It was my Mum’s 73rd Birthday recently, but she wasn’t aware – and hasn’t been for a few years now. Alzheimer’s disease has robbed her of knowing there are different days in a week, let alone knowing what day her Birthday is. Nevertheless my dear Dad had a cake ready for her, cards from family and friends, and made sure she knew there was something special about the day and that she is very much loved.
Over the past couple of years I’ve started making solo visits to the UK to visit my folks.
They used to fly over to New Zealand once every two years, and spend a wonderful month with us and their grandchildren, but that long haul trip is impossible now. My Dad cares for my Mum in their home, with just a few hours of respite a week – when a carer comes to look after Mum. Dad’s amazing, so patient and kind and deals with Mum’s difficult behaviour with humour and calmness, but of course not every day is easy and it’s hard to switch off when Mum is pacing around the house tirelessly and seeking his attention every few seconds. My visits home are so precious to me. I appreciate my husband and children’s support in making it easy for me to go on these visits. It’s so important for me to check in on my Dad and to be able to hold my Mum’s hand and tuck her into bed. I very much enjoy catching up with my dear sister too.
My last two visits were in September 2019 (a wonderful three weeks of visits with family, friends and around the country enjoying several National Trust properties) and March this year (a brief two week visit, and a tough one with the onset of Covid-19 globally – I only just made it back to NZ before the borders were shut). Now that Covid-19 has grounded flights around the world I don’t know when I’ll next be able to visit my folks. I suspect my next visit could be as much as a year away, but I shall try not to dwell on that. I was hoping to visit my folks later this year to celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary (not that my Mum would be able to understand, but my Dad deserves a gold medal and a celebration of his dedication and commitment).
On my visits back one of our favourite things to do is visit National Trust Properties. The grounds of the properties are always lovely to stroll around and though we have to rush through the houses (Mum gets anxious), it’s still lovely to visit them and the National Trust volunteers are always so kind and understanding when we explain that Mum has Alzheimer’s disease. Road trips to the various properties are often quite relaxed, as I sit with Mum in the back of the car and Dad drives whilst we all listen to Classic FM. The combination of the music and driving through the countryside often calms Mum and it’s often when she is her quietest.
My September 2019 visit coincided with the celebration of my Dad and sister’s birthdays. It was really lovely to be able to support Dad in getting away for a weekend and a change of scene. My Mum, Dad, sister and I spent a lovely weekend in Eastbourne.
We visited a few National Trust Properties over our long weekend visit, steeped in history and beauty, including the first building to be saved and restored by the trust, ‘Alfriston Clergy House‘ – built on the west bank of the tidal River Cuckmere, between 1370 and 1450.
Mum and Dad actually visited the house twice in one day – as in the morning they took shelter from the wind and rain, whilst my sister and I battled the elements on the cliff tops – running part of the ‘The Seven Sisters’ and over 13 miles of the South Downs Way. The weather really was atrocious, but thankfully the wind was at our back as we battled along the cliff tops – pushing us up the hills and making us fly on the descents!
For drama, nothing beats the point where the sheer chalk cliffs of the South Downs meet the sea!
In the afternoon, after Claire and I had quickly dried off and changed our clothes, we enjoyed a late lunch and visited Alfriston together. The village was lovely and so steeped in history, with the surrounding area likely to have been occupied from neolithic times, as large numbers of prehistoric barrows are still evident higher up in the surrounding downland.
The streets of Alfriston are a harmonious patchwork of historic buildings from half a dozen centuries, with three remaining pubs – the Star Inn, the George Inn and the Smugglers. The Star was originally a religious hostel built in 1345 and used to accommodate monks and pilgrims en route from Battle Abbey to the shrine of St Richard, patron saint of Sussex, at Chichester Cathedral.
The red lion at the front of ‘The Star Inn’ is a one-time ships’s figurehead, connected with the Alfriston smuggling gang who used the inn as a base.
One of the most picturesque places we visited was Scotney Castle, a place united by art and nature. Surrounded by the moat at the bottom of the valley are the romantic ruins of the medieval castle. At the top of the hill is the new house, built in 1837-43 for Edward Hussey III. The secluded Scotney estate lies in the valley of the River Bewl on the Kent/Sussex border and has been inhabited since at least the 12th century.
Another picturesque property we visited was Ightham Mote, a 14th -century moated manor house, dating back to 1340! The painted ceiling, in the top left photo below, dates back to the early 16th century. Ightham Mote is incredibly peaceful and full of character. It has been called ‘the most complete small medieval manor house in Kent’.
