A Mental Breakdown. Part II

We pace around the van discussing next steps as the sun sinks in the west. All options seem to involve me trekking off alone into the sunset, either up or down the mountain, for 20km or so. But before I can set off, salvation arrives. And salvation looks like an old and battered pickup truck full of melons. I place myself in the middle of the road and flag it down enthusiastically. It grinds up the road at a walking pace and eventually clatters to a halt pretty much at my feet. Two small Inca faces peer up at me from under woolen bobble hats, eyes barely visible above the dashboard.

“We have a problem! The car is broken. Much smoke, much bang bang! It won’t start any more” I tell the driver in a rush.
“Ah,” he says and nods.
“And our phones do not work here!”
“Oh,” he says and blinks.
“Do you think you can help us?” I add. He gives me a cautious look.
“But I am not mechanic…”
“But you can take me up there to the village. Perhaps I can find a mechanic there who will help.”
“I am not sure. I don’t think so,” he turns his dark eyes towards his wife and a look of reluctance passes between them. This gringo will only cause us problems, the look says, we need to get our melons to market. “The village is very small,” he tries.

There may not be another car for hours and the sun is falling fast. The melons will keep. I open the back door and hop in.
“Let us try!” I say brightly.

I look out at Menna and she gives me a small nod. “Don’t be too long!” she says in that cheery voice she uses when she finds herself stranded in the mountains as darkness falls but is trying not to worry the kids.

Conversation doesn’t exactly flow in the melon truck as we rattle our way slowly up the road. My attempts to engage my rescuers are met with grunts. I find out that the driver’s name is Edgardo, or maybe Gerardo or Eduardo, his wife does not have a name. She mutters quiet things to him, occasionally dials numbers on a cell phone and holds it to his ear, while he grunts and nods and says single syllable words that do not correspond to any version of Spanish that I know. They are heading to a place that sounds something like Loochattychooga. I cannot find it on my map.

It takes us forty minutes to reach a small collection of adobe plaster houses that is the nearest village. We cruise straight on through.
“Wait Edgardo. You are not stopping! I need to get out!”
“Small village. No one here to help you.”
“But where we will go?”
“There is another town. Will go there. My brother can help.”
“Help how? Is he a mechanic?”
“No. But… a friend… a truck”.

Another half hour later we are parked on the roadside in an equally tiny town. I am not sure what is happening. No-one is saying anything.“Is he coming Edgardo?”
“We will see him soon I think.”
“My friend, I am a little bit worried because I have had to leave my wife and my children on the mountain and it is getting dark and it might be dangerous.”
Is it dangerous you think?”
”When do you think he will come?”. He thinks a little.

Ah, ahorita, ahorita, that word so beloved by the Latin Americans. It means now-ish; a little while ago; soon perhaps; at some vague point in the future or in the past. When did your car break down? Ah ahorita… When will you rescue your stranded family? Pero ahorita! When will you grow up William? Beh, ahorita?

Five minutes pass slowly.
“Edgardo, I think I might leave you now and see if there is anyone else who can help.”
“No-one else.”
“I just feel that I must go back to my car before it gets too dark. Maybe we will leave the car and get a taxi back to our hostel”
“A taxi?”
“Is there a taxi here do you think?”
“Ok, maybe I will just go and talk to some people. See if someone will give me a ride,” I get out of the car and look around the deserted town for some people to talk to. There is a sad looking guy sitting on a bench across the road and that’s about it.
“Where is the best place to go and find help?”
“Is ok Don William. Tranquilo. My brother…help you.”

Edgardo whispers something on his phone and passes it to his wife. He gets out and walks across the road to the man on the bench. They exchange a sentence or two, then they stand in silence for a while, looking at the floor, both nodding slightly. Then he walks slowly back to his melon truck.

“Soon now.”
“Oh ok. Are we sure about this? How do we know?”
“My brother’s friend… the truck.”
“He will come… Ahorita?”
“Si. Ahorita!
“So your brother will come together with his friend in the truck?” Edgardo looks confused.
“My brother is there Don William…” He waves a hand at the quiet man on the bench opposite, who looks back but does not make any sign of acknowledgment.
“Oh, I see.”

