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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, 30 July 2007

What have the Romans ever done for us?


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 Pete


Being laid low with cellulitus (thankfully lessening with antibiotics) while the others walk Hadrian's Wall has given me the chance to take the bus to the magnificent Roman forts of Housesteads, Chesters and Vindolanda (so named because of the Romans' love for the native Brits' vindaloos). And I might have been better off with the Romans, having viewed the hospital at Housesteads. Firstly they wore sandals which encouraged air circulation and would have countered my athelete's foot. Plus they had proper hospitals with Greek surgeons, herb beds for alternative remedies and honey to stop infection seeping into wounds. It all sounds like Stoke Newington.

And who said Roman history was boring? Get this, they loved daubing great big willies wherever they went. There's a phallus carved into the Wall at Birdoswald (a comment on the Scots or a statement that a big man builds a big wall?), a pottery penis on display at the Vindolanda Museum and a willie carved into the floor of the headquarters at Chesters. Scholars tend to say these are fertility symbols or good luck charms; but having read the famous Vindolanda tablets where ordinary Romans request beer and the details of any good local inns, my conclusion is that they were simply early readers of Loaded.

Shoes in the mud


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

Good progress along the wall despite our depleted party. Lola, Nell and I have now spent three days in a row pounding westwards from Chesters and have today done a fabulous, albeit short stretch, from Housesteads to Vindolanda. This bit goes up and down so the mileage doubles, crosses a lough we feel sure inspired the King Arthur legend, and goes through wonderful Sycamore Gap (a spot every fan of the movie of Robin Hood the Prince of Thieves will know). I really enjoyed the turf-topped sections of the wall covered in waving grasses, mats of purple thyme and lady's bed straw and beyond that views to die for.

It was also the best bit though I grouchily found that there were rather too many walkers sharing the route with us (ie, about 50 in total walking in both directions, which I suppose is less than the number I see or push past on the way to school when we are back in London...)

And then we veered off the wall to Vindolanda, not sure of what we'd find, and found absolute treasure. Here an archaeological dig is ongoing and while we were there the team pulled out a leather sandal (about size six and therefore a man's). Pete saw it come out; we saw it popped into a plastic bag for recording.

This is also the place where the anaerobic soil conditions (ie, starved of oxygen) have led to the most amazing discoveries: the letters and notes of daily life. It was here that they dug up a birthday party invitation from a lady (not just an obvious sign that Roman women were at the forts - don't tell Hadrian - but also that this Roman woman could write very elegantly.

Vindolanda is a brilliant place, and if you don't want to be a tourist here you can always come as an archaeological volunteer. From our brief visit it is clear that both Pete and Lola are very tempted, with Lola actually begging to learn Latin (they have fabulous primers there including Minimous (aka Minny Mouse) and Harry Potter in Latin. Nell was content with just being an ice cream taster

Got maps and gladiatus


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

Thanks to the National Trail Guide of Hadrian’s Wall Path the fit members of the Baird-May legion (ie, not Pete) are walking east to west (keeps the sun and possibly wind behind you though the rain is intermittent) along Hadrian’s Wall. The girls picked up short swords known as gladiatus after being inspired by the amazing remains at Chesters – a cavalry fort which is now run by English Heritage but very appropriately hemmed in by a stud farm. To keep in the Roman mood Nell and I chose a Roman Adventure (one of the Oxford Reading Tree titles or for those more familiar with these books, the one where Chip and Biff take pizza and banner advertising to the Romans) for her to read out to me while waiting for the bus which is named as well as any pub quiz team – AD122 (ie, the year the wall was “born”).

At first we were studying our big walk route closely, but there’s no need. Hadrian’s Wall path runs beside this World Heritage site and whenever the wall remains disappear (at times you can see its course for miles in the distance), and the southern vallum (ditch) or northern ditch has collapsed there are well way-marked with finger posts. Now we look at the views, look out for Roman legions, runners, gladiators and the forts which pop up ruinously fast in this region – there’s Chesters, Housesteads, Once Brewed, Vindolanda, etc. Nell is in charge of choosing picnic spots as she needs refuelling on the half hour, but then again she is only six and we are expecting her to walk a long way. As I keep telling her “Vi et virtute”. This is the only Latin motto I can recall and I like to translate it as by “strength and courage”, but am happy to be corrected by anyone who studied Latin in preference, say, to geography.

Best Roman museum so far has been at Chesters, and not just because it celebrated Victorian finds by John Clayton, and was adorned with a bat (apparently there are at least 200 more under the eaves). Here we saw buckles and broaches, carvings, pillars, reliefs, a leather sandal, snaffles and horse-laming equipment. But the best story-telling took us to 383AD at Housesteads where the Roman administrator, and one day-to-be-Emperor, Magnus Maximus and a high-class Celtic woman, Valentia, (on the town council, running the inn, collecting the taxes etc) showed us around the infantrymen’s fort with enormous verve. Nell was shocked to be told she might be sold as a slave. In contrast Lola was intrigued by the idea that her “potential” made her surprisingly valuable and of course she already has the assets of being young, able to cook, sew, knit and has a decent set of teeth.

When we’ve had enough the girl gladiators hail the bus with a flourish of their gladiatus (I’m sure it should be gladiati) and we rattle back to Hexham. After learning to cope with the exorbitant Lake District bus fares the Hadrian’s Wall Bus (which also have guides on the 10am service) seems fabulously good value - #8 for returns for one adult and two children; and on Mondays if I spend seven quid on a rover the kids go free… http://www.hadrians-wall.org/ or see Hadrian’s Wall Info Line on 01434 322002. With such a tempting offer you can guess that we will be walking this Monday, whatever the weather.

romans

Feels like the Great Rift Valley


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

Picnicing on one of Hadrian's Walls most dramatic escarpments near Sewingshields Crag, looking at the northern part of Northumberland far below us, the landscape’s dramatic change in level had me dreaming of Kenya and the bits of Africa that the Great Rift Valley weaves across. And this got Lola and Nell thinking about lions, safari and the politics and morals of the Lion King film – and got us singing Akuna Matata (Swahili for don’t worry, be happy) which helped revive our weary feet.

Even on a good summer day, as it was today, up on the tops it is always windy at Milecastle 35, so I am sure it was also a place where many Roman legions dreamt of home. No one has suggested Kenyans served in the Roman army in Britain, but their soldiers were from all over the world – not just France, Belgium and Germany but Iraq, Morocco, Libya and at least 1,000 cavalry men from Sudan. So maybe there is a little hint of Africa on this 2,000 year old border between the barbarians and the “civilised” Roman world.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Next stop Hexham for Hadrian's Wall

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

Hexham – voted best market town to live in by Country Life readers in 2005 and I’m sure they’d think the same again bar the staggering property prices and lack of homes with gardens – is a brilliant town. It’s very nearly the centre of Britain, though this honour is more truthfully held by its neighbour, Haltwhistle. You can even wine, dine and crash at the Centre of Britain Hotel there, see http://www.centre-of-britain.org.uk/. It has a station with links to Carlisle and Newcastle and loads of independent shops. I’ve already bought mohair socks and nettle cheese – both local specialities and eaten at the excellent Dipton Mill Inn which serves Hexhamshire beers and local cheeses, a genuine cheesey pub...

