A-Z activities

A-Z countries

What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog 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. 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, 23 July 2017

Seeing what Beowulf might have seen

This blog looks at ways of learning about the world without having to get on a plane. Turns out the Dark Ages were a time of amazing metal work, beauty and phenomenal funeral ceremonies.  Words from Nicola Baird.

Sutton Hoo: walking from the Anglo Saxon burial mounds towards
Mrs Pretty's home, Tranmer House. On the right of the picture the NT has
sold the land which is used for pig farming and removing grass to sell as lawn.
So. At last I've been to Sutton Hoo which is a National Trust run property in Suffolk. It's very well-known because the actual treasure dug up in 1939 is on show at the British Museum. But at Sutton Hoo, which isn't too far from Woodbridge, you can see copies of the Sutton Hoo hoard (helmets, garnet-encrusted weapons, massive pots, jewellery) in a well-designed interpretative exhibition centre; visit benefactor Mrs Pretty's home and walk besides Royal Anglo Saxon burial mounds.

The place to frame your shot at Sutton Hoo.
There were three of us in our party - me, my husband Pete and our exhausted post GCSE daughter. Even so we all enjoyed our first long day spent at Sutton Hoo so much, partly because the NT also offers brilliant talks about the objects and because we took a well signposted trail around the grounds towards the River Deben, that we returned for a second visit the next day.

Sutton Hoo: inside the drawing room at Tranmer House which was built in the 1930s
It was laid out informally with toys I recognised, my mum would have played
with and my 16yo enjoyed trying out. Living history!
Sutton Hoo is where King of East Anglia was buried in about AD625 with astonishing pomp.  There are two ship burials mentioned in Beowulf - at the start and end of the story - but as this was originally a tale told aloud and the only surviving copy was from AD1000 it's possible King Radwald's funeral was modelled on the story... Well, it's a nice thought.

King Radwald is a real person. We know this because he is mentioned in the Venerable Bede's book and clearly an extremely important person in the UK's history. It's a shame at school that the starting point was 1066, skipping all this.

The grave robbers missed his astonishingly filled grave by about three feet. But Mrs Pretty, by then a widow, had a dream about where a local amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, should dig. The first summer Basil (who left school at 12 years!) worked for her he disagreed, and got scant rewards from digging the burial mound nearest her home. His next dig, and what Sutton Hoo is famous for, was in 1939 - ominous because everyone visiting now knows the second world war was about to kick off.

One of Sutton Hoo's amazing guides. Definitely join
a talk. On the days we went talks and tours
were at 11am and 2.30pm
But Basil, with the aid of Mrs Pretty's gardener and gamekeeper, lucked out on this 2nd dig. It was such an important find for the nation that poor Basil got replaced by the professionals. However Mrs Pretty insisted he stayed on the site, and in the team. The result is that at this NT interpretation of the great dig Basil gets a suitably heroic role.

It's odd that the National Trust runs this site - usually the older ones are organised by English Heritage. But that aside (and actually Mrs Pretty gave them her estate in her will) it was a most wonderful way to learn about a history so few of us know. As an added bonus a Beowulf specialist talked us through the links between the poem and the boat burials so we came home with a copy - translated by poet Seamus Heaney - and it is quite magical.

I have a hunch I'd have liked being an Anglo Saxon!

Worth a visit?
I hadn't been away much this year - but in July my family managed two consecutive weekends away from London, camping on each occasion. Re-reading this review it's clear that I'm still rather over-excited about having escaped my home. But i think even if I was travel weary, the information that's on display and the way it's been interpreted makes Sutton Hoo a brilliant visit. If you've got National Trust membership then definitely head there, and have a wonderful time.

There's a nice cafe, a second hand bookshop, loads of outdoor seating for picnics and a really great outdoor playground with zip wire and imaginative ship burial style mounds to play on.


Friday, 23 June 2017

Another country: the crazy art world

This blog looks at ways of learning about the world without having to get on a plane. Discovering art is very low carbon - enjoy the inside story of self-proclaimed art terrorist, AK47, who stole a Banksy.  Words from Nicola Baird.

Meet AK47artist at home. Pic is screenshot version(c) Portable Networks Graphic Image
The Banksy Job – five years in the making – is a real treat. It's an eccentric art movie about larger-than-life character (but perhaps not exactly an artist) Andy Link. As AK47 he creates an anti-art movement supported by his white-overall clad followers, Art Kieda. AK47’s plan is to steal a massive Banksy sculpture, modelled on Rodin's The Thinker, but reposed to become The Drinker. Success sees the stolen sculpture planted in AK47's back garden. And then in a bizarre twist how it gets to be reinstalled in Shaftesbury Avenue.

