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.
Location: Rome and Loro Piceno, Italy, the Cotswolds, UK
Author: Mrs A
Just a 50 minute drive from home is Bristol Airport, and it was here we found ourselves in mid May, dropping our car off at the ‘Park and Fly’ section to board a flight to Italy. Oh so civilised, and very easy access. Within five hours, we had unpacked at our hotel, showered and changed and were sipping a refreshing Aperol at a street-side bar, people watching on the streets of Rome, Italy.
Here we spent a wonderful history-filled, chilled out 3 days (stepping out the 36 km/23 miles required to burn off all the pasta and pizza!), exploring the many sights within easy walking distance from our hotel.
Our first day, I had booked us a tour of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill and the incredibly grand Colosseum. Our tour guide was fabulous – Rome born and bred and fluent in English, she knew the history inside out, and presented it in an exciting and vibrant way, as though it was her first visit too. She had our small group enthralled with her stories and extensive knowledge of the venue.
The Forum, which was, in Roman times, the commercial centre of the city, where markets were held, banking, trials, celebrations and political announcements made was a breathtaking area, with tall pillars and evidence of cobbled streets and squares. For nearly a thousand years, many of the structures remained buried under layers of silt from the frequently flooding River Tiber, and excavation commenced very slowly in 1803. In 1932, Mussolini decided to celebrate 10 years of the Fascist Party’s power by building a road through the area, which encouraged excavation to speed up substantially, though it seems the cataloging of findings was equally rushed. Nevertheless, this piece of propaganda means the fabulous ruins are available for us to see today.
Palatine Hill was where the royal palace was situated, and over the centuries many dignitaries have made their home on the location, with views nowadays stretching over the ruins.
The Colosseum was our final stop, made famous by films such as Russel Crowe’s Gladiator (can you believe that is 23 years old now?!). From the poses for photos around the venue, it seems many of the visitors had recently watched this movie as homework! Our guide corrected the many inaccuracies in the film, including the Roman Emperor’s ‘thumbs up’ to indicate the gladiator can live vs the thumbs down meaning death. Apparently gladiators were all seen as prize sportspeople and death was not really an option.
The tour was so interesting, helping us bring parallels from Rome to so much in the UK, recognising much of the language we speak originates from the Latin spoken by our ancestors, as well as many of the roads we travel on following routes originally forged by Roman troops.
Our second day we did a tour on foot, crossing the River Tiber (now seriously protected from flooding with huge walls either side of it) and exploring around St Peter’s Square and the area around The Vatican. I debated going in as the queue was quite short, but Mr A was adamant he did not want to give Catholic priests any money and has little interest in the art and architecture within there. So we continued on our exploration without it.
It was a fun city to visit, the food delicious and the people friendly, but soon it was time to leave Rome and head back to the airport to hire a car to drive across Italy to the eastern side, and our friends in La Marche. Sydney friends, Clive and Aisha, had been joined by UK friends, Mel and Barny, at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Ferrara, northern Italy, braving ankle deep mud to hear him sing. They report it was well worth it, though the two hour journey back to their car took the shine off somewhat.
The weather was cold and wet on our arrival at Mel and Barny’s Italian house in the village of Loro Piceno, and we all wrapped up warm in fleece jackets and rain coats, the views across the valley shrouded in low cloud, quite different from what we experienced when we visited last time, in June 2019.
We made the most of it though, with Mel and Barny doing us proud with incredible restaurants booked for lunch and dinners, with a combination of hillside villages and a visit to the coast too. The weather improved as the week progressed.
Mr A and I took a day trip to Assisi with Clive and Aisha, before dropping them to the airport for their flight to the next destination on their extensive holiday.
On our last day in Loro Piceno, Mel and Barny took us to Sarnano, a stunning hilltop town. Mel and I left the boys sipping coffee and people watching, while we went off on a hike in the foothills of the Simbolini mountains, exploring a number of waterfalls. The heavy rainfall had made the usually peaceful babbling creek into a roaring torrent, and the waterfalls simply breathtaking. You would not have wanted to slip in!
