What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Maybe it's time to learn a little Chinese?

This blog is about low-carbon family travel. Staying home shouldn't be a barrier to getting prepared for meeting people. Here Nicola Baird considers whether to challenge the family to take a few Chinese lessons with the aid of a new Mandarin book.

In my house language is learnt via the washing up sink - the moment I put on my rubber gloves on goes a different radio channel. For the past few months the dishes have been soaped, scrubbed and rinsed to a lot of terrible French pop music. Perhaps it's time for a change?

Learning Mandarin has never been top of my to do list - but I do like celebrating the Chinese New Year and in 2015 it will be Thursday, 19 February (when the honours go to the goat.) Perhaps there's time for me - and the kids - to learn a few phrases by then? It'd be fun to listen to people greeting each other in China Town or start to hear the words used at a Chinese restaurant.

If you love to eat delicious Chinese food (pork and fish in this pic) isn't it just courtesy
 to have a go learning a few words as well as how to use chopsticks? 
As a friend, Elinor Greenwood, has recently written a book to get children learning Chinese maybe I should give her language lessons a go? I like the way they are described as "fun" and "easy". As for the stickers and app that it comes with, well they'll be a great way to ensure my daughters join in too...

You can order Fun and Easy Chinese from Amazon.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The big poppy row: remembering World War One 1914-1918

This blog is about low-carbon family travel. After visiting the Tower of London's ceramic poppy field I wanted to find out if this type of public art has a useful effect on my 13 year old daughter. If you like a quick read, then the answer is yes. Here's why...

888,246 poppies to remember the British & colonial servicemen who died during World War One.
In early November volunteers cleaning up a canal in Mile End - London's East End - found an unexploded World War 2 (1939-45) grenade. Debbie Vidler from the Canal & River Trust gave the BBC a marvellous quote:
"We often find weird and wonderful things in the bottom of canals. Today we discovered numerous shopping trolleys, bicycles, mobile phones... but we were not expecting to find a 70-year-old unexploded bomb..."
It's the unexpected that brings history closer, and although it's 100 years since the carnage of World War 1 (1914-18) began, its effect lingers on just like that other war's unexploded bomb.

I've been to see the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London (more a cycle past type of salute) as have tens of thousands of people. It seems to be something non-Londoners feel compelled to do. Indeed most of my Hertfordshire-based family have come up for a look and my brother organised for our great-grandfather Mervyn Hamilton's name to be read out before the last post was sounded. He died of his wounds after one of the early battles.

Names of lost servicemen at the Menin Gate

Looking over Ypres's oddly shaped square towards the Menin Gate.
As part of an effort to make sure my children's history is wide-reaching during the summer we went to Ypres in Belgium (by train). There's an amazing museum in the rebuilt Cloth Hall called In Flanders Field. It caters for multi-languages, all ages and interest in WW1 - but in particular the dead relatives from that war who come from everywhere and from every side. The Allies may have won the battle, but like the Germans the impact of the war had fearful emotional repercussions on many Europeans - and many others too. For those who lost a father or uncle or brother or husband that impact trickles down the generations. And so many did: there were 37 million military and civilian casualties.

At the Menin Gate - where the last post is played at 8pm every night - there are 1,000s of names inscribed into the pale Bath stone. All the names are of servicemen who were unable to be buried because their bodies were never recovered - something my 13-year-old found hard to understand (thankfully). It's chilling.

And that's what the poppies are not.

The poppies at the Tower of London make you glad to be alive. They are a beautiful red carpet put together by craftsman to make (hopefully) a temporal art work that has got us all thinking about WW1's anniversary.

"I found it really pretty and a great way to remember the one's that didn't make it," said Nell who went with her Dad to the Tower to have a look on a very rainy Sunday during half-term. A mix of activities have helped her understand the war far better than I did at her age. She's performed in a school production of Oh What A Lovely War!, has already been to Ypres (by train) and is due a school trip (by coach) to the battle fields of the Somme soon. She is also reading a proper page turner (historical romance for teenagers, although I loved it too) called Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens.

Now politicians are calling for the display to last a little bit longer than 11 November, Armistice Day. I guess it's a win for the MPs as the poppies will surely take as long to remove as they did to install. This is a proper crowd-sourced project that has spread far further than the Royal British Legion's fundraising efforts. As an art work I don't like it much - far too saccharine for a war memorial, but as craftsmanship I rate it and as a way of getting so many of us talking about World War 1 I think it's been sheer genius.

