A-Z activities

A-Z countries

What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog begun in 2012 about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.

I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps.

Around 2018 I tried a new way of writing my family's and my own UK travel adventures. Britain is a brilliant place for a staycation, mini-break and day trips. It's also a fantastic place to explore so I've begun to write up reports of places that are easy to reach by public transport. And when they are not that easy to reach I'll offer some tips on how to get there.

See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

This changes everything: history makers

Is there a bit of England you are passionate about and why? Looking at the new Historic England publication, A History of England in 100 Places, is a wonderful way to explore. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Recommended: new book from Historic England.
Growing up in a rural corner of east Hertfordshire has left me with a sentimental longing for an undulating patchwork of wheat and barley fields criss-crossed by footpaths and bridleways. In the valleys are small rivers, though another county might write them off as streams. On the top of long slow inclines are mixed hornbeam woods and they're there in the valleys too. Thinking back to the 1970s (when the golf course hadn't been built) I can see again the gamekeeper, who lived next door. He was both hero - whistling his young pheasants up for corn - and agent of horror, hanging his most recent kill on the animal gibbet in a very dark part of home wood. But thanks to him I learnt how to whistle, and confidently ID any larder of dead moles, kestrel, vixen, stoats. Two valleys away there were sheep - you could hear them bleating on the wind, In the opposite direction there were smaller turfed fields and several dairy herds.

Wandering the hedgerows you could have been in the 19th century, or 18th maybe. It wasn't hard to move far further back in time and imagine the Romans' kilns on the valley the other side of Caley Wood, as so many bit of pottery turned up in the autumn plough. Nearby was an old beamed farm house with a tower that the gentry used to watch the hunt where a 20th century bit of redecorating helped uncover Tudor wall paintings.

Another neighbour found a Saxon arrow head on his plot, then brought it to the pub for everyone to see.

Mine was an outdoors childhood in a very small corner of England which many generations have clearly lived in and loved. It's amazing how certain places just tug at your heart.

As an adult I've opted to live in London, because the city is far easier to get around and easier to find paid work. But holidays have mostly been spent exploring Britain, thinking as much about who used to live there back in the day, as what's on offer to enjoy now. That's why I love this new publication by Historic England, A History of England in 100 Places, which cherry picks 100 fascinating places where "irreplaceable" history has happened. Not so much the growing up, more the changes that move life forward.

In all 4,000 people nominated a swathe of the places they love best and then 10 experts  (TV history gurus/celebs including Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and Mary Beard) whittled down a short list. Lists are meant to spark conversation, but for once this isn't a bucket list of places you must see, which would obviously include Stonehenge and Windsor Castle (as the book does). Instead it's picking out places where momentous things happened which changed the way we live.

At the book launch guests could also look around the
V&A sculpture court. An amazing place for a party.
At the very glam launch party - held in the V&A - one of English Heritage's researchers told me his favourite entry was the Brown Firth research laboratories in Sheffield where stainless steel was accidentally invented. Key note speaker included Tristtam Hunt, the former Labour MP, who now runs the V&A. He was shameless in loving the Middleport potteries entry from his old constituency in Stoke-on-Trent.

I was fascinated by the story of the Euston Arch (the entrance to Euston station) which was pulled down in an act of vandalism in 1961, and is now rubble in a bit of River Lea infill. But it was a wake up call to conservationists about the need to organise better.

And because it's a people's choice, there are chapters which retell the things that working people have had to endure, instead of the super rich. That's how I found out that sad-looking, boarded up Farfield Inn was blasted by the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, a failed reservoir which killed 240+ people and flattened 600 houses. Ultimately this changed the way reservoirs were built and began a debate about corporate responsibility, but it's not yet a well-known story. 

Also find out about the first railway bridge, built in 1825 for Stockton & Darlington railway which was founded to serve the coal industry. Skerne Bridge is just  a single stone arch in the centre of Darlington, but it's so beloved by locals that they nominated it for every single category.

I sense that this book is going to work hard in my family. It will sit on the kitchen table and be something we argue over deciding on which places to visit, ideally without crowds. Virtual travel is always fun, but I think this book's focus on people and place may even inspire us to actually go to see what the fuss is about. All in all a perfect book with its mix of tourism, English heritage and populist vote. My only regret is that Hertfordshire gets such poor coverage - it's really a beautiful county with more stories in the landscape than even the Brothers Grimm could recall.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Searching for English Civil War sites of 1642

A quest to find more info about the first battle of the English Civil War at Edge Hill in Warwickshire is thwarted. Or is it? Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

It’s lucky I didn’t do home schooling for the whole of my daughters’ educational life. I say this because me and Nell, who has just finished lower sixth, have just spent a whole day trying to find the site of probably one of Britain’s best known civil war battle sites at Edge Hill in Warwickshire. By the end of our hunt we weren’t sure we’d actually seen it… 

Part of the reason Edge Hill – which I know from the internet is big and obvious – is hard to spot is because it’s Ministry of Defence land.  And from experience anyone who is looking for a battlefield will know that years later they are just fields, often with zero clues about the terrible things that happened there. 

