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.
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Portugal Green Heart
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and here is a little photo of us together back in 2013!
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.
994 miles doesn’t seem like that far, when you break it down…
As a writer/researcher for a travel guide – way back when – I walked everywhere and would plan for around 1 mile every 15 mins. So, by that reckoning (and maybe my maths is bad)…
994 miles divided by 4 (4mph) = 248 hours.
Divide that by 6 (average hours walked per day) = 41 days.
But given the fact I’m now in my mid-40s, certainly less fit and therefore probably can’t keep the pace of a mile every 15 minutes (and my husband falls into that category too), plus the fact that our 12-year-old daughter won’t want to keep that pace… and then add to that our two dogs – one of whom is nearly 14 (and when not walking will be pushed in an adapted mountain buggy) and the fact that we’re not planning to walk continuously every day, my thinking when I woke up in the early hours back in December consumed with the idea of WALKING… was that we could probably walk the 994 miles between Vimoutiers (the town in Normandy, France where we will leave from) and Penela, (a little town in Portugal that we’ll be aiming for) in around two to three months.
One foot in front of the other… slowly… how hard can it be?
I have dreamt of doing something like this for so long I can’t even remember… since I first read about Laurie Lee, who one sunny day in 1935 left his Cotswold village to walk to Spain, or Patrick Leigh Fermor who walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople in 1933, or Robyn Davidson who walked across Australia in 1977.
The list goes on.
For me there is something so freeing about just walking. It’s time for the mind to uncoil, the body to unwind and feel connected: to landscape; to those we walk with.
It’s liberating to have nothing but a tent to sleep in, a small fire to cook on and a stream to wash in… but alas, I act as if I know about this day after day, night after night, when I don’t – and that’s the problem. I don’t want to not know anymore… I want to understand what it feels like to walk across a whole country, I want to soar with the eagles in the Pyrenees instead of just driving through the cuttings made by humans and I want to push myself through difficulties and feel real achievement.
I want to truly live in this present moment.
There is never a right time, I’ve come to realise. There is always something that isn’t quite right… but I just can’t wait another year. My husband is up for it, my daughter – on the verge of being a teenager – is eager to go on an adventure and considering that back in October I found myself crying because she was growing too fast and too far; it seems like a gift to spend this time together, doing something utterly life-changing.
So, that’s it. I’ve said it out loud. To myself, to my family, to YOU and that means it’s a dream set in motion, that I can’t now not go through with it and so I’m thinking of that number ~ 994 ~ and wondering what might happen in there - in those miles underfoot - and I’m excited and terrified and inspired and sick with fear.
But I’m going to do it, because life is so damn short and I can’t stand the thought of not trying, of not having a go.
I’m going to (attempt to) walk 994 miles to Portugal.
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.
Exhausted from a broken night’s sleep in our van due to the relentless hum of an adjacent building, the morning sun lifts our spirits gently as we stroll down towards the Rio Tejo.
As we near the water there is a beautiful garden in bloom; bright orange flowers to the backdrop of higgledy-piggledy aged-terracotta tiles atop a crumbling white-washed cottage, and another, and another… all staggered downwards toward this magnificent body of water. We peer over the wall of the garden and spy neat rows of vegetables, trees laden with fruit and flowers bursting from pots and crevices.
The owner of the garden – his shirt front soaked with sweat, strong arms pulling an aged wheelbarrow behind – wanders slowly around the corner. He smiles at our admiration, lowers his barrow, removes his grubby straw hat and wipes his tanned forearm against a glistening brow.
He is slow, methodical, his soft voice like balm. “Falar Português?” he questions… and so we speak. With small sentences broken by actions he tells us how he has lived here for 24 years, at peace, happy. I envy his love for – his utter comfort with – being here now, perhaps forever. He talks about rain coming and how water from the mountains passes by his house like a torrent down to the river providing plenty of nourishment for his abundant garden. Mimicking rowing a boat down to the bank, we all laugh.
I could have stood with him for hours: his patience with our Portuguese, the mesmerising softness of his manner, the happiness that comes from standing in the glow of someone in love, and as I walked away I wondered if I might ever be lucky enough to find a place I love that much, a place to make me stay.