I have lost control of the situation. My family is abandoned on a hillside far away and I am kicking my heels in an empty town, waiting for a melon farmer’s brother’s friend to arrive in a truck – probably some ancient beast. And I don’t see how a truck is even going to help anyway, unless it contains a new minivan engine. We need a mechanic. Or a taxi. And I don’t like being called Don William, it makes me feel colonial. I consider abandoning Edgardo and… what? Walking another 20km to the next town?

A small group of ladies come walking past and attracted by the pile of melons they stop and cluster round the van. There is some excited chat. Edgardo’s brother comes across the street and the men stand together in silence while the nameless wife haggles sharply and sells a few melons.
“Hey at least you’ve got rid of some melons hey Edgardo!” I say, feeling isolated, wanting some chat. He looks at me, then says something to the crowd and there is a burst of chatter and laughter. For the first time I see my new friend smile.
“Not melons Don William.” He says with an exaggerated slowness, as if taking to an infant, or a naive western tourist clearly out of his depth, “They are squashes!”
And the laughter erupts again.

Then with a sudden roar and a cloud of dust, a tow truck bursts onto the scene. It is like the cavalry sweeping into town. The truck is shiny white with polished chrome, exotic wing mirrors and the name “Rafaelita” written in ornate Italic script on the windshield. RESCATE! it shouts from the door panels – rescue! It gleams with the promise of salvation and redemption. A powerful winch is mounted on the yellow flat-bed. It is driven by a gum-chewing lad of about fourteen.

Knowing now that I will return victorious to my family, riding this roaring chrome beast, I swell up with emotion and gratitude. I try to press a twenty dollar bill upon Edgardo but he throws his hands up in horror, refusing to take it. “No necessary Don William!” So I pump him by the hand and give it instead to his wife, whose hand flickers out like a cobra and secretes the note away before I can blink.

I feel even more like a colonial now. I doubted the locals, I did not trust them. I was unable to understood their quiet patient rhythms. All those secret muttered calls, that silent brotherly communion, discrete SOS messages pulsing through the mountain network. As I thought myself lost and neglected they were working to save me! Rescate!

The fourteen year old driver is called Mario and he is has a welcome no-nonsense attitude. After a brisk negotiation we settle upon a $70 pick up fee, and off we skid, waving fond goodbyes to all of my new friends.

And so, some forty minutes later, I return to my family riding high in the pickup cab, like a returning general at the head of an armoured artillery column. And they haven’t been mugged or murdered but are sitting playing I-Spy in the car, Arthur’s bush knife placed on the seat within easy reach, just in case.

In no time at all Mario has expertly winched up the minivan onto the back of his truck and we are homeward bound, roaring confidently round sharp bends, back to the hostel and our safe beds. Matilda and I drive with Mario in the cab and Menna and Arthur get to ride up back in minivan, swaying around the corners and giving us excited smiles and thumbs up signs through the rear view mirror.

As we drive we watch the last of the sunset disappearing in lurid blazes behind the immense peak of Volcano Cotopaxi. “Sky like this, Don William, we call it is the Ecuadorean flag,” says Mario, who I realise is not chewing gum at all, but tobacco.

He points out at the sunset “See! The bands of gold and blue and red. Like the flag.” He thumps his chest. “This is our country. This is Ecuador”

Settling In

We are still in Brazil. We don’t have any means of escape. The mercury sits somewhere over 40˚c. The Covid statistics have not improved, if anything the crisis here is deepening. Somehow we have found our rhythm though and relaxed into our new home. Pragmatism has kicked in.

We know where to find iced coffee and where to pick up croissants or emergency icecream. The swimming pool keeps us cool. There is a gnarly surf break just beneath our house. It’s great for an early morning session but the paddle out is hard and the waves are a little too intense for Art, so most days, once school is done, we end up driving twenty minutes down the coast to a mellow point break that he loves. He catches wave after wave there and messes around with small Brazilian surf kids in the water, swapping boards with them, clowning around.

The bay curves away off into the distance, tangled vegetation dark against a creamy cliff with pink layers like a slab of cake. It is known as Praia Madeira and so there is a kind of linguistic familiarity. We have already explored the Portuguese Island of Madeira, stayed in the Nicaraguan town of Maderas, climbed Volcan Madera, now we surf at Praia Madeiras. The Portuguese Madeira (or madera in Spanish) means wood, as in ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’ or better, ‘we are not out of the woods yet’. The backdrop to this beach is a crazy forest that runs up the sheer face, palms clinging tenaciously to the rock.

