A-Z activities

A-Z countries

What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog 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. 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.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Reading about Cyprus

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Lots of my elder daughter's friends have family links to Cyprus - I've seen their holiday snaps, but still hanker to know more about what this island is like. One way of finding out more is to get reading. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Cyprus – allegedly the birthplace of Aphrodite – is probably better known as a tourist hotspot or being divided. At least that's what I knew... until I read a new book which doesn't tackle the politics, but does give a sense of what it was like to live there during the 1980s.

The Green Line Divide by Z Vally.
The Green Line Divide by Z Vally is a small book about a burgeoning romance between student Alexis and a UN blue beret from Sweden, Sven. Politics doesn’t really feature in the story. Instead the author concentrates on Alexis’ experiences trying to earn enough to survive and retake her college exams. And she does, thanks to her ability to do cleaning jobs. Luckily Cyprus is blessed with a lovely climate so much of the story takes place as Alexis cycles to jobs or meets friends to discuss their work hiccups during their time off.

I’ve always loved travel stories – even people talking about their holidays – and the new quantities of books arriving as a result of self-publishing in print and on e-readers give us all plenty of new ways of looking at the world from people who (without being rude to Z here) are more normal, more like you and me than the English Literature graduates from Oxbridge.  That said The Green Line Divide has some rather odd English constructions, so if you are a stickler for correct grammar then it’s not going to suit you.

Another drawback is that what the author thought was funny I didn't. Despite this, the book still offers insight into an adventurous young woman’s life as she gets to know herself and Cyprus - often by backpacking around it - during the 1980s. There are plenty of allusions to real life - dusty roads, warm sunshine and grilled hallumi; not much time spent as a tourist looking at ancient ruins. Towards the end Alexis and her boyfriend quarrel over what to drink, but then both end up independently choosing mythos served in frosted glasses - surely that was a clue that they were made for each other?

Cyprus basics
  • In 1960 Cyprus gained it’s independence from the UK
  • 1974 – Greek and Turkish clash led to a divided country. There is now a buffer zone (known as the Green Line) between the Greek part in the South and the Turkish part in the North. This is protected by UN peacekeepers.
  • The capital is Nicosia (this is also divided)
  • Population: 1.41 million
  • Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean and a member of the EU.
  • The Trodos Mountains have nine UNESCO heritage sites. Throughout the island are many important, ancient ruins.

The Green Line Divide: romance, travel and turmoils by Z Vally, available on Amazon.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Old forests, blue skies - where am I?

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. The autumn bounty made me think about the blue skies, forests, plants, hearty food and fabulous wild spaces of Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Romania. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Epping Forest lake - but on such a blue day you could be in a summery Austria if
the view had mountains (rather than clouds) and perhaps a castle atop a hill.
Just for a moment on the edge of Epping Forest which flips in and out of London and Essex I had the sense of being somewhere else - Austria maybe, by one of that country's famous lakes. Austria may boast Alpine scenery, mountains and whatnot, but in the populated valleys the plants look very similar to the ones in the UK. Golden rod and rosebay willow herb (fireweed) along the railway lines, bullrushes and reeds by the lakes, damselflies and dragonflies on the water. Plus a few crickets.

Checking fungi finds in Epping Forest. We left these.
Because Epping Forest is quite a busy place - on the morning we went there was a sponsored run for breast cancer, several Duke of Edinburgh trips, loads of kids with bikes, two girls taking it in turns to ride a little black pony, lots of small kids being introduced to the joys of holding a stick, plus the rest of us - including a huge number of dog walkers - all wanting nice coffee and ready to be tempted by breakfast, it's a good place for outdoor types who like strong coffee.

In Austria you can walk in the mountains or by a lake, thinking you are miles from anywhere and then stumble on a sweet cafe selling coffee, beer, apple streudel and ice cream. And at Chingford Plain you can do just the same at Butler's Retreat Cafe run by The Larder (and open in summer from 9am-6pm, shorter hours during the winter).

On these last sunny autumn days Epping Forest feels crowded - probably no more than popular Lipno Park in South Bohemia (the Czech Republic) with its lake and treetop platform with huge views over Sumava Forest. Epping Forest is smaller - you don't really need to dress in full hiking gear with maps, water and survival bag for a walk around it because it's broken into segments where roads cross it (and be careful as the roads here are very busy).

