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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, 28 September 2009

Old Father Thames ain't wet

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell love to travel - but try not to rack up their carbon footprint as they go. Here's how...
If it wasn’t for the pile of dry pale rocks – and the engraved tombstone – by the corner of the wood you’d never guess this was the start of the River Thames. This September there’s no sign of water, although two fields away, at what’s known as the head of the Thames, you can clearly see the course of a river, even if that too is dry.

I’m used to the forceful, grey Thames of central London with its curves, boats and treasure-lined tidal shores, so it’s strange to see around 180 miles away that it starts off as a dry spring leading to a dry ditch. The track beside the outline river is well worn as many walkers enjoy tracking the Thames back to its Gloucestershire source, see how to do this at http://www.thames-path.org.uk/

We cheated the footslog by taking a detour from Kemble train station, following the well-signed Wysis Trail and then left on to the last stages of the Thames Path (about a mile and a half each way) to see our river’s birthplace, marked in marble with "The Conservators of the River Thames 1857 - 1974. This stone was placed here to mark the source of the River Thames". Unfortunately we are in such a hurry to catch our designated train back to London that we have to race the route, as if fleeing from the sort of floods that have recently hit Manila. We do not even have time to chat as we open gates/climb old steps, dodge cows or admire the heron flying by.

I’ve seen a volcano spring out of the sea, spitting red rocks into the Pacific waves. And the girls have seen chicks hatch, pecking and peeping and struggling through the shell. Dramatic enough births to oblige us all to puzzle how the UK’s greatest river (with apologies to the Tyne, Avon, Severn, Clyde and others) can have such a low-key start. Obviously deep waters can run to silt, although not if you’re here in a wet January (or so the potter-postcard seller by Kemble station would have us believe).

Tree heaven

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell love to travel - but try not to rack up their carbon footprint as they go. Here's how...

Walking along the twisting sanded path between some of the rarest, most impressive and unusal trees in the world is a treat. Add autumn colour from mid October through November from Japanese maples and you ‘re in for a sensory treat at Westonbirt, the National Arboretum in the postcard perfect Cotswolds. The collection is split into two enormous woods, the Old Arboreturn which dates back to the 1850s, or Britain’s largest collection of maples (and others) in the Silk Wood - an area so large it can take two hours to tour even without detours and the opportunity to gaze up trunks oohing and ahhing.

Lola’s learning the history of the Silk Road at the moment – the trade route that allowed East and West to switch influences, more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road – so it was no surprise that she turned us towards Westonbirt’s Silk Wood for a Sunday morning stroll. We enjoyed finding the tented weeping holly and a weeping Japanese cherry, the ubiquitous sequoia (not yet super tall but big and soft enough to be easily recognizable). But our party’s favourite – all ex or current Friends of the Earth employees/contributors, bar the two children – was the rare Japanese tree that smelt of caramel/burnt toast.

Westonbirt Arboretum is huge and plays an important role even now collecting rare species, preserving seed and raising super-trees. It’s a tree gene pool but also a feast for the eyes. Autumn inspires many tree events, most you can just turn up for, but see the list here www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt but there’s also xmas lights, winter walks, photo displays, fungi hunts etc. If you’re taking younger children, get your under 5s trying the “exploratree” play area or other activities, see www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt-families.

Like Kew Gardens Westonbirt showcases British gardeners’ ability to grow just about anything, hinting at the English colonial presence all over the world, but it’s also a place you can know nothing about trees or plants and just enjoy a stroll knowing you won’t get very lost, and even if you do someone will be able to direct you to a coffee shop.

And if you’ve never been there before, don’t be distracted by the woods, first go to the Great Oak Hall, open from 10am-4pm, and find out where to see some of the 100 champion trees (VIP trees with blue ID tags) and when to join the free info tours.

Westonbirt Arboretum is disappointingly hard to reach by public transport (and you’ll need to pre book taxis) but if you do arrive by foot – try the Monarch’s Way www.ramblers.org.uk/ out of nearby Tetbury http://www.visittetbury.co.uk/ which bypasses Prince Charles’ Highgrove – then the entrance fee is slashed.

Another country: perfect Costwolds

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell love to travel - but try not to rack up their carbon footprint as they go. Here's how...
“Is it one of the made up Cotswold towns,” asks my London neighbour after I describe a weekend in Tetbury glowingly. I’m not sure about this – guessing one of Oxfordshire’s Upper or Lower Slaughters could have been just to keep the visitors trapped in a Cotswold beauty ghetto – but the old wool town of Tetbury http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetbury is astonishing. We arrive in perfect September sun to see many other visitors enjoying pavement gourmet meals, the public loos are squeaky clean, the postcard recommendation to look out for St Mary’s church and the Chipping Steps easily found. No surprise it is a 2009 Britain in Bloom finalist.

The evening is spent at a perfect wedding held in the nearby Great Tythe Barn – then again Helen and Chris claim they have had 20 years to plan it!

Back in Tetbury central on the Sunday there’s a food festival (with English wines, Highgrove organic produce from the Veg Shed, prize winning local made organic smoked brie) and the village hall has an art show Even the B&Bs are themed – the lovely one we stayed in was pure House & Garden perfection with its low beams, model owner and delicious breakfast; another is above a chocolatier; a third transports you to India through artifacts and incense.

Tetbury has always been the place you might meet royalty – and since March 2008 you can step into the shopwindow opposite Somerfield’s thanks to Prince Charles opening the Highgrove shop www.highgroveshop.com/ . It’s an upmarket style center for modern posh with wooden apple trays, hen-bedecked aprons and pottery tablewear. Old farm tools have been clustered together like decorative weaponry. There are books extolling the organic, country life and I love the fact that profits from the sale of these products goes towards The Prince’s Charities Foundation – an altruistic offer that makes me wonder why people so often slag Charles off (or should I be writing “Your Majesty/Sir??”) as a NEET who is rich (or silly) enough to be not in employment, education or training.


A local resident resists praise for the town too. He claims the problem with Tetbury is it has no middle class, just posh or forelock tuggers, and it’s only really bustling at weekends as the townies drift in for their Saturday of rural unwinding with the very best food. He says I need to get myself to Nailsworth, or read reports of crime from Stroud for a real touch of Cotswold life. Even so, the next visitors I get who want to see a snapshot of old fashioned England –will be given a map to get themselves to Tetbury.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Souk for the soul

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell love to travel - but try not to rack up their carbon footprint as they go. Here's how...

Today spent a happy half hour at my favourite local shop, Unpackaged in Amwell Street, where the food is wholesome and the staff (well Cath) emails you if they haven't seen you for a while - not to chase your cash, but to check that you are OK. How caring is that? The bill is always complicated by 50 pences off each container you bring and 10 per cent Wedge card discount etc, so Cath showed me a calculator version of the final tally as if we were in the souk and I couldn't quite get my head around the bargain carpet I'd negotiated over Moroccan tea. Admittedly I went home with rather less extravagant (and easier to carry) purchases, but it was a lovely out-of-UK shopping moment. I can't promise you'll be offered a repeat souk skit, but there's plenty of other reasons to go to Unpackaged yourself. And it's the shop's second birthday in November too.