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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.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Wild flowers are what we want

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

Much of north west Norfolk is an agricultural desert for most birds and insects which struggle to cope in the over-pesticide drenched fields, under the plastic-forced veg or the bare soil, so it was a delight to go for a walk over the permissive paths at Courtyard Farm, near Ringstead. Courtyard Farm is run by Greenpeace's former boss, Lord Melchett on organic principles.

We took a two mile loop over Ringstead common (which is almost hilly and smelt intoxicatingly of hawthorn blossom, aka May) and then across several stunning hay meadows awash with flowers. Supposing we'd strayed from the path it would be impossible not to crush the many flowers - cowslips, ox-eye daisies, vetches, scabius. The fields aren't just eye candy for visitors, we enjoyed hearing larks and learning from the useful free leaflet provided at the car park.

"Artificial fertilisers actually kill life in the soil. English partridge chicks need to eat insects in the first weeks of their life, and chemical sprays kill insects. so baby partridges, tree sparrows, corn buntings, yellow hammers and skylarks starve to death. Weed killers kill the native plants that hares and turtledoves depend on."

"50 years ago, most crops were planted in the spring, and fields left over winter provided food for wildlife. Now most crops are planted in the autumn and the sprayed fields provide no food for wintering wildlife. So birds and other animals have declined because adults starve to death in winter, and their young starve to death in the spring."

"Over the last few years we've seen wildlife return as we changed to organic farming. We have stopped using artificial fertilisers, and sprays that kill insects and weeds. Life has returned to the soil... We have 4 times the number of skylarks and 3 times the number of hares since we started to go organic..." In 2002 there were 90 partridges (the low point was just 16 birds in the 1980s).

Melchett clearly loves his land, it must have been his vision of Courtyard that helped inspire his brave anti-GM crop campaigning. He also got a Bill through Parliament that prevented some birds, eg, curlews, being shot.

"Many do not accept that modern farming has done all this damage, and have put the blame elsewhere. People walking in the countryside are accused of disturbing wildlife. More popular villains are magpies, crows and foxes....

Melchett reckonsthat: "organic farming provides more jobs, far better welfare for farm animals, uses less energy and produces healthier, tastier food..."

If this is true (and I obviously think it is) why can't all farmers be like this one?

And why do shoppers think it is OK to buy so much cheap meat farmed horribly on land that was once rainforest, then flown in all the way from Argentina? It's enough to make me want to pick an annual meat budget (say #100 and then just enjoy tucking into a few tasty, well farmed UK-raised, memorable dishes over the year).

The only other meadows I've seen like this were in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, near Malham Tarn, owned and managed by the National Trust. As the springs pass I hope I'll see many more.

If you want to see the flowers, and don't like picnics, you can also treat yourself to a posh lunch, and local ale, at The Gin Trap, Ringstead. And if you don't happen to be in the area on a Wednesday afternoon when you can buy organic beef, pork and lamb from the farm, then purchase freezer packs at the superb General Stores at Ringstead (open seven days a week stocking basics, papers, Post Office stuff and affordable antiques). Price list from Robert Giles, 01485 525 251, couryardfarm.organic@virgin.net

Pony girl thinks Olympic

Pete, Nicola, Lola, 9, and Nell, 6, spent three happy months during summer of 2007 traveling around Britain. Now we’re home, but the travel bug is still there. Join us for the occasional sightseeing plus tips on how to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola (pic is at fence 12 in front of Houghton Hall).

I played a wicked trick on my family to get them to go to two days of the three-day international event at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. It's the second year this has been held and rain is becoming a firm tradition. All I had to do was pretend I didn't want to go to see the show jumping on the final day in order for the others to launch a campaign persuading me that I did... eventually I let myself be talked into day two.

Luckily the first day (saturday) was gorgeous and we were able to all walk the cross country course watching some great horses and Olympic hopefuls for China 2008, including William Fox Pitt, Jeanette Brakewell, Oliver Townend and Sharon Hunt.

Equestrianism is the only discipline where men and women compete equally - thus a good one to share with your children.