Ok, so I couldn’t find a battle site. But it was only because my daughter was studying the English civil war (Roundheads v Cavaliers) that I even heard about Edge Hill. Just in case you didn’t know either it was fought on 23 October in 1642. That’s the sort of easy to memorise date that people use for padlock codes and burglar alarms, but still I didn’t know it!

From the roof at Broughton Castle looking over the
knot garden and moat. What a view. Imagine it with
the Cavalier army coming to get you...
Anyway, Edge Hill was the first of the civil war battles. The Royalists (fighting for Charles 1) won and then headed to the moated Broughton Castle, outside Banbury, in Oxfordshire, to deal with the Parliamentarians living there.  

Over the next four years, fighting was up and down the country with significant battles at Marston Moor in Yorkshire (2 July, 1644) and Naesby, Northamptonshire (14 June, 1645). 

Edge Hill is meant to have a sign commemorating the battle and there’s a four mile walk around it and a 15 mile drive… but we don’t have access to a car and we got rather lost on our walk from the nearby National Trust big house, Upton House.

A key place to visit might have been the Castle Inn (built 100 years after the battle so Prince Rupert did not stay there) which is on the 6 bus route from Stratford-upon-Avon… but the extremely helpful bus driver urged us to hop off at Ratley, just before Castle Inn so we’d be more easily able to find Upton House. And so we missed that commemorative spot.

Distracted from our civil war mission by 1920s
dressing up glamour at Upton House.
On the plus side, Upton House is an easy place to get distracted. Bought by a family with money in 1927 there’s no link to the civil war but plenty of show and tell about the ways soaking an English country house with cash and employing a famous architect (Percy Morely Horder) can make a drafty set of bricks utterly gorgeous. For a few hours we were living in the 1920s imagining invites to a sporting winter weekend with cocktails and chat about art, followed by billiards, squash and maybe a ride out towards that elusive Edge Hill.  

Lord Bearsted made his money as chairman of Shell. Most National Trust houses are filled with bits and bobs from old aristocracy, this one really isn’t. Instead there’s an incredible art collection (the old squash court ended up becoming a gallery) and the most amazing red and silver 1920s jazz bathroom. Along one corridor, which has several rooms of Country Lifecover displays and holidaying on the Riveria, there’s also an impressive collection of Shell posters.

The guides at Upton House do a clever job of keeping their visitors busy. Nell and I were offered a free half hour intro to the house at 12.10pm (which was fab) and then a self-guided tour at 1.10pm. That gave us just enough time to visit the coffee shop, buy a few nick knacks and try to figure out how to get to Edge Hill.

This proved tricky. The heat was one thing (this is the summer of 2018 and relentless 28+ degree days). Figuring out where the bus stopped was another. The National Trust staff/vols, bless them, tried to help but had an old timetable (we knew this because we’d been on the 6 on our journey to the house) which no longer offered a bus at the end of the driveway.  We tried asking for a lift (the cheeky version of hitching) but it was always going to be random if we’d strike lucky or not. We didn’t although several people kindly offered us lifts to Banbury.

Tysoe church in the middle distance. I'm teaching my daughter to find
rural bus stops by following steeples. She thinks I'm very strange.
Optimists to the end, we figured we could walk, see the battlefield, and catch our bus at the village of Tysoe taking us back to AirBnb in Stratford-upon-Avon.

And that’s what we did. It’s just that we think we missed the battlefield and we found the NT map didn’t seem to match the walkers’ footpath signs in the fields. One wheat field was being harvested which was fascinating for my city-living daughter to see the size of modern bales. Under our feet were huge cracks thanks to this summer’s drought. We found a bridleway hugging the top of a hanging wood which gave us glimpses through the trees of a panoramic Warwickshire and then left us a bit confused. 

Looking back towards the wood edge and beyond that
Upton House.
Luckily a lovely woman on a private road stopped her car, sorted us out by pointing towards the Tysoe village church spire and we managed to make it. I can’t correct the map we took off the NT website (which did at least give me some idea about a possible route) as we used instinct relying on the knowledge that as the British landscape was worked in previous centuries by 40 per cent of the workforce, there are always a lot of footpaths that take you in the direction of a village, pub or farm.  Not that this is clear these days as local parishes/counties change the signs to numbers without any clue as to what these numbers mean. What crazy person would give a footpath the name of a bus route? Clearly not one (like me) who hopes to reach a particular point but doesn’t necessarily bring a compass, up to date OS map and 4G.

