A-Z activities

A-Z countries

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.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Box Hill makes me think of Switzerland...

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. At certain times of year I hunger for mountains with their spring flowers, clean breezes and magnificent views. Here Nicola Baird hikes up Box Hill thinking it's a bit like Switzerland.

A ridge walk with a hilly view. Box Hill has everything Switzerland
has. Just imagine the motorbike roar as tinkling cow bells.
I love mountains, but I'm a bit scared of heights and cable cars. I don't even know how to ski. So what could be better than a day trip to a beautiful high point in the UK that makes you think you are in the clean mountain air of, say, Switzerland when in fact you are up at the top of 600ft Box Hill in Surrey. 600ft is a perfect height: it feels like you've gone up, but for anyone reasonably fit if

Pilgrim cycles - lovely place for a cuppa and cake.
And calls itself a "climbing cafe, without mountains".
Like Switzerland this area is well served by trains - I arrived on the Box Hill & Westhumble station to find a cycle shop renting bikes, selling maps and serving snacks in the lovely old booking hall. Pilgrims feels idiosyncratic which reminded me of the Swiss obsession for getting outside and doing Olympic type feats (eg, cycling an alp just to get a good cup of black coffee with a view). On my brief walk from the station to the down I was staggered by the number of people in lycra trying out the unforgiving hills that made up part of London's 2012 cycling course.

Not so quiet
Box Hill is a busy place. There are the cyclists, walkers, leisure drivers and scores of motorbikers (fortunately on ZigZag Road rather than the chalk tracks crossing Box Hill). It's managed by the National Trust which seems to do an amazing job keeping every interest group happy. There are cups of tea and fat slabs of cake at the hill top visitor centre; nature trails making use of the wonderful box trees (Mole Gap is where 40% of the country's wild box trees grow) and plenty of opportunity to fly kites, run trails or spot birds and butterflies. Obviously dog walkers love it too.
(4yo girl in angry tears): I want to climb a tree! 
25 mile views from the top of Box Hill.
You can try the strenuous four mile Juniper top walk or just take a stroll to Salomon's Lookout. This was far too busy when I turned up, but it does have amazing views over the Surrey Hills. I followed the steep path down the cliff edge (not realising it was a cliff until I looked back) to reach the famous Stepping Stones crossing the River Mole into Burford Meadow. Except it's spring and the water was too high to spot the stones (luckily there's a bridge too).
(9yo girl beaming as she puffed up the hill): You should see the mud!
Relief map: pale green is flat and dark green indicates steep slopes.
There are also all sorts military hardware on Box Hill - an old fort designed to save the British Empire but now beloved by bats. Far below it are 12 concrete pillars positioned to prevent tanks crossing the river and pounding to the summit. Excitingly I even came across a disused pillbox (fyi: type 24 infantry shell proof)when I got distracted off the main path by the wild garlic (it makes fabulous pesto) growing along the riverbank.
(20something woman): I feel so good after being outside all day. 
In any mountainous country there are inevitably tall tales of fierce people and beasts. But at Box Hill you have Labilliere's grave - the major who insisted he was buried head downwards in 1800 because he felt the world was changing so quickly and in such a topsy turvy way that one day he'd be the right way up... And there's also a Swiss Chalet, a Little Alp and Broadwood's Tower. This is storybook country with fab views. Do go.

(20 something man): I've done 23,000 paces...
OS Explorer 146: Dorking, Box Hill & Reigate
Over to you
Where else in Britain offers a great mountain-style view? Or do you have any ideas about where I can take my family to explore the world without leaving Britain?

Monday, 11 April 2016

Celebrating our National Trails: the joy of a long walk

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. The world has many long walks - from the Great Wall of China to mega trips undertaken by adventurers who know it's all taking the first step. Pete May gets some tips from writer Paddy Dillon about where to go in the UK for his next big walk.

Pete May and dog tackle the Thames Path on a very wet day.
AroundBritain No Plane enjoyed celebrating Cicerone’s very useful guides to National Trails at Foyles Bookshop in London. Now the guides include an OS-style mapping booklet that gives you all the mapping you need for the Pennine Way, Coast to Coast, Cotswold Way, Hadrian’s Wall, Offa’s Dyke, Pembrokeshire Coast Path, Great Glen Way, Thames Path and West Highland Way. The dedicated route maps eliminate the need for buying lots of separate maps and can be used in either direction. They were praised by Kate Ashbrook, President of The Ramblers. And all the guides also have very useful accommodation sections and tips on who baggage carriers, if that's what you or your family need.

