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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.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Paddleboarding - the modern way to try out Venetian gondola life

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. Just enjoyed a new activity - stand up paddleboarding - and combined it with a couple of hours picking up rubbish from a canalWords from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

I only collected one of these rubbish tubs. Have to admit that I was so proud I forgot
to ask #Trash4Treats organiser Kiko how she got rid of them. Notice I'm holding a cake 
(rhubarb and coconut, yum) which was my treat for being a SUP litter picker.
What is it about the very end of August?  It seems to be a time I need adventure, ideally on the water...

Lola, then 13, with Patrick from
  Kayak Sydney taking us out in sea
kayaks under Sydney Harbour's
famous bridge.
Five years ago I took up an invite from Patrick at www.kayaksydney.com to paddle with then 13 year old Lola around Sydney Harbour under the famous bridge. It was fantastic - we went past amazing houses, rode the wake of the ferry and enjoyed Australia's bluest skies. (In a bid to avoid adding to climate change the family plan is to avoid flying, or to make a trip every 10 years).

Roll on 2016 and I'm trying to stand on a paddleboard on the quiet waters of the River Lee Navigation (the canal) which runs past Olympic Park in Stratford. There's a great stand up paddleboarding organisation, run by Kiko, called SUPkiko which combines two hours of learning to paddleboard with collecting rubbish from the canal.

There are five of us on today's #Trash4Treats outing. None of us have ever stood on a board before - but 30something Kiko, who learnt how to paddleboard while working in Uganda, explains clearly what we have to do. She reckons only 1 per cent of people fall in (and they possibly want to do so!).

Canals are notoriously dirty thanks to the lack of tide. Even with Kiko's regular #Trash4Treats scheme - where paddleboarders go out rubbish picking for two hours and when they return are rewarded with an ice cream or a nice piece of cake - there is plenty of litter. In fact Kiko dreamed up the idea while paddleboarding here because she didn't like her "office" (ie the canal) to be so grubby.

Everyone is meant to collect at least 10 pieces of rubbish but quite soon the five new paddleboarders have hoiked enough trash to fill their rubbish bucket. Kiko's got two!

Back on land it's clear that we've all got the same sort of stuff - polystyrene chunks, empty beer and drinks cans/bottles, condom wrappers and plastic bags. I've also found drinking straws, a large chunk of foam and a yellow plastic bowl.

Kiko says her scariest find was a doll's face with long flowing blonde hair. Guess what that looked like at first?

Learning to standup paddleboard via #Trash4Treats run by SUPkiko at Hackney Wick
(there's Kiko bottom right). With treats provided by the Milk Float Cafe
Hunting for litter is a good way to forget any standing up nerves. You start the session on your knees, just to get the hang of the paddle. After 10 minutes (or however long you need), you lay the paddle across the board and stand.

My legs were shaking at first but by repeating the mantra "your paddle is your friend" (hopefully silently) I began to enjoy the sensation. When I felt like I was about to fall (eg, as a result of my poor steering, another paddleboard heading towards me or getting tangled in the thick green weed that coats part of the canal, or me rubbernecking the hipster bars in this area) I just went forward on to my knees.

To be truthful I loved paddling on my knees. But this is stand up paddleboarding so I stood up and went for it.

SUP (stand up paddleboarding) is an all body work out. It's not too hard to learn, and as a bonus the muscle workout is amazing - I woke the next day feeling as if my chest/back was actually barrel shaped as clearly every one of the muscles/ligaments around my ribs had been worked equally.  They definitely don't function like this when I'm on the laptop.

When conditions are right (ie I'm on land or on water, but not on the high seas thinking I'm about to drown) water is often calming, but Kiko claims SUP can be meditatively good for you too.

Kiko's friend Charlie Head, who has paddleboarded the Amazon, is currently going round the UK on a SUP talking about mental health issues (and travel) #TheBigStand.  Follow Charlie's facebook page and you can see a much shared video about how mental health effects us all (and donate £3 for his next meal, #thehungrySUPper!). I've also linked to his 2min video from Blackpool Pier here:

And even if paddleboarding wasn't making your mind relax (I keep imagining I'm in Venice), it's extremely cheering having so many passersby congratulate the paddleboarders when they see them chasing a bit of litter, Kiko is a brilliant ambassador for cleaning up the canals. While supervising her newbies, she also chats with all sorts along the canalside including the drinkers at Crate and Grow, the boats that come past and lots of kids (she used to be a teacher).

