Location: Moreton, Weymouth, Bridport and Charmouth, Dorset
Arriving at our next campsite, another Camping and Caravan Club site, it was becoming “normal” to have to wait in the motorhome and be given a list of all things you couldn’t do because of the restitutions designed to minimise the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But the sun was shining and we tried to cast aside our concerns, deciding to catch the train into the nearby seaside resort of Weymouth. Not a place either of us had recalled visiting before when we lived in England, but the wow factor on this blue sky day was huge.
We walked around the old harbour area, I’m always fascinated by them, and not just because that’s always where the cafes and restaurants are (although that does perk me up), but its the history that seeps out off the buildings. What tales they could tell.
This town just had both of us gawking at it loveliness. It seemed to have just a great balance between feeling like a working harbour, and a place you would love to holiday in. It wasn’t until afterwards that we read it was the first place to record the Black Death arriving in 1348!
Once we moved around the edge of the harbour, walks opened up along the coast. The South West Coast walk for instance stretches for hundreds of miles in either direction from here.
But our tummies told us it was time to pick a lunch spot, and after chatting to one of the locals, who turned out to be a London chef with a holiday house in town, we went to the restaurant he recommended. It was our first “flash” lunch since Sydney in February. It was so perfect, until they messed up the order and brought Catherine a dish that contained dairy. But once the error was pointed they were mortified, and wouldn’t let us pay for a thing! What exceptional service.
Some places just have a great vibe about them, and this was one of them. I even managed to get my eyes pressured checked on the spot – and all was well – a great relief.
Every time we looked up and out at the sparkling ocean, we had to remind ourselves that we hadn’t been transported to some mediterranean resort. Well until you looked at the people wandering around – definitely Brits!
Next stop on the Dorset whistle stop tour tour close to the small town of Bridport. We had managed to find a space on a Caravan and Camping Club farm site. These are great places for us, with just a water tap, somewhere to empty your toilet waste, and on this one, mains power.
We could walk right from the site out onto the hills, and ended up doing an 18k circuit.
A little stiff, the following day a we pumped out a 39km cycle up through enough hills to give us decent workout, even with our batteries. People seem to think an electric bike is like a moped. You just twist the throttle. Some of them are. Ours are whats called “pedal assisted” – you get a little help – but you still need to work.
We then had the pleasure of a long, fast downhill into the small seaside town of Charmouth, heaving with school holiday visitors, but with almost no tourist development. The few cafes there were had massive queues for the standard fried fare. As usual we were relieved to have brought a picnic and a flask of tea.
This is a part of England‘s south coast that we will come back to and explore more, ideally when its not peak season. It has ingredients we love – walking cycling, and enticing pubs. Hopefully it will at least be when we can actually get in to a pub spontaneously and not have to book – as we were told we needed to at the one place we tried. Testing times.
Location: Bristol, Worcester (Gloucestershire), Gunthorpe (Nottinghamshire), Swinethorpe (Lincolnshire), Harby (Nottinghamshire), Kettering (Northamptonshire) and Milton Keynes (Buckinghamshire)!
Yup..a lot of charging around the last couple of weeks, after so many months going nowhere!
We left Bristol early, fortified with last night’s delicious chilli-con-carne served up by Catherine’s cousin Ian and wife Caroline, and dashed up to Worcester where our e-bikes were booked in for a service.
These guys at On-Bike have been an absolute delight to deal with both in the sales process and now with their excellent after sales service. They are so busy at the moment they have had to shut the shop to the public three days a week to give themselves a chance to build up more bikes ready to be shipped around the country to eager customers. It’s great to see them doing so well after years of hard work building the business up.
While the bikes were being given some remedial work, so was I, in the form of a much needed haircut! Catherine had been trying to keep me presentable, but it was time for a barber’s shop.
Most of the shops were open, and it was our first chance to have a wander around anything order than a supermarket since Vienna in early March. We found the experience a little daunting, not being able to try clothes on for instance, but I ended up with a pair of hiking trousers from my favourite clothes store, Rohan.
Worcester has put a lot of effort and money into its town centre over the last few years, and yet retained these beautiful facades.
That same afternoon we drove up to Nottinghamshire as we had booked our motorhome in for some work the next morning… or so I thought. We called in to drop off our old batteries, to find I had messed up the dates and we were due Thursday not Wednesday! I had organised our whole program as soon as lockdown was lifted in a frantic morning of phone calls to campsites and friends, and just got it wrong. So we had a day up our sleeve
We had decided to stay in the car park of a pub just over the road from them, the Unicorn at Gunthorpe, set in a lovely position by the river Trent. Unfortunately that‘s where the loveliness ended. We had a very sub standard meal, barely edible. The entrance we had come in by was deserted when we were trying to leave it, not a soul in sight, but the young lady on the door made us walk all the way round the pub, squeezing past tables of diners, to go out the “designated exit”. The next day I asked if there was anyone who was interested in our feedback and was told to fill out an on-line form. I asked again if there was anyone locally who had cooked the meal last night or who managed the pub who would like to hear, and was told again, fill out the on line survey. So I guess not. There are many pubs that no doubt that won’t survive this pandemic, Some it will be sad to see go, others not so much.
