A-Z activities

A-Z countries

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.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Alps are crowded... near Woolwich

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how to get that crowded Alpine feeling in a London meadow. This post is by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about books and blogs)   

I've written about walking the Capital Ring on a recent post, but on this weekend's bid to complete the 75-mile footpath the author Colin Saunders made me laugh with a photo captioned: "You could imagine yourself transported to the Alps as you approach the mountain hut at the top of Oxleas Meadow." 

I was looking forward to this, not least because it means I don't need to pop over to Beckton to climb the old waste spoil site from the gas works, better known as the Beckton Alps (for more good ideas about trips around London, low and high points see this interesting blog).

So when we did reach the famous view of the cafe - as you can see from my photo - it really did look like the Alps at its busiest as there were 150 walkers taking a breather at the top of Oxleas Meadows. In theory it's a good place to stop - one of the highest spots on the Capital Ring footpath boasting views over South-East London and away to the North Downs. It's just normally there aren't so many people here in kagouls and backpacks. We'd let the walkers surge in front of our modest group of four as I picked up a dog poo at the top of the wooded hill that winds down and then back up to the so-called mountain hut.

We thought we'd lost them. But even in "mountains" that are almost offering a Swiss/Italian/Austrian/Slovenian/Croatian/Bosnian/Servian/Montenegran view (see map below) this isn't easy...

I love walking, and I love everyone else walking - but crucially walkers aren't allowed to walk at the same time as me! This is a family failing: my dad was such a misanthropist that we only really went out on long walks when it was raining hard. I'll never forget the wet Sunday when this unluckily coincided with a sponsored walk (of hundreds of ramblers) heading in the other direction. How my Dad cursed them!

On this occasion I got so panicked by the crowds (fearing we might be associated with them) that I managed to fall into a muddy ditch, and lose the dog lead. I managed to find the lead but when I returned to where Nell had been guarding my rucksack was told that another dog had just come up and wee'ed over it. Lovely. And then somehow Nell's hot chocolate (fortunately cooling) got tipped over our dog...

No wonder my kids were laughing at the self-inflicted misfortunes caused by my fear of being made to step along with a crowd.

Over to you
Are there places you love but don't go to when the weather is good, simply because you too loathe the crowds, or change of atmosphere? Or is this just silly?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

World's best long distance walks

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how to use your walking shoes to take you over the horizon - and away to Rome and even Santiago de Compostela. This post is by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about books and blogs)   

My family is so very close to finishing the Capital Ring - a 70 mile (126km) route circling London. Sometimes I worry about finishing it - we'll end the joy of discovering new bits of London. Highlights include the Brent reservoir used for a long-ago Olympics, the art deco 1930s splendour of Eltham Palace, a peep into the grand schooling of Harrow School and the endless views of London from hills you didn't know existed. Honestly it's like tramping over the seven hills of Rome.

To compensate my loss there are some wonderful long-distance paths around the UK (and nearby) that could perhaps be revisited and allow me to dream up being in another place altogether.

Five best long-distance walks

  • Camino de Santiago de Compostela - the route of St James (patron saint's day 25 July). I've met people who have walked this in the sharp winds of April with a baby on their back. I've seen the film with Martin Sheen and son, The Way, and long ago I stayed in the stunning parador (hotel) at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Somewhere in the back of my mind I want to try this 780km journey too, but it's one that will have to wait for the children to leave school. Indeed if you go past the cathedral you can end at Finisterre, which Medievals thought was "the end of the world". More info at this website.
  • Walk with the Romans along Hadrian's Wall. We've nearly managed the whole 135km, just a short two, maybe three, day section left between Newcastle and Hexham. The May half term is pencilled in, but we may have to give up on this idea as Nell, 10, is very wary of cows and they will certainly be out in the fields by then. Bulls and all. See a previous entry on this blog here about the moment we reached the end (before quite completing the beginning).
  • West Highland Way - runs 152km from Glasgow to Fort William uphill. Well, as good as uphill. It's midge heaven and the few chunks I've tried out (along Loch Lomond for instance) are remarkably free of snack shops which makes walking more of a slog. Perhaps this is the one that best echoes Camino de Santiago de Compostela?

  • Coast to Coast - success! Pete and I spent three years popping up and down to the Lake District in order to walk Alfred Wainwright's fabulous 190 mile path (sorry, it has to be miles in respect to AW's memory) from St Bees Head over to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire (dreamt up in 1973, more info here). I'd never heard of Wainwright when Pete first suggested the idea. Now I am willing to watch reruns of his extremely slow TV programme, just to get back in the zen mood of walking through the Lake District with my eyes mostly on a compass rather than mountain tops...

