Our Travel blog
Well, here we are. We have a roof over our heads and jobs. I’ve been having altogether too much fun on a mini tractor and Alison’s in nerd heaven merging three book collections into one library. These are just a couple of our myriad duties, from cooking for guests to serving them in the bar, picking up leaves to cleaning rooms, helping run a craft day to building a bonfire. Speaking of bonfires I absolutely love that particular responsibility. Standing in the crisp autumn air nursing the embers into life is an absolute joy. A gentle manly pursuit, the love of which I think I’ve inherited from my father. He looked at his most relaxed trundling a wheelbarrow full of brown leaves towards incineration on a smouldering heap that he’d prod, poke and fork to keep going. If he wasn’t feeding it he’d be leaning on his fork staring at the flames, lost in his own smoky world.
Once a year we’d have a visit from my dad’s childhood friend Stan and his wife Margery. Stan was an enigmatic man of few words and fewer opportunities to incinerate garden waste because they lived in a place where bonfires were not allowed; torture to a man like him. Thus while Margery was ensconced inside chatting to my mother Stan would be given sole responsibility for the bonfire while my father and I scurried around desperately trying to find more debris to feed his passion. He’d hover over the fire with a proprietorial air, like Beelzebub in tweed. Keeping it smouldering all weekend was a duty he took remarkably seriously. One weekend I returned very late and slightly drunk from a party, the sun was creeping up when I came face to face with Stan on the garden path, in his dressing gown and holding the garden fork. He calmly removed his pipe, greeted me with a grave “err…good morning Raymond…just been tending to the fire”, tapped out his pipe on the heel of his slippers and held the door open for me. It was never mentioned again but I think from then on we had a silent understanding of each other’s indiscretions.
Talking of early mornings I started composing this entry at around 02.45 am. I had to do something to calm myself as 15 minutes earlier we’d been startled out of our slumbers by the most unholy screeching and growling imaginable. I sat bolt upright and let loose a guttural howl along the lines of “ArrrrurggwhatthefuckisthatwhereamIwheresthelightstopthatunholyracketugg…” until Alison put the light on. Curiously the cats were spooked but having confirmed that they were inside we then heard the cat flap clunk shut. Various theories on our nocturnal visitor were proffered, including a fox, badger or leprechaun. It turned out to be a neighbour’s cat who I caught fleeing the scene of the crime again the following evening. Frankly I’m rather disappointed that our two cats didn’t deal more decisively with an interloper who wears a pink collar with a bell on it. Especially Mojo, who has discovered the delights of hunting small mammals; we are getting at least a couple of furry presents a day of the squeaky rodent variety. Walking to the bathroom in the dead of night, an all too frequent outing for a gentleman of my age, now has the additional hazard of stepping on a bag of squelchy fur cooling on the carpet.
That aside it’s wonderful having the cats for company and we have a lovely comfy home with our own furniture, familiar pictures on the walls and those odds and ends that make a house a home. It is taking a while to settle though and I think that’s due to a combination of factors. The job doesn’t follow a set routine and of course there is a lot to learn in a new position. Plus we’ve really taken to life on the road. One of the biggest challenges is adapting to not living ‘in the moment’ in the way we have been used to. Our easy going summer in Mavis really taught us both the value of being alive to the possibilities of the day, to allow ourselves to be spontaneous and relax into whatever we chose to do.
Way back in March we swapped our computer’s screensaver of a sunset for over 200 real ones. We traded our suburban semi for a motorised box on wheels and pointed it at whatever took our fancy. We’ve seen sights we never expected to see, met wonderful people, worked at some amazing festivals and had unforgettable experiences; we’ve played kazoo’s with a biker gang, hidden shopping bags for pop stars, minded houses and pets, noticed the seasons changing, seen abundant wildlife, watched the sun rise and set from the east, south, north and west of the country, felt the peace of total silence under the stars, walked over hills, up mountains and down dales, covered 10,093 miles in Mavis and generally had a blast. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary on the road, a year that we have spent over half of travelling and living in a space smaller than most bathrooms, cooking on two gas rings, sleeping with our noses a few inches from the ceiling and rarely had hot running water. We’ve opened our front door to over 60 different views, from Devon to The Isle of Skye; and we have laughed every single day.
