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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.

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Conversation by elephants: from Green Park to green thinking


Stories and ideas inspired by the lantana elephant herd in Green Park, London which are modelled on Indian elephants and made by indigenous craftspeople in Asia. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

The lantana elephant herd moves through Green Park: amazing activism art (c) NB

The elephant herd in Green Park look as if they are flowing across the park out of the tube and down the hill to Buckingham Palace. Randomly cycling to explore central London with my university colleague Gracia we are both amazed to stumble on to an art safari. 

We’ve covered no air miles, read no hype but are utterly awe-struck by the size of the herd. Each elephant is individually sculpted from lantana, a rattan-like material which a volunteer in a hi-vis vest explains is an invasive weed, despoiling habitats. Lighten our footprint and wildlife bounces back says Coexistence which put up the project for https://elephant-family.org/ 

Trunk detail on the lantana herd. (c) NB

It’s clear these models are made by people who know how to look deeply. Each elephant seems to be moving. There are calves, bigger youngsters and grand old dams. In total “there are 72 elephants and they’ll be in Green Park until 23 July,” says a dreadlocked security guard who has managed to luck out with a job that involves walking around a hard to steal set of exhibits, currently moored outside under the trees of Green Park. Gracia and I wander slowly noticing lifted forefeet, curled trunks, swishing tails… We are all-seeing in this famous park deliberately planted with open vistas by Henrietta so that her famously-philandering husband Charles II had less opportunity for liaisons – though he still managed to have at least 100 illegitimate children. “Deforested for surveillance,” suggests Gracia which seems a remarkably 21st century approach. Restoration was nearly 400 years ago so no surprise that Green Park has a decent spread of avenues now, as befits a national park city like London. And it is down one of these big tree lined avenues that the elephant herd is progressing, attended by curious visitors. 

The project run by Elephant Family is called Coexistence and has an intriguing aim – to get watchers to share their stories and an attempt to reboot our nature understanding. “This isn’t a call for an extreme return to the wild. Look around you, wherever you are. Who do you share your world with? Can we increase our coexistence everywhere, and rewild ourselves. Nature is intelligent and adapting. Other life forms will meet our efforts halfway, if only we give them the chance,” writes Coexistence on the website. 

The elephants are made by craftspeople from the Tamil Nadu jungle who clearly know the way elephants move. These magnificent creatures in Green Park look as if they are walking towards tea with the Queen – trunks swinging confidently. Of course, they’re not: these are artworks on tour and also for sale raising funds for elephant protection – a baby is £6,000; adolescent £12,500 and the 7.5x12x4 foot matriarch £22,000. 

Messages from the elephant in the room - Green Park (c) NB

For years the term “elephant in the room” has bumped around environmentalists conversations as they talked biodiversity loss, population pressure and a warming planet at meetings they’d flown to. An elephant has become such a signifier of these types of reluctance to address the big picture that spotting this herd immediately makes me think they are there to raise awareness about climate change. And in fact they will be, as those not sold are taking a detour to Glasgow to help support the COP26 climate meeting run by the UN in early November. They will certainly cheer up this vital meeting. You can read more about elephants and climate change on the Coexistence blog, see https://elephant-family.org/news-views/news/what-do-elephants-have-to-do-with-climate-change/ 

Elephant stories
For almost all of us, elephants inspire us to share stories: our encounters on TV (thank you David Attenborough) or real life, our efforts to save them, our funny moments. In the 1970s I remember re-reading my little brother the story of the Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont whose elephant and tiny passenger went “rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta down the road”. I always felt sorry for the Bad Baby - who was definitely tricked by the Manners Police – but also for my brother whose only experience with elephants was via these Raymond Briggs’ illustrations. In contrast I’d spent my summer as a three-year-old being used as a toddler honeytrap by our entrepreneur Dad. 

Let's think and move like an elephant. Nicola posing by one
of the lantana herd at Green Park.

Dad had acquired a life-size mechanical elephant (built in Essex and named Jessica) which could take people for rides. He’d get me on to this giant’s back to either pose for the press or encourage other families to climb aboard. I was quite a scowly little girl, but I liked being in the corner seat behind my dad on top of an elephant. He’d dress up as an elephant handler when he operated the controls, no doubt crossing his fingers that the licence plate the DVA insisted was attached to Jessica’s tail wouldn’t fall off and ruin the looks-like-a-real-elephant spell. Fun as she was, his mechanical elephant soon became a liability. She triumphed on Blue Peter then fell through the floor at Whiteleys department stores near Paddington. She was destined for Republican fundraising in the US (from an animal motif point of view Republicans are elephants and Democrats donkeys) but storms delayed the ship, so she never made it. Like my family’s car she’d regularly break down and was super hard to fix. My Dad worked from home and it wasn’t unusual for random telephone callers to begin, “It’s about an elephant…” During peak elephant crises he began to avoid the phone. The last known sighting was rumoured to be on a Birmingham allotment. My Dad died more than two decades ago but my Mum says if you happen to have news about an unusual elephant she’s not interested! 

Slowly memories of my elephant life drifted away. Then in 2000* I visited a friend in Zimbabwe and just near the garden of the Victoria Falls hotel the taxi we were using came to a halt as a herd emerged from scrubby trees and crossed the road. Their big feet didn’t prevent them from moving silently – but they left behind a torn trail of branches. One particular elephant standing apart, with flapping ears, seemed vast: my nearly two-year-old daughter looked at this massive land animal with complete composure. In contrast I felt quite weak: a flesh and blood elephant was a very different beast to poor mechanical Jessica. 

Around the time I was born the world population was 2.7 billion and wilderness accounted for 64% of the world. When you compare this to 2020 the numbers seem to have been put in a shaker and jumbled themselves out of control. World population is now 5.7 billion and inevitably wilderness space has fallen to 46%. It seems amazing in a way that so much is still left. But that’s not how the elephant herds must see it. On the Coexistence website you can find stories of the Indian elephants used as models – Highway Hathis (hathi means elephant in Urdu) who have to constantly cross busy roads and railways and the Crop Raiders on the scavenge for 150kg of food a day. 

