Meeting owls from Apollo Falconry

I mentioned in my good things in November post how I’d found some things for us to do on Groupon. One of them was the owl wander with owls from Apollo Falconry. It’s worth checking on Groupon too if you’re thinking of going because the deal that I got may still be there.

The experiences are run from a couple of locations, so don’t get confused as we did. If you book via Groupon, you need the address in Oxfordshire on the Groupon page, not the address on the falconry website, which is about a 30-minute drive away.

When we arrived at the hotel, we checked where the birds would be and walked down to where we met Konny and her birds. She brought the owls out one at a time so that we could meet and find out about them. We were the only ones there that day – there are good things about booking in the middle of the week during school term time – so we had plenty of chances to handle the owls and ask questions.

Billie the barn owl

Actually we heard Billie long before we saw her! It wasn’t the kind of sound you expect from an owl, more of a screech, but she seemed to want to be out and interacting with us.

We were given thick gloves to wear so that our hands were protected from the talons and the owls had somewhere to land. The idea is that you lift your hand up and make a fist, then the owl will come, land on it, and take the food from Konny. Some of the owls were happy to stay around for a while after taking the food, whereas others flew straight back to the perch.

Billie needed no encouragement. She flew straight to the glove and was happy to chill out there for a while. The only thing she wasn’t sure about was a dog, off the lead, whose irresponsible owner didn’t call it back. S ended up herding it in the other direction. But seriously people, take notice of what your dog is doing and if it’s potentially causing a problem for others, or could be in danger itself, call it back and use your lead!

So, Billie was the smallest, but probably the most up for interaction, and of course food. The owls don’t really care about the people who have come to see them – their main motivator is the food – but this natural instinct to fly for food can be used to train them. It’s also important that these owls get exercise by flying, because this prevents them from becoming overweight. They have learned that flying to the glove will be rewarded with food, so that’s what they do.

They don’t hunt for food themselves and see people as the food provider, but they will fly to get their food – mainly chicken, which has been killed and chopped up in advance.

Billie has been socialised from a young age, being introduced to lots of different environments and noises so that she can become accustomed to them and is less likely to be spooked at events with the public.

River the tawny owl

River is a tawny owl, the one that makes the sound most of us think of when we think of an owl calling late at night. I didn’t realise until yesterday that this call is made up of two parts – the female, followed by the male (or males). We didn’t hear the mating call from River, but she made cute little trill sounds when she was being fed!

River the Tawny Owl

River was a bit bigger than Billie, and she the tawny owl shape is more short and squat than the barn owl. They blend in well with the trees and if they feel threatened, they will make themselves thinner to hopefully blend in even more and stay undetected by predators.

River was a bit less sure of herself than Billie, partly due to another dog – this time on lead – but still something to look at and worry about. There was quite a lot going on too – a train going by, some workmen building etc. She was a little hesitant at first, but after a while she got the hang of it and was happy to fly to the glove. A bit like me before the first coffee – it takes a while to get going, but after that it’s ok!

She didn’t land as solidly as the others, but she kept trying, and in some ways that’s more admirable. It’s easy to do something when you know you can do it, but not so easy if you aren’t so sure.

Of course the owls don’t go through these thought processes – they just want the food. But I still think it takes more effort and determination to do something if you’re not quite sure you’ll make it!

Koby the European Eagle owl

He was the biggest and the star of the show! He answered back in a way that made him sound a bit like a cat saying “no”, although really that was just his way of interacting. Konny talks to her birds a lot, and they all communicate in their own way!

Koby the European Eagle Owl

Koby is much bigger than the others and I could feel the air as he flew by, occasionally being bopped on the head by a wing as he flew back to the perch! That’s what you get for having short arms! He seemed happier on the perch – his safe place – but he would come over for food, his favourite being chick’s heads, and then fly back.

He has a five and a half foot wing span, which means in flight, he is wider than I am tall! A big, impressive guy!

Final thoughts

I thought it was great that they all had such distinctive personalities. Barn owls are my favourite anyway, and Billie was full of confidence, despite her tiny size! River was quite sweet and her initial lack of confidence made us keep willing her to do well! Koby was big and loud and a bit like a teenager who didn’t feel like doing as he was told, until he was tempted off the perch!

Spending an hour with Konny and her owls was a really interesting experience and one that I’d recommend to any of you who like owls, experiences that get you out into nature to learn something, or learning who just want to learn more about animals.

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Blindness and not being able to drive – getting around without my own car

When I was growing up, my grandparents always had a car. It was only Granddad who could drive it, so if Nan and I needed to get somewhere when Granddad was at work, we needed to walk, take the bus, or wait. I think this taught me that a car was a good thing to have, but when you don’t have one around, you don’t just have to stay at home.

The car certainly came in useful for things like going to riding lessons and meeting my friends who didn’t live in the village. But certainly when I was at primary school, Nan walked with me in the morning – whatever the weather – and Granddad usually came to pick me up in the afternoon. If it was really bad weather, he’d bring the car, but most of the time we walked. It wasn’t far. And really it was nice to spend time with them.

As I got older, I could have lifts, but I had to pay a small amount if I wanted to go into town. I thought this was really mean at the time, but I suppose it taught me that parents aren’t a taxi service. When I see what some kids – and girlfriends for that matter – expect of their parents and partners, I can kind of see my grandparents’ point. Nobody should be taken for granted. Having said that, my friends didn’t charge petrol money, so getting lifts with them was more cost-effective!

At high school transport became more of an issue because my friends lived further away. I did my a-levels at a school quite far away, and then nobody lived nearby. But people were accommodating and if I was doing anything with people from school, I was usually invited to stay over with one of my friends. There was a lot more to do in the big city than the little village where I lived!

At that time I used to hang around with people who were mostly older than me. Many of them had cars. Some didn’t, and not just because they couldn’t see. I couldn’t contribute to the driving around, but I never felt left behind. I tried to find other things that I could do to help. Maybe it made me try to be a better friend so I didn’t seem the one who was taking favours all the time. But I never really thought much of it because most of my sighted school friends weren’t in a hurry to get a car and start driving.

Moving to London

It was a culture shock moving from my little village to the capital. But it was liberating too. As long as I could get myself to the nearest tube station, I could go anywhere. I just had to think about how to get from the tube station at the other end to where I was going. If it was things like work or favourite restaurants, I learned the way. If it was for one-off things, I met up with friends or took a taxi – most stations had taxi ranks outside. There are also travel benefits for blind people in London that you don’t get in the rest of the country.

I got to know the tube network really well. I learned about the trains. I planned how I would get around so that I could always leave when I wanted to, not when others did. If I was meeting someone for the first time, I suggested central places for us to meet, but made sure they were places that I knew too. I asked questions about places so that I could build up a map in my mind. I practiced things until I felt confident. I had bad days – tourists, roadworks, and confusing layouts will do that to you, but each day was a new start and if I fell, literally or metaphorically, I got up again!

I didn’t spend my time wandering round unfamiliar streets hoping for the best. Some blind people rely on their navigation systems a lot more than I did – but I worked hard to be able to afford that luxury and I don’t apologise for it because I don’t think I have anything to prove. Being able to afford to do all the things I wanted to with the least hassle was an incentive for me to work hard and move up the career ladder. I don’t enjoy getting lost!

It probably helped that this was pretty much the same as what most of my friends and colleagues were doing too. We all got the train home. Many of us got our shopping delivered because taking heavy groceries on the bus was a pain. We all walked a lot.

