Slovenia

It is the last day of August and the weather in Bavaria is dismal ……….but looking on the bright side, the COVID incidence figures in most European countries remain low and with the borders open, I have decided to take full advantage of the geographical uniqueness of the Alps – just three hours drive away, passing some dramatic mountain landscapes and traveling through one of the longest tunnels in Europe, the weather has changed to this:

Finally I am coming good on my promise to visit a few friends and colleagues in Slovenia……

Gliding in my by now slowly aging carriage (with right hand steering of course…) through a picture postcard landscape, I am passing Ljubljana and I am heading further South, where my first stop is the animal clinic of Postojna, a referral center for veterinary cancer patients from Northern Italy and from the Balkan countries.

A team of dedicated veterinary professionals are providing here high end diagnostic and therapeutic procedures for canine and feline patients.

Underneath one roof the center houses radiography, CT and MRI imaging facilities and patients can be treated surgically, with chemo and with radiation therapy at a level which equals the care provided to human patients.

Numerous photos and notes from grateful owners are lining the walls in the waiting room.

My journey continues further South to the little stretch of Mediterranian coastline which Slovenia calls its own. At the Hotel Marina, right next to the little habour of Izola my local colleague Lara Kralj has reserved a room for me and the day is finished off in style with local seafood and regional wine.

The next day I have been invited to visit Lara’s clinic, where her all female team is providing first and second opinion care for the local pets, which includes a fair amount of patients coming over the border from nearby Trieste. All team members seem to be bi- (or probably tri-) lingual communicating with pet owners in Slovenian, Italian and in English.

I am having my first (thankfully not direct) encounter with emetic eyedrops and with an entero-protectant developed by the Russian army. You might think that you have seen it all and along come developments you didn’t even imagined would be useful…..

I also notice the close proximity to Italy both in the more colorful outfits of the team (compare this to the plane and possibly somewhat dated dark green of British VN uniforms…) and even in the body dressings of the patients following surgery, which , I think, were real fashion statements.

Once I had a guided tour of Lara’s place and after we had finished the day’s surgical list, Lara took me for lunch to her favourite seafood place right by the marina and I couldn’t help being envious about all the amenities that the location of her clinic offered.

I then had the opportunity of visiting the famous Salina of Secoveljske which is right at the border to Croatia and which made a great background for some nice sun set images.

The next stop on my “Veterinary Tour of Slovenia” had to be the Vet school in Ljubljana where one of my veterinary heroes – Ana Nemec – one of Europe’s finest veterinary dentists, was already waiting for me (I was a bit late coming from an little alpine detour, but more about that another time….). Ana had been helpful with a lot of tips and practical advice for my own cases in Virginia Water and we had been communicating already for a few years, before meeting for the first time in person by coincidentally sharing a taxi a couple of years ago in Thessaloniki. Ana is not only an outstanding dentist, she also seems to run a secret branch of the Slovenian tourist office judging by the stunning mountain landscapes she is posting on a regular basis on her social media sites.

A joint photo at her purpose built dentistry table – a place from where countless veterinary students and graduates from all over the world were educated online about veterinary dentistry – was a must, before here too I was treated to an excellent lunch in the historic centre of the Slovenian capital.

After meeting with some more colleagues in Ljublana in the evening (yes, more wine and great food was involved….), it was an early start on the next morning as I was heading to the North Eastern corner of this small country. After 2 hours driving I was standing in front of an architectural statement that would have made Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus movement proud – the clinic of Natalia Hercog Gerbec in Maribor.

This is what happens I thought, when veterinary medicine is meeting with the love of art and interior design: a place both humans and animals feel comfortable in. We often forget that or clinics are the place where we as vets will spend probably the longest time of our lives at and only a few of us try (but all too often fail….) to make it more than just a set of functional rooms with a lot of pipes and cables running along the wall and stuffed with various machinery.

Natalia’s love for warm colors on a white background, combined with small playful features or with famous quotes, keeps the eye busy and provides a calming ambience despite the functional outline of the building. You can’t help feeling inspired and wanting to change something in your own home after visiting Natalia’s clinic.

