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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.

Friday, 23 April 2010

The Lost Garden of Miss Willmott


This post is by Essex Man Pete.

Collapsed cellars, a ruined conservatory, hidden reservoirs, stone paths, cold frames and boating lakes emerging from the undergrowth. If Warley Place were in Cornwall it would surely be the subject of a Lost Gardens of Heligan-style TV series.

Warley Place was a welcome discovery while visiting my late father’s old farm in Great Warley. As a child I remember scrambling up a huge earth bank in Dark Lane and discovering the Narnia-like ruins of an old house in the woods. It was, in fact, the remains of one of England’s finest gardens created by the formidable Ellen Willmott, one of the top gardeners of her day.

Forty odd years later it’s been renovated by the Essex Wildlife Trust. The entrance is next to the busy Thatchers Arms pub.

Ellen Willmott moved into Warley Place with her parents in 1875 and spent a lifetime developing a sumptuous garden. Numerous plants are named after her (the Eryngium giganteum is still called "Miss Willmott's Ghost) and she once employed more than 100 gardeners. She was a big mover in the Royal Horticultural Society and was awarded the Medal of Honour in 1907.

She died penniless in 1934, perhaps having perhaps spent all her dosh on mail-order seeds, and the grand house was demolished in 1939.

The walk begins along the old main road to Brentwood which medieval pilgrims once used when travelling from Walsingham to Canterbury. Past the old crocus field is South Pond, Great Warley’s watering hole in medieval times. Then it's in to the woods and the ruins of the Willmotts’ old house.

The roofless shell of the grand old conservatory is still standing, an evocative sight in the dappled green light. While around it are drops in to the old basements. You can still see the tiled walls of the kitchen and the overgrown alcoves of the old cellars.

Mosaic stone paths have been unearthed by the Wildlife Trust's dedicated staff and the 17th century walled garden is still relatively intact, housing amon others, a palm tree, a ginko tree, magnolias, comfrey and anemones.

The wooded trail continues past wild garlic and the remains of Willmott’s cold frames, greenhouses, and a half-moon shaped pond and a deep reservoir.

Down the hill, the boating ponds are empty but the brickwork is still there complete with a mooring rail. A huge earth bank, now supported by steel trusses, descends to my dad’s old farm workers’ cottages in Dark Lane. You sense the huge effort Miss Willmott went to in taming and controlling nature — a very Victorian philosophy.

There’s still a carp pond with water and past the seven Spanish chestnuts a viewpoint by a daffodil-strewn meadow. Here you can gaze across the fields of my dad’s old farm, towards the M25 and then in the distance the towers of the City of London. You feel the history of encroachment at Warley Place; of both time and the city of London.

The tour ends with a bridge over a gorge that Willmott created to showcase her Alpine plants. Water used to flow through it and in to the South Pond. The huge rocks in the gorge were lugged all the way from Yorkshire by the company she employed.

Willmott never married and as she grew older she became increasingly eccentric, if not all stations to Barking. Her CV includes being arrested for shop-lifting (the charges were later dropped), carrying a revolver in her handbag and booby-trapping her daffodil fields as a deterrent to bulb thieves.

Yes, Miss Willmott’s garden was the project of a loaded toff. She wasn’t great on workers’ rights, and was said to sack any gardener if he allowed a weed to show. But the scale and ambition of her life’s work is still inspiring. She spent everything on her garden and died penniless.

After her death Warley Place was sold to developers (nothing changes there) but then the Second World War intervened and afterwards the area was designated part of London’s Green Belt.

Ellen’s pristine garden was overtaken by undergrowth, decay and Japanese knotweed, until volunteers unearthed it in the last decade. And the sense of decay makes it even better, within sight of the M25 lies a place to reflect, wonder down mysterious overgrown, shadowy paths and move back in time to an era of grand projects in the shrubbery.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Volcano v planes

Iceland has become the most over-heated topic of conversation at Baird-May Towers. First it was aboutWest Ham (icelanders bought the club); then we focused on the banking crisis (which led to West Ham changing hands) and now it's that pesky volcano. This post is by Nicola.

No planes over London is spookily pleasurable. Without the planes it's been possible to sleep (ALL night), and leave the windows open. To hear bird song and see such blue skies you'd think it was a Photoshop trick. London is still noisy, but not half as bad as it usually is. And with all those busy Brits stuck somewhere else the city's tubes, trains and roads are far less crowded making cycling easier, taking buses more effective and walking more enjoyable.

It seems this is the world's first carbon neutral volcano. The figures go like this - the European aviation industry is emitting 344,109 tons a day and volcano Eyjafjallajoekoll 150,000 tons - so while the planes are forced to rest our volcano has cut Europe's carbon footprint by nearly 200,000 tons a day. See here for more info from the number crunchers.

