What Does an Ecotourism Trip to London Even Look Like?

Brandon Withrow
Brandon Withrow

“Funghi are the custodians of the planet,” says forager James Grant, founder of Foraged, a school for teaching bushcraft. We’re walking through Battersea Park in London, where he’s teaching me urban foraging. He then turns to point out some stinging nettles.

Grant has a friendly, contagious smile and his knowledge of edible and poisonous plants is encyclopedic. Urban foraging is a way of life for people like him.

“To be in the outdoors is like being in a supermarket,” he tells me, “where you’ve got all the aisles and all the signs and all the indicators to anything you want. That is kinda what it’s like walking through nature for me.” Then his eyes light up and he bounces off; he’s spotted some poisonous nightshade.

Urban foraging in London is not normally what tourists expect, but it’s what I’m here to do. My trip is at the invitation of Visit London, the official city guide for the mayor’s office. They are partnering with Make My Day, the brainchild of travel journalist, Nick Boulos, which sets up tailored, localized London experiences—in my case, one that focused on sustainability and ecotourism.

What does a sustainable and eco-centered trip in London even look like?

My week in London was a road-biking, horseback-riding, cooking-class-crashing, beer-drinking, and delicious-food-eating-filled whirlwind that delivered an alternative view of the city.

This trip’s theme began with where I would stay.

My home base for the week was The Good Hotel, a dark rectangular building with a stylish rooftop bar that also serves as a green space located on the Royal Victoria Dock in London.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Photo courtesy, The Good Group.</div>
Photo courtesy, The Good Group.

The Good Group’s founder, Marten Dresen, created the brand as a social business, where the profits are kept within the community by funding local charitable partners rather than filling the pockets of shareholders. The hotel’s Good Training program also trains those who are “long-term unemployed” in hospitality, providing not only an income, but also an opportunity to be matched with a future employer.

The hotel building itself has an interesting origin story, a twist that is more than a metaphor for second chances. A former floating, offshore, Dutch immigration detention center, the building has a second life, serving as a pop-up hotel briefly in Amsterdam and then sailed into London and anchored at the Royal Victoria Dock. Yes, you read that correctly.

Sustainability is built into the hotel through water reclamation systems, environmentally friendly soaps, the use of renewable energy sources, locally sourced foods and materials, or even the energy saver keycard switches that are popular in Europe—guest keycards are put in a slot that engages the power for the room and disengages it when removed by guests when exiting the room. The Good Hotel also recently joined The Seabin Project—bins that are placed in places like marinas that suck up and filter out plastics in the water.

The building’s remodel has a cool, clean, and industrial feel with living room spaces to work in and a restaurant. Its minimalist deluxe rooms have a view of the Thames and—because they were once jail cells—a cozy 13 sqm of space (the length my king bed ran from wall to wall). Corner rooms are double the size.

The Good Hotel is not, however, in the center of London, so every day I disembarked from my floating home, opened up the CityMapper app, and hopped on the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) at the Royal Victoria Station just a couple blocks away. From here I could connect to London’s extensive, but relatively easy to use, Tube network.

On the first evening of my trip, I found myself in central London, where it was arranged for me to crash a cooking class at the Cookery School.

The Cookery School focuses on making sustainable meals, and this class was exploring vegetarian recipes. I’m not a vegetarian and I hesitate to call myself a cook, but I am a gardener. I know that satisfying feeling of having a large sustainable vegetable garden. The Cookery School was an opportunity to see how others prepare those vegetables, making vegetable and mushroom shish kebabs, delicious black bean burgers, and roasted leeks with capers.

It was also a chance for a low-key hang with some Londoners, where we discussed everything from day jobs to stand-up comedy, drank wine, and shared the meal we made.

Sustainable food in its many forms played a big role in my trip.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>"Brandon Withrow"</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Brandon Withrow. Rooftop of Bermondsey Street Bees.</div>

"Brandon Withrow"

Brandon Withrow. Rooftop of Bermondsey Street Bees.