The directors, Ian Roderick Gray and Dylan Harvey, call it a heist movie. It’s shot as a documentary, but mocks itself, its characters and the art world with proper British eccentricity. There’s also some choreographed scene stealing from AK47’s overall-clad art crew too.

If you like street art or are bemused by artistic pontification The Banksy Job
is a perfect film. Photo taken at the Prince Charles Cinema premiere.
Left is question master Amanda Mo with artist AK47 and the d
 Ian Roderick Gray and Dylan Harvey.
Curiously I was sent a free ticket courtesy to the premier by the PR for Andrew Lamberty who runs the Lamberty Gallery on Pimlico Road. According to the press release the gallery is: “A busy and pioneering showcase for extraordinary pieces. Lamberty sources and sells the very best in 20th century and contemporary art and design. Alongside this, Lamberty is known for discovering and developing cutting edge emerging talent, representing now some of the leading names in the contemporary furniture design and art scenes.”

 I loved it, and really enjoyed the humour. Enjoy the trailer:

The Banksy Job may have a name that hints at car chases and Italy, but it Is most definitely a London film, covering street art turf wars. It will also introduce you to the bizarre authentication system that Banksy runs, Pest Control.In other words you don’t have a Banksy until it’s verified by Banksy. Not having a Banksy I really didn’t know this. But one day perhaps...

The film's done well in the US and Paris - but it's an oddball movie so the best way to see it is via download. Enjoy.

Directors: Ian Roderick Gray, Dylan Harvey
Star: AK47 “very fuckin contemporary innit”
Downloadable from 19 June - even the trailer is a lot of fun. Find it on netflix, etc.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Indian style in the heart of Brighton

This blog looks at ways of learning about the world without having to get on a plane. Here's a look inside George IV's crazy Brighton Pavilion which is a mix up of India and China, places that the King never visited. Best of all it's full of dragons. Words from Nicola Baird.
Brighton Pavilion - the regent's love nest with an Indian style
exterior, Chinese inside. Like me George IV hadn't visited either country.
For years I've wanted to go to India - via the famous Brighton Pavilion, in Brighton. I had no idea what was inside (and now I know why - it's because it's not a place that encourages photos or instagram feeds although the website has a fantastic intro video, see here). But I'd heard it was something special. So I abandoned the dog and took a late afternoon trip to Brighton. What an absolute treat awaits you just a 10 minute easy downhill stroll from the train station.... a glorious garden and an eye-popping building in Indo-Saracenic Revival style (get that!) with minarets, domes, bumpy things all in a beautiful pale quarry stone. 

Inside the decor is as over the top as is possible, and I loved it. There's a room which is full of dragons. Snakes are wriggling down the walls. Birds are captured in the hand-painted wallpaper and beautiful bamboo motifs keep repeating themselves on chairs, staircase balustrades and walls. It looks Indian outside, Chinese pagoda inside. And then there are the domes with incredible shiny scales, and lights that are as big as vast upturned umbrellas.

You can have a virtual tour of the banqueting room on this link  (but it's much better being in the room).

George IV was only king from 1830-37 but he was also Prince Regent before his coronation. The Brighton Pavilion was for lavish entertaining.  Eventually it was inherited by Queen Victoria who found it far too public and sold it. It's now owned by Brighton, but has had various uses including an Indian Hospital and a venue for baby shows, flower shows, tea rooms and even a flea circus...

Head down North Road past the Dome and turn right into the gardens. The Dome
used to be George IV's stables and there is a secret tunnel from here to the pavilion,
used by George when he felt too fat shamed by the ever-staring public.
As might be obvious I didn't take a guided tour, or buy the guide book so learnt minimal factual info. But who needs facts in a building that kick starts the senses? If you have a chance do go - and i think it would be a lovely visit with children too as there are so many animals, birds, reptiles and insects scattered in the pattern to distract (aka find) while you oh and ah over the decor. For example you can find moths motifs woven into the domed music room carpet. It is an expensive visit (approx £20 but that can give you a year's visiting rights) but clearly it's an expensive building to maintain. Apparently you often see conservators at work.

And if you do go, try getting a cup of tea in the upstairs cafe with it's lovely tile decor and beautiful rooftop balcony with views over the gardens.