We took ourselves off for a walk along the river. What a tranquil escape from the network of busy roads that surround it. I am currently reading a history of the canal network in the UK, and now look at these river roads in a new light. For so many years they were the arteries that pumped the trade of heavy goods and raw materials around the country.
The Trent is England’s third longest river, and enabled goods produced in the industrial heartland of the Midlands to be transported down to the sea ports on the Humber estuary. The UK has over 2,000 miles of navigable waterway, and there are some future adventures right there me thinks.
In the late afternoon sun we drove over to see our friends up the road on the border of Lincolnshire, having booked at a campsite we had seen modestly signposted near their village many times but never actually visited. Well, we were in for a treat! What a hidden gem this was.
Camper UK Leisure Park had superb facilities (which were actually open, most are not). These guys had recently built a whole load of lovely wooden chalets and just opened them only for the very next day forced to close them under lockdown, so it was great to see the park busy once again. It should be a good season for campsites in the UK with most people staycationing. Hopefully they can recoup the losses from the spring and early summer to stay in business.
It was another early for us (before 7am) start, especially with a few too many wines under our belt from drinks with our friends the night before, and back to Gunthorpe and our motorhome dealer, Fuller Leisure. They had a loan car waiting for us, a spirited little Mini which I really enjoyed driving after the not so nimble Truffy. We had been suggested a visit to Belvoir Castle to fill our day while they worked on our vehicle. Off we went and had a decent enough wander round the country surrounding this impressive pile.
Looking at its history it was no surprise to see that what you see today is not really a castle, but a copy of one, rebuilt in “Gothic Romantic Revival” style, that for me just screams fake and cashed up, from one of the richest landowners in England the Dukes of Rutland.
We collected Truffy, hoping his warped bathroom door had now been fixed. Next we headed down to Northamptonshire (our third county that day!) and my hometown of Kettering.
Its a bit of ritual when visiting our friends there to head out for a curry, and what a feast this was. The Royal Bengal is an example of how well a dining experience can still be delivered under the current restraints. Superb food, attentive and friendly service, working espcially hard to make sure Catherine‘s dairy intolerance was catered for.
The following morning we enjoyed a much needed hangover breakfast in the garden, joined bymy great friend and second cousin Derry. His family own and run the care home that both my parents were so well looked after in. It has been a super stressful time for all of them as they navigate this pandemic. What heroic work has been done in this industry, and so poorly supported by, what sounds like, an incompetent county council. The people who work in these care homes, and their residents, deserve better.
Then we were off to Milton Keynes for a weekend with my daughters and grandies. This was the first time I had been able to see them since leaving the UK last year. What a brilliant weekend we had. Dinner Friday night at a lovely pub, excellent food and service once again, and a really good catch up with these two young chips off the very old block
Then we had a short post dinner drive out to our campsite for the weekend near Buckingham. A field basically, with fresh water and a toilet dump point. No power, but with our new batteries the whole 12v system is now working really well. A bit of sunshine into the solar panels and we left with more power in the batteries than we arrived with. At £20 accomodation cost for two nights, we were happy!
Saturday morning saw Hayley (daughter number two) arrive with her boys Luke and James. Kites were flown, chases were had around the field, just perfect.
Hayley had acquired a new member of the family just before lockdown, the very photogenic Belle, a bichon frise puppy, and she enjoyed the new sights and smells of this farmland retreat.
Hayley had also spotted there was a winery not far away, so carted the boys back to MIlton Keynes, collected her sister and dashed back (she’s a dynamo!). Well this was my first sampling of English wine, Catherine has beaten me to it on a previous trip and was very positive. The winery had some good reviews (Chafor Estate) and we constructed our own tasting, sampling four of their wines. It was just lovely to do something like this with my daughters, especially since for Zoe it was her first opportunity to do some wine tasting.
The next morning we packed up and headed back into Milton Keynes and Zoe kindly hosted us for brunch. She takes after us in being a doting feline servant, to the stunningly coloured Simba. Then it was off to the park. Zoe lives right next to one of the many beautiful green corridors that wind their way through Milton Keynes. We saw red kites soaring overhead, and admired the way this new town has so matured since it was home to me 30 years ago.
So with the whole family in tow now, there was more chasing around and eventually…I wore them out!
It has been a hectic week, with more to come, but the joy of finally being able to reconnect with family and friends just so rewarding. It‘s hard to know how we divide our time up between our families, but it is definitely Catherine’s turn next!
Location: West Bagborough, Porlock Weir & Bridgewater Somerset, Honiton, Dorset, UK
This Friday we will be pulling out the driveway of our Somerset hideaway to once again hit the roads (click here for our planned upcoming locations). Our feelings are very mixed. We are looking forward to seeing family and friends, many of whom we’ve not had the opportunity to see yet in the flesh, but moving on from our protected little bubble will bring new risks as we move into areas of higher infection in the midlands in particular and interact with a wider number of people.
A reporter for the Guardian has spent the last couple of weeks driving around Britain interviewing people coming out of lockdown. We resonated with some of the themes that emerged. For instance, a determination to retain a focus on mental and physical health. For many people who have retained their positivity during lockdown they have credited this to regular exercise, and better eating and sleeping habits. We similarly are pleased with the amount of exercise we’ve been doing, and determined to not lapse back into sedentary ways when we are on the road.