What do you think?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Book review: Don't Even Think About It - why our brains are hardwired to ignore climate change by George Marshall

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This is a book review of climatologist George Marshall's newest work, Don't Even Think About It. George has written a short piece about why climate change is the perfect crime - we all contribute but there doesn't seem to be a motive here.  His book is a must read - and the chapters are short. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
People walk on by between London's iconic St Paul's and the Tate Modern art gallery, ignoring a UN exhibition by the wobbly bridge trying to raise awareness about the thousands of people who will become climate refugees as the global temperature keeps warming.

As a family we used to discuss climate change a lot. But I’ve noticed that since we got our terrace house somewhat into energy-efficiency order – with the insulation and the better boiler - we’ve parked the climate change conversation. When we daydream about our kids being grown up we don’t factor in what a 4 degrees C rise in temperature might mean.

Admittedly my family has developed some good use habits, but what we’ve done less of is trying to pull people along with us. Who wants to be told to turn their lights off, stop driving to school or forego the half term flight for a well-earned mini-break with their kids? Not many people that’s for sure.  They probably didn’t like reading it either. A fact the climate deniers have expertly exploited.

Don't Even Think About It by George Marshall.
Don’t Even Think About It: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, £20 hardcover, also paperback and Kindle) out 9 October 2014 is a force field of ideas about how to get people doing something about climate change. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dont-Even-Think-About-It/dp/1620401339

In Don’t Even ThinkAbout It he moves on the intriguing image in his earlier book Climate Detox about your evil carbon twin – the person living over the road from you, whose profligate use of fossil fuels makes even the smallest cut-backs or energy saving you do seem utterly pointless.  This time he presents the cultural, psychological – and business reasons – Americans, Australians, Norwegians, British people, etc, are addicted to fossil fuels and so good at blocking talk about our wicked climate problem.  It’s evolution stupid. 

Marshall asks why when so many know climate change is happening (except a few active deniers) do us creative humans do nothing as if we are stalled in the headlights? Why do we have faith in climate talks that keep failing? Why do we justify our own plane travel use? Why does telling people that saving the planet also saves them cash turn out to be such an unpopular message?

“If global warming were caused by eating puppies, millions of Americans would be massing in the streets.” Do you agree? 
Early in the book Marshall answers these questions – showing how humans are hard-wired to ignore climate change. We understand the house burning down, but understate threats to our existence. To prove his point he quotes one interviewee saying, “If global warming were caused by eating puppies, millions of Americans would be massing in the streets.” Plenty of Brits might join them. Yet the best green organisations have done so far to help people visualise the climate change as a proper threat is to imagine a world as “if carbon dioxide was purple”.

I know Marshall, so anticipated environmental communicators would get a good bashing – especially advocates of lifestyle solutions. Turns out environmentalists – and their polar bear-laced imagery - aren’t trusted by anyone but… environmentalists. This is a point Naomi Klein also makes in her new book on climate change and capitalism, This Changes Everything.

My daughter and friend at the September 2014 climate march in London. Lots of people get climate change - but most don't. George Marshall's new book helps explain why, and how to make the crisis real for a human brain that's hardwired to ignore climate change.
Eco-bunnies will have to grit their teeth because we know Marshall’s points are correct. He’s been worrying about climate communications for much of his working life and thus writes with considerable authority, all the while allowing his esoteric interests to pop out. He loves architecture and has 1000s of comic books. If there’s room for a saucy joke he’ll make it. The result is a book that ought to be a dry telling off – the ‘are you doing enough?’ – yet it is utterly the opposite. It inspires you to do more, in a different way.

Don’t Even Think About It succeeds by dragging psychology into the mix. Once the readers understand how this effects our actions Marshall takes us along to meet top ranking climate scientists, all sorts of opinion makers (including faith leaders) plus fossil fuel communication specialists (and other deniers). The result is a positivity manual – something you do not get reading Klein’s book.

Although Marshall saves it for the back chapter (an impressive bit of editorial control), the info that a 40C  increase in global temperature will lead to such out of control climate change that people will die and species will go extinct is probably understood by many of the intended readers.

So what’s to be done? Two key solutions are suggested. One’s to tackle the actual industries causing the fossil fuel pollution, rather than focusing campaign or legislative attention on the tailpipe gases all that burning releases.

Climate campaigners: it's time to get out of that polar bear outfit.
The other is to let real people - rather than scientists, who so love their graphs, or browbeating campaigners with their polar-bear-gets-it pictures - talk about what they’ve done when faced with climate change impacts, and how they feel. Marshall lets us grieve for the places and people we love. Then wants us to pick ourselves up and take action again, but differently.

