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A-Z countries

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.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Distance learning alumni from Mauritius to Malet Street, WC1

How long has distance learning been possible? It still feels like a modern option, but you may be surprised. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Inside the University of London's Senate House.

1865 is the year that Alice in Wonderland is published – and Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay. Queen Victoria is on the throne and Lord Palmerston is Prime Minister. It’s also the date that the first distance learners, based in Mauritius, began studying with the University of London. Surprised? I was.

Fast forward to 2017 and the University of London has more than 50,000 distance learners living in 180 countries in the world. They can choose from 84 courses and are working for every level - BAs, Masters and PhDs, see more here.

Distance learning was never an easy option. Back in the 1990s there were missives arriving in the sluggish post and annual exams. Now it is fantastic with on-line discussions, downloadable course packs, an online library and a way of talking to both your tutor and other students. Of course you may be doing this for three or more years, often while working a full-time job, which is why it is a learning method as ideal for people who cannot abandon their job as well as the super-isolated. Former students include scientists based in Antarctica and even Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned. “Our records show that it took Nelson Mandela three attempts to be allowed to take his exams,” says Ali Chapman who recently joined the university’s fundraising department and is enjoying researching through alumni records.

Ali clearly also loves the Senate House atmosphere and is offering to show past distance learners around – which is why she contacted me.

I did an MSc in Environmental Management through the University of London, graduating in 1995. It’s a long time ago, and I still haven’t forgiven the weather for producing four consecutive Indian summer Octobers (when we revised, then took exams). More importantly I remember how rigorous and interesting the course was as it steered students through international environmental law, ecofeminism, the precautionary principle and the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which roughly translates as ‘there is no away’).

LibrariesUntil they were recycled, my MSc course’s green spiral course readers were the star of my bookshelves. Twenty years on the shelves now house a large collection of eco-thinkers from George Monbiot to Noreena Hertz and, cheekily nestled beside them, my own books such as The Estate We’re In which looks at car culture, Save Cash & Save the Planet (co-written for my former employer Friends of the Earth) and Homemade Kids: thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raisechildren. It’s clear that the MSc I did worked its magic.

And now its Ali’s job to tempt distance learners like me to be as supportive of the university – via legacy and other tax-efficient gifts - as those students who still know their way around the magnificent rooms and library towering above Senate House. To do this she offers me a tour of the building.

This is a real treat, as the closest I’ve got to the real University of London – if that’s what Charles Holden’s Portland stone monolith should be called – is an exam hall a couple of streets away.

Was this the Room 101 which inspired George
Orwell when he worked at the Ministry of
Visiting now, the marble clad 1930s interior hints at Great Gatsby glamour, but between 1939 and 1945 Senate House was used by the Ministry of Information. There were nearly 3,000 staff put to work on wartime propaganda which helped spawn the famous “Keep Calm & Carry On” poster as well as hundreds of propaganda leaflets and radio programmes. Famous Ministry of Information employees include George Orwell who clearly used his experience to create the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (more about this here). On the way to her office Ali shows me the double wooden doors of Room 101, but, perhaps fortunately, the room is locked (although as air pollution and climate change share equal top spots for my Room 101 both are no doubt leaching out...)

Ali Chapman with honey from the
University of London's legal bees.
We look at an exquisite map in the Chancellor’s Hall showing the University of London’s many satellite colleges (the Courtauld, the School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London School of Dental Surgery etc) – it’s clearly had a huge impact on the UK’s STEM graduates, as well as humanities’ specialists. Then we cross to the Senate Room arranged like a court, with a semi-circle of green leather seats facing a staged platform which would surely only look complete with a Chancellor, or Judge in place. This is a regular spot for filming so you’re sure to have seen it too. It also boasts a secret oak panel large enough for even a stout lady or gentleman to safely disappear. Ali is slim, but even she hasn’t yet vanished on a tour.

University of London honey. 
Student no more
Finally Ali sits us down in a cosy nook with cake and herbal tea and offers me a tiny jar of honey made by the bees which have hives on the roof of the Institute of the Advanced Legal Studies building over in Russell Square. I think that might be where I used to sit exams, so it’s a perfect sweetener. See more about the University of London’s legal bees – and the people who help looking after their hives – on the BBC here

Wouldn't it be interesting to find some of the oldest distance learners from Mauritius? I bet they'd have some stories... Thinking about studying a long, long way from home makes me remember how as a VSO volunteer I once fried the mother board on the essential printer at the Solomon Islands Development Trust by accidentally clicking yes when a ghekko was exploring it. Horrible mess. Or the time I was looking for a book and shown the empty husk of the the KG6 secondary school library which had been totally consumed by white ants. That was my first taste of distance learning - completing a TEFL (Teach English As A Foreign Language) certificate - but the combo of climate and self-discipline made me realise how very challenging it can be. Which makes the rewards even better.

