We live in a world where we are more connected than ever and yet at times, it feels like there is less connection. Close friends can feel like they are miles away, when in reality they are just around the corner and strangely, many of us find closeness in those on the other side of the world. The on-line brings us into each other’s lives, thoughts and feelings in a more open way; yet sometimes it feels we share less with those next to us.
I often feel adrift: taking steps, losing my footing, tentatively stepping back in again… because like most people, I want – long – to feel connected, to share and be involved and yet, for me there is simply no comparison to a real hug, a real like and of course, real love.
We took our box of wooden handcrafted wares out into our community yesterday and it was heart-warming stuff. To see friends old and new, to feel the embracing arms of real flesh and to hear lovely real likes as we talked about our work, shared stories of our travels and told customers where their gifts started life, because it is important to us that they can hold that piece and feel the energy of where it came from.
One lady bought a simple pendant of olive in celebration of her daughter’s name. I told her where the wood had come from (Portugal) and she asked, ‘but how do you remember?’and I thought… because I know the story behind it, I know the olive grove, the memory of sitting and sanding, of hearing the breeze through the pine trees on the hill and the sounds of birds and next-door’s donkey. I remember the warmth on my skin as I worked. (My reply was a little more succinct!)
When you make something with your hands, there is a real connection to the creation and yesterday reminded us of how much we love that, for without real people to share real stories with, sometimes it can all be lost in a sea of beautifully-staged photos and mere glimpses into worlds we can never really know.
Perhaps, for me, this is the limitation of the on-line world, where celebrations, commiserations and jubilations are shared in short sentences, or even shorter reactions, when what I long for is conversation.
Yesterday my conversations introduced me to Sew & Grow where I peered into dye baths and touched beautiful products, but mostly felt the enthusiasm of the creator that simply does not come through in a photo. I was also inspired by Vintage Knit & Sew and her passion to re-use what we already have in circulation – we must! – and consequently we now feel a deeper sense for the need to try and source second-hand chains for our jewellery.
Connection, for me, is something you can touch, see and feel. It’s all around us if only we step out and submerse ourselves in it, make time for those friends around the corner, take our wares out to be seen by real eyes. This world here on the screen is wonderful and wide and opens doors to opportunities and friendships we might never have had, but the smaller world, the world we all have outside our door, well that is just – if not more – as important and it feels good to find yourself in the heart of it.
“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.
Sometimes there are no photos; only words. Yet in a world that demands to see perfection created through endlessly compelling composition are words, anymore, enough?
Yet, can a photo really show you how the wind felt on my face ~ soft, airy and filled with fine grains of sand ~ as I sat against the grassy cliffs?
Can a photo tell you what I was thinking ~ freedom is to fly; to lose all sense of anything else around you and let this world we have constructed of noise, shopping trollies, bricks and wheels, fall away ~ as I tipped my head back to watch a white seagull soaring against a silent blue sky?
Can a photo really convey the look ~ sincere, compassionate, kind ~ as heartfelt words were shared, or how a hand felt ~ strong, safe, secure ~ within mine?
Can a beautiful photo of a beach, somewhere on the North Yorkshire Coastline, convey how it truly made me feel ~ humbled, centred, calmed, thankful?
There is no photo, there is no trace
for I left everything behind today
to simply lay
in the sand
and let my dreams take shape.
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.
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.
Why is it that I love birds so much I sometimes wonder? It seems their presence has permeated my every living moment in recent months. From the playful chirps of swallows in Marbella, delighting no doubt in their safe journey over from Africa, to the Serins of central Spain who I watched and listened to whilst sheltered from the already warm afternoon sun under a gnarled olive tree, to the array of birds: Willow Tits, Gold Finches, Bull Finches and tame Blackbirds, here in the tucked away lanes and wheat fields of North Norfolk.
Yes, our most recent family road travel adventure has begun in the most beautiful countryside… every tree and hedgerow of these hidden-away roads is alive with the magical sound of birds of every size, shape and colour. I feel welcomed into their land and as I lie in bed with my camper window permanently open to the outside air, I feel an unwavering peace to find myself in their constant presence.
Out here on the road I can feel at one with the world around me; I can soak up the golden light that nourishes crops, walk the fields and lanes in bare feet and spend hours watching and learning from the wildlife outside of my window. I think of how sad I was to leave my watery friends and realise I need not have worried, for out here there are new friends waiting to teach me.
So far our journey has seen us unwind and empty our cluttered minds – heavy from weeks of sorting, offloading, downsizing and sad farewells – into the breeze of the brisk North sea. We have run in the sand, cycled along the promenade, gazed in appreciation at the colourful beach huts; such a quirky element of the traditional British beach holiday. Whole evenings have been passed just watching the fishermen head out to sea, or delighting in local youngsters doing their lifeguard training so bravely, and we have smiled and tipped our hats as we pass those who have come to enjoy these glowing sunsets, bringing with them tables, chairs, wine and friends.
And still there have been birds.
I see them at every turn, I feel their presence in the breeze even with my eyes closed; I hear them in every moment.
I read somewhere that it is important to do something every single day that fills us with joy. Watching birds fills me with joy, making me calm, happy and ready to brave the world, and as I shall be meeting many new faces during this journey, I am thankful for this. Although today as we stayed inland of the coast and ventured to a meeting with some of the Home Educating parents of Norfolk, I need not have wished for greater courage. Such warm faces, such friendly smiles. My daughter has played, crafted, shared snacks and lunch with the most delightful children and we parents have talked with those who inspire us with their tales of growing food, autonomous learning and even journeys similar to our own about to be embarked on. We have swapped ideas and thoughts of what to do and where to go, we have even swapped numbers and emails.
Just knowing that if we humans reach outside of our comfort zone it is possible to find such warmth, is heartening and I am thankful to have been embraced and only hope that this is a sign of things to come in future stopping places.
Tonight as we sat down for supper the drawn-out ‘tsweee’ of a Greenfinch captured me. I ventured out and sat on the step to look up to the top of the tree for a good five minutes as it called, as if for a mate. I realise that I love birds because they are able to fly freely, breathe the air fully, feel the wind in their wings and even venture successfully into new territory.
As I set out on this new journey, I realise that we are not so very different…
My daughter runs ahead, her face glows damp from the fine mist of rain that falls softly from a silent grey sky. She delights in the trees ~ usually plump with cascading green leaves ~ now standing stark against an empty world, stripped bare but for a smattering of brown leaves clinging helplessly at the top; their fate already written.
We are alone, others still tucked up snugly in their beds. The morning is, perhaps, dreary: grey, damp, devoid of the chatterings and clatterings of summer picnics that normally spread themselves gleefully across this parkland. But to us, wrapped up in our waterproofs, our feet protected with bright wellies, we are warmed in the glow of a world turned burnt orange, deep red, radiant yellow, rusty brown.
Looking around I realise that I have been so sorrowful with anticipation of this turn of season that I came dangerously close to failing to breathe her in fully: this autumn, so full of warmth, radiance and grace. Suddenly I understand the potential of this new chapter, the opportunity to strip my own soul back a little, allow myself to be cocooned peacefully in her embrace.
To regenerate, rejuvenate.
But mostly I look at my daughter running gleefully in the breezy rain, oblivious to the supposed drabness the end of summer brings and I remember, again, to ensure the child in me is kept alive so that this woman can enjoy fully all this magnificent earth offers her.
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.
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.