A-Z activities

A-Z countries

What's this blog all about?

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

Wednesday, 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.