Both these herds have at least one human hero who has turned around their chances of survival. For the Highway Hathis this was Sanjay Gubbi who has imposed sanctions (slower vehicle speeds and roads closed at night), whilst for the Crop Raiders it was Dulu who came up with the idea of a buffet barrier rice field between the village and forest.  But it took a community commitment to make the changes happen.

Spending time with the lantana herd in Green Park you can get to know the characters, discuss art, activism and exhibitions. As you stare and snap for social media the volunteers gently engage you in conversation about the elephants. It’s a brilliant way of bringing the elephant in the room – in this case a need to coexist with all wildlife – into our front of brain understanding. Days later I took a train to Ash in Kent to a wedding and at the station, opposite the garage was greeted by a good view of a new Bellway homes construction site, walled by panels and ringed by a busy road. The billboard claimed: ‘Coming soon Wildflower Meadow’ conjuring up images of red poppies and blue cornflowers and not a large, tightly-fitted set of brick houses. 

Message from the lantana elephant herd: “If some people can live with elephants surely we can learn to live with beavers, badgers and bring back our fast vanishing birds and butterflies.”
Could this be possible with these housing complexes built so tightly to main roads? (c) NB

This uncomfortable disconnect between what our ever-expanding population is promised – wildflowers and meadows – and what is coming – crowded brick houses on a road - made me revisit the message the Green Park elephant herd was created to share: “If some people can live with elephants surely we can learn to live with beavers, badgers and bring back our fast vanishing birds and butterflies.” Yes, we surely can follow Coexistence’s message, but to do so, most of us need to look deeply into the way we organise our lives if we want to give those smaller animals and ecosystems a fighting chance for survival. 

When it comes to PR, being a massive elephant has a lot more impact than being a mini-beast. But at least we humans still have the power to make a positive difference. Some suggestions: 
• In the garden leave out food and water for birds and other wildlife; keep all cats indoors at night and never use slug or snail pellets. 
• Getting around aim to use your own steam (walk, scoot or cycle) or public transport. 
• Avoid food waste - farming destroys habitats so it makes sense to at least use and eat what you have bought.
• Measure your carbon footprint and aim to bring it down. There’s a fun measuring site on https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ 

More about this herd and the thinking behind how it is supporting Asia’s wildlife at elephant-family.org The lantana elephants move out of Green Park on 23 July 2021.

*2000- after this trip my family made a commitment to only fly every 10 years and reduce our carbon footprint. I last made a plane flight in 2011. In theory I'd have probably taken a flight in 2021 but for lots of reasons - including my own carbon budget - probably will not. I can't imagine that we'll be behaving just as we do now in 2031, so maybe that's plane trips over for me.

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Switching off in the Lake District - Buttermere

How do you make a place better? Visitors bring in income but they also bring pollution, litter and just by being in a beautiful destination change the place - so how to resolve the travel bug dilemma.Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

In the YHA Buttermere car park (not garden). (c) NB

For the past 23 years I've probably gone to the Lake District at least once a year for an all-too-short week. Last week - in June - I was able to go again, ostensibly to accompany my husband Pete May as he ticks off the final Wainwright mountains. Pete, who wrote Man About Tarn, loves a list. I'm not such a fan - I'd rather do something I like again and again. And usually when that involves walks what i love is to wonder around lakes, ideally without bumping into many people.

Robinson glows in the evening light. What a sunset. (c) NB

So I wasn't feeling very smiley when my plan to get quietly lost on the way to the famous Rannerdale bluebell valley was stymied by many, many competitors hurtling down the fell half way through the 10 in 10 to the midpoint stop at Buttermere. This is an annual mountain race raising funds for MS. This year it started and ended at the Swinside Inn, in the Newlands Valley and took the competitors 16 miles over Causey Pike, Sail, Crag Hill, Wandope, Whiteless Pike, High Snockrigg, Robinson, Dale Head, High Spy and Maiden Moor. As it happens I walked over the low corner of Robinson on the way to Knott Rigg and Ard Craggs and it is massive so I should have been more impressed, well done the fundraisers.

James Rebanks - who farms near Ullswater - has been talking broadly about how the Lake District can cope with so many visitors. It's always had a lot of visitors, but as foreign holidays seem off the agenda it is now also making do for a lot of people. Cars and driving is a major problem, no one wants traffic jams in the countryside, but few visitors seem willing to make use of the buses. In the summer the lakeland buses have a reasonable service (that's how we got from the train at Penrith to Keswick and then on to Buttermere YHA) but a day trip is £11 and most single journeys seem to be around a fiver which soon starts to feel painful. It's definitely a lot more expensive than going by tube or bus around London. But the scenery is fabulous, the 77 or 77a looping from Keswick via Honister mountain pass and slate mine or Whinlatter forest is gorgeous. Possibly the best bus route in the world, though it might have to contend with the 19 in London which hits different sorts of landmarks (Fortnums, Harrods etc).

Buttressing roots on a lime tree by Buttermere. (c) NB

Visitors: let's make some changes
I had plenty of time to think about what could be changed as i wondered around the big, deep lake at Buttermere. Here are some of my ideas. What do you think might work?  I'm back in the Lakes in September, so wouldn't it be nice if something felt different...  

