Location: Houghton & Swavesey, Cambridgeshire, Kettering, Northamptonshire and finally Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK
It‘s been a brilliant couple of weeks of catching up with family and friends. Purely by chance we ended up staying at a fabulous National Trust campsite in the area my mother grew up in, and Catherine and I ended up retracing the last day out that I had with my parents (map of our route).
From there we visited one of Catherine’s cousins I hadn’t met before, Elizabeth (plus her husband, Jason and son Michael) living in the small village of Swavesey just down the road. What a talented, lovely bunch her family are and I feel all the richer for spending time getting to know them. Another unintended benefit of not being able to travel to Europe!
From there we went and had a nose around the small village of Old Weston, where my research into family trees on Ancestry.com had told me my great, great grandfather had lived. It’s a spooky feeling looking at some of the same buildings they would have passed in their daily lives.
Then on to the “ancestral seat” of my family, the small town of Raunds. I found my grandmother‘s grave, the one I had never met as she died before I was born, and where my mother’s ashes were scattered.
A somewhat emotionally wearing day, but was capped off my a visit to my old friends in Kettering in Northamptonshire, and my home town growing up. We had our usual night out of superb curry and beer, and the only photos from the evening I am not allowing Catherine to post! Yup…I fell asleep in a chair in their lounge clutching a glass of red…again!
From there it was on to the city of Milton Keynes, and a weekend I had been so looking forward to with my daughters and grandkids. It sure didn’t disappoint. Dinners and lunches out and in their lovely homes, visits to animal farms and walks in the wood. Reconnecting with a family I‘ve seen so little of over the years – blissful.
One of the delights for me has been watching Catherine helping Hayley experiment with her cooking, and a chicken vindaloo at her fab pad was proof of both of their talents.
Milton Keynes has certainly matured since my time living there in the 80’s.
We are Wagamama fans – but two days on the trot? Why not.
Then it was a trip out to the Green Dragon Eco Farm with Zoe and her son Jacob, a bird show and animal feeding all part of this great day out.
Then Sunday was a walk in the woods with Hayley and her two boys, Luke and James. Much fun was had chasing each other around.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better time – I can just wish, and plan, for more times like this.
Location: Bristol, Worcester (Gloucestershire), Gunthorpe (Nottinghamshire), Swinethorpe (Lincolnshire), Harby (Nottinghamshire), Kettering (Northamptonshire) and Milton Keynes (Buckinghamshire)!
Yup..a lot of charging around the last couple of weeks, after so many months going nowhere!
We left Bristol early, fortified with last night’s delicious chilli-con-carne served up by Catherine’s cousin Ian and wife Caroline, and dashed up to Worcester where our e-bikes were booked in for a service.
These guys at On-Bike have been an absolute delight to deal with both in the sales process and now with their excellent after sales service. They are so busy at the moment they have had to shut the shop to the public three days a week to give themselves a chance to build up more bikes ready to be shipped around the country to eager customers. It’s great to see them doing so well after years of hard work building the business up.
While the bikes were being given some remedial work, so was I, in the form of a much needed haircut! Catherine had been trying to keep me presentable, but it was time for a barber’s shop.
Most of the shops were open, and it was our first chance to have a wander around anything order than a supermarket since Vienna in early March. We found the experience a little daunting, not being able to try clothes on for instance, but I ended up with a pair of hiking trousers from my favourite clothes store, Rohan.
Worcester has put a lot of effort and money into its town centre over the last few years, and yet retained these beautiful facades.
That same afternoon we drove up to Nottinghamshire as we had booked our motorhome in for some work the next morning… or so I thought. We called in to drop off our old batteries, to find I had messed up the dates and we were due Thursday not Wednesday! I had organised our whole program as soon as lockdown was lifted in a frantic morning of phone calls to campsites and friends, and just got it wrong. So we had a day up our sleeve
We had decided to stay in the car park of a pub just over the road from them, the Unicorn at Gunthorpe, set in a lovely position by the river Trent. Unfortunately that‘s where the loveliness ended. We had a very sub standard meal, barely edible. The entrance we had come in by was deserted when we were trying to leave it, not a soul in sight, but the young lady on the door made us walk all the way round the pub, squeezing past tables of diners, to go out the “designated exit”. The next day I asked if there was anyone who was interested in our feedback and was told to fill out an on-line form. I asked again if there was anyone locally who had cooked the meal last night or who managed the pub who would like to hear, and was told again, fill out the on line survey. So I guess not. There are many pubs that no doubt that won’t survive this pandemic, Some it will be sad to see go, others not so much.