Our trip may have been conceived as an opportunity to see the country, meet people and find somewhere to put down fresh roots but it has also been a personal journey for both of us. We’ve discovered things about ourselves and about each other that will bind us forever. At times it has been a spiritual journey, an opportunity to reflect and consider; my relationship with my late father, whose presence has been a not unwelcome companion during the journey, Alison’s son moving on in his life, watching him mature as he has grappled with life’s complexities and settled into a new phase. From our insulated little motorhome we’ve witnessed momentous decisions, Brexit and the American presidential race for example, and debated these and many more topics with friends old and new the length and breadth of the country, and we’ve wrestled with matters of faith and social justice. It’s tempting to conclude that we are a remarkably foolish species who seem able to complicate our lives to such a degree that the colour of our skin, our private beliefs or where we happen to have been born seem to matter more to some people than love, compassion and mutual respect. We acquire possessions, trinkets and fripperies by the dozen, line the walls of our houses with tat and then watch children starve on our 42” Plasma TV’s while we sup on wine and graze on snacks to keep us going until the pizza is delivered. But we’ve been inspired on our journey by people who live on the fringes of society as well as those firmly embedded in it who stand shoulder to shoulder against prejudice and injustice. There are many people who don’t accept the status quo, people who are fighting for justice and lasting change. From the pulpit to the punk concert there is a groundswell of hope.
On our travels we have been given the opportunity to enjoy the simple things in life, things that we often overlooked in our former 9-5 existence; spectacular views, muscles burning after a long climb, a red kite soaring above, a mountain reflected in a still pond, a crisp morning, the kiss of the warm sun, silence, the seasons changing, simple food, love and friendship. The companionship and support from people who have opened their lives to us, who gave us advice, shelter, offered us hospitality, shared our passion and worked alongside us. Friends and family who have contributed to our experiences in ways they may or may not be aware of to give us the courage to start living our dreams.
And now we’ve almost completed the purchase of a house in a pretty town on the edge of The Peak District and we have jobs for the winter. Our plans aren’t concrete yet but we are aiming to rent the house out next summer so we can get back on the road; back where we belong.
We’d both like to say thank you to:
The list of people who have influenced us, been there for us, provided support, help, advice, encouragement or beer is too long to list here and we’d be mortified if we accidentally overlooked anyone. So, if you’re reading this please take this as a thank you for being you. Whoever you are, you are very special and we love you.
Likewise everyone who has encouraged us to keep writing the blog, for indulging our flights of fancy and for taking the time to comment, we are indebted to you.
Thank you to Matt, James and Dom for being Matt, James and Dom.
Ray would like to add:
My confidence as a writer has grown because of the kindness and encouragement of friends and strangers taking the trouble to read this. Thank you, you know who you are. (If you don’t, look in the mirror)
Hello to Linda; I love having a big sister.
A special extra big thank you to Alison who encouraged me to write and didn’t try to put me off, even when she realised the cost of doing so was having to read everything I wrote, edit it and explain why she’d changed it without once hurting my feelings. Her patience, tact and grace are only superseded by her editorial skills. She’s also quite gorgeous but I promised her I wouldn’t embarrass her by mentioning that here.
Alison would like to add:
A special mention and big thank you must go to my parents. We are indebted to you for welcoming us on countless occasions, allowing us to park on your drive and providing us with home cooked meals, laundry facilities, comfort and unfailing encouragement and support. We would like to award you with the ‘Mavis Trip Advisor Special Award for Hospitality 2016’ and hope that you would like to put yourselves in the running again for 2017.
That’s all folks – until the book comes out XX
Ray & Alison
Wednesday 2 November
We left Blythburgh for Colchester where we grabbed a few last bits and bobs from storage and then onwards to the Abbey Wood site in Greenwich. Well, it’s in Abbey Wood in South London but as it is in the Royal Borough of Greenwich then I guess that makes a more attractive sounding name. It is though a very attractive site, set in hilly woods secluded from the surrounding urban sprawl. The only sounds we heard from outside was the occasional aeroplane. As it’s a woodland site the autumn trees had carpeted the ground in soft orange and yellow leaves. When we arrived a warden was busy re-distributing them with a noisy leaf blower, a fruitless exercise considering they just whirled around and settled behind him but he did get to wear lots of exciting safety gear and a helmet with a visor so I’m guessing he felt a surge of machismo every time he caught his reflection in a caravan window.
The area is named after Lesnes Abbey, or The Abbey of St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr at Lesnes to give it its full title. It was founded in 1178 by Richard de Luci when he was Chief Justiciar, the monarch’s chief minister, which was a role similar to today’s Prime Minister. Some sources say he may have founded the abbey as penance for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket which is interesting, if only to us, because our very first stop on this tour was in Canterbury where poor old Thomas was murdered, so to be staying near the ruins of Lesnes Abbey on the last night has a curious serendipity to it.
