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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.

Friday, 10 July 2015

9 things to love about York

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. A great place for a short visit is the cobbled city of York - just two hours by train from London, and even quicker from Edinburgh. York is a very walkable city, has a brilliant university but is still compact - so not like it's namesake New York. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Walking the Shambles in York. (c) Lola May
1 You have got to take a trip to York. When the wind blows in the right direction it smells of chocolate; there’s a city newspaper, The Press, and the River Ouse runs through the town’s pale stone houses,  and sometimes even into the city which pubs like the King’s Arms seem able to celebrate. Here are a few more reasons...

Lots more info: http://www.visityork.org/

A signpost near Clifford's Tower helps visitors
navigate. (c) Lola May
2 York is designed for people to walk around. The centre is car-free and as a result it’s a pleasure to go there. As it’s on the mainline train route it’s a tempting stop for most UK visitors, especially if they want to see the top 5 tourist destinations which also include London, Bath, Cambridge and Edinburgh.

3 York is history heaven. A walled city - rebuilt by the Victorians offering today’s visitors a wonderful respite from shopping. Look out for the white rose emblem. And guess which city was named after it... yes, New York, USA.

4 York has zillions of pubs. One for every day of the year even. Some are riverside, some are tucked into the narrow lanes that you need to learn to call snickleways.

Use this map of real ale pubs in the city centre created by CAMRA (the campaign for real ale) volunteers.

5 York is a real looker. The Harry Potter look of the Shambles is a must see. The Shambles - voted Britain's most picturesque street in 2010 - is a Medieval street with the top storey of the timber houses overhanging the lower section. Years gone by it was full of butchers, now it’s full of tourist eye-candy – from locally-made chocolates and ice cream to superior leather bags and belts.

6 York is spooky. There’s a city ghost tour that I’ve not yet done, but I want to.

7 York is full of spiritually-minded types, even an Archbishop. Back in 1984 when an outspoken cleric muttered he wasn’t sure about the Virgin Birth the response was a lightning strike that set the Minster alight. It took some time to repair.

Go visit the Minster. Or if you are heading through York north on a train look right as you leave the station.

York uni students at James College can have BBQs
on campus. (c) Lola May
8 York University is world class, and set around a pretty lake enjoyed by wildfowl. There are now16,000 students - but the campus is so huge that it seems to work. The size is offset by practicals such as the university library being open 24/7 and regular buses (the 4, 44 and university hopper) which whisk staff and students to and from the campus. So you don’t have to bike. But if you do want to bike there are easy to navigate cycle routes, some off road and plenty of cycle parking. Although there could always be more places to prop a bike.

More about the university here. It's a good place to stay if you are visiting between June-September. Here's a link to all of York's buses.

Betty's is a York institution. Put your nose
to the window if you aren't able to go in.
aroundbritainnoplane/Nicola Baird
9 York has the best tea shops. Betty’s is amazing – whether you go to the tiny one off Stonegate or the bigger branch at St Helen's Square. Worth dressing up for (and missing breakfast).

Betty's has other tea shops in the north of England, but the York branches are the best. Don't worry if you have to queue - that's part of the tradition, see here.

Central Hall - always rumoured to be sinking, but it never does.
The university opened in 1963 so parts have a brutalist look .
(c) aroundbritainnoplane/Nicola Baird
10 York is an amazing place to be a student – but people work in York too and not just in academia or tourism. This is a city buzzing with creativity, industry and the pesky folk advertising their ghost tour.

Allegedly the ghost tour of York leaving each night from the King's Arms, by the Ouse Bridge, is the oldest York ghost tour (although surely the Victorians would have done something similar). Back in the 1980s a friend of mine led these walk & talks so the claims may be correct. Try the tour here.

Over to you
What's your favourite city to visit in the UK? Is it a favourite because of it's history or your history (I love York extra amounts because I was a student there & my Dad used to run the Friargate Wax Museum - now sadly long shut, but that's the reason I didn't mention the Jorvik Viking Centre...)

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

How to go on safari in the UK & find the big 5

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 about going on safari and looking for the Big 5. I've offered a few choices below (six!) plus some places you might find them. But you could create your own Big 5 list... Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Safari lodges for glamping on the Isle of Wight at Node's Point. The Isle of Wight
is a good place to see red squirrels and seals. (c) Park Resorts
If you ever imagine a safari in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana or Namibia you'll know that soon you will be looking for the "Big Five" by day. By night you'll be back at your tent sipping sundowners discussing the ones that got away, or planning the next day's sightseeing. The original Big 5 list was for big game hunters armed with a rifle not a camera. The popularity of big game hunting has meant that grand old homes in the UK invariably have some forgotten ancestors' big game trophies attached to the wall. Strange to hang a decapitated animal hung on the wall for generations.

