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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 for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare ( or to contact me.

Monday, 18 July 2016

11 things to make you want to stay in Morecambe

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 search of the perfect sunset we headed to Morecambe. Words from Nicola Baird (see for more info about my books and blogs).

The iconic Battery pub, scene of holiday hangovers for many Morecambe
tourists, is now overshadowed by the fabulous Beach Cafe serving a nice
pot of tea and an excellent ice cream.
1) As we walk past the disused fairground by a huge burnt out pub "suitable for families" Pete, my husband, remembers that as a Lancaster University student he used to work there. The next day we walk through the West End along the Promenade towards Heysham (site of a nuclear power station) and Pete points out another vast pub that he used to work at, The Battery, which closed down in 2010. It's not all bad news as in front of The Battery is a rather fabulous glass box housing The Beach Cafe which serves great coffee.

Morecambe railway station. Get self-guided walks from
stations along the Bentham Line at this website.
2) Even the railway station  - which is just two stops up from busy Lancaster - has moved. It's no longer on the sea front, instead it's a 10 minute walk from the main promenade, built on a road that is punctuated by roundabouts decorated with striking bird sculptures.

Kittiwakes seem to be taking over Morecambe -
it's just art.
3) Unfortunately this stylish bit of art is slightly undone by the shops which are of the Aldi and fast food type.  And in Morecambe's West End back streets where there is no longer a pier (blew away in the 1970s) and thus no end-of-the-pier tat on sale (which this July weekend was dominated by floating snakes-on-a-stick) there are numerous empty shops and charity shops.

It's clear that Morecambe has changed, but does it need more of a much needed makeover?

4) We've just spent a weekend break in a Victorian hotel with wide staircase and that very British seaside tradition, swirling carpet (the Clarendon Hotel, no website, at 76 Marine Road West just 10 mins walk from the train station - a good base and allows dogs). It was the 1880s when tourists started to flock to UK beaches, and 100 years on (according to former barman Pete) Morecambe was still hosting "Glasgow Week" - a fortnight when the Scots left their factories and came for a holiday of intense drinking.

5) Intense drinking is still a hobby in this bit of Lancashire. On the train there are loads of people dressed up in their Saturday best starting the party by necking wine. On another the racegoers returning from Cartmel races are noisily pie-eyed.

Kites on show at the Kite Festival behind the Midland Hotel at Morecambe.
6) But there's also the elegant Midland Hotel - a shining white Art Deco building, put up in 1930, dominating Morecambe Bay - looking like a temple of city cool. At the beach below the hotel is a Kite Festival which involves nothing more taxing than enjoying the way kite-dogs, fish, octopus etc make gentle patterns in the wind. When the tide is right you can see the kite surfers tear along the famous quick sands (find out more about Morecambe Kite Surfing Club here).

7) The long promenade is car free, boasts kids parks, water sprays for playing in, lots of lawn, climbing walls, statues - including comedian Eric Morecombe who came from Morecambe - and a cycle lane. The people we meet are friendly - well they certainly chat - and most places are also not just dog friendly but actively offering any dog a nice bowl of water.

Rentable bikes at Morecambe station.
8) We travelled by train but there is a lot of car parking around. And buses!

9) In London you notice how multi-cultural the population is. In Morecambe it's not like that, but I was surprised to see so many people in wheelchairs, and also families with a child with physical problems or learning difficulties. There are also a lot of oldies speeding past in mobility vehicles.

Great chips from the blue side of this double fronted chippy,
Atkinsons at 16-18 Albert Road, Morecambe, 01524 410890
10) I don't eat chips often - my rule is four times a year, and it would probably be none if it wasn't for that fact that my family adore them and they make a cheap dinner. But at 9.45pm on a Saturday night we were hungry(after doing a long walk across Morecambe Bay led by the Queen's Guide, more of this in another post) and by luck found a fantastic chippy. I swear these were the best chips I've ever eaten, and tasted all the better for being eaten outside sitting on the Promenade Wall overlooking Morecambe Bay trying to guess which Lake District mountains we could see.

11) And of course it's always sunny. Yes there will be plenty of wind off the bay, so if you do fancy staring at those famous Morecambe sunsets remember to pack a fleece. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

French fluency: it's only going to cost £8,171 or is 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. Learning to speak a language fluently (or even a few words) is a wonderful way to get to know the world better. This blog looks at the costs - apparently Indonesian is the cheapest to learn, and Korean the most expensive. Words from Nicola Baird (see for more info about my books and blogs).