There are times when the countryside feels like it’s been taken over by men. There’s the ever-faster roads, the obsession with driving, the numerical routes (actually not obvious here in Warwickshire), the computerised/mechanised farming, the vast scale of every field, the super-size kit (tractors, balers, combine harvesters). In short a lack of human scale and – dare I say it a slight obsession with guns, as per the Game Show held the previous weekend nearby at Ragley Hall, Worcestershire.

But for us, thankful to find the 7 at Tysoe (a huge thank you to that bus driver) enjoying the view as we are driven through villages of Tudor-built houses, thatched cottages, pretty front gardens and optimistically-advertised church teas and dog shows at the weekend and suddenly the world is less gender-segregated again. It’s Oh Comely andSimple Thingsversus Dog and Gun.

The Civil War would make a great tour for the thousands of Y12 and Y13 students who study it. It would be interesting for its own sake, but I struggled to find either a tour or a simple way to make this happen. Instead we tourists get passed from visitor honey trap to honey trap. For me and Nell this was beautiful big old houses and the story of Shakespeare’s life and work in Stratford upon Avon – a market town with a lot of shops, cafes, the RSC theatre and 2-3 million visitors annually. 

Beautiful Warwickshire panorama - Edge Hill possibly away
in the far distance on the right.
Maybe I’m bitter because I couldn’t find Edge Hill. But I do wish tourism could be less expensive in the UK and involve far less hours checking bus timetables. I’m not even sure that buying or renting a car would resolve the challenge of getting to know a place properly. My dream is for 1000+ years of history and the characters who lived there to be brought alive by locals explaining the ways that national obsessions (eg, the civil war, banning slavery, London gossip, workable wifi) have impacted on life.  I know the info just hangs on – Tysoe is a corruption of old English and probably refers to a figure of a horse cut into the hill, hence the current area’s name Vale of the Red Horse. It was there in 1607 but is now long lost.  Wikipedia was my learned friend, but where else I could find this info I’m not sure. Villages move with the time, but so much detail is lost that tourists/historynoughts might well enjoy.

To be fair you could say the same about where I live in London. The difference is that no one goes on holiday to Finsbury Park. At least I don’t think they do…

  • Broughton Castle, Oxon (near Banbury) is open Wednesday and Sunday afternoons Fantastic place, privately owned. We used a taxi from Banbury station (cost approx £10 one way).
  • Upton House and gardens, Warwickshire, run by the National Trust As I've got a NT card it's always fun visiting big houses. This one has many stand out features. Reach it be bus 6 or 7 from either Banbury or Stratford upon Avon. But you will have to walk about half a mile along the road from Radway. it was a nice walk! Or find a way across the fields from Castle Inn (we didn't try this but we should have done).
  • Buses 6 7 & from Banbury to Stratford-Upon-Avon are run by Stagecoach (but will be switching to Johnsons later 2018)
  • More about the village of Tysoe, Warwickshire.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Getting to know Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe

National Trust membership is a brilliant way to explore and get some basic history, access to lovely gardens and treat yourself to delicious tea and cake. Most recent trip was to Hughenden Manor, two miles from High Wycombe in BuckinghamshireWords by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

The monument for Disraeli at Hughenden Manor built by his wife.
On this trip Pete (my husband), our daughter Nell and our dog.
Before I had children I promised myself I would never send my kids to a boarding school, unless I hated them. I was 11 when I made this promise! Now that my daughters are 20 and 17 I can admit that my views did change. Of course there's a right time and right reasons to send children to boarding school, but I'm so glad that mine didn't go and were able to use state schools locally. And those kids I know who've been to boarding school (or private schools) seem less like they live in a privileged bubble.

When I was 11 I was sent to a girls boarding school, Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire. I'd never visited it before I arrived with my boater and trunk. Thankfully there was one girl in the same year (still a friend) who'd come from the same old school as me, but I don't remember much else about this school that suited me. In fact my memory is that it was a self-satisfied place that prided itself on producing clever young women which it had picked thanks to their high marks in the 11+. Given that we were a generation who probably were all going to want to (and even have to) work it was strange that marriage was seen as a high priority too. A careers advisor in my fifth form year suggested I should be a farm secretary and learn to do accounts so I could marry a farmer with horses! The lack of ambition offered was pathetic. The lack of pastoral care was close to criminal.

With so many clever, parent-pleaser girls the students were miserably competitive about their grades and anorexia was rife.

My mum talks about her horrible boarding school (a different one) with real affection and humour. It was the girls against rather grim staff. My experience at Wycombe Abbey was a strange deprivation of life's good things - love, humour, food and freedom.  The saving grace was its astonishing Buckinghamshire location. It is still there, one of the country's top girls' private schools, right in the middle of High Wycombe, dominating one hillside of this valley town with its parkland. The boarding house I lived in was located a half mile steep walk from the school buildings reached by a path that took us through a mature beech wood. You couldn't hear traffic and yet it was obvious that on the other side of the wall there was a real world happening.