We look up to see the morning mist settled atop the valley as steep-sided pine, eucalyptus and oak-covered hills draw us downwards ~ we feel cocooned, underneath the world ~ we pass the shepherd and his goats, his dog Karillio gambols around with our two ~ we laugh and exchange pleasantries ~ turning a corner in the track, down and down we go until all we can hear is the rushing river ~ the ground is damp, the smell green ~ in the distance we begin to hear children laughing outside the white house with a turquoise-painted balcony ~ our daughter waves goodbye, joining the group for a day of learning together and as we make our way back upwards the sun begins to poke through and the sleepy morning valley opens up to blue skies and endless possibilities.
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.
There is laughter and conversation between people from near, from far, both in physical and also in years. For a while I am silently absorbed in the moment, soaking up every smile, every line of face, every sentence, my face contentedly gleaming in the iridescent late evening light that is of the Highlands at this time of year.
I look around this wooden house with golden windows on every octagonal side and remember other tables we have sat at; other people we have nurtured a connection with, and feel a deep sense of comfort to know that there are pockets of people and place all over who still yearn for the traditional ways of communication; of spending time in a solid kind of honesty, together.
This table of larch – thick and sturdy – has ensured our acceptance into the fold and I run my hand over its smooth surface with gratitude. During the past two months we have shared meals and long conversations about both the trivialities as well as the deeper issues of life. Last night we sat mesmerised as we were introduced to the true meaning of a Ceilidh… not the group dances that take place in halls throughout Scotland, but the smaller, intimate gatherings lit up by song and story.
As we listened intently to the soft tones of Highland voice, my daughter rested on my knee, eyes glistening, bodies stationary – all of us in that deep state of rest that comes with the complete absorption of something magical – I thought: could we stay?
The connections we are making here, the joy we feel from community – of working through the difficulties and learning to accept difference – and the sense of achievement felt from splitting wood or turning compost; I find myself, in many ways, afraid to leave.
I walk through the landscape on a bright morning and soak up the tumbling bird song, babbling brook, brightest gorse, that silent shift of a deer in the undergrowth and trees that have cascaded into spring above the bluebells without my even being able to keep up. I marvel at the four seasons felt in one day and for a moment I think, ‘Alice, please stay’.
But then, as I turn the well-thumbed pages of an old copy of ‘A Croft in the Hills’, Katharine Stewart’s words about an impromptu camping trip to the West coast, to cook on a driftwood fire and sleep in their van, ring out in my heart:
“We loved our small house, every stick and stone of it … yet here we were, completely happy as nomads! We had unearthed an even deeper level of existence.”
and I know that soon we will move on again… to both return to those other people and landscapes we have fallen in love with, as well as to discover more. For we have gypsy blood and for every table we sit around, for every person who captures a piece of our heart, there is still a deep hunger for movement, to be free of all shackles and yet be tied to every . single . place . we come to land with an intensity that can only be achieved by passing through because these moments are held tighter, the experiences kept closer: never taken for granted.
But this Highland place, this glen, these people: I know they have weaved their way into our very beings and I know that this has become another stopping place on our wandering path: a root to our route, and somehow that thought brings me great comfort.
And so we come to rest again… for a while… and I feel a deep sigh within; a contentment that we have come to a standstill in a place that takes my breath away. If there is anything I have learned in this past year of attempting to explore the idea of roots in the UK, it is that no matter the sentiment behind the desire, it is not possible to rest – however briefly – if a place does not take your breath away. For how can we grow an appreciation for life if our breath is not momentarily paused?
Here the colours draw me in… for hours I could lose myself within the purple, pink, brown, green and yellow hues of this diverse Highland landscape, and I know that within its embrace I am taking another step on my journey: I am absorbing, I am learning and I am figuring out the path step-by-step because I have come to realise that we can only do that.
Not one single person can know the destination at their beginning, for how can we predict what will happen during the in-between?
So as a family we are enjoying the rests along our many-stepped journey and learning to say, ‘right now, we are here’: here where birds of prey float effortlessly through the sky, where deer roam the woodland and pine martins run fleetingly across moonlit bridges; where silence is, at times, unsettling but also nourishing and where our dreams can be turned over and explored slowly, without pressure.
Oh, Scotland… thank you for allowing us to walk your lands, whether it be for a month or twelve.
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!