The last few months of 2016 have seen us spend quite a bit of time in England. Not only did we have an opportunity to visit family and friends but we also took on four separate house sitting assignments across the country.
Situated in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), we could not have snapped a prettier or more quintessentially English countryside scene than what we discovered in Branscombe. We found ourselves in this tiny hamlet of just a few houses, in a beautiful thatched cottage, looking out across steep rolling hills leading down to the coastline and the sea. And it was really unfortunate that the sit was only 3 days long. We were in earthly heaven.
As planned, we arrived to be greeted only by Snoops.This Persian looked us up and down - we were not sure at the time whether approvingly or disapprovingly - and then seemingly allowing our presence continued about her day as usual. Snoops would prove to be a very independent, undemanding feline whose principal requests were a tin of cat food and to be let out to sit on her throne in the front garden and rule over her domain stretching to the Jurassic Coast down below.
We made the most of our three days by exploring the area as much as we could. Directly below the cottage we were able to traverse fields full of sheep and cows, descend the steep hill, cross streams and brooks and eventually hit the beach, losing time there enjoying the magnificent views until it was almost dark.
Thankfully, about halfway back to the cottage, stood The Fountain Head, a fourteenth-century pub with a log fire burning and offering a selection of real ales on tap for those, like me, who like their beer warm and flat. If you are ever fortunate enough to sup here, the selection of amazing Devonshire cheeses accompanied by a pint (or three) gives you just about the right amount of energy needed to spur you home.
A break from the coast
After Branscombe we took a trip to Switzerland (Don’t Judge a Basel By Its Cover) followed by California, and then returned to the UK. A quick diversion from our coastal route, we stayed in an eco friendly, solar paneled house in Martins Heron, situated on the eastern side of Bracknell just west of London. We appreciated the homemade yogurt waiting for us in the fridge on arrival, and the whole house was fitted with high-tech audio and video equipment. It was the perfect spot for downtime and visiting family in nearby Windsor and London.
St Leonards, East Sussex
Once we said our goodbyes to Chloe in Bracknell it was back to the seaside for some quality time in St Leonards, East Sussex. We arrived at a large, tall, rambling and beautifully appointed Victorian house with views right down to the English Channel.
Two cats - Zuri and Kaya - and an energetic and playful springerdoodle accepted us into their lives almost immediately. The cats loved to stay in, sleep and snuggle when not bringing us gifts of leaves from the garden (better than dead mice or birds). Nala, on the other hand, loved to play and be outside. Both in the local large park with woodland, lakes and acres of open space to run around in, and down on the beach. She never ran out of energy chasing after her ball, even going into the sea after it. Even when the temperature plummeted below freezing, and we were very reluctant to leave the house, she was always up for her outdoor time.
Castle Eden, County Durham
With our stint in the south of England done it was time to head Up North. We were due to head to Cumbria, in the far northwest of England for our next sit. However, we had a couple of days to spare. What better excuse than to visit our friends in Castle Eden who you might remember from The Roaming Scotties blog? It was wonderful being reunited too - albeit briefly - with Maggie and Denny as we walked, and the Scotties shuffled, along the beach enjoying ice cream with monkey’s blood (yes, we didn’t know what that meant either until the raspberry syrup was drizzled on our cones), and then indulged in a seafood risotto dinner back at the house. How different the northeast coast was with warm sun allowing us ice cream, to the southeast coast with freezing temperatures just a few days earlier where only warm mulled wine would have done.
They say the weather in Britain changes almost daily or is that hourly? This was clearly evidenced in our fourth, and final English house sit. Situated almost directly opposite County Durham, we headed to a small town - really a big village - called Silloth on the northwest coast just short of the border with Scotland. For the next week we would be living right by Silloth Green in a beautiful conversion of the old Post Office - well the two of us, one cat, Sox, and two lively but very different dogs: Tali, a young jet black Labrador, and his younger brother Mac, a Bedlington, Poodle, Whippet mix puppy, also known affectionately as Gnasher after the canine companion of Dennis The Menace in the UK’s famous comic strip, The Beano.