The penultimate chapter on how to get your act together is a bit of a shouty section filled with sentences in upper case. But if you read the whole book then it falls into place as an easy-to-follow memory jogger, which could help revitalise your climate conversation. I am certainly trying. [Yes, I realise this has two meanings!]

This is a must read. It’s funny. It’s serious. It’s important and it stacks up advice by using story telling – most often interviews – to help keep the advice front of our shrew-like skull. So many of us respond to our gut feelings without realising why, shying away from the elephant in the room because that's our programming. There isn’t much we can do: and yet there’s so much. Don’t Even Think About It will help you do it. Best of all Marshall's book empowers you – and me - to think and talk about climate change in more palatable ways.

If you are interested in finding out more – see contacts below. George Marshall is running talks in the UK from October, fresh from a US book tour.
Twitter @climategeorge
Book website 
Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dont-Even-Think-About-It-How-Our-Brains-Ignore-Climate-Change/457763901035475

To buy the book or kindle copy on Amazon visit here.

Over to you
Any thoughts about how to take positive action to tackle climate change? Would you drop the polar bear gets it line? Do you talk to people about climate change, or fear to - and if so why? Or what could you do to change this? And have you read this book yet - did it change the way you approach climate change?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Making a journey an adventure - bikes

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post looks at ways to make a short cycle ride across the city into a mini-adventure. How do you turn a journey into something to enjoy rather than to endure? Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

The start of our ride across London - about 10 miles round trip with an art show at the end. What's not to like about getting some exercise and a sightseeing tour of Bloomsbury, Soho, Trafalgar Square and Westminster? To make it fun we stopped half way for a snack.
Britain's biggest cities have good transport, so because I live in London I don't need a car. However my children are now teenagers and getting to the age when I possibly need to rethink decisions about how to get around. It's hard to learn to drive a car but a licence gives you all sorts of things - confidence, ability to rent a vehicle, possibly even jobs. I notice that lots of professional child-carers in the countryside have to pick kids up from school and then drive them somewhere else for tea or to meet their own families. Maybe when my oldest is 17 she'll be interested in learning to drive and I suspect that is far easier if you are able to pop into mum or dad's car for a practice...

Until then we have the bus and the tube. At 11 and 16 you need a different type of Oyster (zip) card. And at 16 you lose your cheap child fare but can use another discounted card (student rail card) until you are 25 or give up studying. After that the next discount is at 60. I've already noticed an increase in train travel bills, but for my family this was still far cheaper to use intercity trains and the occasional taxi than to either rent or buy a car we only really needed to use for three weeks in the summer.

Taking a long look at a crazy display in a pub window.
But I still want my kids to have a proper sense of direction. Sat Nav will help them if they end up getting behind a wheel, but before then I've been trying to show them how to read landscape and be bold about routes. Finding your own short cut is a strange pleasure however you are travelling. But you can only find shortcuts if you have a feel for where you are going, how the sun lines up or how your city is laid out.

I like to think of journeys as mini adventures, wherever I'm going. Sometimes it's nice to stretch your legs with a quick park detour on the way to the shops. Or you can make it more fun by using a bike and a map to add to your city-map knowledge as you exercise on the way to somewhere that's awkward to get to but an interesting destination, like an art gallery. Last weekend Nell, 13, and I cycled across London to a show at Tate Britain. We used a London cycle map to guide us through the back streets of Westminster, the only bit I was a bit vague about. The route was fantastic - although if you are nervous about traffic it's worth doing your exploring on early Sunday mornings when London is always quieter.

Here's an idea for a book about time travel, written by Pete May in this relevant space and dimension. It's called WHOVIAN DAD: Fandom, Fatherhood & Whovian Family Values.  Definitely funny.

Over to you
How do you encourage your kids to think of a journey as a chance to explore rather than endure?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Thinking about WW1 - home from home and Ypres

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post looks at ways to remember the many people who died in WW1 - especially in the area around Ypres, Belgium. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

My mum sent a sweet email recently to her extended family - siblings, half-siblings, children, grandchildren - letting them know how she was joining into the British Legion's Everyman Remembered campaign:
I have sent a poppy via the British Legion to be placed on the gravestone of our grandfather, Captain Mervyn Hamilton, who is buried in the communal civilian cemetery at Poperinge near Ypres. It will have the following text attached: "From his many grandchildren and great grandchildren - so proud of him and so grateful for the good life that his sacrifice made possible."

