On our last morning in the UK I walk my dogs alone around the two fields near my caravan. I wonder if it will be the last time—ever? Or for some time at least… The long grass is heavy with dew, but still I can make out the well-worn path. My flip-flops feel cumbersome, so I slip them off and walk barefoot.
For me, there is nothing like that feeling of freedom from the ground up. It’s something I work hard to remain connected to—the surge of nature to keep me rooted to what is real. There is nothing more real than the solid world beneath our feet, is there? TV, books, social media—they show us things, inspire, but equally they detach us and allow us to simply become receivers of noise. The force-feeding of ideas and beliefs can play havoc with our true sense of freedom and so, as much as I long to stay connected, I ensure I remain disconnected, too. I try to remember to stand on the earth. Root down. Jump inside my body and mind and say, “Hey, Alice, what are you feeling? Deep down? Truly?”
What I’m feeling right now is discomfort—in this moment of walking barefoot; in this moment of life. I look at my dogs walking ahead and wonder if they too feel each sensation: each thorn, each soft spot. Do long lengths of grass wrap themselves around their toes (paws) trying to catch them out too? Do those same toes feel like individual ice-cubes as we step into the shade? For a moment I walk, feeling little sensation, only an all-consuming coldness and I ponder whether to slip my flip-flops back on. I persevere though, and as I round into the second field, I feel glad because this perseverance has connected me right down to that discomfort again; allowed me to get in touch with myself.
I know I am fearful. I sense I too have been pulled into the panic of this virus. Friends and family express their concern over our packing up and heading off for an unspecified time and I know the worries of my community—the world—have permeated me. But I can’t stop; something drives me forward. The other day I turned to my husband and declared, “I feel like I am sleep-walking into this next chapter and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”
Things are strange everywhere right now and sometimes it’s hard to make out what is real—what will truly affect—from everything else and so, as focused as I am about following my path, don’t ever think there is not fear. Just as with everyone—choices are sometimes hard-won. The emotional and physical drain: heavy. And sometimes, it is only by walking barefoot—by reconnecting with the solid earth beneath—that the true way becomes clear. It’s not always well-worn or obvious. Sometimes it’s downright prickly and uncomfortable. But often it gives way to softness and moments of sheer delight and I’ll take that, because I believe there can be nothing true that does not bring both discomfort and pleasure.
It’s 7am in the morning; dark skies and mizzly rain were not what we were hoping for. My husband, Scott, is rushing around in the stables with a headtorch on fishing out his toolboxes, our packed up awning, a chest of draws from my childhood and a table made by his Grandad, so they can be stored in our caravan that we leave here on this Buckinghamshire farm whenever we go away wandering.
Ideally the furniture would be in storage, but we can’t afford a storage unit big enough because already we’re taking money out of savings to pay for the small space we do have for our keepsakes. As tensions build and I get cross at Scott because he’s telling me to tip the sofa cushions up so he can pass things in - as if I’m not doing anything at all to help - I feel overwhelmed with our life and not for the first time, I imagine the simplicity of a 9-5 with a house and running hot water.
Our daughter, Isabella, is already nestled in our loaded car with the two dogs. At almost 13 and having spent her whole life packing up and un-packing to accommodate our travelling lifestyle, she knows now that the best thing to do in these moments is sit it out in the car. I trail back and forth, in and out, with last-minute bits, ‘I can’t fit this bag in the car’ I shout to Scott whilst simultaneously trying to slam shut the boot in frustration. I can almost look down on myself and see my eyes rolling, can feel the agitation that I’m directing towards him for no other reason than I’m tired and overwhelmed with the fact that despite supposedly being good at living with little, we still seem to have too much stuff. I want to stop myself, to slap myself and tell myself to stop being a petulant child trying to shove the blame, but there is nobody else to direct this frustration at. Our family and friends have no sympathy; this is the life we choose and rightly so, but when I think of all the delightful #vanlife and #simpleliving posts on Instagram, this scene is not what immediately springs to mind.
