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What's this blog all about?

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

Monday, 31 December 2007

Footprints in 2007

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

Summing up: it's been a year of adventure and we had no need to spend any part of it on a plane or at the airport. Fog chaos holds no fears. The best memories include...


  • 40 countries visited and no plane used

  • three months of travel around Britain even though we don't own a car (although we've sometimes used them by borrowing, sharing, renting and also as a member or a car club)

  • being aware of the need to tackle climate change makes it easier to make decisions about leisure and pleasure.

  • adventures on our doorstep have been easy to organise (you can even be spontaneous), are carbon light and have made us all appreciate our home a bit more.

  • when we set out a Daily Telegraph travel journalist called our doorstep tour of the globe "either mad or genius", hopefully readers of this blog will be able to make up their own minds.

  • thanks to everyone who helped us.

First Emperor's warriors

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

The terracotta army of 7,000 bigger than life size warriors that was built to guard their meglamaniac boss in the afterlife is an obvious wonder of the world.

It’s younger than the Pyramids and Stonehenge, but older than the Colosseum, Hadrian’s Wall or the Mayan pyramids in Mexico. The show at the British Museum is constantly sold out but after getting on an email alert list I managed to acquire tickets for a new year’s eve eve slot (and as it runs until 6 April 2008 there must be a chance to go). Unfortunately Nell didn't appreciate this show was so special, so I had to go around it too fast, but we still managed to get to know some of the figures, and think about how they would have looked painted. We also enjoyed the seated figures (musicians) entertaining the cranes and other bird life on the artificial river.

I know a few 13 year olds – lovely as they are they also like sleeping and Facebook more than running a war machine - so it is even more of a mystery how the young Emperor managed to boss everyone around, keep winning battles and not get assassinated. He died of natural causes when he was 49, a very distinguished age for the time especially as he was constantly at war with the neighbouring states.

The Emperor is the architect of modern China but his legacy to the world has been a mix of wonder – at these figures only relatively recently dug from a farmer’s field – and suspense because the main tomb will not be excavated until technology can do it with the least harm. And that, apparently, is not in our lifetimes. The best we can do is go and see this amazing taster of what is already excavated in China and simply enjoy the unique details – from beard and hair styles to clothing - on everyone.

Lapland by car club car

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

It feels mean spirirted to begrudge children a trip to see Father Christmas but that’s how I feel about the day trips by plane to the Arctic Circle. The answer has to be bringing Santa here and that’s exactly what Lapland UK has done in a secluded bit of Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent. Inevitably the pre-xmas, meet Santa tickets sold out within days of release so Lola, Nell and I decided to go after Christmas and just enjoy the snowy atmosphere reaching the site in a car club car so that we could also visit friends who live near the forest.

I’d expected to see reindeer and pat Husky dogs but did wonder how we’d pass two hours. However Lapland turns out to be a very captivating place which is staffed by cheerful elves who chat about their lives with Father Christmas to any child who wants to know. They eat elf salad (sweets) and gingerbread; are born when the Northern Lights flicker and believe that Lapland FC would beat West Ham 27-nil.

There’s two workshops – one for making toys and another for decorating gingerbread – but we were also able to explore the Post Office and write to Father Christmas. The highlight for me was sitting on a thick reindeer skin and listening to a traditional Swedish folk story in a kota (like a big wigwam or yurt). Nell was lucky enough to peep into Father Xmas’s log cabin and see the big man’s slippers warming by the fire (a woodburner). When we got home she told her dad that Father Xmas isn’t concerned enough about climate change…

Lapland UK was a really well-thought out adventure, run by enthusiastic people who stayed in character all the time. It also gave us real insight into life in the Arctic. Best of all we arrived at dusk and left in the dark so were able to enjoy the twinkly lights and crunch of foot on snow as we followed the trails around Santa’s forest home fortified by a glass of hot apple punch.

Skates on

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

London has temporary ice rinks at the Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens, Hyde Park and (as the pic shows) in the courtyard of beautiful Somerset House by Waterloo Bridge. Last year I made some effort to get Lola to learn to ride – this year I thought we’d all try skating. Although we will visit Somerset House (open until 27 January 2008) for its eye candy thrills we’ve decided to learn at the Broadgate ice rink by Liverpool Street until April 2008. It’s a much more intimate rink – though big enough to host games of broomball (players in trainers trying to stay upright and sweep the ball into goal with a broom) on Friday nights.

Skating is definitely a skill I cannot teach the girls (although the elegant women from skiing lands, especially the French, are all introducing their little ones to the ice). So I paid for an half hour lesson to get us all started (#18). We really struck lucky with the teacher at Broadgate – Jacky – who is a twice world champion and an inspired teacher. Even in that short time she got Nell brave enough to slither to the middle and experiment with standing on one leg and showed Lola how to jump safely using her arms. And I survived an hour on ice, which was all that I wanted…

Parrots of the Caribbean

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

Inspired by Mary Poppins I took the girls and my mum to see Treasure Island at the King’s Head theatre pub on Boxing Day. It was a fun show (on until 13 Jan 2008) that the four actors performed with a great deal of energy, and at time brilliantly. By the end we all wanted to be Jim Hawkins, or the clever (but evil) Capt Long John Silver. Lola felt she’d hit the big time too, thanks to being invited on stage to sit as still as the skeleton that points the way to the treasure.

Treasure Island is the original boys’ own adventure written in 1883 by Robert Louis Stephenson (who ended his life on Samoa). With its tale of Captain Flint's piracy, treasure maps, an X that marks the site of our fortunes, and the scary black spot that even the pirates fear, Treasure Island must have launched 1,000s of young men into overseas adventures. Even today it tempts us out of our safe sofa corner in front of the TV and a box of chocolates with all the right mix of danger and reward.

Big musicals

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola (pic is of irrepressible theatre goers Alexander from Zimbabwe, Nell in posh coat and Lola in face paint)

Visitors to London can’t resist the West End musicals, but I’ve tended to avoid the big show experience because they are so expensive. But after going to see Mary Poppins (a wonderful show, coming to its end on January 12 and then touring the UK from June 2008) in Old Compton Street I’m a complete convert. Admittedly this trip was a gift from my friend Nicky who generously wanted to take her goddaughter, Nell, out to do something memorable. Nell adored being on a theatre trip her big sister wasn’t invited to and sat spellbound beside Nicky’s son Alexander throughout. Nicky also bought us the CD and since then we have been belting out all the hits such as A spoonful of medicine, Brimstone and Treacle, Being Mrs Banks and the absolute favourite Supercalafragalisticexpialidocious (slightly adapted to the sportswriter’s dream headline of Super Cali fragalistic Celtic are atrocious).

I know she’s not real, but I still envy Mary Poppins for her ability to control kids and employers, dazzle Bert and generally be magical and poised. She also reminds me of my friend Mandovia from Kuala Lumpur, Malysia who insisted on calling me Mary Potkins because I used to walk around the streets of Honiara shaded from the hot sun by am umbrella. That’s the power of musicals – you see them, sing them and then live them…

Monday, 17 December 2007

Saturday: must be Germany

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

A strange transformation takes place at Lola and Nell’s school most Saturdays. There’s still children and teachers going into the place, learning their lessons, and enjoying the playground but it is a whole new school – the German school.

For an out of body experience I sometimes to go to the German shop that comes with this school. Arranged under the pergola we planted the stalll holder sells dark breads, stollen and other delicious cakes to anyone who happens to notice that a German deli gem has transported itself to London, N5. It’s a pity that our London school doesn’t offer a similar treat during the week, even if the goods might turn out to be a mix of jellied eels and fake cigarettes (traditionally sold at the Nags Head, Holloway up the road).

Even if Germany is on the move, it is surprisingly easy to find it in London if you have time to go to Hyde Park which has transformed itself from classic green space to London’s largest open air ice rink. And all around the rink is a German Christmas market housed in little wooden huts. Go see for yourself - you've got until 6 January.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Enjoy our Christmas markets

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola (pic of Pete by the Bath xmas markets - it looked better at twilight with fairy lights & glorious when the rain stopped)

I’m not sure if I like shopping, or love it. As an avid buyer of local produce, craft etc I seem to buy items all the time rather than all at once in a supermarket.