Easier access to restaurants and pub grub is going to make it more of a challenge to continue the relatively healthy eating regime we have maintained, cooking almost all of our food from scratch. I take zero credit for this, other than being an appreciative consumer.
We have also been protected in this rural bubble from the noise and air pollution that many of Britain’s more urban environments suffer from, and we are going to find it a shock to return to the real world of heavy traffic and smog.
But move on we must, and we have been busy trying to get our home on wheels ready to face the rigours of the road. Our main problem was that we lost all our 12 volt power, so no taps would work, no internal lights, the whole system was dead. We also noticed a very rotten egg type smell when we were working in there. Of course I was immediately blamed…but protested my innocence, and for once was proved guiltless. We did some research and eventually discovered that a dead battery if put under charge gives off a pungent aroma, as a precursor to then exploding!
We were lucky to find a local auto electrician to help us, everyone is so busy in lockdown fixing people’s vehicles that have been left idle. The guys at AD Auto-Electrical near Bridgewater were brilliant, quickly finding a wire on our alternator had been chewed though, presumably by mice when he had been left all alone on a farm in storage over the winter. They soon repaired it, then popped a couple of new batteries in, our motor home dealer, Fuller Leisure, agreeing to foot the bill even though strictly we were out of warranty. Good lads.
We also managed to assess and repair some minor stuff ourselves, thanks to Catherine’s love of problem solving and a much more practical bent than my own. I did manage to fit a Heads-Up Unit to display speed directly onto the windscreen. It was so hard to read from the dashboard dial. It has worked very well so far, with no need now to take my eyes off the windscreen to make sure I am keeping under the multiple speed limits we constantly drive through. with speed cameras lining the roads.
We took an afternoon off jobs to walk another section of the South West Coast Path. We started from the small settlement of Porlock Weir, a small harbour with a documented use going back over 1,000 years. It wasn’t hard to imagine the regular waves of Danish and Irish invaders sailing up to the little jetty, with intentions ranging from trade to plunder.
We spotted a little sign advertising local oysters, not a produce we expected to see in the western reaches of Somerset, so we plunged in to sample half a dozen.
Apparently a community initiative in 2013 led to Porlock Bay Oysters being the first oyster farm to achieve the top “Class A” certification in England and Wales. Another causality though of the closing of pubs and restaurants, they now have over 30,000 oysters plump and ready for eating, with their customers only just opening up. As with many businesses affected by lockdown, they are flexing their business models and trying to find new channels to market. In this case selling direct to the public. We loved our sample, easily beating for taste and texture the ones we tried in Normandy, although Scottish shellfish still sits up there for us.
The coast path led us up a steep track through woods smelling that unique pungent aroma you get from trees recently soaked with the showers that have persisted the last few weeks.
We started to notice the remains of old walls and bridges, we learned later this is all that remains of the once grand coastal retreat for the first Lord Lovelace, married to the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Not much remains of the once grand home, but what does certainly created an atmospheric backdrop to our wander.
One of the Lovelace family also designed a grand gatehouse, which has been restored and sits over the entrance to what is now a quirky tourist attraction – a scenic toll road that winds its way a few miles along this beautiful stretch of coast. Our slightlly plump Truffy wont be fitting through that arch!
This little walk was full of surprises. Next came England’s smallest parishchurch in the tiny village of Culbone.
Unfortunately we had run out of time and had to retrace our steps. Another place on the list to come back to, sometime in our unknown future…
Back at our little cottage which sits in the grounds of the rather grand main house, we had organised a bit of a celebration for the owner. Jenny had just had built a little folly in the garden. Well, not one to miss an opportunity for a decent glass in these stunning gardens, I suggested it should have a grand opening. With her friend down to stay for the weekend, our host concurred and a very pleasant evening was had gazing our over the Somerset countryside this property has such commanding views of.
We also took a trip over the nearby Blackdown Hills to the small town of Honiton to visit a long-time friend of Catherine’s and her family. So many families have experienced tragedy thanks to this virus, and theirs was no exception, so it was an afternoon of laughter mixed with tears, with a very long and thoughtfully prepared lunch culminating in a dairy-free sponge cake, just so Catherine could join in and enjoy it. We also got a much needed feline fix from their gorgeous cat Worcester.
We were then able to return the favour when they came over to our place. We were treated to freshly baked scones, with jam and cream – our first cream tea this year – hopefully not the last!
We also managed to celebrate the opening of pubs on the 4th July by popping down our nearest local for a couple of pints. It was great to see how hard they had worked to flex their arrangements, building a new outdoor bar, counting heads coming in to make sure there was sufficient room to keep our distance, taking down phone numbers for their participation in the Covid-19 track-and-trace scheme and lots of new outdoor seating and cover. Well done to the Farmers Arms.
So as we start to pack up the cottage its hard to not feel nervous about what awaits us, but it‘s time to go. Saying goodbye to this welcoming community, and hoping one day we can work a return to this little slice of paradise into our travels.
Location: West Bagborough, Glastonbury, Exmoor & East Quantoxhead, Somerset, UK
We have both commented that the weeks and even months we have been in lockdown seem to be flashing past. I was puzzling about this and remembered reading something about how the perception of time accelerates as we get older. So that may account for why I am expereincing this phenomenon, you chuckle, but how about the “child bride” Catherine, as my friends endearingly have called her?
