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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.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Thinking about WW1 - home from home and Ypres

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post looks at ways to remember the many people who died in WW1 - especially in the area around Ypres, Belgium. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

My mum sent a sweet email recently to her extended family - siblings, half-siblings, children, grandchildren - letting them know how she was joining into the British Legion's Everyman Remembered campaign:
I have sent a poppy via the British Legion to be placed on the gravestone of our grandfather, Captain Mervyn Hamilton, who is buried in the communal civilian cemetery at Poperinge near Ypres. It will have the following text attached: "From his many grandchildren and great grandchildren - so proud of him and so grateful for the good life that his sacrifice made possible."

My great grandfather, Mervyn Hamilton, was 35 years when he was injured in the first battle near Ypres in Belgium. He was taken to the hospital nearby (i'm guessing this was at Poperinge) and his wife was contacted via a handwritten letter from the nurses to come over and help nurse him.  Then just as she and her sister were about to board the boat to go to him a telegram came - he'd died of his wounds on 28 November 1914.

I'm told that only 16 villages in the UK didn't lose a single person during World War One - certainly most have a war memorial. A hundred years on it's easy to forget that people living in the cities were affected too. But that's changing. Just recently this notice commemorating the huge sacrifice of WW1 went up in Islington where I live. It's 100 years late, yes, but a reminder that back in 1914 cities were often much more like villages. The names on this plaque are of people who were family, or knew each other, played together as kids in this street, or were known by other families in the area. Heartbreaking.

Even in the middle of London you can find memorials to the many men who died during WW1. Sometimes they are crosses in churches or outside a place of worship, sometimes just a laminated list.
Although the Western Front stretched from Belgium across to Switzerland - a colossal distance - some of the bloodiest battles were fought at Ypres in Belgium. Poor Belgium, throughout history it's been used as a battleground for other people choosing to clash on relatively flat, dry land (I'm thinking of the 10,000 men who died in just one day a century before that at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo).

Ypres was an impressive Medieval town with a vast, slightly wonky grand square. However during the course of 1914-1918 it was shelled to bits. There's only one really old house left. The rest are perfect copies of a Medieval town, put up after the war ended.

Looking across from the WW1 museum at Ypres to the Menin Gate (the white arch)
To mark the start of WW1 in August 1914 an exceptional interactive museum explaining WW1 - or at any rate detailing the battles and following the impact these battles had on people - is at Ypres. Flanders Field Museum is an international place switching between English, French, Flemish and German with ease. But all languages seem to be catered for. The overall effect is pretty sad - at just one of the battles of the Somme more than 1,000,000 soldiers died. So many soldiers of every side were young men, many were what we now call teenagers. And the dying was rarely instant. Men were injured by shells or fragments thrown up by the shells or they were left wounded in No Man's Land. Some even drowned in the terrible mud between the trenches. One of the underground mine explosions was so loud it was allegedly heard in London - imagine how many people were killed on both sides when that was detonated?

Any flat, muddy, rain drenched area brings out sympathy - for wheelchair and buggy users as well as the wrongly shod. But as for comparing a muddy park, or a flooded Somerset levels, with Ypres that is just wrong. This was an incomparable hell.

The Menin Gate is a huge memorial to all the British & Commonwealth soldiers
who died in WW1 and whose bodies were not found. Every night at 8pm the Last Post
is played as a memory and a thank you for their sacrifice.
Famously the officers who broke down (unable to speak/move or with terrible nightmares and serious shakes) ended up being treated by Dr Rivers at Craiglockhart in Scotland. There he convinced them that they could get better - and go back to fight. That was the fate of two amazing war poets, Siegfried Sasson and the younger Wilfred Owen (who died). This has been fictionally charted in Pat Barker's Booker-winning anti-war triology, Regeneration. The first book is especially good.

If you are thinking of finding a connection with WW1 and the on-line diaries of soldiers, or the war memorial crosses in villages all over the UK isn't enough, do read Resurgence. It'll certainly help crystalise your feelings about war, long past or now. And that may inspire you to do something that Siegfried Sasson or H G Wells would have approved of.

I'm certainly going to look at the Tower of London's field of ceramic poppies - a vast art work springing up in the moat. Eventually there will be 888,246 one for each British and colonial soldier who died in the war. This is a fundraiser, running from August until 11 November. If you want to buy one of the ceramic poppies for £25 see how here.

Over to you
What battlefields have you been to in the UK that helped you connect with the people caught up in past conflicts? And how did that effect you? Did you have a relative who "fell" during WW1 - what has your family done to commemorate that person?