Today the sea is glassy, the waves are clean and the bay is full of dolphins. They surface next to us as we sit waiting for the set. Menna and Matilda go for a long swim and find themselves in the middle of a pod. There are fins and rounded sleek backs, then once in a while a spray of frantic fish that skim like stones on the surface, then a dolphin surges right up behind them, effortless, predatory, grinning. That explosion from the deep is unnerving when it happens close by, but then we get used to it. Dolphins are great surfers.

We went for a hike in the nature reserve on the cliffs above Praia Madeira yesterday morning very early. We followed woodland trails looking for snakes and armadillos and then we came to a point where the woods fell away and we found ourselves out on a promontory, looking down on our point break all empty in the early morning. Between the break of the waves we could see shadowy shapes skimming around in the water that we at first took for rays, but then one came up for air and we realised they were turtles. Our surf break was also their hunting ground. There must have been ten of them at least, illuminated by the early morning sunlight, surprisingly agile under the water.

Now we are in on the secret. We know we share these waters with turtles too. They are underneath us somewhere, flitting around, leaving bubble trails like jet streams. There must be sting rays and lobsters as well, baracuda, eels, maybe sharks. A hidden world of muted sounds and vivid textures always beneath us as we float over the reef.

And so it is that we unbend a little more, integrate a little closer, worry a little less. We chat to people. We book a couple of quad bikes in the afternoon. It is one of those ultimately selfish activities (like jet-ski) which are super fun to do, but intensely annoying for anyone else around. I am normally averse but today we’re in a ‘whatever’ kind of mood. It’s a release. We scream around cliffs trails, the kids gripping on tight to our waists. I try to leave skid marks in the red sand, aim to get all four wheels off the ground. The wind stings my face. Matilda screams and whoops behind me. Our blood is up, we stop at a deserted safari lodge so we can ride horses and shoot things with air rifles and bows and arrows.

As we drive back home, we see this little stretch of coast from a different angle. The sun is stetting now and from our vantage point up high the landscape has a new geometry. Euclidean planes in red sandstone, surging cubic structures, recessed cliffs like scalloped teeth-marks, undulating lines of sea-sculpted sand.

If we’re going to be stuck anywhere in Brazil, it may as well be here.


We celebrated the end of our time in Salinas with a dinner out. We’d tried hard to stay on budget during our week there, making picnics for the beach, eating fish from the market, revelling in having our own kitchen. Now it was time to live a little. Salinas hadn’t shown much promise in terms of restaurants but we weren’t fussy.

Menna chose us a place that had been recommended by nervous Maite, our AirBnB host. El Real Balneario de Salinas, at the end of the boardwalk, beautifully situated right on the sea front.

As soon as we walk in I realise we have misjudged this. Dim lighting, lush carpets, a expensive bronze statue of a lobster uplit on a mahogany coffee table. A small crowd of waiters coalesces around us and we are greeted in warm but hushed tones, Arthur’s skateboard is whisked away, we are ushered to our seats, two glasses of champagne materialise. I didn’t think that Salinas had this kind of restaurant.

Luckily we’re ‘dressed up’ which means that Arthur isn’t bare chested and I have a crumpled shirt on. We are in flip-flops though and our feet are sandy from the beach. Matilda wears her new skirt from the market which is several sizes too big and is gathered in with a belt, her hair is wild and her eyes flash danger. I myself haven’t had a haircut since lockdown started and I’ve given up trimming my beard too. More than this, I have been cultivating some spectacular ear hair which has already been attracting a lot of admiration around Salinas. I see the waiter clock it, his eyebrows raise a quarter inch before he can compose himself.

We are like a family of mariachi gypsies who have left their wooden caravan to sign a reality tv contract with Simon Cowell. Only he hasn’t shown up.

We haven’t been in a restaurant together since the day before lockdown was announced in the UK – some five months ago – and it appears that that all sense of dining etiquette has left our kids. They run between tables of murmuring businessmen and Spanish aristocracy, shouting random observations back at us. They find a tank of lobsters and crabs at the back of the room and immediately start trying to touch them, then fish them out. I go over to tell them off but somehow get sucked into the game.

