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.
The beach. Just the very word makes me sigh with a deep sense of comfort. For me there is something about it that draws you in; gives focus to the day. I only need to call out ‘shall we walk to the beach with the doggies?’ and all life springs into action.
I wonder, what it is about this stretch of sand and water at the end of a road that makes life feel so much more… together? I ponder as to whether it is simply the walking purposefully, knowing that you will – without doubt – reach your destination.
Lately I have longed for destination, to stand still and breathe. Life is about the journey, yes, but sometimes a journey can be in one place.
Over the years many places have made me want to stay for a while but always – always – it’s not long before I am bitten again by the urge to move on, endlessly enthralled by the idea that something else is waiting for me in some other destination.
Right now, though, I realise that seasons are another destination and having watched each one unfold in one country last year, I recognise my deep yearning to continue on that journey, that journey of standing still.
My six week road trip through Spain and Portugal, just me and my girls (daughter and doggies) ended at a beach house near Porto and the daily ritual of coastal walking gave me time to strengthen this conviction. The comfort of the beach as my definite destination each morning, each evening, gave rhythm to the day; to life, and so I end this road trip wondering if our next chapter will place me somewhere I can stay a while.
Driving the road we felt ourselves lean into each bend and curve, felt our ears pop as we edged higher and higher… me and my girl, journeying to find the end of the road. I needed to find the end of the road because for a change, I wanted to be somewhere.
No onwards, no through, just the destination.
When we reached the silent village teetering between mountains I immediately pulled a chair outside the front of the tiny schist cottage we were renting and let the sun warm my face. I could hear nothing but the tuneful bells that rang every hour and the sound of a breeze blowing through the pine trees.
Shortly, an elderly lady strolled by in a black shift dress, jumper, wellies and a hat pulled down firmly over her sun-darkened face. A bucket of greens swung in her right hand and her mouth sang a happy “Boa tarde”.
I smiled and thought, ‘this is just what we need: Silence. Gentleness. Simplicity.’
When you live at the end of the road it seems that nothing else matters because all life is where you are, and why go backwards? As I watched daily life unfold I wondered if I could live in such a place; if I might ever find myself contented at the end of a road.
One evening by the light of the Wolf Moon we opened the door to traditional singers who sang happy words whilst thumping a paper drum, holding out a cloth bag for pennies. Neighbours leant out of top floor windows to shower down coins and we stood, mesmerised, watching and listening as they trailed through the village along the narrow cobbled streets.
The following afternoon as we walked our dogs around the surrounding hills we came across an old lady dressed all in black walking up the winding road back to the village, a two-foot pile of cabbage leaves tied to her head. We walked together for a while and with our combined Portuguese and Spanish abilities I discovered that she was 82. When I remarked on how fit she was she told me it was the mountain air that kept her strong and stopped in the middle of the road to do a sprightly little wiggle, arms and thick-fingered hard-working tanned hands outstretched, her face beaming.
As I look around I see people that are always striving for so much more: more belongings, more speed, more space, more likes, more filling-in-of-time and so many of us are always pondering as to if we – and our life – is enough.
It seemed to me during my time in a village that the map told me was the end of the road, that enough is that which keeps us sprightly, makes us smile, and it seems that perhaps it is found when the road reaches its final destination and we stop, look around and say: ‘this end of the road will do for me.’
In an olive grove in Extremadura, the winter sun warming my face, the Serins and Sparrows chirping around me, playfully darting from apple tree to persimmon to olive, the undulating velvety green hills in the distance… I sit, motionless.
Time drifts over me like air, thoughts come and go gently and I bask in the stillness of it all and yet, all-too-soon, I become aware that I am not doing anything, not even reading. I berate myself, inwardly battling with needing to do more than simply sit and yet reminding myself that I came here to sit. “Yes, Alice, you came here to meditate, practice yoga, study chakras and, ultimately, manifest your dreams for the coming year, remember?”
This ping-ponging of thought continues for a while as I acknowledge the enormity of recognising the need to shut down my everyday life for a while and I feel blessed that I have constructed my lifestyle in such a way that I can do this. Life can feel so loud, busy and overwhelming and yet so many of us solider on, forgetting what stillness feels like, forgetting what our inner voice sounds like. I don’t want to forget for I know that here – within – is where the truth lies and that if I let it spin away from me too fast and too far, I may never be able to grasp that truth back.
So, I continue to sit and I tell myself it’s OK to have a break, to have time to focus on me. I look around, soaking it all up, listening and dreaming, understanding that no day can ever be lost. That even these slow silent days that seem somehow self-indulgent, go towards many other days that are not, allowing us to be the best person we can be so that can happen.