Cicerone writer Paddy Dillon gave an entertaining talk on walking all the long distance trails of Britain — and he’s now walking them again to revise his guides. Paddy, who grew up with Burnley, first walked the Pennine Way at 16, “when I did absolutely everything wrong, so I could only get better!” He showed pictures of his travels around the UK’s trails and introduced us to some of the more obscure but interesting paths such as the Yorkshire Wolds Way, Peddars Way and North Norfolk Coastal Path, the Pennine Bridleway, the Speyside Way and Glyndŵr’s Way.

By this time I was tempted to tackle the North Norfolk Coastal Path or the Yorkshire Wolds Way this summer.

The next speaker, Ursula Martin of OneWomanWalksWales, got me thinking about how to walk across Wales.

After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer Ursula decided to walk 400 miles to her next hospital appointment in Bristol to raise money for cancer charities. She eventually completed 3000 miles along trails like Offa’s Dyke, the Cistercian Way, the Severn Way, the high-level Cambrian Way (“which almost broke me”) and the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path (“my favourite”). “People’s kindness was overwhelming. I planned to rough camp, but I was given so much stuff, tea, meals, and beds for the night. There was a lot of serendipity.” 

Initially she planned to walk 19 miles a day but then suffered a tendon injury. “In the end I let go of time and distance and just walked.” After her treatment Ursula has been clear of cancer for four years and is now writing a book about her journey. Her next project is to walk and sail through Europe.

A morning spent talking national trails can’t help but inspire some wanderlust for Britain’s vast array of walkways and Cicerone’s very thorough guides are the ideal way to plan your route. 
Over to you
Do share your best long distance routes - have you tried doing a long walk on your own or do you have any tips to tempt your family along?

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Why camels give me the hump

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Spotting an unusual van got me thinking about underwear...Words by Nicola Baird 

For the past few weeks a large white van emblazoned with the magical worlds "Camel Milk UK" has been parked near where I live. I've seen this van around the area before although I've yet to find a bottle or carton of camel milk on sale. It's not that hard though, you can just pop to www.camelmilkuk.net to organise.

Waiting for Callback by Perdita and Honor Cargill tackles
camel toe without using such a derogatory phrase.

I know very little about camels, so I was surprised when I mentioned to one of my daughters that in the hilarious YA book I was reading, a character told her teenager to change their outfit rather than going out in an outfit that looked "gynaecological", that my daughter immediately translated this dress mistake as "camel toe".

Camel toe is slang. Slang for the outline of a woman's labia should they be wearing super tight clothing such as leggings or very tight shorts. It's in surprisingly common use. Today I read it in the Guardian's fashion column.

If you look on wikipedia you can compare a woman in hot pants (pity the jobs some models get) with a camel's toe. Or you can search for Kim Kardashian in her allegedly photoshopped flesh-tone Yezzy outfit (designed by her husband Kanye). Either way scrutiny shows that women and camels are different. 

I guess a whale tale - when thong underwear gets exposed thanks to low rise jeans - doesn't look much like a whale either. It's just another of those creepy expressions that belittles what women do and wear.

There are so many animal expressions used to knock an outfit choice, no doubt from all around the world. I can think of two more - dog's dinner; and mutton dressed as lamb. 

What about you, do you know any expressions like this used in other parts of the world? And are they used kindly or with intentional cruelty?

Thursday, 3 March 2016

When did you last plant a tree?

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Recently Cicerone Guidebooks kindly gave Around Britain No Plane a very young oak tree. But where to plant it? Words by Nicola Baird 

My new oak tree, safe for a while in a big pot away from the bantams.
If I've got a proper life regret, then it's that I haven't planted enough trees. We all know we should plant more trees - to mop up pollution, provide habitat,  maybe even offer a sense of continuum - it's just that I don't really have anywhere I can put trees. My back garden is titchy and the hens and dog are expert at ruining any planting schemes I might have. And I live in London where the dreaded word subsidence is always linked to trees. Subsidence by the way is allegedly caused by street and garden tree roots undermining your home in their search for nourishment and water.

Worse for my tree planting dreams, my last purchase was a bowsaw which I intend to use to reduce the height of my giant privet hedge.