Mel and Barny had once again given us an incredible time, showcasing the best of their region’s restaurants, views and walks, and giving us another taster of life in this stunning part of Italy. We are so grateful for their kindness and generosity.
We flew back home to a happy Tassie, having been well cared for by our Australian housesitters, Sam and Steve. We had just enough time to quickly wash our clothes, do a little gardening and repack bags to head off again to the Cotswolds to spend a few days in an AirBnB with friends in a village there!
On our way to meet them, we called in to visit a National Trust Roman Villa in Chedworth near Cirencester. Archaeologists were on site, literally peeling back the soil and grass to reveal near perfect mosaic tile floors, and we listened in on an interview for an upcoming TV programme which revealed the extent of what they were discovering.
We met up with Mark’s old school friends, Stuart and John, and Karen and Catriona, their other halves, in an AirBnB in the village of Bledington. For one day only, Andrew, the other member of the schoolboy foursome, drove up to join in the fun and frivolity.
We had left hot sunshine in Somerset, so were somewhat unprepared for the chilly north wind and heavy cloud that greeted us. The summer dresses didn’t get much of an airing, and we even lit the log fire in the evenings! We did some great walks, and the village pub was welcomed for the odd drink or two.
It was a fun three nights away, and we all hugged our farewells with promises to catch up again soon. Mark and I drove back to Somerset, and by 1pm were welcoming our next guests into our home.
Phil and Libby are friends from Australia who we originally met while travelling in our caravan. We were very excited to host them at home and give them a brief taster of our area, and took them up onto the Quantock Hills for a morning walk, with lunch at picturesque café, The Rocking Horse, and dinner at our local pub. We squeezed a lot into their two nights, before dropping them off at the station to continue their travels in London.
We had two nights just us, before the next visitors from down under arrived, my dad, Richard and his wife, Sue, over in the UK for a few weeks from New Zealand, celebrating dad’s 80th. We started off by experimenting with the rotisserie feature on our new BBQ – it all went well and nobody got food poisoning – hurrah!
My brother, Alex, had also come down to Somerset to spend some time with dad, and had booked a cottage on a nearby farm to stay with his two dogs. Alex loves walking, so we left dad and Sue having a lie in and took Alex, Scout and Raffles on one of our favourite circuit walks in the Blackdown Hills.
Dad and Sue joined us for lunch and a drink at our local pub, before a short walk along the River Tone.
We were very fortunate to be invited to climb the tower of St Giles’ Church, at the invitation of one of Bradford on Tone’s octogenarian residents, Dave Richards. The church dates from the 13th century, with a narrow spiral staircase taking us up the bell tower. We stopped briefly a the bellringer’s room, where the ancient church clock’s cogs and wheels click and turn before chiming each quarter hour and hour between 7am and 10pm.
At the top of the tower we were rewarded with incredible views across the village and surrounding countryside, as well as a unique view of our home.
As always, it was great fun to have them around, and time went too quickly – before we knew it they were heading off to their next visit in north London.
We had a few days to regroup, before our next trip where I am writing from today – in Milan, Italy. I have been invited here to the European Laryngology Society Conference to present the airway stenosis patient experience. My presentation is today, and the next update will come from Mr A. I bet you can’t wait!
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!
Location: Bradford-on-Tone, Somerset, Vienna, Austria and London, UK
The end of February saw a frenzy of activity as painting, electrics and flooring were all coordinated to complete our newest room of the house, our home bar! When we bought the house, this room had been accessed only via the garage, and was used as an office. We have moved the office to a new space and wondered what we would do with it.
A few inspired thoughts, and the access point to the room was moved to near the kitchen, the window removed and replaced with bi-fold doors, the strip lighting, shelves and desks extracted (reused in the garage and loft)…and voila, Bad Cat’s Bar was born!
