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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, 12 December 2017

Christchurch Dorset needs a political revamp - here's why

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. My husband and I always try to have a weekend away in December and this time we went to Christchurch, Dorset... and yes it did make us think about what Christchurch NZ might be like this time of year. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

That's Christchurch Castle behind us. Rain above us
(but we didn't mind!).
I've just spent a weekend in Christchurch. That's Dorset, not New Zealand. But these two towns, Christchurch, the largest city in New Zealand's South Island, and the Georgian coastal town packed with holiday homes and retirees are twinned. In fact they've only been twinned since 1911, and the reason seems to be because NZ troops during WW1 were stationed in nearby Brockenhurst which is the heart of the New Forest.

Christchurch NZ is on an earthquake fault line. Christchurch in the UK has created a different rumpus - until 1974 it was Hampshire. It doesn't quite feel like Dorset even if scones and cream teas are available. But then again visiting any British seaside town in winter has a danger of it not living up to expectations, especially if there is a great deal of icy rain...

More sensibly, both Christchurch also have two rivers...

A couple of nights in Christchurch, Dorset was really a treat though. There is a ruined Norman castle and a Norman Manor House, built in 1160, both juxtaposed by a very splendid bowling green. And of course there's the beautiful church, the original The Priory, which appeared super busy in the Christmas run-up - on the Saturday holding the Messiah and then on Sunday a Christingle service.

Pete by the ducking stool (it's a model for tourists and anyway
was exclusively used for women) on the mill race beside
the River Avon.
We stayed at the King's Arms which is proper posh, but friendly - though slightly worryingly described by a Daily Mail review as "a jewel on the Dorset coastline". We also had a cup of tea at the modish Captain's Club on the banks of the River Stour, down by Christchurch Quay and were able to enjoy seeing it crammed with people lunching in family get-togethers and also listening to live jazz.

Getting to know you
In the evening there were many places to eat, including quite a few gastro pubs, e.g., The Ship at 48 High Street, where you can eat fantastic pies and listen to a band. Wondering down Bridge Street and the High Street on a Saturday it was amazing to see the amount of places that have security guards outside them.

Snapshot from Daily Echo which covers news in Christchurch
- death, crashes, burglaries, attacks: not so nice after all.
It feels so affluent... but clearly there are problems as the local paper reveals. By day there was a Big Issue seller standing under an umbrella, and in the evening one homeless man curled into a sleeping bag. And over at the nice Druitt Hall where craft and jams are sold the ladies told me this was the very last Monday sale - done in tandem with the town market - for them as the rent was going up and they just couldn't afford it.

How many of these tongue-in-cheek
Jeremy Corbyn unofficial albums will
be gifted in Christchurch (with or without irony)?
Clearly the problems are here in this Christchurch, but what we didn't see was a sense of the solutions. In Archway, London, near my home, one of the local gift shops has got in a dozen of the Jeremy Corbyn unofficial albums (a lot of silliness in this with masks, crossword, stories, comic strip etc) which no doubt will sell well because people think they can influence change.. and aren't Tory by instinct. In fact Christchurch has been represented since 1997 by Christopher Chope, MP, who is a Tory. I wonder if people in Christchurch think he's done a good job or not? Looking at his Wikipedia page it's clear he's an old Thatcherite; a pioneer of selling off local housing stock (and for a while known as Chopper Chope because no council house was safe during his stint on Wandsworth council). He was predictably also one of the greedy ones during the expenses scandal.  Wikipedia may not be a fan... but he's also 70, tried to stop a debate about Hillsborough and in 2010 hosted a meeting for climate science sceptics.  I don't think he's done a good job for this constituency, never mind the country. If I can tell that from a two night stopover, what on earth are the locals thinking of him? Come on guys, especially anyone under 70, your town deserves better.

For starters he can help those ladies running the craft market in Druitt Hall keep going... If I was them I'd be asking!

Visitors to Christchurch, Dorset will see people shop, and dress up beautifully to go out but it's not clear how well the locals are coping with austerity. It's as if it hasn't quite hit them yet - or at any rate they haven't yet felt the injustice or developed the power to take a stand. I know you think I'm judging that simply by an absence of Jeremy Corbyn! Annual 2018 copies on sale (£9.99), which is quite a unusual yardstick. Don't judge this either: I came home with delicious cheese scones from that last sale at Druitt Hall, plus some Belgian chocolates and a bottle of Mermaid gin both bought as a gift at friendly The Christchurch Confectioner, 72 High Street.