My great grandfather, Mervyn Hamilton, was 35 years when he was injured in the first battle near Ypres in Belgium. He was taken to the hospital nearby (i'm guessing this was at Poperinge) and his wife was contacted via a handwritten letter from the nurses to come over and help nurse him.  Then just as she and her sister were about to board the boat to go to him a telegram came - he'd died of his wounds on 28 November 1914.

I'm told that only 16 villages in the UK didn't lose a single person during World War One - certainly most have a war memorial. A hundred years on it's easy to forget that people living in the cities were affected too. But that's changing. Just recently this notice commemorating the huge sacrifice of WW1 went up in Islington where I live. It's 100 years late, yes, but a reminder that back in 1914 cities were often much more like villages. The names on this plaque are of people who were family, or knew each other, played together as kids in this street, or were known by other families in the area. Heartbreaking.

Even in the middle of London you can find memorials to the many men who died during WW1. Sometimes they are crosses in churches or outside a place of worship, sometimes just a laminated list.
Although the Western Front stretched from Belgium across to Switzerland - a colossal distance - some of the bloodiest battles were fought at Ypres in Belgium. Poor Belgium, throughout history it's been used as a battleground for other people choosing to clash on relatively flat, dry land (I'm thinking of the 10,000 men who died in just one day a century before that at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo).

Ypres was an impressive Medieval town with a vast, slightly wonky grand square. However during the course of 1914-1918 it was shelled to bits. There's only one really old house left. The rest are perfect copies of a Medieval town, put up after the war ended.

Looking across from the WW1 museum at Ypres to the Menin Gate (the white arch)
To mark the start of WW1 in August 1914 an exceptional interactive museum explaining WW1 - or at any rate detailing the battles and following the impact these battles had on people - is at Ypres. Flanders Field Museum is an international place switching between English, French, Flemish and German with ease. But all languages seem to be catered for. The overall effect is pretty sad - at just one of the battles of the Somme more than 1,000,000 soldiers died. So many soldiers of every side were young men, many were what we now call teenagers. And the dying was rarely instant. Men were injured by shells or fragments thrown up by the shells or they were left wounded in No Man's Land. Some even drowned in the terrible mud between the trenches. One of the underground mine explosions was so loud it was allegedly heard in London - imagine how many people were killed on both sides when that was detonated?

Any flat, muddy, rain drenched area brings out sympathy - for wheelchair and buggy users as well as the wrongly shod. But as for comparing a muddy park, or a flooded Somerset levels, with Ypres that is just wrong. This was an incomparable hell.

The Menin Gate is a huge memorial to all the British & Commonwealth soldiers
who died in WW1 and whose bodies were not found. Every night at 8pm the Last Post
is played as a memory and a thank you for their sacrifice.
Famously the officers who broke down (unable to speak/move or with terrible nightmares and serious shakes) ended up being treated by Dr Rivers at Craiglockhart in Scotland. There he convinced them that they could get better - and go back to fight. That was the fate of two amazing war poets, Siegfried Sasson and the younger Wilfred Owen (who died). This has been fictionally charted in Pat Barker's Booker-winning anti-war triology, Regeneration. The first book is especially good.

If you are thinking of finding a connection with WW1 and the on-line diaries of soldiers, or the war memorial crosses in villages all over the UK isn't enough, do read Resurgence. It'll certainly help crystalise your feelings about war, long past or now. And that may inspire you to do something that Siegfried Sasson or H G Wells would have approved of.

I'm certainly going to look at the Tower of London's field of ceramic poppies - a vast art work springing up in the moat. Eventually there will be 888,246 one for each British and colonial soldier who died in the war. This is a fundraiser, running from August until 11 November. If you want to buy one of the ceramic poppies for £25 see how here.

Over to you
What battlefields have you been to in the UK that helped you connect with the people caught up in past conflicts? And how did that effect you? Did you have a relative who "fell" during WW1 - what has your family done to commemorate that person?

Monday, 11 August 2014

Try an Ethiopian dish

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post gives you a glimpse of all things Ethiopian in a tiny corner of Finsbury Park in London. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

I've just had a tasty lunch with the talented Ethiopian soul singer Hanisha Solomon. Hanisha was introducing me to proper Ethiopian cuisine so took me to St Gabriel's Restaurant in Finsbury Park - one of several speciality restaurants in the area.