My Bangladeshi born neighbours cooked this for my family to celebrate the end
of Ramadan. Isn't that lovely? Eid mubarak to all who've been fasting. Understanding
each other isn't just about words - it's also sharing food and, in our case, cutting our hedge!
Today my brother texted to say he's 50 per cent fluent at French according to Duolingo (an app on his phone).  I'm a bit jealous as I'm still  only 44% fluent! So I was interested to see that you can work out exactly how much it costs to learn a new language.  This post contains info from a press release promoting

The guide for travellers seeking to pick up a new language reveals that Indonesian is the cheapest tongue to master while Korean will set you back the most cash. Apparently French will cost me £8,171. I reckon it's going to be more expensive for me than it is for my clever younger brother!

Difficulty (Hours)
Ave cost per hour
Overall cost to fluency
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Mandarin (Chinese)

"Money saving gurus at looked into the costs and the number of hours it takes for English speakers to start from scratch learning a new language and go all the way through to fluency.

The data was compiled using the average prices from a cost-per-hour language learning website, and calculated the estimated expenses of learning 28 languages from around the world.

As well as the cost per hour, the research also looked into the difficulty of learning each language – with average hours needed ranging from 600 to a staggering 2,200.

The 28 languages were picked from around the world and included European languages such as Spanish, Italian and French, as well as the more exotic languages such as Persian, Mandarin and Thai.

The results showed that although Indonesian took longer than more basic languages to learn, with around 900 hours needed from start to finish, it had the cheaper average hourly rate of tuition of £6.35, meaning the cost was particularly low.

Coming in at second place in the cheaper languages was Portuguese, with a total cost of £6,138. This differed to Indonesian as although the hourly price is a costly £10.23, only 600 hours are needed to speak fluently.

This was then followed by Spanish with a total costing of £6,157. This included 600 hours of language priced at £10.26 per hour.

In terms of typical school-taught languages within the UK, it’s those who study German compared to French that should be pleasantly surprised. Within the research, it was revealed that students on German courses at school could be saving £12,013 in money compared to just £8,171 if they had chosen to learn French.

Tipping the costly end of the scale as the more expensive languages to study included Korean, Mandarin and Japanese.

To learn Korean, you must set aside a whopping £41,155, as well as dedicating 2,200 hours to the language. It was revealed that as well as being one of the most difficult languages to crack, it will also cost £18.71 per hour.

Mandarin, or Chinese, will set you back a total of £29,367, while Japanese is also expensive, priced at an average of £24,375."

Over to you?
So if money is the only object - what language would you like to learn?!

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Turning Japanese with the amazing Yayoi Kusama

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. Tokyo-based Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's work is inventive, tactile and fun - a good way to be cheered up. Words from Nicola Baird (see for more info about my books and blogs).

This is a 10 minute queue for All The Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016).
I like the way there are quite a few Japanese visitors in front of me.
The astonishing art of Yayoi Kusama - born in Japan in 1929 - is on show for free at the Victoria Miro gallery on Wharf Road in Islington. You may know her work - think spots and dots - and this time expect pumpkins, hallucinations and mirrors. You might think of these combinations as a visual burst of happiness. The only snag is that you will have to queue for a long time to see her work.

Inside this artwork by Yayoi Kusama the images are so clear, but I seem to have taken
a photo of a crowd of aeroplane landing lights!
Admittedly it's amazing having a private 45 second moment with the Chandelier of Grief. I didn't know what to expect, and in the mirrored twinkling light security of the chamber I had to work hard at keeping calm. There's a definite feeling of being lost in space, or a vision of Heaven. And either of those rather imply that you're dead. But it's beautiful too, so strange how such a short time can feel so long.

I then went up the stairs and enjoyed a 30second private view of All The Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins - a much more cheerful piece of work. Dress for this exhibition - you'll enjoy the three mirrored chambers far more if you have colour blocked your wardrobe. I think black works best but yellow would be OK too.

There's another mirrored chamber - again 30seconds -  called Where the Lights In My Heart Go in the garden. By this time I'd got used to being locked in with the art and actually relished the sudden quiet, lit by tiny pinpricks of light and some air holes drilled into the capsule. Back outside the giant silver baubles amongst the lily pond, the Narcissus Garden, looked equally captivating.  There is one final gallery at the very top of the fabulous Victoria Miro Gallery which is filled with Kusama's so-called Infinity Nets in various colours (canvases of a base colour covered in tiny spots of another colour - check out the texture contrasts).

"I've been Kusamaed!"
The gallery is bizarrely tricky to navigate - it's not just the super steep, super long stairways - it's the lack of signage about where to go next. So staff wearing Yayoi Kusama designed spots point the way. I loved the young man who laughed when I asked about his outfit, claiming he'd been "Kusamaed".

You can also enjoy a virtual tour of Yayoi Kusama's work via Artsy which also sells her work.

According to Artsy, their "Yayoi Kusama page, has Kusama's bio, over 150 of her works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Kusama exhibition listings. The page even includes related artist & category tags, plus suggested contemporary artists, allowing viewers to continue exploring art beyond Kusama."

