29-31 March: Watching spring emerge

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

Spring in Somerset continues to be dry and sunny, but the temperatures have dropped a few degrees now and there’s a few more layers to be worn when heading out. It’s still lovely though, and we’re really enjoying the novelty of fresh air (no bushfire smoke), wrapping up and watching spring break through.

We’ve settled into a bit of a routine, with a 45 minute pilates class every second day, and a walk or cycle daily. We’re hoping to make this ‘retreat’ healthy for our bodies in some ways – though we seem to be drinking gin or wine more frequently. What happened to alcohol free days?

After than 20 years living in Australia we really appreciate the seasons in Europe, especially enjoying the transformation of spring. We are actually enjoying the opportunity to stop in one place and watch the development happen.

Crossing a paddock along one of the many footpaths that wind through the countryside

Every paddock seems to contain a tree that almost looks like a sculpture, the lack of leaves only highlighting the shape and form. Leaves are not far off, with signs of new life popping up daily.

The new buds are beginning to burst

One of our walks took us through our local village of West Bagborough. History here dates back to at least Roman times, with a hoard of 4th century Roman silver coins discovered in 2001 by a local policeman with a metal detector. The hoard was purchased by the Museum of Somerset for £41,650 (around AU$85,000 at today’s exchange rate) and is displayed at Taunton Castle. Not bad for an afternoon out! The history of the area dates further back still, with evidence locally of Bronze age burial grounds in the hills.

St Pancras Church. The grey mansion in the background is Bagborough House, and dates back to 1730.

St Pancras Church sits high above the village and dates from the 15th century. It used to be the hub of the village but is now quite separate. During the Black Death pandemic (mid 1300s) most of the village died, leaving fewer than 100 people. They rebuilt the village lower down the hill to start anew and escape the bad memories. It makes you wonder how they current pandemic will also shape our future. What will change because of Covid-19?…I am sure it will be the topic of much analysis, essays and articles in the future.

The original bell tower door shows just how much shorter people used to be…I can’t see any problem actually

One good thing about being in the Quantock Hills is that there is no worry about being cold on a walk – there is always a steep slope on hand to warm you up. Our cottage is a third of the way up a hill, so this afternoon we decided to start our walk by heading straight up. That soon got the blood moving, I can tell you!

It’s so hard to capture the beauty of this scenery, all the more interesting as the clouds move away from the sun, allowing it to highlight fields momentarily
Moss covered trees along our pathway
A timer photo – we barely saw another human all day

We are certainly not complaining, but still the weather has been fine for us, allowing plenty of outdoor time. Today there was some cloud racing across the sky, giving us brief glimpses of sun as it lit up fields and trees as though spotlighting features for us to admire. The lack of vehicle noise is wonderful, with no planes, and people now discouraged from driving to the start of walks meaning that the sound of woodland birds is predominant.

The air is incredibly clear also, affording us views across to south Wales. To put that into context, here is where we sit on the map:

The green dot shows West Bagborough. The orange marking is our 11km walk circuit
Mr A admiring the view across the Bristol Channel through his binoculars
One of the wild Exmoor ponies that live up here – a horse breed native to the British Isles. There is evidence of these in Britain that dates back to 700,000 BCE
Fabulous views down to the coast, Minehead just below the headland
I just love this colour palette up here – the bracken in the foreground is already starting to show new green shoots, so it will soon change
New fern fronds uncurling
The prevailing winds help the trees lean to the left to afford us a better view

The wonderful thing about this area is that there are always new paths and routes to explore – we frequently meet a crossroads and mentally toss a coin as to which path to take this time. We have never been disappointed by what we find on the route we choose.

Daisies, celandine, primrose and blue anenomes
More curly leaves emerging
Well used pathways by hoof, foot and mountain bike
The first bluebell – will have to hunt out the best place to photograph these
On the homeward stretch across the fields, hat-free as the wind has dropped

And so ends the final day in March.

When we started the year, we thought we would be spending spring hiking and biking our way through Spain and Portugal with the odd break for port and wine tasting. While 2020 has not quite gone as anyone expected, we feel so fortunate to be able to spend our exile in such beautiful surroundings, thankfully with internet so we can remain in contact with friends and family and the ever more frequent Zoom parties.

We hope everyone reading this remains virus-free and healthy, and that it won’t be too long before we can all be physically social once more.

Another fine sunset to conclude the day and month…

27-28 March: Stocking up and loving the space

Author: Mr A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

Yesterday we had to go out into the big bad world, Truffy needed his MOT. If its due April 1st or beyond you are now given a pass for a while. Ours ran out two days before that so we found ourselves a lovely little garage and took a walk around the village while he was being examined. We saw this signpost for two villages that made us chuckle! Sounds like heaven.

Too far apart for drinks then dinner?

Thankfully Truffy sailed through the MOT so we then decided as we were out on “essential travel” to tackle a supermarket shop. Innocently wandering up to the entrance with our trolley we saw a few people strong out along the front of the store, so tried to find the end of the queue, walked around the next corner, and the next!

Thank goodness for never ending sunny days – imagine doing this in the pouring rain?

OK it was British queuing at its weirdest with everyone leaving massive 3 metre gaps between each other and glancing around nervously. When we finally got to the entrance we were told only one person per trolley, so off I scuttled back to Truff while Mrs A negotiated the one way system around the store.

