17-24 May: Hills, canals and fossils

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Quantock Hills , Taunton and Walchet, Somerset, UK

With the government now encouraging people to drive as far as they like to enjoy outdoor activities, the Quantock Hills are starting to get busier, especially at the weekends. And by busier, I mean we actually see other people when we are out walking, but they are still quite a way away and easy to avoid!

It’s amazing still to us that we continue to discover new to us paths that wind through new areas, the scenery constantly changing as the leaves on the trees mature and new blooms burst through the undergrowth.

Saturday’s stroll through the hills took us up the usual 20 minute straight up walk to the top of the hills, and looped back around, taking us past the usual two tantalising yet closed pubs (Strava link). Still no glimmers of hope on the pub front for the UK unfortunately, all remaining firmly closed for now, despite calls for pub gardens to be opened up.

Mr A admires the wonderful view on top of the hills
Enjoying the tunnels of green that have developed as the beech tree canopies have grown up
A break to enjoy our herbal tea and an apple with the view
Loving the patchwork of colours in front of us as we hike down the hills
Grassy footpaths at the bottom, so civilised!
Ribwort Plantain. In confirming the name of this flowering plant I learnt all sorts of interesting facts….

The above plantain plant is apparently listed as vulnerable – I remember seeing many in my childhood, but less so these days. I’ve learnt this plant is an antihistamine, antifungal, antioxidant, analgesic and a mild antibiotic! It is the best treatment for nettle stings, unlike dock leaves which are apparently a placebo…worth knowing for our next walk. As the trousers come off and shorts are worn, nettle stings are becoming all the more likely. Apparently the leaves from the plantain can make tea that works as cough medicine too. What a handy plant!

Tuesday: Mark had done a bit of reading about a cycleway which runs alongside the Taunton Canal, so worked out a 48km circuit through the hills, down to the canal, and back again via Taunton.

Our route (Strava link)

It was a great afternoon out, helped of course by the glorious weather again. The sunshine just keeps on coming – with the odd overnight rain shower just to make sure the landscape remains green.

Mr A by one of the many bridges
We stopped for a break here and saw a barn owl fly past and proceed to go hunting in the fields
Lovely shades of green
Barn owl hunting ground – we saw a few field mice on our ride
Mr A continues on his way

You might be able to spot one of the many World War II pillboxes that line this canal ahead of Mr A in the photo above. Many of them sit abandoned, but some have now found new uses as bat roosts. There are many signs of WWII as we cycle along, including demolition chambers (now filled in) underneath bridges.

Interesting scenery

It was a fabulous ride, and gave us a good workout (yes, in spite of having batteries on our bikes!).

Wednesday afternoon we thought we would just do a short walk to get some fresh air…it turned out to be 11km (7 miles)! The ever changing scenery is addictive – we know we won’t be here forever, so just want to enjoy it while we can.

A vibrant red horse chestnut tree
Oxeye daisies – blooming early in the meadows around here
Rosa Canina – the Dog Rose, a hedgerow climber native to the UK
Grassy meadows with a beautiful backdrop

Thursday we decided to jump in Truffy and see somewhere new. We drove a short way north-west to the town of Watchet on the coast.

The red pin marks the spot where Watchet sits

Watchet is a sweet little coastal town with a friendly and authentic feel. Its history goes back to the Iron Age, with a port then being settled by the Saxons. It was attacked by Vikings in the 10th century, and there are many tales of smugglers and battles to be read about. It’s a town of great traditions, with a lantern festival held each September. A group known as the ‘True Men of Watchet’ has met at the local pub on an annual basis since being founded in 1643, apparently representing the town court and responsible for law and order in the area…positions have names such as Ale Taster (Mr A wouldn’t mind this job) and Portreeve (like a ‘mayor of the people’). Fascinating! We couldn’t help but wonder how one might get membership to such a group, and what pomp and ceremony would accompany their meetings…

And again, everywhere we go seems to have a link back to Hastings. Apparently in 1067 after King Harold was slain, Harold’s mother Eleanor fled to Watchet, where she caught a boat out to Flat Holm Island in the Bristol Channel. After a few months there she caught a boat over to France and settled in Saint Omer.