Ahhhh London, so beautiful, and now a little bit cleaner in the Venetian light.
"It's brilliant what you are doing!" "Is it easy to stand up?" are the things the people we pass keep on saying as we paddle up towards Hackney Marshes and back. What a fantastic way to spend the afternoon.

My husband, Pete, was definitely impressed, claiming I'd passed my "hipster proficiency test" as we had a cheeky lager at Tank (one of the many super cool bars near the super coolest of all the canalside bars, Crate, in Hackney Wick). Perhaps one day after a West Ham match at their new stadium some Hammers fans (like Pete even) will avoid the crowds at Stratford and instead just hop on to a SUP and paddle back to their homes? It's a nice thought, but for now if you take a paddle with Kiko you can enjoy crowd-free canals with only a little bit of dodging young coots, swans and the occasional passing barge. Bliss.

VERDICT: Go and try SUP paddleboarding with Kiko. It's really fun, and definitely will reward you with a set of photos that seem nothing short of miraculous - you (well me) standing on a paddleboard on the water. Kiko also runs corporate (team bonding) paddleboarding sessions and has a base at Richmond for those Londoners who don't do north east. 
website: SUPKiko  @SUP_Kiko Insta: SIPKiko F: SUPKiko

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Making big battle tours - via Battle, Sussex

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's a look at three of the top UK tourist battlegrounds - Waterloo, Ypres and Battle (for the Battle of Hastings).
 Obviously the one at Battle, in Sussex, is the easiest to visit without leaving the UK! 
Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Window at Battle Abbey (monks' dormatry)
Battlefields in the old sense - a field where history is rewritten by the victor - have always had tourists. The battleground at Waterloo (1815) and at Hastings (1066) have also been used for many re-enactions which also bring in visitors. And then there's Ypres - a town totally destroyed during World War 1 that has been rebuilt exactly as it was, as a memorial to those who died.

For anyone interested in history taking a tour of a battleground is strangely compelling.

You feel closer to the action and you learn a lot of extra facts (especially if you take an audio guide) Often you find yourself taking sides. But the tourists who visit these places aren't necessarily picking the winning side, so there is clearly a huge amount of skill in breaking down the information for modern visitors, in order to take in their age or nationality without dumbing history down or forgetting this is both a memorial site, and a repeatable day trip.

Looking towards the Menin Gate at Ypres
100 years since WW1
At Ypres the In Flanders Field Museum has a sophisticated tour that tells you the story with an angle to suit your lifestory and age. So a teenage boy gets a very different experience to his mum. Every day at 8pm you can go and listen to the haunting notes of the Last Post played at Menin Gate in memory of all those killed - just as it has been since 1928.

>>Visiting Ypres has meant that I spend much more time at WW1 memorials around the UK - reading, thanking those people who died, empathising with their families. So many men, and so many families, were effected by WW1.

200 years since 1815
At Waterloo there's a new visitor centre and the extraordinary hill monument, Lion's Mound, which gives you a bird's eye view of the main battlesites.

>>Visiting Waterloo got me re-looking at the Romantic(ish) view of war presented in War & Peace, Les Miserables and Vanity Fair.

Listening to the audio tour beside the place where the Normans began their
advance up the hill to do battle with the Saxons in 1066.
950 years since 1066
And at Battle - where the Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 - there's a self-guided walk around the steeply sloping battlefield that makes it clear that the Saxons chose the site well (it's on top of a hill) and the Normans must have been very cunning, and brave, to have won by luring Harold's men off that vantage point. I fear that by writing "and brave" you can tell that I swallowed the Norman viewpoint.

Listening to a retelling of the Battle of Hastings in front of
Battle Abbey (now a school).
Now it is 950 years since the Battle of Hastings, English Heritage has put considerable effort into getting more visitors along. There's an excellent film, that audio tour around the battlefield through prettily wooded sheep fields and by the old Abbey - which is still marked by its own stone skeleton - you can listen to shows. We caught a battle re-enactment, done with vegetables so the presenter can work in the joke "William the Cauliflower" which the little kids loved. It was actually quite a detailed recall of the battle, albeit presented with the help of carrot squadrons.