I left after O levels to attend a different sixth form and really didn't take any friends with me (eg, those intense letter writing, lots of visiting friends). I did at least get removed from an environment I found toxic and went to a sixth form I much preferred which had far less rules and unkindnesses.

It's a shame about the friendships as I remember my Dad promising that he was sending me to boarding school so I would meet lots of people who'd be lifelong friends. I'm sure my own personality had plenty to do with that friendship gap, but when I see the tightness of my teenage daughters' friendships I can see how harmful that must have been. No surprise that for years the words High Wycombe made me shudder. I'd have panic attacks seeing the signs if I was driven past the turn-off on the M40.

No wonder I didn't go and visit the lovely countryside in the area... and then in 2017 we joined the National Trust. It was one of those, OK, "I should just do this" decisions and it's been great. Sutton Hoo in Suffolk was a two day explore. But around High Wycombe, which is just 30 minutes train ride from London, there are some breathtaking Chiltern days out.

Dogs aren't allowed into NT properties so we went for a walk
in the shady woods while Pete viewed the inside of Hughenden Manor.
Hughenden Manor was owned by Benjamin Disraeli (who became the Earl of Beaconsfield), who for some reason was my favourite Victorian PM (actually Queen Victoria's favourite too). The National Trust runs the house now. Visitors can also enjoy the walled veg garden, a formal garden you can play croquet on, a picnic orchard (lovey!) and endless signposted walks in the woods. At the viewpoint over the valley two red kites were circling. It was magical.

When I was incarcerated in Buckinghamshire there were no red kites - they were reintroduced to the Chilterns between 1989 and 1994. Nowadays it is hard to avoid spotting red kites in this area and sobering to think that it was during Disraeli's time they were driven to extinction.

Disraeli was born in 1804, made a love-match marriage (with a widow) and had no children. Politically he was a Conservative (his rival Gladstone a Whig). He was the one who likened politics to climbing a greasy pole. Disraeli is wrongly known as Britain's first Jewish PM, conveniently forgetting that his father had converted his family to Christianity when Benjamin was about 11 years. In many ways Disraeli was similar to Boris Johnson - an outsider (who'd done all the insider things), multi-talented and a politician known for wit and writing (Sybil: or the two nations  by Disraeli, looks at the contrasting lives of rich and poor Victorians).

Even now his Buckinghamshire house feels like a home with its generous entrance hall, modest-sized rooms (compared to a stately home) and a cosy upstairs study which Disraeli allegedly preferred to work in than the formal library crammed with books.

Amazing viewpoint plus two red kites circling (though my camera didn't pick
this up, sorry!).
After a good look at the rooms and a top floor packed with the gifts Queen Victoria gave Disraeli, which weren't always that nice but he was clearly flattered, as intended, we walked up to the memorial Disraeli's wife, Mary Anne, created on the estate, one hill from the house. Goodness knows how she kept the building of it a secret, but the memorial now does offer a fabulous view towards his house and the couple's bedroom with its big picture of Victoria and Albert over the fireplace. On the walk to the memorial there were 11 red kites circling the bailer machines which was both amazing, and slightly sinister - they are of course looking for the many animals that get killed when farmers' harvest.

During this super hot weather it was lovely to be out of London on a Saturday, enjoying a lazy look around a very beautiful place. At the tea shop (in the stable courtyard) our dog seemed to attract the attention of lots of other families, many of whom had driven over to Hughenden Manor from London. It was certainly a change to be in a place that's not a knock-em out destination (like Churchill's home or historically significant like Sutton Hoo) nor on a tourist route so there were less visitors, which meant it was easier to have a really good look around the building.

We bought a BBC series about Disraeli's premiership in the gift shop because... well, I still spend a significant amount of time (and money) thinking about ways to educate my children without them realising film night is actually a crash course in history. And that just might be an unexpected - and happy - legacy from my own unhappy school days.

