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, 22 July 2012

Oceania at Greenwich

Festival vibe: rug, snacks, anticipation.
Greenwich is a spider trap for tourists and day-trippers. But so well-deserved, and with the DLR taking you into Cutty Sark, where this famously fleet tea clipper (ship) has been quite beautifully repaired after the burning incident, Greenwich is a treat. Even more so on 21-22 July 2012 - the first weekend when the sun shone all day for what seems like months.

Best of all the BT River of Music has one of its six free stages, all along the River Thames here - which look set to entertain half a million people. The Americas and Europe stages were fully booked instantly; the Africa, Asia and Oceania were a bit slower to "sell" out. Nowadays even free concerts seem to involve buying a ticket - for a £3 booking fee.

Narasirato from Solomon Islands in London.
Tangio tumas
Show stealers for Lola and Nell's first festival were -of course - the bamboo pipe band from Solomon Islands. The group are from 'Are 'Are lagoon, a wonderful place in Malaita (it's where I learnt to speak Pijin, paddle a canoe, etc). It's also where Gary Barlow thought erroneously he was going to be eaten, but enough of that. The band, Narasirato, have two albums and a history of touring big music festivals (including New Zealand and Japan. The pan pipes are made from bamboo, it's all very traditional but the extra oomph comes from the Solomon Islanders' staggering energy on stage - they just keep on dancing; and the drums (also made from bamboo pipes but whacked with rubber similar to a flip-flop) seem to give it a rocky sound. If you missed this, you can see them at Womad 2012.

Get this party started
We heard George Telek from Papua New Guinea, then bands from Milne Bay, also PNG, the Marshall Islands, Guam, East Timor and the Aborigine musician Frank Yamma sedately from a picnic rug (the same place for New Zealand's Hollie Smith). It was like being in an issue of the world music magazine, Songlines. But when Narasirato picked up their pan pipes half the audience rushed to the front or got up and danced. It was marvellous, and later we had a quick chat with the band while they munched on chicken and chips.

Pete actually stayed on our picnic rug so watched -with some incredulity - his family at the front of the stage dancing along when focus-on-the-crazy-members-of-the-audience were flashed on to the big screens. In 2011 during our long stint in Solomon Islands I insisted we went to several hotel "tourist" dances in the hopes that we'd see the famous pan pipe entertainers. We never did - it was mostly Kiribati sashaying of the hips or Belonna stomping (although the latter was fab). As the proverb says, "good things come to those who wait". There's never any reason to rush off around the world, nearly always the world comes to you... so it was with BT's River of Music festival at the Oceania stage.

Pete and Nell try a Greenwich sofa.
Go see Greenwich
On the way home, we were distracted by more of the things Greenwich has to offer - a street market of delicious food (flat white coffee, vegetarian burgers brazenly named after their ingredients (carrot, greens), Scotch eggs served with a runny egg and a sprinkle of celery salt, at bearable prices, located just by the Old Royal Naval College. We then ate these on a vast atro-turf covered sofa surely designed to give you an Alice-in-Wonderland feel.

Over to you
Have you discovered free events thanks to the Olympics? Or has the Olympics tempted to you to find out about another country's cultural heritage? And have you seen a Gamesmaker yet in their bright purple jackets?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Journey to the end of the Nile

In Highgate Cemetery, a homage to lost explorers?
I quite like feeling slightly lost. Not lost, late, out of supplies, with malaria and without a map like the explorers desperate to track the Nile or the Congo to its source. I mean lost on a bike knowing I'm only a couple of streets off my target, but probably discovering new routes there's always the hope I'll find a quicker or more interesting journey. And now I like looking for rivers.

Not long ago I posted on my homemadekids blog the National Trust's list of 50 things you should have done before you are 12. See it here. On the list was dam a stream. Now I've done this before, and so have my kids (and we unblocked it when the game stopped, don't worry), but I've never spent that long messing around in a stream. Until today. 

