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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.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Books looking at the big apple

Is it possible to find a city where ideas grow and apple trees thrive? Or is sustainability and the opportunity of being-true-to-yourself a too difficult match for urban planners? Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

Review of two interesting books. The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown
and What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love) by Andy Merrifield.
Deep love of a place isn’t a given. So many people grow up in the sort of car-dominated suburbia where place has been so subsumed by the individual’s own home that love of place is dying. Small wonder that most suburban-raised children’s dream is to escape for the bright lights where things actually happen. Or they believe they do: punk, celebrity, academia, riches… 

At their best cities are a place where you can live your authentic self. The village gossip (in the club/pub/tube) is admiring, not judgmental. Chance meetings turn out to be a pleasure when there are millions of people you don’t know surrounding you.

Many writers who’ve escaped the smallness of the burbs, or the dullness of what they feel is provincial, fall very passionately for big city living. I’ve just finished reading Andy Merrifield’s What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love)and come away with a simmering set of thoughts about how to live well in crowded places. Merrifield’s book (perhaps more rightly an extended essay) tends to the philosophical, but we get this via his own life’s journey and obsessions with Marshall Berman (and thus New York), city soul-searching and his romance with fellow university colleague, Corinna. The book is much deeper than this summary though and sometimes I found it hard to follow, mostly because I wasn’t aware of Marshall Berman’s work. And, whisper it, I’m not that fond of New York. Or music. Sorry....

That said, I’m a city lover too – minute exploring the small corners of big places is my particular passion. I wanted to read this book to find out more about making cities work well for people, but that’s not the book Merrifield is writing, so I can hardly criticise him for this. 

A working class lad from Liverpool, often selfish and with scant interest in the past is an interesting guide to the cities he loves. His book takes us without apology through his often whaaaaat! behaviour (eg, dating a university student with such carelessness about his own lecturer power; insisting on going out on his own the night he arrives home to NYC after the long weekly commute from his uni job in Boston) but it also introduced me to an intellectual and predominantly male world of city talk shop. There is a softer side to the book, the love story of course, but also his friendship with aging Berman and a fascinating re-look at the work of Jane Jacobs. Her book The Death and Life of Great American cities is full of ideas, mocked by many back then, still has a big impact on some eco-thinkers and those who wish cities to be more people-friendly..

Merrifield doesn’t leave the city much – not in this book at any rate. In contrast another city resident, Londoner Pete Brown, clearly loves his urban base but adds extra energy writing about The Apple Orchard precisely because he has to leave the city to tell his story. I bought this book – in a Stoke Newington wine shop where you can refill your reds and olive oil - to give to my brother, who lives in the countryside and has an orchard. Actually, I think you only need five trees to claim this title… It was nearly autumn and I imagined he’d find it fascinating, and possibly helpful, before the great juicing he organises with friends and family each year. 

The chapters are divided into neat sections – as if slicing an apple with a pocket knife - through blossoming, fruiting, ripening, harvesting, celebrating, transforming, slumbering, taking us on Brown’s journey around the orchards.  In real life this urbanite does a lot of cider tasting and is, bizarrely, allergic to apples. But this particular set of twists gives him a unique voice. I rushed through this book, savouring the weather, the trees, the technique (unchanged for 2000 years), the people.  

As a bonus the apple world breeds characters and Brown’s interviews let us get to know the people well enough to both sympathise with their approaches and reveal the tribalism that afflicts the apple world. Every specialist world maybe?

Both books were an adventure for me. From Apple Orchard I learnt more about these wonderful trees (and a surprising amount about mythical Eden which probably didn’t have an apple when it was first dreamt up, because apples were not then in the Middle East – their birthplace is central Asia). From What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love) I upped my modernistic knowledge and puzzled over the many different ways people can love cities. I can’t imagine enjoying chatting with Merrifield but his passion for cities isn’t so dissimilar than mine, it’s just we have different ways of loving them - I like the closeness, the village feel within them, the possibility of sustainability. He likes the adventure, the grit, the music, the deep thought and the way you can thrive without "hellos" from every street corner. He likes following his heroes too. 

But that ability for such a range of people to live happily (or just live) in a city is of course Merrifield's starting point.

