, along with books and websites personally recommended by each of them. Videos of each lecture will soon be avaiable on the site.

There is also a DO Lectures Flickr group and a DO Lectures Facebook group.

Here’s a quick summary of the folks we heard on days 1 and 2 of the four-day event, together with some of my thoughts.

I’ll add notes from the third and fourth days soon.

Ken Yeang – Architect

“We can’t have 100% comfortable eco-architecture. We need to change our expectations of comfort.”

Ken is an architect specialising in buildings that attempt to re-connect the built environment with the natural environment upon which it sits. He showed us highlights from his career, with a specialism in tall office buildings and complex urban schemes.

Ken’s approach was characterised by the use of vegetation to connect buildings with their landscape. This extended not only planting on roofs and landbridges, but by placing greenery on the vertical areas and in interior ‘skycourts’ to visibly blur the boundaries of what he called the grey infrastructure, the green infrastructure and ‘the red infrastructure’ (humans).

We also heard about Ken’s thoughts on the subjects more conventionally associated with the term ‘green architecture’: issues of ventilation, lighting and efficiency. He made it clear that these mechanisms should always be employed intelligently, but that their capabilities would never match those of fully mechanical systems. If we are to achieve a less energy-intensive environment, we need to make some sacrifices with our expectations of comfort.

Listening to Ken’s lecture took me back to university days, as architecture grapples with engineering, creativity and sociology all in one go. The complexity of Ken’s work was clear to us all. I found myself thinking about the additional resources needed to maintain the growth of vegetation planted on the walls of a skyscraper, and queried whether this was a responsible use of energy, fertiliser and human time. Ken acknowleged the concern but reminded me that there is a trade-off between the resources needed in order to build this way and the beneficial effects of integrating more fully with our landscape. He cited studies which have shown that recovery times in hospitals can be improved when patients’ windows are fringed with trees and plants. Benefits such as this, he pointed out, make it all worthwhile.

More about Ken Yeang

Michael Braungart – Chemist

“Forget eco-efficiency. Go for eco-effectiveness.”

Micheal Braungart applies his rational, scientific thinking to our way of living and points out the contradictions we accept. He suggests possible solutions to the crises we face, as well as some we didn’t even notice.

He began by observing, through measured examples, the amount of toxic chemicals we allow into our lives. Clothing, luggage, furnishings, toys and foods were all pointed out to be havens for substances harmful to our health and that of our planet.

He then looked at some of the assumptions we make when we consider these issues, and proposed that our thinking is drastically flawed.

For example, Michael raised the issue of overpopulation. Are there too many of us on the planet, or are we just looking after each other badly? Apparently, the world’s population of ants occupies four times more mass on Earth than do humans, yet we don’t consider them to overpopulated. “Are we too many, or too stupid?” asked Michael.

Our approach to energy consumption was next in Michael’s thinking. He challenged the consensus that decides we consume too much energy and that we must reduce our consumption. It is not the energy we need to re-allocate, he argued, but the materials we consume in our pursuit of energy. We consume coal, oil and uranium, and it becomes carbon dioxide, radioactive waste and other substances. The energy is not the real issue.

Michael extended this thinking to the manufacturing process, and our consumption of materials. He challenged the conventions of recycling, pointing out that we are rarely truely recovering the full benefit of the material when it progresses to its next use.

Interestingly, Michaul Braungart spoke in terms of ‘technical nutrients’, encouraging us to think of polythene, steel and carbon fibre as substances which can nourish our lives before they assume a different role and serve a different purpose. Incineration or landfill are ways of consigning these nutrients to the dustbin, rather than finding ways to ‘Upcycle’ them into their next use.

He did not blame us, as consumers, for the waste in our society. All we want, he noted, is to have clean clothes, comfortable feet, or effective communication. Yet when we buy washine machines, shoes or telephones, we are also buying bundles of materials and chemicals that are of no interest to us. We should buy the service, not the product, he proposed. Let’s buy televisions by the hour, or computers by the year. Establishing realistic lifespans for products would help us to manage their disassembly and upcycling.

The were so many other nuggets of fresh thinking in Michael Braungart’s DO lecture that I instantly decided I would be buying his book. Its title, Cradle to Cradle, is the term he has coined to represent his way of thinking. It was really challenging to have so much established wisdom (overpopulation, recycling, energy, even breastfeeding) examined and queried. Michael Braungart’s ideas were not always easy to listen to, but were certainly worth the time spent reconsidering conventional wisdom.

