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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

How the Sun Rain Room beats Falling Water

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post looks at inspiring new ways architects are making city buildings lessen their environmental footprint and creating spaces you just want to be in. and yes, I admit my knowledge of architecture is low so this is inspired as much as by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright as an Open House 2017 tour to the Rain Sun Room in Islington. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

The Sun Rain Room roof from the staircase window.

 How beautiful houses can be if you can add water. The Sun Rain Room is just a room, and it may not be over a waterfall, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water (1935 Pennsylvania), but this unusual indoor/outdoor space at Wilmington Square, WC1 is a magical extension to a Georgian town house making maximum use of light, shade and the local weather. 

Look up and you see the back of the Georgian house with
a curving grass roof above.
In the Sun Rain Room the modest courtyard space has been transformed into three multi-purpose spaces, a glass indoor room; a covered wall-less outdoor spot with BBQ and a paved area. Indoors has a distinctly meditative feel that would be a happy place whatever the weather, or season. And architects Tonkin Liu already use it for relaxing, reading, to display cuttings, for meetings and to reinvigorate the spirit. Clever use of sun tubes through the sedum roof turns the indoor space into a dappled wonderland when it’s sunny. Equally imaginative use of the Georgian butterfly roof (sometimes known as a valley roof) siphons off the rain water into an elegant tank which runs along the side of a brick wall festooned with ivy. Press a button and the tank releases a small flow of water to create a reflection pool that covers the dark granite slabs the Sun Rain Room looks over. It’s only millimetres deep but it’s clearly a pleasure to sit cosy inside, lost in the reflection of the Georgian building ruffled by ripples. At night the effect must be an even bigger show-stopper when the twinkling lights power up. Or when you want to surprise and pad across it as if walking on water.

Greg Storarr talks Open House visitors through
the thinking behind the Sun Rain Room. The
trees have deeper root ball pots tucked ut of sight.
Guide Greg Storarr, who works at Tonkin Liu, took groups around the Sun Rain Room during Open House 2017. He explained that the house had been subdivided into flats but was now used both as offices by the practice and a place to live.

Creating the Sun Rain Room gave an opportunity to transform the basement. Work took a year and the result is transfixing. It was also very hard to photograph (blame the mirrors, the group, and my own inability to find the spot!).

The tour started in a basement kitchen done with great simplicity and a lot of bleached wooden panels. There’s an internal office lit from above and then a stunning curved 2nd bedroom, with walls and door made from plywood, echoing the curving Sun Rain Room above.  This bedroom is well-thought out. It has a neat mirrored area behind the double bed for storing belongings, as well as a bathroom. Everything is small – because it’s London – but done with such rectangular abandonment and strategic mirror siting that the place expands and expands. And of course it’s not that small because Greg was showing around at least 15 people, many with bags, and we all fitted in fine.

Architect Anna Liu in red and white. The
mirrors make the space confusing to photograph.
Architect Anna Liu, resplendent in an amazing red outfit topped with white lace, shadowed the group. She lives in the house with business/life partner Mike Tonkin and laughingly explained she was: “the madness behind the brains.” But this is an architect’s dream, altering a house so it becomes a place she, (and definitely me) really want to live. Her pride is obvious and it was good hearing how much she “loves the light you get from the reflection and the ripple effect.”

A courtyard space transformed.
So could you do this at home? Some of the materials are very affordable, eg, plywood (albeit with a beautiful grain). There was also an external spiral staircase linking the basement floor to the Sun Rain Room – its only drawback being the usual for spiral staircases, they are very narrow. But there is also some amazing technology to keep the Sun Rain Room roof floating over a long stretch of what used to be courtyard. And there’s a super expensive and very skilled creation, a glass staircase that floatingly links the Sun Rain Room with the main house kitchen high above the basement courtyard.

Apparently the work cost around £2,000m2. Social housing is around £1,300m2 and high end projects around £3-4,000m2.

One of the Open House visitors reckons this was where Aubrey Beardsley – the illustrator famous for his “bizarre sense of humour and fascination with the taboo” worked. If correct, then clearly the house keeps inspiring.

Energy reading metre - get yours from your energy supplier so
you know how much power your gadgets are drawing.
Turns out it’s been rentable on Airbnb for lets over the summer. I’m gutted I never thought to nose around looking for starchitect mini breaks. Now it’s going to be used by a more permanent tenant, who I hope adores the place. Maybe they  can occasionally visit Exmouth Market, but mostly I’d like to think the new tenant is drawn back to the Sun Rain Room basement and courtyard for inspiration, fulfilment and a chance to feel properly in touch with the weather. This may be its first winter, but it’s clear Anna and her colleagues are looking forward to new reflections because this the Sun Rain Room is truly a living space for all seasons.