The tide is out today, revealing a mud bottomed harbour

The tides go out a long way here, with a range of 6 metres.

Still plenty of working vessels here

When there isn’t a pandemic, Watchet holds a weekly market down by the harbour, and an annual music festival.

The Pebbles Tavern looked like an interesting establishment – apparently dedicated to selling microbrewery ciders and ales, it has several awards and regular live music nights. We looked on wondering what it might be like…of course it is closed just now.

The Pebbles Tavern looks like a great spot for a post walk drink
Looking along the coast towards Minehead
Another pebbly beach on a blue-sky day
Yes, there is even a rock swimming pool here! We weren’t game…
Looking over the boatyard, harbour and town from the headland

We spotted a signpost directing us to Fossil Beach, and took ourselves off for an explore. Despite the sunshine, there was a fresh breeze blowing, so we hoped to find somewhere sheltered to eat our lunch.

Beach to the left, railway to the right
The pathway joins on to the south-west coast path we walked from Minehead
Heading down to Fossil Beach

Fossil Beach was nice and sheltered from the wind, and full of interesting scenery. Much of the beach here is mudstone, ie fossilised river bed. Apparently the rocks found in the craters on Mars are most similar to those found here at Watchet, suggesting that there was water on the planet at some point.

Striped sediments make a grand entrance to a cave
Some of the mudstone on the beach
Mr & Mrs A on real mud
Fossilised riverbed
Stripes of colour across the beach

It doesn’t take long to find fossils on the beach, and even an old piece of wall that has been smoothed and shaped over many years in the water. We left everything there for future visitors to enjoy.

Our halfway point of our walk was the train station at Doniford Halt, surrounded by fields and no town. No trains are running here due to the lockdown, and a couple of volunteers weeding told us the plan is not to open up the trains until next year.

Nobody here to water the planter boxes, and the tracks are starting to grow plants
Common Mallow – another edible plant

We had a lovely afternoon out exploring, and are certain to come back and have another look along this interesting coastline.

After such an active week, the past two days we have given ourselves a break to recharge the batteries.

5-10 May: Our seventh week in Somerset

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

Can the world really take this opportunity for a once in a generation change for the better? Will more people begin to travel by electric car or instead work from home, and those with shorter distances to work jump on a bike (or e-bike) or walk instead? Can this cleaner air and quieter environment we’re enjoying be more permanent?

It seems the UK hopes so. Breathing in air pollution, particularly from diesel engines (nitrogen dioxides) and micro particles (PM2.5 – from brake pads being applied and wear and tear of tyres), is responsible for contributing to an estimated 9,500 deaths per year. The worst affected areas are unsurprisingly around London and the south-east of England, and the cleanest in the north of Scotland.

UK ambient air quality: NO2 and PM2.5 annual mean concentration
Source: Defra, 2019. Background mapping for local authorities.

Since the lockdown began, some areas of the UK have already seen a 70% increase in cycle journeys. Mark and I have certainly been enjoying our 5km (3mile) each way ride to our local shops. And we have mentioned time and time again over our period here how much we are enjoying this clean air.

Selfishly, as people who enjoy being more in touch with the world the way cycling allows, we wholeheartedly support this approach. We would also relish the clean air that comes with more electric vehicles and bikes on the road.

The announcement of a £2 billion package to encourage cycling and walking – including pop up bike lanes, cycle and bus only streets, requirements for councils to create safer streets is also welcomed. If only we saw something like this in Sydney. Our friends there already have mentioned noticing an increase in air pollution, and the lockdown there is not yet fully lifted. I for one have often been deterred from cycling in Sydney because of the lack of safety on the roads. It’s so encouraging seeing the humble bike being one of the answers to getting the country moving again here.

Electric vehicles should help with reducing pollution too. The top two cars sold in the UK last month were both electric, with plans for increased numbers of charging points to support this in the future. I know that Mark and I would definitely go electric with our next vehicle, with Mr A already getting excited about the Tesla Model Y SUV. In contrast, the two best sellers in Australia were big Toyota gas guzzlers, with distance often blamed for the slow adoption of electric.

