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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.

Friday, 25 February 2022

Law & order on the Thames Path: Runnymede and the Magna Carta

Public transport, decent walking boots and a map ensure endless opportunities to visit beautiful places, explore and build up memories. This post-Covid illness entry charts the joys of walking the Thames Path with a culture stop at Runnymede. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

The Magna Carta was written in 1215 - and it's still important today
as this memorial at Runnymede rather proves.

It’s two years since I did things I used to take for granted, such as visit the cinema, or hopped on a train to walk another section of the Thames Path. As a result almost anything I do now – and especially since I’ve also recovered from covid recently - seems an incredible treat. That said, doing another section of the National Trail Thames Path would be fabulous at any time. A good map to make this easy to follow is The Thames Path by Cicerone

All about the Magna Carta: spotted along the Thames Path.

For years I’ve wanted to visit Runnymede where bad King John met the barons and was convinced he needed to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. This is still a famously beautiful meadow, just by the River Thames and not far from Windsor. The area is now managed by the National Trust, which means there’s a tea room, hurray, but trying to locate how to get there by public transport was tricky. Turns out it’s easy – a two or three mile walk from Staines train station. It’s also on the Thames Path so I figured we could walk on to Windsor, completing another seven miles of this 180 mile route. 

The Thames Path has so many different atmospheres, but around here in Berkshire/Surrey it is lined with posh bungalows, winter-sleeping smartypants motor cruisers and plenty of very used-to-people river wildlife. There are always coots, but we also saw five large black cormorants drying out on a weir parallel to the lock and, excitingly, a swan fight. It was more spring swan posturing as the larger bird flapped up to chase the smaller one off. Satisfied by his success the big winner then flew off (in a rather ungainly way, running his giant feet along the water) towards his mate where they very sweetly did the love heart with the neck shape. I’d never seen this in real life before, thank you swans! 

12 impressive chairs to help visitors take note of major legal changes.

Just before Runnymede, Pete and I found a bench and munched beigels bought from near our home. Fortified we then crossed the busy A308 road and thanks to dog walkers' directions managed to get to the Magna Carta Memorial, a cupola roofed monument in white stone which has a very Washington feel. In fact we missed the JFK Memorial which is just to the north of it. But we did discover several beautiful public art works including The Chairs (also known as the Jurors) and Writ in Water.  

Beautiful Writ in Water at Runnymede.

Writ in Water
looks a bit like a circular barn, but you go into it, and find an inner roofless circle. At ground level is a pond of water which is so clear (this is not a wildlife pond or a cattle trough) that the words of the Magna Carta carved into the stone casing reflect in the water. The surprise is that it’s the watery view of Clause 39 that’s legible – the stone carving is mirror writing. On our trip the sky was a perfect winter spring blue, and windless which meant Writ in Water was at its most beautiful and easy to read. For me another surprise was that this was designed by artist Mark Wallinger. I love most of the work I’ve seen by him, especially horse-related, but clearly I haven’t made enough effort to look up his whole oeuvre. The words say: “No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor in any way proceeded against, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land.” With Boris in power, and our threatening migrant policies this doesn’t really ring true, but it is an empowering vision, and one that has led to America’s constitution. 

Gate at Runnymede Airforces Memorial.

Life and death

Talking about laws of the land we then followed the steps up through the wood by Cooper’s Hill – full of brambles, honeysuckle and big oak trees. It’s quite steep but a lovely place and at the top passes a growing Memorial Wood being replanted in memory of people who died following Covid-19. 

Young trees grow better and insects, birds and plants do better with a jumble of untidyness.

On the ridge of the hill there’s a campus for Royal Holloway university and then just round the corner Runnymede Air Forces Memorial. This sparkling white building, partly indoors, partly out, partly chapel, partly stunning viewpoint offers a memorial to the 20,275 military personnel – air force personnel – who died in the UK and Europe and whose bodies were not found during World War Two. 

It is chilling looking at column, after marble column of names from all around the world although predominantly the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. So many had very ordinary British sounding family names (including Pete’s - May - and my own - Baird) but came to fight for the 'motherland' and then were horribly killed. Curiously, and like most of the Commonwealth war grave sites it isn’t exactly a sad place, but it is one of reflection. Let there not be any more huge scale awfulness and yet turn on the news at the moment and it’s all about the escalation of tension in the Ukraine. 

We practically had this place to ourself, but I’m sure it will soon be busy again with overseas visitors paying respects to their lost relatives. 

Joys of the Thames Path: very swish houses by the river and boats on the water.

Back in the meadow

By the time we retraced our steps back past the 12 big bronze chairs, The Jurors, I was hungering for cake but not so much that I didn’t note the jury experience idea of “12 good men and true”, or that each chair references a particular struggle for freedom and equality. You could guess this just by looking at individual chairs – all designed by Hew Locke – but the one for Oscar Wilde, in this legal setting, might be the biggest give away. 

It was only 3pm on a Saturday by the time we reached the Runnymede Magna Carter tea shop (designed by Lutyens) but the person in front of me managed to get the last freshly made piece of cake. That's almost panic making...

Fortunately, there were other delicious pre-wrapped choices. Fortified by this calorific National Trust moment and a cuppa we headed back to follow the Thames Path upstream. 

This involved re-crossing the road, and really the only safe way is by using the pedestrian crossing, it’s hugely fast and busy which the green-coloured National Trust map of the area does rather fail to identify. It did remind me how reliant everyone outside the big cities is on their personal vehicle – so much so that even the NT 2022 visitor book gives precise road directions for drivers but fails to include any public transport information. I think it would be good if people without cars, including tourists, were given some clues so they could then google their way there. So, nearest train station is either Staines or for a longer walk Datchet. You can walk along the Thames from Staines (as we did), or take a bus and disembark by the famous Bells of Ouse pub. 

Pete on the Thames Path near Datchet. In this area many
of the trees have atmospheric bunches of mistletoe.

For this section of the Thames Path (runnymede and ankerwycke) we needed to speed walk in a bid to get to Windsor before the light failed – but just outside Datchet we stopped to watch a red kite circling completely engulfed by a flock of terns. All seemed to be eyes down looking at the grassy field we were walking through. It was another magical nature moment on this walk.

Despite the light failing we were still able to enjoy views of grand Windsor Castle and Eton College chapel across the flat water meadows where Windsor horse show is usually held in May. You hear so much about Eton, its playing fields and culture that it actually felt quite strange seeing this old stone building popping into view. 

Actually we didn’t see any Eton students. In fact we only saw one child on their own throughout the whole of this journey – bouncing on a creaky trampoline, invisible behind the dark black safety net. It cannot be right that so few children get to be outside. Even at the National Trust site there were very few kids. Ironically this was the one “culture spot” that I’d meant to take our daughters to as kids but completely failed to organise. 

So pleased to have visited this Magna Carta monument.

Our walk ended at The Boatman pub which is literally beside the path, thank you pub gods, and so we staggered in, struck by how lovely it was, ordered wine and beer, fed the dog his dinner and then restored, went out of the pub’s back door to Windsor and Eton Riverside station – all of one minute – to take the train back to London. 

Verdict: time passes so fast whether you chat and walk and follow the river or stay at home running errands or in my case work from home. So it's definitely worth having experiences to enjoy in the moment and to remember!

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Edinburgh - an armchair read

The combination of Covid-19 travel restrictions and greater awareness about the way polluting ways of getting around are heating up the planet has already created a new interest in slow travel and local travel. Here's a look at the way Edinburgh used to be. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 
You can buy cards of this design on the publisher's
website, the evocatively named Manderley Press.

I have only ever arrived at Edinburgh by train: it's a very dramatic arrival point. Emerging from the station you are soon surrounded by the greenery of Princes Street Gardens with the westward vista of cliffs dominated by the castle.

