Location: West Bagborough, Quantock Hills, Somerset
During lockdown, the tiny village of West Bagborough in Somerset had become our home, our safe little bubble. The world went crazy around us, but we just strapped on our boots and headed for the hills. While there we had got to know the owners of the local campsite, Quantock Camping.
We decided to pay them a visit on our journey between Cornwall and Wales. We arrived after lunch and got Truffy settled on to a lovely grassy pitch. Catherine cooked up one of her fab spaghetti bolognaises for us all, and the conversation and laughter flowed, with the odd bottle of wine to lubricate us. Their Great Dane, Genevieve, tended to dominate the skyline somewhat, and the odd cat or chicken made its appearance, all the usual stuff at their place! So lovely to be back among these people who welcomed us into their lives when we so needed to feel part of somewhere safe.
On Saturday morning, with some fresh eggs inside us, we once again strapped on our walking boots and headed up into the Quantock Hills, walking straight from the campsite (Strava). After leaving the village, within minutes we were enveloped in the sights and smells of the countryside we have come to love so much.
Autumn is just starting to make its presence felt, with a few leaves turning a bright gold, and some giving up to the inevitable and scattering themselves on the welcoming ground. We chose a route that would take us back to a hidden valley we had only walked through once, dissected by a perfect little bubbling stream. The last time we were here in the full bloom of early summer, now it looked and smelled so different.
We pressed on to the next little village, only passing a couple of other walkers on the way. Tea was supped from our flasks sitting on a bench in the churchyard. I have rarely felt so content in my life as I did at that moment. We wanted for nothing. The sun was warming our faces, a fresh Somerset-grown apple to munch on, and we headed back over the hills for a fish and chip supper with our hosts. What a perfect day.
The next day we joined our friends and their dogs (Strava) on a walk through ancient birch forest. There is hardly a sentence said between us without a laugh while the dogs romp around, Genevieve crashing though small trees like they’re not there. We got a little lost, a crumpled map was produced, ignored and good humoured debates raged about directions, But it doesn’t matter, we are all just loving being enveloped in this stunning countryside where there’s a new view around every corner, and another bed of nettles to keep you honest.
We just made it to a pub for last orders. A beer never tastes as good as when its drunk after a walk like that. Shared with friends in a sunny garden, and brewed just up the road on Exmoor.
Sadly we said our goodbyes, but knowing we have a safe refuge we can head back to if things go pear shaped makes all the difference to our confidence as we head off to Wales. Well, it’s only 90 minutes down the road!
Location: Watchet, West Bagborough, Dulverton, Somerset & Putsborough, Devon, UK
June continued its mixed weather with two days of solid rain. forecast. We took advantage of the final dry day for a little while and drove down to Watchet to walk some of the coast walk, intending to go to a town intriguingly called Blue Anchor.
It was an overcast day so there were few people about, and we saw nobody on the walk, which followed the cliff top with lovely views.
We walked as far as we could along the coast before reaching a coastguard barrier – not far beyond this the cliff had collapsed into the sea, apparently happening in early March. The diversion inland didn’t really appeal with the impending storms, so we made it a short walk and returned to Watchet – just 6.5km. Blue Anchor remains a mystery for now!
With extra time up our sleeves, we decide to drive over to Dunster again, to have a better look at the town. Mr A was also hoping the Rohan outdoor gear shop was open, now that clothes stores had been given permission to serve customers again, but unfortunately this store remained closed.
Tuesday’s downpour arrived as scheduled. Fortunately I was busy helping with a medical research project which took up a lot of my time, and Mr A delved deeper into investigating his family tree, unearthing new names and histories on his mother’s side.
During a break in the wet weather we had an impromptu visit from two of the friends we have made here, Karen and Jane Ayre who run the caravan park down the road. During lockdown they have been training a young pony, Vinnie, which will eventually be sold to a family for a young child to learn to ride. He’s quite small and very gentle, and even Mr A (who has a fear of horses) was brave enough to give him a stroke.
