Travelling as a family during the Covid-19 pandemic

This past week (the last week of October) was Sophie’s half-term break; this is usually a great time to travel. This time last year, we went to Paris. This year, due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, we were limited to staying within the UK. Not just the UK, but only had only parts of England and Scotland available to visit; as Wales, Northern Ireland, and even parts of England were under lockdown.

We ended up choosing south-eastern England. Kent, specifically, but also the site of the Battle of Hastings, which is technically in Sussex. I have some photos of the trip to share, but not a tonne. It was a short trip, and very rainy (England at the end of October- what can you do). I’ve decided instead of making this a purely ‘Kent’ blog post, I’ll share some tips on how to safely travel during the pandemic. (I’ll also share some photos along the way – but you can always check out my Instagram stories with the best pictures saved).

We’re all weary of staying home and you may be looking for a safe way to get out and see something beyond your own four walls. Now in England we have no choice but to stay home; but if you’re not under a legally-imposed lockdown, here are my tips that have so-far proved successful.

We chose our destination only about a week before we left. We needed to be flexible and base our decision on the most up-to-date coronavirus data and government guidelines. We had a few locations we’d like to go to in mind, and of all the places we’d like to visit, Kent area consistently was keeping low infection numbers (compared to the rest of the country).

From the BBC updated 31 October 2020
(these numbers are ‘per 100 000 people’, not total cases)



When you want to visit any tourist attraction now, you *must* book ahead. For both free or paid attractions, you need to visit their websites and book a time slot in which you can visit. Some places take these time slots somewhat loosely (and let you in 15 minutes early or late) and some are very strict and insist you get in exactly at your allotted time. Either way, the timed entries help to control the flow of people through the location and means that we don’t feel we’re among any crowds. It really aids social distancing and we haven’t had any issues through our Scotland trip or here in Kent with these processes.

Our stack of pre-booked tickets for various attractions



As soon as we knew we where we were going and when, we booked the must-see attractions. Especially during a school break, you need to make sure to pre-book well in advance. Every single attraction we visited had a sign out front saying ‘Sold out today’. We looked into getting next-day tickets for one or two castles that were nearby and they were all sold-out.

Sophie in the rain at Battle Abbey – an English Heritage site.



So here’s my biggest tip when trying to travel safely during the pandemic: Try to be as self-sufficient as possible. That is what makes us feel safe, at least. Use your own car to get where you’re going, bring your own food, and stay in a self-catering apartment.

We invested in a very nice AirBnB and although they followed all Covid-19 cleaning protocols and social distancing/no host check-in, the first thing I did when we got in, before touching anything, was to wipe down everything with Dettol (Lysol) wipes. Everything that we touch. Eric unloads the car to the front door while Sophie and I go around and wipe every single light switch, door knob, water tap, remote control, table surface, button, etc. Any touch surface gets disinfected, and we make this house into “our bubble”, so that we can feel safe and confident here for the next three days.

Another way of being self-sufficient took a lot of planning, but we brought all of our meals and food with us. Going to restaurants 3x a day is just exposing yourself to risk 3x a day, all over the Kent countryside (even if it is the lowest virus numbers in the country). Instead, I planned out and brought enough food for breakfasts and lunches to pack (sandwiches), and I pre-made and froze casseroles for dinners (along with some easy things like frozen pizzas). I do all the food shopping at home and bring it with us because I don’t want to be searching around a new and unfamiliar grocery store in hopes of getting everything I want. Now isn’t the time to be going store to store to pick everything up; in fact, it’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid!

A big frozen tray of enchiladas ready to head into the oven. An added bonus of frozen meals like these are they act like a giant block of ice in the cooler.
A big packed lunch we ate in the car because it was raining.
This is how we travel. Two of our suitcases/bags are in the backseat too, because we only have 1 kid back there. Our trunk looked like this (but even tighter) our whole 10 days in Scotland – and the cooler stayed cool the whole time too!



I know that a lot of the enjoyment of travelling is eating out, enjoying the local food, not having to cook – and I do greatly miss that. But it’s just something that I have to give up in order to be able to travel at all and still feel safe and secure. We can’t have it all, right now.

