Wwoofing ends

Well, it had to happen eventually I suppose, a placement that didn’t work out. This was the view as we approached, and in retrospect, we maybe should have seen it as a warning:

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It was probably a number of factors: the contrast with the amazing time we had just had, a letter I had received that knocked me sideways and left me depressed and really struggling, and, I think, having learned so much over the summer, getting to the stage where we just wanted to be doing things for ourselves. There were other issues, but our hosts were nice people and I don’t want to use this as a space to analyse and deconstruct the problems.

So I did something I normally just don’t do. I told a lie. I don’t see the point of lying and I’m not a liar. I’m not proud of it and it is totally out of character for me. But on this occasion, I lied. I told a big fat, whopping lie and we did a runner. Sorry. And we spent the remaining days camping down the Wye Valley. It was lovely. Then we popped home for a wedding and Victorious Festival, and then off again – Sri Lanka for a month, India for two months, Greece for a month and then home for Christmas. And Sri Lanka is where we are now.

It was a hard start, I will admit. I was horribly homesick to begin with, and the realisation that 16 weeks is actually quite a long time to be away, sank in. When we were wwoofing, we could drop everything and get back home in four hours, tops, so the distance suddenly weighed heavily too. However, two weeks in and we’re getting into the groove. And I am seeing links with the ultimate aim – which is to get a piece of land and live a sustainable life.

Like, achieving the seemingly impossible. Take a typical Sri Lankan city bus stand, with god knows how many buses, local, long-distance, government, private, asking people who don’t speak the language (my charades will be excellent this Christmas), against the clock, carrying all your worldly belongings in the heaviest backpack, in ridiculous temperatures – and then you do it! You get onto a vehicle with no air-con, standing room only, with a distinct possibility of being groped, knowing that your destination is six hours away. And you feel great! It’s nuts, but I’m going to bottle that feeling for when we are battling with planning permission in a few years’ time.

Like, going without. The evening we wandered out later than usual to get dinner to find that Sri Lankans like to go to bed quite early and everything was closed, so we scraped together a mixture of edible items that really shouldn’t be eaten together in the same meal and felt grateful for a full-ish stomach. I’m bottling that one for when we are still learning to grow veg and our yield isn’t that high and there’s not a lot in the bank to help us out.

Anyway, enough of this, I have this pressing engagement with the sea.

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Not sure how much more blogging I’m going to do as we travel, so I’ll see you at Christmas. Go well.

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Off grid; on message

Apologies for taking so long to write this post, and it feels as if we have done this placement a disservice, as in the end, this was our favourite wwoofing experience of the lot. (And the delay means that I am writing this post on a beach in Sri Lanka. I say this only so that you get the full picture, honest).

So our penultimate placement was a week living off-grid in a woodland community in Yeovil, Somerset. We arrived, parked the car, unloaded our stuff and then began the hike up the hill to the top, where they live. I tried to capture a sense of the steepness of the hill, but this was the best I could do:

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Just take my word for it; it’s a climb. We arrived at the top after about 15 minutes, red-faced and breathless, and met L, who has lived in the community for two years, and I, a fellow wwoofer from the Basque Country. We had a brief tour and were then shown our guest house:

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How lovely is that? I felt like a woman in a fairy tale who lived in the woods, who every morning, swept her cottage and kept it as neat as a pin. And I did sweep every morning (and yes, with a besom) because when living in the woods it’s pretty hard to keep stuff clean. After a very short time, I realised that life is much easier if you stop trying to fight the mud and just learn to live alongside it.

As you walk around the woodland, houses become apparent to you, emerging out of the trees. They are completely sympathetic to their surroundings, and of course made completely sustainably – straw bale houses, some made from wood and plenty of benders (yurt-like structures).

The community was founded 24 years ago by some of the Newbury bypass road protesters from the early 90s – a road protest I remember well and one I agreed with. I still wince when I drive up that section of the M3. It turns out that S from the other community, from whom I bought my scythe, was one of those guys, and as the week went on, I discovered more relationships and started to see more clearly the links across the wwoofing communities and how they help each other out. There is one guy, M, left from the very beginning, who is 74 and full of tales and information.