The challenge is not finding things to buy – but finding locally sourced, fair trade items, or better still feasting my eyes and making something similar back at home.

Lola and Nell enjoy more practical feasting so they loved going to Oxford recently to see Broad Street turned into a French market where they could taste cheese, olives, jams and best of all get me to agree to buying them each a toffee apple. That’s why reading about the people who promise to buy nothing all year truly impresses me. And now there's Mark Boyle who plans to be a community pilgrim and walk from Bristol to India (a mere 12,000km) without a single penny. He's off on 30 January 2008, see more about his plans and the Freeconomy Community at http://www.justfortheloveofit.org/.

As more and more banks succumb to the American sub-prime mortgage debacle you can see capitalism’s foundations wobble. Maybe people like me who love finding stuff on the roadside, at carboot sales, via freecycle, even growing our own veges etc deserve some blame too?

Pete and I have also just visited the Georgian city of Bath – a real treat to spend time together. The weekend we picked also drew vast, umbrella-weilding crowds for their gift shopping at the Christmas markets. In between our trips to the warm waters of the Bath Spa we weaved through the market of little wooden sheds under the abbey. Here stall holders were selling everything from chocolate and Christmas tree decorations to mulled wine and hot water bottle fleeces. It was extremely atmospheric, despite the three-day downpour and I loved overhearing snippets from other visitors claiming it was “So very Dickensian” or just like “Being in a German Christmas market” said by the couple downing Eierpunsch (egg nog) and Gluhwein (mulled wine).

Meanwhile Lola and Nell were taken around the Christmas market at Freightliners Farm, in London N7, and managed to extract all sorts of foodie treats out of their aunt and uncle, and the first visit to Santa of the 2007 season.

Reading the travel section of the Sunday papers I see you can fly to Hamburg's Christmas market for a shockingly low #38 (plus another #20 in transfers to and from the airport) which is a bit more than it cost me to get a weekend return to Bath on the train (tip two single tickets were cheaper). Now remind me, which one did the Romans prefer? Which one is World Heritage Listed and which one is daytrippable? That'll be one nil to us then...

Story food

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

It’s cheating to just go to a restaurant and pretend you are somewhere else. But when the rain is beating down on a winter mini-break it’s a pleasure to do just that. This weekend Pete and I managed to enjoy noodles in a satay sauce and green curry at a Thai restaurant in Bath, earwigging conversations about cricket and art, and then the following night go to Spain.

Visiting La Flamenca is an atmospheric, quick, carbon-light way to get to Spain. It is built into vaults, giving a cave like feeling. I was soon talking about paradors (those glorious Spanish state run posh hotels) and festas, a theme that was easy to maintain seeing as everyone was eating tapas and downing Sangria. Pete saw his opportunity and as a result I now also know a lot about Real Madrid. He of course maintains that he didn’t talk to me about football at all…

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Christmas tease

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola.

We’re going to have a green Christmas. Nell wants it white of course and Lola wants what the Christmas cards depict. I want it to be fun and as keeping to our principles as possible – so locally acquired food, homemade treats and a sense of celebration without excessive spending.

That's easy to sort out for food and gifts. But what to do about the Christmas tree?

Around 6 million get cut down each year for their two week stint holding up the fairy. In some ways this is good – fast growing trees soak up carbon and if they are then left out with the recycling and shredded they act as carbon sinks. Where we live there aren’t many locally grown pine trees around so I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a potted real tree with healthy roots. The hitch is that potted trees don’t thrive in dry summers, especially with the neglect it will have to expect in our family.

And even if I’d gone down the tree from the corner shop route (with no certification that it was from a well managed woodland) it is still difficult to carry home. Last year I re-used the school’s real Christmas tree – for just a fiver – but it was needleless from the start and this year impossible as they’ve switched to an artifical creation.

I’ve also tried making glitter twig arrangements but the kids don’t really approve. Besides I love the idea of having a tree in the house, especially as we are having friends to stay in the run up to Christmas and family on Christmas Day.

So I lucked out when I found an artificial tree dumped on the roadside for the bin men. It’s about 1.5m high, folds flat - which made it easy to carry home - and will look fantastic covered in decorations. Not only does our tree come with a story, I hope it will be with our family for life without ever dropping a needle.

There'll still be real trees at Christmas for us as I'm planning a trip to see the lights switched on the huge Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square (from December 6 or if you missed it, see the pic above). This is one of those gifts - from the people of Norway given each year since 1947 - that Londoners can really look forward to, even though they know what they are getting. I'm also hoping that Pete will get me a very special Christmas present this year, a young apple tree to add to our mini orchard (three espaliered fruit trees) from tree 2 my door.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Big up for Growing Communities

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

Every week my family tucks into a bulging bag of organic, seasonal, tasty veg from Growing Communities - a unique Hackney box scheme which prioritises local produce, runs the certified Stoke Newington Farmers' Market which attracts around 1,500 people a week and supports small-scale farmers growing as near to possible to London.

Although 680 bags are sent out each week to Growing Communities members (nearly 66 tonnes of organic produce a year) sometimes I try and encourage strangers, neighbours and friends in Islington to join up to the scheme because it is a brilliant way of reducing your carbon footprint and getting predominantly UK-grown veg delivered to your doorstep. And it's good value.

Reading Growing Communities most recent annual report I realise that the director, Julie Brown, is one of our neighbourhood's super green stars. As her welcome in the annual report makes clear (even when she's not quoting from Terminator 2) she's not just a worthy woman, she has a great sense of fun. "We are creating an interconnected web of local people, farmers, land, businesses, projects and food which together have the potential to sustain us: a vibrant, community based system which enriches our lives, providing us with good food, good friends and increasing numbers of us with good work.... I know it may not feel like that when you are staggering around in the yard in the dark trying to remember the combination to the shed, trying to think what to do with your backlog of curly kale, or standing in the rain at the market waiting to be served. And while there is always more we can do, for now we can feel good that are actions are part of something that is making a real difference... tackling climate change, making our community more resilient and creating something that is better in so many ways."

The only hitch is that with all this tasty fruit and veg I'm less inclined to attempt to grow much on my own plot...

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Wildflowers on the roof

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola.

Green roofs may be the new trend – a wildlife haven, light on materials and a boon to the city – but it turns out that not all are equal. At the same time as the Guardian’s new King’s Cross office is being criticized for having a green carpet of sedums with low wildlife value I’m sowing a cornflower mix on to the roof of our hen shed.

When it comes to sedum versus native wildflowers then the wildflowers win because they will attract such a variety of insects including pollinators like bees and butterflies. In fact I choose wildlflowers for aesthetics as sedums are generally quite low growing so on my new 3m high shed it wouldn’t have been possible to admire any rooftop greenery. What’s more the cornflower mix was much cheaper at #7.50 for a 100g bag from Norfolk’s Emorsgate Seeds. In contrast I’d need either nine sedum plugs per metre at 1.50 each (and I’ve got three metres square to cover) or to order a ready-made sedum carpet which offered little change from #90.

Instant gratification is another advantage: it’s November but I can still go ahead and sow the cornfield mix of pheasant’s eye, corn cockles, corn chamomile, thorow-wax, cornflower, corn marigold, common forget-me-not, common poppy, corn buttercup and night-flowering catchfly. To go ahead with the sedums I’d have needed to keep the rooftop soil weed free and then planted in the spring… such a long time away.

Like a volcanic tropical island most of the green roof is out of sight – around 80 per cent of the box is hardcore and gravel, most of this rescued or pounded up from bits that I’ve found in skips over the years and then left lying around our garden. To see if it is a success I’ll have to wait, but it is definitely keeping the rain off our hens which is after all its real raison d’etre.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Cold comforts

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola.