More about Michael Braungart

Yun Hider – Wild food forager

“Calling them weeds does huge disrespect to them. They are very tasty plants.”

Yun Hider makes his living by foraging – by finding and picking edible plants, leaves and flowers. He gave us an entertaining whistle-stop tour of the species we may want to find next time we’re feeling peckish. There were even samples to try, and an optional workshop that ventured out into the woods. His enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject was evident, and I feel inspired to look at forest vegetation in a new light, though I may still steer clear of that wild roquette I’ve seen growing by the side of the south circular…

More about Yun Hider

Trevor Baylis – Inventor

“The most important thing is to find the thing you love doing and to keep doing it.”

Trevor Baylis is most famed for his invention of the wind-up radio, and was arguably the most popularly known of all the DOers. He gave us a highly entertaining summary of his career, from competitive schoolboy swimmer, to his national service, his time as a stuntman, escape artist and then engineer.

Though his wind-up inventions are the most successful part of his history, he showed us some of the other items in his CV. An easily-constructed swimming pool for schools and a modular system of aids for physically disabled people gave a clue that Trevor’s motivation has always been to solve problems – not to invent things for their own sake, but to make things easy or more affordable. His feted wind-up radio came about through a realisation of the need for rural Africans to have access to health information without a reliance on scarce expensive batteries.

Trevor Baylis’s Do Lecture was highly entertaining and full of amusing anectodes. However, every so often, Trevor would show his anger and frustration as to how difficult it has been for him, and for other inventors, to get their ideas taken seriously. He showed us countless letters of rejection from funding bodies, investors and government agencies. Particulair disdain was reserved for the Design Council. “Bastards.”

The messages were clear:

As a society, we need to take inventors seriously. We need to encourage and welcome inventions from everyone, including the young and the female – two groups Trevor believes have been historically overlooked in this field.

And as individuals we need to display determination in getting our ideas taken seriously. If we believe in something, Trevor insisted we must persevere, even when we’re told our ideas unfeasible or impractical.

More about Trevor Baylis

John Grant – Marketer

“If you sell your product as green, people will try to find fault. If you have a good product, sell it as one.”

John Grant didn’t deliver a DO Lecture. In his place, two glove puppets, a sheep named Love and a wolf named Greed, played out a series of conversations illustrating real-life examples of the difficulties that arise within social enterprises. We witnessed, though the voices of Greed and Love, the challenges that arise when entrepreneurship comes together with the desire to operate an ethical business or enterprise.

Love (the sheep) found herself partnering with Greed (the wolf) in order to bring business skills to her social enterprise. We heard them ponder various quandaries as they found themselves motivated by different aspects of working together.

It seemed that for several people in the audience, the puppet show struck a chord. People already involved in social enterprise seemed to relate very strongly to the ideas John was illustrating with his furry friends.

More about John Grant

Guy Watson – Farmer

“Pandering to customers and offering choice can be a barrier to doing things responsibly.”

Guy Watson told us the story of his organic vegetable delivery company, Riverford Organic. He explained how, having grown up on a farm, and gone on to be a high-flying businessman in the 1980s, he returned to the UK to his farming roots, going on to establish a highly successful co-operative between Devon farmers, producing fruit and vegetables which are distributed nationally via franchisees.

It was clear that Guy is an ambitious businessman who balances his commercial progress with a desire to operate in an evironmentally sound way. He acknowledged that there have been many challenges and difficult decisions, and spoke of studies he’s conducted to calculate which part of the growing and delivery process is most responsible for CO2 emissions.

His tip for the audience? “If you’re getting into any business venture with anyone, ask them where they want to be in 10 years.”

More about Guy Watson

Andrew Whitley – Baker

“There is something in the making and sharing of bread that counters the negative trends in our society”

Andrew Whitley’s lecture concerned the state of bread as purchased in the high streets of the UK. He is a professional baker, having set up his own bakery several years ago in a small Cumbria village. Andrew explained to us how, in the interests of economy and industrialisation, much of the goodness of wheat has been removed, and many additional ingredients added.

After a technical analysis of bread’s various ingredients, he then spoke about how bread has historically played an important role in our society, providing nourishment and requiring time and patience.

Andrew proposed that if we stop demanding fast, cheap bread, and return to an emphasis on quality, the benefits will be great for not only our health, but for society in general.