But I still long to plant trees. One a day is the Man Who Planted Trees mantra - and I have planted a few, maybe 100. Some highlights include:
  • Acorns taken from trees later felled along the Newbury Bypass which are now growing at my brother's house.
  • The mini orchard (you only need five trees to make an orchard!) in my home's front garden.
  • The new whippet thin hedge saplings planted when I was doing a three month long course with British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, now the TCV.
  • The small native woodland trees my friend Hannah has got me to plant in Wales. Always done when it's freezing.
  • The olive tree that got put in my children's primary school grounds when the playground was remodelled.
  • At Christmas my brother and I had the fun of planting two crazy trees in his garden - a little hazel which has truffles added to the root ball; and a weeping willow which he hopes to use as a picnic den, about 10 years from now...
Where to plant this baby oak?
This obsession with wanting to plant more trees means that I was thrilled to be given an oak sapling in February during a promotion for Britain"s National Trails by Cicerone, the publisher that specialises in long distance travel guides. I love the variety of Cicerone's guides and have The Danube Cycleway by my desk and on the kitchen table there's The Great Glen Way, just in case I have to take off, now... In some ways there is too much choice - Cicerone has 350 guidebooks and as a result has provided me with proper anorak information about Britain's National Trials... for instance 2016 will be:
  • 45 years since Offa's Dyke Path was established
  • 30 years sionce the opening of The Peddars Way and Norfolk coast Path
  • 20 years since TheThames Path became a national trail
  • 51 years since Britain's first national trail - the Pennine Way - was opened.

My husband and kids exploring the oak and hornbeam
woodland of Hatfield Forest, Essex - just beyond
Stansted Airport's runway.
Who will help me plant trees?
Walking and cycling across a long distance route are exactly the sort of times that get you thinking about landscape. Should the UK look so denuded?

Well it probably wouldn't if there were less sheep on the uplands and a different emphasis on land use. But that doesn't mean people aren't still planting trees. And the great thing is that it's possible to have a go yourself, even if you have zero outside space. For example:
  • The Woodland Trust is a fabulous organisation doing a lot of tree planting - thanks to people like you and me (well actually not me, but I hope soon to have a go!). See more about how to plant trees with them on local community land, at schools and even in urban areas, here.
  • The National Forest in Leicestershire is transforming 200 square miles into a huge forest. They rely on volunteers - so if you live in Leicestershire, Staffordshire or Derbyshire, or can make a trip to the Midlands, then you can help them out in their ambitions to plant more trees. See all the info here.
  • You can also look at Trust for Conservation Volunteers website - just type in your postcode - and loads of green (management tasks and tree planting) pop up. Rather sweetly some of these are called green gyms.

Seeing the wood and the trees
I can see a couple of trees from my window as I type this, but amazingly 45% of the land in Russia, more than 50% of Brazil, 31% of Canada and 30% of the US are forested.

In the UK only 11% is forested.

Depending on your point of view woods can be beautiful, calming, wildlife and ecosystem havens. They are also a huge source of our cultural capital - lots of stories hint at the dark deeds that could happen "if you go down to the woods today". That mix of oasis and death trap does perhaps confuse the way we react to the idea of a walk in the woods. I certainly prefer to go into woods with my dog - although he's no friend to the larger animals we meet there (squirrels, munjac deer etc). But in the woods I notice how much calmer I always feel, it's almost as if time stops when I make the effort to touch and smell the bark of a large tree trunk or look up into the canopy.

Devon woodland - a place to stand & stare.
What to see
In winter I love the architectural quality of trees. In spring it's fun to compare the shades of the new green leaves, and see if you can spot love birds quarrelling over which is the best tree. In summer they just offer wonderful shade, and then autumn it's the joy of catching falling leaves and enjoying the array of reds, auburns and yellow displays.

Thank you
So thank you to the trees, and thank you to anyone - like Cicerone - who has ever made it possible for me to plant a tree. As you can see from the photo at the top of the page my baby oak is currently in a pot and at some point is going to need relocating so the roots can get growing properly. But here's to a year of planting many more and enjoying the ones that we know best. Let me know your tree planting stories. Here's a cheer to anyone who manages to plant even one tree, and proper envy and big respect to whoever plants the most!

Friday, 26 February 2016

It's cold, wet and somehow I'm in New Caledonia (via London's old docklands)

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. How a walk along the River Thames got me thinking about whaling and the South Pacific. Words by Nicola Baird

This area was known as Greenland Dock from 1763. But there must have been a strong
South Pacific link as nearby is South Seas Road.
New Caledonia (also known as Noumea) in the South Pacific is a tropical Pacific Island. So it's fun to walk along the south bank of the River Thames - using the Thames Path - and discover the many links this area had with the rest of the world.

