Oxford, Leek, Bristol and Gloucester

I had planned to write at least one post for each of my housesits as I went along, but the truth is, as I was worried might happen, the instability of the situation has had a bad effect on my mental health. I could just write about any interesting things I’ve done and not mention that, but since part of the reason I started this blog was to talk about my mental health, I’m going to continue to do that. I think (hope) I’m over the worst of it now. So instead now I’m feeling up to it I’ve written one long post about my travels so far.


It was quite an adjustment to my new life of not having a long term home, and I was feeling very down the first 5 days in Oxford. The day after that was my birthday which was surprisingly when I started to feel quite a bit better. I’ve often felt quite down for a period when big changes happen, and this definitely qualifies. It’s not just getting used to new surroundings but getting used to the idea that this is my life now, and my surroundings are going to keep changing, and if I feel like I want to give up and go home, I can’t. Most of the people I’ve told what I’m doing have said it sounds like an exciting adventure, but I wish it felt like that. Hopefully that feeling will come.

I tried to make the most of my birthday and had quite a pleasant day. It was warm and sunny and I did the 15 minute cycle into the centre of Oxford, and went for a fried breakfast at The Handlebar which is a cafe that’s part of a bike shop. I was drawn to pay a visit here because we used to have a bike shop and cafe in Bristol called Roll for The Soul that I quite liked but sadly closed down in 2017. After that I went to pick up my train tickets and a luggage trolley for the next leg of my journey before going to check out the Pitt Rivers Museum which is a collection of items that were stolen from various parts of the world by the museum’s namesake. Originally his private collection, which was given to the university in 1884, it has since been significantly added to. The number and range of origins of objects in this relatively small museum is slightly overwhelming.

I treated myself to dinner at the American style Rick’s Diner on Cowley Road. I had a very tasty burger and fries, but when I ordered banana and Nutella pancakes for desert I got a bit more than I bargained for! I had to stop for a break halfway through. While I was contemplating if I should go to the pub or get the bus home and slip into a food coma, my evening was punctuated by a welcome phonecall from my sister, after which I went to the pub and satisfied my urge for a double rum and coke.

While I was in Oxford I also went to the Botanic Gardens, which has a lot of interesting plants especially in the greenhouses. I didn’t get many photos because my camera battery died!

I hadn’t realised until I went there how much of a physical presence the university has in Oxford. It occupies most of the city centre, and seemingly most museums, libraries and other similar things in Oxford are part of the university.

I had planned to go to some standup while I was in Oxford, one of which was an open mic, which is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while (I applied for one in Bristol several times but never got a slot). I didn’t end up going to any, but I don’t think I was in a good headspace to do open mic anyway. I’m continuing to keep an eye out for open mic nights I might be able to do my first slot at each time I go to a new place.

Oxford to Leek

After rushing to clean the house and pack in the morning I got to Oxford station just in time for my train. It was a two hour direct train from Oxford to Stoke-on-Trent, the first hour of which I didn’t have a seat and sat on some sort of box that was part of the train, in one of the two fantastic bike wardrobes, while by bike occupied the other one.

Since my journey from Stoke-on-Trent to Leek was by bus I left my bike in Stoke-on-Trent train station. Leek is one of the very long list of towns in UK that used to have a train station but was closed in the 1960s. From posting on a few local Facebook groups I’d managed to find out that there were bike racks on one of the station platforms. I reckon racks on a station platform are one of the safest places you can leave a bike, but I’d bought a second D-Lock just in case. It turned out that, like in Bristol the bike racks on the platform are pretty much outside the British Transport Police office, which hopefully makes them safer, if only by deterrent.

Also like in Bristol, in Stoke-on-Trent the bus station is nowhere near the train station. Of course not! Why would it be? It’s not as if bus passengers and train passengers are ever the same person! So I’d bought a luggage trolley to wheel my stuff the 30 minute walk across town. When it came to it my train was slightly late and I was feeling pretty fatigued, so I got a taxi, which only cost £4.

I was surprised to find that the bus to Leek, despite being a 10 mile journey fell within the post-Covid government subsidy scheme meaning the fare was only £2.


When I got to Leek, my host was kind enough to pick me up from the bus station, and also gave me dinner and a glass of wine. The combination of tiredness and wine meant I was mostly asleep from 8pm til the following morning.

The first thing that struck me about Leek was how friendly everyone was! Not long after I arrived I went to the corner shop and was totally thrown by the fact that the guy behind the counter said hello to me as I walked in. In a lot of corner shops in Bristol they don’t speak to you at all, sometimes not even to tell you how much you need to pay!

The second thing that struck me about Leek was how much it rained! I thought I might have just got unlucky but after talking to some locals I get the impression that it was pretty representative of the weather there. Apparently it’s got something to do with all the hills in the area.


Changes office in Leek

For quite a few years I’ve been a regular attendee at peer support groups run by Changes Bristol, and have also volunteered as a facilitator for these groups. I was aware the organisation was an offshoot of an organisation also called Changes based in another part of the country, but I hadn’t remembered that it was based in Stoke on Trent. It turned out that the Stoke based Changes have two meetings a week in Leek, so I decided to go along. Apparently Changes in Bristol was founded by someone who had moved to Bristol from Stoke and benefited from the groups and thought something similar should exist in Bristol. He asked Changes in Stoke for permission use some of their written materials and launched started the first group. Talk about an organisation being user-led! Twenty years on, Changes in Bristol now run around 20 groups a week, a mixture of in-person and online groups. As far as I can work out there isn’t an organisation offering general purpose mental health peer support groups similar to Changes anywhere else in the country, which is a shame because it’s such a useful service, especially because it doesn’t have a waiting list, you just show up. It stands on it’s own merits, but is also at least something when NHS mental health provision falls short or is hard to access. (Oh how short it falls).

Community Gardens

Something else that has really benefited my mental health over the years is volunteering at community gardens. When things were at their worst for me I pretty much did community garden volunteering full time between different projects for about 6 months. Anyway Leek has a beautiful community garden less than 10 minutes walk from where I was staying called John Hall Wellness Garden. The garden is run by Rethink and is open to the public 6 days a week. It’s a walled garden that originally supplied the kitchen of a stately home built in the 1700s, which has since been demolished (Leek Leisure Centre now stands where the house was).


While I was in Leek I met up with a friend who lives in Sheffield, and we settled on Buxton as it’s sort of between the two. I’d not seen him since he and his partner had a baby a few months ago and all 3 of them were able to come. None of us had been to Buxton before and quite enjoyed it, helped by the fact we were treated to beautiful sunshine.

We had lunch outside The Cafe At Green Pavillion. I’d chosen this beforehand as being somewhere fairly central that sounded like it was vegetarian friendly and had decent reviews, and it turned out my bus stopped right next to it. The food was great and I loved the fact that instead of a hand dryer in the toilet they had a stack of small towells. After lunch, we spent most the afternoon in the rather nice Pavillion gardens. The Victorians got a lot wrong, but they were very good at parks. As well as a pavilion that looks like Buxton’s answer to Crystal Palace, this one contains the source of the river Wye and a miniature train.

The other highlight of this day for me was that the scenery on the road from Leek to Buxton is absolutely stunning! I’m so glad I had a sunny day for it. Sadly I don’t have any photos because it’s pretty difficult to get a decent photo from a moving bus!

The surprising thing about the bus from Leek to Buxton is that it only runs 3 times a day. For two towns of around 20k population 12 miles apart to have such a poor excuse for a bus service linking them I think is as good a demonstration as any that something has gone very wrong with the UK public transport system.

Losing my keys

Three days before I was due to leave Leek I walked about 30 mins across town to go to Argos to buy a watch. Somehow, somewhere along the way I dropped the keys for my bike locks. I had a spare key with me for the lock I’d just bought, but not the one I’d had for ages. I thought there might be a spare key somewhere in a box in my storage unit in Bristol, but I also thought I might have thrown it away while I was sorting through my room. Either way it was potentially quite a logistical headache. I repeatedly searched every part of the house, and looked into where I could rent an angle grinder to free my bike from Stoke station. I also joined a Leek facebook group, and posted to ask if anyone had found my keys. After resigning myself to leaving my bike in Stoke and looking for the spare key in Bristol (I was going to Bristol anyway) the night before I was due to leave Leek someone messaged saying they had found my keys! So with not much time to spare in the morning, I went to fetch my keys, and to celebrate getting them back I treated myself to a taxi from Leek to Stoke station, and a bacon sandwich when I got there. I’ve spent a lot of effort over the years trying not to use social media, but sometimes it’s very very useful.

Leek to Bristol to Gloucester

For the last two years I’ve been running a singles group in Bristol which has a monthly social that normally happens on the 3rd Thursday of the month. By chance I had ended up with a one night gap between sits on the Thursday when the social normally would have been, so I booked myself a Travelodge for a night in Bristol. Unusually for a Travelodge there was small bar on-site with meals available, so I thought I would be lazy and have my dinner there. I won’t bore you with the details but the service was dire. I guess I shouldn’t have expected much.

A few of us went on to The Old Duke after the social, and saw a pretty good folk/country band. I ended up drinking more than I normally do because someone (you know who you are) kept buying me drinks. It was quite a late night so I missed breakfast at the hotel (although I probably didn’t miss much) and went to one of my favourite places to eat in Bristol, Number 1 Harbourside. Arriving in Gloucester with a hangover slightly later than planned I think I did a pretty good impression of a functional sociable human while my host showed me round the house and told me all the things I needed to know about looking after the cat and how to work the oven. They were lovely people but I was glad it was only a few hours before they left and I had the house to myself.


The Sunday after I arrived in Gloucester I went to visit some friends in Yate for a barbeque. Unfortunately it rained A LOT, so it was a very British barbeque and a fair amount of time was spent sitting inside a caravan. On the upside it turned out they were planning to go to the Gloucester Tall Ships Festival the following day, so I got to be sociable two days in a row. As well as Tall Ships and canons being fired, we also saw The Island Folk Choir and very inventive use of a caravan by Jellyfish Theatre in a lovely piece of street theatre about dragons.

Gloucester to Winsford

I had quite a surprise when I changed trains at Birmingham New Street. My sister lived in Lichfield for quite a few years so I used to go to New Street station relatively often, and it always felt to me like a train station in the basement of a shopping centre. There was no natural light and it generally felt quite oppressive. So I was amazed to see how much it’s changed since the last time I was there. Now it’s a bit more like a place that can’t decide if it’s a train station or a shopping centre but at least it’s much nicer place to be!

That’s it for now. In case you’re wondering where I’m headed you can find out here: Where’s Robin

So, what do you think ?