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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog begun in 2012 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.

Around 2018 I tried a new way of writing my family's and my own UK travel adventures. Britain is a brilliant place for a staycation, mini-break and day trips. It's also a fantastic place to explore so I've begun to write up reports of places that are easy to reach by public transport. And when they are not that easy to reach I'll offer some tips on how to get there.

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.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Great British resolutions (via Jamie Oliver's pub)

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how a trip to Jamie Oliver's dad's pub (the Cricketers) inspired 2012 thoughts about travel. This post is by Nicola Baird  

I love Jamie Oliver - at every stage of his career. As a cheeky chappy. As a dad. As the boss of a posh restaurant near Old Street (Fifteen) that was ridiculously hard to find. I think his 30 minutes meal guide is ace. And his new British book looks fab too, although I've only flicked through it.

Ministry of Food memories
But the thing I remember best about him, is the apparent sense of total, agonised, furious failure he felt when he couldn't get Britain's school children eating better. The tabloids understood the power of a shot of mums sneaking burgers into their children's school after junk food had been banned. That picture (burger gate?) was designed to not just undermine Jamie's healthy school meals, but his reputation.

This thought has been helping me dream up a new year's resolution. 

Or at least Jamie's bounce has helped - he picked himself up, sorted it out, had a go in the US, and then got back to his real talent - talking up a good cooking show. An d this happened thanks to a detour to the Cricketers pub at Clavering (run by his mum and dad) on the Herts/Essex border. It's a very posh place. Or put it another way Jamie didn't learn his Mockney accent in this bit of north west Essex. And sadly we didn't get to eat there because dogs aren't allowed inside - so it was bags of crisp (posh crisps) out in the cold... (see pix above of Pete, Lola, Nell and Vulcan; my mum wouldn't come as she said she had a bad vibe about the trip!). It's the ideal spot to serve gourmet pub grub and put the world to rights.

Bit of a twizzle
Have you heard of Dave Hampton - the ambitious carbon coach, who hopes to do for fossil fuel use what Jamie did to turkey twizzlers - who was interviewed in the Ecologist mag recently about how greens shouldn't be so up tight. We're not responsible for everyone (and especially their non-green behaviour) he says. The interview is here. But below is a quote that resonates... (Jamie, you can take note too).

What was the highlight of your year (2011)?I think the highlight is me fully getting, for the first time maybe, that I am not responsible for anyone else's life or behaviour -and that I am only responsible for my own! Gosh, it feels good saying that, I have been living in this fantasy world where I believed it was up to me to save the planet and if that is a mental illness it is quite a common one - we all know of campaigners who seem to believe that everyone else is wrong and they are the only ones who are right! But if we go around clearing up our own mess and being positive about our own lifestyle, other people will start copying us and picking up their own carbon ‘litter' too.
Dave Hampton/carbon coach, interviewed in Dec 2011 Ecologist

Looking back at 2011 is a terrible time for those of us at Mayhem Corner to look back on our carbon use. We did after all travel to the other side of the world by plane - although at least we stayed there for three months. Sorry nonetheless.

In addition, somewhere along the way this year I'd forgotten about the joys I get from trying to live simply (or as Pete puts it simply live) with an eye/ear and eco-kerchung on the planet.

When all around are telling you that austerity is bad, it's easy to forget (assuming you have enough to cover mortgage, food and other essentials) that you don't need to be doing spending overdrive in order to have a darn fine, sustainalbe life.  And that's where Jamie Oliver, comes back in. He's a bloke with a dream and vast ambition to get Britain eating better using every type of media (have you seen his apps or his mags?) who has discovered that his success is better if he cheer leads rather than criticises. I want to be like that too.

And if all this hurts your head the Cricketers has a splendid solution. Its low timber beams are bound in padded leather to prevent accidents. So here's to not ducking the obvious, especially if you are already living the green dream. Good luck and happy days for 2012.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Saffron Walden: love the dark ages

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how to immerse yourself in British history, just by a trip to an Essex market town. This post is by Nicola Baird 

800 years ago history had a story-telling blip. There was no one around who wanted to write stuff down or, if they did, they clearly put their books in the wrong storage depot. So when you get to a town like Saffron Walden, in Essex, which started life as a small settlement (possibly) in pre-Roman times and then progressed to being a market town (from 1141) to a rather fab place to visit where the houses are painted in shades of ice-cream flavours and the post-xmas rubbish gets put out in Waitrose bags. I bet Tunbridge Wells gives off the same sort of comfort zone...

But Saffron Walden has a secret, and it's not the Devil's Fingernails in the pic. It's a site once seen that leaves you asking far more questions about all of our ancestors.  Here's why.

Saffron Walden has 15,000 people. It's not far from Cambridge. It's always been on my list as a must-see destination and yet it's taken years for me to get there probably because its train station was shut in 1964. Nearest stations are Audley End and Newport, plus a bus or taxi ride. 

Once you've got there though it's easy to stroll around. The tourist information centre has a free walking guide which leads you around the biggest church in Essex, past Oliver Cromwell's HQ (yet another), over RAB Butler's grave (remember him - born in India, a consumate politician perhaps, "the best PM we never had" and in 1944 gave us a great education system), past a plethora of pretty houses with beams and plaster, mouldings and stories (see photos).  

It can take in the Old English Gentleman, a CAMRA pub, that allows dogs in one bar, and children in the other. Sensible: albeit a problem for a family like mine with children and a dog...

Sodding mystery
It can include a Norman castle with fabulous ruins, and an award-winning museum - purpose built for the job which has a famous ethnography collection including Innuit (eskimo in the display and Nell's 21st century version in the photo) kit and plenty of memories for Oceania fans (such as my family). Oh yes, and the guided walk takes in a skateboard park, and a restored Victorian garden, known as Bridge End. Through it I found out the town had been a melting pot for Quakers, philanthropists and politics. Learnt that it's a stone's throw from lovely Audley End and the miniature railway. But bizarrely nothing much seems to be known about England's oldest turf maze, created 800 years ago and  still in amazing shape on the far side of The Common.   

