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, 27 March 2017

Where to go when you love coffee

What coffee do you drink? Here are some ways to enjoy coffee (and food) Ethiopian style near Shepherd's Bush. Words from Nicola Baird.

Coffee the Ethiopian way.
My friend, the incredible singer Hanisha Solomon, who was born in Ethiopia, suggested we try eating at Flamingo - one of London's excellent Ethiopian restaurants - for a half-term treat. As another close friend, Nicky, and I both find it difficult to get our exam-stressed teenagers out of bed in the morning we thought it an excellent choice of treat, knowing Nell and Xander would be persuaded to leave the house for an Ethiopian lunch.  Which is how we became a party of six sitting around two sharing plates of neatly rolled injera and various triangular piles of vegetables.

In case you don't know much about Ethiopian music - this is my favourite song by Hanisha Solomon (listen while you read, and ideally buy her albums).


Injera is the delicious Ethiopian bread that works as a plate and an eating utensil (use the right hand!), looks tricky to make. The teens - our meat eating quotient - also had a rather generous heap of lamb cooked in two different ways. They both preferred the spicy option.

At Flamingo there is also a mini booth at the back of the restaurant acting as a fresh butcher.  It was quite something to see meat being carved off a trio of haunches, handed to the chef and cooked up. I didn't take a photo as it felt rude, but I wish I had - will have to go back.

Ethiopians have a very generous culture. Hanisha begged us to eat more, drink more water, eat more injera and soon we all felt rollingly full. Which is when the roasted Ethiopian coffee beans were brought to our table for inspection. The coffee was made out of sight then brought back in an iron pot and served in handleless cups with popcorn. What a treat.

Since I saw the award-winning Sundance documentary, Black Gold about the struggle to grow Ethiopian coffee, I try to buy fair trade, and ideally, Ethiopian beans. It's even more important when you know that 15 million Ethiopians make a living related to coffee (equal to 67 per cent of the country's foreign exports). But the farmers producing the beans may only make 12-25 cents (per kilo picked) leaving many impoverished. Here's a trailer from the film to inspire, explaining why fair "trade is more important than aid."


One of the lovely things about Flamingo is that it isn't just packed with Ethiopians wanting a taste of home. There were also plenty of lunchers enjoying a good value, tasty meal close to Goldhawk Road tube. London has quite a few Ethiopian restaurants, and I certainly hope to visit more. But when it comes to coffee, which I drink in bucket-loads, daily, picking fair-priced Ethiopian beans has become a habit I'm happy to have.
  • Have a meal at Flamingo, 31 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd's Bush, W12
  • Join an Ethiopian cookery class on Wednesday 19 April from 7-9.30pm with Ethiopian Master Chef Tsige. For EC1 residents it's £5, anyone else £30. To book contact Central Street Cookery School, 90 Central Steet, London, EC1 (near Old Street) on 020 7549 8176 or info@centralstreet.org or check their website.
  • More about Nicola Baird's books and blogs on  www.nicolabaird.com or www.islingtonfacesblog.com 

Monday, 20 March 2017

New ways to make a pilgrimage

Are you the pilgrim type? You might be as there's 100 million pilgrim journeys made each year alone. I think I could be... if I just pick the right attitude rather than a high profile route. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com orwww.islingtonfacesblog.com for more info about my books and blogs).

The Lea Valley Walk finishes just after the Olympic Park at Stratford - so walk on
a West Ham home game and you'll get the added thrill of being with 57,000 football
fans. It's not as bad as it sounds - and the cheers of goals add to the celebration that
you've nearly finished a 50 mile walk. Or just started.
I’ve always assumed a pilgrimage isn’t right for me, even if 100 million people annually complete the 14 best known... according to the Huffington Post. These are:
  1. The Ganges River, India
  2. Mecca, Saudi Arabia
  3. Golden Temple, Amritsar, India
  4. Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City
  5. Vaishno Devi Temple, India
  6. Lourdes, France
  7. Bahai Gardens, Israel
  8. Vatican, Rome
  9. Jerusalem, Israel
  10. Bethlehem, Israel
  11. Machu Picchu, Peru
  12. Rumi's Tomb, Turkey
  13. Bodi Tree (fig tree), India
  14. Stonehenge, Wiltshire * (I've been here, in fact cycled some of the way, see this post)