But are cities still working well? Can you still love them if you yearn for a more people-friendly type of living?

Cities thrive thanks to diversity of ideas, income and people; they are spoilt if dominated by the rich taking over all those crumby places the poor meet, artists colonise and the explorers discover. Living in a city ought to offer the chance to meet people very different from yourself without having to “buy” the experience as a tourist or buy out the "others". At their best a crowded city becomes more friendly - a place we squeeze past each other in the coffee shops, meet as volunteers or bump into each other in the street where kids can play safely. This doesn't really happen yet, and to do that successfully people in cities have to forgo that bit of personal privacy Merrifield so loves and communicate better with each other. 

I write as an eco bunny and my dream is that such conversations - cautious at first, then maybe properly deep - can be enjoyed under newly planted apple trees lining a car-calmed street. Or maybe under the blossoming canopies starting to spring up on the grassy strips between estate blocks thanks to groups like The Orchard Project who love both apples and towns. 

So two good books: both written by men and possibly best given to men. Perhaps like me (not a man!) they are a perfect pair to offer as a present and get some fascinating conversations going? Let me know what you think of them.

The Apple Orchard: the story of our most English Fruitby Pete Brown (Particular books, £!6.99)
What we talk about when we talk about cities (sand love) |Andy Merrifield (OR Books,

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Blind love: Munnings the horse painter

The village of Dedham is in a sublimely pretty corner of Essex  - especially on an autumn day. Many tourists come here on an art pilgrimage seeking to find out more about two artists with deep connections to this East Anglian landscape. Many of us are familiar with Constable and his famous horse-drawn 'Haywain', painted at nearby Flatford Mill, but what about the equestrian artist Alfred Munnings (1878-1959)? Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Books about Munnings at the Munnings Art Museum shop.
Munnings excelled as a 
plein air painter, capturing the good times and summer light,
and starring beautiful horses, girls in frothy dresses, canvases filled with gypsy life,
backdrops of the River Stour countryside, racehorses. 
I love horses but they are horrible to draw: those sleek limbs bend so awkwardly when my pencil tries to fix them to paper. And their hooves! How does a horse stand on such a little sloping triangle? These are not questions you need to ask when you see the work of Alfred Munnings hanging at his dream home, Castle House just outside Dedham which is now an art gallery so packed with his realist horse canvases that you can almost smell the sweet hay breath of his subjects.

If you know your horses you can see the thickened tendons of a racehorse turned hunter, the tucked up posture of a horse on the first world war front line, the tail flick of a gypsy pony brushing away a summer fly. But mostly Munnings paints the most beautiful horses, at peak condition. A lot of these are his own horses. Perhaps his most famous works are the race starts (which bizarrely I find I confuse with Degas' paintings) and the colourful carnival of travellers at Epsom Down during Derby race week or at horse fairs like Lavenham in nearby Suffolk.

As a bonus the Munnings Art Museum has a wonderful cafe, which opens two hours before the exhibition. The food is terrific and the setting bucolic - green lawns, green fields, birdsong.

My wife, My horse and Myself by AJ Munnings. This painting has been criticised as
"defiantly British" so it's is quite a nice touch that the horse's name was Antichrist.  (c) Munnings Art Museum
This is easy art: Munnings had an eye for beauty with a happy focus on horses and good looking women. Even for that period he was considered rather old-fashioned, although that didn't stop him liking a party. Born on 8 October in 1878, Munnings was brought up in a mill, just like the one Constable painted in The Haywain (Flatford Mill). His natural artistic skills saw him apprenticed to a lithograph printer at 14 years old. Over the years he developed a conservative style that many art critics lampooned. At the same time he had real antipathy to modern art (eg, Picasso, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali). Indeed his resigning speech as the President of the Royal Academy, in 1949, focussed exactly on modern art's limitations. It didn't go down that well with the diners.

Munnings was embroiled in the hunting set and made a good deal of money doing expensive portraits for the Belvoir Hunt followers, and others. His first big London show was in 1913, Horses, Hunting & Country Life at Leicester Galleries. By the 1920s he could charge £500 a canvas, which is £21,000 in today's money.

