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.
As you know if you’re not reading this blog for the first time, we’ve done a lot of house sitting in a lot of different places this year. So that has meant making quite a few choices about the places we want to go. Sometimes we pick a place because it seems like it would be a nice quiet getaway (Northleach, Abbey Dore, Normandy). Other times because we have never been before and we want to experience it (Bad Ischl, Kuala Lumpur). It could just be a place we know will have plenty for us to do in the area (Edinburgh, Castle Eden). Basel, on the other hand was not picked for any of those reasons. We picked it simply because it filled the necessary dates on our calendar, and was not too difficult to get to. While this isn’t the best reason to pick a place, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with it. To be completely honest, in the past if we had to make a list of the places we wanted to housesit, Basel would not have even made it close to the list. Now that may seem unfair but it’s not our fault. We had never been to it before but we had driven through a number of times, and it never really looked like much. What we found when we actually had a chance to explore was more than we would have ever expected.
Basel is definitely different. The beautiful images of lakes, mountains and rolling green countryside that Switzerland conjures in your mind are not exactly found here. The small city itself is all within Switzerland but it’s tightly squeezed between the borders with Germany and France so the edges of town are within those countries. From what we had seen before it was just a continuous mass of highways and industrial areas with chimney stacks and steam outlets atop factory-looking buildings, presumably manufacturing many of the pharmaceuticals that Switzerland is famous for. On our way there it took us three-and-a-half attempts to get off at the right exit, and get to the house. When we finally did get there we found it difficult to find parking. The restrictions within the city limits are so strict that we actually ended up parking across the border in Germany and just walking over. So, yes, now we can say we literally went to another country to save money on parking.
We were staying in Wettstein, an area that combines office and industrial buildings with residential housing. It’s clear that the residents have that well-known Swiss work ethic as it seems many of them work in the area and live just minutes away on foot. We also got our first taste of one of my favorite aspects of the city, the fountains you can discover almost everywhere. You can even drink from a lot of them. The area was nice because it was just a short walk to the old town which spans the Rhine with the Altstadt GrossBasel (Large Old Town Basel) to the south and the Altstadt Kleinbasel (Small Old Town Basel) to the north.
Altstadt GrossBasel is the main area for tourists. There are a number of large museums and churches to visit and lots of restaurants, food stalls, and shops - all mostly overpriced for our taste in large part due to the Swiss Franc exchange rate. We actually spent a lot of time looking up and around to find the best sights. The colorful roofs, amusing sculptures, and interesting architecture are all kind of hidden behind the noise, you have to work for it. So it didn’t really charm us at first but slowly became better. It was fairly busy too. People lined the sidewalks and pedestrian areas and there was even a protest march going on while we were there. We had no idea what they were protesting; it was confusing.
Altstadt Kleinbasel seems to be the more bohemian and eclectic area. It felt a little less touristy and a little more real, but it was just as busy and urban as the Grossstadt. The crowd seemed a bit younger and rowdier, and there was fun art along the tiny back streets. There wasn’t as much to be seen but I imagine I would spend more time here if I lived in Basel.
The riverfront is perfect for walking, biking, or just relaxing. It was filled with people resting on the banks and drinking from the many pop up bars along the riverwalk. All ages and types were sitting along the steps leading into the water and taking in the sunset. We even saw a very naked man in what was almost definitely not a nude area sunbathing, but it’s Europe so at this point it seems normal.
We didn’t experience that much else in Basel. Completely our fault, we just didn’t put enough effort into getting out further. We never felt that inspired, I guess we just weren’t feeling the city. We did take a few lessons away from Basel though. One, obviously, never judge a book by it’s cover. At the same time, and maybe for the first time, we didn’t really fall in love. Sometimes that happens and it’s fine. It was definitely still a nice experience we just had a few things that made it not our favorite. Basel felt like it was all business. This created a few problems because it seemed every restaurant and store closed at 6:00pm so there wasn’t much to do any later than that. The prices in Switzerland obviously are more than we are used to so we didn’t really go out to eat at all and honestly did most of our shopping across the border in Germany. The parking was seriously impossible which is so rare, normally you can find some hidden open place to park but not here. To top things off we found that our phones, being so close to so many towers in three different countries and roaming on foreign networks would be constantly switching dropping data or completely overheating and crashing. I guess this was also a good thing because we discovered how to fix our phones to one network to prevent that problem.
All was not bad of course. We had a really comfortable place and it was nice being so close to everything. We had a great time with the cats Oscar and Ron (Swanson) and spent most of the week hanging out with them in the apartment. They are very soft bundles of excitement and it would be hard to find two easier or friendlier cats. Like a lot of cats each evening their energy levels surged and they tore around the open plan apartment playing, it was very amusing. While we were there we also got a lot of work done, we must have been inspired by the Swiss spirit of productivity. So even without being charmed by the city we still had a good time and do not regret our visit. Maybe on a return trip we would take the time to get out more and experience more of the city and the surrounding area.
The daytime heat was unbearable. We would psych ourselves up for a walk only to regret it 2 minutes later and climb into an Uber covered in sweat. After about two days of trying we had to give up on our grand plans of walking around exploring the city. Not that any of this could have been done on foot even if it hadn’t been scorching. Kuala Lumpur is sprawling, confusing, and definitely not made for pedestrians. Which makes sense because no one walks, which makes sense because it is one million degrees. Okay, so we didn’t do much research on this part but that would not dampen our spirits. No, we would leave the dampening to mother nature...
