This past summer, I spent almost three months in Southwest England. I had recently upended my life in Seattle and I felt like I needed a getaway where I could reset and reground myself. I was feeling lost and lonely and incredibly heartsick. I was doubting my decision to leave the life I had built in Seattle with my (ex)boyfriend and despite my tearful self-assurances, I felt intensely anxious about my path going forward. Was going back to the ship the right choice? How would I pay back student loans if I didn’t pursue a high-paying career? Would I ever meet a partner who jived with my nomadic tendencies? These questions, and more, left me feeling pretty anxious and lost. While some people might turn to family and friends for reassurance and support, I tend to do the opposite. I needed a solo adventure. Something that would clear my head, mend my heart, and hopefully help me see a more resolute path forward. So I signed up for a three month housesit in southwest England.
It’s actually kind of a funny side story of how I landed the housesit. I was interviewing with the British couple over Skype and they were telling me about their plans to do a three month around-the-world trip with their six year old daughter. Their first stop was New England – a month-long road trip from New York to Maine and back again. Vermont, of course, was on their itinerary, so being the proud Vermonter that I am, I asked where they would be visiting. Lo and behold, they had already booked an Airbnb in the very same small, rural town where I grew up! What!? Underhill, you have to understand, is not a tourist destination. It’s a tiny town with a strong local community, some great mountain biking and hiking trails and lots of cows but not much in the way of tourist infrastructure at all. There are no museums, very few restaurants, no public transportation, and definitely no night life. Nearby Burlington, Shelburne, Charlotte, et al… have all those things and more to entertain tourists, but not Underhill. It’s a mystery how Caroline and Will decided on an Airbnb in my tiny rural home town. And the story gets even better. It turns out that the B&B they booked was located at the other end of the dirt road my parents house is on, only about 8 miles down from my childhood stomping ground. How crazy is that!? And to get even crazier, they ended up wanting to stay a few extra nights in the Underhill area (of course, it’s the best), so they booked a room at my parents Airbnb. The world can’t get any smaller than that.
So it kind of felt like fate that I landed this three month housesit in the UK: I needed a solo adventure, I couldn’t afford all the expenses of a big trip because I had just quit my job with no future job lined up, I had no personal obligations, the timing was right, and the homeowners were traveling to my home town in rural Vermont. All the signs pointed to yes. It was settled, then. Just before my 32nd birthday in June, with my mountain bike in tow, my few belongings stuffed into my backpack, and a sense of adventure that I hadn’t felt for a long time, I left for the UK.
There were plenty of ups and downs over those three months. I wish I could say that I healed my heart, I gained new insights on myself and my future, and I came away stronger than I left. But the truth is that none of those things really happened. England ended up being more about stepping away from it all, not about figuring it all out. And that’s quite all right with me. Instead of getting my ducks in a row, I went mountain biking and hiking every week, I watched wild ponies graze on the moors, I explored small, medieval towns with their quaint markets and boutique shops, I ate wood fired pizza with the locals, I made friends… I also spent days on the couch watching marathons of Gilmore Girls and eating ice cream out of the pint to distract myself from ‘real life’.
So despite my intentions of ‘figuring things out’ in the UK, I left England still feeling pretty lonely, lost, anxious (particularly about money), and unsure about how things would continue to unfold as the year went on. But I also left with some pretty great memories, a handful of new friendships, and most importantly, I left England with a regained sense of being a strong, independent, female traveler, an identity that I feel like I lost during my four years in Seattle. It was good to feel that confidence again and know that I still have the travel mojo 🙂
Onward and upward!
Below are a few of my favorite photos that I took from various places and adventures around southwest UK. I hope you enjoy!
EXMOOR NATIONAL PARK
I spent a lot of time in Exmoor National Park because it was one of the closest nature areas to where I was housesitting aside from the Quantock Hills. Besides being gorgeous, the park is also home to numerous herds of wild ponies, which I never got tired of watching. Many of my trips into the park were with my bike since the mountain bike guidebook I found in Exeter had a whole section of rides in Exmoor. Each one was stunning!