Atmospheric ivy.
Knowing the long summer holidays are ahead I've been trying to do a day volunteering (rather than writing) most weeks this term - generally something that builds up my skills, like my turn on the Sunday rota at the local canoe club; or conservation tasks at an overgrown cemetery (see pix). These are about the only child-free things I do. Generally I find it means that I bring home tidbits about the big world outside, and often inspire my kids to have a go at what I'm doing too.

Here it is, the source of the Fleet cleaned up.
But today I'm back from a happy day in the woods, covered in mud, after tracking and digging out the source of the River Fleet. This is a very famous river in London - Fleet Street is where the newspapers used to all be produced.

Looking at Wikipedia I'm slightly doubtful about whether I really was looking at the Fleet or not - it definitely ends up subterranean, but the info isn't consistent. One to think about. But a good river source isn't always obvious. Take the Thames.

I asked Nell, 11,  if she remembered our efforts to find the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire in 2009. Amazingly she did. It seems to have had the same sort of memory impact as the Moon landings did for her dad. "Yes, I've found a river. I found the Thames. It didn't have water in it. It just looked like a stream, and then a small ditch but there were cows grazing by it. There was a small stone saying this is the mouth of the Thames. if I'd been there first I'd have put a really big stone and in really clear writing I'd have written 'this is where the famous river Thames starts' and then I'd put the date."

The trickle that turns into the Fleet River starts here.

In contrast I just crossed my fingers that unblocking the Fleet, so it now has a clear route between the graves, wouldn't lead to flooding downstream. Or Mr Child's grave on the right sinking into a deep Fleet pool.  

All quiet so far (nearly a week on).

I wonder if Livingstone enjoyed finding the Nile? Not quite sure at what point you celebrate these things - locating it, getting back to camp or when the general public know what's happened. I just know that I grinned the whole cycle journey home (despite being slightly lost)...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

I'm hearing Russian, but who speaks it?

Anna Karenina didn't have it all.
This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. Here's how you can get a better sense of the vast influence of Russia here. First stop a trip to the UK's favourite store, M&S, followed by a London pub. This post is by Nicola Baird (for more info about her books see www.nicolabaird.com

At the start of each term I always ask my university students what languages they speak. Usually a few know Russian - and given how many countries speak Russian that should be no surprise. How many can you rack up - my list (after a bit of research) produced Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Georgia and Abkhazia.

The founder of M&S, Michael Marks, came to the UK "a penniless immigrant" from Belarus.The shop's ongoing policy to green the consumer experience, with Plan B, has seen it back FSC certification for all timber and timber products; stock fair trade items and experiment with packaging.

Notes on a scandal
I think everyone knows that Stalin came from Georgia. It's enough of an embarrassment for the country to have removed Stalin's statues in his hometown of Gori. But do you know the rumour that Stalin and Lenin first met in London (in 1905) at The Crown Tavern, Clerkenwell Green, London. It's still offering pints in a wooden panneled room, so you could try to get a sense of that historic meeting.

In the mood for Russia with lovePerhaps the best-known Russian novel is Anna Karenina (by Tolstoy), and a new film version of the book comes out in September, so I'm taking advantage of this to re-read the book. I had forgotten how fat it is, how slow the story - all meandering scenes and remarkably little plot in the first 50 pages, but so rich and enjoyable if you have the time. The film is much faster of course, and full of gorgeous dresses, see the trailer here.

Anna Karenina is a masterpiece about love and double standards. Even this tiny trailer has left me tearful - not sure how I'll last either the whole of the book - including being parted from your child - or indeed the film when it's finally released with Keira Knightley playing Anna.

Over to you
Are you a Russian fan? Is there somewhere in the world (other than the obvious) that makes you think of Russia in any of its incarnations - old imperial, communist, super-rich or anything inbetween?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Paradise for the quick and the dead

Nell used fair trade jelly beans to give her the energy to tour so many graves.
This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post takes you to Egypt, Lebanon and Victorian visions of paradise - via Highgate Cemetery. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).  

