Travelling during Covid: Our 2020 housesitting review

On the 5th November the UK entered its second lockdown. At the time of writing, lockdown 2 is planned to end on the 2nd of December but, if we’ve learnt anything from 2020 it’s to expect the unexpected. We had three housesits lined up over November that we had to cancel in order to comply with new government guidelines.

Housesitting during the Covid-19 pandemic has been stressful to say the least. It’s been a lot more difficult to confirm housesits due to owners not going away, meaning a shortage of housesits and an abundance of displaced housesitters. Straightaway we restricted ourselves to housesits in the UK only as we didn’t feel comfortable travelling internationally, and it seems others felt the same way. The competition for UK housesits has been far greater than usual – normally there may be one or two other housesitters competing for the same sit as us, but in recent months we’ve had to adjust to an average of thirty to forty other sitters desperately applying for any housesit they can get. It became imperative to set up alerts for new housesits within our available date range, but even this wasn’t enough as we’d often see at least four applicants on a listing by the time we’d been alerted. We began receiving more rejections than usual due to the overwhelming amount of applications received and, after spending a short while tailoring our application to each sit, this felt like even more of a kick in the teeth.

Even when we did manage to secure a sit it didn’t feel like getting back to normal. Although most homeowners have been doing what they can to make their homes as safe and clean as possible in these times, a few haven’t which gave us instant headaches upon arrival. We became more and more stressed, questioning whether it was even right to be housesitting in the current climate – caught between our earnest to get on with the nomadic lifestyle we’ve become comfortable with, and our doubt over our safety. With local attractions and cafes closed or heavily restricted, we couldn’t enjoy exploring new places as much as usual – another stark reminder that everything isn’t back to normal just yet.

For now, and until the end of the year, we are ceasing housesitting. In the days that followed the announcement of the second UK lockdown, each of our November sits were cancelled as the owners’ trips couldn’t go ahead. We’re desperate for this pandemic to end so that we can feel confident getting back to our travels, and we feel that travelling to other people’s homes all over the country during the second peak of the pandemic isn’t the way to make this happen. We are incredibly lucky that Suze’s parents have space to accommodate us for the coming months and are willing to put up with us in exchange for a few nights off from cooking, and cleaning! We know that there are many full-time housesitters who are displaced at this time and we’re by no means judging anyone’s decision to continue sitting if it’s the only option for them – we just hope you can stay safe, wherever you are.

We’re incredibly grateful for all the new experiences we’ve managed to have this year, despite travelling and living through a global pandemic. We’ve completed some awesome housesits, made lots of new friends, and embarked on many new adventures! To round off our 2020 housesitting travels (even if it is a bit earlier than we’d hoped it’d be) we’re looking back on how we’ve coped with the pandemic and how its shaped our full-time housesitting life.

New year, new countries

Diamond beach in Iceland
At Diamond beach in Iceland, January 2020

We began 2020 by ringing in the New Year at a concert in Stockholm, days before beginning our first sit of the year – looking after a Westie called Jackson and two cats, Felix and Tiana. Our days in Sweden were filled with fika, gentle strolls around the nearby lake with Jackson, and gazing out of the windows over the forest next to our house as snow drifted down outside. We love Sweden – it’s on our dream list of places to live one day and staying in our cosy lakeside home satisfied our Scandi living cravings. From Sweden we hopped over to Iceland to spend an incredible week celebrating Chris’ 30th birthday – admiring waterfalls, driving through snowstorms and exploring the beautiful and otherworldly city of Reykjavík. We’ll always cherish the memories we made there, though we’re already mentally planning our next trip to explore more of this stunning country!

Coming back to home soil we returned to one of our favourite housesits, in Norfolk – our third time looking after three terrors terriers Puff, Inca and Winnie in a quintessentially English cottage in the countryside. We then completed two short sits, one in the Ashdown forest with three gorgeous Labradors, and returning to a sit in Crowborough to care for cats, dogs, chickens and the herd of alpacas that everyone is always so keen to hear about! Between sits we visited Bletchley Park – once the top-secret home of the World War Two Codebreakers – and with our wanderlust well and truly fuelled by visiting three different countries in the first two months of the year, we threw ourselves into our New Year’s resolutions to try new activities. We tried out bouldering in Tunbridge Wells, snowboarding in Milton Keynes, and paddle-boarding in Maidstone. Feeling positive and hungry for more new adventures, we applied for our first ever Workaway and were so excited when Kate and Seb, owners of glampsite Round the Woods in Norfolk, accepted our application and invited us to help our on their smallholding for the two weeks before they were due to open for the season at the end of March.