So here’s my take. One of the reasons that older people do experience the passing of time differently (well documented if you fancy going down that rabbit hole – start at the Wikipedia page) is that for them (“us” if you insist), new events are in shorter supply. We have seen it and done it. Our brains find it no effort to process those routine events, so as we pay less attention time appears to pass more quickly.
In lockdown for us, and I suspect many others, the days pass with little differentiation in activity, and it‘s all low stress, so the brain doesn’t engage too much in deciding which flavour of Pukka tea to have this morning. or do we turn right or left out the gate on our walk today.
However, the last week has brought two new activities into our lives. A book club and family genealogy. One of the things I really miss in lockdown is just shooting the breeze with friends, often over a glass of something. Digital catch ups for me are always more stilted, lacking the comfortableness of being able to pause and reflect, and gauge from body language how the other parties are reacting. Often the subject of conversation is books or article one of us has read, so after starting a particularly good read I decided to float the idea of an online book club amongst these friends. We had our first Zoom based hook up. Given the constraints of the medium it seemed to work for us.
The book chosen was the new best seller from Rotger Bregman, Humankind. Essentially it is an analysis of our basic nature, is it kind or is it cruel? It offers fascinating revisionist history on events and phenomena we thought we knew and understood.
The other new activity that has helped time slow down a little and provide new stimulus, has been researching my family tree. Inspired by cousins of mine and Catherine. Catherine’s cousin Karen has been able to trace back theirs, to the the 1700’s in Orkney. Her family history is full of talented artists, rich merchants and military leaders. Some even have dedicated Wikipedia pages.
In contrast my ancestors (that I’ve tracked so far), have not broken out of the abject poverty of farm labouring, crammed into boarding houses with other families (16 of them in one case) except for a great grandad and uncle who both ran fish and chip shops, which perhaps explains my fascination for a well cooked plate of this English fare. More on this as our respective stories unfold.
I have never shown the slightest interest in my family history to date, I am ashamed to say, but whatever brain chemistry clicked into place during lockdown I’m so glad it did. I’m finding it hugely interesting and so grateful for the discretionary time to tackle it.
However, it hasn’t been all indoor sports, and our usual diet of walks only briefly held back by more typical changeable weather. We decided to check out Glastonbury, famous for its namesake the Glastonbury Festival, which isn’t actually held near the town, and that pretty much says it all. We found it an uninspiring, slightly run down place full of New Age nonsense shops (sorry but.. really…), however the local bakery did catch my attention!
The pubs were all still closed, but one caught Catherine’s eye given its distinctive facade. It turns out to be the oldest in south-west England.
We quickly donned our boots and escaped the thundering lorries that sadly hadn’t yet been routed out of the High Street in this town and dashed up the hill that rises up over the flat surrounding countryside of the Somerset Levels. Glastonbury Tor is a natural hill emanating of erosion, although a lot of twaddle has been written by New Age “scholars” about the function of the terraces that wind up its steep slope. I’m not going to even credit them by repeating what they say. The actual archaeology of the site does though remain clouded in the mists of the Neolithic though, like so much of our history from that period. For us it was sufficient to sit with our mugs of tea and quietly contemplate the fabulous 360 degree views.
With the novelty of inclement weather, we did an afternoon’s drive around the lanes and villages of Exmoor, our first excursion to this area. While it was a little too wet and cold to do too much walking, we did enjoy the sights, and managed to find a cute little deli in the village of Dunster that we’re sure to return to.
One walk that will forever remain in my mind from this week was the coastal ramble that forms a very tiny part of the “English Coast Path” (how did they think of that one?). I had no idea England had a path all the way round it..and it doesn’t…yet. When completed, in theory this year (in practice I doubt it, with the competition for funding in the recession that is going to hit the UK hard) it will be 2,795 miles in length (around 4,500 km).
Currently, various sections are open (click here for more details) and conveniently one of them is on our doorstep. I think this area must be one of the most well served in the world by long distance trails for walking and riding, quite amazing and a credit to the foresight of several governments, and the popularity here of getting out into this beautiful countryside.
We started our walk from a car park at East Quantoxhead, a small settlement a little way back from the coast. It was our first time on a bit of grass since we had our awning fitted in March, so much to the amusement of our fellow car park neighbours we rolled it out to check all was working.
Looks pretty good, however it‘s a reminder of our aborted plan to have spent the summer cruising through the hot climates of Spain and Portugal. We quickly roll it up again and put that thought behind us.
We wandered up to the cliff edge and gazed down the coast. I really can’t remember such a heart lifting view. We overhead a fellow walker exclaim “It looks more like a picture than real life”, and he wasn’t wrong.
The pebbly beach was pretty busy as there was a car park close, but as usual once again, no more than a 10 minute walk from the reach of a car and the population thins out to a spattering of smiling fellow trampers.
Wild flowers, including orchids, were everywhere, the Quantock Hills, providing a stunning backdrop. No wonder this was the first place in the UK to be given a classification of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
So we think our time here is drawing to a close, our little cottage is rented from July 12th, so we have to be out by then, but there’s no date yet for campsites to reopen, so that‘s introducing some challenges to our forward planning! Fingers crossed the government gets its new guidelines for them out in time, but its looking less likely I think.