There's a large block of City fabulous apartments on the spot where I took this photo, which were built on part of  a 10 acre dock where the whaling boats collected.  The unfortunate whales were caught for their meat, oil and blubber. But the huge whale bones have been put to all sorts of uses too - to shock and awe like the jawbones on Whitby cliff as well as more practical uses, like corsets (fashion) but also for chess pieces and dominoes.

Sperm oil was used when high quality lighting was needed, eg, for non-smokey light and even lighthouses - as well as for lubricating machinery and soap.

At the dock there used to be blubber boiling houses.

Whaling is an old, old trade, possibly dating back to 3,000BC - reaching a peak in the 1930s when the annual whale slaughter was around 50,000.  Since 1986 whaling has been banned, but some countries - Japan, Iceland, Norway and others - controversially persist. In other words it's still going on...

This part of Rotherhithe's original name was changed in 1763 to Greenland Dock, no doubt reflecting the location of where ships were chasing and catching the majority of their whales. You can find more about the history of New Caledonia Wharf and the luxury flats there now here or look at wikipedia for more about whales and whaling.

  • It was Captain James Cook who named New Caledonia - in 1774. Ships initially traded sandalwood (a rather poetic name for timber), and then blackbirding - illegal shipment of locals to work in slave-like conditions in the sugar cane fields of Queensland, Australia.
  • It became - and remains - a French possession, on order of Napoleon, in 1854. it was used as a penal colony for many years although discovering nickel seems to have helped give this small island country a little more status with Mother France.  Although no longer a colony it has been one of France's overseas territories since the end of the second world war. Be born there and you can take on French nationality, despite clearly being Melanesian.

I have such a soft spot for the South Pacific that even on a wet, cold February just seeing the words "New Caledonia" made me imagine tropical warmth. And when I peered through the entrance to the flats I could hear the music of running water - a fountain of course. The apartments also have an indoor swimming pool.

This area had been hugely pimped up. When Charles Dickens and Conan Doyle were writing they'd send their really bad characters to this area in search of R&R at an opium den. Now it seems squeaky clean behind the gated posh conversions. There's not even much graffiti, but there are still a few cranes and along the waterfront little wharves giving just a hint of the bustle, noise and trade this part of Docklands was so famous for.

Verdict: A fabulous way to get to know the Thames.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Trinity Buoy Wharf has that San Francisco feeling

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Nerdy, laid-back San Francisco is on most people's bucket list - and now I've found a London version, Trinity Buoy Wharf which mixes big views of the Golden Gate Bridge (I mean the Millennium Dome) and an artists' colony on the River Thames.

Double take at the taxi.
I’ve been promised a trip to India and if the weather holds, Cyprus too.
World travel via London's DLR.
But I’m not going to be caught out by this cynical use of creatively named tube stops as I attempt to travel around the world without leaving Britain.

Luckily the area between East India Dock and Canning Town has a very distinct vibe, and on this sunny February Sunday there’s a definite San Francisco feeling. I’m guessing as I haven’t been to SF, but my husband Pete has and today he's playing tour guide - on a mission to get the rest of his family down to the River Lea mouth so we can stare at the site of the old Thames Ironworks, which is the birthplace of his much-loved football team, West Ham. It's also the inspiration for their club badge, a pair of hammers. Last time he visited, five years ago, he said it felt derelict - just big views of the Thames and a red leather sofa abandoned near a sign about the Ironworks.

Now it's known as Trinity Buoy Wharf, and billed as East London's most exciting arts quarter. Even without the monday-friday folk it does have a distinctly arty feel.

Snapping the photographer as she poses her dad (by a giant red herring).
From the DLR aim for the Thames path with its great view of the Millennium Dome and then turn left through an orchard, and then over a bridge past a huge reed-edged pond that used to be a well-used East India Dock Basin, and is now a bird sanctuary and then a gate that exits on to a rather unpromising looking lane. It’s awash with litter and used laughing gas canisters. But look up once you pass the taxi with an iron tree emerging from its roof and there’s graffiti everywhere. My 14 year old takes over her dad’s camera and starts taking endless portraits that could be used on Tumblr.