Also, not all of my taxi journeys were blindness-related. I was happy to pay for one instead of walking home late at night in the dark. It was just the smart thing to do.

When I moved out of central London, many of my friends were able to drive, but very few of them did if they wanted to go into town, which most of us did during the week for work. So cars were never the main way to get around.

Weekends were different. If you wanted to go into the countryside, you really did need a car. We often joked that my friends shared my dog – because they enjoyed taking her for long walks with me – and I shared their car.

Sometimes my friends offered me lifts – either because we were going to the same place, or they found out I was planning something that would be a nightmare on local transport, such as a really early flight when I was travelling alone. I tried to make it up to them in some other way – petrol money, lunch, a couple of beers – it depended on the journey. They never asked, but it felt like the right thing to do. Maybe that’s because of what my grandparents taught me.

Living outside of London

Since I’ve been with S, I’ve got used to being in a household with a car. I quite like it! No more crowded trains, apart from on the rare occasions when we go to London.

S knew from the outset that we wouldn’t be sharing the driving.

If he’s around, he does give me lifts, but I don’t see him as my taxi service. It’s always good to have multiple options when it comes to getting a job done. Public transport isn’t as good here as it was in London, but we do have taxis.

It is harder here because when people choose venues for things, there is a general assumption that people will be driving there – but hey, car pooling is good for the environment and I think it’s ok as long as you don’t take people for granted. I’ve paid for petrol before. I’ve paid for taxis so that friends don’t have to drive all the time. Sometimes I accept lifts from friends who want to be nice. If I can think of something nice to do for them, I’ll do it.

Ultimately, there are a whole host of reasons why some people might struggle with this more than I do. I have my own sight-related struggles. I don’t want to make light of anyone’s feelings of frustrations about not being able to do this, but I did want to share some of my coping strategies because they might help someone else.

Are self-driving cars the answer for blind people?

I’ve seen articles where some blind people are getting really excited about the idea of self-driving cars. But I don’t think they are the answer.

I certainly understand why it feels better to rely on technology instead of a person. My Seeing AI app is great for reading the post, reading labels on beauty products (most of the time), and checking out things in the kitchen. It takes away that step of the process where I need to find a functioning pair of human eyes. But a car?

My first problem with the idea that self-driving cars are the answer to our independent travel problems is that they’re not the only ones on the road. There are other people doing crazy things too. As a passenger, how many times do I hear friends cursing about some other driver being unpredictable, careless, or just really stupid?

The whole point when in charge of a self-driving car is that someone is supposed to be paying attention and step in if something is about to go wrong. I don’t want to be responsible for hitting someone’s dog or small child that wasn’t picked up by the sensors, or ploughing into a vehicle because it was the wrong colour (I read an article about that).

And to be honest, as a pedestrian, I wouldn’t be happy at a driver’s defence if I got hit by a driverless car with a blind person behind the wheel. Sighted people are not supposed to be sprawling out and watching Netflix when they’re at the wheel of driverless cars, so I think it’s a long way before we can see them as the vehicle of choice for people with no usable vision.

Maybe in 50 years someone will find this and have a good laugh – but given what’s available now, I have no urge to start planning for when I just put my destination into a driverless car and hope for the best.

I have been behind the wheel of a car once – a crazy friend decided to give me a lesson in a field in his car. It was fine, apart from the near-miss with the tree! We had a laugh and I learned some things! If I could see I think I’d probably be a fairly safe driver, but I can be pretty intolerant of other people’s stupid behaviour – even as a pedestrian!

I understand it must be hard for blind people who previously had sight and used to be able to drive. But then there’s always the flipside – they had this experience which I don’t. I always get tired of the “what’s worse” debate, because I don’t think you can really say. It’s comparing two very different experiences.

How to reduce the problems associated with not being able to drive

I’m in some groups for parents of visually impaired children and I do come across people whose children or who themselves really struggle with not being able to drive. The fact that I don’t find this so hard has nothing to do with me not finding my blindness a total inconvenience sometimes. I do. It’s just that driving isn’t high up on my list of reasons for why this is.

There are some things that I have done though that have made things easier for me as someone who is unable to drive:

  1. Think about transport when deciding where to live. London was great for me in this respect. As I moved further out, each time I had a good look at how easy it would be to get to the station from every property I looked at. Nobody wants to feel trapped or isolated, and choosing accommodation with easy links to the transport network will make life easier. This meant moving away from my family, but apart from the lack of job prospects, life for a non-driver in a little country village would have been much harder.
  2. Budget for additional transport costs. I set aside money for taxis because I knew that I would need them. I didn’t want to be a burden on my friends all the time, and anyone with their own car has to budget for transport costs too – petrol, MOT, road tax etc. If I pay for someone to drive me, I’m not being dependent. I’m giving them work. I can do it when I want to, not when someone else has time to help. It puts me back in control of getting the job done, even if I’m not the one driving there.
  3. Take time to get to know your local area.
  4. In some cases, it’s just easier to get the job done online!
  5. Build up a good network. Taking lifts from friends is still hard sometimes, but there are ways to make it a give-and-take arrangement, even if you’re not giving and taking the same things. Maybe you’re really good at something that your friend with a car can’t do. Maybe you can think of something to buy or do for them that would make them happy. If you’re doing something with friends, maybe you can be in charge of organising or sorting out another part of it while someone else does the driving. Also, if you’re not asking the same people for help all the time, it doesn’t feel like such a big ask!
  6. Plan! I plan less now because I know if I find some place for us to go or activity for us to do, it will probably involve S or one of my friends driving there. So we really just need the post code and the sat nav. But previously I got good at planning – finding the easiest way to get across London (I generally liked busy stations with lots of people rather than deserted ones), organised car sharing, planned to do multiple things in the same area to cut down on unnecessary logistical nightmares, or made the effort to make contact with people who would be making the same journey. Ok, planning and organising come naturally to me and I find there’s something quite therapeutic about them, but even if this isn’t the case, a good plan can go a long way to reducing the stress of travelling around.

Do you have any tips to add to this list?

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Alpaca encounter- meet Humphrey the alpaca

It was my birthday towards the end of September. We had the day off. And it was raining. Not just a gentle drizzle, but the kind of rain that has you soaked to the skin in minutes!

This was not good news, because we’d planned to do an outdoor activity. It was one of the things on my list! I keep a list of things to do that I think we’d both enjoy. I hunt them out online and S is in charge of navigation! It works well!

I’d heard several friends talking about lama treks and alpaca walking, and I thought it would be a great way to meet some animals, go for a walk, and learn something new.
As a child – well ok as an adult too – I enjoyed visiting farms to meet animals and find out what they look like. For those that a young blind child can’t go up and pat, like the lions and tigers at the zoo, there was always plastic animals. But I’d never felt a real or a plastic alpaca, so I didn’t really know what they looked like. Ok, there are descriptions on the internet, but the problem is that they often compare the alpacas to other animals that I have never seen, so that’s not massively helpful.

Pennybridge Alpacas

I started looking around for alpaca or lama walks nearby. I found Pennybridge alpacas in Hampshire via their own website, although they regularly do deals on Groupon, and when we booked, the Groupon price was also honoured for us.

I called to enquire about availability and was told that the alpaca encounter takes around 2 hours. I booked us in for the afternoon of my birthday and paid by Paypal, although it’s also possible to pay in cash on the day.