The locked black gates are finally opened a few minutes after 3pm. Just like the website they open without a creak. But the moment I pay up (£7 for an adult, £3 for a child) a rogue rain cloud drops its load into the courtyard. It's as if Highgate Cemetery (West) doesn't feel like visitors today. But then the weather changes again - brighter clouds scud past and the sun breaks through into the woodland walkways, turning even the granite and crumbling graves a sort of picturesque (if your taste is vampish).

Our guide is superb, an Archway local dressed in white - an angelic effect I'm  certain she intended. Within minutes we know that Victorian London was expanding so fast that it needed more graveyards - the result was the Magnificent Seven which ring London.  In 1839 Highgate Cemetery was opened, but you needed a lot of cash to be buried here especially if you wanted a plot by a path or a large family vault. The price didn't seem to inhibit Londoners - it's claimed there were 30 funerals a day at the purpose built chapel (Church of England to one side, dissenters (ie, anyone else) to the other). 

Our guide claimed that there are now 169,000 people buried in one of London's most desirable postcodes (NW6) in 50,000+ graves. There are just 30 plots left on this side of Swains Lane, apparently available to any of us, so long as you pay £20,000. There are more plots available on the east side though.

At the entrance of Egyptian Avenue. Anyone with a vault had their name and street they'd lived in carved on it.
How to mourn
Victorians were death experts
, as well a generation might with such high infant mortality and generally shortened life-expectation. 

These graves tend to tell the story of their occupant's life. So coachman James Selby has a long whip and a horn on his stone, and adornments of inversed (ie, upside down) horseshoes. Anything inversed is a sign of death. Selby's grave was funded by his coach driving colleagues and friends. There's a pic of him here, famous because he won a £1,000 wager that he could drive from Piccadilly Circus, London to Brighton and back within eight hours. Indeed his life legend lives on that he could complete a coach and the four horses needed to pull it in just 47 seconds. Quite astonishing. I can't even get out of my office chair that fast!

Tour highlight
As you climb uphill there's a huge stone Egyptian Avenue where the super-rich buried their families in 12-people tombs. It's very Egyptian looking - lotus flowers and columns, except these are inverted. Even the keyholes are the wrong way up as a mark of respect. With the tree roots twisting up the banks and the dark overhang of heavy June-cloaked trees there is a strange impression in the graveyard of other worldliness, just like the commissioners of the Pyramids must have tried to achieve. Years ago there were 80 gardeners keeping the undergrowth neatly trim, but now a handful of volunteers manage it as a wildlife paradise - and certainly the dappled pathways attract gently flickering butterflies on their hunt for nectar.

After the Egyptian Avenue you pass the Circle of Lebanon - vaults designed to keep 18 people, although curiously none are full up - the maximum is nine family members - which completely encircles a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon tree. This is 300 plus years old, far exceeding its expected life, which is a pleasing thought in such a crowded cemetery. 

Watch this 3-minute film (click on the arrow above) with some rundown scenic shots of the cemetery before it received some tender restoration.

This is George Wimbwell's grave. He ran a travelling circus starring many animals, including the lion, Nero, above, who was good-natured enough to let children clamber on him.
Vandals in paradise
These big cemeteries became run down after World War 1 resulting in serious vandalism. In a bid to refinance the place Hammer Horror was allowed to film but that seems to have added to the kudos of getting into the graveyard and breaking off a bit of stone for your own. These vandals were clearly immune to the places' atmosphere - in the vaults which are not allowed to be filmed many coffins are piled up as if in an Ikea cupboard, their human contents now long rotted and seemingly forgotten. It's a very dark, spooky place which I hope not to have nightmares about.

That said - you must go. What's more three days later I was back inside as a volunteer working on conservation tasks. It gives you such a calm feeling - and you're never short of reading material on all those gravestones...

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Not sure about Moldova

Trees, gently undulating, chilly - you could be in Moldova.
This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post is how to get a peep at Moldova without setting foot in it at all. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my eco-friendly books and blogs).   

Moldova is a small, picturesque (just don't look at the Soviet style city architecture) state between Romania and the Ukraine - allegedly named after a dog belonging to a Medieval prince. The story goes that the Prince had been hunting and at the end of the day his exhausted hound, Molda, drowned in the river - I must find out what this means. More info at wiki here. Just in case you have to do a pub quiz on this country, it's landlocked.