>>The visits to Ypres and Waterloo were very moving. But Battle wasn't a tiny bit depressing, it's very strange. Despite English Heritage's good graphic detail of how the Saxons and Normans fought (they basically swapped arrows and also wore similar types of protective armour if they could afford it) and being in a place where 700 men died on one day, changing English history it just feels a long time ago in what is now a beautiful spot.

Why visit Battle
The best thing about going to Battle (an English Heritage) site is that it has been a tourist hotspot for hundreds of years - so there are great pubs, tea shops and cafes in Battle.There are even places to stay if you want to squeeze in more culture than you can manage in one day (eg, the free Almonry, a local history museum). Battle is also easy to reach by train (Charing Cross to Battle is a quicker route than Victoria to Battle) and there are plenty of buses.

Pilgrims Rest - a garden cafe with very ancient interior (1400s)
which is opposite the entrance to Battle Abbey. As you can see it does a fine milkshake.
Sussex is renowned for it's good food - if that's something that is important to you, then do visit Battle Deli, 58 High Street, Battle, Sussex.

We also enjoyed the offerings at Pilgrims' Rest, eaten in their pretty garden (as well as the search for anti witch symbols on the interior window sill). Pilgrims' Rest was probably a rest house for the original Abbey workers who were commissioned by William the Conqueror to build an abbey on the spot where King Harold died. Apparently this wasn't out of a sense of shame for William I, it was because the Pope told him he had to make amends. As the first of the Normans' abbeys, Battle Abbey becomes the richest in Britain - so not surprisingly was totally trashed by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries.  But you can still see plenty of interesting buildings including a turreted gate house, the impressive wall (with a walkway) between town and the abbey gardens and the abbot's house which became a very grand home, Battle Abbey.

What next
I have a mini dream to try walking from London to Battle along the 1066 walk (although strictly speaking I should perhaps start at Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire (25 Sep 1066) where unlucky Harold had to rush back from after defeating another attempt to take the English Crown, from King Harold of Norway and his own brother (families, eh?!). The Sussex countryside looks lovely - very wooded - so maybe it will be something I can get my family to do with me.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The one night when Claridges Suite 212 was ceeded to Yugoslavia

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's a tale of how to give birth in the UK but ensure that your passport has your preferred home land. It definitely helps if you are a mate of ChurchillWords from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

WW1 changed the way the posh lived. Many no longer ran a London house, but they still wanted to come to London and be able to meet friends, live in comfort and be entertained. The answer was to make full use of hotels. The bright young things of the 20s lived it up at the Savoy, the Connaught, Claridge's and all those lovely huge hotels that are still going but are now just for the super rich (or for those willing to pay £450 a night for a room!).

Back in the day the partying never stopped at some hotels - like the Ritz. But it seems that Claridge's was the hotel aristocrats picked when they gave birth. 

As a timid hotel user (for instance I would never smash up a room or leave without straightening the bed clothes) I think choosing to give birth in a hotel bed is astonishing. Birth is a bloody business and yet clearly the hotel staff had to put up with it, and clean up well. Possibly giving birth at Claridge's was even encouraged. I understand my own dad was born there (and this was in the 1930s!).

This is why it was an extra irony that a young mum was asked to cover up while breastfeeding her 12 week old baby during a celebratory tea at Claridge's, see here.
A grand hotel - this one is the Midland in Morecambe. If only it could talk...

Take me to Yugoslavia
A much more famous birth happened when the young King Peter 11 of Yugoslavia - whose father had been killed at the start of World War Two - made his home as an exile, with his new wife, at Claridge's. On 17 July 1945 Churchill arranged for suite 212 to be ceded by the UK to Yugoslavia. Just for the day. This enabled Peter's heir Crown Prince Alexander to be born on Yugoslav soil. To add to the Yugoslav effect a box of Yugoslav earth was put under the birthing bed!

It'\s a lovely story, and perhaps offers a solution to many of the people who are now seeking dual nationality as a result of Brexit fears? My dad was Scottish, but his Claridge's birth makes my ability to adopt Scottish nationality (should it become available) or even play for Scotland slightly complicated. As a result Mayfair is my spiritual and sporting home...

Assuming Claridge's could arrange, here's a new game to play - which country would you opt to give birth in?