Surely this explains why when I left Senate House with a new and delicious sense of belonging. I know this potentially comes with a price – universities are extraordinarily proactive at trying to eek donations from past students for good reasons. But thanks to Ali what fascinating discoveries I’ve made about the University of London, more than 20 years after I received my MSc. As even eco-bunnies say, 'Better late than never'.

  • Join the University of London's Being Human Festival 2017 from 17-25 November. See more here 
  • Studied with University of London? Then you need to use their alumni pages, see www.london.ac.uk/alumni
  • What's happening at University of London is on facebook.com/UniofLondon, twitter @UoLondon, insta @unioflondon

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

8 ways to deal with air pollution – Delhi dilemmas

 Delhi is the world’s most polluted city. I think. London however has been shaping up nicely this January in its bid to reach toxic gold. Here’s my attempt to unpick the ridiculous suggestions mooted in a bid to help us all ‘beat London smog”. In case there is ANY doubt this is a parody. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

These doors at Senate House are the very ones that inspired
George Orwell's famouse Room 101 scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
My room 101 doesn't have rats.
Now lots of the ES is super sensible and covers the London Air Pollution saga well. It’s where I heard about London having breached its annual toxic limit by the fifth day of January 2017. But it also runs daft stories like A breath of fresh air: here’s6 ways to clean up your act and beat London’s toxic air from two of its regular feature writers – Susannah Butter and Phoebe Luckhurst. This piece is shameful because it wasn’t tongue in cheek. The ladies suggest  “REN’s flash defence anti-pollution spray creates a viscous layer that noxious chemicals will struggle to penetrate. It smells great too.”

Why does the news so often seem like an April Food at the moment: shouldn’t Butter and Phoebe be warning us that buying this stuff would be £24 badly spent? I remember writing an exposé about the Solomon Islands trying to flog tropical rainforest oxygen back in the 1990s…  Now I think the islanders had it right, Londoners are so daft they’d have sniffed up bottles of this and passed them round their Uber. PM10s are not going to be watered down by an imaginary body spray.

On the #airpollution stream on Insta there is plenty of smogporn (if that’s a thing yet), but also  brands who view air pollution as an opportunity– such as koolmask, hypeingham and metro-mask. There’s even a bedside alarm LaMetricTime which displays CO2 levels allowing you to watch the levels rising…

Got to admire capitalism because everything is an opportunity. Those masks aren’t going to help London tackle air pollution are they?

Yup – eating avocado (vitamin D) and almonds (vitamin E) gives your body all the nutrients you need to fight toxic air pollution.  

I’ve read this. It must be right. It also gives zero thought whatsoever to how those pops of goodness arrived here (air freighted) or what damage avocado and super-thirsty almond plantations are doing where they are grown.

Written by me in 1998.
That was the advice from at least one school nurse to asthma sufferers. 

One of my daughters has had a tricky time with asthma and we’ve met a large number of asthma nurses. Some are great, but very few understood the big picture or factored in what it meant to be a child who likes to use their legs and eyes in the big outdoors…

It makes sense, because there are still a huge number of families who drive their kids to school, refusing to accept that their journey is not necessary. It's still an aspirational desire to drive.

I’ve had a car in the past and of course it'll be used it if it’s temptingly parked outside and you’re running late… but get rid of the car and you’ll always walk, or scooter, or bike to school which teaches your kids good habits (and burns off breakfast). If rates can justifably skyrocket (and i wish they wouldn't if it kills independent stores) then so too can road taxes or the cost of the right to drive in a city in a diesel powered car. (I should add that I'm not that impressed by private petrol or electric vehicles either)

When environmental health officials are tricked (surely?) into saying it’s dangerous for kids to use the school playground be wary of following their advice.

Already most kids stay indoors far too much despite the indoor air pollutants from cooking, furniture, sprays and cleaning products create a toxic soup. They can’t be independent from a young age because of the dangers from cars knocking them over (not stranger danger). City kids need to know as much as possible about nature even if it is just jumping the weeds in the pavement cracks, pulling at last year’s hollyhocks languishing in the tree pits or hearing the blackbird singing on that house’s old TV aerial. Having a glimpse of even this diminished nature is what may help the kids figure out that life outdoors ought to be one of opportunity, not threat.