Artsy has done a fascinating review of 86-year-old Yayoi Kusama claiming that if she was "a rockstar she'd be Mick Jagger". She's lived in an old people's home (a sanitarium) in Tokyo since the late 1970s but her playful spirit hasn't deserted her, even her wheelchair is covered in spots. She's been a force of nature on the New York art scene since the 1960s, but intriguingly it's only since 2015 that she's become properly well known following a year of firsts with stunning exhibitions in Scandanavia, Louisiana and Russia.

So what got me heading to her show? I was intrigued to see some mirrored balls while canoeing on the canal (at least I think that's what I saw), but it's what led me to go to Yayoi Kusama's show at the Victoria Miro gallery. Seeing art - and understanding its size is the best way to enjoy it - but if you can't make it, then a virtual tour is a good second best. And of course the more you know about the artist the more you get out of seeing the show.

Verdict: Be warned, once you've met Yayoi Kusama's work all you want to do is place spots in unexpected places - the garden roses, on pumpkins in the vegetable aisle of supermarkets or simply round the bathroom mirror. And do take a companion or a gripping book to see you through the long waits between your one-on-one private views.
  • Victoria Miro gallery exhibition at 16 Wharf Road, N1 (Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm) ends 30 July. Nearest tube is either Angel (you can walk along the canal to reach it or take a bus towards Old Street) or Old Street.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Feeling ever so French

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. Here's a little reflection on building friendships in a bid to improve our family's French with a major French feast. Words from Nicola Baird (see for more info about my books and blogs).

Bon appetit! Our celebration of all things French.
"I only want to speak French now," texted 15yo Nell in French during a recent stay with a lovely French family in Provence. Given that she was on a week's cultural exchange a long way from home via the Avignion train this was definitely a very cheering text.

I never did a teenage language swap when I was revising for my French o level but it's obviously the best way to embed another language and to have your eyes opened to the many differences - and similarities - another family might have. Right now I'm trying to improve my own French using Duolingo... but I've got hopes my own kids might be able to be better at speaking languages than I am. And so my two daughters hosted a Provence family (who were friends of friends of neighbours) in 2015. It was fun, Facebook has kept us all in touch and now this year my youngest has already been to Provence to stay with them.  It was a huge success. But also so lovely that when Nell came back her host family sent us gifts including a bottle of wine from vineyards in their village.

Gift from Nell's host family
We took a while to plan our French celebration meal. But on a May Friday we opened the bottle and paired it with a delicious (homemade) French meal of salad, crêpes and bonbons. Inspired by her stay Nell wrote the menu in French, while I tracked down some extra treats at La Ferme on 102 Farringdon Road, London.

Middle class families know all about cultural capital. If their kids mention a tiny snippet from a history lesson the next weekend they are taking a look around the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex or watching a DVD of the Battle of Britain as preparation before a trip to Duxford to see the old Spitfires. Small wonder that when I knew Nell had to learn French I figured it would be a good idea to send her to France... and it was.

But as the European in/out referendum gets closer I just wish we all knew more about Europe and who lives there. On my brief travels on the continent the newspapers are full of EU politics. But you don't get this information in a British broadsheet. The more we all know about other societies and cultures the easier it is for us all to get on without stigmatising anyone.

It's a bit like having an annoying neighbour. Once you know that person, perhaps because they've invited you round for a cup of tea or you've had a good chat about something you've got in common - or even heard about their passion for the motorbikes they can't stop mending - their midnight showers or strangely early hoovering and mechanical tinkering habits are just quaint idiosyncrasies, not argument sparks. It's easy to dislike or even be fearful of strangers, far harder to dislike the whole family next door/opposite when you've shared a few biscuits and a chat about the roses.

Bon voyage
Whatever the referendum result my eldest is due to move to France for a year soon in a bid to learn French and perhaps more about herself too. She came back from an interview in Paris telling us that a French family she'd stayed with had called the UK "the stone in Europe's shoe". I reckon this says bucket loads about how irritating we've become.  It would be an irony that as the UK gets more resistant to "others" my tiny little family are trying hard to be those others in Europe.

Of course people have very strong views about RemaIN and Brexit, I know that I do. And since the terrible death of Jo Cox,MP feelings are running high - but whatever happens on 23 June my hope is the UK will muddle through. And I'm sure knowing French or any of the other European countries' languages will still be an incredible personal and professional life bonus. Merci mes amis!

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Cycling near Salisbury - not a Holland quiet way yet

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. Cycling expeditions are now so popular, so what would my 15yo think about going for a long cycle ride with her mum around Salisbury? Words by Nicola Baird.