After a couple of days of enforced rest we were itching to get out and about again. So on Friday decided to jump in Truffy and head back over to Exmoor and the small town of Dulverton.
Mr A navigated the narrow lanes brilliantly, barely flinching as we squeezed between old stone houses and parked cars as we found our way to a parking spot beside the eighteenth century Marsh Bridge on the outskirts of town.
We set off on a circuit walk (Strava link), following the River Barle into town.
The showers dissipated totally by the weekend, allowing us to get out for a muddy walk locally on Saturday. Again, the colours seemed all the more vibrant for being freshly watered.
We were just walking up through the village on our way home, when we noticed a couple of our neighbours having socially-isolated drinks on their front lawn. We were invited over to join them, and soon our plans for making curry and relaxing with Netflix were out the window.
My cousin Ian and his family, Caroline, Emilia and Leo, drove down from Almondsbury for the afternoon on Sunday. We were so excited to see them – not only the first family we’ve seen since mid March, but the first time I have seen them in six years! I am sure we all looked older, but especially this children – I have not met Leo before, and Emilia was a baby in a high chair last time!
Thankfully the rain held off so we enjoyed Father’s Day cake and tea in the courtyard before a short stroll around the village and surrounds.
It was a fun afternoon, but as we waved them farewell, we took note to ensure we don’t have sore heads next time we encounter excited children!
On Monday we took our bikes exploring around some of the local villages and lanes – there are some incredible buildings around here. One of them, multi-million pound Denzel House has just been sold to a London-based electronics importer apparently – as we rode past ogling, we saw several people working on improvements to the grounds.
The overall ride was lovely, and we took in the whitewashed village of Stogumber which sounds to me like something you’d chop up and serve in salad. Apparently the name is derived from Stoke (meaning dairy farm in old English) and the surname Gunner (presumably the owner of the dairy?).
It was while we were our riding that we heard the welcome news from Boris announcing that from 4 July campsites could open (as well as pubs, hairdressers, other holiday accomodation and so on – as long as they are ‘Covid-secure’). I say welcome, but it comes with mixed feelings. The opening up means returning to the stress of finding a place to stay, potentially mingling with other people, and leaving our new friends in this haven within the Quantock Hills. I for one have a little bit of nervousness about what the coming weeks will bring.
So this week the chaos began, the mad dash to try and find campsites with space for us in locations we would be interested in visiting. I would liken it to trying to find tickets to see The Rolling Stones, with everyone selling out almost immediately and if you’re lucky you get the last two on offer. Although unlike getting tickets to one band, we have to go through it again and again booking up the coming few weeks.
We gave ourselves a break on Tuesday afternoon to head back to the western Quantocks, and parked Truffy up by Crowcombe Gate, taking our second walk in this area.
The heath and bracken looked healthy and lush after the rain, and most of the soil well drained. We admired the views we have seen from many angles over the past three months, never tiring of that magical feeling this area brings.
Wednesday promised to be a hot day, with temperatures climbing up in to the early 30s. We decided that cycling would be the coolest activity (other than swimming in our pool, and who wants to spend the day doing that?!), so we found a cycleway by the coast so we might enjoy some sea breezes and perhaps a dip in the water.
We drove to Barnstaple in Devon and parked up. Our intention was to ride the Tarka Trail in the other direction, towards Woolacombe. Off we set on off-road cycle lanes, which soon turned into country lanes (Strava link).
The path’s signage was a bit misleading, and soon we had to ask for directions from a couple of other cyclists. We soon realised that the Tarka Trail was no longer following old rail tracks, but now had become the Sustrans route 27 cycleway, which shared narrow country lanes with cars. We found ourselves pulling off regularly to let vehicles past, but people were friendly and grateful, not aggressive towards us.
As always, we were pleased for our electric motors, with some decent gradient hills along our ride, especially in the heat.