It’s hard being a travelling family, never quite staying put long enough for roots to take hold, never knowing where you might be from one month to the next, never knowing where your next pay cheque is coming from. The packing up and packing down is endlessly exhausting and at times I’m so angry at myself: angry for not being able to just get on, for the fact that I bore easily and never quite feel like I’m living if I’m not pushing myself to do something on the edge. As we finally close the boot and lock up the caravan door I know I should feel ecstatic relief, but instead I feel longing as we drive by the big houses in the village with warm welcoming lights on as people eat their healthy breakfasts before hopping in the car with their nice hair-dos and fancy clothes and going off to work. I want to feel release, but I don’t. Instead I immediately start outwardly panicking to Scott, reeling off the monthly outgoings we’re having to pay for, the storage, caravan, blah blah blah and knowing that my meager current earnings as a writer will only just cover this. ‘How will we pay for food? How are we going to live?’ I bemoan pitifully.
Scott stops me straight, he’s always good at that. I’m a blatherer, a day-dreamer, I get myself in an anxious tizz quite easily when it comes to mundane everyday stuff and he’s my leveler. ‘Look’ he says in a calm but firm voice, ‘we’ve made the decision to do this. We’ve made the decision not to get jobs and buy a house, not to get another boat. We’ve made the decision to keep going with this life and to go on this adventure, so let’s try and enjoy it, not talk ourselves out of it before it’s even begun’. I feel reprimanded, but know that he’s right. We had sat together and said we’d rather take money out of our savings pot to do something that feels right - right now - than take the safe option and try and do something a bit more settled.
Walking 994 miles to Portugal was a mad idea that I had back in December ‘why don’t we just walk back?’ I said flippantly as we talked about perhaps returning to a little village where we had recently spent a month in our camper, ‘we’ll walk back and rent a place and see what happens’. It all seemed so easy then, to just say it and then suddenly the dream takes shape and all the reasons why we want to do this snowball like; we might not have another perfect time like this again. Our older dog might not even want to be pushed in a buggy in another year, Isabella may want to stay put to study for something and and and… so we said sod it, we’ll spend the money and we’ll have an adventure! But right now, right here in this car, I’m thinking of how the hell we’re going to do it. It all feels too big, too scary, too unknown and whilst I’m trying to believe and listen only to Scott’s voice, my inner voice is panicking and I know outwardly I look frantic.
Then out of the piles of dog blankets and bags and food in the back of the car, pipes up Isabella in a funny long drawn-out voice, ‘all we need is each other’ and I see the white star glint on her teeth as if she’s in an American advertising campaign. We all laugh hysterically and it’s enough… It’s enough to remind me that life is short, that we are going on an adventure, that no – it’s not perfect and that yes, it would be nice to have a bit more money or less crap to store, but we’re doing it. We’re going on a walking adventure and we’re all together and we love each other and that after 12 years of wandering as a family in campers, caravans, narrowboats, volunteering and working and learning and growing, we’re taking it to the next level. We’re challenging ourselves even more and we’re going to find out how nice or horrible people are and we’re going to get to know ourselves even better and we’re going to delve deep, we’re going to connect and it’s true, we only need each other.
A decade gone, a new one to begin and somehow it feels far more momentous than I had even really given thought to… to look back over ten years and think ‘what has it all been about; what will it all be about’ is quite something and it feels important to note down where I went, what I felt.
I remember back to the start of 2010 when, after returning from travels we sought to find a new way of living in the UK. We bought our first boat, renovated it and lived on the fringes glowing in the happiness that was discovering a world within a world. It was the year I first explored my local home-ed community, taking my then three-year-old daughter to a meet up where teenagers and toddlers played together, sloshing around in a muddy pond, talking with passion and liveliness and I thought, ‘we could do this’. We travelled to Norway to stay in a remote cabin with a four hour round walk to the shop, we camped our way through Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands. We spent sunny afternoons lounging on the towpath and the coldest winter I can remember, frozen in from November to January with no water and just the sound of ice cracking around our beds.