For the past few weeks I've been run down by a coldy virus but at last I've found the perfect repair food - Racalet, as served at Borough Market. Racalet is a Swiss cheese but in this dish the stall holders scrape melted lashings from a huge wheel of cheese on top of a heap of hot, roughly mashed potatoes and then add some baby gherkins (presumably as a sop to five-a-day demands). On a Saturday at Borough Market you have to queue to pay for this gorgeous concoction and then queue to watch it being cooked. Despite the grey weather I felt happily revived after a sit down with my plate of Racalet. Then I found a loaf of still warm organic walnut bread and carried it home warming my side as if it was a hot water bottle.

Farmers' markets may be popular but Borough Market is a foodie beacon noteworthy not just for being the oldest food market site in London and a huge draw to weekend strollers, tourists and hungry food afficianados but also because it is a charity run by a board of trustees who all live in Southwark. If you haven't been, you must. Though if you go on Saturday (rather than Thursday or Friday) don't expect to get tranced into a mountains and Heidi mood even with a dish of Racalet as the market is just too crowded to let your soul yodel off to Switzerland.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Pacific pleasures

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola (with pic of Lola and Nell strictly come dancing the Pacific way)

Aloha! It’s not all dancing in the Pacific, but at this year’s Pacific Island Society we were treated to a taste of Oceania with dancing from Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Cook Islands. There was a particularly energetic and expert show from Kiribati which has set up the Beats of the Pacific group to delight the UK. It’s a big group which has drummers, MC, mothers, single women and children as young as three swirling their grass skirts and lavalavas (hips left to right and round and round) in the most astonishing displays of dexterity. There were three blokes dancing who stole the show with their warrior poses, paddle action and proud Polynesian energy. They tried to get some of the crowd to join in, but with the average age of the audience at over 60 I think some people’s hips may need replacing sooner than anticipated. Not mine though as I was too chicken (and coldy) to go for it. In contrast Lola and Nell took to the dance floor happily.

Despite such a happy event it is not easy to forget that the people of Tuvalu – 11,000 of them – are facing enormous change in the next few years thanks to climate change which is causing sea levels to rise. Because their homeland islands just don’t have hills the Tuvaluans are likely to be the first climate change environmental refugees of an anticipated 1-3 million. New Zealand has agreed to take 75 per cent of all Tuvaluan migrants each year, which may be generous but switching from island life to Kiwi consumerism is hardly to be looked forward to – unless there’s no other alternative.

Eid Murabak

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint.

Eid was over long before British Summer Time ended this year but our school didn’t celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr until November 2. It was worth the wait for a chance to enjoy tasty traditional food (eg, coconut pasties), dressing up and a party mood. Both my girls enjoyed getting their hands decorated with gorgeous Bangladeshi swirls from a tube of henna expertly commanded by various mums, big sisters and friends. The henna comes out like chocolate cake icing but to get the best mendi hand painting you mustn’t knock or brush it for at least half an hour. Once the half hour (or more) is up you then rub off the excess henna as if you are picking a scab. It is one of the best exercises in patience I know, and also an excellent excuse for a child intent on avoiding the horror of carrying their book bag down to the swimming pool.

Trick or treat

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint.

Mexico does All Souls Day (1 November) the best with its sugar skeleton sweeties, picnics by the graveside and general communing with absent friends and family. For Halloween (31 October) this year Lola, Nell and their friend Izzy tried to outdo the Mexicans by dressing up in the most eccentric ghost costumes (props included a cuddly otter, decorative masks and a Dr Who scarf) and then trawling around their home patch hoping to get handfuls of sweets. Wherever we saw a pumpkin we stopped but the best decorated house went to a family in Aubert Park who decided they’d rather children came to them, than their children went trick or treating. Their show included spooky music on the loudspeaker, silly cobweb string all over the hedge, bits of bleeding corpse (stuffed jeans if you must), mock gravestones and moving skeletons - a fantastically horrible Halloween success.

Everyone was so friendly this Halloween, reminding me again what a great area this is to live. But a few days later I watched The End of Suburbia with four members of the Highbury Community Association and began wondering just how ready any of us are for living without using so much fossil fuel. The film reveals that peak oil – from then on oil prices go up and quantities go down – has either happened worldwide or is just a few years away. The consequence of switching to renewable energy, living and working locally could be heaven or hell… not unlike the neighbourhood’s opinion of Halloween then.

For a more positive spin on the likelihood of a resurgence of local life than The End of Suburbia offers see www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Goodbye hen harriers

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we're home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

I've been told off by my friend Jane for knocking Norfolk - she knows the area around Norwich and isn't prepared to put up with my niggles about what should be a beautiful county if you could help green the people who live there. I want to believe her but today on Radio 4 one of the news stories is of two hen harriers being killed close to the Sandringham estate last Sunday. I am incensed by this story as we'd all been at Sandringham and then Roydon Common looking skyward hoping to see these super rare birds. There are only 20 pairs in the country and now there are 19.

Hen harriers are beautiful (I'm judging by the books as we didn't see the doomed birds) but there main diet is game birds which means the shooting obsessed of Norfolk don't much like them and even if it is illegal to kill hen harriers people will find ways to do so, and then deny everything. One of the horriblest elements of using Norfolk roads (OK Jane, the roads around north and west Norfolk) is that they are littered with run-over pheasants. So many birds are killed this way that the local custom is to drive on if you do the hitting, but the car (or person) behind can stop and take the bird home for a road kill tea - assuming you know how to pluck and gut etc. I must find out iif hen harriers take as many game birds as the cars and 4W4s on the county roads? And even if they do (which I doubt) at least they eat them up rather than leaving the carnage on the tarmac.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Losing our green glow

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we're home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

While we’ve been staying in Norfolk we are acutely aware that our impact on the environment is bigger than usual whether we stay in or go out. The house has no cavity wall insulation or loft insulation and though modernish is therefore expensive to heat. We are miles from a shop and though there is an hourly bus service (except on Sunday) it is all too tempting to get in a car and drive to the farm shop, or even one of the many supermarkets that ring King’s Lynn.

Pete has really lost his good green halo this week. He had to fill up the car with his first tank of petrol (he says he did do it once before when he was 17) and ordered and paid for 500 litres of kerosene mix to heat the house. Strangely he seems to like feeling normal, but I'm miserable about how easy it is to slot into eco-inefficient behaviour. Even if I huddle up in a blanket and read the electricity is on a regular tariff too so we’re not supporting renewable alternatives either. Obviously Pete and I could do something about these things if we moved here. Generally people in Norfolk have a high environmental impact – some way above the national average. (For number crunchers in Norfolk a person uses 5.69 global hectares [gha] compared to the UK average of 5.4gha. The target amount for everyone to have a fair share of resources is 1.8gha, a figure a little higher than a person in China currently uses and a great deal less than an American’s giant 9.74 gha).
Given their (possibly) careless use of resources it is likely that people in Norfolk will have to make drastic changes to their lives sooner than if they lived in a hillier part of Britain. If sea levels rise somewhere between the predicted 27 and 80cm over the next 80 years the coastal towns, roads and plenty of houses hugging the shoreline will be doomed.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Stinkhorn and snakes

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… This post is from Nicola (pic is of Nell with a puffball found earlier in the year during a Yorkshire walk)

We are staying near Roydon Common (NNR), a mix of heathland and boggy areas fringed by oak and silver birch, which the Norfolk Wildlife Trust calls “one of the most important wildlife sites in the country.” For anyone not used to Norfolk it takes a while to see this wildlife. The birdlife requires early starts and dusk patrols; the knowledge that there are adders is scary enough to keep you on the track (even though snakes are not really around at this time of the year) and the heath itself is patrolled by Exmoor ponies who are expected to keep the grass short and keep the bilberry bushes low. The ponies would have to be very greedy to manage this in such a big area, and as a result the golden autumn colours of the longer patches of grassland transform this heath into lion country. I’ve never seen anything like this in Britain but it isn’t dissimilar to the baked grassy area below the Ngong Hills in Kenya (famous for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Isak Dinesen in the film Out of Africa).

