I’m sitting in the our caravan waiting for Catherine to come back from yet another doctors appt. She never complains, just gets on with it. This morning is another set of steroid injections in her neck. Not a pleasant exercise, but seems to be keeping her breathing well, so for her worth the discomfort.
We are all packed up and ready to leave our house-sit in Mosman and head north up to Noosa over the weekend, via our friends in Newcastle.
Reflecting on our six weeks here in Sydney, we have missed breathing clean air, missed feeling well (we’ve both had the flu and lingering coughs), and both felt extremely anxious for friends around the country whose properties have been at risk from the fires. On the plus side we have had some great catch ups. Friendships can be maintained on line, but there’s nothing like sharing a glass and breaking bread, mostly a naan with a curry!
We have watched the bush fires rage around the country, and felt the affects of the smoke here in the middle of its largest city. Australia is going to be at the pointy end of climate change and likely will continue it seems to wrestle with balancing the economic dependence it has on fossil fuels, the lack of climate strategy a succession of our governments has failed to deliver, and being the hottest, driest continent on the planet. I will say no more because I’m not qualified to speak on the science of climate change, although that doesn’t seem to stop some people.
I have read all that I can absorb and have come to what I believe is an informed conclusion. I would encourage you to do the same. The most data rich (rather than “opinion rich”) source I have found is The Conversation, a network of not for profit web media outlets that publish content written by academics and researchers. Also NASA’s web site has some great global content as well. So who would you rather trust, the politician or the scientist? The news reader paid by Robert Murdoch, or someone who actually has some expertise? Sorting through the lies and distortion that hurtle at us from everywhere is going to be the key challenge I think for this decade. We are privileged to live in a democracy, a political system that is always under threat when the worst in humanity is stirred by those who appeal to our fears.
While based in Mosman we have dashed out on a few walks when the air has not been too toxic, and out on the water for some paddles. We have walked along a harbour side path numerous times, and hardly seen another soul.
Sydney is such a city of contrasts. The bustling CBD, and then these quiet paths through our green spaces.
It’s one of the things we have always loved about the place we have called home for over 20 years. I really hope those who have stewardship of its future, state and city politicians, provide the strategic thinking it will need to continue to flourish.
The past week has been full of friends, colour and laughter, starting with a Christmas day feast, lunch catch up in the city, and finishing the year with a bollywood inspired new year’s eve fancy dress party.
Coming to the end of the year, it’s a great time to reflect on all the amazing things we have seen and done – even we pinch ourselves when we recall all the adventures we have had.
The year started in New Zealand, spending time in Omokoroa, a stunning quiet harbour side area in the North Island near Tauranga. We did some incredible walks, met up with lovely friends and spent some quality time with my dad and his wife Sue.
From there, we returned to Australia and spent a couple of months touring Victoria, catching up with friends new and old, a little wine tasting, paddling and cycling thrown in for good measure.
At the end of March it was time for our long awaited Europe adventure. We flew to the UK, arriving on what should have theoretically been Brexit Day. Of course it didnt happen, which suited us fine, allowing us free reign to explore Europe without deadlines. We picked up a new-to-us motorhome, which we named Truffy (all motorhomes have a name apparently!), and set about making him comfortable while we caught up with friends and family, Mr A becoming expert in piloting a left-hand-drive vehicle.
In May we set off for France, taking a ferry across the channel. We joined friends at a gite in the Champagne region and learned a lot about sparkly bubbles. In Provence, there were more friends to see, beautiful scenery and amazing weather.
Leaving there, we headed off to the Italian Riviera and Tuscany, falling in love with the beautiful towns, friendly people and delicious food and wine.
We travelled across the middle of Italy over to Le Marche, where we spent a week with more friends, touring the stunning villages, vineyards and mountains of the area.
Croatia was our next stop, with some time in Dubrovnic before a cycle-cruise with friends up through the islands. Sparkling clear waters, peaceful sleepy villages and friendly smiles on the islands, a little edgier on the mainland, busy with tourists flocking to the pebbly beaches for the summer. From there we worked our way up through the country to Slovenia.
Slovenia, we really loved. From spectacular art, delicious wine, amazing cycling opportunities, safe, friendly cities and the most beautiful lakes of Bled and Bohinj. To say nothing of enjoying the novelty of cycling into Italy and back, just because we could.
We drove through the Karawanks Alpine Range to Austria next, a country chock full of stunning views, colourful houses, and a cyclist’s dream with hundreds of kilometers of paths away from traffic or through quiet villages.
A brief interlude with Bavaria in Germany caught us up with some old friends while visiting lakes, waterfalls, castles and more cycle adventures.
Our 10th country of the year was Switzerland, where a pulled pork sandwich is a cool $42 at the airport. Mr A spent some time by bike exploring Zurich while I flew to the UK for a hospital visit, and once I was back we moved on to cheaper regions back in France.
We spent a few weeks in France, did some big day walks, explored Brittany and Normandy and wallowed in the Anglo-French history, learning lots about everything from medieval times through to the second world war. We did some cycling and wine tasting the Loire Valley, and decided we were not so keen on French oysters when we parked for the night on a farm.