We took ourselves off for a walk along the river. What a tranquil escape from the network of busy roads that surround it. I am currently reading a history of the canal network in the UK, and now look at these river roads in a new light. For so many years they were the arteries that pumped the trade of heavy goods and raw materials around the country.
The Trent is England’s third longest river, and enabled goods produced in the industrial heartland of the Midlands to be transported down to the sea ports on the Humber estuary. The UK has over 2,000 miles of navigable waterway, and there are some future adventures right there me thinks.
In the late afternoon sun we drove over to see our friends up the road on the border of Lincolnshire, having booked at a campsite we had seen modestly signposted near their village many times but never actually visited. Well, we were in for a treat! What a hidden gem this was.
Camper UK Leisure Park had superb facilities (which were actually open, most are not). These guys had recently built a whole load of lovely wooden chalets and just opened them only for the very next day forced to close them under lockdown, so it was great to see the park busy once again. It should be a good season for campsites in the UK with most people staycationing. Hopefully they can recoup the losses from the spring and early summer to stay in business.
It was another early for us (before 7am) start, especially with a few too many wines under our belt from drinks with our friends the night before, and back to Gunthorpe and our motorhome dealer, Fuller Leisure. They had a loan car waiting for us, a spirited little Mini which I really enjoyed driving after the not so nimble Truffy. We had been suggested a visit to Belvoir Castle to fill our day while they worked on our vehicle. Off we went and had a decent enough wander round the country surrounding this impressive pile.
Looking at its history it was no surprise to see that what you see today is not really a castle, but a copy of one, rebuilt in “Gothic Romantic Revival” style, that for me just screams fake and cashed up, from one of the richest landowners in England the Dukes of Rutland.
We collected Truffy, hoping his warped bathroom door had now been fixed. Next we headed down to Northamptonshire (our third county that day!) and my hometown of Kettering.
Its a bit of ritual when visiting our friends there to head out for a curry, and what a feast this was. The Royal Bengal is an example of how well a dining experience can still be delivered under the current restraints. Superb food, attentive and friendly service, working espcially hard to make sure Catherine‘s dairy intolerance was catered for.
The following morning we enjoyed a much needed hangover breakfast in the garden, joined bymy great friend and second cousin Derry. His family own and run the care home that both my parents were so well looked after in. It has been a super stressful time for all of them as they navigate this pandemic. What heroic work has been done in this industry, and so poorly supported by, what sounds like, an incompetent county council. The people who work in these care homes, and their residents, deserve better.
Then we were off to Milton Keynes for a weekend with my daughters and grandies. This was the first time I had been able to see them since leaving the UK last year. What a brilliant weekend we had. Dinner Friday night at a lovely pub, excellent food and service once again, and a really good catch up with these two young chips off the very old block
Then we had a short post dinner drive out to our campsite for the weekend near Buckingham. A field basically, with fresh water and a toilet dump point. No power, but with our new batteries the whole 12v system is now working really well. A bit of sunshine into the solar panels and we left with more power in the batteries than we arrived with. At £20 accomodation cost for two nights, we were happy!
Saturday morning saw Hayley (daughter number two) arrive with her boys Luke and James. Kites were flown, chases were had around the field, just perfect.
Hayley had acquired a new member of the family just before lockdown, the very photogenic Belle, a bichon frise puppy, and she enjoyed the new sights and smells of this farmland retreat.
Hayley had also spotted there was a winery not far away, so carted the boys back to MIlton Keynes, collected her sister and dashed back (she’s a dynamo!). Well this was my first sampling of English wine, Catherine has beaten me to it on a previous trip and was very positive. The winery had some good reviews (Chafor Estate) and we constructed our own tasting, sampling four of their wines. It was just lovely to do something like this with my daughters, especially since for Zoe it was her first opportunity to do some wine tasting.