We also stopped at Ye Old George, 2a Castle Street, for a drink. Here we found a plaque explaining that this was where a barred cell used to house convicts due to be transported to Australia. Right now it looks into a courtyard covered in fairy lights where hardy drinkers warm up with mulled wine. It's a happy place, but was obviously a site of real misery. And in an interesting twist The George is also a super flash hotel in New Zealand - not to be mixed up.

I'm pleased I've been here. For starters it was new to me - it had plenty of history, heaps of dramatic ruins, an incredible coastline, lots of moored boats to enjoy and the biggest collection of swans I've come across. Tourism and politics don't go well together but it would have been good to find out more about how this once vital town is preparing for climate change, flooding and the challenges that higher interest rates and chain stores bring. People kept saying to us, sadly, everyone's in Bournemouth, shopping. I wonder if they were? They could just as easily be worn out by poor leadership.

Over to you
When you take a visit do you try and find out about the political situation too?

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Essex vineyards tour: it's a new wine world out there

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. Climate change means that many more entrepreneurs are starting up vineyards in the UK. On a visit to three Essex vineyards you can match locally grown wine with seasonal treats, take a tour of the vines or simply savour the Essex scenery. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Essex wine on sale at New Hall vineyard
"English wine is having a renaissance." This wonderful phrase kept coming up during a day-long whistle-stop tour of Essex which included three vineyards, one brewery and a new entrant to the flavoured gin business, Wilkins & Son, which is already world-renowned for their delicious Tiptree jam and chain of tea rooms around Essex.

Ever since I visited the EU display in Brussels about European grown wine - four years ago - I've been an EU wine convert. This means that I don't buy new world wines in a bid to avoid the considerable carbon-heavy shipping costs. Recently I've become a big fan of Borough Wines' refill bottle option. It's always from Europe and is a good economy, and green, option as my three bottles have been refilled many times rather than just being used once then recycled.

The big question
"Do you have European white wine?" is my question to every pub and restaurant I visit nowadays. But after Visit Essex invited me along to see New Hall vineyard, West Street vineyard and Dedham Vale vineyard I see that it is time to alter my pub challenge to "Do you have any English wine?". And pubs really could because the UK now has around 600 vineyards and 140 wineries.

Crouch Valley wines 
As I was born in Essex - and my husband, Pete May, has written the witty book Joy of Essex - my question should perhaps be even more focussed to "Do you stock Essex wine?", not out of a kill joy instinct, but because it's a fabulous drinking choice.

New Hall vineyard, established in Purleigh in 1969, are the perhaps the stars. At any rate they grow 12 varieties of grape, make around 100,000 bottles of wine a year of which some have been spotted in Waitrose. Manager Lucy Winward  - super lovely and knowledgable - explained that this part of the UK has an historical link to vineyards. She could even point towards New Hall vines growing in the same spot as recorded around the time of the Magna Carta. I don't think she said that deal was celebrated with a glass of New Hall Signature, but perhaps if Brexit actually ever happens (and I say this as a Remain voter) then it could be marked with a glass of Essex-grown Signature (the Signature Reserve 2014 is delicious). It's the mild climate along the River Crouch which helps New Hall vineyard's success. In fact there are now six vineyards in this part of Essex, covering more than 200 acres and turning out 200,000 bottles of Essex wine  - or should we say Crouch Valley wine - annually. Something the Loire Valley or the Beaujolais region may one day really worry about...

The bacchus grape (originally German) seems to thrive in Essex. As someone who spent a childhood of Christmases at Goldhanger, near Maldon (where the salt comes from) and really isn't far from New Hall, my memory of estuary Essex is damp Decembers. For a grape - neither frost nor snow fans - this is a huge plus. In fact for the vineyards hugging the River Crouch, Essex's long coastline makes the area an excellent wine growing site (because the sea helps regulate the temperature avoiding extremes of temperature). Add in the impact of climate change - mentioned by all the vineyard managers - which is simultaneously making wine growing in the UK easier and in the increasingly hotter US and parts of Europe harder (because it is just too hot), it is clear that English wines aren't just having a Renaissance, they're becoming the wine of choice.

I loved seeing the machine at New Hall too because this vineyard, about 7 miles outside Chelmsford, is also a winery, where wine is made. New Hall has a large acreage of vines, but local grape growers can bring over their grapes and get them added to the New Hall wines, or separately bottled. You can even support the business (community supported agriculture) by renting a row of vines for around £400 and then buying back 'your' wine when it is bottled for a peppercorn amount. I bought bottles of New Hall's Signature, Bacchus (2014 Reserve) and Chardonnay. My plan was to host some English wine tasting back home in London, but already one of my feckless teenage daughters has taken the Chardonnay (without my permission!) and drunk it without keeping tasting notes (never mind manners). Thank goodness she is not growing up on a vineyard.