Back in the UK we spent some time with family and explored areas we had not seen much of before. We visited Derbyshire, Yorkshire, County Durham and the Lake District, but the absolute highlight was Scotland. After a few days in Edinburgh, we set off for the Outer Hebrides, visiting Skye, Harris and Lewis, and the highlands. Being off peak, the weather was rather fresh, but the scenery spectacular and unlike anything else.
We finished off our time in the UK with visits with friends in Chester and Nottinghamshire, before putting Truffy into storage for a few months and jetting off on what should have been the next Brexit Day (but wasn’t) to the warmth of Australia.
Back in Australia we had a brief catch up with friends in Sydney, before picking up our Zone (caravan) and heading south. We went back into Victoria, exploring some more wine regions and attending a Zone-muster.
We were fortunate to be invited to house sit for a good friend for six weeks over the Christmas period – a time we generally try to avoid travelling due to the busy school summer holidays. It has really made us appreciate being settled in a home for a few weeks, a chance to unpack, take stock and enjoy the city life from a location that is quiet and bushy.
Many of the areas we visited in November have now been burnt beyond recognition, the tarmac melted and warped, trees down across roads, properties and lives lost. It is so sad, but we feel privileged to have visited the regions in safety before all this happened.
There is enough in the press about the fires through Australia so I won’t dwell on that, only that like the rest of the country we are hoping for relief sooner than later – sadly no rain forecast at least until the end of January. Mark and I have donated to the Salvation Army Bushfire Appeal – please click on the link if you’re able to help too – any sum of money is appreciated to help those families who have lost everything.
Thank you to everyone who was a part of our year and helped make it so special. The kindness of friends and strangers (who became friends!) has really made our travels so memorable.
Thank you too to everyone who regularly follows our posts, we really appreciate it! If you’re not yet a subscriber and would like to make sure you don’t miss an update from us, you can subscribe here. We have an exciting year ahead planned, with more travel in Australia, Singapore, the UK, Austria, Spain, France and Scandinavia.
We would like to take this opportunity to wish you a very happy, healthy and safe year ahead, may 2020 bring you adventures and maybe we’ll meet you on the road somewhere?
Keep in touch, we LOVE hearing from you!
PS If you were part of our year and we’ve not included a photo of you in our montages its only because we are so limited in how many to include – I am certain there is likely a photo of you on this blog somewhere! Thank you!
Location: Wallaga Lake, Bermagui, Berry and Sydney NSW
Saturday-Monday: As we moved north with a deadline to get to Sydney, we stopped for what would be our final camping spot of 2019 at the serene Wallaga Lake – well, serene when the water ski boats finally stopped thundering up and down!
A few kilometres outside of the small resort down of Bermagui, Wallaga Lake was a great place for us to just collect ourselves and work out what we would be storing in the van and what we needed to take up to Sydney. A day of cleaning and sorting and we felt a lot more organised. One of the less fun parts of this nomadic life, where we rent a house out and have no base other than two mobile homes in two continents, is working out what we need to take where. Anyway, a quality problem to have, we think.
We would stop one more night at our friends in Berry before storing the caravan in Nowra. Our friends Barb and Omar recently opened their garden for the Berry Gardens Festival, and had around 1700 visitors through! So we were keen to see what had been the drawcards since our last visit in February.
Sadly the drying westerly winds and lack of rain had made it tough to keep some of the highlights alive, but still they have changed a lot of minds about the use of insecticides and the merits of permaculture. Our visits to these guys are always a fascinating insight into this subject I know so little about. I just taste the produce that comes out of their garden and groan in delight, including once again the smoked trout that comes from the swimming pool they convert to a fish farm over the winter. Amazing inspiring people.
Tuesday: Well, we dropped off the caravan and had one very stuffed Landcruiser chugging up to Sydney. We had been invited to house sit a property in the rather exclusive suburb of Mosman on Sydney’s north shore. We have been here now a few days and are settling in. Our fur child is especially pleased to once again have a large house to romp around, and has adopted one of the rooms as her special domain.
We immediately commenced our usual “back in Sydney” program of catch ups with friends, but the joy we would normally experience is missing. It’s so sad to see Sydney bathed in smog from the bushfires that surround this usually beautiful city, the pollution levels ranging from an equivalent of smoking between 10 and 30 cigarettes a day.
It’s hard not to keep thinking about what this means for our future. Add living in the hottest, driest continent to global warming, and we are unlikely to get a happy outcome. I met up with some friends for lunch and the three of us all felt a background level of anxiety that is increasingly affecting the pride and pleasure we have always had to call ourselves Australian. We should be setting an example in this big brown land as to how to tackle these climate change challenges. But we’re not, and that’s depressing.
We see no one competent taking a leadership role in Australia, and we’re not unique in that regard, I do appreciate. The impact on Australia’s wildlife and ecosystems had been already cataclysmic. The pictures emerging of animals burning to death is heartbreaking. People losing everything in bushfires, their homes and livelihoods, where will this end for us? But what as individuals should we be doing to affect change? Is there anyone we trust to think about the country, not their own thirst for power, and just take some brave decisions for the long term?