We immediately hosted an evening with drinks and nibbles for a few neighbours and friends who had been a part of the team to help create it.
The first of March saw us heading off to London for the night in advance of our flight to Vienna, Austria. We found a superb Thai restaurant in the basement of a pub, run by a Thai family, very unexpected, and incredibly delicious. Duck pancakes, soft-shell crab and more…it beat us!
The following day we headed off to Heathrow Airport and boarded our flight to Austria. It all went without a hitch and soon we were checking into our hotel. I had been invited to the city as a guest of doctors at Vienna University who were hosting an event for thoracic, ENT and respiratory physicians. The medical fraternity is only recently dipping its toe into representing the voice of patients, and given my experience with this disease and involvement with so many of the doctors with research, I am fortunate to have been invited in that role.
It was a fabulous conference – while it was mostly scientific in its nature, with little I could take back and present to patients, it was a superb opportunity to network with doctors and spread the word about offering support to their patients. My presentation went well on Friday, and I was lucky it was just before the lunch break, so I had a lot of opportunity to chat to interested people afterwards. Many business cards were exchanged, and promises of more research to be conducted into airway stenosis soon. I look forward to being a part of those conversations.
Soon it was Friday night, and the conference was over for me. I returned back to the hotel to freshen up ready for dinner and cocktails, joining our friends and neighbours from Bradford-on-Tone, Jim and Lucy. They had flown out to join us for the weekend and were ready waiting with Mr A in the bar with a glass of crisp fresh Grüner Veltliner.
We had a fun night out, visiting one of Vienna’s funkiest bars, The Krypt, for cocktails and laughs until the adrenaline crash appeared around midnight and we had to go home!
Mr A had taken care of the weekend’s planning, as it was all part of my birthday present. How convenient that we were in Vienna?! So Saturday morning began with a walking tour around Vienna’s most picturesque buildings. If you have not been to Vienna, then you will not realise that every single building in the city is attractive, right down to the one that houses McDonald’s!
Mr A’s walking tour took us across town, allowing us to admire many stunning buildings on our way to our lunch location, the Naschmarkt. This colourful location is home to Vienna’s food market, and a street full of every cuisine you could imagine, as well as fresh produce ranging from tanks of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to crispy nuts and cakes of every flavour.
We found ourselves a sunny corner on a table outside a Turkish restaurant, and settled in for the long haul.
The afternoon and evening continued in a similar vein, with superb scenery and delicious food. Mr A had excelled himself in his booking of the best places, with Saturday night a fabulous 6 course Italian degustation in a tiny restaurant with just 5 tables and service like we were dining at a friend’s house.
Sunday morning was my birthday-with-a-zero, and Mr A proposed we actually go for breakfast for a change. I did wonder why, given I don’t really eat breakfast…and all became clear when the staff brought out a bottle of bubbles and everyone sang to me! What a surprise!
Our next event of the morning was a short walk away, the the Spanish Riding School. It is something I had always wanted to see in person, the incredible dancing horses always included as part of the pomp and ceremony in royal events of my childhood.
It is an Austrian institution dedicated to the preservation of classical dressage and the training of Lipizzaner horse (cross breed between Iberian and Arabian horses) – even the ornate venue dates back to the early 1700’s. We sat enthralled as immaculate horses led by their trainers walked on the spot, delicately danced their way around the stadium and defied gravity to jump and clap their hooves together mid air. Just blew us away! Bucket list item ticked off!
A cup of tea and apple strudel followed for the dairy-eaters, a vegan cake for me, and an afternoon at the art gallery.
For our final evening in Vienna, Mr A had booked us a table at a Japanese restaurant. Boasting an amazing and well deserved reputation, we were treated to a huge menu of options, ranging from the more unusual sea urchin through to more traditional Katsu dishes. It was a first for Jim and Lucy, cuisine wise, and for us a long time since we had anything this good. A great birthday dinner choice!