Along the footpaths mushrooms are springing up. My in-laws were farmers of the old school so didn’t seem to rate any of the country’s natural gifts (blackberries, damsons, nettles, elderberries etc). As a result I had to buy a new fungi book in order to identify what we’re seeing on our walks. Most exciting spot so far is the spectacularly rude looking Stinkhorn (the best known member, arf arf, of the Phallaceae family) with its crumply, wet look black thimble-shaped head and a longish (15cm) cylindrical stem. It smelt horrible, but is not old enough yet to stink out a big area around it. We’re now hoping to find an unhatched Stinkhorn egg to try and hatch out on damp tissue under a jam jar.

Norfolk is very low lying and much of it is reclaimed land. Even in the garden this is obvious – especially if you are used to the heavy clay soils of Essex/Herts/London – as in Norfolk the soil is loamy enough to run through hands like sand. Sometimes I even find shells, but I think they’ve probably been put in the borders by Lola and Nell after day trips to the sea. Given that climate change will see the sea levels rising it’ll be interesting – horrifying? – to find out what panic plan this county has for dealing with flooding. My next task is to log on to the council’s website and have a look…

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Flying geese

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… This post is from Nicola

It’s one of the best sights in the world – skein after skein of geese, some arrow-headed but all making that heart-stopping geese gaggle as they search for the best night time stop over. The pink-footed geese (with distinctive white bottoms and, obviously, pink feet) have been in Iceland all summer but in late September/October thousands appear around the shores, marshes and grass fields of Holkham, Norfolk swiftly followed by bird watchers with hefty binoculars (bins), tripods and industrial sized Thermoses for piping hot mugs of tea.

Seeing the geese is a small miracle - and even more so since the world's total breeding population of these birds (approx 100,000) has been under threat in Iceland as it is at the same spot as the proposed site of two hydro-electric dams. My details are not up to date, but it makes me giddy how easy it could be to destroy these birds' essential habitat for ostensibly a good, low carbon project. What a terrible loss the end of the geese would be.

If you are at Holkham when the geese come in at dusk (or maybe drinking tea or beer in the nearby Victoria Hotel – a Chelsea-on-sea style pub with wit, atmosphere, dogs, Rajasthan fittings and a hearty game menu) then it is easy to suggest the earlier part of your carbon-light day. Go for a cycle around the collection of villages prefixed Burnham so you can hero worship Nelson, enjoy village ponds, prowl around antique and boat yards, stop-off at Bircham Windmill on the B1153 and finally get to Holkham with its craft village, big house and shrine to agriculturalist Coke before going to see those honky tonk stars on the grassy side of the marshes near the pine-wood bordered dunes.

Tractor but no queen

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… This post is from Nicola, Lola and Nell

Nicola: Sandringham - the Queen's Christmas & New Year bolt hole designed to be cosy rather than stately - is near where we are staying in Norfolk. It was about the first country park to be opened to the public (600 acres), back in 1968 and also broke ground in 1994 when the visitor centre, which is covered in cedar wood tiles and diamond-shaped windows, was opened to extract cash from the crowds. The Queen still has huge numbers of staff (see what looks like adult school photo groups) and clearly many are equally adept at looking after visitors from Easter to the last weekend in October when Sandringham House and Garden are open. We spent a full day at Sandringham which included a quick walk in the woods (there's a sawmill where you can buy kitchen counters etc), a tractor ride past the house where Princess Diana was born and a tour of the house and gardens.

Nell: I nearly lost my bandana at Sandringham but my dad found it again 20m from the big oak tree that Lola and I were climbing. There was a playground with a boat in it (Sandringham is only three miles from the sea although this is impossible to tell when the leaves are on the trees) and I found a 50p which I gave to Lola.

Lola: I really liked the tractor ride because the man who was driving it told you lots of interesting things about Queen Alexandra (the Queen's great grandmother) who built it with her husband in 1870. And I got to take my Silvanians on the tour which they liked. I climbed up a big oak tree, I went so high it was a bit scary! Inside the house there were lots of posh things, like full size paintings of Alexandra. I was a bit upset that we didn't get to see the Queen or the Queen's bedroom - she can look at mine if she likes!

Nicola: I spent enough on our visit for the Queen to buy a few luxury Christmas presents, and tip a few pheasant beaters, thanks to the temptations in the excellent craft and local food shop (eg, Norfolk honey, walnut liqueur, Norfolk apple juice, Norfolk lavender oil) in addition to the #20 house and garden entry fee for the four of us. But you could go to Sandringham and spend nothing as much of the woodland on the other side of the road is all year open access. When Pete's parents were alive they often went up to these woods with a flask of tea and a biscuit tin and had a quiet walk between the larch and silver birch trees. If we lived this way I feel certain we'd do that too - hopefully reaching Sandringham by bike rather than our borrowed purple car.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

World in one city

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… This post is from Nicola

On Wednesday 24 October 2007 Alex Horne and Owen Powell’s year long quest to find nationals from all 192 countries of the world living in London comes to an end. I'm impressed because this website has so far only found 27 places in the UK which give a flavour of another country... how much more ambitious to find someone from everywhere and then get them together at a world party?

Alex and Owen have found it hardest to find people from tiny Nauru (population 10,000), Niger, Palau, Qatar, Tuvalu, Guineas-Bissau and Gabon. For a fascinating story of life in the big soup – have a look at their website.

Read Carbon Detox

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… This post is from Nicola

It’s half term and everyone seems to be on the move. The last half dozen people I’ve had conversations with include a mum and daughter off to Iceland; a partner off to New York for a friend’s birthday; my mum going to Edinburgh for two nights and a family off to Agincourt. All of them flew, which must make anyone wonder whether our family efforts to reduce carbon are worth diddleysquat. Therec are times when I wonder how we can all be so blind to climate change – after all clever people for centuries have mocked Nero for fiddling while Rome burned – but I hope a new book will help re-educate these dedicated travelers to shift from the skies to lower carbon methods of travel. Find out how in George Marshall’s entertaining new book Carbon Detox (Gaia) which treats our fossil fuelled lifestyles as an addiction that can only be treated if the addict wishes to make a clean break.

I’m not jealous of my friends plane trips. During half term we’ll see the pink footed geese newly arrived from Iceland who over-winter at Holkham in Norfolk (and got here without making any carbon emissions); we’ll pick up New York style beigels freshly made at Finsbury Park’s Happening Beigel; we’ll wear tartan scarves if we want to feel Scottish and we have our French fix from the chic Parisian who teaches a group of six year olds in our house each week during term time. We can do better of course with the web and google world, but that’s just for tasters.

As for those of you who feel you have a right to go wherever you want by plane, then please just go for longer and rule out the peripatetic, climate damaging mini breaks. Not only will you get to know a place better, you’ll also be doing the world a favour. And if that’s too big an ask then just buy or skim through Carbon Detox when you’re next in a book shop choosing travel guides.

Friday, 19 October 2007

By the canal

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… This post is from Nicola.

I helped escort Lola and her classmates on another school trip, this time to the Canal Museum which is tucked behind King's Cross station. Regent's Canal was built in 1820 but despite the short, mostly eco-friendly life of canal haulage this man-made water route is still busy with boats, anglers and wildlife, and along the towpath cyclists vye with dog walkers to stay away from the edge.

The canal isn't just a fabulous green lung through the inner city it is also a place to showcase new architecture and conversions - as seen during our trip through the lock on the 70 foot long Pirate Viscount barge. The curator also organised a nature walk which allowed the Year 5 and 6s to debate which way a dragon fly and a damsel fly's wings rest (- and l); the number of legs a butterfly has (six not two) and compare today's vista of the tunnel under Upper Street with a 19th century engraving.

And then we had a workshop turning us all into engineers as we built our own arch with mini bricks. It would be an odd child whose brain didn't expand after such a hands on experience of London's waterways. I had to work hard too - forced to do the maths of how old the canal is (1820-1900 = 80; 1900-2000= 100; 2000-2007 = 7 so the total is 187 years) and deal with strange problems like how to remove dog poo from one trainer and a fish hook from another simultaneously.