No other UK city offers the visitor quite such an entrance, which might be why the first book from new publishing house, Manderley Press, is a reprint of Robert Louis Stephenson's classic, Edinburgh: picturesque notes. As a bonus it's got an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith (author of Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street) who is probably the city’s current most famous writer in residence. 

This travel guide may be an oldie, first published in 1878 when RLS was just pushing 30-years-old, but Edinburgh is still super-readable. Savouring it in London I'm desperate to go this Scottish city again and of course it helps that my daughter is now working in Leith. In this travelogue you take a journey through (mostly) bad weather around the Old Town via the New Town, up on to Calton Hill via the Parliament and Greyfriars church, sometimes catching views of the Pentland Hills spotting rich and poor. It’s all today familiar but you are also time travelling through the Georgian period in this rocky Scottish city. 

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) is well known for his classic adventure tales, Treasure Island and Kidnapped but was also a popular travel writer back in the day. RLS spent most of his early life living at 17 Herriot Row in Edinburgh's New Town where he developed his storytelling skills, despite periods of ill health, aided by the magic of gas lights indoors and a habit of wandering the streets day or night. This juxtaposition of comfortable family life, middle class gossip and Edinburgh poverty must have helped him conjure up the chilling story of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde - spoiler alert they are one and the same person. Similarly, when RLS writes about Edinburgh he makes clear how the city he loves also has two sides - the gleaming beauty and the “slatternly” (as he calls it) poverty which was mostly down the hill or almost underground. That said, there's no moralising in the book, it's more a dreamlike wander through Edinburgh’s weather-struck streets – sometimes peeping through a window, but never going inside - and I heartily recommend it. 

I'm now very keen to see how my memory matches with RLS's version and the reality. And the perfect excuse to find out might well be to visit Edinburgh's big Christmas markets which run until the new year.

Of course for keen readers could hunt out a secondhand copy, but if that’s not available then I loved this 2021 edition from www.manderleypress.com which specialises in finding books that celebrate "memorable buildings, cities and landmarks". The print, was also a generous size with decent leading, perfect for anyone with over 40-year-old eyesight. The splendid book jacket and internal illustrations are by another Edinburgh fan and resident, Ian McIntosh, who is sometimes known as the man “who draws for Alexander McCall Smith”.  What's lovely is that these are also available as greeting cards - perfect for Edinburgh fans.

  • Edinburgh by Robert Louis Stevenson, Manderley Press, Nov 2021. £16.99
  • Edinburgh's Christmas markets are from 20 November 2021 - 4 January 2022.

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Ride the change: cycling from London to Glasgow for the climate

Instead of cycling the full Ride the Change route from London to Glasgow, Nicola Baird joins the first two days (135.4 miles). Here she relives the pedally sweat, while wondering how much of a metaphor this truncated journey could become – keen to meet targets, but just not managing because life gets in the way 

Ride the Change: Nicola with day two cycling companion, Anne.

Even amateur long-distance cyclists are watertight planners. Not just their super-technical kit – an ensemble of lycra and high viz suitable for any weather that is likely to be encountered during 70-mile days of pedalling – but also the detail about when to take a break, and what to eat and drink.  On the Ride the Change cycle from London to Glasgow where the COP26 meeting is happening (a year late thanks to Covid-19), it’s like joining a group of Olympic athletes who prefer to talk the detail of climate campaigning rather than incremental fitness gains made so popular by Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins.

There are more than 170 people on Ride the Change’s first day (24 October), with 70 who plan to take the next seven days to cycle 475 miles from London to Scotland. Their aim is to inspire all sorts of people to take climate action before the crucial COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow. Some will be working in the meeting’s Green Zone. Most have jobs in addition to being climate activists… all also have super resilience, spare inner tubes and gadgets that make the navigating a little easier: totting up the miles ridden at the same time as counting down the miles left to go. Analytics will soon become as important as ideas about cutting carbon emissions.

Just like the participants of COP26 I started with big ambition. They want to save the world. I just want to do a big cycle ride with likeminded people.

But life gets in the way of the best intentions.

After two days I parked my bike – now with a flat front tyre – at Coventry train station’s cycle racks (which are not even covered!). I’d told friends I was going to Glasgow, but I also knew that there were more important tasks that I needed to do during the same time when I should be pedalling. My heart and legs were willing, but being human I also needed to prioritise a visit to my friend who’d been having a bad time and lives not so far from Coventry. And after that I hoped to visit my daughter who’d just moved to Edinburgh. So, yes, I will get to Scotland, but it will be the wrong city because I’m no longer following the ‘plan’. 

This ability to be side-tracked (and put things off) is a massive problem for all us humans when it comes to climate change and COP26. We have the ambition to tackle the climate crisis but repeatedly take detours.

We will hear over the news how the Glasgow meeting goes in early November. We all hope that keeping the temperature below a 1.5C rise will be possible. We want country plans (the NDCs) for 2030, 2040 and even 2050 to be achieveable. We must have climate justice and a rejig to our economy so fossil fuel energy comes to a stop. But it’s even easier to deviate and delay if you’re a world leader with competing pressures. 

Ride the Change

Sometimes being in a group with a shared aim is truly energising, so long as you stay with the group. For me the hard work of cycling a long, long way starts the moment we all pass the dramatic backdrops of Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, because that’s where I lose everyone. I’m not sure I notice this at first as traffic is noisy along London’s busy Edgware Road. I’m concentrating on what’s to come: worrying about traffic, my ability to navigate in the dark and how my bike will cope with big hills and muddy off-road sections. Fortunately Brake the Cycle/Adventure Uncovered, who specialise in cycling holidays, have provided a route which mostly takes us on quieter or flatter directions.

I’m joining for just two days, which will see my very ordinary get-around Finsbury Park bike take me 135.4 miles. We’ll climb up over the Chiltern hills, drop into Oxfordshire and then network over cider and climate chat in the evenings. Some of the group are staying with friends or even camping, although many, like me, have booked into Premier Inns because they let you take your bike into the room. It’s turning into a pricey protest.

The cycling speed and distance is also well outside my comfort zone. I’m used to doing 10 miles max, rather slowly and always punctuated by traffic lights. What’s more I’m 57 years old. But I love being outside and I love talking with people who want to do something about tackling the climate crisis. So for the past two months I’ve been gradually upping my cycle abilities in a bid to have a go at getting to Glasgow.  Aside from having to get fitter, it’s not too hard to organise a bike super-service (thank you Finsbury Park Cycles) or ask keen long-distance cyclists to explain the intricacies of Kamoot or Ride with GPS. I also have a few chats about battery life with Just Eat and Deliveroo drivers when we happen to stop at Highbury Corner’s traffic lights - their experience makes me decide that the only way of keeping my phone in juice is to borrow a battery pack. 

The proof, though there seems to be a little short ride added on to this from the day before!


I also sign up to Strava and discover that every journey can be recorded and analysed for speed and effort. I manage 200km of training in October (Strava has set me the target of 400km) and the generous people using Strava happily offer me “kudos” after every ride, even when it’s clear that I travel at a snail’s pace on my regular route down to Blackfriars Bridge and on to Elephant & Castle.  I grow to love this App as it lets me ride freestyle and records the speed and distance in kilometres, which for anyone who thinks imperial (rather than metric) creates an impression that you’re going further and faster. In contrast Garmin and the other devices where you upload a GPX map, will then dictate your route through arrows, voice commands etc. Going off route is greeted with a blare of music and red arrows instructing you to turn back.

Anyone who drives a car will be very familiar with modern mapping systems. But I don’t have a vehicle and am a terrible navigator because I don’t like following a set route when there are distractions – a field of sheep to admire, blackberries to pick etc.

