11-16 May: Starting to explore the South West Coast Path

Author: Mr A

Location: West Bagborough, Minehead and Porlock, Somerset, UK

With the welcome news that as from this week, we were to be encouraged by the UK government to spend as long as we wanted in the outdoors, I widened my search parameters for local walks and rides. So far we have done everything from our front door. Now we could legitimately give Truffy, our little used motorhome, a badly needed run and get that oil moving round the engine and those batteries charged up.

I spotted references to a long distance path I confess to never having heard of before called the South West Coast Path, which fortuitously starts just down the road in Minehead. This path is part of the system of National Trails that criss-cross the UK, and this one happens to be the longest at a foot burning 1,014km (630 miles).

The route follows the old tracks used by lighthouse keepers when they walked between each lighthouse checking for smugglers. Now the walk runs from Somerset, through Devon and Cornwall and round to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Back in 2012 a piece of research was commissioned to estimate how much revenue walkers on the path brought into the local communities – a whopping £412 million (AU$775 million) – the equivalent of around a thousand jobs.

The welcome hum of insects as we start off on the walk
Newly hatched peacock butterfly drying its wings alongside the path

Well, unfortunately in these times of pubs and cafes being closed, we didn’t contribute anything into that pot on our first two jaunts onto the path, and not for the want of hunger or thirst. However, times will change and I’m sure we will going forward into peacetime.

The first walk we did (Strava link) was starting right at the “beach” (no, get that image of sand out of your head and picture rocks and shingle) in Minehead. The track soon had us climbing up onto the cliffs with stunning views over to Wales across the Bristol Channel. I appreciated how, over the length of the walk, someone had calculated that a person would be climbing the equivalent of four times the height of Mount Everest!.

The pebbly beach at the start of the walk by Minehead Harbour – Truffy in the distance on the right
The path starts with a gentle upward slope before getting steeper to take us up onto the cliffs
Sheep and horses graze on the fields behind the beaches, here looking over to Wales
Climbing up and up…
Beautiful rhododendrons flowering along the path
Mrs A checking out the walk book for more information
An Exmoor pony gives us a questioning glance as we pass
The first foxgloves are starting to open
Mr A’s vertigo started to kick in at this point
Looking to the horizon, trying to spot Ireland
The vibrant greens and yellows on the walk

We were mesmerised by the views once again, the coastline here is so rugged, the wildflowers spectacular. However, we both noted the muddy brown colour of the Bristol Channel. A bit of Googling revealed its the turbidity (now there’s a word you have to work into conversation) caused by the fast tidal flows along the River Severn which empties into it, plus the natural geology which makes the riverbed sediment-rich. Not somewhere I will be rushing to get the packrafts out into. We took the “rugged” option right along the cliffs. I was soon at my limit for high exposed walking. As I’ve got older I experience vertigo more frequently, and this was one of those movements. So we returned the way we had come, constantly mesmerised by the changes in the landscape, the variety of flora and fauna. This is a wonderful corner of the world.

Our second walk a few days later (Strava link) started in the small village of Porlock. Childhood home of one of dearest friends in Australia, Richard Dawes. It was wonderful wandering round imagining him as a boy darting down the little alleys. We so miss him and his wife Rosemary, and for a precious moment we felt connected across the miles.

One of Porlock’s many thatched cottages
Little footpaths wind behind the roads
Interesting buildings – look at this chimney!

Porlock is one of those picture postcard perfect Somerset sea side spots that I’m sure have tourists flocking in peacetime. On our visit we (thankfully) had the walks almost to ourselves.

We headed along a woodland path lined with bold robins puffing our their chests as if proudly showing off their habitat.

Looking out across the fields to the Bristol Channel
Yet another lovely woodland path
A robin pauses from hunting insects
He follows us down the path while we walked

We soon emerged down at the beach (again..think lots of rocks), and followed the South West Coast path along the foreshore.

The colourful pebbles
The breakwaters look like interesting sculptures
The murky waters lap on the shingle and pebble beach
Picnic on a bench at the top of the beach
Dry teasels – remnants of last summer
Walking around the freshwater marshland – this whole area has been inundated in the past, causing the trees to die
Freshwater streams criss-cross the marsh
Looking back towards west Porlock
Could be pheasant egg shell remnants?
Hiking across the marshland around the high tide mark
Which way now?

We only crossed paths with one other couple on our walk. When I struck up a conversation with them, they turned out to be good friends with the only other people we had got to know in Somerset! Synchronicity once again telling us that this is a place with a good vibe.