We arrived via the train station - the second oldest in England - but there's still the Abbey to look around, and Hadrian's Wall to walk (using the wittily named AD122 bus [clue: it's the same number as the year Hadrian visited Britain and commissioned the wall]) but we have had time to visit the Old Gaol http://www.tynedaleheritage.org/ which is the most disabled-access friendly museum I’ve ever been in despite being built in 1332. It had a lift taking you to the dungeons and then up two floors in a bid to explain why the Archbishop of York and later the March Wardens needed a purpose built jail – the first in England – in Hexham. Yet again it seems to hang on the activities of the Border Reivers doing reprisal raids and cattle thieving in the debatable lands.

Chasing Harry Potter

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

Lola missed getting Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows one minute after midnight, but she was treated to a hardback copy on the first day it was out. We bought this from WH Smith in Berwick-on-Tweed (we couldn’t find any other bookshop in the town, but this may have been because it was raining so hard we lacked motivation). The shop assistants said they’d sold 450 copies that day – later the papers said more than a million CHECK copies had been sold on the first day. It’s an astonishing success for JK Rowling – and a great relief that she insisted on having FSC certified paper for her book and that… but I can’t tell you the ending can I?

Best museum ever

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

“Excuse me, this is the best museum I’ve ever been to,” said Lola very sweetly to the man on the desk at Tullie House in Carlisle. He beamed and then helped supply the date that Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed at M&S – 1745 – to key in and enable Lola to lift the sword out of the stone on the first floor galleries. Later on we looked for the plaque and were amused to see that Butcher Cumberland had also stayed there, a year later.

At Tullie House www.tulliehouse.co.uk the kids got in free (they were even given a free gift and a sticker when we arrived), the collection is fantastic and brings the area to life. When we left we’d tried out a Roman saddle (they may have worked out how to build roads but they didn’t know how to do stirrups, tsk, tsk); fired a Roman stone shot; found out a lot more about the horrors of living in the Marches (ie, the Borders) during the time of the Reivers from a specially made film; seen a leather post bag hooked on to a train; climbed through a Roman mine and eyeballed various stuffed animals that are distinctive to the uplands and dales of this gorgeous area. And the children got a free gift when they arrived. You must go if you are ever in Carlisle – and don’t forget to look at the Cursing Stone (which I’ve written about before) and have now gone back and eyeballed for the second time. Carlisle is so interesting I feel that I could spend a lot more time there, though I’m sure part of that is pure nostalgia from having a VSO boss who came from somewhere around there. Nell had insisted we went back because she wanted to see the guns at Carlisle Castle and during our second walk around it we ended up in the local militia museum getting a much more English view of the Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie problems (Catholic absolutists according to one of the curators, a Revier named Forster with an r). I still can’t believe that back in June I’d never heard of the troublesome Reivers.

It's a local beach

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

We have just been treated to two luxury days staying with my cousin, Dermot, and his family who live in the Scottish Borders. Their house is fabulously comfortable and they were really hospitable – but we’d just had four days at a youth hostel where living is very spartan so this seemed an extra treat. They also nursed our various ailments through a combination of super-strength cough medicine, a Duns GP for Pete whose swelling ankle looked as if he had developed gout, plus providing perfect entertainment for the kids – swimming, tennis, a giant doll’s house and two black dogs to cuddle.

After we’d bathed in Jo Malone and caught up on family matters we were ready for a trip to the beach to walk the dogs, Bramble and her daughter Mia. Miranda (my cousin's wife) drove us in a Land-Rover she’d bought off e-Bay (and there was I thinking that jeans were a daring purchase) to a spot that only the locals know.

It was a classic Northumberland beach with huge dunes and then miles of sand. In the distance we could just make out the island before Holy Island. We walked up to the fishermen dealing with his lobster pots and then back again – Miranda pointing out the razor-shells that you can apparently lure out by filling their holes with salt, but cannot dig down into the sand and find.

Afterwards we went to a fish stall selling the Eyemouth catch at a farm shop and bought prawns, slices of lobster tails and wild sea trout. This was a real aberration as Pete and I rarely eat fish – I don’t think I have yet this year, and I didn’t last year – so no wonder it felt like an absolute treat. This has to be the best beach walking morning I’ve ever had.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Foot sore


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 Pete

As they say in bad war films: “For you, ze walk is over!” In the best tradition of West Ham signings immediately getting injured, Pete May has succumbed to a pre-season triple whammy of foot ailments. My right foot is swollen, poisoned and maroon around the ankle. The doctor says I am suffering from cellulitus, athlete’s foot and a bruised and sprained ankle. Six weeks in sweaty Zamberlan boots has proved more than my plates of meat can handle.

Cellulitus is an infection of the foot that might have been caused by the athlete’s foot fungus infecting a mosquito bite or a rubbed spot from a dodgy sandal. It’s all been made worse by tripping over a hidden concrete step at Wooler youth hostel while wearing a heavy backpack, straining and bruising my ankle.

So now it’s a two week course of antibiotics and anti-fungal cream for my toes, wearing iffy Clark’s sandals with my foot propped on a stool, lying low in Hexham waiting for the big one - or at least a walk on Hadrian’s Wall - as I listen to the Hold Steady (our hosts are hipper than me). Nicola says it’s all down to my poor personal hygiene (surely washing once a year is enough?); I say our itinerary allayed to youth hostel mattresses would have had the SAS on antibiotics by now. Travel is inherently dangerous; both the girls have had tonsillitis, while Nicola is suffering from a persistent “productive cough” ever since our four days loitering within tents by a flooded Ullswater.

And how does anyone in the Scottish Borders ever get treated? On Saturday and Sunday there were no doctors in Greenlaw, Coldstream or Duns, while on Monday the entire Scottish NHS declared a public holiday and closed all its surgeries. Even the pharmacy was closed. The only appointment for Tuesday was at 2.30 and while we were waiting in Duns we noted that the café was closed because the owner had been taken to hospital and the pub was shut due to flooding. Forget Nashville; all the ingredients for a perfect country song can be found trying to find treatment for a septic ankle in Greenlaw.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Into the poison garden

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 Lola

This is a cautionary story about Qhat (pronounced cat).

Once upon a time a man went into a poison garden and he saw qhat. He asked what's qhat doing here - in a cage - I've been feeding it to my mates and telling them it is harmless. So the man taking him around says it produces lung cancer, heart disease and makes your teeth fall out. So he had to tell his mates that they were going to get lung cancer, heart disease and their teeth would fall out.

Some other poisonous plants to watch out for - info learnt at Alnwick Garden - are deadly nightshade, ivy, hemlock, dock, stinging nettles, rhubarb, foxgloves, giant hogwee, mandrake and angel's trumpet.

Flying owls

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 Nell and Lola (pic of Nell with a barn owl)

Nell: It was fun flying an owl. I had to wear a big glove and then the owl flew over to me really fast (and quietly) and the man gave it some food to help it get lots of energy. Harry Potter had a plain white owl with a bit of brown on its head but my one wasn't snowy white.
Lola: They look heavy, but they weren't. It was strange. I know you shouldn't, but I'd still like to keep an owl as a pet.

Knight's quest

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 XX

COPY TO COME

I want a treehouse

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 (looking inspired in the pic despite three sleepless nights in a row)

The treehouse at Alnwick in Northumberland is spectacular - and the biggest in the world. I didn't just enjoy visiting it - trip-trapping over the rope bridges, admiring the giant chairs or winding your way up to the crows' nest views - I've now got something to think out how to squeeze into our pocket home in London (other than world peace, education, and climate change concerns) as I lay awake failing to visit the land of nod.

