Aug 25 – Sep 2, 2017
Well it’s one down, two to go, and so far, we are giddy with excitement! Our first house sit was a dream house with a really sweet, calm, well-behaved black lab, and two cute bunnies who lived out back. As this was our first “job”, we really had no idea what to expect, or even what questions to ask, and although things went really well overall, we did learn a few things. In order to respect people’s privacy, I won’t be posting photos of people’s homes, giving names of family or pets, or provide any other identifying information, but I can certainly share about our experiences. I did ask for permission to share photos of their pets out on walks around the area.
When we arrived at our home for the week, the pup came running out to greet us and the couple brought us in, showed us around the house and yard, and tried to fill us in on all of the things we’d need to know. We swapped contact info, and as I had my iPhone with a UK SIM card, I was able to text or use WhatsApp to keep them updated. After a whirlwind tour of the house, we went out for supper to chat more casually and get to know one another.
Everyone went to bed early as the family had to be up at 2:30am for an early morning flight, and the dog came into our room and slept on the floor right away. I left the bedroom door open so that puppy could go out for a goodbye visit in the middle of the night if she wanted. When she came back into the bedroom at 3am, I knew the family was off.
When we got up in the morning, we got dressed and went straight out to take the dog for her morning walk. We knew roughly where to go – out the back gate, onto the lane, and then take one of the many footpaths that criss cross this country. The first field had about 20-30 calves which had recently been separated from their mothers and they were eager to come to visit us, looking for food. By the end of the week, they had figured out we weren’t the farmers and mostly ignored us, but it was really fun those first few days as they crowded around us a couple of times. I will post a cute video below.
As an aside, I absolutely LOVE England’s policy of public footpaths on all property. Every field has a gate of some sort – kissing gates, regular latched gates, steps up and over a rock wall, and more – and the public is expected to act responsibly when on private property. That means keeping pets away from livestock, picking up dog poop, staying on pathways so as not to trample crops, and not leaving trash. And as far as I can see, people seem to respect it and of all the footpaths I’ve been on in the UK, I haven’t seen any messes left by walkers or tourists.
Anyway, there we were, walking the footpaths with our lovely pup, in the early morning, while the grass was still wet with dew – heaven! Although she seemed very well behaved and the family told us she would be fine off-leash, we were hesitant to do so for the first 2-3 days, until we were certain she’d come when called. However, we soon realized how well she listened and eventually let her run when in the fields. We always carried treats with us and rewarded her each time she came when called, and we kept her on leash when on the roads or in fields with livestock.
When we got home from our walk, Erik fed the dog while I fed and watered the rabbits, and then finally, it was time for a cup of coffee! There was bread, milk, and eggs left for for us to use, and we were encouraged to use up any food that might spoil while they were away, as well as condiments/spices etc. We did use a few things, but most of the time, we bought and cooked our own food, or ate out at the pub. I would have used our own coffee, but they had a Nespresso machine and I couldn’t find anywhere that sold the capsules. I found out at our next sit, that you can buy them at Tesco… Ah well, live and learn.
The first day, we walked around the village to get our bearings, checked out the pub close by and bought a book about the history of the pub, and picked up some groceries at the village shop. It seems that a lot of these small villages will have a community shop, and unlike small groceries stores at home, the prices are very reasonable. I suspect this is because for the most part, the shops are manned by volunteers, with only a few paid staff who take care of the books and the ordering etc. I think it’s a great idea!
It was fun to be able walk around the village with the dog because lots of people would stop to chat – some knew our pup and so by proxy, knew who we were, and others just stopped to chat because we were strangers.
The Brits really love and care for their dogs. Everywhere you go, you see people with their pets and it’s a lovely sight. They really take responsibility for their animals and most pets seemed to be very well mannered. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why most pubs allow dogs inside. In fact, it’s almost surprising to walk into a pub and NOT see a dog sitting quietly under a table. It was a custom that Erik was anxious to try.
Bretforton was a gorgeous little village with the typical yellow Cotswold stone homes with either stone or thatched roofs, and a typical town square called the Cross. Our house was near the square, and very close walking distance to a 600 year old pub, called the Fleece Inn. Originally a small three room peasant farm house, succeeding generations of the same “Byrd” family added onto the home over time until it became the larger, rambling building it is now.