Other members include P, with whom I had been corresponding via email; E and S who are a couple and expecting a baby; L and T who were away during the week we were there but we met them briefly at the end, and J, who was also away. N arrived while we were there; she has joined the community to have her baby there. And there was another wwoofer, C, from France who had the most amazing energy – after a full day’s physical work, as Mr B and I slumped down at the firepit, C would announce he was going off for a run! He also said something to Mr B and I that I loved, (Read in a French accent for the full effect) “It is impossible to put a number of age onto you two because you are both so young in the heart.” I think that is one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard.

The communal space is in a clearing at the top of the hill. It comprises a thatched roundhouse and kitchen, an outdoor kitchen and a seating area around a firepit. Excluding time spent asleep in the guesthouse, I think we spent 97% of our time outside; it was lovely. The whole focus is on sustainability, so there are no fossil fuels used at all; everything is wood-fired. There is a small amount of solar energy used for electric sockets which are for mobiles, the communal laptop and lights. Food is cooked on the wood-fired Rayburn in the indoor kitchen, or the rocket stoves outdoors:

We all chopped wood everyday to ensure that there was always enough fuel. Anything extra, like the woodburner in the guest house, and you just had to chop more. The weather wasn’t great while we were there, but with that amount of chopping to do, there was no chance of feeling chilly, and if the cold did creep in, then one trip up and down the hill and you were toasty again.

They have around 40 acres of land, 19 of it managed woodland which supplies the wood, and the other 21 is for growing vegetables, apple tree orchards, growing grass to make hay and for the animals to graze. They have two cows and a calf, and two cob ponies. The ponies are used as muscle to cart the heavy stuff around, like dragging trees they have felled up the hill. The ponies, Charlie and Jim, were lovely, and I got to go out on a ride with L one sunny evening and we explored the surrounding countryside. For me it was heaven.

They make apple juice and cider from the apples in the orchard, and one of the perks after a hard day’s graft was drinking the cider. The woodland is mainly Douglas Fir, although there are other varieties of tree too. This is Doug:

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who sits at the firepit.

The toilets are, of course, compost loos. Here’s one:

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And here’s the view when you sit on the loo:

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The folk here are not airy-fairy hippies at all, but down-to-earth, practical, hard-working people who have a vision of a sustainable way of life. Did I mention yet that I loved it? There are no fossil fuelled tools, so trees are felled with a two-person saw; no power tools for DIY; they have a saw mill, but it is powered with a steam engine. Oh, and this is how I took a bath…

First write on the chalkboard outside the bath house – name, day and time you intend to bath. Two hours before that time, you light the wood burner and you feed the fire to heat the water in the tank. A hour before that, you chop the wood. A three-hour lead in, and man, I really enjoyed that bath!

This, hands down, was the most inspirational, eye-opening, thought-provoking wwoofing stay of the lot. We are booked to go back in the New Year for a tree-felling weekend and I actually can’t wait!

 

A party, a second mini holiday and a festival

We left Salisbury and headed for Surrey to spend the weekend with L & J, a lovely couple we met back in April when we volunteered at Embercombe in Devon, at Easter. They were having a party and so we spent the weekend in beautiful sunshine in the garden of their cottage with a large crowd of the best people. Quite a lot of that time was spent sitting by the edge of their paddling pool, feet in the water, drink in hand. We got to test the tent out for the first time too.

From there we trundled back to Somerset, whizzing past Stonehenge on the way

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where we stayed the week with F & M. There was a bit more countryside enjoyment

a fair bit of laughing

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(that is a genuine laugh from me, even though it looks completely staged…), and lots of great food

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From there we travelled to Leicester for a rainbow-themed festival, were we met our three kids (yay)

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and loads of friends

IMG-20170718-WA0045IMG-20170721-WA0001and generally had a great time. This is the fourth time we’ve been to this festival and it was great to catch up with people we had met there before in previous years as well as make a whole bunch of new friends too. IMG-20170718-WA0046

It seems we are having a ridiculously fun-filled, interesting, sunny, brilliant summer.