We had just landed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and were wrapping up our first meal ever in Malaysia in a Mexican restaurant in a mall of all places. After dinner, our host jumped on her motorbike to head to the house just up the road. Good thing there were two of us or I fear we might have ended up on the back of it. Instead, we hopped in a cab to join her and meet our new temporary adoptees, Julian Le Strange and Carlos Broccoli. First impressions: what interesting names, and what absolute sweeties. Both rescued, these two were distinctly different in look but had similar traits. They were immediately friendly, not shy, and active from the start. Where one went the other followed. Though they might have come from very different places they were most definitely brothers now. They were not afraid to be vocal when necessary and made good guard dogs. Even if that meant barking at us when we returned from the city at night causing a domino effect through the neighborhood, oops.
Due to a change in our host’s plans, we actually had a couple nights where she would be home while we were there. This was a pleasant surprise of course and gave us a couple days to explore without having to worry that the boys were alone. We had a number of fun adventures in Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs during this time.
We had been warned that the boys had met two “girlfriends” a few days earlier, a couple of semi-strays that seemed to live right outside of the gates of the house, and they were always there to greet us each morning and accompany us on the walk. They made quite the foursome and would confuse passers-by who occasionally would query why only two of the dogs were not on leashes in the middle of an urban setting. A smile and a shrug were really the only answer.
One of our early mornings started just like the others. It was still before sunrise and our little guys and their friends were all ready to go out. I left Blair asleep and we scooted out into the dark. We got about one-quarter of the way through our walk when the winds changed. And as day broke we noticed the dark clouds in the distance. Thunderstorm. There was no time to call a car, even if they would take dogs, because by the time they got there it would be too late. We raced home as fast as their dog sized legs could take them. The storm held off as we navigated the labyrinth of concentric hexagons that was our neighborhood of SS19. We just turned onto our street when a wave of rain hit. We were soaked instantly. Blair was waiting for us at the door with towels ready and an apologetic expression. Not that there was much to be done. He had tried to send me a warning message but I was already focused on getting the dogs back at that point and wouldn’t have pulled my phone out afraid it would get wet.
But that day wasn’t all bad. Many dogs don’t like storms and Julian, in particular, was no exception. That was the day we truly bonded. He followed underfoot as the storm raged outside, even hiding in the clothes pile as we were doing laundry. This tiny little creature leaped onto the bed where I was reading and nestled himself right next to me seeking comfort. When I woke up from a nap to post-storm calm outside, he was still there, curled up, eyes closed, little snout on the pillow next to me.
In our one week we had been through the full scale of Malaysia weather. Hot and humid, wet and windy, and even a short period called the Haze Season, which is exactly what it sounds like and does not feel so great on the throat and sinuses. Luckily the storms washed that away so we could enjoy the little bits of time we could stand being outside.
It was sad to say goodbye to our little protectors. We regretted having only a week in Malaysia, it was not enough. Next time, we will plan it so that we can explore outside of the city and really immerse ourselves in much more of the country and its fascinating history and blend of cultures. For now, though, it’s back to Britain for a bit of a cool down.
Now, for those of you who have visited Glasgow (or are from there) you may be surprised that I even remember that stay. You see, Glaswegians are the friendliest of people and always up for a good time. A night out with them means each move from place to place involves another pint of beer or shot of whisky, sometimes both. The Horseshoe Bar’s karaoke night will never be the same after Blair made his debut, and, if Terry is performing his card tricks at the Blue Dog, it’s definitely worth a visit for a drink and some live music. I’m sure the night would have gone on until the sun came up, the only things that saved us were declaring ourselves lightweights at 3:00 am and sampling one of the local delicacies, deep fried pizza, on the way "home". And so started our Scottish adventure. Off to Edinburgh we go!
On this occasion, we were sitting for a family in Leith, the historic waterside docks area of Edinburgh within walking distance of everything (yes, we like to walk, which is a blessing given all the doggies we look after). What we hadn’t realised when we agreed to the sit a few weeks earlier was that the world famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival was on at the same time and actually started on the day we arrived. What a bonus! Anyone who has been in Edinburgh during August will know what I mean. The city is buzzing with shows, people, just life in general. This welcome twist truly exemplifies the joys of house sitting. While you have serious responsibilities where pets are involved in a house sit - and they take absolute priority - there are always new discoveries and fantastic experiences to be found, and Edinburgh shared these with us in abundance over that long weekend.
Putting the always unpredictable Scottish weather to one side, Edinburgh is a fantastic city to visit, and if you haven’t been you should go. With both dog and Festival walking including going back and forth to Leith from the Festival events to check on Emu, Midge, and Sparrow, we have never covered so many miles in so few days. Or so many stairs for that matter. Getting to many of the Festival events required climbing up the hill on the top of which beautiful Edinburgh Castle is perched. Then when we got home we would go up and down the stairs of this three floored townhouse searching for the two cats, one of whom in particular loved to play hide and seek when not sleeping on top of me while reading a book. The other would often to be found gracefully “resting” in the adopted feline alcove. The house had so many fun nooks and crannies for cats to hide it was like exploring an Escher painting.
There was just one problem with this house sit. It was too short. If our gracious host family ever decides to invite us back and are reading this, two requests please:
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.
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