Location: Yanakie and Tidal River, Wilsons Promontory, Victoria, Australia
Monday: There’s a decent amount of research that points to being near water as having a calming effect on the brain. Blue Mind science they call it. Being in sight of water has certainly brought much joy to Mrs A and I, and these last few days have been a reminder to us of that.
Gazing out over the ever changing seascape that surrounds the ancient granite mass of Wilsons Promontory has been food for our souls. I reckon our fur child is intrigued by the view as well, spending time, like us, looking out across the bay, watching pelicans land like B52s, as seagulls dog fight for fish scraps around them.
We have stayed at this campsite at Yanakie Bay before. It’s just outside the National Park which comprises most of the surrounding coastline, so we can take Tassie, our adventure cat. It has some “premium” sites metres from the beach. Best of all, at this time of year there has only been a couple of vans here in the two days we have soaked up the serenity.
We headed out in the kayak, batting across the mill-pond like surface of the bay (Corner Inlet for those in the know) heading for a sliver of beach in the distance.
We later learned it is in fact a great white shark nursery, and we did in fact spot this little fellow (officially called a shark pup) struggling along.
As we reached the shore, almost immediately a freshening wind blew up, it was a tough paddle back into it, but we hugged the mangrove covered shoreline (the most southerly in Australia) and avoided the worst of the gusts.
Tuesday: The weather has sure kept us reaching for layers, then shedding them as quickly, in turn Victorian fashion. A few days ago it was 40 degrees, now… a wind chill of minus minus 3.5! Crazy…
Today we headed into the national park by car. Wilsons Prom (Australians have an insatiable need to shorten everything), is a popular destination as local readers will know, for bush walkers, boaters and anyone who loves a bit of a wilderness experience. The last time we tried to come here it was closed because of bushfires, but seems to have recovered well.
We did a couple of short walks, spotting a number of kangaroos sheltering from the gale force winds. A wedge tailed eagle (sorry no photo evidence) was even struggling to stay on track with its massive powerful wings. Smaller birds has given up the ghost and were bunkered down.
We called into the visitor‘s centre and had a read up on the Prom. All very well presented, other than a blank space for anything before European settlement! I quizzed the young girl behind the counter, who said they had been struggling to get the two tribes who laid claim to the area to agree, and yet the centre has been there for 30 years! She also confidently told me the area had been inhabited for “hundreds of thousands of years”. Actually it has been inhabited for around 6,000 years and the ‘real’ name of the Prom is Wamoom or Wamoon, a name used nowhere in the centre that I could see. Surely Victorian Parks could do a better job than this of educating visitors on the First Australian history of the park?
We have loved our time here in this beautiful, wild and undeveloped coastline. Tomorrow we will turn back north and retrace our steps up the cost of Australia into NSW, with indelible memories in our heads. This is the best of caravanning. To be able to place yourself in such a fabulous place, the gateway to explore a unique environment, then have everything you need in your cosy little space when you head back indoors, that‘s pretty amazing.
Thursday: We are extremely fortunate that on our travels around Australia, and especially since owning a Zone RV caravan, we have met some wonderful people. So we were quite excited to learn (while sheltering from wind and rain back in Scotland a month or so ago), that there was to be a Zone Owners Muster to be held in Beechworth, Victoria just after we were back in Australia, and some of our friends would be attending.
We drove south from Rutherglen, arriving in Beechworth mid morning. Beechworth is an old gold mining town, originally settled in the mid 1880s. It was in 1852 that gold was discovered in the region, transforming a sleepy rural area by 8,000 people. The gold rush didn’t last long, but fortunately a forward thinking council at the time invested in infrastructure including a hospital and gaol which lasted until the late 1990s, ensuring the continued life of the centre.
The Zone muster was held at Sambell Lake, at a caravan site there. The lake used to be an open cut gold mine in the 1800s, and during the 1920s was regenerated to create a nature reserve. As we drove in, a koala bounded across the road in front of us and swiftly clambered up a tree beside us. We then spotted our friends Diane and Mark waving enthusiastically in a crowd of other Zoners, and drove off to park up before joining them and saying hello to the others.
It wasn’t a late night – I had a shocking sore throat, fighting a virus.
Friday: Our friends Diane and Mark hired bikes at the caravan park, and the four of us set off on the Murray to the Mountains cycle trail which starts at the park. My battle against the virus had been lost in the night and I woke with a horrible head cold that gradually got worse throughout the day.
We rode a short way along the trail, stopping when a steep downhill faced us. Already having a narrow airway and now blocked nose and swollen sore throat, I wasn’t up to cycling uphill again without a motor! Pennyweight Winery located beside the path saved the day and we called in for a tasting.
Several delicious whites, reds and fortified drops later, we bought a couple of bottles and rode back into Beechworth for lunch and some beer tasting at the Bridge Road Brewers (to make Mark happy!).
Saturday: I woke up with the full force of the cold hitting, constantly sneezing and generally feeling awful, head pounding and working my way through several boxes of Aloe Vera tissues. Mr A and Mark took off on our bikes for another ride.
My day was very subdued, while Mr A was more social and did some sorting out of our bits and pieces in the car, reacquainting himself with what we have here in Australia. Its the challenge with maintaining two mobile homes on different sides of the planet – you think you have something, only to remember its in the other hemisphere! Ah, first world problems…!