"Everyone wants out"
I've only met one person from Moldova, Anna, a clever and entertaining student. However she didn't rate her home country highly. To illustrate she said that if I went round a school class in Moldova and asked where the students wanted to live or work no one would say "Moldova".

Maybe that's why although it's slightly larger than Belgium, the population is half that of Belgium - 4.4 million with a zero growth rate.

Love the caves
Among the gently hills there are some ancient cave monasteries, such as Old Orhei - in line for World Heritage status. But even when I log on to a Moldovan site,ads pop up asking if I want to find my own "Moldovan beauty queen". I think this is code for wife. One way to leave I guess. A vast number of people in this area were also slaughtered either because they were Jews by Hitler, or later by Stalin. There's a real sadness to this country's history.

So where can we get that same feel in the UK?
Not the lack of people, but the gently wooded, away from the sea, chalky caves? Bingo - how about a Hertfordshire border town like Royston which boasts a cave dating back to the 14th century? See here. Entry times are very limited, and you can only go into the caves on a guided tour (max 18 people) between Easter and September.
Saturdays, Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays: 2.30 to 5 pm.   
Wednesdays (August only): 2.30 to 5 pm.
Last admission: 4.30 pm. 

Once you are back in the open air look for the undulating woodlands and take a walk, perhaps via a pub. there's plenty of good real ale in Hertfordshire.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Best things to do in London. Ever.

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post is in praise of London - fabulous to visit and a fine place to live too. Could you mark it on the country cookie?Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my eco-friendly books and blogs).  

Since 2007 I've been visiting curious places in the UK that remind me of another country. Usually they are a fabulous place to visit in their own right too. As I've wandered around my home I've started realising, that, for all sorts of reason many people in London are nervous of moving out of their postcode. This is a tremendous shame - and it isn't always to do with cost. Here's a list my 11-year-old Nell and I put together as the absolute best things to do in London, for yourself, with or without visitors. Most also offer a lot of fun for children.

#1 Walk around London
TIME the Capital Ring is 170 miles - how long have you got?
COST Oyster card and Family & Friends Railcard keep the prices down.
WHERE IN THE WORLD peeps into all sorts of places including Switzerland.
VERDICT achievement of walking the whole way around London is off the rating. Plus you get to see parts of London you'd never expect to visit - miles away from hip Hoxton, Camden and the City.
ALTERNATIVE could you join a sponsored walk or bike ride around a London park or over the many bridges crossing the Thames? Lots of 5km park runs are organised - though I love hash-house-harriers.

#2 Tour of Highgate Cemetery (West)
TIME one hour precisely (check website)
COST children £3 (8 years and up); adults £7
WHERE IN THE WORLD this is the other world - rated by the Victorians as the most magnificent of the magnificent seven cemeteries ringing London. Hammer Horror has filmed here. There's an Egyptian burial chamber family vaults at the Circle of Lebanon.
VERDICT dappled 20 acre woodland site filled with atmospheric and historic graves. Your camera will love this stop off.
ALTERNATIVE Go and see Marx's huge stone head memorial in the East Cemetery, which is open more often.

#3 Dickens Pub Crawl (suggest this is child free!)
TIME several evenings (avoid weekends as the City shuts)
COST ££ pubs aren't expensive, but inhibitions may disappear
WHERE IN THE WORLD feels like Restoration London. Parts of it look like it too, especially on the edges of Fleet Street.
VERDICT simple solution to what to do tonight.
ALTERNATIVE just think of a Londoner and concoct your own pub crawl. Douglas Adams of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy must have drunk somewhere in his home beat of Islington... George Orwell was up in Hampstead... etc. See info on CAMRA London pubs here.