Anyway we didn’t venture out to look at the Abbey ruins, or the Bronze Age barrows or indeed anything else. On the journey here we had a brief discussion and decided that fish finger sandwiches were our favourite on-board dinner and so as the stars came out over rapidly thinning trees that’s what we settled down to for our last dinner in Mavis for the time being.
Thursday 3 November
This morning we were reunited with our cats. It was lovely to see them and in particular to see their reaction to us. Leo was smitten with Alison and after a cursory hello Mojo dived into her carrying crate with a ‘well, let’s go then’ look on her face. They travelled in relative comfort with us to Cambridge for an overnight stop where they nestled down in our bed while we busied ourselves moving furniture for Alison’s parents. Earlier in this blog I playfully awarded her parents 4.5 out of 5 on trip advisor. Let the record now show that without their generosity and kindness our summer would have been much harder. They’ve provided us with good food, laundry facilities, showers, electric hook up and warm convivial evenings in abundance and sometimes at short notice. It is my pleasure to formally up their rating to 4.9 out of 5; well there’s always next year and we don’t want complacency creeping in.
We’d just got to bed and turned the light out when we heard a rustling from amongst the various bags and boxes we’d stowed for tomorrows move to Shallowford. And that, dear reader is how we discovered a happily chomping Leo with his arse hanging out of a bag of dry cat food; somehow it felt like a version of normality had returned.
Friday 4 November
In another serendipitous moment, as we hit the road for our final trip we joined stationary traffic just like we did on our first trip to Canterbury. After an hours delay we trundled north with two surprisingly settled cats and arrived to a warm welcome. Our home for the next few weeks is a large basement room with a separate kitchen and bathroom. We set about organising it into a cosy environment, although it’ll take a couple of days to get rid of the boxes and bring the final personal items in from Mavis to turn it from a room into a home.
The cats are certainly settling in. They’ve been busy exploring every nook and cranny and rubbing their cheeks against the furniture and us. I read that “when cats rub their head against you, they’re marking you as one of their own with the concentrated scent glands in their cheeks and head. Congratulations, you’re family.” I was severely reprimanded by Alison for rubbing my glands against guests and I think that cats should be expected to meet the same standards. Likewise the theory that when cats bring dead animals into the house they do it because they consider you family needs to be challenged. It’s palpably nonsense. They’re trying to teach you that without ceding to their every demand that half a pigeon could be you. It’s the feline equivalent of waking up to find a horse’s head in bed beside you. Cats are prima donnas; selfish, arrogant and demanding. Leo and Mojo are back in charge…and we love it.
Saturday 5 November
Consider this. Late in November 2014 the Conservative government of the United Kingdom banned any pornography produced in the UK from showing spanking. To the best of my knowledge no one has been harmed from watching a consensual slap on the rump. Reflect then that around 1,000 people are treated in hospital for injuries caused by fireworks every year in the UK and of those about 5% are regarded as serious, potentially life changing injuries. Unlike films showing spanking, you can buy fireworks at your local supermarket along with the tinned peaches and toilet roll. You can purchase a bag of sparklers that burn at a temperature five times that of cooking oil to hand around to the children. You can shove a few 150 mph rockets into the trolley next to a bottle of whiskey to keep the chill away while you set them off.
Fireworks were invented in China around the 7th Century. Someone mixed some potent ingredients like potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal together and made crude gunpowder. One report I’ve read suggests this was completely by accident while they were searching for the secret to eternal life. However it came about, thanks to some startled Chinese alchemists wandering around without their eyebrows and waiting for the smoke to clear we can now buy all manner of colourful projectile explosives.
And we really do love them; the UK spends around £15 million on fireworks every year. A lot goes on organised displays, which are by far the most sensible and safest method to enjoy colourful pyrotechnics. It’s probably not a surprise to learn that most accidents requiring hospital treatment happen in the nation’s back gardens, or in the streets when they fall into irresponsible hands, sometimes literally.
Not that every organised display is completely safe but the chances are far greater that it will be. I used to take my boys to a delightfully inept display in a nearby small village. Sparklers could only be used in the designated area, so hordes of over excited children were corralled elbow to elbow into a roped off pen where they singed each other’s hair trying to write their names in the air in sparkly light. During the main display a stray missile would end up in a hedge or lodge in a tree raining bright embers down on the puzzled organisers below. One year a hedge caught alight and everyone went ooh and aah thinking it was part of the display. Catherine wheels would refuse to spin, despite prodding from people, first with long poles, then a stick and finally a push with bare hands. The climax to the evening would be a sign made out of fireworks that spelt out Thank You. Or at least we think it did. When first lit it glared so brightly you couldn’t look at it, then a thick plume of acrid smoke would drift over obscuring the whole display. We’d all clap then drive home to tend to our burns. It was great fun. We first went because it’s what dads did with young children on bonfire night but we continued well into their teens just to watch the burning foliage. We only stopped going when it became safe.
