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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.

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?