Autumn homemade gifts - rosehip infused vodka and crab apple/redcurrant jelly.
Both made from treasures found in Epping Forest.
To my mind East Europeans (Austria and some of its neighbours like Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Poland) always seem such capable woodsmen - able to turn anything into a feast. And in autumn London's Epping Forest offers a bounty of goodies to turn into delectable food - sloes, rosehips, crab apples, fungi and the very last of the blackberries.

In the end I made rosehip infused vodka and crab apple jelly brightened with homegrown redcurrants to give to a friend who was moving back into her home after a year away.

Rainham Marshes visitor centre is another great place for
UK wildlife spotting - we saw egrets, kestrels,
marsh frogs and loads of bullrushes.
It's fun finding unusual gifts for people - last week I passed freeze-dried mealworms (which I'd found on sale at the RSPB Bird sanctuary at Rainham Marshes) to neighbours who were having their 25th wedding anniversary. They love watching birds so it wasn't that odd a gift, the only worry was would one of the party goers accidentally think this gift was an exotic snack and tuck in?

Find an Epping Forest map, visitor centre opening hours and info here and info about Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge here.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A taste of Provence, in my kitchen

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. In the same way that it's cool to explore the UK it also makes loads of sense to use your home to host people - which is how we started to find out a little bit about France's sunny Provence. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

French regional specialities are easy to find in France (in dedicated shops), but
in the UK I have to rely on visitors. 
Did you do a French exchange as a teenager? I didn't but I really want my daughters to find French easier to learn than just via classroom learning, or even Duolingo. Luckily there are plenty of French families with the same ideas, so we found two French teenagers who joined our family for the first week of the summer holidays 2015  travelling to London on their own, quite an adventure.

In the bean field on a pick your own PYO farm.
Jeanne and Emilien were great company too, and Jeanne good enough at English to help her younger brother. We learnt that French teenagers study agronomie - wouldn't that be a good idea in the UK? So we made sure to take them to a PYO farm so they could compare agriculture, a day trip that was fun, got us all lots of strawberries and led to some interesting conversations about genetic modification. 

London teens on tour guide duty by St Paul's Cathedral.
Our visitors were very kind and brought us loads of proper French gifts including Callissons d'Aix, olive oil soap and Provence honey flavoured with lavender. All delicious.

Calissons d'Aix were new to me. They are diamond shaped almond patties. In a way they taste of Xmas cake icing but with Provence drama. I know our family of four will be fighting over the very last two.

Over to you
Any tips for hosting teenage language/culture exchange students - including how to find the right match for your family?

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Autumn tastes: durian love it or loathe it?

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Climate change still causes disagreement, but not nearly as much as wether you are a fan - or not - of the tropical life-saving, strong-smelling fruit durian. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Frozen durian is a way to try this distinctive fruit without suffering its intense (unpleasant?) aroma.
I'm a cautious gastronomie - after all I don't eat meat and rarely eat fish. Occasionally I've eaten an insect for the novelty, not the calories. So when a friend comes over bearing durian I know I have to try this horrible-tasting fruit again.... Maybe I'll love it this time?

I wish i did because durian is a super star vegetable, and because it stores so well can save lives during times of hunger. I first tried it in the Solomons where it has traditionally been stored in pits ready to use in the hungry gap when crops have been destroyed by a cyclone and new supplies have not yet arrived, or been grown.

But - and it's a big but - durian stinks. More precisely it smells like rotting rubbish which however attractive to flies and pollinating insects is not a great attraction to me. In fact in Malaysia it is quite common to see signs banning durian fruit - especially in hotels.

Frozen durian is the way forward then.

My former work colleague, Christian, is a big fan of durian, which he especially likes from Malaysia, and he is determined to convert me. This time he brings a durian grown in Thailand and purchased in London's China Town.

When we open the frozen lid the smell gently wafts out. It gets stronger when he then unwraps the clingfilm around it... suddenly I recognise that distinctive smell of the supermarkets in China Town.

Whatever it smells like, the taste is meant to be a LOT better. He describes it as a roasted onion flavour ice lolly which is right, except durian has such a curious taste that in our party of four it's only my friend who enjoys scoffing it!

And durian repeats on you too - expect burps, though fortunately small, polite ones.

Over to you
So, are you a durian fan? In a worst case scenario can you imagine yourself eating it?