“You’ve got to plan everything,” insists super-cyclist Michael wearing shoes that click on to his bicycle pedals when he shows me how to use a Garmin. Now retired, Michael has cycled from London to Glasgow in just two days (two days!!) and does his best to arm me with technology. But really it’s his wife, Julia, who offers the best takeaway. “You’re sensible and fit, it’ll be fine. Enjoy it!”

Make a pledge
During the training weeks I admit that I begin to lose sight of the mission to encourage friends and family to make a pledge that helps them cut their personal carbon use. Hermione Taylor, who co-founded Do Nation wants the Ride the Change cyclists to collect 3,000 pledges which range from air drying washing (saving half a tonne of CO2e / driving 12,000 miles) to drinking tap water rather than bottled water (cutting out a lifetime of plastic waste). Thankfully some of the riders, especially from sponsor Arup’s team, are brilliant champions for cutting carbon – spurred on by a leader board where the current champion has garnered more than 400 pledges. By the end of Day 2’s gathering in Coventry, Hermione says there are now 3,500 new pledges to save carbon, that’s the equivalent of 1,500 flights to Glasgow. It would be great if readers of this article could have a look at what pledges are on offer, see https://www.wearedonation.com/en-gb/do-actions/

Here’s how my ride went…

Anna from Flight Free giving a lead to Nicola during the
Ride the Change cycle from London to Glasgow. (c) Adventure Uncovered

Day 1: London to Oxford by bike

London to Oxford is 70.3 miles (or more if you get lost). The map’s already shown that it’s up hill to lunch; downhill after. What I hadn’t realised is that after a gathering of all the cyclists at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall and some rousing cheers the group breaks up super fast. By 10am I’m cycling on my own. Deluded (and used to solo training) I assume there must be a group of slower riders behind me and pedal on steadily getting the hang of Ride with GPS as I cross and recross the M1 as we weave out of the suburbs, through a corner of Hertfordshire and into Bucks.  The lanes through the wooded Chilterns are full of speeding cars and gated, well-maintained houses but the bonus is repeated views of magnificent red kites. No one seems to be around, though I do almost talk to one person, an elderly lady standing outside her house who congratulates me for being so “energetic”. Through the sweat (which for me collects on my upper lip and then pools in the hollow below my chin so I look as if I’m dribbling) I beam.

Around noon five cyclists shoot past me – at a speed that I absolutely can’t match.  Apparently, they had a dramatic tyre blow out near Hendon and after an hour of failing to find the right spare part they manage to patch it with gaffer tape. Patrik Ewe, head of fundraising at the climate charity Possible (founded after the film the Age of Stupid came out), is itching to make up time so he can chat to people over lunch at Wendover Woods. This is why Ride the Change’s bike mechanic, Anna Hughes, who is lugging around two paniers of repair kit and had just helped sort out the blow out, is left behind to look after me. To be given such an experienced long distance cycling nursemaid is a total gift for me, definitely not so fun for Anna. However, as she doesn’t have navigation it’s up to me to shout directions towards her while she keeps the pace from the front. Almost immediately we are gifted by the sight of several red kites, and not long after that a muntjac crosses our route. But mostly we’re just trying to get to lunch…

After a steep and speedy downhill through Wendover beech woods which then have to be grimly climbed back up to reach the lunch point. We are definitely greeted by worried faces: I get the impression that the organisers wonder if they should bundle me and my bike into their van (lent by one of the sponsors Abel and Cole), but we’ve been told repeatedly that this is a “journey not a race” and so they don’t insist. I feel like it would take very little to make me sob. And I can see that Millennial Anna is h-angry, but thankfully two meals have been saved for us and fortunately, as Anna follows a plant based diet, it’s bean stew with vegan cheese and a vegan flapjack. Perfect, except it is getting cold and starting to rain…

In the end Anna and I cycle together for the rest of the day: we don’t make it into Oxford until 7pm just as the speeches are starting. But we get on well (although it must be infuriating for her that as I get more tired I keep reading the map upside down). When the rain starts she explains why she started her Flight Free campaign to encourage people to travel without using planes and racking up their carbon footprint. My family decided to use a plane every 10 years back in 2001, and have managed no problem so far – better in fact as we haven’t flown this year (which would have been the third flight in 20 years). We've also had fabulous staycations and taken the train to Europe. So it’s not a difficult decision to sign up to #flightfree2022 too, as I’m certain I’d have never made it through day one without her thoughtful companionship, which also included fixing my derailleur to make the very lowest gear work again.

Deep water
We’re only 12 miles from Oxford when the journey starts to get proper tough – this is a 70-miler and I’ve never gone so far before. In fact I’d already done five or six miles that morning getting from home in Finsbury Park to where our ride headed out from the Tea House Theatre in south London. Even on the smooth surface of the national cycle signposted route (basically a main road) it’s hard to keep going. There’s one excitement when we have to dismount at a flood. The past couple of fields have been flooded and now there’s a ford that is out of control. This must happen often as there is also a raised footpath we can just wheel the bikes across, although it is tempting to go straight through. If I had waterproof Ortlieb panniers on either side of both wheels, then it’s possible my bike would have converted into a floating barge and let me drift to Oxford. Instead, we remount by the Old Fisherman pub (no going in) and continue through Shabbington. Over lunch Anna reckoned we could smash 35 miles within three hours so we should pedal until 5.30pm and then have a cup of tea. This target has kept me going, but of course it’s a Sunday and when the clock ticks up to 6pm she looks around and remarks that there’s nowhere to stop, so shall we just keep on after a banana for me and for her the last of her crisps? Agh. I’ve used psychological boosts enough on my family, and now it’s been used on me – strange how the person suggesting the plan (real or not) gives confidence to the others.

We may be in a group but everyone’s journey is inevitably different. Today I am very much a follower, grateful for Anna’s patient expertise and energetic speed setting.

Ring road
For cyclists and walkers the outskirts of any big town involve complicated crossings of the ring road – but seeing the well-lit bus depot and then the Cowley car plant fills me with a strange joy of familiarity. We’ve nearly made it! Oxford is fortunately a city of cyclists which means we can follow a nifty off-road route that brings us to a hill overlooking the amber glow of the city. There are no obvious spires, and this time I don’t even hear a bell, but it’s as exciting as being in a Philip Pullman storybook looking down on to the city after this long day pedalling.

I keep following Anna’s rear light, slightly bemused by the amount of people and lights on Iffley Road. Back in the mid 1990s I used to work off one side of this road, and live on the other, and it was Sunday dead. Now it is buzzing with people as they wait for their mates picking up kebab and pizza from brightly-lit restaurants.  At last we are crossing Magdalen Bridge – there’s no need to detour under the famous Bridge of Sighs - instead we go down High Street, which is definitely is longer than I remember, past students in gowns and stone doorways opening into college quads. A final stop to consult the map and we’re flashing over Folly Bridge towards the White Horse at Tap Social on the Abingdon Road where it seems we are the very last to check in. Oh dear.