A young robin along one of the lanes – not developed his fear of humans nor his red breast

We gazed out to sea and realised not far over the horizon was Ireland, County Cork in particular. So many places still on the list. Perhaps our experience will be different when we travel in the future, but travel we will. We day dream as we wander of walking holidays exploring further along this National Trail, regularly voted one of the top long distance walks in the world. Perhaps…who knows….one day.

5-10 May: Our seventh week in Somerset

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An emerald tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 April-4 May: A postcard from our future?

Author: Mr A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

‘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. 

Greater stitchwort, Stellaria holostea – actually another edible flower and plant. It looks like there are 10 petals, but there are actually 5 pairs with splits. Nice to decorate (and eat in) a salad apparently.
Another visit to our wooly haired neighbours…
You’ll find there will be more photos of the two of us coming up with the purchase of a new tripod!
Delicate pink rhododendron buds burst into a subtle creamy bloom
Camassia flowers in the meadow beside our cottage

Yes, the air seems clearer, the colours of the countryside even more vivid, and the bird song emboldened.

Even on a stormy day, the colours of the soil look rich and warm, the lush greens of the fields contrasting as they stretch into the distance
No longer a short cut across this field, we walk around the outside
Love how the sunlight spotlights particular fields and woodlands. Look carefully towards the middle of this image and you will see a tall tower – this is Combe Wood Tower, built in 1750 to spy on the owner’s neighbours (among other reasons!)
Not being country folk, we are learning a bit about farming life. Last week we saw a newborn calf tottering after its mother which still has afterbirth hanging from her body as she munched nonchalantly on grass…no photo of that, enjoy these slightly older calves instead.
Following a path through the Bagborough Plantation
Moss covered branches that haven’t moved for years
Beautiful colours throughout the woodland
A huge beech tree, literally glowing after the rain on its new leaves
Hiking up, West Bagborough down the hill behind us
Ancient moss covered walls as we descend Stout Lane
The trees have grown through and over these walls – probably from a nut that sprouted many centuries ago sitting on this wall
Wild rhododendron flowers looking bright and fresh

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.

(Below 12km circuit hike can be found on Strava)

How’s this for a green lane of many shades? A sunnier afternoon walk last Thursday
Our favourite dead tree now surrounded by sheep and lambs
Same location, a month apart – helps us see how the leaves have filled out in the trees around Cothelstone Manor and the church
And now fields of rape are flowering..
A picnic in a meadow
Continuing our spectacular walk towards what used to be Ivyton Dairy
Can’t stop smiling, the scenery, the birds, the fresh air – all so lovely
A nicely marked path up to Ivyton Dairy – now a dog resort and luxury housing
Look at where we are! Can’t get more socially isolated than this…
The patchwork of colours in these fields is incredible
Bluebell wood – this is where we wish we could share perfume along with our photos – it was incredible in here.
Crossing back over Cothelstone Hill on our return route – the ponies are sheltering together from the brisk wind. The views over the Bristol Channel are the clearest yet
Still enjoying the bluebells in our local plantation as well

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.

(Cycle the same 28km route – find it on Strava)

Crowcombe Court in Crowcombe – in peacetime used for functions
Mr A having a relax in the quiet village centre
The village church – Church of the Holy Ghost dates from the 14th century. In the early 1700s it was stuck by lightning and the spire is now mounted opposite the entrance (to the left of the photo)
A lovely MG parked outside Stogumber Station – part of the UK’s longest heritage railway. In peacetime there would be a tea shop here with a lovely garden for a cuppa and cake
Half way up the very steep Ashbeer Hill
The village of Stogumber nestled in the valley

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. 

Silverdown Hill
Fabulous views over the Quantock Hills

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.

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

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

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

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

Chef Mark and his new toy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our winding trail – about 8 miles

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

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

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

This tree has likely been around since the Middle Ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16-20 April: Celebrating five years of having the “freedom to roam”

Author: Mr A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

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?

The first rhododendron flower

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.

This cellar has a water pipe and some old rusty tools
We’d love to know the story behind this collapsing building, slate roof tiles on the floor
Fruit trees keep on flowering year after year

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.

Sweet Chestnut flowers beginning to bloom – a hay fever sufferer’s nightmare
Holly flowers and the first new season poppy

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”.