Ironically the best view I've ever had of a volcano was when I was in a light aircraft island hopping in the South Pacific and the pilot flew close to the snout of a newly emerged volcano so we could have a better look. If I'd known then what I know now about dust particles I'd have been terrified.

Instead I was smitten looking down from the tiny plane into the smouldering red heart of a new volcano spitting out boulders with gusto as it emerged from the Pacific Ocean floor. Two years later I was in Rabaul, the Papua New Guinean town destroyed by it's neighbouring volcano looking for a friend who'd lost their home to hot grey laval ash forcing his family to move into a shipping container.

I know volcanos are an expensive pain, but for us stay-at-homes the no fly zone has been an unexpected treat. And an early lesson in what happens when your sky supplies get shut down...

Monday, 19 April 2010

Falling out with the kids



This post is by Pete, who visited the Secret Nuclear Bunker in Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.



Kelvedon Hatch in the afternoon appears to be a town bereft of inhabitants. We get off the 501 bus from Brentwood and walk up the A128. No shops, no children, it could be an episode of The Survivors. Finally we find a man gardening by his bungalow.

“Excuse me, do you know where the secret nuclear bunker is?”

“It’s down that way on the left, but it’s a long old walk… ,” he says of the not-so-secret bunker, with the bemused look of a man who has never before seen a man and two children attempting to access a nuclear bunker via public transport. And it doesn’t look like he expects us to return.

The pavement soon disappears. It looks like a nuclear strike has already hit Essex. The verges, hedges and ditches of the A128 are full of shattered plastic mineral water and Coca-Cola bottles and rusting lager cans.

Eventually we come across a bunker sign pointing to a long track winding track heading across a ploughed field. There’s just a grassy hill in the distance with a mysterious mast perched on its top.

It feels like a real adventure, a trek into the unknown regions of both history and Essex. The track descends into a gulley where there’s a sentry box and a paintballing shed. We walk on past a stream and wood, post-apocalyptic paintballers scaling ropes in the trees, and eventually find a car park and a path to a suburban bungalow on the side of the hill.

Eerily there are no staff on duty, just hand-held audio guides in a rack. We enter to the left of the bungalow and find it’s a huge steel corridor with bunker plans and Geiger counters hanging on the walls.

It’s square and featureless and designed to defend the government from civilians if they tried to storm the bunker to escape the radiation and perhaps query their MPs’ expenses.

There’s an Armageddon time soundtrack on the public address system; four-minute warning wailing sirens and calls for Captain Palmer to head to the operations room.

Then we move through blast doors that are the weight of four cars each and descend further down to the depths.

We’re 100 feet underground and encased in ten feet of reinforced concrete. The bunker was built in 1953 and decommissioned in 1993 as it cost £3 million a year to run. The family who owned the land, the Parrishes, bought the bunker and now run it as a tourist attraction. The ideal place to fall out with the kids.

There’s no natural light and only circular vents in the ceiling to circulate the air.

We enter the communications area where 1950s switchboards give way to ancient telex machines.

“This is cool! Everything’s grey. These are so old. What are these?” says 11-year-old Lola, banging the keys of a Telex machine.

A uniformed female dummy sits in the incoming messages booth. The bog-roll like print-outs list innocuous towns like Aberystwth and Luton. Here the 300 self-appointed survivors of a nuclear holocaust would search for signs of life in other bunkers around the blighted landscape.

Panic pervades our party. Static crackles in the scientists’ centre where the fall-out patterns would have been monitored. Red phones stand in a box on the wall.

““I want to leave, it’s scary!” says 9-year-old Nell.

And so am I. It nearly happened. It still could.

In the BBC Studio a dummy of Margaret Thatcher stands headphones-on ready to talk to the shell of a nation.

Lights flash on machines and everywhere there’s great big clunking boxes with dials on them. It all feels like 1970s Doctor Who. The dummies look like Autons and there are gas masks on the walls. It would be no surprise to find Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his chaps from UNIT here, trying to maintain discipline and lay on a cup of instant coffee in an impossible situation. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor would be shaking his head at humanity’s folly.

We move up a flight of stairs to the “floor”, where there’s a map of Britain complete with pointers for military planning.

The children watch a TV playing Protect and Survive. It’s the best CND recruitment video ever. Everyone must stay in their improvised house shelter for 14 days with water and tinned food. The sections on placing your toilet waste in a plastic bag and storing it in a larger bucket fascinate Lola and Nell. “If someone dies wrap the body in plastic or blankets and move it to a separate room,” says the keep calm and carry on voiceover.

We see the giant grey tanks and pipes of the plant room where the life support systems supplied water and pumped filtered air around the bunker.