Nell, 10, lay down in the centre of the maze. Lola, 13, stalked around the turf paths trying to figure out the pattern muttering "I've got it!". Pete was puzzled why it wasn't fenced off or made more of a feature. Maybe it's obvious: the turf love-knots (if that's what they are) have to compete with saffron (the yellow powder on the stamens of the crocus) that gave Saffron Walden it's name, so maybe it is clear why this particular British curiosity plays second fiddle to a flower.

Over to you
Is there a place you know that undersells something you think is amazing? If so, do let me know - or tell me what you love about Saffron Walden so I can make sure I treat myself to a second trip.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Portugese pony power

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how to look at a horse and find yourself longing for all things Portugal... This post is by Nicola Baird 

Do you like horses? If so, you may already know about the Olympia Horse Show, held just before Christmas in London. It's a massive show jumping contest (prizes minimum of 10K Euros for each of the two contests we saw & pic of the grey is Depardieu ridden by Guy Williams, a GBR rider who won the Renault Christmas Mawsters on 17 December 2011) with an endless display of other crowd-pleasing horsy activities.

I've started to make it a pre-Christmas treat for my daughters and we usually hook up with an aunt or two (pic shows Kaz, Lola and Nell). Normally I come home impressed by the ways the top riders have changed. Twenty to thirty years ago, training was an extra cigarette and another pint. Now it is pilates, proper low GI diets, and lots of emphasis on the rider being supple and fit. The result is obvious: World Cup horses - and their riders - can jump higher.

But this year I came home longing for a Lusitano. This amazing Portugese breed - often grey - has a rocking horse canter and is known for being agile and calm. There have even been debates in the horse world about whether it is possible to fall off a Lusitano (duh! of course you can).

The Lusitano were originally used for war and bull fighting - and at Olympia we got to see eight blokes show off their horses' incredibly calm athleticism with the aid of long scary rods and war-like music. The atmosphere was lightened by two women riders, wearing long trousers that were cut as wide as skirts (in the Edwardian manner) demonstrating that these horses work as well for either sex. That said the Portugese men's bond with their horses was supposed to be so close, and so enviable, that this is where the birth of the idea that centaurs existed. It's all fascinating stuff on wikipedia.

Next up was the Lorenzo, the Flying Frenchman - who swapped his grey Carmague ponies for the Lusitano so he can give a really death-defying display of horsemanship. He stands one leg on his left pony, the other on the right pony with six or eight in front of him, controlled entirely by long reining. He can turn, weave between poles and even jump, see this video (experts can note the switch in breed perhaps?). Quite amazing to watch - and again only possibly because of the Lusitano. Oh, how I want one, and I'm sure a little one, say 15.2hh, would fit into our garden if I converted the chicken shed into a stable.

As must be obvious Olympia brings out the child in me, the one that never actually said "Daddy I want a new pony now!"

Monday, 12 December 2011

The joy of Essex

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Take a mini break to Colchester for culture, oysters, history and views that are often Italinate (even in a damp mid-winter). This post is by Nicola Baird 

Colchester is a market town with a big history. As Camulodunum (translation - fortress of Camulos [a Celtic god of war]) it was once the capital of Britain. It was a vast Roman colony and even now the materials used in the Norman castle give you the impression you are mid Mediterranean, maybe Florence with the warm terracotta tiles on the castle's narrow bricked towers and the strange white elephant watertower, known locally as Jumbo. It's the history that is exciting though: it was viciously destroyed by Boudica and her Celtic allies (who also destroyed London and St Albans); fought over in the Civil War, and has more traditions about oysters than you can serve up with Lee and Perrins....

Despite all these stories it’s not a traditional place to head for a wedding anniversary weekend. Strange because it surely compares with Lille or Bath or Winchester. Indeed the staggered reaction from a friend who used to live there, and my aunt who is based in Essex - but does her best to avoid Colchester - suggested I might regret letting Pete pick the venue. But that's the point of Aroundbritainnoplane, getting to know the UK better.

Turns out that Colchester offers an astonishing history trail (and thanks to the choice of B&B and restaurant Pete and I had a lot of fun too). The Norman castle is the biggest in Britain - because it was built on foundations made by the Romans. The foundations are 3,000 years old, and when the Normans arrived these were already 1,000 years old. When I think about the subsidence in the two Victorian homes I’ve lived in this seems puzzlingly brilliant engineering.

We took a taxi from the station to Trinity Street where we were staying in a house once owned by John Wilbye, the man who invented madrigals in the late 16th century. I always ask taxi drivers the three best things about the place where they work, often with interesting results. The woman we’d picked was an utter down.”There’s nothing good here. It’s just cold. There’s shopping, but I don’t like that, except in Williams & Griffin (a department store run by Fenwick).” When pushed she admitted there were some pubs, but these were occupied by squaddies and students so we wouldn’t want to go there… Well we did, the Purple Dog was fine, and most pubs seem to offer real ale.

Within 100 metres of exiting the taxi – she couldn’t drive to the front door because of the excellent pedestrianised shopping lanes (sort of like Brighton) off the High Street a lady in Tudor garments had invited us to watch a Tudor dance being performed in the CO1 community centre run by a charity that finds things for teenagers to do. Irresistible, and though Tudor dances are reasonably staid, it was fun watching a performance of Ding Dong Merrily on High (originally a dance) and the anachronistic doubletake of spotting a Tudor dancer sit out with mobile and a mug of latte. Could spots like this have inspired Damon Albarn from Blur?

