A conference husband’s life is not bad one. You help your wife with wardrobe choices, wish her well with the presentation she’s making to senior medical practitioners from around the globe, and then take a brief from her to buy a new handbag to match her outfit! So off I go to to the wonderful boutiques of Milan, style capital of the world.
I quickly manage to tick off the handbag purchase thanks to some diligent research and a very cooperative store owner allowing me send lots and lots of photos to madam! My knowledge of handbags has now grown exponentially..from zero..to the ‘little-bit-is-dangerous’ level. Now I could move to the more solid ground of the serious act of procuring some new smarter threads for myself, appropriate to a stay on the Italian Riviera coming up next. I made a quick reflection as I walked the malls of how our life has changed since moving back to Europe!
Mrs A is once again on a mission to help the 7,000 odd members of the support group she runs by attending a conference with the world’s thought leaders on ENT laryngology diseases. She listens to the latest research being debated by the experts, and works through what will be the likely implications for her fellow suffers of idiopathic subglottic stenosis (a narrowing of the trachea just below the vocal cords, with no known cause). She networks like crazy, building new relationships with these practitioners and deepening existing ones. She wants to ensure her support group members have access to the latest data on what’s working and what isn’t in treatment options. Mrs A also has to sometimes call in favours for people in urgent need of medical are, which isn’t always recognised by the gatekeepers making the appointments.
Catherine had to crowdfund for this conference her travel and attendance costs from friends (thank you to donors who read this blog, you know who you are!) and her support group, who have given generously recognising the value the community gives them. I am enormously proud of her and the energy and enthusiasm she brings to this new vocation.
We are, I recognise, enormously privileged to have the opportunity to travel like this, combining business (for Mrs A) with pleasure. So after a few days in Milan we headed down on the train to the Ligurian coast, just to the west of Genoa. I have to say after reading supposed `’horror stories” about catching trains in Italy, it was all very civilised. Clearly the authors of these posts had never experienced rail travel recently in the UK!
In 2019, while motorhoming our way across Europe, we had stayed in a car park overlooking this gorgeous Ligurian coastline and randomly caught a ferry that took us to this little village of Camogli. We were besotted.
It still has a working fishing fleet, their catch cooked in the local restaurants. We barely heard any language other than Italian being spoken. The houses have been built up six stories, allegedly so fishermen could spot them from way out to sea, and their wives watch for their safe return (I did check and there is no record of women working on the boats).
“We’ll come back here one day” we promised ourselves, and we grabbed the opportunity when we realised we would only be a two hour (and 26 Euro!) train ride away in Milan. Our train journey into London from our home in Somerset takes about the same journey time, but costs four times as much.
So we had decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel in Camogli. We are still getting used to not being campers, caravaners, and motor-homers, so the idea of paying lots of money for a night’s shelter still rankles! But pay we did, and had a place right on the front with sea views. Privileged indeed. Sitting over a leisurely breakfast with this view will be an enduring memory for both of us. As will for Mrs A having her first (second, third and fourth!) vegan croissant!
Our days were spent exploring by train and ferry along the coast.
One trip included a trip to the more famous port town of Portofino, home apparently to the rich and famous.
And you can see why. What a visually stunning place, but not an iota of authenticity left we felt, and were a little relieved to get back to our more laid back Camogli. There are a lot of family owned holiday apartments there, and we met people from Milan who had been coming here for generations. It gave a lovely feel to the place as the restauranteurs knew they had to cater for returning customers.
We had wonderful dining experiences all week, provided by people who were clearly passionate about their food and wine, and seemed genuinely to take pleasure still from seeing their customers enjoying themselves. It does help I think that I tend to be quite vocal about my tasting pleasure! We sampled some local wines of course, mostly whites, with Vermentino (or blends including this grape) being one of the main varietals. A perfect match for the variety of fresh seafood we found ourselves served. Anchovies straight from the boat, the same for a variety of fish we’d never heard of, but that didn’t deter!
This spring and summer has certainly had an Italian theme, with two trips within a few weeks of each other. But we both share an excitement for coming back to what we feel is our little slice of Somerset paradise. to walk amongst our trees, check on the veggies, listen to the birdsong. We’re home.
Locations: Bradford on Tone to Marlow and back (225km cycled/140 miles)
Canals…they fascinate me. Is it something about their faded glory? A mode of transport that spread across the UK, and then as the railways provided faster and more cost efficient options, the canals were mostly left to decay. Thankfully some have remained open thanks to local communities refusing to give in to the British Water Board, who seemed happy to let them be consigned to the history books. Now many provide a thriving green corridor for wildlife, and recreational opportunities for boating, walking and in our case… cycling.
I had promised to go and meet a mate in Marlow, a small town perched on the banks of the River Thames. Taking a good look at my favourite website showing the cycling routes around the UK, I noticed that the Kennet and Avon canal ran from Bristol to Reading, a stone’s throw from Marlow. So I thought… ‘Why not ride to our local station at Taunton, take the train to Bristol (thereby saving a day’s riding, most of which I’d done before) and then cycle to Marlow, spend the weekend there, and then take a train back to Taunton from Reading (close to Marlow) and ride home?’ Well as soon as I had started researching the feasibility, Mrs A got interested as well, and an invite was formally issued. Our first UK bike tour together was mapped out, cat sitter booked, accomodation sorted and route planned. What could possibly go wrong?
Well… mostly it didn’t. We set off for Taunton on a breezy Wednesday afternoon, comfortable in the knowledge that we were entrusting our little Tassie to a wonderful lady (Kate) thanks to the service we use (Trusted Housesitters). Panniers were bulging with warm clothes. Spring hadn’t exactly sprung. We soon warmed up though and Taunton station was reached, bikes loaded and secured easily onto their own special carriage. All very civilised.
We didn’t leave Bristol until mid afternoon, but the rail trail that links it with Bath made for a quick trip, despite a headwind that was going to be our companion all the next day as well.
This trip was to be a watery themed one, from our home on a “broad ford” (the origin of our village’s name, Bradford) on the river Tone, past remnants of the Great Western Canal that once ran alongside it from Tiverton to Taunton, then along a short section of the Taunton to Wellington Canal (restored and navigable), then onto the Avon River, that joins the Kennet and Avon Canal. Then we would ride along parts of the canalised Kennet river, before finally riding along the banks of the Thames!
As we left Bath we joined the Kennet and Avon Canal, with the sun finally making an appearance. It was just magnificent cycling. Traffic free, a new view round every bend in the canal, and bird song everywhere. Cycle touring at its very best. We loved it, and reminded ourselves this was one of the reasons we decided to come back and live in England, for moments like this. Somewhere deep down in our DNA it was triggering those memories that are making us feel like we “belong” in this country.
The Kennet and Avon Canal is a magnificent piece of engineering. Built to join the two great ports of England, Bristol and London, with the 110 locks that it takes to cross the downs that stretch across the middle. It was quickly outmoded though by the railway, and now is maintained by the hard work of the Canal and River Trust and plenty of volunteer blood sweat and tears. I couldn’t believe the number of narrow boats moored like one long “barge park” all along its banks from Bath almost all the way to our destination for for the night, Bradford on Avon. Many looked like they were “live aboards”, the pandemic has certainly triggered a change in lifestyle for many. Why not live on a barge?