I mentioned my visual impairment, but it wasn’t a big deal. You get one alpaca between two people, so I knew that S would be able to help me with directions and I would lead the alpaca because it was one of my birthday activities!

On the day

When we arrived, it was raining heavily. We were offered hot drinks, so I stood there with a mug of coffee in one hand and an umbrella in the other! I didn’t borrow any wellies, but I was glad of the plastic waterproof cape that I borrowed and kept on for the rest of the visit.

We could already see and hear the alpaca in the barn. I liked the fact that the first part of the visit was a talk so we could learn more about them –including what it’s like living on an alpaca farm, how they behave, what they eat, how they are shorn, and the process for making things with the alpaca wool.

We didn’t hear a lot of noise from them, but a couple of the females decided to spit at one another over food! They all seemed to get on well together, but there were definitely a couple who were in charge!

We then went on a walk around the grounds to see some more alpaca, offer up some hay, and meet some of the other animals. We encountered the cockerel several times – he wasn’t scared of the people at all!

I found that if I held the hay out slightly over the fence on my side, the alpaca would stretch their necks over to get it and allow me to stroke them. Some were a bit less inquisitive and less sure of us, so I just gave them the hay and they moved back a bit to eat it.

As well as the alpaca who were happy to munch on our hay, there were also some friendly goats. One of the babies came out and I held her in my arms for a while. She seemed a bit unsure as she was passed from person to person – but once she could feel your arms around her, I think she would have happily gone to sleep. A very chilled out little goat!

Our walk with Humphrey

The last part of the visit was our walk with an alpaca. The alpaca were ready with halters, and they were distributed one animal to every two people. We then lined up with our new alpaca friends and went round the grounds in a procession. Some liked to be in the lead – others were happy at the back. Humphrey, who came round with us, was a laid back kind of guy and he was ok in the middle, or I think he would have been happy wherever he was in the line. He didn’t want to be left behind, but he seemed in no hurry to charge ahead either!

We were advised to have one person on each side of the alpaca, but in terms of me knowing where I was going and turning the corners, it worked out better to have S guiding me and me leading Humphrey, so that’s what we did on the second lap. He didn’t try to get his head down or charge anyone else out of the way. Neither did he randomly stop to look around!

Having alpaca who are willing to be led is good for alpaca experiences, but it also has other advantages. Animals that are used to being handled are more accepting of the times when they need to be handled, such as vet procedures, sheering (which is done once a year), or having toe nails cut.

The young alpaca are introduced to people from an early age and they seemed happy to be around us. After doing two circuits of the grounds, we had photo opportunities, then took Humphrey’s head collar off and let him go free to wander again!

If you want a memory of your day in addition to the photos, you can get a range of gifts from the shop. Some of them have pictures of the alpaca from the farm on them – we found a Humphrey mug – and there are also gifts made of alpaca wool. I picked up a warm winter hat, and I couldn’t resist a cuddly alpaca too because I wanted something in the shape of one. As we drove away, the heavens opened again!

I was really glad that we went. I love animals and enjoy meeting and learning about them. The alpaca encounter was something different because it was interactive and educational. Have you ever done anything like this? If so, let me know in the comments.
Also, if you like animal posts, check out our encounters with wolves, owls, donkeys, and birds of prey.

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Note: this is not a sponsored post. S paid for the alpaca encounter as part of my birthday present.

Getting close to the animals – open day at Miller’s Ark

It was the second day of our holiday and I had been planning this particular adventure for the last couple of weeks. One of our friends mentioned that there is a local farm that does adult-only open days. It does ones for the whole family too, but every 4 to 6 weeks there’s one just for the adults, which appealed to me because then you don’t have to negotiate herds of small squealing people if you want to see the animals! So into the diary it went!

I checked out the Miller’s Ark Facebook page and was excited to read that they had a donkey foal who was just over a week old. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get close to her, but as it happened we could go in with her and her mum and stroke her soft woolly coat!

The weather wasn’t great, but most of the pens were indoors anyway. The donkeys weren’t fond of the rain though, so some of them huddled inside.

Lunch

We arrived around lunchtime, so went to get a snack first. There is a café on site with a range of burgers, hot food and drinks. You can bring your own lunch and eat it in the picnic area, or you can buy food and eat it in the tea room, where you can also read about the farm’s history.

The food was fine – the only problem for me was the very friendly cat, whom we had to send away a couple of times because I have a cat allergy! I’m so glad it doesn’t include all the other animals – it’s just cats!

Goats and sheep

The first animals we met were some goats and sheep that were in the same pen. We had picked up some food when we paid our entrance fees, and the goats in particular were very happy about this. They came right up to the fence, balancing on their back legs with their front legs on the bars so that they could see over and get closer to the food.

I put some food on my hand and held it out to them. A couple of times I had two little goat faces feeding from the same hand, as if they were kissing. So much goat cuteness!

There was a little one who kept getting pushed out of the way, but S distracted the bigger goats with some food, while I held some more down for the little one. He hadn’t learned to gobble the food down yet, and was much more sedate about taking it gently and chewing slowly till it was all gone.

All around the farm there were volunteers with the animals who told you more about them and answered your questions. There was another pen with goats that you could go in, so I met a few more close up, including Jeanie, the frisky goat who escaped out of the pen and had to be brought back. I had to hide my hair under my coat because some of the goats thought it was food. No, my hair is not hay!

Two of the smaller goats were lying side by side on a children’s slide – so cute!

When we were talking to the donkeys, there was a weird sound. It was a bit like a dog growling, but I didn’t think it was a dog. S went to check it out and found that it was a sheep, but I’ve never heard a sheep bleat like that before. He sounded a bit annoyed, but I think that was just his normal voice. Maybe he had been bleating at the visitors all morning and made himself a bit hoarse!

Donkeys

I think my absolute favourite of all the animals had to be the donkeys! We visited 3 enclosures and spent the most time in one with mums and foals. It was so relaxing just hanging out with them, grooming them, stroking them, and learning about their stories, likes, quirks, and donkey life in general.

Spice was making her way through a hay bale and she was really chilled out – so I spent a lot of time talking to her and grooming her. There were various brushes around in the enclosure and the donkeys were happy to let you groom them.

The two younger lads were up for mischief, trying to get each other to play and having to be told to calm down!

The donkeys were different sizes, but they were all miniature donkeys. They were friendly and inquisitive, and seemed perfectly happy to have visitors in their enclosure, although due to the fact that the little ones were there, there could only be a certain number of people in at a time. While we were waiting, I reached over and some of the donkeys came for pats.

I’d already read about Lavender, the foal who was just over a week old. I thought we would maybe get to see her from afar, but we were actually able to go in with her and her mum. She still had that woolly foal fur, and after a meeting with a 3-day-old horse many years ago, I was surprised how steady she was on her little legs. Her mum showed no signs of worry that we were in there. In fact her biggest concern seemed to be that she was missing out on the fuss herself!

Pigs

It said on the website that some of the pigs like their tummies being tickled, but the one I found was more interested in snuffling around all over the floor of his enclosure and munching. Still, he was happy to be stroked and I felt his little piggy ears! They had wiry coats, a bit like a terrier, and I hadn’t realised just how sociable they can be.

The volunteer who was in with the pigs was talking about her own pigs and how they like company. They come to sit with her when she drinks her coffee outside and liked to know what was going on!