I was persuaded to leave the caravan mid afternoon and have a stroll around Beechworth, Diane and Mark bravely allowing me and my germs into their car. We browsed the gold centre (plenty of gold for sale) and Mr A’s favourite type of gold, a huge traditional sweet shop.
I concluded the day with an early night, while Mr A joined the Zoners for dinner at back at the Bridge Road Brewery.
Sunday: Another fine day in Beechworth, and a turning point in my cold. I felt a little more energetic and so we jumped in the car and drove a short way out of town to the Mount Pilot Lookout – a sandstone outcrop surrounded by eucalyptus forest. We climbed up and were rewarded with magnificent 360 degrees views across the region.
The flies were out in force, with giant horseflies landings hungrily on our bare legs, so we didn’t hang around at the top.
We moved on to check out Woolshed Falls, once the centre of the goldfields with thousands of prospectors camped along Spring Creek. Again the flies were there to greet us, so we didn’t hang around to entertain them.
In the afternoon, Mr A, Mark, Diane and I joined another group of Zoners at Beechworth’s second brewery, Billson’s.
This brewery was quite different from the first. They are very friendly and immediately welcomed us and invited us to taste the cordial selection, while giving us a run down of the history and work they are putting into the business. We tried shots of the gin as well. Downstairs in the basement, a speakeasy bar complete with leather chesterfield sofas offered beer tasting and sales.
Mr A also concluded he preferred the beer at this brewery, having hit a winner on his first try, compared with trying 6 different beers at the other place and not being that keen on any. He is sure to keep researching though!
We had a couple of wines around the campfire with the Zoners before another quiet and early night back in the van. We are wild things!
It’s such a shame a virus killed my energy and ability to be more social this weekend – Zone owners always tend to have so many great tips for travel and frequently have many years of travel experience to share as well. Fortunately Mr A felt well enough to be more sociable than me and has come away having learned a few things, and our existing friendship with Mark and Diane strengthened as well. All in all a great weekend, and a new virus added to my immune system!
Location: Sydney, Australia (including La Perouse, Maroubra, Malabar, Centennial Park, Coogee and Matraville)
We landed safely in Sydney on Saturday morning, an hour earlier than expected due to favourable winds from Singapore (nothing to do with Mr A and curry eating for once!), met by our lovely friend Jenny.
Jenny and David have again kindly invited us to stay with them for the week in their apartment, while we get ourselves settled in and tasks done in Sydney.
We spent the day getting reacquainted with Miss Tassie who quickly forgave us for leaving her, given we had appointed such caring foster parents in our absence, and later on cracked open our last bottle of Champagne from our trip to Epernay in France, carefully saved and transported back around the world. We enjoyed it with some Sydney Rock Oysters – definitely some of the most flavoursome oysters we have tasted, and high on the list of things we have missed from Australia.
Sunday saw the four of us strolling down to La Perouse for brunch at the Boatshed, a beachside restaurant. La Perouse is situated at the northern end of Botany Bay, named after a French navigator who landed here in 1788.
Jet lag plagued us for most of the week, allowing us to see some fabulous sunrises (sadly, much of Australia’s east coast bush land is on fire, smoke streaking the skies), and try to resist afternoon naps!
On Tuesday morning Mr A had his eyes checked using the best equipment in Australia, again getting the all clear that his pressures remain stable. It’s always a relief to know that his eyesight has been maintained, and one less worry for us health wise.
A half hour walk from Jenny and David’s apartment on Wednesday took us down to Malabar, a beachside suburb we have never visited before. It’s a real haven away from the traffic and very picturesque, reminding us just how quickly you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city in these parts.
There were even people swimming in the ocean there – though at 17 degrees slightly too nippy for us softies!
After a haircut later in the day, we met up with friends Clive and Aisha for cocktails and dinner at Fei Jai, a Cantonese restaurant in Potts Point.
We had a literal feast, having ordered a banquet menu, and rolled out into an Uber back home at the end of the evening, having laughed lots and had a great catch up.
Thursday morning started with a dentist visit, followed by a much anticipated appointment with our trusted financial advisor, Paul Brady, to check we could still continue to live our life of world travels. We discussed a few thoughts for the future and got some great advice from Paul. Most importantly our nomadic lifestyle can continue!
Friday saw us travelling down to Nowra, south of Sydney, to where our car and caravan are stored. We caught a train and enjoyed the 4 hour journey down the sparkling coastline. Everything appears to be all in good order, and after Truffy, the Zone looks huge! We collected the car and drove back up to Sydney.
Later that day we bussed into the city and joined our friends John and Eveliene for drinks and dinner. Again it was so lovely to catch up on all their news over some tasty food and wine.
Feeling thoroughly spoilt by all the love from our friends, we were treated yet again on Saturday. We began the day joining Jenny as she walked a friend’s dog, Jaffa, in Sydney’s Centennial Park. Sydney reminded us that it is still spring, with cool 15 degrees temperatures and a chilly breeze – stark contrast to temperatures in the early 30s when we landed last weekend.
Mr A and I have lived in Sydney for more than two decades, but still love seeing places through new eyes. We haven’t been into Centennial Park for years, and it was a great reminder of what a wonderful resource this is for Sydney’s residents.
