25 things that I’ve learned on trains

I don’t commute now, but I’ve spent a lot of time travelling on trains because I used to work in London. I commuted in for over 10 years, and for much of the time, it was a 3 hour commute each day – so plenty of time for stories!

I saw someone else doing this and thought it might be a fun idea to share some of the things that I’ve learned on my train journeys – some funny, some important, some actually terrifying! If you have any lessons from trains to add, let me know in the comments!

  1. You never know whom you’ll meet and where those train conversations will lead. I’ve been left holding a baby while his mum and grandma went to deal with a medical emergency, been given phone numbers, none of which I followed up, and got chatting to people who later became friends. Who knew that a conversation beginning with “you look really stressed! I’m going to buy a coffee, do you want anything?” would lead to a friendship?
  2. People don’t look under tables to see if there is a guide dog under there before swinging their bags or legs under.
  3. There is something hilariously satisfying about seeing a wave of red wine flowing across the table in the direction of a colleague who has annoyed you, (I didn’t do it!) and watching them leap out of the way before the red wine wave hits. At the same time, you have to keep a really straight face and not fall about laughing, which is your initial reaction.
  4. Generally, people don’t respond well to a colleague dropping a metal guide dog harness on their heads because they didn’t put it on the overhead rack properly. We had to move to a different carriage!
  5. If you’re late, the train won’t be. If you’re on time, chances are it will be late.
  6. The Wimbledon Loop is a curious thing. If you want to go to Sutton, it’s quickest to take the Wimbledon train and the same applies the other way round.
  7. The scariest things don’t always happen late at night. The guys threatening passengers with knives incident happened at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. The best part was when they saw my sleeping golden retriever and ran for the doors in terror.
  8. Speaking of golden retrievers, asking your guide dog to find the door usually works, apart from when the train driver leaves his door open…
  9. Train departure board announcements and audible announcements are not always updated at the same time. This is annoying if you’re relying on the audible ones as they are sometimes an afterthought.
  10. It is possible to do your make-up on the train, but it’s best to leave mascara to when the train has stopped. I have seen a report where the German reporter was laughing at the English women for doing this, but seriously – the time I had to get up to commute into London, I’d rather have had those extra minutes in bed and done my make-up on the train.
  11. If you are unfortunate enough to slip on a wet floor and go sailing off the platform edge onto the tracks, it’s a long way down. I was glad I had the upper body strength to haul myself up again before the train came in, and I really wouldn’t recommend the experience. Fortunately the only thing that got broken was the end of a make-up brush, which I carried around for ages to remind me how lucky I was to have made it out of there!
  12. If you commute into London, you’re likely to see the same people every day. This can develop into a little community where people have birthday breakfasts, Christmas meals, and a cooking club together – all because you first met on the train!
  13. You might find yourself associating train stations with numbers because you count them off every single time because someone has turned off the audio announcements and it’s the only way you’ll find your stop.
  14. Knowing which side the doors are going to open at each station is really helpful when the train is packed.
  15. There’s something really reassuring about hearing the announcement “lady with a guide dog! Don’t run! The train will wait for you!” when you’re about to miss the last tube home!
  16. It’s also quite funny to hear a train guy say “running isn’t part of passenger assistance training” when you’re trying to encourage someone that it is ok if it means the difference between making your connection or waiting another 30 minutes for the next one.
  17. Sometimes people don’t believe there really is a guide dog and that’s why people can’t move down any further. Some people will even jump up at the windows to try and find out for themselves whether you are lying to them.
  18. Sometimes an alert dog and a worsening allergy means your suspicions are right – there really is a cat in your carriage!
  19. One way to be really late for your course is to get on the tube going the wrong way and then not realise for half an hour.
  20. There are people who will offer you seats, but not follow through with the information that the seat is available. So if you can’t see it, they either think you’re rude or just not very bright.
  21. You can get through a lot of books or podcasts if you have a long commute.
  22. Looking busy is a good way to prevent most people from talking to you when you’re either half-asleep or you’ve run out of social interaction energy for the day.
  23. A busy station is better than a deserted one any time you’re not exactly sure where you have to go.
  24. Train coffee isn’t great, but most of the time it will do if the need for coffee is greater!
  25. In London, you can get to most places by train, which is brilliant if you don’t drive.
  26. How about you?