In 1848, Henry Byrd decided to open the house as a pub in order to make a living but he soon died and his widow, Ann Byrd, took over. The next three generations who ran the pub were all women – successive daughters and granddaughters of the Henry and Ann Byrd, ending with Lola Taplin who died in 1977. Local stories suggest she was quite a character, and although bit surly, was much respected. Some say she occasionally haunts the place by moving furniture around in the bar at night, and sometimes throwing food across the room (she never allowed food in the pub when she ran the place).
Having no heirs, Lola bequeathed the Inn to the National Trust who has hired managers to run it since then. The current and arguably most successful landlord, Nigel Smith, has done a great job managing and marketing the Inn, despite weathering a devastating chimney fire that destroyed the thatch roof in 2004. However, the community came out in droves to create a human chain and removed the many antiques, so all was not lost. Eighteen months of renovations eventually brought the Inn back to its former glory with three cosy rooms surrounding the small main bar, as well as a kitchen and other offices, two rental rooms upstairs, and a medieval barn next door. There is a full events calendar posted on the website, with many special events, weddings, and local musicians performing. Every time we went over, the Inn seemed to be a going concern, both inside, and out on the acre of parklike orchard. It was truly the quintessential old English Pub.
During our week in Bretforton, we took several short trips to the surrounding areas, visiting Chipping Campden, where we had started the Cotswold Way in 2014, and Broadway, a very pretty but touristy village, where we went for a full afternoon tea in the garden of Tisane’s Tea Room. We shared cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, turkey and cranberry sandwiches, scones with strawberry preserves and thick,clotted cream, and two kinds of cake – Lemon Drizzle and Victoria Sponge. I was so full that I didn’t need any supper that evening.
On another showery afternoon, we visited Snowshill Manor, a fascinating old house stuffed full of odd handicrafts and antiques collected by the eccentric Charles Wade over his lifetime. He himself lived in a tiny cottage next to the huge manor that he purchased solely to house his collections. Like so many others, he died without heirs and donated his home and collection to the National Trust.
Another afternoon, we drove a few kilometers down the road and walked a 4 km loop up and down Dover’s Hill. It was part of the Cotswold Way and we enjoyed revisiting some of the views we’d seen a few years earlier. The sun even came out for a little while that day!
During the week, I cooked a few meals and we ate at the pub a few times. We had Sunday Lunch (roast beef dinner) at the Fleece Inn on Sunday afternoon, take out Fish and Chips on Tuesday, and Pie and Pint night on Wednesday (that was a delicious hand made chicken and leek pie with a pint of beer). On Thursday night, we went to the pub after dinner to listen to Folk Music night. We had prime seats in the little Pewter Room which only held about 14 people normally, as the musicians began to file in around 9pm. There were about 10 musicians and about the same number of spectators, but Erik and I had so much fun that we stayed long after most people had left. A young man, Matthew, who played the button accordion sat at our table, and we had great fun chatting with him. One of the men sang the Springhill Mining Disaster song for us, and then later, Matthew invited us to come see the Morris Dancers practice in Stratford Upon Avon on Saturday.
Morris Dancing is a folk dance normally done only by the men (although there are now women’s “sides” as well). The men wear colourful costumes with bells on their knees, and usually include sticks and handkerchiefs, and sometimes even swords in their complex steps. Each town has a “Side” or group with their own costume and dances and they enjoy meeting with other Sides to learn new dances and then lift a pint or two.
Anyway, we had a super night and didn’t head home until 1:30am. Erik had asked me several times from midnight on if I was ready to go, but I wasn’t. LOL…
On Friday, we started to get our stuff collected and packed up, and did some housework – vacuuming, sweeping, dusting etc. The family wasn’t expected home until about 1:30 Saturday afternoon so we had time to clean bathrooms and do laundry after we got up on our last morning. I made a batch of ginger cookies to leave for the family and by the time they arrived home, we were all packed and ready to go, and puppy had had one last walk, bunnies were fed, and the house was clean and tidy. We had a brief visit to tell them how things went, and then said our goodbyes and were on our way to Blockley for a couple of days before heading south to our next house sit.