Best of all we got the kids walking to and from the museum, more than a mile each way. This is far less stressful than taking big groups on public transport, more efficient than a car cavalcade and may even give them the confidence to walk around London a bit more with their families.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Finding English wine

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… (pic is of English wine bought at a farmers' market)

A few weeks ago I made a promise to drink only English wine in a bid to slash my liquid food miles (which have tended to include screw top fruity wines from New Zealand). By the way English wine can be very good, so stop laughing now... The problem has been how to find it - most chain wine shops reserve the sort of mirth for English wine that I am used to encountering from neighbourhood friends who assume that modern people don't do veganism, god, au pairs or Dairylea cheese triangles.

Waitrose is one of the few supermarkets that sometimes stocks a bottle or two of English wine but at the Saturday farmers' market in Stoke Newington I found a supplier from East Sussex who pressed delicious tasting glasses from Sedlescombe on me all the while explaining the difference between vines grown on chalk or iron soil. It was fascinating to have a liquid geology lesson, and I think I will need more...

If you don't want to lug your bottles home then you could try buying online. I've had great service from Warden wines in Bedfordshire, and Chapel Down in Tenterden, Kent. Another method is to use the wine co-op Vinceremos.

Three legs good

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… (even with three legs, see pic)

The Isle of Man's special symbol is a three-legged wheel, but at the courtyard of the Royal Academy in Picadilly there's currently a vast metal version of a Three Legged Buddha (with one leg resting on a handsome but detached head the size of a Wendy House) by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan.

Lola and I visited the Isle of Man in 2006, via a ferry that left from Liverpool. We thought it was an amazing place even before we appreciated that it is its own country, ie, not part of the UK, and has a Parliament that's been operational since the Vikings were busy. It also specialises in fairies, no-tail Manx cats, TT races and the sort of scenery that makes film crews regular visitors.

Upside down art

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… (pic is us doing a London day out upside down)

The adults walk around the Royal Academy gallery ignoring Lola & Nell's noisy disbelief - the pictures by Georg Baselitz are the wrong way up. Nell points out an eagle with his wings below his feet, and Lola gawps at a portrait. When Nell was in Reception she drew ffurg staog yllib eerht eht* - and the title - this way around and her delightful teacher took me aside for a private word. What would she have done to the venerable, clearly slightly crazy art hero Georg? This show is a must for anyone who wants to think outside convention, and your kids will love its rule breaking.

*the three billy goats gruff

Friday, 12 October 2007

School trip to the British Museum

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…


It would be odd if London school children didn't make an occasional trip to the British Museum - our school seems to go once a year, usually around the time classes are working on Black History Week/Month. We took the tube - something a handful of children rarely do - and then had a fascinating talk about the ancient culture of Benin which covers part of modern Nigeria. And just to prove the kids in Y5/Y6 at our school are up to the pressure modern parents put them under we also had a look at ancient Greece. It was a pleasure to escort the eight children I was assigned.

The British Museum was heaving with people, more like a Booker Prize announcement night than a damp Thursday because the prestigious Chinese terracotta army exhibition has just started (and runs until early April).

At #12 a ticket friends say it's a punitively expensive trip - but they usually also laugh when I insist that this is much cheaper than going to China, and by avoiding the plane saves you clocking up 3.75 tonnes of carbon emissions for a return flight. As the average household still uses around 10 tonnes of carbon a year for cooking, heating, travel etc, making a simple visit to China via the British Museum offers the sort of carbon-saving bargain break it makes sense to enjoy.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Land girls do time travel

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

This month our nearest church, St Thomas’, is running an environment month with lots of activities ranging from the harvest festival and showings of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth to birdbox making and wild food walks. Best event so far turned us all into Land Girls (the blokes were busy watching England beat Australia in the rugby). Equipped with scythes, rakes, mattocks, loppers and gloves mums, kids and staff from Islington Ecology Centre cut a good chunk of the hay meadow near the east coast main line. Repetitive hard work outdoors with people to chat besides is fun especially on another nice October Saturday. When the gang of kids tired of working they played chase through the Michaelmas daisies in the nearby meadow until distracted by the splendid site of the Duchess of Sutherland (a steam train) puffing into and out of Kings Cross station.

Work just about completed – it’s harder than it looks to mow a meadow with hand tools – we sat around the bonfire eating baked potatoes and beans (see pic).

For my family the slip into the 1940s didn’t stop there as we then spent the evening at an outdoors barn dance (to raise funds for Highbury Roundhouse). The organizers had managed to turn the car park into an atmospheric post-scything party place thanks to gazebos, scattering several bales of straw on the tarmac and the guest appearance of Jasmine, a fluffy white Sultan hen from Freightliners Farm.

Time traveling is definitely a lesson in how fit you used to have to be! If I hadn’t needed to run a deep bath to soothe out my aching limbs I would have probably had an exemplary eco weekend…

Friday, 5 October 2007

Arsenal football

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

Showing a 14 year old visitor around the outside of the new Emirates stadium (ie, Arsenal's ground) on a sunny morning I was struck by the building's scale. It is vast. And if you walk over the bridge from Drayton Park towards the stadium with even one Arsenal fan by your side (and I had two) it is hard not to feel reverential.

It is a shame thought that despite early designs suggesting this huge piazza-sized area would be greened with plants and trees the stadium surrounds are just a vast sweep of grey concrete. Think how it could be improved with St Mark's Square style cafes around it where glamorous Gunner fans could sip coffee in Venetian style as they watch the kids on skateboards, bikes and heelys' weave through the trees.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Capital Ring

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… This is from all of us

The Capital Ring is a 75 mile (115km) route around London that we've been tackling in small chunks. The book by Colin Saunders has shown us that London is full of surprises - on our Sunday walk along the nearest paths to our home it even revealed two new footpaths along the New River.

Although walking Hadrian's Wall was dramatic the Capital Ring is a brilliant route often enlivened by the unexpected public and free events held around London. This time we were distracted by an impromptu visit to the Finsbury Park mosque (which was having an open day) and then the chance to ride an electric bucking bull in the greatly improved Finsbury Park as part of Haringey's Green Flag celebrations. Only a half hour rowing around the lake and ice cream cones for all revived us enough to get back on the Capital Ring track.

Saturday cross-country

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… This post is from Nicola, Lola and Nell.

In London when the tube's down you sometimes can head in the wrong direction in order to make a nifty line change and then get back on route. It's a useful way of thinking yourself out of the rush hour flow, but when I decided to visit my mum in Hertfordshire using this technique the result was a Saturday of cross-country travelling. The plan started well - a 30min whiz on the overland train to Hertford North station and then on to the 351 bus which shuttles between the county town and Bishop's Stortford.

Hertford is inordinately proud of its past. Lots of kings have liked the area, the castle is flash, there are many very grand houses (and the spin-off that brings - antique shops) lining the streets. We had an hour and a bit before the bus went so visited the museum which is fabulously child friendly and has a relaxing Jacobean style garden out the back. The Saturday market was good too, with lots of food stalls and an excellent selection of herbs, stripey socks and dog beds. Lola and Nell lingered around the wooden toy stall and chatted to anyone leading a dog. We were also impressed by a foodie haven, Farrow & Farrow run by brothers who sell all sorts including their mum's tasty bread pudding.

The bus filled up quickly for this cross-country run which follows the route of the New River for some way, a route I'm hoping to follow one day back into town. I enjoyed revisiting childhood haunts: at Hunsdon there's the field where frisky bullocks killed a walker (in the 70s?), not long after at the big bend there's a new pine tree - this one bristling with phone masts. As we come into Much Hadham I turn into tour guide for the kids and point out the house where I think John Fowles based bits of The Magus, but after the Old Forge Museum they spot The Bull pub where they once had sandwiches with their friends Freya and Clara. It seems the area's begining to have as many memories for them as it holds for me... See some pictures and more Hadham info here.

At the next village we left the bus and walked up the hill to Granny Fiona's house. It is such a joy to arrive at a place you love on foot because it gives you time to witness changes to the season. Leaving a car we always seem to hurry indoors but as we were already outside we didn't think to go inside for another two hours distracted by the swing and den building (the girls) and the autumn need to pick apples, pears, damsons, greengages and blackberries.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

A tale of two mice

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

Once upon a time two little girls wanted a pet. After much research on the net and hours workshopping their mum they became the proud owners of two fancy mice, Cali and Chillie. Unfortunately the very first time we cleaned out their cage we managed to lose Chillie under the kitchen skirting board.