BASICS: High Wycombe area
One hour from London, with a railway station on a hill and a massive fortress (girls's school, Wycombe Abbey formerly owned by the Carrington family) dominating one hilly side of the town. Apart from this aberration (the screamingly obvious rich/poor divide) the town is very dull but the countryside around is amazing. Buckinghamshire is wealthy commuter belt as you'll notice - everyone seems to drive.
Easy journey? Yes. High Wycombe 30 mins from London Marylebone
Ticket - weekend Network South East off peak
Highlight? this is the Chilterns an area of outstanding natural beauty, there's lots to see and discover. A National Trust membership is a bonus.
Wish list? Take a bike and explore the nearby beech woods.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Winchester pleasures: cathedral, pubs and easy to use guided maps

Ways to enjoy Winchester - one time capital of Britain - by foot or bike. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Sun, sunglasses and the great Winchester Cathedral
to explore. (c) aroundbritainnoplane
BASICS: Winchester
One hour from London, heaps of museums and green space. It's already popular with tourists, the University of Southampton has a campus here and it's a good place to wander.
Easy journey? Yes. Winchester - 60 mins from London Waterloo (train has trolley service)
Ticket - weekday off peak £36.40 return
History? Knock out from the train station
Highlight? Head to the High Street (pedestrianised) then right towards Cathedral close. Or down to King Alfred's statue and the ruins of Wolvesey Castle.
Wish list? Rent a bike and explore the Viaduct Way.

It’s Monday and I’m in Winchester on business. It doesn’t feel right: the sun is beating down and every other shop seems to be a café or pub with tempting outdoor sitting. Soon we are drawn into Greens Bar, 4 Jewry Street, with the pretty floor tiles reminding us that this used to be the Matisse Café, where the staff are fabulously friendly. Then during the search for cheap sunglasses I meet a man cheerfully selling Royal Wedding editions of the Big Issue, near the Buttercross who promises that he’ll be over to Windsor for the big day. It's a friendly city.

I’ve only been to Winchester once before – crazy, as it is just one hour by train from London – and that was a December mini-break when the Winchester shoppers were again distracted by eateries, but these were pop ups around an ice rink in the gardens by the cathedral.

But now that Winchester Tourism Information Centre has sent me a new link to all the things you can do here, I’ll be exploring it again. One lovely idea is to take a self-guided walk around various Winchester locations. The sunset tour, approx one and a quarter miles, looks a lovely route passing St Giles Hill, The Weirs and the Abbey Gardens. 

Memorial to Jane Austen in Winchester
Cathedral. (c) aroundbritainnoplane
There are also routes for church lovers, history watchers and the literati with Winchester links. I like the look of the tour for Jane Austen fans which takes you to her old home, now a museum, in Chawton, Hampshire. 

You can also find Jane Austen's grave stone and a memorial brass in the cathedral without leaving Winchester. Forgotten what she looks like? Then scrutinise a tenner.

Winchester is famous for being one of England’s former capitals and home of King Alfred the Great (who burnt the cakes). It’s a medieval city which has plenty of green space and is dominated by the amazing cathedral built around the time of Henry VII. Inside, as well as Jane Austen’s grave, you can find a tomb to a fly fisherman - little known fact fly fishing was developed on the River Itchen which flows through the city. 

My favourite spot was the hole in the wall where pilgrims queued up, then crawled into so they could see St Swithin, the former Bishop renowned for curing boils, various nasties and even making dropped eggs whole again. And that was before his posthumous miracle working reputation.

Entry to the cathedral is £8.50 (adult no discount). It’s a breathtaking building inside (and you can always go in for free if you join one of the many daily services). Once you've paid for your ticket, you can get value for money simply by joining an hour-long guided tour, possibly climb the tower stairs for a huge view of Winchester, or just wander with a floorplan until one of the many cathedral guides take pity on you and give you a guided insight to their little patch. We struck lucky and saw the alter screen in a way that turned exquisite carvings into the stories of the saints - all pointed out with a torch beam of green intensity. 

I really should have known by now that St Peter carries the keys of heaven and St Paul carries a sword. But I got the chance to learn that St Swithin’s special object is a bridge.  It gets you thinking about what object symbolises your lifestyle – reusable bag? Coffee mug? Pen? Or more likely mobile phone which certainly achieves miracles. For example, you can ping on to this link and explore more of Winchester’s great outdoors at bit.ly/2jKkRYy 
(supplied by the Tourist Info Centre).

WHAT’S ON10 June: Cycle at Winchester Criterium & CycleFest
Winchester’s city centre streets will close for cycling, racing, and family activities. The 1 km circuit race weaves through Winchester's city centre. First event is the Family Cycle Ride at 9.45am (Registration).  Cyclists start at the top of the High Street, wind their way past the cathedral, then climb the long uphill to the finishing line.

Anytime tour Viaduct Way
Once a freight and passenger railway, Viaduct Way is now part of the National Cycle Route Network Route 23. It passes the Victorian Guildhall, City Mill, Bishop's Palace, and old railway embankment then continues along the River Itchen, famous for its trout, moorhens, and wild flowers.  You can rent bikes from Bespoke Biking, a social enterprise set up to get more people cycling in Winchester, see https://bespokebiking.com or call 01962 441962 which is on the lower floor of the Brook’s Shopping Centre. All sorts available including tagalongs (good for kids) and tandems (good for stories).