On Saturday we plopped ourselves on a picnic rug by the water fence and enjoyed seeing the riders tackle three complicated fences, patting other spectators' dogs and cooing at the ducklings on the pond. On Sunday we ducked between the beer tent and umbrellas to watch damp horse and rider combos trying to make a clear show jumping round in a very tight time. Bliss for me; not sure if the family will fall for this horsy trick again though...

Out in the park

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

I Love Parks Too event is coming up soon (14 June, noon-4pm), designed to tempt people on to those big green scary spaces that many wrongly think are littered with dog poo, insects, fag ends and forgotten baby socks. At Highbury Fields, near me, on the Saturday of Love Parks week (14-22 June) there will be music, loads of free activities (eg, face and leg painting so you really can turn your tot into a wild tiger or a hairy monkey) and stalls run by community groups. More info from the ranger on 07825 098451.

My family mock me for prefering the parks when it's raining and they aren't so full, but fiesta style days are a great way of seeing just how many people value our fantastic urban breathing spaces and how much children enjoy the chance to be outside, playing. Best of all Londoners have got lots of choice about which park to stroll around - pity New York with just the one, Central Park (as seen in the latest Sex & The City movie).

The UK has all those other type of parks too; posh people's playgrounds surrounding a stately home. The pic of bracket fungus on a splendid old oak tree is from Houghton Hall (you say How-ton) built by Britain's first PM, Sir Robert Walpole in Norfolk. Walpole had to shift the villagers to keep his park public free (a bit worse than paying #10k for a new kitchen in your second home I feel).

Nowadays the Marquess of Cholmondeley (you say Chum-ley) positively touts for visitors over the summer to help pay for this Palladian mansion's upkeep. The house and gorgeous walled gardens are open on wednesdays, thursdays, sundays and Bank Holiday mondays.

Waiting rooms

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

I hate waiting normally, but it's different at Cambridge station waiting for a train in the mock (c1945) panelled room by AMT's 100 per cent fair traded cafe. There's ethical ice tea for starters, but better still an atmosphere (thanks to a few framed photos) that almost transport you to Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard's famously Brief Encounter at Carnforth station. There's the endless announcements for journeys half-remembered, never taken, anticipated.

Lola, Nell and I have to spend an hour here waiting for Pete to drop something off. By the time he's ready to catch our train home we reckon the AMT franchise needs to cordon off a floor sitting space for kids to flop on; add some shelves of books and open the windows. I'd also like an area to dress in glamorous tweeds, so I can take a snap of myself with lipstick and a big engine backdrop which can be emailed/texted off to friends. Or maybe these waiting rooms could be filled with manuals - how to change a tyre, how to stop stockings running, tips for using up leftover fruit and bread, or atlases so you can mug up on pub quiz questions/holiday geography?

Our ideas were for simple stuff that doesn't involve eating... and enables the people who just can't relax to spend every waiting moment on a learning curve rather than an anxious gap between rush hours.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

I can fly this plane

Nicola and Pete, plus daughters Lola, now 9, and Nell, now 7, spent last summer exploring Britain in a carbon-light manner. Now we're home but the travel bug is still there. Join us for occasional sightseeing, plus tips onhow to shrink your carbon footprint. This post is from Nicola

At last here's a flight my family can take. Not only is it carbon zero, you also get to pick your seat - I'm sure Pete will want to be close to Time Team's Tony Robinson. Best of all it's a virtual trip, so no risk of irritating neighbours or turbulence terrors. This plane ride is captained by Friends of the Earth in a bid to get Government to include aviation emissions in their upcoming - and rather delayed - Climate Change Bill. Head for it now...

There's also three in-flight movies to enjoy at YouTube, find the Westminster jet crasher; the Cockney Queen and the naked flight. Aside from all those campaigners who fly around the world to the climate COPs (though they needn't December 2008 as the meeting is in Poland) how often do you get to book a flight with celebs - think Razorlight's Johnny Borrell, Radiohead's Thom Yorke - to help Government do the right thing?

This is carbon offsetting at its best.