For my friend Fiona

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

At last we've got to walk around in your old manor, Berwick-on-Tweed. In fact we went on a mini pilgrimage there to buy the latest Harry Potter and found that WHSmith had sold 450 copies on the very first day of the book's release. Lola hasn't lifted her head out of the book since we bought it for her and will require a lot of bribing, coaxing, pocket money raises to prevent her telling us the ending when she finishes it... all too soon.

The good news is that we've found a ruined peel tower that we think you should snap up and turn into a holiday home... As you said about Mottingham, we can't afford not to.

Practically ever since I met you I've been meaning to visit your old haunts and I have to say that I'm dead impressed. Chips in Seahouses; a picnic on Holy Island with castles behind us and infront of us, fab food and friendly people - really Northumberland is perfect. Thanks for being the inspiration to get us here!

Crossing the border

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 (here's Pete in Berwick-on-Tweed, Northumberland minutes after crossing back from Scotland)

By train you just don't notice the border, but if you go by road from England into Scotland then you are in for a treat. First a warning notice that in a mile you'll hit the border and then at 60mph you can enjoy flashing past the Scottish blue and white flags. You can even park at a border stopping point and take a photo.

But coming back there's far less fan fare and if the van selling styrofoam cups of tea has closed then there aren't even any flags (though they use a Union Jack not the red and white cross of St George). This is a terrible anti-climax, but must be a legacy of history, for the locals reckon you are in Northumberland first, Britain second, England last. And for that reason there are days when you might also snatch a glimpse of the Northumberland flag, which from a distance looks like yellowing teeth in rotting orange gums. Up close it's a great deal more regal - and one you will find on car bumpers and house windows throughout the county.

Feeding seals in the harbour

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

Nothing beats the feeling of being in the right place at the right time. And today we did this: turning up just as the old boy who runs the fish stall on the harbour front was chalking up that he'd reopen when it stopped raining. We'd come to Eyemouth, the first Scottish town after border, after hearing that you could dangle bits of mackrel on a stick over the harbour wall and see them being eaten up by some seals.

Of course we didn't believe this. But we came anyway (it's just by the Contented Sole pub) and now our provider of fish seemed to be shutting up shop. At just that moment a sleek, grey seal head bobbed up in the harbour, and then another. Seals are enormous - far bigger than the children - and these ones had the most appealing faces, quite friendly and dog-like with mottled waistcoats and nostrils they can open and close with dramatic precision.

"They've all got names," said the man - practically frozen as though it's only 14C today it's cold enough and wet enough to make your fingers tingle and your nose run. We looked down at the four bobbing blubber bodies and ahhed enough to make the old salt melt. He handed us a packet of chopped up raw fish in a dripping plastic bag of blood which normally veggie-fanatic Lola wouldn't dream of touching. But given the chance to feed seals she latched the fish on to the clothes peg and dangled it over - soon finding new names for the four gorgeous seals below us. There was One Eye, Thin Face and TO COME.

We spent a long time dishing out our mackrel and then admiring the seals below us. It was magical - the best #2 I've ever spent. Of course if we'd been really canny we'd have arrived in dry weather (!) and watched someone else pay for the privilege. Meanwhile the seals of Eyemouth are on to a very good thing, not so long ago the fishermen used to shoot them - now you pay for a pot of sea food and get a free bag of fish bits to provide them with snacks. Result: seal satisfaction, plus (possibly) the best fed seals in Britain. If you can't see them bobbing around in the harbour then they'll be lying on the rocks trying to digest the quantities of fish they are gifted by the new generation of seal hunters.

As a way for fishermen to make money this is brilliant. Pete says he's seen something similar in Australia at Penguin Beach - there are so many tourists for the feeding parade that the locals have knocked up a stadium. Further north entrepeneurs are feeding chickens to salt-water crocodiles which makes for a dramatic animal-feeding highlight in a tourist itinterary. Unfortunately it's also causing fishermen - especially the occasional fisherman - to have the biggest scare of their lives when they dangle over a bit of bait and find it snapped up by a mega-sized crocodile. Then again that story might be a total fable, and Australian urban myth, told only to the raw prawns at the barbie.

But the seals were real. Get up here and see for yourself.

Water garden

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

Alnwick Gardens - the amazing 12-acre creation of the Duchess of Northumberland funded by European money and NGOs such as Northern Rock Foundation - is deliberately focused around water, http://www.alnwickgarden.com/about_the_garden/index.asp. While the rest of England seems deluged - Worcester, Battersea are apparently flooded - up in Northumberland they are coping fine with rain, indeed they are used to cold, wet summers.

On the hour, and half hour, the fountains on the cascade are set off by computer and either bubble their way down the waterfall in the manner of a great French palace, like Versailles, or they shoot spurts on to the pavement soaking the innocent who screech in shock. At the base of the fountain is a huge pool with water draining off the walls which children are encouraged to play in.

About 20 solid-looking plastic diggers are parked there and the kids pedal from one side to the other with cargoes of water they have collected, usually getting wet but invariably grinning from ear-to-ear. You'd have to be a strange child not to enjoy doing this water shuttle all day, every day. Even in their raincoats the kids look as happy as children in India celebrating the first rains of the monsoon.

In contrast all those families who have either had to move out of their homes or got stuck on roads thanks to flooding must be loathing the recent deluges. As ever for anyone with insurance it's always alright in the end - albeit inconvenient for days or months - but with so many floods this year I think we can all expect higher premiums, and less coverage from the insurance companies at our next policy renewal date.

In Northumberland the farmers are very worried about the weather spoiling their crops. This is the time for the silage (grass) to be cut and for grains like wheat and barley to be harvested - something that is not easy to do if your crop has been flattened by yet more rain. Potato blight is also a risk too as the endless rain is washing off the chemical treatments conventional farmers rely on to keep this in check. People's immediate misery from heavy rain is of course the most newsworthy, and provides better pix, but bad harvests are in the long term much more worrying for us all.

I want to find out if this year's wet weather results in more people flying off to drier parts of the world for their holidays... I'm hoping it won't. But I know lots of people feel rain is the big bully that ruins their borders, picnic plans and holidays and thus they deserve a bit of sun, regardless of what it takes to reach that location, or how that adds up to making climate change (the very thing they are trying to escape) worse.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

What's good about youth hostels

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. This post is from Lola (seen here beating Lola at Connect Four)

I like youth hostels because sometimes you get nice breakfasts. And normally you can go out for dinner, and sometimes you can see dogs at pubs, which is a real plus. I like this one because it has got a big space for running around, and there are some books to read (well two!) and youth hostels always have bunks. And mummy sometimes lets me have the top bunk, which I like.
Next door to this youth hostel (Wooler) there are banams with two chicks which are really sweet.

Meeting stilt man

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. This post is from Nicola

Crossing the causeway to Holy Island on foot we were all worrying about tides. Although the tide table assured us the next wasn't due until 5.10pm, it takes ages to walk the three mile route, especially if you get distracted by little terns, crabs, cinnabar moth caterpillars (crowded on to ragwort) or the forests of glasswort on the sea side. Realising that at our pace we'd have no time on Lindisfarne I doubled back, picked up the parked hire car (a strange beast with flat sliding electric doors which make getting in and out of tight spaces easier but seem likely to remove someone's arm at some point), and drove on to the poor crowded island - it gets half a million visitors a year.

And then we saw how it should be done, Pete Thornett towering above us on his bouncy stilts which could surely get him across the causeway whatever the tide height. He was looking forward to the tides coming in so he could engineer a walking-on-water type photo to help raise awareness about epilepsy during his mammoth stilt walk from John O'Groats to Land's End.