Our destination for the day was Putsborough, the quieter and less commercialised end of Woolacombe Beach. The coast walk comes along here, and by the looks of it would be spectacular and ever so quiet.
The car park and sole café was doing good business, but once you were on the beach people were well spread apart with plenty of social distancing (quite unlike the newspaper headlines for that day!).
I left Mr A on a bench with the bikes and went for a stroll across the sands and a paddle in the water. It is a perfect beach for children with warm rock pools and soft sand of the ideal consistency for sandcastles. The water wasn’t that cold considering we are in the UK (though I didn’t go in for a swim – the water is between 15-19°C!).
The ride back to Barnstaple was equally lovely, with plenty of water drunk.
Fish and chips from our favourite chippy in Taunton (Sea Bass Fish and Chips) were our reward for our efforts, enjoyed in Truffy at the side of the road. Perfect!
And so on Thursday we decided to make a concerted effort to get all of our bookings locked in for the next few weeks. Priority had to be seeing family, as it seems crazy we haven’t even seen Mark’s daughters and the grandchildren since October last year.
After a lot of phone calls, messages and waiting for websites to work, we have confirmed the following locations which will take us up to September. Phew!
We know this has missed out a few people, but we don’t leave the UK until early November, so hopefully will have an opportunity after the summer craziness!
Location: West Bagborough, Glastonbury, Exmoor & East Quantoxhead, Somerset, UK
We have both commented that the weeks and even months we have been in lockdown seem to be flashing past. I was puzzling about this and remembered reading something about how the perception of time accelerates as we get older. So that may account for why I am expereincing this phenomenon, you chuckle, but how about the “child bride” Catherine, as my friends endearingly have called her?
So here’s my take. One of the reasons that older people do experience the passing of time differently (well documented if you fancy going down that rabbit hole – start at the Wikipedia page) is that for them (“us” if you insist), new events are in shorter supply. We have seen it and done it. Our brains find it no effort to process those routine events, so as we pay less attention time appears to pass more quickly.
In lockdown for us, and I suspect many others, the days pass with little differentiation in activity, and it‘s all low stress, so the brain doesn’t engage too much in deciding which flavour of Pukka tea to have this morning. or do we turn right or left out the gate on our walk today.
However, the last week has brought two new activities into our lives. A book club and family genealogy. One of the things I really miss in lockdown is just shooting the breeze with friends, often over a glass of something. Digital catch ups for me are always more stilted, lacking the comfortableness of being able to pause and reflect, and gauge from body language how the other parties are reacting. Often the subject of conversation is books or article one of us has read, so after starting a particularly good read I decided to float the idea of an online book club amongst these friends. We had our first Zoom based hook up. Given the constraints of the medium it seemed to work for us.
The book chosen was the new best seller from Rotger Bregman, Humankind. Essentially it is an analysis of our basic nature, is it kind or is it cruel? It offers fascinating revisionist history on events and phenomena we thought we knew and understood.
The other new activity that has helped time slow down a little and provide new stimulus, has been researching my family tree. Inspired by cousins of mine and Catherine. Catherine’s cousin Karen has been able to trace back theirs, to the the 1700’s in Orkney. Her family history is full of talented artists, rich merchants and military leaders. Some even have dedicated Wikipedia pages.
In contrast my ancestors (that I’ve tracked so far), have not broken out of the abject poverty of farm labouring, crammed into boarding houses with other families (16 of them in one case) except for a great grandad and uncle who both ran fish and chip shops, which perhaps explains my fascination for a well cooked plate of this English fare. More on this as our respective stories unfold.
I have never shown the slightest interest in my family history to date, I am ashamed to say, but whatever brain chemistry clicked into place during lockdown I’m so glad it did. I’m finding it hugely interesting and so grateful for the discretionary time to tackle it.
However, it hasn’t been all indoor sports, and our usual diet of walks only briefly held back by more typical changeable weather. We decided to check out Glastonbury, famous for its namesake the Glastonbury Festival, which isn’t actually held near the town, and that pretty much says it all. We found it an uninspiring, slightly run down place full of New Age nonsense shops (sorry but.. really…), however the local bakery did catch my attention!
The pubs were all still closed, but one caught Catherine’s eye given its distinctive facade. It turns out to be the oldest in south-west England.
We quickly donned our boots and escaped the thundering lorries that sadly hadn’t yet been routed out of the High Street in this town and dashed up the hill that rises up over the flat surrounding countryside of the Somerset Levels. Glastonbury Tor is a natural hill emanating of erosion, although a lot of twaddle has been written by New Age “scholars” about the function of the terraces that wind up its steep slope. I’m not going to even credit them by repeating what they say. The actual archaeology of the site does though remain clouded in the mists of the Neolithic though, like so much of our history from that period. For us it was sufficient to sit with our mugs of tea and quietly contemplate the fabulous 360 degree views.
With the novelty of inclement weather, we did an afternoon’s drive around the lanes and villages of Exmoor, our first excursion to this area. While it was a little too wet and cold to do too much walking, we did enjoy the sights, and managed to find a cute little deli in the village of Dunster that we’re sure to return to.
One walk that will forever remain in my mind from this week was the coastal ramble that forms a very tiny part of the “English Coast Path” (how did they think of that one?). I had no idea England had a path all the way round it..and it doesn’t…yet. When completed, in theory this year (in practice I doubt it, with the competition for funding in the recession that is going to hit the UK hard) it will be 2,795 miles in length (around 4,500 km).
Currently, various sections are open (click here for more details) and conveniently one of them is on our doorstep. I think this area must be one of the most well served in the world by long distance trails for walking and riding, quite amazing and a credit to the foresight of several governments, and the popularity here of getting out into this beautiful countryside.
We started our walk from a car park at East Quantoxhead, a small settlement a little way back from the coast. It was our first time on a bit of grass since we had our awning fitted in March, so much to the amusement of our fellow car park neighbours we rolled it out to check all was working.
Looks pretty good, however it‘s a reminder of our aborted plan to have spent the summer cruising through the hot climates of Spain and Portugal. We quickly roll it up again and put that thought behind us.
We wandered up to the cliff edge and gazed down the coast. I really can’t remember such a heart lifting view. We overhead a fellow walker exclaim “It looks more like a picture than real life”, and he wasn’t wrong.
The pebbly beach was pretty busy as there was a car park close, but as usual once again, no more than a 10 minute walk from the reach of a car and the population thins out to a spattering of smiling fellow trampers.
Wild flowers, including orchids, were everywhere, the Quantock Hills, providing a stunning backdrop. No wonder this was the first place in the UK to be given a classification of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
So we think our time here is drawing to a close, our little cottage is rented from July 12th, so we have to be out by then, but there’s no date yet for campsites to reopen, so that‘s introducing some challenges to our forward planning! Fingers crossed the government gets its new guidelines for them out in time, but its looking less likely I think.
Location: West Bagborough, Porlock and Chard, Somerset, UK
Having provided us with the sunniest May on record, June has decided to become changeable, more along the lines of what might be expected at this time of year. The second of June, however, was very warm, with temperatures heading up into the high 20s in this part of the world.
We decided to travel back to Porlock, and hike some of the South West Coast Track towards Minehead. All up we walked 9.5km (Strava link).
As we set off we could see the wisps of cloud racing across the sky, signalling a change in the weather patterns. There was just a gentle breeze down below as we tracked our way through the village and wound our way along the marshland towards the next village of Bossington.
Bossington is a sweet old village, part of the Holnicote Estate which was leased to the National Trust in 1907 for 500 years, with the aim of preserving this part of Exmoor for the people.
Continuing through the village we crossed the babbling River Horner and climbed up onto Bossington Hill, following a path that wound around the cliffs.
We picnicked at Hurlstone Point, outside the ruins of what used to be a coastguard lookout station in the early 1900s. We mused how it would make a great pop-up bar – though the combination of alcohol and the steep cliffs here might not be so good.
We started to pick our way along the cliff edge walk, which originally was set up in the 1800s for coast guards to walk along between lighthouses, keeping them maintained and checking for smugglers. Fishermen also used this clifftop route to look for shoals of fish, before rushing down to their boats to try and catch them.
We climbed up most of Bossington Hill, before finding a resting place to enjoy the sound of birds and insects and enjoy the view stretching out before us, before looping back to Porlock.
Wandering through Bossington on our way back, we spotted a local house selling bottles of organic apple juice for £3. Finding we only had a ten pound note, we started to walk away, only to get chatting to another couple of walkers who had decided to buy a bottle. The next thing we knew, they were buying us a bottle of apple juice! Yet another random act of kindness in our lives – how lovely.
Later on in the week we decided to make use of the changed Covid-19 lockdown rules, which now allow us to mingle with other people outside, while maintaining social distance. We caught up with a couple from Australia, Beverley and Andrew, who had also been over here in the UK for the duration of the lockdown.
We picked the town of Chard in the Blackdown Hills Area of Natural Beauty on the Somerset-Devon border. It was half way between where each of us were staying. The weather was forecast to be showery, but other than a few drops of rain on our drive over, it turned out just fine, and we were soon stripping off the layers.
It was a good taster of the area, with about 10.5km walked (Strava link) and so nice to talk to people other than each other! Bev and Andrew are about to tackle the journey back to Australia and endure a two week quarantine in a hotel room, so we’ll be interested to hear how that goes.
The weekend was warmer than expected also, and allowed us a chance to go walking around the local lanes. The scenery continues to change with new flowers emerging and crops growing.
As we approach mid-summer here, we are able to enjoy long evenings. Late Monday afternoon we took off on quite a decent hike (Strava link), walking just under 13km, finishing around 7pm. It was a perfect time to go out, with the gloomy morning’s cloud lifting to a spectacular evening.
Our walk started with a decent amount of uphill, taking us to our favourite spot of Cothelstone Hill, where we enjoyed a herbal tea and admired the views.
We explored new pathways, winding through the woodland and startling a red deer which bounded off away from us. The path disappeared and we had to do a little bush-bashing through the undergrowth to find a marked path.
It took us into a plantation through towering trees and we picked our way along what looked like badger or fox paths through the ferns and foxgloves.
It wasn’t too far though, and we were soon back on track, climbing up through peaceful lanes offering us rewarding glimpses across the countryside.
The dry weather hung around for another day, so on Tuesday we jumped into Truffy and drove up to Crowcombe Gate, which to date has been the extreme of our walks in the Quantocks.
We took off in a westerly direction, marvelling at the different scenery, wrapped up warm against the brisk fresh wind blowing off the Bristol Channel. Fewer trees dot the scenery here, the low heathers and bracken making up the main undergrowth.
It was lovely to get a first taster of another part of the hills. From here we could walk down to the coast quite easily…it’s the getting home bit we would need to work out. One day perhaps…
We finished our walk with ice creams from a van in the car park – locally produced Jersey cow milk ice cream with a flake for Mr A…and a chocolate-vegan ice cream for me. How civilised!
Footnote: Sadly our little rescued baby rabbit (kit), Bags Bunny did not make it past her fourth day. We shed a few tears and buried her in the garden here.
Another week streaks by in our lovely little rented cottage here in the west of Somerset, with a clear blue sky greeting us as we pull the blinds back every morning, apparently the sunniest May on record,
The toughest decision of the day, ‘Shall we walk or ride?’ and ’What shall we have for dinner?’ I think we will always remember this lockdown for the bizarre dichotomy of living our day to day lives in the most stress-free way we ever have, surrounded by the world in chaos.
This is a life we have never experienced before, having been mostly city dwellers, passing though the landscapes as we travel, but not being immersed enough in it to really appreciate the depth of its beauty and function. Not really seeing the rhythm of a life that goes on there by people who call it home.
I recently read a book that touched on this theme, called ‘A Shepherd’s Life’, set up in the English Lake District. The author, James Rebanks, a shepherd himself, makes a number of really poignant observations about the tourists who come and travel through his countryside, but with no appreciation of how that landscape is worked to produce the food that enables our lives. I feel in many ways our travels over the past few years, while broad in their scope, have lacked the depth of perception that comes when you stay in one place long enough to start to see the cycle of nature moving through the seasons, something we really don’t notice in Australia as much.
By this enforced stay in one place we have been able to watch spring come to the landscape, to see lambs take their first stumbling steps, to then come back a few weeks later and watch them bouncing around with their mates. To spot the wild flowers change as spring is turning into summer. It has just been a totally different, and in many ways, more meaningful expereince than the ‘drive through‘ touring we have been doing.
As I reflect back on individual walks we have done, all from our back door, they start to merge into one long memory of being immersed in this beautiful lanscape , putting one foot in front of the other as we watch a fox dash to a hedge before scornfully peering at us over her shoulder then disappearing instantly, or a deer startled by us invading its little slice of paradise, and bolting through the woods. We just want it to go on and on, relishing the breather from having to decided where to travel to, negotiating unfamiliar roads, trying to find campsites, constantly planning where we go next. Our minds feel calm, and it’s wonderful.
The history of humans in this landscape continues to enthral us. In Australia it is so inaccessible to most non-indigenous folk like us, but here it’s around every coroner. The fire beacon on the top of a hill, lit to warn of invaders sailing up the estuary, there’s a story to be uncovered everywhere we look.
It was time to swap our boots for our bikes, and I had read about a cycle trail running through the coastal town of Barnstaple. The Tarka Trail (named after the 1927 novel, Tarka the Otter, set in north Devon) is over 200 kilometres of traffic-free path, the longest in the UK, and all running along old railway lines. Off we set, for our longest drive (at 90 minutes) since mid March. It felt like quite an adventure! We had read horror stories about the traffic on the coast, but this day it was empty, as was the car park, apart from the mobile virus testing station being run from a big army truck.
This was magnificent riding, we batted along and soon found ourselves passing though a number of small villages before settling on the beautifully positioned Instow, on the estuary of the river Taw and Torridge (just roll of the tongue don’t they?).
We chatted to a couple of fellow cyclists who turn out to be motorhomers as well, as we munched into our first proper Cornish pasty. Just blissful. We so miss that random connection with another human being sharing stories and learning from each other.
With 50 kilometres under our wheels we arrived back at our car park and noticed the army truck had left, and the 2.7 metre height barrier had been put back down. Given we are driving a 3 metre high motorhome, that became a problem!
It had been lifted up when we arrived and I had sailed through, not really anticipating it would be lowered and locked. Oops…several panicked phone calls to the council, who were wonderful, and a warden arrived to unlock it. Next problem, the army had changed the padlock and not told him the combination. He tried for a while to reach them with no success. We had visions of spending the night there, which would have been illegal under the current restrictions, with no bed linen, food or cooking equipment. Luckily in the end they reached the military men and we were released.
A fish and chip supper in Truffy on the way back and our day trip was complete. There is just something about well fried English fish and chips that tastes so delicious to us, starved of that in Australia where they do it very differently. I guess its what you grow up with, hard baked into your taste buds, like mother used to make Yorkshire pudding, in my case.
The only interruption to our serene regime comes when Catherine is out on a walk and arrives back carrying the tiniest baby rabbit (apparently called a kit).
She had noticed it lying on the road, just having been narrowly missed by a car and covered with gravel. Its little eyes were still closed it was so young, maybe a day old. Perhaps the victim of that fox we saw, or a buzzard? Catherine was straight on to her sister, who worked at the RSPCA, and armed with advice put a message out onto the local village chart group. A few minutes later a kindly neighbour has offered her a heat pad and syringe to try and get some nourishment into her. All we have is oak milk, but she takes it and seems to settle down in the cosy little warm nest we have made.