A great restaurant for lunch if you want an Ethiopian dish. Inside on bright pink walls
are paintings and bric-a-brac from Ethiopia. You feel like you've travelled.
Finsbury Park has two Ethiopian restaurants, a butcher and an internet cafe. It's a real meeting point for the Ethiopian diaspora, but what you'll really notice is extremely friendly people. Try saying "Salam" (Hi) when you enter. Here are some other local Ethiopian run businesses (see pix).

Ethiopian butcher and restaurant on Rock Street, N4.

Intriguing shop window at Ethiopian-run internet cafe, Blackstock Road, N4.

The same Ethiopian-run internet cafe, but pictured so you can recognise it.
Hanisha and I ate this tasty collection of mixed vegetables - mostly lentils cooked in a variety of interesting ways and split yellow peas - plus a finely chopped red onion, tomato and chilli salad. The green chilli is stuffed with onions. Every bit of our meal was delicious. I hadn't had injera (a sourdough flatbread) before, or realised it was quite similar in texture to a pancake. Lots of people came in during our meal to buy fresh injera to eat later at home.

This picture doesn't do justice to the food - a few moments later the restaurant owner came over with four tightly rolled injera so the plate was soon crowded with food. Later Hanisha told me that the flour traditionally used to make this bread is so iron-rich that it's very popular with super-celebrities like Posh Spice and Gwyneth Paltrow.
There are a few rules to follow when you eat the Ethiopian way.

  • Firstly there was no cutlery - so you wash your hands first. 
  • Say a prayer of thanks. 
  • Then tear the injera bread (which looks a little like a pancake) with your right hand before heaping it up with food. I was busy chatting but I noticed that lots of the other customers used their spare hand to hold their mobiles - an interesting modern manners twist. 
  • If you need to lick your fingers, don't! Use a napkin instead.

There was a lot of food on our plate but Hanisha kept encouraging me. "Please eat!" she said.

After we'd eaten all that we could, we finished off the meal with a spiced tea - a mix of cardamom, cinnamon and clove which you can add sugar to if you want. It was a really lovely experience. Thank you so much Hanisha for this treat! And very good luck with all your projects.

To read an interview with Hanisha Solomon see this blog post here.

Test yourself on Ethiopia -
  1. Ethiopia is where humans originated
  2. More than 80 languages spoken amongst the 92 million people - Omoro and Amharic being the most widely used, chiefly Christian
  3. It's the home of the coffee bean
  4. And also the spiritual home of Rastafarians, a line of kings descended from Solomon, one-time known as Abyssinia... you can find out more on wiki here.

Over to you
If you like Ethiopian food where do you recommend going to find it?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

You can find Switzerland in the UK

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post gives a few tips on how to find Switzerland in Derbyshire and the Lake District - or simply just stick to reading Frankenstein. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
Swiss fast food: try making fondue (approx 200g of a cheese like gruyere and emental per person). Serve the Swiss way with small cubes of bread, cooked potatoes and cherry tomatoes.
How could Switzerland with its views of vines on the hills above luminous blue lakes and away to the sublime, often snow-capped mountains ever be mistaken for the UK? I didn't think it was possible until I read Mary Shelley's famous horror story Frankenstein.

Frankenstein - written by Mary in a competition with Lord Byron (and others) to see who could write the best ghost story while both were resident in a very rainy Switzerland - is a really scary book. If you aren't moved by words, then you should jump at the film. I've been woken twice by nightmares since trying to read it ready for my book group's discussion in September. But in Chapter 19 there are suggestions of places in the UK you can go in order to get that Swiss feeling of awe inspiring landscape, with something a little bit dodgy coming up behind you...

Try Matlock in Derbyshire or the Lake District.
"The country in the district of Matlock [when it was a village] resembled the scenery of Switzerland; but everything is on a lower scale and the green hills want the crown of the distant white Alps which always attends on the piny mountains.." There's even a cave similar to ones at Servox and Chamounix." 
"In Cumberland and Westmorland I could almost fancy myself amount the Swiss mountains. The little patches of snow which yet lingered on the northern sides of the mountains, the lakes and the dashing of the rocky streams were all familiar and dear sights to me..."
Both quotes from Frankenstein, chapter 19.

Like the UK Switzerland insists on using its own currency - Swiss Francs - rather than Euros. The landlocked state is also insanely expensive, so being willing to put up with a little less snow on your mountain views in the Lake District could be a wise investment!

Over to you
Let me know where you've been in the UK that's reminded you a little of Switzerland.