But the April 2017 issue of The Simple Things magazine has flipped my thinking. That’s because the criteria they set for a pilgrim fits beautifully into how I try and live (try, note). Here’s how to turn an ordinary walk into a pilgrimage (from the British Pilgrimage Trust )
  1. Go slowly
  2. Improve the way (pick up rubbish, shut gates, rescue what needs rescuing etc)
  3. Accept more, need less
  4. Pass the blessing on

  • Well #1 is no problem. It took nearly five years to complete the NewRiver Path (see my blog post here) despite it being short and practically ending by my door. 
  • #2 is one I try and do, ideally by remembering to take a plastic bag for litter. Actually you don’t need to as I usually find at least one of the pieces of litter is an empty plastic bag - essentially offering itself to be filled with recyclables. 
  • I’m not really sure about #3 – I sometimes beg my husband, Pete, to carry my rucksack (but in exchange I'll carry the dog poos) 
  • #4 I’m useless at. But seems like a good new habit to make.
Judgment: Two out of four isn’t a bad start… I’m officially pilgrim-lite.

The next long walk starts here... The Lea
Valley Walk from Luton to the Thames.
Fortunately there’s a brand new journey - pilgrimage - to start. This time Pete and I are going to walk the Lea Valley Walk, using one of Cicerone’s handy guides. This one is written by Leigh Hatts (3rd edition came out in 2015 so doesn't include the news that West Ham is now based at the Olympic Stadium, which is now called the London Stadium). The River Lea starts unpromisingly in Leagrave (such a strange name for a birth) then wiggles 50 miles across Bedfordshire and through the Olympic parts of London to the East India Dock and out to the River Thames. The ambitious walker can zip down this practically flat, super-waymarked, mostly off road route in 2 days. I expect to take much longer (see pilgrim rule #1).

Reading the guide this walk is surprisingly exciting because it covers the vast Lea Valley - something all council-tax paying Londoners contribute towards maintaining. I’ve done some volunteering clearing soapwort out of ditches with BTCV, listened to nightingales near Cheshunt and I’ve enjoyed plenty of more random walks around the area. But now I’m set on selling this as a wonderful journey across “London’s playground” and “London’s wildlife reserve” (depends who you talk to) because the Lea Valley according to former Mayor Boris Johnson is “London’s Lake District”.

The walk starts in Luton – which apparently is worth exploring for a day or two, somewhere I’ve never considered visiting. And because it also goes through the rather lovely towns of Harpendon, Hatfield and Hertford there are some excellent old pubs to try out (maybe this is rule #4 if I buy a pint for Pete when he is in need!).

The ending is conveniently close to the new West Ham stadium, where Pete spends a great deal of time (see pic above). So I can imagine being able to walk several chunks of the final section of the Lea Valley Walk with him before or after home games. This will definitely offer litter-picking opportunities (see #2)

Lea Valley Park Authority HQ is based at
Myddleton House (a tiny but worthwhile detour
from the Lea Valley Walk.
Ready, steady, go
So in March 2017 we began our Lea Valley Walk with... a detour to Myddleton House which is the Lea Valley Park Authority HQ. It’s also a key detour for the New River Walk. 

Myddleton House has an exquisite spring garden – designed like an Alpine meadow by EA Bowles (1865-1954). It’s about the only place on the Lea Valley or New River walks that is vehemently anti-dog. But… you must go in the spring for a quick look at the blanket of daffodils planted near where the New River used to run and then try counting the bee hives (6+). There’s also a lovely tea room. Actually there’s another nice tea room at the next door estate, Forty Hall, which is about a 15 minute (slow) walk away. And here I met a school governing colleague who’d been on a mission to collect a bag of lion poo (as you do) at one of the many garden centres I'd never noticed in the area because they are just behind the A10.