Our friends Karen and Chris live a couple of hours’ drive north of Sydney, but as Chris was flying into the airport on Saturday morning, returning from a trip to Hong Kong, Karen caught the train down and joined us at Jenny and David’s apartment.
The six of us went for lunch back at the Boatshed, Barramundi burgers all round satisfying our hunger.
Later on that evening we all travelled to beachside suburb Coogee (named after an aboriginal word for ‘smelly place’ after the rotting seaweed on the beach – not so smelly these days!), for a delicious Asian meal at Sugarcane.
Sunday was our final day in Sydney for a while as from tomorrow we are going to pick up the Zone and commence a new Australian adventure, so much of the day was spent getting ourselves packed up and final washing done. We made sure we found time for a walk, and took ourselves on a 6.5km circuit through the National Park down to Maroubra Beach and looping back around via Malabar Headland.
It was a gorgeous walk, the sun shining and much warmer than anticipated. The birds were out, with a peregrine falcon soaring overhead, also joined by a white breasted sea eagle. In the undergrowth the trilling song of superb fairy wrens entertained us, just lovely.
We concluded our weekend with a meal out with our other surrogate family, Rosemary and Richard, a treat for them plus David and Jenny for all their help in looking after Miss Tassie this year and for enabling us to undertake this wonderful lifestyle. Without them, we’d still probably be working and taking that commuter bus into the city every day. We are so grateful for having precious people like these in our lives.
Location: Bakewell and Chatsworth House, Peak District, Derbyshire, UK
Sunday: We left our hotel in Chester behind, but not before enjoying a final long, long, shower – then heading back to our life of short showers in the motorhome or disappointing shower blocks on campgrounds. Well, it rains enough here to never have to feel guilty about water usage!
We left Cheshire headed into Derbyshire and over to the small town of Bakewell, famous for its tarts. Not the short skirt wearing variety, but the yummy decked-out-with-butter-pastry type.
We tried to set up to stay the night there, but after all this rain we couldn’t get on our ramps as they just sunk into the mud. So it was a quick tour around town instead, and some power shopping for yet more warm clothes, before heading off for the night to a campground adjacent to the estate of Chatsworth House, famous for being the filming location of Pride and Prejudice and the Colin Firth version of Mr Darcy.
Our visits to Chester and Bakewell have encouraged us to reflect on what we’ve enjoyed though about these small English towns, as we prepare mentally to leave them behind and head back to Australia. There have been a number of really standout examples of vibrant little centres like this one at Bakewell. There were so many niche stores, from cheese shops to gin emporia, and quality independent clothing stores, cosy cafes and enticing pubs, all bustling with people.
Mrs A and I often wonder what the magic formula is, why some small towns seem to flourish and others in a similar geography wither. We had some ideas from our own observations, but I’ve been doing some digging and reading up to see what the experts say . The formula seems to be the creation of what one of the global leaders in urban planning Brent Toderian termed “a sticky street” – places where people want to linger. Structural changes such as pedestrianising areas are in the hard to do bucket, but essential to make them people friendly. It’s something we always comment on when wandering around a new town or village, ‘Who wants to linger in a street with cars and lorries thundering by?‘ Then changes being made that make that environment even more attractive, with entertainment for instance, like street artists. In Chester I stopped for ages listening to a guy playing an electric violin, it was so beautiful. I meandered around even more shops and spent money.
Another key strategy bringing back to life the high streets of some towns is the independent shops selling the non-commoditised goods we don’t see on Amazon. Why would you go to a high street where most of what is on sale you can have delivered? It all seems so obvious, so what’s stopping so many councils from acting and providing leadership? I think of our own little high street in a suburb of Sydney, where several of the store owners I know are against pedestrianising the street because they are afraid business will drop! A half decent councillor with an eye on something more than feathering there own pocket (thinking of several of the ones we’ve met) would be able to show them the data and convince them. It’s just a no brainer. Once we settle back down somewhere I think I may have to have a go at local politics and stop bitching from the sideline.
So it was goodbye to Bakewell and a lovely 6 mile drive over to Chatsworth House and the camp site that was heaving at the seams, with I would guess, over a 100 caravans and motorhomes. There’s a lot of us about.
It’s nestled right next to the 1,000 acre Chatsworth Estate, with its grounds designed by Capability Brown (famous for designing landscapes that look as though they could be natural, while presenting a range of trees, colours and textures to the view).
Monday morning we walked through to Chatsworth House park and heard a strange noise behind us. We turned to see a herd of deer leaping over a fence. Well the big ones did, the smaller deer had second thoughts.
We continued through the grounds to the grand house.
Mrs A explored the house while I inspected the cafe in some detail. My ankle was still playing up so I couldn’t really do the place justice.
The house continues to be lived in by the present Duke and Dutchess of Derbyshire, and in recent years has had a substantial revamp with more than £33 million spent on it restoring the building inside and out.
There is an extensive collection of sculptures and statues, and a whole room dedicated to a collection going back several hundred years.
In the late afternoon we took a gentle walk into the small village of Nether End nearby, and of course a cosy pub beckoned.