  1. Anyone driving into the Lake District to pay a voluntary pollution fee. I think there could be a "ring of conscience" around the area which once crossed gives the visitors the opportunity to make a donation... They might even find it easier if they are greeted by a real person (paid or volunteering) who is also able to give some helpful advice about whatever Lake District activity they plan to do from wild swimming to red squirrel spotting.
  2. Anyone holidaying in the Lake District to spend one day of their time off volunteering for the National Park or even the National Trust (in whatever way is appropriate, eg, directing parking, picking up litter, nature observation etc). If we could be trusted I'd say make us do some wall fixing too, but that is definitely best left to experts...
  3. YHA and all other residentials to be super clear about how they can be reached using public transport. Anyone who travels via public transport to be given some kind of reward (the bedroom with the view, the nicest table, discounts, whatever appropriate). It still shocks me how YHA has become a place for older people who invariably drive. I know times change, and June is not the school holidays but most YHA visitors could probably pay more than they do, so maybe ask them to pay more for driving, at least that way they might consider sharing lifts.
  4. What about if each Lakeland village had some electric bikes which people could use to get to the start of walks? This might be incredibly difficult to organise but maybe existing bike hire set ups, like E-venture bikes in Keswick could be funded to scope the idea or help match routes to all those many people trying to climb the 214 Wainwright mountains.
  5. Another sign said 3 lambs had been
    killed by dogs, don't make it 4.

    And ALL dogs on leads. It is heartbreaking to see how many people can't be bothered to do this, and how much it upsets the Lake District sheep and farmers. There needs to be fines (even for the cute fluffy dogs). And/or offer a basic dog training check at every car park (or bus stop).
  6. Cottage renting businesses should provide info about how their places can be reached using public transport and not defaulting to "left off the A something or rather"... This would be a great paid intern job for some of the University of Cumbria or even nearby Lancaster Unviersity students. And perhaps they could be paid by the vehicle tithe?
  7. I know there are more EV charging spots in the UK than most of us think there are. Perhaps they could be better publicised so people with EVs could make use of them on holiday.
  8. But the point for me is that holiday is a time you are wanting a change and the biggest might be stepping out of a car and going a bit slower in order not to choke the place you are visiting with traffic.
Hiking around Crummock Water - the road dominates the other side. (c) NB

Sad, sad situation
So many ash in the Lake District are marked up with red numbers.
I don't know what this code means but the area is clearly suffering
badly from ash disease die-back. (c) NB

  1. At Buttermere we met a National Trust warden who was spraying ominous codes on to the ash trees that are very obviously failing to thrive. I'd been picking up litter on the fells (interestingly always worse when you near a car park) but he said it was in 2020 during lockdown when things got really bad - he'd found 68 (I think) abandoned tents in the woods and people had also left litter and all sorts of equipment. Apparently this had inspired the locals to start litter picking and plogging (jogging and picking up litter) so a big thank you to them. But some of the Lake District councils (like Allendale) don't seem to recycle properly but at the same time covid precautions and so many visitors means there is inevitably more litter. 
  2. As for tissue behind gorse bushes, on the fells, in the woods... What is wrong with people?! You don't need paper for outdoor wees. No one is going to want to pick up soggy urinated tissue so if you plan to make use of toilet paper in the outdoors then you need to think like serious US hikers who either dig in their waste or even better carry it out (in tupperware).
  3. Blowing serviettes aren't so lovely either, I think it would be great if these simply weren't provided when you get a cuppa. If you need to wipe your face and hands, either wash... or get up and go and find a napkin. But this is a small matter compared to visitor numbers.
  4. We have zero carbon targets for 2030 and 2050 which o the strength of this particular visit seem unattainable - so unattainable that McDonalds at Penrith provides all its drinks and meals in containers that will be chucked out within about 15 minutes of being bought and yet they claim to have "an aspiration to be a zero waste business". Haha.
  5. And finally: in the Lakes there are still people who need foodbanks, and there are people who are shipping in food and not needing to eat it all before they leave. Is there some way of coordinating the half peanut butter jars and still good veg? Could the tourists cook up something delicious if coordinated by a mutual aid inspired local?
What I've failed to consider is methods of farming - or shopping and eating. I find a holiday is always expensive and I do have a budget for that. It would be good to eat more local things, made more locally. This time I didn't go into Booths or look around many of the shops in either Keswick or Penrith so I'm not sure what's on offer. But I did try a lot of very tasty locally made pies: delicious!

I've just realised that I had time to think broadly about this issue because I couldn't get wifi or phone service as much as normal. I can see that might be super frustrating for locals, but I think it helped me last week. Thank you Lake District residents for letting us visit, what a beautiful place you so kindly share.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Taking my bike out with Hidden Tracks: brilliant fun

With microadventures and staycations in vogue (OK by necessity!) how about going for a guided tour of your area? By joining up with Hidden Tracks for a sunny Friday guided bike ride Nicola Baird and her friend (Nicky) had a brilliant cycle adventure. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

Nicky, Nicola and Charlie at our start and stopping point: Crystal Palace.
We'd just cycled 20 miles - it was brilliant! (NB)

IN A NUTSHELL: Charlie Codrington has turned his passion for all things bike into a cycle tour business that makes navigating hidden tracks around London super simple. Join Hidden Tracks if you want someone else to figure out the routes – and if it’s wanted gain some new cycle skills. After so long not seeing friends this is the perfect excuse to gather a group for one of his rides. You’ll have a new adventure together and finish with explorers’ stories of views, woods, parks, that cracking flapjack pitstop or pub lunch – all not so far from London.
By the bluebells on a Hidden Tracks cycle adventure. (c) NB

However good you are at exploring on your bike, the indulgent way to enjoy a long new route is to book a guided tour. Fail to do this and if you’re like me you’ll just get lost or spend the journey with your eyes fixed to the phone map clamped to your handlebars listening to that voice suggesting you “do a U-turn”. 

After a long winter and months of lockdown, anticipating a day cycling ought to be a treat – and that’s why booking with Hidden Tracks is a winner. If I hadn’t I’d have spent sleepless nights worrying that I was going to spend my big day out cycling lost or trapped on a busy A road because despite having lived in London for 30 years I don’t know south London’s green spaces at all. Charlie, 57, has promised me a 20 mile(ish) tour full of bluebells which absolutely delivers. I am going to be cycling to the Surrey/Kent borders which frankly seems mission impossible. But first, I have to get my very regular commuter bike to Crystal Palace station. Luckily this was easy – as it’s legal to take your bike on this overground link between north and south London on weekdays before 7.30am, between 9.30am-4pm, after 7pm and any time at the weekend. Charlie and my friend Nicky have already stoked up on a coffee so soon we are on our way. Within 15 minutes I’ve seen the famous model dinosaurs in Crystal Palace park, a stretch of the lost Croydon canal in Betts Park and a reclaimed community playground accessed through colourfully painted railings. Next stop: bluebells. 