We concluded our time in Vienna with drinks in our hotel bar, a night-cap to finalise our time in this beautiful city. We had such a good time with Jim and Lucy, barely pausing for breath between laughs, it was a superb birthday.
Returning back down to earth in the UK we were treated to a cold snap, and once again our garden and countryside was transformed into a magical fairyland by the snow! It was very short lived, with the following day turning out with sunshine and temperatures in the teens, quickly melting any last signs.
And so here was I thinking all the birthday malarkey was all done and dusted, when at 1pm the following Friday the doorbell rings. I opened the door, expecting yet another piece of biking or outdoor gear for Mr A to have been delivered, and lo and behold, there’s my sister, Helen!
I settled in to a weekend of sister-time, a Friday night movie, brunch at Sheppy’s and a stroll around our village in the rain…the stroll that seemed to never end. In fact I started to think Helen hadn’t had enough sleep as she made me head back to the church for a third time in the drizzle…
Finally we got home to find why she had been delaying me, as my mum strolled down the stairs with a beaming smile on her face! A huge shock, given mum had not until this point made it to our new home as she was busy being carer to her poorly husband.
The excitement did not end then, with the doorbell constantly ringing, and in walking my cousin Karen and husband Iain, cousin Ian and wife Caroline, brother Alex, friends over from Devon, Karen and Dan, and Jim and Lucy arrived to join in the fun too!
Mr A had organised catering from a local business, Conrad’s Kitchen – a veritable seafood feast, with fresh crab, lobster, languistine, king prawns, cold meats, salad, potatoes, bread and more. Just incredible. Friend Karen, who not only works full time for the NHS and is mum to pre-teen twin boys baked two delicous cakes! Amazing!
We finished off the weekend by dusting ourselves off post a huge egg and bacon brunch and heading off to the river for a walk to blow the cobwebs away. A superb weekend – well done to Mr A for all his hard work and to all our friends and relatives for keeping such a big secret!
A week’s worth of sheet and towel washing was worth all the fun and laughter (I seem to recall a TikTok clip being made at one stage!!) and awesome memories made.
Life returned somewhat to ‘normal’ after that, with gardening and household jobs, plus a trip up to London for more injections in to my airway. After last year’s chaos of never ending operations, it seems (‘touch-wood’) that my airway is finally stabilising and the injections are working again! Thank goodness – an operation every other month just was not sustainable. Fingers are thoroughly crossed that this trend continues – 6 weeks of easy breathing so far…
March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers, according to a proverb from the 1800s, so we hope that is true, as the end of March has been very wet and windy. Fortunately for us we can be flexible with our schedule, so as soon as the sun shines we get out and about. We did a stunning 36km return cycle along the Taunton Canal, spotting a vibrant little kingfisher shooting up and down the waterway and a cute female roe deer bounding through the fields.
With a small inheritance from my grandma we purchased a Cider Gum in her memory – a Tasmanian eucalyptus tree. We plan to keep it from growing ‘too big’ but enough to hide the view of some of the nearby houses, the scented leaves bringing back great memories of the Australian bush, while the name seeming to be fitting with our new home in cider-country!
We finished the month by getting awnings installed over our big glass windows – enough to give us some shade from the hot southern sun, while not blocking the view from inside. We shall probably never see the sun again! They are also able to be used in light rain, therefore giving us a dry outdoor space for summer barbecues. Lots of options ahead.
I’m going to finish off with a little plea for help.
Unfortunately, despite pleading with them, they have a policy of not sponsoring admission, travel costs or accommodation, even for volunteer patients!
I’ve attempted to find corporate sponsorship too, but as I am not a registered charity, have hit dead ends there too.