One morning, for example, I found myself with a guide at the award winning Bermondsey Street Bees, where I met co-founders Dale Gibson and Sarah Wyndham Lewis (author of Planting for Honeybees). Bermondsey Street Bees, which sells to commercial buyers, emphasizes sustainable honey, and bee-friendly biodiversity in the city. We donned beekeeper suits, which is something I’ve always wanted to do, and walked to the roof of their Victorian residence to check out the hives. My guide and I later enjoyed a honey tasting, learning about the large variations in color and flavors that appear in honey when pollen is foraged by bees from different plants—even multiple plants—or in different regions. Cherry pollen and nectar creates a strong cherry flavor in honey. In urban settings, because there is a greater complexity in foraging—due to plants grown by residents or in parks, for example—there can be a lot of variety between hives.learning what to look for in the flavor and color to identify the kind of pollen the bees used, and potential region, in which the honey was made.

Later that day, my guide and I walked to the 1,000 year-old Borough Market, where there is a strong emphasis on sustainable practices, like avoiding single-use plastics and local foods. It is populated by sellers who are accredited by Slow Food UK. The slow food movement—think the opposite of fast food—emphasizes local foods, seasonal menus, and environmentally friendly standards. Here you can find plenty of freshly caught oysters and sea urchin.

Another evening, I met the city’s hosts at La Goccia, a restaurant in the upscale shopping and entertainment quarter of Covent Garden which has dining available in a charming courtyard. La Goccia offers Italian style small plates and is also part of the slow food movement.

But I didn’t just eat my way through London. Curated foot tours, like a pub crawl and street art tour of Hackney Wick, were human-powered, calorie-offsetting, forms of travel.

This was especially true of a cycling tour along the Thames. At the Richmond Station on the southwest side of London, I was met by a guide with my bike.

With a few reminders about the direction of traffic and the reversed sides for bike brakes—which is kinda important for an American cyclist—we casually made our way from Richmond to the 800 year-old-Kingston Market in Kingston Upon Thames to pick up our lunch, and ended a ride of roughly eight miles with lunch near Hampton Court Palace, a residence of Henry VIII and his wives.

Along the way, my guide pointed out historical sites, like the Coronation Stone in Kingston, believed to have been the spot where seven Anglo-Saxon kings were once crowned over a thousand years ago. She introduced me to local beers at a pub, highlighted the former spot for Eel Pie Island Hotel in the Thames, which once drew performances from The Who and The Rolling Stones before it burned down, as well as the spot at Teddington Lock where the famous Monty Python fish slapping dance sketch was filmed.

Opportunities like this—or like riding horses through Hyde Park, which I also did the next day—provide human- (or even horse-) powered ways to see a destination. They show that there are alternative, relatively ecologically friendly ways to experience a place and even get a new perspective on it.

What I think helped to make these tours meaningful for me was knowing that they were curated. Before they are bookable at Make My Day, Boulos takes each adventure himself to quality-check them. For the adventurous, Make My Day also includes the option of a tailored “mystery day,” where individuals—with only minimal instructions and virtually no knowledge of what’s in-store—have a day of surprising adventures ahead of them.

It’s not, though, that I didn’t explore on my own.

Randomness is also an important part of an adventure for me. I improvised my day’s routes and ventured out on foot as often as possible to see the city, discovering new coffee shops, buildings with living walls—vertical spaces for gardening in a city, making it possible to grow plants or vegetables—or to venture into London’s fascinating alleys.

In the end, I was able to find London’s earth-friendlier side, and to meet some of the forward-thinking individuals behind it. But even a trip focused on sustainability and ecotourism will not be a perfect one.

Aside from my own carbon footprint in getting to London, due to the lack of ventilation and the age of the tunnels, there is a heavy level of air pollution at Tube stations. These pollution levels are a recent discovery and the city is working on improving them.

Additionally, though London’s transport system keeps cars off the road and is a marvel of timeliness, the Underground and Overground rail networks consume massive amounts of energy each year. London is working to change this too and hoping to become carbon neutral by 2050.

In the meantime, the city is urging Londoners to take fewer trips or to see the city from a new perspective by walking and cycling more.

Changing up the routine to work by walking or cycling may be worth it. There is a lot missed when you’re underground—and maybe if you take a foraging class, you can even pick up some interesting mushrooms on the way back for later.

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