The Mote’s is a story of survival against the odds. Coming upon Ightham Mote for the first time feels like discovering a secret. Visitors travel down into a secluded Kent valley and there it is, seemingly hidden away, untouched by the centuries: a building of odd nooks and ancient stonework, mirrored in water. It’s a magical location, tranquil and beautiful. (Ightham Mote | National Trust)
On our drive down to Eastbourne we stopped at Chartwell to visit the family home and garden of Sir Winston Churchill.
Chartwell was the much-loved Churchill family home from 1922 and the place from which Sir Winston drew inspiration until the end of his life.
The rooms remain much as they were when he lived here, with pictures, books and personal mementoes evoking the career and wide-ranging interests of a great statesman, writer, painter and family man. New to 2019, is a new exhibition to give unique insight into the life of Churchill through 50 Objects.
The hillside gardens reflect Sir Winston’s love of the landscape and nature. They include the lakes he created, the kitchen garden and the Marycot, a playhouse designed for his youngest daughter Mary.
Beyond the gardens there is an expanse of woodland with looped trails and natural play areas. There’s den building, a Canadian camp and opportunities to stretch your legs. (Chartwell | National Trust)
Later in our stay we popped into visit Knole house in Kent, though being a Monday the main house was closed, nevertheless we enjoyed the sight and grandeur of the house, sitting proudly within Kent’s last medieval deer park.
During my three week September visit we also had the pleasure of visiting one of my Dad’s brothers, in Knutsford. My Uncle, like my Dad, is also caring for his wife full-time from their home – such wonderfully caring gentlemen.
It was lovely to see the two brothers together (and for my sister and I to catch up with our cousin and her family).
In the evening we went to the beautiful ‘Buxton Opera House’ to see a wonderful tribute band to Neil Diamond! It was really fun and Mum smiled, clapped and enjoyed the music so much – which made it all very special.
On our drive back down south, to my parents home in north Hampshire, we made a stop in the Cotswolds to visit the intriguing ‘Snowshill Manor and Garden‘.
The home was full of amazing collections and curiosities, each themed differently.
There was a costume room that used to house over 2,000 costumes! The attic was full of hundreds of wheels; bikes, prams, model carts.
It felt like stepping into a slice of magic, steeped in history with a good measure of creativity, story telling and character.
Snowshill Manor is a Cotswold manor house packed with extraordinary treasures collected over a life time by Charles Wade
Inside these rooms you can discover this eclectic collection that he restored and displayed. We have maintained the atmospheric settings he created with low lighting and few labels. From tiny toys to Samurai armour, musical instruments to fine clocks, thousands of objects are laid out for you to see just as Mr Wade intended.
The garden is the perfect place to unwind and explore hidden vistas, quiet corners and unexpected delights including Charles Wade’s uncomplicated home, the Priest’s House.
“Let nothing perish” was his motto, and his life was dedicated to doing just that. From the everyday to the extraordinary, you can discover his passion for craftsmanship, colour and design. (Snowshill Manor and Garden | National Trust)
To celebrate my sister’s Birthday we spent a night in London and saw the musical ‘Come From Away‘ – we laughed and cried in equal measure.
This musical takes you into the heart of the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them. Cultures clashed and nerves ran high, but uneasiness turned into trust, music soared into the night, and gratitude grew into enduring friendships.
On 9/11, the world stopped.
On 9/12, their stories moved us all.
On my trips home I also cherish time to catch up with old school and University friends. Growing up my parents were always so welcoming to my friends and are fondly thought of by them all – so quite often my catch ups include my parents. My Dad really enjoys the opportunity to have a conversation – as poor Mum is unable to form sentences now – such is the evil progression of Alzheimer’s disease. We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon with a uni friend, including a stroll and lunch, before visiting Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot Museum and Village, National Trust.
Lacock Abbey is a country house with monastic roots, once home to William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the photographic negative.
My September visit was filled with celebrations and time with family, enjoying the colours of autumn in England.
We enjoyed a delightful visit to Ham House and Garden – an easy day trip from my parent’s home.
This rare and atmospheric 17th-century house sits on the banks of the River Thames in Richmond. It is the creation of the tenacious Duchess of Lauderdale and her husband, the Duke, who together transformed Ham into one of the grandest Stuart houses in England.
Ham House is internationally recognised for its superb collection of paintings, furniture and textiles, largely acquired 400 years ago. Some of our unique objects include a rare Chinese teapot, said to have been used by the Duchess herself, and the exotic ivory cabinet. The house is reputed to be one of the most haunted in Britain. Some visitors have reported the ghostly aroma of the sweet Virginia pipe tobacco that the Duke smoked after meals in the dining room. (Ham House | National Trust)
Outside, the open and formal restored 17th-century gardens surround the house. It includes a productive kitchen garden containing many heritage crops, the maze-like ‘Wilderness’, complete with summerhouses, and many beautiful spots perfect for a picnic.
We also enjoyed a day trip to Jane Austin’s House!
As well as a lovely day trip to Portsmouth. We enjoyed a stroll around and a lovely lunch.
Saville Gardens were an absolute treat to visit in Autumn too – with colourful displays of flora mixed with impressive sculptures on display.
In March I visited again, a little earlier than usual – as I often visit in April, which is a birthday month for my Mum and I.
I arrived on a Thursday in the UK, after a good journey over from NZ. After a nap and a shower I strolled up to the pub, with Mum and Dad, for a curry – the perfect jet lag antidote! Had a few smiles from Mum and some lovely hugs 🤗. Really loved having a good chat to my dear Dad too. He’s such an amazing and dedicated husband in caring for Mum with such patience. My heart was so full and happy to be there with them for two weeks.
The first week together was quite normal – walking with their U3A group, a visit to the local pub, a meeting up with some old school friends.
But as the second weekend came around – and my sister joined us for a visit to meet up with my Mum’s sister and her husband – the news was changing to a more serious note. Covid-19 had its grip on Europe and cases were accelerating fast. The BBC News was broadcasting updates around the clock. None of us could quite believe what was happening. Many friends of my parents had booked travel for the coming months and it looked likely that all their plans would be cancelled. President Trump announced a ban on all incoming flights from mainland Europe. I spent the weekend thinking about my return flight – some 5 day’s away – supposed to fly via LAX onto Auckland – wondering how long it would be before the UK was added to the list.
In the meantime, we all tried to focus on ‘the moment’. Mum, with Alzheimer’s disease, had no idea what was going on. We tried to carry on as normal. We spent Saturday morning driving to a National Trust property, to meet up with Mum’s sister and hubby (much loved Aunt and Uncle of my sister and I). We had a lovely stroll and lunch together, despite Mum’s condition being very difficult to handle (she was grumpy with all of us and cursing like a trooper…). We all took it in turns to walk with Mum, so that everyone else could enjoy some civil conversation. Lunch actually went quite well (there was a screaming toddler to mask Mum’s cursing and she settled down with some chips – she even remembered her sister’s name for a moment – which was something we all took on board and treasured).
In the evening we stayed at an old inn, dating back some 700 years or so… I feel like a tourist when I visit the UK now – so much history! We went for dinner at a local Indian restaurant, which was absolutely wonderful. The staff made such a fuss of Mum, bringing out roses with the desert. She smiled and made the roses dance – it was so special to see her like that for a moment – those moments are so fleeting and special that they bring a tear to our eyes when they happen.
The next day the plan was for Claire and I to go on a long run together (as we often do when I visit home), however Mum had hurt her arm that morning and the weather was shocking… so we all opted for a short visit to some anciently famous place – Stone Henge – before heading back to our folks home in Hampshire.
The next day my sister was supposed to head into London (she usually works there, two days a week, at the Institute of Physics – the rest of the week she does remotely from her home in the Peak District and around – she’s a busy lass!). Anyway, things had started to get a little more ‘real’ with the virus spreading and more borders starting to shut (so much so that hubby, in New Zealand, was busy trying to get me on an alternate flight back – as President Trump had blocked anyone from entering the USA – even in transit – unless they were a US resident). My sister and I had planned to stay a night in London together and see the musical ‘Dear Evan Hansen’.
We half expected all the theatres to close over the weekend, but as of Monday morning they were still open. So, instead of staying overnight in London, we decided to just meet for dinner and the theatre and then head straight back to our folks house. Turned out – the theatres did all get closed – one hour before we were supposed to see the show – (we weren’t at all surprised). On the upside, we had a lovely dinner in a very quiet pub and headed straight back, to a quieter than normal Waterloo station, for a train home (bumping into a much loved cousin on the way – meant to be!).
My sister and I were really glad to be back with our Mum and Dad – both very emotional with all the changes and what the rest of this year will bring for us all.
I got word that my husband had managed to get me on a different flight, via Dubai, leaving on Thursday, that would get me back to New Zealand okay (though I’d have to spend 14 days in self isolation before I could see my husband and children). My sister’s last night with us was Wednesday – the day before my flight. We had a lovely take away dinner together, and a relaxed evening. Mum was quite sweet and seemed to know we were going to be leaving. She actually said, ‘I’ll miss you’ when we tucked her into bed – my heart was warm and sad all at the same time.
I had a lovely visit to Wisley Gardens with my folks before leaving for my long journey back to New Zealand. I’ll treasure the time I’ve had with my dear folks, until the next time I can hopefully see them. Take care everyone and enjoy the moments you have with those you love x