My trip to Slovenia finished in truly Mediterranean style, with some more wine and with home made food at the mountain hut of Neca Jerkovic in the forest near Pokljuka, which became a rather crowded place with so many veterinarians and with Neca’s price winning family of Great Swiss Mountain dogs all under one roof.

The hiking together with these gentle giants the next day in the Triglav National Park was the icing on the cake for the by then exhausted traveler and it was hard to leave this small but so beautiful country behind at the end of a so memorable week among friends.

Heading North – again…..

I am sitting in a train heading from Stockholm 400 km further North along the Gulf of Bothnia to Sundsvall, a town of less than 60 000 inhabitants that had based its wealth on timber.

Despite its limited size, the place has a busy veterinary emergency clinic which is taking in small animal patients from a radius of up to 300 km. The clinic – and a wooden bungalow right next to the forest and to a ski slope…- will be my home for the next 4 weeks.

I had not more than a couple of hours sleep last night and my day had started this morning at 4 am in Munich with my first flight after nearly a year,

and while the forest outside the train window is slowly disappearing in the fading daylight, I am beginning to doze off with my memories returning to a rainy morning at the end of August……..

To write for a living ?….

It is 5.30 in the morning and its done……

With the coffee machine working overtime and our Vizsla snoring peacefully on the floor next to my desk, I am sitting in front of 71 pages plus eight appendices of an advisory job, which I had taken on to try my hands on a completely new task (no scalpel involved this time).

For the last six weeks I have pretty much been glued to my desk, studying veterinary legislation, pet owner demographics, have spoken to a large number of veterinary organisations and colleagues, have fought with spreadsheets and with power point presentations with running (not fast enough) and walking the dog (not often enough) on most days the only interruption.

When I started this task, I had several moments when I had severe doubts that I could do it, partially because it was a lot of work to do, partially because in the beginning I didn’t have the skill set to do it. What helped me through it in the end was to compare the whole task to the climbing of a mountain: prepare yourself as good as you can, have a decent plan how it could work, break the journey up into many small sections, have the company of good friends and helpful strangers, hope for some good luck and for even better weather and then start walking…..

At the moment I have no idea if the final result will be well received, but at least I have managed to finish it a week ahead of schedule (but still five days behind my personal dead line……) and now it is time for a reward:

A book !

And in this case not just any kind of book….

Christina Loggia, together with her husband Angelo one of my favorite feline clients in Virginia Water, had made good use of the last 18 months of restrictions by writing her first novel. Without knowing it, she chose one of my favorite genres: a second world war spy thriller which – even better – is set in Italy.

I had ordered my copy already weeks ago, but I didn’t touch it because I knew that it would be too much of a distraction once I had started to read it and it made an excellent “carrot” to aim for by finishing this job.

Even better – after a few hours of sleep we got into the car and a short while later I was sitting in Christina’s and Angelo’s living room in a Berkshire village to get my own copy signed by the author !

The novel is starting in the heat of the desert of North Africa – an excellent choice for a novel, but so, so different from my next adventure……

Gran Paradiso

It was still early in the morning and the sun was about to rise over Punta Feuillaz in the East. A thin layer of snow was covering the ground which was not unusual in September at 2500m above sea level and despite a double layer of warm clothes, Vittorio Emanuele was still cold. He was asking himself if it really was a royal privilege to hunt one of the rarest animals on the planet in such an inhospitable environment.

Riding and then walking up the well maintained mountain pass from Cogne together with his hunting party the previous day, he had spent the night in the simple hunting lodge in the Ciamosseretto Valley, which was more suitable for a goat herder than for the King of Italy. At least the food that had been brought up from the valley and the Piedmontese wine had been excellent and Guiseppe, the leader of the fifty gamekeepers he kept employed in the royal hunting reserve had assured him that his chances of getting another fine trophy were excellent this season.