Obviously conversation was a bit stilted at first but when his offsider (ie, driver of the van) Laura turned up the girls chatted away finding out which bits of Britain we'd all been to. Nell was delighted to find out that there are other people travelling around Britain and recommended Penrith...

Nell: It was lovely seeing some people travelling around Britain too, especially their van with two beds in. And the van had their blog site on it.

Lola: Cool. His stilts are really bouncy. He could jump so high. They're definitely better than heely's! note from a shocked mother - as he uses pro-jump stilts which cost around #135 there's not a hope... unless Lola commits to washing up every day and foregoing all pocket money for years to come...

When people are ignoring Pete - nearly impossible - he goes back to his van and dresses up in some of his many outfits so he can power back into the lime light. We had a bizarre chat in the Lindisfarne mead shop (specialising in a sweet wine brewed up on site just the way the monks used to) http://www.lindisfarne-mead.co.uk/ about whether a full flashing number or a were-wolf would be best for this island...

You can find out more about him at http://www.dangerous-stiltwalkerws.co.uk/charity or give a donation to Epilepsy Action or another charity working for people with epilepsy, FABLE, via http://www.justgiving.com/peterthornett

Stilt man's outfit, and incredible efforts to fundraise, reminded me of Lola's friend Florence's dad, Simon who took four years to walk around the coast. He painted a picture each day but despite setting himself this amazing task in every pub he walked into the locals weren't at all impressed.

"That's nothing," they'd say shifting on the bar stool. "There was a man in yesterday who's walking backwards around the British coastline..." For Peter the inevitable comparison is to the South African disabled runner who is now taking on and beating non disabled runners. I hope he makes it all the way - either to his target of #10,000 or the 1,200 miles stretch between the tips of Scotland and England,and that this keeps him in many stories for the rest of his life, because as artist Simon found, and Nell's found and stilt man Pete says he is finding travelling around Britain isn't just about exploring it's also a chance to talk to the most interesting, passionate and unusual people. And that journey need never come to an end.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Spanish madness

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. This post is from Nicola (look to the far left of the pic to enjoy the crazy window designs on the Scottish Parliament. Pete is looking longingly towards Arthur's Seat)

Scotland's new parliament building opposite Holyrood Palace may not have many signs up, but it doesn't need them thanks to the crazy, hot, eccentric design provided by a Spanish architect.
Pacing around its fluid roofs, or even driving past in a tour bus or taxi, you know you are in the presence of a building with immense character. It's architecture, but not as most of us know it. An unmissable experience.
The building - housing the 129 SMPs (Scottish members of parliament) was hugely controversial, not least because it cost #414 million pounds, approx 400 million over budget.
Perhaps worse was its late opening (2004 instead of 2001) and the architect, Spaniard Enric Miralles dying early on in the job (July 2001) taking many secrets to the grave despite the project being taken over by his widow Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT/RMJM Ltd).
It won the Stirling Prize for Architecture - nothing else stood a chance really. This is what the judges said about the building: "[it] manifests itself as an attempt at an organic transition between the city and the drama of the Scottish countryside surrounding it" - an effect helped by its landscaping. The ability of both the design and construction teams to realise a building of this complexity is truly remarkable."
We've only seen it from the outside as I wasn't sure that Nell could cope with another shush and listen hour (ie, a tour), but it must be even more stunning inside. She loved slithering down the railed steps at the back of the SMPs' private offices though, and later on clambering up and down the wild flower garden/park linking back to front. And after we'd climbed nearby Arthur's Seat all of us enjoyed reading Scottish truisms and mottos carved into granite on the Royal Mile side as if the building was a book, to be judged by it's cover.
So I did, and this was my favourite (from Gerard Manley Hopkins):
"What would the world be once bereft of wet and wildness?
Let them be left.
Oh let them be left.
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Kilt complex

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. This post is from Nicola.

Everywhere we go we see the Baird tartan - not so much on sale but worn by the ladies trying to flog us a bit of Scottish heritage. In the pic of the Baird (ancient) tartan it is being modelled (for a gent) in a shop specialising in selling rental outfits. I couldn't find any secondhand kilts to fit the girls so had to surprise myself by ordering each of them a new kilt.
If they enjoy wearing their new kilts as much as the naff tourist tartan pom pom hats we picked up in the Royal Mile it will be money well spent, and is of course putting some money into a specialist local industry.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Climbing Arthur's Seat

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. This post is from Nell

Nell: "Climbing Arthur's Seat (251m) was very fun, even though it doesn't look like a seat [or an extinct volcano]. There's a ruin (St Anthony's Chapel) at the halfway point which Lola and I enjoyed. We saw some boys climbing. At the very top it was cold; Skiddaw is even bigger but Everest has snow on it. If you drive a car up there, which I know you can't do, it would be cheating. And there's no road you just wouldn't be able to. You'd have to go over the paths.

At the top we had smarties and shortbread.

I hope everyone climbs it, because it is really fun. You can bring any sweets you like, stay in a youth hostel, have beans on toast for dinner. What's better than that?"

Athens of the North

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. This post is from Nicola

Athens of the North is how Edinburgh is fondly known. Without having Greek aspirations it is hard to be convinced, but from certain angles (eg, the descent of Arthur's Seat) you can see columns, pick out Grecian style temples and chat about Doric and Ionic columns until the Olympics arrives nearby in 2012 (admittedly to London, not Edinb).

However we are determined to get our girls to use a Greek viewfinder and so the picture will helpfully convince them - and you.

Off to New York

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. This post is from Nicola

It's a bit of a cliche in Scotland - finding your family using an American twang - but we couldn't resist going to Gordons's bistro on Edinburgh's Royal Mile which bills itself as part New York deli and part Tuscan restaurant (good marketing) and then pretending to speak Nu Yak. This narrow, mirrored space with railway like seating - two to a side - seems to me as good as New York gets, so we were a little indulgent and pretended to go all American albeit with the help of Italian pizza and wine.

Aping the American state we managed to talk loudly, hold important opinions, chatter on the mobeys (mostly about which class the children were to be assigned when they go back to school in the new term) and generally be a tiny bit irritating restaurant customers. We did a good job...

As you can see from the pic we got there in The Tardis, conveniently parked outside the restaurant. As the kids only know about The Big Apple from a recent Dr Who episode which was set in 1930s depressed New York (the one with the pig men and daleks) it seemed entirely appropriate to make our trip this way.

The last polar bear

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. This post is from Nicola, Lola and Nell (pic reminds you that you should always let sleeping bears lie, ahh)

At last we've seen Mercedes - the last polar bear in Britain. Put another way she is the only polar bear in a UK zoo and at her Edinburgh hill top home acts as an ambassador for all the wild polar bears in the North Pole which are suffering because of climate change. We all feel very lucky to have seen a huge, white polar bear, understand more about the problems they are facing from habitat loss and climate change. And we did that without making a polluting return air trip to Hudson Bay, Canada where other polar bear lovers go. There was one dicey moment when Lola realised that her favourite animal (a polar bear) was being fed raw meat taken from her other favourite animal (horse). Luckily she's got used to the idea that not everyone is a vegetarian - or in many animals's cases can be a veggie.

Lola: "I loved her. Mercedes was a wild polar bear in Canada but she got caught three times eating garbage. She was going to be shot but the mercedes car company gave Edinburgh zoo enough money to get her to Scotland and build a cage for her. That's why she's called Mercedes."