More queues inside the store for each of the vegetable aisles

We were relieved to get home with our plunder, having managed to get most things we needed, even toilet rolls. Just as we pulled up, Jenny our landlady and saviour was delivering some fresh produce from the local farm shop. The day before the lovely folk at Wines Direct had managed to get 18 bottles delivered. They aren’t the cheapest at £10 a bottle, but wine beggars can’t be choosers. The supermarkets have bugger all left.

So things were really looking up! We have a full fridge and freezer and some wines to wash our home cooked dinners down with. We are loving catching up with everyone on FaceTime, and this morning had our first experience with Zoom. What a great success that was, thanks to Australian friends who had set up the meeting for us. He is in the data centre training business and now moved his training courses to the Zoom delivery platform. One of the participants had a birthday, so what a great way to share the moment in our physical isolation. We just have to make the best of what we can do. The time difference between here and Australia meant they were tucked into the champers and we were in bed supping our first pot of herbal tea of the day! We are going to have to arrange the next gathering in our evening…

We headed out for another walk, determined to explore this stunning area while we are in it. We meandered along footpaths covered in carpets of wild flowers, the wind blew but the sun shone once again, and we felt privileged to be here.

Following our noses and instincts as we spot signed footpaths and explore
The sheep are our main companions, and a long way away
Woodpiles
Exploring along a track marked on the OS map which used to lead to a grand mansion, long gone now
A dead tree lit up by the sunlight like an ornate sculpture in the field
Cheerful daffodils line every lane

We met a few locals outside their houses and said ”hi”, but not one other walker, so we didn’t feel we were breaking any UK government guidelines. We had walked from our front door and not got within two metres of another person, and no doubt boosted our immune system with the fresh air, sunshine and exercise.

Our local village is bright with the first tulips, cherry blossom, clematis and woodland forget-me-nots
Our local pub, tantalisingly close yet closed

Mid afternoon and we headed back to start dinner prep. It’s Saturday night and a chicken curry was on the menu. It feels lovely to have our own big kitchen to wander around in, then a comfy lounge to retire to. We could get used to this. Connected plumbing, hot water on demand, space to spread out in. We have been living in our caravan and motorhome now on and off for three years. Admittedly with time in friends houses, and our house sit at Christmas, but the latter was made so uncomfortable with the smoke and the heat. We are absolutely loving sleeping through the cold nights snuggled up. We only have to hope that our friends and family stay well and we will get through this.

Another fine sunset to end the day

24-26 March: Settling into Somerset

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

Tuesday: After a peaceful night’s sleep in our country cottage, we awoke to a blue-skied day and views stretching away in front of us. After the turmoil of the past few days we were almost anticipating having our home whisked away from us at short notice, but thankfully that didn’t happen.

We brought in our supplies from Truffy, realising that what looked like a lot in our tiny amount of storage space was actually meagre rations. Not quite what we needed to be able to minimise our time out of the house. Thankfully our friends Matt and Jenny have a couple of great local businesses which can supply us with fresh vegetables and meat so we think we will be ok.

Our sixteenth century cottage – ‘home’
Perfect Truffy parking – he can enjoy sweeping views from here
The view from our garden
Beautiful scented daffodils

We pulled out our bikes and set off for an explore. Current social isolation restrictions allow us some exercice each day from our front door, with running, walking and cycling all permitted as long as we avoid other people and don’t get into a car. Suits us perfectly!

Having ebikes allows us the freedom to explore without the worry about getting too tired. We set off first down the hill from home, whizzing through the little village of West Bagborough, past The Rising Sun pub (sadly closed due to restrictions) and keeping to the quiet little lanes as we explored. Unsurprisingly, given we are in the Quantock Hills, some of the roads were quite steep, but no problem on our bikes.

Another quiet lane

The clean, crisp, spring air was positively delicious and being outside in the sunshine was so invigorating. Every corner revealed more amazing country scenes, little churches nestled in amongst the hills, surrounded by trees laden with cherry blossom and magnolia flowers. Grand gateways hinted at manor houses hidden at the end of tree lined driveways, firing our imaginations at the history hidden here.

An intriguing archway and long driveway – entrance to the 17th century Cothelstone Manor

We found ourselves having a tea break at Cothelstone Hill, an area with spectacular views which has been in use since prehistoric times with burial mounds, and Neolithic flints discovered up there (around 12,000 years old). After exploring up there and chatting to another ebiker (from a distance!) about good rides in the area, we left with a plan for the following day.

Cothelstone Hill and its amazing views
Looking over at the Exmoor ponies grazing on the scrub
A group of trees known as the Seven Sisters
Looking down towards the power station on the Bristol Channel, south Wales beyond

We cannot enthuse enough about the fabulous spring weather we are enjoying. The UK has apparently had some substantial rain (while we were overheating in Australia and valiantly trying to avoid bushfire smoke!) so everyone around us is appreciating it too. From the garden at ‘our’ house we get to enjoy an amazing sunset each night. Long may it continue!

This outdoor table will have a front seat view come the warmer months
A beautiful sunset

Wednesday: We jumped back on our bikes, heading up the hill from the cottage and riding up to Lydeard Hill. From there we rode through a cattle gate and followed a ridge trail. It was mostly gravel, but on some particularly rocky and muddy parts we pushed the bikes. It would be perfect for mountain bikers though, and we saw one or two come whizzing past us.