Charlie Codrington is a cycle guide and cyclo-cross competitor who
helps groups of friends/families of all abilities enjoy
longer off-road explores. See what he offers on
the Hidden Tracks website.

Charlie, a veteran cyclist, has spent hours speeding around Herne Hill velodrome, on cyclo-cross courses (CX) and is riding his favourite CX bike. Within seconds it is quite clear to him that we’ve never heard of CX or gravel bikes, and have rather basic cycling skills. To be fair I’ve had lessons in all sorts: piano, pilates, yoga, riding horses, paddleboarding and driving a car but no one has ever given me any instruction on how to ride a bike… 

Turns out that skills rides are Charlie’s speciality. He’s a qualified British Cycling Coach for cyclo-cross, mountain bikes (MTB), road and time trial and has years of experience coaching kids, teenagers and his Dulwich Paragon team mates at the Herne Hill Velodrome. If we wanted he’d be able to show us how to ride over rocks. In fact, there’s quite an appetite for extra cycle skills thanks to events like the Rapha sessions. A few days before he’d just taken out four keen women (all in their 30s) whose summer holiday will be a Rapha adventure from Edinburgh to Manchester crossing the Pennines mostly off-road. “Rapha just give you a route and you follow it,” says Charlie. “They were strong women road cyclists, faster than me probably, and they thought it would be easy-peasy to ride a gravel bike. Anyone can ride a bike off road, provided the route is fairly straightforward. But as soon as you start putting in slightly bigger lumps and obstacles, it’s hard work - you get nervous and wheels keep slipping away. If you belt it then you get punctures. It’s a different technique to riding on road – you need to get off the saddle, float and ride lightly. You need to move your body around the bike and use the gears in a different way. You can spot a good off-roader – it’s just technique. Lots of people discover their technique is lacking when they’ve bought a gravel bike and just get mullered before they realise they need to some coaching. When you are shown how to ride properly people love it.” 

I'm on the stepping stones at this point - cycle guide Charlie Codrington from Hidden Tracks
and my friend Nicky patiently wait. 

I hadn’t quite grasped how off-road an adventure with Hidden Tracks can be (though Easy and Moderate rides are still super doable with an ordinary bike). If I’d read the website a bit more closely, I’d have known. Charlie’s also a committee member of Dulwich Paragon and runs their off-road club which attracts about 20 riders in every race. This is clearly a big deal, and though Charlie has won many races, cyclo-cross races are followed by just a small band. Charlie laughs about his competitive nature in the veteran classes where glory comes with tiny amounts of prize money, often less than a tenner.

“You are fighting to beat someone who you don’t know terribly well in a sport that no one is interested in, but you spend most of your week thinking about it,” he says with a massive grin. It’s clear that this is a classic, eccentric British pursuit. 

But it was Charlie’s regular fun group rides created for his cycling club that have helped take him on a new career as a cycle tour guide. Together with his canny ability to navigate by what seems like instinct, although has clearly seen serious study of maps and apps back home. 

In March 2021 he launched Hidden Tracks with a calendar of adventure rides to help cyclists of all abilities, using their regular bikes, explore routes out of London mostly off-road and often through woods. Popular cycle routes include bluebell woods, wild garlic woods, tours to palaces (Hampton Court) and out to the woods of Epping. His easiest rides, mainly flat, include a City church crawl, a chance to explore the Wandle flats. His favourite is the Tidal Time Traveller which includes a cable car and then hugs the River Thames. “It’s a sight-a-second, a great ride and you can do it on Boris bikes,” he says so enthusiastically I’m a bit worried our planned bluebell ride through the woods will be diverted. 

London may always be the starting point for Charlie’s rides - it's where he lives - but it’s clear that woods are his favourite cycling habitat. “Let’s see what’s down this hole,” ought to be this cycling explorer’s catchphrase as he launches his mountain bike CHECK into the deep woods to lead Nicky and me along miles of winding bridlepaths and byways. This brings some cycling challenges to those of us who haven’t spent years off-roading, but Charlie coaches us through that. Better still it also takes us away from the traffic so there’s a chance to spot jays, bluebells, and not far from Croydon a flurry of yellow brimstone butterflies. The big carpets of wood anemones are especially exciting to see as they are an indicator that we are cycling through ancient woodland (anorak tip: these wildflowers spread just six feet every 100 years). 

Looking at the A-Z there is no way I’d have been able to link up these routes, it needs insider knowledge. As for an app, forget it – winding woodland paths do not take you where you want to go. Charlie’s original plan was to book lunch at The White Bear in Fickles Hole, as a midway break our 20 mile round trip that took us right to the Surrey/Kent/Croydon border, but it was such a sunny day that we decided instead to picnic in the woods. Knowing his clients may not be used to so much exercise Charlie provided delicious homemade flapjacks and fudge in a beautifully wrapped package. This was also a clever sweet treat as it definitely stopped my energy levels flagging on the return ride home. 

Lunch was also a good chance to chat. Charlie trained as a cabinet maker then moved into furniture design, mostly designing children’s furniture for retailers large and small. He’s got some interesting memories of the last days of the furniture trade in Hackney. “Hoxton was the centre of the furniture world and that’s changed beyond recognition – it’s all fancy pants now,” he says as we munch. “At the end of the 1980s I was working for an art gallery in Knightsbridge and went to a house in Hoxton Square where they made horrible repro furniture including occasional tables to sit by the sofa. It was Dickensian: the veneer man was self-employed working in the cellar with just two lightbulbs, like a troglodyte. The man who did the turning was self-employed and like all the others working in the building he only ever made one part for this table. Crispins, was an old veneer place in Curtain Row that used to be fabulous. There’d be piles of veneer and it used to smell absolutely gorgeous. I could buy 10 leaves of veneer and roll it up and take it home.” 