I have to admit that i've always been a bit anti Brighton - it's a place that feels like it is permanently holiday time - but clearly I'm mellowing. Not only was the Brighton Pavilion a pleasure to visit, the locals were really helpful about pointing us in the correct direction. And as for this famous symbol of Brighton, well, I especially like the way George never visited India or China, despite Britain's huge Empire of the time. Instead he brought "exotic" versions of these two vast countries to the UK in the form of this pleasure palace - clearly he was also a fan of virtual travel.

  • Info about the Brighton Pavilion - a once royal palace - is on this website. Tickets bought on line are 10 per cheaper.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Breathe in, breathe out: from best to worst

This blog usually looks at ways of learning about the world without having to get on a plane. But this time let's compare air pollution in the world's cleanest country, Solomon Islands (once my home) and London (now my home). Words from Nicola Baird.

Guardian story here. The worst countries for toxic air were India,
with 133.7 deaths for every 100,000 people blamed on air pollution,
and Mynamar, where the rate is 230.6 deaths. 
From the Guardian:
People in the UK are 64 times as likely to die of air pollution as those in Sweden and twice as likely as those in the US, claims the World Health Organisation. 
 Britain, which has a mortality rate for air pollution of 25.7 for every 100,000 people, was also beaten by Brazil and Mexico – and it trailed far behind Sweden, the cleanest nation in the EU (a small irony as in Jan 2017 the Swedes were claiming that Stockholm's air pollution was as bad as Beijing). The US rate was 12.1 for every 100,000, Brazil’s was 15.8 and Mexico’s was 23.5, while Argentina was at 24.6.

This is my screensaver - a rural Solomon Island scene
about a 40 minute walk from the 
capital, Honiara's city
centre. Note that in the humid tropics even Londoners
like me walk slowly - and in the Solomons few people
can afford to own a vehicle (or are old enough to drive).
Good air v bad air
Years ago - when I was 26 - I spent two years working in the wonderful Pacific island country, Solomon Islands for Voluntary Service Overseas (the best thing I've ever done!). The country was gorgeous - dubbed "as beautiful above as it is below" thanks to its tropical forested islands, sunny skies, fresh trade winds by the coast, biodiversity and vibrant, fish-packed coral reefs. On working trips away from the capital, Honiara, I often saw dolphins, wild white cockatos, huge butterflies and flocks of fruit bats.

Solomon Islanders are rightly very proud of their country's bounty. I remember at one point the Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni suggested bottling their tropical forest oxygen and selling it to richer countries. The idea never came off, because air is air...

See this piece in the New Scientist from 27 Jan 1996.

But 25 years or so have past and now everyone's talking about dirty air - even me on the Jerry Vine show when he did a special broadcast this week from the Nags Head Market, Islington. And I'm currently working on two clean air projects for clients. Dirty air talk is hard to avoid when you live in London which is packed with diesel vehicles emitting particulates that are damaging everyone's health. Killing us slowly...

So what's Solomon Islands like? Few people drive in the Solomons, and there aren't many roads. There are no trains and a rare haphazard (private) bus service (more like the occasional truck) on the country's main islands. This means that people tend to cram into vehicles, go by boat or - more likely - walk. As a result on 18 May, 2017 the local media were able to announce something amazing:
It’s official: Solomon Islands has the cleanest air in the world (SIBC, Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation)

The World Health Statistics 2017 report released by the World Health Organisation found the country has the lowest concentrations of “fine particular matter in urban areas” in its air in the world.

The Solomons had a rating of 5.0, ahead of New Zealand (5.2), New Brunei Darussalam (5.4) and Australia (5.8).

It's not all good news for the Solomons: SIBC's report added: "Despite having the cleanest air, the country still falls behind on other development indicators, particularly in areas such as life expectancy, improved access to proper sanitation and rates of cancer.
  • The average life expectancy of Solomon Islanders is 69.2 years, below the global average of 71.4 years. 
  • Out of every 1000 babies born, WHO said its data showed 114 would die –though it was better than the global average of 212 deaths per 1000 babies born.
  • The Hapi Isles has 22.1 health professionals for every 1000 people, well below the global average of 45.6 per 1000 people.
  • WHO estimates 26.4 per cent of Solomon Islanders aged between 30 and 70 will die from either cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or respiratory disease, above the global average of 18.8 per cent.

And perhaps WHO should add thanks to climate change some of the country's 1,000 cays, atolls and islands are at risk of... disappearing. What will that mean for Solomon Islanders?

Stay calm
Learning to breathe calmly - smell the soup, cool the soup - is a central tenet of modern wellbeing gurus. Just as campaigning to clean up our air has become a key ingredient of modern town planning. And dare I say it, ignoring the consequences of climate change, sea level rise etc.