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Take a visit to Gaby's - the Middle Eastern cafe luvvies & lefties love

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Middle Eastern food is famously good - and a great place to try it in London is at Gaby's Deli just by Leicester Square tube. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Chilli sauce in the foreground, chicken kebab and
meat balls on the girls plates.
Gaby's is a tiny restaurant just by London's Leicester Square. It's been there for years and every now and then there's a fierce battle to keep it in this prime spot. Matt Damon is a fan... Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn is too.

And so's my family - the falafel in pitta bread are favourites, they are so much crunchier than any others I've ever eaten! And so they should be - Gaby's Deli was founded by the man who "claims" to have brought felafel to London.

One reviewer says looking at the food through the window is: "Reminiscent of the huge salad displays of Istanbul, the Falafel shops of Jerusalem and the salt beef of New York." 

So, at the end of August we went to the theatre and decided to treat ourselves to a quick meal beforehand at Gaby's Deli.  The photo shows Nell and her friend Elsa with marinated chicken kebab and meat balls. They shared these dishes but both agreed that next time they would go for the chicken kebab. The rest of the party (me and Nell's dad) ate falafel, humous and chilli sauce stuffed into a pitta with loads of veges.

It's not dirt cheap: the bill for four meals plus a glass of wine came to £38.60 (this was without a tip). What I really like about eating here is that not only are you eating "London history", you are saying no to the chains, giving yourself a chance to spot a famous thespian (though probably not at 6.30pm when we turned up) and being certain to have a delicious Middle Eastern dish. Go soon!

Gabys Deli, 30 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DE
Save Gaby's Deli on Facebook

Monday, 17 August 2015

10 reasons to go to Ambleside now

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. The Lake District is addictive: once you've gone there it's hard not to want to go again, and that's despite being soaked and/or sunburnt or leaving with blisters. Whatever the weather I always think about how the Roman legions must have felt marching this way along High Street in their sandals. The rest of my party were immersed in dog spotting, deciphering bus timetables or trying out taster chocolate at the sweet shops. What will you do? Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
Stock Ghyll Force - lovely waterfall in the beech woods behind Ambleside.

Ambleside is a bus ride from Windermere rail station. It's been a holiday spot for years - helped along by William Wordsworth's guide to the Lake District and Beatrix Potter's books - Peter  Rabbit was first published in 1902. Facebook at this time of the year is filled with people's fab holidays taken overseas but the Lake District is a great place to visit. Here's some reasons why I'm hoping to go back to Ambleside.

1) DOG FRIENDLY - you can take your pet along.... Audrey Hepburn may have taken her deer to American supermarkets (did you know that?) but in the Lake District the pet of the day is a dog, so we took our border terrier. We even went to the Rydal Hound Show which was packed with country folk moving between the hound rings and the beer tent. At Ambleside there are water bowls at loads of cafes and pubs. Even on the way to the Lake District (if you travel by train) you may find that Virgin trains sometimes gives out pet snack bags and at Oxenholme station there is a huge water bowl. My favourite is Bilbo Cafe which has towels for you to dry your dog plus sofas for humans to loll on and delicious, hearty walkers' cakes.

  • Take poo bags for the dog and then carry it home (in a tuppeware)? Public loos are 20p.

2) BUS PASSES SAVE YOU MONEY - and mean you don't have to carry cash. You can hop on and off around the south Lakes and expect to strike up conversations with travellers as well as locals. People are friendly. We used the 555 and 599 buses and were so impressed by how friendly - and thoughtful - the bus drivers were. Big shout out for Stagecoach staff!

  • Other cheap pleasures: feeding ducks, a long walk, watching boats, lounging by the lake, watching sunsset, watching people on holiday, spot the dog, finding cafes to hang out in.

3) SHOPS STAY OPEN A BIT LATER THAN THEY DO IN NON HOLIDAY COUNTRY TOWNS - tor example the Spa & Co-op, only a few doors away from each other, are open 7am-10pm. There's also a Tesco Express in the centre of town.

  • Many of the Ambleside pubs and restaurants have regular theme events so if you love live music or quiz nights you can be sure to find plenty.

4) EASY TO HIRE A KAYAK - Lake Windermere is fun to splash around on. We used the sit on kayaks at Low Wood Watersports Centre (an easy 20 min walk along a pavement out of town) and also Windermere Canoe & Kayak. It's cheaper if you book in advance on the internet & you can because the wifi reception is  pretty good. At Winderemere Canoe & Kayak we also hired wetsuits and were given a dry bag and a map so we could explore for a day. It was wonderful to do this with two 14-year-olds.