Once a busy wharf, now a wildlife reserve East India Dock Basin has stunning views towards Canary Wharf.
Further down the lane - also known as Orchard Place, or Bog Island - there are history boards about this part of Bow Creek. It used to be a very isolated, poor village populated by three main families. In the late 19th century the school had 160 children, of whom 100 had the same surname, Lammin. There’s still a little school on the peninsula, Faraday School which has a fenced sports ground on the top floor of the building. In those days if you wanted something you'd have to head to Poplar, now you've got Canary Wharf and several new housing developments - even islands - springing up.

The views from the lighthouse are fantastic - birds, millennium dome, London &
far further afield - and all come accompanied by non stop musical bowls.
Arts centre
Trinity Buoy Wharf by Bow Creek and the River Lea is now an artists mecca. For starters there’s Container City, old shipping containers now used as studios. There is also the Royal Drawing College and a depot for the ENO (English National Opera) and a 1000 year longplayer piece of music playing in converted Bow Creek lighthouse…. (it began in 2000 and is only due to end in 2999). Find out more here.
Bow Creek Cafe does a good veggie and traditional all day breakfast.
We found two places to eat – Fat Boys Diner which does American fast food well; and Bow Creek Café which is a sweet find where you can sit indoors or out with a view of the muddy Lea joining the Thames. There are braziers, piles of logs, pots of thyme on the wooden tables, hand-painted chess boards and fairy lights creating a definite ambience. We also spotted several music stands and stools, perhaps an invitation to just get jamming. The food here was tasty, homemade and good value. 

London changes so fast – just like San Francisco – but fortunately in this area it’s not just yuppy apartments (£300,000+ for a one bed, ow) there’s also plenty of things to look at and suitably laid-back, sunny places like Bow Creek Cafe to chill just like you are a Californian nerd (or East London artist).

Verdict: go visit, take your time, and then revisit once you've got your bearings.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

An eye-popping trip to Little Holland in E17

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. This post takes a quick peek at Walthamstow Village, E17 which over the past year has been transformed so much it's now known as Little Holland. Here's why...

Four cafes, a newsagent, Spanish deli, antiques shop and pub
make the heart of Walthamstow Village a nice place to linger.
Little Holland turns out to be just an enjoyable six mile cycle from my house, in what used to be traffic-blighted, rat-run ridden Walthamstow Village. 

For the past decade I haven’t been to Walthamstow much – it’s nice, but my two friends who used to live there decided to move to country towns a while back. Each time I visited them I remember thinking, this place is fab but there’s a huge amount of traffic on these cute little streets.

But that’s all changed.

The reservoirs and sewage works along Coppermill Lane, which leads
to Blackhorse Road, are a good place to spot giant birds.
Thanks to a £30 million grant the residential area around Walthamstow Village has been modal calmed – which means that cars no longer have priority. Cyclists are still allowed along the roads and pedestrians in many places have become king.  It seems so much nicer now – you can hear passers-by talking, kids are scooting around safely along what used to be pavements half-blocked by vehicles parked erratically. I remember my NCT mum friend having to wheel her buggy into the road frequently in order to get along the pavement! Now she’d love it – there’s room to walk hand-in-hand and the rat runners are just about gone.

Pollution-eating cycleway near Walthamstow tube (which also
boasts Brompton bike hire and commuter cycle storage). This pavement
allegedly locks nitrogen oxides - one of the pollutants
from car exhausts. They've had smog-eating pavements
in the Netherlands since 2013.
£30 million seems like a huge amount, but across the UK apparently only £1-2 per person is spent on cycling and walking -  even though a Parliamentary committee recommended it should be more like £10 per person.

In comparison in Holland it’s around £20 per person. No wonder more Dutch people cycle!

Islington cyclists on a tour of Walthamstow. The 12-mile round trip
can be made on a multitude of quiet routes including the edge of Walthamstow
Marshes near Coppermill Bridge.
Congratulations to Waltham Forest cyclists for achieving this. If you live in an area that could be made more like Holland, then have a look at theWaltham Forest cyclists’ website for top tips and FAQs about how to create quiet ways, village centres and improve road safety.

The first cowslip I've seen in 2016 - out in February at
the Islington Ecology Centre (the start and finish point
of Islington Cyclists ride to view Mini Holland).
The route from Islington to Walthamstow is blessedly flat (there is one hill near Springfield Park), just like Holland. And the day I did this ride the wind was blessedly behind us - may that be your experience on any long ride.

Islington Cyclists Action Group want quietways across the borough - and if they succeed, that will be another step towards making London a little more like Holland. I'm all for going Dutch if it means you can use roads more safely and hear what people are saying...