2011 was the year that felt tightened, where we bought a camper for trips around England to temper my flighty spirit. I tried hard to stay put and for a while it was important and necessary, to care for my best friend, but once she was better the familiar flutterings couldn’t be tamed and by the beginning of 2012 I was driving to Italy with my daughter to volunteer on a farm in the Appenine Mountains. It was here that I first began to explore my journey from vegetarian to vegan as I saw things up close and personal. It was here that I knew I simply couldn’t settle for just one kind of life.
In 2013, with a need to get away, to switch off, to inspire myself, I turned to my husband and said ‘I want to ask my Dad to go on a trip with me’ and he replied, ‘then do it, you might not get another opportunity’ and when I now look at my aging parents, I understand the preciousness of that experience. Me, my six-year-old daughter and my 74-year-old Dad, a plane to the bottom of Spain and a journey across and up by train and bus into Portugal… Notebooks filled with scribbles about life and loss and love and all that good stuff that is the fabric of a person that if we don’t write it down now, will unravel and be lost forever.
That trip led to the taking off once again of a family in a van… we travelled the UK, we travelled south: to beaches and forests, mountains and olive groves. We lived in a cabin near Carcassonne until we realised that for our daughter, it wasn’t enough and so 2014 became a tale of two halves… of trying to balance a life between another boat in the UK to suit her needs and the open road to suit all of us. It was driving north to south and back again, it was sleeping in our car in the Pyrenees, it was travelling by boat from Milton Keynes to Wales and back again, it was dusty tracks and watery roads, it was the nurturing of friendships and the blossoming of hearts.
By 2015 we had found a place to rest in Portugal - our quiet quinta - and so we continued the back and forth never knowing quite where we belonged or if we even needed to. It was chestnuts and horseriding, wild Welsh beaches and cityscapes, cooking on fires, here there and everywhere and then it was the longing for water again and by 2016 we were travelling from North to South on a narrowboat that had once been a floating hotel, to re-connect with our own country, our own people. Ourselves.
2017 saw more camper travels but hiccups and drama meant tiredness and apathy for our wandering life – it seemed the road was against us at every turn and the exhaustion pulled us down. We sold our dream in Portugal, breathed deeply in Andalusia at a place that is so special to us it’s hard to put into words and than in 2018 we ran back to lick our wounds in the UK close to those who needed us; and whom we felt we needed. The North York Moors became my blank page, where I could walk barefoot and write out endless sentences in my head without a soul to cloud those words. Where I could explore the meaning of family, the meaning of rootedness, the meaning of home.
2019… well, that’s just been about the journey within. It’s been – without my even realising it – the launch pad to a new decade. It’s the year I focused on yoga and healing whilst friend-hopping around Spain and Portugal with my daughter. The year I finally lived in the Scottish Highlands and it's the year we took a few months out in (another!) motorhome to recover from personal summer struggles and health issues, seeking out old friends and sharing many healing meals around many tables. It's the year we stumbled upon an amazing community in Portugal, a place we see ourselves going back to, but overall, 2019 has been the year that I made bigger decisions about my life, about who . I . really . am.
Sometimes you have to go to places you don’t want to, uncover truths that are painful, to make decisions about what you really need and so I’ve let people gently fall away from me this year and I’ve sought out those who I know nourish me, reaching out for their love, support and encouragement. I’ve realised that blood is not always thicker and that that’s OK.
I’ve realised that I am OK.