The next morning we packed up and headed back into Milton Keynes and Zoe kindly hosted us for brunch. She takes after us in being a doting feline servant, to the stunningly coloured Simba. Then it was off to the park. Zoe lives right next to one of the many beautiful green corridors that wind their way through Milton Keynes. We saw red kites soaring overhead, and admired the way this new town has so matured since it was home to me 30 years ago.
So with the whole family in tow now, there was more chasing around and eventually…I wore them out!
It has been a hectic week, with more to come, but the joy of finally being able to reconnect with family and friends just so rewarding. It‘s hard to know how we divide our time up between our families, but it is definitely Catherine’s turn next!
Location: Newark & Harby, Nottinghamshire, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, London and Hastings, East Sussex, UK
Our final week in the UK for a while went quickly, the autumn temperatures dropping and the wet weather continuing. We are so fortunate to have good friends John and Catriona living not far from where we are storing Truffy, with a nice flat driveway on which we spent a good day avoiding the showers and getting him prepared to store.
The Hymer Owner’s Group was again invaluable in its help providing an essential checklist on all the many things we needed to do to ensure our little camper would make it through a British winter unscathed, and we set about draining tanks, blowing water out of pipes, cleaning and removing soft furnishings. We are so grateful for our friends’ large attic space where we have stored anything that might freeze or suffer from damp.
We made sure we were finished by the weekend when friends Stuart, Karen, Barny and Mel arrived for a farewell/reunion, revisiting our memories of our last time together back in June in La Marche, Italy. It was a fun weekend with a few gins sampled from around the country – with contributions from as far apart as the Outer Hebrides, Cornwall and Hastings.
While the others enjoyed the Wales-South Africa rugby match on Sunday morning, we jumped on our bikes for a final ride, enjoying the emergence of bright sunshine but braving the chilly temperatures to ride 15km along a rail trail from the village of Harby to the River Trent. Apparently funding has been secured by a community group to extend this path all the way to Nottingham – we look forward to doing that once it is completed.
Sunday afternoon saw us heading out for a stroll around Whisby Nature Park, an old quarry which has been transformed into a wetland environment with walks and bird hides.
Our short walk blew out the cobwebs before we all farewelled each other until next year.
On Monday it was time to drive to Hawton Waters to store Truffy. We left him locked up safe and sound and went off on our way. From here we hired a car and drove south to Milton Keynes.
Mr A: While Mrs A was off to London then Hastings I had a few magic days with my daughters in Milton Keynes. I would count as the highlight of our trip this year the opportunity to spend time with them, and their children. two of my grandkids were away with this time, but the two who were around were plenty to handle!
I am just amazed when I watch mums of young children just power through the endless challenges of parenting, especially when it’s school holidays as it was this week.
We had a couple of outings, a walk along the River Ouse was declared “enjoyable” by my older grandson, quite an accolade really considering mum had to prise him away from his Minecraft game!
That night I took my two daughters out for a meal, and what an absolute pleasure that was. Turkish and Lebanese fine dining, in the best company.
Wednesday was a trip out to an open farm, the coldest place I have ever stood in. I have gone so soft in the Australian sun. The boys loved it though, interacting with the animals and playing on the farm toys.
Mrs A: Mr A dropped me at Milton Keynes Station and I took the train into London. There I spent a lovely evening in Twickenham staying at a friend’s house. Jacky is another of the wonderful women I’ve met through my rare disease – making special friends is certainly one of the unexpected benefits of running the support group.
Tuesday morning saw me back at Charing Cross Hospital for my next airway examination and set of steroid injections. I was fairly anxious about this appointment given my breathing had declined over the past month, and I was worried the scarring was quickly returning. It was with some relief I was told I just have an infection and the scar has remained at bay.
