370 days later…

IMG_7679I left London 1 year and 5 days ago on Friday 13th April 2012. Now apparently I live in the depths of Mid-Wales, in the woods overlooking the Dyfi estuary – perfection qualified slightly by the postage stamp size view I have of the sea, and the ongoing battle with mice in the beautifully crumbling, freezing wing of an old hunting lodge that I live in.

I live in a cluster of houses so I’m getting to practice rural idyll with neighbours, with two particularly special mentions going to Corrine and Daniel who have been the kindest of support in this strange experiment I’ve embarked on. I have a couch grass infested but gorgeous corner of the walled garden to grow veg in, my shopping list now includes both olive and chainsaw oil and I got an axe for Christmas. In 370 days I have completely changed my world.

I had intended to tiptoe into the local community in a cautious Londoner kind of way, but seem to have parachuted directly into the epicentre of my local village by becoming one of the managers of the new community run village shop and café. It’s a little unsettling having life and work so closely intertwined, London allows community but its scale also permits anonymity. One of the realisations of the past year has been that I’m not happiest when independent and flying solo but rather when part of something communal. There’s nothing more inspiring than a common mission be it work or play or ideally both at the same time…

I spent Tuesday in the shop loading in our first order (we open in just over 2 weeks) and discussing local suppliers.  When I left I turned left out of the forecourt rather than right to go home, the day was too fresh and smelt too good not to go to the beach. Ynyslas, the most stunning beach is 10 mins from my home, so I walked and sat for an hour and mulled and felt good about this curious journey I’m on.

I don’t know if I’m undermining myself by still calling this part of a transitional experiment but it’s hard to attach to a place when you arrive on your own. It takes longer to create your own niche. Machynlleth and the surrounding area is pretty exceptional though, there’s a feisty, fun, proactive crowd here, I think it’s probably easier to start out here than in many places.

I think you belong somewhere not when you have a place to live and a routine, but when you form strong connections. There are lovely people here but it takes time to form close bonds; I didn’t miss London when I last visited but I was really sad to leave my nearest and dearest. That said I have a thank you for my grandmother who I chatted to on Tuesday while lying in the sand dunes. I miss her and she misses me but she’s been nothing but full of joy and support acknowledging it as my adventure rather than my departure.

NYDay YnyslasCome and visit folks, it’s pretty special round these parts.

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Together we are

Today (9 Sep) I’m sitting in my ‘office’ (up a hill with an approaching storm trying to get a mobile signal) looking out over broccoli like oak forests below and 5 valleys folded together and meeting below me. I’m surrounded by a cloud of thistle seeds on a rising wind overlooking the extraordinary Old Chapel Farm, the ever increasing whicker of the wind turbine and the sound of the wind through the trees signal the approaching deluge. Conifers woosh and deciduous trees rustle.

I am on a Wwoofing ‘holiday’ after 3 hard weeks catering a feature film in Llanfihangel-y-Creudyyn. It was tough and I’ve been doing lots of sleeping to recover. Just the physical reality of moving huge pots, chopping veg for 30-40 people (3 meals a day) on a table about 3 inches too low has been gruelling. The crew were bedded down in the trenches up at the farm where they were shooting; Cwmnewdion Isaf where we put on Fire in the Mountain festival earlier this year, and I worked alone in the village. I also aggravated an earlier elbow tweak up to a condition I’m now calling ‘risotto arm’. Perhaps the most middle class condition known to man.

the sheep keep the graveyard neat in Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn

Cooking up at the farm would have been an additional stress so I was happy to be separate especially as harmonious wasn’t the go-to adjective for the shoot.

I wanted to see if I could pull the catering thing off. If I could provide good, cosy, nourishing food to keep the troops going and I did. The logistics of a domestic kitchen meant that one pot cooking was all that was possible but it worked and I was lavished with gratitude for keeping the troops nurtured. On camp I always think of the kitchen as the engine room of the ship, fueling all the fun and enthusiasm around. If you feed them, they will dance. They weren’t quite dancing on the shoot, but mission accomplished.

I also landed a job.

I had been looking for a bolthole for the winter and had hoped the film would introduce me to some local possibilities and indeed I found Y Ffarmers pub where the lovely Rhodri and Esther have brought together fine food, ale and community. I start as a chef there in a week!

I don’t have anywhere to live yet but I’m working on something temporary and local to give me some more time to work out what I want for the winter. Instincts lean towards being as rural as possible but I have to be realistic about a winter up here in “the arse-end of Ceredigion” as my lovely friend Vicky (from that positively tropical bit of the world South Pembrokeshire) called it.