A beautiful woodland track, hints of new leaves in the trees
Beautiful old moss covered trees have so much character
The ride we wish would keep on going forever
Another quiet lane
Perfect social distancing activity

Again we made up a great circuit ride, clocking up another 20km of fabulous scenery and fresh air.

Thursday: We decided to don our hiking shoes and take things at a slightly slower pace, heading into the village of West Bagborough and finding a walk trail that started in the cemetery of the old church there.

The walk starts here, at the church in the village
A stunning meadow of daffodils
Délicate primroses
Across freshly ploughed fields

From there we followed signs across fields, through woods and up a steep hill to Triscombe Stone, a 50cm high standing stone that was erected (it is suspected) during the Bronze Age (around 5,000 years ago) to mark a meeting place.

Loving these shadows cast by the bare spring trees
Forever serene views as we walk
Brightly coloured pheasants dash out from the hedgerows as we pass by
A bench with a view, surrounded by flowering gorse and the buzzing of bees provides a lunch spot

From there we walked up to Wills Neck, the highest point in the hills, enjoying 360 degree views around the area, looking across to South Wales, the Bristol Channel, Exmoor in one direction, and towards Devon in the other direction.

Triscombe Stone
More benches with great views
A friendly horse is waiting for us at the cairn on Wills Neck – also admiring the views
Horse watering hole
Nearly home
A stand of trees lines the lane home

We managed to join several walking tracks together and make a great circuit back to our cottage after 10.5km (6.5 miles). If you are visiting Somerset and want to repeat this same walk, Mr A has written it up in detail here.

Our base for the next 12 weeks…and beyond?
A new moon, and another sunset over a crystal clear starlit night

There are so many walks and potential cycle routes from here, we feel so grateful for where friendship and fate has led us. Finally we can breathe a sigh of relief and settle in to our new life here in Somerset.

15-23 March: Modifying Truffy, getting evicted and finding a new home

Author: Mr A

Location: Doncaster (Yorkshire), Harby (Nottinghamshire), Kettering (Northamptonshire), Brighton (East Sussex), West Bagborough (Somerset), UK

In my dotage, which is looming ever closer, I hope to be able to say that we, and all those we hold dear, survived these scary times, came out the other end having learned new things about what’s important to us and the planet we call home.

It has been a roller coaster week of intense highs and lows. It started with me heading north to Doncaster for a couple of days to get some major modifications to Truffy. We had decided to get a levelling system fitted as every time we set up camp we have to drive him up on massive ramps. Not always in good weather, and not always leading to good marital relations as Catherine tries to direct me up the various levels without driving over the top of them. Yes I did that once. So we now have four hydraulic legs that lower down with the press of a button and get the Truff all nicely level.

To be frank, Doncaster isn’t somewhere I’m going to be rushing back to, but I did discover an awesome cycle route just outside of town that none of the web sites I searched even mentioned.

The Trans Penine Trail, running coast to coast is one of the great cycling infrastructure assets of the UK with over 200 miles of signed path on mostly dedicated cycle way or quiet roads. What a fabulous opportunity to “socially distance” myself and ride its quiet paths.

The Trans Pennine Trail
A beautiful spring day to be out cycling
The Stainforth and Keadby canal – connects the River Donn and River Trent

I would prefer the term “physically distance” ourselves as being more precise. We need to continue to socialise, to support each other and keep ourselves mentally healthy, just not by physical socialising.

I then rejoined Catherine in my old home town stomping ground of Kettering, and once again experienced the generosity and thoughtfulness of our friends, with whom we had a cracking evening filled with gin, red wine, Indian takeaway and much laughter, then a hangover breakfast and a escorted shopping trip to try and stock up an empty Truffy larder.

Cheers! Lots of laughs…

We had booked on to a campsite in Brighton for a week. By now we had accepted that camp sites were likely to close and we would have to find a rental place. That proved harder than we thought with landlords returning to their holiday homes, and press articles appearing from rural communities saying they didn’t want incoming travellers escaping the cities and overloading their health services. Fair enough, but where were people like us with their homes rented out going to go? Some friends near Lincoln had offered co-habitation in their fabulous place, but we didn’t know how long this would have to be for so felt we really needed our own front door and not have to impose on friends in their sanctuary.

Brighton Pier only available for careful takeaway
Blue skies hide the chilly north-easterly wind that was blowing

Catherine managed a couple of brief catch ups with her sister and family, and also a friend from Sydney who had travelled over for her mum’s 100th birthday, only to be told on landing that the care home she was in had just been placed on lockdown.

Catherine and Wendy maintaining distance while catching up on news

There are so many stories like this around the world are making this a hugely stressful time as we try and adjust our lives and expectations.

Sisters can’t be torn apart
A couple of elves in the park

Then on the second day into our week‘s booking we were told we had to vacate the camp as they were closing, with immediate effect. We were stunned. We had nowhere to go. There had been some bad press about people streaming down to the coast to caravan parks and I think the government put pressure on the parks to close. But with zero notice we were in a difficult position.

After some calling around we found another site that was still open, booked that and were ready to head off when they rang and said they had changed their mind. Then we found another that was still open. We called in on Catherine‘s mum in Hastings, to pick up some parcels and deliver Mother’s Day flowers and card. These were passed across the threshold of her door, no hugs or kisses today. So hard for all of us. But we must behave responsibly.