Monday, 11 September 2017

Neighbours bring the taste of Bangladesh

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post looks at ways neighbourhood swaps bring the taste of other places into your kitchen - perhaps this will give you inspiration about what to plant or how to deal with the gluts? What feasts could you share with your neighbours? Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

My windfall apples went to one family; bantam eggs to another couple. While the snake
bean and cucumber were very pleasing gifts received by my family.
This was originally written in May 2016 about autumn 2015. It's now September 2017 and I've just had a knock on the door with a lovely neighbour presenting me with a bag of green and purple runner beans. Not long after another came with some books to share at the secondary school... and a few days earlier another offered to take anything I wanted to the dump (recycling centre). Thank you so much to all of you.

Where I live, and like so many London streets, there are many people who are now Londoners but who were born elsewhere - Essex, Yorkshire, Bangladesh. So when it's harvest time (September)  there's a real buzz in our street as people share things that remind them of home recipes often using things they've grown over the summer.
For Essex this could be jam from the street tree pears - an echo of Tiptree jam perhaps? For Yorkshire it's the size of your marrows that counts. And in Bangladesh many families are expert gourd and bean growers.
While giving away a few of my windfall apples I met a Bangladeshi lady and her daughter coming back from their allotment with the most amazingly long fat beans. I know them as snake beans (or serpent gourds) that are hard to get fresh in London - unless you know a skilled gardener. I probably admired too much because the pair then gave me a chunk of their bean which had broken on the way back from the veg plot.  In return I gave them a couple of bantam eggs as my lovely new bantams are doing some great egg production at the moment (ie, one a day, so not very prolific).

This is the blackbird that pecks a hole into most of my apples. However his
lady friend is a fine snail eater and he is the best singer in town...
Snake bean in breadcrumbs for four.
I lightly peeled the snake bean and was able to use it in two meals. First lightly coated in bantam egg and breadcrumbs, which I then fried and added to the top of a noodle dish I was reheating (see photo). This turned out to be a really successful meal, partly because it was something different. The following day I made a spicy ratatouille using the last portion of snake bean instead of courgettes.

The snake bean peel was also enjoyed by my two bantams. No surprise, except that they can be ridiculously fussy thanks to being in such a small flock.

How lovely it is to share things you've grown with green-fingered neighbours who share their garden deliciousness too.

Places to find snake gourd and Asian veg seeds, as quoted in the Guardian newspaper are:

Over to you?
What goodies have you been swapping or sharing with neighbours?

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Liverpool: the place to get you thinking about ships and slavery & the Beatles

This blog looks at ways of learning about the world without having to get on a plane (in a bid to reduce our carbon footprint). While a friend sails from Liverpool to cross the Atlantic twice (respect!!) mum and daughter explore a city where travel can be a force for good or very, very bad. Words from Nicola Baird.

Clipper Race 2017 - 12 boats lined up for
display and tours at Albert Dock.
(c) aroundbritainnoplane.blogspot.com
1 “Thousands of ships must have left from this dock,” said the man taking photos of the Clipper Race as the first of the 12 boats headed out of the Albert Dock and towards the start line in the Mersey. As the 20 crew members, including my friend Nicky, waved excitedly to their landlubber friends and family, I found the site of the Sanya Serenity beginning her first leg of the around-the-world leg made me cry. It wasn’t just saying goodbye to Nicky, but also the thought of all those goodbyes that had happened here on the Liverpool docks.

There’s something about waving off a ship that is potent with the past. Of course some ships made their fortune in a good way, although Nicky’s goddaughter, Nell, and I had already seen a display at the Museum of Liverpool about the way hundreds of Chinese sailors, many with Liverpool families, had been compulsorily repatriated – with no warning – in October 1945. And of course we knew something about Liverpool’s slave trade history. But going to sea has the potential to be a make or break move… we know our friend is really looking forward to the challenge, but as her boat put up its sails and turned into a tiny, sleek dot on the River Mersey it felt very sad.

The bigger story
Liverpool played a key part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But because the enslaved were taken from Africa to the Caribbean slave markets and plantations – what’s now known as the Middle Passage – it was, at first, easy to avoid, ignore or even justify. At the Museum of Slavery there’s a huge amount of information about the slavery and forced transportation of Africans, a voyage that invariably saw many people die thanks to the terrible and cramped conditions they were kept in for the 30+ day passage.