Instead of feeling elated – I’ve bloody done it – this just makes me feel like crying. I know, I’m tired and hungry (and will be hungrier still as you can only order food through Deliveroo and I neither have the app nor the space on my phone to download it), but it’s weird to feel like a frustrated teenager ticked off on a list and then forgotten! I need the world to tell me I’ve got here, despite my ineptitude and lack of bike know-how. I’m another one of the great British amateurs who bumble over long distances with just a bit of fishing line (in the modern world this would be a USB rechargeable head torch) to make the world a little bit better for everyone by asking people to acknowledge my effort not with money by making easy-to-do lifestyle changes…

But right now, I just need a slug of water and my kind husband Pete to call me with a short pep talk in which he tells me to (basically) keep on keeping on and get some food. As a West Ham supporter he is no stranger to getting over feeling low. Wheeling my bike down to Oxford’s main station, on the way to the Premier Inn Botley where I’m booked to sleep, I even start to long to find a supermarket (places I normally avoid) so I can buy something to eat – the restaurants of Iffley Road seem like a distant dream now. Luckily, I spot a man with a tell-tale Ride the Change green wrist band eating from a giant plate. He’s inside a little Keralan restaurant serving delicious vegetarian Thali so I chain up my bike, go inside and order just what he’s got. Nev is from Cornwall and a reluctant chatterer but he mentions that his companion for a little while (until he went off without her), Anne is in a similar age group to us three. I’ve got a new target for tomorrow: I will find Anne and cycle with her. 

Hermione Taylor from Do Nation - the brilliant organisation that helps people pledge to cut their carbon emissions - during Day 2 of Ride the Change from London to Glasgow. (c) NB

Day 2
: Oxford to Coventry by bike

At 6.40am I’m in the Premier Inn restaurant getting black coffee when I spot a cheerful looking woman who might be Anne Dixon  And it is: what a marvellous moment it is when she says she’d be happy to team up with me today – it seems like she also rode much of yesterday on her own.

The morning starts dramatically as within 10 minutes a Balliol student has fallen off his e-scooter and is lying on the cycle path on Banbury Road between me and Anne. For the next half hour, we keep his air way clear, stop the bleeding over his brow and keep him calm. An ambulance is called which gives us the opportunity to leave unlucky George. He probably tumbled off at 10mph, but a whack like that on your head is going to put you in A&E at the least. It’s unnerving and I dearly hope he’s recovering well. 

There’s a lot of blood this morning – the busy A road out of Oxford which passes Blenheim Palace is littered with road kill, mostly scattered bits of pheasants, but I also see a debrained rabbit and at one slight bend,  two fallow deer are piled on top of each other on the verge, presumably dragged off the road after they were struck by vehicles. I’m very glad I opted for a bright yellow cycle jacket, as one momentary mistake has such serious consequences for anyone not in a vehicle.

Soon we join some quieter roads and have plenty of chance to chat. Anne, who has four grown up children, has been practising around the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, and is great company. She says that the Ride the Change group WhatsApp has concluded that the right amount of bikes for a keen cyclist is always one more than you have. Obviously, you want to be able to lend a bike to a friend, but there’s also the desire to have a road bike, and maybe an off-road bike, and a fold-up bike and perhaps even an e-bike. Four bikes! And then I realise that over the years I’ve bought all the bikes in my household, so that each family member (Pete and our two daughters) can have their own wheels.

Cycle miles
We keep being passed, and then passing, other groups on Ride The Change today as they stop for water, chats and repairs, which is a good morale boost. As well as overhearing all sorts of interesting ideas about carbon capture, carbon counting and cycle journeys that negate the need for a plane, Anne and I chat away the miles.

After veggie burritos at the hugely popular Lock 29 street eating stalls for lunch there’s a tough pedal up the long hill out of Banbury over hedge cuttings (which will lead to many punctures, although fortunately not for me until the day after this ride) and by estates of new housing. Eventually we’re rewarded with a stretch of broad road with 60 or 70 mile views to the east and west. On this bright autumn October day, it is a completely beautiful landscape. The cars keep whizzing past, but there aren’t too many and distractions include side noises of a fox hunt and then to my companion Anne’s delight the sighting of a campervan sales centre. She hops off to send selfies by their King Campervan sign to her family, which results in a flurry of excited WhatsApp back.

Roadside attraction on Day2 with suitably autumnal mushrooms. (c) NB

Road works
The afternoon pedal is a real joy. We’re into Warwickshire and the landscape and villages are just so perfect…. Until we hit the temporary road signs directing construction traffic for the HS2 railway. What a mess this is: infrastructure that will get travellers from London to the Midlands faster at a cost of at least £22 billion more than the original budget. HS2’s website is convinced the project will create the world’s most environmentally friendly station (see the virtual tour and signs outside Euston) and is tackling climate change… but that’s hard for me to understand. Where it’s being built across the countryside, the place looks an unfinished mess of mud. Near Leamington Spa there’s a plaque put up to the spot where the 300-year-old Hunningham oak was felled. At least 29 hectares of ancient woodland, around 80 football pitches, (though campaigners say this is an under-estimate) have been cleared and there are barriers everywhere behind which diggers stalk the skyline. 

It’s also difficult to understand the scale of this project, but it brings home the need for anyone without a financial stake in it to be offering an alternative vision of sustainable green jobs. With so much focus on the world's rising temperature and the climate crisis there should be no projects that either continue to make use of fossil fuels (especially coal mines in Cumbria or Cambo oil in Shetland) or that destroy biodiversity (road and train track construction) allowed to go ahead. On this bike ride we do use quite a few national cycle routes, but most are repurposed train lines, invariably closed by Beeching in the 1950s, which is rather different to arrow-straight new built roads/rail that split up this bit of the countryside from that bit.

It’s 5pm and Anne, riding in front, points up and east towards a surprise rainbow. There’s no rain, it’s just an arch of colours dominating the valley as we come out of Stoneleigh. it's also where we are joined by Craig on his electric cargo bike. Craig is on a mission to get more people in the NHS using e-bikes. All too soon we’re on the edge of urban: there’s an airport, and an ensemble of newly-built roads taking us up the hill to Coventry. One of the road bridges has a line of healthy-looking reeds growing on it, probably by happenstance rather than an attempt to make a New York High-Line. Our destination is the Tin Theatre in Coventry’s canal basin where a curry dinner is promised, but first we have to do a loop past the famously bombed-out cathedral arriving just as the sun sets and turns the empty window arches into a perfect frame for conversation.

City centre Coventry has had a big pedestrian push, although cars are still flowing through it. There’s also good signage, a Medieval street to enjoy and in one of the open shopping centres a children’s playground is the central attraction. I’ll be stopping here – on a good note today. I'm feeling tired but satisfied, and proud of the porridge power that’s taken me so many miles. I don’t feel sweaty or too stiff either which just goes to show that maybe a short cycle ride from home or a tube station/bus stop to work might be pretty easy to do if you’ve never tried it before. Especially if you can use an e-bike.

What happens next?

My two days with these cyclists may have come to an end but like them I’ll keep talking about ways anyone can tackle their carbon emissions, just by making a pledge on the Do Nation site. 

Not making the whole route has a strange parallel with the way the COP26 meeting is going. Governments want to do the right thing but are distracted by costs, political alignments and popularity. In the same way I’ve stopped for personal reasons: keen to save on hotel bills and then distracted by being so close to a friend who lives nearby and has been having a tough time. Climate change hasn’t gone away. But I’ve stepped away from it for a moment.

UPDATE: Or rather I stepped right into it as amber (danger to life) weather warnings for the north of England from the Met Office - and nine flood warnings and 15 flood alerts from the Environment Agency - meant that my attempt to take a pre-booked train on Thursday from the Midlands up to Edinburgh was stopped. For years people wouldn't link weather with the climate crisis, but now it is likely that as the temperature rises we will see more, and more intense storms. As a train user all I knew was that f]rom early morning on 28 October, Avanti had nothing running beyond Preston, or was it Carlisle? Information for train users not logged on to Twitter was unclear, other than the "service was in chaos" thanks to "landslides", "floods" and even "faults on the train" (I think the latter was a PR damage limitation sentence). All that time the intrepid all-the-way-to-Glasgow cyclists were battling through vast amounts of rain, and flooding to keep to their schedule and get to Kelvingrove Park for the Saturday morning marches on 30 October. Meanwhile I gave up going North at Crewe, found a train back to Coventry, unlocked my bike and then took another train South back to London. It is sobering that my 134.5 mile, two day route to Coventry can be done in just an hour on the train.

