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.
Hello, I'm Alice
and I love... my husband, my daughter, my two dogs, meaningful friendships, day-dreaming, seeking out new experiences, cooking on fires, walking on wild beaches, reading under the shade of a tree, sleeping out under the stars, dancing, wild swimming, saying yes, walking barefoot, trying to live the best life I can, learning from my failings, crunching leaves underfoot, running downhill in the wind, being kind, being loved back.