So I am now trying to raise money for…
£660 (750 Euro): Entry to congress – 3 days – I plan to attend all sessions relevant to airway stenosis and take notes where I believe patients can learn something useful £100 (110 Euro): Congress dinner – a great networking opportunity, and something I would pay for myself £240: Return flights from Bristol Airport to Milan £210: Parking at Bristol Airport £900: Accommodation – estimating it will cost about £225 a night based on the Congress website’s recommended hotels near the venue – if it is more I will cover the additional cost
Total: £2010 (excluding the dinner) – rounded down to £2,000.
Of course, there will be additional expenses including taxis, petrol, food and so on, but I will cover those costs myself.
I hate asking for money as I know everyone is stretched and gives so much to other causes, but I do hope you can spare a little. Even a small donation will help add up to the total amount. If you can help at all, the link is to be found here: Catherine Anderson GoFundMe
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.
It has been more than 24 years since either Mark or I spent a December on this side of the world, and bizarrely it was something we were rather looking forward to. All the Christmases in Australia, while fun, hot and sunny and usually spent with friends or travelling and camping, never felt quite like Christmas to us.
For me in particular, Christmas means wrapping up warm, dark mornings and evenings, the sight of car lights reflecting on dark wet roads, and the festival of light provided by street and shop window decorations, brightening the time of year. The UK delivered that in spades, and even bah-humbug Mark who usually lacks enthusiasm about this time of year got into the spirit of things and started having fun!
Not long after returning from Seville, we decided to buy our Christmas tree, in anticipation of guests coming to stay on the first weekend in December. We thought it best to support a local business, and drove out to the Christmas Tree Farm. Neither of us had ever done anything like this before, arriving to a huge barn full of trees of all shapes and sizes. How to choose? First of all it was the height. We headed to the 6-7 (180-215cmish) feet section, as they looked good, and both settled on the first one we spotted. We were told jokingly by one of the workers that was not allowed, so we wandered around looking at other trees for another 10 minutes, and returned back to it!
We also had to pick up decorations, as we had donated all of ours to our next door neighbours in Curl Curl, Australia before we left. I did have a pang of sadness that we hadn’t rescued a few special pieces, but it’s all too late now. So it was off into the giant Christmas shop we went. I don’t think we have ever been so ready for the silly season!
Our friends from Devon came over for the weekend, a cold and grey one, brightened by our sparkly new tree. We spent our time eating and drinking with a little shopping for gifts in Taunton and Christmas Fairs in local villages. The boys are mad football fans, so they got a couple of early gifts – a World Cup ball each – they were very pleased!
A couple of days later our friends Mel and Barny travelled over to join is for a visit from their home in Essex. After an evening of food, laughs and gin tasting, we took them down to the coast and the village of East Quantoxhead for a walk and to clear out the cobwebs. It was a spectacular day, and really showcased this part of the country.
A superb dinner at a new-to-us restaurant in Taunton, Augustus, concluded their visit.
Mr A joined them on their return train journey to London, taking himself up to Milton Keynes to spend a few days with his grandchildren, given we’re not seeing them during their Christmas school holidays. He had a great time also catching up with his daughters and doing a few walks and a curry night (of course!).
While Mr A was away, something exciting happened in Somerset – it snowed! I was like a five year old version of myself, running from window to window, videoing the big fat snowflakes falling down, and rushing out with my camera to capture the spectacle throughout the village before it inevitably melted. Another big tick in the Christmassy box!
Our village, Bradford-on-Tone, is famous for its ‘Bradford Sparkle’ spectacle, which lit up on the 10th December. Everyone in the village comes out to stroll around the streets, admiring peoples’ lights, and there were some incredible efforts…and no, not by us. Fortunately we had been given a heads up that our house was a bit far out of the village (3 minutes walk from the village square), and people wouldn’t get as far as us. Maybe one year we will be set up enough to participate. Of course the grand finale was a visit to a very crowded pub to enjoy a mulled wine by the fire.