Golden retriever

When S spotted the golden retriever, he knew stroking him would make my day! This is my favourite breed of dog, and Dudley was more than happy to get some fuss. He started by sitting there having his ears rubbed, then rolled over for tummy tickles! Goldies are the best!

Birds and small animals

I didn’t hold any of the birds or guinea pigs, but you could visit them as well. There were also chickens and ducks wandering around. It went from drizzling to raining quite heavily throughout the day, and the ducks definitely weren’t a fan of the umbrella going up!

Overall impressions and future events

I really enjoyed our visit to the farm and will be sure to go again.

The animals were well cared for. The volunteers and staff clearly cared about them and were able to answer questions about the individual animals, their life on the farm, their behaviour, what they ate, and to tell stories of their antics.

I liked the idea of an adult only open day because it was so chilled out in a way that it never is if there are lots of children around and I generally try to avoid really noisy events. If you have children though, there are open days that everyone can join in and learn about the animals. Under 2s go free.

There are also some special events coming up during the Christmas period such as carrols in the barn and living nativities. You can also book children’s parties at the venue, or the animals can travel to events such as fairs, schools, or private functions. I got the impression that this was to help educate people about the animals and give them the chance to meet them. I never got the impression that they were being used as an attraction, so anyone who is thinking about booking an event should do so for the love of animals and the relationships we can have with them – not just as a way to entertain the little ones.

I did suggest that our honeymoon suite could have a massive garden area outside for donkeys, but if we did that on our big day, the guests might not see that much of me, so S said it wasn’t one of my better ideas!

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Trip to the Vyne – a National Trust property

It was the last day of our week off and we had been working through my list of places to visit. We decided to go to the Vyne, a former Tudor country house and grade I listed building owned by the National Trust in Hampshire.

It was a good day for it – the weather stayed dry for our entire visit, which I was particularly happy about because the Vyne is situated in spacious grounds with gardens and woodland, and you can do a number of walks.

We began by taking a look around the grounds . We even ventured into the children’s play area because there were some carved wooden creatures and insects that S wanted to show me. They were really cool, but I had to handle with care because of the bird poo! Still, I thought it was a nice feature to have in the play area, and blind people rely on tactile representations to know what small creatures and insects look like,. You can’t really touch a butterfly without hurting it.

As we arrived around lunchtime, we decided to have lunch before venturing into the house and doing our walk. The café area was quite full, so we decided to go outside and munch our sausage rolls on the picnic tables there!

We don’t have a National Trust card at the moment, but if you are likely to go back multiple times or visit other National Trust properties, it will save you money in the long-term. Disabled people can take someone with them for free. I hate the word carer and wish we could be like the more progressive countries who call them assistants or companions, rather than this archaic term, but the free ticket is definitely helpful. I would struggle to enjoy a trip to a property like this without an assistant to read information and help me get around. (This is a general comment about the term that is used everywhere, and not directed specifically at the National Trust)

If you don’t have a card, the price of your ticket depends on whether you want to go round the house as well. We did, so that was our next stop.

Your ticket for the house has a 30-minute window, during which you need to enter the house. However there is no restriction in terms of how long you can spend in there.

The house tours are self-guided, but there are plenty of volunteers around in the various rooms who are happy to give you further information or ask questions. We mainly read the information from the displays, which gave you an insight into what it was like living in the house, and the work that went into the recent restoration project. There was also an insect trail for children, which told you about the different insects that liked to munch on the wood or other items that the trust wants to preserve.

The house was built by William Sandys, who later became Henry VIII’s chamberlain, and throughout its lifetime, it had famous visitors such as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1535, Elizabeth I, and Jane Austen. Later it became a safe place for World War II evacuees.

The Vyne used to be much larger – it’s still big now, but the building is about 1/3 of its original size. I can’t imagine how much it must have taken to heat it in winter or to keep it clean!

The Vyne remained the property of the Sandys family until it was sold in the 17th century to Chaloner Chute, a barrister and speaker of the House of Commons, whose family owned it until the 20th century. They were responsible for downsizing it, but also for improving the access routes – something that had been complained about in historical documents. The Vyne was given to the National Trust in 1956.

On entering the house, there was a tactile model, which made it much easier for me to imagine the shape of the building and how the building as a whole looks.

Apart from this, as blind people go, I’m not particularly tactile when going around exhibitions. If there is a cool tactile thing, such as the statue of a horse that S found, I will touch it. But I can’t say how much can be touched otherwise, because we didn’t really ask about that and I don’t randomly touch walls and things as we’re going round!

I think the biggest surprise for me was the lay-out of the house and the way that a lot of the rooms were connected by doors, rather than all coming off a main hallway. The main bedroom had a couple of doors into it, which I’d find really disconcerting!

If you want to see how you would have looked in Victorian costumes, there are a number of items of clothing to try on. Not sure I like the image of me in a maid’s bonnet, but there was a dress that I rather liked!

It was clear from the information about the roof restoration project just how much work and how many people had been involved – sometimes taking parts of the roof apart, brick by brick, labelling the bricks so that they could be put back in exactly the right place, and then putting everything back together once the restoration work was finished. The house was fully reopened in 2018 – some parts could not be accessed during the restoration project because of the ongoing work. The project cost 5.4 million pounds.

Conservationists were also involved in a book cataloguing project, logging and restoring books from the 2500 book collection from the old library. The books can only be stored in rooms whose floors will support the substantial weight!

We didn’t buy any, but if you’re interested in second-hand books, there’s a second-hand book shop in the house, as well as the main shop on site for souvenirs or local products.

Even though there were a fair few people walking around the house, once we’d finished our tour and gone into the woods, we hardly saw anyone. Actually I think this was my favourite part, just walking around and enjoying the nature. There were a number of designated trails, depending on how long you wanted your walk to be, and there is information about the trees so that you can do bark rubbings. I didn’t, but perhaps this is something we can go back and do later.

We didn’t see any deer, but apparently they live in the woods. There were plenty of birds though, and ducks on the river. There is a clearly defined path and it was really peaceful walking around through the trees. There are also social projects, which empower people by providing them with new skills, whilst at the same time helping with the conservation work outside.

Have you been to the Vyne? Do you have a favourite National Trust property? Let me know in the comments!

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Broadlands country show a day out for all the family

Recently I’ve taken to signing up for tourist information so I know what’s going on. I can’t see flyers or adverts for upcoming events, so the alerts and newsletters work well for me because they come directly by email and I can look through to see if there’s anything we would enjoy.

That’s how I found out about the Broadlands Country show that was held in the grounds of Broadlands country house near Romsey over the bank holiday weekend.

It’s a day out for all the family. We saw lots of families with children, and plenty of visitors brought their dogs along too. Parking was free, and there were various events and displays throughout the weekend.

We decided to go on the Monday. After buying our programme and getting inside, one of the first animals I met was a very friendly Labrador. He was competing in the gun dog trials and very eager to meet some new people!

I enjoyed walking through the big tent with all the animals. I believe there were some competitions going on, and some of the animals were getting ready for those. I heard lots of chickens, ducks, and some very noisy cockerels, who sounded as though they were all competing with one another to see who could be the loudest.

S described the chickens, ducks, and fluffy bunnies as we walked past, and some of the animals could be stroked. This is how I met my first ferret – I knew roughly what shape they are, but didn’t know how big they were or what they felt like. I think the one we met was a bit shy, but he was happy enough to get a gentle stroke.