Our waiter weaves a passionate story about the specials. We nod encouragingly and smile, understanding little of the shellfish terminology. He’s very keen to make his point though, so he repeats it in English.
“The chef recommends the percebes, they are very fine this year. Very special indeed.” Seeing our confusion, “I think in English, you call them barnacles.”
Barnacles? Surely not. Clams maybe. Whelks even. We check Google and they are indeed barnacles. I still have a delicate stomach and this doesn’t appeal.
“I think we’ll share some of the jamón and perhaps a plate of the croquetas to start thanks my man.”
“But the barnacles are truly very special and it is a typical plate of the region. Perhaps I might suggest just a half portion to share.”
We get a half portion of barnacles to share.

By the time the starters arrive the kids have wolfed down two baskets of fine bread rolls and aren’t really hungry any more. This is a shame, as we have now been served a large platter of very expensive acorn-fed smoked pig and a silver plate where 12 golden croquettes nestle invitingly upon a delicate floral arrangement.

Then the barnacles arrive.

I was expecting some little innocuous round shells, of the type that cling to rocks or boat keels, but that is not what we got. The Gooseneck Barnacle (Pollicipes pollicipes) is a dark, crusted tentacle topped with a white shell claw, and it looks much like a gnarled old witches’ finger. I pick one up and play with it for a while, totally at a loss what to do. A waiter appears at my elbow, smiling indulgently, and gives us a short lesson on how to cut, twist, break and suck out the interior worm of mollusc that is hidden within each hairy warted tube. We find out too late that they squirt out a salty emission when you breach them. I get a jet in my face, Menna’s dress is soon covered with a fine spray of barnacle juice, the table cloth is a mess. We make such a hash of it in fact, that a new waiter appears ten minutes later to give us another tutorial. I think they were all watching us from behind a two way mirror. The barnacles are nice in a salty kind of way, but we give up on them before the plate is finished.

The meal was long and varied, the service attentive, the cuisine fantastic. We had way over-ordered and as I suffer from a compulsion which means I cannot bear to leave food on the table (except eggs and barnacles), I eat an extraordinary amount that night. Monkfish parcels, hake meunière, melting tenderloin steaks, strange amuse-bouches, strawberry millefueille with almond ice cream fondant.

The bill when it came was roughly equivalent to our entire living budget for two weeks. I was pleased to note that the half portion of barnacles was the highlight, coming in at a sweet €100. I speculated to the waiter that the grease spots on Menna’s dress were probably worth a euro each.

We strolled home along the beach under a beautiful sunset. Menna and I argued all the way.

The postscript to this story is that gooseneck barnacles suddenly began to permeate our lives. A barnacle necklace would catch our eye in a boutique window as we strolled past, we would see graffiti on an ally wall, stumble across an Instagram hashtag, even, most gallingly, find whole clusters of them flourishing wild (and free!) on the rocks by the sea. I was tempted to gather a bunch and go sell them back to the restaurant.

Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!

Captain Haddock

The Desolation of Salinas

As we drove through the grim port streets of Avilés we were starting to feel really uneasy. This wasn’t how it was supposed to look. A rusted maze of industrial pipelines, graffitied warehouses, yellow smoke seeping from stained factory chimneys. The occasional pedestrian looked at our laden British car “Extranjeros?” they muttered to themselves menacingly, “Foreigners?”.

Menna is tense. She’s booked this one.

“I’m sure we’ll turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves in beautiful countryside.” I say comfortingly, but she’s hunched over Google Maps which tells a more precise story.
“We’re two minutes from our destination” she says.

And so it is. Salinas is linked to the industrial entrails of Avilés by a narrow sandy road that cuts through some scrublands. There is a screen of pine trees that blocks the worst of it, but it can’t hide the gantries and chimneystacks that loom high in our rear view mirror.

We haven’t researched this next leg very well. We have been nurturing an image of Salinas as a charming little surf town, telling others how quaint it is, but at some point in our journey today we have realised that this pipe-dream has absolutely no foundations. We got our first reality check when we scanned the surf report in Magic Seaweed and found a rather sniffy description:

Always crowded. Some localism. Ugly, urban setting with tower blocks and concrete walkways. Residential and stormwater pollution together with industrial pollution from the nearby factories of Avilés. Good beach facilities including a surfing school. Plenty of shops and bars nearby.