The game in question was the elusive “Capricorno”, the Alpine Ibex, which had nearly been hunted to extinction by 1856, but by now – 14 years later – the initial stock of just over 50 animals had recovered well and his hunting party might be able to finish the day with more than ten kills, leaving the finest specimen – of course – to their royal patron.

And as the sun was starting to meld the snow, he knew that it would be a fine day after all……

It was still dark at 5.30 when I left the hotel in the center of Aosta to cover the short journey to Cogne more than 150 years later for a long overdue visit to Italy’s first and so famous National Park. Surrounded by some of Europe’s highest mountains and wedged into the far Northwest corner of the country with both France and Switzerland just a short distance away, Gran Paradiso is offering not only great hiking and climbing opportunities, but also some of the least disturbed alpine flora and fauna.

Walking in the foot steps of Vittorio Emanuele, who was “only” the King of Sardinia-Piedmont when establishing the royal hunting reserve and by this saving the ibex, I started my trip in the small mountain village of Valmontey and benefiting from the also today well maintained path, I was able to cover the over 1000 altitude meters to the hunting lodge in less than 2 hours.

The early start had been a wise move, as the East facing track was at all times in the shade of the mountain range on the other side of the valley.

The hunting lodge serves now as a mountain refuge and as the breakfast for the overnight guests had just finished, the only food to be had was the customary cappuccino and a slice of homemade blueberry cake. To avoid having to ask for another coffee later, I ordered two cappuccini right away with the result that I also received two slices of cake…..

There was no point in arguing and as I still had a lot of hiking ahead of me, I was pretty certain that I would burn off the calories anyway.

It was still early in the day and as the weather was perfect and as I hadn’t spotted an ibex so far, I decided to press on in the same direction to the Col du Lauson

and to the Punta del Tuf at nearly 3400m, allowing a stunning view of Gran Paradiso itself at 4026m and of most of the National Park.

Retracing my steps back to the refuge, I was finally rewarded with a view of a whole herd of young ibexes crossing the path not far away from me.

Heading then South, the trail led around the Bec du Vallon before descending steeply into the glacier valley below.

With hindsight I was happy that no dogs were allowed in the park, as the path was at times very exposed with some sheer drops allowing no room for errors.

The views of the remaining glacier tongues which once must have fed into a giant glacier filling the whole valley were truly breathtaking and reminded me of sections of the Icefields Parkway in Alberta.

Also walking eventually along the Torrent Valmontey, which is purely fed by the melting water of the glaciers felt somewhat like walking through the Rocky Mountains, just with less of a chance of bumping into a bear…..

When I arrived back in the village, I had covered over 30 km on hiking tracks and just under 2000m of ascend and descend, I had seen some great wildlife and probably one of Europe’s most stunning views and I was grateful for the hunting passion of a monarch nearly two centuries ago.

Surrey Practice Days

It was now the middle of the summer and the river of life had washed me back on to British shores, where the tsunami of “Pandemic Puppies” had caused a huge demand for veterinary professionals.

This times I was not alone though, as just before my departure from the continent I was re-united with Mia, our Hungarian Vizsla, who like me was missing all our British friends and – in Mia’s case – all her “surrogate pet parents” who took her on far more interesting walks than I ever did….

To keep myself busy, it needed only a couple of messages to some Polish friends of mine (some of the few that had stayed behind following Brexit….) and I had secured some locum work with the lovely teams at Alder’s and Croft’s Vets near Guildford – so just on my door step.

Both clinics have a long history with very charismatic practice owners and they are very established institutions in the local communities. Similar to my own clinic in Virginia Water, these practices had been sold to a corporate owner and young and enthusiastic teams of vets and technicians were making these places now fit for the demands of the 21st century.

Alder’s Vets was a busy practice in a pre-dominantly working class area, just next to a little pet shop, a convenience store and a fish-and-chips shop on a busy road just opposite of a petrol station. The building was cracking at its seams, with tinny rooms and vets, nurses and patients squeezing past another. With everyone being courteous and happy to help each other, there was a real ‘buzz’ in the place and I absolutely loved it.

Once again I realized that there are not a lot of jobs in the world where you are getting paid while cuddling puppies and kittens……

Even better was that Mia found a new “family” with the office staff, meaning that she too was looking forward to going to work every day.

Croft’s Vets is situated in walking distance of the village center of Haslemere, one of my favourite places in England, which can be described as “picture postcard” Surrey. There are still a lot of – very expensive – little cottages and plenty of coffee and tea rooms and even a still thriving bookshop. The scenery is dominated by groups of middle- aged ramblers and cyclists on high end mountain and road bikes desperate to get their caffeine fix.

Here we are in Labrador and Golden Retriever country, with only a few French Bulldogs in sight…

The clinic – with an over 100 year old history as a veterinary practice – was an amalgamation of modern and historic features with sculptures of a jolly pig and of a giant rabbit in the front garden.

Stepping into the waiting room you soon appreciate that the wife of the former owner was an interior designer, with the avian motifs of the wall paper and of the clock harmonizing well with the parquet flooring and the antique furniture, but yet blending well with the modern logo and the glass entrance door.

It was a delight to consult in the well lit examination rooms with their high ceilings and providing enough space to allow for the first face-to-face consultations with pet owners present in over a year.

Life over here was not quite as busy as at the sister practice, so that in my lunch breaks there was even time to walk Mia on the nearby hiking trail and to relax with a coffee and a newspaper in the village center.

A great plus was also the proximity of Haslemere to the “Devil’s Punchbowl” – a nature reserved owned by the National Trust which made for great evening runs after days spent in the foot steps of Crofts and Alders….

“Nanny” Burdinski

It is 12 noon and following a few consultations and a bitch spay, it is time for a communal lunch. The table is laid out with silver cutlery and as it is a Friday, fish (of course….) is on the menu. The usual knives have been replaced with fish knives, which are accompanied with a little bench to avoid that the blade is soiling the table cloth if – for whatever reason – it is not resting on the plate after use. In tune with today’s main course – pike dumplings with potatoes, seasonal vegetables and a white sauce – the plates have a sea life motif and both water and white wine are served. It is probably superfluous to mention that the napkins are colour coordinated with the table cloth. The spoons at the head end of the plates had indicated that we could expect three courses (we had starting off with a seasonal asparagus soup) and this would possibly be followed by a strong coffee and a slice of home baked cake, before we would start with our afternoon consultations.

All members of the house hold, including the casual gardener, are gathered around the table and responsible for this daily treat is Nanny Burdinski, a youthful octogenarian and the mother of my friend Luz.

What might appear alien to most of my readers today, was a very common occurrence in many veterinary practices all over Germany in the twentieth century and in some places this way of life has survived until today, but it would not have been possible without the kindness and care of – in most cases- the wives of veterinarians, or – less commonly – of a dedicated house keeper.

As already mentioned in my last entry, Nanny and I met many years ago when I was an undergraduate at vet school. Nanny, one of the few fully trained veterinary technicians at that time and her veterinary husband Kurt ran a busy large animal practice on the countryside near Hamburg. This often required the full commitment of the whole family. As it was still a time without mobil communication, this particularly involved the guarding of the practice phone and I vividly remember my first visit to the Burdinski household, when Nanny proudly showed off their new cordless (!) phone which had a proven reach of 200m – just long enough to allow her to take it with her to the edge of the nearby lake to be able to go for a short swim…….

As much as I admired Nanny’s commitment and the “ground breaking” technology, it also made it quite clear to me, that regardless how my professional future would look like, I would never accept it, that my own partner might end up in a similar position. For many decades until then, the wives of veterinarians (there were not a lot of female practice owners around at that time…) had been taken for granted as – often unpaid – telephone operators, veterinary nurses, catering staff and practice managers. Even until very recently veterinary positions had been advertised with a preference given to male and married applicants – with the above mentioned “employment” scenario in mind.

Nanny had gone through all of this, although in her and Kurt’s case I always saw them as equal partners and what made a huge difference was that they both embraced every opportunity to enjoy life away from their practice. They arranged their out-of-hour work with the neighboring colleagues to have regular nights out, they enjoyed cultural events and traveling and they made sure to participate in all aspects of the social programmes at veterinary conferences.

This was also the key for Nanny to find life enjoyable in retirement and even when Kurt passed away a few years ago.

Despite the decades of hard work (or possibly because of them ?….) it struck me that Nanny got the balance exactly right at this point in her life by pursuing her personal interests, while still staying connected with the business and with all generations of her family, even if this was now limited to gathering everyone for regular meal times – not always, but on most days, but always on her own terms (no mobil phones allowed and both good table manners as well as an educated conversation during meal times encouraged….).

For me the benefit was not only a culinary one, but in addition to this also the opportunity to spend a few evenings over a glass of wine with “off screen” conversations with someone with a lot of life experience – something which had been a rare occurrence since the start of the pandemic.

I also wondered if there wasn’t something that the traditional ways of running a practice had to offer to us today ?

With professional burn-outs and mental health issues being a huge issue and with many businesses struggling to maintain their staff, decelerating the pace of work, offering a more communal or even a family based environment and paying more attention to decent periods of rest and – very important – to good food, might go a long way in making both our working environment and our life in general more enjoyable.

So women like Nanny can probably still teach us a trick or two …….

Lauenburg

While I was seeing patients in Bradford in May, 700 miles away in the North of Germany a young farmer decided to overtake a bus in a bend without knowing what was ahead of him – unfortunately there was another car traveling in the opposite direction…….

In the ensuing head on collision, he not only lost his life, but also the driver of the other car sustained severe injuries and only his two dogs got away with hardly a scratch. The driver of the other car was my friend and colleague Luz Burdinski and the outcome of the accident changed both of our lives – mine admittedly just for the next few weeks.

Luz and I went back a long time and he was one of the first people I met when I arrive at vet school in Hanover. We not only lived on the same floor in student halls, we then also shared a flat, consoled each other over various relationship breakups, were in the same exam group, travelled together around the world to Hawaii and to Australia (where we among many epic encounters worked – obviously illegally – on a dairy farm in Alice Springs…), attended each others weddings and managed to stay in touch despite us working in different countries.

With other words, Luz is one of the few people you have in life who you would call a “good friend” and now he needed my help……

Unlike me, Luz grew up in a veterinary household and a few years after qualifying, he took over his parent’s practice in Lauenburg, a rural region East of Hamburg, near the board to the former GDR.

Over the years the farm practice slowly declined, but the companion animal side had flourished and the business included now a small but very neat small animal practice.

Following the accident – in which Luz had sustained a vertebral fracture – the large animal work was immediately covered by his neighboring colleagues, but it proved impossible to find a small animal vet who could jump into the breach. Time to phone a friend……

A couple of weeks (and a few COVID tests) later, I drove along the rolling countryside past fields of rape and wheat and through stretches of dense forest to the small village of Nusse, where I found a beautiful family home with an adjacent practice building, just next to a church which dated back to medieval times.

Already waiting for me was my friend’s mother “Nanny”, who I fondly remembered as an occasional visitor from our university days, and her aging Howawart.

The warm welcome as well as the brilliant weather was setting the tone for my whole stay in Lauenburg. Once I had settled in, we had coffee and home made cake in her beautiful garden and when my friend arrived, we started to plan the work ahead.

Luz had been lucky – with the help of a lot of metal work, his fracture had been stabilized and he had suffered no functional loss, but both pain and stiffness were severely limiting his ability to work.

With no qualified veterinary nurses (except a very kindhearted, but unfortunately untrained lady from the village cleaning and lending a hand in the morning) around, we agreed that Luz would be my secretary and I would perform the consults with the help of the animal owners. This would give me an insight into small animal work in Germany (which I hadn’t done for many years) and at the same time I could show my friend a few tricks and techniques to improve the services he could provide to his clients.It worked like a treat !

The following two weeks were both a journey back to veterinary medicine with the routine of the time when we had studied and it was at the same time an inspiration to all involved:

The day started at 8 o’clock in the morning with a communal breakfast, with the whole family including the teenage kids and the Polish gardener, who was a seasoned endurance athlete and a lovely man, but who for some mysterious reasons ended up once a week in A+E with the most bizarre symptoms. Thankfully he had usually recovered the next morning (in time for breakfast at Nanny’s…) and his exploits made for a lively conversation.

This was followed by morning consults and operations. The practice was very well organized and very clean, but lacked an anesthetic machine, X-Ray equipment and an endoscope, which made some procedures quite challenging.

Operations were performed with injectable anesthetics only and without a supervision nurse. Thankfully we both had been trained for this, but most younger colleagues I think would have struggled with this and admittedly gaseous anesthetics are much safer. However, in Lauenburg all our patients recovered eventually well and this included both bitch spays and caesarian sections without a loss of a single puppy.

The morning’s work was followed by a three course warm lunch, lovingly prepared by Nanny, once again on the terrace in the garden, while we were watching the farmer cutting the grass on the field nearby and the dogs enjoying themselves in the glorious sunshine.

Fortified with a cup of artisan coffee, I worked my way then through the afternoon consults, noticing how similar in the end the case load was, compared to Yorkshire or to my patients in the Southeast.

An area where I struggled though was the not uncommon request for homeopathic treatment alternatives, which certainly play a bigger role in both veterinary and human medicine in the German speaking world. As someone who believes in evidence based medicine and in the achievements of the enlightenment, I elected to remain diplomatically noncommittal on this front and decided that this might be a good route to take also in the future. This differs though from my otherwise very positive attitude towards complementary treatment options in general. A lot of my patients in Virginia Water benefited for many years from anthroposophical medicine, herbal and natural medicine, from laser treatment and from acupuncture (administered by some of my colleagues).

The evenings were spent with great runs though the rural countryside and with long open water swimming sessions (something that is enjoying great popularity at the moment in the UK) in the nearby lake, often followed by a glass of wine and a light supper in the garden, in the entertaining company of my host’s mother. More than once I had to asked myself in these days, were to find the difference between work and a wellness holiday at this stop of my journey…..

A Stroll along the Thames

(This post took me much longer to write than usual, partially because so much had happened in the meantime and partially due to an inexplicable inertia caused by several periods of forced self isolation. For some strange reason your productivity sinks rapidly if you have actually nothing to do…..)

It is the end of May and once again I have returned to the happy team of the Abivale Veterinary Group in Oxfordshire and to the little flat above their branch in Wallingford, which is now my home for a few weeks.

On one of my free days I am stepping out of the front door and while being greeted by the resident red kite, which is calling the old Oak tree behind the surgery its own, I start walking……..

Thus is the beauty of working as a locum in different places – if you do it right, every day can be an adventure.

I carry with me just a light pack with a thermos flask, my rain gear, a couple of banknotes, my credit cards and my mobile phone and my aim is Oxford, which is circa 40 km away, if walking along the tow path of the nearby Thames.

The weather is fair, but bright sunshine is followed by occasional downpours which originate from some dramatic cloud formations on the sky above me. At this time of the year and with this light, it is picture postcard England at its finest.

Leaving Wallingford and its historic town center behind me, I am starting with a short cut, heading straight for the towering Wittenham Clumps, which used to be the site for a bronze age hill fort. These hills I had visited many times before for training sessions after work (mean uphill runs….) and so the real journey starts with the countryside North from here.

Hardly anyone is out walking today and while strolling along the fields, observing the livestock and the numerous waterfowl, my mind travels to some of the cases we saw over the last few days ……..

There was an anorexic 40 year old tortoise that had to be stomach tubed following her hibernation,

a bullterrier with a toxin induced life threatening hyperthermia, following the ill advised raiding of a litter bin

and a bitch spay that required an additional root extraction, which I would have overlooked without the brilliant nurse that was on duty that day ……

So absorbed in my typical veterinarian thoughts it didn’t take long until I had reached Abingdon, where over lunch I learned about a new alpine republic

and my sympathy was with the hapless marketing executive who had authorized this full page advert in a national broadsheet newspaper….

With an overpriced latte to go of my favorite coffee chain in my flask, I carried on walking and was soon not only greeted by Iron Man,

but I even came across a Norwegian lifeboat licensed for 70 passengers, which was now the humble abott of a Diogenesian character, sufficiently dressed for an Arctic winter, who convinced me to make a donation to the Air Ambulance Service in return for an image of him and his boat.

While the remaining clouds cleared away, I passed the serene setting at the locks near the Kings Arms

and soon the river became dominated by rowing boats and permanently moored colourful canal boats, indicating that Oxford was not far away.

The restaurants had just opened again for outdoor services and what better way to finish my excursion, than with an outstanding meal and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, while the sun was setting

next to the famous “Head of the River”.

An unexpected job…..

It just didn’t feel right when I walked through the thick mud towards the abandoned building in front of me….

It all had started a day before with a brief text message of a friend asking me for help.

When I stepped into the building, I noticed the bullet holes in the wall, the empty gun cartridges all over the floor and a large pool of blood on the ground and all over the windows and the walls.

The next think I felt was a blow over the head……..

“Wolfgang, are you ok ?!”……Malcolm was bending down to me as I was rubbing my painful skalp……

What had happened ?!……a piece of timber had come loose from the roof construction and it had struck me! But this was no great surprise as the whole building was in the process of been taken apart…..

To be precise, the “building” was a form of barracks for the Luftwaffe, hastily erected as a movie prop for a World War II production on a small airfield in Berkshire. With a little bit of luck it had come into the hands of my friends Catherine and Malcolm. Catherine is not only the owner of two huge Maine Coon cats, but also – not only in my opinion – the best Cordon Bleu chef on this side of the Channel.

Behind their cottage the two have a huge vegetable garden with two flocks of happy chickens and enough space to potentially run a pop-up restaurant, providing that they have an atmospheric venue…..

….and exactly this is the subject of this blog post!

By the look of it, the German air crew must have been in for a nasty surprise by the hands of the RAF (I haven’t seen the movie yet and I don’t even know the title of the film….), but there was no time for any further speculations as the hut had to be dismantled on this weekend, otherwise it would have been flattened.

Catherine had asked if I could lend a hand and when I saw what this was about, it was clear to me that this was a “no- brainer”….

The day had started after I had parked my car next to a disused Tornado fighter jet

in front of the office of Simon, who is the guy you call when you need a couple of original Messerschmitts, a Spitfire and a burning Lancaster for thirty seconds of a spectacular Hollywood movie, that will cost you a quarter of your production budget…..

When entering the building, Simon was fixing “steak and eggs” for everyone and although not being a great fan of cooked breakfasts, this was an offer I just couldn’t refuse.

But it was then difficult to leave the warmth of the office, filled with a plethora of war memorabilia and stage props which included a super comfortable fire place and it didn’t even stop at the toilets…..

However, eventually we headed out into the high wind and the spitting rain to lay hands on history.

For a job like this, they clearly needed a German in the team, but rather than taking with me a Luger or a Walther, I relied on a couple of old Japanese friends: my trusted cordless Makita power drill and impact driver, which are always a delight to work with – if you have remembered to charge the akkus….

With six men being commited to a common project, we managed to dismantle the walls in two hours flat

and recharged by a Mediterranean lunch curtesy of our French “Inspirator”, next the roof and finally the wall frames came down without any spectacular mishaps (if you exclude my head).

It was so refreshing working in a mixed German and British team taking down a relict (even if it was a fake…) of a conflict, that saw our fathers and grandfathers at each other’s throats and knowing that it – in due course – will hopefully be transformed into a meeting place for people, regardless of their nationality, who prefer it to talk with each other over a glass of wine and good food.

The Great Outdoors of the North and calling on an old acquaintance I never met…

One of the reasons for my excursion to the North was my complete ignorance of the natural beauty this part of the world has to offer and this despite of its population density and its industrial heritage. Whenever I had a few days time to go hiking, I usually drove to Wales in the West, to the South Coast or I caught a flight to a mountain area on the Continent.

Leaving the farm early in the morning, my first stop for an al fresco breakfast was the limestone cliff of Malham Cove within the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Sitting on this left over of the last ice age with a mug of (admittedly not Yorkshire) tea and some fresh croissants was a perfect start of the day. After covering a few miles in glorious sun shine, I decided though to return to my Bavarian carriage as both the carpark and the countryside was starting to fill with day trippers.

My next point of call was Ingleborough, a bit further North and one of the Three Yorkshire Peaks , but with a still somewhat manageable elevation of 723m or – as my English hiking friends would say – more than 2000 feet….

Here the land was more exposed and reaching higher ground there was no further agricultural use other than the occasional grazing sheep and a fair number of lambs enjoying themselves. Thankfully the weather continued to be fine, but one could imagine that this would be not a very hospitable place in rain and high winds.

Leaving the hills behind me, it was time to finally pay my respect to a man who to some extend was responsible for my own and for a lot of my peers’ choice of profession: on the other side of the Yorkshire Dales was the town of Thirsk with the practice of Alf Wight, better known under his pseudonym “James Herriot”.

I remember growing up with the television program of his semi-fictional characters and I even re-read his books just last year, being surprised at times how similar and then again how different the day to day work of a veterinarian was in the 21st century. Veterinary surgeons appeared to work 24/7 throughout the year with hardly a day off when Alf started working, but both he as well as a lot of his colleagues suffered from depression and both alcoholism and suicide were – and still are – common problems associated with our profession.

I missed the opportunity of meeting the great man in person before he passed away in 1995, but standing in front of his practice, with his plate still next to the entrance door,

looking at the traditional cottages on the other side of the road and at St.Mary’s Church with its gothic architecture right at the end of the street,

I thought that this for many years must have been the view that was greeting him when he left his surgery – as I did – at the end of evening consultations. After venturing over the town square and strolling through some of the side streets, with a lot of small shops, restaurants and cafes, I thought however that there must have been worse places on Earth to be a local vet than in Thirsk……

It even crossed my mind to consider to apply for one of my next locums here……well, watch this space……..

It wouldn’t be right though to finish this episode without a mention of another stunning National Park in the North – the Peak District.

Wedged between Manchester in the West and Sheffield in the East, this peaceful place was another white spot on my personal map and I decided to make a stop their on my way home. Following the advice of my host to include the church of Saint Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield with its certainly bizarre looking spire on my itinerary,

I then aimed for the town of Grindleford , partially because of the likeness of its name to the village of Grindelwald in the Bernese Alps, which was made famous as the setting for the final encounter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem”.

No Reichenbach Falls here though, but a spectacular ridge walk with great views over the valley below, if heading South towards Baslow. The rock formations made for some atmospheric photos and the moors on the plateau reminded me of the Swedish Fjäll which I had visited last summer.

With no accommodation allowed to open at the moment, I had to pitch my lightweight mountain tent close to a small stream as the sun was setting. But soon I became painfully aware that it had been a while since my last outdoor over night stay……

Within just a few minutes the gas cartridge of my cooker let me down and with the spare left in the car, this resulted in a half cooked dinner and no hot tea to follow it up with. I then realized that choosing the two-season sleeping bag over the readily available four season one had also been a bit overambitious and three layers of clothing in addition to a recently purchased biwak bag made the night only marginally more comfortable……

Only when the first rays of the sun started to work on the layer of ice that was covering the canvas of the tent and the landscape around me in the morning, I finally found some decent sleep.

This comfortable state of existence lasted nearly until 9 o’clock when Jon, the friendly local ranger, was carefully inquiring if “someone was at home”….In the most kind and nearly apologetic terms he explained to me that strictly seen wild camping wasn’t allowed in the National Park, but that the rangers wouldn’t mind as long as tents were taken down by 9 AM….

This – I have to admit – I knew and I was wondering if anywhere else in the world the law would be enforced in such a polite and friendly way as here in the North of England.