After my appointment I travelled over to Charing Cross Station (nowhere near the hospital of the same name) and met my mum at Trafalgar Square. We spent a great afternoon visiting the Royal Acadamy of Arts for an exhibition of Lucian Freud’s self portraits followed by a browse around the Covent Garden Market stalls.
We concluded our London day out with a pre-dinner drink at the Fortnum and Mason Wine Bar, followed by dinner at Viet Food in Chinatown.
It was a fun mother-daughter catch up and chance to treat mum for her birthday which I missed in September.
Wednesday was an opportunity to spend some time with my 97 year old grandmother. She has been unwell recently and spent some time in hospital with pneumonia and cellulitis, and hearing she was back on antibiotics I made it a priority to get in and see her. It’s one of the challenges of travelling, especially when you’re on the other side of the world, wondering whether it will be the last time you see someone you love. She was in great spirits, rosy cheeks from her infection, but still full of smiles and laughter and could still remember ‘Catherine visiting all the way from Orstralia!’.
Thursday: So now its time to head back to Australia, heads crammed with memories of so many wonderful experiences. Time with friends and family, as well as learning about so many new places. Our dream to travel in Europe, converted to memories of 8 different countries.
People travel for pleasure for lots of different reasons. For us it‘s the opportunity to make new friends, deepen the existing relationships we have, explore new countries and try to understand a little of their culture and history. It’s been simply amazing. To get to share this with adventure with someone as smart, funny, positive and gorgeous as my wife/husband – truly awesome.
We never get lessons on how to be a father. Some people just seem pre-programmed and naturally adopt the role, bringing their very best self to the challenge. Other people, like me, have found it a bumpy road, with many a stumble on the way.
This trip back to the UK has given me the opportunity to spend time with my daughters, my grandchildren, and my wife’s and friends families. It’s been precious time, where some of the most poignant memories of our whole trip have been formed. To see both my daughters turn into such incredible mums has been an absolute joy. To see how they have faced every challenge (and there have been many) head on and powered through. I’m so very proud of them.
Parenting in this digital age seems have some unique opportunities and risks. There is never a shortage of on on tap entertainment for the “witching hour” when fractious little ones can be offered a screen to calm them down. But how much screen time do you give them? Are any taps being tuned off? The imagination required to entertain themselves? I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question, but it’s one I see many parents posing themselves.
As we supplement our face to face networks with digital ones, I think that also provides new opportunities and risks for parents with young children. Is the screen time an opportunity cost for building face to face friendships out in the street, or do the multi-player game platforms replace that? How do parents ensure there’s a balance between sitting and moving around? I watched my four grandchildren spending time together racing around screaming with joy and I know where I would put my bet.
There are some difficult choices for parents to make, with so much conflicting information about the risks and benefits to children of enabling their access to information and entertainment. How do parents equip them to filter what they see? Through censorship or education and guidance?
I watch my daughters having to make decisions on these topics, with, from what I can read, very little good quality balanced content to help them.
Family relationships are rarely easy to navigate smoothly, ours being no exception, but I can only thank the much smarter than me Mrs A for her support and positive modelling as to how I can be a better father, grandparent and uncle. Always in her debt it seems!
Location: Ivinghoe, Bucks, Little Gaddesden, Herts & London UK
Tuesday: Leaving Milton Keynes we headed south, travelling just half an hour to reach our next destination. We settled for the night at a farm in the hamlet of Ivinghoe Aston, close to the rolling hills of the Chilterns. The evenings here are light until about 8.30pm, allowing us a chance to go for a stroll.
Ten kilometres (about 6 miles) later we had crossed beautiful countryside via a bridleway and had explored the village of Ivinghoe. We even managed to pop into the local pub for a quick drink before heading back for dinner.
Wednesday: The following morning we departed and drove up to Ivinghoe Beacon. Ivinghoe Beacon is a hill standing 233 metres above sea level. It sits within the Ashridge Estate and is managed by the National Trust, but it has great significance historically. In the past, this location was used to send signals from and was also a fort during the Iron Age (around 800 BCE). More recently it has appeared in Harry Potter and Star Wars movies… For us though, it was a spot to enjoy lunch and a few cups of tea as we sheltered from the blustery cold wind and showers. A good day to be behind glass, as we say!