#4 End to end on the #19 bus
TIME Finsbury Park to Battersea (or vice versa)
COST Oyster card and Family & Friends Railcard keep the prices down.
WHERE IN THE WORLD See the Algerian cafes with mint tea, black coffee and sweet cakes around Finsbury Park's Blackstock Road; then through Angel (where the Monopoly Board game was dreamt up at the building now used by the Co-op Bank); past Dickens Museum, along Shaftesbury Avenue and Theatreland; past Green Park and Hyde Park (green oasis in the city); past Harrods (the rich person's mecca, perhaps a little taste of Dubai?); then on to Sloane Square and Kings Road (quintessentially English) and over a pink-painted bridge (San Francisco?) with Battersea Park and the Japanese Peace Pagoda on your left. 
VERDICT marvellous - and a good route for unaccompanied (sensible) children/teens as there's plenty to spot.
COUNTRIES: Algeria, Japan, UAE, USA, 
ALTERNATIVE: any end to end bus route that suits your lodgings.

#5 London's skyline from Ali Pali
TIME don't rush this one, take the day and if you've got visitors from the tropics give them a go at the vast ice skating rink.
COST £20 max but just as good free if you opt to stroll and feast your eyes. There's a cafe in the adjacent park that sells the best coffee while the owner sings opera (not open on mondays).
WHERE IN THE WORLD peeps into all sorts of places including Switzerland.
VERDICT Gorgeous park, mighty view.
ALTERNATIVE: £££ on the London Eye. Or look at the view from Parliament Hill or Kenwood House, both on Hampstead Heath.

#6 Kew Gardens in spring (any time is a treat, even when raining as lots of heated greenhouses)
TIME this is a day trip
COST it's free for children, but adult tickets are £££. You'll need snacks/ice cream/hot choc depenidng on the season.
WHERE IN THE WORLD rush to the hot houses for Tropical scents, info and warmth.
VERDICT never knew you could learn so much from a park walk. Ideal for a mixed age group (oldies can use the "train" and meet up at a cafe when the energetic have worked up an appetite running from the Japanese pagoda across to Kew Palace via a few plants...

#7 Big Ben
TIME not long, this is a neck stretching exercise. Get to Westminster tube and look up
COST nil
WHERE IN THE WORLD just think of the chimes on the World Service and you can spirit yourself anywhere.
VERDICT this is an iconic bit of British life. I try to give visiting children a sticker book, or get them to make their own of the interesting things they see in London. Big Ben is also very close to Trafalgar Square with all those cute stone lions...

#8 Take a Boris bike to a theatre show
TIME use these bikes carefully - short hops are cheap, keeping them all day makes the price rocket.
COST £££ for the theatre unless you really don't mind sitting in the Gods (very hot in summer)
VERDICT you should have a fab time, whether you pick something cerebral or a musical, or even more populist like Stomp (energetic dance). 

#9 Cup of tea at the V&A museum (ideally on Sunday when there's a pianist)
TIME about an hour
COST ££ (find the right cafe, you need it to be totally over the top tiled, with a massive chandalier. Easier to find if you enter via Exhibition Road).
WHERE IN THE WORLD this is history - you're surrounded by Victorian clutter, but it's grand.
VERDICT memorable space, though the acoustics make it hard to hear your companions!
ALTERNATIVE: Sir John Soane Museum, near Holborn - just as much clutter, but no chance of a cuppa. If you time it right you'll get to see Hogarth's famous Rake's Progress revealed in a room that has paintings hung double on its walls.

#10 Walk on the Southbank with lunch at Borough Market
TIME all day, traffic-free route. Mon-Wed lunch only. Thurs-Sat full market. 
COST potentially zero, but Borough Market has tasty offerings
WHERE IN THE WORLD peeps into all sorts of places including Switzerland.
VERDICT the London landmarks are out in force including The Globe (Shakespeare plays), Tower Bridge and loads of big art galleries.
ALTERNATIVE: any city boasting a big river now seems to have a riverside walk used for galleries, festivals, stalls etc. London's isn't the best (Brisbane, you win!), but it's still an amazing pleasure and think of the landmarks you're going to tick off.

Over to you
What places would you rate as 10 of the best in your town? (Happy to get one idea, three even better).