Top 5 highlights of Colchester (other than the zoo)
  1. Colchester Castle – stunning Roman collection which is labelled for maximum enjoyment for anyone who knows Essex or interested in Boudica. It costs £6 to enter but offers at least an hour of displays. You can also book a £2.50 tour of the Roman foundations of the Temple of Claudius which Boudica destroyed (along with 20,000 people) and go on to the castle ramparts for a 360 degree view across today's town. 
  2. FREE A walk that takes in the old Roman wall by the Hole in the Wall pub and a vast red-brick retired Victorian water tower known as Jumbo. Then head the other way and find the Old Seige House which looks Tudor but has many red painted bullet marks on its inside and outside walls – marks from the conflict between Cromwell’s troops and the Royalists. Finish off with a patrol of the incredible new arts centre, Firstsite. In fact Firstsite might be a reason to go to Colchester - it's as good as The Baltic up in Newcastle upon Tyne.
  3. There are some nice parks, including the castle gardens which also has the FREE toy museum beside it, all a few strides from the shopping streets. Look carefully between and in stores and you’ll see Roman memories everywhere. We ate a good dinner (with frighteningly speedy service) at the Lemon Tree which boasts a massive Roman wall between the dining rooms.
  4. A place to get curious about: allegedly Humpty Dumpty was a canon parked at St Mary in the Wall during the Civil War conflict (find it near the Mercury theatre). And there's the Dutch Quarter where in 1806 Jane Taylor is claimed to have dreamt up Twinkle Twinkle Little Star... and it's old name, Camulodunum may have been the basis for the nursery rhyme Old King Cole. As for the TOWIE craze back in Brentwood (and the nation's sitting rooms), well I could see no evidence other than a canvas tote in a super tacky shop that boasted "I've been vajazzled".
  5. Pick the right Sunday in December (11 Dec 2011) and then you can enjoy the Christmas market which has the high street closed to traffic. 

More info about things to do in Colchester here. More info about Colchester at wikipedia here (including references in two Dr Who episodes, Moll Flanders and 1984!)

Friday, 9 December 2011

Lisbon 1 Durban 0

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here is a short news report on which gets more news coverage: the ministers meeting at Durban (on climate) or squabbling over the Lisbon Treaty (money). This post is by Nicola Baird 

I've been a poor sleeper for years, ever since I had children really. So this morning about 6am - after finishing the novel I was reading and messing on Facebook - I started looking on the web for info about the COP17 talks at Durban. These are important climate talks, not unlike the ones that hogged the world's attention when they were in Copenhagen. There is so little to find, although I did uncover a shocking post from Reuters about how the failure of these talks looks set to drown island states, with first on the list being Tokelau. In contrast the meltdown of the Eurozone (thanks again Cameron for messing things up) had headline after headline. 

In a contest of Durban v Lisbon, the latter is clearly the outright winner. Money drives news agenda a zillion times over attempts to save the world.

And yet there is some good news around. For instance I found this news item below on the ecogeek website. It's from the LA Times. I think it is good news that investments in renewable energy topped fossil fuels last year - although as the UK isn't exactly doing this, who on earth is? There's another glitch: the enormous sum of $157 billion was also invested in new natural gas, oil and coal plants - the fossil fuels that are causing climate change... 

Really you couldn't make this skewed understanding up - as I read in Rosamund Urwin's Evening Standard column yesterday we'd rather see our great grandchildren swim to school than pay just a tad more tax to try and tackle the problems of climate change now, when we actually still might be able to do something.
Investments in Renewable Energy Topped Fossil Fuels Last YearWritten by Megan Treacy on 29/11/11 For the first time, investments in renewable energy projects surpassed those in fossil fuel power plants, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  Last year, $187 billion was invested in renewable energy installations, while $157 billion was invested in new natural gas, oil and coal plants. The increase in investments in the sector, even while in a down economy, has led to price drops in equipment and renewable energy power, making solar and wind power far more competitive with coal power. Renewable energy subsidies deserve a lot of credit for the spending increase:  about $66 billion in subsidies were handed out last year. It's a great bit of news as another round of global talks on the climate crisis is likely heading nowhere as we speak. via LA Times

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Bumped into Sengal this morning

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here is a surprising idea about how to find Senegal much closer to home. This post is by Nicola Baird 

All I did was take the dog on a slightly different morning route march. Amazing variety of posters up at Arsenal stadium. Special praise to anyone who knows which Gunners player this quote refers to. Strangely I posted this piece on the same day that the Guardian revealed that Youssou N'Dour plans to give up music and possibly run for president.

Friday, 25 November 2011

On a tour of 3D Africa

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here are some ideas about how to get that bit closer to every country in Africa (and maybe create your own). This post is by Nicola Baird 

As part of Black History Month 2011 the older children at Nell's school created a 3D map of Africa. Nell was in charge of Mali and it looks fab, she created a wonderful mosque too. When all the countries were put together (there are 52) it turned out that Nigeria had been forgotten. What an embarrassment, so Nigeria was quickly produced. Above is a picture of the children's efforts with Nell and Netta posing.

Mapping your world
There's a great idea in the brilliant Mission: Explore book that shows kids how to establish your own country. You've just got to map it, name it, establish the boundaries, sort out a flag and register it with the United Nations. Hard to believe it is that simple - but turns out that Pete (my partner/nell's dad) has long ago done that when he declared Essex an independent nation. The main demands included serving Tiptree jam at state occasions; plus all music to be provided by Ian Dury or Billy Bragg (for more Essex sillyness have a look at Pete's blog, http://thejoyofessex.blogspot.com).

Over to you
I'm curious - has anyone else created their own universe/country/breakaway state with their kids or friends? BTW, I'm not talking about real independence here, just pretend. Do share

Monday, 21 November 2011

Ready to ski?

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here are some ideas about how to offer a winter sports experience - like you might have in Austria - but much closer to home. This post is by Nicola Baird 

From late October, each week another Austrian ski resort opens up again after the long summer break. A good place to find out more is at this blog here. I've never skiied on snow, and only tried an artificial slope once, I think in Harrogate although xscape at Milton Keynes is far more famous, and there's the Chill Factor at Trafford with a luge run and the Snow Centre in St Albans, just 10 minutes from the train station. But last weekend on a brainstorm with the Geography Collective (working on their next Mission Explore book challenge) one of the bonding activities was to toboggan at the Chatham Ski Slope (apparently the longest artificial slope in Kent and the South East).