Monday, 11 August 2014

Try an Ethiopian dish

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post gives you a glimpse of all things Ethiopian in a tiny corner of Finsbury Park in London. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

I've just had a tasty lunch with the talented Ethiopian soul singer Hanisha Solomon. Hanisha was introducing me to proper Ethiopian cuisine so took me to St Gabriel's Restaurant in Finsbury Park - one of several speciality restaurants in the area.

A great restaurant for lunch if you want an Ethiopian dish. Inside on bright pink walls
are paintings and bric-a-brac from Ethiopia. You feel like you've travelled.
Finsbury Park has two Ethiopian restaurants, a butcher and an internet cafe. It's a real meeting point for the Ethiopian diaspora, but what you'll really notice is extremely friendly people. Try saying "Salam" (Hi) when you enter. Here are some other local Ethiopian run businesses (see pix).

Ethiopian butcher and restaurant on Rock Street, N4.

Intriguing shop window at Ethiopian-run internet cafe, Blackstock Road, N4.

The same Ethiopian-run internet cafe, but pictured so you can recognise it.
Hanisha and I ate this tasty collection of mixed vegetables - mostly lentils cooked in a variety of interesting ways and split yellow peas - plus a finely chopped red onion, tomato and chilli salad. The green chilli is stuffed with onions. Every bit of our meal was delicious. I hadn't had injera (a sourdough flatbread) before, or realised it was quite similar in texture to a pancake. Lots of people came in during our meal to buy fresh injera to eat later at home.

This picture doesn't do justice to the food - a few moments later the restaurant owner came over with four tightly rolled injera so the plate was soon crowded with food. Later Hanisha told me that the flour traditionally used to make this bread is so iron-rich that it's very popular with super-celebrities like Posh Spice and Gwyneth Paltrow.
There are a few rules to follow when you eat the Ethiopian way.

  • Firstly there was no cutlery - so you wash your hands first. 
  • Say a prayer of thanks. 
  • Then tear the injera bread (which looks a little like a pancake) with your right hand before heaping it up with food. I was busy chatting but I noticed that lots of the other customers used their spare hand to hold their mobiles - an interesting modern manners twist. 
  • If you need to lick your fingers, don't! Use a napkin instead.

There was a lot of food on our plate but Hanisha kept encouraging me. "Please eat!" she said.

After we'd eaten all that we could, we finished off the meal with a spiced tea - a mix of cardamom, cinnamon and clove which you can add sugar to if you want. It was a really lovely experience. Thank you so much Hanisha for this treat! And very good luck with all your projects.

To read an interview with Hanisha Solomon see this blog post here.

Test yourself on Ethiopia -
  1. Ethiopia is where humans originated
  2. More than 80 languages spoken amongst the 92 million people - Omoro and Amharic being the most widely used, chiefly Christian
  3. It's the home of the coffee bean
  4. And also the spiritual home of Rastafarians, a line of kings descended from Solomon, one-time known as Abyssinia... you can find out more on wiki here.

Over to you
If you like Ethiopian food where do you recommend going to find it?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

You can find Switzerland in the UK

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post gives a few tips on how to find Switzerland in Derbyshire and the Lake District - or simply just stick to reading Frankenstein. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
Swiss fast food: try making fondue (approx 200g of a cheese like gruyere and emental per person). Serve the Swiss way with small cubes of bread, cooked potatoes and cherry tomatoes.
How could Switzerland with its views of vines on the hills above luminous blue lakes and away to the sublime, often snow-capped mountains ever be mistaken for the UK? I didn't think it was possible until I read Mary Shelley's famous horror story Frankenstein.

Frankenstein - written by Mary in a competition with Lord Byron (and others) to see who could write the best ghost story while both were resident in a very rainy Switzerland - is a really scary book. If you aren't moved by words, then you should jump at the film. I've been woken twice by nightmares since trying to read it ready for my book group's discussion in September. But in Chapter 19 there are suggestions of places in the UK you can go in order to get that Swiss feeling of awe inspiring landscape, with something a little bit dodgy coming up behind you...

Try Matlock in Derbyshire or the Lake District.
"The country in the district of Matlock [when it was a village] resembled the scenery of Switzerland; but everything is on a lower scale and the green hills want the crown of the distant white Alps which always attends on the piny mountains.." There's even a cave similar to ones at Servox and Chamounix." 
"In Cumberland and Westmorland I could almost fancy myself amount the Swiss mountains. The little patches of snow which yet lingered on the northern sides of the mountains, the lakes and the dashing of the rocky streams were all familiar and dear sights to me..."
Both quotes from Frankenstein, chapter 19.

Like the UK Switzerland insists on using its own currency - Swiss Francs - rather than Euros. The landlocked state is also insanely expensive, so being willing to put up with a little less snow on your mountain views in the Lake District could be a wise investment!

Over to you
Let me know where you've been in the UK that's reminded you a little of Switzerland.