It was a stressful night, made suddenly better by another kind gesture from friends who offered us a spot on the driveway of their new house. Power and water and electric hook up. We got up in the morning all ready to head to Essex.

The very much non-glamorous side of Truffy travels – heading out to the shower block in 2°C !

Then another offer came through from friends we made way back over 15 years ago in Sydney. They had a cottage available in Somerset. The property we were offered was a 16th century farmhouse set in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Quantock Hills. We were both on the edge of tears with relief. Our own front door, in an area we had wanted to visit anyway.

Off we shot down some very quiet motorways and arrived as the late afternoon sun set over the hills. We sipped a gin, held hands, and gave thanks to the kindness of friends.

14-17 March: Being world travellers in a Covid-19 world

Author: Mrs A

Location: London and Little Gaddesden, UK

Life is becoming quite surreal, yes more so than usual! As the coronavirus takes hold globally and ever increasing measures are put in place to help protect health systems and patients, our travel life is certainly not going as we expected.

Mr A and I went our separate ways on Sunday, him heading up to Doncaster to get a new levelling system fitted on Truffy (means we can travel with a washing machine instead of giant ramps, and getting us level each night will be much easier). I meanwhile headed south to stay with my cousin and her family in Little Gaddesden in Hertfordshire.

Bumping elbows instead of hugging, administering hand sanitiser at every opportunity and washing hands for a good 20 seconds, we are doing as much as we can, but one is all too aware of the invisible enemy out there. Every cough is quickly smothered with an excuse, a lack of fever or breathlessness appreciated. I had an element of anxiety that I might be introducing our invisible enemy into the healthy household, despite not having knowingly been in contact with anyone with Covid-19. They too had the same fears with my cousin’s daughter Ella still going to school.

My reason for heading south was a doctor’s appointment in London. I’d had some unusual blood test results earlier this year, so was off to see a specialist at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. Until the morning, I was neither sure whether the appointment was still happening, nor whether my mum would still take the train up from Hastings to meet me there.

It turns out, both happened. With unfamiliar trepidation I caught a train down to London, careful to disinfect everything I came into contact with – the touch-screen ticket machine, the arm of the seat I sat in. There was hardly another person on the train.

An almost deserted platform at Berkhamstead station

Mum and I met at Hampstead tube. It felt very strange only to do a very brief and careful hug after not seeing each other since November, but with both of us in high risk categories (mum over 70 and me with an airway disease) we were being ultra cautious. Mum spent the first 20 or so years of her life in the Hampstead/Gospel Oak area, so this was a real trip down memory lane for her.

A catch up over a drink at a local pub
Coffee for mum, soda water for me and lots of hand washing!
Lovely spring colours belying the cautious overtones

It was a beautiful spring day, blue skies and a gentle breeze, the air clear and the streets not crowded. We strolled up as far as Hampstead Heath and enjoyed the views over the city, life going on with new leaf buds fit to burst, daffodils bobbing in the breeze and blackbirds singing in the trees. You cant help but wonder whether mother nature has her own plans for saving the planet by wiping out the cause of so much damage…let’s hope not!

Whitestone Pond – mum recalls skidding across this with her sister when it froze over during winter
Mum remembering her time at Hampstead Heath
Flowers frame our view of central London

We enjoyed delicious vegan lunch in a bright little cafe then it was down to the hospital.

Delicious food at Ginger and White cafe
Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead

An hour later and we were off, catching the number 24 bus to Camden Road, the same route mum used to take to work when she lived in London, BC (before Catherine!).

It is expected that soon over 70s will be asked to completely avoid any social contact. This may well be the last time I see mum in person for weeks, or even months, but it is worth it to keep her well and safe. We farewelled and headed home on nearly empty trains, repeating the regular sanitising and social avoidance.

It’s a tough time to be travelling. Watching people in France in a two week lockdown makes us wonder what we are in for. Our family is so close, and while we would love to spend time with them, it looks like we might have to keep our distance. Our plans remain forever fluid as we adjust them by the moment, hoping that one day this will be just another experience we lived through and survived.

9-13 March: Our fluid plans start flowing

Author: Mrs A

Location: London and Harby, Nottinghamshire, UK

Our flight from Vienna left without a hitch and we travelled across London to a hotel near Kings Cross, where we had planned to spend the night. We had just missed a heavy rain shower and everything was shining and glistening as we wheeled our cases along the street.

Just over 8 months of luggage wheeling along the street

After dropping our cases, we went off for an explore, the spring sunshine coming out for the end of the day.

The gothic St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, built in 1873 has been opulently restored. This is not where we stayed!

Seeing this area of London through our post-Vienna eyes we noticed the stark contrasts. The numerous homeless people sat shivering and begging for money along the street were something that was hidden in Austria, but here so visible. The beautiful buildings are still there, but all too often nestled next to 1960s and 70s monstrosities, little apparent thought given to blending the building styles.

We saw a sign pointing towards the Regents Canal, a waterway that has been substantially revitalised in recent years. It was busy with people enjoying Sunday afternoon, strolling home along the towpath with shopping in hand, or stopping at one of the waterside bars for a glass of wine or a pint.