I also met some cute guinea pigs!

At lunchtime we got a table near where the falconry displays were going on. We had already walked round the falconry section and spotted a harris hawk and a very sleepy owl, but from the table I was in a good position to hear the handlers talking about the birds and how they trained them.

There were various options available for lunch from burgers and hog roast to a noodle bar.

We didn’t end up trying any of the activities, but there was a climbing wall for children, as well as things like crossbow shooting! I wonder how good I would be at that?!

As well as the displays and activities, there were a lot of stalls where you could buy locally-produced goods such as food and craft items. A bit like the kind of stalls that you see at a Christmas market. We were tempted in by the fudge stall (mmm chocolate orange, banana, and coffee fudge!), and I also stopped by the woodcraft stall to get a new fruit bowl and an owl door stop! Just because I needed a couple more owls for my collection. My grandad was really good at making things out of wood, and I guess that’s why I like them.

I also found a little donkey brooch, and S got me some owl earrings. It was meant to be a surprise, but the lady on the stall started talking about them, so I guessed there was something owl-related that was being bought in secret.

Some of the stalls were more for people interested in falconry or dog training so that they could pick up new equipment or supplies, but there was plenty to see if you were just a regular visitor.

On our way back, we stopped by at the gun dog trials to get some pictures and see what they were up to and how they worked with their handlers.

The good weather definitely helped, but it was a fun day out and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of going next year.

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The siege of Basing House

On Easter Sunday I found myself sipping a glass of wine in a pub garden. Nothing unusual there, apart from the fact that as I sat there, waiting for our Sunday lunch to arrive, the chatter around me was of muskets, battle strategies, gunpowder, and the King.

We were having lunch at the same pub as a group of mainly cavaliers, ready to defend Basing House in a re-enactment of a battle during the Civil War.

The history

Basing House was built in Hampshire by the Paulet family, and it was a popular place for royalty to visit. Queen Mary spent her honeymoon there in 1554, and Queen Elizabeth stayed there on four occasions. You might think this is an honour for those loyal to the crown, and in many ways it was, but it was also incredibly expensive. Just imagine your guests could bring up to 2000 people in their entourage, and you’re responsible for feeding them all! It’s even rumoured that part of the house was pulled down to make it less attractive to royal visitors.

In terms of the Civil War, Basing House was under siege between 1642 and 1645. Eventually it fell to Oliver Cromwell and his roundheads, but the people of Basing House didn’t give up easily. By 1644 they had already survived one attack by Parliament’s forces, in which even the women got involved – lobbing rocks and slate tiles down on the men below. After several attempts, Cromwell’s forces gave up, partly due to the snow, and partly due to the news that 5000 troops were coming to assist those in Basing House.

That wasn’t the end of the story though and in March of 1644, the Royalist army took refuge with their allies at Basing House, following a battle that they had just lost nearby. That meant more mouths to feed, and more strain on the supplies, some of which had been intentionally destroyed in the last siege to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Better to have less supplies than to watch your enemies feasting upon them, as was the case in 1643.

In July 1644, following a fight in nearby Odiham, which resulted in many of the Basing House foot soldiers being captured, Parliament forces surrounded Basing House, bombarding it from all sides and preventing fresh supplies getting in. Things were beginning to become desperate. However strong your walls are and however well you can protect them, if your enemy prevents new supplies from getting in, you’re going to starve. Food was running very low and they had only enough left for just over a week.

The Marquess of Winchester, who owned Basing House, sent requests for assistance, but it was felt that the 40-mile round trip from Oxford would be too dangerous and that two many troops would be lost in skirmishes along the way. It was in fact the Marquess’s wife with her powerful connections that eventually got people to listen and send some aid for those under siege.

It wasn’t just a case of winning by brute force either – tactics had to be employed such as wearing the enemy’s colours, skulking through the darkness, and those from inside the walls scaring off the attackers temporarily so that allies, and later supplies (including food and 12 barrels of gunpowder), could enter.

Finally the house did fall to Cromwell’s forces, but not before it had successfully defended itself several times.

What happened on Sunday

After our lunch, we went to buy our tickets and wait in a cordoned off area for the actors to arrive. The re-enactment was performed by the Sealed Knot, which travels around the country bringing history back to life.

Soon the King’s troops arrived and stood in formation, waiting for the Parliamentarians to come down from where they had been camped the night before – or perhaps from another pub! It was a hot day after all!

After a skirmish with pikemen and musketeers on both sides, we followed them all to a field where the front of the fortress had been set up, along with cannons and reinforcements.

There was also someone with a microphone who was trying to explain what was going on. As someone who couldn’t see the action, this was particularly useful – both to understand what they were doing, but also because he was telling us facts from history, and explaining the reasons behind the decisions that each army made. Really his microphone could have done with being louder, but I caught most of it, despite the battle cries, musket fire, and roaring of cannons!

The drums were also ever-present. I believe this was standard practice anyway, but back in the real second siege, it had been foggy, so once the reinforcements had stopped being stealthy, the drums were probably also useful when visibility was poor.

S filled in the gaps by describing what was going on, and tried to warn me when the cannon was about to go off! With so much going on, it must have been so hard to make sure that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing, especially when each line of musketeers was supposed to be firing together. They were close enough to hurl insults at one another, but fortunately there weren’t any women hurling roof tiles this time!!

The cannon kept going all the way through. What must it have been like to know that the walls protecting you were under constant bombardment from something like that.

The Royalist army were certainly happy when the reinforcements turned up to help them out and mean that they could hold on to Basing House for one more year.

It was loud, and it was obvious that they were fighting, but you didn’t see bodies all over the floor. I got the impression it was a balance between conveying history, whilst still being an event that families could attend, without the grim reality of war. There were people of all ages there, and even a few dogs!

I went more for the history than the battle reenactment, and it somehow feels more real when you’re standing near the place where these things actually happened. I remember studying this period of history in primary school. In those days, I couldn’t understand how a country could become so divided. Now I don’t find it so hard to believe.

Have you been to anything like this? Let me know in the comments.

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An afternoon at Hogwarts – Harry Potter studio tour

It’s been on our list of things to do for a while, and on Tuesday S and I went to the wonderful world of wizardry in Watford! We drove to Watford for an afternoon of spells, magic, and snowy owls!

Outside you can see the wizard chess pieces, which are enormous. I was only able to reach a hoof. Ok I’m not very tall, but they weigh around 226 kg, so you can imagine how big they are.

If you need a signed tour or one with audio description, these are available, but you need to book two weeks in advance because people are brought in specifically to do them. We booked quite spontaneously and wanted to go during our week off, so we didn’t have audio description, but S described what he was looking at, and there was also a lot of information available on the digital guide. The guide is mainly interviews with people who worked on the film, designers, make-up artists, directors, and the cast themselves. A person with no sight will not be able to interact with the guide independently as it’s a touch screen, but it certainly saves someone else with you from doing a lot of reading!

I think my favourite interviews were with the animal trainers – no surprise to anyone who has been reading my blog for a while. How they trained the dogs that played Fang, how the ravens were easier to train than the owls, and how a large hare patronus was actually a deerhound in a glowing coat. The owls took six months to learn how to carry the letters. In dangerous scenes, part of it was done with real owls, but when it came to an owl flying into a window, the real owl flew through an open window, and the bit where it connected with the glass was done using special effects.