Another week streaks by in our lovely little rented cottage here in the west of Somerset, with a clear blue sky greeting us as we pull the blinds back every morning, apparently the sunniest May on record,
The toughest decision of the day, ‘Shall we walk or ride?’ and ’What shall we have for dinner?’ I think we will always remember this lockdown for the bizarre dichotomy of living our day to day lives in the most stress-free way we ever have, surrounded by the world in chaos.
This is a life we have never experienced before, having been mostly city dwellers, passing though the landscapes as we travel, but not being immersed enough in it to really appreciate the depth of its beauty and function. Not really seeing the rhythm of a life that goes on there by people who call it home.
I recently read a book that touched on this theme, called ‘A Shepherd’s Life’, set up in the English Lake District. The author, James Rebanks, a shepherd himself, makes a number of really poignant observations about the tourists who come and travel through his countryside, but with no appreciation of how that landscape is worked to produce the food that enables our lives. I feel in many ways our travels over the past few years, while broad in their scope, have lacked the depth of perception that comes when you stay in one place long enough to start to see the cycle of nature moving through the seasons, something we really don’t notice in Australia as much.
By this enforced stay in one place we have been able to watch spring come to the landscape, to see lambs take their first stumbling steps, to then come back a few weeks later and watch them bouncing around with their mates. To spot the wild flowers change as spring is turning into summer. It has just been a totally different, and in many ways, more meaningful expereince than the ‘drive through‘ touring we have been doing.
As I reflect back on individual walks we have done, all from our back door, they start to merge into one long memory of being immersed in this beautiful lanscape , putting one foot in front of the other as we watch a fox dash to a hedge before scornfully peering at us over her shoulder then disappearing instantly, or a deer startled by us invading its little slice of paradise, and bolting through the woods. We just want it to go on and on, relishing the breather from having to decided where to travel to, negotiating unfamiliar roads, trying to find campsites, constantly planning where we go next. Our minds feel calm, and it’s wonderful.
The history of humans in this landscape continues to enthral us. In Australia it is so inaccessible to most non-indigenous folk like us, but here it’s around every coroner. The fire beacon on the top of a hill, lit to warn of invaders sailing up the estuary, there’s a story to be uncovered everywhere we look.
It was time to swap our boots for our bikes, and I had read about a cycle trail running through the coastal town of Barnstaple. The Tarka Trail (named after the 1927 novel, Tarka the Otter, set in north Devon) is over 200 kilometres of traffic-free path, the longest in the UK, and all running along old railway lines. Off we set, for our longest drive (at 90 minutes) since mid March. It felt like quite an adventure! We had read horror stories about the traffic on the coast, but this day it was empty, as was the car park, apart from the mobile virus testing station being run from a big army truck.
This was magnificent riding, we batted along and soon found ourselves passing though a number of small villages before settling on the beautifully positioned Instow, on the estuary of the river Taw and Torridge (just roll of the tongue don’t they?).
We chatted to a couple of fellow cyclists who turn out to be motorhomers as well, as we munched into our first proper Cornish pasty. Just blissful. We so miss that random connection with another human being sharing stories and learning from each other.
With 50 kilometres under our wheels we arrived back at our car park and noticed the army truck had left, and the 2.7 metre height barrier had been put back down. Given we are driving a 3 metre high motorhome, that became a problem!
It had been lifted up when we arrived and I had sailed through, not really anticipating it would be lowered and locked. Oops…several panicked phone calls to the council, who were wonderful, and a warden arrived to unlock it. Next problem, the army had changed the padlock and not told him the combination. He tried for a while to reach them with no success. We had visions of spending the night there, which would have been illegal under the current restrictions, with no bed linen, food or cooking equipment. Luckily in the end they reached the military men and we were released.
A fish and chip supper in Truffy on the way back and our day trip was complete. There is just something about well fried English fish and chips that tastes so delicious to us, starved of that in Australia where they do it very differently. I guess its what you grow up with, hard baked into your taste buds, like mother used to make Yorkshire pudding, in my case.
The only interruption to our serene regime comes when Catherine is out on a walk and arrives back carrying the tiniest baby rabbit (apparently called a kit).
She had noticed it lying on the road, just having been narrowly missed by a car and covered with gravel. Its little eyes were still closed it was so young, maybe a day old. Perhaps the victim of that fox we saw, or a buzzard? Catherine was straight on to her sister, who worked at the RSPCA, and armed with advice put a message out onto the local village chart group. A few minutes later a kindly neighbour has offered her a heat pad and syringe to try and get some nourishment into her. All we have is oak milk, but she takes it and seems to settle down in the cosy little warm nest we have made.
So here we are on the second morning with an addition to our household, and she is still with us. So two extra days of life for this little one. Catherine’s niece and nephew are loving following the story, and just for that alone its worth it. A cycle down to the local Co-Op rewards us with kitten milk, apparently the best substitute for doe milk. Catherine is almost clucking with maternal delight feeding her this morning, until the little one releases her first pee down her arm.