At the garden of the Ship Inn, Burcombe, Wilts
Cycling is supposed to be safe - but it needs to feel like an adventure else it's just a slog ride from A-B, which I do a few days most weeks around London. I've been longing to go for a really long journey by bike, say London to Amsterdam or London to Paris as organised by people like Simon Izod, but reckon it might be worth trying smaller trips before we sign up to 50 miles a day.

Nell is happy to take a one day cycling trip with me to Salisbury. The plan is for me to do some family history research, cycling the Wiltshire lanes, and also to let Nell explore Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge. We're kitted out in high viz which feels unnecessary on London's new super cycle highway running from Farringdon to Blackfriars Bridge. But in Salisbury on National Cycle Network 45 it's essential.

I'm not sure that Wiltshire County Council really understands cycle lanes. The one we use from Salisbury to Wilton - about 3 miles away - mostly offers flat cycling, but there is a horrible section of fast, busy road that is on the A30.

Reflecting on the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral
The TIC in Salisbury provides us with a map but when I ask questions the woman there uses the road names, rather than the cycle route names, which is a bit confusing as this special cycling map doesn't mention we'll be partly on the A30. Luckily I take a left at Quidhampton when I should have taken a right.... and when I discover this mistake I speak out loud asking myself what to do. To my amazement a lady on the other side of the hedge, gardening, pops up and suggests I take a back route up a gravel track by the kennels. Perfect. It's not the quickest way to Wilton but it avoids the A30 and is a really bucolic diversion with beautiful views of undulating Wiltshire countryside.

Cycling discovery - an injured snake near Burcombe.
Another lady - this time very old - points us towards Burcombe and at last our cycle ride becomes wonderful. Of course it helps that we find a snake. SNAKE!! A snake on the road. It looks as if it is basking and both of us are a bit nervous to get closer even though it's very small and quite still. I'm guessing it is a young grass snake as this satisfyingly flat route always seems close to a river. Luckily there is a fallen ash branch by the verge so we snap off two long prongs in order to pick up the "injured" snake so it can die safely off the road. If that's not an oxymoron. The road has become a crime scene - after much discussion we decide that the snake has been pecked by a bird and dropped on to the road. Anyway by the time we move it, I think it has died.

This bit of road is quiet - the hedges are high and the cowparsley offers a lacy white verge. You can hear larks and occasionally spot yellowhammer dive into the hedges. On the other side of the hedges, in fields generally rising up and away from the valley floor, are intense fields of yellow oil seed rape. Nearer the villages the farmers have sold or rented their fields for grazing and handsome horses raise their heads as we cycle past. It's slightly like being in an Enid Blyton novel.

We've also seen a man pushing his broken door car; lots of homes named after what they used to be - the old bakery, the old schoolhouse, the haybarn, the old forge. It's a good lesson in modern geography and for us Londoners a sense of bafflement about what people actually do in the countryside when there's nowhere close for them to go and do it. Mind you Wiltshire has lots of pubs.

We take a break at the Ship Inn, Burcombe which has recently redone its riverside garden, and love it.

Barford Inn, Barford St Martin. Nice sun terrace and cosy old-fashioned interior
 At the next village, Barford St Martin the Green Dragon is now known as The Barford Inn. This pub is also very old but it's full of ye olde agricultural equipment, cleverly attached to the ceiling. I'd like to linger but Nell has had enough of pubs and fields so we speed back to Salisbury for a cycling feast of Greek wraps on sale at one of the many Food stalls in the Market Square on a May Bank Holiday Sunday.

There are 1.3million visitors to Stonehenge, but you can still feel alone with the stones.
Besides the cathedral story, Salisbury has plenty of literary links. Charles Dickens based a section of Martin Chuzzlewit here, and it's forever entwined with Thomas Hardy who has tragic Tess of the D'Urbervilles ending up at Stonehenge. Had we the stamina we could have cycled to Stonehenge along the National Cycle Network 45 but neither Nell nor I thought we'd then do justice this 3,000 year old monument (on a site with 5,000 years of history). So our adventure was one day enjoyably lonely cycling on the flat lanes of Wiltshire, and one using a tour bus to mix with one of the UK's most popular tourist sites. It was a good mix for a very short break. But my suspicion is both of us had more fun stopping than we did pedalling along. Clearly we are not naturals for a long cycle ride.

Pluses: the Salisbury - Wilton route has an easy to follow cycle map which makes it easy to see the distance you've cycled. That's about 3 miles. Nell was proud to have cycled at least 15 miles on one day.

Minuses: brave lycra cyclists may be able to cope but the rest of us need drivers to be more cautious on the roads, especially the back lanes. Diesel engines and unseasonably bad weather (ie, climate change) are doing a great deal of damage. Speeding vehicles wreck the efforts by walkers and cyclists to get out of their cars.