Anyways, a quick catch up for you on the past 6 weeks. I’ve found it really hard to write as I’ve ducked and dived and bobbed and weaved around this summer. I think I need routine to find the discipline to write regularly and so I’m looking forward to being still, finding a view to watch change each day, a fire to stoke and a routine to slot some regular writing and whatever else into. I’ve signed up for a writing course at the Uni of Aberystwyth which I’m excited about.

I think I last left you as I hot footed south from the Llyn Peninsula working my way towards dipping my toe in the water of Somerset and Devon.

Pol, Nicol, Albie and Otis all joined me for a quick Toots and the Maytals disco in the van

I had a lovely brief encounter with Polly, Nicholas, Albie and Otis for dinner on July 13 while chugging along the A44 yet again.

With guidance from locals I’ve been choosing not the fast routes, but the beautiful and underused routes, so the sedate pace of the van is not to provocative to whoever’s behind you. I’m pretty good at pulling in and letting them play through, it’s very dull being feistily goosed by those with more horse power / urgency than me.

Intending to just spend one night enjoying some home comforts with Kit and Al in Frome, I stayed for three, which was obviously needed.

It’s hard to work out when you need a break on this sort of trip, everyday is an adventure but everyday is also energetically inefficient both physically – packing the van up and down and hefting the powerless steering around, and emotionally – dipping in and out of others’ lives. Learning how I need to recharge is ongoing.

Then a couple of days (17/18 July) having a look around Tiverton where the lovely Hannams have a smallholding. If only I could have transplanted their jewel of a cottage (on offer for the winter) to an area I had more contact / knowledge / experience of. It took me some time but I worked out that I had to find a job, project, and/or community to be part of first and the roof would work itself out. It felt too enormous to choose such a remote home when I had nothing anchoring me to the locality. I’m sure I could have made it work but the challenge of the terrain; the van found some of those hills hard in full summer, daunted me without a community to default to. I do hope to spend some time there though one day, it’s a proper idyll and I almost succumbed, but excitingly and encouragingly the unknown beckoned and I heeded her call. This feels like progress for me.

Also to be noted was the fact I spent a night in a campsite in Nomansland. It was pretty bleak.

Then five days of joy, hard work and love oozing from every knot, screw, grown and foraged flower, every tent pole, cocktail, sequin and cooking pan. Olivia and Paddy gathered their people and the people built, sculpted, sang, sewed, cooked and blessed their very special union. It was a wonderful thing to be part of. Just near Taunton, a few fields and a barn became a truly miraculous place. In part because Olivia’s sheer force of will had managed to move that relentless pesky rain drenching jet stream north to it’s usual summer position and the sun came out at last. But mainly due to extraordinary people coming together and becoming much more than the sum of our parts. Mighty fine. She also looked like a goddess courtesy of Hannah’s amazing costuming skills. Strangely I didn’t take any pictures so it all feels a little like a dream that may or may not have actually happened.

staff cuppa on camp – a meeting and a power nap in one

From one special community to another – a two week Forest School Camp (24 July – 8 Aug) with some more inspiring folk. As ever I learned loads about myself including how grumpy I can be if lacking sleep. I’m so less short and abrupt than in the bad old days but there’s still a rather un-zen kneejerk gruffness that I’d like to tame.

I saw my first ever moonbow (none of us had ever seen one), which was truly startling. A beautiful silver arc as an incredibly bright near full moon (low angled on the horizon) refracted in the rain at two in the morning, stunning. The rather featureless field that was our home for two weeks created some amazing nightscapes. One moonlit night a low level fog hung heavily with fellow campers emerging dramatically out of the mist like a 6th form college production of Macbeth with an exuberant dry ice budget.

my fave photo from camp

Camp is always extraordinary, there was much joy but I was also frustrated that the group I was looking after; 19 x 9-11 year olds didn’t become more than the sum of their parts which is what we hope for. Indeed some were so draining that there wasn’t much life force left in us for the less needy ones. I know we impacted on them positively, I hope so we worked bloody hard at it, but sometimes the volume of them just felt like we were always just herding lemmings away from a cliff. We didn’t break any of them which was the main thing.

The day the camp (70 kids and 40 adults) left I was the only one who didn’t have somewhere to go immediately, my next assignation was Wilderness festival near Oxford a couple of days later. I wasn’t ready to just leave, and also wasn’t really in a fit state to drive I was so exhausted. So I parked up the van by our lovely river, had a good wash, made some campervan toasties and slept for 10 hours. A gentle rocking woke me the next morning; a sheep having a good back rub up against the van. Leisurely departure, washed some clothes at the Penybont Laundromat and headed to Monmouthshire. If in the area may I recommend the Penybont laudromat experience; petrol station, café, shop and laundry all in one so a myriad of mundane chores both automotive and domestic can be achieved all with a cappuccino in hand.