He met his second wife Violet McBride, who loved to hunt, at Richmond horse show. They married in 1920. She clearly brought him social status and many equestrian commissions.

He bought his first horse when he was in his 20s and kept riding until the end off his life. Munnings knew how much he owed to his horses (quoted in the book pictured above AJ Munnings by Stanley Booth on sale at the Munnings Art Museum): "Although they have given me much trouble and many sleepless nights, they have been my supporters, friends - my destiny in fact. Looking back at my life, interwoven with theirs - painting them, feeding them, riding them, thinking about them - I hope that I have learned something of their ways. I have never ceased to understand them."

Munnings Museum is in this yellow painted house. When AJ Munnings moved
here he called it his "dream home".
At the collection my friend Eugenie and I quickly found favourites. Eugenie loved Shrimp, the young traveller man often painted on a cheeky grey Welsh pony called Augereau.

I fell for a showstopper, painted in 1932 - My Wife, My Horse and Myself. It's a conceited but beautiful painting of Lady Munnings riding sidesaddle on a stylish English thoroughbred outside her beautiful country home. To the side her proud husband smiles by a canvas of the same painting. It's a show off portrait of Munnings' possessions, capturing the swank (albeit horse-centred) lifestyle of this miller boy-made-establishment. It also owes plenty to the then popular hunting writer, Surtees who barked (surely he must have barked!): "Three things I never lend - my 'boss, my wife and my name". It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1935, a rocky time in British finances, which might well be why it's also been dubbed: "the most defiantly British picture of the 20th century". Strangely it's the sort of insult that Munnings would have been taken as a compliment.

Painters Constable and Munnings would still recognise the River Stour at
Flatford Mill, just in Suffolk. It's now a very popular tourist spot.
I'm a huge fan of dog and horse portraiture, so it's always been painful to me that the late Victorian and early Edwardian animal painters, in particular Munnings but also Landseer (who painted Monarch of the Glen) and the stunning equestrian artist Heywood Hardy, all fell out of fashion as the shock of the new art exerted its magnetic pull. Country life may not have ended in the 1930s, but these days it feels as over as the time when families crowded into the mill cottages, six sharing a bedroom, and never left the county, never mind the country. You can see exactly what I mean if you also have time to visit little Bridge Cottage, now a National Trust property (free entry) a few miles over the fields at Flatford Mill.

But that doesn't stop a real sense of joy when you see Munnings' wonderful paintings - this collection has more than 4000  - in his old home in this elegant Georgian family house. It's a visual delight to go into every room, and the studio, and see pictures which such a strong sense of place (there are around 150 on display).

I've been longing to see Munnings' paintings, but took my time figuring out
how to get from Manningtree train station, Essex (seen here with a glowing sunset).
Munnings' work can be written off as sentimental or chocolate-boxy (if you really don't like horses that is) but he had such grit. Next year expect a complete rehang as Castle House is taken over by the portraits Munnings did in 1918 of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade as a war artist on the front line in France.

Munnings, by then pushing 40, has been blinded when he was just 19. For most of us a thorn striking your eye would be a life disaster. For a teenager starting out on his artistic career, without much money behind him, this should have signalled the end. Somehow Munnings overcame the disability forcing his sole good eye to let him paint well - damn well - again.

Gallop over to see his paintings in the house where he lived if you get the chance. And don't forget to take a break at the Garden Cafe.

How to get there: An early autumn day was perfect for the four or so mile walk across the
water meadows from Manningtree station via Flatford Mill (plus 20 more minutes from Dedham village). A friend with a car was a bonus. There are also taxis from Manningtree and a bus (see Munnings Art Museum website, then double check with coach provider).

  • More info at https://www.munningsmuseum.org.uk 
  • Address: Castle House, Castle Hill, Dedham, Colchester, Essex CO7 6AZ. Admission £10. Currently on show, permanent collection and wonderful paintings of days out in wooden row boats, Munnings and the River.
  • Munnings Art Museum closes for the winter on 31 October 2018 and reopens on 23 March 2019 with Alfred Munnings' WW1 Canadian Paintings (admission £8).
  • Check Garden Cafe opening times cafe@munningsmuseum.org.uk, tel: 01206 322127 (option 5)