Bradford on Avon was in our sights by early evening, with some lovely accomodation right next to a pub on a marina. Dinner was nothing to wax lyrical about, as opposed to the breakfast. Smoked haddock… and lots of extras… what a way to start the riding day! And we were going to need plenty of fuel for our legs, even with the “pedal assist” tech we had on the e-bikes.
The headwind was wicked. We bowed our heads and put in the miles. There was more stunning riding along the canal tow path, before we were forced to leave it due to how deteriorated and slippery it had become. After Catherine had nearly made a very close acquaintance with the canal bottom, it was time to find some other options.
We were out on the very exposed Marlborough Downs. Just when we thought the head wind couldn’t get any stronger it blasted us even harder. Our brilliant e-bikes lapped it up though, still a very good work out, but the help from the battery turned what would have been (for us) an unrideable day on a manual bike into a hard but fun ride.
Unfortunately our accommodation for that evening was less than pleasant, but we had looked carefully at our options, and that’s all there was. A pub on a busy road. But it wasn’t the traffic noise that kept us awake, but instead the screaming from the kitchen below us, which included the phrase “lets get some more drugs”. We left early the next morning.
Our final leg into Marlow was easier than expected. The head wind was no more, replaced by drizzle, early spring in England keeps you guessing. Then our rural idyll unwound…Catherine had a small mishap…finding herself in the wrong gear on a hill she stopped and the bike toppled over. A badly bruised leg, sore knee and damaged pride. She dusted herself down, gritted her teeth, and set off determined to ride on in usual Catherine fashion!
We reached our fourth river of the trip, the Thames, earlier than expected and set off along the Thames Path, only to find it gated.
So our final leg was along some busy A roads, not so nice, but reminding us of just how quiet our ride had been all the way from Bristol so far. Two and a half days of almost no traffic. So after a few hair raising kilometres we finally arrived at our destination, the National Sports Centre just outside Marlow, and our accomodation for two nights. It was our only option that would store our bikes.
Anyway, we caught up with friends (Martin and Ruth) had a great night out with them.
On Sunday we made the journey home, with a bit of a change of plan given Catherine’s bruises. A short ride to Maidenhead , then we had to face the dreaded intercity bike storage on the Reading to Taunton line, the subject I had read of much cyclist angst. When Great Western Railways bought their new rolling stock in 2011, right at the height of the “lets get on our bikes” movement, they decided in their wisdom to spec it with tiny spaces for bikes that have to be hung by their front wheels! Gee… good thinking guys. It wasn’t much fun, in fact it was bit of nightmare. It involved me juggling 30 kilograms of bike around a narrow corridor, standing upright then attempting to lift it onto its back wheel! The other passengers trying to get seated were mostly understanding while I manoeuvred. Well noone actually started screaming at me, plenty of tut tut and deep sighs with averted rolling eyes, in that special way only the British manage without changing their facial expression. Finally they were in, well as in as they were going to go.
It seemed only me moments later (it was actually 90 minutes!) and I was trying to persuade all the passengers with no seats (of course there was one less carriage than there should have been!) who had clustered round our bikes to move away so I could reverse engineer the whole process. The eye rolls returned and intensified. I had to ask one young gentleman three times, who was actually using my bike as a prop, to shift. The third request wasn’t terribly polite and did the trick. Or was the bike spanner I had in my hand at that point? We de-trained, more of a cascade of bikes and bags, then rode home. arriving with some relief.
England has some incredible bike paths, thanks in large part to organisations like Sustrans who are based in Bristol and are responsible for the National Cycle Network, bless them. Their little blue signs are a joy to behold, and we live just two kilometres from one of their paths from which we can cycle all over the UK, and beyond. Many miles await us, without the whole intercity train bit!
Twelve months ago on the 2nd of the 2nd 2022 (a hard to forget date, even for me), we stepped off a plane from Sydney and showed our passports at Heathrow Airport. We had one way tickets…a fairly committing thought I can tell you.
Reflecting back, we’ve come so far, even my grand-kids recognise me! Old friendships have been rekindled, and new ones are forming. Toasts have been made to a new life. Oh and we found the house of our dreams in one of the most rural counties in England…where A roads are few and far between, and B roads look a lot like goat tracks…Somerset…we love you. Its been a wild ride, but we’ve settled now and love it.
Our village is starting to feel like somewhere we belong, and can really craft a new identity in. Everyone here has been so kind and welcoming. We recognise faces in the street , and in turn are recognised. That feels good. I help out in our community-owned shop on a Saturday morning and that’s got me known among some of the regulars, the ones who cross the street when they see me coming (to the other side!).
Catherine has started to bed herself into the community, joining in Pilates at the village hall, producing a flier for the shop, and taking herself off in a small women’s walking group she was invited to join.
Catherine has also landed (another) voluntary job as photographer for the Somerset arm of a charity called CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) – you’ll find her photos on their website and Instagram (@cpresomerset). We signed up to help with their litter pick-up initiative, and have used our kits to clean up the lane where we live.
Oh but what about the weather you say? Well maybe we are still in the honeymoon period, but the long dark nights of this winter have been an opportunity to get the log burner cranked up, pour ourselves a nice glass of red, and chill out, which in my case means reading and music, and in Catherine’s writing documents for her support group or research papers she is contributing to. Now there are already signs of spring, with snowdrops and daffodils poking their heads out of our lawn and borders. Well …where the squirrels and badgers haven’t dug up the bulbs we carefully buried, little buggers!
Our village did experience some local flooding, but not on our property which seems very well drained, and we don’t actually feel like we had many days of rain. We have been getting out and about no problem. There were certainly more than a few muddy walks, with some requiring wellies, but we have enjoyed them all. Just need to have the right gear.
We have also been able to borrow our new neighbours’ dog Ralph, and take him for a romp, and give him back muddy 🙂
We even walked out over the fields for a Sunday lunch at a local pub last week, that just felt so good. When I look back over January and February, I really have many happy memories created outdoors and in.
We haven’t had too many visitors, a nice break after the last summer’s rush just after we had moved in, but Catherine’s half brother Alex came and stayed locally and did a great walk with us.
Then a couple of friends from Australia did an overnight in between family visits. We certainly miss our friends in Australia, but our life needed to move on to adventures new.
Catherine has been able to spend so much more time with her family, having another weekend in Brighton with her sister and family, then to Hastings, to farewell her grandma.
We both also have had several trips into London for specialist medical support, which when the trains are running has been dead easy! So not very often…
We are also setting ourselves up to get out riding this spring. We both have new e-bikes, ones that will cope with the potholes, mud and gravel a little better, and that’s just on the main roads! I’m also planning some more multi-day bike tours. Exmoor and Dartmoor beckon. A lot to look forward to.
Our home is also taking shape. We’ve lived here nearly 8 months now, and have finished most of the major internal modifications we wanted to do, and kitted ourselves out with furniture, blinds etc. We’ve really enjoyed it, and I’m not sure why its felt different doing it here, but it has. In our last house we landscaped the garden, then stopped. Perhaps deep down we knew it wasn’t going to be our forever home, whereas this one feels like it will be. So next will come the garden, starting with the hard landscaping. We’ve chosen our provider and mapped out a design for a new patio, then it will be the shrubs and adding more privacy with trees. If we have another summer like the last one, it will get a good work out.