I especially look forward to catching up with friends from my university days. Like for many, going to university was a time of escape and reinvention for me, leaving a small town where it was hard to not see a familiar face, and move to the other end of the country to a small city. I left school with really only one true friend I remain friends with today, most others having gone in different life directions. Chester was a chance to start anew, make new friends who accept me for who I am.
I fell on my feet in many ways, receiving a place in halls of residence, with a corridor of lovely people. We soon became firm friends, a core group of girls we called ‘The Ladies’ Wrecked-Tangle’. We partied through our first year, then shared a house together and continued the party (inter dispersed with a bit of studying and exams) for two more years. It has been about 28 years since we all first met, and though we see a lot less of one another these days, with sometimes years between visits, it is as though we’ve never been apart. The laughter still flows, the stories and the wine. We simply couldn’t be in the country and not catch up.
Thursday morning Mark and I left Kendal and travelled into Cheshire, spending Thursday on a farm about 40 minutes from Chester. It was a cool, crisp autumnal afternoon, and with Mr A’s ankle on the mend took a stroll around the local lanes. There were plenty of birds about, squirrels scurrying up trees, collecting acorns and other nuts to store for the winter, and some quite lovely scenery.
And so after another rainy night, we pulled away and drove over to Chester, pulling into the carpark at Chester Racecourse. You can in fact park overnight at the race course in self contained motorhomes but we had decided to treat ourselves to a couple of nights in a hotel, and booked at the Holiday Inn just outside the city walls.
We had not long arrived when my friend Fiona pulled up in her car, picking me up to go to lunch. I had a great afternoon catching up with her, my first-week room mate, Vicki, and another friend, Sarah – the years falling away since our last catch up.
We ate delicious Italian food at Etalia at the Red House, overlooking the River Dee, the rain falling heavily outside while we munched on mussels, sea bass and bruschetta. No wine today though, we stuck to the water. We must be getting sensible in our old age!
It has been about 24 years since I lived in Chester, and at least a decade since I spent any time in the city, but I was suitably impressed. The council clearly has a grand plan for the city. Chester has always been mostly pedestrianised and full of boutique shops, but now has grown to encompass art-house theatres, cinema and a wide range of cafes and restaurants within its walls. A lot of attention has been paid to maintaining the history and heritage while bringing the city into the current century, and future plans appear to encompass this theme. It feels like a prosperous city with a lot of life.
Mark returned from his afternoon ambling the streets and getting a haircut feeling positive about the city and its great upbeat vibe.
Friday night we joined my friend Emma and her husband Nick for dinner at a The Old Harker’s Arms, a buzzing and vibrant pub near the canal. Mark was beside himself with excitement on seeing that it was pie week – with literally three courses on offer! We had a fabulous evening, our first chance to get to know Nick in a more intimate group.
We met up with Emma and Nick again for lunch on Saturday, heading into Storyhouse. This is a perfect example of how Chester is breathing life into old buildings, bringing them into the current century. Back when I lived here, this was a slightly run down 1930s cinema, but now has been redesigned and extended to encompass the library, two theatres, a cinema, restaurant and two bars. We chose lunch from an imaginative menu and ate in a room full of light and atmosphere, the walls lined with books. Books – remember them? What warmth they bring to an environment!
It is definitely worth visiting, even just to see how the interior architecture melds together the old features of staircases, pillars and walls with the newer more modern areas. The lunch menu was great, and there are plenty of shows to choose from. A fabulous cultural centre for the city.
It rained heavily during lunch, but the sun came out as we finished, so the four of us took a stroll around the walls. If you’re not familiar with Chester, it was formed as a fortress in around 60 or 70 CE by the Romans. The walls circumnavigate the city almost entirely for 3km (about 1.8 miles) and are a great way to see some of the main features of the city.
The sun shone for us, the city gleaming in autumnal splendour. As we walked past the cathedral we watched a falconry display in the gardens – apparently they have a golden eagle, hawks and owls there.
Eastgate stands on the original entranceway to the Roman fortress, Deva Victrix. From Eastgate you look down over Eastgate Street – some of the establishments have not changed over the years – HSBC Bank (bottom right in the photo below) was originally Midland Bank, and where I got my first student overdraft!
Chester’s getting ready for Christmas, with lights strung up across every street. It seems green is this year’s theme. They are all apparently energy efficient LED lights, and will be switched on 14 November, two days before the big Christmas market.
We continued around the walls, past the Roman Gardens. Here are displayed fragments of Deva Victrix unearthed during excavations in the late 1800s. Included are the remains of bathing houses, mosaics and pillars.
We continued around with the River Dee our next location. From here you can cross the river and walk across the other bank, or back in our student days, drink strawberry daiquiris in the sunshine (happy hour only!).
We continued our circuit, finally passing the castle (dating from 1070) and finally the racecourse and back to our hotel via a tour of Truffy.
We met back up with Emma and Nick early evening at a wine bar on Watergate Street, Corks Out. They had an interesting selection of wine from around the world, and a policy of keeping a step ahead of the supermarkets in sourcing interesting tipples. The bar’s located in a 13th century crypt, which adds to the atmosphere.
