The final chapter of our Big European Adventure was comprised of a house sit in the English countryside, looking after a ten-year-old whippet, Alfred, and his two cat siblings, Purdie and Coco. For those two weeks, we enjoyed plenty of walking, visited a number of relatives and just generally took it slow.
You could say that our stay in Oxfordshire was a kind of ‘winding-down’ period for us, a time to reflect on our journey so far, to continue to make more connections with family and, in the process, to discover a little more about ourselves. While we were still interested in exploring rural England and towns beyond London, the focus had evidently changed.
No longer did we rush out every day to pound the pavements of Europe in search of history, culture, and excitement, instead opting for slow mornings curled up with a novel and a cup of tea. With the sharp arrival of Autumn, we didn’t mind choosing to have days at home with our fur-friends; as the wind whirred rusty leaves around outside, we happily observed from a warm, blanket-bundled corner inside.
Every day we would take Alfred on a walk. Mostly, we would head down our nearby country lane, passing by timid sheep, rows of shedding apple trees and fences covered with wild blackberries. At the end of the lane, a handful of Elizabethan country cottages, shielded by box hedges and blossoming roses, marked our point of return.
The blustery autumn days saw Daniel and I seek out indoor activities much more. We took Alfred down to a local pub. There, we tried to enjoy some ale while Alfred whined about not being able to sit with the attractive, young, female whippet who had just entered the establishment with her owners. We also ventured to a small, rather poncey, nearby town to undertake some op-shopping.
Of course, there was the odd day where we ventured further afield.
One day, we made a two-hour road trip up to the city of Bath to check out the Roman Baths. Reawakened from beneath the modern street level, this historic bath-house was quite the wonder. We were both taken with the ingenuity of the ancient Romans; to have harnessed the power of geothermal energy to deliver warm water for public bathing – around 70AD – is simply incredible!
Another memorable excursion was our day trip to Oxford – the main city in our resident shire. There, we took a tour of the University of Oxford which saw us visit the prestigious Balliol College (where select first-year students live and are tutored), the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin and the iconic Radcliffe Camera (which serves as the reading room for the Bodleian Library).
Unfortunately, we missed checking out Christ Church College which is now famous for having brought much of author J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to life. Christ Church’s dining hall was the inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall and many of the stairwells in the fictional school are actually those seen in Christ Church.
While the University of Oxford allowed us a glimpse into the English bourgeoisie life, an afternoon tea with my Great, Grand Aunty Grace presented an amazing opportunity to hear about her life in England – which, might I add, began in 1921! My dear relative is 97 years old, but she speaks of her time nursing during World War Two like it was just a few years ago. To her, moving from Wales to Northern England to train as a nurse was simply necessary to “do [her] bit” for the country.
With the help of James, Grace’s grandson, we were lucky enough to meet a large portion of my family on my mother’s side. James generously gave up his time to arrange dinners and visits and was always there to greet us with a smile on his face. In fact, all of Jame’s family were so good to us.
We stayed with Jame’s mother, Zoe, and her husband, Philip, for our last two nights in England, enjoying quintessentially English indulgences, namely, gin and tonic. Hearing Zoe and Philip’s recollections of my parents’ stay with them back in the ’80s was a highlight. I certainly think that my Mum and Dad were cooler than Daniel and I, having travelled through Europe in an orange Volkswagon Kombi dubbed ‘Mandy Rin’.
There’s no doubt that the time we spent with family in England made us realise just how lucky we are. To make connections with people that could be deemed ‘distant’ relatives felt very special, and anything but removed. Instead, we left the country knowing we had a network of wonderful relatives that we expected to see again. For me, I had also connected the dots between my family in New Zealand and Australia and their roots in England.
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It’s funny; our stay in Oxfordshire had solidified our growing appreciation of the simple things. Often, the most special of moments can be those of the simplest design. Tea with family, walks with animals and moments of solitude can be as memorable as visiting the Colosseum, hiking the Cinque Terre and doing a pub crawl in Prague (okay, definitely more memorable than the latter!).
As we settled into the first leg of our twenty-three-hour flight to Brisbane, Australia – our home away from home – we reflected on such notions; for us, travelling Europe had somehow, somewhere along the way, enabled us to have a clearer perspective of our values. Simplicity is one of those. As is the connectedness that comes with being around family and friends. Of course, our experiences had been unforgettable, but we were ready to come home – to make more, new memories which would include the ones we love.