Spanish bluebells are white
Délicate shades of mauve
Newborn lambs skip after their mother, their cute little cries just adorable
Beautiful scenery sculpted in the 18th century
St Agnes Well – dating to 1300-1500 – you’re invited to dip your fingers in the water here and make a wish…you can guess what we wished for…
Some of the paths we take need a little pruning on the way through
Spotted by a few of the locals (red deer….a long way away!)
Even on an overcast afternoon the scenery is striking
Felt a bit nervous walking through here after a rainy (yes! rain!) afternoon watching Stephen King’s ‘In the long grass’ film….

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.

Finding serenity in our local woodland
Carpets of bluebells under the beech trees
Twenty Acre Plantation
A very special place, Cothelstone Hill
Birds flit across our pathway, lined with flowering gorse
Walking along Wilfs Path…we wonder who Wilf was
Heading into Tilbury Park
Beautiful views across from Tilbury Park

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

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bright green signs of hope
Friendly Exmoor ponies check us out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New valleys and ancient farms nestled in. amongst the hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-12 April: Spring progresses in the Quantocks

Author: Mr A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

It has been over twenty years since either of have watched an English spring bring the countryside alive. One day we are walking around in winter coats and beanies, then a few days later its shorts and t-shirts! The smells and sounds of the changing seasons are almost overwhelming our senses, triggering nostalgic memories for both of us.

The great wood brings the aroma of fresh pine
Just us and the Exmoor ponies for company
Snakes Head Fritillary, primroses, dandelions, bellflowers…
Orchids, snowdrops, blossom and wild garlic
Wood anemones, grape hyacinths, and yellow archangel flowers (middle-left – now considered an invasive species) and delicate wood sorrel (top left – only found in ancient woodlands)
Some of our neighbours checking us out as we stroll through their field
The bluebells are starting to come out in the woodlands

We have continued our exercise regime, with a couple more spectacular walks through the Quantock Hills. We keep stopping and listening to the buzz of insects growing a little louder every day, a bird proudly flying with a big ball of wool to line her nest, lambs greedily feeding from mum, and the slightly eerie but oh so fabulous complete absence of the background noise of humans. Not a vehicle engine to be heard, no roar of planes overhead, just the sound of nature going about its business, uninterrupted by the usual synthetic cacophony.

Dame’s Violet, the colours ever more vivid in the clean, clear air
All Saints Church in Aisholt village, dates to the 14th century
Half a scotch egg and a cup of tea in the churchyard
We saw our first wild red deer on this walk…this was not it
The woodlands are beginning to green up
Temperatures have climbed in to the early 20s, so shorts and t-shirt are the new attire
This moss covered tree has seen a lot of years
Pheasants are frequent visitors, the cocks looking colourful in their breeding colours

In the middle of this tranquility came the news on Thursday afternoon before Easter, that by the end of that long weekend we needed to move out of our rambling big house that had been home for the last three weeks. We know our landlord was trying to find a long term tenant, but I guess we had convinced ourselves it wasn’t going to happen with all the restrictions of movement in the lockdown. Well, we were wrong.

What followed was 48hrs of frantic searching for a new property to rent. The assistance of friends was enlisted, and once again we were blown away with the effort and thoughtfulness of those who tried to help.

Things were looking dire, and then a cancellation in a holiday rental literally across the road from us gave us an opportunity we grabbed. Home for at least the next month, and most likely two, will be a lovely cosy little two bed cottage, a barn conversion attached to a bigger house and set in the most fabulous gardens.

Our tiny little Honeysuckle Cottage…bigger than Truffy at least!
Beautiful landscaped gardens available to tenants

As for most people, life has been a roller coaster the last month, and the support of friends and family mean everything. We woke this morning with our first “Zoom Hangover”, after a cracking night chatting with friends around the UK and drinking a little too much wine, dissipating our pent up anxiety via laughs and conversation.

A final sunset – we will have to find a new viewing location

These are strange times, and we need our relationships with those who we hold dear to help us make sense of our lives right now.

4-6 April: Covid-19 gets personal

Author: Mrs A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect striped fields
Lovely colours on this new growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A young Shetland Pony foal skips after mum after spotting us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1-3 April: Guiltily enjoying isolation

Author: Mr A

Location: West Bagborough, Somerset, UK (still!)

If you’ve been reading our last couple of blogs you will know how lucky we have been to find ourselves isolating in such a stunning part of the world as the Quantock Hills in rural Somerset. We are therefore determined to make the most of this fortunate opportunity and do all we can to come out of this isolation in better shape mentally and physically.

