Once Upon a Time…
…Ten Years Ago, Today.
This will be a long read. I do not apologise for this. This is a chapter of a life, a start, of sorts. A once-upon-a-time.
But where does this story start? Where does a story ever start? Is there ever a beginning?
Sometimes, a fleeting encounter can play an outsized, larger-than-life part of your personal development. Perhaps you meet someone famous, someone famous for the right reasons, and you share a moment as they talk to and not through or down to you. Perhaps they offer a sliver of advice, or take the time to read something you have crafted, gently, kindly, honestly. Or, perhaps, you meet a friend on holiday, a friendship which quickly blossoms into a teenage romance, perhaps your first true taste of previously out-of-reach fruit? Or you meet an old man on a train, talk for all of five minutes as you prepare your pack to leave, but what he said, sticks.
Early on the morning of the 14th of September, 2010, I awoke after a scant three hours sleep and made my final preparations for a day-long journey by rail. I was tired, but charged with caffeine, nicotine and, above all, adrenaline.
The days before had been full of leave-taking, of doors being gently closed, hearts tenderly hardened to forthcoming parting. One day, in the longer version of this story, you will read more of the detail, see the whys and the wherefores, the wiring under the board, and perhaps then understand the reasons behind my seemingly strange choice to leave behind a city I had called home for nine years. I have spoken of some of this tale before, but the whole still deserves a telling; it is full of the lessons I learnt, often the hard way, of surprising moments where truth blossomed and I could see a path to a different future and, perhaps most importantly, it is overflowing with my personal relationship with this world of ours — with nature.
We need to rewind a little, but where to? This is the problem with stories, they rarely have a neat beginning, each is full of threads and loops and twists.
Before we circle back, before we try to find a start of some sort, let’s take a moment for a couple of other things.
As you can see, this is not your “normal” newsletter, found here, but an extra missive; the next “normal” newsletter shall follow in October.
In my last message I shared details of a group promotion I am a part of, full of free books which are either prequels or first-in-series. As it happens, I am also enrolled in another, entitled ‘Innovation’, during September — I prefer to keep marketing and promotion down to a minimum, where possible, and think it is only fair to the other authors in each promotion to send out different messages when I take part in these groups.
Everyone is different — some readers only want to hear about where they can get free books (who can blame them!?), others want to read more about the things I see and do, which then get processed and turned into my fiction. It is the same for writers — some of us send newsletters which are more businesslike, full of where to find our books, others, like myself, see these notes as letters to friends, and try and present a different sort of value.
I digress. If you head over to Bookcave, you can find over forty fantasy and science fiction books to choose from, all for free, along with a chance to win a $25 ebook token. Just click on the link for more details, what’s not to like?
Location: As I write this, I am due to fly from Paris in two days, then catch a bus in Lisbon, arriving in Alentejo fairly late on Sunday. As you read this, I should already be back, getting on with work (EDIT: can confirm, this IS the case).
Back to the Story
Today, the 14th of September, 2020, marks ten years to the very day since I left behind the city of Sheffield and ventured into a crisper, clearer dawn, one full of promise, crammed full of challenges, and positively overflowing with nature and truth.
I was 33, and at the start of a very different direction for my life.
Where to start the tale?
I could talk about the childhood friend I had reconnected with via facebook (then not the uncaring and, indeed, cruel behemoth it is now), about how she died, suddenly, unexpectedly, shockingly, in her twenties shortly after we started talking, following a gap of twenty years, or so. This was a moment which changed and challenged me, irrevocably. And she will never know.
Perhaps I should talk of the relationships which made me look at life differently?
Or I could talk about those who reminded me what it was to be alive, friends who were concerned following my divorce, who talked with me — not to me, but with. And, crucially, listened when I replied.
I could slip further back in time, to aborted plans, to those voices telling me ‘settle down, you can always go on holiday, no need to travel’. Spending — and spending is the right word here, as time is currency, the only, universal coin of ours which truly matters — spending fifty weeks a year to look forward to a two week holiday was not what I wanted, not at all, yet it was the box into which I was unwittingly placed. Had I been stronger and wiser, perhaps those years would have been very different.
