Zipcar does the trick

For the last couple of years I have been watching my neighbours’ behaviour with keen attention. The cool ones, that is, who flash phones at their cars to open them, and drive off in a metaphorical puff of smug smoke which, if it were a cartoon, would formulate the words ‘I’m so cool, I’m a Zipcar user’.  Zipcar is the UK’s leading car club organisation, with cars parked at locations all over London, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford and Maidstone which you can reserve to use whenever you need. It also has branches in USA, Canada and Barcelona and growing.

My curtain twitching has meant that each time the dreaded annual demand (with proverbial price hike) for car insurance to be paid on my battered but faithful old family Volvo arrives, I have sat and done the sums and tried to work out whether I could make the leap from car owner to car club cool. The fact is that the sums came out pretty equal, when I also included the cost of hiring a car once or twice a year for longer excursions if and when necessary.

But for two years I have put off making the decision, mostly out of laziness I admit as it clearly wasn’t going to cost me any more money. But with two kids who need transporting here there and everywhere, I confess that I love the convenience of my car. I always have.  However, we live minutes’ walk from a London underground station, the kids walk to school, we all own bikes and so in reality we only use the car twice a week at the most. So, in my heart of hearts, I knew which way I had to go with this car attachment issue.

And then the decision was made for me a few weeks ago, when the Volvo finally passed away peacefully into its own little puff off knackered radiator smoke and I knew exactly whom to call. Zipcar. After checking on their website that there were about five cars within a 1.5 mile radius of our home I called them up, and within half an hour I was reserving my first shiny new Volkswagen Golf.

The whole transition from car owner to car clubber just kept getting cooler after that. The annual fee is £59.50 with an additional hire cost of £5 an hour during the week or £6 at weekends. And here’s the best bit – as long as you don’t do over 40 miles, the petrol is free too, and of course no insurance. And you don’t pay London’s Congestion Charge either, although I always use public transport to go into the city centre during the week anyway. The staff were incredibly helpful when I phoned up to register, without a hint of hard selling. Within minutes I found myself having a conference call with the DVLA to approve my driving licence details, during which I downloaded my Zipcar app, and then I was done. Free to drive. Plus they do have special offers, so keep an eye on their site. You also get a Zipcar card sent in the post which enables you to do everything you need to use the cars, but if you have a smartphone you can drive straight away, simply by using the cool app.

I just reserved the car that I needed for a couple of hours using the app, and then walked over there, which took five minutes, hit the ‘unlock car’ button on the app, and click, the door unlocked. I chanced my arm to see if I could get the use of it earlier than planned, as the car was sitting in its special car club parking space not being used, but it wouldn’t unlock until bang on the time I had reserved it for. When the car was unlocked, I found the ignition key inside, and off I drove. Well, after adjusting my head from manual to automatic, that is, and calming my kids down as they played with all the new buttons and revelled in the fact that there was actually a CD player, not an archaic cassette thing.

If you are late returning the Zipcar to the place you got it (it’s not like city bike schemes where you just drop them at any old Zipcar location, you do have to bring it back to where you got it) there is a fine of £35 per hour which is steep, so you have to be organised. Which generally, I am not, but I am learning. So, for example, I drop the kids at one of their things, while I take the car to the supermarket, collect the Christmas tree or whatever and then ‘zip’ back to get them.  And if you are running late, you can  extend your reservation when you are out and about, no problems, as long as it hasn’t already been reserved by someone else.

The only thing that I have to adjust to is the notion of paying £20 to do a rugby club run. That still feels like a lot of money to me, so of course you have to change your mindset about this, and remember that you are not paying petrol, insurance, breakdown tax, MOT and car maintenance costs. Plus the car which is closest to my home isn’t always available, so I have got into the habit of cycling to the nearest alternative and locking my bike to the Zipcar post (which has a convenient metal loop on it for this purpose I presume).

With petrol, the deal is that you are a good club member and fill it up when it goes under a quarter of a tank, using a payment card which is in the car. Because, again I say, I don’t pay for petrol! And all in all,  my kids love the fact that I have a ‘posh’ car, I love the fact that I have a reliable one (it comes with full breakdown cover if anything does happen), and we are all coming round to the realisation that we don’t need to own a car in the city anyway. I have booked it for every rugby and cricket training session for the next year, as you can reserve it well in advance, and have had no problems so far booking it at short notice. We are still in transition, but it feels good so far. If the kids were still babies, I would think differently for sure, but now it suits us all fine. And if I were young, free and single again, this would be just ideal. In fact, it has to be just about the best present to buy any young city dweller, which might solve a few birthday or Christmas present quandaries too. In the meantime, check out the video below and get zipping. It might be just up your street.