It seemed a shame to let the kids miss out this early winter sport pleasure so when I left the geographers, I took Lola, Nell and their friend Xander to Broadgate ice rink, just by Liverpool Street in the centre of London for a long skate on a chilly, blue-sky morning with near perfect mountain conditions (!). As you can see from their expressions, they loved it - as did Xander's mum Nicky. And you can try skating too from November - early February.

Obviously if we were thinking Austrian we'd finish off our skating or tobogganing with hot chocolate and cakes. Instead we ate noodles at Spitalfields market, but I guess when you are on a skiiing holiday, you never really know what you might do next...

Over to you
Where do you go in the UK to recreate a winter sports feeling? I'd love to try to ski my way around the UK using the artificial slopes...

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Running out of loo roll

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here are some thoughts about taking the piss, politely. This post is by Nicola Baird 

It may be possible to use leaves, newspaper scraps and bits of magazines to wipe your bum. But... I'm not keen on these options while recycled loo paper is so cheap and easy to come by (unless you forget to keep the stocks up). The obvious answer is to make sure you always have a couple of slices of toilet tissue tucked into a pocket.

British people are often very conservative about their toilet habits. I remember being amazed at about eight years old that there were squat toilets in France. Since then I've learnt that many countries use squat toilets - in some rows of "ladies" in Singapore, say, you can choose between the Western sit model and the Asian squat.

That flush costs how much?
Our family is just about to switch to a water metre in a bid to help everyone in the house understand that water has a price. It's easy to follow Ozzie rules - "if it's yellow let it mellow; if it's brown flush it down," when it's only family in the house. Far harder when there are visitors. At least that's what I think, anyone got any thoughts about how to internationalise your own toilet habits so water isn't wasted and blushes spared?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Here be dragons (aka griffins)

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how to find fantasy beasts via a trip through London. This post is by Nicola Baird 

I love visting the City's griffins. The picture above looks rather like a sacrifice, although it really shows Nell trying to climb on to one of the City's guardians between Temple and Blackfriars tube. Using the old I-spy game a griffin deserves at least 10 points (a pigeon would be 2, a cathedral 6), and there are plenty of griffins to find in the Square Mile, so a good way of exploring London as you look around the protest site at St Pauls.

Griffin ID please
Look for the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle and furry horse ears & what do you see? Scales. Clearly the griffins guarding the City are actually dragons. I doubt such a mish-mash beastie could ever have been real - although the Greeks and ancient Egyptians made statues of them. As for dragons, I've always assumed they are a folk lore memory of dinosaurs (or at any rate dino bones).

More info about Griffins on Wikipedia here. And if you want to remind yourself about I-spy books, then look here.

If it's London dragons you want though, then go to the National Gallery and enjoy Uccello's St George and the Dragon - a slaying of what appears to be the lady in pink's pet.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Taste of Chile

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how to go to Chile via a sweet tooth. This post is by Nicola Baird 

Chileans obviously have a love-hate relationship with dentists. Our family is friends with a Chilean family and have recently been given a kilo of delicious toffee sauce (made by Nestle, really it's heated up condensed milk) which is eaten on toast. I tried it on pancakes and as a topping for a cake I gave to my godson. It's very sweet, and very delicious.

Last week Lola was given a little tin of miel de palma and told by the family that it was coconut honey. The translation didn't sound right - not least because the ingredients do not include a drop of honey (I'm assuming miel is honey in Spanish...). Google turned up the goods - it's a palm syrup from a special tree that has small edible nuts (a bit like coconuts) and when the top of the palms cut it bleeds a golden juice that if heated turns into a maple syrup like concoction. Which I guess is good on toast, and on pancakes...

See what I mean about the dentists?

Here's some interesting detail about miel de palma. Anyone know any other Chilean treats I can find in London?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Going Dutch

Windmills give Canvey a Dutch feel.
This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how to go to Holland via Essex. This post is by Nicola Baird 

Canvey Island. The name has a potency - but it's not really an island, more a chunk of Essex jutting into the Thames estuary that's below sea level. It was disastrously flooded in 1953 which led to 58 people dying. There is a history of the east of England 1953 floods here. As a result a massive cement wall was built shielding "the island" from future spring tides. It's a bit strange walking beside the sea wall because you can't actually see the sea.

You may be here a long time
There's a 15 mile barrier which makes one feel as if you are in a prison.

The effect is magnified when a tannoy from the local football club announces "good afternoon". But fortunately near the sea front the sluice gates are open so you can go down to the slender beach and play in the paddling pools... And further around the sea wall becomes a grassy mound which is a pleasure to walk along.

We're visiting because my husband Pete is a Dr Feelgood fan, but I'm curious about why the Dutch were here, back in the 17th century, when making hay (not processing oil) was the big money-earner. You can still see cows grazing in the hay meadows at Canvey Wick, admittedly with today's income generator, a vast oil refinery first put up by Occidental, as back drop. There are also a couple of wind-powered water pumps that make it look more like a Dutch pastoral. Best of all are the  tiny, one/two bedroom thatched, hay-bale shaped houses dotted around the so-called Dutch Village, some dating back to 1618. There are also rumours that the Dutch drainage engineer Cornelius Vermuden helped drain Canvey (we know he did the Fens) probably because in 1623 around 300 Dutch men were on the case to make the island habitable.

All easy to see from the bus which runs frequently from Benfleet train station.

Canvey Island has many claims to fame besides it's relationship to oil. See more here. Wikipedia points out:
"The island was the site of the first delivery (1959) in the world of liquefied natural gas by container ship, and later became the subject of an influential assessment on the risks to a population living within the vicinity of petrochemical shipping and storage facilities."
It's also a long-established holiday park for the East End: one of my friends always went there every year for her summer holidays and she's not yet 40! Despite the big skies this is not really a holiday destination to show-off about to your friends. Instead expect a dormitory town of 38,000 people, many still with stories of working for the Occidental oil reprocessing centre that dominates the island's skyline, despite being closed in 1975. And it's the home of Dr Feelgood, Britain's best-known R&B band from the 1970s made that bit more famous after the film, Oil City Confidential came out. Extra respect if you also know their hits, Back in the Night, Down to the Doctors or their best-selling single Milk and Alcohol (jointly written with Nick Lowe).