I also puzzle about why those five choices.

Lions make sense, so does an elephant, leopard and rhinoceros but how come a buffalo is on the list? Surely a buffalo is just a big sort of cow?

Of course hunting the big five has changed. It's mostly done with binoculars and a camera. If you spot them all you have boasting rights, for ever. But you don't need to trek around the world to try and find impressive, elusive animals.

In Scotland people reckon the big five to spot are red squirrel, red deer (stag), grey seal, otter and golden eagle.

My own Big 5 list is reasonably tough to complete - but not only do you get to look for interesting British wildlife, you also start to think about healthy habitats as you visit beautiful places in the UK.

Here's some help below to get you spotting the British Big 5. Please let me know what you've seen, and where to find them.

On the hunt for hedgehogs along a Yorkshire lane Nell finds a huge puff ball mushroom.
HEDGEHOG (our lion)

  • Critically endangered
  • Squashed hedgehogs on the road indicates a population boom, and bust

Spotting a hedgehog is harder if you live in a town or city as they tend to be lined with solid fencing. But at St Tiggywinkles in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire you can see recovering hedgehogs and listen to hedgehog talks the whole year round.

Hedgehogs hibernate when it gets colder - so in the autumn be sure to leave undisturbed cosy piles of leaves where a hedgehog could warmly over-winter.

My friend Hugh Warwick is Britain's hedgehog expert. He wants us to rip out garden walls and other solid fencing and to pay far more attention to these utterly cute beasties, pointing out that they do good stuff for us too by eating up garden pests (so there's no need to use chemicals). His first book was called A Prickly Affair, and one of the next was Hedgehog. Have a look at his website, and if you meet him, insist on seeing his hedgehog tattoo.

SEALS (our elephant)
  • grey seals have a double chin
  • harbour seals look as if their head has been flattened (if you are looking at them head on)

There used to be an old bloke selling fish at Eyemouth, a fishing town just on the Scottish/English border. Tourists would buy a fish and then dunk it into the harbour where it was eaten by a spectacularly lucky, rather chubby seal.

In Norfolk at Blakeney Point you can take a boat trip to see a colony of seals. Several companies run these trips, leaving from Morston Quay.

There's also a small population of harbour seals in the Eastern Solent which can be spotted between Southampton and the Isle of Wight (see the report here).

It is a joy to see living seals - like all wildlife, look well but don't touch.

A safari tent at Node's Point holiday resort on the Isle of Wight.
You could structure your holiday around a Big 5 animal hunt on the
island - it's got seals and red squirrels, plus beautiful woods and beaches. (c) Park Resorts
RED SQUIRRELS (our leopard)

  • grey squirrels are non-native and seem to be everywhere (foresters and some gardeners find them very annoying)
  • red squirrels are native and rare

Our dog really dislikes grey squirrels
(this is his 'I've seen a squirrel face', now I will bark)
which may be why our family Big 5  list
is still missing a red squirrel.
I love the way grey squirrels chirrup, jump from tree to tree and are still crazy enough to be hand fed by people in city parks. But red squirrels are rather different, almost mythical creatures that revel in their secret hidey-holes. The best way to spot a red squirrel is to find a place where there aren't any grey squirrels - like the Isle of Wight. The National Trust woodland of oak and beech trees at Borthwood Copse has a red squirrel hide

A few years ago my family spent a day looking for red squirrels at Cragside, the huge Victorian pile in Northumberland. The estate is vast but there are meant to be lots of red squirrels here, even when it's raining.

However we couldn't find them and the website says if you are in the hide near the formal gardens and do see a red squirrel please tell the staff - so I guess it's pretty unusual.

Nell (left) isn't as keen on cows as her sister, Lola, or Dad.
POSH COWS (our buffalo)

  • Worldwide there are 800 breeds of cattle
  • Most dairy cows in the UK are Holstein-Friesian crosses
  • Native cows suit particular areas best - Aberdeen Angus (Scotland), Dexter (SW Ireland), Jersey, Guernsey

Talking to cows at an ice cream parlour
and tea shop in Yorkshire.
The Dinefwr white cattle have been at Dinefwr Castle, Wales for more than 1,000 years. With their long horns they look very different to the sweet-faced Jersey cows who are so good at creating cream - and they inspired novelist Eva Ibbotstone's wonderful children's story The Beasts of Clawstone Castle.

