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!
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!
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 🙂
Location: Bradford on Tone, Somerset and London, UK
When Mr A last wrote he was struggling through a bout of Covid-19, isolated in his own wing of the house, while room service (me) delivered meals on a tray. Finally on day 9 he tested negative and was free to return to the shared spaces of the house, with a great deal of relief. I had managed to avoid catching it, thanks to his strict isolation.
Soon after he was released, I had my second immunotherapy infusion in London, and on a hot Tuesday morning headed up to Hampstead. The Royal Free Hospital has a charitable arm which provides free accomodation in a brand new building for long-distance patients, conveniently located beside the hospital, and walking distance to shops, cafes and the London Underground. After checking in, I decided I wanted an afternoon in the great outdoors, given I had so much indoor time ahead (hooked up to a drip), and took off to explore Hampstead Heath.
The Heath is a bit of a hidden gem in London. First written mention of it dates back to the year 986 when Ethelred the Unready allocated some of the land to one of his servants. Nowadays, at 790 acres, it is one of the largest green (or mostly yellow at the moment) spaces in London.
There are about 30 ponds on the Heath, three of which are available to swim in (one mixed genders, one female only, one male only), which were absolutely packed on this 30 degree day. Looking at the murky brown waters, I decided not to partake! My mum grew up in this area, and told me of people swimming here in the 1950s and 60s – I cannot imagine they have been well cleaned since this time, but I could be wrong!
The following morning I was off for my infusion of unicorn juice. This is my second infusion of Rituximab, the aim of which is to suppress my immune system and stop it from attacking my airway unnecessarily! Already, despite having an op in June, at this point my airway was already on the decline.
The day after I returned from London, my sister, Helen, brother in law Stu and nephew and niece drove over from Brighton and spent a busy and very warm four days with us.
The temperatures were more like what we would have expected to find in Australia, and our local river was again a lovely cool haven for a bit more packrafting with the kids.
We held a bit of a housewarming party too, with our friends from Honiton coming over for a BBQ one evening. We ended up congregating under the cool shade of the oak tree to sip wine, listen to music and share stories of our misspent youths!
The first of our Australian visitors arrived, with John and Eveliene stopping by for lunch en route from Plymouth to Oxfordshire, the months falling away as we slipped back into old conversations and jokes easily.
The next visitors were also from Australia, Karen and Chris, who stayed for three nights. They arrived on our 20th wedding anniversary, so joined us and our new friends and neighbours, Jim and Lucy, for a celebratory dinner at a local Italian, and a glass or two of bubbles.
A tour of a nearby brewery was in order the following day, somewhat of a hair-of-the dog, and Exmoor Ales obliged us with tastes straight from the barrel. They were rewarded with a few purchases.
No flying visit to Somerset is complete without a walk in the Quantock Hills before lunch at our local cider barn, Sheppy’s, and of course that was scheduled in for their final day with us (they also have a fine wine list, for the non cider drinkers!).
Not one to waste time, I squeezed in another operation on my airway on the day Karen and Chris left – hoping this is the last one this year – I have lost enough brain cells to general anaesthetics in 2022! Final pre-op photo for this year…(fingers crossed!), this one conducted at our local hospital in Taunton, just 12 minutes drive from home.
Readers who have been following us for a while will know that Mr A is rather partial to a solo cycling adventure, and he has been feeling he should plan a trip. So he set off on a training ride for two nights, loading up his electric bike with tent, sleeping bag, stove and a few supplies. The good thing about bike-packing (as it is called) in the UK, is that there is not hundreds of kilometres between water and food supplies, making the load a little lighter. The battery on the bike also helps a bit too! He had a great few days, saw some stunning countryside and was able to refine his packing list for next time.
Mark had not long left our driveway, and my sister and niece arrived from Brighton to join me for a few days.
I took Helen and Isabel to the small fishing town of Watchet, just a half hour drive from home. Following Jim’s tip to use bacon as bait, had a successful hour of crabbing in the rock pools. All crabs were released unharmed and enjoyed their morsels of bacon!
After saying farewell to Helen and Isabel, Mark and I realised we had a few days off from visitors, so decided to take ourselves off on a hike. I plotted a 9km route using Kamoot (our favourite mostly free app for plotting hikes via public footpaths and bridleways) and off we went. Despite being a long-weekend, we didn’t see anyone else on the paths.
It was lovely to get out in the fresh air amongst nature for a few hours, to fully test the new (again!) airway, and make the most of where we live.
We continue to feel more and more settled in Somerset, and metaphorically pinch ourselves on a daily basis when we admire the views from our windows or stroll through the village on our way to pilates at the village hall.