    A tip from the cantankerous AW: "If you must take a companion, take one who is silent."

    I was quite upset when an energetic friend and her husband managed to cycle 225km on the C2C (a very similar route) in a weekend - the time it took my lumbering feet seemed to add to the magic of the journey. But if you are less hardy, but still speed-inclined try the 12-20 day holidays run by this group.

  • Across India - isn't this what Gandhi did in some form of anti-British protest involving salt? Have you seen the size of India? 

Over to you
Where have you walked in the UK that makes you think you could be somewhere else in the world?

Friday, 20 January 2012

Staying warm in Sweden

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how those clever people in Sweden can still enjoy sitting outside a Stockholm cafe (without a patio heater) even when the weather is freezing. This post is by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about books and blogs)  

To make sure my family is never tempted to turn on the central heating at different times to the specified 7-8.30am and 6-9pm (I think this what Pete has agreed to), there are four rugs in the sitting room that can be used to drape around the body creating a wigwam of heat. Unfortunately when our dog was younger he enjoyed chewing them and the result is a home that looks as if it has been blighted by giant moths. In the dog's defence, he does look cute when he sticks his head through one of the holes he made...

Wrap up warm
I told this story to my friend Julie on a recent two-day trip to her home, which is near Bath. It made her remember how she'd admired the rugs used by Stockholm cafe goers. To stay warm at an outside table they don't light a gas-guzzling, climate change destroying garden heater. Instead they use a rug that's been left on the back of the chair. When they've finished a smorgasbord of conversation (or more likely, a dagens ratt/dish of the day) they fold up the rug and put it neatly back over the chair. 

What a great idea - why can't more cafes and pubs (never mind home owners with patio heaters) do something similar in the UK?

Over to you?
How do you stay cosy during an outdoor winter picnic?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Japan's cute little things

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how we pretend to visit Japan. This post is by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about books and blogs) 

My lovely cousin Stacy grew up in Canada but now lives in Japan where she is married to Motoki. They have a little boy, Joji - and one day I hope we'll all meet. Until then my family gets the benefit of knowing a tiny amount about what it's like to live in Japan from a "local". They take a new year holiday near Kyoto (it sounds so exotic). They use high speed trains. They coped after the shocking 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

A gift from Japan
Sometimes we get surprise parcels - the most recent was a treasure house of things children like - and I imagine things Japanese people like. You can see from the photo that there are toffees wrapped in dice packaging, teeny pencils (ideal for the Borrowers), a scented rubber with an emory board on the side just in case you need to repair your nails, and rose-flavoured sweeties that were truly delicious. Nell, 10, certainly thought so! Cute is certainly a winner for girls.

Thinking Japanese: top five cute attractions in the UK

  • Legoland - technically not cute, but anything downsized has the potential to hit the "ahhh cute" button. That said, I've never been to Legoland, Windsor, and secretly hope I never will. Just saying.
  • Dolls houses - many National Trust houses boast a children's nursery with a vast dolls' house - a wonderful Georgian one is at Uppark, Petersfield, Hampshire. There's also Queen Mary's dolls house built in the 1920s, on display at the Tower of London. And in my sitting room - a cut down box serves as one dolls house. And on the other side of the room is an Edwardian detached version which Nell and I had fun painting and wallpapering to match our own house's decor.
  • The Sylvanian shop -is open seven days a week in a tiny street in north London. But is is ideal for anyone with an old-fashioned yen for model animal mania. See the collection of badger husbands and their hard working squirrel/sheep/wives and cute twins (you're getting the idea aren't you!) here.
  • Toy repair shops - hard to find, but worth the effort as the items are getting the second (or third) life they deserve.
  • Anime - a massive trend with older, thoughtful teens and 20somethings, see here. Every university seems to have an anime soc where members regularly dress up as their favourite animated cartoon character. You can find anime and manga cartoons in book shops.

Over to you
Where would you go if you wanted to have a day in Japan without leaving the UK?

Friday, 13 January 2012

Little taste of France

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how petit France can be found slap in the middle of London. This post is by Nell May (dictated to her mum Nicola Baird,  see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about books and blogs) 

"I enjoyed going to the creperie as it had delicious crepes (pancakes). I had a New York crepe with bacon, brie and soft egg in it. It was really yummy. I also had a delicious raspberry smoothie which had raspberries and pawpaw (papaya) in it. They also sold ice creams.  Nearby there was a boulangerie, Paul, where mummy bought some bread (du pain). We got off the tube at South Kensington to go to this cafe - it's the same one my granny used to go to when she was young in London. I felt like I was in London, but then I saw the French flags and thought maybe we were near a French school.