If there's a lesson from the Solomons then it's make your cities, towns and villages places where walkers rule. Except that's not quite how it felt even when I lived in Solomon Islands... Anyone who's ever been to Honiara recently will know that its one road along the seafront is completely traffic-choked, and not made easy for pedestrians to cross. But it's not a big country, or a big city, and it's only one road: and so the Solomons wins the clean air prize by default. It's fantastic the Solomns has the cleanest air in the world, but it's certainly not thanks to good city planning.

But here's hoping that crazy idea to bottle tropical forest oxygen might be suitable for gimmicky sales now. It's a lot better than selling natural sources like wildlife or trees. At least I think so - I'm slightly confused by the most recent episode of Dr Who which I watched last weekend which played around with this theme, and I don't want to ruin that plot twist.

When it comes to how to get clean air, what the Solomons does right (or not at all) is something we all need to start doing.

Lola (left) and Nell (right) with talented custom dancers
back in 2011 in Solomon Islands.
A little extra
"I can now picture the globe and all the countries and think about their different climates and realities. I learnt that in the Solomons the sky is much clearer, that might either be because of less pollution or where it is positioned. I found that it is a lot easier to breathe in a hotter place if you have asthma which is incredibly annoying as I do not like hot climates – they are too hot." Nell, 10 years after two months in Solomon Islands.
Because of climate change my family decided to stop flying. We decided that a return flight every 10 years would be a way of doing this. Our last flights were in 2011, when from June-September we took our daughters out of school and went to Solomon Islands for several months (via Australia). In the final post about that trip the girls summed up what they thought of that travel experience - lessons that have definitely taken them through GCSEs and A levels. The older, Lola, is now on a gap year learning French in Paris (reached by train) and plans to study politics at uni in September 2017. And over dinner it's not unusual for both girls to argue about who will be PM first: I don't think it's going to be a job share! Have a look at this post here, where Nell's quote above is taken from (clearly she figured out Honiara was less polluted than London).

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Many hands make light work & powerful statements

Can art ever say anything important about the political issues of the day? This blog looks at ways of learning about the world without having to get on a plane (because this blog is all about travelling without racking up a mega carbon footprint). Words from Nicola Baird.

Inspiring piece by Lorenzo Quinn, Support, 2017 (c) Lorenzo Quinn
Today my hallway is a clutter of boxes filled with Green party leaflets. The idea is that I contact keen local Greens and get them to take a clutch and deliver to nearby households. It's a slog contacting people (there is a politico or SPUD term which calls this something like 'phone banking'). Admittedly it is a thrill when you match a genuinely keen Green with a really useful job.

But can art do the work of politicians? Apart from Picasso's La Guernica and other war pictures I wasn't sure if art could be used effectively in a campaigning way.

But I love this new sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn which shows two huge hands emerging from the Grand Canal as if they are propping up the five star Ca' Sagredo Hotel. Admittedly I know very little about the buildings in Venice - other than climate change is putting them at risk of collapse. But the artist is quite clear about his intent:
"I wanted to sculpt what is considered the hardest and most technically challenging part of the human body. The hand holds so much power – the power to love, to hate, to create, to destroy. Venice is a floating art city that has inspired cultures for centuries, but to continue to do so it needs the support of our generation and future ones, because it is threatened by climate change and time decay," says Lorenzo Quinn who calls his sculpture Support.

This sculpture is on show for the Venice Biennale from May to November 2017.

This is the second fantastic artwork about climate change that has really impressed me. The other was of four 3m high horsemen emerging with the low tide along the banks of the Thames by Jason de Caires Taylor visible near the Houses of Parliament in September 2015. I still have a picture of it, cut from the Guardian, pinned up on my fridge. But I daren't add it to this blog as it is a Getty image. But hope to the Guardian site and have a look.

So what?
Both artworks make powerful points about the need to pay attention to climate change in the most witty and thoughtful ways. And that gives me energy to keep on making those calls encouraging people to deliver another run of leaflets... A perfect example of how thinking global can re-energise you to act local.

Over to you
What art work have you seen that helps raise attention to problems like climate change?

  • More info about Lorenzo Quinn @LorenzoQuinnArtist via @HalcyonGallery Halcyon Gallery website (or visit 144-146 New Bond Street, W1) which specialises in "inspirational art". Nearest Tube: Bond Street
    FREE Entry. Visitor Information: 020 7100 7144. Exhibition opening times: Monday to Saturday 10am–6pm, Sunday 11am–5pm

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Trying to cook Ethiopian style

Learning to cook Ethiopian style at an evening session run at Central Street Cookery School was a fabulous treat. And then, no longer strangers, we ate together. This is a wonderful way to learn more about Ethiopia without having to get on a plane (because this blog is all about travelling without racking up a mega carbon footprint). Words from Nicola Baird.