“Well, at least there are some shops and bars right honey?”

The seafront is indeed dominated by a row of imposing concrete towers and it turns out that our apartment is on the fifth floor in the last one of them. We’re met at the roadside by nervous masked Maite, who, with handbag under her arm, guides our car in an uncomfortable half-jog down into the subterranean carpark system. She tells us at length about a complex system of keys and the risk of getting imprisoned behind self-closing doors in a series of underground concrete corridors and steel storage vaults. We nod and smile exaggeratedly behind our masks, throughout her longwinded instructions, covering our internal dismay. In the meantime Arthur has exploded out of the car like a ferret out of a cage and wildly skateboards around the carpark, covering himself in soot and diesel. We shout at him.

The apartment is small and carefully decorated with black and white magazine pictures of film stars that have been cut out and glued directly to the wall. It faces not towards the sea, but back towards Avilés. There is a whole wall of homage to Brad Pitt, mainly taken from a single photo shoot which we date as of the mid-nineties, some point between Thelma and Louise and Twelve Monkeys. The place is immaculately clean and there is some heart there. The kids room is dark purple with a life-size mural of Spider-Man painted in a wild but enthusiastic hand, and they are immediately happy to be in there. The door closes and they start to rearrange the furniture.

Later we get a burger on the boardwalk and watch the waves, which are absolutely huge. The same swell that we saw in our last days at Dreamsea is still battering the coast. There are some great surfers out there and we get to watch a masterclass in big wave surfing.

The next morning we are up late and determined to find the best of Salinas. Architecture be damned, there is a hidden heart that beats in this city, we say, and we will seek it out.

Breakfast doesn’t start well. We can only find one nearby bar and all they will do for us is tostadas. ‘What is this?’ We ask stupidly. ‘It is toast’. Dry, white toast in fact that crumbles to powder. Four pieces piled up for us on a single plate with some hard butter that makes it disintegrate and apricot jam which we use to stick it back together again. The service is surly. The coffee is very good though we tell each other, aren’t we lucky. We must come back.

Arthur and I have brought out our skateboards, for there is a long smooth pedestrian promenade that runs along the sea front and it might well be the best thing about Salinas. We cruise along, feeling cool, weaving our way in and out of walkers (losers!). The girls meander behind. The sun is out, the waves look good and the day is yet ours.

Once we’ve checked out the boardwalk we peel off the seafront and head up into town to find a supermarket. On a bumpy towpath I do an exaggerated swerve round a couple of old ladies. As I smile gallantly at them, I hit a weird patch of tarry black grit that had no business at all being on the path, my board instantly sticks and I go properly flying. I hit the tarmac pretty hard and it hurts like hell. The old ladies come darting to help me and then they remember about Coronavirus and pull up, circling around me, clucking and twittering in Spanish, very agitated. Menna and Matilda run up and after a second or two I leap to my feet and tell everyone very loudly how fine I am. “Estoy bien, ningun problema! Un poco sangue, hahaha, nada màs!” I have a deep cuts on my elbow, both hands and my hip.

We limp off through a park, inspecting my injuries, and then we cut across the canal. In a surreal twist, I look down from the bridge and one of the old ladies is squatting right in the middle of a glade below us. She is peeing, her buttocks exposed like wrinkled white balloons. I look away shocked. “Don’t look down!” I mutter to Menna, all puritanical, but the kids overhear and immediately rush over giggling. We savagely whisper threats at them until they are back under control.

“What is wrong with this town?”  I ask no-one in particular.

I am still pretty shaken. Menna sits me on a bench and makes me eat dry croissants. We find our supermarket and load up on provisions for the week: fresh tuna steaks, salads, chorizo, olives, crisps, jamón, a really nice Rioja. We can still turn this situation around. Adventurers like us thrive on adversity.

I am gingerly skating home when I hear a primeval howl of frustration behind me. The zip has given way on our rucksack and Menna stands frozen in a pool of destruction. Our shopping is all over the pavement around her, ham glistens, tomatoes roll, olive oil seeps, shards of broken glass are glinting green in the sun. There are dark rivulets of Rioja running down into the gutter like blood. Matilda bursts out crying with the emotion of it all. A passerby tuts and shakes his head before hurrying on.