So that’s us. Happy in our country bubble, just keeping fingers crossed about our respective health, and enjoying each day we have in this fabulous corner of the country.
“Go to Seville!”, someone suggested when we were wondering where to head for a week’s break. Embarrassingly all I could conjure up in my mind was ….oranges. Yes there is around 45,000 trees laden with a rather sour variety from this tree that line the pavements of the city. But wow..so much more!
In the heat of summer (35 degrees and up!) these beautiful trees provide welcome shade for the diners seated at the seemingly endless rows of cafes. In this gloriously cool autumnal weather, the pavements were still buzzing. After a few pleasant lunches spent beneath these trees, my imagination fuelled by a decent vino rosso or two, I wondered what the oranges on the trees would make of the contrast in culture when they finally completed their journey as a jar of marmalade and made it onto an English breakfast table?
In a nutshell, or an orange peel, this was the biggest joy for me of the week, to be transported into such a different world, where mealtimes were an occasion for so much clearly passionate conversation, punctuated by peals of laughter, uninhibited by the presence of strangers at surrounding tables. It was impossible not to smile at the sheer pleasure and “all in” enjoyment being taken in sharing a meal with friends and family, and be in turn uplifted ourselves.
Of course it wasn’t all sitting around eating and drinking, well “all” is a relative concept isn’t it? There was a lot of that, but we did clock up just under 80 kilometres (50 miles) of walking in the week. I doubt that would have put us in calorie credit though, but at least most of my trousers still do up! There was definitely plenty to wander round and see.
On the first day it was the Palace, one of the three UNESCO sites in the city. For us to see this Moorish (no pun there) architecture, was a real eye and camera lens opener.
The other UNESCO site was the Cathedral that Catherine took a tour of, and luckily she had a brilliant guide who was able to bring alive the stories behind this incredible facade.
But enough of that, lets get back to the food! Markets, to me, always also tell so many stories about the people and how they live. We visited the ones in the centre of the city, and were swept along in the frenzied buying and selling of the produce. Just ogling the sheer variety, with its proximity to Africa, and its history of being a city where fresh ingredients have always been so important to its culture.
We also took a boat trip down the river, and got a less than satisfying guide, so my imagination fired up again to think of all the world shaping journeys that others had taken starting on this same stretch of water. Columbus, Magelllen, the conquistadors heading off to the Americas, the Romans, even allegedly the Vikings. Oh what tales those riverbanks could tell. Seville is still an important port, but the only boat traffic we saw was a couple of sightseeing boats like ours. Rivers no longer play the central role they once did, and Seville lapsed from its position as the hub of Spain’s commerce with the old and “new” worlds.
Along the river were built places like this 36-meter-high tower used in the 12th century as a storage place for gold brought back from the South American colonies (hence its name).
As a city, it is now the capital of Andalusia, and home to 700,000 people, a nice size for a city, but almost every single one of whom seem to head to the old town on a Saturday to shop, eat tapas, and drink some of their fabulous local wines. Brilliant atmosphere!
So it’s back to the eating and drinking as we settle down for a long lunch, kicked off with my new favourite aperitif…a vermouth.
We did also manage to fit in one evening a wine tasting, you will be surprised to hear 🙂
We profess to barely even skimming the surface of what Andalusia has to offer wine wise, but what we sampled we absolutely loved, that intense summer sun bringing out so many flavours.
For Catherine, a smooth rjoca or occasionally a chilled alberino with seafood. I really enjoyed the drier sherries as well. More to explore there I think!
The city does still boast a rather unusual claim to fame though, apparently the largest wooden structure in the world. We had to have a look. Nice views. nice film of the city, tick. So now lets back to the tapas and wine…only kidding.
I have just been reminded by some photos that we did have a look round a medieval home, but then we went for tapas and wine, so I can’t tell you very much more than that!
Another day brought more blue skies and pleasant walking temperatures in the low 20’s, so we took ourselves off to explore the Plaza de España in the Parque de María Luisa (Maria Luisa Park) – originally built in the 1920s as a symbol of peace with its former South American colonies. It was mostly closed for filming when we visited – flipping inconsiderate these movie types. In the past this has been a site for Star Wars (Episode II – Attack of the Clones for the geeks out there!). It was pretty picturesque with its tiled walls, moat and magnificent arches.
Catherine visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a 15th century monastery. The buildings were as fascinating as the artwork.
Meanwhile, I went to a local’s bar and drank some beer, and ate tapas, and quizzed the barman why everyone who lives in Seville seems to be so happy. He thought it was the tapas and wine. I’m inclined to agree.
On our final night we booked a flamenco show at Casa de la Guitarra (House of the Guitar).
We loved watching the dancing and listening to the guitarist, but I think flamenco singing is a bit of an acquired taste. All good learning and a taste of the folk-songs of Spain.
So I think that conveys the spirit of the week right? It was great to once again be back in Europe, delving into the history, watching the people, feeling the vibe.
We remain so glad we made this move. Europe on a our doorstep, and so many parts of the UK to see as well. Our own back door is still full of places we haven’t had a chance to see yet. Long trips in our motorhome are off the agenda for the moment – we are enjoying spending time in our home with Tassie, and feeling it’s quite enough to have a week away here and there. How times change!
After months of blue skies and less wind than Prime Minister’s question time, I decided to head off for a few days on a cycle tour when England copped its first storm of the Autumn season. Oops. Didn’t I read the forecast? I did…but I thought I should reacquaint myself with the ”joy” of riding in the full gamut of weather England can throw at you. I also like exploring in the off seasons, so, “Toughen up!” I thought. In a reluctant nod to the forecast and that most camp sites were shut for the off season, I ditched my plan to carry camping gear at the last minute, and went for the pub/B &B option.
So in summary, how did the trip work out? Well, with the glass half full perspective, I saw some new-to-me areas of south-west England that are staggeringly beautful, proved that the solo cycle touring model works on an e-bike (something I was concerned about with range anxiety!), and had my view of the kindess of strangers totally reaffirmed. That latter point is particularly crucial given I did hit a few speed bumps. Read on…and laugh with/at me.
The trip itinerary was ”flexible”, I had a clear diary for five days. I didn’t even make any accommodation bookings, making the assumption, erroneously it turns out, that in October, away from the coast, not school holidays, how hard could it be to find a room? So of I toddled into the dawn of a Somerset morning with the vague plan to ”Ride towards Lands End”. I was going south and west, with the aim to end up finishing my trip in a town with a direct train line back to Taunton, then a short ride back to our place.
Somerset is a very rural county, and I rode on that first day through tiny villages and hamlets, undisturbed by 4g coverage. Never travel here without offline mapping tools. I rode through green corridors, with tall banks and hedgerows to either side of the narrow lanes, and sometimes this turns into a tunnel. A tunnel taking me back in time I felt, as another little hamlet would emerge around a corner, with the odd car parked on the tiny streets the only reminder I was still in the 21st century.
It’s pretty hilly in the south west of the UK, a mantra I would repeat to myself over the next few days, so I was happy to come across my first town after a couple of hours riding to top up my bike and tummy battery. A much needed breakfast of champions, and a mains plug socket for the bike, as all this kit I was carrying, plus my not insignificant weight, were giving me a lower cycling range than expected.