“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.
It’s the lying back… it takes a while you see; to truly trust the sea. For me it happens slowly – inch-by-inch – that relaxing my body into salty water. As it gently laps against my face I am still aware of a tension in my neck, conscious that I am holding my head defiantly; resisting ultimate conclusion.
With a desire for harmony, first I stretch out my legs and watch my toes float up. Keeping my arms gently waving at my sides I stay there for a moment… half fighting, half giving over, knowing that I desperately want to surrender but never finding the right moment.
After a while I know it’s time and as I let my neck relax fully, all pressure releases and I float backwards into the water. My ears begin to fill; slowly at first and then in that final release – that ultimate giving over – completely, until there is a soft muffled pop and I am there: total and utter release, pure silence, serenity.
My body motionless, my arms still, I am aware only of the gentle water, the deep heartbeat of the sea. We are in unity… and I am free.
Floating there I know that in life too I must remember to trust more, let things flow over me, for it is futile to try and control destiny. I ponder about contentment being achieved only when we become totally and utterly unafraid of the giving over of ourselves.
The rumble of noise dissipates. Bright lights, the seduction of all you are told you want or need spinning around; finally trails away. For a moment – in that moment – I had become briefly blinded as to how life can be but now, now the window is rolled down and the night air is warm.
I tip my face to the stars as our little rental car climbs and climbs and I realise that I am free again; that I can breathe again. I am aware that my lungs, recently so constricted with anxiousness, are instead open and infused with the scent of pine and eucalyptus. My ears, dulled by the din of expectation, are now alive with the sound of cicadas.
We arrive in the dark, following our host down a long and dusty track flanked by shadowy hills and grapevines and there is something unbelievably sweet about not knowing exactly what is out there, trusting only in our non-seeing senses.
Outside this simple home on a ranch in Catalonia we play cards and lounge on the swing chair until the early morning hours and those senses tell me to remember that this is how life can be and deep in my heart, I know that I have been away too long.
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.
Silence. Stillness. Settling. A heaviness that, once you give yourself over to it, becomes lightness… Inside. And from that surrender there becomes a kind of freedom in the soul, as if there is no stone left unturned, no sense left unfelt, because you have allowed yourself time to delve deep, reach in, extract, and be true to yourself with what you do with that which you find.
“It is possible to feel as light as a gentle breeze,” I am reminded of when I am here.
I wake in the morning, the room darkened by wooden shutters. Opening them light streams in. There may be the odd rumble of someone going by below, probably to their allotment on the outskirts of the village, but otherwise there is no sound but birdsong, and my it is bliss.
My deepest fear was that this place I had reminisced about in the nine years since I left, would be changed somehow; would have lost its magic. When we first arrived and saw once again the desert landscape stretched out for miles around us, we wondered what had made us stay for five+ months. The scenery here can appear dusty and devoid of life and yet there is rawness, a realness that draws you in; there is a hunger to learn from those roots that can live so long without water.
In the absence of anything else to do we begin to walk ~ endless walking ~ and slowly I feel my heart releasing, easing, my thoughts starting to lace together into something coherent. We delight in the mountains changing each day… sometimes dry and uninviting, sometimes the deepest greens rolling like velvet, beckoning us towards them, sometimes even snowy tops. On other days a pale mist surrounds us hiding everything behind a white tinge… the olive leaves look frosted, the mountain tops hazy, and I find that I have fallen in love all over again.
There is no rush to the people here, they pass their time slowly and methodically, carrying out daily tasks with a relaxedness that I am envious of. In nine years it remains the same; tending olive trees, stopping for lunch perched on a stone, cutting greenery for animals, sharing a laugh or two. I remember with fondness the several old faces that have disappeared, but many remain the same and they smile and welcome us back with open arms and shining eyes and marvel at how our daughter has grown and at our dog; still with us, healthy and glossy (and now joined by another!).
I survey this place and say to myself that I must, once again, learn… and hang on to my observations for as long as I can. Wander slowly. Be more methodical and connected. Continue to nurture contentedness in simplicity… I arrived with a distance towards life, but I know I will leave with a deeper sense of closeness.
Pondering how our time here before also came at the beginning of a new adventure, having not long sold up our house in a city and given up a steady job to take our baby on the road in search of more freedom as a family, I wonder if this tiny timeless village in rural Andalucia will continue to call us back at important junctures. I hope so, because my love runs deep for this pocket of solace in a crazy world, for a landscape that encourages me to dig deeper within myself: to question, contemplate and ultimately… help discover our next chapter.