Slavery implicated so many people. Even the foods that today we are either struggling to avoid, or may even claim we are addicted to, such as coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate (and possibly rum) were all brought to the home market from the Caribbean because of the work the slaves did. What we did was sickening but I really only heard the term “middle passage” earlier this year. A short film from the poet Benjamin Zephaniah shows him calling it a “holocaust”, which seems exactly the right term.

The exhibition also contains a section about modern day slavery, which is thankfully becoming better reported than it was, and thus easier to tackle. During the summer I’ve read about the Filipino mother abused by her employers who over worked her and refused to give her pay or her passport; the Vietnamese girls sold to be Chinese brides; the East Europeans trafficked into prostitution; the Nigerian teenagers tricked into bondage. Modern day slavery is under our British noses too: in August 2017 a UK family was convicted of keeping at least 18 people as slaves for around 26 years

Tip: There’s a lot to see in Liverpool but the Museum of Slavery is a must visit, and it’s free. At it’s conjoined with the Merseyside MaritimeMuseum do go and see the exhibition about the work of the Border Agency which plays a big role in identifying trafficked people – as well as tracking the illegal movement of rare animals, ivory, alcohol etc. 

2 Liverpool always seems a long, long way from my home. But once I booked a train ticket I discovered it’s really not far at all, just two hours from Euston station. As this was part of my holiday Nell and I went there via Bangor and all those Welsh tourist resorts.

Tip: Liverpool Lime Street station has baggage storage. It gets full up quickly, especially when the football is on. Solution: get there early, be super polite or pick another time to visit…

3 Liverpool is still in a building frenzy. I last visited about 10 years ago and I doubt I’d be able to recognise that Liverpool from now – although the iconic Liver birds are still atop the Liver Building near the Mersey. It’s a useful landmark if you don’t know the area well, as it’s roughly where you’ll find the Albert Dock.

Tip: Go to the Museum of Liverpool and see pictures of what Liverpool used to look like. Even when the Beatles were playing in The Cavern it was grey and positively run down. 

Classic Liverpool, there's even the Liver Building in the pic.
(c) aroundbritainnoplane.blogspot.com
4 Zillions of visitors head to the Albert Dock and waterfront area for the festivals, food stalls, galleries and restaurants. A taxi driver told me that three cruise ships had pitched up a week or so ago, each with 1,000 people, but still managed to be absorbed without overwhelming the city. The absolute best part of Liverpool for visitors is the incredible signposting to all the places you might want to go – The Beatles Story, the Tate Liverpool, the Maritime Museum, bus station, train station and shopping streets – and a huge number of traffic free shopping streets. Somehow this doesn’t seem to have put off drivers as they’ve been provided with 4,000+ parking spaces in the city centre. 

Tip: The only downside I came across on my 2-day Liverpool adventure is that different companies won’t accept return or all day rovers on their buses if you’d booked the initial ticket with another bus company.

5 You’ve got to find out something about the Beatles. We booked the Beatles Story (on line to ensure we didn’t have to queue), which is a fantastic exhibition. It’s pricey – but everything else on the docks to look at was free. It’s also valid for 48 hours so if you’ve only made it up to The Yellow Submarine phase you can take a break and then re-visit the following day. Like so many of the places we went to at Liverpool the staff were super-friendly. They also all seemed to have Liverpool accents, which we loved because it made us feel as if we were really travelling. Long live regional distinctions.  By the end of the exhibition I was an unexpected fan of George Harrison (his involvement in Handmade Films helped get my favourite film Withnail & I funded and he had a cameo role in Monty Python). I also learnt that Ringo Starr had narrated Thomas The Tank Engine for TV and that Paul met John Lennon at Woolton Fete; oh yes and that Eleanor Rigby was a real person, dead in a Liverpool Graveyard. 

Tip: The Beatles Story is totally recommended. It’s pricey – but everything else on the docks to look at was free (and pints are cheaper than down south which eased some of the pain). The entry ticket is also valid for 48 hours, so if you’ve only made it up to The Yellow Submarine phase you can take a break and then re-visit the following day.

6 On a two-day break we also had time to visit the Tate Liverpool and the Walker Art Gallery, both with fantastic art displays in huge, beautiful buildings. I particularly loved the Walker Art Gallery as it reveals much about how Liverpool tradesmen saw themselves and it’s also been curated to make clear why this picture is here in this Liverpool gallery. 

