Written By Gary, Photos by Gary & Yafei
I guess if I had to summarize in one word our first extended trip as a family unit, I’d have to say “challenging.” I’d never imagined using this word when my travel book, ‘A Life Redesigned,’ was published but I guess that’s one of the thrills of being on the road – you often find yourself well outside your comfort zone. And, it’s not like we were traveling in a far and exotic land - we had just spent ten weeks in England - a country I was born in and lived in for nearly thirty-five years.
The Start Of Our Adventure in Buckinghamshire
So, let’s examine what worked, and perhaps more importantly, what did not during this trip. To give a context to my comments, our adventure spanned six locations (Buckinghamshire, the West Country, South Wales, The Lake District, The New Forest, and London). We did four housesits, stayed with family or friends on two occasions, used Airbnb four times (although two of these were only overnight as we transitioned between lodgings), and stayed at one airport hotel.
So, What Worked?
Most importantly, our extended trip allowed us to spend considerably more time with family and friends than has been typical on previous, shorter trips. Xaria got to see her grandpa (my Dad) for only the second time – which was a blessing as his health is now failing as he enters his mid-eighties. We also spent time with sets of cousins who we had not seen since the last family funeral four years ago! In addition, we made a number of new friends along the way.
A Day with Grampa
Overall, it was a fabulous family adventure and validated much of the planning we had undertaken, and that is described in my book. Housesitting quite frankly exceeded our expectations in almost every way. We stayed in three different homes, doing one on two separate occasions. In all cases, the hosts were friendly and gracious, had prepared well for our visit, and the properties varied between tidy to sparkling clean. We got to look after some delightful pets including three dogs, three cats and a couple of bunny rabbits. Willow, an eighteen-month-old black lab was my favorite. I hiked through the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside multiple times with my new four-legged friend. We all fell in love with Morris the dachshund and Mable the terrier we looked after in Corsham and enjoyed lots of cuddles with Midnight, one of three, very different, cats owned by Emma in Carnforth. At two of the three sits, we had a one night overlap period with the owners to get familiar with the pets and house. While I would recommend this, it’s by no means necessary if both parties are well prepared. We all loved looking after our furry charges, and Xaria learned an increasing degree of patience, and that dogs and cats interact very differently with their human counterparts.
Xaria with Morris and Mable
Then we spent time in some beautiful places – the best of which were undoubtedly the northern Lake District, The New Forest, and Buckinghamshire. In addition, we spent a couple of fun days exploring the Kennet and Avon canal in the West Country, and you can read more about this in the blogs, ‘Life on a Narrowboat’ and ‘Conquering Cain Hill Locks.’ We also got to knock off a couple of bucket list items including visits to Highclere Castle (famous from the BBC series Downton Abbey) and the colleges at Oxford University.
Purchasing a National Trust Family Membership allowed us to visit many historic places and saved us considerable money on entry fees. It was pleasing to find that many National Trust (NT) properties have now incorporated kid’s treasure hunts, and this certainly makes visiting with younger children easier. Kids get bored quickly looking at furniture and paintings but love hunting for lobsters or shells. Another highlight of the trip were several industrial NT properties, the best being the Quarry Bank Cotton Mill. This living museum was tremendously engaging for the whole family. Most NT properties also have a decent café, so if we were passing through an area and were close to one, we would often grab lunch there even if we didn’t look around much.
Quarry Bank Mill - One of the Best-Preserved Textile Mills of the Industrial Revolution
I’m also glad we were up to date on vaccines, had telemedicine capabilities, and were carrying anti-biotics. Having got bitten by a dog (ironically, not while pet sitting but while taking a stroll in the New Forest), our preparations most certainly saved me from spending a long and tedious evening in a local hospital. Among the other small stuff we carried, earplugs once again proved to be a lifesaver when sleeping, particularly in London.
We were fans of Google photos before we left, and we used this service extensively during this trip. Photos and videos were rapidly backed up as soon as our devices found Wi-Fi access. The in-built editing features allowed us to quickly prepare pictures for social media posting, although it must be said these are not comprehensive enough for serious photo editing. Unwanted pictures could be deleted before they were uploaded or once stored online. If you’re like us, photos and videos will soon start taking up lots of storage, so unless you keep on top of deleting unwanted media, you’ll begin incurring monthly storage charges (fortunately, these are reasonable).
What Did Not Work!
We discovered several things for which we were not fully prepared. No shortcoming was a disaster, but improvements in any of the areas will make future trips more enjoyable.