Eventually there was a break in the weather and we drove a short way down the hill towards Dockey Wood. This woodland is famous for its incredible display of bluebells, and my cousin Karen had let me know they were in full bloom after the warm Easter weekend.
We had only driven a few minutes and we spotted a carpet of purple by the side of the road. We quickly pulled over and went in for an explore. It was incredible, and unbeknownst to us, we were in the quieter less visited woodland area – the main display (and crowds) we found were just down the road where the official car park was.
Dizzy with the delicate perfume of the bluebells, we headed on down to our home for the next three nights, parked up on a farm track close to my cousin and her family in Little Gaddesden.
Before long a taxi arrived to take Mr A, my cousin Karen, her husband Iain and I into nearby Berkhamstead. There we caught up with my old school friend Jo and her husband Stuart for a beverage at a local wine bar, The Berkeley. From there we enjoyed a fabulous Thai meal at The Giggling Squid – delicious food and probably the best Thai we have tried in the UK so far.
Thursday: After a relaxing night’s sleep, Iain gave Mr A and I a lift up to the cafe in Ashridge Estate so we could catch up with an old friend of mine from way back, Amanda. We last met up when she was visiting her sister in Sydney Australia, more than 15 years ago. It was great to see her, and we had a stroll through the woodlands, admiring yet more bluebells.
Mr A and I walked back to Karen’s house through the estate, spotting many deer and enjoying the sunshine as we went.
We’d been back a few moments and I was back in the car with Karen off to visit my aunt while Karen took my uncle to the doctors. It was just enough time for a cup of tea and a tour of the house and garden before heading back for the evening.
Friday: Mr A and I hitched a lift into Berkhamsted when Karen was dropping off her daughters, Hannah and Ella to school. From there, we caught a train into London – Mr A heading off to do some shopping, while I went to Hammersmith and Charing Cross Hospital to take part in a focus group about the major airway surgery I had there back in 2014.
After the group I caught up for an hour with Jacky, a lovely lady with iSGS I have met through the support group I run, before heading back across town to meet up with Mr A, and some more friends at a pub near Warren Street.
It was a fun catch up, with Martin (who was best man at our wedding 17 years ago) plus friends from Australia, Karen and Chris, who are staying with Karen’s sister near Greenwich.
It wasn’t a late night though, we were back on the train to Berkhamsted by 6.30pm and back tucked up in Truffy for the night by 9.30pm. A great end to the week.
Saturday: It was time to say goodbye to Karen and Iain and the girls, and continue our journey south. We really appreciate the hospitality we’ve been shown by the whole family.
Mr A and I are both are loving rekindling old friendships and making new friends on our travels, and particularly cherish the time such as this with family who are also good friends. I hope we are leaving each time with stronger relationships and a better understanding of one another and look forward to spending more time together when we’re back from our European travels.
Location: Harby, Nottinghamshire and Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire
Thursday-Saturday: We were kindly invited to stay over the first part of the Easter weekend, with friends in Harby in Nottinghamshire, a village embodying all thats good about the remnants of rural England. A good pub, a strong sense of community, roads where cyclists still feel safe to venture out on a morning in droves and endless opportunities to potter around the fields on the rights of way that make this beautiful countryside so accessible.
I was lucky enough to make friends at secondary school that have become lifelong mates, along with their wives and partners. The party begins, the catching up on our lives lived so distantly for much of the year.
It feels like we have only just left each other’s company last week. The sound of laughter, music and popping corks rings out over the usually tranquil garden of our hosts. Stunning food is served with of course wines to match. We are having an Italian theme to the party to get us in the mood for a major birthday milestone one of the group has in June, as we have organised to celebrate it together there.
We decide our appetites need to be sharpened by a little cycling, and off we go down a “greenway” as they are called here, that can be accessed from the village. Of course it leads to a pub, and oh…another one on the way back!
It was a merry bunch that sat down to dinner each night!