Let me know your tips for Winchester visits.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Why I'm going to visit an open farm on Sunday 10 June

How helping out on a friend's flower farm in north Yorkshire has inspired me to visit more British farms. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Tour de Yorkshire bunting and bikes along the route.
I’ve been run ragged by deadlines so when there’s a break in my schedule, I asked my friends in Yorkshire if I could come and stay for the weekend to do some of their outdoor chores. Over the years their home has been a huge solace to me – a muddy or verdant playground depending on the season. Whatever the weather, most trips involve very dirty boots.

My friend, Fleur, is flower-crazy and has recently set up a business flower farming. What used to be a pony paddock is now a cut flower farm. There are neat rows of beds dug across the field; trees and hedges planted to break the wind's force and a rabbit fence that really works.

Which is why on a hot Saturday morning she's got me standing in one of the compost bays pitching well rotted compost into a wheelbarrow. My mission is to feed the delphinium, the peonies and two other massive beds of what will be cut flowers. I think the difference between people who know plants, and people like me who don’t really, is that they see stems and think it’ll grow better if given food (aka compost) whereas my default position is that my plants probably need watering. https://fleursgarden.com

Over the course of the weekend I turn two compost bays, to heat the pile up, and cart more than 40 barrows of muck around the garden. I also help her husband planting more yew hedge and then we repair any of the compost bays that need patching up. It’s hot, but sociable work when Richard's there. Most of the time I'm on my own listening to the bird song, spotting abandoned pheasant eggs, enjoying the green vista or avoiding digging up toads.

Fleur's Garden compost bays, made from palettes, near
her neighbour's chicken farm.
But it’s that first hour, trying to pace myself that I remember as next door’s farmer of hens and ducks comes out with her pull-along egg trolley laden with eggs to drop off at her honesty egg shed. We get talking, and not just about the wonderful weather (it’s 21C in north Yorkshire in May, hotter than Ibiza). The topic up here is how to find reliable, hard workers and the impacts Brexit is already having on farming.  I sense she is very impressed by my work ethic as she learns that I’m planning to battle with compost for the weekend and not even stop to see the Tour de Yorkshire phalange flash past. At least that’s the impression I’m trying to give. I desperately want my friend’s farming neighbour to think that British women can be good workers. 

And in the midst of my attempt to people-please I suddenly realise that it’s a long while since I heard a farmer’s views on any platform other than TV’s Country File (a family habit). Because Brexit is set to have such a huge impact on farming, it’s a shame that we don’t hear enough detail about what farmers are up to on more media channels. Which is why open farm Sunday on 10 June is something to look out for. Run by LEAF an organisation trying to deliver more sustainable food and farming (leaf stands for Linking Environment and Farming) it’ll be a good way to find out more about British farming.  This is how LEAF explains the role of the modern British farmer:
As well as producing nutritious food, farmers also grow crops for medicines and clothes, as well as crops used for fuel and building homes.  Farmers care for over 70% of our countryside, manage vital resources like water and soil, maintain miles of footpaths and hedgerows and provide homes for wildlife.
Most Open Farm Sunday events are free and farms of every type and size take part offering a range of activities – in fact there is something for everyone to enjoy with loads to see, do and learn.  On LEAF Open Farm Sunday you can learn more about how your food is produced as well as….discover why worms are so important for the soil, why there wouldn’t be much fruit and veg without bees, and how farmers look after animals like cows, sheep and pigs, and care for wildlife too. You can also see science in action, including how farmers use the latest technology to farm sustainably and maybe take a peek inside a state of the art tractor.  On many farms you will be able to take a farm walk or guided tractor and trailer ride, follow a nature trail and of course, talk to the people that make this all happen, the farmers!

Fleur's Garden is a flower farm. Early May, when
frosts are no longer feared, is the time planting
can start.
Farmers are fascinating when they talk about what, and how, they farm and feel confident enough to share with someone they may never meet again their rationale for doing these things. My London friends often complain that they are stuck in a like-minded ghetto, so a trip to a farm might be an eye-opener. It always is for me.

  • To find farms are opening near you on the 10th June visit www.farmsunday.org.
  • If you are in the Leyburn-Bedale area of North Yorkshire (bigger towns are Northallerton and Darlington) do go and see Fleur’s Garden. If you're getting married or want flowers for a party or special flowers for a grave you can contact her and spend a day in her garden cutting all the flowers you want. https://fleursgarden.com. You'll need to email first, fleur@fleurbutler.co.uk 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The joys of being positive even in an unfair world

This blog is going to change slightly - now I'm exploring the UK so much I can't always find an obvious "other country" link. This post is inspired by the need to hear other people's voices far more. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Imagine - snowy scene with my daughters.
Like most teenagers I was a bit confused about how to be me. I could see that for me there was a choice about the face I presented to the world. I could go down the dark route from knock knock jokes to sarcasm, and then on to irony. I could be bitter and cynical (cool and funny). I could play life as a tumbler, laughing at my mishaps and sharing them. Or I could be a cross between Pollyanna and Mary Poppins always looking on the bright side of life. That's the one I've chosen. Yes I get it wrong sometimes, but mostly I cross out my negative rants and look for a positive spin. And it definitely makes life seem a friendlier, more delightful place.