All such leisureliness only made possible by some decent weather. It’s been very hard to just be still this summer with the relentless rain. The van is not built to be a port in a storm, it’s built to be a base for an adventure which hasn’t always been easy this hydromatic summer.

Mikey (Talkaoke guru) likes coffee

I’ve never been called manna from heaven before, but lovely Jo welcomed me in for a night (9 Aug) in Tregare on my next detour towards some Talkaoke at the Wilderness festival in Cotswoldia. A strangely coiffured place for me in my post-camp raggedy state, but I do enjoy the buzz of the Talkaoke table, it’s my bit of performance art. At the Talkaoke birthday party last winter a lovely lady said after I’d been hosting a conversation at the table that watching me do it was like watching someone conduct. I’m proud of the compliment, when I find my groove at the table it can feel like a great dance. If I get it right, then every participant feels like they’ve been part of something special, it’s a privilege and my favourite job out of the many that make up my ‘portfolio career’.

This blog started off with the title “bigger than the sum of our parts” but Joe Buirski came up with the more satisfying, “Together we are”. The things that have given me the greatest joy this summer have been those that involved people coming together with a common goal. Feeling valued is so integral to happiness and what I’ve been privileged to be part of this summer; FSC, Oliviaddy’s wedding, Fire in the Mountain, Wwoofing… have all been about stepping up amd representing and being cherished and acknowledged for my contribution as part of a common mission / goal / game whatever.

Last Sunday (17 Sep) was my first day in a house I could call mine for a loooong time. It’s only for 2 weeks while I find something more long term for the winter but still very needed as the air has acquired a bite and the rain does what it does best this year. I have a cosy little set up so I have a base to help me get settled into work. Once in situ I can chat to the locals to see what might be available as a bolthole this winter. A nod to Titch, thanks for allowing me to stay in his very lovely converted stable block for a few weeks despite having never met me. The kindness of strangers and all that – ask, people will help you if they can. Particularly appreciated as the rain slapped Wales hard across the face this week. I’ve been turning the other cheek all summer and now I’m ready for a roof and some stillness and hopefully a woodburner to call my own for a while.

Making butter at Old Chapel Farm

Old Chapel Farm needs a special mention. I spent a week here between the film and starting work. I shovelled shit, made shingles, butter and ricotta and cherished a very poorly Mouflon lamb. The closest relation to the wild sheep that early man would have first domesticated. Most importantly I was welcomed into the very special community that Fran and Kevin have made there. It was amazing timing for me to help me transition from itinerant to resident and though I was only there a week. Their special sort of generosity with their home and farm was really timely for me as I start to think about stopping for a while. There was also a quick RDV with Joe Buirski at Marianne’s for a jaunt to the No 6 Festival in Port Meirion. Very Posh. But here’s a quick pic of the famous Zog – the Iron Age boarat Marianne’s.

Zog taking the evening air

It is Zog’s offspring that we had a butchery lesson on last December and from who we made amazing Parma ham. I’ve also been feeding him all the kitchen scraps from the film shoot, investing in my next leg of Parma…

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Catchup early July 2012

that’s my van at the end of the Llyn Peninsula…

1 – 12 July, back safe in Wales

I say safely back in Wales, but mid-Wales early July felt pretty bleak. It’s tough up here and I’m thinking I need something a little milder for food growing. Somerset and Devon on the agenda for a week or two… Being here at the height of summer and it feeling pretty wintery is a healthy reality check.

So after Shropshire I headed to Rhayader for a couple of nights alongside a huge river that had flooded quite severely when Talybont was evacuated a few weeks back. Generally did some van settling, sorting and stocking in preparation for my adventure to the Llyn Peninsula which I had some idea would be wild and unkempt but in reality felt a bit like Cornwall, a little seaside towny but very lush. I imagine it’s a stunning part of the world but I was very much hampered by the weather though a couple of pockets of sunshine gave me a glimmer of how lovely it could be.

I camped up in a field right at the end of the Peninsula, Lleyn is apparently the English spelling and Llyn the Welsh, they are very Welsh there so I’m going to stick to Llyn. Alone in a field surrounded by sea, sky and beautiful landscape with Bardsey Island directly opposite. A couple of hours walking and looking and thinking in the sunshine, oh this is how my summer should have been, barefoot and frolicking amongst lush and beautiful.