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Making bread at Ann’s smart school of cookery

This is the next part in my series about finding local activities for us to do together. The idea is that you can often miss things that are on your doorstep – even more so if you can’t see posters or other forms of advertising. So I use the internet to search for things, a bit like a tourist who’s new to the county or surrounding area. It can be things to see, things to learn, experiences – anything that I think S and I will both enjoy and that will be accessible for me as a blind participant. I’m responsible for finding and booking things, and S is responsible for agreeing to the shortlist and getting us there!

So, on Saturday we set off for Ann’s smart school of cookery to attend a bread-making class. They have several locations, but we went to the one in Windsor.

We were asked not to take any pictures during the course, which is why there are none on this post.

I booked the course in November, so I think they must be quite popular because this was the first available date. The link I used was on Groupon, and it gives you a substantial discount on the artisan bread-making course. (The link was correct and valid at the time of publishing. The link is a Groupon affiliate link, but I purchased the experience and it is not a paid promotion).

The course

We’ve been to Windsor a few times and it was easy enough to find the building. In fact we were the first to arrive, but there was coffee waiting for us while the others set up. (You can add alcohol to your booking, but we didn’t so I can’t comment on that).

The course runs for 2 hours, which included making around 6 types of bread, as well as some humus and dip to go with it. Participants sit at tables around a big square. One side of the square is where the practical stuff happens – we rotated in groups of two and there were usually around four people making bread at any one time. When you weren’t involved practically, you were listening to the explanations and watching the other participants.

With a couple of exceptions, most of the bread types were based on the same recipe, with additional ingredients being added later. You don’t make all types of bread yourself, but each group contributes something to the final feast!

Originally I had imagined that we would all make all types of bread, but this would create more bread than anyone could eat, especially as the food has to be eaten on site. It would probably also mean that you can’t get through as much in the two hours.

What did we make?

We were team walnut loaf – making a spelt dough and adding in walnuts. We made 4 small baguette-type loaves that were later chopped up and shared among the group.

How accessible was it?

S and I were sitting quite close to the practical area, which was nice to be able to hear what was going on. Having said that, the group was listening anyway and there wasn’t a lot of background noise. The teacher gave clear explanations of what he was doing, or what he was telling other people to do, so I could understand what was going on even though I couldn’t watch. A couple of times S gave me some extra information about techniques for making the rolls etc.

We worked in groups, so we divided the tasks to make it accessible. This meant that S did the weighing because I couldn’t see the scales. I’m sure someone else would have done it if S hadn’t been there though. Most people were with a friend or partner, but a couple of people came on their own too.

It wasn’t my own kitchen where I know where everything is, but anything I needed was close by, so I didn’t feel that my not being able to see kept anyone else waiting.

I liked the fact that the information was online, so I could access the recipes myself, rather than having to take notes or convert hard-copy materials to something that I could read.

Trying out the bread

The bit that everyone was waiting for came at the end of the session – trying out what we had made! All food is eaten on site – you get to try what other people made and see which recipes you want to recreate at home! It’s best not to have a big lunch before you go!

As soon as someone opened one of the ovens and I smelled the cooked bread, I began to get hungry! We tried some of all of the breads, and our firm favourite was the focaccia tear and share – probably because of the cumin and rosemary. The bread sticks were good too – I’m a real fan of cumin! There was nothing I didn’t like, although I think the very chocolatey brioche was better than the one with raisins – that’s just a personal choice though from a very biased chocolate lover!

After the course

There was time for us to ask any questions before leaving, and we were all given a printed voucher that gave us a discount on further cookery courses.

For a full list of the courses, from cheese-making to curry classes to an intensive chef course, you can visit the Anne’s smart school website.

We also received the same information by email, which was great because then I could read it too, as well as a list of the recipes as a PDF. Saves some trees and again I could read them using my screenreader.

We haven’t signed up for any more courses yet, but I am tempted by the cheese-making one!

Overall I thought the experience was a good way to help people make the recipes their own. It was not at all pretentious. Our teacher was approachable and happy to give tips or answer questions. People were laughing and all seemed to be having a good time.

It probably did help that S and I had made some bread before – pizza dough, naan breads, flat breads and my old school recipe for tarragon bread, but this wasn’t essential. I think we had a range of abilities in our group and you didn’t need to come with any prior knowledge.

Apart from being an interesting afternoon out and something for us to do together, the important thing for me is that we will use what we learned. I can imagine us making three or four of the recipes, and amending them to try out other herbs or fillings. We also picked up some good kitchen tips – for example I didn’t know you can freeze ginger!