Note one year later: I have just renewed my subscription and loving my Zipcar. Couldn’t recommend it more highly.

A weekend on The Thames

Loving Somerset House. Photo: Catherine Mack

One of London’s greatest icons is the Underground Map. Designed in 1931 by Harry Beck, his mass of multicoloured lines will lead you horizontally, vertically or diagonally from one end of this sprawling city to the other. But it isn’t really the bowels of the city that appeal to me for a family visit.  If you really want to breathe in London life, you never actually have to leave the banks of the river. The Thames is London’s artery; a tidal, working river which led us into endless nooks and crevices of London’s past and present.

A family weekend on the Thames really requires a boat and, if you book well in advance  you can stay on a luxurious barge overlooking Kew Gardens ( We were after something a little more central, however, so we opted for the family-friendly Novotel Hotel in the heart of Waterloo, nestled into a leafy corner just off the riverbank at Lambeth Bridge. Our spacious fifth floor room overlooked The London Eye, Lambeth Palace, and the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben giving us our early morning call.

Walking around London can be a bit of a nightmare with children, until you discover The Thames Path. It is traffic-free, tree-lined and only a minute’s stroll from our hotel, so it made for easy planning, with our daily itinerary starting to revolve around bridges. A short stroll down the Path to Waterloo Bridge led us to our first river spot at Somerset House. Since it was built in 1547, this has been a royal residence, a naval centre, a tax office and, most recently, a collection of art galleries. But it’s what is hidden behind Somerset House’s austere frontage which really made us smile – a giant courtyard flowing with water from about fifty fountains. Enjoy the art inside by all means, but the picture on the children’s’ faces as they run around outside, getting totally soaked, is truly priceless. We had come prepared with towels and togs for the boys, as we sat back and sipped a glass of wine enjoying the freedom and general wild abandon that this place invites.

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the water, but knew that it wasn’t far away for a cool-down session if we needed it. In fact, nothing is too far on the Thames, once you get the hang of navigating it. This was made easy by the

Shakespeare's Globe Photo: Catherine Mack

Thames Clipper commuter boat service . A family ‘roamer’ pass allowed us to hop on and off at whichever pier we fancied. It wasn’t the cheapest way to get around (£26.50 for a family day pass), but definitely the most fun, spacious and, if you have one, totally buggy-friendly.

From Somerset House, it was only a ten minute boat ride down to Tower Bridge, where we walked straight off one gang-plank onto another – The HMS Belfast, which was indeed constructed in Belfast’s shipyards as a WW2 battle ship and now turned naval museum. War museums are not my thing, but the curators of this one have rather brilliantly recreated the atmosphere of what it must have been like for these men serving at sea for months at a time. After three hours on board studying engine rooms, missiles, ship’s kitchen, hammock-filled dorms, and hearing veterans’ audio accounts, we took our final salute on the ship’s bridge. Poised in the Captain’ s chair, my older son, Louis, said “How is it that the Captain had so much control, and yet did so little of the work?” An elderly medal-wearing veteran visitor guffawed loudly as he passed by, enjoying my little mutineer in the making.

The Thames has always divided the city socially as well as geographically. In Elizabethan times, the South was outside the City of London’s authority – trading was swapped for theatre, finance for farming and, in many ways, these roots still hold strong. Although the farming has gone, many old markets have remained South of the river. As for the arts, the South Bank is the centre of the London arts scene. Our next stop was Bankside Pier, where we walked straight off the boat into Shakespeare’s Globe – a magnificent round, white-washed, timber beauty, its thatched roof open to the elements. It comes as a disappointment to many that The Globe is, in fact, a reconstruction, but I think of it more as a perfect homage. In 1949 American actor and director, Sam Wanamaker, was visiting London and went in search of The Globe, disappointed to find only an old blue plaque on the wall of a derelict brewery. For the next forty years, he followed his dream to pay proper tribute to Shakespeare and, after years of fundraising and planning battles, this magnificent structure was finally opened in 1997.

Lunch at superb Borough Market. Photo:Catherine Mack

We visited the exhibition and took a tour of the building to learn more about this amazing man’s quest. No modern building techniques were used in the reconstruction, using English oak, thatch and lime mortar plastering, and it is the only building in London with a licence for a thatched roof. Everything at the Globe is done in as traditional a way as possible, including the seating. Later that day, Louis and I watched All’s Well that Ends Well from our wooden bench, glad that we had rented a cushion for a £1. Or you can buy a ‘yard’ ticket for £5 where, just like the ‘groundlings’ of the time, you stand throughout the show. These are the best tickets in the house ‘though, as you can get up close and personal with the actors as they weep, and feel the sweep of a rapier as they fight. If you don’t think that Shakespeare is going to do it for your kids, and to be honest, this is the place to see it done as it should be, you could head to The Unicorn Theatre just beside London Bridge, London’s leading children’s theatre, often upstaged by West End hype.