"I can remember a bit of French, like "Oui, non and je voudrais un bon bon sil vouz plait" but I will probably do French at secondary school. It will be quite fun to learn a new language.

"It's nice to know that I don't have to go to France if I want a taste of France. That's what is so good about London."

Over to you
What's the best trip you've made in the UK that felt like you were miles away, but in fact it was still the land of the British passport? And crucially, would Nell like to visit it? Tips: her current favourite museum is the Natural History Museum, she loves skating and eating.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

"It's 7am and this is the voice of Africa"

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how a mistake tuning the radio alarm let me wake up in Ghana without a single uncomfortable or carbon heavy air flight (pic is of a wind-up radio). This post is by Nicola Baird 

I always wake up to the Today radio programme. But thanks to a simple tuning mistake on Monday the boring, but essential, info from John Humphrys and Sarah Montague was replaced by Voice of Africa 94.3FM offering a very different world. One with music and a lot of shouty phone numbers...

I found out that allowances are going up for lepers in Nigeria, orphans will get a late new year lunch, and if you're after fresh goat meat and tilapia at better prices than Brixton Market then head to Channing Town..

I've spent about six months total in Africa (mostly Kenya but also Zanzibar and Zimbabwe), and the strange thing is that on the longer visits I used to tune into the World Service. It was so comforting hearing stories from all around the globe being explained in the crisp tones of BBC English. In contrast Voice of Africa explodes into the bedroom with energy and fun and gruesomeness - how amazing to be whisked to Nigeria and then Ghana with such ease.

If I've learnt anything about virtual travel, then it is make sure that you listen to the local radio station, wherever you are. As Voice of Africa puts it, "it always seems impossible until it's done".  Enjoy the speediest flight you'll ever make just by jiggling with the radio dial. Or tell your DAB what to do.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Dreaming up a Polish feast

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how a trip to Harrow took us via Poland and Lithuania. This post is by Nicola Baird  

Potatoes are always cheap, right? Wrong - how about heading to a Polish food store to find ones with real mud from home, or rather from Poland or Lithuania? That's what you can do in west London. Of course in the UK we are long used to getting potatoes from all over the world, the first new potatoes in supermarkets are often from Israel, but there is something truly forlorn about needing the taste of home-grown potatoes.

Don't let that stop you from having a good look, and perhaps a taste too, of the goodies on offer in one of these stores. I left with delicious apple and spice chocolate covered biscuits (more like a Jaffa Cake) and also a large poppy paste breakfast roll. Heated up this had an almondy-taste which my kids found a bit strange, but the adults in the house enjoyed enough to be going back for more. Given the amount of elderly poppy seed I have in my store cupboard at the moment, this certainly gave me inspiration beyond lemon and poppy seed cake, or poppy seed bagels.

Unique Polish foods include birch and bilberry juice, cow candy, dried mushrooms and pickled garlic. You could spend a lifetime learning about the clever ways Poles have devised to preserve food, and of course potatoes are an important item too featuring in borscht and cabbage soup. And then there are pierogi (filled parcels boiled or crispily baked). It may be hearty peasant/hunter food, but what could be more warming on a cold winter's day? Now all I need is a few Polish friends to help me explore Eastern European cooking. Any offers or recipes?
From Warsaw life:  
Bigos – A traditional stew native to Poles and Lithuanians, bigos is considered to be Poland’s true national dish and its composition can vary from region to region, village to village and restaurant to restaurant. This hunter’s stew is a staple of every Polish family so be sure to sample it during your stay. Fresh or fermented cabbage forms the base of the meal to which either whole or pureed tomato is added alongside cuts of meat mainly, but not exclusively kielbasa or pork and finished off with honey and mushrooms. The dish is traditionally accompanied with rye bread or potatoes and is typically served on the second day of Christmas. Its high concentration of vitamin C, the ready availability of cabbage and general heartiness made it a classic and nutritionally fundamental dish during centuries and centuries of cold winters. Wash it down with shots of ice-cold vodka for the authentic experience. 

Want to find out more?
For a huge amount of Polish and East European info in London - mostly history, themed bars, vodkas, restaurants and food stores see here. Some more good recipe code-crackers from Warsaw life here.