So here we are on the second morning with an addition to our household, and she is still with us. So two extra days of life for this little one. Catherine’s niece and nephew are loving following the story, and just for that alone its worth it. A cycle down to the local Co-Op rewards us with kitten milk, apparently the best substitute for doe milk. Catherine is almost clucking with maternal delight feeding her this morning, until the little one releases her first pee down her arm.
We have decided now she seems stable, that a name is appropriate. Catherine has the inspired idea of Bags..as in we are in West Bagborough, so Bags Bunny. I will leave you with that to roll your eyes and laugh at us, or with us, we don’t really care 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
The trees reemerged beside the road as we reaped the reward of a wonderful long downhill towards the village of Over Stowey.
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.
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.
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.
‘Have we just been sent a postcard from our future?’ You may have seen the attention grabbing headlines from various newspaper articles reporting on research just published claiming 11,000 deaths in the last 30 days have been avoided in Europe alone as a result of falls in air pollution. The original research paper is here and really worth a read at only 10 pages.
If the research turns out to have validity, then surely it should alter the whole way we think about how we live our lives and the decisions we make about who should govern us? Catherine is using some of her medical connections in respiratory diseases to get their input, but as a layperson it makes a pretty compelling case. The newspaper headlines of course leave out the ‘projected’ deaths bit, but journalistic sensationalism apart, the evidence that air pollution makes us sick, and kills a lot of people is pretty solid. According to the WHO 4.2 million people a year globally die premature deaths as a result of ambient (air based) air pollution. Food for thought.
As we wander around our little corner of England, we take big deep breaths, and ponder how we would love a future that had air always tasting this good, skies this clear, and the background noise of the combustion engine so muted. We also appreciate we need economies functioning, and our lives enriched by being able to mingle with a wider community of loved ones, and friends-we-have not-yet-made.
A lot of our friends have seen how unnecessary many of their journeys to work are, some proving the work-from-home model to sceptical employers, or delivering training on line rather than flying to Asia from Australia to put people in a classroom.
Yes, the air seems clearer, the colours of the countryside even more vivid, and the bird song emboldened.
Our walks take us across new paths through ancient oak woodlands and modern spruce plantations. Every walk gives us an injection of hope that we can continue to appreciate the world around us even in these difficult times.
Then my body tells me I need to take a break from walks with a swollen ankle and what looks like tendinitis. It was time to switch gear and get on our bikes.
We don’t have dedicated bike paths around our rural enclave in Somerset, but we do have hundreds of miles of beautiful lanes almost devoid of cars at the moment. A great ride helped us to see a few more of the villages that surround us and are too far to reach in a day hike. Thank goodness for our pedal assistance though from our Bosch motors, with many many steep climbs! On the way we continue to strike up conversations with locals. Gee they’re a friendly bunch round here! To us, that’s one of the joys of cycling, you get to cover more ground than walking, but are not cut off from the world around you as in a vehicle.
The surge in cycling participation rates being reported globally is encouraging. “Bicycles are the new toilet paper, and everyone wants a piece”, as the head of Giant bicycle sales for Australia was reported as so cogently putting it. Here in the UK, investment in cycling infrastructure also continues, a billion pounds committed to cycling and walking initiatives over the next 5 years. France also announced an initiative to subsidise bike repairs up to 50 euros, You have to give credit there for a good way to divert some money into bike shops.
The two nuclear power stations nearby at Hinkley Point are a constant “feature” as we gaze down towards the coast. I was intrigued to read that here in the UK, the energy market has just gone coal-free for the last 20 days, the first time since 1882! Some of the local farms are contributing to that with the production of crops for biomass power.
Mind you, there has been a run of “warm” days through April (apparently classified here as when the temperatures get into double figures centigrade) and require the wearing of t-shirts and shorts! I’m still exposing minimal body parts of course until there’s a 2 in front of any double figure number 🙂
The UK government has now committed to close all its coal fired plants by 2025, a strong contrast to Australia’s fossil fuel centric policy.
Our love of the area and the community in which we have randomly found ourselves is a constant reminder to us that life’s curve balls may get thrown for a reason. I read a book years ago called the Celestine Prophecy, and its central message has stayed with me. The author (James Redfield) proposes that as we wander through our lives we will find ourselves confronted by moments of synchronicity, coincidences that seem so improbable , like bumping into the friend from home from the other side of the world. We’ve all had these moments. My weirdest was while hitchhiking round Crete, I was at a low point after walking for miles in the hot sun, and who should pull up in a car beside me, but my parents‘ next door neighbour. The philosophy of synchronicity purposes that we should ascribe meaning to these so called co-incidences, and take them as the opportunities they are meant to be. To reconnect with that friend overseas, who then turns out to be the person who offered you a job back home, as happened to me for instance. Or those neighbours who became a lifeline for me over a very difficult time.
So many events that look random in our lives put us at a crossroads. Maybe we have been forced to take a long hard look at life in rural England for a reason. We think we know why, but that’s a story for another time.
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.
We achieved our longest hike yet (16km/10 miles) across the Quantock hills, taking us across new pathways and through picturesque tiny villages.
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.
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.
After a few moments enjoying the serene location and contemplating the people here more than two thousand years ago, we continued our journey home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
For those of us in isolation without young kids or a job to manage, its likely you have more discretionary time to reflect and think about what this disruption means to our hopes and dreams.
It’s been five years since I got a phone call out of the blue from the HR department of my last employer informing me that the business unit I worked for was no longer deemed a priority and would be closed down. At the time it was a shock, but I look back on these past five years now and realise it was the best thing that could have happened. Who knows how this pandemic is going to affect our ability to travel in the future, certainly our financial situation like many people, is more uncertain. Travel through countries that are going to be economically impacted will be more problematic as crime is likely to soar, and our mode of travel in a motorhome presents some particular risks in that regard.
But as my dad used to say, “memories are better than dreams”, and no one can take away our five years packed full of adventures both in Australia and across Europe. If we had stayed the safe path and amassed some more money, would these same options have presented themselves?
We certainly haven’t given up our dreams of more travel in our mobile homes, but we accept things may not be as easy going forward and we will need to adapt. Meanwhile we carry on here in deepest, bucolic Somerset taking things a day at a time. The rhythm of our weeks remains the same, with rambling through the multitude of footpaths that criss-cross the Quantock Hills the common thread that keeps us positive.
One of the constant joys is to better understand the history of the landscape we are privileged to walk through. On one of the regular starts to our walks past the local church and manor house in West Bagborough, we had noticed a massive stone wall enclosing a large area of land. We decided to try and find a way in, and succeeded to emerge in this huge forlorn looking space, with ramshackle buildings clustered at one end.
I’d made contact with a local lady who was one of the volunteers looking after local archaeological sites, and she introduced me to the rich source of data in the Somerset Historic Environment Record. Turns out this was a kitchen garden dating back to 1730, with quite some walls! No flimsy trellis for these guys, but red sandstone 4 metres high! Quite some protection for your lettuce leaves against marauding rabbits. This part of England is so rich in history, it is just fascinating to learn a little more each day.
Spring is here, the bluebells are poking their heads out, and Catherine is in a fever of photography, which is wonderful to watch. We make up our tea flasks, lace up our boots, cast aside our worries and “head for the hills”.
Walking is calming our minds and keeping us positive. One day we will be back on the road again, until then we can only be grateful we took the risk when we did to rent out our home, leave behind security and the comfort of the known and explore a small portion of this great wide world we live in. Five years has passed for me so quickly, and I wouldn’t change a thing.