Like Nala in St Leonards, these two loved the outdoors as much as we did. Every day the view would change. When we arrived it was sunny and crisp. From the seafront, just moments from the house, we looked out across the water to Scotland. By the next day, Scotland had vanished, to be replaced by mystical fog that shrouded almost everything. After that, a day of wind and rain, though this did not deter Tali and Mac from demanding hours each day charging around the Green and along the coast playing with each other and the multitude of other dogs and their walkers who we would befriend. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the north and the south of England. In the south, people are always courteous, but they seem busy, going about their daily business with barely an acknowledgment of strange faces. Head north and it's a different world. People - dog walkers in particular it seems - have time to stop, chat, give advice on local sights, and tell tales of times past. While the dogs charged about burning off their youthful energy, we would engage with the locals in this truly beautiful spot. And just as our week started drawing to a close the wind and rain lifted, the sun shone once again, and Scotland, perched across the Firth of Solway with its magnificent Criffel appearing to rise out of the sea, beaconed us for a future trip once more.
It was fun to have so many unique experiences and despite the sometimes inclement or gloomy weather, our trips were a great success. While we don’t know what 2017 will bring, we will be shocked if a return trip to England for some more house sitting isn’t on the cards at some point.
One of our favorite house sits of the past few months was relatively unexpected. I would never have guessed that when we agreed to come to Herefordshire we would find one of the most beautiful parts of England. With the narrowest of winding roads, traditional hedges separating undulating fields, and the Black Mountains of Wales in the distance, we were truly impressed. Being able to look out the window at such beauty every day is enough to make a great stay, but it only got better from there...
The Mill House
Our joy intensified as we arrived at our home for the coming week, a beautiful mill house restored by our hosts over the last couple years. The view was stunning with sheep fields on one side and Dore Abbey visible from the other. The garden was immense and pleasantly arranged with all kinds of flowers. There was a chicken coop at the far end and a number of fruit and vegetable bearing plants - apple trees, fresh tomatoes, zucchini, runner beans, it was like the produce aisle of Waitrose.
Inside the house was so comfortable, it really had everything. A nice wood burning stove for the colder nights. So much counter space in the kitchen we could have slept on it (but we didn’t need to because of the super comfortable bed). Even a great book and DVD collection although Blair got a little overzealous with how much of it he thought he would get through in one week (nice try on all 1000 pages of 1Q84 though).
Not the questionable roadside tourist trap in South Carolina with kitschy Mexican trinkets. You’re forgiven for thinking that, but no, if you have ever spent time in Scotland you will know that England is referred to as ‘South of the Border’. This was our next destination.
Exhausted in a really good way from Edinburgh and the Fringe Festival, we were on our way to The Cotswolds. In the southern part of England, about 85 miles northwest of London, it is an area of considerable beauty. With its rolling countryside, quaint villages and small town charm it is easy to see why it is home to members of the Royal Family including the future king, Prince Charles, and his sister, The Princess Royal. This was going to be our first house sit in England since we started our journey, or so we thought at the time. At the last minute we received a call from our family. You see, my brother and his wife had been invited to France for a few days. They asked if we could make a short detour to look after their dog.
Continuing our new found equality of looking after both cats and dogs at the same time, we would foster a beautiful one-year-old golden labrador, Frank, and his two feline house companions, The Littlest and Riddance. We had been told upon our arrival that Riddance was shy and that we may not see him for a while. But after a few days of only being able to send photos of Frank and The Littlest, and just assuming Riddance existed because his food and water bowl were depleting each day, I had to dispatch Blair to search and discover whether the cat was actually real. Eventually, with a little contortion of the body, his camera found a pair of eyes under a bed staring back. That was Riddance.
The Littlest, on the other hand, was evident most the time. Purring, nudging for treats, sleeping on, and occasionally discovered in, the bed. The strangest thing though is that the best treat this cat could be given comprised a few pieces of Frank’s dried dog food. Milk for the cat? Not really, as in “Why would you expect me to drink that?” Dog food? “Yes please, may I have more?”
One of the great things about staying in a small town like Northleach is that open countryside, field after field, is right on your doorstep. There are few things more quintessentially English than being in the open field with your dog, and your thoughts, and some beautiful views. Nobody appreciated this more than Frank, or me for that matter to purge my guilt of the cream teas abundantly available nearby.
Off the lead as soon as it was safe, he would charge off, burning his puppy energy, running through streams, greeting fellow dogs and retrieving various items as his breed is meant to do. And it is that last activity that I, as someone who grew up primarily in a city, could happily have missed. You see, when I think of a retriever I have an image of a dog with a ball, or a stick, or even a toy in its mouth. Yes, we got some of those but also a dead rabbit and my favorites, the UFOs, or unidentifiable field objects which were also mostly dead. Luckily, retrievers just retrieve, and even he got bored with the rabbit after a while when I showed no interest.