For the next four weeks we set humane mouse traps to try and get he back. Sometimes we caught a mouse and after much discussion would decide it was the wrong colour and so we'd set it free. The only time we didn't have this debate was when we trapped a slug...

At last Chillie turned up in the trap looking suspiciously fat despite seeming very hungry. We quarantined her just in case she was going to have babies - and she has. We are now very excited about taming them, but also extremely nervous that she may be such an unsettled new mother that the babies don't make it.

All pets challenge normality: even the boring stick insects proved a problem when they went into reproduction overdrive each April. This time Lola cried herself to sleep fearing we'd disturbed the mouselets too early, I'm guilty about keeping animals caged and Pete will be anxious that we have landed ourselves with as many fancy mice as we have mice under the floorboards.

So, next time we want a pet we're going to improve our organic veg garden and learn to enjoy useful, truly wild visitors such as ladybirds, shield bugs and spiders - even if we keep on hating the snails and slugs and the irritating cats that use our seed beds as lavs.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Not that shandy

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint… (pic is of a croc sandwich eaten by the kids at the African Adventure fun/fundraiser).

After spending three months pleasing myself travelling around Britain it is good to be doing something altruistic – this time raising running costs for a small park, Greystone Nature Reserve in Harare. The current Zimbabwean situation is so difficult (something even PM Gordon Brown seems to have noticed hence the posturing over the conference due to be held in December in Portugal that either he or Mugabe will attend) that raising as little as #250 bails the 7ha park out for a year (cross fingers).

Raising money is always tricky, especially if you are focusing the event on primary school aged children but it was really good fun. The kids got to play traditional Zimbabwean gamespin the tail on the zebra and Dumbo Crumbo (aka guess what animal I’m pretending to be); the adults supped Rock Shandy and Malawi Shandy after realizing that a Zimbabwe Shandy is just plain water with no ice or lemon; and all of us had fun following a nature guide around our London pocket park looking for mini beasts – highlights included a toad and a newt.

The good news is that we raised half our target and the Friends association (of the London park) has promised to stump up the other half for their Zimbabwean twins.

Foxes at dawn

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

London seems as noisy as ever – but on week nights it’s not exuberant late night tube passengers that make all the din. Last night I was woken by the sort of whimpering that might make you dial 999, but on looking out of the window saw a vixen being hounded by two dog foxes.

Foxes aren’t unusual where we live in London, but seeing three adults was impressive enough for me to wake Lola and Nell for a good look – even though it was about 4.30am. From the window, and very sleepily, they stared at the quiet domestic streets lit as much by the nearly full moon as street lights expecting to see nothing and then were rewarded with a view of FIVE foxes at the junction of the streets as the vixen had two small cubs to look after ,as well as her two suitors to ward off/entertain. We had a happy 10 minute floor show until they all retired under parked cars which meant that we couldn’t see what was going on.

We admit it, we're rubber necks. Now foxes ignore us, and just do it again tonight. Thanks.

Walking the bounds

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

Pete and Nell were at a 7th birthday party (excitingly kids’ parties are no longer E Number fests they have transformed into a chance to provide an education boost. This one, for instance, had a science session which saw all the kids queuing up to get an electric shock!) which meant that Lola and I were able to spend a happy Sunday afternoon remembering routes around London on the pretext of finding Angostura Bitters in Fortnum and Masons, Piccadilly.

Our first stop off was the RA for a whistlestop tour of the Antiquaries in Britain show (1707-2007) and then on via St James’ church (which has solar panels) and Jermyn Street to restless Leicester Square, down past the back of the National Gallery and into Trafalgar Square where Lola bravely shimmied up a lion under Nelson’s Column. while I looked out for the 30,000 cyclists (most in red shirts) who'd taken part in the capital's biggest mass bike ride on mostly car-closed streets, the London Freewheel. There were plenty of cyclists around but though it was Sunday there was a lot of traffic in this area too, which made me glad that I hadn't forced the children out on their bikes as getting home would have been more than up hill. (And at the time I didn't even feel like a killjoy!)

We then walked up St Martin’s Lane dodged left down an alley to Charing Cross Road by the best value and tastiest eat-in falafel bar, Gaby’s, before taking the tube home.

It was exhausting – I just can’t shed my visitor mentality and find there’s just so much to see and do in London even if you're just looking for a loaf of bread, and some cocktail ingredients...

Frontline

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

It’s nearly a month since we came back home to London and I’m on my first trip out to London – Paddington to be precise. This sounds silly, after all I live in London but even though I live in a busy, crowded bit of Islington it doesn't have the vibe that I associate with central London. This time I'm just using the underground so I can meet my lovely friend Nicky, who normally lives in Zimbabwe, and have a delicious dinner at the very stylish Frontline Club which even the insiders reckon is famous as “a place for those with a nomadic temperament to gather and not tell war stories”. We discuss all sorts, including how fast London changes - she's been away 10 years and is stunned by the crowds of 20 and 30 somethings; I've been away three months and can't remember how to exit instinctively from the tube.

Frontline is the right place to meet: I still want to be a nomad even if I'm not sure when I'm going back to Africa, and I've never ever had a war correspondent's temperament.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Bristol: dirty plans, green action

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

You may already know that Bristol has an airport. But did you know that there are crazy plans to expand it so that by 2030 around 12.5 million people will be using it (currently 5.2 million do)? The plans will increase noise locally as there will be a plane in the air every 3.5 minutes for 16 hours a day and there will be a huge surge in the number of cars - an extra 220,000 on the road which will wreck the peace of some rural villages. CO2 emissions will soar which is bad as aviation is the fastest growing source of the greenhouse gases that are changing our climate.

My Bristol-based friend, Helen, (who is writing Cool Life Cool Planet, to be published by Collins, April 2008) asked me to give out some leaflets explaining the need to Stop Bristol Airport Expansion but I has trouble offloading them. The taxi driver for instance said he was very keen on the project as it would bring loads more business. I didn't like to say that much of this might be done in traffic jams seeing as he was driving us across Bristol. It’s easy to forget how short-sighted most people are. Our climate is changing and that is going to mean lifestyles change. Building more airports or taking more trips by plane isn’t going to be an option. As Leo Hickman points out in his most recent book on travel one reason why environmentalists point the finger of gloom at planes is that when a jumbo flies from London to Dubai it emits around 180 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – where the polluting gas will remain for as long as 100 years. Not only does CO2 have a long life, that one way plane trip is equivalent to as many as 18 average people’s entire emissions heating their home, driving around, buying food out of season for a whole year.

More positively Bristol is home to a sustainability charter and the Big City eco café movement, and will be host to the Schumacher lectures on October 13. Helen was also able to point out some of the guerilla green gardening done by the Transition Montpelier group that has recently turned a derelict blot on the corner of Picton Street and Wellington Lane into an arty area shaded by plants. It looks like a spot now that anyone could enjoy. Go see!

Cut the carbon marchers

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

Since early July a handful of men and women have been walking around Britain on the Cut the Carbon march (backed by Leonard DiCaprio). This event is organized by Christian Aid – 1,000 miles in 80 days – and should take them from Belfast, via Edinburgh and through England to team up with the Labour party conference in Bournemouth on 25 September and then to London for 2 October and the day of the Climate Change Bill (please, don't let this open the door to nuclear).

On our summer travels we saw many posters advertising the Cut the Carbon marchers arrival but always seemed to miss them by a week, so when we realized we could meet and greet them at Bristol and still go to our friends John and Ann’s wedding party it felt like serendipity.

It was disappointing that there weren’t that many at the event in a city of just under 400,000 people – less than 300. Low turnout meant that Nell was able to snaffle some of the cakes made by the Mothers' Union while the rest of us enjoyed a picnic outside Bristol’s cathedral listening to the steel drums go, and later some speeches.

The marchers focused on big picture problems - rather than ones they'd seen on their journey - talking about the destruction of Easter Islands' trees (and therefore micro-climate) in order to make those infamous big and small eared stone head statues and the difficulties changed weather makes to those living in the Congo (DRC), as if there weren't enough problems in that country already.