We have decided now she seems stable, that a name is appropriate. Catherine has the inspired idea of Bags..as in we are in West Bagborough, so Bags Bunny. I will leave you with that to roll your eyes and laugh at us, or with us, we don’t really care 🙂
Location: West Bagborough, Minehead and Porlock, Somerset, UK
With the welcome news that as from this week, we were to be encouraged by the UK government to spend as long as we wanted in the outdoors, I widened my search parameters for local walks and rides. So far we have done everything from our front door. Now we could legitimately give Truffy, our little used motorhome, a badly needed run and get that oil moving round the engine and those batteries charged up.
I spotted references to a long distance path I confess to never having heard of before called the South West Coast Path, which fortuitously starts just down the road in Minehead. This path is part of the system of National Trails that criss-cross the UK, and this one happens to be the longest at a foot burning 1,014km (630 miles).
The route follows the old tracks used by lighthouse keepers when they walked between each lighthouse checking for smugglers. Now the walk runs from Somerset, through Devon and Cornwall and round to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Back in 2012 a piece of research was commissioned to estimate how much revenue walkers on the path brought into the local communities – a whopping £412 million (AU$775 million) – the equivalent of around a thousand jobs.
Well, unfortunately in these times of pubs and cafes being closed, we didn’t contribute anything into that pot on our first two jaunts onto the path, and not for the want of hunger or thirst. However, times will change and I’m sure we will going forward into peacetime.
The first walk we did (Strava link) was starting right at the “beach” (no, get that image of sand out of your head and picture rocks and shingle) in Minehead. The track soon had us climbing up onto the cliffs with stunning views over to Wales across the Bristol Channel. I appreciated how, over the length of the walk, someone had calculated that a person would be climbing the equivalent of four times the height of Mount Everest!.
We were mesmerised by the views once again, the coastline here is so rugged, the wildflowers spectacular. However, we both noted the muddy brown colour of the Bristol Channel. A bit of Googling revealed its the turbidity (now there’s a word you have to work into conversation) caused by the fast tidal flows along the River Severn which empties into it, plus the natural geology which makes the riverbed sediment-rich. Not somewhere I will be rushing to get the packrafts out into. We took the “rugged” option right along the cliffs. I was soon at my limit for high exposed walking. As I’ve got older I experience vertigo more frequently, and this was one of those movements. So we returned the way we had come, constantly mesmerised by the changes in the landscape, the variety of flora and fauna. This is a wonderful corner of the world.
Our second walk a few days later (Strava link) started in the small village of Porlock. Childhood home of one of dearest friends in Australia, Richard Dawes. It was wonderful wandering round imagining him as a boy darting down the little alleys. We so miss him and his wife Rosemary, and for a precious moment we felt connected across the miles.
Porlock is one of those picture postcard perfect Somerset sea side spots that I’m sure have tourists flocking in peacetime. On our visit we (thankfully) had the walks almost to ourselves.
We headed along a woodland path lined with bold robins puffing our their chests as if proudly showing off their habitat.
We soon emerged down at the beach (again..think lots of rocks), and followed the South West Coast path along the foreshore.
We only crossed paths with one other couple on our walk. When I struck up a conversation with them, they turned out to be good friends with the only other people we had got to know in Somerset! Synchronicity once again telling us that this is a place with a good vibe.
We gazed out to sea and realised not far over the horizon was Ireland, County Cork in particular. So many places still on the list. Perhaps our experience will be different when we travel in the future, but travel we will. We day dream as we wander of walking holidays exploring further along this National Trail, regularly voted one of the top long distance walks in the world. Perhaps…who knows….one day.
‘Have we just been sent a postcard from our future?’ You may have seen the attention grabbing headlines from various newspaper articles reporting on research just published claiming 11,000 deaths in the last 30 days have been avoided in Europe alone as a result of falls in air pollution. The original research paper is here and really worth a read at only 10 pages.
If the research turns out to have validity, then surely it should alter the whole way we think about how we live our lives and the decisions we make about who should govern us? Catherine is using some of her medical connections in respiratory diseases to get their input, but as a layperson it makes a pretty compelling case. The newspaper headlines of course leave out the ‘projected’ deaths bit, but journalistic sensationalism apart, the evidence that air pollution makes us sick, and kills a lot of people is pretty solid. According to the WHO 4.2 million people a year globally die premature deaths as a result of ambient (air based) air pollution. Food for thought.
As we wander around our little corner of England, we take big deep breaths, and ponder how we would love a future that had air always tasting this good, skies this clear, and the background noise of the combustion engine so muted. We also appreciate we need economies functioning, and our lives enriched by being able to mingle with a wider community of loved ones, and friends-we-have not-yet-made.
A lot of our friends have seen how unnecessary many of their journeys to work are, some proving the work-from-home model to sceptical employers, or delivering training on line rather than flying to Asia from Australia to put people in a classroom.
Yes, the air seems clearer, the colours of the countryside even more vivid, and the bird song emboldened.
Our walks take us across new paths through ancient oak woodlands and modern spruce plantations. Every walk gives us an injection of hope that we can continue to appreciate the world around us even in these difficult times.
Then my body tells me I need to take a break from walks with a swollen ankle and what looks like tendinitis. It was time to switch gear and get on our bikes.