Ethiopian cooking class at Central Street Cookery School, EC1
At Old Street (also known as Silicon Roundabout) there's a cooking school. It was set up five years ago for the EC1 community in London to learn about creating tasty meals. Sometimes this is for families, or for people with particular health conditions, like diabetes. Invariably it's about ways of avoiding food waste. It can also be hired and used by anyone - a wonderful way to team build.

In March 2017 I wrote up an interview with the lovely manager of the cooking school, Sofia Larrinua on Islington Faces. She then kindly invited me to join their April cooking club and learn to cook an Ethiopian meal. I had such a fun time in a packed kitchen. All the attendees were keen cooks, except me (I make a homecooked meal most nights for my family, but I'd never dare call myself a foodie). It was eye-opening watching our chef-host Tsigereda Tekletsadik show us how to create Ethiopian style cuisine - simply and efficiently. She also made it fun.

Cooking Ethiopian style
I've eaten Ethiopian food a few times and really enjoyed it but hadn't ever been able to cook something similar at home. Now I can do a couple of dishes - and all because of Tsigereda's skills and the discovery of a reddish spice called berbere. Berbere has a mix of chilli, garlic, ginger, nigella, fenugreek and other dried herbs/spices. It's quite powerful and works wonderfully with red lentils and yellow split peas.

What's in the pot? Foreground - the start of Ethiopian split pea stew
and the redder dish is  miser wot (spicy red lentils).
So what's different? I learnt to chop ingredients MUCH smaller and to cook everything a bit slower. It was a real lesson in patience equals better taste.

I'm a vegetarian so was happy to be assigned the chance to make miser wot. This is the spicy dollop of red lentils served on injera bread. It was easy to make with instructions and a real life Ethiopian chef to sort out any questions. My biggest problem was how to use the chopper to mince up the onions. At home we don't have a dish washer, blender or chopper o most cooking gadgets are quite hard for me to figure out!

After we'd cooked up a proper feast - which included meat for the non-veggie cooking club members (the majority!) of doro wat (Ethiopian spiced chicken) and minchet abish which is a beef and chickpea dish - we all ate together. People had brought wine to share but there was also real Ethiopian red wine (very nice) and the famous (and strong) Ethiopian honey wine, Tej. According to my brief research on the internet, Awash is the longest established Ethiopian vineyard.

Exploring the world via cuisine - ie, going out for a meal - is a super simple way to learn about another culture. The next stage is learning to cook a dish or two. I would love to go to Ethiopia and surprise someone there with my new cooking skills, but the next best thing is to invite around Ethiopian friends to my home in London and see if I can serve up a passable miser wat. I'll let you know how it goes...

Over to you?
Where's your favourite place to eat an Ethiopian meal?

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Zig-zagging along the River Lea or maybe the Nile

What is it about following a river from its start to end? Here's my first go at completing the  50-mile Lea Valley Walk. In two days I walk five miles and cycle 25. Not quite as impressive as Dr Livingstone of the Nile, but it feels like a huge achievement to have followed a path along a river. Words from Nicola Baird.
The Lea Valley Walk is well signposted. Here's
the entrance close to Tottenham Hale tube in London.
I'm clearly getting deluded by a combination of hot spring sun and heady distances, but on the first two days I've been on the Lea Valley Walk - which runs from Leagrave (the source of the River Lea) to the Thames - someone has stopped me going "Hello Nicola".  And now I think I'm Dr Livingstone charting the River Nile suddenly meeting Stanley...

Message to cyclists on the Lea Valley Walk.
Judith, the first, is with her two primary school aged daughters and husband. They are all on bikes and the plan is to cycle to Hertford. "How far is it?" I ask tentatively. "25 miles..." says Judith and laughs nervously. Turns out the family have done this before - and Judith has done it many times so knows it's a three hour off-road pedal. With the kids and the temptation of riverside pubs it may take longer, but what an adventure for them all. 

The next day I'm cycling the exact same route as Judith's family, having abandoned my dog and trainers in order to eat up the miles with my trusty bike. It's a quiet Monday so the riverside path is much less busy. There are no boat trainers shouting instructions from bikes at their skiffing crews. There are no squads of lycra-clad cyclists. There are only a couple of walkers to avoid. If you're going to enjoy walking this river then it's definitely calmer to do it on a weekday. 