Lockdown 1

Well… By now you know how this story goes! Towards the end of March, at the end of our first week at Round the Woods, the government announced the UK would enter lockdown and all non-essential travel was strictly banned. Being the generous and welcoming people that they are, the family kindly invited us to stay on with them in exchange for continuing to work on the many jobs requiring attention on their site. After three months of splitting logs, tractor driving, foraging, weeding, cooking, constructing yurts, bonfires, scaling trees, yoga, playing with the children, oiling wood, painting, clay plastering… we emerged from Lockdown 1 with a wealth of new knowledge, new skills, and a new, positive outlook on life after the comfort and inspiration we found in community living.

Foraging for elderflower with the family at Round the Woods
Foraging for hawthorn with the family at Round the Woods

We spent a month with Suze’s parents in our hometown in Kent, where we both coped differently with adjusting to life in a town having come from the isolation of the smallholding. Whereas Chris took some down time to himself to process the change, I threw myself into accompanying my mum to the supermarket, going on long walks around the grounds at our local National Trust property (Knole Park) and spending hours de-cluttering my childhood bedroom (which is a tornado of childhood memories, angsty teenage memorabilia, and mine and Chris’ joint possessions from our previous life in a flat!) We also managed to spend some time with a new furry friend, Spike, after re-joining Borrow My Doggy!

Neither of us considered applying for housesits under the circumstances, but when a homeowner got in touch with us for a return sit in Hove at the end of July, we just couldn’t say no! Looking after Saluki Jem a stone’s throw from the sea, with homeowners who we know, like and trusted to have been sensible during lockdown, was the perfect way to dip our toes back into the water of housesitting. We woke early to take Jem for runs on the deserted beach, had breakfast outside our favourite cafe, and managed to enjoy some social interaction though socially-distanced meetings with friends in the ample outdoor space on Hove Lawns.

Suze on the beach with Jem, while at a housesit in Hove
Suze on the beach with Jem, while at our housesit in Hove

Testing the water

After such a positive experience in Hove, we tentatively began applying for new housesits and lined up a few in the South of England. We cared for Whippet Ludo in Slaugham, three Bengals and two Dachshunds in Saltford, and Golden Retriever Bess in Dartmoor. Each of these sits was an adventure in itself and we felt some semblance of normality in our hikes up mountains in Dartmoor, and visits to National Trust properties while in Saltford. Though we were enjoying these sits, it still never felt 100% right. Meeting homeowners is normally such a lovely beginning to a sit for us, but with social distancing and requesting a thorough cleaning routine before our arrival it was becoming anxiety-inducing, and the doubts began to creep in as we were confronted with the possibility that, perhaps, the owners who’ve booked a trip to the other side of the world during a pandemic might not care so much about this virus…?

Choosing to carry on instead of listening to our internal monologues, we found ourselves booking a weekend sit caring for Siamese cat Peachai just a ten minute drive from Suze’s parents. Not only were we in an area we were familiar with, but the homeowners had cleaned their home to a clinical standard, even disinfecting the inside of the grooming glove to use on Peachai! We loved spending some time back in Kent, going apple picking or walking in the hills before coming back to the house to snuggle up for a cosy evening watching films.

Feeling a confidence boost from completing such a successful sit, we embarked on a brand new adventure – actually, it was Chris’ belated birthday present from me – as we had our first foray into van life! We made our way up the country to pick up the van near Leeds, stopping at two AirBnBs to break up the journey and checking that each place we picked had specifically updated their listings to detail their enhanced cleaning procedures for Covid. We found two absolute gems, first in a sweet shepherd’s hut at FourWinds Leisure, and the second at an alpaca farm in Yorkshire where not only were we greeted by two labradors, but the owners also took us along to feed the herd of alpacas, as well as their goats, during our stay.

Picking up our van/home for the week, Homer Roamer, and setting off to the Lake District felt amazing. We’ve been dreaming of trying out van living for the past few years, as we believe living in a van between housesits could eliminate some pressure to line up housesit dates exactly while we live in the van in the meantime. We’ve written extensively about our time in Homer, from hikes over fells to parking up in secluded forests, and you can read all about it on our blog where there’s also a list of things we didn’t know about van life before we tried it! Safe to say this adventure was one of the highlights of our year and we felt incredible being out in nature once more, especially as autumn came in quickly and transformed our surroundings to a shining palette of orange and brown.

Our first van life adventure with Homer Roamer!
Our first van life adventure with Homer Roamer!

A breath of fresh autumn air

The beginning of October brought us another new experience when we housesat near Harrogate, taking care of Murphy the chatty African Grey Parrot! We’d never looked after an African Grey before so were keen to learn more about them. During our first few days with Murphy he didn’t seem too bothered about talking to us, but over our week with him he settled in more each day, saying ‘night night’ and ‘see you in the morning!’ when we put him to bed. By the end of our stay he’d say ‘see you later!’ any time we left the house, as well as running through his impressive repertoire of technology noises that fooled us more than once!