Office buildings and residences alongside the Regents Canal
Sunset as we stroll back to the hotel

It’s definitely an area that is in the midst of being revitalised, with old tower blocks being demolished in favour of interesting open air bars and shopping, eating and entertainment precincts.

Later that evening we met up with London-based friend Jacky for our first British curry, opting to go to north Indian restaurant, Yatri, attracted by its great reviews. It certainly deserved its good reputation, with delicious food and a modern cosy atmosphere.

Fellow iSGS patient, Jacky

On Monday morning we took the train up to Nottinghamshire, jumping off at Bingham Station, where we were met by one of the Fuller’s Leisure team and escorted to Truffy, our motorhome.

Habitation experts Nathan and Dave from the Fuller’s workshop did an excellent job as always…’Fuller’s Leisure, always a pleasure’

They had been working on a few warranty issues and upgrades while we were back in Australia, and after a tour around all the new amendments and features, we drove off up to our friends’ house, just south of Lincoln.

We’ve enjoyed a lovely week with our friends John and Catriona, who so generously have opened their home and driveway to us to allow us to get ourselves sorted. We even have our own wing to the house – it’s going to be hard to leave!

A 14km (9 mile) walk on Thursday from our friends’ home along a rail trail took us straight into Lincoln, a historical university city with a castle and cathedral. We relished the sunny day, wrapped up against the chilly wind that seems to come straight from Siberia!

Mr A all wrapped up
Being a rail trail the path is very level and avoids the muddy pathways
Hazelnut catkins and new leaf buds show signs of spring
The fields look descriptively dry with their crispy wheat stems – this area flooded over the winter months and there were quite a few puddles remaining
Lovely colours
Flowering blackthorn bushes line the path

While in Lincoln we caught up with my cousin’s daughter, Hannah, and treated her to dinner. We can still remember our student days, appreciating any signs of civilisation and it was good to hear how she was doing six months into her course.

Kanpai ! We introduce Hannah to her first taste of Japanese Sake

Where to from here?

Our plans were originally to head off to Spain on a ferry two weeks tomorrow. But now with the rapidly spreading Covid-19 virus and estimates that around 70% of the population will catch it, being stuck with an underprepared medical system in Spain is not too attractive. Add in the complexities with my airway disease, and you could end up with a potentially life threatening situation (there are no specialists in iSGS in either Spain or Portugal). As borders are starting to be closed off, this seems like an unnecessary risk to take.

So instead, we are planning to practice our relative social isolation by travelling around the UK. At the moment we are thinking that Devon and Cornwall might be attractive options, as well as Wales. Our next couple of weeks will be with family and friends, inter dispersed with some medical visits, and hopefully remaining healthy. We are pretty good at changing our plans on the fly, so will play things by ear over the coming weeks and months…we’ll keep you posted!

4-8 March: This year‘s Europe adventure begins…in Vienna

Author: Mr A

Location: Vienna, Austria

We decided to go ahead with our Vienna trip even though the medical conference that Catherine had been invited to speak at had been postponed . Covid -19 cases are pretty much non existent in Austria so far, and life continues with a degree of normality that has been comforting. Toilet rolls and hand sanitiser are on the shelves of supermarkets, and there’s hardly a mask to be seen. The streets are still vibrant with locals catching up over coffee and those wonderful Viennese pastries. The tourist hordes are missing, and of course that’s fabulous.

An oat milk hot chocolate for Mrs A – stark contrast to the rest of dairy-Austria

On our walk round the city we started to see the beauty in the architecture here. Voted the world’s most liveable city ten years on the trot, we wandered past the Sigmund Freud museum, as the father of psychoanalysis lived and worked here for much of his life. Countless grand buildings house the concert halls, palaces and universities that dominate this classy, urbane and clearly prosperous city.

St Stephen’s Cathedral is a striking landmark
Is there a light on? No, the late afternoon sun catches the window as we pass
A magnificent interior

In three days we haven’t seen anyone begging on the streets, or people sleeping rough. The locals dress with style, chic scarves tossed over shoulders draped in smart winter jackets. Trams whiz along broad streets lined with an eclectic range of up market shops. This is a city with panache, and we love it.

Walking past the magnificent Hofburg – a baroque palace filled with museums

The first night we met three of the senior cardio thoracic surgeons who had driven the establishment of the conference. They had invited us out to meet and greet, very kind given their punishing workloads. As usual I had that swelling of admiration for Catherine as she has positioned herself to help so many women suffering from the same disease as her self through the Facebook support group she established. Now with over 4,000 members it is literally a lifeline of knowledge and emotional support for them, and recognised as such by the world leading medical practitioners who work in the field.

The next day (Mrs A’s birthday) dawned with blue skies and crisp temperatures. What a pleasure for walking around. First stop was to see if we could get tickets for the opera at the main state theatre on Saturday, and we did. Opera in Vienna, a bucket list item for us. A plethora of restaurants and cafes line the pavements. We chose one on the river Danube that dissects the city. A lovely lunch of chicken soup (Catherine is fighting a cold) and a glass of the local white wine for which Austria is famous, Gruner Vetliner. It has really become a favourite of ours with its smooth elegant bouquet. In fact Vienna is the only city in the world that grows significant quantities of grapes within its city boundaries, housing around 350 vineyards. This is our kind of town! Great food, quality wine, and a relaxed vibe. There always seems to be time for the locals to have a coffee!