DARTMOOR NATIONAL PARK
I only spent one glorious day in Dartmoor National Park and I regret not exploring it further. It’s different from Exmoor in that it’s more wild (think actual moorland rather than farmland) and there are ancient stone circles and standing stones hidden among the valleys and hills, something I didn’t come across in Exmoor. Of course, wild ponies roam freely and the cattle and sheep that graze within its boundaries have the best life of any farm animals I’ve come across in my travels. Plus, one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes episodes was filmed there – The Hounds of Baskerville 😉
THE QUANTOCK HILLS
Like Exmoor, I spent a lot of time in the Quantock Hills mountain biking and taking the dogs for a walk. It’s a beautiful area, if a bit more popular and crowded than the other two parks. Some of the downhill rides were top notch, but the climbs back up were not…
I found this beach in an off-the-beaten-path guidebook that was sitting on the bookshelf in my room. I used that guide book for a lot of outings over the summer and it never disappointed. Every destination was off the beaten path and it felt like I was actually discovering a local’s only place every time I ventured out per its instructions. Kilve Beach was no different. I actually missed a turn trying to find it because the road down to the beach was so inconspicuous. The beach itself was fascinating. Crazy geological features, huge prehistoric fossils, beautiful views out to the ocean, and an adorable (and delicious) little cafe that serves light lunch fare in a ramshackle (but historically significant) old church.
The farm I was housesitting at was pretty remote, but thankfully I had an awesome neighbor – Amy – who lived in the ‘malt house’ right next door. She’s a bit younger than me, but we hit it off and we’re actually doing a road trip together in California in April! Super excited about that. Aside from movie nights, wine nights, walks with the dogs, and picnics on the lawns, we went on a few adventures farther afield. One of my favorites was to the super cute town of Clovelly. No cars are allowed in town because the cobblestone streets are so narrow and steep, which made the vibe even more quaint and charming. The houses – all brightened up with flowers and garden beds – are built close together and overlook a small bay and boatyard. A few of the houses were actually set up as the would have been in the old fishing days with lanterns, antique furniture, old pictures and photographs, cast iron cooking utensils, etc…
Towards the end of my stay in England, my mom came for a short visit. It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride because tension often runs high (I won’t go into that now), but we did embark on some fun adventures. One of those outings was to the old Roman city of Bath, renown for its classical architecture and, of course, its geothermal baths. Funny story – we actually thought that we could go into the ancient Roman baths, so we walked around the exhibit with a large bag packed with towels and swimming suits… turns out you can’t soak in the 2000+ year old pools. Silly us.
Another adventure my mom and I went on was an overnight trip to the southernmost county of England – Cornwall. Prior to visiting, my only reference to Cornwall was the binge-worthy British drama series – Poldark – that takes place in the Cornish countryside. If you haven’t seen this show, I highly recommend it, it’s sooo good! And a little sappy 😉 The landscape scenes alone will make you want to visit this gorgeous part of England.
We didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore since I had to get back to the house and dogs (Amy was kind enough to watch over them for a night), so we did a whirlwind tour of a few standout places.
We went for a short but stunning hike in Zennor head. Unfortunately I had a back pain thing going on, so I couldn’t do anything too strenuous, which was a bummer since it was so unbelievably beautiful there.
We caught a day-time show at the cliffside Minack Theater, which was such a trip. I’m not a huge theater aficionado, but this was a definite highlight. The theater is carved out of stone and is situated right at the edge of a cliff that overlooks the English Channel. The views were absolutely insane and the show itself – Nell Gwynn – had us in stitches.
My mom wanted to see a real castle before she left, so we stopped at St. Michaels Mount, an island fortress just outside of Penzance. You can walk to the island at low tide or take a boat shuttle if the walkway is covered in water. Since the tide was high in the morning, we took the boat over then walked back a few hours later along the long, paved footpath.
I visited and explored many more places than these few highlights, but these were some of my favorites. I can’t wait to get back and explore more of beautiful England. I hear there’s some fantastic mountain biking in the northern regions, especially Scotland and Wales 😉