Nell: "You should stop driving cars, and especially flying areoplanes, because if you could see how much pollution we are putting into the air you'd actually give up. Ice melts and the sea level gets higher. And the bottom of the world [the low lying coast land and low islands] might get flooded if we don't stop. That polar bear was very lucky because if she was in the North Pole she could have drowned finding her own food, because the polar bears can only swim a certain amount, but there is more sea now. They have to find food, and it's not easy. And if they have babies, and they're looking for food and they drown then the babies [cubs] will die too because they need their mum to give them food and teach them to swim. And their dad isn't very good with children. You would have thought a dad could look after a polar bear baby, but no. Their life is difference to ours. When a dad sexes with a mum polar bear the dad doesn't just stay to see the babies it goes away, not even hoping to get a glimpse of them!"

Monday, 16 July 2007

Continental breakfast

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. This post is from Nicola (pic shows the girls enjoying the youth hostel's revolving door)

Lola looks suspicious. "You mean people in France eat croissants with cheese and ham and marmalade for breakfast?" Her dad reckons that they probably swap the marmalade for peach jam, but as we are in Scotland there has to be some sort of sop to national pride. Meanwhile Nell (the family carnivore) is chewing at a piece of watermelon. "It's nice. I like the rind, bacon has rind too."

Pete and I think about past, more glamorous breakfasts where we didn't notice children, let alone have to manage ours. Both of us remember being in our late teens (inter-railing), amazed that breakfast could be more than just cereal and toast.

It is sweet that our children are a little phased by the possibilities of eating something different before they clean their teeth. After that anything is fair game - Nell even wanted to eat a chocolate pizza yesterday.

Inspired by this Franco-Scot breakfast the children start noticing that they are one of the few families (today) in Edinburgh's youth hostel that are speaking English. Within minutes we are having to hold them back from the other diners as they are ready to beg with their one perfect French phrase: "Je voudrais un bon bon sil'vous plait."

"Sweets," announces Nell "are the best way to finish a continental breakfast."

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Ice 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. This post is from Nicola

Here's a picture of the old-fashioned way to keep your stuff cool - it's an ice house at Crathes Castle, http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/crathes/crathescastle/index.html. To make one of these you need a bit of ground. Then earmark a patch out of the direct sun, dig a big hole (or use a cave if one is around) and then insulate with turf and grass. During the winter harvest any large chunks of ice from a convenient pond/ bucket etc and then store in this underground room. This is your ice house.

Admittedly it's not Smeg trendy, and it doesn't dispense ice cubes with quite the same clink-into-glass but it is tried-and-tested, and very cheap to run (ie, free). And it's an absolute beauty too with the soft grasses and wild flowers growing all over the roof.

Tanking up on petrol

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. This post is from Nicola

We are over a third of a way into our tour of Britain and have so far bought just three tanks of petrol. I think we may buy three more. (I am not counting the fuel used by the trains or buses we are taking)

So how much will six tanks of lead-free petrol add to our year's or lifetime's carbon footprint? That's a question I need to think about - it's definitely more than we normally use in a year, but it is significantly less than the average family's use.

And here's another one for us to wonder about: what is the right way to offset these extra carbon emissions?

Cosy castle, pretty garden

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. This post is from Nicola






We can't resist castles and Crathes Castle (now Scottish National Trust) http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/crathes/crathescastle/index.html is just down the road. My friend David left saying it was his favourite so we make the trip.

Crathes, the one-time family home of the Burnetts, one of the many Anglo-Norman families that made their defensive homes around here after the Norman conquest in 1066, is exquisite. The house is castle cosy (with big fires and oak masterpieces); there's a framed horn and sash from King Robert the Bruce and a stunning painted ceiling showing the Nine Nobles (three characters from the Ancient World - Hector of Troy, Julius Caesar & Alexander the Great; three from the Old Testament - King David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus; and three from more recent times - King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon (a crusader not a stock cube).
But Crathes real glory is its gardens which were included in Bloomsbury Groupie Getrude Jekyll's 1904 book, Some English (oops!) Gardens. Jekyll's garden views have had a major impact on how we all garden - the little rooms, the colour co-ordination, the drifts etc - and at Crathes you get all this in splendid grandeur and if you are there on a Saturday you are sure to see a bride being harried by a photographer too...

The Scottish National Trust keeps the gardens very well and also provides a little quiz for children which helped us find a planted trough, a millstone path, a cherub fountain, yew hedges, a woodland garden, a golden garden and a dovecot. In the greenhouses Nell was entranced by the colour variants of fuscia and ended up collecting fallen flower heads to make a potion which she wanted to send to her friend Sammy.

Nell's potion recipe: Collect petals in a hat, take home and put in a clean jam jar. Mix with a little water or olive oil and then send to your friends...

Slow down car drivers!

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. This post is from Nicola (pic is of a solar powered slow down sign for drivers [right] which seem to be positioned around every school in Scotland - the schools are on holiday at the moment so we haven't found any working)

Talking to a new neighbour where we are staying I asked what it was like riding a horse around these Aberdeenshire roads - narrow, straight and begging for a flat accelerator. "Oh, it's very dangerous," said the lady (her grown-up daughter does the riding), "everyone visiting just drives too fast. Country people don't do that."

Well, excuse me. The people I know who drive too fast invariably live - or love - in the country. They whizz down their roads at whatever speed they want and are willing to damn the consequences.

As I explained in my book The Estate We're In: who's driving car culture, speed kills. http://www.amazon.co.uk/s?ie=UTF8&search-type=ss&index=books-uk&field-author=Nicola%20Baird&page=1 Roads aren't dangerous, however many bunches of faded flowers you see tied to trees and lamposts, roads are routes, nothing more. Accidents are misnomers too, an accident is a mistake. Driving too fast is likely to cause a fatal car crash - and if this happens to your friends or family I recommend you speak to the organisation Road Peace, http://www.roadpeace.org/index.shtml

But here in Scotland driving with the speedometer knocking seems to be a national past time. The area we are staying in has the highest number of road deaths per year. Some say that's because the roads are bad and should be upgraded to dual lanes. Some say its because other road users (ie, me) drive so slowly (eg, 40mph) they just have to overtake, all the time - regardless of bends, bad light, weather etc.

Five days ago we set off at around about 5.45pm to go to a gastro pub down the lane and a mile of so down the B979, but had to find another way because oncoming traffic was flashing as there was a clearly a bad accident ahead. The next day we found out it was a 29-year-old man from Aberdeen who was driving a Porsche Boxster who'd overshot a corner, tipped into a field, rolled over and got himself killed. A needless, stupid tragedy which thankfully involved only himself.

As I pootle along, not really sure of the roads, looking out for signs, crossing wildlife, eyeballing the landscape, etc, I know I'm irritating everyone who is used to driving around here. Sometimes I think I should drive faster so they don't have to feel obliged to overtake - but up here overtaking seems to be a national sport, regardless of its all too often fatal consequences.

It is strange that there are so many road deaths in Scotland. After all the roads aren't very crowded, compared to London say, and statistically you are at much more risk here riding bikes, horses, probably even walking thanks to drivers' intolerance for slower speeds than in a busy, traffic-choked city. That's a statistic that stinks - and really, it's up to anyone who drives to take a deep breath and think: "Yes, I love the speed my car offers, but how would I talk to the families of anyone I might kill if I went too fast - and was unlucky?" I still can't forget the blackbird I ran over (aged 17), so who knows what it must feel like to live with the consequences of killing a real-live-human?