Front garden - there's a bird
in the apple tree.
My poor Victorian home is subsiding. The only way insurers deal with this is waging war on anything green around the foundations, and so the buddleia and jasmine have to go.

It’s impossible for me to denude the bricks while my head is swirling with toxic London fog scenes and the sweet inner-city robin cheerily sings when it sees me heading towards its corner of the buddleia brandishing a bow saw.

Watching The Crown on Netflix ought to cancel out visions of toxic smog… but no, in episode 4, in December 1952 there are a dreadful three days which flood hospitals and ultimately kill as many as 12,000 people during the Great Smog of London

Churchill is hopeless at coping with this, writing it off as British weather, an “act of God”. At least Sadiq Khan seems to be looking at our problem head on. Now he’s got to show the sort of leadership that no one has yet dared to do against the car lobby, and in particular diesel vehicles. Couldn’t we just do something radical like shake up the whole way Londoners move around for a trial phase and see if it made a difference?

Of course I’m not training to run the marathon, but I’ve heard the moans. Toxic air wrecks “Marathontraining plans” so the runners have to head to the indoor gym and cycle on stationary bikes and indoor running tracks, rather than plod pavements.

Wouldn’t it be great if the generation obsessed by bucket lists and meeting personal challenges could start working together to force politicians to make London’s air cleaner – and by default other cities cleaner as well? Because if they did within a year no one would ever have to cancel their training run. 

So where does that get us? Nine ways to clean up your act, or nine opportunities to speak up?  The only good seems to be that at last air pollution in London - and the impact cars, traffic (and airports) have on it - is at last being talked about by everybody, even if the messages aren't always clear. Next step is action. Please.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Why I’m taking a stand against Uber (with a nod to San Francisco)

Uber – a taxi service with a fab app – was born in San Francisco in 2010. By 2014 it had spread to 290 cities and had 8 million users worldwide. It’s primarily a city service, you don’t find Ubers in rural Britain yet. Ubering it home may seem like a great addition to our life, but look close and you’ll see why it’s a mighty bad habit for London. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

December fog, 2016, over Finsbury Park.
You’ll always remember your first Uber. Mine was a rainy night journey from Shoreditch to East London to a place my work colleague claimed was the ultimate cocktail bar. Turns out he was right (it’s the Bonneville Tavern, E5). We arrived at 10.30pm for a night of Twinkles. By the time I wanted to get home it was past midnight, the traditional hour that public transport parks up for the night. Another Uber ride was offered… but when I wobbled into the street I noticed a bus stop right by the bar. And there was at least one night bus that could take me all the way to my Finsbury Park home, and it was due in just10 minutes (admittedly not Uber’s two). When the bus blazed up I paid with my oyster - as painless, and habit-forming, as paying with the Uber app.

There was no one else on the 253 for a couple of stops, bar the driver. Perhaps everyone else took an Uber home? They might have done as last April it was worked out that every week in London 60,000 people download Uber on to their phone. I’ve been slow to this party, but did put “Sign up to Uber” on my 2017 new year’s resolution list.

Except I’ve changed my mind, because super-convenient Uber – with at least 25,000 drivers and 1.8 million users here in London - is a big part of the London transport problem. Not least because Uber’s target for London was 46,000 drivers (2016, not yet met).  How's that taking polluting vehicles off our roads? And what does it mean for traffic levels on the main roads which ought to be bus super highways, but are all too often traffic jams.

FACTS & FIGURES (2015-16)
Tube – 1.34 billion customers annually. Info
Bus – 9,300 vehicles operating on 675 routes. Info
Bus - More than 2 billion journeys made in London during 2015-16  Info. 

Black cab driver Ray Coggin is interviewed on Islington Faces, see link
I didn’t get it at first. When I saw the black cab drivers blocked the roads around Southwark tube and City Hall in protest against UberX, I thought the old boys in their big black diesel cabs (eye-wateringly expensive and rarely with a card machine) clearly didn’t like the competition new technology brings. 

It wasn’t until I watched Episode 4 of Netflix’s The Crown, spellbound by the 1952 Great Smog of London and suddenly began to make the connections. It’s thought that 12,000 people died as a result of those three foggy days, many as a result of the damage done to their lungs by the air pollution (a thick yellow sulphoric-tasting smog). 

The resulting Clean Air Act of 1956 is probably the birth of the modern environmental movement. But 60 + years on our lovely London is still polluted. The difference is that we can’t see what’s toxic.