We made up our own walk, along the grassy sea wall protecting Canvey Wick reserve via Islanders fish and chip shop (with sustainable MSC fish!), but here is another good route from Essex specialists - which gives you a chance to visit the Lobster Smack pub, starring Pip and Magwitch at the close of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

As for going Dutch - well Pete kindly paid for the whole trip, he even made us sandwiches for the train. So clearly I owe him big time for a surprisingly enjoyable trip to Holland.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Where's fashion street?

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how to go clothes shopping as if you could teleport. This post is by Nicola Baird 

Imagine a long street crowded with shoppers. Now add racks of dresses being wheeled out of lock up shops. It's a city yes, and besides the fashion shops, and alleys hung with the latest garments, cafes tempt you to linger thanks to the amazing cooking smells. There are also dry cleaners, garment alterers and even a sewing machine repair shop. Fonthill Road could be Singapore, Hong Kong, Dakka. But it's actually London's best kept secret - the place to go for cheap fashion, and invariably far more fashion forward than the high street.

Who will buy?
On my last sashay along the crowded pavements I enjoyed watching older women in brown coats debate whether to buy another brown coat, a super-plainly dressed Hasidic Jewish mum locate the only shop that sells black woollen skirts with front pleats; two Asian guys admiring the leopard skin tops (you come here to cross-dress too!), the girl in the shoe shop having a quick fag on the pavement, school students rushing past late for class with their eyes on the window, Turkish guys buying for girlfriends, black guys minding the buggy and baby while mum chooses the best dress to impress. There are long dresses, short dresses, Church dresses, nightclub handkerchiefs, frothy sunshine dresses, wedding dresses.

Most are on sale for a bargain fiver.

These must be the product of sweat shops - or maybe they are the trial runs. Whatever their provenance if you want to detour to the land of super cheap fashion then take the tube to Finsbury Park and walk to Fonthill Road. Here's where to change your image without punishing your budget.

On the other hand it doesn't answer my desire to try to buy pre-loved clothes.

As my daughters grow it is getting increasingly hard to find suitable stuff in charity shops that fits and isn't worn out (although jumble and car boot sales can be good). So I was thrilled to be tipped off by the shop assistant at the British Red Cross charity shop just off Kings Road that a member of the Nigerian royal family had just come in with piles of never worn clothes that would probably fit Nell. One pair of jeans for an eight-year-old (with jewelled skulls and roses on one leg) still had a price tag on it - apparently £400 - which the Red Cross staff planned to sell for £20.

A quick search revealed that 395 Dhs is the United Arab Emirates' dirham and thus originally £69.51. But a bargain's a bargain (even if 20 quid is still a pricey pair of jeans). It's Nell's first piece of designer wear and she looked very happy to be so spoilt.

For more info about fair trade and organic fashion see People Tree. Founder Safa Minney has recently published her first book too, Naked Fashion.

Where's that?
Do you know any row of shops in the UK that reminds you of an overseas experience? Bazars, markets, alleyways, pop-ups, pavement cafes - share what they remind you of, and their location.  Thanks.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Great Britain campaign for 2012

I love these ads, they seem to  pick out some British highlights.
This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No, not with these ideas to get the world celebrating Great Britain 2012. This post is by Nicola Baird 

PM David Cameron (don't ya just want to sit him down and give him a fierce talking to?) went to New York in September, and while there found the time to launch a boost British trade campaign. I love these cheesy posters (see pix) and look forward to stumbling across them in mags and on billboards. It's a great reminder that we are lucky to live in a country (well countries) with such amazing history. And things to boast about - from the good looks of Henry VIII to the entrepreneurial genius of Richard Branson.

For the past month I've felt so homesick for my other country, Solomon Islands, and really don't know how to feel better - that place just gets under your skin. I asked a friend, who moved last year from Sao Paulo to London with his Brazilian wife, how he coped being back home seeing as he loves being an expat, and adores hotter weather and, dare I say it, the way they wear clothes in Brazil. 

But he was positively animated by the things that make London an exciting place to live - the history, the way the pubs were used by Dickens (admittedly not really a Londoner), and Pepys; the clues to the Fire of London or the blitz or the shrapnel marks on the V&A. He loves the food from all round the world. The vibe. The way the power is always on and the rubbish gets sorted into recycling. The multiculturalness of London got a big thumbs up too.

There's no reason for me to be in a giant sulk. With the internet you don't need to be at your cultural home to be working - if I really wanted to, I could be sitting in an office with the best view in the world (say, blue skies and an island not far off) plugged into broadband...(ah dream on).

However it seems Cameron is keen for 2012 to turn Britain into a honeypot. If nothing else there will be 17,000 competitors and officials at the Olympics. It feels churlish not to try and support him, it is after all supposed to be a pleasure to show people around your home. Besides, time's moved on (and we've had this amazing hot start to autumn with blue skies and climate changing temperatures) so I'm feeling better. Ready to look forward to planning for 2012. Here's some dates for the diary:

2012 dates 
2-5 June The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Weekend 
27 July-12 August the Olympics
29 August-9 September, the Paralympics

Friday, 30 September 2011

Rethinking Somalia

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Here's your chance to rethink the Somalia we hear about on the radio/TV. This post is by Nicola Baird 

The rains failed big time in 2010. It's full of pirates. War lords. What about the famine? Oh we all know about Somalia - just from hearing the headline news which sometimes leave worries about local politics, celebrities and the global financial crisis to focus on the hundreds of thousands of displaced, or ailing Somalian people.

On the bus I met 14-year-old Fatemeh* who ticks the Somali box. Actually she's a Londoner, and has never been to Somalia. But she told me how strange it is listening to her parents' stories about their homeland. "My mum makes it sound so nice, the things she did, it's nothing like the news."