As a result I've been transfixed by constructive journalism.

This is a newish approach to news which asks the usual Ws - who, what, where, when, why - and then adds a sixth, what next? When you write like this you can find out what happened after the crash, divorce, death. This click through stops the news being a catalogue of misery. You might still use the thinking of "if it bleeds it leads" but with the constructive journalism approach you also follow up. A car crash might end up being a story of five people being given donated organs, going on to lead their lives.

There are all sorts of reasons people like constructive journalism as an alternative to our 24/7 bad news world. Recently I shadowed Giselle Green from NCVO, who is editor of Constructive Voices. She was speaking to first year journalism students at London Metropolitan University about the way news organisations have seen a huge decrease in circulation and media switch off. Simultaneously research shows that the endless cycle of depressing news (gangs, knife crime, drought, wars, terrorism, unscrupulous politicians) doesn't just disempower people it is leading to a disconnect with society and mental health problems.  Here's an interview with Giselle Green on Islington Faces.

In summer 2014 the blog Islington Faces was born out of a frustration that the media wouldn't publish ordinary people's extraordinary stories. It now has close to 270 interviews with people who live or work in Islington, one very small patch of the world. Do go and have a look, it's https://www.islingtonfacesblog.com 

Obviously sharing a life story is not an original idea.

Go to any funeral and you often hear a summing up of someone's life, starting from the very beginning. There are highlights to the story but often the lives best lived aren't full of high drama; although they might be notable for the resilience that person has shown during their lifetime.

Scott Waide in Papua New Guinea using his journalism skills
to interview locals doing positive things is having a democratically
empowering impact in this South Pacific nation. See facebook
inspirational papua new guineans
And as for blogs. Well there's the amazing Humans of New York and here in London Spitalifeldslife.com.  The trend has even gripped Papua New Guinea! A friend has just sent this amazing link, see here http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-03/one-mans-mission-to-shine-light-on-ordinary-papua-new-guineans/9477894,  about Scott Waide who runs the Facebook site Inspirational Papua New Guineans with more than 5,000 followers. His interviews are fab.

By sharing stories of people in Papua New Guinea who've overcome all sorts of odds, or are doing amazing things to help their family and community, Scott Waide has realised something else - he's strengthening democracy.  In a newspaper interview he says:

"If you put out the positive and you put that out in public, people will connect the dots and then start demanding better services, start demanding those in power are held accountable for their actions." Scott Waide (PNG blogger).

I'm so impressed by Scott Waide.

Shared world

"If you're surprised, it means you don't see enough black people
in major roles," says Legally Black. Good point.
Today I also saw a fascinating news story about some BME teenagers who'd got so fed up with seeing themselves reflected in TV and films as gangsters, maids and drug dealers that they re-created some famous films using black models. In fact they used their friends and family. The story is in the Guardian, see here, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/03/young-brixton-activists-recreate-film-posters-with-black-leads created by @legallyblackuk

If you haven't understood how frustrating the male/female pay divide is (being revealed spring 2018); or the ethnic pay divide then keep it simple. If you are pale-skinned, try finding someone who looks a different colour to you in the lead role of a famous film. For me it was a wake up moment to see a young black woman depicted playing Bridget Jones.... Bridget is a white woman, about my size, and certainly on my clumsiness level. When the film came out I knew it was "for me", and in some ways sort of "about me".   But when I noticed the poster brilliantly re-done with a young black woman my first thought - a flashing drift through my head, and not said (at least I thought not) with prejudice - oh that's not a film for me, then I realised just how stupid I've been.

Their campaign has so worked for me. As Legally Black's catchphrase points out: "If our posters shock you, you're not seeing enough black faces in leading roles."

Life lessons
As a baby boomer it's perhaps no surprise that I've lived through several waves of feminism and yet  am still acclimatised to seeing men in the best jobs/situations/statues etc receiving the best pay.  I totally understand the structural reasons for this and why it must and should change.

But I hadn't quite cottoned on to the power that structural norms have - even if they are just as simple as images - in maintaining a racist (or racially prejudiced if you prefer) status quo.

Yesterday a friend told me she was reading the hugely influential book, Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. And my thought. Oh, I don't need to read that. I know that stuff.*

It's quite clear that I'm wrong.

We don't just need institutional change to create a more fair society, we also need to hear a far wider cross-section of voices talking about life as it is, and how it could be.

