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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.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

7 fun skills to learn as you travel

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Here are seven skills to learn during your holidays - many your ancestors would know how to do, others are just fabulous fun. The bonus is you get to think Danish, French and Bulgarian along the way. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Reading Stations Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (a very good book)  in a very old tree at Norsey Woods, Essex.
1 Read in a tree
It's harder than it looks. First you need to find the perfect tree. Then you need to climb it. Then you must get comfy. Once you're comfy I find the atmosphere of tree, birdsong and green leaves immediately lulls me out of the book and into a meditative state. For instance: what was it like being Charles 1 hiding in an oak tree with the roundhead soldiers beneath you?

There are all sorts of tree adventures you can do in the UK:

Photo taken at 5.30am.
2 Learn to ID birds by tune & looks
The May dawn chorus is early, but if you can be in a woodland by 5am you should be rewarded with the wonderful sound of birds singing their territory. Chiff Chaffs are easy - they just shout chiff chaff. But can you distinguish between the tuneful blackbird or the melancholy robin?

Bird sanctuaries are amazing wildlife havens and often have fantastic education (and sometimes a tea room too). The RSPB bird charity has more than 100 sites around the UK, find them here.

3 Put the kettle on, then cook your own supper (a Danish skill)
Denmark is officially the world's happiest country - you can find some insights why this is in The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. Obviously the Danes can block out misery with their genius for Lego, white interiors and tasty pastries, but they are also fine DIY cooks who have no problem grilling fish or boiling up a tea caddy in the great outdoors. These are not difficult skills, but for those of us who haven't honed them yet (and are not patient when it comes to making fires) they are close to impossible.

Great advice about firelighting, plus campsites that allow you to have a go from Cool Camping, here.

4 Explore another cuisine (Let's try Taiwanese)
Family cooking classes are popular - Jamie Oliver's chain runs all sorts of classes ranging from making perfect pasta to bread.

When you are on holiday you might find the place you are staying doesn't have the right equipment to make your own taglatelli, so maybe try building up your cooking repertoire while you are on a staycation in your own kitchen. I ask friends with a signature dish, like these tasty taiwanese noodles, to come over and explain how to cook it. It is flattering to the person invited to share their knowledge... and extremely tasty for the rest of us. Plus it's cheap.

5 Explore the local roads by bike (very French)
Benefits: you learn to read maps, you pare down your luggage, you notice wind direction and you enjoy having a rest.
Possible problem: but you don't have a bike, or enough bikes to fit your family...
Solution: hire a bike (check the local Tourist Information Centre for the nearest then ring up and talk to the cycle shop) or use a cycling company to pre-plan your route. There are some amazing French tours on offer billed as cycling for softies, but you can do something similar in the UK too. PIck an off road route using the national cycling organisation Sustrans' routes and their excellent book Traffic Free Cycle Rides, £15.99, which has 100+ cycle journeys.

My family don't like cycling at Tour de France speed, or burning up hills. They like easy to do rides that let them stop off to paddle at a river or visit a pub. Preferably both. They will go a bit further (15 miles, instead of 10) if I can be certain there is a tea shop open.

But if you enjoy pushing yourself then join a cycling challenge. In May you can pedal from the west to the east coast of the UK along the C2C; in June there's the 1040 mile Land's End to John O'Groats ride and in September a challenging 200mile coasts and castles ride.

The challenge rides are organised by Saddle skeddadle, which have masses of routes in the UK and Europe - a great way of having no idea where you are, but absolute certainty that you will make it home before last orders.

6 Talk to strangers (a peep into a Bulgarian forest)
Returning on the tube from a lovely Sunday walk along the River Thames a couple began to admire our dog. Our dog seemed rather enamoured by them, keenly sniffing their ankles. "We've been in the forest looking at bluebells," said the woman. Turned out that the pair are from Bulgaria and love the British woods. For starters we have bluebells and their forests don't. However Bulgarian forests do have wolves and bears, although she said she hadn't ever seen either while walking because "they don't like people". There's a move in the UK to re-introduce lynx (wild cats), if they promise to stay out of us walkers way then they're welcome.

Woods close to Roald Dahl's Museum in Great Missenden, Bucks.
7 Play in the woods
Now that so much of the country has internet coverage it's hard to escape the lure of your instagram feed. But spending time making your own entertainment is a real pleasure - the stuff of stories and family legend. A lot of my photos of time spent in the woods seem to be because we were hiding from the rain. But the one above is all about the joy of coming across a rope swing and then just spending the rest of the day in that spot often upside down.