It was much more fun for him when, as was often the case, I would chase him around the house trying to recover stolen items. At only one-year-old Frank was still combining his instincts with his training. He had a habit of finding objects that you really didn’t need at the moment, but he also knew you wouldn’t want him to have it, which inevitably led to a chase through the house. Shoes, remotes, the mail, cat food, everything had to go above dog height. We could have charged admission to his graveyard of destroyed stuffed animals.
Like all good things though our downtime in Northleach came to an end. But our timing could not have been more perfect for a period of relaxation because our next trip would be the most exotic and intense so far. We were headed to Asia.
Photo of South of the Border © 2004 Sullynyflhi via Wikimedia Commons
It was with just a little trepidation that we set off from England for Normandy where our first official housesit would take place. All that stood between us and our destination was the English Channel , one Eurotunnel ride, and a few hundred kilometers of French country roads. While it was true that we had looked after other people's homes and pets before, they had been friends or family members that we already knew well. This time, we were walking - well rather driving - into something sight unseen.
We were excited though. We were heading to France. Being July it was the height of summer. We had already met one of homeowners on Skype a few weeks earlier. She was funny and charming and seemed to be as excited and nervous as us about the whole thing. The house in the photos looked wonderful. The sun was shining. We were off on an adventure. Not our first adventure of course, we have done quite a bit of International travel in the past, but a flavor nonetheless new.
You see we are an Anglo-American couple. The Anglo being me, Nicolo. Well, in case you are wondering about the name, half English through my father and half Italian through my mother. The all-American being Blair, my husband. We have travelled in our spare time for years. We’ve been to the deserts of Mexico, the cities of India, the canals of Amsterdam, the beaches of Australia. Now life has led us to a place where we are both free from the constraints of the 9-to-5 to explore the world as we see fit, and as luck would have it, a relative introduced us to the world of house sitting at the same time.
So that’s how we ended up on this adventure, but how would it go? Would people really be so willing to hand over the keys to their home and the care of their pets to people they had only met online? As we drove down the narrow, curving country roads on the final stretch we acknowledged the beauty of this part of northern France with its timber framed 'Colombage' style houses and rolling countryside. Then, as we left the road and went down a long driveway, the house came into sight. And it wasn’t a disappointment. The photos we had seen were not “real estate agent” photoshopped, in fact, they didn’t really do it justice. We were not prepared for this beautiful house in a charming, tranquil setting.
We had been warned Bubbles could be a little temperamental with new people. She was a little uneasy with us at first, as you would be too if two tall strangers showed up one day and took the place of your loving people. But a few feedings later and she was as happy as a dog could be. Whether darting around the large garden after her toy rabbit, going for long walks to buy amazing fresh baguettes, or snuggling up next to us on the sofa, she was an absolute delight. Bubbles is the kind of dog we all crave. Energetic when outside, calm when inside, and privately undertaking her “other business” hidden from humans in the bushes and woods at the edge of the garden so we never had to pick up after her. In fact, you couldn’t. She would disappear for a minute or two each day and come back relieved and ready for play.
What a joy this first house sit turned out to be. We were able to see and experience so much during our time. The Normandy American Cemetery, for a day of reflection. A journey along The Cider Route where we found the most delicious pear cider (and bought 18 bottles of it). The market at Honfleur with its sounds and colors! We could have stayed on for weeks more. We were actually a little sad when the host family came back. And it’s not because we were not looking forward to seeing them all again, we just knew that we would miss our new home and our new furry friend. And that, it has to be said, is the only small downside of house and pet sitting. You become a foster parent. You bond. You quickly settle into a life and don’t want to say goodbye so soon. But like most feelings the sadness passed while we spent the evening sharing our respective French and English experiences over wine and food. As we jumped in the car the next day I looked back in the mirror and spotted Bubbles with her permanent family waving us goodbye and for a moment I had to reflect on the experience that seems to have gone by in an instant and but changed so much about our lives from there on out. Still, we just knew we would see her again one day, for we bonded not just with her, but with the whole family. But mostly we knew this because they asked us if we would sit for them again the next summer in France! The only thing to say to that is “Yes!”
So forget sadness, after having such a great time in France, we were ready to see if this experience was a fluke or if this house sitting thing was really as good as it seems. We pointed the car in the direction of Austria. Our next adventure was about to begin.
The Roaming Blog
From Europe to Asia. From cities to villages. From mansions to cottages. Follow us on our journey as we celebrate a new type of travel - House Sitting. Learn how to start you house sitting career, tips for making the most of your travel, and the tricks for being the best house sitter you can be.