Less traffic means less noise of course, which for us, is one of the most stressful elements of city life. I read an article the other day which revealed the impact of city noise on birdsong with our feathered friends in city locations found to be singing at higher pitch to be heard over traffic (when compared to their country cousins). They also have been heard to sing faster and shorter songs.

A blue tit chasing lunch on one of our walks around the lanes

With the lockdown still firmly in place, we have continued with our regular walks around the neighbourhood, traffic slightly increasing as people choose to travel further afield for walks, but still not too bad.

We’re still enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the country as the season progresses, waking up in the morning to birdsong and the little cries of lambs.

This season‘s lambs becoming brave and cheeky as they get older. This pair lives about 50 metres from our cottage at the moment.
The new crops are just starting to pop up through the rich soil
Some of the many gates and entrance ways we pass through on our walks
Dead Nettle – the tips of these plants (just the leaves) can be boiled up and apparently taste a bit like spinach. The plants have evolved to look like Stinging Nettles to evade predators.
The most perfect lawn ever, at the back of the Old Rectory in West Bagborough. We admire this every time we pass.
Red Campion (silène dioica) will be around for a few months, adding a welcome splash of colour to the hedgerows
I’ve seen these oak apples on oak trees most of my life, and only now realise they are the result of a gall wasp laying eggs into a developing bud. The larvae live safely inside here before hatching out when the ‘apple’ becomes dry and hard.
Délicate pink cow parsley makes a change from the usual white. These flower until late June so we have a couple of months to enjoy these wildflowers.
Vetch – or ‘Poor man’s peas’ – these were among the first crops farmed by neolithic people

We did a fabulous e-bike ride in the last week as well, not long in distance (only 30km/18.6 miles) but very steep – and yes, before you say it, you do have to work hard even with a motor on your bike! (Strava link here)

Looping north through a couple of villages, we climbed up over the Quantock Hills, closer to the coast than we have ever been. Here, the heather and grass covered tops are fairly free from trees, but with the usual Exmoor Ponies and horse trekkers about.

Apparently I got an award on Strava (the app I am using to track hikes and rides) for being the 4th fastest e-bike rider up the Crowcombe Hill segment – if only I knew, I would not have stopped halfway up to take my coat off! Must try it again, and faster!
A sandwich and cup of tea at the top

The trees reemerged beside the road as we reaped the reward of a wonderful long downhill towards the village of Over Stowey.

An emerald tunnel

Down in the foothills, I was keen to visit the location of an old motte (raised earthwork with a stone keep on top) and bailey (a courtyard in a ditch, protected by a wooden wall) castle, built in the 12th century by Alfred of Spain (actually a French noble from Normandy, not a Spanish one).

Nether Stowey Castle was next lived in by the lord of the Manor of Stowey, who then abandoned it in the mid 1400s. Much of the stone from the original buildings was used to build what is now a grand manor house in the village, Stowey Court, the lord’s new home.

Not much remains of the castle other than a grass covered mound and ditch, but you can see the wonderful views they would have enjoyed.

Looking across the countryside from where the wooden stake wall would have been
Can see the mound (to the left) and the ditch where the courtyard would have been.

Friday 8 May was VE (Victory in Europe) day, when Germany’s forces surrendered unconditionally to the allied forces, marking the end of World War II. This time last year we were in Reims in France, watching a rather sombre ceremony in the pouring rain.

This year was different all together. No marches, or ceremonies of remembrance, but still the bunting decorated the village and there were some socially distanced celebrations.

Pretty bunting down the street
You can’t be unhappy with bunting this pretty

As we enter our eighth week here, the lockdown looks to continue for some weeks (or months?) more. The good news for us is that there are now slightly lifted restrictions which will allow us to drive to get out and about for our outdoor exercise. It looks like we might be able to see a little more of the immediate region while we are here after all.

21-25 April: More sunshine and BBQs in the English countryside

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

Now about to enter our sixth week in one location (albeit in two houses), this will become the longest time we have stopped in one place since April 2017. We’re quite settled now in our little cottage, continuing with our daily pilates, stretch classes and occasional walks.