Regardless of our level of climate action (or activism) there will be times when we can’t keep up the pace. And that’s OK. But after we’ve taken that breather, we need to come back to the original plan and make more and better changes that will help us all tackle climate change.

The world will be judging how the COP26 meeting goes, just as it did for Copenhagen (fail) and Paris (success). We all hope that keeping the temperature below a 1.5C temperature will be possible. We want country plans (the NDCs) for 2030, 2040 and even 2050 to be achievable and are perhaps getting our heads around the way this will mean living life differently. We  need our governments to commit in word and deed (cash!) to climate justice and intergenerational justice – and they may all manage that. But first we need to rejig our economy so fossil fuel energy comes to a stop. And that is probably the hardest of all future tasks because life is going to look very different in just a few years’ time whether we aim for zero carbon or keep on stalling on real action. Whatever route the COP26 takes us, good luck to us all.

 A special thank you to Anna Hughes, Anne Dixon and Pete May as well as the Ride The Change group.


·      * Support Ride the Change: cycle to COP26 with a small eco action (or more) which cuts your carbon emissions. You have to make an account so that in two months time you can confirm that you did what you promised! Pledge via https://www.wearedonation.com/en-gb/businesses/ride-the-change-to-cop26/campaigns/nicola-baird-ride-the-change/pledges/create/featured/?fbclid=IwAR0XPkgSdjPtN5P5kHN28KIbPSgGEadjo2NCbb7I9Jlutx_nu1QwcAGKUlM Or make your own at www.wearedonation.com

* Ride the Change is a collaboration between Possible, Do Nation, Adventure Uncovered, Brake the Cycle and Arup with headline sponsor Abel & Cole, silver sponsor Symprove and bronze sponsors, Cayley Coughtrie and AECOM. This is the biggest ride that Do Nation and Adventure Uncovered have ever organised and people from the NHS, Arup, Unilever, AECOM, C-Capture, Leap Eco, CRA, Anthesis, Abel & Cole, Brompton and Lego will be joining legs of the journey as well. 

·      * Brake the Cycle runs www.adventureuncovered.com

·      *Pledge to be flight free (for 2020, for your holidays, for life) at https://flightfree.co.uk #flightfree2020






Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Conversation by elephants: from Green Park to green thinking


Stories and ideas inspired by the lantana elephant herd in Green Park, London which are modelled on Indian elephants and made by indigenous craftspeople in Asia. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

The lantana elephant herd moves through Green Park: amazing activism art (c) NB

The elephant herd in Green Park look as if they are flowing across the park out of the tube and down the hill to Buckingham Palace. Randomly cycling to explore central London with my university colleague Gracia we are both amazed to stumble on to an art safari. 

We’ve covered no air miles, read no hype but are utterly awe-struck by the size of the herd. Each elephant is individually sculpted from lantana, a rattan-like material which a volunteer in a hi-vis vest explains is an invasive weed, despoiling habitats. Lighten our footprint and wildlife bounces back says Coexistence which put up the project for https://elephant-family.org/ 

Trunk detail on the lantana herd. (c) NB

It’s clear these models are made by people who know how to look deeply. Each elephant seems to be moving. There are calves, bigger youngsters and grand old dams. In total “there are 72 elephants and they’ll be in Green Park until 23 July,” says a dreadlocked security guard who has managed to luck out with a job that involves walking around a hard to steal set of exhibits, currently moored outside under the trees of Green Park. Gracia and I wander slowly noticing lifted forefeet, curled trunks, swishing tails… We are all-seeing in this famous park deliberately planted with open vistas by Henrietta so that her famously-philandering husband Charles II had less opportunity for liaisons – though he still managed to have at least 100 illegitimate children. “Deforested for surveillance,” suggests Gracia which seems a remarkably 21st century approach. Restoration was nearly 400 years ago so no surprise that Green Park has a decent spread of avenues now, as befits a national park city like London. And it is down one of these big tree lined avenues that the elephant herd is progressing, attended by curious visitors. 

The project run by Elephant Family is called Coexistence and has an intriguing aim – to get watchers to share their stories and an attempt to reboot our nature understanding. “This isn’t a call for an extreme return to the wild. Look around you, wherever you are. Who do you share your world with? Can we increase our coexistence everywhere, and rewild ourselves. Nature is intelligent and adapting. Other life forms will meet our efforts halfway, if only we give them the chance,” writes Coexistence on the website. 

The elephants are made by craftspeople from the Tamil Nadu jungle who clearly know the way elephants move. These magnificent creatures in Green Park look as if they are walking towards tea with the Queen – trunks swinging confidently. Of course, they’re not: these are artworks on tour and also for sale raising funds for elephant protection – a baby is £6,000; adolescent £12,500 and the 7.5x12x4 foot matriarch £22,000. 

Messages from the elephant in the room - Green Park (c) NB

For years the term “elephant in the room” has bumped around environmentalists conversations as they talked biodiversity loss, population pressure and a warming planet at meetings they’d flown to. An elephant has become such a signifier of these types of reluctance to address the big picture that spotting this herd immediately makes me think they are there to raise awareness about climate change. And in fact they will be, as those not sold are taking a detour to Glasgow to help support the COP26 climate meeting run by the UN in early November. They will certainly cheer up this vital meeting. You can read more about elephants and climate change on the Coexistence blog, see https://elephant-family.org/news-views/news/what-do-elephants-have-to-do-with-climate-change/ 

Elephant stories
For almost all of us, elephants inspire us to share stories: our encounters on TV (thank you David Attenborough) or real life, our efforts to save them, our funny moments. In the 1970s I remember re-reading my little brother the story of the Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont whose elephant and tiny passenger went “rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta down the road”. I always felt sorry for the Bad Baby - who was definitely tricked by the Manners Police – but also for my brother whose only experience with elephants was via these Raymond Briggs’ illustrations. In contrast I’d spent my summer as a three-year-old being used as a toddler honeytrap by our entrepreneur Dad. 

Let's think and move like an elephant. Nicola posing by one
of the lantana herd at Green Park.

Dad had acquired a life-size mechanical elephant (built in Essex and named Jessica) which could take people for rides. He’d get me on to this giant’s back to either pose for the press or encourage other families to climb aboard. I was quite a scowly little girl, but I liked being in the corner seat behind my dad on top of an elephant. He’d dress up as an elephant handler when he operated the controls, no doubt crossing his fingers that the licence plate the DVA insisted was attached to Jessica’s tail wouldn’t fall off and ruin the looks-like-a-real-elephant spell. Fun as she was, his mechanical elephant soon became a liability. She triumphed on Blue Peter then fell through the floor at Whiteleys department stores near Paddington. She was destined for Republican fundraising in the US (from an animal motif point of view Republicans are elephants and Democrats donkeys) but storms delayed the ship, so she never made it. Like my family’s car she’d regularly break down and was super hard to fix. My Dad worked from home and it wasn’t unusual for random telephone callers to begin, “It’s about an elephant…” During peak elephant crises he began to avoid the phone. The last known sighting was rumoured to be on a Birmingham allotment. My Dad died more than two decades ago but my Mum says if you happen to have news about an unusual elephant she’s not interested! 

Slowly memories of my elephant life drifted away. Then in 2000* I visited a friend in Zimbabwe and just near the garden of the Victoria Falls hotel the taxi we were using came to a halt as a herd emerged from scrubby trees and crossed the road. Their big feet didn’t prevent them from moving silently – but they left behind a torn trail of branches. One particular elephant standing apart, with flapping ears, seemed vast: my nearly two-year-old daughter looked at this massive land animal with complete composure. In contrast I felt quite weak: a flesh and blood elephant was a very different beast to poor mechanical Jessica. 