We don’t have dedicated bike paths around our rural enclave in Somerset, but we do have hundreds of miles of beautiful lanes almost devoid of cars at the moment. A great ride helped us to see a few more of the villages that surround us and are too far to reach in a day hike. Thank goodness for our pedal assistance though from our Bosch motors, with many many steep climbs! On the way we continue to strike up conversations with locals. Gee they’re a friendly bunch round here! To us, that’s one of the joys of cycling, you get to cover more ground than walking, but are not cut off from the world around you as in a vehicle.
The surge in cycling participation rates being reported globally is encouraging. “Bicycles are the new toilet paper, and everyone wants a piece”, as the head of Giant bicycle sales for Australia was reported as so cogently putting it. Here in the UK, investment in cycling infrastructure also continues, a billion pounds committed to cycling and walking initiatives over the next 5 years. France also announced an initiative to subsidise bike repairs up to 50 euros, You have to give credit there for a good way to divert some money into bike shops.
The two nuclear power stations nearby at Hinkley Point are a constant “feature” as we gaze down towards the coast. I was intrigued to read that here in the UK, the energy market has just gone coal-free for the last 20 days, the first time since 1882! Some of the local farms are contributing to that with the production of crops for biomass power.
Mind you, there has been a run of “warm” days through April (apparently classified here as when the temperatures get into double figures centigrade) and require the wearing of t-shirts and shorts! I’m still exposing minimal body parts of course until there’s a 2 in front of any double figure number 🙂
The UK government has now committed to close all its coal fired plants by 2025, a strong contrast to Australia’s fossil fuel centric policy.
Our love of the area and the community in which we have randomly found ourselves is a constant reminder to us that life’s curve balls may get thrown for a reason. I read a book years ago called the Celestine Prophecy, and its central message has stayed with me. The author (James Redfield) proposes that as we wander through our lives we will find ourselves confronted by moments of synchronicity, coincidences that seem so improbable , like bumping into the friend from home from the other side of the world. We’ve all had these moments. My weirdest was while hitchhiking round Crete, I was at a low point after walking for miles in the hot sun, and who should pull up in a car beside me, but my parents‘ next door neighbour. The philosophy of synchronicity purposes that we should ascribe meaning to these so called co-incidences, and take them as the opportunities they are meant to be. To reconnect with that friend overseas, who then turns out to be the person who offered you a job back home, as happened to me for instance. Or those neighbours who became a lifeline for me over a very difficult time.
So many events that look random in our lives put us at a crossroads. Maybe we have been forced to take a long hard look at life in rural England for a reason. We think we know why, but that’s a story for another time.
For those of us in isolation without young kids or a job to manage, its likely you have more discretionary time to reflect and think about what this disruption means to our hopes and dreams.
It’s been five years since I got a phone call out of the blue from the HR department of my last employer informing me that the business unit I worked for was no longer deemed a priority and would be closed down. At the time it was a shock, but I look back on these past five years now and realise it was the best thing that could have happened. Who knows how this pandemic is going to affect our ability to travel in the future, certainly our financial situation like many people, is more uncertain. Travel through countries that are going to be economically impacted will be more problematic as crime is likely to soar, and our mode of travel in a motorhome presents some particular risks in that regard.
But as my dad used to say, “memories are better than dreams”, and no one can take away our five years packed full of adventures both in Australia and across Europe. If we had stayed the safe path and amassed some more money, would these same options have presented themselves?
We certainly haven’t given up our dreams of more travel in our mobile homes, but we accept things may not be as easy going forward and we will need to adapt. Meanwhile we carry on here in deepest, bucolic Somerset taking things a day at a time. The rhythm of our weeks remains the same, with rambling through the multitude of footpaths that criss-cross the Quantock Hills the common thread that keeps us positive.
One of the constant joys is to better understand the history of the landscape we are privileged to walk through. On one of the regular starts to our walks past the local church and manor house in West Bagborough, we had noticed a massive stone wall enclosing a large area of land. We decided to try and find a way in, and succeeded to emerge in this huge forlorn looking space, with ramshackle buildings clustered at one end.
I’d made contact with a local lady who was one of the volunteers looking after local archaeological sites, and she introduced me to the rich source of data in the Somerset Historic Environment Record. Turns out this was a kitchen garden dating back to 1730, with quite some walls! No flimsy trellis for these guys, but red sandstone 4 metres high! Quite some protection for your lettuce leaves against marauding rabbits. This part of England is so rich in history, it is just fascinating to learn a little more each day.
Spring is here, the bluebells are poking their heads out, and Catherine is in a fever of photography, which is wonderful to watch. We make up our tea flasks, lace up our boots, cast aside our worries and “head for the hills”.
Walking is calming our minds and keeping us positive. One day we will be back on the road again, until then we can only be grateful we took the risk when we did to rent out our home, leave behind security and the comfort of the known and explore a small portion of this great wide world we live in. Five years has passed for me so quickly, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
It has been over twenty years since either of have watched an English spring bring the countryside alive. One day we are walking around in winter coats and beanies, then a few days later its shorts and t-shirts! The smells and sounds of the changing seasons are almost overwhelming our senses, triggering nostalgic memories for both of us.