We concluded our evening at Ruan Orchid, a delicious Thai restaurant – definitely highly recommended, but book in advance. It’s a boutique venue with authentic Thai food, and deservedly popular.
It was a brilliant visit and we’ll definitely be back again. After all this time it was great to be reminded what a friendly, vibrant little city it is, with so much to see and do, especially when it allows us spend some precious time with longtime friends. Farewell Chester, we will return!
Location: Whitelee Wind Farm, Scotland & Kendal, Cumbria, England, UK
We decided to make a dash down south and get some miles driven while my ankle was preventing me from being very active. Leaving Scotland behind felt OK, because we know we will be back. It felt weird being back on multi lane roads again, surrounded by traffic. We’re going to miss the brooding silence of Scotland’s relatively sparsely populated countryside.
We saw that the UK’s largest wind farm, at Whitelee just south of Glasgow, was on our path south and had an overflow car park that allowed overnight parking. So we pulled up just before the visitor centre closed and had a wander around the extremely well presented exhibition. Wind power is blowing hot (he he ) right now in Scotland, not a surprise to us given the weather we’ve experienced! Apparently they are now generating twice as much power as they need to keep Scotland lit up like a jock with his kilt on fire.
We retired to Truffy suitably impressed, and were looking forward to a final quiet night in Scotland. Well it was not to be, for me at least. I was woken at midnight by a car driving past then parking quite close to us. There were no other motorhomes there, we were on our own in the middle of a moor, with only 216 wind turbines keeping their lofty but impersonal watch over us. Another car pulled up, and clearly some sort of deal was going on between the vehicles. I peered out of a crack in our blind. Voices got louder, and I was on full alert as one of the guys wandered down towards us, smoked, stared our way, then wandered back to apparently clinch his deal. That car left then an hour later and another arrived! It was a sleepless night for me, while Mrs A blithely “purred” (ladies like here don’t snore apparently) through the comings and goings. In seven months of camping in UK/Europe its my first experience of not feeling safe. Not a bad average. However, I guess it only takes one wrong un…but at 4am finally all was quiet and I got some fitful sleep.
The next day, a rather bleary eyed I piloted us down the motorways towards the Lake District. We ended up at a caravan park on the outskirts of Kendal, branded as the “gateway to the lakes”.
Walkers amongst you will be familiar with the world renowned product from this town, Kendal Mint Cake. A sugar rush to fire you up on those long walks, and favoured by Sir Edmund Hilary on his first accent of Mount Everest, and still going strong. It has a really almost overpowering mint flavour, and smell, as our strongest sense, has probably kept customers coming back for more to rekindle memories of past happy hours spent rambling. My theory anyway..
It’s a nice quiet park and we once again fell asleep to the sound of rain pattering on the roof. Will we be able to still doze off so easily on our travels around drought ridden Australia? We spent the morning doing some catch up FaceTiming with friends over there. Without this channel to keep in touch I think we would have second thoughts about socially isolating ourselves in the way we have travelling like this.
My ankle felt well enough today to try a bike ride into town. Purely by accident we found a vegan cafe which served dairy free scones that were a real treat for madam, and blood orange tea. It was a lovely cosy place, and once again my brain flicked to thinking how we will miss things like this when we head back. Getting rugged up and then ducking in from the cold to a pub or cafe. There’s something very primitive about feeling protected in the modern equivalent of a cave. We love that in the motorhome as well. Shutting out the weather, without feeling guilty about not being out there doing something in the sunshine. It’s lovely to experience these changing seasons.
The next day we decided to stay on at Kendal, Catherine had had a poor night with sinus pain and the drugs she was taken had kept her awake most of the night. A low level of physical activity characterised our morning, punctuated by egg and bacon sandwiches listening to the rain pattering on the roof. Thank goodness for my Kindle app and a great read.
In the afternoon the sun peeked out nervously, and we decided to see how my ankle would hold up to a walk into town. It did, and a return to our vegan cafe was the incentive. Chocolate and beetroot cake was selected my madam, and apparently I had to….SHARE…even writing the word brings a little shiver of horror. Anyway, share I did and it was delicious.
I was then persuaded to hobble up the castle, they’re always on the top of hills of course, but it was a fine autumnal day and the view of Kendal nestled into the valley was fabulous. By the time we made it back to camp we had walked just over 8km (5 miles)…it seems my ankle is on the mend.
Location: Helmsdale, Dunrobin Castle (Golspie), Fortrose and Eaglesham, Scotland, UK
We woke up to an unusual phenomenon in our pub carpark – sunlight streaming through the windows. Excited, we packed up and drove down to the harbour for a look around the tiny fishing village of Helmsdale. Although sunny, it was a fresh 7°centigrade, so we still wrapped warm, but really appreciated the break in the heavy cloud and showers and the drop in the wind.
We were unsure how long the fine weather would last, the best forecast being to look out of your window and see what’s happening! So we turned south and followed the coast a short way to Dunrobin Castle, a stately home that has been continuously inhabited (and still is) for the past 700 years.
One thing we noticed immediately as we drove was the slight change in vegetation, with more shrubs and small trees along the road, something that has been absent from our views since we were on the isles of Skye and Harris/Lewis, and even there they were rare.