Nicky's godchildren Nell and Max (with Zimbabwe flag) pose in Liverpool.
(c) aroundbritainnoplane.blogspot.com
Summing up: in 2008 Liverpool was nominated as a European cultural capital, alongside Stavanger, Norway and it has the bonus of having several city centre areas designated as World Heritage sites. It’s an old city and a busy one with a long industrial record which has kept its pride thanks to the Mersey Beat (especially the Beatles). Slavery was a hideous part of its history, but one - as the Liverpool museums make clear - that wasn’t very obvious thanks to the dirty work of shipping people across the Middle Passage so many miles from where the ship originally set sail, or returned home. We know more now and it is important not just to see the historical evidence, but to understand why that’s created an imbalance of power between the status quo and black African and Caribbean-heritage families here in the UK.

There are many heroes who made efforts to bring slavery to an end from Wilberforce to Plimsoll, but it is quite shocking to learn how the slave owners were the ones to get compensation when their “property” was begrudgingly freed. In a just world it would have been the people given their freedom who’d have been offered additional financial compensation to help them find their feet. But it isn’t a just world, still.

In today's Liverpool the obvious signs of great wealth (fabulous public architecture for example), and the people able to have fun without watching their wallets, are never far from the homeless or families in very rundown homes. It's not slavery, of course, but it ought to make us all think about ways we as individuals can help the people who have a great need.  

Nicky, my sailing friend  who was the reason we all went to Liverpool in August has set up a fundraising page to raise money for Migrants Organise, which works with refugees. If you'd like to donate that would be fantastic, here's the link. Thank you.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Lake District – so like Romanian mountains

This blog looks at ways of learning about the world without having to get on a plane. A family holiday to the Lake District was wonderful - and a way to get a little taste of Romania. Words from Nicola Baird.

Adventure on the paddleboards with Adrian from Ullswater Paddleboarding.
It's a wonderful way to travel.
“It’s so like Romania.” That’s the verdict of my friend who we’ve managed to tempt to the Lake District for a weekend. The Lakes may not have brown bears, but already we’ve had an evening watching a buzzard hunting on the way to the Travellers Rest pub; a morning paddleboarding on Ullswater (the most beautiful of the lakes in the Lake District), where her daughter impressed us all with headstands, handstands and cartwheels on her board. 
Now we’re soaking in the view at Lanty’s Tarn, an idyllic spot surrounded by a small pine wood at the top of a peculiarly picturesque walk from Glenridding through woodlands, bracken and heather that made us all think of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle.

>Enjoy more Beatrix Potter watching the film/DVD Mrs Potter or by visiting The World of Beatrix Potter in Ambleside which houses a large collection of models based on Beatrix Potter's stories of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny and friends. It's ideal for little children and people who like bonsai-style figures. There's also a Chelsea Garden exhibit which makes good use of moss and bracken.

Our teenagers are throwing a ball into the tarn for a walker’s dog that still isn’t ready to lie down despite having been up the mountain towards Helvellyn. Helvellyn is the gorgeous 950m mountain that involves a scramble up Striding Edge to the summit and then down Swirral Edge, plus an eight mile round trip but the swimming dog could go on forever. Let that be a lesson to all border collie owners – they literally cannot stop herding things, even tennis balls in tarns. In contrast my border terrier is happy to take in the view (see photo).

>When my 16yo and I got to the top of Helvellyn we suddenly had a mobile signal (there really isn't one in the village below), so I rang my mum who'd just had an operation. She laughed when she heard that we had to climb a mountain to call her, saying that the signal had been good at the top of mountains in Romania too!

Nell at the very top of Striding Edge. Red Tarn below and far away Ullswater.
Eventually the walkers head on and Julie and I turn away from the pond for a new view. And
Looking up to Striding Edge.
that’s when her Romania comparison arrives. People spend good money to go to the Carpathian Mountains, when they could find similarly wild and glorious views, plus challenging mountains to climb all over the north west . That's what I say to myself, smugly looking at the early evening sunshine lighting up the fells.

There are also quite a few eastern Europeans working in this area, so if you were determined to get the Romania experience you could add in views, mountains, wildlife and some language earwigging on the bus.

VERDICT: The Lake District is a big area with lots of good places to stay. We wanted to feel rural but have a few pubs and at least two coffee shops with wifi so we stayed in Glenridding which we reached via Virgin train (London to Penrith and then took the bus to Glenridding).