West Street Vineyard has a purpose built restaurant in
a well-designed building modelled on the famous
Crossing Temple barns, which were originally owned by the
Knights Templar.
Touring the wineries
A classic wine-lovers holiday pleasure is to tour the wineries around Perth, Australia or New England, US which might involve a stop and shop of local wines, a self-guided walk around the vines and a fabulous meal. Thanks to Essex-Australian Jane Mohan's vision you can do something similar at West Street Vineyard which is just outside Coggeshall.

Coggeshall has long been a wonderful place to visit - for antiques, pretty street front, historic tythe barn and food offerings. It's famous for Ley lines, murders (back in the day) and monks. Now West Street Vineyard, bought by the Mohan's in 2009, is an obvious stop point. It's an award-winning place to eat, serving really delicious seasonal food (two courses with a glass of West Street wine are around £18 and three around £20). I'm vegetarian and was given the prettiest plate of crispy camembert with all sorts of seasonal trimmings as a delicious starter. There's nothing like eating lovely food looking out over rows of grape vines, so it was no surprise that I loved the main too, a pumpkin risotto topped by a deep-fried boiled egg (never tried something like this ever before and thought it fab, but then I had just done my first wine tasting which involved six glasses of Essex wine, followed by a white Essex wine for lunch). And then there were puddings - again beautifully arranged. It was such a foodie treat, but served in such a relaxed manner just like they do in Australia.

Wine tasting at West Street vineyard
Jane also offers wine school events (around £15 per person) which reveal her absolute passion for wine and help you find out more about how wine is made and the flavours developed. Over six tasting glasses of English wine (see pic) Jane explains how she fell in love with vineyards as a 17-year-old when she was sent by her parents to learn French in France. Back then her newly acquired love for rosé must have seemed a worry, but now she's an Essex vineyard owner - who reckons she's tried 965 of the 3000 grape varieties - it all makes sense. In fact I began to appreciate rosé myself as the strawberry and cream flavours revealed themselves as scent and then taste. Jane now has six acres of vines but to harvest she relies on West End's volunteers who are summoned via Facebook. A day's picking earns you a meal. As Jane is equally passionate about the joys of a delicious meal and a glass of something nice, eaten with friends and family, those post harvest dinners must be a real treat to join.
"The best place to buy wine is the cellar door." JANE MOHAN, WEST END VINEYARD, ESSEX

For the long-suffering - but enthusiastic - Essex wine growers raising their harvest must be incredibly stressful. As Jane from West End Vineyard, who used fires on three intense frosty April nights - eventually unsuccessfully - to try and keep her vines warm pointed out: "You are at the mercy of the vagaries of the climate. You have to be an eternal optimist or a complete nutter because wherever you are (in the world) there's always something that can wipe out the crop." Wiping out the crop has to be built into a vineyard's business plan.

Deham Vale specialises in wine, but it also has an orchard of 460 walnut trees.
Both harvests are late October - followed by a wine and walnut festival.
The smell of fresh walnuts in their shells is delicious.
If West End vineyard was like being in Australia, with its fantastic food; then Dedham Vale vineyard was a nature paradise. It seems miles off the beaten track - even in a county like Essex which is 70 per cent rural. The tasting barn overlooks a pond where kingfishers regularly hunt and every spring the lucky see an otter with her cubs. The whole vineyard is surrounded by woodland and views across the vale. Amazingly this is another Essex spot which has been growing wine since Roman times. Definitely worth asking what have the Romans ever done for us?

Piles of logs and heaps of walnuts at the entrance to Dedham Vale Vineyard.
Festivals, weddings & nature walks
Obviously there's wine tasting at Dedham Vale Vineyard too. This 40 acre, mostly wooded estate in Boxted, on the Essex-Suffolk border is stunningly beautiful. It's not far from the place where Constable painted The Haywain or equestrian artist Munnings lived in Dedham (which still has a visitable museum). Deham Vale Vineyard covers 7 acres (plus there are 10 acres of vines at Mersea) is a place to get married, go to a walnut and wine festival or simply drop in to purchase wine at the vineyard. Here I tried their Colchester Oyster, a dry white that one of the vineyard team reckons goes "really well with Thai and has proved very popular". Drunk as an aperitif it was fab too.