  • Worth hiring a wetsuit (£3-4) especially for kids, whatever the sunshine level as it means they might be able to swim all day without turning blue with cold.

5) BEST BASE FOR EXPLORING - a few miles past Rydal Water (just take a bus) is Grasmere which boasts wonderful Dove Cottage where William Wordsworth's career as a poet kicked off - if you go be sure to let your kids do the organised treasure trail so they  will find out the name of Wellington's horse and where to get dentures after the battle of Waterloo. There's also the famous Grasmere Ginger Bread Shop - six pieces for £3.60 (sold in an old-fashioned shop so popular and small you have to queue to get to the counter). Grasmere is quite small and so feels more crowded with tourists but if you pop into the Grasmere Post Office you'll find a treasure trove of local Lake District goodies. I bought muscle & joint rub (for walkers' aches), soap and a rug. But there were also scarves, tweeds, bobble hats and handbags.

  • At Waterhead you can take a boat around the lake. There are all sorts of tickets and deals so just queue up and ask. Lake Winderemere is 1o miles long so there is plenty to see. Try disembarking at Wray Castle to enjoy a folly (now run by the National Trust) or the lovely grassy beaches nearby. Another good spot is Brockhole, especially if being outdoors is a bit new to you as here there are loads of activities to try including a treetop trek.

6) SLATE GETS EXCITING - so many cottages and businesses have their name or number carved on a bit of slate. You'll find you might want one too. If you live in a house with a lowish number 1-100 they are easy to find.

Stunning menu from Lake Road Kitchen with Herdwick lamb and foraged hen-in-the-wood (a plant).

7) DELICIOUS NEW TASTES - during a week we tried Lancaster sauce crisps, Kendal mint cake and Grasmere ginger bread, The beer drinker in our party enjoyed many different pints at the pub.

View from Wansfell over Lake Windermere.

8) FABULOUS WALKS - of course you'll want to walk the big mountains, but the ones that aren't so big can be fantastic. Red Screes is my new favourite with amazing views across the Lake District mountains and a gorgeous walk up to the summit and non-knee killing descent. And if you think walking is too slow then try wild running.

  • All the Lake District towns, especially Ambleside & Keswick are over-run with outdoor wear shops. A great place to get bargains, essentials and treats.

9) IT'S AN EXCUSE TO REMINISCE - not just the times you've visited and the mountains you've climbed, but also to look again at films like Withnail & I (1987) and The Trip (2011) with Steve Coogan and Rob Byrdon. 
At the Unicorn pub the staff were betting on when the
rain would start with money on 8.17pm. It did rain, but an
hour later... Earlier in the day it was scorching. This
photo is from three days earlier when wet and windy.

10) THERE'S A LOT OF WEATHER - whatever you get it'll be a talking point. Bring all the kit you can carry so that you can get outside and have fun. Strong shoes and a waterproof are essential. But my luggage also contained stuff for swimming and boating - and the things the teens and the dog couldn't carry. I guess this is why so many people drive to the Lake District and need vehicles big enough to take everyone in the family's bike, but you can hire kit easily. You can even learn to waterski, or sail...

  • Doing stuff in the great outdoors is a simple way to understand geography - be sure to share maps, Wainwright guides and the mountain weather report. There you are, GCSE geography in the bag!

Thursday, 30 July 2015

9 reasons to go to Melton Mowbray - food and fabulous views

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Leicestershire is a place my family haven’t visited much despite it's fascinating battlegrounds, role in the industrial revolution and upkeep of traditional rural crafts – partly because it seems hard to get around, or at least it did until I found these travel tips On my most recent get-to-know Leicester trip I took a train from London-Grantham and a friend picked me up, but there’s a station in Melton Mowbray and some buses. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

The Midland cities may have a certain grimness, eg Birmingham, Derby, Leicester and Grantham, but they are surrounded by heart-achingly beautiful shires. The town of Melton Mowbray is in a part of Leicestershire that is especially lovely and you may find your way there enjoying views of the dramatic escarpment-sited Belvoir Castle. But almost any of the vales give you a huge view as if you are looking down on the landscape from a glider. 

I also love the wide and often uncut verges around Melton Mowbray, which during the summer are blanketed in wild flowers. The grass verge offers an escape route for cyclists and walkers if you are squeezed by a speeding car. In fact these verges are giant-sized compared to verges in other bits of England because the Leicestershire lanes were busy sheep drove roads - used to ensure passing flocks were able to graze as they travelled to the markets.