Actually the best bit was the announcer. Speaking through a network of tinny loudhailers nailed to trees that had survived previous displays he would deliver a running commentary something like this:
“Ooh that’s a bright green whizzbanger going up … (loud bang) … to Rob and Josie’s youngest… (bang)…green and red there…(series of loud explosions)…7pm tomorrow night in the village hall…(bang )…with…(bang)…and…(bang) of the (bang)… and a nice firm…(bang)…ooh…(burning tree)…well Roger has that under control nicely now, we’d like to thank…(wail of ambulance siren)…and not forgetting …(loud bang)…for the tea…tea…tea.
The best thing we ever heard him say was ‘woops a daisy’ when a deafening mortar burst at ground level yards from hastily retreating spectators, showering them with a rainbow of white hot sparks. We loved him dearly, whoever he was, a true stolid gent of the highest order, calm, unflappable and determined to carry on even though his job was patently absurd. I suspect he was related to someone involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade.
For all that I don’t recall any incidents that weren’t solved by the onsite first aider or a parental kiss. Nevertheless around the country as we playfully celebrate burning people alive, emergency services and hospital A&E departments will be needlessly stretched treating burns and injuries. Still it’s nice to know that year after year no one dies or is scared for life from watching couples playfully spank each other.
Back at Shallowford and we’ve spent much of the day sorting out, resorting, remembering things that we have back in Mavis necessitating some more sorting and generally, pretty much sorting. The place is beginning to look cosy; we’ve divided up the large room into a bedroom and sitting room, the record player is set up, the dining table assembled and the kitchen cupboards are full. Tomorrow is our first official engagement, which is…drum roll please…to help at a bonfire night and firework display! I have every confidence that it will be a safe and grand affair.
By rights we should be finishing our blog here. This will be the last chronological entry but it doesn’t seem right to finish without some reflections and thoughts on our 7 month odyssey, so there will be one further entry sometime soon where we do just that. For now though there are two felines demanding our attention so we must obey.
Bye for now.
Saturday 29 – Sunday 30 October
After some noodling about and general chores Saturday afternoon passed in the company of Whispa’s chums and their respective owners for a leisurely walk around the creek and an even more leisurely rest in the gardens of the White Hart in the company of Adnam’s finest beers.
On Sunday we took Mavis to the nearby Snape Maltings Concert Hall where a vintage market was promised. This proved mildly diverting, with plenty of stalls selling what was essentially the content of our parents homes circa 1960’s for extortionate prices. The concert hall however was much more interesting to me as I worked there on and off during my late teens as a general dogsbody/stagehand/programme seller/café assistant/janitor. I started out assisting my father, who in 1973 bravely traded corporate accounting with BP in Harlow for bookkeeping with the Aldeburgh Festival Association that owned and ran the concert hall. The advert asked for a full time book-keeper (male) aged 30 to 45. He qualified on the book keeping and male requirements and although he was slightly beyond their cut off age he managed to prove he wasn’t too old and jittery to keep their books in good order.
Visiting the venue today I was delighted to see the main foyer and auditorium were just as I remembered them. There was the statue of the bull, next to which I would sell programmes along-side one of my father’s army of over perfumed volunteers, ladies of a certain age with a propensity for heavy face powder and ruby lips. The door to back stage has gone, replaced by access to a new lift to the restaurant. The stage is exactly as I recall, deep and worn to a lush matt finish. The front of the stage is automated, rising or falling according to the requirements of the artists; an extra bit of stage, additional floor space or sinking to become an orchestra pit. During festival season I’d arrive about 5am to sweep the stage and shine the floors with an industrial polisher with a mind of its own. Somewhere around 9am Bob the caretaker would track me down with a pile of toast and coffee fortified with whiskey. Then I’d start clearing the dressing rooms with renewed vigour and slightly wobbly gait, on more than one occasion discreetly closing the door on slumbering couples surrounded by the detritus of an impromptu liaison. During the morning rubbish would accumulate in a dank corner of an old outbuilding ready for me to deal with. Armed with whatever food and drink I managed to snaffle from the green room I’d trundle wheelbarrows full of refuse out to an incinerator overlooking the marshes. After a few minutes Barbara Hepworth’s iconic "The Family of Man" sculpture would be obscured by pungent black smoke and I’d chomp my may through stale smoked salmon sandwiches and swig flat champagne.