Visiting a farm that's set up for visitors is a great way for young children to see cows up close. Try seeing how many cow breeds you can identify if you are driving through farmland, or on a train.

Stumps arranged to encourage stag beetles to breed.
This is in a London park near Arsenal tube.
STAG BEETLES (our rhinoceros)

  • The vegan king of the mini-beast world (and able to fly, just)
  • People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) is asking the public to join their national great stag hunt, see how here.

In the south of England, especially in cities you can find stag beetles - as long as there is standing, rotting wood (stumps or piles) where they can oh-so-slowly metamorphosise from larvae into stag beetle and emerge above ground to look for a mate. I've spotted them in Brockwell Park, Lambeth. They may be living very close to you, so long as you aren't a compulsively tidy gardener. Allowing things to rot, and having wood and leaf piles helps wildlife so much. Ask your local nature park if they have a stag beetle site and if you do see one, take a photo on your mobile and send it the PTES.

Read a cute encounter with stag beetles here  and an informative one here

WOODPECKERS (our eagle)

  • All answer to the name Woody.
  • Boasting rights if you find a greater spotted woodpecker's feather (black, white & red).

Here the rat-tat-tat or the wah-wah-wah-wah cry in a wood and you need to look towards the sounds until you spot your woodpecker. There seem to be many more green woodpeckers, perhaps because these are often seen feeding on the ground where they will be looking for ants. Here's an ID guide to the three native woodpeckers.

WHERE TO STAY on a British Big 5 trip
Traditionally safari goers stay in a very posh tent - in the UK this is now known as glamping. And it's fantastic. Look around on the web to find places that offer glamping.  Of course you can still camp with a tent, but as Lola, now 17, explains, we don't camp much any more:

"When I was seven years old my parents took me on a camping holiday in the Lake District. That was camping with a C not a glamping trip. Whilst we had a very good time, every morning when we woke up it seemed as if the lake we were camping beside had got a little closer. And it had - we eventually had to abandon our tent! That's why I'd like to go glamping in the Isle of Wight - no lakes creeping into your tent, running water and comfortable beds without rocks under your sleeping bag. In fact it is the only way I'd consent to go on safari again!" Lola, 17

SPONSORED: Lola and Nicola were guests of Park Resorts on a day trip to see the new glamping facilities at their holiday resorts on the Isle of Wight:
  • The Isle of Wight can be reached in about two hours from Waterloo station, then take an Wight Link ferry at Portsmouth to Ryde (with its long sandy beach) or Fishbourne. http://www.wightlink.co.uk/iow/
  • Park Resorts has 48 UK holiday parks including the Lake District, three on the Isle of Wight and also along the Essex and Norfolk coasts. www.park-resorts.com

Over to you
Do share your family's big 5 adventures - and also any suggestions on where to find the animals, and where to stay. Thank you.

Monday, 22 June 2015

SPONSORED: Leicester offers an Indian bazzar and King Richard III detective story

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. A trip to Leicester’s newly opened King Richard III Visitor Centre impresses both a mum and her teenage daughter offering a mall, car-free streets, history with passion and the famous Leicester cuisine. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Look how people love to walk in the road in Leicester. Leicester City Centre is a great place for pedestrians - the 2009
street redesign won many awards. The Haymarket Memorial Clock is the centre of the car-free zone, about 10 mins easy
stroll to the station.
Leicester used to be famous chiefly for its Golden Mile of Indian restaurants, sari shops and stores along Belgrave and Melton Road, which is allegedly the closest the UK has to an Indian bazaar (even beating Brick Lane). But now say Leicester and whoever you are talking to will go, “isn’t that where they found the king in the car park?” 

It’s ironic really as Leicester is the most walking friendly city in the UK at the moment (this is my opinion, although York is a close contender). Back in the 1990s it had secured the crown for being a really bikeable city with loads of off-road cycle routes. Not everyone likes making massive cycle detours, but I’m sure the citizens of Leicester are suitably fit as a consequence.

But since 2009 the central part of Leicester is entirely car free. You can arrive at the train station (or use a park and ride, or a bus) and wander around on your feet in a shopping daze without fear you will be struck by a vehicle. And of course it’s quieter so easier to hear your companions chat as you stroll. Info about the redesign is here.

At the heart of the city is the Cathedral or Highcross Leicester mall – depending on your views.

The Cathedral garden is far lovelier
than this pic!
The Cathedral is surrounded by little lanes, dedicated to shopping and eating, and backed by the Guildhall and a Christian centre, which runs the very fine White Rose café. It is fronted by a beautifully designed wild garden which gives a wonderful feeling of meditative peace. And here’s the first clue of why we're here: a statue of Richard III who died “a king”, wearing his crown over his armour at the nearby Battle of Bosworth in 1485 – losing to Henry VII (Henry VIII’s dad).