As someone who works in adult education, the main thing for me about training classes is that people don’t just learn something on the day, but they can take it away and use it again. In this respect the cookery class met my goal – it taught us how to make some tasty recipes in a really easy way.

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Visiting Antibes in the South of France

One of the great things about my job is that I can pack up my laptop and work from anywhere where I have a quiet space and a good internet connection. Sometimes if S has to travel for work, I go along too. I work from the hotel room, and then in the evening we can check out the local area together. Sometimes we tag on weekends to the end of the trip to make it more of a mini break.

This is what we did earlier this month and how I got to catch a few rays of sunshine on the Ivory Coast.

I learned French at school and was actually quite good at it, but sadly I’ve forgotten most of it now. Being in France made me want to get out those French books again. People were very friendly and helpful, but I know I could have said more. I don’t mix other languages with my German because I use it all the time at work, but I had the annoying experience that every time I wanted a French word, the Turkish one popped into my head instead. I guess I haven’t forgotten as much Turkish as I thought!

Working away from home

I like the idea of shutting myself away in the hotel room. It’s usually quiet, I know where everything is, and generally in mainland Europe the wifi tends to be fine for doing audio calls or video conferences with customers. The UK is a bit more hit and miss!

In this particular hotel, the biggest challenge was the lack of desk. I’m not sure whether it was to give the holiday vibe and encourage people not to think about work, or because there was a co-working space downstairs. Either way, it was ok in the end. I don’t like joint working spaces, so we constructed a desk with the furniture and suitcases available to us!

One big plus point about this particular room was the Nespresso machine – I’ve never seen those in hotel rooms before, but I definitely approve.

The hotel felt like a bit of a rabbit warren, but being where we were meant that we were in a really quiet part, which suited me fine. If possible, it’s always good not to be too close to a lift as this can interfere with the wifi. I didn’t venture out much while S was away working, but I always familiarise myself with basic routes such as the fire escape, because sometimes those fire alarms go off. I wrote previously about the accessibility of hotels from the perspective of someone who is blind.

It was a little cold to work outside, but I opened the balcony doors every day and it was good to get some clean fresh air into my room.

This was also my introduction to getting around by Uber – we don’t have them where we live and it was definitely convenient not having to make sure you had enough cash for each ride.

A day in Antibes

The photos in this post were taken in Antibes, a Mediterranean resort in South-Eastern France on the Côte d’Azur (Ivory Coast) between Cannes and Nice. The town of Juan-les-Pins, which we also visited, is within the commune of Antibes.

The sea from plage de la garoupe

We didn’t have a fully-packed day hopping from tourist attraction to tourist attraction. We looked online the evening before, made a list of a couple of places to visit and things we wanted to buy, then took an uber into town and started walking around.

I got the impression that the area is much busier in the summer, but in a way I was glad that it was so quiet. When we got into the main town centre, there were more signs of life – children playing, and people shopping or drinking coffee outside the cafes, but the outskirts were really quiet and some of the buildings even looked empty. Maybe some people just come in the holiday times, but for us it was a nice way to get away from the British winter and enjoy some sunshine!

That’s how I came to be sitting outside, eating my pasta in a short-sleeved dress in January! I didn’t put my jacket on all day until the sun went down!

We didn’t go down onto the beach, but we walked alongside it for a while and saw the boats. I was a bit concerned we would mainly find fish and seafood, which neither of us really likes, but I didn’t need to worry about that – there were plenty of other options available, and there was always good coffee!

Boats moored in Antibes harbour

One of the cheese shops we wanted to visit was closed, but we managed to find another one, where we stocked up on local cheese.

Walking around a town can tell you a lot more about it than driving or taking the bus. And in any event, it was a nice day for a walk. We discovered a café, that seemed to mainly be where local people hang out (always a good sign). We found a park, which unfortunately was closed, and another little green area that we had all to ourselves. We wandered through the streets where the mansions are – later looking at some of the house prices in local estate agents and deciding that we would not be able to afford to live here! We went to the city centre where the shops are, wandered through the shopping area, and had coffee outside one of the cafes.

If you enjoy steak, I can highly recommend the Golden Beef, where you can choose where your steak is from and how it is cooked. The ice-cream is pretty good too, but the steak is amazing!

Sometimes I look at local things to do – museums, places to visit etc. Sometimes it’s just nice to wander round a town and see what it’s like.

Have you been to this region of France? Let me know in the comments!