Andrew Whitley is a great advocate of baking one’s own bread, and he held a breadmaking workshop the following day, the rsults of which were shared at mealtimes and were very tasty.

More about Andrew Whitley

Further notes from the third and fourth days of the DO Lectures will follow soon…

Posted in dolectures08 | 5 Comments

Tips for choosing, buying and setting up a new bike

It’s summertime. So, of course, it’s the time of year when everyone rummages in the shed, finds their bike lying unloved and rusty where it was deposited after a wet ride last year, and decides to treat themselves to a new machine. It’s not surprising that bike shops do their best business during these warm sunny months.

It’s also the time of year when I get most emails, texts and phone calls from friends looking for a few tips on what kind of bike should be their next purchase.

One for Reekie...I don’t mind helping friends with bike questions at all. In fact, I love it – there’s nothing quite like the simple pleasure of spending someone else’s money in a bike shop. But, in recognition of the fact I repeat the same advice to numerous people, I thought I should summarise the key points somewhere online.

So here, carefully distilled, are some of the nuggets of wisdom I most frequently suggest. Some are the answers to questions that often appear in my inbox, on my phone or across a pub table, while others, frankly, are just well-intentioned rants I feel the need to pass on to any friend who will listen.

Of course, not all my friends are bike beginners – many are far more knowledgeable than me. So bikers, feel free to criticise and add to what follows. And the rest of you, I hope this stuff comes in handy when you step into the bike shop.

Here goes…

1. It doesn’t matter which make you buy
More than any other question I get asked, the most frequent is “What’s a good make?”. But it’s also the question that matters least. There are many good bikes out there, made by many companies. And to be honest, as long as you have a realistic budget, and you don’t go for inappropriate gimmicks, it’s very hard to buy a bad bike. Unless you go for the wrong size.

2. It does matter where you buy
So much more important than the brand you buy is the shop you buy from. Ask where friends bought their bikes. Shop around. Which bike retailer seems to be the most genuine? Who seems to ask the right questions about you and your riding? Who would you feel comfortable coming back to with a problem or a query? See if anyone is willing to throw in a few extras (helmet, lights, a lock, maybe) but don’t be greedy – a saving of £25 on accessories is arguably not as valuable as the reassurance of buying from a local shop you like and trust.

3. Choose your weapon
The make may not matter, but the type of bike certainly does. Be realistic about your needs. Fast and speedy road bike? Versatile street/hybrid machine? Or rufty tufty mountain bike? If in doubt about what you’ll be doing, veer toward the off-road end of the spectrum. It’s easier to adapt a mountain bike later to make it speedier on the road than it is to convert a road bike for off-road duties.

4. Don’t be afraid to spend a bit of money
A few times, friends with a fair bit of money in their back pockets have asked for my opinions on new bikes costing under £150. For a new bike, £150 is really not much money to spend at all. In fact, the quality is likely to be so low that they would be put off cycling for life. If you’re looking to buy a bike on a budget, then consider the fact that at that level, an extra £50 or £100 can make a world of difference. Upwards of around £300, bikes start to become the kind of machine you can ride on a regular basis with some feeling of enjoyment. If this seems a lot, check out secondhand options.

5. Don’t forget secondhand options
If you’re struggling to afford a decent new machine, then yes, there is always the secondhand market. For the price of a brand new pile of shiny creaking scaffolding poles, you can find a perfectly good pre-owned bike. The usual warnings apply as with anything bought secondhand, especially via the internet. If you find a bargain, be sure that the bike you’re buying is the right fit and size for you. The only way to be sure is to visit the seller for a test ride. The best bike in the world fails to be so if you can’t ride it comfortably.

Ask about the history of the bike, and ask to see receipts. If you suspect a bike to be stolen, the honourable thing to do is to walk away. Bike thieves are a certain special kind of scum. Their customers are not much better.

6. Getting the right size is the most important thing of all
Use this three-step guide to getting the right size:

i) Goolie clearance – first check you can stand over the bike with room to spare. You’ll need a few inches for off-roading, If it’s too close for comfort, try a smaller size.

ii) Seat height – Next, adjust the seat to the correct height (see 7). If you can’t get it high enough without exposing the ‘Min insert’ mark on the seatpost, try a larger size.

ii) Reach – arguably the most important thing to check. When you’ve sorted the seat height and you’re sat on the bike in riding position, do you feel comfortable? Does your weight feel nicely balanced between your hands and your bum? If you feel too huddled, try a larger size. If you feel too stretched, try a smaller size. But bear in mind, if you’re checking out a sportier bike than you’re used to, a bit of stretch might be part of the bike’s design. Go for a test ride to settle in.