Today my old spot has been taken over by an over-spill car park, although The Family of Man is still there, three custodians of the grand view over the reeds and broad swathe of the River Alde, Iken Church poking through the trees and the hazy outline of Aldeburgh. We had a browse in the shops, admiring exotic groceries, obscure preserves and expensive confectionery, cookware you never thought you needed and will use twice before confining to the back of a cupboard and all manner of glittery fripperies with price tags longer than their lifespan. Mind you the shops help to bring people and money in when the concert hall isn’t in use. When I worked here as a spotty teenager the concert hall was ridiculously snobbish and the curious were brusquely turned away at the door but today we were able to walk unchallenged into the foyer, peek into the main hall and visit the café unhindered by curt staff. On our way to get coffee we pass the ghost of an awkward teenager shyly avoiding eye contact with customers and fumbling to make change and, standing in the shadows watching everything with a concerned eye, a pale, skinny man in a dinner jacket and an oversized bow tie, a mop of fine blond hair and a gaunt slightly worried face. He carries a black case stuffed with money bags, change, cash books and plenty of sharp pencils. Before the final curtain falls he will have collected all the takings and be seated in the empty restaurant counting every penny, meticulously recording each transaction and once he is satisfied that everything tallies will stow it in his case ready for banking. As the last punters crunch over the gravel to the car park and the bar shutters clunk into place a father and son who love each other but don’t really know one another make their way to the last remaining car in the courtyard. The car headlights sweep the decaying red bricks of the empty yard one last time as they leave, side by side in silence to be swallowed by the waiting night.
Monday 31 August
Our morning walk today was in a damp mist with a promise of sunshine in the virgin air. Whispa and I called into the bird hide to watch the creek slowly reveal itself from the mist, silver against the white topped golden reed beds. The gorse bushes sparkled with webs, hanging with teardrop jewels glistening in the light and around us the occasional soft thump of an acorn falling onto the carpet of yellowing leaves.
In the hide I helpfully added pheasant, pigeon and robin to the chalk board listing recent sightings. Honestly these people cannot be very good birdwatchers, I saw loads of each on the 10 minute walk here.
Afterwards Alison and I popped in to see my mother before a diversion to a garden centre. These places seem to be more like day centres for the ambulant retired with a bit of their pension burning a hole in their nylon pockets. This one had clothes, cards, ornaments, gifts, jams, books, a cafe and a whole department of sweets in retro bags which as far as I could tell just means that they make them look old and charge twice as much for what is after all a bag of flavoured sugar. You could purchase all manner of shiny things and maybe if you look hard enough some plants too. They even had 3rd party outlets in little cabins outside. There was an Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which I privately regard as the world’s most worthless shop, although Alison has just pointed out that the word privately is now redundant in that sentence. It really is a shrine to the middle of the road, from the dull clothes that never crease to the collection of standards and ‘light’ classics on CDs alongside boxes of shortbread. Anyway, beside this was a Cotton Traders which is like an Edinburgh Woollen Mill for people who still retain reasonable control over their faculties and like a nice sweatshirt to complement their Farrah slacks.
Of interest to us though was a Mountain Warehouse. Now this was more like it, I slipped from my reigns and skipped in to admire the carabiners, lose myself in the hiking boots and gawp at the hi-tech walking gear that no serious walker ever needs but covets none the less. Alison eventually dragged me away and back to Blythburgh purchase free, where we slumped in front of the DVD player and binged on nearly 2 series worth of The American Office.
Tuesday 1 November
Bloody hell, its November already which means we’ve spent 7 full months on the road. As today is our last here we pottered about tidying up. Alison let me make a garbage angel before sweeping up the debris of our tenure and generally adding a bit of a shine to the place.
This has been our third spell at house and pet sitting and they’ve all been really rewarding. We’ve had the chance to stay in three lovely communities; Braughing in Hertfordshire with its expansive fields and cosy local pub, Rattlesden with its history and big skies and Blythburgh, gateway to stunning views. Each one has been unique, welcoming and had its own charms, secret histories and personality. We are extremely grateful for the wonderful people who have thrown caution to the wind and trusted us with their homes and four-legged friends.
Whispa was reunited with her owners at 11:00pm after they’d flown from Norway to Gatwick and then driven home in the chill November air. Well, chill to us but after being north of the Arctic Circle admiring the Northern Lights it was positively balmy to them. After a brief catch up we retired. Tomorrow we head to London for a stopover before collecting the cats on Thursday ready for their new life in Staffordshire.
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