But this year there is a terrible drought - the worst in six decades - which is leaving millions of people without food. Many have already moved to Kenya and Ethiopia in a bid to find food.

Leaving this huge rain failure aside (is this another sign of climate change?), I'm beginning to think that journalists - or at any rate the conventions about reporting news - are doing us all a great disservice. There is a history on BBC News here which reads OK, but as headlines it is a litany of disasters.

By focusing on the bad stuff, we get very strange impressions about our world neighbours.

Or in the UK, our real neighbours. The Islington Somali Community puts it like this:

"Telling the story of Somalis in Britain is hard because there is a lack of nationwide research. The 2001 census suggested there were 43,000 Somalis in the UK. But other experts suggest at least 95,000 and as many as 250,000 with estimates of 80,000 living in London alone. While they represent one of the largest ethnic minorities, the only significant research has been localised case studies. These tend to show that Somalis are a hard-to-reach and marginalised group whose voices are unrepresented in national debates and as a result are largely ignored by both the national and local mainstream services."

My experience of Somalians in the UK is smart people, definitely shy, perhaps from a constant sense of embarrassment about their country's pop-up profile.

Of course Somalia has massive problems. Indeed my 10-year-old daughter Nell is looking forward to a non-uniform day at her school (it costs £1 to avoid the uniform) in a bid to raise money for Somalian famine victims. They should make £300 by the end of the day, even without a single cake sold. I just wish I could tell Fatemeh something more positive about her mother's country when I next bump into her on public transport.

Have your own non-uniform fundraiser
Oxfam is helping support Somalia, to make a donation see here.

*not her real name

Friday, 23 September 2011

Wanted: one fly and a BBQ

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No, not with these ideas to get you to the Lebanon. This post is by Nicola Baird 

So what do you know about the Lebanon? I was stretching my mind and found nothing until I remembered Beirut. You go there for fabulous food and nightlife, but also to wander around caverns, temples and overhear French and Arabic in the neighbourhoods. See more ideas at tripadvisor

What about the trees?
And then there's the cedars of Lebanon, those infamous, vast scented pine trees that the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians squabbled over, and later the British used up making railways. You can visit a cedar of Lebanon on a National Trust tree trail, here's one at Hatfield Forest, Essex.

But to get a taste of Lebanon in the UK here's a great tip from my friend Hannah. She says pick a nice day and then take my daughters to a trout farm to have a go fishing.

I thought I'd misheard. Here's what I think about fish farms... Minus points = overcrowding of fish & over use of pesticides. Limited plus points.  Possibly a good way to farm protein and definitely an easier way to catch "wild" fish, even using a fly? But read on...

At the fish farm her friend visited, there were lots of people enjoying a weekend outing - either keeping up the skill of catching a fish, or teaching their family to do so - and then cooking up the catch. She said the smells of BBQ fish were delicious, and after befriending a family with one of the most succulent smelling meals she left with a fabulous Lebanese recipe for making trout taste extra good.

See this website for 100 of the best Lebanese dishes. They really look yum.

All I need to do now is identify the nearest trout farm, and maybe just give it a go. 

Cross fingers there will be someone from the Lebanon cooking up a storm when we are there...

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Using locals to speak a new language

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. This post is by Nicola Baird 

What's the easiest way to learn a language? I reckon it's necessary to listen very hard to become fluent, and then to try the words and phrases, day after day. I think it is much easier if you can let your subconscious - that bit of your brain that demands habit (mine likes coffee when I wake up) -  kick in. But I don't find learning languages very easy.

"Quel'qu'n"  this may not be spelt right, but I distinctly remember learning the phrase "is anyone in there" after staying for a couple of nights in a Paris apartment with a French family. Because the apartment was crowded there was a serious danger of walking into someone using the bathroom, so the phrase took on ridiculous importance.

In the same way hearing "mira" being repeatedly said by a babysitter dandling my baby daughter helped me learn the Spanish word for look.

Now that my 13 year old has learnt a second language (due to travelling out of the UK all summer, shh not to mention much about this on this blog and besides it was a one-off, and it's Solomon Islands pijin which very few people speak in the UK) I'm trying to encourage her to use the same listen and try techniques to get herself a Spanish GCSE. She actually made the fluent breakthrough after six weeks in the Solomons, and then one rainy day spent making baskets and toys out of coconut leaves (see pic above). And if you ever want to visit that place (the largest uninhabited island in the Pacific), know as Tetepare, see the info here.

Spanish is a fab language, I wish I spoke it. But my efforts over the years mostly in the UK - evening classes, tapes, plus short visits (pre-children & pre-blogging days) to Mexico and also Spain - have probably helped. But my know-how is very weak, so I cannot help my daughter build up her Spanish voccab, essential to get that GCSE which will give her a ticket to uni...

But there's a clever trick you can do too, whatever language you want to speak - use visitors to the UK.

Here in London there are loads of Spanish speakers so I've arranged for Lola to meet up with a Chilean family and help mum cook supper for the two boys one evening after school. 

Hopefully she'll hear phrases like "is anyone in the loo"  or "would you like some more" (all in Spanish!) that will never leave her brain. Actually I'd like to learn like this, but would prefer to go to a tapas bar, so somehow haven't got around to sorting out my language needs. 

If anyone's got any ideas about non-classroom ways of learning a language at home please share them here... Thanks.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Take a lemon: tastebud travel

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. This post is by Nicola Baird 

It's so easy to eat your way around the world. You can do it at a restaurant (fancy a Mexican?), food mall (noodles anyone?) in the supermarket aisles, in your store cupboard (just keep harissa paste, curry powders, and pesto in stock for a chance to cook Thai, Indian or Italian).

But it's British food fortnight - the time when we're all urged to try eating local food, to get a sense of place on our plate. 

So if you are in Leicester have an apple and a hunk of Stilton cheese. If you are in Somerset have cider and an apple pie. Etc...