Britain still has a lot of publicly accessible land - look for it on a map and then head to the woods for a picnic.  Some of my favourites are:

  • Norsey Wood, Essex are famous for bluebells - nearest train station: Billericay, Essex
  • Marked on OS maps. If you're cycling past stop to explore. If you are taking a walk pick a wood as a picnic stop.
  • Woods along the Chiltern hills - you can reach these from stations like Tring, Herts and even the metropolitan tube line.
Over to you
What do you enjoy doing on your holidays?

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

This racehorse life from Newmarket to Qatar

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. At the National Stud in Newmarket you can coo over this season's foals but also get a sense of the international pull of horseracing. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Foals at the National Stud. All racehorses are said to have their birthday on 1 January, so
February to March is the ideal time for a brood mare to foal.
To celebrate my mum's birthday the whole family decamped to Newmarket for a tour of the National Stud. Thoroughbred racehorses - thanks to a mix of the fleet Arab and sturdier English breeds - are some of the most expensive, fastest horses in the world. It's quite a passion: racing fans in the UK can enjoy an all-year round racing calendar thanks to the traditional summer Flat season (eg, the Derby run at Ascot) and a winter of National Hunt racing over fences (big jumps and ditches like the Grand National, or more flimsy hurdles). Now there are all weather tracks even frost doesn't stop race meetings.
A very pampered Dick Turpin ignores my family.

Although racing is popular in the USA (remember Man of War?), Australia (for the Melbourne Cup) and France (eg, Longchamp - half of all European race meetings are held in France) it is the Arab communities that seem to love horse racing with a passion. And so they go to Newmarket: a town built on the horse economy and very much bolstered by the money various Arab owners have poured into the sport of kings, such as Sheikh Fahad from Qatar. Judging by the Polish delis  - Eagle Polish Deli and the Polonia Club - and restaurants there are also plenty of east Europeans also involved in the racing industry. Racing isn't quite as stuffy as it first seems.

The statue outside the Jockey Club is of a world famous stallion Thoroughbred (TB, called Hyperion.
The Jockey Club has the best location in town, and as the Jockey Club Estates owns all the gallops (see photo right showing you which gallops are open). There are innumerable racing yards which means that up to 5,000 horses are stabled here. No place in the world is so centred on racing.

I'm told that in the mornings - when the strings of racehorses go out for exercise - the sight is quite magnificent. It's sobering to think that this Suffolk town has had separate horse and vehicle traffic lanes for years. If only the same could be done for cyclists in other towns.

Horses are wonderful and clever, except when it comes to traffic, seeming to be more terrified of a random crisp packet than being struck by a vehicle. So those designated racehorse lanes are essential.

Gregorian is a gorgeous iron grey 16.1hh stallion standing at the National Stud (2015). His blood lines include the amazing Northern Dancer, and Mill Reef.
Spring is the time the foals are born, and a lovely place to learn about bloodlines and admire the new babies is the National Stud. You can book a trip here. It's serious stuff - for a stallion to cover your mare expect to pay £4,000+. If the stallion is proven and producing colts and fillies (half sisters and brothers) winning at two or three years you might be able to sell your yearling for £70,000. However much I oohed and ahhed over the foals I was also aware that racing is good for your maths and geography. It's quite good for talking about sexual reproduction too, very earthy!

Having a go in race riding position at the racehorse stimulator at the National Horseracing Museum - it's hard on the legs. You have to keep your back flat and your heels down.
While in Newmarket we did a whirlwind tour of the National Horseracing Museum. It's a manageable collection of art, trophies, stuffed TBs, triumphs and documentary - due to go to a new Newmarket home in 2016 when it will be opened as the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art. The new five acre site will include stables and paddocks, allowing visitors to meet real racehorses.

Newmarket is  approximately a 20 minute train ride from Cambridge. Definitely spend as much time as you can there, maybe even see the racing or watch the horse sales at Tattersalls (in July & October). Newmarket has so much history - it was gambling-fan Charles II's bolthole - but it also gives you endless opportunities to enjoy watching the most beautiful, and possibly most expensive, horses in the world. How strange to be in the 21st century and still in a town where the horse is king.