Yes, I loved all the information about the animals, but it was also good to hear from the characters themselves about what it was like to basically grow up on the set during the 10 years in which the films were produced.

Everyone seemed really passionate about their work and about getting every little detail right – every prop, costume, and set. It didn’t just seem like a job to them. They wanted to recreate the Harry Potter world and make it as good as it could be on screen.

You watch a short video first, and then you are taken into the great hall, where so many important scenes took place. The floor is made of real York stone – they needed something robust that would stand up to so many feet walking over it. You then visit other places such as Dumbledore’s office, the potions classroom, the Weasley’s house, the night bus and Diagon Alley with its cobbled streets.

Portraits were used in different ways by different directors, but what we didn’t know before was that many of them were based on crew members, including one guy and his … you guessed it …dog!

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of dogs, here’s another fun fact – Dobby’s ears were based on a dog called Max, who used to hang out under the designers’ desks!

Halfway round we stopped in the café for a butterbeer – well we got the drinks that we wanted and shared a butterbeer, which is actually cream soda with butterscotch on top. I was glad I tried it, but I preferred my coffee!

There are three gift shops throughout the tour. One at the beginning/end, one in the forest, and one at the railway platform. They sell different things, so if you see something you like, you need to buy it in the shop where you see it. I ended up with quite a few things to remind us of our day, including an owl mug (of course!), a Gryffindor top, and a chocolate frog for my slider bracelet. I also got an enormous chocolate frog – which is cute in its own little way and I don’t want to eat him – but I’m sure I will!

I was conflicted about whether to take my white cane or my crutch with me. As S was guiding me, I couldn’t manage both, so I opted for the crutch because I thought we’d be doing a lot of walking. I was definitely glad of it by the end! The staff were helpful and friendly. Other tourists didn’t care and shoved into it several times. It’s good I am not putting too much weight on it now. I resisted the temptation to give people bruised ankles, but it made me think of how difficult it must be for people who genuinely have balance problems or need a crutch/cane for support. People really don’t pay attention to where they’re going.

If you are blind, I would recommend trying out the audio described tour, although I can’t tell you anything about it. I had a good day and was able to get a lot out of it from the descriptions, information, and sound effects. If you like a really hands-on experience, this may not be as good for you as most things are behind bars and you are asked not to touch, and I’m not aware of any touch tours, but I don’t think you need this because there are other ways to enjoy the experience, such as the interviews and the sound effects.

The most impressive thing for S was the huge model of Hogwarts, which is the last thing you come to before leaving the tour. You can walk all the way around it and see every little detail of all the parts of the castle and its surroundings. Every external shot of the castle was filmed using this model, and it kept being remodelled as new parts of the castle were described in the books. This is until the final scenes when parts of the castle were destroyed – that was done with computer graphics so no harm came to the actual model.

I think my favourite part was the enchanted forest – partly because it’s about animals, but also because it was a more immersive experience. You could feel the forest flor under foot, and hear the animals and the wolves howling. You’ll see buckbeak and a centaur as you walk through. Watch out though if you’re not a fan of spiders, because you know that a massive one lives in the forest!

Around the exhibition there are 6 stamp machines, which you can use to collect six stamps to go in your Harry Potter passport. It’s good because the stamps are raised and I could feel them, especially basic shapes, such as the snitch and the 9 on the platform 9 3/4.

If you want photo opportunities, you can take your own, such as pushing a trolley through the wall on the platform, or sitting in the flying car. You can also get pictures in robes for a wanted wizard poster, or you can sit on a broom and watch the scenery as you fly over.

I certainly hadn’t realised how different the wands were. You could buy them in the shop, and there were also wands on display. I knew they were all unique, but not that they were made of so many different materials with different shapes. Also, we learned that the real wands had to be reinforced with strengthening material to make them safe when the actors were using them.

It was a fun day out and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves Harry Potter and who wants to spend a few hours in his world! The tour takes around 3.5 hours, although apart from the first room and the video, you can go at your own pace. I like this because then you’re not stuck with a big group the whole way round, and you can spend more time on the things that particularly interest you. Also if it’s a bit too loud, like the fight with the death-eaters, you can move on. Or if you’re really interested in something, you can spend a bit longer finding out about that.

I’ve actually only read the books and not seen the films – I thought they had not been audio described. Amazon Prime has them with audio description, But it appears only in the US. Grr! Hopefully that will change, but it didn’t matter for the tour as I knew all the characters and film plots. In fact with the books I think you get inside the characters’ heads more, but that’s a debate for another day!

Afterwards we stopped off at Nana’s, a Lebanese restaurant nearby. We got a mixture of small dishes and I can highly recommend the baba ghanoush (smoked aubergines with tahini, garlic, and lemon!)

Have you been to the Harry Potter Studio tour? If so, what was your favourite part?

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Gin-spiration promts – how far have you travelled from home

I’m part of a Facebook group for Bloggers run by Lorna from the Gin and Lemonade blog, who gives us writing prompts. The idea is that a bunch of you writes on a topic, and then you can see what the others wrote on the same topic.

I can get behind the idea of writing prompts – more than something like tags, which unless done really well, can feel a bit forced and dare I say pointless?

So, this week’s (or actually I think it’s last week’s prompt but I’m late) was How far have you travelled from home?

Before I could think about that, my first question was “what is home?” because I think this will be different for different people.

My home has always been an in-the-moment thing. The place I was living? That was the place I made my home. Somewhere to get away from it all. Somewhere to shut the door and know it was my space, or the space I shared with people I care about.

So for me right now, that’s the place where I live with my partner. It’s not where I was born, or where I was brought up, but it’s very much home. Unless we move somewhere else, and then I’ll make that place home.

Maybe this fluid connection to home has something to do with the fact that the house where I grew up was sold when my Granddad died and my Nan down-sized. I think people whose home where they grew up is still somewhere they can pop into from time to time, still have a kind of temporary connection to that home as well, but for me, it’s not a thing!

So, how far have I travelled? I didn’t actually know the answer to this as the crow flies, so I spent time asking Siri “How far is it from …. To ….?” So she could do the maths for me! Nothing like a bit of outsourcing for those tasks that you don’t love!

Anyway, she reliably informed me that the farthest I’ve been from home was my trip to Cuba.

That was a long time ago.

I had a real travelling bug in my 20s. Now I’ve grown up, settled down, we’ve bought a house and travelling is not high on our list of priorities. So much so that it gets kind of annoying when every time I have a week off, everyone seems to ask “where are you going?” Like you automatically have to be going somewhere every time you have some time off. But I digress…

Cuba was actually a really good couple of weeks. I went with a company called Traveleyes, which makes it possible for blind people to travel independently. Sighted travellers pay a bit less, and they act as guides for visually impaired people. I wrote more about the concept when I interviewed some sighted guides who had been on Traveleyes holidays.

Before this time, many of my trips abroad had been to German-speaking countries, and the language barrier was really a thing for me. Not in a practical sense – we got the food we wanted, had an English-speaking guide, and in the hotels people spoke English. But you couldn’t just have a chat to local people unless you spoke Spanish – which I didn’t! Also, the guy whom I was strapped to when we did the tandem sky-dive didn’t speak English. We’d had the safety briefing beforehand, but I couldn’t chat to him on the way down! I was younger and less risk-averse then! I probably wouldn’t do it now, but was glad to have had the opportunity. I preferred the floating down to Earth bit with the parachute open, rather than the crashing down to Earth bit, with the air rushing up at you like a massive hairdryer. It was Cuba, so the air was warm!