Our biggest challenge was without doubt family dynamics - this was the first time we’d spent such a long period together 24/7 away from our home. While we got to learn a lot about each other, at times we got on each other’s nerves, it was difficult to carve out adult time, at times the adults had different thoughts on what to do, and any attempt at formally homeschooling with Xaria brought on rolling eyes and complaints of being tired! We’ll certainly have some reading and work to do to improve this state of affairs, although judging from many homeschool Facebook posts this situation is not uncommon at this age. Thus, we found it was best to stick with ‘experiential’ learning - museums, libraries, playgrounds, and kid-friendly attractions figured considerably in our destinations. I think we did manage to balance the different needs of everyone when it came to visiting attractions, so that was positive.
Experiential Learning Suited Xaria Best
In general, we found Internet connectivity at the majority of our lodgings frustratingly slow and, in many cases, unreliable. We’re so used to near-instantaneous browser or app response when at home, and when you lose this your connected experience starts to suck! Generally speaking, phone-based apps worked better than attempting to use the equivalent PC app; many web-based services on the PC were so slow as to be unusable. One reason for this was undoubtedly the poor set-up of Wi-Fi modems in many of the places we stayed in. I think most people just unwrap and install these devices and hope for the best! This typically leads to neighboring devices interfering with each other and, consequently, you end up with slow and unreliable links. For example, at our last Airbnb in London, my Wi-Fi analyzer (a phone-based android-app) showed the Airbnb Wi-Fi was literally on the worse operating frequency it could be set to! And, of course, we had no way to change it. Thus, I recommend using a direct ethernet connection from a router to a PC when possible. If, like us, your laptop does not have an ethernet port purchase a USB-to-ethernet adapter. These are typically less than twenty dollars. Had we been remote-working with bandwidth-intensive apps, I feel this would have become a major bugbear. Finally, we found geofencing restricted access to some institutions in the States unless we were running a VPN service and connected back to a US server.
While I thought we had done a reasonable job of packing, we soon realized we could improve further. For one thing, don’t have a suitcase that weighs close to 50lbs! Divide belongings across several smaller pieces of luggage; carrying a heavy bag up a narrow stairway is a quick way to pull a back muscle. We also made a note of items that got little or no use; these won’t be accompanying us on our next adventure. And remember, if you need something you can always buy it locally – when you’re traveling for an extended period this becomes cost-effective. Items we need to add to our packing list include lighter weight rain jackets and an Internet to USB adaptor (see above). Carry all books electronically – paper ones, even a couple, add several unnecessary pounds.
That's Too Much Luggage
In ‘A Life Redesigned,’ one of the things I discussed traveling to places for weeks/months, rather than days/weeks. To our detriment, we did not follow our own advice on this trip, averaging only ten days per location. In part, this was associated with the difficulty to obtain longer-term house sits. Hopefully, now we’ve gained more good TrustedHousesitter reviews getting longer sits will be easier in the future. Moving quickly between places had a couple of adverse effects, mainly associated with not having enough downtime. Firstly, we struggled to find time for social media and blogging. Even our Instagram account managed by Yafei fell behind, and my blogging ground to a halt after a couple of articles. Secondly, we all got physically tired! If I sleep eleven hours, then clearly, I’m more tired than I should be. Yafei and Xaria had some pretty late mornings as well. Further, we did not get into any regular exercise pattern. Finally, we didn’t peel away the surface layers of many of the places we visited. When we had time to explore off the beaten track, often what we found proved to be the highlights of the trip – a case in point being a fascinating visit to Rockfield Studios, Monmouth where Freddie Mercury composed and later recorded Bohemian Rhapsody.
Yafei Sitting At the Piano Where Bohemian Rhapsody Was Composed
Of the places we visited, I’m sad to say London was a little disappointing! Unfortunately, our time in the capital coincided with the beginning of the school holidays over Europe and, perhaps, this was what was responsible for the Capital being overrun with tourists (and yes, I get the irony of this comment). Many of the main attractions were just uncomfortable to visit. Interestingly though, when I asked a docent at the Natural History Museum if it was busy, his response was, “it was busier yesterday, and gets much worse than this.” The Science Museum and British Museum were swarming with people as well, although the Victorian and Albert Museum was pleasant. Even Yafei’s Chinese friends, who were visiting from Nanjing, China, for a week, found the number of people oppressive. And on top of this, London offered by far the worst value for money (read this related article) relating to eating out. Check out our TripAdvisor reviews for a couple of restaurants I’d avoid if your visiting. At least our Airbnb in Shepherds Bush was pretty good and well located. But even in this suburban area, restaurant prices were moderate to high. Our most enjoyable day in London ended up being a day trip to Oxford! Well, perhaps a little bit of an exaggeration, the London Eye and Portobello Market were memorable days out as well.
London Skyline from the Coca-Cola London Eye
We learned a lot about each other as a family and had a wonderful experience – which at the end of the day is what travel is all about. I’ll be adding another blog piece breaking down our travel expenditures for this trip, so keep a lookout for this. For more details on our preparation and experiences of long-term travel in a digital age, check out, ‘A Life Redesigned.’
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