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.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Romancing secret gardens

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post is about the ways icy winds and snow flake flurries makes me think about gardens offering proper atmsophere. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).  

First dog violets of 2013.
Botanical gardens are some of my favourite places - perhaps because they seem such secret treasures oftenlocated by really busy streets. There's a lovely one off Oxford High Street (the oldest in Britain); a deer-filled one just three miles from Aberdeen (Cruickshank) and a jungle with a collection of rare trees just behind the prison in Honiara (Solomon Islands). But if I'm honest my favourite "place" in the world is The Secret Garden

Nell and friends ready to head off to see the musical of The Secret Garden as a birthday treat.
Yes, I know it's a book about coming to terms with grief and yourself, but the way Mary, Colin and Dickon wake up the locked garden just off the Yorkshire moors turns me irresistibly towards what to do about spring. And it's a longing/love that I've tried to pass on to my daughters and their friends (see pic above).

Every year the season I wait and wait for catches me by surprise. It's only February and already I've had a wish on the first snowdrops, comfrey, primroses, daffodils and dog violets. In a month's time I suspect my habit of wishing when I see the first of the year's plants will be impossible to maintain as new green shoots pop up and bloom so fast once the soil warms up.

Which is why I took my family to Cornwall's famous Lost Gardens of Helligan in deep winter. It was uncrowded and the endless Victorian walled gardens made it irresistible. A special delight is being able to explore it all - and there are acres (including a Lost Valley and a Jungle, see pic below) so leave yourself a lot of time - and then sit quietly in the Italian Garden. The Italian Garden is the first one the Lost Garden creators restored back in 1990 and even if you missed the BBC documentary about how the gardens were restored to full productive force you can see the film at the site. When John Nelson and Tim Smit first started to breathe gardening life back into this garden, the ornamental pond from the 1920s was just a plinth; the statue of Putto with a Dolphin missing; the gate on its hinges and the whole area a knotted mess of laurel and bramble. Oh but it's beautiful now with sunlight, olive trees and herbs - an evocative spot that rushes you to the Mediterranean (even in winter!).

If you go in the right season you should be able to see pineapples growing (they are hot housed using tonnes of manure), melons and some plants like camellias and rhododendrons which could be the oldest in the UK.

It's steep, wet-slippery and seems
overgrown - proper jungle, but
it's found in Cornwall.

Who will you find in the lost gardens?
The Lost Gardens of Heligan are a place of wonder and fantasy. You can fixate about how they were restored, get lost in the acreage, daydream or bird spot in the shepherd's hut that's been parked by the lakes at the garden's far end, or just play travel games as you get lost - and find yourself again - in the many walled gardens. Mystery, peace, history... just some of the feelings this journey to a secret garden offers.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan at Pentewan are open daily (except xmas day and boxing day) from 10am. There is a direct bus from St Austell train station (takes 20-30mins). More info see www.heligan.com or tel 01726 845100.

More posts on gardens - see guest post by Pete May of Joy of Essex about Warley Place, Essex
More posts on Cornwall - see Eden Project.
Books about gardens - Sleeping Beauty, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, Atonement (it's where Ian McEwan starts the action and misunderstandings).

Over to you
What's your favourite garden that tricks you into thinking you've left the UK thanks to atmospheric planting and paths?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Reading the Pacific edge from Japan & NZ

Two novels that don't let you forget the swish of the sea.

As part of my family's attempt to keep our world outlook broad and carbon footprint narrow books can't be beaten. The challenge was to read a book (translated!) from every country in the world, see this post. Obviously I can cheat a bit as I read around 60 books a year and as I haven't just stuck to books from the UK over the years I can revisit old "friends". Let me know if you have any ideas for books you reckon are a must read (PS I prefer novels!).. The collection below are books with a particular Pacific ocean perspective that I've read recently and enjoyed. My local library has been a godsend, your nearest may well be too.

  • Japan - The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea
  • New Zealand - The Whale Rider

JAPAN: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima
My cousin lives in Japan - she's tall, slim and gorgeous, but has immense trouble finding clothes to fit her. In a recent Facebook moan she complained "Amongst my peers back home [Canada], I think I am of average weight, not fat and certainly no longer thin but here in Japan, I am "queen" sized. I spent several hours at the mall looking for trousers, and often the biggest in the shop were not big enough. And Queen sized are not long enough. Ahhhhh."