Around the time I was born the world population was 2.7 billion and wilderness accounted for 64% of the world. When you compare this to 2020 the numbers seem to have been put in a shaker and jumbled themselves out of control. World population is now 5.7 billion and inevitably wilderness space has fallen to 46%. It seems amazing in a way that so much is still left. But that’s not how the elephant herds must see it. On the Coexistence website you can find stories of the Indian elephants used as models – Highway Hathis (hathi means elephant in Urdu) who have to constantly cross busy roads and railways and the Crop Raiders on the scavenge for 150kg of food a day. 

Both these herds have at least one human hero who has turned around their chances of survival. For the Highway Hathis this was Sanjay Gubbi who has imposed sanctions (slower vehicle speeds and roads closed at night), whilst for the Crop Raiders it was Dulu who came up with the idea of a buffet barrier rice field between the village and forest.  But it took a community commitment to make the changes happen.

Spending time with the lantana herd in Green Park you can get to know the characters, discuss art, activism and exhibitions. As you stare and snap for social media the volunteers gently engage you in conversation about the elephants. It’s a brilliant way of bringing the elephant in the room – in this case a need to coexist with all wildlife – into our front of brain understanding. Days later I took a train to Ash in Kent to a wedding and at the station, opposite the garage was greeted by a good view of a new Bellway homes construction site, walled by panels and ringed by a busy road. The billboard claimed: ‘Coming soon Wildflower Meadow’ conjuring up images of red poppies and blue cornflowers and not a large, tightly-fitted set of brick houses. 

Message from the lantana elephant herd: “If some people can live with elephants surely we can learn to live with beavers, badgers and bring back our fast vanishing birds and butterflies.”
Could this be possible with these housing complexes built so tightly to main roads? (c) NB

This uncomfortable disconnect between what our ever-expanding population is promised – wildflowers and meadows – and what is coming – crowded brick houses on a road - made me revisit the message the Green Park elephant herd was created to share: “If some people can live with elephants surely we can learn to live with beavers, badgers and bring back our fast vanishing birds and butterflies.” Yes, we surely can follow Coexistence’s message, but to do so, most of us need to look deeply into the way we organise our lives if we want to give those smaller animals and ecosystems a fighting chance for survival. 

When it comes to PR, being a massive elephant has a lot more impact than being a mini-beast. But at least we humans still have the power to make a positive difference. Some suggestions: 
• In the garden leave out food and water for birds and other wildlife; keep all cats indoors at night and never use slug or snail pellets. 
• Getting around aim to use your own steam (walk, scoot or cycle) or public transport. 
• Avoid food waste - farming destroys habitats so it makes sense to at least use and eat what you have bought.
• Measure your carbon footprint and aim to bring it down. There’s a fun measuring site on https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ 

More about this herd and the thinking behind how it is supporting Asia’s wildlife at elephant-family.org The lantana elephants move out of Green Park on 23 July 2021.

*2000- after this trip my family made a commitment to only fly every 10 years and reduce our carbon footprint. I last made a plane flight in 2011. In theory I'd have probably taken a flight in 2021 but for lots of reasons - including my own carbon budget - probably will not. I can't imagine that we'll be behaving just as we do now in 2031, so maybe that's plane trips over for me.

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Switching off in the Lake District - Buttermere

How do you make a place better? Visitors bring in income but they also bring pollution, litter and just by being in a beautiful destination change the place - so how to resolve the travel bug dilemma.Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

In the YHA Buttermere car park (not garden). (c) NB

For the past 23 years I've probably gone to the Lake District at least once a year for an all-too-short week. Last week - in June - I was able to go again, ostensibly to accompany my husband Pete May as he ticks off the final Wainwright mountains. Pete, who wrote Man About Tarn, loves a list. I'm not such a fan - I'd rather do something I like again and again. And usually when that involves walks what i love is to wonder around lakes, ideally without bumping into many people.

Robinson glows in the evening light. What a sunset. (c) NB

So I wasn't feeling very smiley when my plan to get quietly lost on the way to the famous Rannerdale bluebell valley was stymied by many, many competitors hurtling down the fell half way through the 10 in 10 to the midpoint stop at Buttermere. This is an annual mountain race raising funds for MS. This year it started and ended at the Swinside Inn, in the Newlands Valley and took the competitors 16 miles over Causey Pike, Sail, Crag Hill, Wandope, Whiteless Pike, High Snockrigg, Robinson, Dale Head, High Spy and Maiden Moor. As it happens I walked over the low corner of Robinson on the way to Knott Rigg and Ard Craggs and it is massive so I should have been more impressed, well done the fundraisers.

James Rebanks - who farms near Ullswater - has been talking broadly about how the Lake District can cope with so many visitors. It's always had a lot of visitors, but as foreign holidays seem off the agenda it is now also making do for a lot of people. Cars and driving is a major problem, no one wants traffic jams in the countryside, but few visitors seem willing to make use of the buses. In the summer the lakeland buses have a reasonable service (that's how we got from the train at Penrith to Keswick and then on to Buttermere YHA) but a day trip is £11 and most single journeys seem to be around a fiver which soon starts to feel painful. It's definitely a lot more expensive than going by tube or bus around London. But the scenery is fabulous, the 77 or 77a looping from Keswick via Honister mountain pass and slate mine or Whinlatter forest is gorgeous. Possibly the best bus route in the world, though it might have to contend with the 19 in London which hits different sorts of landmarks (Fortnums, Harrods etc).

Buttressing roots on a lime tree by Buttermere. (c) NB

Visitors: let's make some changes
I had plenty of time to think about what could be changed as i wondered around the big, deep lake at Buttermere. Here are some of my ideas. What do you think might work?  I'm back in the Lakes in September, so wouldn't it be nice if something felt different...  

  1. Anyone driving into the Lake District to pay a voluntary pollution fee. I think there could be a "ring of conscience" around the area which once crossed gives the visitors the opportunity to make a donation... They might even find it easier if they are greeted by a real person (paid or volunteering) who is also able to give some helpful advice about whatever Lake District activity they plan to do from wild swimming to red squirrel spotting.
  2. Anyone holidaying in the Lake District to spend one day of their time off volunteering for the National Park or even the National Trust (in whatever way is appropriate, eg, directing parking, picking up litter, nature observation etc). If we could be trusted I'd say make us do some wall fixing too, but that is definitely best left to experts...
  3. YHA and all other residentials to be super clear about how they can be reached using public transport. Anyone who travels via public transport to be given some kind of reward (the bedroom with the view, the nicest table, discounts, whatever appropriate). It still shocks me how YHA has become a place for older people who invariably drive. I know times change, and June is not the school holidays but most YHA visitors could probably pay more than they do, so maybe ask them to pay more for driving, at least that way they might consider sharing lifts.
  4. What about if each Lakeland village had some electric bikes which people could use to get to the start of walks? This might be incredibly difficult to organise but maybe existing bike hire set ups, like E-venture bikes in Keswick could be funded to scope the idea or help match routes to all those many people trying to climb the 214 Wainwright mountains.
  5. Another sign said 3 lambs had been
    killed by dogs, don't make it 4.