Psychogeography heaven - that strange tension of rural idyll (otters?) and
yuck (pylons, river rubbish, flattened building sites).
I pass Alfie's Lock (once called Pickett's Lock) and immediately it seems like I'm in the countryside. To my right is a reservoir bank with sheep grazing. There's a heron flying across. On the lock side are sign boards explaining that this is otter country. Apparently otters sleep in their holts for most of their day emerging in the evening to play. Clearly they are perpetual teenagers...

And then I reach Enfield Island where the path swaps sides and it happens again. "Hello Nicola". This time it's Nikki, whose child went to the same nursery as my youngest - 14 years ago!

I can imagine how dazed Dr Livingstone felt when he was tracked down. He'd been in the journeying zone for months, perhaps years. I was only one and a bit hours in, but following the River Lea was turning me into the most famous of all colonial explorers.

The Nile is a great deal longer than the modest River Lea.... it's 6,853km long (4.258 miles) and passes through 11 countries on its way to the Mediterranean - Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.  

In contrast the River Lea is easy to follow. But the roads and towns that it runs close by certainly play a game of convergence...(town to town and road to road) just like the two Niles. In Khartoum, Sudan the Blue and White Nile meet - you can see the mix happening, and hear a local talking about this on the video here.

Signs to the narrow boat cafe. Ahead lies the M25
After about two hours from my door I stop at the friendly Narrow Boat cafe. It is a well signposted, family run cafe at Waltham Abeey, just off the River Lea, so I ignore the fact that it is close to the M25, creating a strange traffic hum. It also takes cards, has a toilet and rather sweetly the waitress heats up my brownie so it oozes deliciously across the plate. I wolf it up (along with my homemade sandwiches) while admiring their goats, assortment of dogs and interesting junk shop art. This is quite a find, and perfectly sited.

The pretty Fish & Eels pub at Dobb's Weir (for a moment it's Essex)
Next stop ought to be Hertford but first I've got a long cycle. I like the way my bike's tyres are now coated with a fine white towpath powder. I get confused by discovering Cheshunt is outside the M25 but enjoy cycling past boat centres, leisure centres, wooden chalets and caravan style holiday parks. This place is clearly not just London's lungs it's a lovely spot to recharge. 

Amwell Nature Reserve - so peaceful.
They even make it OK for the birds and beasts. At Amwell, quite near the start of the New River Canal which goes into Islington, the gravel pits have been filled to create the Amwell Nature Reserve. It's a beautiful spot.

Spot the gazebos of Ware
Pedalling on I arrive at Ware, the train station I use often to get to my mum's home in Hertfordshire. It's a real treat to see the famous Ware gazebos, built to offer a bit of quiet R&R by the merchants whose houses front the high street, which used to be the main route between London to Cambridge. Ware had such a reputation as a stop off point that there are many pubs (former B&Bs) and in the museum you can even see the Great Bed of Ware which travellers at the White Hart were obliged to share (four couples). I'm told this bed was moved from hostelry to hostelry but I can't vouch for the truth of this. It belongs to the Victoria & Albert museum but in 2012 it was on loan to the Museum of Ware and I was very happy to see this famous oak fourposter.
The River Lea gets very pretty between Ware and Hertford.
It's only a mile or so to Hertford from Ware and it's the first time the River Lea loses its wooden sides and is allowed to turn into a pretty country river with meadows on either side. I'm tired now so allow myself a break to watch the Canada geese fighting. It's a good decision as almost at once I spot the first swallow of summer fly down to the river surface to skim off insects.  I could watch all day... but somehow I remount, pedal on and take the turning off the path to Hertford East station. This isn't the train station I want (much easier to locate Hertford North) but it means i have to cross the busy county town and all its congested traffic. 

After the luxury of 25 miles off road the traffic seems quite challenging. Perhaps if you do this route with children it might be an idea to wheel the bikes through Hertford town centre - or possibly take the train from Ware back to Tottenham Hale where you can relocate  to the riverside path to pedal back into London and your start point without so much traffic stress.

A few weeks later I walked from Hatfield to Hertford and after the idyllic 30 miles outlined above following the river was truly surprised to be on a section of the walk that is basically River Lea free until you get to Hertford. This is the Lea Valley Walk of course, but much of it is spent by the dismal A414, the outskirts of Welwyn Garden City and the Colne Valley cycle route along a former railway.

