15 April 2020

One Year of Roaming in England and Wales



See the full photo-story at exposure.co

In the spring of 2019, Ed and I left our full-time jobs in London to go backpacking in Mozambique and Malawi. After 2 months in Africa, we returned to the UK, though with no intention of settling down. Instead, we wanted to carve out time and space to explore our creative practices: for me to write and Ed to draw without the shackles of full time jobs and the pressure of monthly rent payments. With nothing tying us down, we spent a year on the move - living out of backpacks, sleeping in over forty beds, and finding ourselves in all sorts of unexpected places.

One of the ways we managed this nomadic lifestyle was through housesitting, i.e. taking care of people’s pets while they are away. When we first started thinking about it, I thought it would be impossible to find opportunities to housesit at the time and frequency we needed them. I did some Googling, and found an amazing website that offered precisely this: a stream of houses and pets to look after, giving us a free – albeit moving – place to live.

What began with the simple idea of living flexibly and not returning to ‘business as usual’, turned into a year-long journey around the UK, treading new terrain, living in some amazing places and befriending a whole host of unforgettable animals (and their owners). Most importantly for us, we finally had a base to do the creative work we never had time for in London.

We returned from Malawi and headed straight to our first sit in Wales, a 17th-century country house and menagerie of animals – 2 dogs, 4 goats, 2 pigs, and 4 horses. You might say this was quite a handful for our first assignment, but with hopes of owning our own smallholding one day, we considered this an ideal trial run. The owners, Anne and Rowan, spent a couple of days showing us the ropes before they left for their holiday. The four of us got on brilliantly and we couldn’t have asked for better hosts or a warmer welcome.

So we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by animals, most immediately the two dogs Rocky and Rambo, a delightful pair of Jack Russells. Rocky, or ‘fluff rocket’ as we named him, was the newest addition to the family – one year old and full of beans. If he wasn’t pestering Rambo, he was chasing rabbits in the garden or begging us to play tug of war. Just like any older brother, Rambo had no problem telling Rocky off when he tired of his antics. We loved walking the dogs everyday, and the house was positioned just between two national trails, so we had plenty of options for wandering in the Welsh scenery.

It was a joy to wake up each morning and greet all the animals before breakfast. Nothing better to stimulate creativity and concentration than a morning walk – or in this case, some quality time with the pigs, goats and horses. We’d close our day with the same routine, checking everyone was happy and there were no injuries or odd behaviour. The days passed quickly and as expected, we were sad to see our time in Wales come to a close. Still, we had a feeling we’d be back one day to visit our new friends.

A few weeks later, in July, we found ourselves driving 300 miles up to a tiny rural village in Cumbria, on the edge of the Lake District. We spent one night with our hosts – a family of three who were equally charming and hospitable – before they left us with their four dogs, Kai, Rata, Rimu and Fudge. The first three were buoyant working cocker spaniels, and Fudge was an endearingly shaggy white dog of no certain breed, who they’d recently adopted from Cyprus. All four of them were especially fond of cuddling up in bed with us.

The Lake District boasts some of England’s most dramatic scenery and we couldn’t wait to explore. The dogs' favourite local spot was a semi-wild, overgrown meadow beside the River Derwent, perfect for them to splash around. We joined them in the crystal clear water once or twice, on the hotter days. We also visited other nearby lakes and ponds: Loweswater, Cogra Moss and Bassenthwaite, with glistening waters and blue skies marking the height of summer. Being there at this time felt like a real privilege.

After a quick visit home to Malta, in August we headed westward for our first city housesit in Bristol. Neither of us knew the city at all, but we’d heard great things and had talked about living there, so we were glad to see it for ourselves. Our hosts were a creative, bohemian family of four with whom we spent a brief afternoon before they left for their trip to Greece. So began our two weeks with Betty the springer spaniel and Mowser the elusive black cat, who seemed not to like each other very much, often staging Mexican-esque standoffs in the kitchen doorway. Having a dog in a city is an entirely different experience to the countryside. We took Betty along the river walk, to local parks and greens, and even on the bus when we wanted to go further afield.

One of our favourite days in Bristol was when our friend Phoebe invited us to dinner at the allotment she shared with a few friends. The sun was going down over the colourful patchwork of vegetable beds and fruit trees, while we sat on tree stumps and drank wine and someone prepared freshly picked veg for dinner. We completely forgot we were in a busy city, which was impressive considering we were only twenty minutes’ cycle from the centre. Bristol definitely has a bohemian, alternative feeling that you'd have to search for to find in London.