The lovely ladies at the Old School Cafe in the small service centre type town of Tiverton (code for…it’s a bit ugly and you wouldn’t go for for any other reason!), made me very welcome, despite my dripping clothes and muddy boots. Yes, I had been treated to what the locals call ”Devon Sunshine”. Traditionally the climate down here is a bit wetter than other parts of England. Although this year we were in drought though like the rest of the country, so the rain is much needed. Despite lashing out on the best wet weather gear money can buy, I was soaked from sweating and a bit of water ingress. There will be a section at the end on my wet weather and other gear for those interested.
I had at least done some research on the next town with any chance of accommodation, and that was another 55 kilometres ride, and more importantly, over a lot of bumpy bits (it’s hilly down the south west, remember!), so I was committing. It was going to be a big day, but I felt good, and the Devon Sunshine had stopped and been replaced by…well…”mizzle”. Even though Google won’t let me type that word without autocorrecting, it is in the Oxford dictionary, and such a lovely word. One that evokes the experience just through saying it. Thats called Onomatopoeia by the way. You see, you’ve learnt something already. For our non-English resident readers, mizzle occupies the continuum between rain and mist. You don’t notice its raining, you just get really wet.
I pushed on. Unfamiliar with the area, I saw another cyclist coming the other way and shouted over to ask him a question about the best route. He pulled up. He had a couple of small bags on his bike, so I asked where he was heading. Now we could run a competition until Christmas 2023 on his answer, and I guarantee no one would win it. Istanbul. He’d left home that morning, first day of his trip. Will was raising money for a charity I’d never heard of, Andy’s Man Club. They were set up to provide support to men who are in need of mental health support. Will Thurgood had lost a good friend to suicide, and at the funeral heard of this charity. As a keen cyclist he thought, ”I’ll ride to Istanbul and raise money and awareness”. And indeed he has started well on that quest.
It’s at moments like that, I know one of the reasons I love cycle touring so much. The unexpected encounters on the road that just make you think about your own life through getting inspiration from others. I find riding solo helps these encounters. I’m more alert to a conversation opportunity, and people seem to be keener to engage, rather than interrupting a pair or a pack. Will rode on, and I watched him go with the utmost respect. Strangers whose lives momentarily intersect. In a car you’re isolated, on a bike its easy to start up a conversation. And I regularly do.
More hills loomed, with the huge mass of Dartmoor dominating my vision and thoughts, as I knew I had that treat in store at some stage on this trip. Now I should interject here and explain that for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure to ride a loaded up electric bike, which is a heavy bike to begin with, it’s not a moped. You need to pedal, and get various levels of assistance of your choosing, from none (downhill mode!) up to Sport (make yourself unpopular mode with the manual brigade option). But there isn’t a “stop peddling and go up hills” option. So I arrived at my destination, the small town of Okehampton, completely exhausted with 1100 metres of climbing having taken its toll on legs that hadn’t been doing any training. Ok, so I had found my limit loaded up. I had been out with camping gear in September on a two night trip, but had done a lot less climbing.
I staggered into the hotel that I had called the day before to check if they could store my bike and asked if they had availability, Yes and yes the nice man said. Did I need to book? No, he said, its very quiet at this time of the year. So I arrived to be told, no room at the inn. There was only one other place in town, a brand whose mere mention brings shivers (of a bad kind) down the spine of the British travelling public. Wetherspoons. I walked through the bar trying to find the hotel reception, negotiating a large group of absolutely hammered lads staggering around at 2.30 pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Eventually I found someone to ask about a room, although she looked like I had just woken her up. I’m not kidding when I tell you it took the receptionist a good 10 minutes to wind up the old desktop and stab what seemed like 300 keys before announcing yes, they had a room left. She almost seemed disappointed she now had to check me in. She asked my mobile number three times, asked me to spell out my home address twice. I gritted my teeth. They did have bike lockers she said. After 10 minutes trying to open and store my bike in one, I decided the engineer who designed them must have had a wicked sense of humour, or who had been knocked over and injured by a cyclist! Jeez. Another couple of tourers turned up with their bikes and a smug air of ”We’ve been here before, we know how to do it”. I watched as they wrestled, and swore, and had their bikes fall out and bite them. So it was my turn to be smug, as I gave in and folded down my handlebar stem. In it went in then like a breeze. How you would get full size bikes in them remains a mystery to me.
Finally. I staggered up to my room, trying to not breathe in the smell of cheesy feet that oozed out of the hallway carpets. The room looked OK, so I walked in, and fell over. There was a crater under the carpet that would have swallowed a small dog. In fact, when I bent down to look at the floor, it did smell like in fact a dog had been there and never left.
I started unpacking to get my devices charging, searching for the bag containing the various power leads that I carefully packed in one of my panniers, and had now mysteriously dematerialised. Uh oh. I had pulled out my iPhone cable at some point during my morning’s ride, and noticed a few minutes later that in my stupor I had not fastened back up the pannier top. My charging cables bag must have leapt out and grabbed the brief opportunity to become road-kill. I phoned the ”Broad Oak House, Level 1 Emotional Support” hotline (Catherine). I was ready to give up the trip. I thought the chances of finding all the cables I needed in this remote little desert of electronics was slim. I mean, with barely any phone coverage (one bar of 3g in the town centre), why would people have phones? But no, I learnt on this trip that there may not be a bakery, butcher, greengrocer etc, but there’s always a phone shop. I could scrape by on what, for an eye watering price, they could sell me.
I ate in the restaurant downstairs, once again there were blind drunk folk staggering round, and they were good enough to share some of their pints all over my clothes. Great.
Lesson 1: Don’t trust nice young men from Okehampton who say you don’t need to book. The compromise between not being locked in to an itinerary and being in a Wetherspoons, is to book somewhere nice 24 hrs ahead. Good learning.
Lesson 2: Before recommencing riding, rotate my head like a meercat, checking carefully all bag fastenings! Sigh…
I packed up in the morning and headed towards the scary bike lockers. I opened the door to the outside world to be nearly bowled over by a tremendous gust of wind and driving rain. Oh. One of those days that would be another ”valuable learning experience“ in how to ride in proper English weather. I set off. After being blown all over the road, and I’m no lightweight, l called into the emotional support line again, also doubling as weather research, as I had no 4g signal. (Why do people even need smart phones in the south-west?). Catherine had a good look at the weather reports, and could see the next couple of hours were going to be grim, but if I could get through that phase, then it was clearing up a bit.
So this is how I found myself sitting in an old pill box type shelter, by the side of rail trail. Or from the smell inside, it was actually a toilet without a sign announcing it as such. Tree branches came whirling past the open windows. The rain pelted down. Time for a Cadbury’s Hot Chocolate I thought, thanks to a recent purchase of lovely little stove. I have three now, Catherine reminds me with that Paddington Bear hard stare she has perfected when providing ”feedback” on my outdoor gear buying habits. In under a minute from pulling it out of my pannier (a pannier I immediately close), it is assembled and boiled a steaming mug to replenish the spirits, which as at this point are flagging somewhat. Don’t believe the nice young man from the outdoor shop either, when he says, “This coat will keep you dry”. It’s impossible when you are heating up through exercise, even the most breathable of waterproof membranes will have you damp. Add in some time, and leakage through bits you can’t seal around your face and remain breathing, and you’re going to be wet. But at least not that cold.