Horses and carriages outside the Hofburg
A horse and carriage trots past us as we stroll through the streets
We have just purchased tickets to the opera!
Inside the Hofburg
Everyone dresses like they are out of an advertisement, with a backdrop of stunning architecture in every direction
Every open doorway reveals another magnificently decorated courtyard

Catherine’s birthday dinner had been venue had been recommended by her key contact here. Dr Tom’s a super busy in demand doctor, but he finds the time to even book it for us, and what a superb choice it was. Croatian seafood was the focus, and after a melt in the mouth octopus entree we had talbot and succulent veggies baked in a big casserole type dish swimming with juices that cried out for bread to mo it up. I obliged…several times. We are definitely leaning towards being pescatarians these days, with an ever decreasing amount of meat finding its way onto our plates in the eating choices we make.

Cheers! A nice bottle of Gruner Vetliner accompanies our fish perfectly
A delicious birthday feast at Konoba Restaurant

We were a little nervous about the bill, as the fish prices were by the kilo and we hadn’t worked it out, but pleasantly surprised with a total of just shy of €90 (150 AUD), and this included aperitifs and a bottle of wine. Good value indeed. Budget worries are likely to feature in our plans given we are watching our investment portfolio, the returns from which fund our travel, get wiped by the market drops due to the virus. Ah well let’s see. It’s out of our control.

Mrs A is tempted by an exhibition at the Albertina museum
Mrs A spends a couple of indulgent hours enjoying the art in the Albertina while I entertain myself in nearby coffee shops

We wandered these city streets for four days, clocking up according to our iPhones over 43 kilometres of walking. It’s been an absolute delight with no real agenda we just leave our hotel and wander where our fancy takes us.

Some early signs of spring as we walk about the city
The Danube looking swollen and fast moving….we had little rain, and a brief sprinkling of sleet, but generally it was dry, despite the foreboding skies
The Scottish winter gear is appreciated!

Then it‘s our last night here and time to enjoy the opera at the main state concert hall. The Wiener Staatsoper is a massively grandiose affair and we felt so privileged to be there, dwarfed by the 1,709 seat renaissance building. The opera was Manon, not one we had seen before or knew anything about, but that didn’t stop us immersing ourselves in the pageantry and incredible musical artistry.

Pre opera dinner at Glasweise Währingerstraße, another recommendation from Dr Tom
Another fine meal recommendation – and popular with the opera crowd
Built in 1869, the Wiener Staatsoper is steeped in history and looks magnificent at night
The exterior architecture pales in contrast to the opulent interior
The incredible entrance hall
Every surface is covered in frescoes, tapestries, carved wood, marble and tiles – it feels palatial
Getting settled in our box with a fabulous view of the stage – €65 a ticket, last minute
The final bow from the cast of Manon – incredible voices

We leave with unfinished business here, always a good sign, there was so much we still wanted to do. Cycle down the Danube, visit some wineries, listen to classical music on a summers evening in the square sipping an Aperol spritz. Let’s see…

21 February – 3 March: Farewell Australia and a flying visit to Singapore

Author: Mrs A

Location: Sydney, Australia and Singapore

Time has absolutely flown by. When we left the UK at the end of October last year, the 17 weeks we had in Australia seemed to be so long, but before we knew it they were coming to an end.

We made the most of our last ten days, catching up with friends over various dinners and lunches, interjecting those events with walks, yoga and pilates sessions to add a bit of balance (albeit somewhat wobbly on occasion for Mr A).

Lunch with long-time friends Richard and Rosemary was delightful as ever
A beachside lunch in La Perouse with friends Robert, Jenny, David and Owen

We collected our caravan from RV-GO who had done a great job with the repairs, finishing early having garnered some extra time with fewer customers than they anticipated. It’s impossible to not have noticed the latest strain of coronavirus (Covid-19) spreading around the world – well, aside from the publicised shortages such as toilet paper and food staples, it seems caravan parts from China are also hard to come by. The final repairs will need to be done in November when we’re next back in the country. We dropped the Zone, the kayak, car and bikes down to our undercover storage in Nowra, and locked it up for the next nine months. We wonder what will have happened in our lives by the next time we next travel in them.

An afternoon’s visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art
Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens looking splendid
Enjoying the cooler temperatures in the shade
A visit to the Plants with Bite exhibition in the gardens – all about carnivorous plants – well worth a visit if you’re in the area
A pair of Australian Kestrels entertain us on a hike along the coast
Looking south from Malabar towards Botany Bay on a warm overcast hike

I had another set of injections into my airway, my doctor continuing to be very happy with what he’s seeing and breathing continuing to be great. If my procedures keep going this well I’m going to almost feel like a normal person!

Finally it was time to head off, saying a tearful goodbye to Miss Tassie (who was fairly non-plussed about our departure).

Solar-cat Tassie enjoying a little balcony time with her foster parents, Jenny and David – as long as she has cuddles, food and sunshine, she is one happy Burmese

We boarded a fairly empty flight from Sydney to Singapore on Sunday morning. The flight took us just over the equator to southern mainland Asia, an easy nine hours of watching movies and eating food in a very comfortable plane. At the airport we were met by friends Andie, Jang and their daughter Rosie.

