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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.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Arab horses are stars

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post is in praise of horses - especially from the Arabian Peninsula. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).  

If people hadn't worked out how to tame and ride horses warfare might never have advanced. That's because donkeys just aren't so obliging. This is the rather upsetting conclusion I picked up from the British Museum's free exhibition, Horses: from Arabia to Royal Ascot, being run (free admission) until 30 September 2012 to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee - and her love for all things horse.

Turns out the swift Arab horses - the ones that eventually are crossed with British native mares to develop the Thoroughbred - come from the area around today's Kazakhstan and Iraq. The exhibition is fascinating - with some items rarely seen that normally reside in Saudi Arabia. There is also an engraving from Mesopotamia (the first image of a horse from 1BC), lots of early chariot bits and buckles; then armour used during the Crusades (c1190) and on to art and racing. many of the objects are tremendously old.

As a horse lover it gives me intense pleasure thinking about how many generations of people have had special relationships with their horses.

Talking horses
I took my 11-year-old Nell, who likes riding (see her in the photo above, cantering Twinkle). Even so she was fascinated by the videos of mares and foals grazing, horses horsing around in paddocks and racing shots. I really enjoyed discovering more:
From Herodotus (484-425BC)The Persians teach their sons, between the ages of 5 and 20, only three things - to ride a horse, use a bow and speak the truth.  Not bad life skills! 
From the Quran, surah 100:1-6"The snorting steeds, which shake first with their hoofs as they gallop to the raid at dawn and with a trail of dust split their foe in two." Terrifying, but astonishing poetry.
FurusiyyaThis is an Arabic term covering horsemanship skills (fighting knights, riding and horse care). Here's a blog that links it's glorious past with newer disciplines (eg, dressage). Looking forward to finding out more about this.

Galloping reads
If you want to find out more about Muslim and Christian horse breeding without just looking at pictures, try:
King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry. It's an old book, which I read as a child, captivated because it is so very different to the "Jill goes to a gymkhana" style of pony tales. King of the Wind starts during Ramadam and takes this famous bay stallion (accompanied by a dumb horse boy and a cat) to the UK where he becomes better known as The Godolphin Arabian, one of the three founders of the Thoroughbred stud book. The others are the Byerley Turk (1684-1706) and the Darley Arabian (born in Syria). My great grandfather Frank Forester who loved horses and racing had a picture of each of these three horses in his bedroom/dressing room. Only two of these pictures are with my family now.

Blood Red Horse by K M Grant - This is the fabulous first in a planned triology that tracks the journey of chestnut Hosanna first as he goes out with Richard 1 (the lionheart) in a bid to capture Jerusalem during the Crusades. But Hosanna is captured and ends up in the stables of the famous military general Saladin, Sultan of the Saracens.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Tasty Congo meal

Hamburger and hot chocolate, Greek pitta, Congo veggie meal with raw salad, yellow rice and cassava leaf stew.
This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post offers delicious tastes from Congo, Rwanda and Liberia - all served up at a London park festival in June. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).    

At the Green Fair in Regents Park, London (June 2012) it's obvious that people who like green stuff also seem to love international flavours - especially music and food.

Top of the food stall choices Lola, Nell and I picked out was the Congo veggie meal - a huge pot of cassava leaves cooked slowly with coconut and cauliflower then served with saffron-coloured rice and a raw salad. It was not what I expected Congalese food to be like. The raw salad was gorgeous including plantain, fruits and grated carrot with a moreish sauce. The woman serving it said you can find packets of dried cassava leaf in markets that specialise in African food, for Londoners Brixton would be a good choice. In Africa cassava leaf (fresh and dry) is also used as animal fodder and to fatten up tilapia (fish).

Here is a recipe I found on the web for a similar dish (from Liberia).

Dried Cassava Leaf Soup: This is a traditional Liberian recipe for a classic stew of meat and fish with cassava leaves that's flavoured with red palm oil. In West African markets you can buy big 500g packs of finely-chopped dried or semi-dried cassava leaves. My wife often buys these as a base for soups or as an addition to palm butter soups or palm oil soups. This is a fairly simple dish that focuses on the cassava leaves themselves and is characteristic of Liberian cuisine. 
Ingredients: 500g ground or chopped dried cassava leaf 4 bonnies (or any firm white fish, cut into steaks) 3 dried bonnies (or any dried fish or smoked and dried fish) 500g meat, cubed 4 whole hot chillies (eg Scotch bonnet) 2 onions, chopped 2 tomatoes, chopped half chicken, cut into serving pieces 2 Maggi (or bouillon) cubes 1 tbsp black pepper 1/8 tsp baking soda salt 400ml red palm oil (or groundnut oil with 1 tbsp paprika) oil for frying (groundnut oil or soy oil) 
Method: Begin with the pepper paste. Add the hot chillies to a pestle and mortar along with a handful of onion and pound to a paste then add the tomatoes and pound in. Wash the dried fish thoroughly then break into pieces, removing as many bones as you can. Add the oil to a pan and use to brown the meat and chicken then set aside. Add the fish steaks and fry until coloured then set these aside. Add the onions and fry for about 5 minutes, or until soft then add half the chilli mix and fry in. Now add the meat back to the pan along with the dried fish, the pepper and Maggi cubes and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer then cook for about 40 minutes, or until the meat is tender. Now add the cassava leaf, the remainder of the chilli paste and the baking soda and bring the mixture back to a boil. Cook, uncovered until almost all of the liquid has evaporated. Pour the palm oil into the soup, stir to combine then return to a boil, reduce to a low simmer and continue cooking for about 10 minutes. Serve hot with rice.
Read more at Celtnet: http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/miscellaneous/fetch-recipe.php?rid=misc-dried-cassava-leaf-soupCopyright © celtnet