When my not-yet-40-year-old friend Mark was knocked off his scooter by an old man, and died, I felt pure rage. Mark had signed up to handing over limbs, lungs, heart etc and so his death saved others, and for this we can only wish sufferers more road deaths.

Or I guess we can generously sign up to the NHS's transplant donor scheme http://www.uktransplant.org.uk/ukt/how_to_become_a_donor/how_to_become_a_donor.jsp and keep on driving just the way we like...

Friday, 13 July 2007

Big ship, little ship, bananas

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. This post is from Nicola (pic is of a HUGE boat in Aberdeen's very crowded harbour)

My grandfather and dad used to drive my brother and sister crazy when we were little always hanging around harbours looking at the boats. Now I'm grown up, and they are both dead, inevitably I want to do the family thing of go to harbours and look at the boats. We trooped the girls off to Aberdeen but near the Maritime Museum, with its big focus on oil, though it is a busy working port, with such vast-sized ships, it is also guarded by a major fence and four lanes of speedy traffic and thus the boats aren't really visitable.
I tried to book a boat trip to look at the nesting sea birds along the cliffs south of Stonehaven and down to Fowlsheugh but the skipper, Ian Watson, was busy doing sonar work one day, worried about weather the next and booked up for the third. He reckons the birds (eg, guillemots and razorbills) will be leaving within a fortnight because they arrived early - it's only the kittiwakes who are on a more normal nesting schedule.
Along the Banff coast the harbours attract the tourists but there seem very few boats, they weren't out fishing when we drove past; they'd given up fishing. It seems strange that such an important island skill - fishing - has been so neglected (some might say destroyed) and our fish stocks treated with such disregard.

Local Hero

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. This post is from Pete

"Good sky you got here McIntyre!" One of the best films ever was Bill Forsyth's Local Hero,released in 1983. Numerous Local Hero acolytes now visit Pennan, the small fishing village north of Aberdeen used in the film (the beach scenes were filmed on the west coast). And standing in that famous red phone box pretending to call Mr Happer is an irresistible photo opportunity...
One interesting point is that in the film the phone box is in the centre of the bay. In reality the locals point out it would have blown down there, so it's situated in the lee of a hut opposite the Pennan Inn, now surounded by recycling bins. But still with a great view out to sea. Maybe I'll stay here and work the beach...

Grass roof

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. This post is from Nicola (pic is of our fab housesitting home near Aberdeen)

To the taxi driver I say "And then you see a grass roof". He's not impressed at all. "No, it's cool, it's meant to be grass," I insist, you'll love it... We certainly have and are inspired enough to think we might try and do the same if we build an add on to the back of our house.
Maybe we'll even be able to keep our hens on the roof?

Mr Chips

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. This post is from Pete

We have discovered the country’s top fish and chip shop in Stonehaven. A family can only survive on organic vegetables for so long… The signs outside the Bay chippie proudly display the awards “Young fryer of the year” and “Young fryer of the year runner-up”, won by two of the staff.
We tested their chips and Lola and Nell judged them fried to perfection. Real chunky chips, with no additives and much healthier than fat-laden French Fries. Nell thought her scampi was excellent while my haddock was battered to perfection. Even Nicola ate chips and coleslaw as she enjoyed a rare moment of culinary hedonism. Sitting on the seafront, gazing at red sandstone cliffs and North Sea breakers… it couldn’t be better. And we have told the girls, keep appreciating a good chip and one day you too might be a young fryer of the year…

The things I do for...

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. This post is from Nicola

Well, the things Nell will do for ice cream include walking up hills, down hills, taking big trips on trains, visiting castles etc. Current favourite flavours (as sampled at the stunning Aunty Betty's in foodie town Stonehaven):

Nell: strawberry and cream ideally with chocolate flake

Lola: mint choc chip in an oyster shell (wafer covered in chocolate, coconut and nuts with marshmallow inner)

Pete: rum and raisin

Nicola: strawberry and cream (or chocolate) in a sugar cone

Is ice cream Italian or Russian? It's a constant debate as we make our sweet treat purchases. Nell reckons ice cream makes more sense in cold places, like Russia and Scotland; but I think it's an Italian invention perfect on hot days.

Links with Canada

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. This post is from Nicola (pic is of Nell and Lola looking at a giant redwood/sequoia planted in 1857 by Queen Victoria)

At Haddo House http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/73/ (partly administered by the Scottish National Trust) Nell cannot believe the ballroom (modelled on a Canadian style dance house) has a wooden roof. "It looks like slate," she insists, and it does. But this is cedar, skilfully cut to make roof tiling. The building has been there since Victorian times CHECK and is still looking good, what's more it's got a new lease of life as a music centre. Indeed Haddo is known as the Glynebourne of the north (ie, Scotland).

The Gordon family (now uber-grand Marquesses of Aberdeen thanks to a 1916 gift providing the title in perpetuity) has long links with Canada. Sometimes they've ruled it (as governor-generals) at other times they've sent their black sheep there in the hope they will see sense (eg, woman trouble) or avoid spending money (to sort out debts, death duties etc).

There's obviously a lot of fondness for Canada though and at the bottom of the main staircase you can see a sweet little sledge - ideal for the slopes at Haddo House's famous gardens - which was brought back from Canada and can be made to go even faster if it is harnessed to an obliging dog.

You don't have to use cedar to get the same roof tile effect. In Surrey woodsman Ben Law has used his sweet chestnut to do something similar on his unique house in the woods - the one that viewers reckoned was the best of all the Grand Design TV projects. Surprisingly Surrey is the most wooded county in England (not sure about Britain) and full of sweet chestnut that could be brought back into sustainable harvest management - either for coppicing to end up on your BBQ or for the sort of poles and palings that could create you a ballroom, music room or just a bit of an extension to the kitchen...

Bilberrys for face paint

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. This post is from Nicola

On the vertical walk up to Scolty Hill (299m) - with its fantastic views over Royal Deeside - we took a breather by the purple heather above the Forestry Commission's dull plantings of Nordic type pines. Ignoring the views Nell soon found bilberrys (they grow on acid soils all over northern Europe and also parts of the US)and by dabbing a berry skillfully into her mouth she was able to pretend she'd got a bleeding tongue, a trick that successfully fooled Lola. Soon we were covering ourselves in the purple juice.

I think it might be a bilberry mast year.

Bilberries are OK to eat raw but a much sweeter treat, if cooked with lashings of sugar, in pies, tarts, jam etc. Unfortunately we couldn't collect any as all my available spare plastic bags had been used up to collect Fleur's dog poo. Yuck.

In Aberdeen you can get a ferry direct to Norway. It's strange to think that a city like Bergen (which I've only dimly heard of) is nearer to us at the moment than Birmingham. To help the children understand this we went bilberry crazy... If you can't stockpile bilberrys for cooking then the answer is to use them as face paints, something that I'm sure that every Norwegian child must try out each summer. In Norway the kids have to collect buckets of the tiny dark purple berries as a rite of passage - if you don't you don't grow up, or at least that's the impression I've got from the creator of Moomintroll, Tove Jansson (though admittedly she was Finnish-Swedish).