I woke up with plans of walking all day along the coastal path crushed by thick fog and torrential rain. This was the day of the monster storm that pummelled most of the country (Friday 6 July) I couldn’t stay in the field so for the first time in 3 months I looked for a B&B. Oh the shame. Abersoch, deluged by festival refugees from Wakestock and there wasn’t a bed in the house. Phase 2 of the rescue plan involved seafood but weirdly as often is in fishing villages – quite hard to buy or eat seafood. It all gets shipped straight out. So I ate steak.

Revitalised I headed north to Morfa Nefn, both the drive that morning to Abersoch and up to Morfa were quite hairy with deep flooding. Having the engine in the back of the van is good when going through floods but not so good for getting out of muddy fields. Checked into a lovely B&B and headed along the coastal path and beach to Porthdinllaen, a National Trust village and one pub – the Ty Coch – only accessible on foot, more about the village here. There I was welcomed into the warmth by the locals. Cider and Ale were drunk, we got to chatting and I managed to talk myself onto a lobster / crab fishing trip in the morning.

Stunning day out on the Sea Quest with Did. He goes out whenever the fishing is good. So if the pots are filling then he’s out there any day of the year landing approx 150 pots a day, storing the catch in keep pots in the harbour and selling them to the buyer from Holyhead once a week.

The fish don’t like an Easterly and you can tell when the catch is coming in for the summer when the wheat turns yellow. They fish sustainably here, with every lobster and crab being checked and any who don’t measure up are thrown back to grow some more. An undersized catch can earn you a three month sentence or a £50k fine, both entirely inconceivable to someone who earns at this level and who lives everyday with the beautiful expanse of this lovely coastline. The catch can’t justify more than one fisherman so it’s all day, everyday alone out there, extraordinary and daunting.

Mermaid’s purse – dog fish eggs

clusters of drifting squid eggs get caught on the pots

In the name of conservation this might all be about to change, the CCW has proposed 10 Marine Protection Zones sites 4 of which will probably go ahead which will exclude all fishing in these areas but will do nothing to stop the higher impact offshore fisheries. The inshore small-scale fisheries are widely acknowledged to be low in environmental impact. So times are curious for Did who has 100 years of local fishermen in his family and who has an intimate knowledge of the coast and sea around Porthdinllaen all recorded on an extraordinary map in his head. Of course he uses sonar and depth finders, but there is a closeness, a relationship that should be cherished, especially as the local fishermen are genuinely engaged in protecting their environment, they have to be. What they don’t understand is why this extra measure is required having seen no discernable change in the inshore size of catch for 20 years.

It was a lovely day, I haven’t spent a whole day out on the water for years. I learnt loads  such as that lobsters have both a cutting and a crushing claw and can be left or right handed, who’d have thunk it?

claw hammer…

An evening in the pub, quite a lot of time being spoken over in Welsh – I know it’s their first language and I’m the incomer but if you’re in a group of lovely people who all speak perfect English and there’s one person who doesn’t speak Welsh, maybe it might be nice just once or twice to hold a conversation in English. But no. apparently not. A kind, but insular bunch, a little frontier outposty in the face of an incomer; the men welcoming but the women a little frosty. So I watched the boats bobbing on the harbour in the dark. Further stories from the peninsula are available offline…

Further rain and a gentle nudge and I headed south to Aberystwyth and the festival farm to meet up with Joe and Alice for a couple of days. I drove cross country to checkout a couple of towns further inland and discovered the lovely Llanidloes, a beautiful market town, with an amazing bookshop, which is always a good sign, and some interesting things going on. A town fancy dress party that’s been going for over 40 years, some Forest School work, and a few really interesting communities nearby. In Powys, set in a valley that feels more protected than Ceredigion over the hill. To be investigated some more I think.

Good to spend some time with Joe and Alice, then a couple of days Wwoofing with the lovely, warm, intuitive Sarah at Noddfa Dawel and Scott who was also volunteering there – amazing, what an extraordinary person. I’ve chosen not to write much about the people I meet, it leaves huge holes in this story but I don’t think it’s fair. If I choose to immortalise my witterings in digital eternity that’s my decision.

Anyways, weeding and chatting, making the ultimate layered compost heap using high purity honey filters which smell like mead as the carbon layer, sickling bracken side by side while sharing thoughts and ideas. It’s a lovely way to get to know someone a little.