I love British food, but was quite surprised how little I long for it when I'm not in the UK - what I like is to eat food that's grown locally wherever I am because that way there's a chance it will be fresher, tastier and possibly even prepared with love. Jams bought at a fete or pre-Christmas event are a brilliant way to stock up your store cupboard without ploughing yet more of your money into a supermarket.

There are loads of ideas about how to find and choose British specialities, without paying over the odds on this website.

Lemon curd recipe
I love tarte citron, but thought it was out of my cooking orbit being so French.

But lemon curd is a traditional English condiment (think Little Miss Tuffet eating her curds and wey), and it is surprisingly easy to make. You could even make blackberry curd if you wanted to remove all food miles and a bramble bush is easier to find than a lemon. I adapted a Nigel Slater recipe - just melt butter with sugar over a bain marie (I put some water in a saucepan, got it boiling then removed the lid and put a thick china bowl to rest in the saucepan). Then I squeezed in the juice of one a lemon, and as it was unwaxed grated the rind too. I was quite pleased to use up this lemon as I had no other plans for it. Then beat a fresh egg and pour into the melted sugar/lemon/butter mix. Stir, then beat (with a whisk or fork), for about 10 mins - until you can feel the mix thickening.

From the Observer...Makes 2 small jam jars (or for 1 jar)
zest and juice of 4 unwaxed lemons (or 2 - but I only had one and a half)
200g sugar (100g)
100g butter (100g)
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk (I used one egg, just ignore the egg yolk unless you have one to use up)

Then pour into a clean jar and when it's cool add the lid. It keeps in the fridge well for about three weeks, and is stunning - spread on toast or as a filling for a pastry based tarte citron. I even spead it on filo pastry, rolled it up and cooked as a surprise pudding.

I say surprise meaning my family were impressed when I suggested we could travel with our tastebuds, right now, for Sunday lunch, to France - except that actually lemon pie is really a British dish. Enjoy!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Bike for a French feel

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. This post is by Nicola Baird (picture above about how freeing a bike can be, is by Lola, aged 9).

My friend Rachel went cycling in France during the summer. It was quite easy, she told me looking distinctly svelte, just 1,ooo km over eight days so we had time to sight-see. This is a staggering distance, how on earth did she have time to sight-see?  The answer is that she's cycle fit. She cycles most weekends with her partner, Andy Cornwell, who is an extraordinarily passionate long-distance cyclist and has a great blog with ideas about where to ride, and how to test your endurance. Should you wish to do something similar, have a look at the Lonely Planet guide, Cycling France.

Admittedly the world's most famous cycle race, the Tour de France is 3,600 km, and lasts 21 days, but those  competitors want the challenge - they are super-fit, lean, mean bike machines. 

I find cycling is a good way to cheer me and the family up.

It's lovely to cycle on autumn days when there isn't a headwind and the leaves are turning red and yellow as if you were mountain biking through a Canadian fall. I like the way you can stop exactly when you want to - no worries about parking when you see a bramble bush still laden with blackberries. When the first frosts come it will be time to stop at the blackthorn and pick sloes to  make sloe gin or flavour vodka ready for a Christmas treat.

Sustrans offers fabulous off-road cycling all round the UK. 

For anyone based in London there are also some great journeys to make - your personal Tour de France  - either direct from your home or via a train line that allows bikes. I particularly like the stations running north of Finsbury Park that take you out to Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridge and Norfolk. In a recent issue of London Cycling Campaign's magazine there's a great ride around Stevenage. It's 30 miles which sounds a long way - but do it at your own pace, on a lovely autumn day, and you'll be rewarded with the same feeling of triumphal achievement that those Tour de France cyclists get when they cross the finishing line. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Xmas mini breaks

This blog is about family travel without using carbon miles. It is by Nicola Baird.

There's an obscene pleasure in mentioning Christmas - or Christmas shopping - in September. I've been tidying up and happened to uncover a pile of 2007 Christmas cards which can be put to good re-use later this year.

But what really made me wonder about what I might do for December festivities 2011 was seeing an insert from guardianholidayoffers.co.uk/newmarket which cherry picks all the European places that are famously good at celebrating the run-up to Christmas.

BRUSSELS - has a famous market
BARCELONA - has a fabulous market
BOLZANO and MERANO - for the Italian Alpine markets in the Dolmites.
INNSBRUCK - for the alpine markets in the Austrian Tyrol.

The pictures on the brochure are all taken at night; the markets aglow with twinkly lights. But you can easily get the same atmosphere here in the UK, and thanks to my wedding anniversary being in December I've been to loads of Christmas markets.

Cheap tips
Of course every Christmas market is designed to make you part with cash from a cold looking person, despite their layers of coats and scarves, parked in a shed in a town square. Some of the sheds may even be covered in fake snow. Like many visitors (so-called shoppers) I have honed the art of feasting my eyes, which seems a bit mean for all those craft makers. However the food and hot mulled wine stalls still do well.

Even when it's rained, and every year it really has poured, the Christmas markets at Bath, Winchester and Cambridge have been lovely to wander around. There's many more I'd like to visit too, including York and Lincoln.

Given that the Guardian today warns that the average family income has to fall by 10 per cent - thanks to Osbourne and the Tory's absurd policies - maybe you can find a Christmas market a little closer to home for a seasonal treat?

Find a UK Xmas market
Have a look at this website for a huge list of the dates of all UK Christmas markets, they are everywhere from Tetbury to Skipton to Portsmouth...

Friday, 9 September 2011

Sport binds us?

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK.

In a series of lighthearted emails back in January 2010 the excellent head at Woodford International School in Honiara, Solomon Islands said my little Brit daughters could only attend his school (for a week) if our whole family promised not to support New Zealand's 2011 Rugby World Cup bid.

Well, that seemed like a nobrainer.

I've never enjoyed rugby (or to be honest understood the scoring). If he wanted me to cheer for Oz's side (the one that hasn't won the rugby world cup for years...) then I was happy to do so.