So a decade… what does it mean? I’ve lived in France, Wales, England, Portugal, Scotland, Spain; in boats, caravans, campervans, cabins, cottages, tents and houses. I’ve taken myself away to be quiet, to reconnect. I’ve been in the thick of it, laughing around tables, sharing food and conversation. I’ve watched the most bouncy, fun-loving happy little girl evolve into an-almost-teenager who has an untameable spirit and an unstoppable passion that I know I helped ignite and I’ve never felt more proud of anything in my life. The dog that turned four in 2010 is now almost 14 and that makes me sad, but also incredibly lucky and of course, I’ve become Mum to another little pooch, sent to shake things up a bit I reckon. I’ve realised that I can commit, to a man I have loved for 16 years and that; THAT is home.
I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve screamed, I’ve fallen down, I’ve got back up again and I’ve FELT the beating heart of life all around me.
Some might say I’m scatty, unable to stick at anything, lost or just plain confused. I say I’m living. I’m just trying to find my way and when I sit here now; writing, reflecting, I think – how could it ever be any other way? There is a world out there. There are people just waiting to be met, experiences to be lived. How can I not have a hunger for it?
And so, 2020 is about clear vision. It’s about more adventures and whilst I can see what I’m aiming for with clear intentions, I’m not naïve enough to think I won’t be pulled off track along the way. And that’s OK… it’s all OK… because if I can reach 2030 with as much to look back on, as many smiles to re-live, as many great people to call my friends and with a continued openness to new ideas and willingness to work on myself, then I’ll take it.
Wishing anyone reading this a wonderful 2020 filled with amazing adventures and healing energies. May you have the strength to take leaps of faith, to try things and not worry about if they don't work out, because they ALWAYS work out as they should in the end. And may you believe in yourself, know that you are amazing and good enough for whatever it is you want to be or do.
May 2020 be the year we all strive for that which is important to us, without fear of anything at all.
Sitting outside my caravan I hear the familiar undulating song of the skylark soaring high above. For me this is the sound of summer that always alights joyousness within my heart, yet this year there is also a stab of disappointment that summer has come and gone, grasped - it seems - in just a few fragmented moments.
I have heard them a handful of times: above fields as I have walked to catch my breath, high over Stonehenge on a hot day of travelling and of course, near to my caravan as I have washed clothes and cooked outside, and each time I have felt myself lost in a kind of melancholy. Our Highland spring - that feeling of quiet measured belonging - seems a lifetime ago in a world that is jumbled and fast.
But the skylarks… their intermittent song keeps me grounded for I am sure they sing with knowingness. They sing to remind us that even when there has been loss, there is always a chance to gain. They sing when spirits are low, pushing us towards a summit that is there behind the mist, no matter what private hill we are climbing. They sing to show us that we are just a part of nature; that there is no grand plan to life, no points system that brings you more or less. For me, the skylark sings to remind that life is arbitrary and that we must stop, listen, breathe, and simply try to be at peace with just having this moment.
So now, as I find my wheels turning through the golden light of rural France, I do my best to think on that song and simply enjoy the journey I am on.
“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” ~ Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (A History of Walking)
Lately I’ve been walking as a way to find some space, to help me pull words together for the book I’m working on. I stroll briskly, usually from the field where my caravan sits, through the woods and fields in a loop or sometimes to the next village, and back again. Last night it was almost dusk as I set out but I could still see the hedgerows beginning their giving over to the autumn palette, the hawthorn and rosehip berries ruby red and ripe. There were even some huge blackberries still hanging on. It’s been such a hot summer and everything seems to have come and gone in a rush.
As I walk I remember how much and how far my legs carried me when I worked as a travel guide writer. The roads and pathways from country to city that I would pound armed only with my pad and pen. I think about how strong I was then and long to be strong again. Lately I have felt weakened by the inevitable pressures that life throws at us – all of us in one way or another – and those carefree memories of myself sometimes feel so far away: untouchable. I look at the little wooded dells of green and imagine just curling up in them for the night. I think about Patrick Leigh Femor walking to Constantinople – across Europe in winter – and wonder if I will ever get to do a walk that long. One day I would like to. I see rubbish in the bushes and ponder for how many years it will pollute this landscape – oh what us humans have done.