You can support the Cut the Carbon march virtually by logging on to Christian Aid’s website and joining their shoelace protest or emailing various companies, eg, Barclays and Morrisons, to try and convince business to make more effort to publically explain how they are reducing emissions. The walkers are regular bloggers so you can get the inside story on the web.

Good luck to them all: I so wish I could have joined them but the time just isn’t right.

Crowded train

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three months during the summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint…

It’s a September Saturday and we’re off to our friends John and Ann’s wedding in Bristol. They’ve organized a BBQ and lazy afternoon at Bristol Zoo so we aim for the 10.05 out of Paddington Station. The Circle line seems suspiciously crowded but when we get to the main line station it is a sea of gold and green shirts worn by the crowds of one-time Sydney residents trying to get to Cardiff Millennium stadium for the World Cup rugby match between Wales and Australia. There are probably some Welsh fans in the melee, and less sporty travelers too but at Paddington’s glass-covered concourse it looks as if Australia has the most supporters.

The one charter train has already packed itself to capacity and left for Cardiff which means that we share our service with hundreds of fans desperate to get to the stadium on time. Our carriage is so crowded it would be wrong to sit in all our reserved seats, even if we could persuade people to shift, so we squeeze all four of us on to just two. Inevitably that means we have to earwig the surrounding conversations and that’s how we learn that Australians – when not talking about the rugby – are obsessed by European traveling, budget insurance (eg World Nomad), and have a check list of places to visit while in Britain which includes Brighton, Cornwall, the Regency circus at Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon and a pretty Cotswold village. Edinburgh Festival (in August) and the Munich beer fest (in October) are also obligatory.

Pete regularly travels on trains full of footie fans so he’s not phased by the over-crowding or surprised when our train is unable to pick up passengers at interim stations even ones as big as Reading and Swindon. Instead he enjoys the bonhomie, shared bottles of cider and sport talk.

In contrast I’m shocked that the train companies, like First Great Western, are so untogether that they don’t run longer or more trains to get fans to the ground. These big sporting dates aren’t a surprise so why do train operators let us all down by making zero effort to handle the demand? And why are trains allowed to be so over-crowded in an age when allegedly health and safety is a top priority?

As for the result: a 71,000 crowd see Australia beat Wales (20:32) in an allegedly good game. And because we were cheek by jowl with the Ozzies for most of the journey we can’t resist shouting a good on yerrrrr - even though we're now having a nice day at a white wedding.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

We're back

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell want to travel the world with a difference. We hope to get a taste of many countries without adding to climate change (with needless emissions from aeroplanes) or having to waste hours of holiday time in airport terminals. We hope our adventures inspire you to take a Grand Tour of your neighbourhood whatever the weather. This post is from Nicola (pic is of Nell with the first egg laid by our hens after their three months B&Bing at Freightliners Farm)

Even if I've been a bit dreading the end of our trip - and then we all had the terrible down of Pete's dad dying - the girls are thrilled to be home. They've loved travelling but to come home and sleep in their own beds with all their favourite toys was a fantastic excitement for them. And the next will be meeting up with their friends.

But they forgot all this as we got closer to London on the train. It was London herself they were looking forward to seeing again. As early as Broxbourne, which is way out, they went into excitement overdrive impatiently waiting for the suburbs to get denser and the green of the Lea Valley to fade to grey. Nell got very confused when Lola said this was Greater London so we weren't home yet as we lived in Inner London."

"My bit of London is great too," Nell said loyally, even though she hasn't been there for three months.

Without taking her eye away from the window - she was looking for Enfield which we explored in early June on the way to Milann's 9th birthday party - Lola explained, "But in London language Inner means great too," which definitely reassured Nell.

With that cleared up we still had to wait for another 15 minutes after Tottenham Hale before we pulled into Liverpool Street. Sometimes time goes-so-slowly; it seemed to take an age waiting for landmarks to ohh and ahh over. But eventually The Gherkin and Canary Wharf edged on to the skyline and then we were in a tunnel and finally London.

Loaded down as ever (we'd detoured from King's Lynn past Bishop's Stortford to pick up our mice cage, plus food and bedding, homemade jam, new outfits for the kids and a riding hat) we treated ourselves to a taxi home.

London's streets seem so narrow, and our black cab driver - who'd driven past the Queen that morning -told us how Arsenal was being bought by the Russians, etc, etc. Being London it all seems the same and yet in just a few months things are utterly different. Even the colour of our front door - which I'd forgotten I'd painted.

It's good to be home, but I don't think I want to unpack our bags just yet - after all there's a lot more of Britain to see, and we only detoured past 35 other countries which has left us with the sort of travel bug you don't mind having.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Things change

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell want to travel the world with a difference. We hope to get a taste of many countries without adding to climate change (with needless emissions from aeroplanes) or having to waste hours of holiday time in airport terminals. We hope our adventures inspire you to take a Grand Tour of your neighbourhood whatever the weather. This post is from Nicola

How things change. Lola, Nell and I were just due to go from Bishop's Stortford station up to London and home when Pete's Dad, who is 80, fell seriously ill. The advantage of three months travelling is that we could immediately set off in the opposite direction for his home in Norfolk. Very sadly Dennis died at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn the next day.

It's left everyone here at his house (where we are now staying) feel empty, sad and worn out - and perhaps even more aware that if you don't enjoy what you can, when you can the opportunity all too soon slips away.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Today we go home

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell want to travel the world with a difference. We hope to get a taste of many countries without adding to climate change (with needless emissions from aeroplanes) or having to waste hours of holiday time in airport terminals. We hope our adventures inspire you to take a Grand Tour of your neighbourhood whatever the weather. This post is from Nicola

Mixed emotions for us all as Lola, Nell and I head back to home in London - Pete opted to be in the advance party so we won't get to experience an unusally silent house with piles of post, unfortunate dead insects, empty fridge and three-month-old mould covered dishes in the sink.

This wouldn't have happened anyway as my friend Tom who was staying there all summer only moved all his stuff out yesterday. He says he likes the area so much (to his surprise?) that he's opted to rent another place nearby. And also various lovely neighbours, but especially Nicolette, have been tackling post piles and overflowing water butts.

For the past five days the slow three have had time in Hertfordshire to join in a range of community fundraisers, chat with Granny Fiona, enjoy Anthony's delicious feasts, play with one-year-old cousin Jago, raid the secondhand shops in Bishop's Stortford, swim, swing and make blackberry jam.

I tend to worry about things one thing at a time (to the detriment of the future maybe) but my biggest concern today, five hours before we leave for the train is how I'm going to drag our backpack and extras up to London while keeping the mice and kids safe, and the jam upright. Once this is done roll on the rest of the things that matter - from traffic calming and world peace to when my organic veg box gets delivered again.

There are lots of jobs for September - back to school obviously - but also an autumn pulling together this travel blog into something that makes people really, really want to visit Britain, or at the very least capture the pleasures of travelling around it. And that task is obviously a lot more hard graft than the exhilarating freedom I felt from being agenda-free and on the road...

I think the girls feel the same way as they've already been suggesting places they'd like to go or see next summer - Chester, Taransay, Ullapool, Bristol, Cornwall, the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Isle of Wight, the New Forest etc, etc. We've been very lucky, not a single dud stopover, even during the wettest British summer since Celia Finnes did her epic ride around England in the 1690s (a mini ice age). Then again we've got Gore-tex, trains, mobile phones and daily newspapers so the odds were high that we would have an easy time.

What we haven't been able to do is pick out a highlight. Excellent moments included walking much of Hadrian's Wall; seeing a Roman slipper being removed from the mud at Vindolanda; spotting lots of live wildlife (eg, hare, deer) and farm diversification wildlife (buffalo, ostriches); going down a coal mine, and completing the Power Tour. Big days out may be memorable, but simple pleasures like going for walks with a borrowed dog, or playing in a ditch - preferably with a rope swing over it - are what Lola and Nell enjoyed the best. Clearly there's work to be done in our tiny garden and some rescue pet centres to visit.