Lockdown helped Charlie figure out the best routes for Hidden Tracks Cycling. But lockdown also saw him making use of his cabinet making skills with a nod to the endless hours that had to be spent at home rather than on the cyclo-cross track. “I bid £75 for a mechanical clock mover from 1710 as I’ve always wanted to make a long case clock. My target was to make it in the same way an early 18th century casemaker make it. They wouldn’t have had many tools, but they would have had a lot of pine,” says Charlie. The end result is intentionally plain smartened up as he’s, “fake ebonised it with black charcoal-coloured paint adding gilt detail.” 

As if that wasn’t enough Changing Rooms overhaul, he then redid his Brixton home’s downstairs loo where the clock now lives. “My wife Sarah asked me to make it look like Versailles, but I was too mean to buy the gold – which is very expensive - so used Dutch metal to gild the mirrors. Now it looks garish, like a 1930s Pall Mall club,” says Charlie with some pride. 

With this kind of practical skill set you can guess Charlie services his own bikes and he’s getting quite a collection now, all stored inside. “Five bikes are mine, but that’s not really enough,” he admits and then remembers his family’s bikes. “OK. We’ve got eight or nine in the front parlour, as it would have been known in Victorian days, but really this is now a bike shed and a workshop for my gilding and clock making!” 

Bespoke Hidden Tracks snacks.

After a fat sandwich, the famous flapjacks and a banana we sped off after Charlie, arriving back at Crystal Palace with enough time to take our bikes on the overland before rush hour. 

Highlights of the trip - besides those bluebells which are out from mid April to mid May - included lambs, oil seed rape starting to burst into its yellow splendour, discovering the River Beck and seeing signposts that tell cyclists they can get to Gatwick off-road (that’s a challenge!). Although my post-ride memory is of an endless whizz past trees starting to unfurl their leaves Charlie’s route does go also include zipping through Lewisham, then Bromley, skirting Croydon via a couple of legal doglegs across the Croydon tram tracks taking us past industrial estates and woods until we reach Surrey’s country lanes. 

Charlie and Nicky ready to try a challenging downhill spot. On Hidden Tracks you can choose easy, moderate or difficult routes, all guided by Charlie Codrington. He also offers skills sessions.

At this point London proper is somewhere behind us but I’ve completely lost my navigational compass. Instead I’m learning some off-road cycling skills which Charlie tactfully fed to me when needed. I remember trying to lean forward and stand up when going up a hill for instance, and something similar when going down too. Another good tip was to stay soft on the bike (to avoid your body jarring) and to use the seat as an armchair… By the time we’re back in Betts Park I’m able to take my hands off the handlebars and keep pedalling – a lifetime’s ambition. 

Before you set out Charlie’s advice is to have a well-serviced bike and bring a spare inner tube. Don’t skip this tip as it would be such a shame to have to walk your magnificent machine home! Charlie is respectful of his clients, but wisely did a quick run-over my bike before we began our monster pedal to check that the brakes were working. I was glad he did, as I definitely needed them on some of the steeper downhills in the woods of south London. He also carries a bike repair pack and first aid kit. 

Overall: this was a fabulous ride and adventure. I will definitely book with my family to get another guided tour. It took my daily cycle ride to a totally different level and was such a joy to be mostly away from traffic (there is some road riding but after the woods that was almost a treat as tarmac is blissfully smooth).  

Please note that I went on a cycle ride as a guest of Hidden Tracks Cycling without paying the fee. All copy is the opinion of Around Britain No Plane.

  1. Do you need a special bike or clothes? Not for the shorter blue (easy) and green (medium) routes. Any bike will do. Long routes are going to be much more fun wearing padded cycle shorts although I pitched up in jeans which probably wasn’t too bright even if non specialist wear isn’t essential. 
  2. How hard is the cycling? I was a commuter cyclist but never go much further than 40 minutes so my feedback for a Hidden Tracks ride is that it was easily doable on a well-serviced bike with gears. I cycle quite slowly and I did walk up a couple of hills that Charlie steamed up, so it makes sense to organise a group of like-minded friends so you’re not the one always waiting or pedalling like crazy to catch up. Overall the route was fun and not loaded with climbs – my memory is of lots of downhill and flat sections, nicely found by our guide. Although my cycling companion is a keen runner, she was surprised by how far we went and said she’d slept very soundly that night. 
  3. What next? My ambition is to join Charlie for an off-road route of around 70 miles from London to Brighton across the Sussex Downs. This would need a mountain bike and riders to be super cycle fit. I also want to join a Friday skills session which look a lot of fun.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Thinking: not thinking on the Seven Sisters cliff tops

A windy walk with friends along the South Downs and over the Seven Sisters offers all sorts of escapes. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

The point about walking, perhaps even the joy of walking – for me – is that I stop thinking. The rhythm of puffing up the hills, feet belting out their unfit tune, eyes busy spotting landmarks and flowers, mind dragging up lessons learnt in primary school geography classes as meandering rivers and pebble spits etc emerge combined with finding safe places to park my feet (and keep going) stymy any attempt at thinking.  All the famous walker-writers from the flaneurs of Paris and the Romantic poets to today’s psycho-geography fans seem to think that walking is where the synapses fly. Definitely not mine.


And now here I am with two old friends – neither have met each other before – pounding along one of the most beautiful sections of the South Downs way over the 280 ha section of the Seven Sisters Country Park, past Birling Gap and up to Beachy Head. It could be a four-hour thinkathon. Instead it’s a 12km serious muscle workout for the two Londoners (though not super-fit Sally) and a chance to chat and story. 


We’ve started about teatime and Storm Francis is blowing-in so that every photo shows the truth of longer lockdown hair – as you open your mouth long strands arrive unbidden. Fortunately this doesn’t stop conversation and chat billows just as wildly as our hair, taking in teaching, schools, masks and long-ago life when I did Sally’s shopping and Gisella ran a regular car boot sale. Four hours later we’ve walked close enough to Eastbourne – where Sally lives – to connect to a pizza app and order a takeaway. Strava has a report too for Sally, a little more accurate than my guestimate text to my family that we’ve “probably done 20,000 paces”.