Several of the grand houses and gardens in the UK are illuminated at night at this time of year and open to visitors, and our nearest one was Hestercombe House, close to where we initially were living last February and March. We’d never been in the gardens, and it was great to stroll around the lakes, temples and arbors with a mug of mulled wine, and our neighbours, Lucy and Jim.
We concluded with Christmas reef making at the pub – very festive!
The dark days are taking some getting used to, with ‘sunrise’ currently about 8.15am and sunset about 4.15pm – some days it barely feels we are out of our pajamas! Now we’re past the winter solstice days are slowly getting slightly longer. We’re learning that mornings are best if we want to head out hiking, as afternoons often feel like one long dusk, leading to sunset!
You’ve probably heard about the madness of all the strikes in the UK the past few months. We have mostly been impacted by the railways and postal workers, with our sympathy with the rail workers now dwindling away as yet another event has to be cancelled.
Fortunately the week before Christmas the trains were running smoothly, as I had to go to London for my fourth operation of the year. I went up a day early and met up with my friend Jacky for a visit to the Royal Academy of Art, lunch and a little furniture shopping. It felt lovely and festive in London, but I felt for all the shops and restaurants which have suffered due to the train strikes.
My operation went as planned, and I was able to leave with Mark early afternoon on the 22nd December and be home in Somerset for a sleep in bed before the sun set. Perfect!
Thankfully, due to the proximity of my operation to Christmas, we had planned a quiet few days, and roasted a chicken and vegetables for just the two of us on the day, and I felt well enough to join Mark up on the Quantock Hills for a hike on Boxing Day.
It was a stunning morning, and we were delighted to see a huge herd of Roe Deer galloping across the hills, usually a rarity, and if we are lucky just two or three, not more than 30. Our delight soon turned to dismay, as on our return walk we saw a pack of hunt dogs, barking and snarling in the back of a truck, and the Boxing Day hunters on horseback getting ready for a chase across the hills. Apparently this is a tradition that goes back more than 500 years, but it doesn’t mean I’m ok with it. We left before we encountered any blood and guts.
On the 29th we picked up my sister, Helen from Taunton station for a few days of R&R. Of course we all got over excited as usual, and so the following morning delivered hangovers – when will we learn?
It was on this morning that we learned that our grandma, Jean Marshall, had passed away in her sleep – 100 years and 7 months old. We hope she is reunited with granddad ? and we will be celebrating her life with family later this month.
Helen and I had lots of hugs and tears, and many calls with our mum. We toasted her life and our memories at a lunch at our favourite Italian, Villa Verde.
New year’s eve was soon upon us, and after a morning ambling around the shops in Taunton it was back to get dressed and ready to see in the new year. Our neighbours, Jim and Lucy joined us for Prosecco, before we all wandered down the road to our local pub for dinner, live music, wine and laughter.
And so a new year began. We started as we mean to go on, with a New Year’s Day hike to Culmstock Beacon with Helen before we dropped her at her train home, and on the public-holiday Monday, off on a circuit walk concluding with bacon butties with a large group of friends from the village.
We’re already booking flights for various trips to Austria and Italy, and are dreaming up ideas of places to visit in Truffy (our motorhome), who has been rather under utilised in the past few months – his last trip was back in May!
I bought Mark a stunning book for Christmas about ancient Britain, jam packed full of photography and writing from David Abram, an aerial photographer and historian I follow on Instagram (@davidrabram). That is already inspiring several destination ideas.
Exciting times ahead! Sending everyone all the best wishes for 2023 – may it bring health and happiness, and many adventures!
“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!
Location: Brighton, London and Bradford-on-Tone, UK
The seasons are continuing to delight, with the last few weeks slowly reintroducing us to the sights and smells and sounds of autumn. Having been in Australia for more than two decades, we are often overwhelmed by the nostalgia triggered by the pungent aromas of leaves starting to decay, the freshness of the morning fog which lifts to present another stunning autumn day.