We’re also careful about the activities we plan. We decided on booking Battle Abbey because it was all outside, that was easy. We also decided on Dover Castle and Canterbury Cathedral because they’re huge old stone buildings with very high ceilings and lots of room for air flow and social distancing. Combine the great space with the timed entries, and we always had a tonne of room to enjoy ourselves and still explore some history. Our last booking was a private river boat tour in Canterbury. These are usually 10+ people per boat, but with Covid restrictions, they were limiting all tours to one household per boat, but still charging the same amount. We thought this was a great deal for essentially a private boat tour! However, it rained so much in the week that the river was too high for the boats. Our tour was cancelled twice and we eventually decided to take their option of a walking tour. Due to my MS, I’m not at all that good on walking tours. I made it more than 2/3 of that way though, then I insisted they leave me in the town square in front of the cathedral while they finished the last 20 minutes. We still saw a lot and learned a lot about this adorable town, and felt very safe doing it outside with a tour guide who was wearing a face mask the whole time.

Canterbury
The white cliffs of Dover- this morning may have (luckily) been the best few hours of weather we had all week and I think was one of my highlights. Definitely a good social distancing activity.

Above, you see us ticking an English bucket list item off—– eating a sandwich in Sandwich. We’ve been wanting to do this since we moved to England! But now it’s a pandemic!!! We went to this adorable little village and there really were places to get some mouth-watering sandwiches, we’d really love to buy it there and support them and felt like cads that we didn’t. But we had to stick to our guns and avoid all places, and we just ate the turkey sandwich we packed that morning.

We clean our cloth masks daily. I brought my handy salad spinner with us. One full kettle of boiling water and some dish soap or hand soap and they’re clean in 30 mins (I usually let it sit for 20 minutes, then do a few rinse cycles). Then they dry overnight. We each go through a few masks a day when travelling.



Lastly, I’ll come to what I considered the biggest risk factor of the whole trip. It’s unavoidable: rest stops. I worried about them before we left but I knew there wasn’t too much we could do about avoiding it.
When we have to stop, I aim to wear masks, use a whole tonne of hand sanitiser everywhere, avoid people everywhere I can, and be quick. Get in, pee, and get out. We don’t hang about and we don’t order food or wait in line. And when I say use a tonne of sanitiser, I mean it- use it when we walk in the building, use it when we exit the bathroom (even though we also just washed our hands, sanitise too!), use it when we exit the building, and then use it again when we get into the car and take off our masks.
Most (2/3) of the service centres were pretty good but one was just so busy and no one was following the rules, it made us all anxious and stressed. When I left it, I said ‘That right there gives me no faith in people and this is why we’ll need a national lockdown….’ and the very next day the PM announced one.

So now this is all a bit moot. We (in England) are on national lockdown for the next month and there won’t be any travelling whatsoever. But maybe you’ll be trying to go somewhere at Christmastime, or maybe you just aren’t in England! Sure, none of us can do any big, elaborate, fancy international travel right now (don’t. even. get. me. started…) but if you’re in a safe location and you’re really feeling cabin fever, it can’t hurt too much to get out and go a couple hours down the road, explore something ‘nearby’ that you just have never been to, and maybe always meant to go to.
Book a nice holiday cottage/AirBnB, buy some food at your local home grocery store where you feel safe and make sure you’ve got enough with you, fuel up the car, and hit the road for a few days. Even if you hit horrendous weather like we did for 4 straight days, you’ll end up feeling refreshed just having got out of the house and around new scenery.

(Also, I’m going to point out that I know we won’t get Covid just from going to restaurants or to grocery stores in another city, etc. All I’m trying to say is that our travelling inherently means we’re going out and seeing more people and doing way more things than we usually do. Way more. Just by travelling, we are adopting some risk that we wouldn’t have if we just stayed home. So we try to mitigate that risk with the above measures. If this isn’t for you, or you protect your family another way, that’s cool. Don’t come @ me. All I’m trying to do is give a few tips to someone who is feeling a little lost and not sure where to start.)

Keep safe, everyone.
Xx

Dover Castle

Scotland

Quite a few months ago, we had to face the realisation that our summer travel wasn’t going to look the way we had originally planned (we had a great deal on a place in Croatia for a week in August). Now with Covid, even if things were opening up and travel was going to be allowed, we just weren’t yet comfortable taking the discount airlines that fly from Bristol.
So we decided that whatever travel we were doing this summer should stay in the UK. Let’s use our own car, rent AirBnB houses so that we’re not worried about hotels with elevators and people around, and distance ourselves. As we got lost in this idea, we started thinking more and more of the word ‘distance’ and eventually came up with Scotland and mostly, the highlands. What could be more socially distant than that? Yes, we battered around the idea of Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which Eric has been to and I want to see one day, but in the end we decided to leave the cities (and crowds) for a later date.