We had an exciting delivery on Monday. Mr A had ordered a Cadac Safari Chef Barbecue – a perfect size for Truffy, and also ideal for tabletop cooking outside our little Somerset cottage. There have been some tasty meals cooked on here already, including bacon and eggs, real English pork sausages and fish tacos.

Chef Mark and his new toy

We achieved our longest hike yet (16km/10 miles) across the Quantock hills, taking us across new pathways and through picturesque tiny villages.

The very welcome top of the hill as we hike up Stout Lane
The next range of wildflowers are fit to burst – the bright magenta of rhododendrons flashes through the greenery
Up on top of Wills Neck – look how crowded it is?!
The yellow gorse flowers are so vivid you have to shield your eyes
Heading off through the Great Wood

We hiked across the hills munching on a packed lunch on the way, before proceeding down through the Great Wood. We didn’t see any other people for literally hours.

The ever-present buzzards are constantly being swooped at by plucky crows
Yes, the beech trees really are this bright and green
Don’t get fooled by the grey colour – this is a female orange-tip butterfly
Délicate colours of Dames Rocket
Our turn around point
A carpet of wild garlic in the woodland – some of our local village residents have been using this to make a pesto – I would love to try that out!

We wound our way back up the other side of the Quantock Hills from an area called Plainsfield, back into the Great Wood, aiming for a GPS marker Mark had plotted, the location for an Iron Age (about 800BCE) earthworks. Known as Plainsfield Camp it is suspected this was an animal enclosure, or perhaps a fort.

Grass covered banks surround a clearing (now covered in gorse flowers) in a rectangular shape.

Mr A feeling the magic of footsteps long past as he walks around the top of the banks

After a few moments enjoying the serene location and contemplating the people here more than two thousand years ago, we continued our journey home.

Wandering paths thinking about the many people who have passed this way before us
A short rest in an oak tree on the way home, reliving my childhood spent up trees!
Dusk comes late at this time of year – this is home at around 9pm, looking west
And looking south towards our nearest village, Bishop’s Lydeard

We’re managing to only go to the supermarket once very two weeks, and Wednesday was time for our outing. Supermarket shopping not only means restocking on basic supplies, but also picking up special treats and goodies. Compared with Australian supermarkets, UK ones are packed full of dairy-free and vegan, so quite exciting for me!

Having spent a day munching on all the new exciting food, we had to go out for another big walk to try burning off some of those calories.

Our winding trail – about 8 miles

Heading up the hill from our cottage, our first stop was the bluebell woods, as they are still looking stunning. In a week or so’s time they will be past their best and all but a distant memory until next year.

The sides of the lanes look like flowerbeds!
Bluebells are still impressive
Mr A chilling out and enjoying the ambience of the woodland
A little Great Tit flies down to check out the visitors

We continued past Cothelstone Hill (while a firm favourite location, we have visited often) and followed woodland trails and bridleways along the road towards Fyne Court, a National Trust nature reserve. We trekked along paths which wound through ancient woodland up towards Broomfield Hill.

This tree has likely been around since the Middle Ages

Broomfield Hill has been common land for hundreds of years – meaning it didn’t belong to a single person, but rather a community or collective for the purpose of grazing. Today it is managed by the National Trust, which keeps some rather lovely Highland Cattle on it to maintain the grassland.

The ‘hayland coos’ feeling the warm spring day somewhat
We are not the only ones who need to see a hairdresser in the near future! I should have brought my kitchen scissors!
Up on top of the hill, enjoying the lovely spring weather
More lovely wildflowers and wild strawberries brighten our walk home
Finding another pathway across a newly ploughed field
Views that just take our breath away

We ended our week with some more sedate strolls around the village, just loving the community we’re finding here. Chatting to neighbours over the garden wall about travelling and cultural differences, understanding more about peoples’ backgrounds and what brought them here. We’re finding that not all the residents have lived here long term, which probably contributes to a greater level of acceptance when it comes to the likes of us turning up out of the blue.

Mr A strolls across a field where we tried not to laugh as a startled sheep lost its footing and rolled sideways down the hill…I still have a chuckle at my memory of the sight! 🐑

Apparently this Covid-19 lockdown has really brought the community together, with people volunteering to help others with shopping and pickups, neighbours sharing seedlings and plants outside their homes, and engendering togetherness in the face of adversity.