A walk on the Downs is so deceptively tough. The long rises up and steep curves down on chalky grass might help eat up the miles, but you need to be properly fit to manage the gradients without muscle soreness.  Even with a bit of pain and no big-business or book idea dreamt up it is a fantastic walk. As the Downs drop towards the classic view of cottage and cliff, the salty sell of seaweed smacks into your senses and then after crunching over gravel – the car park at Birling Gap – you then join the path up the slope gradually noticing the scent of thistle and grass predominating again. There are sheep and cattle. All shades of green and to our right a grey, stormy sea. 


After months in London the big sky and huge theatre landscape makes me feel a bit small. 

Perhaps that’s thinking…


And actually thinking is what I don’t want to do because it’s just been announced that the Earth has lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice in less than 30 years – exactly the same time span as I’ve known Sally (and that seems like a blink of an eye). Polar modellers say that 28 trillion tonnes is the equivalent to covering the whole of the UK with a sheet of frozen water 100 metres thick – a huge amount of melted water. Being human it is far, far easier to keep going doing the same things, without reflecting on just what rising temperatures are doing to the planet. Or why and how we must do something now. Read the full Guardian article here.


What next?

I know there are XR events coming up: a gathering at Parliament on Tuesday 1 September is billed as an ‘unfuck the system” day. Covid-19 has forced a year-long delay from the planned November meet-up COP or conference of the parties meeting in Glasgow until 2021 (1-12 Nov). Yet again I want to believe that the UNFCCC can get things done… like it did at Paris in 2015. And I want to see governments and individuals making changes too: but first let’s rest my walkers’ legs, eat pizza and chat because thinking ice melt, global warming and climate change is just too painful to think about today.


  •       Info about Seven Sisters and the Seven Sisters Country Park, Sussex https://www.sevensisters.org.uk/things-to-do-at-seven-sisters/
  •       You can catch a bus (the Coaster with free WiFi, 12, 12A and 12X) at Eastbourne which stops at the Country Park and then get walking. Or take a bus from Brighton (a bit slower) but it’s a journey with sea views, windmill and a good tour of some lovely Sussex scenes you may already recognise thanks to Eric Ravilous’ art.





Tuesday, 31 December 2019

What's going on at Richmond Park?

if you want a taste of the wild, then London has two famous places to go - Richmond Park (to the west) and Hampstead Heath (to the north). But which offers the best experience? Here's a closer look at Richmond Park. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

Richmond Park is famous for the veteran oak trees.
This was one of many that are more than 6 of my arm spans wide. (c) GM
Richmond is just 10 miles from central London but it feels like a world away. Exploring this area over the xmas holiday gave me the opportunity to bike the 7mile (11km) radius of the huge park (hugging the boundary wall). A few days later with my friend Gisella I then walked across the centre from Mortlake station to Richmond overground - logging up 23,400 paces (14km).

Initially visiting was partly a political act: I wanted to see what this strange constituency of Richmond Park was like. It's where the incumbent MP, Zac Goldsmith (Con) lost to his Lib Dem rival, Sarah Olney in the Dec 2019 general election. Professionally Zac lucked out as he was then given a seat in the House of Lords, ensuring that he stays in the Cabinet as Minister of State for the Environment & Rural Affairs.

Richmond Park: After a steep climb, looking back down the
sandy path at Broomfield Hill. (c) NB
Part of the constituency includes the old hunting ground, Richmond Park. This is owned and managed by the Royal Parks, a charity, which looks after 5000 acres across London including Hyde Park, Greenwich Park, St James' Park, Bushy Park, Regent's Park and Kensington Gardens.

Pen Ponds are an easy place to spot wildlife. We saw a variety of
ducks, rails and cormorants. There are meant to be kingfishers. (c) NB
I'm a regular at Hampstead Heath, run by the Corporation of London, so I was surprised that Richmond Park seems very different, although they aren't that far apart as the crow flies. Of course there's no need to choose between them but I definitely noticed:
  • Hampstead is wetter and muddier- you need boots in the winter (Richmond seems better drained)
  • Richmond is cycle friendly (Hampstead virtually bans them)
  • Richmond lets cars everywhere - it's basically a 20mph free for all and the noise and traffic smell ruins the rim of the park, which is exactly the bit pedestrians and cyclists use (Hampstead has no cars, good on you Hampstead)
  • Richmond has 400+ deer and consequent problems with visitors feeding them and then getting into problems/wild animal face offs, especially around rutting season. Spotting deer was a real highlight.
  • Hampstead is full of TV types and intellectuals talking leftie and love chat (Richmond has a different feel) though both parks are of course open to anyone and everyone.
  • Hampstead has swimming ponds (Richmond has hot spots and car parks by every pond)
  • Richmond lets cyclists and walkers share a track which seems to work (it's less stressful walking in Hampstead because no cyclist slinks up on you)
  • Richmond has amazing old oaks, zillions of them. Hampstead has some veteran trees.
  • Richmond is noisy: thumbs down to the endless vehicle traffic and parakeet screeching. Hampstead has parakeets, but it doesn't feel so busy with these green invader birds.

With these lovely routes, even in winter Richmond Park is popular
with walkers and cyclists. Just to the right, on the other side of the trees, you can make
out the road. Although there's now a hopper service to get people round the
park without their own cars (a nice idea) it's hard not to be surprised by how
car dominated this park seems to be. (c) NB
I really enjoyed cycling clockwise from Richmond Gate around the park. There's one super steep section but once up the hill there's a bench, kiosk (car park of course!) and plenty of old oaks to recover under. Once you're ready to cycle on, you will be rewarded by amazing views back towards London. The park is really breath-taking. I spent about two hours cycling or staring at the views. If it had been warmer I'd have spent longer under the oak trees.