Our nearest neighbours – a field of bleating lambs – so cute!

During the bushfires in Australia earlier this year I couldn’t stop reading the horrifying news. My health was poor, and my spirits were low. We have decided in this crisis to look after ourselves better. Here’s what we’re doing in case there’s any useful ideas for our readers.

Limiting media coverage. /. Looking after our bodies. /. Control – new routines and habits

Limiting our “negative news” input. The single biggest and most impactful change we’ve made is restricting how much news about the pandemic’s negative impact we watch/read. We check in on whats happened in Australia overnight, then enjoy our day with no checking on media until we turn on the TV early evening for the daily BBC updates live from the the government. Then we force ourselves to switch it immediately off before the journalists and talking heads come up with all their “government is not doing enough” or “if only we had done this sooner” and other pointless finger pointing or sensationalist commentary. It gets us nowhere. Until we’re offered tests or a vaccine what’s the point? It just messes with your head.

Boosting our immune systems. Everything we’ve read from the medical profession points us to using all this additional free time we have on improving our overall health with exercise, preparing healthy food and having quality sleep. Catherine has mentioned our every other day pilates sessions, well we’re on session eight now and I’ve already noticed a difference in my balance moving around the house and out on walks. I’m a clumsy old fella as some of you know, with a pronating ankle that keeps pitching me over. Well I’m going to stop that and will be ballerina like in a few months 🙂

On the food side of our regime, Catherine has always been a fan of cooking from quality basic ingredients and using her extensive stash of herbs and spices, rather than using pre-mixed sauces that usually contain lots of long numbers of additives and sugar. Having said all of that, the first person to die in our network is healthy mid forties guy with no underlying health conditions we are aware of. So maybe we just take this path knowing it might not save us, but if we do survive then it will be in better shape!

Another lovely walk down new pathways to us
Plenty of hill walking to get the hearts pumping and leg muscles burning

Taking control – creating new routines. In this crisis where our daily routines are turned upside down, our minds need to find some order in this chaos to try and make sense of it all. The science of mental health tells us that keeping to a daily routine will help us reduce anxiety in a world where we can no longer maintain our old habits of going out to the pub, or the gym, or round the neighbours for a cuppa. So getting up and enforcing a structure to the day seems to help our minds settle. Its also a great opportunity with more discretionary time, to establish new routines that we’ve always aspired to, but never habituated (like our pilates). We can’t control the suffering that is happening all around us, so taking charge of things we can influence seems even more important to our well being.

And just loving the solitude in these hills on our walks, sunshine, fresh air and rewarding views
A cup of herbal tea and a piece of fruit as we reflect on our environment
More signs of spring everywhere we look, accompanied by bumble bees and newly hatched butterflies

So our days here pass into weeks, we fall into a pattern that takes us out almost every day into the beauty of the Quantock Hills. We read the government guidance on exercise quite carefully, and feel we are well within it to be walking for a few hours on mostly deserted paths. The few people we do come across we give a wide berth. We take hand sanitiser or alcohol wipes for when we have to open gates. Every day brings the simple delight of packing up a rucksack with some fruit and thermos of tea, lacing up our boots and walking out our front door. The biggest decision of the day being turn right or left.

Turning left and then right, we discover this pathway
Magnificent views wherever we walk
And interesting woodpiles

Yes we feel guilty we have it this easy when so many people are suffering through this pandemic in horrific ways. 4,300 people have no died in the UK, but what can we do? Catherine spends an hour or so a day looking after her support group and working to help various doctors around the world, while I need to be protecting her by limiting my physical contact with people outside our cottage. So stay at home it is.

To know that we have the time to settle in one place and to really get to know an area, to read about its history, to explore every little footpath, to not have to feel rushed. The English countryside, and this little corner in particular, has just captivated us with its density and variety of visual, auditory, and olfactory delights.

Its no wonder this area inspired romantic poetry of the great Wordsworth and Coleridge, who spent some of their highly productive years living up the road and penning their great works after inspiring walks though these very hills. The sounds of the birds, the rich, country smells, the vivid colours of this landscape, they each trigger so many memories for both of us when we lived in England. Australia has given us both so much, but its a very different experience, and we’re so grateful we get the opportunity to spend time immersed in both.

A patchwork of fields below us
Lovely old houses at every turn
Drinking up these views
An old pile of bricks all that remains of what probably was a house on this hill