In fact London’s air quality is so compromised by vehicle pollution from diesel fuel that its annual limit was broken just five days into the new year. That’s why there will be 9,500 early deaths in London during 2017. And a lot of suffering: think asthma, cancer and even increasing numbers of dementia and Alzheimers’ diagnosis.

Hot air balloon murals at Finsbury Park tube station.
What's hard
I’ve watched my London-raised younger daughter – and her school friends – wheeze with asthma. I’ve seen my mum cope with lung cancer surgery. You’d think there’s nothing harder than trying to help someone breathe when they cannot. But there is, and it’s being brave enough to do something about the toxic air pollution that’s blighting London.

As more than 90 per cent of Londoners live within 400 metres of a bus stop it’s a shame that the London bus fleet (9,300 vehicles) is still mostly diesel-powered. Even if all London's buses were electric - it doesn’t totally resolve the pollution problem. Nor does having an electric car (and we know the win of free parking in central London and not having to the pay the Congestion charge etc).

Only walking and cycling are properly clean ways of getting around our dirty city.

Now when a journey seems too far, and taking a bus or tube too inconvenient, Uber maths takes over. Unfortunately when it comes to cleaning up London’s air quality Uber is a far bigger part of the transport problem than you’d think. Here’s why: not only does a handy Uber ride encourage us to take a car, it is also taking passengers off the bus and tube network – and away from Tfl which does at least have motivation to clean up London. If travel numbers go down then buses will get parked. Night services withdrawn. Permanently. Without an alternative guess what will happen to Uber fares if there’s no competition? (Answer: fares will go up). And London’s ability to crack down on vehicle pollution will lose direction.
 Anything from San Francisco arrives with a buffer around it implying it’s clean, modern, right-on, hip. And yes it’s certainly meeting our lazy genes’ needs.

But if you want London’s air safe to breathe it’s not smart to be an Uber addict. 2017 is the year to step out of the car and say: Uber is not the best way to get wherever you’re going. It’s just another way of messing up London’s already toxic air.

  • ·      Useful info about Uber (critical, but admiring) see:

Monday, 9 January 2017

Air pollution - comparing London and Paris

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. OK this post includes a little mention of Paris (reached by train) but it's mostly about what's got to be done to clean up our cities which are being so polluted by diesel. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Nicola with her daughter in Paris. We drank coffee and talked air pollution.
My 18 year old daughter has moved to Paris, so just occasionally I visit. In August I noticed that it felt much more polluted than my bit of London. It's less green than London, but it is also smaller. When you blew your nose unspeakable blackness appeared.

In October and December my daughter would What's App to say that Paris was so polluted today that it was free to use the metro.

Houses, pedestrians, diesel buses all mixed up in London - the result is poor
air quality that's actually killing people early.
So I was surprised to learn that London busted it's annual air pollution limits in just five days - FIVE - into the new year on 5 January 2017.  You can read all about it in this Guardian report here.
"By law, hourly levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide must not be more than 200 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) more than 18 times in a whole year, but late on Thursday this limit was broken on Brixton Road in Lambeth."
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from diesel engines (including buses, vans and idling diesel cars).
Air pollution is known to cause nearly 6,000 early deaths in London. It's now also thought that people who live close to busy roads are more likely to develop Alzheimer's.

Just to be clear that's not five normal days of traffic - it's five days that actually includes a new year's day Sunday (1st) and a bank holiday Monday (2nd). When London's air is so toxic it seems amazing that we're not all screaming to sort it out. I think London's Mayor Sadiq Khan is on it - but rumours of low-emission zone bus routes doesn't sound like enough for this silent killer.

Meanwhile in Paris the mayor, Anne Hildago, has promised to ban diesel vehicles (by 2025 along with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City) and now, in January, she has promised to halve the number of private cars in the city and keep roads along the Seine closed. An electric tramway is also planned.

Paris is in a strange state at the moment - there are emergency powers in place which makes change, perhaps, a little easier. Closing roads might help reduce the likelihood of runaway lorries through busy thoroughfares. It will also make Paris a very much less polluted city. Win. Win.

I've not had a car in London since my early 20s. I've managed to raise two children without one and saved £1000s of pounds in rental/purchase fees, maintenance, insurance, parking, fuel (petrol!) and fines (obligatory in London's congested city). That doesn't prove much, but it's not been a sacrifice, it's been a boost to the whole family's quality of life: all of us know our way around on foot well, and are possibly fitter and slimmer than our car-owning contemporaries. The one drawback is the air pollution. It gets us all, however little we've contributed to the toxic mess.