We left the UK on our migration south in a plume of noise… I find there is an exhaustion in this world that eats away not just at the physical self, but at something deeper and by the time we rolled our campervan onto a train to take us under the sea, we were spent. Thus, the journey south began in an agitated manner; senses were heightened, hearts were unsettled but, as is usual on our road trips, in time the charged air between us all began to quieten and as our journey took us onto increasingly-empty roads, the reasons for our exhaustion began to slowly work their way out in our minds and through our mouths allowing tensions to finally ease.
To us the world can feel too fast; it demands of us to look, like and listen 24/7 and yet… how many of us actually hear? In all the rush things are left unnoticed, compassion seems in short supply and the nurturing of important relationships is often a pastime squashed into well-managed time slots. Then there is the traffic noise that permeates every moment – even sleep – as cars rush from a to b and trucks relay back and forth with all the food, toys and stuff we apparently need to survive and before we know it, the constant stream of noise begins to buzz relentlessly around the body.
Perhaps some get used to it, make friends with that nervous energy… but it seems impossible for us.
Some might say we run away; well yes, we do, for what else are you to do when you find yourself full to the brim with no space to receive? In order to live, to breathe, to love, to create, we need space to receive. And so I long for the road, long for the layers that begin to peel themselves away as our wheels roll, allowing me to, bit-by-bit, re-emerge, and here now in this small timeless village in the mountains of Spain where we will rest for a short while, I feel a warming of senses, the sweet release of decompression, and the ability to once again, begin to receive.
I guess we all have our way of breaking away, finding that place where we feel able to balance ourselves and return to zero,be it through walking, meditation, exercise, the sanctuary of our own home or a weekend health retreat… for us it takes the road and the discovering of places where life runs at a slower pace, to remind us of who we are and bring permission to indulge in our dreams once again.
Perhaps our dream for 2018 is that the road will take us to a place where we can once again sink our hands into earth, root down; find a more permanent place to run to and not from.
I guess we’ll see…
Wishing you all a peaceful year filled with love, adventure and the running to and from, as necessary.
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.
For me, this is the last wilderness of the UK… I have wanted to do a campervan road trip around the Highlands of Scotland for a very long time and now we are; I am as in awe as I knew I would be.
We drive silent roads, we walk in every kind of weather in just one day, we sleep in quiet spots tucked away in the mountains; by lochs, in forests, overlooking a bay… and there is no-one to disturb us, no one to bother.
As we consider where we might sink our hands into earth once again, we wonder if it could be here? Ponder as to whether we might find a quiet piece of land, in our own land, that is affordable? But until then we will keep wandering and exploring, relishing the wild air on our skin and the deep pounding of our hearts.
It is so hot here that the air is totally, perfectly, still. Time feels empty. Hours stretch out with meaningless ease and I feel unable to meld into this giving up – this giving over – of energies to the heat.
Instead I simply lie here wishing I could be doing something.
For me this is a place for winter. Winter is when the land is lush, the trees green and weighted with plump leaves drunk on water. The white-washed hill towns are fresh and invigorating whilst still under the umbrella of bright blue. People are alive, not muted.
Right now the landscape here is like stepping into a painting, a photograph: the bright orange trunks of recently stripped cork trees stand still against dried golden grass and matte blue sky. Green leaves are motionless, rattling in their dryness only when a light breeze attempts to push through the wall of heat.
Everything is still. So still that sometimes even breathing feels unwelcome.
To be here in the summer, far into the interior of Portugal, where dusty tracks once led smugglers over the border into Spain, is to give yourself over to something almost unearthly. It is to close up, centre your thoughts and prepare to feel nothing.
Until, that is, the night comes.
And then suddenly you feel alive again, sitting under the olive tree, a dark shadow against a sky lit with so many stars it is impossible not to feel insignificant. The only sounds are crickets, the odd dog barking and owls, so many owls. When I adjust my eyes to the light I feel their shadows everywhere and I long to swoop through the branches and rest where they rest.
But can a person live for night alone?
In the morning I awaken dreamily and stare as the shadow of our bed frame begins to appear against the freshly white-washed wall. As my eyes adjust the room gradually fills with light, the shadow soon the only part left in darkness. I know it is just about 7am as this is the time I have noted the sun appearing above the tops of the trees that are visible from my bedroom window.
Mornings I watch the sun light up the white walls as I awaken. Evenings I bask in its orange glow from the front terrace as it sets behind the mountains.