The A10 is theoretically my road in and out of London. As a car owner (and even now occasionally when renting a car to visit my Herts-based family) I’ve driven along it many times… so it has been a real pleasure diving off the A10 on foot (via train stations like Turkey Street and dual carriage pedestrian underpasses) to discover that Enfield is big on ribbon development but behind the grim A10 (sorry road lovers) the countryside is old-fashioned idyllic, both on the west side around Myddleton House Gardens, Forty Hall and the horticultural training centre  Capel Manor, as well of course as the huge chunk of eastern wetlands that make up the 10,000 acre Lea Valley park.  I can see now why people really like living here. As ever a journey by foot tells you so much more than a journey by car. 

So far the Lea Valley Walk has been a 10/10. I just wonder how long it will take for me to complete it. Do you think the modern pilgrim-lite is allowed to start a sweepstake?

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

How the New River Path makes you think about... deserts

How well do you know where you live? I'm based in London so it's a pleasure to explore a little known path along a canal that runs from Hertford directly into Islington. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com or www.islingtonfacesblog.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Pete on a section of the New River Path. "Water, water everywhere, and
not a drop to drink," - a famous line from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
The New River Path is a 28 mile (45km) footpath which stays close to a canal, hand-dug back in 1613. It was built to bring fresh drinking water from the springs at Amwell, near Hertford into north London. Quite amazingly it's still doing this job. I know this because at the entrance to many of the grassy paths running on just one bank of each section of the New River (which as you've guessed now is neither new, nor a river) is a Thames Water notice saying that it brings fresh water to north London so no fishing or boating is allowed (and cyclists are definitely not welcome).

Here's a link to the map created by Thames Water which guides you along the whole of the New River Path.

The classic New River Path view
with swan, goose and kissing gate.
More friendly is the sign that says "non public right of way but the owner allows the public to use it at their own risk for the time being."

It is however a wonderful walk from or to the heart of Islington where I live. In fact the ending is at the old river head close to Sadler's Wells (the clue is in that name too). This is now super chic apartments (I know because i managed to slip into the building at the last September Open House) which has the old oak-panelled board room in situ which residents are allowed to hire this for dinner parties!

Real deserts
Do you take potable water for granted? I absolutely do. It is such luck to live in the UK and be able to moan about our crazy climate with its endless rain showers. We got wet plenty of times on our New River odyssey. And if we forgot water we just looked for a pub and asked for a free glass or for our water bottle to be topped up.

Food deserts
A lot of the New River takes the walker through suburbia - rows of Edwardian style villas adapted to make it easy to drive everywhere. As a result there are no corner shops and no cafes selling a nice cup of tea - unless you head to the centre of the area you are passing, or a cafe in a park. So many front gardens are paved over and crowded with cars - often there's space for three vehicles.

Cultural deserts
I really like Cheshunt - to the east of the railway station is an entrance to Lee Valley Park, designed both as a nature reserve and London's playground. I've been here to take a walk, to listen to nightingales and simply to escape the city. But to the west of the station Cheshunt is a good example of dreadful ribbon development. The houses are rarely above two-floors so they seem to spread out for miles. I'd thought of Cheshunt as the countryside, partly because it is not on the A-Z. But there is considerable new building going up - a lot of it daft executive style homes built in too grand a style, too close to each other. It's true that I'm used to the Victorian/Georgian streets of Islington but they are at least offer high density living. Although i guess that's why people move out too, to get more space. But "more space" is at the expense of green and brown belt.

Increasingly Cheshunt has become a London overflow. For example the lovely lady I've been mentoring through Migrants Organise was temporarily housed in Cheshunt, byTottenham Council - much to her distress. She knew it wasn't London where she wanted to be - in part because it lacks bus services (although there are some) and the sort of cheap food shop she needed to survive. It was also an exceedingly expensive journey to her children's school in inner London. I couldn't convince her to visit the New River Path as she felt it was too far for her and her little kids to walk. Sadly she was a little scared of the Lee Valley Country Park.

