I was regarding a delicate purple bloom during a field trip with the Pluckley Royal Garden Society when I asked a member what gardeners in England call the flower. “What do you call it?” was her reply. I knew it as a columbine and told her as much. She had called it a columbine as a girl, she said, but as an adult, she uses the proper Latin name, of course. That’s when I understood just how seriously the British take their gardening — and how fortunate I was to be house-sitting in rural Kent, England.
The revelation and the garden-hopping tour with local aficionados came about because I was caretaking for a house and a cat. Friends of the owners had stopped by and invited me along.
The gig — with my husband and I living in a comfortable cottage with its own lovely garden and Floozie, the cat — was fairly easy to land. And it allowed us to become immersed in the culture, for little more than the cost of airfare.
I love to travel, but I’m not much of a tourist — museums and typical tourist sights bore me — so when I found that there are websites devoted to helping you house-sit (different from a house swap), I signed up. I knew it could give me the opportunity to get a real feel for the people and culture of an area, and the garden field trip was proof-positive.
My husband and I decided to narrow our search to house-sits in the United Kingdom and signed up with two websites: House Sitters UK and Trusted House Sitters. Both charged a small fee to sign up (about $20 for an annual membership to House Sitters UK and from $8.25 a month for Trusted House Sitters), and once we joined, we posted a profile and began looking at ads posted by homeowners and contacting them.
We quickly learned two things. The vast majority of homeowners on the sites have animals that need care. Some of them have quite a lot of pets — as many as four or more cats or dogs or both, along with some hamsters or bunnies, too. Some have farm animals, reptiles or amphibians.
The other early lesson: Homeowners are often overwhelmed with offers. I began checking both sites for fresh posts from homeowners every morning and evening — and quickly contacted any owners whose profile interested us.
A house-sitting match
After about three weeks, a homeowner responded to our message, wanting to arrange a face-to-face call.
That week we met Alison and Jos via technology, showed them our home and saw theirs. By the end of the call, we had committed to house-sit a home built in 1778 in rural Kent. The time span for our stay would be seven weeks in June and July.
We flew to London, and after a few days left to meet our homeowners and spend a day with them before they departed. Because the house was in a rural area, we rented a car at the homeowners’ suggestion.
We thus experienced our first hair-raising drive on English country roads. After traveling back roads barely a lane wide, we eventually made our way to the house and were delighted to find that we really liked it and its setting. We also hit it off with the homeowners. We overlapped with them for a day, so we could learn what we needed to know about the house, Floozie the cat, and the area. They took time to drive us around, Jos showed my avid-hiker husband some of the local footpaths, and they fed us a wonderful dinner. We were up until midnight chatting, and I believe both couples were a bit sad that we had not worked more time with each other into the schedule.
Settling into a routine
The next morning, Jos and Alison were off for their seven-week journey to Asia and Australia, and we found ourselves outside the villages of Little Chart and Pluckley, surrounded by woods and wheat fields. Little Chart is very small, not much more than a crossroads, with a church and a pub. Pluckley has two pubs, a butcher shop, a post office/convenience store combo, an elementary school, a train station and a farm store.
Our weeks in Kent took on a kind of routine. My husband learned a route and would walk the public footpaths about 4 ½ miles each day around the village of Pluckley. I swam three or four times a week at the local health club. Each week we would make our way to some attraction or town. Over the course of our stay we visited Leeds Castle, Faversham, Rye, London, Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens, Dover Castle and the white cliffs, Canterbury, Charing and Tenterdon. I, a big fan of “Antiques Roadshow” (the original UK version), had checked its schedule, and took myself off to Walmer Castle, where they were filming a show.
We read. We relaxed. From the back patio, we watched the wheat grow and begin to turn golden before we left. I went on more than one field trip with the Pluckley Royal Garden Society, and my husband and I went to a garden get-together in a member’s garden one evening. We ate in most of the pubs in the area, trying such foods as steak and Stilton pie and bangers and mash, as well as the local brew. We met friends of the homeowners, and were invited to visit their homes for tea and conversation.
What did I learn about southeast England? The people are kind, helpful and speak understandable English. You can understand that they said “jammy dodger,” but likely won’t know what it is (a jam-filled biscuit). All of the villages and towns are quaint and charming, except for Ashford, which apparently underwent urban renewal without much thought to its heritage.
The term “mighty oak” must have originated in England. English oaks are simply enormous. The birds are different. There are huge pigeons that are called wood pigeons. The English goldfinch is greenish and not much like its bright yellow American cousin. I don’t think any group of people takes gardening more seriously than the English.
Would I house-sit again? Yes. It is a perfect way to see the sights and get to know a region and its culture. Of course, we had a wonderful house and cat to care for, as well as the best homeowners — who spent time getting us acclimated, and sending friends over to help us adjust.
And you can’t beat the price. We got to spend seven weeks in Kent for the price of our plane tickets and a rental car.
Freelance writer Eleaner Loos lives in Alexandria, Va.