Here's a huge thank you to everyone who helped us, but most especially the people who lent us their houses (plus pets and vegetable gardens), showed us the places to go, or had us to stay.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Teddy bears' picnic


Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell want to travel the world with a difference. We hope to get a taste of many countries without adding to climate change (with needless emissions from aeroplanes) or having to waste hours of holiday time in airport terminals. We hope our adventures inspire you to take a Grand Tour of your neighbourhood whatever the weather. This post is from Nicola

It’s all part of the excellent Little Hadham parish plan that we are turning up by the Millennium Wood in Bury Green for a teddy bears’ picnic – a free event for those with bears. The last time we were here it was for a polo match that only locals were invited to watch (held at Easter).

Lola and Nell are excited by the idea of a teddy party and ensure that my sister Eliza’s two bears get a makeover from Granny Fiona’s bit bag, and looking much smarter than they have for some time a sandy creature (Eliza/Hagrid) and a brown straw stuffed creature are soon in smart enough outfits to go down to the woods in.

Lola is in charge of Eliza’s old bear and is lucky enough to find it is the biggest – a bit impractical as we have to walk home with him later – but she also wins a beautifully designed teddy plate commemorating the occasion.

Nell is happy too because she’s picked for the magic show (note to Mums, dress your kids in red it’s a sure fire way to get them invited on to the stage, though white and every other colour works too…) and then wins a giant paper fiver that the cunning magician, Mr Ted, says her mum will swap for a real five pound note.

Even though I don't live here, I've lived in this area long enough while growing up to know enough people to really enjoy joining in. I absolutely love events like this - where there's a chance to get to know people, and zero pressure to contribute lots of money (unlike PTAs say). The organisers also have a brilliant recycling system - four dustbins labelled paper, cans, plastics and bottles - placed in the centre of action. Anyone could copy this idea, and I certainly will at the next event I find myself embroiled in.

Besides all the other pleasures - a family friendly event, old friends, prizes, veggie burgers on the BBQ and a fun trail to get you walking around the handsome wood (with wishing tree, lollipop tree etc) there was an ancient red London double decker bus (159) owned by a local man used to get visitors to and from the party via the village hall. Another brilliant idea, and free.

Family lunch

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell want to travel the world with a difference. We hope to get a taste of many countries without adding to climate change (with needless emissions from aeroplanes) or having to waste hours of holiday time in airport terminals. We hope our adventures inspire you to take a Grand Tour of your neighbourhood whatever the weather. This post is from Nicola

Everyone says there have only been four good summer days this year in the south east and we are enjoying two back-to-back when an impromptu gathering of family occurs for a big outside Sunday lunch by the pool. There’s mum, her significant other, Anthony who is today's star chef (for that many thanks!); my brother Drew his wife Kate and their one year old Jago; Kate’s sister Hattie and her daughter, Izzy; my two girls and me. It’s sunny, no one’s at work and there’s just enough food to be turned into a feast that covers the trestle tables and some good wine.

I take some snaps of the six adults and four children around the table and reckon it’s as close to a magazine’s dream Mediterranean dining scene as I’ve ever been in, almost Tuscan even (though the nearest I’ve ever got to this area of the map before is Islington’s Upper Street and the infamous Granita restaurant where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did that deal). The conversation is lively, there are no tantrums and we eat in the recommended slow food manner – lots of chat and fork tines tinging as we chase tasty morsels around the plates.

Granny's moving house

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell want to travel the world with a difference. We hope to get a taste of many countries without adding to climate change (with needless emissions from aeroplanes) or having to waste hours of holiday time in airport terminals. We hope our adventures inspire you to take a Grand Tour of your neighbourhood whatever the weather. This post is from Nicola

Since I was four years old my mum has lived in a lovely spot in Hertfordshire, not far from Bishop’s Stortford, but now it’s all change. She plans to move to what seems at first impressions to be a thriving villagey-town, Buntingford, once some work is done on her new home.

We’ve seen the new place twice now, once to admire and now to gawp at what the builders are doing to floors and ceilings. But we also got to clear out the pond weed; paddle with ducks by the river and arrange leaves in artful Andy Goldsworthy-type circles on the lawn. The cottage looks the sort of place that my mum could be very happy and Lola and Nell already have good memories as this is the place where they are able to purchase both mice and mouse supplies. I especially like the fact that there are no planes flying low and noisily over – something her “old” house is blighted by thanks to the seemingly endless expansion of Stansted Airport.

Strangely it is also the town where I first went to nursery school, so we are all coming back home too. I dimly remember Mum dragging my reins to stop me delaying her anymore as I climbed on and off the steps that jut out into the streets from the older houses. I also remember being shy at the nursery school when I looked at the other children (aged maybe three or four) and thought they looked so confident that I didn’t plan to even attempt to play with them.

There are times even now – more than 40 years later – when I feel exactly the same way about groups. You’d have thought I might have learnt to be a bit more skeptical about social glue by now.

Midnight walk

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell want to travel the world with a difference. We hope to get a taste of many countries without adding to climate change (with needless emissions from aeroplanes) or having to waste hours of holiday time in airport terminals. We hope our adventures inspire you to take a Grand Tour of your neighbourhood whatever the weather. This post is from Nicola

It’s 10pm and I’ve just got back from taking Lola and Nell on their first dusk-to-dark nature safari. We crossed the common at dusk dodging puddles left in the ruts of 4WD while admiring the mist that had hangs like a willow the wisp across this area making it feel very spooky. But this isn't a ghost walk, so to cheer the children up we walk on the road past Norton Cottage where the owls are shouting out for company and then out into enough open space to see the full moon rising, and then getting caught up in the hornbeam trees.

Hearing the owls reminds Lola of the time we were camping by Ullswater in the Lake District and she was woken on a wet night by a hungry owlet barracking its parents for food. Owls don’t fly when it’s wet – presumably because the voles don’t show – so this poor owlet would have had two choices: pester power or munching up its sibling (assuming there was another in the nest). Lola was too sleepy to realize this and just sat up in her sleeping bag to say loudly, but politely, “Please can you stop making that noise.” I think it worked, anyway we all fell back into a very fretful sleep and the next night the little owl wasn’t so persistent.

The big block is a mile best walked anti-clockwise. It can be busy but at this time of night on a bank holiday Saturday there are only two cars. As they pass we press ourselves into the verge, me hoping they’ll dip their lights when they see my pale trousers. But when the road is restored to its usual tranquility we get to see lots of bats using the silvery lanes as if they are they are selecting insects from the pick and mix counter.

We then turn right and out into the country with a stubble field to our left and hay-scented golf course on the right. Wherever there’s long grass on the roadside verge the crickets are up for it, shouting and partying. But all’s quiet in the stubble tonight: yesterday there was a couple working the north west corner by the passing point with a huge metal detector. I think all they got was mud on their boots.

As it grows dark the golden light shillueting SPELLING the far hedgerow closes down the colours into a grey blue and then inky night. On the golf course the grass is now soaked by dew and the moon gaining enough strength to give us moon shadows.

"It looks like the moon is a planet," said Lola teasing me, she knows I get very mixed up dealing with the solar system. Nell agrees and I resolve to learn them once and for all - I'm sure there's a nymonic SPELLING where John Likes Susan's Violet Eyes to help me finally get those planets under control.

Then just as the kids grow tired and we can spot more stars than planes (hard near Stansted Airport on a bank holiday weekend) we are over the five-bar gate and into the farmyard. Here the children turn on their torches so they can dodge the giant puddles and avoid the pond. Now we are on the final straight – strolling up the lane arm in arm listening to a neighbour’s teenagers celebrate GCSE results with a loud – and good – rendition of I would walk 500 miles by The Pretenders. It's a good choice!

Back home Granny Fiona is mystified by a walk in the dark: the terrace is her night time limit. Yet when pressed she says she enjoyed night fishing as a child on Strangford Lough, in Northern Ireland, and coming back by the moonlight with the oars dripping phosphorescence. Our midnight safari is not nearly so glamorous, but what a fine way to end a summer’s day.