It’s up another flight of stairs to the sick bay where a dummy lies with a bloody eye. “Look there’s a coffin!” says Nell.

It’s the most surreal kids’ day out ever. We see the bunks where staff would have “hot-bedded” in the dormitory and a large room full of ancient computers that would have been the devolved central government. Although now it’s staffed by dummies with no legs and flapping white sleeves. A sign says “Justice” on the walls. And the controller of this bunker really would have had the power of life and death.

We find our house in the giant laminated map of London on the wall. And in the Gents piped music pays “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Weird. The children try on gas masks and army uniforms in a dressing-up area.

And then it’s up to the canteen where the smell of institutionalized food from stainless steel ovens evokes just how awful the post-nuclear bunker would have felt. And a sign reads that the food may contain nuts, which seems the last thing to worry about after the invisible death cloud arrives. I’m tempted to ask if they do irradiated food.

And finally we find two staff alive behind the counter, although everything has to be paid for in the honesty box.

We admire the nuclear bunker mugs, postcards and pencils and rubber toys beneath the grey tomb-like beams.

“Are these dead?” asks an elderly retainer picking up our coffee mugs and cans. No, but everyone outside is.

And then we take the final exit, walking down a long arced tunnel that finally emerges at a small camouflaged opening in the side of the hill.

Daylight at last. And thankfully there’s no sign of fall out.



Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Essex discoveries part 1










Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell love travelling around the UK. Here's some ideas to fill your holidays and keep your carbon footprint low. This post about Essex is by Nicola

It's a swap thing: Pete was born in Herts, and I was born in Essex. But he's all Essex humour and I'm the posh bird from Hertfordshire. Although we didn't meet until I was 29 years old for a time we'd both lived pretty much equi-distance from Bishop's Stortford, the Hertfordshire market town that protects us from Essex. Or vice versa. Anyway, ahhh.

Nell, 9, is intrigued by Essex, she's hardly ever been there and yet there's a map on our corridor wall with rings around all the places that are family important (and yes, Nasty and Ugley, High Easter and Cold Christmas - we lost control of the highlighter pen!). And so the plan is get-to-know Essex better. It also means we've got a travel theme and Nell hopefully won't feel so cheated by her friends and their climate-bashing tales of "when I was at the airport...".


We've started well this Essex-themed Easter holidays well with a quick walk through Hatfield Forest, just outside Bishop's Stortford. Hatfield Forest is a remnant of the Great Essex Forest, mimics a medieval working woodland and is now run by the National Trust. As an added bonus it's opposite Stansted Airport working as a seriously green lung by the bypass and perimeter fence. Using a very easy to follow map we walked around the lake created by the one-time owner, a Hugenot refugee, who built a shell house for picnics - the shells (see pic left) are from the Caribbean and Africa, brought to the UK in the ballast of the ships that created such wealth for some of the old families (there's clearly a link to slavery here). The nice volunteer guide inside the Shell House encouraged the girls to play with these shells... And I swear I spotted the shells of African land snails too...

A family hunt
Next stop was just outside Great Dunmow (a place Pete could remember his Dad recalling the Saracen's Head and his mum rolling her eyes at the metropolis) for Great Garnetts farm by Barnston. This is where his dad, Denis May, had his first tenancy farm, eventually moving to the other side of Essex when offered more land for his dairy herd.


The big house at Great Garnetts was Elizabethan, with tall chimneys. There's still an interesting arch in or out of the stable yard and we hope to find out more when we go to the farmers' market held just about once a month (except August when everyone's too busy harvesting) - in 2010 they are on the 2nd Saturday of each month so try 10 April, 8 May, 12 June, 10 July, 11 Sep, 9 Oct and 13 Nov.
When Pete's mum, Sheila, moved in to the semi-detached farm cottage (see pic above) there was no heating except wood fires. I think she said there was no water as well. It must have been terrible for her especially looking after a four year old and Pete for his first eight months. No wonder he puts up with the cold... The farm cottages look picture perfect now and I think Lola and Nell were a tad jealous of the three children rolling outside with a pack of black labradors.

We also went to the pub that Denis used to walk to after his chores were finished. Lucky for us The Spotted Dog, in Bishop's Green (tel: 01245 231598), a lovely old thatched place, had just been redone and opened on 1 April (five days ago) as a gastro pub which still served real ale. We had our dog, so we ate on a bench outside, thinking about Denis all those years ago propping up the bar with a few old farmer friends. Maybe.
It's an irony that Denis felt so strongly that organic was a fad, and now even the old pubs are going all foodie and his old farm has recreated itself as a farmers' market. Obviously it's not all organic, but the locally grown element - pork and turkey - is key to this farming renaissance.