But it's 9 September 2011 today and the Rugby World Cup has started - with New Zealand the hosts until 23 October. The host nation are apparently favourites, and haven't won top honours) (the Webb Ellis trophy since the inaugural game in 1987. This seems to be an advantage, they've certainly played the first half of their first game rather finely. But don't worry Greg, I was just looking at the Tonga team's red strip, and then couldn't resist watching both teams doing their fierce Polynesian war dances before the game kicked off.

And thanks to Greg I've realised that there are seven weeks of sport to enjoy and lots of the teams are from a long, long way away. I'm especially looking forward to the Fiji v Namibia game on Saturday (watch it on ITV 1, 4.30pm).

The picture above is more relevant than it might seem, it's a Pijin-language slogan Tshirt meaning we can do it together (tugetha iumi save duim) - which I took at Honiara's Lime Lounge during an annual award ceremony for Courageous Women. The Solomon Islands award was won by a woman who'd done a huge amount of surveying to discover that more than 60 per cent of women aged 15-49 had experienced domestic violence. This is a very high rate, and besides Papua New Guinea, one of the highest in the Pacific region. It's also shocking - it's dads, uncles, step fathers, grandparents, brothers and cousins who are hurting their wantoks (relations).

Scary jobs
I've been sniffing around the internet finding out more about this and discovered a just published Amnesty International report that surveyed Solomon Islands women collecting water in an area of Honiara that is off-grid (actually it's off-grid for about 90 per cent of houses). During the day only two men went to the water pipe, everyone else was female. When the women were asked why the men weren't helping the answer was "They are playing sport or drinking kwaso (a potent homebrew)." Here is the Solomon Star link.

I guess seven weeks of sport is good for nation building and bad for a lot of non-sport mad partners. Especially the ones collecting water (and in my London home that probably includes washing up duty).

Anyway, enjoy the games. And if you have to collect water, do so safely...

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Moth collection

I've been travelling for the past three months - and I'm sorry to admit that this involved making nine flights. There is no defence other than I hadn't been on a plane for 10 years so had a few carbon credits in hand. PIc is of Nell, me, Lola and two Solomon Island guides - Ofani and David - who had just taken us for a very long walk to see this amazing map, the Kolombangara stone.

But now I'm back at home. The first thing I noticed was that the kitchen seemed to have shrunk after the experience of living without windows, or clutter, while we were in Solomon Islands for two months. The next was the plague of moths.

Clothes moths drive me crazy - they've followed me around London to a range of different houses and their caterpillars have destroyed far too many of my clothes. They chew rugs, carpets, dresses, silk, jumpers, curtains even. I'm told they can even take over sheeps' wool insulation. They get into the food jars, and once the kids were sent home from school with a vicious note from the lunch supervisor telling me not to send them to school with maggoty fruit bars. When I protested that these were moth larvaes the teachers were even less sympathetic.

The result is that I am willing to kill these poor moths, and do so with a pheremone trap, ie, it's laced to stop the male tineola bisseliella mate with the female.

Unlike most of the world's 160,000 moth species, clothes moths (tineola bisselliella) like dim light. As everyone knows, most moths are drawn to bright lights, so they've done a clever bit of adaptation. In fact I admit to freaking out, just once during our three month travels, and it was over moths chaotically fighting to kill themselves on the kerosene light. We had to leave at 5am, ie, it was going to be dark in the morning, and was already dark, so I had to pack. Easy! But the torrential rain seemed to make hanging around the kerosene light even more attractive to the moths. There were 100s, maybe more, anyway enough to darken the lamp and to reduce me to a weeping lump lying on the dark wooden floor of the very special eco-lodge, Imbu Rano, Kolombangara, Solomon Islands.

I literally couldn't see for moths. 

Moth worries aside Imbu Rano is the place to base yourself if you ever want to take a walk through montane rainforest on a dormant volcano (the equivalent in the UK would be wooded parts of the Malvern Hills, or imagine the woods on Arthur's Seat or the Lake District). The eco-lodge has the world's most lovely view, read more about it here. There are some good pix here too. And by the way we stayed two nights and moths weren't a problem on the first night - it must have been the weather or the moon, or some other natural phenomenon.

DIY moth removal
Finding moth pheremone refills for the plastic traps isn't easy. But at the fourth hardware shop I visited (ironically the one I first stumbled across moth traps) had some for sale. A pack of 10 refills is £17.50, or buy one for just £2.

"Are you selling a lot of these?" I asked, and got a laugh for a reply at SX Wallpapers, 113 Essex Road, London, N1.

"We've sold 3,000 refills this summer. I've been saying we could turn the upstairs into a moth refill showroom and show people how best to swat them!" he added.

I'm sharing this with you so you can keep your clothes in a decent state, ensuring you have a little more cash available for travel around Britain without a plane...

Friday, 6 May 2011

Mr Pip's rebellion

Nicola, Pete, Lola and Nell love to travel - sometimes this can be done by staying put and just reading... This post takes you to the South Pacific with the help of two writers - Charles Dickens and Lloyd Jones. It is by Nicola Baird (although the video isn't)

What a classic choice. Hugh Lawrie looks set to be Mr Pip in the film version of Lloyd Jones' amazing book of the same name - a modern retelling of Dickens' Great Expectations set in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea with a couple of moments in the Solomons and New Zealand. Filming is near Arawa (in Kieta village) from May - July.

I loved the book - in fact have just re-read it - and tried to tell the author this at a meet and greet author session organised by Borders before it closed down. But poor Lloyd Jones was unwell from the long New Zealand flight and failed to show. But here's a warning: it's not for sensitive souls - the Bougainville blockade of the 1990s and the cruelty meted out be the government's forces (redskins in the book) and the rebels was appalling. At least a generation of children lost their chance of education, many people died unnecessarily, not just from conflict but malaria.

Here's a short video of a young girl canoeing in a lookalike PNG village to the one Lloyd Jones imagined. I borrowed this from a blog called My Amazing Paradise.  Here's the video.