Richard III’s body was lost for centuries, and then a determined screenplay writer, Phillipa Langley, read a biography on her holidays and developed a hunch the lost king must have been buried in a car park near the Cathedral. 

In February 2013 – after a long fundraising campaign and a tough-time getting the academics to take her seriously (but she managed it), a skeleton with a strangely shaped spine was discovered in the car park behind Alderman Newton school in what was once the site of Greyfriars Abbey.

Entrance and film in the arches at the Richard III Visitor Centre, Leicester.
Bad reputation
Richard III’s life is exciting for anyone, not just historians. His reputation has had to contend with Tudor propaganda (they were the winners of the Wars of the Roses after all) and Shakespeare’s unflattering portrait – acted over the years by stunning actors including Laurence Oliver, Ian McKellan and most recently Mark Rylance at the Globe. Plus there’s the tricky question of whether Richard III killed his nephews, the little princes who disappeared from the Tower of London under his watch.

At the newly opened King Richard III Visitor Centre visitors are encouraged to reconsider the evidence of what killed those princes. It’s a game, but the answers from the visitors reveal how very different this exhibition is:
  • Richard III killed them -8%
  • Normal causes killed the Princes - 10 %,
  • Lady Margaret Beaufort murdered them - 31%
  • Henry Tudor murdered them - 20 %
  • They were hidden - 10%
  • Duke of Buckingham murdered them - 9%

Portrait of Richard III (done after his death) and a model of his face, recreated using his skull - both at the King Richard III Visitor Centre. Richard III was only 32 when he died fighting at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He'd been king since he took the crown in 1483.
Good PR – better late than never
On the ground floor, with only her knowledge of Richard III from seeing the play Nell, 14, reckoned he was a baddie. But by the time she’d read the rest of the information boards she, like the exhibition, was utterly pro-Richard III. Richard is handsome (his scoliosis wasn’t that bad and didn’t effect him much); Richard is a lawmaker who improved juries and bail conditions, insisted on fair trials and also saw that laws were written in English so easier to understand than when they had been in French or Latin.

I’m used to National Trust and English Heritage exhibitions that show you a rich person (or family) from the past and hint at how they lived. It makes you want to ask questions, but doesn’t excite like the Richard III story. 

Here you are caught up in the Leicester team’s joy as they discover that DNA from relatives on the female side match the DNA in the bones they’ve found (all but the King's feet were discovered, these seem to have been destroyed by earlier building work in the area). The skeleton in the car park really is Richard III. 

It’s like a detective story – history at its compelling best.

On the ground floor the info panels are exceptionally well presented, and easy to read. I also liked the way your tour starts by watching a film projected between arches, which makes the characters seem to mingle with the visitors. The info is often asked as a question, challenging how you think. 

Upstairs it’s all about the discovery, the teamwork with universities and the positive effective finding Richard III had on people living in Leicester. Anyone who is a fan of Time Team is going to love this.

Without doubt this is the best history exhibition I’ve seen.

So who else would enjoy it? It works best for thoughtful kids who can read, although the finale – the grave site with a light outlining the awkward way the king’s skeleton had been dumped in his grave, which you can walk over on a panel of glass - would intrigue any age. There’s also a café in the exhibit.  Nell is planning to do a history GCSE so it was ideal for her (and I think A level and uni students would be just as captivated), but there were some younger Brownies going around who seemed to be finding Richard III’s story far more interesting than they’d expected when the Brown Owl told them about the visit.

Throughout our trip we could hear Leicester Cathedral bells peeling – a nice touch, but it was a special day with services to celebrate 800 years of the Magna Carta. But that’s another blog post…

  • Visiting the Richard III Visitor Centre, 4a St Martins, Leicester, LE1 costs adult £7.95, student £7, child (5-15) £4.95, family ticket of 2 adults, 2 children £21.50. Booking advised.    @KRIIICentre
  • More about bike lanes and car free routes in Leicester in my book The Estate We’re In: who’s driving car culture? (Indigo, 1998), available also as an ebook here
  • Highcross Leicester open mon-tues, thurs-fri 9am-6pm; wed 9am-8pm, sat 9am-7pm and sun 11am-5pm  @highcross


Wednesday, 17 June 2015

SPONSORED: The past may be another country, but space is another world…

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. So what can you do in Leicestershire or nearby - a stay, play, explore deal with one night away helps a mum and teenage daughter explore new worlds and learn about the space race. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Nell poses at the National Space Centre. (c) aroundbritainnoplane/nicola baird
On 14 June 2015 the Philae comet lander woke up after a seven months silence and contacted the European Space Agency - helping the Rosetta Space Mission push frontiers 300 million miles away from Earth

As I was growing up the space race was an ever-constant part of the news. 