The fields are mostly bare now; harvesting is over. No more the sounds of combines and tractors working late into the summer evenings and I feel a deep loss for the long hot days we have had this year in England, for the eating outside for seemingly unending evenings and I recognise that old familiar melancholy for autumn deep in my heart. But the breeze is still warm; so warm, so I close my eyes to it and bask in its serenity.
Just before I reach the village a large group of crows fly over, squawking and cawing, and I am reminded of camping out beneath a rookery in Norfolk. I turn to begin my walk back, pausing first beneath their swell, watching them move together, working out where they are to roost for the night. I envy their living in the moment, for the moment. I walk again and hear a rustling in the hedgerow, it sounds large so I kneel down, stinging myself. I wonder if it’s a small deer but I can’t see. An owl hoots behind me and a pair of pigeons fly out of a low tree, their unmistakable flapping bringing an eeriness to the darkening sky that makes me feel suddenly vulnerable.
Ahead I make out the treeline and love that I know the shape of my field. I hop over the gate and walk – alive and refreshed – back to my caravan and the light and laughter of my family preparing to turn in for the night.
We walk, and talk. About being wild, being female.
We talk about wonder and love and pain. About falling down, grasping our way back up again.
We talk about nature, bounty, beauty… strolling slowly, pausing when a point needs to be made more pressingly. Munching blackberries, squeezing sloes, marvelling at oaks, silver weed soft in my palm, thinking about pilgrims.
I walk barefoot through a soft field and remember a book I love, about what it means to be a true ‘Nature Girl’, “wild and free, completely unattached, except for a love of life, animals, nature and a few of the right kind of people” (Juliette de Bairacli Levy) and I know that she is one of those right kinds of people.
Restful, deep breaths, a temporary equilibrium that feels easy. Water runs, heat burns; everything is stable and stationary.
There is comfort in this state for it brings a silencing of wired thoughts and yet… there is the constant danger of boredom lurking on the horizon. It’s been too long that my water has not run, that heat has been created with my own hands, that my view has changed daily, for me to fall willingly into the arms of something so… predictable.
These months here in a house between the moorland and coast of North Yorkshire have forced me recognise that my hunger for the road is not simply for the sake of travel, but more importantly: the sake of connection. Connection . to . every . small . seemingly incidental action that we open ourselves up to when we wander; when we make life tiny, yet wide, because there is the realisation that we are forever living in the moment.
Living in a house the moment can be lost within the ease of it all and yes, that can be welcome: to know that when travel fatigue sets in you can put a key in the door behind which you might find familiar pictures and books, cushions and blankets, a writing desk and typewriter and know that it is possible to stop, burrow down, rest.
And yet, I find myself periodically running to our caravan tucked away in the corner of a field in the South of England so that I might fill up water containers, feel the wind all night long and be connected to life and when there I find myself dreaming rose-droplet-framed dreams about the road: about campfires and weathered faces; conversations and music, and I know that this house-living-lark could never be every day.
If it can then surely we are heading speedily towards death.
And so, as a family, we adjust to the knowledge that we are here, find joy in the vegetables growing at our allotment and tentatively allow our roots to venture a little below the surface and yet, also remind ourselves that there will always be a need for us to go away… to walk barefoot, wash our clothes in a bowl, cook on one ring and wake up together overlooking the sea. Because we are travellers, wanderers, gyspy souls and it is the call of the road that makes us know we are alive.
Wandering = Movement = Freedom. It is a stretching of limbs, and of mind. It is never standing still for long and yet, standing still long enough to breathe. Mountain, moorland, coast, forest, meadow… walkways, waterways, roadways; the life of a wanderer is a perpetual anticipation of next steps and new adventures.
Perhaps the attraction is in the new? The erasement of that which you do not want to remember because you find yourself lost in the absolute freshness of possibility. It is a running away; a running to, and I have a hunger for that lightness of step – that release – that comes, both physically and mentally.