So let's keep hearing it from people living their lives and sharing their ordinary - to them - but extraordinary and powerful stories. The craze to share story telling is a wonderful part of this 21st century, long may it last. And let its potential to offer fair chances to us all, whatever our gender or ethnicity. There's an added plus, and that's this feeling of positive stuff happening which perhaps offers anyone the opportunity to see that if they can do this, then I can too, whatever that I can is.

*Clarification: I have actually seen the book and had a 30 minute look through it back in the summer. Clearly I need to revisit.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Shades of grey: Iceland via Leigh

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. A day out to the Essex coast - to the little former fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex gave us a taste of the big skies and sustainability skills you have to have to survive anywhere, including Iceland. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
When get and icy weather gives a little hint of spring - at Leigh on Sea, Essex
“An eye to the future and an ear to the past in the heart of Leigh.” That’s what Leigh Heritage centre calls Plumbs Cottage which sits close to the shore line, a little clapperboard fishing cottage, two up and two down. The Burders were the last family to live there. Amazingly they raised 10 children in their home despite the lack of space and a long list of Nos – no modern conveniences, no piped water, no electricity, no gas, no phone, no toilet inside the house, no fridge, no washing machine, no radio, no TV, no computers. Upstairs there were just two beds and a crib (the kids slept head to toe until they moved out) and downstairs it was just fishing kit (oars, nets, places to dry things off) and a basic kitchen range. Even so, it’s a lovely little home, recently restored thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

There’s something so elemental about taking a day out to the seaside in winter. We love to do this because you can walk your dog on the beach, which is forbidden from May-October. But also there’s the amazing cloudscape and sand patterns to watch, the cry of oyster catchers, an army of winter waders and the chance to be buffeted by the wind as you storm along the sea front towards a warm pub. Add in a monster February hail storm and you can see what I mean about elemental.

Recovery in action - a walk by the sea.
Lola came to get over a broken heart; I wanted to forget work for just one weekend; Pete was upset about a book contract going wrong… but the excitement of a very easy journey and then seeing the sea just seemed to raise everyone’s spirits. We got excited about the beach – a swerve of pebbles, sand, mud and shells broken up by seaweed-covered groynes. We chased the dogs chasing each other and chatted as if we’d never stop. And then in Leigh we found a shed selling delicious fish and a plethora of pubs ensuring that we could find at least one that let us in with our two dogs, and had craft beer and sold fish & chips, and veggie stuff. The Crooked Billet is the last pub before the rail station (it’s a 10 minute walk) so the perfect stop-off point.

Leigh is a place of refuge. The current residents probably don’t think of it like that. But this is where many east enders went to in a bid to escape the dirty air and grim surroundings of industrial London, just two or three generations ago. Worldwide people have a tendency to be drawn to the city for work and lifestyle reasons. That’s one of the reasons more people now live in urban environments, rather than rural. But for many Londoners the journey has been the other way, at first to escape the dirt and poverty, and more recently in a search for more affordable housing.

It’s also a lovely day out. And as the visitors’ book at Plumbs Cottage reveals on the sunny Sunday we turned up, that most of us were day trippers from nearby – a lot of Essex addresses – plus a few down from London.

I wonder where those Burders are now? You get used to seeing grand National Trust stately homes and yet here’s a really very modest place that oozes with history, and stories of a bygone age, and yet there are no tales of what it was like to be growing up in such an idyllic place with plenty of access to food – fish and, at the right time of the years, scrumped and foraged fruit and leaves. On Islington Faces I often interview people who definitely knew hunger and neglect in childhood who have moved away and are now home owners. They often have one or more cars, regularly eat out and travel. When they tell me about their lives they so often have a grandchild’s voice of incredulity in their head. “You washed once a week!” “You played out with no adults!” “There was no wifi. Or phones!” Some also lived through the bombing of London during World War Two or were evacuated to a strangers’ house far from their family. It is extraordinary what the generation above me – my mum and dad – put up with or accepted as normal. 

At Leigh Fishmongers fish is sold in a seafront shed and
recipes are pinned to the entrance door.
That said I am fascinated by the way there’s a new generation – and it’s not mine, it’s the millennials – who are challenging accepted norms. Good for them. 

But don’t let any of us forget that we’re only seven meals away from the need to be self-sufficient. All of us (including me) certainly could learn some lessons from the sort of skills the Burders would have known just to survive the everyday.  I think that’s why the next day I made up a fire and lit it – successfully – craving a refresher of the knowledge needed to live so simply. Let’s hope that won’t be needed to ensure we simply live. Like I said, I needed a break…

  • Leigh Heritage Centre and Plumbs Cottage, 13a High Street, Old Town, Leigh on Sea, Essex SS9 2EN
  • Read the interviews on Islington Faces at https://www.islingtonfacesblog.com