Until trying this dish I'd assumed food in the Congo was either meaty, or extremely plain like this recipe for Mikate (donuts) which are also served in Rwanda (taken from a school cookbook, downloadable).

Congo donuts (mikate)
Mix together enough self-raising flour, eggs, milk, sugar and oil to make a thick porridge. You should be able to cut it with a spoon, then fry donut-sized chunks in hot oil. Repeat until all the mixture is used.

Tip: if you want to spark this up a little a trick VSO volunteers used when on trips in rural areas (in Solomn Islands) was to use the syringe supplied by the British Council to shoot store bought jam into our homemade doughnut. It made them taste delectable!

Over to you
Have you tried dried cassava leaf? Where did you find it, and what did you cook with it?

Sunday, 10 June 2012

What's so special about the ExCeL venue?

Landed, SS Robin and the final view of Tate & Lyle  from the Docklands Light Railway.
This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post has a look at the area around the ExCeL centre, one of the Olympic venues - which offers a mishmash of world experience. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).    

Perhaps this title is misleading? At the weekend we stumbled on the ExCeL as a result of joining a madcap musical improvising jam set up by the team at SS Robin. SS Robin is a wonderful, old steam ship built in this area at the old Thames Ironworks (at the top of the River Lea) - and the birthplace of West Ham football club. Robin is now on a vast pontoon in Royal Victoria Dock awaiting some interesting changes to make her into an exhibition space before she is relocated a little way upstream.

Royal Victoria Dock is opposite the ExCeL Centre (a company with direct links to Abu Dhabi as in ExCeL: ADNEC). We thought we were going to hear the Grand Union Orchestra - but it turned out we were to be part of the orchestra which is famous for it's rhythms and diaspora players. At the SS Robin workshop there was Claude from South Africa who used a violent whistle to keep all the percussion players in time. He was phenomenal and managed to help both Pete and I (absolute tuneless wonders) find some kind of musical mojo through beating out a rhythm of "co-ca, co-la" and for 3:2 "we are the cham-pions". Seeing Pete perform a triangle solo was quite something! Although I was unable to laugh seeing as I'd tried to hide myself - and my bell and stick - behind a pillar in a bid to avoid such scarey attention... Other music trainers included Yusuf from Bangladesh and the very talented, friendly Lily from Bulgaria.

It's big
After the music jamboree we clambered up the stairs that take you over the Victoria Dock footbridge to the Western Gateway Dock (with the ExCeL, Ibis hotel etc). It has a remarkable view across to the Thames/Emirates cable car one way - and the good ship SS Robin the other way. Everything is on such a scale in this area - the old warehouses, the much-reduced Tate & Lyle factory with it's iconic Golden Syrup can on one side of the building, the new builds, the old cranes along the dock, even the water - that it's hard not to make a big thing look small. Or to feel like a dwarf.

Opposite - or over the footbridge - is the Excel centre where some of the Olympic Games will take place including tae kwondo (to which my family has tickets!). Beside ExCeL are restaurants that aim to cater for huge crowds - although there were only a few people around during our visit. There are two Indians, one Italian and a pub called Fox@excel. We ended up at the Fox which is strewn with TV screens and has a sports ambience to it. It's a vast brick space which is clearly going to fill up during the Olympics - the Ladies had a row of 10 loos which felt profligate given the smallish collection of Saturday night pub goers.

All change
Obviously this part of London, a dock sandwiched between Canning Town and west Silvertown - is all the old East End. But it feels so strange compared to the crampedness of up town living.

There are surprising clues to the extraordinary story of how this area has gone from marsh to dockland to bombsite, to sport and leisure venue over the centuries thanks to a life-size sculpture. In Brisbane we were much impressed by the street sculptures that brought history right into the shopping centres. The same's been done by the ExCeL at this once crazily-busy dockside. There's a bronze sculpture by Les Johnson, unveiled in 2009, called Landed with three portraits of workers - one young man, one fatter manger reading a docket slip beside a large package just unloaded from the spice (and slavery) island of Zanzibar, and the other older with a flat cap and a sack hook over his shoulder. Above them is a large hook, who knows how it stays up, but clearly representing the cranes used to unload all the cargo in what was then known as the Royal Docks. I believe there's a crate labelled Hong Kong too, but I managed to miss this... The problem with round the world travel is it's not long before your brain is over-loaded with information, and that's even when you are pacing a 500m route across a dock!

See the Grand Union Orchestra perform on 18 July 2012 at the Hackney Empire.

Over to you
Just two questions: what do you know about the Olympic venues? Do you think music or food is a better route into new cultures?