Queensland couple Neil McLean and Gai Reid journeyed to Europe to enjoy some authentic travel, ‘living like locals’. The result? They spent 300 days pet- and house-sitting their way across four countries, spending less than it would cost them to live at home. Plus they started a new business, Village to Villa! Here’s the next chapter in the fabulous account of their escapades…
[To read episode 25, click here]
When Gai and I teed up our pet and house sit in Ottery St Mary in the United Kingdom, we had to look it up on the map to find out where it was. A cute village of 5,000 people in the Devon countryside near Exeter in south-west England. The assignment was about six months down the track. We were still in Australia planning the Village to Villa tour.
The homeowners Stu and Deb were extremely friendly on our Skype call and later took the brave move of saying ‘Yes’ to a couple of Aussies 30,000km away. Our job was to look after their huge stately home, their beloved springer spaniel, two identical cats, a gaggle of geese and a hoard of hens.
The property was on about 2 acres (0.9 hectares) with a huge swimming pool, a separate stylish accommodation block for visiting family and friends and several other outbuildings. It was a well set up mini-farm with large expanses of grass and lovely big trees.
Their magnificent home was actually a few miles out of Ottery St Mary in a tiny enclave called Alphington. The access off the main road was a skinny lane with solid hedgerows either side … just big enough for one car at a time. Next to the homestead was an ancient church, with links to a famous poet and one neighbour on the other side who happened to be a well-known local artist.
What were we expecting life to be like in this tiny enclave about 5 miles from the nearest village? Quiet? Secluded? Sedentary? It was none of those.
After the goodbyes, Pippa — the very entertaining and awesomely smart spaniel — keyed into both us. She seemed to say “Okay, Mum and Dad have gone, you guys are my new play mates”. Daily walks, playing and generally interacting, plus food of course, were Pippa’s mainstays. She wanted to be in everything, all the time. She was totally engaging.
Then there were to the two cats. They were called Cinnamon and Nutmeg (we naturally called them the Spice Girls) and were identical except for the colour of their collars. For me it was the only way to tell them apart. They had the twin game down pat, especially when it came to feed time. They would both trick you into thinking it was the ‘other one’ that just had the bowl of cat goodies!
There were the other girls outside. The geese girls, the hens and the one-eyed gander. He lost his eye in some scrap a few years ago according to Stu. Most times, Pippa and the Spice Girls would follow us down to the shed where the geese were kept safe overnight. Our first job was to let them out for a feed and a flap in the water, and then attend to the chooks to let them out for their daily wander and feed.
Either one of the cats liked to shoulder surf on me as all this was happening. It was quite a trick Stu had mastered with both of them!
After the animals were looked after for the morning, it was usually time to chop some wood for that night’s kindling. There was already a gigantic wood stack. It was my job to bring in the daily supply for the evening fire in the large loungeroom. When done, the time was ours for exploring and writing stories.
There was so much to see and explore in East Devon. It became a daily routine very quickly, with a couple of trips into town a week for the groceries and other supplies. Ottery St Mary was a busy little place with narrow streets and confusing intersections. To get to the supermarket from our side of the village, it was down a couple of steep, windy hills, through a majorly busy four-way intersection, and around the edge of town to the carpark and out the one-way street!
A pretty little village with a relatively huge church on the hill on the way out of town, people said hello to each other and generally life in Otter St Mary was pleasant and friendly. The village gained extra notoriety when author JK Rowling used ‘Ottery St Catchpole’ as the home of the Weasley’s in the Harry Potter series.
We got to know our neighbours quickly. Stu and Deb’s close friends lived down the lane and had been over for dinner before our hosts left for their island holiday in the sun! It proved to be beneficial as the hot water stopped at some stage and we had some one to ask for help. With that sorted we went on our merry way for several weeks in what we could describe as ‘rural English heaven’. It was a wonderful time living the country life in a grand English manor, with a magnificent dog, two cute affectionate cats and a swag of poultry to look after.
We were almost sad when our hosts returned. We could have just gone on with life right there and then. Gai and I are so grateful to have experienced life in the English countryside of Devon. A sweet and relaxed way to live.