Mark and I can certainly feel this as we stroll down the lanes, saying hello to others who are out and about too. Having joined the village WhatsApp group, we feel quite connected with all the issues of the day and have a sense of belonging that has been missing while we have lived as nomads these past three years.

All our walking and pilates has us feeling fitter than we have felt in a long time (we have walked just under 184km / 114 miles during the five weeks we have been locked down in Somerset) and we are feeling much more in tune with our bodies and the environment.

I hate to say it, but perhaps a little bit of good is coming from this virus after all?

Have to finish on a picture of these silly alpacas 🦙 because they always make us smile…

13-15 April: Moving house and more exploration on foot

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

Every time we leave the house, the environment looks another shade greener, buds bursting open and brightening the scene. A short walk around the lower hills near West Bagborough took us alongside fields and past inquisitive alpacas that never fail to make you smile with their wooly heads and questioning mouths!

Our local alpaca farm always delivers some laughs with the silly hairstyles and faces
Apple blossom bodes well for this year’s crop

Apple blossom hints at future crops while freshly ploughed fields are seeded and covered in plastic to speed up growth. Spring has continued to be warm and sunny, more akin to September in Australia than the April showers we expect in the UK. We are not complaining though, as we enter our fourth dry weather week in Somerset.

Even the stinging nettles look lovely in the late afternoon light…they’re ever increasing on our walks, making it a little challenging as the legs go bare
Wintery-looking pathways are transformed as buds burst and leaves begin to unfurl
Wild violets add a splash of colour

Easter Sunday was a relaxed affair, knowing we had a safe haven to move to, a month’s rent paid up in advance.

We decided to take a ramble back into the Quantock Hills. The beech trees up there have suddenly burst into life, the fresh bright green leaves catching your eye against the dark, mossy trunks. Walking through woodland, squirrels constantly scurry through the crispy leaves, bounding swiftly up tree trunks and leaping away through the canopy. Nervous and skittery, not tame and curious like the squirrels in the parks of my childhood, so no pictures captured.

Bright green signs of hope
Friendly Exmoor ponies check us out

Easter morning was warm and hazy, and as we climbed up to the highest point in the Quantock Hills, Wills Neck, we could see bands of thick fog down at the coast, stretching out beneath us. We continued our walk over into the National Trust area.

Fog down below in the valleys
Crossing a style into the Great and Marrow Hills National Trust area
A brief sit down for a sip of tea

We continued through the heathland, hints of heather which will be bursting into shades of mauve and purple before long. As I rounded a hill I spotted a bird on the floor, clearly assuming she was well disguised against the dry grasses – a Skylark – they have the most beautiful voices and a crest of feathers on top of their heads that sticks up as they sing.

A skylark sheltering on the ground, pretty fearless though keeping an eye on me passing
Pathways stretch away through the gorse and heather

We climbed up the next high point, Great Hill. There we found a curious loose stone pavement, enjoying panoramic sweeping views. We later learned this is a Bronze Age hilltop burial cairn, one of several in this history-rich area.

The hilltop cairn above the village of Triscombe
This burial cairn was created around 2000-700 years BCE
Another Common Stonechat…maybe they are common after all!

We climbed down into sleepy Triscombe Village on our return route, discovering another pub with a lovely garden we hope to enjoy a beverage in during peacetime.

Mark queueing up outside the Blue Ball Inn for an early pint

A robin followed us along our path on our return route, posing in a holly tree as though it were Christmas morning rather than Easter! Very cute though.

Robin red breast chases insects on our stroll home from Triscombe Village
The fields and woodlands are greening up
Delicate yellow field pansies cling on in a field yet to be ploughed
More Christmas references here as an old holly tree is intwined with ivy
Leopard’s Bane – the European sunflower looking joyful along our path near the church

Easter Monday was house moving day – we packed up all our bits and pieces, loaded up Truffy, spent a few hours washing sheets, towels, cleaning, dusting , vacuuming and washing floors before driving about 200 metres down the hill, through a gate and into our new home!