Tip (getting there): From Richmond station exit left then left on to Sheen Road until the traffic lights. Here turn right up Church Road so that when you meet Richmond Hill (turn left) you haven't had to slog up the most steep part. Keep going until you Reach Richmond Gate. Getting to the park took about 10 mins, mostly in my lowest gear. I don't think I'd ever manage to cycle up a mountain!

Me, dog and Time Out book of London Walks exploring
Richmond Park on a sunlit December day. (c) GM
Walking was more fun - perhaps because I had my dog with me - but also it gave me the chance to catch up with my friend Gisella.

Nicola and Gisella inspired to pose by an ancient oak
in Two Storm Wood. Bertrand Russell played as a child in the
oaks at Pembroke Lodge. (c) GM
We could have walked in silence, but that would have been hard as there was a lot to discuss, ranging from our children and our jobs to travel and politics. We also went on the most beautiful, bright December day which meant every photo looked amazing - at least Gisella's did! Finding so many veteran trees was amazing. Richmond Park claims to have 1,300 veteran trees of which 320 are ancient. An ancient tree is a perfect habitat for many fungi, invertebrates, lichen and other species. According to the National Trust "one ancient oak has more biodiversity than 1,000 hundred-year-old oaks."

Mesmerised by the camouflaged red deer. (c) GM

Red deer near King Henry VIII mound. (c) GM
Highlights included:

  • Spotting red deer up close
  • Meeting so many veteran oak trees and also the fabulous sweet chestnuts in Sawpit Plantation.
  • Watching a fire engine workshop with hoses at Pen Ponds (potential good training for XR members)
  • Catching the hypnotically lovely scent of witch hazel in secret Isabella Plantation (and using the compost toilets there)
  • Walking the last section from Pembroke Lodge to Richmond Hill towards the best sunset of 2019.

Viewpoint on Richmond Hill with the River
Thames' spectacular curves. (c) GM
Now I know two good routes around the park, and have a basic grasp of its geography I plan to go again soon. I love the way a walk you know seems to get shorter, and if that's the case then I'll have time to pop into the info centres. 24 hours on I'm still feeling jealous of all those Richmond Park wardens and also the riders who must know the park so much more intimately.

Q: Have you been to both these big London parks? Which would you recommend exploring, and why?

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

How wild can you be?

Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm is an amazing book with the potential to change everything about the way we manage nature and it tackles climate change. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

The very beautiful cover of Wilding. Now you know
what a turtle dove looks like.
Every now and then a book shakes up your comfy ideas. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, of course; Frances More Lappe's Diet For A Small Planet, most things by Malcolm Gladwell (I know, sorry!) and more recently Robert Macfarlane's Lost Words. And now there's another: Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm by Isabella Tree.

This fantastic book starts with Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell being forced to sell the dairy herd and all the farm equipment to keep the Knepp estate, which is near Horsham, afloat. They were £1.5 million in debt and couldn't make a living on the clay soils around their castle. The soil fertility was so dire that expensive fertilisers were making little headway, other than harm the estate's old oak trees. In many ways this is an oddity of a book - it's by a very privileged woman who marries a castle (well a man with a castle) and then the couple work hard to convince various funding bodies to provide grants to fence the outer boundary so they can return the whole acreage - bar the Repton designed park - into a wild place.

There's still public access for paid-for events (in the Repton park) and also free routes for dog walkers and riders on footpaths/bridleways. As the wilding project develops safari tourism becomes possible - and how lovely. Few of us get access to a big set of fields or understand what the owners/managers are trying to do, other than National Trust properties, so it is exciting to be taken through the wilding approach.

For starters this old idea of doing nothing to manage your land turns out to be nail-bitingly complicated. There is a place in the Netherlands, Oostvaardensplassen, that has managed to do a more extreme version, where herds of horses and deer expand during glut months and literally starve to death in the winter, but in the south-east of England that's not going to be an option in 21st century Britain. See this article about the backlash to starving animals in the Netherlands.

Grazing power
Chapter by chapter Isabella Tree (yes, she's well-named) details how grazing animals can change habitats - actually bringing back soil fertility. At Knepp they've done this with Longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies. She also discusses how original Britain was surely open grassland with some woodland not solid trees - a scene more familiar to Serengeti safari takers than those of us used to massive agricultural fields farmed by the barley barons. And then how de-canalising a river, basically letting it wiggle and pond and slowing the flow brings insects which bring birds and a great many bird watchers.

The cover has a secretive, zebra-striped bird I've never really considered before, the turtle dove - known to most of us from the gorgeous 12 Days of Christmas carol. And in serious danger of going extinct because its habitat has all but disappeared.

She takes on all the countryside taboos - removing fencing, leaving ragwort, letting Tamworth pigs roam on a walkers' path and, whisper it, wanting to reintroduce beavers. She's not frightened of suggesting that this leave-nature-to-do-its-thing produces better management results than just managing for a particular species. She's also clear that stopping ploughing is a good way to avoid releasing carbon which adds to climate change.

It was the chapter about rivers that made me think hard. As a stand up paddleboarder I'm accustomed to using canals which have straight concrete sides and controlled water flows. Increasingly there are loads of temptations to go out and paddle rivers which I doubt does wildlife much good (especially when birds are nesting or the young are just entering the water). But if rivers are left to be more natural (but not allowed to convert to woodland) they really aren't straight - they're an untidy mess which are no longer navigable. On the plus side this creates habitats, water storage and slows fast water flow averting flood risks. But they're no longer the rivers we know... In the same way that 3,500 acres of Knepp land is becoming a different landscape. It's a Serengeti under the Gatwick flight paths!

Isabella takes this idea of right and wrong landscape further pointing out that most British people think the yardstick for what's normal should be approximately dated from the time when they were studying. So todays' leaders (eg, Boris Johnson is 55) think of the good-old-days as the 1980s - a time when insect and bird populations were crashing. When she showed around older people they recognised the wild flowers, the birds and even some of the insects.