"Grapes do well in Essex because it has the best climate in the country. The driest town is Shoeburyness," explains Simon Ward, who is clearly not a fan of rain (though he's not keen on drought either). Of course grapes need some rain, but if there's too much they rot. At the moment Essex vineyards are obliged to follow an EU regulation that toughens up grape vines because once they are three years old, vines cannot be watered. This ruling is intended to encourage the vine root to deepen and take water from lower in the soil which has a long-term benefit.

There's so much to love about local grown food not least the fact that less carbon is needed to ship the product around the world. I also really love that it's grown by people who want to explain what they are doing and share their wine as widely as they can. As you can tell I've become a bit of a fan girl - hopefully you might be encouraged to do so too. So, here are:

10 reasons to try Essex - English - wines

  1. LOCAL Instead of picking up a bottle that's been shipped 12,000 miles around the world you can get it from just down the road, less than 100 miles from London. I've spent the past four years avoiding new world wines because of their carbon footprint - as a result I'm used to drinking wine which is less sugary, less alcoholic and which you need to enjoy its mineral qualities rather than expect gooseberry popping flavours.
  2. FAMILY RUN The three vineyards we visited were family businesses, all run by people passionate to make the best possible wine. Jane at West End Vineyard had sold her house to finance the business. There's nothing like drinking wine - or doing a tasting with someone whose passion is to create the best possible wine.
  3. IN THE PINK If summer is made for rosé and pink fizz then Essex can provide it. And how.
  4. RED ALERT It's still hard to ripen grapes to create the best English reds. Global warming will change this reckons Jane from West End vineyards. It's not something she wishes to think hard about because it signifies so many other world problems. "If we end up with Malbec in Essex - or any heavy red - then climate change is happening."
  5. PARTY TIME New Hall is just about to celebrate it's 50th birthday - in 2019 - something that Rasto, the Slovakian born winemaker at the vineyard is currently trying to find the right wine combination. He's so good at making wine that he's already produced some wonderful tasting elderflower wine.
  6. KNOW HOW There's no need to be a snob about English wine. English winemakers are creating some of the best wines you can buy at vineyards all around the world.
  7. THE ONLY WAY TO GET ESSEX WINES ISN'T JUST IN ESSEX If you are in London then it's easy to find Essex wines, e.g. at Borough Market
  8. VINE RUNS Get to know an Essex vineyard by joining the 5k or 10k Dedham Vale Vine Run along the vines and through the orchards on 2 June 2018, entry info here.
  9. CLIP, PICK, DRINK Have a look at the websites and see how you can get involved. You can just drink English wine, or talk it up (like this blog). Or you could volunteer and pick the grapes during harvest time, or be part of the pruning at West End in January. Yes, you may be thinking what could possibly go wrong - but it might be an amazing way to learn more about vineyards, vines, Essex and the UK.
  10. CELEBRATE English wine week 2018 is Saturday 26 May - Sunday 3 June 2018. What better excuse to get t know English wines better?
Do let me know if this piece has inspired you - either to have a try of Essex (or English) wine, or simply ask for it at your favourite wine stockist. 

  • New Hall Vineyard, near Chelmsford has daily cellar tours and tastings. Plus a rather fab (free) xmas display.
  • West Street Vineyard, in Coggeshall runs bookable tastings (they are really interesting) and serves delicious meals. Totally recommended. During the summer head over from Sunday-Thursday 9am-5pm, and Friday & Saturday from 9am - 11pm. From 1 October 2017 - 1 April 2018 the vineyard is closed on a Monday and Tuesday. 
  • Dedham Vale Vineyard near Boxted.
  • Info: Visit Essex organised the vineyards tour for bloggers.

Monday, 30 October 2017

How Fog Everywhere could clean up London's air

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. London's air quality is just not good enough - but how is the science shared with residents? Could a new play by teenagers at the Camden People's Theatre make an impact on decision makers? Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

The famous quote from Bleak House.
I'm used to hearing about London's air quality being bad. Scrap that. I'm used to hearing about London's illegal air quality. But I still try to put a positive spin on conversations I have with my teenage daughters. Turns out that Brian Logan, the artistic director at Camden's People Theatre is doing the same. Between rehearsals Brian, who grew up in St Andrew's, talked to me over the phone about how he teamed up with King's College air quality analysts to create a new theatre show, Fog Everywhere.

"We're partnering with Westminster Kingsway sixth form college. In this play the 17 and 18 year olds can articulate their response to growing up in a city with air pollution. It's a grim subject matter but we don't want to depress anyone. A lot comes from the fact that teenagers have an indomitable spirit. They don't want a big boo hoo about their lungs. So there's a spirit of resistance and it feels to me that the pollution agenda has a critical mass accruing behind a significant point for change," says Brian. who helped organise the collaboration and now hopes that "people in positions of power will come along" (he's thinking Mayor's Office, Department of the Environment and MPs), but it will also bring in a new audience of teenagers. One of them will be my 16-year-old daughter, Nell.

FOG EVERYWHERE review by Nell May
My first memories are of doing to climate change marches with my Mum in London. I even made a YouTube video when I was about seven about air pollution. So I already knew a lot about the topic, but I found Fog Everywhere interesting. The best bit was the grime battle. I also really loved the cows. I'd heard about that incident (the Great Smog of 1952 when thousands of people were made ill and died from air pollution) watching The Crown (series 1, episode 4).

I've grown up in London too, and I liked the way the students had the opportunity to promote a serious issue. This city has a bad reputation for vehicle fumes and air pollution. My family don't have a car - I'm 17 soon and I'm not planning to learn to drive. I think more young people should go and see the play to learn about what it takes to reduce London's air pollution.

I'm going to recommend my friends go and see it!


Fog Everywhere is at CPT. (c) Joe Twigg Photography
For those of us who follow the news, discovering that Brixton Road was so polluted by traffic fumes (diesel is the big problem) that it beat its annual pollution target in the first week of January 2017 was an unpleasant shock. But for Brian it was personal. "I've got small kids growing up in Brixton. My seven year old daughter's school is 50 yards from Brixton Road. You know that if you blow your nose it comes out black - it's hard not to be aware of air pollution. I'm sure parents of small children in London wonder if they might be doing harm to their child as they bring them up here."

That's why Fog Everywhere aims to help Londoners rethink the way they live. "The programme will have lots of links, further info and basic ways you can change your behaviour," says Brian. Ideas include taking routes away from main roads, not standing on the kerb, and avoiding cars especially idling by school gates. "I have an app my phone called City Air," adds Brian who gets around London by tube and walking.  But this isn't an instructional play, it's definitely theatre explains Brian, adding, "One of the things that is hard to resist in a play called Fog Everywhere - it's a quote from Charles Dickens' Bleak House - is using a smoke machine all the time. It makes it so easy to be dramatic, but it's a temptation you must resist."

Fog Everywhere (c) Joe Twigg
Fellow Scot, Andrew Grieve, ran workshops to help Brian and the teenage cast create the play. Andrew is senior air quality analyst at King's College London. His bike commute from Archway to a Waterloo campus involves crossing the Thames. On the day I spoke with him air quality wasn't impressive. "I came over the Blackfriars Bridge and it was weird the Shard not being there, it looked like someone had rubbed it out," he said.

But however much foggy days can echo Charles Dickens' original "fog everywhere" quote, it is Andrew's research measuring the growth of children's lungs that offers a shocking modern take on air pollution. "We spent six years testing the lung health of children in Tower Hamlets and Hackney. We found that kids in that area are growing up with smaller lungs than they should have because there is so much pollution," says Andrew. "I never imagine our research would end up as a play. But as a way of getting kids to think about pollution it is fantastic. They are so immersed in it, and they are speaking to their friends and family about it. It's generally more powerful for people to hear a message from people they know rather than academics writing papers."

Andrew studied environmental science at Sterling University.

Back in 1989 his dissertation was measuring nitrogen concentrations inside and outside cars - even back then it was higher inside than out. But one of his motivations is that feeling you get when you struggle to breathe. "I had really bad asthma as a child," he says. "Some of my earliest memories are of waking up in the night and grabbing my ventolin."

Nell and Nicola campaigning for clean air in London back in 2012.
Fresh insight
Here's hoping that Fog Everywhere plus:

  • January's record breaking air pollution figures, see here
  • The huge increase in stories and headlines about air pollution in newspapers, including the London Evening Standard, and 
  • The science from King's College which has found that children - who do not drive - now have smaller lungs than they should... 

will help focus decision makers minds to prioritise action on air pollution. Moves like the congestion charge, ultra low emission zone and the new T charge (brought in to target the most polluting older diesel HGV lorries and vans on 23 October 2017) are a good start. But clearly more needs to be done and perhaps Fog Everywhere which combines a teen perspective with King's College facts will take those decision makers closer to being able to make effective changes to sort air pollution.

Astonishingly scientist Andrew Grieve is just as positive as Camden People's Theatre's artistic director. Andrew adds: "I see such enthusiasm to deal with air pollution. London is like a petri dish; it has 1,000 ideas  - green corridors, green spaces, green benches to sit on, freight consolidation to there aren't so many individual Amazon (or supermarket) deliveries, nice streets to walk down and encouraging people to keep away from busy roads."