The sympathies this illicited from her Facebook friends (some who also know Japan well), made me realise how little I know about Asia generally (from politics to landscape). Japan is one of those oriental mystery destinations - and it doesn't promote itself in the way, say, Singapore and Hong Kong are desperate for you to visit them and go shopping (whatever your size!). I was also reading The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, by Yukio Mishima. I'd never heard of this famous Japanese writer before I picked this up from the library, but this book, written in 1963, is stunning. Ostensibly it's about a young widow and her son Noboru and how their life changes when mum falls in love with a sailor. It's also a debate about the need to follow your passion, which forces the reader to endure a terrible - Nietzschean style - conclusion. Mishima is a masterful writer and it turns out he has a huge cult following. My husband knew of him thanks to the Stranglers' Jean-Jacques Burnel's apparently off-quoted admiration for him. I was left in a state of shock by the book at just how unpleasant adults can write teenagers, and how vile groups can be.  Researching his life story makes these positions seem barely surprising - his father was a dreadful man. But who cares if Mishima is bleak, he writes beautifully about ports, storms or a new kimono and is a master of suspense. What's more when he'd completed his four novel series The Sea of Fertility, in 1970 he committed ritual suicide (seppuku) - as he said he would (though i'm not sure he mentioned he would do this during a failed coup attempt). He was 45.
Readability: 10/10 (I was so gripped that 2/3 of the way through I had to read the ending in a bid to cope with what I feared was coming).
Should you read it? It's grim but yes. It would make an amazing film - is this the story Sir Alan Parker is working on?
Worth finding more Yukio Mishima books? Definitely (he had Nobel nominations in his lifetime) and wrote 34 novels, 50 plays, 25 short stories and 35 books of essays.

NEW ZEALAND The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera
A tale about Maori culture saving itself, and the world. The plot switches between what the whales are up to and the hunt for a new Maori chief in Whangara - a tribe that is descended from the legendary whale rider. Unfortunately the next in line for the title is a girl whose many gifts are completely missed by her great grandfather. The Whale Rider, written in 1987, offers fascinating insights into other people's lives - the way generations can mix well, and badly; the rights of passage we all make but seem so unique to us (schooling, running away, coming home). Best of all the book makes the case for equality, which is why I tried to persuade my 14 year old daughter to read it, but she found it too dull and domestic (clearly skipping the sections about the whales as they swim the oceans...).  I will try and pass it to her again!

Readability: 7/10 - and easy to read too, you could finish it in one sitting.
Should you read it? Yes, it offers insights into Maori culture (without the misery endured in Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors, 1995). Apparently it's a great film too
Worth finding more Witi Ihimaera books? Yes. It seems incredible but he was the first Maori writer to publish a novel, Tangi, back in 1973. Ihimaera has worked as a diplomat and a uni lecturer - plus written collections of short stories and novels. He another look at New Zealand culture, one which should not be missed.

Other posts about books with a strong sense of place in Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, see here.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

GUEST POST: Be an explorer in Northumberland

Northumberland is known to be the most sparsely populated county in Britain says guest poster John Jackson. The beautiful countryside, the sparkling coast and the historic architecture make Northumberland an interesting visit, whether you decide to come for the weekend, or for a fortnight.  Here are some of my top locations to help you make the most of your Northumbrian adventure.
Alnwick, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh, Warkworth, and Chillingham are the most well-known, but Northumberland has many castles waiting for you to explore. See the location on which parts of the famous Harry Potter movies were shot; go trudging in the bountiful rock pools at Bamburgh; walk the Embleton beach to Dunstanburgh; explore the slightly ruined Warkworth; or hunt out the ghosts at Chillingham. The possibilities are endless. If you visit Alnwick, why not have lunch in the treetop restaurant, or take a picnic and visit the Alnwick gardens if it is a pleasant day…

The Coast
Amble marina is famous for its delicious fresh fish, not to mention its fish and chip shop. There are also boat trips out to the Farne islands, where puffins and seals gather, flying and swimming freely. It is a beautiful sight to behold! Further north, if you time it well, you can take a trip over to Holy Island. Make sure you check what time the tide comes in/out though… a tourist gets caught out every week.

Explore Northumberland on line

Traditional Pub Meal
The Angler’s Arms is a personal favourite of mine, offering an enormous variety of delicious food, whether you prefer a traditional dinner or something a little special. There are many other eateries, with several located in Rothbury. Why not go for a lovely walk in the countryside before tucking yourself away with some cold ale and a warming meal?