Another rule for bike sizing: Ignore the nominal size classifications the manufacturers use. On one brand of bike, you may measure up as a 19”, as opposed to their alternatives of 17” or 21”. On another make, you may feel comfortable with an 18”. Some bikes have abandoned this way of sizing in favour of the S,M,L,XL system. Whatever bike you’re looking at, size up each different model from scratch, assuming that one marque’s idea of a ‘Large’ or a ‘17”’ is very different to another’s. It invariably is.

7. Correct seat height might be higher than you think
Forget what you learned at school all those years ago about being able to touch the floor with both feet. If you use this as a guide to seat height, you’ll be nursing very sore thighs and bulging knees after a couple of miles. For most riding, the best seat position is one where, with the pedal at its lowest position and your heel on the pedal, you have the very tiniest amount of bend on your knee – virtually straight. If you feel more confident with the saddle an inch or two lower, especially off-road, then that’s fine, but you will lose some pedalling comfort. You should never ride with the seat too high – if you’re rocking your hips or you can feel your legs stretching to reach, lower your saddle immediately.

8. Handlebar height – Don’t worry, be happy
Your handlebar height is rarely very adjustable. But that’s OK – it doesn’t need to be. If you’re feeling strange about the fact that you can’t lift your bars to a height that matches your saddle, then don’t be alarmed – it’s quite normal for your bars to be lower than your seat. A proportion of your weight should be borne by your hands – not just your saddle. Don’t think of handlebars merely as some kind of steering accessory.

9. Test ride, every time
Don’t ever consider buying a bike without a test ride. Whether you’re going for new or secondhand, you can never tell if a bike is right just buy sitting astride it. Any decent shop (or reasonable secondhand seller) will accept some kind of security (credit card, cash sum or small child) as deposit while you go for a spin. When you test ride, try to pick a route with climbs, descents and corners that will give you a reasonable impression of the bike’s fit and comfort. If it ain’t comfy, don’t buy it.

10. You don’t need suspension
Suspension is fairly new on the scene. Just a few short years ago, it was seen as an expensive novelty. Don’t assume that just because your riding may take you over a few bumps, suspension is vital. Most decent mountain bikes costing anything over a couple of hundred quid will have front suspension. This is no bad thing, and helps to make the ride smoother and more comfortable. But unless you’re spending an amount approaching £1000, I would think twice before you opt for rear (or ‘full’) suspension. On sophisticated bikes, rear suspension is great. On cheaper models, it’s a heavy waste of money that detracts from the quality of the rest of the bike.

11. Helmets are optional
It’s not compulsory to wear a helmet. Many people feel that helmets make cycling safer, but their benefits are far from proven. I choose to wear one for most of my cycling, but I’d recommend my friends to do whatever they feel is comfortable. If the idea of wearing a helmet is putting you off riding a bike, then fine – get a bike, ride helmet-less and enjoy yourself.  If you’re uncertain about idea of the weight and expense of a helmet, consider that most helmets are now very light and can cost as little as £15 or £20. Try one. And if you do choose to wear one, take a few minutes to adjust the straps for a proper fit. There’s nothing quite as useless as a helmet perched on the back of your head with the straps swinging down like a hammock.
(This section edited 25/08/09)

12. Don’t fear the gears
Most bikes these days will have between 14 and 27 gears. But it’s not the quantity that counts – it’s how you use them. Don’t assume that the higher the gear, the faster you will go. Get used to spinning your legs in nice fast even circles – each revolution taking much less than a second. Then adjust the gears to suit your legs – not the other way round. If you’re pedalling with a discernable left-right-left-right feeling, or you can feel yourself rocking from side to side, you’re very likely to be in the wrong gear – change down and be kind to your knees! If your bike has gear shifters on both sides of the handlebars, and you find yourself confused, then go easy on yourself. Leave the left-hand shifter in ‘2’ and do all your changing with your right hand, with continuous pedalling that eases for a stroke or so after each shift – this gives the gears a chance to change.

13. Use your balls
Pedal using the balls of your feet: the widest part. Try not to pedal with your heels or the centre of your feet. If you’re wearing high heels and you find that the pedals naturally seem to fit at the back of your foot, then don’t wear high heels.