Some bracken info I have had imparted to me:

  • cut bracken 3 times in 3 years and you can really undermine it’s advance
  • identification: ferns have multiple stems from a single point and bracken has a single stem with lots of fronds
  • when the bracken spores are ready to disperse i.e. when the little dots on the back of the leaf have gone brown, the dusty spores they emit are carcinogenic so don’t rummage around in the bracken (Aug / Sept-ish depending on the weather).
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Catchup late May – end of June 2012

Late May – Early June – Fire in the Mountain Festival,  Cwmenewidian Isaf, Ceredigion

Not as washed out as the rest of the country that Jubilee weekend, the 2nd  FITM Festival was brilliant. I co-managed the bar with the lovely Joe Smee and I loved it. Everyone’s wonderfully friendly when you’re in charge of 40 kegs of ale and several hundred litres of cider.  Also amazing, after years pandering to Popticians,  Musicians, TV Directors and the like, to meet a group of musicians who are entirely capable and practically ept individuals. The branch of artistry I’ve been involved in for years was underpinned by a belief that artists have to have everything done for them. Here the folkies built, crafted, cobbled and cobbed to make a beautiful festival while making sweet music.

That said – 4 days of folk and I was a little folked out. Loved evading the folk police on the last night; an iPod + speakers and an old blanket in a stable and we had ourselves an illegal dance tent. Nice.

8 – 15 June – Abystree, Pembrokeshire

R&R after the festival. Very broken, dirty and coughing I was welcomed into the warm embrace of Tessa, Nick and my brother’s family at Tessa’s place in Pembrokeshire. I did some good sleeping and washing and van sorting. T’was lovely to hang with the troops. Highlights included – Cap’n Nick’s tour of the estuary on the good ship Pugwash and my own sailing experiments with reeds.

I stayed on a few days to spend some quality time with my auto electrician running van cables, and to offer an extra pair of hands on a couple of jobs around the place. Chicken acropolis, ironwork fences duly erected and old chicken runs dismantled and I headed off to Wwoof in South Pembrokeshire.

15 – 20 June – Wwoofing on smallholding, Redbirth, Pembrokeshire

What a special place and a special family, what a place to grow up you lucky little men. With a blissful a gap in the clouds to appreciate it for a couple of days, it felt like a real privilege to spend time on this SSSI being thoughtfully managed to preserve and encourage wildflower meadows. Cob structures, elegant barn and surrounded by exquisite natural life. Even the teenage owls arguing in the wee hours raised a smile before I put my earplugs in.

Mixing and working with clom (the word for cob round these parts), cleaning honey bee shit off solar panels, orchids, falling off swings, bottle feeding a calf, hanging gates, turving roofs (where should the v’s be in those 2 words, no idea)… A perfect bit of Wwoofing – we gave our time and effort, Alice B joined me for a couple of days, and we were beautifully rewarded with great kindness, a warm introduction to this stunning bit of the world and some very fine home grown pork in many delicious guises. In addition some fine advice on the Welsh farming grant system. The woodland creation scheme being of particular interest…

20 June – property tourism in Brecon, tea in Tregare, dinner and sleep in Stroud

My first real bit of property tourism – a really interesting 30 acre farm just north of Brecon, but a definite money pit with some big structural issues, or so said the bloke who was viewing at the same time as me… could he perhaps have had an agenda? I’m not allowed to cross the Severn without dropping in to Jo and Rui for tea so I did just that before heading to Andy and Ruth’s in Stroud for dinner and a bed and a safe haven for the van while I trained it into London.

21 – 24 June, London – Osteopath, Dentist, Hairdresser and Physio, check.

A few days of family, friends and of course, Lucy’s 40th, which was super fun. And rather exciting to be out so late now I tend to be tucked up with eyeshades (the curse of the beige curtains that do very little other than look like someone cried on them) and a book at 9pm most nights. I met Otis and saw Polly which was lovely, we miss Polly when she’s away.

24 June – 1 July, Wwoofing on smallholding on Shropshire / Wales border

I touched on the strangeness of this experience in the last blog and I don’t really want to say much more. I had hoped to stay at the farm for 2 maybe 3 weeks so to leave early was a very big deal but the right thing to do.  A bit about the good stuff – we made butter, purple elderflower cordial, baked bread, looked after livestock, learnt about sprouting fodder, attacked thousands of docks and moved rocks from one place to another. At the time it was a really big deal to leave the warmth of home and hearth for solo wandering but with hindsight of course these things look different. Adventures were had…

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Thursday 28 June – I went out to run the van for a while because that’s what you do when it’s been parked up for a few days, and 15 minutes, some schnozzle bruising and a crushed knuckle later I retreated to the house. I think she’s cross with me that I’m not staying in her as planned. Instead, I’m sleeping in crisp, white sheets, in a listed thatched house with picture perfect views and fine cuisine.