Me too
I would like to rewild, but how can I do this living in the middle of London? My small concession is very lax care of the tree pits along the road where I live. In fact they often win prizes for their summer appearance but the times people have said they look untidy because there's grass and other wild flowers growing at the base of the tree. My logic is that if they were weeded it would simply turn these tiny nature reserves into cat litter trays. And who wants that?

My bit for rewilding is focused on sharing the book with as many people as I can. I read a library copy. And so far have convinced one book club member to buy it, one friend to listen to a podcast about the Knepp project and given a copy to my brother for his birthday (happy birthday Drew!).  I look forward to finding out what these readers think about the ideas Isabella discusses and even more to seeing if this wilding idea gets a bigger grip on the public imagination. Maybe it already has - my first contact with Knepp Castle was on BBC's Countryfile. And wow it looked fun to explore. I can't wait to visit.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

BOOK REVIEW: London is a forest

For anyone who likes exploring London this new book by @thestreettree expert Paul Wood, London is a Forest, offers a new way to look at trees. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

Recommended reading: London is a Forest by Paul Wood.
A great guide for exploring London's trees in an intelligent way full of views and viewpoints.
LONDON IS A FOREST by Paul Wood (Hardie Grant, £12) 

I live in a forest. During May most mornings I was woken by the excited trill of a wren in the tree by my bedroom. Looking out of the window I pick out my favourite trees – usually with the bigger silhouettes. But I like the lollipop tiddlers too, and the way young seedlings suddenly burst up releasing giant-sized leaves from red stalks. 

But this forest isn’t a traditional wild wood of fairy tales. The paths are paved, the tracks are tarmac. It’s busy and polluted. In fact, it’s central London, because London is a forest according to a UN definition. Excitingly London has 8.3 million trees, which is about one tree per person, making it the world’s largest urban forest. 

The well-named Paul Wood’s new book London is a Forest is an absolute must-have. Savouring each chapter, I’m reminded of yet another friend or relative who’d be fascinated by the content. As a result my must-buy-it-for list has now grown so long that I think may be forced to recommend rather than make so many purchases. 

So what’s special about this book? 

There’s a short intro that argues the case for why London is a forest which should be required reading. But the basic content is divided into six meandering trails that pass by the best bits of green London. This isn’t just lush royal parks and Thames-side walks, it’s also via the most venerable, most unusual, and most loved trees. Despite 8.3 million to pick out Paul is able to turn any humble tree into a celebrity - and tell you which angle it looks best from...

I did wonder if reading a book of walks might be a bit dull if it was interlaced with turn left here, right there, but the instructions are provided in a different way, with phone-friendly GPS coordinates. Using the margin for GPS coordinates prevents the text from being plied with instructions. This allows the reader to follow a cohesive thread as the author walks us (or maybe cycles as these are mostly 16+ mile/27km+ routes) from tree to tree taking in trails and London viewpoints from:
·     High Barnet to Barbican
·     Erith to Canary Wharf
·     Epping to London Fields
·     Richmond Park to Westminster
·     Croydon to Deptford
·     Tower Bridge to Heathrow

I’m a north Londoner so there are parts of these chapters that are very familiar to me and others where I’m slightly stuck. But this mix of arboreal anecdote, London knowledge and the author’s asides (mostly about how that tree ended up with that limb damage or was planted there) are fascinating. Not only am I re-remembering walks with friends, but also planning where to go for my next London explore. 

By default I already hug green places as I criss-cross my bit of London, so I know many trees well. But with Paul Wood as a guide there is so much more to learn. Just using one example, the silvery bark-shedding London plane I am now aware that there’s a mix of varieties on Highbury Fields. That the avenue on Kennington Road (western side) in Lambeth harbours badges that name each tree after an astronaut (best viewed from a 59 or 159 bus). And the very oldest London Plane, known as Barney, can be found between the London Wetlands Centre and Barn Elms playing fields. This extraordinary tree has been preserved using a metal cage that its thick branches are now trying to grow through.

Paul Wood’s ability to share an interesting factlet at each tree has been well-honed by his well-followed activity on @thestreettree and subsequent walks and talks. Even on a two-street walk Paul can do far more than name-the-street-trees. He can also tell you about why the local authority planted them, when to expect blooms or fruits/nuts and even the life span. Somehow Paul does this in the most gracious and charming way, rather than harrying us with fact after fact (an occasional sin of experts who know how to categorise).

London is a Forest deserves to become a classic guide to London. At this point of climate crisis it helps us understand what trees thrive in the parks and street scape, at the same time as covering the info about what those trees have seen. My hope is that this book should give encouragement to the many other cities of Britain – and the world – who are considering doubling their tree cover. People know that trees offer valuable services – just a few include their ability to carbon, absorb noise, remove pollutants, reduce flood risk, offer summer shade, improve well-being, look beautiful, provide pollination opportunities and delicious bounty (I’ve even made N4 street tree pear jam). Recent attempts to cost these services to London calculated they are worth more than £6 billion. 

My hunch is that we all need to be more knowledgeable about our trees and at times shout loudly for them. Past threats have often been road expansion and building. On London’s clay soils insurance companies dealing with subsidence claims have a tendency to put their blame squarely on the trees nearest to the subsiding house. If this habit remains unchallenged there is a risk that despite the Government getting us to plant more urban trees we will actually reduce the number. As Paul Wood’s book makes so clear, simply through the amazing variety of trees he introduces us to from the Atlas Cedar (Chiswick) to wingnut (Bermondsey) sometimes it’s not just planting trees that counts, it’s the size of what you plant. Some trees offer far more eco-system services, especially veterans.

London is a Forest will also look good on your book shelves as the cover art work – a green ringed log with the line of the River Thames flowing through it - is stunning. I’ve noticed that recent Hardie Grant books (part of Quadrille), have particularly good covers as well as rather fab nature thinking,so whether you judge a book by its cover, or its content, London is a Forest is a total win. My tip is to go add it to your wish list now.

Other books you might like: