The smell of woodsmoke on a dank late afternoon, eerie plumes snaking their way across the darkening canal like thoughts I no longer want emptying from my mind.
Wet ropes, cold fingers, old gloves—there is no fashion show needed.
The joy of leaping from deck to towpath, easing our hulk of a home to its mooring. Metal on metal rings through the air as I bash pins in; the delicious weight of mallet in hand.
Looking around at the view — a new view, every day if the fancy takes you — and spying a "sunshine" tree right outside our window.
Being rocked to sleep as a boat passes slowly in the darkening night. Waking to watch the sunshine tree come to life at first light.
The sound of ice cracking around my ears in winter, fish and ducks nibbling at the waterline in spring and summer, the raining down of magical leaves in autumn.
Reflecting in the watery ripples that soothe my mind.
Then there is the shunting, rocking, manouvering - the throwing of ropes, jumping to other boats, ducking to tie up; slipping on mud.
Mud. Mud. Mud.
The smell of a boatyard—heavy, oily, like my dad's workshop—the cheery faces, "just chuck us a fiver mate."
And the peace. Always the peace.
The taking ourselves off to the countryside where we watch the sliver of a moon appear and disappear behind cloud, our gaze stretched across endless fields—from pitch black to orange glow.
But being in that glow if we want. And after the year we have had, perhaps that's the main reason afterall:
A home that moves, so we can be close to loved ones as we need and wish.
Nothing can replace our beautiful Highland hideaway - our yurt in the stone circle. But at least we experienced it, no matter for how short a time. And if there is anything I have learned this year, it's that our time here can be short so we must grasp every opportunity and absorb it with utter delight, yet not be afraid to leap as needed.
So now; now it's back to boats, to living afloat. And trying to write words again that right now feel jarred—lost somewhere in the depths of my mind but somehow, slowly finding their way out, albeit in mixed-up ways.
Since December 2019 I've been writing the 'Characters of the Cut' column for the Towpath Talk Newspaper. Each month I feature those who live their life on the canals of England and it's always enjoyable and fascinating to write their stories.
Having previously lived afloat for a number of years myself, narrowboating as a way of life is endlessly appealing to me. And by writing about others, it allows me to keep my hand in on this unique lifestyle!
So far I have featured roving traders, artists, signwriters, environmentalists, families in search of a simpler way of life... do visit my Characters of the Cut page to read their stories.
You can also read a few articles about my own narrowboat life, here.
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.
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.
The only giveaway in the darkening night that we are on water is a thin shimmering line, a reflection of the last piece of light in the sky. The surface is otherwise still and dark. In the distance I hear lambs bleating and a chorus of birdsong fills the air.
I think to myself that this is a place where I feel most comfortable. A place where I can remove myself from the rush of people, the noise of a consumer-driven life, the depressing opinions about the world, that I see banded about so often. Within that deafening basin I frequently find myself scrabbling about, searching for a way to extract myself silently.
A moving life brings many benefits, and one is that there can be noise; but so too there can be silence. From urban to rural, people to solitude.
When sleep finally comes it is the best I have had in a long time and I wake with enthusiasm for this slow watery world so often overlooked when tangled in life up above; a life of fast-moving roads, things to do, people to see. Here I can be safely cocooned in a world of soothing sounds.
As I wind the paddle down on a lock-gate I am mesmerised by the clink clink of the catch and the sound of rushing water that transports me to my beloved sea. The banging of metal on metal as pins are pushed into the ground reverberates through me and is a reminder that tonight, we are somewhere new, and that tomorrow it can be so again.
I jump off the bow and grab the rope; its roughness is of comfort to these hands always reaching out to feel something that affects me, although by the time I have tied up and they have melded with the wet, they are cold and numb and in need of a warm mug of tea. I await the whistle of our kettle on the stove then sit and stare out of the window; sometimes even music is too much, too intrusive in this world. Instead I prefer to watch the boats drift by and daydream to the gentle hum of passing engines… that is until the unmistakeable ‘pop pop pop’ of the single cylinder fuel boat draws nearer and we all spring into action.
The lady at the tiller, faithful dog by her side, calmly pulls alongside and wanders casually down the gunwale to fill us up with fuel. We talk of dogs and the rain, but are all happy to see brighter skies moving in our direction.
As we sit back down and unfurl once again, I am – as always – astounded by the unmistakable slapping of water as a swan begins its long and arduous accent to becoming airborne, followed by the serene whistle of feathers as it soars majestically into the air.
Tonight as I write up my notes I am urban again and looking forward to voices, laughter, friends and children as we celebrate May Day, but I feel a calmness knowing that in one seemingly small collection of well-rehearsed tasks—one simple untying of ropes and pushing off of bow—I can extract myself and once again immerse fully into the sounds of the Waterways.
We worked our boats through the lock in opposite directions but in that relatively brief exchange she reminded me – this woman – that life is short; so very short. So affected by our conversation was I, that tears pricked my eyes as I continued walking the towpath, working my boat through the last two locks.
In those few moments we had that rare immediate connection and she spoke about her daughter dying just weeks earlier, about the grief and yet how she had also been reminded of LIFE. I talked to her about how sometimes I get scared as to if we’re making the right choices; that I worry about what others think of our nomadic, sporadic, seemingly shambolic lifestyle. That sometimes I lie in bed at night wondering if we should just settle down.
Her parting words were to tell me to keep living: to change, evolve, take chances… to give up, try again and most importantly: not give a shit about what anyone else may say, think or believe because it’s our journey; our life, and there are no rules.
Setting off early the fog is light and feathery on waters turned matte grey by mist. There is a slight frost laying thinly on the ground, I reach down to touch it with my shivering fingers to see if it is real, before I pick up the rope and jump aboard.
We are wrapped up in coats, hats and boots; sturdy boots that won’t slip as we jump on and off the boat, untying ropes and easing her bow slowly round with a pole so as not to wake our still-sleeping neighbours. We are captains of our ship, captains of the waterways, which are undoubtedly at their best when the rush of summer traffic has subsided, when early mornings are our own, interrupted only by the pretty chirpings of a blackbird as she perches on the ridge of a stone barn.
I work the lock gates silently, a passing jogger helping me to push. I wave my frozen hands – cold from the metal of my windlass – at my daughter and her friend through the window as they lounge in bed munching toast and chocolate muffins, overdosing on Winnie the Witch books. By the time I am waiting at the gate for our boat to pass through I am several metres above them; their pretty faces are now stuck to the window pane beaming their smiles up at me. I laugh before closing up the gate and running down the towpath to jump on the front.
The sun comes up, her warmth welcome, and the girls are finally coaxed out onto the deck where they feed passing ducks. By the time we moor up for the day at a peaceful spot across from open fields, the sun is so warm we change into flip-flops. I sit on the bow of the boat while my daughter plays with sand on the towpath and bids hello to other boaters as they drift in and out. Mooring for lunch, mooring for afternoon tea, mooring just because.
I needed this.
To be reminded, once again, why we have chosen this way of life: for the freedom, the beauty, the nature at every turn.
I hang my handmade wares in the window with bright signs saying “For Sale!” and feel like a wandering water gypsy from times-gone-by.
There is no better life for me, for us, I think.
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!
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