 

A Mini Holiday in Salisbury

We had booked in to see some friends and family during our travels and had the good fortune to stay with S & H in Salisbury for four days. S is Mr’s B’s oldest friend. On the way we stopped off to admire the Cerne Abbas giant.

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And then the first thing I noticed as we pulled up outside their house was that their grass needed cutting. Excellent! A chance to practise scything.

We went out in the evening for something to eat and went to an Indian restaurant that served Southern Indian street food – proper authentic Indian fare; lovely. And then on to a pub for a drink or two

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On Tuesday, S and H were working so I spent a lot of time reading my scything books, watching scything YouTube videos of people (usually men with beards tbh) scything and then had a go myself.

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Not bad for a first attempt; I produced windrows, the lines of cut grass you leave to the left of your swath, your swath being the path you make in the long grass once you’ve cut it. Yep, I’m fully into it!

On Wednesday we went for an eight mile walk across fields

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Past rivers

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Past camels

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That is a real-life two-humped camel

Bridges over rivers with swans

Chocolate box cottages

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And enormous line of ducks (I’ve since been reliably informed they’re geese) who were clearly on some kind of mission

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On Thursday we spent the day in Salisbury, which is a lovely city. Apparently Prince Charles was doing something in the Cathedral grounds, which accounted for the huge numbers of police in the centre. We popped along to the Salisbury Museum which had great displays of all sorts (I love a museum) including lots on Stonehenge. And then there was this guy

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A 12 foot giant that has existed in some form since the 1400s and used to parade around the streets. The weird horse-like guy on the right, Hob-Nob, would cavort in front of the procession, clearing the crowd to make way for the Giant to walk along. I mean, you can’t see your own feet; you’d need a crowd clearer. The English are a little strange, aren’t we?

Community Life Part II

The morning started with good news and bad. The good news was that Jeremy the calf (so called because he was calved on June 8th) had been found. The bad news was that his mum was still completely blind and the vet did not have a very encouraging prognosis. On the plus side, Jeremy was still able to suckle, even though she was now on a range of medication. Only time will tell.

On Saturday I worked in the garden again, weeding the beetroot patch and harvesting some of the larger roots,

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harvesting some leeks and responding to requests of herbs and salads from the kitchen, which is where Mr B spent his day. Then on Sunday I worked in the kitchen in the morning. It’s quite daunting cooking for 40, but C was very calm and ordered so it wasn’t at all stressful. We used some of the leeks and beetroot that I had harvested the day before and there was something really gratifying about cooking and eating the veg that you were working with just yesterday.

In the afternoon, we both worked in the main house. There had been a number of individual guests as well as two yoga groups, so all those chambermaiding skills and techniques I learned during my stint at the Hilton National in Farlington in 1988 came in handy. It also gave me a chance to see all the rooms and they really are lovely. Simple, but lovely.

And then it was Monday and time to leave. We were invited to stay for lunch, so we took the opportunity in the morning to get a sustainability tour from one of the community members, L. He explained the inner workings of compost toilets and the different types you can get, the different grades of compost you can make, how the temperature and the bacteria affect the process of breaking it all down. It was fascinating. I love a compost loo.

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He also showed us his straw bale house. I first came across, and fell in love with, straw bale houses about 20 years ago when we visited the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales. It was great to see one that was habitable – and inhabited! The electricity ran off solar panels on the roof and was stored in a battery indoors and it supplied all that they needed. They also had an indoor compost toilet that blew the myth that they have to be outdoors. As the family has grown they have added a few extensions

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and which right-minded child doesn’t want a balcony outside their bedroom with an exit slide?! I left Mr B with L, and while they discussed the inner workings of rainwater harvesting systems and wood-fired central heating, I went for a wander around to say goodbye to the place.

The beautiful setting and land

The shady, secret rhododendron patch

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the little interesting touches that you find by accident

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This guy’s love heart earring though…

And these cheeky guys

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I think it’s au revoir not goodbye as we’ve been asked to come back, so I hope we do.