I’m still grateful to the friend who didn’t dive (I was the only girl) and who swapped out her shorts for my skirt. That would have been bad to have it flapping round my neck, especially as there was a video!

Anyway, we did have someone in the group who spoke Spanish, and one day he and I broke away from the group. You weren’t really meant to – never mind. We ended up in a street off the tourist trail – we probably weren’t meant to do that either – where we drank coffee with some people in their home. The guy that I was with acted as an interpreter and so we could get to know a bit more about the family, their lives and hopes.

That was cool. For me, visiting places isn’t just about the things you can do as a tourist. It’s about the people. You can’t always really talk to people when you’re surrounded by a load of other tourists, but fortunately we managed it that day. Possibly helped by the enormous grass-woven lizard that I’d bought and that was nearly as tall as me. I’m not very tall, but that was one big lizard! He was definitely a good starting point for conversations.

Other impressions from that time were swimming with dolphins, touching a baby crocodile, the intense humidity, dancing on the beach, the crazy amount of rum that went into each cocktail, the musicians, the very late nights, and the couple of days when the local water didn’t agree with any of us!

It was fun! I had the chance to do things that I’ll probably never get to do again! It’s definitely an interesting place to go, especially if you take some time to read a bit about the history beforehand. Of course you don’t have to do that – you could just go to enjoy the beaches, but it’s part of my trying to understand local culture, society and politics. Even on holiday I think that’s still important. Not because I have to, but because I think people are interesting.

So that’s the farthest I’ve been from home.

Maybe one day I’ll go further. When S goes on longer business trips, I sometimes accompany him. I work when he’s working, and then we explore the place together.

But the desire and need to travel is not as strong as it was when I was younger, so who knows!

How far have you travelled from home? Let me know in the comments!

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Holiday with a difference – 3 sighted guides tell their stories

Three of my friends talk about their experiences as guides on Traveleyes holidays for blind and sighted people who want to travel the world!

Holiday with a difference – 3 sighted guides tell their stories

This is quite a long post today, but once I’d done the research, I didn’t want to leave anything out!
I met Helen from New Zealand, Jane from the UK, and Clara from the US on holidays that I booked through Traveleyes, a holiday company that organises holidays for blind and sighted travellers. The sighted travellers pay a discounted price, and in return they act as guides for the blind travellers.
The holidays gave me the chance to explore new places and meant that I didn’t have to rely on my family and friends wanting to go to the same places as me!
I met Jane on my first ever Traveleyes holiday to Spain, and we stayed in touch, meeting up a couple of times after the holiday for theatre visits and a trip to London.
I met Clara and Helen on a trip to Kas in Turkey. You can see a picture of one of my adventures with Helen as the header image on this post. We went shopping together and mastered some difficult terrain on a hike, which included crossing an old aqueduct with very big drops on either side!
Clara is pictured below and I too remember the race she described. We laughed so much that day! I’d decided that overtaking on the inside was not allowed!
I asked Jane, Clara and Helen 10 questions. Here are their answers:

1. How did you hear about opportunities to be a sighted guide on holidays for visually impaired people?

What made you decide to go on one?
Jane: in the mid-2000s, I was listening to Radio 4’s ‘In Touch’ programme one evening and heard an interview with someone who had recently set up a company providing holidays for people with sight impairment. My circumstances had changed some time before I heard the broadcast, meaning that I would be going on future holidays by myself. Being a sighted guide on a holiday for people with impaired vision seemed like a good way of going on holiday by myself but not being alone. I knew that I would be involved with what was going on and would not be left out or feel isolated.
Clara: I heard about Traveleyes from reading a travel article (I honestly can’t remember which one) and thought it would be an excellent way to go someplace new that I didn’t feel comfortable going to by myself. After reading the Traveleyes website I was sold! I felt like it would help me see destinations in a different and more detailed way and I felt like it would be a great way to meet new people.
Helen: I found Traveleyes through a link on a travel website (can’t remember which one). I was looking to have a week somewhere not too far from the UK. I am from New Zealand and was planning a trip to see my son and his family and was going to be there for a month. It is probably not every girl’s dream to have her mother in law staying for a month so I thought a week somewhere else was probably a good idea! I was immediately struck by the brilliance of the concept and signed up for a trip to Turkey which I had always wanted to visit.

2. What are some of the places that you have visited on this type of holiday?

Helen: I have been to Fes in Turkey, Sorrento in Italy, and most recently to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. In a few weeks I will join Traveleyes for a trip to Iceland for a week.
Jane: I have been on four holidays with the same company. I went to Andalucia, Crete, Rhodes and Sicily.
Clara: I went to Turkey, and did a horse-riding trip in Berkshire with Traveleyes.

3. Has the experience taught you anything about the way that you appreciate the world around you?

Clara: I learned that there is a lot more in our environments than what we first see. When traveling with someone who is visually impaired, I found myself wanting to see every detail so I could describe whatever my traveling companion was interested in. This meant I experienced the environment around me much more intensely.
Helen: I’m sure that I have experienced these places in a different and more in depth way while being a sighted guide than I would have if I had been travelling on my own or even with another sighted person. When you have to tell someone what you are looking at you really have to think about it, and take into account what they might be interested in.
I have also relatively recently taken up painting and this gives me an added dimension to the sights as I am always thinking about how I could paint something. Of course travelling is not only about seeing places or things, but experiencing them in many ways.
The trips are planned to give a wide variety of experiences and Traveleyes is good at taking into account the sighted guides as well as the Vis (visually impaired people).
Jane: when I was describing the surroundings to someone who had a sight impairment, I tried to include all the details that might interest them. The times that were the most absorbing were those when the other person and I were both particularly enthusiastic about what we were looking at.

4. Did you find that different blind people were interested in different information?

Helen: because you change partners each day you will also be changing the way you are describing things and having different conversations with each person. Blind people, just like everyone else, are individuals and have different interests, tastes, experiences and backgrounds. I remember a shopping trip with one woman who loved jewellery and another day with a guy who was really interested in the local food. I was happy with both those interests!
It’s great when there is an opportunity for tactile interaction – whether it is with something organic like plants or animals or even rocks, or something man-made such as statues, jewellery or ceramics. Swimming in hot pools or the warm ocean is another great thing for VIs – nothing to trip over!
There is also always plenty of time just for chat with your partner – about your life and theirs – interests, family, work etc just as with anyone you have just met and will be spending time with.
Jane: when I was on holiday in Crete, one person was really interested in an archaeological site and so was I. Someone else just wanted to go shopping. One young woman told me that I was talking too much, so we agreed that I would limit the information to details about where there were steps – up or down – and uneven ground.
Clara: I learned to ask my traveling companion what they would like described to them and what they wanted to experience when we were first paired together. Some of my companions had sight at some point in their life, so they might know what certain things (objects, colours, animals, etc.) looked like. Others were born blind so everything had to be described in terms they did understand. And some companions had limited sight. A lot of questions were asked. Overall, every traveling companion wanted to know and learn about something different. The majority of my traveling companions didn’t really care about colour. I had traveling companions who wanted to touch things to feel the shapes and textures. Some companions were more interested in the local food. Some were more interested in talking with the local residents.