Unpacking was interesting, given we had more food and supplies than space, but a bit of reorganising and we were in. A defrosted pre-made dinner (these days as exciting as getting takeaway!) and a glass of wine and we were settled. Honeysuckle Cottage is our new safe base for a while.

Waking up on Tuesday morning, we did a pilates session in the garden (thank goodness we bought yoga mats!) with an amazing view across the countryside. The flock of sheep being herded past us mid-plank was a bit off putting (on the other side of the fence), but gave us a good laugh. What a world away from the sterile environment of the gym!

After lunch we pulled on the hiking shoes again and took off up the hill towards a bluebell wood one of the village neighbours had told us about. The delicate blue flowers were indeed already starting to pop up amongst the greenery, giving us a lovely display.

Little patches of purple between the trees
Perfect bells
The serenity is wonderful, little woodland birds flitting through the branches
Ancient trees covered in moss and the tendrils of ivy and creepers snaking up the trunks
Can’t resist a hug with an old giant…no, not Mr A…

Emerging out through the woods we strolled down a lane, finding a bridle way signposted through another woodland. We had no idea where it went, but followed it anyway, comfortable in the knowledge we can find our way back home somehow, and the more remote we are, the fewer people we will come across.

New valleys and ancient farms nestled in. amongst the hills

We found ourselves emerging at Three Horseshoes Hill (apparently popular with the ultra fit road bikers), and looped back around using our handy Maps.me app which shows where all the walking tracks are.

The app is not always right, and we did end up walking across a field that had recently been spread with muck (cow poo and straw!), but thankfully it was not too far. More civilised footpaths were signposted from hereon and all going uphill. As we began our ascent we heard a deafening roar. A twin rotor Royal Air Force helicopter was flying very low and right past us. We gave them a wave given they were our first humans of the day. We couldn’t tell whether they waved back.

A Boeing Chinoock RAF tandem rotor helicopter does a flyby – one of these will set you back around £61 million (that’s about AU$120.8 million)…don’t think we will be buying one any time soon…

The climb back up rewarded us with fabulous views of the patchwork of fields around us, the clear blue skies setting off the greens beautifully.

Look at those crystal clear colours
Mr A strolls across a particularly steep hillside
Views across to the coast and the Bristol Channel

We chatted to our neighbour who tells us that the sky is never normally this clear and blue. The lack of air pollution from planes and other transport is making all the difference. We have to accept feeling a little privileged to be seeing it like this at this strange time.

Not all the trees have leaves as yet – Mr A coming up the hill
Views that take our breath away every time

As we crossed our final field, heading down towards home, we smiled to hear the sound of a cuckoo echoing in the nearby wood, and seeing a spotted woodpecker hammering at a rotten branch in a tree up above us.

I know this is a time of sadness, particularly with so much virus related death happening here, but it seems to be also a time to force us to slow down and appreciate nature and all the life that is present as well.

4-6 April: Covid-19 gets personal

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

It has already been two weeks for us in Somerset – it is incredible how time flies! And still the skies are blue and we have not had a single wet day. Is this what happens when mother nature rewards us for reducing our impact on the planet I wonder?

We are minimising our time with other people, most days able to count the other humans we see on one hand, and always maintaining our distance. It’s the rare shopping trips that are most risky, and with constant new advice on how the virus spreads, most challenging to steer clear from.

Thankfully we love pulling on our hiking shoes and exploring, and have done some cracking walks the past few days. Please forgive me if you’re getting tired of seeing the same old scenery on every post – I do try to bring in some variety, and love capturing the new signs of spring as we spot them.

Our isolation home nestled in the hill
Our garden views continue to delight us

A walk over the weekend took us down a ‘new to us’ (probably hundreds of years old) pathway which wound its way behind the village houses and across the gentler slopes and fields.

We just love seeing the blossom bursting open, birds performing their mating rituals, pairing up and building nests, the increasing buzz of insects along the hedgerows.

Lovely shadows through this plantation…we wonder what the trees are…

Farmers are ploughing and sowing seed in their fields, the soil rich and nutritious, always happy to give a smile and wave as we walk past.