We were driven back to their condominium on the island of Sentosa, to the south of Singapore city. Sentosa translates to mean ‘peace and tranquility’ in Malay, and it certainly delivered on that count. As we were only stopping over for two nights, we decided to avoid the city with its shopping centres, food courts and bustling bars and restaurants, and instead stuck to exploring on foot the quiet manicured pathways and beaches around the island.

This is the southernmost point of continental Asia apparently, just 136km north of the equator

Our choice was not only driven by a desire to explore a new area of Singapore, but also a precaution against viral infection, slim as the chance might be. Singapore has very tight monitoring systems in place, and our temperature was taken on several occasions to ensure we didn’t pose any risk to other residents.

Not many people out walking
A Changeable Lizard in his breeding colours
Our lizard hoping I can’t spot him disguised on top of the rock
The gardens and walkways are beautifully manicured with a team of workers constantly trimming, weeding and planting
An 11km walk around the coastline in 34 degree heat meant that a sit down was occasionally called for
The Singapore Strait is dotted with many ships – we counted 60 we could see with the naked eye

We were also keen to try and maintain fairly healthy immune systems and managed to be fairly civilised with our socialising, and for the first time ever in all our time visiting Singapore, we woke up each morning with clear heads, despite all efforts to corrupt us with delicious wine!

A swim and refreshments at one of the many beach clubs along the coastline. Miss Rosie (7) very proud of her sandcastle
View from another fine dining experience with our friends
On the top level of the condo, a spa has fabulous views across Singapore
The sparkling city on the skyline, about 8km drive away

We had a great time with Andie and Jang, generous hosts with a lovely home. Before long we were saying goodbye once again and boarding our flight to London and from there, on to Vienna, Austria.

Watch out Europe, we are on our way!

6-20 February: Hunter Valley, Newcastle and into our final weeks in Sydney before the next European adventure.

Author: Mr A

Location: Hunter Valley, Newcastle and Sydney, NSW, Australia

Well the climate gods have certainly had an amusing time throwing the whole fires and floods at Australia this summer! After years of drought, the worst fires on record (yes that’s a factual statement), many areas in NSW are now flood, receiving more rain in the last two weeks than for several years. What a welcome relief to hear the restorative power of those raindrops lashing on the roof.

We first saw the miracle of what solid rain could do when staying with friends in the Hunter after leaving the coast on our trip down to Sydney. Over the course of under 24 hours we watched their paddock go from brown to green. Unfortunately the rain will not save this years vintage. The Hunter valley usually produces some outstanding wines. Not this year. Apparently 80% of the wine growers will not be able to produce anything because of the tainting from the bush fire smoke that will only grow stronger as the wine sits in the bottle. Just another industry that is under stress from our changing climate.

Our friends took us wine tasting to Ben Ean, a relatively new business that has established itself in the old Lindemans winery. They were showcasing some excellent local wines, with a great mediterranean focused restaurant, and a small shop with local products for sale.

Into Ben Ean, now owned by two of the Hunter’s oldest wine making families, McGuigan and Peterson

I throughly recommend you check it out, together with the Gundog Estate winery next door. We picked up some fabulous wines here to take for our last few weeks in Sydney before we leave for 9 months, and the various dinners that would involve!

Picking up some outstanding drops in Gundog Estate, helped by the lovely Cathy

We also called in on another friend in the Hunter living on a vineyard, He has an amazing cellar and another case was procured to see us through the weeks ahead. Some really interesting wines in this little selection.

Please go and support these businesses up in the Hunter, they will really need us this year if we are to continue to enjoy a thriving wine industry in Australia.

Our next stop was Newcastle, up the coast from Sydney a couple of hours. This city is also becoming a real hub for good food and wine. Is that why our friends moved there? Well we had a cracking weekend finding out, with visits to excellent bars, restaurants and cafes, and some walks between showers to burn off the calories.

The rain held off for a coastal stroll
The surf is really rolling in with the storms
A sudden downpour calls for beer and negronis

Spending quality time with friends, breaking bread, shooting the breeze, sharing dreams and memories, this is so important to us. It had been a friend‘s birthday a few days before and her hubby had organised for six surprise guests to arrive for a night. Well the extreme weather and ensuing accidents on the roads put paid to Plan A, and then Plan B, finally Plan C worked and she was delighted to see not just the four of us for dinner but ten smiling faces round the table. Nothing better…

Pre dinner drinks at Bar Petite
Then the big surprise at Rustica restaurant
The surprise dinner

We luckily had a storm free run down with the caravan to Sydney and dropped it for repairs after my little accident in January. If you are the driver of white ute who careered round a corner in Nowra on the 2nd of January and forced a Land Cruiser towing a caravan to veer out of the way and hit a street sign…I hope you were rushing to something important enough to risk others peoples‘ life and limbs (and property).

Caravan-free, we made it to Matraville in Sydney’s south eastern suburbs , where our dear friends Jenny and David live. This is where our fur child is well cared for while we are away. These are always happy times, sharing meals and laughs with these guys and other Sydney based friends, tinged with a little sadness knowing it will be a long time before we see them all again. We leave on March the 1st and are not back until mid November. But what tales we will all have to share by then?

