On our last morning in the UK I walk my dogs alone around the two fields near my caravan. I wonder if it will be the last time—ever? Or for some time at least… The long grass is heavy with dew, but still I can make out the well-worn path. My flip-flops feel cumbersome, so I slip them off and walk barefoot.
For me, there is nothing like that feeling of freedom from the ground up. It’s something I work hard to remain connected to—the surge of nature to keep me rooted to what is real. There is nothing more real than the solid world beneath our feet, is there? TV, books, social media—they show us things, inspire, but equally they detach us and allow us to simply become receivers of noise. The force-feeding of ideas and beliefs can play havoc with our true sense of freedom and so, as much as I long to stay connected, I ensure I remain disconnected, too. I try to remember to stand on the earth. Root down. Jump inside my body and mind and say, “Hey, Alice, what are you feeling? Deep down? Truly?”
What I’m feeling right now is discomfort—in this moment of walking barefoot; in this moment of life. I look at my dogs walking ahead and wonder if they too feel each sensation: each thorn, each soft spot. Do long lengths of grass wrap themselves around their toes (paws) trying to catch them out too? Do those same toes feel like individual ice-cubes as we step into the shade? For a moment I walk, feeling little sensation, only an all-consuming coldness and I ponder whether to slip my flip-flops back on. I persevere though, and as I round into the second field, I feel glad because this perseverance has connected me right down to that discomfort again; allowed me to get in touch with myself.
I know I am fearful. I sense I too have been pulled into the panic of this virus. Friends and family express their concern over our packing up and heading off for an unspecified time and I know the worries of my community—the world—have permeated me. But I can’t stop; something drives me forward. The other day I turned to my husband and declared, “I feel like I am sleep-walking into this next chapter and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”
Things are strange everywhere right now and sometimes it’s hard to make out what is real—what will truly affect—from everything else and so, as focused as I am about following my path, don’t ever think there is not fear. Just as with everyone—choices are sometimes hard-won. The emotional and physical drain: heavy. And sometimes, it is only by walking barefoot—by reconnecting with the solid earth beneath—that the true way becomes clear. It’s not always well-worn or obvious. Sometimes it’s downright prickly and uncomfortable. But often it gives way to softness and moments of sheer delight and I’ll take that, because I believe there can be nothing true that does not bring both discomfort and pleasure.
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.
994 miles doesn’t seem like that far, when you break it down…
As a writer/researcher for a travel guide – way back when – I walked everywhere and would plan for around 1 mile every 15 mins. So, by that reckoning (and maybe my maths is bad)…
994 miles divided by 4 (4mph) = 248 hours.
Divide that by 6 (average hours walked per day) = 41 days.
But given the fact I’m now in my mid-40s, certainly less fit and therefore probably can’t keep the pace of a mile every 15 minutes (and my husband falls into that category too), plus the fact that our 12-year-old daughter won’t want to keep that pace… and then add to that our two dogs – one of whom is nearly 14 (and when not walking will be pushed in an adapted mountain buggy) and the fact that we’re not planning to walk continuously every day, my thinking when I woke up in the early hours back in December consumed with the idea of WALKING… was that we could probably walk the 994 miles between Vimoutiers (the town in Normandy, France where we will leave from) and Penela, (a little town in Portugal that we’ll be aiming for) in around two to three months.
One foot in front of the other… slowly… how hard can it be?
I have dreamt of doing something like this for so long I can’t even remember… since I first read about Laurie Lee, who one sunny day in 1935 left his Cotswold village to walk to Spain, or Patrick Leigh Fermor who walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople in 1933, or Robyn Davidson who walked across Australia in 1977.
The list goes on.
For me there is something so freeing about just walking. It’s time for the mind to uncoil, the body to unwind and feel connected: to landscape; to those we walk with.
It’s liberating to have nothing but a tent to sleep in, a small fire to cook on and a stream to wash in… but alas, I act as if I know about this day after day, night after night, when I don’t – and that’s the problem. I don’t want to not know anymore… I want to understand what it feels like to walk across a whole country, I want to soar with the eagles in the Pyrenees instead of just driving through the cuttings made by humans and I want to push myself through difficulties and feel real achievement.
I want to truly live in this present moment.
There is never a right time, I’ve come to realise. There is always something that isn’t quite right… but I just can’t wait another year. My husband is up for it, my daughter – on the verge of being a teenager – is eager to go on an adventure and considering that back in October I found myself crying because she was growing too fast and too far; it seems like a gift to spend this time together, doing something utterly life-changing.
So, that’s it. I’ve said it out loud. To myself, to my family, to YOU and that means it’s a dream set in motion, that I can’t now not go through with it and so I’m thinking of that number ~ 994 ~ and wondering what might happen in there - in those miles underfoot - and I’m excited and terrified and inspired and sick with fear.
But I’m going to do it, because life is so damn short and I can’t stand the thought of not trying, of not having a go.
I’m going to (attempt to) walk 994 miles to Portugal.
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.
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.
“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.
Words on Life
Here I simply share musings on my life of wandering, writing, home-educating & dreaming with my little family. Welcome and do please say hello!