Perfect striped fields
Lovely colours on this new growth

Another walk took us to the historic Cothelstone Manor and the Church of St Thomas of Canterbury. The church dates back to the 12th century. Cothelstone manor was originally given to the Starwell family by William the Conqueror, some time after the Battle of Hastings. It is funny how so much history relates back to King William, no matter where we go.

Approaching the church of St Thomas of Canterbury
Entrance porch to the church which is very much still in use (though closed during the pandemic)
New cherry blossom on a very old tree
Crossing a style alongside the manor

I’m pleased to say (touch wood!) my airway has remained open since the last set of steroid injections in February, and breathing has been excellent. In fact I am breathing the best right now that I have in nearly six years. The injections are a relatively new and experimental technique for my airway disease, with a bit of a hit and miss approach depending on steroid type, quantity used and technique to apply them. It seems on this occasion the formulae has been a success with my trachea, and all evidence of scarring has all but disappeared.

Injections are not fun, but they are much gentler on the body than a general anaesthetic! This chart shows my peak expiratory flow levels (how hard I can breathe out) – the higher the number, the easier it is to breathe.

We’ve been here before though (after a big surgery in 2014 opened my airway ‘permanently’ but turned out to be just temporary), so are not taking this good breathing for granted. I intend to relish every easy breath I take. So we decided to tackle a very steep pathway up into the Quantock Hills.

Suddenly being able to breathe properly has its benefits, as I have effectively been altitude training for 18 years! I literally bounded up the hill, hardly out of breath. Mr A on the other hand made it up, but it was a bit of a tougher slog for him. The hike was worth it, with magnificent views across to the coast, buzzards soaring beneath us.

Nearly up the top – Mr A rounds the hill after one of the steepest parts

Up on the hills the bird life is prolific. Not only are pheasants constantly squawking, but walks are accompanied by the sweet song of skylarks and chirruping of the smaller nuthatches, warblers, tits, finches and thrushes. All very shy birds and hard to capture on the camera.

A common stonechat flits around the heather and bracken
Look at all the other people! A timer photo from the cairn at Wills Neck

We climbed up to Wills Neck, the highest point in the hills. We will always remember the first time we saw this lookout with a gorgeous shetland pony stood there like a mysterious sculpture, allowing me to talk gently and stroke her nose. We have never seen one up at that point since, and the ponies have never again been tame enough to stroke.

A young Shetland Pony foal skips after mum after spotting us

The strange name ‘Wills Neck’ comes from an old Saxon word meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’. It seems appropriate that we keep finding our way back there.

We explore a new pathway for us, which leads directly to the pub in the village. Shame it’s not open.
More views, looking down at St Pancras church in the village

The temperatures are starting to increase now too, with daytimes heading up into the early teens. Gone are the thick winter coats and wooly hats, we can now head out in lighter gear.

Our latest walk had us exploring an area called ‘The Great Wood’. It‘s about 6.5 square kilometres of woodland, home to many birds, a variety of trees including Douglas Fir redwoods, and apparently red deer (hiding from us!).

Dwarfed by the trees, there are many mountain bike trails through here

Yet another great 11km walk with a total of six people seen at a distance in three hours. Perfect isolation.

White Spanish bluebells in the village
The little stream that runs through the village

It was Sunday night that we learned about the passing of an old friend the previous afternoon from Covid-19. The news really shook our world. This was someone with whom I used to climb trees, race bikes down the road, spent my first years growing up with. Just 45 years old, fit and healthy with a wife and two children, he just didn’t ‘fit’ the demographic for a fatal end to this disease. Suddenly the virus is getting really personal.

The shock and disbelief has led to tears, and a stronger determination to try and get through this period without contracting the virus, and concentrating on keeping ourselves as healthy as possible.

On Monday night we heard that the British Prime Minister has been taken into intensive care for his worsening symptoms. A healthy (if overworked and tired) 55 years of age, he too doesn’t fit the pre-described ’vulnerable’ category, and reminds a nation that none of us is truly safe. This is a virus that does not discriminate. While someone in their 70s might have mild symptoms, someone younger may not fare so well.

We implore all our readers, friends, and family to stay safe – keep away from other people, and together we can get through this. Look after one another. Virtual hugs from us.

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…

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.

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!