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Making our own chocolates at Dr Choc’s in Windsor

This is the next in my series about finding things for us to do on Groupon. Things that I didn’t even know existed nearby. Things that S and I can do together to experience something, learn something new, or do something we haven’t done before.
On a Saturday afternoon in late December, we found ourselves back in Windsor, where we visited Doctor Choc’s. We’d been there before to buy slabs of coffee or orange chocolate, but I later discovered that you can do chocolate making workshops there too. So of course we had to go back.

This is not a sponsored post – just something I decided to do with S and that I’d like to share with you.

We were a bit early, so we browsed around the shop for a while until it was time for the workshop to start.

I don’t know what the maximum numbers are, but nobody else had signed up that day, so it was just us and the member of staff running the workshop, which made it a really personal experience and gave us time to ask questions, or for me to get a bit of extra help when I needed it.

The workshops take place in an area behind the counter where there is a large table for dipping and decorating, and where the three chocolate machines full of their molten goodness are.

Rings came off, and I had to squeeze my unruly mane into a hairnet – I haven’t done that since I was about 12 when I used to do dressage competitions!

What we made

Our first task was to make the shells for the filled chocolates. You choose plain, milk, or white chocolate, and hold your mould under the chocolate machine so that you can fill three of the sections in the tray. As I couldn’t see where the chocolate was going to come out, I needed assistance lining mine up, and then to get rid of the excess.

The chocolate making room

When the shells in their mould were taken off to cool, we moved on to bigger, more shallow moulds. The tray had room for three bars. You could go for three of the same type, but both S and I wanted one of each – a plain, a milk, and a white chocolate bar.

Before we filled the trays, we chose from a range of jars which toppings we wanted to use. There were all kinds of things – nuts, seeds, fruit, chocolate decorations. I chose ground coffee beans for my dark one, chocolate buttons and a sugar butterfly for the milk, and guava pieces for the white one.

We then filled the moulds for the three bars and brought them back to the table where the decorations were waiting. They set fairly quickly, so it was important to get the toppings on so that they would set into the chocolate. They were then taken away to cool.

The next step was to pipe chocolate fondant filling into our shells. I’ve done icing with a piping bag before and I won’t get an award for the most beautiful piping, but I got the chocolate filling in the shell and this was easier once I’d worked out how fast it was coming out and how hard you needed to squish it to get the right amount! When this was done, we went back to the chocolate machine to give our chocolates a bottom that sealed the piped filling inside the shell.

Chocolate machines producing white, milk, and dark chocolate

The final part involved a cup of molten chocolate into which we dipped some pre-formed truffles. You put them on a stick, slosh it around so it’s covered, then remove it whilst not losing the truffle off the end of your cocktail stick. It’s all in the angle apparently! The truffles were really big, and we also dipped a couple of pieces of candid fruit. The remaining chocolate wasn’t wasted – it was set with a wooden stirrer in it for use as a hot chocolate spoon.

The café

The Groupon deal we got also included a drink at the café upstairs while we waited for our chocolates to set. I got hot chocolate in a cute little jar and it was very rich and very good. There was also a wide selection of cakes on offer – I didn’t have one because we were going to another event in the evening, and truth be told I’d rather fill up on pure chocolate than cake, but if you want some chocolate cake while you’re waiting, that’s no problem!

I enjoyed this experience – both because we learned a bit more about how the chocolates are made, and because we went away with some delicious chocolates! I think it’s a good activity to do with a friend or as part of a larger group. The staff were friendly and helpful, and you don’t have to have any prior experience or particular creative skills!

From an accessibility point of view, help was available if I wanted it, either from the member of staff or from S, but I was also able to participate actively in the workshop.

So if you like chocolate and can get to Windsor, I’d definitely recommend it. Also check Groupon to see if the deal’s still running!

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Visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and my distant relative’s story

This month has been a challenge – partly because I had two assignments to be submitted along with doing my full-time job, but mainly because I’ve had a tooth infection and they are horrible! My dentist has been great and even fitted me in at the weekend, but I’ve been in a lot of pain, which has meant I’ve had to cancel some of the fun things I’d planned this month, and I’ve only been doing what absolutely needs to be done. I have the extraction of a wisdom tooth still to come before Christmas!

Before all of that though, in the first week of December, S and I went to Portsmouth historic dockyard for the Victorian Christmas fair.

I’d been looking for different things for us to do, and I found this on a local what’s on site.

HMS Victory

I’d been to the museum before as a small child. I remember going on one of the ships and thinking how hard life must have been on there – in uncomfortable hammocks with only basic food rations. But I don’t remember a lot, and I think you focus on different things as an adult.