Well, my forecast hotline was spot on, and the wind eased to just below a level I could ride in without becoming airborne. So off I went, once more into the breach. I rode through stunning countryside in the green and glistening heart of Devon. Little villages that surely didn’t look much different from when the French came over to wipe the floor with us at the Battle of Hastings, then built their imposing Norman castles across this landscape.
All was going so well, and I arrived at what I thought was going to just be a quick lunch in Launceston, just over the border into Cornwall, a top up of batteries and belly. I plugged in my iPhone and up came an error message that said “Moisture has been detected in your charging port. This could take several hours to clear before you can recharge”. Oops. But the nice young man from Apple said my iPhone 11 was waterproof? Surely Apple wouldn’t lie to its customers? According to their website “An iPhone 11 can be submerged in 13 feet of water for up to 30 minutes before risking damage”. You’d think I would have noticed laying deep underwater for half an hour, but apparently not. I imagine somewhere in their tiny T’c and C’s it says ”Avoid riding for four hours in proper British weather”. Anyway. I was stuck. No phone. No navigation. Try buying a paper map nowadays.
Here’s the part where the kindness of strangers gets reaffirmed for me, starting with manager of the cafe I had chosen to park myself in to make a plan, apologising profusely for dripping everywhere. Liberty Coffee, it was called, in case you’re passing through. She welcomed me to my own little area in the hallway where I could drip to my hearts content and even park my bike next to me. Time to reach out to ”Practical Catherine” for some emotional counselling and top tips from Dr Google on drying out phones. Put in a bag of rice and leave for up to 24 hrs seemed to be the go. Advice and directions were sought and off I went to buy those.
By the time that was done, the afternoon was marching on and I was going to need a place to stay in town, and lose half a day off my trip. I headed to the Library for working wifi, then Tourist Information centre for hotels. How long everything takes without a working smart phone! The Eagle House Hotel was the only place with a room. I rushed round and walked up to the front door all excited at the prospect of a nice hotel, and was confronted with a battered front door with peeling paint. First impressions anyone?
It didn’t fill me with confidence, but how wrong can first impressions be? I later found out from the owner the reason the door was like that due the lack of any tradespeople, or doors, as both had been an order for six months! Supply chain kinks and labour shortages be dammed. Lovely staff – kindness again – even allowed my bike in my room to keep me company. Think I looked in a pretty sad state.
I pulled my phone out of the bag of rice and tried the charging cable. Next problem – the charging cable wouldn’t fit – bunged up with soggy rice no doubt. Off I rushed to the phone shop. There’s always a phone shop isn’t there? Another nice young man produced a tool designed for the purpose of cleaning out the ports, and bingo, a phone that charged once again. I shall be treating any terms like ”waterproof” with a pinch of rice in the future.
Back at the hotel I happened to see a sign to the ”cocktail bar”. Having low expectations from my last night’s experience in the darkest depts of Wetherspoons, I came round the corner to be blown away by a wonderful bar. A gorgeous balcony overlooking the valley, ideal for more summery weather, and a very perky barmaid (personality wise I mean, Catherine), who mixed me up a fantastic negroni. There was even a custom-made ball of ice containing a flower and herbs from the owner’s garden. I had a chat with Rebecca, the owner, to get the story on the place. She and her husband are local farmers and decided they didn’t want to see the loss of the hotel (it was headed towards demolition by the looks of it). They bought it five years ago, and told me they have spent longer as hotel owners in COVID restrictions than out of them. It clearly needs a lot of work, but I wish them all the best. Had a wonderful dinner, the only person in the dining room.
I had decided I needed to abandon the lofty goal of Land’s End on this trip. With a half day of riding lost to phone issues, and a train strike on Saturday, I had to rethink. My criteria was to head for a railway station with level access. Stairs and e-bikes are not happy companions. Plymouth came up trumps. A bit of retracing my steps, then it was up, and up to the wild open moorlands of Dartmoor. I was just thinking, “I’m going to get to Plymouth early”, as a horse rider coming the other way shouted out, ”Road closed ahead, long detour up over the moor”. Mmmm. Keeps you on your toes, this cycle touring lark. I had already chewed through one battery, so thankfully pulled out the spare (from Catherines bike) and settled in to another climb.
What a beautifully stark and evocative place. We had ridden some of Dartmoor before, but that was okay. It has a lot of wild space to offer a hiker or a rider. I met one car coming across, no one else. I finally dropped down off the moor to find a rail trail that would lead me straight into Plymouth. I powered along this fabulous route (Drake’s Trail), that we had also ridden before, but that didn’t matter, it is gorgeous and traffic free.
So that was it, a well earned beer at my hotel in Plymouth, a lively pub with great rooms overlooking the harbour. Off to the station, loaded up the bike into his little spot, and remarkably smooth and cheap trip back to Taunton and was home, weary but fulfilled.
More cycle touring in the south-west of England is definitely in my future. If we invest in two more batteries, then perhaps with Catherine. I want to get up on Exmoor in the spring with my tent. See more of the west coast of Cornwall, there’s just so much, and a limited amount of time where it will be within my prowess. Carpe Diem.
GearLocker (for those interested)
Bike: Reise and Muller’s Tinker. It partially folds (stem and bars), handy for those bike lockers! Has 20 inch wheels with tryres wide enough to deal with gravel. A belt drive so no gears to maintain, and built in lights front and rear. We’ve been thrilled with the build quality. In this case we got what we paid for. A high quality, reliable, well thought through ebike.
Wet weather gear. Jacket: Arc’teryx is the brand, a Canadian company producing high end outdoor gear I’ve come to really rely on. Have the over trousers to match. A new addtion on this trip were a pair of waterproof over-mitts from Extremities, with normal cycling gloves underneath. Just kept off the chill and super light and pack up small. Very pleased with the combo.
Boots: Also from Arc’teryx – very comfy for riding and hiking, super lightweight. My feet still get wet though. I think unavoidable when you’re riding and trousers lift up and water gets over the top of the boots. But my secret weapon, again first time out, a pair of Extremities waterproof socks underneath. Kept my foot dry, and not too sweaty and smelly either. A result.
Stove: the new acquisition, from MSR a Windburner. Such a great design for just heating up water when you’re mixing with dehydrated food, or just hot drinks. Light, simple to set up and really compact. It will be out with us on winter hikes for sure.
Panniers: I look like an Ortlieb advert. A pair of the dirt rider side rears, a seat pack, handlebar roll and front bag for bits. All kept everything bone dry. All stayed put. Shame they dont have an automatic closure!
Clothes: nothing really worth highlighting other than my Icebreaker, merino wool jacket. I’ve had it now for at least 12 years, and its still going strong. The weight to warmth and packed size ratios are amazing.
Location: Bradford-on-Tone, Somerset, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, London, UK
September was a busy month for us, hosting family and other visitors at our place. Catherine kicked things off with her Dad and his wife Sue arriving from New Zealand. It was the first time Catherine had seen him for over three years. Then her half brother Alex joined us and all were there to share in my birthday celebrations.
Then my eldest daughter Zoe also came for a weekend. I dont think we have ever spent a weekend together like that. It was very special. We had talked for a while about walking a bit of the South West Coast Path together, after both reading The Salt Path by Raynor Wynn and being really moved by it.
