The Girl with a Saddle Bag in 2020: The year we never expected

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I was a little unsure about whether to write this post or not.

2020 didn’t exactly go to plan for any of us.

But as I started to edit some photos the other night to create a photo book for the year (you can read more about my love of travel photo books here), I thought it might be nice to reflect on the year that no-one expected.

I hope that I can do a couple of things with this post. Firstly, share a few beautiful moments that we were able to enjoy this year. Not with the intention of inducing envy, but that I hope they might raise a smile or a giggle (please see photo on me on the Pembrokeshire coast for this). Secondly, this was the year we learned to love exploring close to home, and I hope I can offer a little inspiration. After all, for many of us, local exploration may well be the closest we get to ‘travel’ for some time to come. And lastly, I want to share some of my thoughts on what the future might look like for me, from a travel perspective.

Let’s get this show on the (metaphorical) road.

Early 2020

I started the year with a bang – a ski trip to Flaine in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps. After a challenging autumn, it was just what I needed. Fabulous company, spectacular weather and outstanding pistes. We were also blessed with ridiculously good weather with day after day of bluebird skies as well as good snow conditions. Little did I know that this would be my only overseas trip of the year.

Flaine is a bit of an underdog. Its architecture precedes it, and not in a good way. Built in the 1960s, it was a pioneer of the modern ski resorts. Deviating from the traditional alpine style of some older resort towns, architects wanted to bring some modernism to the slopes – in the form of brutalist concrete. And let’s be fair, it’s not stood the test of time as well as they’d hoped.

But there are two key things to know. First of all, this is all a distraction from the fact that the Grand Massif is an excellent ski area – extensive, diverse, delightfully quiet and only a stone’s throw from Geneva and Chamonix. And secondly, this resort has moved on from the swinging sixties. Yes, it’s purpose-built so you won’t find much in the way of rustic chalets. But more recent additions to the resort are much more in-keeping with the landscape around them and have mellowed the town. It’s reputation is more that unjustified, and we’d happily return.

View of Flaine villages and pistes covered in snow under blue skies | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

We were always going to have a good time here. Good company, great French food, long days on the snow. But there was something especially peaceful in this resort that attracts fewer crowds. First tracks were a delight and late afternoons on the mountain were almost deserted – it was an absolute joy flying down nearly empty pistes.

There was a good variety of slopes that suited us perfectly as intermediate skiers. Plenty of gentle blues to move around the ski area easily, and a varied range of reds and blacks – including a handful of ungroomed runs – to challenge us. Needless to say, I won’t be tackling the Diablo again in a hurry – this ungroomed piste was an absolute workout!

But the crowning glory of this town is Mont Blanc. At the top of the largest gondola, it looks close enough to touch. You’re perched right above the Chamonix valley here and the views are spectacular. Come for the skiing but stay for the views.

Read more: A ski week in Flaine: Gateway to the Grand Massif

In my happy place, in front of Mont Blanc

Spring sprung in the most unexpected of ways

February was a quiet month, punctuated only by a day out in the glorious city of Oxford in the most dismal of weather conditions. We’ll certainly be heading back under better weather, but we enjoyed our indoor explorations.

But as the month closed and we eased into March, a word started rearing its head. Coronavirus. I vividly remember hearing it for the first time. We were in a gondola heading up the mountain in Flaine, and I have a feeling the memory will stick with me. Sandwiched, literally, in between talk of sandwich fillings. Little did we know.

By the time March was through, our world had changed. We were staying home, staying safe. I’d started woring from home – and nine months later, I still am. Thoughts of travel had dissipated into daydreams of snapping up last minute deals come the summer, when we hoped it might ‘all be over’.

We eased into a new normal, grateful that our lives had not be turned upside down. Unable to head anywhere much beyond our door, we threw ourselves into working on our house and garden and tackling to-dos that had lingered months and years too long. We did our best to make the most of it.

As spring slid towards summer, things brightened in many ways. We could travel a little way from home, and suddenly long walks and cycle rides we within our gift.

Scenic cycle paarking on an endless stream of forest rides

Summer starts

Late spring and early summer was a chance to explore our home turf. I might have lived on the south coast for fifteen years (and Ben for ten), but I’ve honestly never enjoyed every inch of it in the same way. If anything, it’s one of the greatest things to have come from this year. I learned to love my local area even more. We’re blessed to have the New Forest nearly on our doorstep, as well as the Hampshire countryside, and whilst I stomped the city streets during the week the forest was my weekend playground.

We decided to tackle more of the county’s long-distance footpaths, broken down into day walks and shorter circuits. I cycled miles and miles through the forest, finding secret spots I’d never before known. On a glorious bank holiday weekend, we tentatively headed down to the Dorset coast to walk the fabulous Purbeck Way. It was wonderful re-discovering places close by that we’d overlooked in the past, lured away by the excitement of more far-flung destinations.

As mid-summer slipped by, and the Covid situation improved in the UK, we entertained the idea of getting away. Not far, but a welcome change of scene. A night in the New Forest was a delightfully refreshing escape, that felt so much more than the sum of it’s parts. It gave us the confidence to book two more short trips.

Read more: The Purbeck Way: A Dorset day walk with a difference and 5 long-distance walking routes in Hampshire well-worth exploring

A Dorset Doddle

On my wish list for 2020 I’d written that I wanted to try a through-hike. One where you walk from point to point, carrying your kit, free as a bird. I’d done this many years ago (on a very small scale) and inspired by watching folks set out on the Tour de Mont-Blanc last summer, I was reminded that this was exactly up our street.

With this in mind, I came up with a plan. A three day walk around the county of Dorset. Not exactly the Tour de Mont-Blanc, a more modest Tour de Dorset. Not so far from home, but a twist to the trip that would make it feel more exciting. We planned to hike over 60 miles, carrying our kit, stopping for the night at the seaside delights of Lyme Regis and West Bay.

At Golden Cap, the highest point on the Dorset coast

Our weekend arrived and so did drizzle. On our first day we trekked over 25 miles mostly in the wet. Somerset to the Dorset coast is a long way in the rain. But my goodness it was glorious. We barely passed a soul on the path. The field and woods and hill stretched in front of us. Home life vanished from our minds. It was just us and the countryside, and a small amount of challenging map reading.

I’d never visited Lyme Regis before, and I can’t understand why. It’s a delight, an unspoilt seaside town with laid-back atmosphere and great spots to eat and drink. Talking to others who have visited, it’s almost a secret no-one wants to share – but I’m feeling generous!

Our second day took us on our beloved south-west coastal to West Bay, somewhere I had vague memories of visiting as a child. It’s nice enough, but no Lyme Regis. In fact, setting out next day through the nearby town of Bridport, we realised this would have made a much better overnight base. We’ll be back to this part of the world. and will make sure to include more of this enticing market town.

I learned several things from this trip. Firstly, no matter how many miles you can happily tackle on a day walk, this doesn’t equate to repeating this day after day with a bigger pack on your back. My usually sturdy feet were utterly wrecked at the end of three days. Secondly, walking day after day is as magical as I remembered, if not harder than expected. Thirdly, there are some absolute gems right under our nose in the south-west. Just when you think you know a part of the country well, try something like this. It’s the perfect way to find a new perspective.

Salomon speedcross trail shoes on the South West coast path | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Read more: Far from the Madding Crowd: A three day walking tour in Dorset

Then a wander to Wales

Wanting to give ourselves more of a chance to put our feet up after this, we booked a few days in Wales to round off the summer. Pembrokeshire to be precise. Again, a part of the world that we know, but not as well as we would like.

Gale force winds stopped play (momentarily) in Pembrokeshire

Typically, we spent much of the trip getting battered by a particularly aggressive August storm (we were very grateful for the shelter of a cosy shepherd’s hut for our stay). But we did explore the rainbow-coloured beauty of a seaside town that is Tenby, and a wild Presseli hills. We walked and read and sipped glasses of wine and tried not to get blown away. It was super, if a little wet.

Read more: A glamping getaway at Pembrokeshire Barn Farm and What to do in Pembrokeshire (even when it’s raining)

Colourful Tenby harbour and fishing boats at low tide

Then home

Which is where we’ve mostly stayed for the rest of the year. Busy with work, home improvements and staying cheerful. Still doing our best to get out for more long walks, uncovering more hidden spots in our home county. Soaking up the season gathering chestnuts in the New Forest.

And hence it’s been a little quiet on the blog. Which brings me on to…

The year ahead

Like many others, we don’t have any firm plans to travel next year. We’ll watch and wait and when it seems safe, we might venture further afield. How far remains to be seen. But with time on my hands, I’ve been able to think a little more about future travels.

I will value the opportunity to travel all the more. Take away something you love and you’ll realise just how much you value it. When the opportunity arises to travel safely again, I’ll grasp it with both hands.

But I would like to travel slower. This might be a factor of growing a little older, or more well-travelled, not just our experiences this year. Spending more time in one place really making the most of it feels increasingly important and enjoyable. Less but more.

And on a similar note, I intend to be more mindful of my impact on the environment. I’m privileged enough to often fly several times a year, something that doesn’t sit well with my other efforts to be more sustainable. Going forward I can see more trips by road than air. More trips with our bikes. Carefully choosing where we stay. I want to continue to keep reducing my impact and using this site as a place to share inspiration for lower impact – and more local – travel.

Which reminds me. Local. The place I’ve learned to love all the more. There are so many places I cannot wait to return to. My beloved Alps. I want to feel the sun on back in southern Spain. Explore unknown city streets, interpret street signs I can’t read, roam fields and coastlines I’m yet to discover. But I don’t want to forget the places close to home. And whilst I’m itching to get out of Hampshire, I do want to make sure I spend much more time seeking out the multitude of secret spots in the south-west that fill me with just as much joy.

It might be a bit quiet on here for a while. And I’m considering indulging in a little writing side-project for a while. But I hope to be back with some travel inspiration (and maybe a few ideas for what to do at home) soon.

In the meantime, I hope you stay safe and well – and can explore a little locally. And I’m look forward to a steady return to a life where we can adventure a little more.

Best wishes for 2021,

Alice

Alice
girlwithasaddlebag@gmail.com
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