Easter Sunday–Tuesday: All too soon it was time to bid our farewell and hit the road once again. Next stop: my daughters and grandchildren in Milton Keynes. After catching up over Chinese takeaway the first night, we kicked off with cycling from one daughter’s house (where we were parked), to the other’s house, via the extensive network of “redways” as Milton Keynes calls them, that were designed into the city’s original blueprint. It was fantastic riding with my oldest grandchild, taking his first big ride on a new bike. He did so well.
Both of my daughters are moving to new houses within a few weeks of each other, so an exciting time to hear their plans and see their properties. When we come back in September so much will have changed. They all have worked so hard to make this jump to bigger homes. Very proud of them both. At their age they can afford to take some risks with big mortgages. A period of economic instability, especially in the UK, looks pretty likely.
Our visit also coincided with my oldest grandson’s 7th birthday. He really is maturing at a rate of knots, and in such a good way. A real pleasure to see. So a little surprise was hatched where we met him out of his first day at a new school, in Truffy, and they got to take a ride in their first motorhome. Hopefully memorable!
So we then bid a big goodbye to my family until we are back in September, and pointed Truffy’s nose south in preparation for our upcoming ferry to France next week.
Location: Brighton, Portsmouth, Milton Keynes & Kettering, UK (phew!)
Friday-Sunday: Brighton is one of our favourite UK towns to visit, and not only because that’s where Catherine’s sister and family live. We love the quirky shops, the pubs, the long cycle paths along the seafront. It just feels vibrant and eclectic. It was also where we were going to spend our first night in Truffy the Truck, our new home on wheels. We had pre-booked a site and turned up with some trepidation for our first experience of “camping” in the UK. Wow…what a find. This place was great with huge sites, spotless facilities that even were centrally heated! Luxury…
We got a few things wrong though and found our feet higher than our heads when settling down in the drop down bed. No air suspension to adjust on this baby. We did however get the hot water and heating working, apparently more than some folk manage on their first encounter with a Hymer motorhome.
The weekend sped past with wonderful times hanging out with Helen and Stu and their oh so energetic kids. How these guys juggle jobs and raising these two little bundles of joy I have no idea. I was exhausted just watching breakfast unfold!
We cycled, we ran for buses, we ate our way though fabulous dinners, we laughed and we talked. As an only child these guys are the nearest I have to experiencing the joy that a good relationship with a brother or sister can bring.
Monday: All too soon we were off along the south coast to Portsmouth and a flying visit to Catherine’s half sister Elinor and her family.
Tuesday-Wednesday: Portsmouth gets put on the list for “must come back and explore”, as we literally stopped by for dinner before pointing Truffy north and heading up to see my daughters and grandkids in Milton Keynes. We congregated in the local pub and had a lovely catch up before retiring to the car park for an overnight stay.
There are certainly benefits to being in a fairly stubby little 6m motorhome. We also used the opportunity of being close to the huge retail centres in Milton Keynes to do some power shopping in our bid to get Truffy fully functioning as our second home on wheels. IKEA bless you for all those good value products!
We had a quick visit to the local lake, which to Catherine and I felt like we had been teleported to Siberia, with a cruel wind blowing across the water.
We retired to behind the somewhat expansive glass of Truffy and dashed off to our next stop in this whistle-stop tour. My home town of Kettering, and the ever warm welcome of my long term friends Stuart and Karen. These guys have chosen to stay in the town they also grew up in, and increasingly unusual phenomena, but their extended family has mostly done the same, so its a strong and supportive community they are enjoying.
Thursday: A lunch had been organised to bring together my family still living in the town as well, cousins and their families. It was great to see them, and not for a funeral.
My last few visits have always been tinged by the sadness of my parents passing, Finally, a short trip to see Stuart and Karen’s daughter Laura, who had stayed with us in Australia. To see her so happy as a mum of 10 months, and getting married to the guy she met on when travelling, this was a joy for us.
All of our lives go through ups and downs, and to catch so many people on the up was just brilliant. It’s been a hectic 10 days since we landed, but already we have so many memories tucked away of seeing friends and family, and getting to know our new home that is going to take us on so many new adventures.
Our time in Kettering concluded with a curry in town…our third in a week!