Speaking of London, we headed back there after Bristol. We’d both been offered some freelance work and we figured it was a good opportunity to touch base before heading off to volunteer at an organic farm for a month. By some miracle, we managed to find a housesit directly opposite our old flat in Hackney, which was very convenient if a little surreal. Quite comically, our furry flatmates were two Chihuahuas. These tiny canines look a bit like miniature aliens, yet display very normal doggy behaviour, and that includes barking at foxes in the park, despite the fact they could easily be swallowed whole by one. After two weeks, our little friends had well and truly won us over.

One of the things Ed and I set out to do after leaving our jobs back in March was to learn about organic growing, gardening and land management through volunteering. So after our brief stint in London, we went off to do two volunteer placements (via workaway) in the autumn. Two months of physical work – gardening, digging compost, feeding and mucking out animals, building fences – and we were ready for Christmas back home.

Our next housesit was lined up for January. Unlike our previous sits that had all been organised online, this had started with a happy coincidence. Back in May, we’d got talking to someone at a guesthouse in Malawi. When he asked what we’d be doing after our trip, we told him about housesitting. “Funny you should say that,” he replied, “We actually have a house in Lincolnshire and we’re thinking of leaving the dogs behind next time we go away. Maybe I should take your email.”

Sure enough, Colin and Susan contacted us in July asking if we wanted to housesit for two months over winter 2020. We had nothing planned for that time, and we liked the idea of being rooted somewhere for a couple of months, so we happily accepted. So, after Christmas we found ourselves on a train, headed up to Lincoln in the East Midlands to meet our new hosts. When we arrived, we had coffee and talked for hours about our experiences in Africa. Colin and Susan told us their fascinating life story. It turned out they’d built their home on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds themselves, starting from the remains of an old caravan that was parked on site.

In fact, the house, which we’re still residing in as I write this, is unlike anything we’ve stayed in before. A large cabin clad with wood, it looks more like something you’d find in Scandinavia or the US then anywhere in the UK. The personal touches both outside and in give away the fact it's built by hand. Lots of green, red and brown earthy tones and accents; a charming garden with big trees, handmade benches and even a writing cabin. It’s an absolute haven for birds and we’ve been happy to share the space with robins, blackbirds, wood pigeons, doves, crows, and the occasional pheasant who wanders in! Our home for the winter is an altogether cosy, creative and beautiful space.

The dogs are Bruno and Trixie, both mixed rescue dogs. Spending so much time with them has made us all very attached. Our daily walks have taken us all over the Wolds, through medieval villages, quaint Roman towns, and further outward to the east coast. It’s been an unforgettable – and wholly unexpected – chapter in our lives. We were supposed to be leaving in March, but now find ourselves here indefinitely thanks to Covid-19 - and it certainly isn't a bad place to self-isolate.

One of the things we’ve noticed over the last year is that life is full of opportunities if only we’re open to them. It’s difficult to step outside a routine you’re used to, especially if there are bills to pay and good jobs at stake. But once you do, and the universe knows you are a free agent, things start to happen. The way paves itself somehow. Yes, you need to be organised and be decisive when it matters, but in letting life take you on a bit of a ride, you open yourself up to a new way of living and thinking, and possibilities you might never have considered previously. I wrote this before Covid-19 broke out in Europe, but it seems even more valid now that we have all been forced to halt whatever normality is for us. Fortunately, being relatively isolated anyway, not much has changed for me and Ed.

I'd be lying if I said there haven't been difficult moments this year. When you've forgone certain comforts, you're not earning much money, and everyone else is saving, buying houses and settling down, it's easy for self-doubt creep in. The pressure to conform and do what is expected is strong. But equally strong is the feeling of empowerment that comes with choosing your own path. When we reflect on the experiences we've had, the skills we've learnt and the possibilities we now feel are open to us, we're reminded why we chose to do this. And it turns out that being less bound to mainstream society has made us more resilient to extreme and sudden change - like this pandemic.

Being spontaneous, saying yes to things, letting go of expectation and opening ourselves up to life is the best thing we’ve ever done. We’re bursting with ideas, intent and inspiration. We're still moving - not physically, thanks to Covid-19 - but onward, and with purpose.

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