The wandering life is lived deliciously simply, out of a bag… once upon a time (for me) on foot, but as a family: in a van, cabin, boat, cottage, caravan… shared houses; shared spaces – so many places and people found, so many adventures that have grown within us like a patchwork quilt and so many experiences we are endlessly glad for and yet, like any life there are periods of unrest… the flailing about on an unknown path without destination, the night-time awakenings given over to creatively developing ways to sustain such a lifestyle and then there are the waves of uncertainty, wondering whether the wandering life still works for the whole family.
On a practical level, living from here to there brings challenges… there is water to be collected, waste to be disposed of, laundry to be done with cold red hands – either from hand-washing or dragging a bag to the laundrette in mid-winter. Food must be prepared and cooked in tiny spaces and higgledy piggledy places while crafts, projects and colouring are limited and put out or put away to accommodate. Beds are endlessly made up and down whilst stepping over dogs – and each other. Pans and kettles are boiled for washing up… and washes, for showers can be taken only when there is enough solar power. There is paperwork in foreign countries; translations, invitations, conversations… a combination of sometimes wonderful, sometimes tiring things, because the tiny little incidentals can loom large when you’re out of your comfort zone… and there is the endless packing up and unpacking; forever losing and finding.
For ten years now as a family we have wandered. Sometimes standing still, but never for too long and for any hardship this life has presented, there have been more than enough joys to balance it out. For every irritation such as living without running water for weeks on end because the canal has frozen, there has been felt a sense of accomplishment for being independent and resourceful. For every night spent uncomfortable, tired and lost on the road, there have been ten heart-stoppingly beautiful stopovers that remind you why you do what you do. For every anxiety arising from living in a different country there has been a cultivation of pioneering spirit and a warmth from locals that restores your faith in human nature… for every mean person, there have been five beautiful souls and for every frustrated word (or ten!) flying around our tiny spaces and big dreams, there has been nurtured a deeper love, admiration and respect.
However, recent months saw our path edging into a different space and it has taken a while for us to navigate this changing route, to acknowledge our collective desire to stop, root down for a while, maybe even think about belonging somewhere for a while, in our own country. We don’t know for how long we will need this, but we know that finding ourselves in a house nestled in a village between the sea and moors of North Yorkshire, feels right. We know that for a while, having some comforts and space feels as exciting as running away. We know that the connections our daughter yearns for at this stage in her life are valid and that being close to our extended family is important and we imagine (hope) that having such endless and boundless beauty on our doorstep where we can seek out plentiful micro-adventures, will allow us to weave these wandering hearts into our new chapter of standing still.
I love the silence of snow… lying in bed it closes around us; cocoons us. I can hear no planes in the sky, no cars on the road, no sound but that of nature, of snowflakes falling softly onto our caravan roof.
Reluctant to wake completely I stay motionless, lost in the stillness of it all, but the sound of horses hooves passing the window on the other side of the fence make me realise that it is daylight and animals need feeding. I close my eyes again, grasping a few more moments lost in the sound of compacting snow beneath hoof.
When in the depths of nature, closed in, I realise I never want for anything like I do for this feeling. The noise of the world we have constructed around ourselves suddenly seems futile, pointless, and just as with the freshness of snow, I want to start again, choose what to grow from this beautiful blank landscape.
My daughter wakes and delights at the sight of real snow; “real snow!” she sings, and hurriedly we pile on layers before venturing outside. The alpacas sorrowful faces look up to us, their ears weighed down with moisture. We scrape thick snow from their troughs and break the ice in their water bucket. The horses are going crazy, galloping around, and we scurry about organising hay for them.
I stop for a moment and look out to the landscape, relishing the magic of working methodically in snow and I am overwhelmed by the utter newness of things, of a clean and silent world, un-marked in every way.
Words on Life
Here I simply share musings on my life of wandering, writing, home-educating & dreaming with my little family. Welcome and do please say hello!