    And ALL dogs on leads. It is heartbreaking to see how many people can't be bothered to do this, and how much it upsets the Lake District sheep and farmers. There needs to be fines (even for the cute fluffy dogs). And/or offer a basic dog training check at every car park (or bus stop).
  6. Cottage renting businesses should provide info about how their places can be reached using public transport and not defaulting to "left off the A something or rather"... This would be a great paid intern job for some of the University of Cumbria or even nearby Lancaster Unviersity students. And perhaps they could be paid by the vehicle tithe?
  7. I know there are more EV charging spots in the UK than most of us think there are. Perhaps they could be better publicised so people with EVs could make use of them on holiday.
  8. But the point for me is that holiday is a time you are wanting a change and the biggest might be stepping out of a car and going a bit slower in order not to choke the place you are visiting with traffic.
Hiking around Crummock Water - the road dominates the other side. (c) NB

Sad, sad situation
So many ash in the Lake District are marked up with red numbers.
I don't know what this code means but the area is clearly suffering
badly from ash disease die-back. (c) NB

  1. At Buttermere we met a National Trust warden who was spraying ominous codes on to the ash trees that are very obviously failing to thrive. I'd been picking up litter on the fells (interestingly always worse when you near a car park) but he said it was in 2020 during lockdown when things got really bad - he'd found 68 (I think) abandoned tents in the woods and people had also left litter and all sorts of equipment. Apparently this had inspired the locals to start litter picking and plogging (jogging and picking up litter) so a big thank you to them. But some of the Lake District councils (like Allendale) don't seem to recycle properly but at the same time covid precautions and so many visitors means there is inevitably more litter. 
  2. As for tissue behind gorse bushes, on the fells, in the woods... What is wrong with people?! You don't need paper for outdoor wees. No one is going to want to pick up soggy urinated tissue so if you plan to make use of toilet paper in the outdoors then you need to think like serious US hikers who either dig in their waste or even better carry it out (in tupperware).
  3. Blowing serviettes aren't so lovely either, I think it would be great if these simply weren't provided when you get a cuppa. If you need to wipe your face and hands, either wash... or get up and go and find a napkin. But this is a small matter compared to visitor numbers.
  4. We have zero carbon targets for 2030 and 2050 which o the strength of this particular visit seem unattainable - so unattainable that McDonalds at Penrith provides all its drinks and meals in containers that will be chucked out within about 15 minutes of being bought and yet they claim to have "an aspiration to be a zero waste business". Haha.
  5. And finally: in the Lakes there are still people who need foodbanks, and there are people who are shipping in food and not needing to eat it all before they leave. Is there some way of coordinating the half peanut butter jars and still good veg? Could the tourists cook up something delicious if coordinated by a mutual aid inspired local?
What I've failed to consider is methods of farming - or shopping and eating. I find a holiday is always expensive and I do have a budget for that. It would be good to eat more local things, made more locally. This time I didn't go into Booths or look around many of the shops in either Keswick or Penrith so I'm not sure what's on offer. But I did try a lot of very tasty locally made pies: delicious!

I've just realised that I had time to think broadly about this issue because I couldn't get wifi or phone service as much as normal. I can see that might be super frustrating for locals, but I think it helped me last week. Thank you Lake District residents for letting us visit, what a beautiful place you so kindly share.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Taking my bike out with Hidden Tracks: brilliant fun

With microadventures and staycations in vogue (OK by necessity!) how about going for a guided tour of your area? By joining up with Hidden Tracks for a sunny Friday guided bike ride Nicola Baird and her friend (Nicky) had a brilliant cycle adventure. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

Nicky, Nicola and Charlie at our start and stopping point: Crystal Palace.
We'd just cycled 20 miles - it was brilliant! (NB)

IN A NUTSHELL: Charlie Codrington has turned his passion for all things bike into a cycle tour business that makes navigating hidden tracks around London super simple. Join Hidden Tracks if you want someone else to figure out the routes – and if it’s wanted gain some new cycle skills. After so long not seeing friends this is the perfect excuse to gather a group for one of his rides. You’ll have a new adventure together and finish with explorers’ stories of views, woods, parks, that cracking flapjack pitstop or pub lunch – all not so far from London.
By the bluebells on a Hidden Tracks cycle adventure. (c) NB

However good you are at exploring on your bike, the indulgent way to enjoy a long new route is to book a guided tour. Fail to do this and if you’re like me you’ll just get lost or spend the journey with your eyes fixed to the phone map clamped to your handlebars listening to that voice suggesting you “do a U-turn”. 

After a long winter and months of lockdown, anticipating a day cycling ought to be a treat – and that’s why booking with Hidden Tracks is a winner. If I hadn’t I’d have spent sleepless nights worrying that I was going to spend my big day out cycling lost or trapped on a busy A road because despite having lived in London for 30 years I don’t know south London’s green spaces at all. Charlie, 57, has promised me a 20 mile(ish) tour full of bluebells which absolutely delivers. I am going to be cycling to the Surrey/Kent borders which frankly seems mission impossible. But first, I have to get my very regular commuter bike to Crystal Palace station. Luckily this was easy – as it’s legal to take your bike on this overground link between north and south London on weekdays before 7.30am, between 9.30am-4pm, after 7pm and any time at the weekend. Charlie and my friend Nicky have already stoked up on a coffee so soon we are on our way. Within 15 minutes I’ve seen the famous model dinosaurs in Crystal Palace park, a stretch of the lost Croydon canal in Betts Park and a reclaimed community playground accessed through colourfully painted railings. Next stop: bluebells. 

Charlie Codrington is a cycle guide and cyclo-cross competitor who
helps groups of friends/families of all abilities enjoy
longer off-road explores. See what he offers on
the Hidden Tracks website.

Charlie, a veteran cyclist, has spent hours speeding around Herne Hill velodrome, on cyclo-cross courses (CX) and is riding his favourite CX bike. Within seconds it is quite clear to him that we’ve never heard of CX or gravel bikes, and have rather basic cycling skills. To be fair I’ve had lessons in all sorts: piano, pilates, yoga, riding horses, paddleboarding and driving a car but no one has ever given me any instruction on how to ride a bike… 

Turns out that skills rides are Charlie’s speciality. He’s a qualified British Cycling Coach for cyclo-cross, mountain bikes (MTB), road and time trial and has years of experience coaching kids, teenagers and his Dulwich Paragon team mates at the Herne Hill Velodrome. If we wanted he’d be able to show us how to ride over rocks. In fact, there’s quite an appetite for extra cycle skills thanks to events like the Rapha sessions. A few days before he’d just taken out four keen women (all in their 30s) whose summer holiday will be a Rapha adventure from Edinburgh to Manchester crossing the Pennines mostly off-road. “Rapha just give you a route and you follow it,” says Charlie. “They were strong women road cyclists, faster than me probably, and they thought it would be easy-peasy to ride a gravel bike. Anyone can ride a bike off road, provided the route is fairly straightforward. But as soon as you start putting in slightly bigger lumps and obstacles, it’s hard work - you get nervous and wheels keep slipping away. If you belt it then you get punctures. It’s a different technique to riding on road – you need to get off the saddle, float and ride lightly. You need to move your body around the bike and use the gears in a different way. You can spot a good off-roader – it’s just technique. Lots of people discover their technique is lacking when they’ve bought a gravel bike and just get mullered before they realise they need to some coaching. When you are shown how to ride properly people love it.” 

I'm on the stepping stones at this point - cycle guide Charlie Codrington from Hidden Tracks
and my friend Nicky patiently wait. 

I hadn’t quite grasped how off-road an adventure with Hidden Tracks can be (though Easy and Moderate rides are still super doable with an ordinary bike). If I’d read the website a bit more closely, I’d have known. Charlie’s also a committee member of Dulwich Paragon and runs their off-road club which attracts about 20 riders in every race. This is clearly a big deal, and though Charlie has won many races, cyclo-cross races are followed by just a small band. Charlie laughs about his competitive nature in the veteran classes where glory comes with tiny amounts of prize money, often less than a tenner.