So this was way back in May, way before the government decided to open things or knew when they would. I said to Eric, what’s the harm in booking a few places now that have full refund policies? I figured once the country opens up and people decide to staycation, properties would go fast. So we booked a few beautiful spots and sat back and waited. Since then, I reconsidered and decided we planned too long a trip and we cancelled the last 2 places— I thought 3 stops and 8 nights was enough, we might lose our minds and kill each other going any longer (as we found in Sicily, 5 stops was too much).

This trip took a lot of preplanning. We wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible for two reasons and to not need to make extra stops at stores or restaurants— 1) to limit our exposure to people, and 2) because we didn’t know how often we’d see good stores or restaurants once we got into the remote countryside!!!

I did a lot of cooking the week before we left, I made big batches of curry, mac&cheese, potato and leek soup, tetrazini, and mushroom soup– and we froze it all. I planned out every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for our 9 days (to make sure we had enough food with us, plus a planned shop in a town along the way). The bonus of the frozen meals was they acted as ice blocks for the cooler to keep everything else cold. Bonus, then we never had to do much cooking other than warming up and throwing together a bagged salad during our whole holiday! This also alleviated one of our biggest stresses when we’re travelling- where to eat. We too often head out to look for a restaurant and we’re all hungry then can’t agree on/decide on one and start fighting. This was so nice to have dinner taken care of every night. (And another bonus, because it was food we knew, we knew all the carb counts vs guesstimating at a restaurant!!!)

Well enough of me babbling, how about some pictures?!?!
Our first stop was in South-Western Scotland in a tiny town called Whithorn. I don’t know what made us choose this place other than we knew we would be able to drive to it in one day. We figured this stop will either be a diamond in the rough or a total bust.
The house we stayed in predates the 14th century! The town was tiny but very historic – apparently it’s where St. Ninian, the Saint who brought Christianity to Scotland, first made landfall. We had beautiful weather and visited the Mull of Galloway, a peninsula with a lighthouse that is the southernmost point of Scotland.

The town of Whithorn
It was about an hour’s drive along this stunning coast to the Mull of Galloway— couldn’t beat it
Scotland frequently had a lot of wind turbines all over but there were especially a lot on the Galloway Peninsula. I thought this was pretty with the sheep grazing.



We stayed in Whithorn for 2 nights and then continued north. This is where we lost the motorways and were only on A and B roads (for you North Americans- an A road is essentially a windy 2-lane road with no shoulder whatsoever where the limit would be no more than 60km/hr in Canada but is 100km/hr here, and a B road is even more narrow, with no central line, where you hold your breath every time you go around a corner hoping no car is coming the other way, and no posted speed limit- just as fast as you dare to drive, usually in the 80km/hr range). Google told us it would only be 4 or so hours until our next location but of course it was more of 6.5 hours. That’s the problem with driving in the UK, we find- you def need to add time to the Google maps plan or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Before we got to our AirBnB in Onich, we stopped at Inveraray Castle. This castle was particularly neat because it is the seat of the Campbell Clan, and if I could claim rights to any clan, it would be them, as my great, great grandmother was a Campbell (so I’m told). Also, funny enough, I grew up in Inverary Ontario so it was doubly neat to visit this beautiful castle. The castle is still lived in by the Duke of Argyll and his family for part of the year.

 

The Campbells fought for the King at the Battle of Culloden in the Jacobite rebellion and managed to keep hundreds and hundreds of the actual weapons used. They decorated this great Hall with them. (And it was best not to mention any association with the Campbells as we went further North into the highlands!)

After we toured the castle we finished onward to our BnB. It was a cute little cottage on Loch Linnhe (not actually a Loch, as many aren’t, but an ocean inlet).

The next day we finally got hit with weather you might expect of Scotland- grey skies, fog, then dousing rain and wind. In fact, it was even too much rain for Scotland! Upwards of 100mm in a day! It’s a good thing we were already where we needed to be, too, because the road we had taken just the day before right near Inveraray Castle, got washed out in a huge landslide! We just mostly hunkered down, watched movies, and were glad we could say it was only one day of our holiday.