Catherine’s half-sister Elle and her family also joined us for a few days including fun at the Somerset County Show. Now, when I say fun, that can encompass many things in Somerset, we are learning. So a spot of ferret racing barely made us blink. Yes, the kids loved it, we loved it, and possibly the ferrets!
Family weren’t the only visitors in September. We also had the crew from my school days. Stuart and Karen, John and Catriona, all came for a couple of nights, and as usual we went hard on the first one with a lovely long dinner out at what has become our go to restaurant, Villa Verde in the village of Rockwell Green. The early hours of the morning found us dancing round our dining room! Grow up? Never….
My buddy Andrew joined for the next day and joined us for a head clearing walk on the beautiful Quantock Hills. This group of friends has been my rock through my whole life, and I love ‘em to bits :).
Finally on the visitors front, we had Percy, the peacock, who the village adopted after he escaped from a very cramped cage at a local farm. As autumn comes here, his tail fathers have been lost (well we found one that has pride of place now in a vase), and he has taken to resting up on our patio in the sun. Tassie, our Burmese, looks on with horror, and a speech bubble can almost be seen on her expression saying, “Wow, weird place this village!”
September has also seen us exploring our local area, both hiking and kayaking. Exmoor is just up the road, and Catherine plotted a few great little walks, including one around a reservoir up in the hills. I don’t think there’s any danger we will run out of local hiking trails. We really have landed on our feet here…hah hah.
Another walk started from a tiny settlement, Bury, where we started and finished from a medieval packhorse bridge.
On another occasion we tagged on an exploration of the River Exe estuary to a visit to a stone mason, and found a great selection of birdlife and some fabulous scenery – we hope to come back here one day. It’s well known as a fertile fishing ground, and there were plenty of Little Egrets catching fish. As always, we were told; ”Oh you should have been here earlier, there was an Osprey catching fish here”…but obviously nothing for us to see!
Then it was turn of our arms to get a workout, as we paddled across an area called the Somerset Levels, which we live on the edge of. With 160,000 acres at an average height of only a few metres above sea level, its is one of the flattest and most flood prone areas in the UK. It also home to rare species of birds, and our kayak gave us glimpses of some of these thanks to Catherine’s big lens. We weren’t sure how good the kayaking was going to be in the UK. How wrong could we be, certainly with the kind of weather we have had this autumn. So another tick in the move country (and hemisphere!) box for us.
But it is not all visitors and playtime. We have been busy planning modifications we want to make to the house, and already have started on one project, converting a room used by the previous owners as an office (only accessible through the garage!) to….a bar. Yup, we are getting a whole new extension to our kitchen, having had a wall knocked down creating access to the room directly from it. Planning permission is in for bifolds to be installed as well, to open up the view. Much work to do but its great to get started on making the house our own.
Catherine also as been working, doing her voluntary advocacy work, talking at conferences, contributing to research papers, managing an ever growing support group (approaching 6,500 members now!) and meeting fellow sufferers of the rare disease she has. She also manages to find time to do some paid work for a company in Australia. A right powerhouse she is, also squeezing in a flying visit to her cousin, auntie and uncle somewhere in that mix.
Thank goodness for our easy rail connection here from Taunton. Well, when they aren’t on strike, or have leaves on the line, dead sheep, kinky rails, strong winds, overhead power failure, or the many other reasons we get given for delays. It’s not especially reliable, but mostly gets us there more easily than by car when London is the destination.
What about me then? Well, not too much to tell amongst the flurry of visitors. I have kicked off volunteering in the local community shop though, and they want me back for a second go. I know, surprised me as well 🙂 I did go along to the local Morris dancing club night, given my philosophy is to give things a go.
Well, let’s just say I gave it go, and leave it there.
We are really loving the community here, never having felt part of one before, given we’ve mainly lived in larger towns and cities. I think we will always be ”the Australians at the Brodie’s place” (our previous owners), but that’s fine. One resident was telling us about ”The new people at The Old Schoolhouse”. It later emerged they’d lived there five years.
Change seems to happen slowly here. For instance, I can’t believe how attached every government department is to sending letters! Yes, actual snail mail. They seem to take pride in taking as a long as possible to enact a process. I started applying for my Government pension at the end of August. By the end of September I had made 23 phone calls, and finally received an application form for it through the post on the 29th. I said to one call centre operator, ”But can’t you just send me one from your computer?”. ”Ooooh no”, she says, ”That’s a whole other department that do that”. All part of the charm? Sometimes. Other times its all just frustratingly slow 🙂
And while we are on the idiosyncrasies of this country, none were more evident then when we saw the nation mourning the loss of it’s Queen. One bloke even got arrested (later released) for holding a sign that read ”I didn’t vote for you”, referring to the new king.
In the land that reveres its tolerance of free speech, I realised there are some very touchy subjects, and the monarchy is definitely one. I even saw local councils around us have cancelled food festivals where small businesses show case their wares. Apparently they are not appropriate at this time”, to quote the council minutes. Very strange.
There is much to learn. Best done by listening and keeping quiet and trying to keep my eyebrows under control 🙂
Location: Milton Keynes, Bradford-on-Tone, London, UK
I write this from my ”Isolation Wing” in the the new house that is rapidly becoming a home. COVID-19 struck me down. How? Well..here’s my side of the story. We were in London again (I think we need shares in Great Western Railway!) for Catherine’s kick off immunotherapy treatment to try and tackle her subglottic stenosis.
I encouraged madam to go clothes shopping, usual uphill battle, and volunteered to travel across London to collect the right size from a different store.
I walked 18kms that day, one of the many pleasures actually of being here, exploring the big city. I most likely caught it somewhere then because two days later I have sore throat, aches and pains and I’m down with the plague.…so it’s Catherine’s fault! 😉
Anyway, there are definitely worse places to do my time in bed, with my own private ensuite and kitchen! Catherine even ran a fan at my door so my dirty germs wouldn’t pollute the house. Seriously, it’s really important we keep her safe as her airway is already declining since the last op, six weeks ago.
It wouldn’t feel right without a hospital appointment in the week. I had to cancel mine at Moorfields Private Eye Hospital in London, which was supposed to be today. I could wait another 8 months for my NHS appt (been waiting 4 already), but by then who knows what mess my eyes will be in. There are 30,000 vacancies currently in the National Health Service in the UK. Well, Catherine is certainly getting more than her fair share of those scarce ENT staff!
Backing up to pre my COVID isolation, I went gadding up to Milton Keynes again, responding to a request for help from daughter number two, whose hubby away again and she is at work. A few school runs and pick ups, a walk in the woods, a lovely birthday meal out with the whole mob for daughter number one. It ticked a lot of boxes.
The same daughter (Hayley) then brought her two boys down to stay with us a few days later. Apparently, according to the boys, a highlight was going packrafting down the local River Tone (stream at the moment with lack of rain!). A few laughs, a few tears, the usual.
We continue to kit out the house, with lots of couriers turning up with furniture and bits and pieces. really enjoying the process. Even found ourselves supplier to help us with some modifications, more on those when we get further down the track.
I just feel so good about this place, its rural views, its land size (I’d dig a moat if I could!) and how the house is laid out, with a few minor changes coming up. We know we were so lucky to find it, and really enjoying starting to have friends as well as family come and stay. The house can start to build some memories for us.
My favourite spot is under the old oak tree. Camping chair, bottle of wine, and even joined by local friends three times now! The times they are a changing.