Looking back at La Perouse
Stopping on our ride around Yarra Bay for a cup of tea on the rocks
A golden orb spider
A red gum
Looking out across Botany Bay
Sunday morning hiking gang
A lovely catch up with friend Rachel at Japanese restaurant Izakaya Fujiyama
We cycled over to Maroubra for a cup of tea with friend Twiggy, visiting from Brisbane

We have managed to get out on our bikes for some rides, the last one being an absolute cracker along 18 km of almost continuous car-free cycleway along the southern beach suburbs of Sydney from Kyeemagh (just south of Sydney airport) to Cronulla.

Calm waters at Kyeemagh Beach Baths as we set off
Cook Park
Some welcome shade as we ride along through Ramsgate, looking out into Botany Bay
Lunch at Zimzala Restaurant in Cronulla

It’s so great to see some investment going into upgrading parts of this popular route. If we use this infrastructure then hopefully our councils will see the demand is there and continue to invest.

So now we settle into the last 10 days of our time in Australia, with much to still organise, and our excitement building as flight day approaches.

3-5 February: Finding cooler temperatures amongst the Great Lakes

Author: Mrs A

Location: Forster-Tuncurry, NSW, Australia

Monday: It was a hot day when we departed from Yamba, with temperatures climbing up in to the late 30s. We enjoyed the air conditioning in the car as we travelled, and we soon abandoned thoughts of breaking the trip down to Forster with a bush camp, choosing instead to call ahead and book an extra night at the campground.

We’d only been settled in about half an hour when the ‘southerly-buster’ hit. This change in the wind direction brought a dramatic thunder storm, some brief but heavy rain, and all importantly, a massive drop in temperature down to more comfortable early 20s. We slept the best in weeks!

Tuesday: The cooler temperatures hung around for the next morning, so we carried our kayak down the water for a paddle.

Our new location is a campground on the estuary of the Wollamba River, near where it meets up with the Coolongolock River and the waters of Wallis Lake. It’s the northern most end of the Great Lakes council area. The waters around here are absolutely riddled with oyster farms, the crystal clear water ideal for growing Sydney rock oysters. Wallis Island is one of many islands around the area and is home to an exclusive château worth $20 million, but now on sale for a mere $5 million if you’re interested? You’ll need a boat and perhaps a helicopter too though… Bargain…

Pelicans hang around the campground in anticipation of fish scraps
Stormy skies over some of the less expensive waterside properties in the area
Enjoying the cooler temperatures on this grey morning with a cup of tea
Oyster farms dot the shallow waters – to our right a farmer’s workplace

Later on, we jumped on our bikes to cycle into Forster-Tuncurry. These small twin towns are adjacent sides of a bridge and the estuary. Forster was named after the secretary for lands in the late 1860s, while Tuncurry is said to mean ‘plenty of fish’ in the local Aboriginal dialect. The area is popular with fisher people, so the interpretation of the name appears to be right.

After ticking off a few tasks we continued our ride out to a trading estate on the edge of town. There we pulled up at a rather closed looking factory. Within seconds a roller door opened and a gentleman with a light Durham accent (town in the north of England) invited us in.

On checking into the campground I had spotted a flyer for a local micro-brewery, The Coastal Brewing Company. Generally only open Friday to Sunday, Mr A had emailed to ask whether we could try a tasting – the prompt response letting us know we were welcome.

We opted to share a $10 tasting paddle of four of the beers on tap, with a couple of bonus tastings thrown in for good measure.

David pulls another tasting

The brewery is still in its first year of operation and is a labour of love for David and his wife Helen. David had a longtime career with international accounting firm Deloitte in Sydney, but decided to turn his hobby and passion for beer making into a business. At least there are no fears in ensuring the numbers add up, but it sounds like they are both learning a lot as they go. As for the beer? All delicious – I’m not a major beer drinker, but my sips were very agreeable and Mr A was very positive about the ones he tried. We returned later with the car to purchase some selections to share with friends later on in the week. Coastal Brewing sell through bottle shops around NSW, so if you enjoy a good craft beer, I’d check out their website to find a stockist near you.

Our cycle back to camp took us past a large oyster shed, so of course we had to call in and pick up a dozen for a late afternoon snack.

Fresh from Wallis Lake – delicious!
Percival Pelican looks disappointed in our lack of fish

Wednesday: We are finding ourselves switching into our transition mindset as we enjoy our last few days in the caravan until our next return to Australia in mid November. Food stocks are being run down and clothes organised to ensure we know what we need to take back for a rather wintry March in Europe.

After a morning of washing and organising, we decided we ought to get out to stretch the legs, so drove over to Cape Hawke Lookout in Booti Booti National Park. The fly catchers were out in abundance, and we soon realised why – the mosquito population is rather healthy out here! We drowned ourselves in repellant, but it seemed to only serve to alert the little bugs as to where we were, and our climb up to the top of the hill and the tower on top was accompanied by the constant high pitch whine of little wings as they jostled for a drink of our blood.

‘Give blood’ they urge….oh, we did…!

Our stay at the top of the lookout was rather brief, before we bounded back down the hill to the safety of the car and drove off.

Looking out to the nearly 12km of Tuncurry Beach in the distance

More rain is expected from midnight tonight and, with the highest possible water restrictions in force here, everyone is hoping it arrives. We’re anticipating a wet pack up in the morning as we up-sticks and head to the Hunter Valley for tomorrow night, hopefully bringing the rain with us to the vineyards.