My family has a connection to the dockyard too as one of my ancestors, Seaman Charles Legg, served on HMS Victory. I didn’t know until after our visit, but there is apparently a board outside it with all the names of the men on there, and his name is among them. I think we will be going back – there is so much to see and I think it would be easier to see the ships when the Christmas market isn’t there. So when we go back, we’ll make a point of trying to find his name.

HMS (his Majesty’s ship) Victory’s most famous battle was the Battle of Trafalgar, fought against a combined French and Spanish fleet in 1805. Charles Legg was there and he was injured at some point, possibly during the battle itself.

It was strange really – we were surrounded by all the fun of Christmas celebrations, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were many who set out on the ships and never came back.

Charles Legg did come back though. We have a letter that was sent to him following his return, awarding him some money because he had been injured in service. The letter is dated 3rd December, 1805, and it’s cool to have this piece of history relating to one of our ancestors.

Charles Legg was a seaman, so he wouldn’t have had an easy time. He would have been one of those living in the cramped conditions, with the constant noise of the engines, the heat, the hard manual labour. I wondered whether he too was walking through the places where I had been that day, over 200 years ago.

Christmas market

This was shortly after the attack in London Bridge, so it felt like there was more security. Bags were checked before entering, and it’s the first time I’ve seen armed police at a Christmas market.

It was full of all the usual things that you can buy at Christmas markets, and I stocked up on some delicious cheese! There was plenty of music to get people in a festive mood, including live bands playing Christmas songs.

No mulled wine for me this year, but I enjoyed a hot chocolate instead!

Owls

You might wonder what owls are doing at a historic dockyard, but in the past, birds of prey were transported on ships, so it wouldn’t have been unusual to come to the docks if you had purchased a bird from overseas.

The demonstration we watched was given by Raphael Historic Falconry who weave historical details into their displays, so that adults and children can get a better understanding of the relationship between people and birds, and how this relationship developed over time.

I liked the way that information was given from the bird’s perspective, without trying to give them human characteristics that birds don’t have. They’re motivated by the need for food. They don’t do things to please the handler, as a golden retriever might, but they are driven by their need to eat, and this drive has to be harnessed and built into any training that they do.

A demonstration was given to show how birds were carried on a cadge, or a kind of portable perch used for transporting birds of prey to the place where the hunt would take place. This was no easy job for the cadger because they were carrying an expensive load over what might be difficult terrain. This is where we get the term “cadge a lift from” because if you were visiting a family or hunting with them, your bird might get a lift on the cadge.

Two birds on a cadge being carried by audience member

We also saw how the birds were trained to hunt things that were not live prey, but were made to look like live prey. I also got the answer to the thing I’d been wondering about – if they are so food-driven, why do they not eat the prey themselves? If it is covered and they can’t see it any more, they lose interest – especially if they are offered some other food. It doesn’t matter if that food is not such good quality – they get food and are satisfied, while the real catch is taken away for the people to eat.

HMS Warrior

We didn’t have time to visit all the ships, but we did explore HMS Warrior, the, which was Britain’s first armoured battleship, and the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet.

The ship is on a number of levels, which you reach by going down steep steps, holding on to rope banisters. The ship was steam powered, so it would have been loud and no doubt really dirty for those guys working down in the engine room. We saw where the men would have eaten, slept, and where the food was prepared. There was no room for people to keep their possessions with them, so they had to keep their things elsewhere.

Officers had individual cabins, but the rest of the men lived in very close quarters. 600 men lived on the ship, divided into thirty-four groups, with up to 18 men in each.

Much of the work on the ship was very physical – it wasn’t all about the fighting – there were plenty of other tough day-to-day jobs that had to be done. For example, it took 100 men to lift each of the ship’s four heavy anchors, which weighed 5.6 tonnes. Other jobs included manning the guns, raising and lowering smaller boats, operating the sails, and cranking the pumps that moved water around the ship. Hammocks were slung above the guns, and the men ate close by. Uniforms were essential, and hats had to be worn at all times unless there was bad weather. Hats were important too because your wages were counted out into them each month.

We’ll be going back

The main reason for going was because of the Christmas fair, but there was much more to see in terms of the history. We’ll probably do our usual thing and take a week off sometime in term time and go when things are a bit quieter so we can have a good look around on our own.

Have you visited the Portsmouth dockyard museum?

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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.

This Groupon link for Opollo Owls is correct at the time of publishing.

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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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