I’m in Shropshire, at an idyllic smallholding. The weather isn’t great, we’re about 10 miles from Ludlow where someone died in the floods today. Horrible and no doubt the news will be full of pictures of sofas covered in sewage tonight.

Tuesday 3 July – So the idyll didn’t last. Sadly, my host emitted her intense unease at having people staying in her house like a force field humming out of every pore. Incredibly knowledgeable about so many things a smallholder needs to know about, but too many rules and not enough joy. So despite it being such a stunning place I cobbled together a half-truth about a mission to the Lleyn Peninsula and headed for the hills after a week. It was sad, there was much to learn, experience and give there.

Oh the growth! It’s heartwarming! Just a short time ago I’d have limboed under her chicken coops trying to please, but Halleluiah! apparently I’m cured of the gut wrenching need to be everything to everyone. About time – too exhausting for words.

Still, it felt strange actively choosing to leave comfort and community, (the other volunteers were great), for solitude in the middle of a low pressure cycle that promises rain indefinitely. Back in the van and ideas but no fixed plans until a wedding in Somerset at the end of July.

Elan Valley

Elan Valley

Alice quizzed me hard when she came to visit me in Pembrokeshire a couple of weeks ago. Had I actually spent any time on my own? I’ve done quite a lot of immersing myself in others’ lives and projects over the past 3 months. So check me out Alice, I’m in a rain-swept campsite half way up the Elan Valley (on the Ceredigion side) heading North. Sitting in the drizzle with a cup of coffee and a tea cake listening to Jack Johnson – smaltzy audio fodder. Only barely justifiable when trying to trick the Welsh weather with some Hawaiian sun-drenched tones. Full moon tonight but I suspect that the clouds might fail to part.

My brother and I drove through the Rockies in February once and the snow stopped and the clouds parted just once, so I can say I’ve seen a Rocky, momentarily.

Spirit level reading – fair to good.

So I’ve been rather absent, my apologies. A crisis bestruck my blogging. I only blogged because I was asked about 33 thousand times before I left if I was going to blog. So I blogged. I’ve been given two key pieces of feedback:

  1. Put all you gags in the first 30 words – people just haven’t got time to read any further (Good advice that I’ve completely ignored),
  1. various bits of family input about finding the openness of my blog challenging…

This silenced me (on paper at least) for a month while I pondered.

Conclusion 1: This trip is about opening doors in the hope that they’ll be a big neon sign saying “Over here, this way” behind one of them, but the probability is that I’ll open some wrong doors, i.e. I’m probably going to mess up somewhere along the line. This blog may or may not be a mistake (the internet being forever and all that) but I’m enjoying writing it so for now I shall continue.

Conclusion 2: I might go and open doors somewhere warm and dry.

view from the van

So back in the saddle, so to speak.  That was the big blog RE-LAUNCH.  The next installment is going to be a bit of a chronological catch up on the past month of roving.

There have been epiphanies, tears, injuries (minor) and joy and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up or even what I want to do over the winter. I did feel the lack of light in my flat in London when I went back to visit a couple of weeks ago. It was horrible weather but it all felt a bit underground and dark. That might have been because Luke and Clare seem to be happy living with 25% of the light bulbs working but it might be because I’ve got a pretty amazing view from the van as I type this and it feels like the beginning of something, I’m just not sure what.

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Snakes and ladders

Wednesday 30 May 2012

just in case you’ve not got any plans this weekend…

TICKETS FOR FIRE IN THE MOUNTAIN STILL AVAILABLE – forecast good, site looking beautiful, sauna stove arrived yesterday and is being plumbed in next to a mountain stream plunge pool as we speak – escape the humidity and the jubilosity  and come jig on a welsh hillside with a few hundred lovely folk.

So right now I’m on the train back to London to do a Talkaoke gig at the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden for Self Help Africa, come along if you’re free tonight (7.30pm)

It’s quite exciting to be ‘flown in’ for a gig, albeit by train from Aberysthwyth. I’m just in town for the gig and the thunderstorms then heading back to Aber tomorrow. I think I may have packed a little light, with just a pair of pants and my pjs but we’ll see. Haven’t really washed in a modern sense for a while so looking forward to such luxuries, but quite a long way to go for a shower.

It’s been a while, hello, I hope you’ve been loving the weather and I hope you have fun plans for the long weekend be they red, white and blue or not. I’ve been pretty unaware of all 2012 festivities except we were hampered by the Olympic Torch malarkey in Mid Wales this weekend. Rolling blockades along the route held us captive (albeit in one of the most idyllic spots ever and time between light chores and delicious food was passed cooling off in the pool). 95% of the population will be within 1 mile of the torch at some point. Who asked us if we wanted to be?

