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.
House sitting is becoming more and more popular for people while traveling and a lot of that comes down to the large number of location independent people in the world these days. For those who are not yet living the digital nomad life and have never house sat before, the idea of staying in luxury locations for free sounds like the perfect getaway, but I’m here to say it’s probably not. For most people vacation is about relaxing, having fun, and letting loose; and while house sitting allows you to do those things to a certain extent there are a number factors that could put a damper on your idea of a good time. Unless you do a lot of research and are very selective you’ll probably find yourself disappointed.
A lot of house sits are scheduled for long periods of time, anywhere from 1 week to 1 year! We tend to lean towards the shorter stays in our travel with our longest sits being about two weeks but typically when searching for our next location we see a larger number of long-term sits. Obviously, if you have just a few weeks of time off or less (Americans!) it will be hard to find stays that are short enough.
There are really only a few types of travelers. You have those who want to go somewhere, kick-back and not move for the entire time. You have the ones who are always on the go and seem to be more scheduled and busy during their holiday than when they are at home. And last you have the spontaneous and free-wheeling ones who just make decisions day to day about what they will do if anything at all. House sitting is very different. Even if you’re not working online, you’ll find yourself fall into a routine especially if there are pets to look after. So don’t imagine you’ll be able to go out partying every night and come back whenever. You may get lucky and have very few responsibilities and the pets may adjust to your schedule, but usually you are there to keep the house functioning as usual, so if the dogs are used to 06:00 walks, and lunch time feedings at 12:00 guess where you will be at those times?
Pet care, plant watering, deliveries and post, rubbish, all these things fall on you. You’ll probably have times scheduled to check in with the owners, and should always be home at night to watch over the house. It’s a full-time job. You have a boss and a schedule so you need to treat it just like you would any other job.
You could turn yourself completely green with envy looking through the listings on the most popular house sitting sites. Every other listing seems to be for an amazing house on a lake in South America or a stunning chateau in France. Realistically though most of the listings are for areas far away from the normal tourist and traveler routes; these are where the real people live. What happens if find yourself way out in the suburbs of a major city or on a farm in the middle of the country? Don’t expect to be right next to all the sightseeing stops or even expect to be able to make it there especially if you are traveling without a car and taking care of pets. It’s fine for travelers who can normally tack a day or two onto their stay to get to those places. If you’re on a fixed vacation time you might feel like you have missed out on everything.
With the internet, planning travel has never been easier. It’s still a wonder to me that travel agents continue to exist when you can go online and search for exactly what you want down to the sheet thread count and breakfast menu. Even Airbnb allows you to search for nice features like cable television or a wood burning fireplace. Housesitting is not like that. Sure, when searching you can try to find a nice view or a house that looks your style, but you will never have all the information. Homeowners often talk about the best features of their house but sometimes the make or break can be something simple. For me, it’s always the bathroom. So if your dream trip to Canada is a snowed-in log cabin with a bear rug, and outdoor hot tub, you may want to save up for that specifically. More often than not we don’t really know the size of the house, what the room we are going to be in looks like, how stocked the kitchen is, or even what bed we are sleeping in. Unlike hotel rooms which have a common feeling at each star level, sometimes you can walk into what is obviously a nice house for someone and it just doesn’t feel right. Would you really want to spend a week in a place that isn’t comfortable for you?
Maybe one of the most important things - house sitters adjust to the home owners and not the other way around. If you get two weeks to travel and you have to plan it far in advance you’ll be lucky if there is a housesit available that lines up perfectly. The homeowners who are normally going on holiday or an assignment themselves will have their dates and travel scheduled already and need someone to fit that. You as the house sitter applying are expected to be available those days, with a buffer window on the front and back ends for settling in and delays. Yes things come in last minute sometimes but would you really want to wait until a few weeks until your trip date only to find no house sits work for you, or there are some but travel costs are outrageous? Then you'll just have to go to a regular tourist destination that you could have gotten much cheaper months ago.
I don’t say this to sound negative or put anyone off house sitting (competition is fierce but not that bad!), I just want to give a realistic idea of what it is like. So much of what we see online these days is just the positive side so I just wanted to lower the altitude of your expectations. If your job has a very flexible vacation policy, or you just love the idea of spending your time away from home with happy cuddly animals (or you know if you’re European and always have twelve other opportunities a year if this one doesn’t work out) by all means give house sitting for your holiday a chance! Maybe try it out locally if possible so you get a clearer picture of what to expect. Who knows this could be a life changing experience that you want to try again and again.
Any differences you think we've forgotten? Add them in the comments below.
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.
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).
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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