Map 1 of 5 which guide you along
the New River Path.
Memories from the New River Path
It's taken my family nine trips starting in October 2013 and finishing in March 2017...
  • Detouring in Ware to look at the famous gazebos built along the River Lea
  • Endless stopping for someone in the party to put on a hat, take off gloves, have a rest, need a drink, pick up the dog's poo etc. If you walk with others build in hours of wasted (quality) time. If you route march you can be sure your family and friends won't join you again.
  • Introducing our daughters' friends to the New River Path
  • Listening to more than 100 Canada and Egyptian geese on the fields near the Cheshunt section
  • Being surprised to find the New River was put into a double-tunnel above the traffic to cross the M25 motorway.
  • Watching a cormorant dive and catch a fish in Enfield.
  • Hearing a swan beat its wings as it flew down a section of New River, about 2 metres above the water.
  • Finding a surprise farmers' market in Palmer's Green and buying a tasty loaf of bread.
  • The New River Festival held in Finsbury Park to celebrate 400 years since the canal was built.
New River path is on the left of this shot at the London Wildlife Trust's
newest reserve in Hackney.
What's the best bit?
Recently the East Reservoir has become a stunning Wildlife Trust nature reserve - opened by David Attenborough and boasting all sorts of fantastic wildlife, including the occasional bittern. There's also a fab cafe, Lizzy's at the Coal House Cafe (open every day 9am-4pm, not long after the reserve is locked). A walk beside the reed beds is always a treat, even if there's plenty of noise from Purin or any other festival sounds floating from not-so-far away Clissold Park. This huge expanse of water is the opposite of a desert - we're lucky to have it in north London.

Over to you
Have you enjoyed a trip down the New River path? Let me know your favourite section.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

That dream of cycling away via the Danube

What's the furthest you've ever cycled? And could you go further? Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Bikes with unusual loads, but the paniers have all sorts of potential
for a long journey.
About 10 years after I left university a guy in the year above had a book published about cycling across Chile, Argentina and Bolivia to raise funds for the Leukaemia Reseach Fund. I was so impressed that even another 20 years on, during a recent book clear out I decided to keep his book on my shelves. This was clearly a man who knew something secret about life and tenacity. The trail to Titicaca by Rupert Attlee is a good read too.

Long distance journeys have always been popular. It's a challenging way to grow up, get away from the old you, fit into your skin, explore etc. We all know travel's attraction dating right back to Odysseus (the Greek who gave us the wonderful word odyssey).

Nowadays long distance travel is often more about taking a holiday to push yourself because (good) experiences are more important than possessions. I pretty much agree with that sentiment (especially if it involves low carbon travel and doesn't begin and end with a plane flight), except somehow I've never managed to cycle more than 50 miles in one day. But, I remember that journey with pride as I managed to get from London to Oxford in aid of charity. It was a total killer and at the celebration gig afterwards with the exuberant Bhundu Boys (from Zimbabwe) playing I crashed out asleep. Clearly I wasn't bicycle honed. And yet I've cycled almost every day since I was 16 years old at sixth form, and love the way a bicycle offers freedom and speedy journeys.

No surprise then that I like to read about bike journeys. At the start of 2017 I was hooked by Tim Moore's latest book The Cyclist Who Went Out In the Cold. Tim has a serious track record at pushing himself to do slightly daft - aka challenging - routes. This time he cycles 6,000 miles along the route of the old Cold War front on a tiny-wheeled, two-geared East German-made shopping bike (a MIFA 900). And he starts the journey in the Arctic Circle, in winter: you couldn't make his stories up. It's an inspiring read, often funny and good for your Cold War knowledge (well it's helped mine)...

When you see a cycle book and think
that could be me out there...
The perseverance travel bug kicks in fast.

Inspired by Tim Moore's cycle journeys up the Alps, and along historic borders I'm now looking closely at The Danube Cycleway (volume 2), published by long distance travel guide specialists Cicerone, thinking could I? Could I get on my bike and pedal from Budapest to the Black Sea (this is the end part of Europe's second longest river)?

My guidebook isn't dog-eared yet, but I've read a few of the recommended stages and feel it's possible. I think it helps having a cyclist in glasses gracing the front cover who looks rather like a government ad to get more women active ("still slow, still lapping the couch"). That woman could be me. Or it could be me when I've got just a few less childcare responsibilities. Unless of course I can talk my youngest teenager into joining me...

The Danube Cycleway (Volume 1 and 2) are extremely detailed, but not that huge. Which is why they recommend taking additional more detailed maps for Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Romania and provide info about where to find those formal maps. I feel the Cicerone approach really works for an armchair traveller (who might well become the real thing) - as it helps you imagine (and potentially plan) every detail from what to wear to how to get your bike to the starting point. There are some great tables which show the mileage, likely timings, location of cycle shops and accommodation. This kind of info isn't in Tim Moore's book - it makes his ability to cycle such challenging routes seem extra brilliant - but it clearly saves hours of research. It's still going to be hard work doing the route planning (eg, around weather, where to stay and language).

I have real problems looking at maps and seeing their world. Guide books make it a bit easier to imagine the terrain, people and even sunlight. Nothing beats being there, but in order to decide where to be these handy Cicerone guides take me a lot closer to a 3D imagining! And perhaps it's almost a sign that the last person to cut my hair grew up in Budapest...

More tellingly both Tim Moore's book and the Danube Cycleway make Romania look the sort of country I would adore visiting, even if Romanian dogs are clearly not keen on cyclists.

The Danube Cycleway (vol 2 from Budapest to the Black Sea) by Mike Wells (Cicerone, £16.95)

Monday, 30 January 2017

Distance learning alumni from Mauritius to Malet Street, WC1

How long has distance learning been possible? It still feels like a modern option, but you may be surprised. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Inside the University of London's Senate House.

1865 is the year that Alice in Wonderland is published – and Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay. Queen Victoria is on the throne and Lord Palmerston is Prime Minister. It’s also the date that the first distance learners, based in Mauritius, began studying with the University of London. Surprised? I was.

Fast forward to 2017 and the University of London has more than 50,000 distance learners living in 180 countries in the world. They can choose from 84 courses and are working for every level - BAs, Masters and PhDs, see more here.

Distance learning was never an easy option. Back in the 1990s there were missives arriving in the sluggish post and annual exams. Now it is fantastic with on-line discussions, downloadable course packs, an online library and a way of talking to both your tutor and other students. Of course you may be doing this for three or more years, often while working a full-time job, which is why it is a learning method as ideal for people who cannot abandon their job as well as the super-isolated. Former students include scientists based in Antarctica and even Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned. “Our records show that it took Nelson Mandela three attempts to be allowed to take his exams,” says Ali Chapman who recently joined the university’s fundraising department and is enjoying researching through alumni records.

Ali clearly also loves the Senate House atmosphere and is offering to show past distance learners around – which is why she contacted me.

I did an MSc in Environmental Management through the University of London, graduating in 1995. It’s a long time ago, and I still haven’t forgiven the weather for producing four consecutive Indian summer Octobers (when we revised, then took exams). More importantly I remember how rigorous and interesting the course was as it steered students through international environmental law, ecofeminism, the precautionary principle and the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which roughly translates as ‘there is no away’).

LibrariesUntil they were recycled, my MSc course’s green spiral course readers were the star of my bookshelves. Twenty years on the shelves now house a large collection of eco-thinkers from George Monbiot to Noreena Hertz and, cheekily nestled beside them, my own books such as The Estate We’re In which looks at car culture, Save Cash & Save the Planet (co-written for my former employer Friends of the Earth) and Homemade Kids: thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raisechildren. It’s clear that the MSc I did worked its magic.

And now its Ali’s job to tempt distance learners like me to be as supportive of the university – via legacy and other tax-efficient gifts - as those students who still know their way around the magnificent rooms and library towering above Senate House. To do this she offers me a tour of the building.

This is a real treat, as the closest I’ve got to the real University of London – if that’s what Charles Holden’s Portland stone monolith should be called – is an exam hall a couple of streets away.

Was this the Room 101 which inspired George
Orwell when he worked at the Ministry of
Visiting now, the marble clad 1930s interior hints at Great Gatsby glamour, but between 1939 and 1945 Senate House was used by the Ministry of Information. There were nearly 3,000 staff put to work on wartime propaganda which helped spawn the famous “Keep Calm & Carry On” poster as well as hundreds of propaganda leaflets and radio programmes. Famous Ministry of Information employees include George Orwell who clearly used his experience to create the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (more about this here). On the way to her office Ali shows me the double wooden doors of Room 101, but, perhaps fortunately, the room is locked (although as air pollution and climate change share equal top spots for my Room 101 both are no doubt leaching out...)

Ali Chapman with honey from the
University of London's legal bees.
We look at an exquisite map in the Chancellor’s Hall showing the University of London’s many satellite colleges (the Courtauld, the School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London School of Dental Surgery etc) – it’s clearly had a huge impact on the UK’s STEM graduates, as well as humanities’ specialists. Then we cross to the Senate Room arranged like a court, with a semi-circle of green leather seats facing a staged platform which would surely only look complete with a Chancellor, or Judge in place. This is a regular spot for filming so you’re sure to have seen it too. It also boasts a secret oak panel large enough for even a stout lady or gentleman to safely disappear. Ali is slim, but even she hasn’t yet vanished on a tour.

University of London honey. 
Student no more
Finally Ali sits us down in a cosy nook with cake and herbal tea and offers me a tiny jar of honey made by the bees which have hives on the roof of the Institute of the Advanced Legal Studies building over in Russell Square. I think that might be where I used to sit exams, so it’s a perfect sweetener. See more about the University of London’s legal bees – and the people who help looking after their hives – on the BBC here

Wouldn't it be interesting to find some of the oldest distance learners from Mauritius? I bet they'd have some stories... Thinking about studying a long, long way from home makes me remember how as a VSO volunteer I once fried the mother board on the essential printer at the Solomon Islands Development Trust by accidentally clicking yes when a ghekko was exploring it. Horrible mess. Or the time I was looking for a book and shown the empty husk of the the KG6 secondary school library which had been totally consumed by white ants. That was my first taste of distance learning - completing a TEFL (Teach English As A Foreign Language) certificate - but the combo of climate and self-discipline made me realise how very challenging it can be. Which makes the rewards even better.

Surely this explains why when I left Senate House with a new and delicious sense of belonging. I know this potentially comes with a price – universities are extraordinarily proactive at trying to eek donations from past students for good reasons. But thanks to Ali what fascinating discoveries I’ve made about the University of London, more than 20 years after I received my MSc. As even eco-bunnies say, 'Better late than never'.

  • Join the University of London's Being Human Festival 2017 from 17-25 November. See more here 
  • Studied with University of London? Then you need to use their alumni pages, see www.london.ac.uk/alumni
  • What's happening at University of London is on facebook.com/UniofLondon, twitter @UoLondon, insta @unioflondon

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

8 ways to deal with air pollution – Delhi dilemmas

 Delhi is the world’s most polluted city. I think. London however has been shaping up nicely this January in its bid to reach toxic gold. Here’s my attempt to unpick the ridiculous suggestions mooted in a bid to help us all ‘beat London smog”. In case there is ANY doubt this is a parody. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

These doors at Senate House are the very ones that inspired
George Orwell's famouse Room 101 scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
My room 101 doesn't have rats.
Now lots of the ES is super sensible and covers the London Air Pollution saga well. It’s where I heard about London having breached its annual toxic limit by the fifth day of January 2017. But it also runs daft stories like A breath of fresh air: here’s6 ways to clean up your act and beat London’s toxic air from two of its regular feature writers – Susannah Butter and Phoebe Luckhurst. This piece is shameful because it wasn’t tongue in cheek. The ladies suggest  “REN’s flash defence anti-pollution spray creates a viscous layer that noxious chemicals will struggle to penetrate. It smells great too.”

Why does the news so often seem like an April Food at the moment: shouldn’t Butter and Phoebe be warning us that buying this stuff would be £24 badly spent? I remember writing an exposé about the Solomon Islands trying to flog tropical rainforest oxygen back in the 1990s…  Now I think the islanders had it right, Londoners are so daft they’d have sniffed up bottles of this and passed them round their Uber. PM10s are not going to be watered down by an imaginary body spray.

On the #airpollution stream on Insta there is plenty of smogporn (if that’s a thing yet), but also  brands who view air pollution as an opportunity– such as koolmask, hypeingham and metro-mask. There’s even a bedside alarm LaMetricTime which displays CO2 levels allowing you to watch the levels rising…

Got to admire capitalism because everything is an opportunity. Those masks aren’t going to help London tackle air pollution are they?