Oh, and I’ve bought a scythe…

Community Life Part I

So on Monday evening, we arrived at a community in Dorset. This isn’t our first taste of a community; we had volunteered for one in Devon last April, but that had been a short weekend as opposed to eight days. So, we arrived, were taken on a tour, shown our room, and then it was time for dinner. It was a beautiful summer evening, so we ate outdoors. There are 14 adults and five children currently staying, along with some other volunteers like us, and it was a really warm welcome from everyone.

The house was built in the middle of the 19th century and was originally a boarding school for those who weren’t thriving in mainstream education. It hasn’t been a school for a long time, but it still focuses on education, with its heart in sustainability, as well as gaining a lot of its income from B&B. The rooms are really nice.

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On Tuesday we worked in the garden in the morning, mainly weeding and then harvesting garlic. The garden is massive and we were totally envious.

 

In the afternoon we worked on the farm.

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There are three Jersey cows and a calf. The cows are milked twice a day and the milk serves the kitchen and the community and then S and G also make cheese. Here’s some halloumi I sliced in the dairy.

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Then Mr B went off to help with an electric fence and I attacked thistles (again) although this time I got to do it with a machete which was much more fun. Then it was time to get the cows in for milking. Stupidly I had forgotten to put my waterproof trousers on, so spending an afternoon in a rainy field of thigh-high grass that’s already sodden, wading around searching for thistles wasn’t the best idea. But hey it’s only a bit of rain.

On Wednesday I stacked a wood pile and cleared some paths from overgrown vegetation and Mr B did more gardening. Then we lifted and shifted a bunch of hardcore and soil in the afternoon, flattening out the edge of a newly-built track around the edge of the wood barn. Thursday was more garden work, picking fruit and protecting the cabbages from attacks from both pigeons and cabbage white caterpillars. And then Friday was a day off.

We spent the morning in Bridport going to their wide selection of charity shops; I bought a book on organic gardening in a tiny garden and another on how to store your veg over winter. Then we went back to the second place we had wwoofed and visited V and G again. It was lovely to see them and catch up on their news, and also to see how the veg had grown since we planted it out over a month ago. I was so happy to see how well it had all done! We made organic stuff happen!

When we arrived back at the community though, we found out that the calf had gone missing (although he had wandered off into the long meadow grass before and had come back safe and sound, so people weren’t too worried) and his mother had inexplicably gone blind. It was a sad end to an otherwise lovely day.

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Three walks

 

On our day off, we decided to be ambitious with three walks: one very local from Castle Drogo down and along the river; one at Lydford Gorge and then an hour and a half car drive to Cornwall to see the Lost Gardens of Heligan (which I have wanted to visit for around 20 years)

The local river walk was (once again quite boringly) lovely – yet another walk in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

It was fairly early in the day but already so hot even under the shade of the trees, so at the end of the walk this seemed an appropriate response:

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Then we went to Lydford Gorge to see the White Lady Waterfalls

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And crossed the bridge for a spot of lunch.

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Then onto the Lost Gardens of Heligan which were so interesting, and I wished we had allowed more time. The Mud Maiden has always been a favourite of mine and I was pleased to meet her finally.

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Saw some animals

Admired flowers

Went over a rope bridge

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And generally had a good time.

We came home this weekend and it was lovely to catch up with a few friends and to see this one

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Down to Devon

For the past two weeks, we having being staying with a couple, S and A, their six year old son, J and Obi the dog.

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Mr B still claiming he doesn’t like animals

They live in a beautiful part of Devon in a converted barn with seven acres of gardens and woodland which they are trying to keep as wild as possible, as well as herbicide and pesticide free to encourage insects, wildlife and plants to flourish.

Much of our work has been clearing brambles and thistles to stop them taking over the land

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One of many wheelbarrow-loads of handpicked thistles

The surroundings are lovely:

This is a pool at the bottom of their garden and we did go for a paddle and a drift on their small rowing boat. There’s even a path at the bottom of the pool that looks like a fairy glade.

It’s been stupidly hot, as I’m sure it has been most everywhere across the UK, which has made physical work quite challenging, so we’ve been trying to stay in the shade and drink (a lot of) water.