I could spin through my time even further back, to an ever-pressing and growing need to learn our lost ancestral skills of woodcraft and the ability to live in nature, comfortably, with patience and understanding. My knowledge needed to be tested, my skills polished.
Or maybe it was the spark of adventure my parents lit beneath me when we all flitted north to Orkney, as I mentioned recently?
Who knows when this story starts — and, I wonder, does it actually matter? All stories have many beginnings, and none have a true ending. By that morning, the 14th of September, 2010, I had said my goodbyes and found myself on the first of four trains, heading north, destination only roughly known — somewhere in Scotland, somewhere on the Fort William to Mallaig railway line (including the ‘Harry Potter Bridge’ AKA Glenfinnan viaduct). That was it, that and a rough idea to walk northward, then east, around the coast of Scotland, slowly, over the next three months, intending to arrive at the family home in Wick, Caithness in time for Christmas. I wanted to test myself and my skills, cook wild foods, fish, gather, use fire to cook and keep myself warm. As is my way, I had no tent, but a sleeping bag, bivi, tarp, and hammock with an inbuilt midge and mosquito net. I carried far too much.
The train ride was long, from Sheffield to Edinburgh, change trains, Edinburgh to Glasgow, change stations and trains, Glasgow to Fort William, change trains and, finally, Fort William to the wilder places I would call home for months. I dozed, I listened to music, I made notes in my journal. Mostly, however, I stared out the window, listened and watched my fellow passengers, and thought about what I had done, what had led to that point, and what I was going to do next.
Poring over my Ordnance Survey map, I chose the railway station where I would exit the train, a spot surrounded by woodland, coast, mountain and moor as, indeed, much of this corner of the world is. The station was a request stop which, in case you are not familiar with Highlands train travel, means that you have to inform the guard who, in turn, informs the driver, who then stops. Without this, the only time a train stops at a request stop is if the driver sees someone waving from the platform.
At the table across the aisle sat three people, an old man and a younger couple, perhaps in their late thirties. The older man was very old and seemed to be a relative. He kept trying to engage the pair in loud conversation, pointing out mountains and lochs, a magnificent stag, trying to share his stories, playing with his hearing aid to check if he was being answered and was perhaps somehow missing the response. Not long after boarding, the younger man exaggerated a loud sigh and covered his ears with a pair of headphones, before either falling asleep or a passable attempt at feigning it. The woman initially tried to respond to the older man’s conversation, but before too long she was distracted by a phone text conversation, giving vague, monosyllabic replies and noncommittal waves of her free hand.
I watched and listened and wondered. Here was a man desperately trying to share memories and observations, to point out landmarks he clearly remembered from a long time ago, only to be ignored by his travel companions. Why was this the case? Where were they going, if they did not want to share his company and listen to him? The way he was treated was like a small child who talks constantly, with the occasional word to show the parent is listening all that is needed to keep up the monologue. Yet here he was, aware that this was happening, aware that his input into a social situation was no longer valued, that he was seen as a child.
Eventually, he rose from the table and carefully manoeuvred himself to the vestibule area at the end of the carriage, standing and silently gazing at the passing loch.
Shortly after, I too rose, as the next stop was mine, and mine alone. Earlier, the conductor had explained that very few people get off there, and was I sure that’s where I wanted to go? Yes, I explained and, if I was wrong, it didn’t matter, as I would simply walk to wherever I needed or wanted to be. The thrill of this thought stayed with me for a long time; I was free.
The old man continued to stare at the slowly passing landscape, at the waters and skies which make the west coast of Scotland so extraordinary, changeable and challenging. I did not put my pack on my back, it weighed two thirds of my body-weight, was large and unwieldy, and I did not want to risk knocking the man over. Instead, I readied it by the door, along with my shoulder bag and carved walking staff, harvested previously from a stand of birch at least a day’s walk north of my destination.
The man looked back from the view, noticing me for the first time, eyes quickly playing over what he saw. He spoke loudly, head tilted at an angle, cocked like a blackbird listening to the movement of a subterranean worm, eyes just as bright and sharp. He asked what I was doing, was I climbing the local mountains?