Do book the show - and take the kids.

  • Fog Everywhere is being performed from 31 October - 11 November at the Camden People's Theatre as part of the fortnight-long Shoot The Breeze festival on climate change and the environment see here to buy tickets and find to about talks/events.
  • Camden People's Theatre, 58-60 Hampstead Road, NW1

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Sugar & slavery at Penrhyn Castle

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. No one likes being told they're hurting the planet through their holidays, school run or woodturner but a trip to a National Trust castle, just outside Bangor in Wales, made us talk about the 19th century elephant in the room - slavery. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Wish you were here: Lily, Nell, Nicola, Pete at Penrhyn Castle
The driveway is about a mile but it’s worth the long walk, especially when you reach what seems like a Medieval castle. In the right light the turrets glow like burnt caramel and from the windows the views are across the lawns to the estuary. Magical, except this is a mock castle completed in 1838 for an English lord who made his money from sugar, slavery and slate mining.  Actually the story is worse than that. In 1833 slavery was abolished and British slave owners – like Pennant– were compensated. He received more than a million pounds for freeing 764 people from the sugar plantations in Jamaica that he’d never even visited. The ex-slaves got nothing. Nothing!

Touring the castle it’s obvious what Pennant spent his ill-gotten gains on – fixtures, fittings and a knockout art collection.

In 1949 Penrhyn Castle was passed to the National Trust in lieu of death duties. It opened to tourists a few years later.  These days the slavery isn’t a dirty secret – it’s made clear from the moment you go into the entrance hall. But even now the Welsh locals aren’t big fans. I'm told they don’t like to volunteer, and on the bus ride back to Bangor we were shown a neat terrace of mining cottages still called Traitors’ Row, because that’s where the sell-outs who worked for Lord Pennant lived. 

Who knew a day out at a National Trust home, just for the cream tea and a garden stroll, would turn out to be a lesson in keeping uncomfortable situations under wraps?

  • If you want to visit the castle - and it's certainly a good place to visit with spectacular views - then look at the National Trust website here.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Climate Change: HRH, scientist & fashion voices in London

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. So how do you get people to do something about their impact on the planet? Compare and contrast methods by HRH Prince Charles, climate scientist Dr Emily Shuckburgh and Pacific Islanders from Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
PNG style, model with London Pacific Fashion
Collective designer (r) Sarah Haoda-Todd
thinking clothes and climate change.
(c) LPFC
Give Dr Emily Shuckburgh a TV show.

That’s my verdict after hearing the British Antarctic Survey scientist, who measures trapped bubbles of carbon dioxide in million-year-old ice cores, describe the thinking behind the Ladybird Expert Book For All Ages – ClimateChange which she co-wrote with Prince Charles and former director of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper. The 24-page booklet, which crams in 200 words per page, was published in January this year (2017) and has become a best seller.

“We wrote the book to appeal to normal people. People think there is much less scientific agreement about climate change than there actually is,” says Emily who is an unusually plain-speaking professional climate scientist. “This is fuelled by the media and the way the BBC insists on [reporting it with for and against so climate change deniers are given airtime] and Daily Mail headlines.” 

She’s also able to make the science simple to follow. It’s not just the Ladybird book, which condenses many 3000-page reports, it’s also her ability to tell it as it is. She tells the Archway with Words audience that scientists are in agreement that the climate is changing, and that it is man-made.  She then explains that there are three major risks from the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  1. Coral reefs are dying (she is very negative about this, “coral reefs are dead”)
  2. Extreme weather
  3. The collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“If the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed it would be irreversible. The sea would rise by two metres and change coast lines. This would bring the sea into London and up to Cambridge. Ely might be an island again,” says Emily. She has a way of speaking that talks truth, but without hammering it home with an explosion of facts. The risk is high – there’s a 1:10 chance. To make her point she explains that “When I was pregnant a 1:20 chance was high risk medically. You could say the world is in a high risk category of disaster.”

Scientists calculate that the maximum amount of carbon dioxide our atmosphere can hold is 3,000 billion tonnes. Two-thirds of that budget has already been used.

She’s willing to speak out because she’s also a mother. “It’s precisely because I’m fully aware it’s going to impact on my children’s future [they are 2 and 4 years old]. I don’t want in 20 years time for my children to say ‘You knew! Why didn’t you do more to communicate that risk?’. It’s a sense of duty.”