Once back in the elegant town of Banchory everyone was starved so Lola persuaded us we needed to find a chippy. Of course this was all too easy so everyone bought a packet of chips (except purist me who only eats them three times a year, for what reason I'm not sure and I've only got one munching left for 2007). The hungry three were immune to the stares, but I couldn't help noticing that we did look very odd queuing and snacking with our berry red bilberry stained faces. Standard practice for kids on a long daylight night not so far away in Norway I'm sure.

From Baird to verse

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. This post is from Pete

Interesting to note that in the Baird family chapel one fading inscription reads "Bairde de Auchmedden". Nicola says this is the pre-Norman conquest French version of Baird, although personally I believe it's proof that my Essex pronunciation of "Bairdy" has been correct all along. To use a football hooligan analogy, it seems the Bairds backed the wrong firm in the Bonnie Prince Charlie v English ruck. A bit like supporting Forfar's away crew against the ICF...

Looking for a Baird castle

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. This post is from Nicola

"There's nothing there, nothing left of the castle," says the farmer rather suspiciously. I've turned up at a bleak farmhouse above the little village of Pennan (famous for its star role in the movie Local Hero) trying to untangle the Baird story on this gorgeous bit of Banff coastline. No wonder Wendy is finding it hard to look me in the eye... the castle was trashed after William Baird of Auchmedden bankrolled the wrong side. In other words he supported Bonnie Prince Charlie (the English called him the Young Pretender) in the 1745 Jacobean uprising. This all ended horribly for the Scots (and Charlie's ambitions) at Culloden in 1746.

As a result the Baird family lost the family estates and never really made good again. Still they'd had a good run seeing as they were orginally from Normandy and had gained a castle site, land, money etc as a result of being on the winning side when they came over with William the Conqueror in 1066.

Earlier in the day we'd been round the huge Scottish National Trust owned Haddo House (castle-sized!) which is owned by the Gordon family. They too had joined the Jacobites but somehow managed to get their land back, perhaps by being a little more politically "slippery". However in the Victorian reworking of the interior the five-petalled Jacobite dog rose is proudly used for mouldings on staircases, ceilings, tall boys (cupboards) and even bedsteads, just occasionally you find a rose with six-petals - that's the Tudor rose,clearly put up to keep the Royal visitor (Queen Victoria) and other more English-oriented politicians happy.

In one of the lesser rooms there are 63 watercolours of the castles that used to exist in the county of Aberdeenshire - so I've a fair idea of what a Bonnet Laird castle, such as the one the Baird family built, looked like - straight up sides with the door on the upper floor. Frustratingly Penan is just on the Banffshire side so there is no watercolour of the old Auchmedden castle.

It took me nearly two hours to drive up to the Banff coast in our borrowed car, and it feels light years away from the rest of Scoltand (eg, Edinburgh), let alone London, England. Up here the climate is different, you can see the Northern Lights and you feel a long way from everywhere else. No wonder these lairds answered the chaotic, but charismatic Bonny Prince Charlie's call to arms. You couldn't believe you'd lose.

The current farmhouse - Mains of Auchmedden - looks grey and unwelcoming but the farming couple are willing to chat for a bit over the gate about their cattle. They breed Charolais bulls which are famously enormous. The one in the yard seems to tower over its pen rails and he isn't even a year and one of their prize-winners, Hercules, weighed in at 1,700 kilos. Given that they have so many bulls there's no question of sauntering on to their land (allowed in Scotland!) as we might be seen off in a very undignified, scary manner.

The children have been excited about visiting this spot since we started planning the trip and I feel disappointed that we can't really show them anything, not even a stone. What we need is Time Team to do a dig... Then Wendy tells us that when the Bairds are living at Auchmedden there are always sea eagles - the biggest bird in Britain. The kids and I watched a programme about these enormous white-tailed birds only the other night on TV so we all start paying attention. "I've not seen any," points out Wendy honestly, "I see all sorts from my kitchen window when I'm washing up - boats, porpoises..." It is nice to think of Wendy's spectacular view as she sorts out the dishes.

My line is a junior Baird (as my mum has always put it), more info at http://www3.nbnet.nb.ca/islands/clan.baird/hamish.htm, we belong to the Bairds of Newbyth - excitingly New Byth is just seven miles inland. But William of Auchmedden is a direct ancestor and I am wearing the ring with part of his coat of arms. "Is that a seal?" says Wendy looking at the bloodstone moulding near my wedding band, and in a spectacular piece of stupidity I answer, "No, it's a boar actually."

We ought to laugh but we've only just met in the most peculiar of circumstances - I'm looking for a long gone castle and her home is her castle. I can hear her husband talking in the shed, a little boy is playing in a tractor trailer (a sort of safe child pen) and the nearest bull is listening to the radio.

Her husband comes over and together they show us on our OS map where the remains of the castle should be. I make a cross in black ink.

Then I show Wendy a photo my mum took 10 years ago of a plaque:

"DOMINUS FECIT
Erected to the memory of William Baird, of Auchmedden, Esq, chief of that ancient name. His participation in the rising of 1745 occasioned tohim and his descendants the loss of the family estates, he died at Aberdeen 1777 aged 76. And of his wife Anne Duff, sister of William Earl of Fife, who died 1773, aged 68. And also of Henrietta their daughter, spouse of Francis Fraser Esquire of Findrack, who died 18 July 1801."

"Do you know where it is?"

Wendy and her husband confer - he in such a strong Scottish accent that it might as well be another language. They aren't sure, but give some suggestions away to the west. I have a hunch we should be looking east.

I curse myself for not pestering my mum with minutae of where to find things. Scotland is so big and there are several churches nearby. We've already looked at one in eroded red sandstone and there was zilch. Ripe for conversion? Next door the old school house had already been turned into a family home with dog and washing line.

We take a few timid snaps of the farmhouse and then head into Pennan. The first Baird had built the harbour, but though this is my second visit (pilgrimage?) I can't find the plaque in the photo or any reference to his harbour works.

The pub, in new hands, is the Pennan Inn, and as it's early evening during holiday season the only punters are visitors. Ten years ago I'd propped up the bar with a very drunken oil worker who was back home for shore leave. When I asked, innocently, if there were any sea eagles on the cliffs, he started telling me the story about how there will only be sea eagles when there are Bairds at Auchmedden. It was amazing to be told back a family legend - and now it's happened twice. I hope all Bairds on the family trail are as lucky...

After William was chucked off the castle eventually ended up with Lord Haddo (of Haddo House) who married a Miss Christian Baird (our line) and that's when the sea eagles took up residence again. But I think they were childless - the result the castle (perhaps by now a house not a fortress) was sold to four Baird brothers who'd made their money in Glasgow shipping. I think they have more descendants than my line...

It's time to go home - I pop a symbolic fiver into the harbour collecting box - and then we head off towards big roads. It's quite dark for 7pm, the rain is drawing in, and I'm still not well - wheezing and hawking if I move too suddenly. As we drive past the Mains of Auchmedden I hear tooting - it's from the farmer in the field. He's driving the green tractor now, and Wendy is running behind. We give a big wave. It's a shame we can't join these ancestral dots...

About 10 miles drive down the road I force myself to turn the car around and go back and look. There's a sign that says Old Kirk - and ancient writing on the map. Maybe that's it? The graveyard is well cared for - lots of graves, and close mown grass - but the church is a ruin with no roof. We run around as if we are on a treasure hunt looking for the polished granite plaque. And then bingo - Pete spots a small roofless room at the seaward end, its floor carpeted by five different green mosses.

Inside there's not just our plaque, but three more all with Baird mottos. This is the family vault!