There are three reservoirs nearby, so after work last week, we went for a walk to find one. The path started out fairly obviously

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And then got a little overgrown

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And then seemed to peter out altogether

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But we continued anyway and came across a pretty weir

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And then across a skinny bridge

 

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and then this

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We found a little spot on the shore and watched the clouds go by for a couple of hours. It was a lovely spot to while away the afternoon.

Work on the farm

So this is what we’ve been doing:

Cleaning and improving a converted horsebox

It was once lovely, but has fallen into disrepair and needed quite a lot of TLC. I got to work scrubbing it from top to bottom while Mr B replaced the wooden parts of the steps, a rotten floorboard and repaired a drawer and a cupboard door. We pulled out the broken sink and the worktop and cooker; we re-fixed and re-grouted tiles and put panelling over a bit of wall to hide a multitude of aesthetic sins. I even remembered to do a before and after shot. I’m quite proud of our handywork.

 

 

Shepherding

On Wednesday we moved the flock over the road to a neighbouring farm to be shorn. Mr B and I acted as the lollipop heroes, stopping traffic (sadly, none came along)

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and making sure none of the sheep made a dash for it up the lane.

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These guys are eight weeks old 🙂

Then on Thursday, we got the newly-shorn flock into a trailer and took them to fresh pasture a few miles away. Before we let them out, we checked the electric fencing and I was asked to cut old wool like this

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off the fence strands to ensure the current wasn’t compromised. Then, when all was safe, we let them out

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Run free, sheep!

Here’s Mr B getting into the shepherd role

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“I don’t like animals” claims Mr B…

Then off to another field nearby to round up a second flock and bring them back to the farm. It’s their turn to be shorn. It was great watching the collie, Bonnie, rounding them up. She loves her job and does it really well. Here they are just before we let them out

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Whatcha lookin’ at?

Mr B is embracing the farmer role more readily than he thought he would. But this could be because it involves quite a few big toys.

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We have also hoed, planted and weeded both the polytunnel and the four large veg patches. B uses the “no dig” technique, where the idea is you hoe off any weeds on the surface, and only open the earth to put seedlings in. It is certainly an efficient method and one that makes sense to me. And apparently the idea that you need to turn the earth over to let the air in before you plant is a Victorian myth.

We have had a delightful week here and made two very good friends. We have promised to meet up in Salisbury with our respective hounds for a dog walk – look at these guys

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Bonnie on the right; Clyde on the left

and I sincerely hope we manage to do so.

 

 

The Mendips

So we’ve spent the last week atop the Mendips: 250m above sea level. There’s some weather up there – 48 hours of 40-45mph winds while we sheltered in our caravan and thought the awning was going to lift us into orbit.

Once again, we are lucky to be staying with genuinely lovely people. It feels like the world is full of them! These warm and interesting folk who open their doors and welcome us and take care of us and teach us stuff. Yes, they get work from us in return, but it seems such small repayment.

So B and V’s main work is growing and harvesting calendula flowers which they turn into natural skincare products. Lyonsleaf if you want to look them up.

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Some of their products are particularly good at dealing with eczema and psoriasis etc. It is a burgeoning business and one that is filling all their waking hours, along with looking after four-year-old daughter E. I had hoped to supply you with a beautiful photo of fields of gold, but of course, it is too early for the plants to be flowering. But I can imagine in a month or two just how that will look.

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They have a flock of sheep, a polytunnel and a veg plot. Work didn’t start until Monday, so on Saturday afternoon we thought we’d go for a walk and see what the Mendips looks like. Just as we parked at Charterhouse, which is an old mining area, I noticed a half-flat tyre. This car does not seem to be lucky. However, this is the third thing to go wrong so fingers crossed it’s the last. We tried to change it there and then, but the equipment we have in the boot does not marry with the wheels on the car, so we shelved the walk and drove back to the farm to see if we could sort it there. When I say “we” I do of course mean Mr B. I sat in the awning of the caravan and wrote a letter to a friend. The upshot was a quick visit to Kwik Fit – the only tyre place open on a Sunday – and while we were in Bristol, seeing as it was raining, had an afternoon in the museum.