Emily Shuckburgh talks climate change at the Archway Methodist Church
(c) around Britain no plane
So who’s turned up to the Archway with Words Festival to hear this talk? The wrong generation, that’s who. Most of the audience are grey headed. Admittedly it’s a Saturday talk, kicking off at 6.30pm when families with young children are busy making dinner and those 20- and 30-somethings with jobs are Whats Apping their evening out plans. My teenage daughters have also found something better to do – one has just moved into new uni halls, the other is on a sleepover to Netflix binge. 

Behavioural psychologists might draw other conclusions, as George Marshall makes clear in his book Don't Even Think About It: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change.

“It’s quite demotivating,” admits Emily adding that "Martin Luther King didn't give an 'I have a nightmare' speech. “So in the book we wanted to emphasise that it’s not necessarily doom and gloom. Responding to the climate change challenge can bring huge opportunities. A low energy lifestyle could be an improvement. It could improve air quality which is good for people’s health and it could drive new technologies, for example electric vehicles.”

I’ve worked at Friends of the Earth in the past and know that stuff. But so do we all. What I hadn’t realised is that people measure the increases in climate change from 300 million years ago because that was the time of “the greatest mass extinction ever.”

Winnie Kiap, PNG High Commissioner. (c) LPFC
Despite the warnings from Emily Shuckburgh too many of us do too little. But that’s not the case for Pacific island countries.  “For us it is a matter of life and death,” says Winnie Kiap, the Papua New Guinea High Commissioner when I met her at the first fashion show I've attended.  “We already have climate refugees in the outlying islands of Bougainville, the Carteret Islands [1.5m above sea level see here ] . In PNG we use funds for building early warning systems and infrastructure to build resilience,” said the high commissioner.

Pacific art and fashion both include hashtag climate change.
Winnie was speaking at the London Pacific Fashion Collective which used their London Fashion Week runway to highlight #ClimateChangeInThePacific . At the far end was artist Rusiate Lali’s absorbing picture, Shark Attack (metaphor!) and against this fabulous outfits by designers Pania Greenaway (New Zealand), Robert Kennedy (Fiji), Warlukurlangu artists (Australia), Sarah Haoda-Todd (Papua New Guinea/PNG) and Lucie from Samoa displayed their work.

Winnie Kiap, PNG High Commissioner introducing the
London Pacific Fashion Collective designers with
Fiji's Robert Kennedy on the left. (c) LPFC
“Was it just lavalavas (sarongs)?” asked my eldest daughter imagining a collection suitable for humidity and the beach. The answer was absolutely no. London Pacific Fashion Collective – in particular the designers from Samoa and PNG – used their love of their country to create striking designs. The repetition of PNG’s national emblem, a bird of paradise, and patterns borrowed from weaving and cultural tattoos was a winning collection from Sarah Haoda-Todd.  Given the endless criticism of fashion shows that it’s a monoculture of anorexic white beanpoles, an added bonus was that almost all the models were women of colour and several were plus size.

London Pacific Fashion show focusing on #climatechangeinthepacific
 at the Lloyd George Room, National Liberal Club.
(c) LPFC
So who was at the London Pacific Fashion Collective show? All sorts – men and women of all ages, hopefully with some purse power. In contrast to the dour, worthiness of the audience at the Ladybird books (it’s ok I’m only thinking of me) the Polynesian and Melanesian islanders have played an excellent trick. Take the people what they want – beautiful clothes – add national pride and a dose of cultural chic, and then add on the awareness raising about #climatechangeinthepacific. 

“The most important thing you can do is vote. Environmental issues are not high up the political agenda so they don’t get addressed,” says Emily. And of course we all need to inspire people to get involved in the solutions. Bludgeoning us with facts hasn’t been a game-changer. But like the Pacific island nations Britain is an island – and one that has been increasingly blighted by flood damage - and that ought to make us all pay a great deal more attention to tackling climate change.  

In Prince Charles, Tony Juniper and Emily Shuckburgh's Ladybird Book the simple wins include turning down the thermostat (or using the timer effectively), using public transport or low-energy transport more often, take less flights (just one transnational flight uses all of your annual carbon 'budget') and eating less red meat. All of these changes also save money… and go a small way towards saving the world. 

And not just your world, but people living on the coastline like so many people in Pacific nations.

The public scepticism about whether climate scientists are in agreement or not has to be resolved, fast. So perhaps the take home message should be read and share the book. Or get it ordered for your library. And yes, several people have sent a copy to President Trump, and, just as importantly, ordered a copy for sceptical friends and family.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

How the Sun Rain Room beats Falling Water

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post looks at inspiring new ways architects are making city buildings lessen their environmental footprint and creating spaces you just want to be in. and yes, I admit my knowledge of architecture is low so this is inspired as much as by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright as an Open House 2017 tour to the Rain Sun Room in Islington. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

The Sun Rain Room roof from the staircase window.