Popular among cyclists, Kielder and Kielder forest is a beautiful destination for a day out with the family. Take a walk, challenge yourself to a mountain bike track, or go for a ride on horseback through the woods. Or pay a visit to the Kielder Water Birds of Prey centre and check out the elegant and majestic birds close-up. As far as food goes, you can pick up a delicious meal, whether it is a light lunch or an evening feast from one of three locations, each offering different options.  Fancying a day of fishing? Not a problem. Pick up your permit on site from £10 and fish one of many locations in the 2000 acres of water. Fully equipped motor boats are available to hire.

If you are looking for somewhere to stay, you can hire a Yurt or a Wigwam for a week, or if you prefer to explore more, check out Vancations (where you can hire a deluxe campervan for your Northumbrian break). There are a number of camp sites for you to pitch up for the night, so do some research before you come. Check out what festivals are on in the area when you visit. There’s always something exciting in the summer, such as a classic car show, a bike show, a beer festival or a food festival with a European market. Most importantly, just enjoy our open air and beautiful scenery!

Info on blog posts - occasionally guest posts are put on this site. The Aroundbritainnoplane family loves Northumberland so that's how this ended up here. Your comments are welcome. Where do you like going that gives you a sense of adventure?

Thursday, 7 February 2013

What to do about Eden?

Those domes in the old china clay pit look fab.

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post is about how Cornwall's beleaguered Eden Project offers a wonderful day out plus the chance to see plants from all around the world. Somehow the trip also got me thinking about what should be demanded from a job... Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).  
Eden specialises in mixing up art and
plants creating amazing world lessons.

Eden is the original paradise. A lush garden - warm enough to walk around without clothes and with very tasty fruit trees. Who wouldn't like to visit? Well 2012 may have brought 960,000 visitors to the fabulous Eden Project in Cornwall but sadly the numbers are well down. It's the first time there have been less than a million visiting since Eden opened in 2001.

The result is income is down - a month later (30 Jan 2013) the charity went public with this sad news, saying it needed to reduce annual costs by £2 million for 2013 and so needs to make redundant 70 of its 445 staff. Job losses look set to include gardeners, education workers, events organisers, shop and office staff. Eden is not closing, but it's just so sad that Cornish locals have even less employment opportunities. Apparently the Olympics and the ceaseless rain are to blame.

We visited Eden on the last day of December - a place I've wanted to go to for years but somehow kept overlooking, so foolish. It was raining... but there are two vast domes (basically big greenhouses) to look around so we felt we couldn't have picked better weather.

Eden is a fantastic place. Here are just a few reasons:
Here's a chilli tasting thermometer.
This sign warns just how hot
Caribbean Scotch Bonnets can be, but some
chillies are even hotter.

  • There's a bus route direct from St Austell train station (handy for tourists/day trippers)
  • It has fantastic food in the cafe
  • The domes are amazing to look at, and around. Would you dare climb the swinging staircase to the very top?
  • There's always something new going on - den building, Santa visiting, ice skating, chilli tasting etc
  • It's an attraction that takes some beating on a wet day
  • You can learn a lot without making any effort at all.
While the energetic members of our party skated on the pop up ice rink (in the summer this area is used for concerts) I had fun looking around the shop - it's huge - where I bought a bag made from old ad banners with a seat belt strap, some seeds and a three-pack of local ale. If you are Cornish based there are local annual discount passes available, though they have to be bought by 14 February 2013.

It's easy to become morose about the economic readjustments going on. From my viewpoint it seems like a personal attack when school budgets are slashed, uni students have to pay full whack, sixth form students struggle to pay to get to their colleges and the great eco projects start having pear-shaped wobbles. There are still jobs out there, just not so many at Eden.

Highbury Fields School choir sing at the recent
Jack Petchey Foundation awards for Islington schools.
It's such an uplifting event. It makes you ask: "What have you
done today to make you feel good?"
In a bid to find out how to make soundcloud recordings work I've done a 20 second recording with my family about what it is that I want out of a job, wherever that job is or whatever it entails. Thanks to a song, I've cracked it. Listen here. With thanks to Jack Petchey by the way!

Over to you
Even the original Eden had certain hiccups (snakes, Adam, God snooping around and possibly an over curious Eve). If you've been to the Eden Project in Cornwall what would you do or add to make it even better and get back 70 jobs (without overstaffing)?