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.
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.
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.
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.