Apparently Scotland used to be covered in far more woodland, but over the past 300 years has experienced a lot of deforestation – so much that now only 4% of Scotland has trees. Much of the clearing was for sheep grazing, deemed fear more profitable than trees, and then there were the Victorians who bought up great swathes of the highlands to use for hunting grouse and deer – they burned the hills to discourage trees and encourage heather, far easier for hunting. And finally, there are all the grazing animals – the sheep, cattle and deer themselves, all loving to chew on a seedling tree, ensuring it will never make it to fully grown.
As we turned into the driveway at Dunrobin Castle, we saw trees galore, lined up welcoming us towards the grand house.
Mr A with his sore sprained ankle settled down with a cup of tea and a good book while I jumped out for an explore. The castle was not yet open to visitors, so I headed into the adjoining woodland, following paths and stairways through the mossy trees, enjoying the delicious autumnal aroma of decaying leaves, and the gentle rustle of the sea breeze through the beech trees.
Next I followed a path which wound steeply down past the castle, leading to the seafront. Dunrobin Castle looks out at the North Sea, eerily calm on this Saturday morning.
The castle has been amended over the centuries, with the architect of London’s Houses of Parliament amongst others who have influenced its design. It looks to me like a French Château – and would not seem out of place along the Loire Valley.
The exterior of the castle and grounds having piqued my interest, I checked Mr A was ok, before buying my ticket for an explore inside. The grand entrance hall with its roaring open fire is very welcoming.
Unlike many historical buildings and castles, this house did not feel sterile and cold, museum like. Instead it was set up to feel like a home, as though you were a guest invited to stay, admire the little trinkets and souvenirs saved over the centuries.
Walking up the stairs you first enter a hallway and then a billiards room. You can almost hear the clink of whiskey glasses being enjoyed over a game or two in the room. A little typewriter written poem framed in a corner caught my eye:
The Batchelor’s Wish
One female companion to soften my cares
Two thousand a year to support my affairs
Three dogs and a gun when to sport I incline
Four horses and chaise to indulge me and mine
Five jolly companions with whom to make merry
Six dishes each day with six glasses of sherry
Seven beds in my house for my friends at their leisure
Eight somethings or other to add to their pleasure
Nine pounds in my pocket when cash I require
These favours are all that on Earth I desire, and a
Passport to heaven when from Earth I retire.
Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, 1778
I wonder what the equivalent bachelor’s wish would be in 2019? And I wonder what the somethings or other are….?
I moved on through to the dining room, set up with the family silver all ready for a fine dinner party for 10.
On next to the music room, beautiful ornate ceilings and perfectly cared for showcases full of gifts, donations and collectables from throughout the centuries.
I was tickled to spot a slipper once belonging to General Garibaldi and left behind after a visit. I can imagine some excited maid trotting up to the Duke to present this, before getting it mounted to display in a cabinet! It has to be the first slipper I have seen on display in a long while…
The attention to detail in each room is unlike anything you would see today – the coats of arms, the polished brass cats presenting the fire, the immaculately dust and soot free marble fireplaces.
In the older part of the castle we came across the Seamstress’s Room, also known as ‘the haunted room’. Nobody living today has seen or heard the ghost here, but stories go back to the 1500s. The story goes that in the 15th century the Earl of Sutherland captured and imprisoned a beautiful young woman from a rival clan, with plans to marry her. She tried to escape by climbing down a rope of sheets, but the Earl on discovering her trying to escape, swiped the sheets with his sword and she fell to her death.
In more recent times, footsteps have been frequently heard in another part of the castle, when there are no people present…so they have a ghost with no story, and a story with no ghost…
There is also a museum on site containing many collections from over the centuries, swords, more hunting trophies and other trinkets, but I felt I had left Mr A long enough, so missed it out and returned to Truffy so we could be on our way.
The landscape continued to evolve as we headed south, with our first agricultural farming for a while, all with a fabulous backdrop of cliffs and woodland.
Our destination for the night was a caravan park near the small settlement of Fortrose, on the banks of the Moray Firth, across from Inverness. Unlike Dunrobin Castle the wind was whistling across the water, making it quite fresh. We hibernated in Truffy for the afternoon while a machine did our washing.
Sunday morning was clear and sunny, and the wind had dropped off to make it a rather pleasant temperature. We decided to move on our way however, with the wet weather forecast to return.
Before we left the area we drove up to Chanonry Point, home to a lighthouse and also a favoured feeding place for seals, bottle nosed dolphins and porpoises.
As soon as we pulled up I spotted a dorsal fin, either a dolphin or porpoise, but it soon dipped under the water and didn’t reemerge. It was a seal we saw most of, as it popped its head out of the water and gave us all a good look on the shore before dipping under and chasing breakfast.
We stayed a short while to watch the seal, before heading off. As predicted, the fine weather didn’t hang around, and it wasn’t long before we were back in familiar rain. A good driving day, we decided, and another opportunity for Mark to rest his ankle.
We drove a good 320km (200 miles) to just south of Glasgow, spending our final night in Scotland for this trip on the UK’s largest wind farm, Whitelee near the village of Eaglesham. We hoped to have a peaceful night’s sleep on the carpark here, in an area well known for badgers, owls and other wildlife.