We have continued our exercise regime, with a couple more spectacular walks through the Quantock Hills. We keep stopping and listening to the buzz of insects growing a little louder every day, a bird proudly flying with a big ball of wool to line her nest, lambs greedily feeding from mum, and the slightly eerie but oh so fabulous complete absence of the background noise of humans. Not a vehicle engine to be heard, no roar of planes overhead, just the sound of nature going about its business, uninterrupted by the usual synthetic cacophony.
In the middle of this tranquility came the news on Thursday afternoon before Easter, that by the end of that long weekend we needed to move out of our rambling big house that had been home for the last three weeks. We know our landlord was trying to find a long term tenant, but I guess we had convinced ourselves it wasn’t going to happen with all the restrictions of movement in the lockdown. Well, we were wrong.
What followed was 48hrs of frantic searching for a new property to rent. The assistance of friends was enlisted, and once again we were blown away with the effort and thoughtfulness of those who tried to help.
Things were looking dire, and then a cancellation in a holiday rental literally across the road from us gave us an opportunity we grabbed. Home for at least the next month, and most likely two, will be a lovely cosy little two bed cottage, a barn conversion attached to a bigger house and set in the most fabulous gardens.
As for most people, life has been a roller coaster the last month, and the support of friends and family mean everything. We woke this morning with our first “Zoom Hangover”, after a cracking night chatting with friends around the UK and drinking a little too much wine, dissipating our pent up anxiety via laughs and conversation.
These are strange times, and we need our relationships with those who we hold dear to help us make sense of our lives right now.
If you’ve been reading our last couple of blogs you will know how lucky we have been to find ourselves isolating in such a stunning part of the world as the Quantock Hills in rural Somerset. We are therefore determined to make the most of this fortunate opportunity and do all we can to come out of this isolation in better shape mentally and physically.
During the bushfires in Australia earlier this year I couldn’t stop reading the horrifying news. My health was poor, and my spirits were low. We have decided in this crisis to look after ourselves better. Here’s what we’re doing in case there’s any useful ideas for our readers.
Limiting our “negative news” input. The single biggest and most impactful change we’ve made is restricting how much news about the pandemic’s negative impact we watch/read. We check in on whats happened in Australia overnight, then enjoy our day with no checking on media until we turn on the TV early evening for the daily BBC updates live from the the government. Then we force ourselves to switch it immediately off before the journalists and talking heads come up with all their “government is not doing enough” or “if only we had done this sooner” and other pointless finger pointing or sensationalist commentary. It gets us nowhere. Until we’re offered tests or a vaccine what’s the point? It just messes with your head.
Boosting our immune systems. Everything we’ve read from the medical profession points us to using all this additional free time we have on improving our overall health with exercise, preparing healthy food and having quality sleep. Catherine has mentioned our every other day pilates sessions, well we’re on session eight now and I’ve already noticed a difference in my balance moving around the house and out on walks. I’m a clumsy old fella as some of you know, with a pronating ankle that keeps pitching me over. Well I’m going to stop that and will be ballerina like in a few months 🙂
On the food side of our regime, Catherine has always been a fan of cooking from quality basic ingredients and using her extensive stash of herbs and spices, rather than using pre-mixed sauces that usually contain lots of long numbers of additives and sugar. Having said all of that, the first person to die in our network is healthy mid forties guy with no underlying health conditions we are aware of. So maybe we just take this path knowing it might not save us, but if we do survive then it will be in better shape!
Taking control – creating new routines. In this crisis where our daily routines are turned upside down, our minds need to find some order in this chaos to try and make sense of it all. The science of mental health tells us that keeping to a daily routine will help us reduce anxiety in a world where we can no longer maintain our old habits of going out to the pub, or the gym, or round the neighbours for a cuppa. So getting up and enforcing a structure to the day seems to help our minds settle. Its also a great opportunity with more discretionary time, to establish new routines that we’ve always aspired to, but never habituated (like our pilates). We can’t control the suffering that is happening all around us, so taking charge of things we can influence seems even more important to our well being.
So our days here pass into weeks, we fall into a pattern that takes us out almost every day into the beauty of the Quantock Hills. We read the government guidance on exercise quite carefully, and feel we are well within it to be walking for a few hours on mostly deserted paths. The few people we do come across we give a wide berth. We take hand sanitiser or alcohol wipes for when we have to open gates. Every day brings the simple delight of packing up a rucksack with some fruit and thermos of tea, lacing up our boots and walking out our front door. The biggest decision of the day being turn right or left.
Yes we feel guilty we have it this easy when so many people are suffering through this pandemic in horrific ways. 4,300 people have no died in the UK, but what can we do? Catherine spends an hour or so a day looking after her support group and working to help various doctors around the world, while I need to be protecting her by limiting my physical contact with people outside our cottage. So stay at home it is.
To know that we have the time to settle in one place and to really get to know an area, to read about its history, to explore every little footpath, to not have to feel rushed. The English countryside, and this little corner in particular, has just captivated us with its density and variety of visual, auditory, and olfactory delights.
Its no wonder this area inspired romantic poetry of the great Wordsworth and Coleridge, who spent some of their highly productive years living up the road and penning their great works after inspiring walks though these very hills. The sounds of the birds, the rich, country smells, the vivid colours of this landscape, they each trigger so many memories for both of us when we lived in England. Australia has given us both so much, but its a very different experience, and we’re so grateful we get the opportunity to spend time immersed in both.