Outside of the house we explored a handful of National Trust places, admiring the autumn foliage at Fountains Abbey and the impressive rock formations at Brimham Rocks. We’ve visited so many beautiful NT places that we’ve even put together our top NT places to visit for an autumnal walk! We love walking for miles at any time of year but something about the fresh October air and dappled sunlight through golden leaves made for some really stunning visits.

Visiting Harrogate itself was another story, as we were quickly reminded of the severity of the pandemic as we queued for the famous Betty’s tea room – not too unexpected due to its popularity, we thought – before queueing to enter a Hotel Chocolat and a Mountain Warehouse, all decked out with social distancing markers and one way systems, and an abundance of anti-bacterial gels. We stayed at another spotless AirBnB on our way back down the country, appreciating a cosy night just the two of us with no responsibilities, other than announcing the launch of our new website! The lovely Little Bobbin near Cambridge was so stylish with its Scandi inspired decor that it made the perfect backdrop for our announcement post on Instagram. We slept soundly knowing that we had nothing to worry about, and were on our way back to familiar surroundings.

Just a month after caring for Siamese cat Peachai, we’d booked in for our second sit with her in Kemsing. We spent a lot of time over the week applying for new housesits and talking with homeowners, and found ourselves with three new sits lined up for November – the first of which beginning the day after we left Peachai. So we drove the short journey from Kent to Essex, failing to realise that we were crossing over from a county in Tier 1 (medium alert for Covid) to Tier 2 (High alert). While the restriction changes didn’t really affect us as we’d been effectively keeping to ourselves, just knowing we were now in a higher tier contributed to the low rumble of stress underlying our decision to carry on housesitting. This decision only made us feel worse when our host, without any prior discussion with us, didn’t leave for his trip until a full 28 hours after we’d arrived. This in itself was against government guidelines on mixing with others under Tier 2 and we felt unsure of our safety, having spent the months since Lockdown 1 ended doing our absolute best to limit our time around others in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Accepting the end of our journey

By the time Boris Johnson declared the UK would enter its second lockdown, we were eagerly awaiting the announcement and tuned in to watch the broadcast in its entirety. We’d heard whispers of a second lockdown so it didn’t come as a shock, and in fact I personally felt hugely relieved when we realised our November sits wouldn’t go ahead. It meant not putting pressure on ourselves to potentially put ourselves at risk. It meant going home to my parents and spending at least a month hunkered down in familiar surroundings, to ease the anxiety that had become rampant inside me. Most of all, we both felt it was the right thing to pause our housesitting journey but maybe we simply couldn’t justify it without an enforced government announcement. 

With only four days until our sit was due to end, and the new guidelines going into effect the day after the sit would end, we spent every last second of our Essex sit appreciating the little time we had left with adorable Shih Tzus, Pepe and Fuji. We took them for walks along the nearby beach, spent an afternoon watching the waves with them at our host’s beach hut, and had many, many snuggles on the sofa with them as we all curled up against the howling winds outside to enjoy cosy evenings watching Halloween films.

Pepe and Fuji on the beach in Essex
Pepe and Fuji on the beach in Essex

Now we’re back in our hometown and have fully accepted that we’ll need to actively find ways to fill our days under lockdown. Once again I’ve thrown myself into activities like walks with my sister, baking with my mum and working on Christmas orders for my online Etsy shop, while Chris has needed more time to himself – reading books, going running and watching YouTube videos on photography. We’re carving out time to play our favourite boardgames, watch Netflix together and plan some blog posts to share with you all, trying to stay focused on the present and taking each day as it comes.

While we may not have made it to all the countries we wanted to visit this year, tried out all the new activities, or even completed as many housesits as we thought we would, it’s hard to look back on this year and not feel immensely proud of how we’ve managed to get through this turbulent year. Van life, hiking mountains, caring for new pets, visiting new places in the UK – even cooking new recipes and gaining new skills – it all feels like an incredible achievement considering nobody had any idea how to cope with the uncertainty of this year. We metaphorically wrote our own guidebook, and put our mental health first – a decision that was difficult but necessary as it meant turning our backs on the lifestyle we’ve so loved building over the past three years.

We sincerely hope that all our friends in the travel and housesitting community are able to stay somewhere safe during this time. As keen as we are to get back on the road, we understand wholeheartedly the importance of cutting our losses and staying put. However, this is by no means the end of our housesitting journey forever! All being well, we’ll be back in the remote cottage in Norfolk after Christmas for another six week stay with Puff, Inca and Winnie. We really hope their owner can get away for her holiday as it’s one of our all time favourite sits, and slipping back into the peaceful countryside lifestyle would be the perfect calm end to a year that has been anything but.

We loved writing this post and reminiscing about all the amazing wins we’ve had this year! We definitely recommend it to anyone who feels that this year has been a write-off; go back through your photos, your journal, even your social media or text messages – you might be surprised to realise that this year was better than you thought. Until next time, head to our blog for more posts to keep you entertained during lockdown, and let us know if there’s anything you’d specifically like to see us write about by dropping us a message!