The next morning I took an early morning stroll around Borough Market at London Bridge and Walworth Market nearby, with walking tour guide Sandra Shevey . Passionate and knowledgeable  about London’s markets,  Sandra just opened her Pandora’s Box of a head full of historical titbits, social politics and contemporary gossip, and was the most delightful company for three hours.   I made sure that I didn’t leave Borough market without a quick stop at Hobbs’ Roast Meat stall for baguettes brimming with layers of hot roast pork.  The boys had spent the morning back at the fountains in Somerset House, so I hopped back on the boat up to Waterloo and followed the screams of delight emanating from our new favourite urban haven.  Met with wet hugs and sunkissed faces, they devoured the takeaway delights and dived in for another soaking. “Can we stay here for the rest of the day? Pleeeeese!” they shouted. With the Thames as my new guide, I realised that this was the moment to sit back, enjoy, and just go with the flow.

An edited version of this article was published in The Southern Star, Ireland

Just keep walking along the Thames Path and you'll find something interesting. Photo:Catherine Mack

London’s Cycle Scheme

On Lambeth Bridge Photo: Catherine Mack

London has finally caught up with neigbouring capital cities, Paris and Dublin, and launched its own bike hire scheme, organised by Transport for London (locally known as TFL).

There are four hundred docking stations around the city centre, housing six thousand bikes, so this is a fairly ambitious attempt to keep up with the Joneses. I had a quick preview run last Sunday cycling up The (traffic-free) Mall to Buckingham Palace, down the South Bank, back over Westminster Bridge and around London’s green heartlands of St. James’ Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, and I loved it.

The London scheme is more expensive than many other urban bike hires: the first half an hour of bike hire is free (well almost, you have to pay a daily access charge of £1 – no such thing as a free lunch anymore), then £1 for an hour, going up to £35 for six hours. So they are not aimed at long term hire, just for short trips across the city. However, according to TFL, you can dock it after half an hour, wait for five minutes and take another one for half an hour, and go free wheeling all day if you like, if you have the energy to plan that.

Planning your cycle route is made easier with Transport for London’s map of all the docking stations.  TFL’s website is invaluable anyway for planning your journey, but especially for cyclists. Either go straight to the docking station map or,  to plan a more precise route from one postcode to another, go to their general Journey Planner and put in your starting point and chosen destination. Then go to ‘Advanced options’, scroll down to ‘cycle’, and you will get a map of the best (and traffic-light) cycling route. You can also get a map of the docking stations on a new iphone app. It is worth noting, however, that for the first four weeks of the scheme, only registered members can use them, and you need a UK address to do that. After this preliminary period, they will be available to non-residents.

If you are going to do some serious long-distance cycling in London, I would hire a sportier, sleeker model than the one being rapidly nicknamed The Boris Bike, after the Mayor who launched it – which is a bit big and bulky. The bike that is, of course. For example The London Bicycle Company at Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank hires bikes from £3.50 per hour, or £20 per day. And,  unlike Boris, they’ll give you a helmet and a lock. You could join one of their guided cycling tours of the city or,  if you want to be more independent, buy The London Cycling Guide by Tom Bogdanowicz (New Holland, ISBN: 978 1 84773 5461, £10.99). Full of maps, descriptions and low traffic routes, as well as links to rail and underground stations.

I have two favourite cycle days out in London: first, put the bike on the train at  Waterloo station to Richmond, where you can head to the Thames Path and cycle about 10k to the stunning Hampton Court Palace, with a few lovely riverside pubs en route. or second, put your bike on the Thames Clippers commuter ferry at one of many city centre moorings, and sail to Greenwich. Then cycle up through the Royal Park of Greenwich (stick to cycle routes only, or you will get get a fine) to The Observatory, enjoy one of the city’s best views (sunset is superb here), and then cycle back into the city centre following the Thames Path and quiet backstreets again. Towards the end of this journey you turn a corner and Tower Bridge is suddenly there, right in front of you. These are what I call  ‘Loving London’ moments and,  no matter which bike you plump for, seeing it from a saddle is, surely,  the way to go.

An edited version of this article, by Catherine Mack, was first published in her column, Ethical Traveller, in The Irish Times