I answered, not for the first time that day. The taxi driver in Glasgow had asked the same question, as he grunted and struggled with the weight of my pack, which he had insisted on moving for me. Few other people had talked to me — a pair of elderly ladies on their way to York, a pair of camouflage-clad squaddies near Darlington who were obsessed with my boots and Karrimor SF pack — and I felt like I carried a great secret, hiding it from the world, moving through the crowds of Waverley Station, or watching be-suited business types on the train, knowing that I was heading to the future by way of a shared, wilder past.
I told him my rough plan, talked about how I had left my job and home in search of something else, something different, not to pit myself against nature, but to test my own abilities and work with it, to try and understand what it means to be a sole human in the hills and along the coast, for many weeks.
He listened carefully. I was used to enunciating, ensuring my words were heard and understood; it had been a useful skill in the job I had left behind, where talking clearly helped those whose first language was not English. Then he replied, nodding sharply to himself before doing so.
‘What you are doing is banking memories. When you are my age, you will be able to draw on them,’ he paused and looked back out of the window, and I knew he was doing precisely that.
The train slowed, and I made ready to leave. We talked a little more, said our goodbyes, and I was out the door, inhaling the scent of the sea, of the forests and mountains behind me. When I exit any form of sealed transport, be it car, train, or plane, I always inhale deeply, note the different scents of the place, notice the temperature, the way the air feels, the sensations it creates on my skin. This time, this exit, it felt like I was home. Birds called, the train left, and I was alone.
Even today, ten years later, I still think about this man. He was old, in his late eighties or early nineties, I suspect. What memories did he bank of that area when he was young? What had he being trying to share with his two companions? I do know that region — the Rough Bounds — was shut off during the Second World War. I know it was where the commando movement and modern special forces tactics were honed and, in many cases, invented. This was where brave men and women were trained, whether spies, airborne troops, French or Norwegian resistance, or those who flew ahead of the allied forces, maybe dropped in tiny gliders, to scout, blow up bridges and railway lines, commit espionage, destroy communications and, perhaps, even assassinate certain key players.
These were the top-secret training grounds for the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare — the Special Operations Executive. Had this man been a part of this? Had he, once upon a time, been carried on the same railway, only to be stopped, ambushed at gunpoint, forced out of the carriage and made to walk the rest of the way? This had certainly been the rather rude welcome for new trainees. There was definitely something in his eyes, a way of seeing — really seeing — which I’ve witnessed in the eyes of other old soldiers.
As I walked to a suitable camp — very, very slowly, stiff from the lack of sleep, a too-heavy pack, and a day of sitting — I thought about his words, thought about how they perfectly chimed with what I was already planning, with my decision to step away from the normal, experience a different sort of life. I have noticed that if you are open to it, if you are willing to accept certain signs, then we can often find affirmation and guidance in the world around us. Some people call it God, others believe it is the universe, or nature, showing the way. And who am I to argue? I just know it is wise to always listen, carefully and attentively, to see deeply, inhale the air and taste it, to pause and deliberately think, process what you are given, and find the path.
To this day I try and live by what he said — to consciously bank new memories, to put myself in positions where I continue to see new things and study the old from different angles. It is a good way to live.
If you are interested in this adventure, and want to see more photos, or read more of my thoughts and feelings about it — both at the time, and since — then you might be interested to hear I have made a decision to use the Hive blockchain to share more of this adventure. My username over there should be familiar — @notatravelwriter — and I intend to post as often as time allows. Expect more about this in coming months. Here is a referral link, in case you are interested in joining the blockchain yourself.
Needless to say, the photos accompanying this piece are all from the adventure mentioned above, as were the photos of the shelter I built, shared recently.
That’s it for now — the rest of this month is going to be utilised to catch up with work, especially on my delayed third book, and publishing the French translation of the first bonus. Also, expect to hear more about review copies — I haven’t forgotten!
If your heart is telling you to go forth and find your own way, search for an adventure of your own, I suggest you listen. Much of the time a different path is not always easy, it is not always comfortable, but it is real and a distilled, purer form of truth — and it has much to recommend.
Take care my friends, stay safe, and look out for one another.
[…] ‘What you are doing is banking memories. When you are my age, you will be able to draw on them,’ he paused and looked back out of the window, and I knew he was doing precisely that. (Read a little more about this inspiring travel adventure.) […]