Eye spy Leicestershire: for your journey to Melton Mowbray
  • Food: Stilton cheese, Red Leicester cheese, Pork pie
  • Spot: Belvoir Castle
1) Melton Mowbray's got a great museum & it needs saving
The Melton Carnegie Museum is a complete gem, but like so many in the UK it is in great danger of having its funding cut. The exhibits introduce the rural crafts that Leicestershire excelled in – and in some cases, eg, stilton making, still does. You can see some of the old cheese making equipment at the museum. Or try sitting at a traditional pub table and have a go at dominoes.

Suggestions to keep this museum going – don’t cut its funding and add a café! There’s plenty of space near the two-headed calf. The museum is already really child-friendly but with a café it would be brilliant.

2) The two-headed calf at the Melton Mowbray museum
If you haven’t yet seen a two-headed (and two-tailed) calf then you need to go and see this ginger beauty ASAP. It’s a sad story, as the calf died very soon after being born, but a great way to get kids interested in the exhibits.

3) It’s got great cheese, pies & food festivals
Melton Mowbray is one of the five homes of Stilton cheese as well as Melton Mowbray pork pies. The old bootmakers, saddlers and horse livery yards may be gone, but cheese is still in the town’s DNA. 

You can try Stilton cheese any time, but a real treat should be the Artisan Cheese Fair from 30 April-1 May 2016. This claims to be Europe’s largest cheese fair, who’d have thought the UK did the biggest and best cheese fairs? You can also go to Melton Mowbray and buy local specialities from the Melton Cheeseboard

Every autumn there's also the Melton Mowbray Food Festival from 3-4 October 2015 showcasing around 150 local producers’ tasty products including cheese, pies, gold-infused bubbly and steamed puddings.

4) Find out about foxhunting
The Melton Carnegie Museum specialises in rural crafts including the trades that support foxhunting. Melton Mowbray became the epi-centre of foxhuting after Hugo Meynell popularised riding after hounds in the 18th century. For the next 150 years, from winter to spring, the area was packed with the bold and rich who would rent local houses in order to hunt with the Belvoir, Cottesmore and Quorn. Many of the town’s trades developed to cater for the winter guests including numerous livery stables which kept at least 1,000 horses.

Hunting raises very mixed emotions now, but at the start of the 20th century locals crowded to see the hunt set off. As many as 4,000 people on foot plus 300 riders turned up at the Quorn Hunt opening meet in November 1912, see for yourself on this short clip from Media Archive for Central England.  

Don't worry if foxhunting is not your thing: the Museum also has a showcase of items from the League Against Cruel Sports.

5) Paint the town red
Melton Mowbray is the town that got painted red (though not necessarily the town that gave the world the phrase “paint the town red”). 

On 6 April 1837 after a rowdy day at nearby Croxton Park races the Marquis of Waterford and his friends rode to town for yet another drink. When the toll keeper refused them entrance he was barricaded into his toll house and the toll gates painted red. The so-called gentlemen then ran riot, painting everything red including house doors, a model swan on the roof of Swan Porch, and even a policeman who tried to stop them.

It’d be fun to repeat the Mad Marquis’s crazy antics, perhaps the next time South Asians celebrate Mela there could be a historic mash-up? More detail about what the man who painted the town red actually did is here

6) It’s not all posh history
This is the place where the dense Melton cloth was created and gets its name. Melton cloth is what donkey jackets are made from (remember the infamous scruffy coat worn by Michael Foot?).

7) Let’s go to Melton Mowbray for a proper country market, how about next Tuesday?
This is market heaaven: Tuesday and Friday are market day with fruit and veg stalls, plus the usual. There is also an antiques/bric-a-brac market every Wednesday. Livestock markets (fur and feathers) are also on Tuesdays. And there is a farmers’ market (produce) on Tuesday and Friday. Plus a car boot sale on Sunday. Check opening and closing times here.

8) Use your feet
Take a walk around Melton Mowbray to spot key historic sites including Anne of Cleeves house (part of her divorce settlement) and the impressively large St Mary’s Church, using this map

9) Stay a while

There are loads of things to do in Leicestershire, have a look at the stay, play, explore offers at www.goleicestershire.com 

  • This post isn’t sponsored, however I have been to Leicester on a previous press trip -you can see more Leicestershire day out and travel ideas here at Conkers (just over the border in Derbyshire) and Richard III Visitor Centre and the National Space Centre in Leicester.