  • I used The Lea Valley Walk - a guide book from www.cicerone.co.uk  I'm using the 3rd edition (2015) with a brown and green cover. It's excellent. Bet Livingstone would have liked to write for them.
Over to you
Tell me your river walking stories. Do you enjoy pacing the river bank? Do you prefer to cycle? What's your favourite river route?

Monday, 27 March 2017

Where to go when you love coffee

What coffee do you drink? Here are some ways to enjoy coffee (and food) Ethiopian style near Shepherd's Bush. Words from Nicola Baird.

Coffee the Ethiopian way.
My friend, the incredible singer Hanisha Solomon, who was born in Ethiopia, suggested we try eating at Flamingo - one of London's excellent Ethiopian restaurants - for a half-term treat. As another close friend, Nicky, and I both find it difficult to get our exam-stressed teenagers out of bed in the morning we thought it an excellent choice of treat, knowing Nell and Xander would be persuaded to leave the house for an Ethiopian lunch.  Which is how we became a party of six sitting around two sharing plates of neatly rolled injera and various triangular piles of vegetables.

In case you don't know much about Ethiopian music - this is my favourite song by Hanisha Solomon (listen while you read, and ideally buy her albums).


Injera is the delicious Ethiopian bread that works as a plate and an eating utensil (use the right hand!), looks tricky to make. The teens - our meat eating quotient - also had a rather generous heap of lamb cooked in two different ways. They both preferred the spicy option.

At Flamingo there is also a mini booth at the back of the restaurant acting as a fresh butcher.  It was quite something to see meat being carved off a trio of haunches, handed to the chef and cooked up. I didn't take a photo as it felt rude, but I wish I had - will have to go back.

Ethiopians have a very generous culture. Hanisha begged us to eat more, drink more water, eat more injera and soon we all felt rollingly full. Which is when the roasted Ethiopian coffee beans were brought to our table for inspection. The coffee was made out of sight then brought back in an iron pot and served in handleless cups with popcorn. What a treat.

Since I saw the award-winning Sundance documentary, Black Gold about the struggle to grow Ethiopian coffee, I try to buy fair trade, and ideally, Ethiopian beans. It's even more important when you know that 15 million Ethiopians make a living related to coffee (equal to 67 per cent of the country's foreign exports). But the farmers producing the beans may only make 12-25 cents (per kilo picked) leaving many impoverished. Here's a trailer from the film to inspire, explaining why fair "trade is more important than aid."


One of the lovely things about Flamingo is that it isn't just packed with Ethiopians wanting a taste of home. There were also plenty of lunchers enjoying a good value, tasty meal close to Goldhawk Road tube. London has quite a few Ethiopian restaurants, and I certainly hope to visit more. But when it comes to coffee, which I drink in bucket-loads, daily, picking fair-priced Ethiopian beans has become a habit I'm happy to have.
  • Have a meal at Flamingo, 31 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd's Bush, W12
  • Join an Ethiopian cookery class on Wednesday 19 April from 7-9.30pm with Ethiopian Master Chef Tsige. For EC1 residents it's £5, anyone else £30. To book contact Central Street Cookery School, 90 Central Steet, London, EC1 (near Old Street) on 020 7549 8176 or info@centralstreet.org or check their website.
  • More about Nicola Baird's books and blogs on  www.nicolabaird.com or www.islingtonfacesblog.com 

Monday, 20 March 2017

New ways to make a pilgrimage

Are you the pilgrim type? You might be as there's 100 million pilgrim journeys made each year alone. I think I could be... if I just pick the right attitude rather than a high profile route. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com orwww.islingtonfacesblog.com for more info about my books and blogs).

The Lea Valley Walk finishes just after the Olympic Park at Stratford - so walk on
a West Ham home game and you'll get the added thrill of being with 57,000 football
fans. It's not as bad as it sounds - and the cheers of goals add to the celebration that
you've nearly finished a 50 mile walk. Or just started.
I’ve always assumed a pilgrimage isn’t right for me, even if 100 million people annually complete the 14 best known... according to the Huffington Post. These are:
  1. The Ganges River, India
  2. Mecca, Saudi Arabia
  3. Golden Temple, Amritsar, India
  4. Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City
  5. Vaishno Devi Temple, India
  6. Lourdes, France
  7. Bahai Gardens, Israel
  8. Vatican, Rome
  9. Jerusalem, Israel
  10. Bethlehem, Israel
  11. Machu Picchu, Peru
  12. Rumi's Tomb, Turkey
  13. Bodi Tree (fig tree), India
  14. Stonehenge, Wiltshire * (I've been here, in fact cycled some of the way, see this post)