Taken in the morning when we went out for an hour, before it got really bad…


The next day it wasn’t exactly clear, but it wasn’t actually raining, either. It worked out well because we then had pre-booked tickets on the Jacobite steam train through the Highlands. This is also known as the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter, because it is featured in the movies. It provided us with gorgeous views of lochs and mountains, if a bit misty and foggy.

Misty views


The Jacobite train actually travelled 2 hours to the town of Mallaig, gave us about 90 minutes there, then had a 2 hour ride back. The day after our train ride, we left our current BnB in Onich and actually drove to Mallaig where we caught the ferry to the Isle of Skye. We enjoyed lunch out on our first day in Mallaig and a picnic in the sun on our second day, followed by a little shopping (where I discovered and fell in love with Harris Tweed).

Mallaig from our beautiful grassy park picnic across the bay
Views from the Isle of Skye ferry


Once we got over to the Isle of Skye, we quickly made it to our sweet cottage BnB. This one turned out to be our favourite of all. It seemed so modern in such a tranquil and private area. We loved it.

While on Skye, we did a lot of driving. We went to the main town of Portree and did a little shopping (more Harris Tweed!), as well as enjoyed lunch at the pub. We drove right to the northern tip of the island which I think is the furthest north I’ve ever been (?) at 57.6°N. We also saw amazing views of waterfalls.

Eric and Sophie also enjoyed going for a few hikes in the evenings around our BnB and got some amazing shots of ancient castle ruins.


On our second full day on Skye, we went on a tour of a local croft. A croft is a type of farm – farming systems are different in the UK with tenancies and all. Croft is also a Gaelic word. We got to meet all their sheep of different breeds, like Hebrides and Cheviot, the donkeys, and the Highland coos. Then we got to try our hand at spinning wool, too!

After the croft tour, since we were already 2-hours from our BnB, we decided to go to nearby Dunvegan Castle. We knew that the castle itself was still closed to the public but there were apparently beautiful botanical gardens, and we had brought a picnic lunch. Dunvegan Castle is the traditional seat of the MacLeod Clan and the longest continually inhabited castle in all of the UK.

The next day it was time to say goodbye to Skye and move south. We had taken the ferry to the isle but decided to take the bridge off, also there was a castle we wanted to stop at, Eilean Donan, right on the other side of the bridge. Apparently, this is the most photographed castle in all of Scotland (as told to us by our BnB host, I didn’t fact check this). It is the traditional seat of the MacRae Clan (and another place you definitely cannot mention Campbell ancestry!).

We did go in and tour around and it was awesome, but of course no photos allowed.

Then we got in the car and continued on our way. We knew we wouldn’t make it all the way home from northern Scotland to Bristol in one day, so we went as far as Carlisle (right at the England/Scotland border) and crashed at a cheap hotel for the night.

But because diabetes doesn’t take holidays, we had to find a place to do a pump change in this tiny hotel room… The end of the bed it is!!


When we woke up in Carlisle, we spent a very short time looking around downtown (such a very cute city and high street!) before we got in the car and made the quick drive on a B-road out of town to Hadrian’s Wall. This is something we’ve all really wanted to see since we moved to the UK. We went to Birdoswald, the Roman fort ruins built into the wall and there’s a museum there. It’s also the largest intact section of wall left.

We did a little walkabout then of course it was time to hit the road again. Google told us we would be home by 1610h but we didn’t arrive until 1830h (even though Google supposedly takes traffic into account…. It just never works on British roads! And half the time we’re driving above the limit… No idea why)

We’ve had a pretty great holiday. We’ve seen so many vistas and gorgeous sights. The beauty of the highlands is just breathtaking. There were times I found it ironic to think that people travel from all over the world to Canada just to see beautiful natural views and here, we’ve left Canada to now be looking at beautiful natural views….. Well, in Canada you don’t get castles every hundred miles or so to break up the monotony of the views, LOL!

It wasn’t how we pictured our summer holidays to go, but I don’t think anyone in this world really had their summer go to plan, did they?




(PS- if you want more pics, follow me on Instagram, because I posted all these photos and more as they happened! If you want more now, they’re on my profile stories under ‘Scotland’)