I will be dancing under gingham bunting, no red, white and blue at Fire in the Mountain this weekend though I have to say I fell for this one genius bit of Jubilee branding.

Last weekend (25-27 May) was a pretty huge ladder for me in the snakes and ladders game that I seem to be neck deep in. The initial pain of a snakebite was followed by that crafty old snake leading me right to a big ladder which I’ve run up with glee.

A fine group of us came together in a magical place (thank you Corrine and Daniel), just south of Machynthlleth for a weekend playing, learning, discussing, plotting how to engage ourselves and those we work with in the natural world to engender a more connected community (be it our own communities or the community of the human race – either small and big ambitions with this work are entirely acceptable). It was challenging, interesting and important for me. Huge love and blue skies to the FSC Nature Connection collective who were truly inspiring.

Personally I had to deal with some demons about where I belong both in terms of my community and locality. My emotional resources are being worked hard at the moment – all this dipping in to others’ lives momentarily plays to my dichotomous skills. I am strong and independent and capable of self sufficiency, but those strengths are also the blocks and mortar that are part of the defensive wall that took 34 years to build and that I’ve been slowly dismantling for a 8 years now. I’m an immeasurably happier person than I was but I’m a little bit bored of the painstaking deconstruction process; it does speed up with practice but I wouldn’t mind a bit of demolition rather than chipping away at the wall pebble by pebble… Fast-track enlightenment required for the impatient.

Well then, where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to since I last updated. After Sheffield (19/20 May) I drove back to mid Wales to spend a few days at the Llanfyllin Workhouse. I wanted to dip into a bit more of a community project and dare I say it something a little more alternative. I loved being at Molly and Fred’s but I was also a little overwhelmed by living someone else’s existence for a couple of days. Being unrooted is complicated. I love the contained nature of van life, it’s my comforting beige womb, my den… but that can also play to my separatist leanings and when I stay with others I’m not sure I know how to ‘be’. I’m an unusual sort of guest; I’ve usually invited myself, I’ve got mystery previous and next destinations so there could be a fear that I may not leave… I suppose this is just another craft I’m learning: how to be emotionally and socially engaged when I dip in and out of different communities. I have a natural inclination not to impose or disrupt and so I work overtime to make my presence positive, but by doing this I can easily forget what I need in these situations. And what I think I need is to feel like I belong, and belonging when you’re passing through is a difficult thing to master.

Confusingly  for one who is craving community, I found that I needed some time on my own when I left Sheffield. The knots I’d tied myself in needed a couple of days on my own to unravel so I did the campervan equivalent of checking into a hotel. I went to a posh campsite and hooked up to their power and wifi for a couple of nights (£14 for pitch + £5 for 24 hours of wi-fi). Bala is a lovely little town and the Pen-y-bont campsite beautiful and midweek in term time, very quiet and relaxing. Very sadly this lovely ironmonger was closed. I’m sure I would have found something quirky and wholly un-needed if it had been open. A local hardware shop is my favourite kind of tourist shopping. When Tessa and I were in Cuba several years ago we noted that the state control had hampered or indeed actively blocked any creativity around what the locals sold to tourists. Crocheted bikinis and coconut maracas on every stall was unexciting, but the hand made tin sink drainer that we found for pennies in a household goods market is cherished as a thing of beauty.

phyllis, bob and gerald hanging out at the van

The R&R was well timed and I headed back to Llanfyllin on 23 May for a couple of days to help out at the Workhouse LINK. This is an imposing but beautiful building just outside the village where lovely folk are trying to preserve the building whilst working out how to make it work for it’s keep. More info at the website. I met the lovely Leila and her family who were very welcoming and put me to work for a couple of days. Interesting to think about how a Victorian workhouse conjures up bleakness, suffering and oppression but was actually the very earliest form of welfare state where an injured tenant farmer and their family who had lost their land and had no back up could find 2 meals a day (including a glass of beer) and basic medical care. That said they developed into pretty brutal places.

From Llanfyllin I pootled over the mountains to Machynlleth (I have offended many folk with mispronunciations of both places in the past few weeks) to join the Nature Connection crew and on Monday (28 May) I rambled down to Aberysthwyth and on to the Fire In the Mountain site to help set up this weekend’s festival.

Currently I’m feeling very communal. The Nature Connection collective last weekend were an extraordinary source of fun, kindness and inspiration and I feel very much part of something there. The enthusiasm of the festival crew most of whom are donating their skills and time is a fine thing to be part of too.