Creating memories with our friends and families, and having our Australian and UK lives mingle, all helps us to feel more at home here in Bradford-on-Tone. We are starting to make small changes to our home, putting our mark on it, and are enjoying fresh produce from the garden – a rhubarb and apple crumble last week, thanks to produce tended by the previous owners, and almost every day we are consuming salad leaves and peppery radish, sown by Mark’s youngest daughter, Hayley when she came to stay.
I am getting to know some locals as well, having met another lady with the same airway disease as me while I was in London, finding we live just 20 minutes drive apart. Last week another patient called in to meet us for lunch on her way home from holidaying in Cornwall – another time we really appreciate our proximity to the UK’s major transport networks!
While the past few months have delivered some health challenges, I am fortunate to have access to the best care, and a responsive medical team who are on my side. When I read almost daily about the waiting lists for medical treatment, I know that not everyone has this, and I am incredibly grateful. Mr A is now under the care of a world renowned eye surgeon in London for his glaucoma and pigment dispersion syndrome (PDS). We have had to organise this privately, the cost well worth avoiding the dangerously long wait to see an National Health Service doctor, which could be potentially damaging to his eyesight.
We’re learning how to navigate the systems, and though I am certain there will be more hurdles ahead, we have good friends and contacts who are helping us to overcome them.
One of the reasons we migrated to the UK was to spend more time travelling and exploring Europe…now we have been here seven months, we are starting to think about where and when we might get away…plans are afoot…watch this space!
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: Brighton and Hastings, East Sussex, Widworthy, Devon, Charing Cross Hospital, London and Bradford-on-Tone, Somerset
What a month it has been! Time has simply rushed by with so much on our plate.
I left Mr A for a long weekend and headed over to Brighton for some family time with my sister, niece and nephew. It was perfect timing as just 10 days after my grandma’s 100th birthday, so we took advantage of that special event to pay her a visit (the first time I have seen her in three years) along with our mum.
Helen’s husband Stu was away on a boys’ weekend, so I stood in as responsible adult on school pick ups, swimming lessons and drama classes. It was simply exhausting – hats off to all those parents out there, especially those struggling to breathe (as I was!).
It was a glorious weekend, and we made the most of every moment – lunch on Brighton’s seafront, a walk up on the Sussex Downs at Devil’s Dyke, and time in Hastings with mum with lunch on the pier and tea in her beautiful garden.
The only fly in the ointment was my breathing. I can only put it down to stress, but despite having an operation on my airway mid April, my airway was determined to rapidly close up (for our newer readers, I have a rare disease called subglottic stenosis), and was declining on a daily basis.
Mark and I still managed to get out and about and enjoy the Devon countryside, but it tended to be shorter and flatter walks, with plenty of rests!
Thankfully I have a great relationship with my surgeons in London and they were able to book me in for another operation quickly…I guess breathing is quite important.
My friend Jacky was kind enough to put me up in her daughter’s old bedroom in her house in Twickenham, and given the train drivers decided to strike on my surgery day, also hired a car and played taxi driver to drop me off and pick me up from my operation. I feel so grateful for her compassion, feeding and watering me over two days with kindness and patience.
Once back in Devon, time flew by in a whirlwind of bed and appliance buying, followed by packing up boxes, with a sprinkling of walks up our picturesque lane with Princess Tassie who seems to be 10 years younger than when she arrived!
Before we knew it the day was upon us…completion of our new house purchase! We drove over to Bradford-on-Tone and met Andrew and Jan, the previous owners. Understandably they were a little emotional at saying goodbye to their home for the past decade, but we assured them we would be worthy caretakers, as we took the door keys and entered.
They had left the home in immaculate condition – almost like a new build, with plenty of opportunities for us to put our stamp onto it in future months.
Over the next few days we gradually moved in, our possessions from Australia fitting in nicely, and despite a few minor hiccups, most of our deliveries arrived as planned, and all services eventually connected.
We are more than delighted with our house, which feels like it was made for us. Tassie is embracing the multitude of sunbathing locations and enjoys her strolls around the 1.6 acres of land we have…yes we will be employing a gardener!
We’ve only been in the house a week, but already have spotted approaching 30 species of birds just from our garden.
Our home is a 3 minute stroll from our local pub, and within 15 minutes cycle along sleepy country lanes to several others. We are surrounded by areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) in all directions – the Blackdown Hills, the Quantock Hills, Exmoor….We can be in London in less than two hours door-to-door, and the nearest junction to the M5 motorway is a 5 minute drive away, giving us a multitude of travel options. I think we are going to be very happy here!