The grass is heavy with dew which often lasts all day long, and early morning forays into the outdoors require warm jackets as we walk behind the lingering mist of our breath. After such a warm summer our apple trees have been almost bent over with the weight of their crop, many given away to passers by at the end of our driveway, many more wrapped and stored for the coming months.
While the mornings are fresh and cool, the days have been unusually warm, well above average for the time of year. We certainly didn’t expect to be out in t-shirts. Even today, mid November, we have been outside in short sleeves and bare legs, the 20 degrees sunshine not quite what we anticipated for this time of year.
Early October saw me heading over to East Sussex for a few days with my sister and her family. We had hoped to catch up with our mum for her birthday, but this year seems to be popular for striking train drivers, so we couldn’t make it over.
Instead, we visited a stunning National Trust property, Sheffield Park, where the trees were just starting to change colour. This phenomenon is something we have missed being in Australia, where you have to hunt down those European trees planted by settlers missing their seasonal changes.
As the past month has progressed, the mornings have got darker and we have often woken to our views shrouded in a thick fog, blocking our views and creating a view that Tassie can’t wait to get out in….and equally as fast can’t wait to get back inside from!
Mid October, we had a night back in our lovely cottage in Widworthy, Devon. We were there to attend our friend Dan’s 50th birthday party in Honiton. It was a fun night, and Tassie enjoyed re-exploring her old haunt, while we had fun with old and new friends.
Our friends Julie and Russ have landed themselves a new job looking after the holiday lets and management of the magnificent 16th century manor house, Widworthy Barton. We were very fortunate that Julie was able to offer us a tour. What a beautiful house, stunningly decorated and so many original features including a minstrel’s gallery, and library. There are some newer features too, including tennis courts and a swimming pool.
All yours for about £4,600 a week – in its favour it does sleep up to 14 people, so just £100 a night when split between 7 couples…it would be a wonderful location for a holiday.
I have been invited to join a walking group in our village, joining a group of ladies who also go to the pilates class we attend.
The first walk I joined them on took us along the remains of the now disappearing Grand Western Canal. This canal was meant to stretch between Exeter in Devon through to the city of Bristol, but was never finished. In total they completed 18km of canal between Tiverton and Taunton, and this section was in use during the 1800s, making use of a boat lift to shift barges between different levels of canal. A group known as the Friends of the Grand Western Canal have proposed restoring this waterway to its former glory…there is no evidence of anything happening yet.
Our walk also took us to the ruins of a huge Victorian textile mill, Tonedale, the largest in the south-west of England. Apparently much of the khaki material created for use in the First World War was made here, and woollen material used for coats known as serge. The building is listed and supported with grants from Historic England, and in recent years has been purchased by developers. There are plans to turn this complex into accommodation, artisan businesses, a cafe and museum.
The Blackdown Hills are very accessible from home, and just a 12 minute drive saw us starting another circuit – I went first with the walking group, and while fresh in my memory, took Mark along for a hike as well. The circuit took us across fields, down lanes, across bridleways and through woodland, the views becoming ever more spectacular, the higher we climbed.
Another weekend we decided to hike up to Culmstock Beacon. Just a quarter of an hour’s drive away from home, we started our hike from the village of Culmstock, hiking up into the Blackdown Hills over styles and across hilly fields.
Mark has purchased his Christmas present early – a record deck. Of course that was just the first purchase, because then he required records to play on it. He’s been busy reliving his teenage record collection in second hand stores in Taunton and Bristol, with a few record-shape Amazon deliveries winging their way to our front door too. I think he’s done for a little while…!
Tassie remains very settled, enjoying her multiple walks around the grounds and moving between sunny spots in the house throughout the day. We still look at her in wonder of the huge journey she has undertaken from Australia, taken in her feline stride.
Finishing off with a few shots from walks around our village, across the fields and around the lanes. The sun sets around 5pm now, so we are often out and about to see and admire it. Still loving our new life in Somerset.
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 🙂