But the April 2017 issue of The Simple Things magazine has flipped my thinking. That’s because the criteria they set for a pilgrim fits beautifully into how I try and live (try, note). Here’s how to turn an ordinary walk into a pilgrimage (from the British Pilgrimage Trust )
  1. Go slowly
  2. Improve the way (pick up rubbish, shut gates, rescue what needs rescuing etc)
  3. Accept more, need less
  4. Pass the blessing on

  • Well #1 is no problem. It took nearly five years to complete the NewRiver Path (see my blog post here) despite it being short and practically ending by my door. 
  • #2 is one I try and do, ideally by remembering to take a plastic bag for litter. Actually you don’t need to as I usually find at least one of the pieces of litter is an empty plastic bag - essentially offering itself to be filled with recyclables. 
  • I’m not really sure about #3 – I sometimes beg my husband, Pete, to carry my rucksack (but in exchange I'll carry the dog poos) 
  • #4 I’m useless at. But seems like a good new habit to make.
Judgment: Two out of four isn’t a bad start… I’m officially pilgrim-lite.

The next long walk starts here... The Lea
Valley Walk from Luton to the Thames.
Fortunately there’s a brand new journey - pilgrimage - to start. This time Pete and I are going to walk the Lea Valley Walk, using one of Cicerone’s handy guides. This one is written by Leigh Hatts (3rd edition came out in 2015 so doesn't include the news that West Ham is now based at the Olympic Stadium, which is now called the London Stadium). The River Lea starts unpromisingly in Leagrave (such a strange name for a birth) then wiggles 50 miles across Bedfordshire and through the Olympic parts of London to the East India Dock and out to the River Thames. The ambitious walker can zip down this practically flat, super-waymarked, mostly off road route in 2 days. I expect to take much longer (see pilgrim rule #1).

Reading the guide this walk is surprisingly exciting because it covers the vast Lea Valley - something all council-tax paying Londoners contribute towards maintaining. I’ve done some volunteering clearing soapwort out of ditches with BTCV, listened to nightingales near Cheshunt and I’ve enjoyed plenty of more random walks around the area. But now I’m set on selling this as a wonderful journey across “London’s playground” and “London’s wildlife reserve” (depends who you talk to) because the Lea Valley according to former Mayor Boris Johnson is “London’s Lake District”.

The walk starts in Luton – which apparently is worth exploring for a day or two, somewhere I’ve never considered visiting. And because it also goes through the rather lovely towns of Harpendon, Hatfield and Hertford there are some excellent old pubs to try out (maybe this is rule #4 if I buy a pint for Pete when he is in need!).

The ending is conveniently close to the new West Ham stadium, where Pete spends a great deal of time (see pic above). So I can imagine being able to walk several chunks of the final section of the Lea Valley Walk with him before or after home games. This will definitely offer litter-picking opportunities (see #2)

Lea Valley Park Authority HQ is based at
Myddleton House (a tiny but worthwhile detour
from the Lea Valley Walk.
Ready, steady, go
So in March 2017 we began our Lea Valley Walk with... a detour to Myddleton House which is the Lea Valley Park Authority HQ. It’s also a key detour for the New River Walk. 

Myddleton House has an exquisite spring garden – designed like an Alpine meadow by EA Bowles (1865-1954). It’s about the only place on the Lea Valley or New River walks that is vehemently anti-dog. But… you must go in the spring for a quick look at the blanket of daffodils planted near where the New River used to run and then try counting the bee hives (6+). There’s also a lovely tea room. Actually there’s another nice tea room at the next door estate, Forty Hall, which is about a 15 minute (slow) walk away. And here I met a school governing colleague who’d been on a mission to collect a bag of lion poo (as you do) at one of the many garden centres I'd never noticed in the area because they are just behind the A10.

The A10 is theoretically my road in and out of London. As a car owner (and even now occasionally when renting a car to visit my Herts-based family) I’ve driven along it many times… so it has been a real pleasure diving off the A10 on foot (via train stations like Turkey Street and dual carriage pedestrian underpasses) to discover that Enfield is big on ribbon development but behind the grim A10 (sorry road lovers) the countryside is old-fashioned idyllic, both on the west side around Myddleton House Gardens, Forty Hall and the horticultural training centre  Capel Manor, as well of course as the huge chunk of eastern wetlands that make up the 10,000 acre Lea Valley park.  I can see now why people really like living here. As ever a journey by foot tells you so much more than a journey by car. 

So far the Lea Valley Walk has been a 10/10. I just wonder how long it will take for me to complete it. Do you think the modern pilgrim-lite is allowed to start a sweepstake?