Location: Widworthy, Devon, and West Bagborough, Somerset, UK
We got so lucky! A friend of a friend has let us let us stay in their stunning little cosy retreat in the depths of the lush and rolling hills of the central Devon countryside. It really is quite a find. Beautifully fitted out, with a fabulous view, we couldn’t have beeen happier. It’s only one room, but that includes a big kitchen with loads of storage, which flows into the lounge, and bedroom (super king bed!) plus a luxurious bathroom. It has actually worked so well for the three of us. And then there’s the view…awesome.
We also got lucky with storage for our motorhome at the bottom of the road, in the car park of the local manor house (Widworthy Barton), with permission from the caretaker of course. We were parked outside the manor house unloading and he came over to talk to us. I thought I was going to be told off for parking there, but no, after a chat, he offered us a spot, protected by CCTV and just a short way from where we were to live for the coming weeks. What more could we ask for?
Let me first explain where exactly we have landed. We are pretty much slap bang in the middle of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs in the local parlance). The one to the north of us is the Blackdown Hills, a relatively small area less than 25km’s in any direction, and yet full of a network of footpaths. Check out this screen shot from the Ordnance Survey map, and these are just the walk routes they have pulled together.
We are a 15 minute drive from the small town of Honiton down the bottom of this map.
To the south of us is the East Devon AONB another largely rural area of rolling hills criss-crossed with walking and cycling routes.
We are staying where that blue dot is towards the top of the map. It is not even in a village, a scattering of houses up a single track no through road. There are a couple of properties past us, so we may have three or four vehicles a day break the constant birdsong.
We are both strangers to this part of Devon, and we had imagined it would be heaving with tourists, but no. Get away from the few main roads that traverse it and we can cycle for ages on tiny B roads without coming across another car. Plenty of tractors though!
The World Heritage area of the Jurassic Coast is a 20 minute drive to the south of us, and we have had several days out exploring walks and villages along this picture perfect coastline. Weekends and school holidays it is busy of course, but avoid those, as we can, and it’s just a serene part of the world.
Agriculture dominates the landscape, as it has done for thousands of years, and in particular the dairy industry, which produces some of those iconic products like Devonshire cream. I need to stay well away from that, my tummy is already benefiting from the exploration of other local goodies like the craft breweries that are everywhere, the cideries, and those oh so tempting Devon pasties.
It’s hard to imagine that we will ever feel we have ”done it all” here, there’s just such a variety of landscapes, a plethora of walking and cycling opportunities. But it is the people that have made it so special. We invited the owners of the property we are staying in, and the mutual friends who introduced us, over for a welcome BBQ. Brilliant. They both have twins and there was a lot of laughter, making us feel so at home and relaxed here.
We have walked from our front door half a dozen times now and are still finding new routes, helped by the Komoot app, which shows all the footpaths and bridleways, and enables easy planning of walks. For instance, I randomly picked Dalford, a little village 10 minutes drive away, and Catherine used Komoot to put a fabulous walk together. So yes, it was raining for most of the walk, but that didn’t bother us in the least. We have good gear which keeps us mostly dry, and it wasn’t cold. The greens in the landscape just get even deeper, everything sparkles. We just love it.
Another trip out and it was the short drive down to the Jurassic Coast and this simply breath taking scenery, to a place called the Golden Cap, which is just over the county boundry in Dorset.
Another coastal jaunt took us into the popular resort town of Lyme Regis, but despite its fame as the centre of this fossil rich coast, we easily found a park, and explored the cute shops. One of the many things we are enjoying here is the variety of retailers. One shop for instance sold nothing but fossils. Catherine wanted to donate me 🙂
We also had some family time. My two daughters came with their families to West Bagborough, the small village in Somerset that sparked this whole change of country. Hayley and her husband and two boys Luke and James, brought their (massive!) caravan down and stayed on a site owned by friends of ours. My other daughter Zoe, her husband Mark and daughter Lily and son Jacob, we put up in a lovely 400 year old local bed and breakfast.
It was quite a week! Not all smooth sailing, but some great memories in these photos. There was definitely some learnings for me in organising events like this with my family. I left the week though having got to know my grandkids a lot better. All part of the jounrey we are on.
The Queen’s Jubilee weekend rolled around, and excuse to catch up with Karen, Sonny and Oliver again. and then also with the mutual friends for a walk along the South West Coast Path from a town called Beer. I felt right at home there!
One of the delights of being here is being able to meet up with friends I’ve known since school. Andrew was in the same class as me, and his wife Lynne, we have been able to see only occasionally over the years. Now we can say “Let’s have lunch next week!” We met at a country house owned by the National Trust called Stourhead, and enjoyed a gentle stroll around the gardens. Serene!
There has been so much more, but mostly we have been continuing to ready ourselves for the move. During this period we exchanged contracts on our new home!!!. We will complete on the 30th of June, 5 months to the day from when we left Australia. We are very happy with what we have found, You’ll have to wait until we move in for more details, as things could still go wrong. But it looks good. Deposit is paid, and we are busy researching what we want to do to make it our forever home. It will be a huge lifestyle change for us after all this travelling, and before that, city living in Sydney. We can’t wait for this new chapter!
Location: Kingston St Mary, Somerset, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, Honiton, Devon and London, UK
Ok I’m back on blog writing, now I have a working keyboard. Never buy a so admirably misnamed ”Smart Folio” keyboard from the master of design Apple. It makes a soap dish look smart. Anyway, back in the saddle now with a brand new AirPad Air, paired this time with the newish ”Magic Keyboard”. The magic is in that this one actually works. Brilliant, with a built in touchpad keeping my curry covered fingers away from that lovely screen.
So, is this a travel blog you ask, or a tech round up and bemoaning of the sad state of Apple now they have their market dominanance? Ok, well given we are not travelling around very much, I guess now its more of a catch for friends and family scattered around the world, on what we’re up to, and a great place to showcase Catherine’s ever growing repertoire of photography skills. For me, an opportunity to say what the hell I like, knowing most of you skip to the photos anyway!
So here’s a random thought to prove that mantra. I was laying awake the other night (been doing a lot of that recently!) and mulling over a book I’m reading about the history of England. One phrase stuck in my mind. ”Civilisation after all means living in cities”, in the context of the changes that went on in England post the Romans packing up their far too short togas, and heading back to Europe to get a better tan. We are seeing up close here in Somerset changes that will I think forever change what it means to live a civilised life, and be dependent on a city to do that.
Our dependence on cities for our employment, shopping, leisure and socialising has been broken. We don’t need cities for any of that do we? We might want a city for some lively night life, bricks and mortar shopping, and that overall buzz you get from being in the thick of things every so often. But for the first time in a few thousand years, we don’t need to live in one to find meaningful, well paid work (with good broadband), or to wander the shops to find the best choice and price, or to catch the latest films, or meet up with friends.
I know, not a startling insight, this has been coming for a while, and we all acknowledge that, but now Catherine and I are living it, as we transition our lives from having a home in the city to one in the country, and coming to terms with it. Unfortunately for us, half the rest of England is doing the same, and pushing up prices of houses as a result.