P.S. Dashboard garden looking good. Chilli (Limon) growing well, Dalmatin (otherwise knowns as Orca or Yin and Yang) beans just germinating and basil donated by Ann and Simon a very useful van plant. Also added a Lidl living salad box since this was taken.

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What are you going to do with this one wild and precious life?

Friday 18 May

chive flowers

Tom W, my “media advisor” who encouraged me to contact the Guardian about writing the piece about our hike last year), said there weren’t any pics of me on this blog which was entirely the point but I concede that you might want to see Guantanamo Kate in action so this is me the farm last week.

This morning I woke up in the beige womb that is my late 80s

the curtains

decor’d van, a soft glow through the multi-pastel coloured curtains from the dull morning outside. I had been staying in Ann and Simon Spencer’s very lovely and comfortable home just north of Llanfyllin in mid-Wales this week but I do love getting back to the van. My world is at my fingertips when tucked up in the Fridge and I am sleeping better in the van than the many other beds that I’m sampling as I visit my way round the country. They’ve all been wonderful beds, it’s just, you know I’m getting on, and familiarity in the comfort department is quite a big deal.

It’s been lovely visiting folk round and about. I’m seeing some old friends but also folk that I love but wouldn’t have made it to see in normal circumstances (London centric, job etc.) so it’s a delight to be in Sheffield this weekend with the lovely Molly and Fred and their very special clan.

I am struggling a little with the highs and lows of spending time with friends and their families. It can make me sad about boats I may have missed while I’m also warmed by their laughter, rhythms and tensions. I know the grass isn’t greener and life can be tough for all, but there’s something about being part of a team that appeals. Something about not being batsman, fielder and bowler all on my own. [NB that’s the first ever cricket metaphor I’ve ever used].

So, chronologically, I left London on 9 May after some quality R&R with my brother’s family and headed to see Susie in Stroud. Most folk want a poke around the van but Susie and Simon and their 3 children spent 6 months in a caravan last year while their house was being rebuilt so they had no romantic illusions about van life. In the spirit of the trip – exchanging labour for board and lodging – I built them a cold frame, or rather due to a lack of nails I left them a cold frame puzzle to assemble.

Susie introduced me to award winning cheese maker Jonathan Crump and his family. His cheese is the only Single and Double Gloucester cheese in the world made purely from the milk of Gloucester Cattle. I’d love to learn some more about cheese making, my experience is limited to working with Mattias and his goats in Chile, so I may go back and visit later in the summer. Some freshly hatched goslings and chicks too.

A slow long wind up-country to the beautiful but rather neglected Llandrindod Wells to stay with Rosie and Jim who are working hard to lure the people to Llandod. A stunning Victorian spa town that’s seen better days, but you can get a 6 bedroom house for under £200k. Apparently anti-Tesco campaigners use LW as an example of what a large slightly out of centre supermarket can do to the heart of a town.

Then on Sat 12 May I arrived at Rhoslan, the Spencer small holding, to help out with the amazingly productive and intensely farmed acre of vegetables. They manage to be self sufficient in veg most of the year with a productive orchard and livestock too. Simon has spent almost 40 years digging muck into the solid Powys clay to create incredibly fertile soil.

goslings hatched on 16 MayThis veg doesn’t look organic, it’s huge. I learned loads from Simon.

Simon and his Jalo plough

He’s devised techniques and structures to really support and nurture the crops which are abundant. Such as portable cold frames with double glazed panels over final planting positions  to pea cages to protect and support. May / June is supposed to be the hungry gap but Simon has early turnips, peas flowering, tomatoes setting, overwintered cabbages and spinach, abundant salad, emerging asparagus, 6 foot bean plants already podding, early cauliflowers, the end of the purple sprouting broccoli… plus a freezer and larder full of borlotti, tomatoes, meat etc. from last year.

The perfect van pet discussion was revisited, new suggestion; a tarantula… Weirdly a rat doesn’t seem a terrible idea except for the potential smelliness. Ann solved the problem by presenting me with Dewi the Dashboard Dragon who is in charge of van security and heating now.

The nature of blogging is confounding me a little. The relationship with the audience, the presentation of me / my reality as the version I want digested by the world (I think I’m laying things pretty bare…), the responsibility I have to my hosts and friends I meet along the way. It’s curious and I’m conscious that it’s a developing relationship between me and this blog. I’m also conscious of not wanting this to be a string of disjointed thoughts, musings and ramblings but often what I want to record are those little curious moments / incidents that make me smile. Such as when I left my phone on and got a bit confused as to whether the low drone was my phone buzzing on silent or a cow mooing a field away – strangely similar sounds…

P.S. completed my first 1000 miles on the way to Stroud.

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