“You are fighting to beat someone who you don’t know terribly well in a sport that no one is interested in, but you spend most of your week thinking about it,” he says with a massive grin. It’s clear that this is a classic, eccentric British pursuit. 

But it was Charlie’s regular fun group rides created for his cycling club that have helped take him on a new career as a cycle tour guide. Together with his canny ability to navigate by what seems like instinct, although has clearly seen serious study of maps and apps back home. 

In March 2021 he launched Hidden Tracks with a calendar of adventure rides to help cyclists of all abilities, using their regular bikes, explore routes out of London mostly off-road and often through woods. Popular cycle routes include bluebell woods, wild garlic woods, tours to palaces (Hampton Court) and out to the woods of Epping. His easiest rides, mainly flat, include a City church crawl, a chance to explore the Wandle flats. His favourite is the Tidal Time Traveller which includes a cable car and then hugs the River Thames. “It’s a sight-a-second, a great ride and you can do it on Boris bikes,” he says so enthusiastically I’m a bit worried our planned bluebell ride through the woods will be diverted. 

London may always be the starting point for Charlie’s rides - it's where he lives - but it’s clear that woods are his favourite cycling habitat. “Let’s see what’s down this hole,” ought to be this cycling explorer’s catchphrase as he launches his mountain bike CHECK into the deep woods to lead Nicky and me along miles of winding bridlepaths and byways. This brings some cycling challenges to those of us who haven’t spent years off-roading, but Charlie coaches us through that. Better still it also takes us away from the traffic so there’s a chance to spot jays, bluebells, and not far from Croydon a flurry of yellow brimstone butterflies. The big carpets of wood anemones are especially exciting to see as they are an indicator that we are cycling through ancient woodland (anorak tip: these wildflowers spread just six feet every 100 years). 

Looking at the A-Z there is no way I’d have been able to link up these routes, it needs insider knowledge. As for an app, forget it – winding woodland paths do not take you where you want to go. Charlie’s original plan was to book lunch at The White Bear in Fickles Hole, as a midway break our 20 mile round trip that took us right to the Surrey/Kent/Croydon border, but it was such a sunny day that we decided instead to picnic in the woods. Knowing his clients may not be used to so much exercise Charlie provided delicious homemade flapjacks and fudge in a beautifully wrapped package. This was also a clever sweet treat as it definitely stopped my energy levels flagging on the return ride home. 

Lunch was also a good chance to chat. Charlie trained as a cabinet maker then moved into furniture design, mostly designing children’s furniture for retailers large and small. He’s got some interesting memories of the last days of the furniture trade in Hackney. “Hoxton was the centre of the furniture world and that’s changed beyond recognition – it’s all fancy pants now,” he says as we munch. “At the end of the 1980s I was working for an art gallery in Knightsbridge and went to a house in Hoxton Square where they made horrible repro furniture including occasional tables to sit by the sofa. It was Dickensian: the veneer man was self-employed working in the cellar with just two lightbulbs, like a troglodyte. The man who did the turning was self-employed and like all the others working in the building he only ever made one part for this table. Crispins, was an old veneer place in Curtain Row that used to be fabulous. There’d be piles of veneer and it used to smell absolutely gorgeous. I could buy 10 leaves of veneer and roll it up and take it home.” 

Lockdown helped Charlie figure out the best routes for Hidden Tracks Cycling. But lockdown also saw him making use of his cabinet making skills with a nod to the endless hours that had to be spent at home rather than on the cyclo-cross track. “I bid £75 for a mechanical clock mover from 1710 as I’ve always wanted to make a long case clock. My target was to make it in the same way an early 18th century casemaker make it. They wouldn’t have had many tools, but they would have had a lot of pine,” says Charlie. The end result is intentionally plain smartened up as he’s, “fake ebonised it with black charcoal-coloured paint adding gilt detail.” 

As if that wasn’t enough Changing Rooms overhaul, he then redid his Brixton home’s downstairs loo where the clock now lives. “My wife Sarah asked me to make it look like Versailles, but I was too mean to buy the gold – which is very expensive - so used Dutch metal to gild the mirrors. Now it looks garish, like a 1930s Pall Mall club,” says Charlie with some pride. 

With this kind of practical skill set you can guess Charlie services his own bikes and he’s getting quite a collection now, all stored inside. “Five bikes are mine, but that’s not really enough,” he admits and then remembers his family’s bikes. “OK. We’ve got eight or nine in the front parlour, as it would have been known in Victorian days, but really this is now a bike shed and a workshop for my gilding and clock making!” 

Bespoke Hidden Tracks snacks.

After a fat sandwich, the famous flapjacks and a banana we sped off after Charlie, arriving back at Crystal Palace with enough time to take our bikes on the overland before rush hour. 

Highlights of the trip - besides those bluebells which are out from mid April to mid May - included lambs, oil seed rape starting to burst into its yellow splendour, discovering the River Beck and seeing signposts that tell cyclists they can get to Gatwick off-road (that’s a challenge!). Although my post-ride memory is of an endless whizz past trees starting to unfurl their leaves Charlie’s route does go also include zipping through Lewisham, then Bromley, skirting Croydon via a couple of legal doglegs across the Croydon tram tracks taking us past industrial estates and woods until we reach Surrey’s country lanes. 

Charlie and Nicky ready to try a challenging downhill spot. On Hidden Tracks you can choose easy, moderate or difficult routes, all guided by Charlie Codrington. He also offers skills sessions.

At this point London proper is somewhere behind us but I’ve completely lost my navigational compass. Instead I’m learning some off-road cycling skills which Charlie tactfully fed to me when needed. I remember trying to lean forward and stand up when going up a hill for instance, and something similar when going down too. Another good tip was to stay soft on the bike (to avoid your body jarring) and to use the seat as an armchair… By the time we’re back in Betts Park I’m able to take my hands off the handlebars and keep pedalling – a lifetime’s ambition. 

Before you set out Charlie’s advice is to have a well-serviced bike and bring a spare inner tube. Don’t skip this tip as it would be such a shame to have to walk your magnificent machine home! Charlie is respectful of his clients, but wisely did a quick run-over my bike before we began our monster pedal to check that the brakes were working. I was glad he did, as I definitely needed them on some of the steeper downhills in the woods of south London. He also carries a bike repair pack and first aid kit. 

Overall: this was a fabulous ride and adventure. I will definitely book with my family to get another guided tour. It took my daily cycle ride to a totally different level and was such a joy to be mostly away from traffic (there is some road riding but after the woods that was almost a treat as tarmac is blissfully smooth).  

Please note that I went on a cycle ride as a guest of Hidden Tracks Cycling without paying the fee. All copy is the opinion of Around Britain No Plane.

  1. Do you need a special bike or clothes? Not for the shorter blue (easy) and green (medium) routes. Any bike will do. Long routes are going to be much more fun wearing padded cycle shorts although I pitched up in jeans which probably wasn’t too bright even if non specialist wear isn’t essential. 
  2. How hard is the cycling? I was a commuter cyclist but never go much further than 40 minutes so my feedback for a Hidden Tracks ride is that it was easily doable on a well-serviced bike with gears. I cycle quite slowly and I did walk up a couple of hills that Charlie steamed up, so it makes sense to organise a group of like-minded friends so you’re not the one always waiting or pedalling like crazy to catch up. Overall the route was fun and not loaded with climbs – my memory is of lots of downhill and flat sections, nicely found by our guide. Although my cycling companion is a keen runner, she was surprised by how far we went and said she’d slept very soundly that night. 
  3. What next? My ambition is to join Charlie for an off-road route of around 70 miles from London to Brighton across the Sussex Downs. This would need a mountain bike and riders to be super cycle fit. I also want to join a Friday skills session which look a lot of fun.