Life here in the summer is about measuring the distance between the two, surviving the in-between locked in oppressiveness. It is a kind of meditation, an enforced slowing of the body; a rarity in this sped up world.
The sound of a greenfinch permeates my thoughts until every inch of my mind is centred on that yearning repetitive lone call. Playful long-tailed tits chatter and flutter. I wonder how long before they give up, the heat is already heavy and I have not even the energy to rise from my bed yet.
I imagine breezy walks, my dogs playful instead of stunned into submission. I long to be in a mountain river. I wonder if I will ever spend the summer here again? My heart is telling me to move North. I once described myself through words as a House Martin and now I feel it even more. My dream self feels at ease in this comparison, my physical sense happy with the spread of cold and heat.
And so, North I go.
I am sleeping (or not) in my car, which is parked up in France overlooking the Atlantic. Everything I need for three months is in the car with me and the feeling of freedom this thought brings elates me from deep within.
The waves are crashing in the background; that and the sound of my family breathing are all I am aware of. I can’t sleep, I’m thinking of a friend who is very poorly… there is nothing like possible death to quiet the mind, make you truly consider what really matters in these moments that we are blessed with breath; with the opportunity to be who we want to be, to do whatever it is we dream of.
In this moment I realise it is what I am: a wanderer, gypsy, traveller, nomad… a seeker of life, a keeper of all things important, but important things that I can collect as I move, things that only take up space in my heart. When you live a nomadic life the only roots you have are those friends and family who mean the world to you… but always you are rooted only through holding their hands. We are flailing on the wind, tethered to our hosts and we thank them for always letting us run free whilst keeping a thread of our bodies pinned to wherever they are on the earth.
Our travels across France tethered us to friends, made as a result of our wayfaring lifestyle. We chatted and let the chickens out, we ran around the 3 acres of garden, we walked to the river and all sat on a beautiful bridge draped in autumn leaves, listening to the rushing water and contemplating life. My daughter chatted non-stop to fellow travellers from Quebec and Argentina… others just passing through. We, all together, threw her a Halloween party with recycled get-up, sparklers and a bonfire. As she wandered through the darkened gardens lit only by the most incredible starlight seeking out hidden pumpkins to crack the Halloween code, her laughter rang out and I felt overwhelmed with joy for the life we live.
Our friends packed us off in the early morning with fresh kale and herbs from their gardens and before we settled down to slumber this evening in the shadow of the Pyrenees, we ate raw kale salad on paper plates rustled together in a car-park. This made me smile and I thought how our friends would smile too at our creativity.
And so now we are on our way to Spain. To dryer lands, bluer skies, olive trees, emptiness and space to breathe… as peaceful as my watery life is, everyday stuff can still take over and become exhausting and always the desire to drive away, to stop the ride, to re-connect, calls. A desire to chase the light perhaps? Or simply the desire for more space than narrow water brings: to expand, shrink, grow… be both loud and silent. Or perhaps it is simply the desire to wear my sandals again.
I am not sure, but I do know that whenever I am called to the road, to a new place, to a new adventure, it is a calling from deep within my heart and I have found that the heart is the scariest thing to listen to and yet, it is the most exhilarating and powerful way to live.
There I go again, thinking of that friend… thinking of life.
How do we want to LIVE? is perhaps a good question to all ask ourselves from time-to-time. Today I want to live like this, tomorrow may play a different tune but whatever, I will be sure to listen with a keen ear and an open heart.
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…
It’s peaceful up here in the mountains. I didn’t realise how it would actually feel to be up here, but it’s just that... Silent. Quiet. So all-consuming that I haven’t even been able to muster the energy to write because I am able only to be.
Of course, settling into the new routines of a wwoofer also takes time and my energies have been focused on finding my feet, establishing my place, and ensuring that my daughter is happy and fulfilled by this experience of farm life.
I have stood looking out at the view raking cut grass and clearing terraces, and with them, my mind. I have been mesmerised by the sheep as they pass by my window each morning and I have marvelled at the new birds and flowers I have seen and found.
And yet, all the time, I am wordless.
Stunned into silence.
Sentences come to me: about the beauty, the magic, the feeling. But nothing knits together as it should. I guess I am still settling myself into a new rhythm.
I know only that I am glad for the opportunity to escape the noise of life, that I love to be near sheep and horses because they make me feel everything that is good, that I don’t care if my arms are scratched and embedded with thorns, or that my limbs ache from throwing hay bales into the loft until the sky has turned inky and the moon is so close I can almost touch it… because in the mountains I feel alive.
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.