14. Women’s bikes
Historically, manufacturers who offer ‘women’s bikes’ have been supplying traditionally-shaped frames with dropped crossbars – handy for riding wearing a dress or long skirt. Like you do.

Serious female cyclists would avoid these anachronisms in favour of a standard, or ‘gents’ model. But things have changed. Most of the major bike brands now offer women’s bikes that look at first glance like regular machines. The difference is in the detail. These bikes will typically be shorter, to accommodate smaller arms. They’ll often include other details like smaller brake levers, shorter cranks, women’s saddles and softer suspension. Check them out – they’re often worth a look. But don’t assume that a women’s model will necessarily fit you just because you’re female. Test ride standard bikes alongside these women’s versions and go with whichever feels most comfortable. Try not to be swayed by the pink flowery designs that often decorate these girlie bikes.

15. Disc brakes – Good or gimmicky?
As with suspension, disc brakes are a feature which has made mountain biking more comfortable for many people. Discs are more powerful than other braking options, which means you’ll need less effort to achieve the same braking effect, so no more tired fingers after long descents. Other benefits include longer maintenance-free running time between services, an easier ride home following a wheel-wobble-inducing incident, and more life from your wheel rims, as discs don’t grind away at your wheels like conventional brakes do.
But, just like suspension, all these benefits come at a price. Cheap bikes with disc brakes will often be sporting the worst examples of this technology, with more weight, poorer durability and worse performance than rim brakes on an equivalently priced bike. If you’re looking at a disc-equipped bike for less than around £500, check out the V-braked equivalents. You could be in for a surprise.

So there we go. My 15 commandments. Can anyone think of anything I’ve missed?

Posted in cycling | 16 Comments

It’s Early May and History is Repeating Itself

Since 1999, the first weekend in May has always been the cue for a kind of nervous excitement for me. During the years I worked overseas for Neilson, this time of year was generally the time when, after several weeks of preparation, our first customers of the summer would arrive and we would swap our hammers and paintbrushes for uniforms, clipboards and big grins as we began our real task of biking, windsurfing and sailing with our guests.

My last summer season overseas was in 2002, but since then, working in the Neilson office, I’ve still been party to the genuine excitement of the annual Official Start of Summer.

This year is different. Time for a change. For nearly nine years I worked for Neilson as a mountain bike guide, as a centre manager, as a product executive and latterly as their online editor. But I decided to move on.

It would be the most enormous understatement to say I will look back on my Neilson years with fondness. My first summer, in 1999, fresh from a Liverpool bike shop, was a magical experience. I simply couldn’t believe that I was being paid to live in the Turkish sunshine introducing people to mountain biking and taking them on pleasant rides along breezy coastlines and pine forests. The customers were great – my colleagues were even better.

Gundogan 1999 was followed by Finikounda 2000. Fini, as anyone who’s been will confirm, is the most magical Greek village. The Fini team of 2000 became a bunch of friends who, I think, showed the customers as good a time as they were having themselves. Some of my friends from summer 2000 remain my closest pals today, and I suspect they always will be.

A brief taste of ski chalet hosting in the winter helped to prepare me for my first summer as a manager – in the legendary mountains of Chamonix in the French Alps. Accompanied by a pair of accomplished chalet hosts, we welcomed people for weeks of mountain biking and other fun in one of the most amazing locations I have ever spent time.

Then followed a winter in the Caribbean on the island of Grenada, as a bike guide once more. I’ll never forget Christmas Day 2001: a ride through the rainforest villages before a relaxed lunch on a golden beach with blue surf rolling in.

Then in 2002 I returned to Finikounda, this time as centre manager. A few new challenges, but the same laid-back Fini, same great biking and the same kind of up-for-it guests that made this work such a pleasure.

Even after I began my five year stint in Neilson’s Brighton office, early May would still bring a rush of excitement as colleagues in the Mediterranean would open their doors for the summer.
But this year, for the first time in nearly a decade, I’m no longer seeing May from a Neilson viewpoint. I’m now working for CTC – a cycling organisation. And my first task is to oversee the setting up of a cycling project for the disabled. I feels good to be working once again with people and with bikes.

So, on the first Monday in May, I find myself, after weeks of preparation, excitedly opening up a shed full of bikes, pulling on a brand new uniform shirt and cycling with beginners in a sunny forest. Just like I was nine years ago.

And as I write this, I know another beautiful day is beginning on a wonderful beach somewhere in southern Greece…

Posted in cycling, travel | 1 Comment