Yup – eating avocado (vitamin D) and almonds (vitamin E) gives your body all the nutrients you need to fight toxic air pollution.  

I’ve read this. It must be right. It also gives zero thought whatsoever to how those pops of goodness arrived here (air freighted) or what damage avocado and super-thirsty almond plantations are doing where they are grown.

Written by me in 1998.
That was the advice from at least one school nurse to asthma sufferers. 

One of my daughters has had a tricky time with asthma and we’ve met a large number of asthma nurses. Some are great, but very few understood the big picture or factored in what it meant to be a child who likes to use their legs and eyes in the big outdoors…

It makes sense, because there are still a huge number of families who drive their kids to school, refusing to accept that their journey is not necessary. It's still an aspirational desire to drive.

I’ve had a car in the past and of course it'll be used it if it’s temptingly parked outside and you’re running late… but get rid of the car and you’ll always walk, or scooter, or bike to school which teaches your kids good habits (and burns off breakfast). If rates can justifably skyrocket (and i wish they wouldn't if it kills independent stores) then so too can road taxes or the cost of the right to drive in a city in a diesel powered car. (I should add that I'm not that impressed by private petrol or electric vehicles either)

When environmental health officials are tricked (surely?) into saying it’s dangerous for kids to use the school playground be wary of following their advice.

Already most kids stay indoors far too much despite the indoor air pollutants from cooking, furniture, sprays and cleaning products create a toxic soup. They can’t be independent from a young age because of the dangers from cars knocking them over (not stranger danger). City kids need to know as much as possible about nature even if it is just jumping the weeds in the pavement cracks, pulling at last year’s hollyhocks languishing in the tree pits or hearing the blackbird singing on that house’s old TV aerial. Having a glimpse of even this diminished nature is what may help the kids figure out that life outdoors ought to be one of opportunity, not threat.

Front garden - there's a bird
in the apple tree.
My poor Victorian home is subsiding. The only way insurers deal with this is waging war on anything green around the foundations, and so the buddleia and jasmine have to go.

It’s impossible for me to denude the bricks while my head is swirling with toxic London fog scenes and the sweet inner-city robin cheerily sings when it sees me heading towards its corner of the buddleia brandishing a bow saw.

Watching The Crown on Netflix ought to cancel out visions of toxic smog… but no, in episode 4, in December 1952 there are a dreadful three days which flood hospitals and ultimately kill as many as 12,000 people during the Great Smog of London

Churchill is hopeless at coping with this, writing it off as British weather, an “act of God”. At least Sadiq Khan seems to be looking at our problem head on. Now he’s got to show the sort of leadership that no one has yet dared to do against the car lobby, and in particular diesel vehicles. Couldn’t we just do something radical like shake up the whole way Londoners move around for a trial phase and see if it made a difference?

Of course I’m not training to run the marathon, but I’ve heard the moans. Toxic air wrecks “Marathontraining plans” so the runners have to head to the indoor gym and cycle on stationary bikes and indoor running tracks, rather than plod pavements.

Wouldn’t it be great if the generation obsessed by bucket lists and meeting personal challenges could start working together to force politicians to make London’s air cleaner – and by default other cities cleaner as well? Because if they did within a year no one would ever have to cancel their training run. 

So where does that get us? Nine ways to clean up your act, or nine opportunities to speak up?  The only good seems to be that at last air pollution in London - and the impact cars, traffic (and airports) have on it - is at last being talked about by everybody, even if the messages aren't always clear. Next step is action. Please.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Why I’m taking a stand against Uber (with a nod to San Francisco)

Uber – a taxi service with a fab app – was born in San Francisco in 2010. By 2014 it had spread to 290 cities and had 8 million users worldwide. It’s primarily a city service, you don’t find Ubers in rural Britain yet. Ubering it home may seem like a great addition to our life, but look close and you’ll see why it’s a mighty bad habit for London. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

December fog, 2016, over Finsbury Park.
You’ll always remember your first Uber. Mine was a rainy night journey from Shoreditch to East London to a place my work colleague claimed was the ultimate cocktail bar. Turns out he was right (it’s the Bonneville Tavern, E5). We arrived at 10.30pm for a night of Twinkles. By the time I wanted to get home it was past midnight, the traditional hour that public transport parks up for the night. Another Uber ride was offered… but when I wobbled into the street I noticed a bus stop right by the bar. And there was at least one night bus that could take me all the way to my Finsbury Park home, and it was due in just10 minutes (admittedly not Uber’s two). When the bus blazed up I paid with my oyster - as painless, and habit-forming, as paying with the Uber app.