CAPTION: Russell Selway at Cycle Surgery Highbury: “I hate working on Holloway Road: the air pollution is horrendous. If you go into the shop you can see the packaging gets covered with dust and dirt by the end of every day. We clean it off every day (see photo of boxes). But the dirt and grime means we can’t sell white clothing in the shop because it doesn’t stay clean long enough.The noise is horrendous too. You can never hear anything on the phone because sirens are going all the time… It’s police and ambulances through the red light. And there are the buses. The stuff they chuck out is horrendous! Never warm up behind a bus… I think diesel should be banned." THIS IS AN EXTRACT FROM AN INTERVIEW PUBLISHED ON ISLINGTON FACES, READ IT HERE.
What next?
This year I'm going to be putting a bit more energy into calling out the nonsense I see about air pollution and cars. For instance when you hear the air is polluted, it doesn't mean the kids shouldn't play out. It means you need to radically rethink how and where you drive. Everyone loves their cars, and always has a reason to be on the roads. But this pretence that "my journey is more important than your journey" really has to stop. Let 2017 be the year that happens. Good luck to all those campaigning on air quality wherever you are in the world.
If you'd like to read more about cars, have a look at my first book THE ESTATE WE'RE IN: who's driving car culture published back in 1998. It's still available as an ebook.
Over to you
What do you do to reduce air pollution? What should government do? What needs to be thought about carefully? Or is any action more important for everyone's health?

Friday, 6 January 2017

Peru is where the best eats are... (via east london)

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 culinary visit to Peru (the first time I've taken a virtual trip here), via a trendy London eatery specialising in south American dishes (but luckily not serving guinea pig). Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Alpaca are on the menu in Peru. This farm is in Buntingford, Hertfordshire - but these animals
are used for their wool and sold as impressive livestock.
Over Christmas I was invited to a few parties and at each one someone seemed to be talking about the wonderful food from Peru. My knowledge of Peru is limited to Paddington Bear who was a fan of marmalade. I assumed that was a code to mean in the "deepest, darkest jungles of Peru" (I'm quoting THE bear) food wouldn't be so good. And maybe it isn't in the forest. But the Peruvian urban centres have quite a reputation for delicious food amongst travellers and the south American expats I met at these various parties.

Dreadful pic, sorry, but here you have plantain (green banana)
chips on the left and deep fried and breadcrumbed plantain on
the right. Both were delicious and served at Andina.
So what's going for Peruvian cuisine? And where can I try it?  Turns out that it's super popular in trendy east London. And it's not just the hip crowd who are there, as it's suitably British-palate friendly offering more indigenous potatoes you could shake a chip fat pan at. It's also the original home of quinoa which is either a super food or a food of the gods, depending on which blogs you follow. I just think of it as pricey but then three work colleagues led me to the fabulous tapas-type dining at Andina in Old Street (just near Shoreditch High Street overground) and tasted near-perfect Peruvian ceviche, quinoa salad with avocado, toasted pumpkin seeds etc. The quinoa had a bit of crunch, so tasty. There was quite a bit of meat on offer - marinated, grilled and served with a sauce - which I don't eat so can't give you feedback on this. But... it seems that Peru has something for everyone: the veggies, the pescatarians and the carnivores.

Plus there's meant to be amazing Chinese food - brought to Peru by railway workers - which tastes just like it did 100 years ago because the locals liked Chinese tastes, whereas in the UK noodles and sauce needed adapting to suit our famously conservative palate. It's a lovely idea to think of a dish like lomo saltado (stir fried beef) being pure to its origins - and still able to offer a - delicious - taste of a different time.

According to the National Geographic if Peru had a national dish then it would be ceviche - raw fish marinated in lime and red onion and then served with sweet potato and choclo (maize with super big kernels).

They are an adventurous lot in Peru - guinea pig (cuy) is often on the menu. You definitely shouldn't try this at home on Chocolate (or whatever cute name your pet has) but when roasted they do still have a lot of bones so it's a dish for chewing and spitting. But you could try making causa - alternate layers of avocado and thinly sliced potato which is given extra interest by adding tuna fish (often from a tin) and hard boiled egg.

Strangely I spent xmas day just by an alpaca farm... In Peru the alpaca is famous for making good dried jerky. It's fun to have learnt so many things about Peru. Of course people know it best for Machu Pichu. Now i just have to decide what's a comparable destination in the UK to this famous altitude-splitting hike? Let me know in the comments...