5. Did you have any worries or concerns before you went on your first holiday?

Jane: I was concerned about not being good enough at guiding people but I seemed to manage just as well as the other guides. In addition, I worried about not fitting in; however, that worry was also ill-founded and I made friends on the holidays and am still in touch with some of them.
Clara: I had no idea what I was getting into other than what I had read on the Traveleyes website. I was definitely nervous that I wouldn’t be a good guide. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to describe things correctly, or that I wouldn’t warn my companion about a step and that they would trip and fall. It turned out that I really shouldn’t have worried at all. As soon as I met my traveling companions I found that all my concerns disappeared.
Helen: I was a little nervous that I would get things wrong, but when I met the first group at the airport, Amar (the owner and founder of Traveleyes), took me through the simple guiding procedures and I quite quickly got comfortable with it. Of course there are slight adjustments to be made with each partner, but with goodwill on both sides it is pretty quickly sorted out.

6. Have you had any funny guiding experiences that you could tell us about?

Helen: on one particular day in Fes I remember going for a walk with a guy and commenting on things along the way. When it came time to return to the town centre I got confused as to where we were but he was able to guide me! He had to rely on his memory and was used to navigating that way – I wasn’t.
Later that same day I was so concerned with watching where we were walking – the ground was uneven and I remember we were walking along the front of some shops and had to step down to the street. This guy was pretty tall and I forgot to look up so he banged his head on the eaves which were quite low. He forgave me later after I bought him a beer!
In Ecuador a very helpful waiter handed one of our group a braille menu. Our VI said he was very grateful, but did they by chance have one in English braille! Unfortunately they didn’t.
Clara: One of my favourite memories was running with Kirsty! Honestly, I couldn’t believe that she trusted me enough to win the race! Another favourite memory is horseback riding. I was helping my companion navigate through some trees and looking behind me, and in the process I ran straight into a branch myself! I definitely felt silly!
Jane: I guided one lady back to her room at the end of one day out and left her at her front door, searching for her key. Unfortunately, I had taken her to someone else’s front door and had left her before she realised she was in the wrong place. Luckily, she managed to find her way back to her own room – and I always check that the person is in the right place before I leave him or her.

7. What are some differences in the type and amount of assistance that people need?

Clara: Something I learned on my first trip was that every companion liked to be guided differently. Some liked holding hands, others liked holding onto a shoulder, others my bag, and others liked holding onto my elbow. Honestly, I didn’t really feel like I was assisting, but more like I was just hanging out with friends or experiencing something new with friends.
Jane: some people hardly needed any assistance at all. Maybe they just wanted to be able to walk by my side and to be told, ‘step down’, ‘kerb up’, ‘tree roots’, ‘uneven ground’. Other people would hold my arm, so that they could be guided. I would give them the ‘step down’, ‘kerb up’ commentary, if they wanted it. The important thing is to ask what assistance people need. On one occasion, I shared a room with one friend who has no sight. One day she was searching for something on the dressing table but could not find it, so she asked me where it was and I explained.
Helen: there are VIs who have lost their sight later in life, some who were born without sight and others who have varying degrees of sight, so they all need slightly different assistance. Those who have recently lost sight might for instance often need more than those who have never experienced anything else, as they are getting used to it. However it is generally easier to describe something to them as it can often be related to something they might remember. Some might need very little physical assistance but can’t read menus. Dealing with foreign currency can be tricky too.

8. What was your favourite excursion, and why?

Jane: I enjoyed all of the holidays and everything that we did on them. The company was good, the food was delicious and the sun always seemed to shine!
Helen: it’s hard to pick a favourite because each trip has been so different. If pressed I would probably say my first trip to Turkey. We were in a fairly small town at the end of the season and we were made so welcome by the locals. It was great weather and we experienced a good mix of activity and leisure.
Sorrento was brilliant too. I loved the cooking lesson there and would love to do that on every trip. Visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum was a real highlight for me, as was the limoncello.
Ecuador and the Galapagos was probably the favourite in terms of destination. It was the longest trip I’ve done and we did a lot of moving – never more than 2 nights in one place – and that is quite tiring. But to go to such an amazing and interesting place was an absolute dream come true.
Clara: my favourite excursion was the hike in Kas, Turkey. I think this is one of my favourites because there were so many obstacles (rocks, bushes, pokey branches, narrow trails, etc.) but there was this sense of challenge that everyone took up and conquered.

9. What are some of the things that you have learned about visually impaired people and how they do things after going on the holidays?

Clara: One of my first discoveries was on my very first trip as a sighted guide at the airport when I was helping my traveling companion exchange money. The person on the other side of the counter wanted to work with me, not my companion. I discovered it was because they could look into my eyes and communicate when they couldn’t do that with my traveling companion, and that made them uncomfortable. Through that experience, I learned that visually impaired people have many more obstacles than I imagined to navigate when they are traveling. On my trips I learned that the visually impaired people I was traveling with were much more independent than I thought they would be. I learned that order is important. I learned that it might take a few more minutes to accomplish a travel task, but that was ok because time wasn’t to be rushed when on holiday. And, on a funny note, I learned that when you show your traveling companions to their hotel room, you don’t have to show them where the light switches are.
Jane: ask people what sort of assistance they need, do not assume that someone needs assistance and force it on them. Say who you are when you speak to someone who cannot see you – do not expect them to guess. Say when you are leaving the room, so that the person knows you have gone and is not left talking to him- or herself. Some of my best friends are people I met on the holidays I went on.
Helen: I have been so impressed with pretty much every VI I have met on these holidays. All those I’ve met are so independent and outgoing. I guess they would not take part in such trips if they were not, but I know many sighted people who need more assistance than most of the VIs I’ve met. I think one of the things that a sighted guide has to remember is that you are not the first person to have described something to this person, or to have tried to explain something. It’s easy to forget but it makes it much easier if you just have conversations as you would with any person, while bearing in mind that they can’t see. Most guides get into the swing of things pretty quickly and if not I guess they don’t do it again!

10. Would you recommend a holiday as a sighted guide to other people?

Helen: Absolutely recommend it! Partly for me it is because I would otherwise be travelling on my own and it is great to have the company – and the organisation that goes with a guided tour. It’s a great way to see somewhere a bit different / difficult to get to as everything is so well organised.
One thing I do like to do is to get my own room. That does make the trip a bit more expensive but for me it is worth it. I am so used to living on my own that I would find sharing a room with a complete stranger – especially for longer trips – rather hard.
Clara: I would, (and have) highly recommend a holiday as a sighted guide. In my experience I have become more humble, I have pushed my own boundaries, and I have made lifelong friends. I had the opportunity to bring adventure and smiles and laughter and learning to my traveling companions. I have learned about a world that I can’t touch but in that same world are so many friends who I admire. Before my trips as a sighted guide so many wonderful sights and experiences escaped me. I have never looked at the environment around me the same since my very first trip as a sighted guide and that is a true gift.
Jane: I would recommend a holiday as a sighted guide. It is a good way of seeing new places and of appreciating those places from a different angle. Going on an organised holiday with people who have vision impairment means that you will get the opportunity to touch things – like archaeological treasures – to smell things, taste things and be involved with activities, such as cookery lessons, whereas you might not get the same chances as a sighted person on a run-of-the-mill holiday.

So what do you think?

Does this type of holiday appeal to you? Have you done anything like this before? Let me know in the comments. I may publish some posts about Traveleyes trips from my point of view, but this post is long enough already!
Thanks to my wonderful interviewees for giving such interesting and detailed answers.

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