Overall, we really enjoyed our first house sit, and it actually exceeded our exceptions, if that’s possible. It was lovely to have a dog around again and I felt I really got to know her during our week visit. We enjoyed taking her out for walks out in the fields several times a day. The rabbits were easy to care for and fun to watch, and we never felt constricted in our activities because we had animals to care for – rather they enhanced our visit.
We had time to do 2-3 short trips to nearby towns and were never away for more than four hours by design rather than necessity. We find we are usually tired and want to be home by that time anyway. Most days, we just enjoyed hanging out at home – reading, walking, cooking, and watching TV a few evenings. Erik even had a guitar to play and I had a piano so I was able to practice my Claire de Lune every day.
I can’t say enough positive things about the house as well – it was a beautiful, old (as in 1600’s old), rambling, manor house with three storeys and many little cozy spots. They had added a new sunny conservatory, and as it was hot for our first 2-3 days there, we enjoyed the folding doors that opened up to the patio and the gorgeous yard. Our room was large and comfortable with a queen size bed, and we had two bathrooms to choose from on the same floor. I loved the crooked old wood floors that tipped and tilted and made you feel as though you’d had a few too many pints, and our corner room had windows looking out to the pub and the orchard park next door. What’s not to like?!
House sitting is definitely not for everyone though. You have to be content to be a home body for the time you are there, and you have to love animals and enjoy caring for them. It’s easy to love your own pets, but not always so with other people’s, so that part is important. And are you comfortable living in someone else’s home? If you’ve done lots of AirBnB, you might find this part no big deal, but some people might not enjoy that part. For us, it was great, and it was interesting to slip into other people’s lives for a short while.
It’s also important to choose your housesits carefully. Make sure you are in the kind of place you would enjoy spending time – do you prefer city life? Small town? Village? Or a rural spot? Do you loves dogs, or cats, or do you prefer the greater challenge of caring for farm animals? What house and yard work is expected? We watered the pots almost every day, and there must have been at least twenty of them around the the front and back patios, and we had specific times we needed to be home to walk and feed animals. We didn’t have to cut the grass or weed the garden at this home, but we were willing to, but I loved having little household chores to do as it kept me busy and made me feel at home.
My biggest learning curve was worrying about accidentally damaging something while we were there. Obviously, we were being extra careful when using other people’s possessions, but after the second day, when I inadvertently melted the handle of a pretty utensil, I fretted and worried for several days about what to do. (I had assumed the colourful handle was silicone and had left the spoon leaning inside a pot on the hot stove, only to find it softened, dented, scratched, and partially melted.) I googled the brand and found it was discontinued (due to that actual problem), but I was able to contact a local supplier and order a replacement online.
Once I had solved the problem, I messaged the homeowner and told them what had happened. Not surprisingly, she told me not to worry about it and that I hadn’t needed to replace the item, but I’m still really glad I did, because I think it’s the right thing to do. From that point on, every time I noticed a knick in a bowl or a scratch on a table, I worried that I might have done it. LOL, it was quite silly to fret, I know, but I couldn’t help it. I decided that on our next house sit, I will ask about any dishes or items that we should avoid because they have great value, either financially or sentimentally, and I will take a close look, and perhaps even take photos of scratches on tables and etc so I can tell if I’ve done anything.
After the house sit, I did google the situation on some housesitting blogs that mentioned that some housesitters often videotape parts of the house so they know how to put everything back exactly the way it was when the homeowners left. We didn’t have need to move anything around so that wasn’t necessary, but I did like the idea of taking pictures of pre-existing damage, like I do when I rent a car, only in this case, it’s strictly for my own information, and not to try to prove that something was already there.
And so now, we have two days off, to visit the town of Blockley (only 20 minutes away) and the surrounding area. We will stay at a lovely B&B built in an old mill, and check out where Father Brown was filmed, as well as take a walk around Upper and Lower Slaughter, and visit Chastletown House.
Next Up: Our Second Housesit in Stour Row, near Shaftesbury, in Dorset