We even had mini models of astronauts in our breakfast cereal.

I’ve always talked a bit of science to my kids, particularly on environmental issues, while their Dad does the space chats. But as we use solar thermal to heat our water in the summer (on sunny days) we were quite amused that poor Philae couldn’t operate until its solar panels received enough sunlight to power up. 

Solar is great, but you do have to adapt to nature’s rhythms wherever you are in the solar system.

And so as the Philae sends its message home, my 14-year-old daughter, Nell, and I are exploring the National Space Centre in Leicester. This strange looking £52-million building, designed by Grimshaw, has become a Leicester skyline landmark since it was completed in 2001. It’s at least six storeys high and inside there are two rockets, one from the US and one from the USSR (which was then known as CCCP). More on wikipedia here.

Nell was captivated by the National Space Centre, probably because of its mix of inter-active scientific process and historical story-telling. We arrived just in time for the first (free) film, We are aliens, narrated by Rupert Grint who is Ron in Harry Potter and shown in the planetarium. The film set the tone perfectly, encouraging us to explore space by trying out all the centre’s gadgets. There were lots of young families, but also a large party of young people with special needs, and me and my teen yet it seemed that all of us were kept interested and few of us had to queue to have-a-go – quite a triumph of exhibition planning.

Soon I was reading words like infra red wavelengths, microorganisms, scale model with proper understanding and not even laughing at acronyms such as ELT (extremely large telescope). 

Nell was happy redesigning her face via a computer so she looked like an alien (I can see this would make a good Zoella vlog), and then testing to see if she could join the space programme as a pilot. 

We’d spent two hours and were feeling very scientific… and then we realised we hadn’t yet been to see the rockets (see pic above).

Look closely at the logo - it's the horn and the hoof.
First triumph was Nell working out that the old Soviet symbol was parodied by George Orwell in Animal Farm (a book Year 9 reads at school) as the sign of the horn and the hoof. The exhibit in the National Space Centre tower is about the space race – triumphs and tragedies, especially for the unfortunate animals who got blasted off including space dog Laika (dies 1957/USSR) and the three space mice (one dies 1958/USA). Then in 1961 Yuri Gagarin (USSR) was the first man to go into space (and come back too), using a rocket that didn’t have a 100 per cent track record. And then there’s the “small step for man… giant leap for mankind” when Neil Armstrong (USA) walks on the moon’s surface in 1969.

The National Space Centre tracks these developments with music, fashion and even home décor. There's even an old style phone that rings so you can have a go answering it. "Hello, hello anyone out there?"

This activity (see 2 photos above) needs two teams, one in mission control (on the left/top) and one in the rocket (on the right/bottom). With two other families we'd never met, we eventually worked out how to solve the gravity pressure problems and using the walkie-talkie communicator launched our rocket - one mum and three toddlers. There were high fives all round. (c) aroundbritainnoplane/nicola baird
There are a lot of space countdowns and steam, but overall the National Space Centre makes learning so effortless that time whizzes past as your brain expands. I had to drag Nell away – three and a half hours after we’d arrived. Definitely a top choice for any age (yes, even aged 51 I enjoyed making a brass rubbing of an astronaut which I plan to pass to my older daughter should she forget to make a father's day gift).

Getting back to the centre of Leicester was easy too. We just took the bus near Asda - a five minute walk away. Unlike London buses (where I live), Leicester buses have a map of their planned route painted on the inside. It makes journeys into places you've never been, far easier. Anyone coming by car needs £2 to park at the National Space Centre.  Now that Leicester city centre is fully pedestrianised, it's a much easier place to navigate and there's also really clear signage.

Japanese garden and pond at
the Hilton Leicester. Stay here
as part of the stay-play-expore deal.
As part of the stay-play-explore package that GoLeicester is promoting, see below, and which makes family trips affordable and simple, we went to the National Space Centre, and on the previous day also visited Conkers, a fab play centre where you can build dens and learn to make a fire powerful enough to toast marshmallows on, see the review here

  • National Space Centre, Exploration Drive, Leicester, LE4 - costs £13 for an adult ticket and £11 for a child (5-16). Under 5s are free. Open tues-fri 10-4, sat and sun 10-5.