But will we be happy? As long as we can get the train to ”civilisation” for our monthly fix of fine dining, window shopping, perfectly mixed cocktails, and live music…we think so. Time will tell. Perhaps the big thing missing from our ”happy list” is having that network of friends around us, and that sure isn’t dependent on being in a big city. In fact I would say now we are not working in offices, it is inversely correlated to urban living. It will happen.
Meanwhile, we can’t look at houses every day, so off we skipped to our favourite (well we’ve been once before!) birding site locally. Ham Wall – no – not in search of a sandwich smothered in English mustard, but this fabulous wetland half an hour drive north of us.
Some cracking shots there right? It was about 8 degrees, with a chilly old wind, and we were as happy as Larry (well, if Larry had thermals on). A Thursday afternoon and as usual the car park is heaving with fellow twitchers lugging around their big lenses and spotting scopes. All very friendly and willing to point out some of the shyer types hiding behind the rushes. I think one day this will feel like home. Not yet, but its getting easier. I don’t get a lurching feeling in my stomach as often when I think of Sydney Harbour.
Our friends also took us around some local sites in their gorgeous Landrover Defender. The hinterland of Porlock and Minehead, then up onto Exmoor.
Walking through old forests like these just makes us take big deep breathes, you can almost feel the oxygen levels get denser. Dogs were happy as well!
After the forest came the open country up on Exmoor. Fabulous. We will be spending a lot more time up here, once we have a car that can deal with the bumps. Yup… we bought the wrong car. Too long slung. Not our finest hour in the research department. However, watch this space, cunning plan in place.
We are just loving the area we are trying to make our new home. So much variety in the scenery. Coast, rolling hills, open moor, it has it all. We just need to settle into our forever home to really relax and enjoy it. Fingers crossed. Again, watch this space. Things are moving.
This week we have transferred our base of operations to our friends’ Karen and Dan’s house in Honiton north devon. They were away and asked us if we would kitten sit. Oh yes please we purred. A feline fix is just what we need while we wait for our dearly beloved Princess Tasmania to join us here (26th April!).
We also had to do a quick two nighter into London for madam to get an operation done to help her breathing once again. We were soon scuttling back to Devon, with a much improved airway. What a relief for her. It’s literally a life changing little op, to be able to get huge lungfulls of air once again into her system she can bound up the stairs, instead of wheezing her way up while the kittens dash past disdainfully.
We finished our stay in Honiton with a glorious morning out at another nature reserve, Seaton Wetlands on the Devon coast.
So thats us. Coming to the end of our first spell of a ”holiday rental” – 11 weeks in fact. There have been some brilliant moments, and some tough times. We think the tide is on the turn now, in a good way, but more on that in our next instalment.
Finishing off with a few shots of the beautiful bluebells now blooming up in the Quantock Hills – if we could share the aroma, we would!
Location: Honiton, Devon and Kingston-St. Mary, Somerset
It was time to turn our back on the delights of Chelsea, our bank balance will be relieved! So many temptations that come at a fine price. We will never forget our time here with family and friends, and that is priceless. We were off down to Devon, to stay with our friends Karen and Dan, their twins, and their kittens. Yes we got a cat fix!
We also got a vehicle fix, as our motorhome has been stored nearby, and last week was taken in for some TLC to a local garage. They had him all serviced and ready to rock.
Then we were collected by the sales exec we had been talking to since before Christmas from Mercedes-Benz Exeter and taken over to their showroom to try out a car. We had really already decided we were buying the vehicle, but wanted a test drive to just confirm what we had read in the reviews. It’s a little A-series hatchback, ideal for scooting round narrow Somerset lanes, and has a plethora of tech to make the driving experience safer and more stress free. We loved it.
When I say we, this has to be a car Catherine is comfortable driving, as our last two vehicles she really hasn’t been. The Landcruiser has no height adjustable seating, and the motorhome has a handbrake even I struggle to reach down to; it is basically a lorry. So, happy wife, happy ride. She loved it, as did I. So we sorted the paperwork, and drove it back to Honiton. What a feeling. Never thought we’d have a Mercedes keyring dangling from our hands. It’s so different from our previous cars. Even my daughter said ”Never thought I’d see you in something so low profile!”, after the truck-like vehicles we usually buy. Well, we are reinventing ourselves.
After the hectic pace of the last few weeks, we decided to give ourselves a day off. Catherine and I were itching to wander around some Devon countryside with a camera and bins. Seaton Wetlands was recommended, and didn’t disappoint. It was packed with birdlife in the trees and on the river Axe that flows through the reserve. It felt really surreal once again to think that this can be our life now, wandering round these places, rugged up against a bitey wind, with a hot mug of tea in our rucksacks. It was so reinvigorating to be back out amongst our feathered friends again, and learning all the new species names thanks to a off duty warden, and the Merlin app that helps identification.
A day of re-packing Truffy and the Merc saw us ready to head over to our home for the next 11 weeks in Somerset. We had to find furnished accomodation while our container of worldly goods is making its way by container to the UK. Mill Meadow Eco Lodges is a development of holiday rentals on the edge of the small village of Kingston St Mary. We were so relieved to have finally made it here, after booking the accomodation months ago. So many things could have gone wrong, but didn’t. We can finally unpack. The accomodation, a cosy, well equipped, two bedroom lodge, will suit us perfectly while we get settled.
Then things just got better and better. Firstly the Indian restaurant we picked for our first home delivery absolutely blew us away with the quality of the food. Then the next day we walked round to the local pub. A 10 minute walk through the fields. I had been speaking to them to book a dinner for Catherine’s upcoming birthday weekend in March. They sounded very friendly, but in person they just exceeded all expectations. We came back for dinner and invited some people we had met when we were in lockdown nearby during 2020. We had the best evening, both to see these people again (Terry and Jane Ayre, and their daughter Karen, who run Quantock camping), and because of what the pub delivered by way of outstanding food, beer, wine and service. The Swan at Kingston just excelled at everything.
A walk back through the fields in the moonlight provided a brilliant end to the evening. What a great start to our stay.
One of the magical places we used to walk to when we were here before, was to the top of a hill that overlooks the surrounding Quantock Hills. No wonder it was chosen by our Iron Age ancestors to bury their dead on. I was keen to revisit, and proposed an early morning walk. Well, we were up at the top by 7am, and saw in the sunrise. Truly a majestic sight.
It didn’t matter that it was freezing cold, with an icy wind dropping the temperature even further. We have the right gear to keep warm and dry. Flipping great it was.
To see this type of woodland again just feels so right, way down in our DNA.
Another afternoon saw us exploring the local village, half hoping to bump into someone who was just putting up a for sale sign! It is going to be a huge challenge to find somewhere we really like. The local power station down on the coast is ramping up again and staff are flocking in from all over the UK and Europe and snapping up houses for sale, and rentals.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, Princess Tassie is still soaking up the summer sunshine with her foster parents, Rosemary and Richard, awaiting news of her flight….we both miss her so deeply. But she is being so well loved and cared for. Its just us being selfish.
Hopefully the pet travel company we are using will finally get her on a flight in March, and we can start to feel like this really is our home rather than just being here on holiday again. Let’s see.
It has been a great start to our return to the South West. Our friends Karen and Dan made us so welcome, then Jane, Terry and Karen….(yes, so may Karens!). It makes all the difference, when what we are missing the most is our friends back in Australia. Being able to pick up the phone at all hours and get hold of our family makes all the difference. The adventure has begun.