It's run down, the sandstone is being washed away but I can just see the boar, some stars, a spade (that's a new one). Lola and Nell start to interpret: there's a horse because you like riding, tools for growing your veg, a boar - well that's obvious, ha ha, and so they go on interpreting family history with huge pleasure; matching mum to memento mori.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Real food hunt

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. This post is from Nicola (pic is of Nell looking for lobsters down at the harbour)



The directions say turn right at The Ploughman pub, I do this but am completely distracted by the secondary sign that says "a real pub" on a very tackly looking 1970s built, horrible pub in Peterculter. To be fair we haven't been into this pub yet but the incident reminds me of the row Friends of the Earth got into running a 'Real Food Campaign' simultaneously with another organisation promoting 'real food'. Real means different things you see...

What we have found is that if you want to suss out a new area quickly then all you need are the local newspaper and a chance to browse at a local "real" food supplier.

1) Here in Aberdeen the organic, free range egg supplier I've been recommended to visit only opens on Wednesday and Saturdays at a side road you could easily miss on the way to Bridge of Muchalls. Supplies are in the shed but we buy loads of goodies - fabulous lettuce, tomatoes and a dozen of those eggs. They also have Suma supplies, but not the artichoke hearts Lola so loves. We don't need much really as there is a veg garden where we are staying. And we also wanted to try eating at Lairhillock Inn which has a reputation for stunning food, despite its reluctance to let children dine there (you won't find chips or baked beans or plates sized to suit a child's appetite).

2) And if we ever run out of veg then we'll be spoilt for deli choice in the nearby seaside town of Stonehaven. Not only does it have an independent butcher, fishmonger etc, there's also a chippy boasting Britain's 'best young fryer' and Aunty Betty's which sells ice-cream to die for (strawberry, tablet [fudge], banoffee) which is whipped up in nearby Buckie.

3) A few weeks ago we didn't need much at Rheged either - the just out-of-town 'local' shopping experience at Penrith in the Lake District. But the reasons were different: we just couldn't carry it. Rheged is a foodie heaven with an amazing selection of jams, cheeses, meat, biscuits, juices and even English wine. I bought Wild & Fruitful jam because I know it's Cumbrian (and the only other place you can get it is Marylebone High Street) and is an ideal present, even for people who make their own jams.

4) But my favourite foodie discovery was the farm shop by the roundabout on the road from Carlisle-Newcastle, Brocksbushes in Stockfield, Northumberland which was what all motorway pitstops should be: delicious food (cheese scones and coffee with free top ups), fresh fruit and veg (including a strawberry fest) and extremely nice staff. If you are ever in a vehicle this shop is worth a detour - not least because the main entrance has a tree in store, another soothing site for motorway-tired eyes.

Bargain shopping

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. This post is from Nicola (pic of Robbie Burns in Aberdeen with inspired seagull head gear)

Can't help but boast about our most recent shopping adventure in Aberdeen - the granite city. It's the first time for ages that we have been to a place with a good selection of secondhand shops: Oxfam, Cancer Research, Sue Ryder, etc, etc - although the city is bursting with the usual clone-town chains too. It's a very different story 15 miles away in Stonehaven where we couldn't find any secondhand shops at all (though full marks to this town for having lots of independents and for making it easy to avoid supermarkets with its butcher, fishmonger, award-winning deli, and fairtrade Christian cafe full of homemade cakes). It also has an Olympic sized lido full of heated sea water... which you have to try if you are ever in the north east of Scotland (as we've recently learnt there are two north easts in Britain).

In Aberdeen we ended up making all our purchases at just one secondhand shop (something to do with hearts) run by an Irish woman. Here we found a raincoat to replace Nell's waterproof (which we've left accidentally in the Lake District); a jumper for me (I've been so cold up north that I've got a lung infection); another book for Lola, and Pete's annual holiday Ben Sherman shirt purchase. The grand total was #9. Result!

We'd planned to swap our unwanted items at charity shops as we travelled around but as a family with a clutter habit this has proved hard, so some things (eg, books) have had to be posted home to try and keep our luggage manageable.

Trying to limit the kids from their collecting is impossible. In their pockets they now carry around found objects including a fishing float, irn-bru plastic bottle top and bead necklace (Lola) and rusty screw, mini toothpaste tube and piece of string (Nell). I have a feeling that these are the items that they've invested with "tabu" powers - the ones that they will see in the months and years ahead and think, ah, they're my travel talismans, long after the "new" book is read and the new raincoat grown out of (or lost).

Monday, 9 July 2007

Once upon a time

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. This post is from Nicola (pic is of Nelly the Elephant perhaps, definitely not my Dad's Jessica because she's been lost in Birmingham for years, with Nell at the front, Lola behind)

Once upon a time (on a Scottish holiday Monday when Pete was having a hard day at the type face)... Lola, Nell and I were planning to go out for a long bike ride by the River Dee - to practise map reading, cycling etc. But after about two miles on very quiet roads (ideal for cycling using a tandem) we were tempted off the path by a new adventure, the Storybook Glen in Maryculter, not far from Aberdeen, see http://www.storybookglenaberdeen.co.uk/.

Despite the map prep we didn't even know it was there until we saw the signs.

Storybook Glen is one of those bonkers ideas - stick a load of fibreglass nursery rhyme characters around a woodland and then add signs by those that aren't so obvious. This means that Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf are just as easy to spot as Dr Foster (the one who went to Gloucester in the rain). There's a lot of enthusiasm gone into this concept as there are over 100 figures, probably more as there are oddles of pixie, gnome and fairy models spread around the 20 acres. Don't let yourself think it silly, make sure to big it up in the press and charge a lot (#5.60 and adult and #3.75 I think for a child) and the visitors will come. Apparently 150,000 people a year...

"Bonkers" is a rather perjorative term I know, but the Storybook Glen reminded me of the sort of showmanship/exhibition that my dad specialised in (eg, the headless railwayman & the Dracula experience).

Its location is terrific - there's no competition (bar a similar site in Canada), the owners have added on a cafe, gift shop and plant centre and made the whole thing really toddler friendly. Whatever the weather you could visit Storybook Glen and feel that you were having a day out for little Tommy and Tess. I began to fantasise about ditiching everything eco-bunny and doing something similar at my mum's house which I don't think will go down to well... either with her, or the punters if I turn it into a climate change experience.

To wrap up a long story: Lola, Nell and I thought Storybook Glen was great. We visited every figurine, climbed every replica castle (Wizard of Oz, Tower of London, Fairy Palace), rode every wild cat, slithered down every slide and tried all the toilets. If this is the homey version of Disneyland (either in Florida, USA) or France's Eurodisney) then maybe it's not as tacky as I'd imagined to have a completely child-centred expo. The kids loved recognising the characters and reminding me of the rhymes - and judging by the other visitors' chanting so did most adults.

It makes a change for my girls too, who normally have to listen to me blahing on about some historical or geological thing that happened long before they were born at whatever place we've visited (even the seashore). As we strolled through the gardens (the azaleas still had a trace of their intoxicating scent, but the rhodedendrums were over) I was ordered by the girls to take loads of photos - which I'll upload soon.

And reader, if you like it enough you can even get married there posing carefully by the figures that look Disneyesque (but don't breach copyright), thereby avoiding all the hassle for you and your guests of super-airport security at the check-in desk for the Florida flight. You'll pretty much bypass the terrifying dress & looks competition from any other brides too,but still get a venue that is perfect for helping all visitors leave with a "happy ever after" feeling.