There was no one else on the 253 for a couple of stops, bar the driver. Perhaps everyone else took an Uber home? They might have done as last April it was worked out that every week in London 60,000 people download Uber on to their phone. I’ve been slow to this party, but did put “Sign up to Uber” on my 2017 new year’s resolution list.

Except I’ve changed my mind, because super-convenient Uber – with at least 25,000 drivers and 1.8 million users here in London - is a big part of the London transport problem. Not least because Uber’s target for London was 46,000 drivers (2016, not yet met).  How's that taking polluting vehicles off our roads? And what does it mean for traffic levels on the main roads which ought to be bus super highways, but are all too often traffic jams.

FACTS & FIGURES (2015-16)
Tube – 1.34 billion customers annually. Info
Bus – 9,300 vehicles operating on 675 routes. Info
Bus - More than 2 billion journeys made in London during 2015-16  Info. 

Black cab driver Ray Coggin is interviewed on Islington Faces, see link
I didn’t get it at first. When I saw the black cab drivers blocked the roads around Southwark tube and City Hall in protest against UberX, I thought the old boys in their big black diesel cabs (eye-wateringly expensive and rarely with a card machine) clearly didn’t like the competition new technology brings. 

It wasn’t until I watched Episode 4 of Netflix’s The Crown, spellbound by the 1952 Great Smog of London and suddenly began to make the connections. It’s thought that 12,000 people died as a result of those three foggy days, many as a result of the damage done to their lungs by the air pollution (a thick yellow sulphoric-tasting smog). 

The resulting Clean Air Act of 1956 is probably the birth of the modern environmental movement. But 60 + years on our lovely London is still polluted. The difference is that we can’t see what’s toxic.

In fact London’s air quality is so compromised by vehicle pollution from diesel fuel that its annual limit was broken just five days into the new year. That’s why there will be 9,500 early deaths in London during 2017. And a lot of suffering: think asthma, cancer and even increasing numbers of dementia and Alzheimers’ diagnosis.

Hot air balloon murals at Finsbury Park tube station.
What's hard
I’ve watched my London-raised younger daughter – and her school friends – wheeze with asthma. I’ve seen my mum cope with lung cancer surgery. You’d think there’s nothing harder than trying to help someone breathe when they cannot. But there is, and it’s being brave enough to do something about the toxic air pollution that’s blighting London.

As more than 90 per cent of Londoners live within 400 metres of a bus stop it’s a shame that the London bus fleet (9,300 vehicles) is still mostly diesel-powered. Even if all London's buses were electric - it doesn’t totally resolve the pollution problem. Nor does having an electric car (and we know the win of free parking in central London and not having to the pay the Congestion charge etc).

Only walking and cycling are properly clean ways of getting around our dirty city.

Now when a journey seems too far, and taking a bus or tube too inconvenient, Uber maths takes over. Unfortunately when it comes to cleaning up London’s air quality Uber is a far bigger part of the transport problem than you’d think. Here’s why: not only does a handy Uber ride encourage us to take a car, it is also taking passengers off the bus and tube network – and away from Tfl which does at least have motivation to clean up London. If travel numbers go down then buses will get parked. Night services withdrawn. Permanently. Without an alternative guess what will happen to Uber fares if there’s no competition? (Answer: fares will go up). And London’s ability to crack down on vehicle pollution will lose direction.
 Anything from San Francisco arrives with a buffer around it implying it’s clean, modern, right-on, hip. And yes it’s certainly meeting our lazy genes’ needs.

But if you want London’s air safe to breathe it’s not smart to be an Uber addict. 2017 is the year to step out of the car and say: Uber is not the best way to get wherever you’re going. It’s just another way of messing up London’s already toxic air.

  • ·      Useful info about Uber (critical, but admiring) see: