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Meet the house sitters

Tom Hill and Linda Worthington

by Susan Holtham

When life presents exciting opportunities for renewal and change most of us are too busy plodding down our chosen path to notice. If you are feeling a bit stuck, read this profile of the new lives of our new Bloggers on Assignment, English couple, Tom Hill and Linda Worthington. You may be inspired to bust out of your confines too! Tom and Linda were suffering from all of the hardships that life in First World offers until they met and made something wonderful happen together. House sitting that is, and plenty of it!

Just ordinary people living an extraordinary life

Tom Hill & Linda Worthington
Age: Tom b. 1962, Linda b. 1960
Nationality: British
Hobbies: wine appreciation, motorcycling, caravanning, lots o’ travel, house sitting, blogging

“Living an unconventional lifestyle can be difficult, but it’s well worth the reward. If it was easy, everyone else would be doing it. One’s most important resource is the time left to us on this planet. It is a criminal squander to dedicate that time chasing the acquisition of material possessions. In getting and spending we lay waste our lives”

It was a chance meeting at a supermarket that brought Tom and Linda together and gave them the push to start their journey into their ‘lives less ordinary’. Read the charming story of their first meeting (originally published in the UK’s Guardian weekend magazine) ‘I found love at the supermarket checkout’.

Tom Hill always knew he was one of life’s free spirits but couldn’t quite work out how to really break free of the lifestyle he had endured right into his late thirties. It takes a brave individual to simply ditch everything for the unknown.

Suddenly, I had choices in life which were rare and valuable for a man of my age. I was thirty-nine years old, I had no kids, no ties, no debt save a measly twenty grand mortgage, and from the following day, no job. I was going to start my life over.

Y’know how sometimes two things combined can become more than the sum of its parts? It was when Tom met Linda that they really became aware of the possibilities for a totally new way of life together. Both were struggling with the usual hardships of life in the First World: Linda was a supermarket check-out lady, raising her teenage kids on an English council estate, Tom was in ‘marketing slash middle-management’ and hating every minute of it. Until one day…

At the checkout, her eyes briefly met mine and we raised barely perceptible smiles for each other. She looked as if she’d been at that conveyor belt for the past seven hours. I’d been in suicidally tedious marketing meetings all day.

‘Do you need any help with your packing?’ she said in that singsong, ‘don’t-care-if-you-do-or-not’ way.

‘Do I really look like such a useless single bloke that I couldn’t pack a carrier with half a dozen groceries?’

She looked up. ‘Single? You? How come?’

House sitting full time can offer a way out of the vicious cycle of the ‘working to repay debt’ rut that most of us are in. It can also offer a whole raft of unexpected challenges. Some of these can be nice – or nasty! Tom and Linda adore the way that house sitting allows them to stay in places at a fraction of the cost that genuine tourists pay. So for our intrepid couple, there is everything going on but the rent!

But what do full-time house sitters do when A doesn’t slot neatly into B and they find themselves without accommodation for a time? It seems that the camping and caravan parks of Europe are something of a mixed bag. Tom finds himself a little overwhelmed by all the new-fangled gadgetry involved.

Having purchased a Peugeot 406 diesel estate, fitted a tow-bar then collected our caravan, we are now set up as full time gypsies. Aaahh… the delights of caravanning. There’s so much to it. Leisure batteries, cassette toilets (nothing to do with relieving yourself into a VCR), nose weight gauges, towing-mass ratios, water pumps, sullage tanks, three way fridges, hitch locks, wheel clamps and collapsible beds. Although I don’t think those are designed to collapse whilst occupied at 3am, like ours did the other day.

They do find it a bit trying being surrounded by the oversociable hordes of Euro-campers when they are inbetween assignments.

Even with a lifestyle cranked down to minimum Tom and Linda still have expenses: maintaining their big ol’ Peugeot and long caravan, the usual provisions and then there’s the bill for vino, wine and plonk to factor into their everyday living costs. That is, when they aren’t house sitting a winery in France.

Tom and Linda’s tips for successful house sitting:

1) Keep a level head in any problematic situation.
2) Be incredibly tolerant of others’ lifestyles and habits.
3) Respect others’ possessions and never fall into the trap of believing that the house is ‘yours’ (especially on longer-term assignments).
4) Leave the place cleaner than you found it.
5) Know and agree contact procedures with the home owner. Don’t phone to tell them their cat’s been sick when they’re in the middle of a holiday of a lifetime. A good sitter can feel confident in performing certain tasks without pestering the owner. Absent owners always regard no news as good news!
6) NEVER do anything that you would find embarrassing or unusual if the owner were to return unexpectedly. In particular, always ask if any guests are allowed during the sit (owners are normally fine about immediate family).
7) Never use the owner’s computer. Windows machines will break down easily enough even when turned off! You don’t want to be blamed for any virus / breakdown or data loss.
8) Buy a pre-paid international telephone card so you can phone without cost to the home owner.

Tom and Linda have had to develop a whole new range of skills that are both portable and in demand and can be offered to home owners as part of the deal. Working on the road can involve lots of seeking and not much doing unfortunately. But there is plenty of joy to be had in the struggle.

We spent the next three weeks in solid pursuit of employment. Bars, call centres, estate agents, removals companies, landscape gardeners, builders and every other possible avenue of expatriate exploitation was cold-called and door knocked. Not a sausage.

Thus we arrive back in London after spates of HGV driving, catering, wedding photography, corporate potraiture, (nothing went wrong with those jobs so I won’t bore you), and roofing work (sufficient calamity for an entire series of DIY S.O.S. and beyond the scope of these pages). I will even spare you the utter brutality of the chemical toilet incident.

Chasing work all the time must be something of a hardship surely. ‘Not so’, says Tom.

We can honestly state that it’s all been worth it. As we lay in bed with tea and hob-nobs at eleven o’clock this morning, Tom idly flicked through the ‘work’ section of the Guardian; enjoying the delicious reality that, at least for now, he didn’t need to ‘act as a solid team player with a flexible attitude to working hours within a pressured environment. F*ck that.

So many animals and so little time! Tom and Linda have seen it all. The most memorable pet minding experience, says Tom, was a little job involving caretaking a dog through its last days.

The house sit assignment involved the care of a terminally ill Doberman, skeletally thin, housebound and very much on its last legs. Sadly the unfortunate hound in our care could never be left unattended, so London sightseeing had to be done alone, in shifts. Even this was difficult as the creature took more pills than Pete Doherty and had a fussier eating regime than a vegan anorexic teenager. [At the time of writing his blog] the gig had another ten days to run, as long as the poor dog survives.

Tom and Linda’s most memorable assignment was in a closed-for-winter winery in Bergerac, France. This job included walking the resident donkeys, which can be a lot more eventful than you would think!

Four years into their new lifestyle, Tom and Linda have clocked up a whole heap of stories about the weird and wonderful world of house sitting. Their first assignment was looking after and re-decorating an apartment In Bollene near Arles in southern France for a retired UN diplomat. Many, many assignments later, they have house sat all through the two most favoured British ex-pat countries: France and Spain. They do manage to pop home and often find themselves in London and elsewhere in the UK. This may sound like an endless holiday but really life is a bit precarious for our intrepid couple:

Here is the latest despatch from WC1. Not Britain’s premier public convenience, the London postcode. We are ensconced in a large, swish, duplex basement flat within spitting distance of the British Library, Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road. Waterstone’s, Heal’s and Habitat are within a two minute walk, as are Euston Station and Warren Street tube.

This time last week we were living in a lay-by off the A38.

The experience of living the life of full-time itinerant house sitters plays tricks on the memory and and on perceptions of place and time. From a gig high in the frozen Pyrenees, Tom finds himself marvelling over the fact that twenty-eight days ago they were sweltering on the Costa Del Sol, surrounded by over-sociable retired Euro-campers.

This morning we were rustling knee-deep in the just-fallen autumn leaves which we found ourselves clearing from the driveway of this, our latest gig. As from last Monday we have been looking after two cats, a pony-sized dopey old dog and a closed-for-winter twelve-bedroomed ‘Chambre D’Hote’ hotel 850 metres up on the French side of the high Pyrenees.

Tom and Linda have now been house sitting around Europe (and Australia) full time since 2002 and they get paid for their efforts too! Eeeeeesh how do they do it?

Despite planning to embrace convention, become gainfully employed, re-join society’s herd and re-occupy their house in England’s Midlands in April 2007, none of this has happened!

At the time of writing (May 2007) Tom and Linda were off to the States for six weeks and out of radio contact. Somehow I don’t think they are ready to give up their precarious, exhilarating lifestyle just yet!

You may dream of endless travel and adventure with your partner and best mate, living relatively simply and being financially free too. Tom and Linda are keen bloggers and have a book in the pipeline as well. They are eager to share their stories with you and help you on your personal journey to more freedom and adventure. For more thrilling installments in the adventure of their lives, check out their future contributions in Bloggers on Assignment.

Tom and Linda’s requisites for successful house sitting:
1) Police clearance certificates and accompanying photo ID (although we’ve only been asked to produce them once!)
2) A list of willing and happy previous clients as referees.
3) Passport in-date in case you have to go abroad in a hurry!
4) A genuine affection for animals – even when the dog keeps you awake ALL night with barking and needing to be let out. Pampered dogs in particular can be problematic. Remember, animals have their own routine and you would be foolish to attempt to change it!
Susan Holtham

About the author: Susan Holtham

The editor at MindMyHouse is a fun gal, intrepid traveller (in a former life), holder of three passports and enthusiastic house sitter. A book editor by trade, she did a three-year stint with Lonely Planet Publications at the start of her career. During her time at LP she shepherded many titles through the production process. Baaaa-aaaa-aaaaaa! Now that two gorgeous little girls call her mummy she's a very busy woman tending to their needs and to the occasional cries for help from among our 5000+ membership. No really, she's always keen to help!