 How beautiful houses can be if you can add water. The Sun Rain Room is just a room, and it may not be over a waterfall, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water (1935 Pennsylvania), but this unusual indoor/outdoor space at Wilmington Square, WC1 is a magical extension to a Georgian town house making maximum use of light, shade and the local weather. 

Look up and you see the back of the Georgian house with
a curving grass roof above.
In the Sun Rain Room the modest courtyard space has been transformed into three multi-purpose spaces, a glass indoor room; a covered wall-less outdoor spot with BBQ and a paved area. Indoors has a distinctly meditative feel that would be a happy place whatever the weather, or season. And architects Tonkin Liu already use it for relaxing, reading, to display cuttings, for meetings and to reinvigorate the spirit. Clever use of sun tubes through the sedum roof turns the indoor space into a dappled wonderland when it’s sunny. Equally imaginative use of the Georgian butterfly roof (sometimes known as a valley roof) siphons off the rain water into an elegant tank which runs along the side of a brick wall festooned with ivy. Press a button and the tank releases a small flow of water to create a reflection pool that covers the dark granite slabs the Sun Rain Room looks over. It’s only millimetres deep but it’s clearly a pleasure to sit cosy inside, lost in the reflection of the Georgian building ruffled by ripples. At night the effect must be an even bigger show-stopper when the twinkling lights power up. Or when you want to surprise and pad across it as if walking on water.

Greg Storarr talks Open House visitors through
the thinking behind the Sun Rain Room. The
trees have deeper root ball pots tucked ut of sight.
Guide Greg Storarr, who works at Tonkin Liu, took groups around the Sun Rain Room during Open House 2017. He explained that the house had been subdivided into flats but was now used both as offices by the practice and a place to live.

Creating the Sun Rain Room gave an opportunity to transform the basement. Work took a year and the result is transfixing. It was also very hard to photograph (blame the mirrors, the group, and my own inability to find the spot!).

The tour started in a basement kitchen done with great simplicity and a lot of bleached wooden panels. There’s an internal office lit from above and then a stunning curved 2nd bedroom, with walls and door made from plywood, echoing the curving Sun Rain Room above.  This bedroom is well-thought out. It has a neat mirrored area behind the double bed for storing belongings, as well as a bathroom. Everything is small – because it’s London – but done with such rectangular abandonment and strategic mirror siting that the place expands and expands. And of course it’s not that small because Greg was showing around at least 15 people, many with bags, and we all fitted in fine.

Architect Anna Liu in red and white. The
mirrors make the space confusing to photograph.
Architect Anna Liu, resplendent in an amazing red outfit topped with white lace, shadowed the group. She lives in the house with business/life partner Mike Tonkin and laughingly explained she was: “the madness behind the brains.” But this is an architect’s dream, altering a house so it becomes a place she, (and definitely me) really want to live. Her pride is obvious and it was good hearing how much she “loves the light you get from the reflection and the ripple effect.”

A courtyard space transformed.
So could you do this at home? Some of the materials are very affordable, eg, plywood (albeit with a beautiful grain). There was also an external spiral staircase linking the basement floor to the Sun Rain Room – its only drawback being the usual for spiral staircases, they are very narrow. But there is also some amazing technology to keep the Sun Rain Room roof floating over a long stretch of what used to be courtyard. And there’s a super expensive and very skilled creation, a glass staircase that floatingly links the Sun Rain Room with the main house kitchen high above the basement courtyard.

Apparently the work cost around £2,000m2. Social housing is around £1,300m2 and high end projects around £3-4,000m2.

One of the Open House visitors reckons this was where Aubrey Beardsley – the illustrator famous for his “bizarre sense of humour and fascination with the taboo” worked. If correct, then clearly the house keeps inspiring.

Energy reading metre - get yours from your energy supplier so
you know how much power your gadgets are drawing.
Turns out it’s been rentable on Airbnb for lets over the summer. I’m gutted I never thought to nose around looking for starchitect mini breaks. Now it’s going to be used by a more permanent tenant, who I hope adores the place. Maybe they  can occasionally visit Exmouth Market, but mostly I’d like to think the new tenant is drawn back to the Sun Rain Room basement and courtyard for inspiration, fulfilment and a chance to feel properly in touch with the weather. This may be its first winter, but it’s clear Anna and her colleagues are looking forward to new reflections because this the Sun Rain Room is truly a living space for all seasons.