That evening I come down with a fever.

Pont Aven

We are on a ferry! Going to Spain! Escaping Covid, Brexit and the peculiar malaise of being British in the summer. We have slipped the surly bonds of home. Windblown and barefoot, small Nicholls flit across the sundeck like sparrows. We have all of our travel essentials ready: Pringles, beer, a G&T in a plastic cup; binoculars, a picnic and an orange hoodie to wave at tiny far-off Grandma on Plymouth dockside, who cheerily returns our farewell using a Sainsbury’s plastic bag.

We were leaving England on a magnificent adventure, only three months later than planned, and it was Spain of all places that was to be our first overseas destination. Spain I tell you! A country of lemons and olives, jamón, paella, Rioja; with matadors strutting around in their finery like a relics of a bygone age. There would be lush coastlines and parched desert interiors, granite massifs peppered with vineyards, olive groves and precarious adobe villages clinging to the rock face. We would follow the footsteps of George Orwell, Laurie Lee, Ernest Hemingway. The Spanish are a dark-eyed sinuous race, ever laughing and twirling, impervious to the heat of the day. Their glossy hair is always groomed. Some of this flamboyance and self-belief will rub off on us surely. Not for us the Mediterranean sun traps of Malaga and Marbella though – claro que no! We are going to surf our way around the Atlantic coast. Live on pan y chorizo and apricots picked from the tree, fall asleep to a soundtrack of flamenco guitars and Balearic beats. We would camp in the clifftop wildlands of Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia – and just how satisfying are those names as they bubble through your mouth, with their deep Spanish assonance, strange feminine ‘c’s, vibrant fricatives and trilled rhotives (rolled ‘r’s right?)? The Iberian peninsula is the only place to be in summer 2020.

And the ferry was awesome! Huge and new, proudly proclaiming herself the flagship of the Brittany Fleet. The Pont Aven, God Bless her! Or rather que Dieu la bénisse! as onboard there was an charming francophone insistence, which meant all signs, announcements and crew interactions should be initiated in French, despite the fact that the boat was heading between Plymouth and Santander and had nothing to do with France whatsoever. Magnifique!

Our cabin was a triumph in ergonomics. It had a sofa that flipped into a bed and three further bunks that pulled magically down from wall and ceiling panels. There was a bathroom the size of a phonebox full of clever folding gizmos. The kids nearly exploded with excitement, but given the lack of space they could only squeak and bounce furiously for a while before creating a game where you had to hop from bunk to bunk in a certain sequence. I tried it, but was disadvantaged by my size and then Menna told us all off before I could really nail it. We stayed up long into the night, piled on one bunk ,watching Jurassic Park on my iPad, then we slept in very late, confused by the total darkness of our internal berth.

The best thing about the ferry was the wake. A churning highway that stretched straight and true for miles behind us, gleaming foamy white against the dark bottle green sea. I sat on the top deck and watched it for hours with Menna as the kids scampered between decks. At one point we saw a commotion of gulls and dolphins in a feeding frenzy and later there was a lone tern that seemed to navigate along its line for some hours (I wished it had been an Albatross!). We passed the lonely Edistone lighthouse, far out at sea, a navigation milestone that unleashed many nostalgic tales of Menna’s childhood cross-channel voyages.

That wake was a road that connected us to our home port, but it was also a symbol of progress. We were surging forwards on the unmarked face of the ocean, blazing a new path where there was none before.

We have a one-way ticket outbound and who knows when we will be home again.

We Are Sailing

We filtered off the A386 and Plymouth wrapped its stony arms around us. We all felt the change. We had only been out of London for six weeks, but living in open space and sunlight and in some way we now felt accustomed (entitled!) to wider horizons. Our car was loaded down with possessions, we were chattering and windswept after a long moor walk and now we arrived to roadworks, roundabouts and the relentless swell of urban movement. Plymouth is draped across many hills with rows of slate grey roof-lines that stretch as fingers down to a storm grey sea. The domes of the naval boatyards sit like oil drums in the harbour, half-submerged among a silt boneyard of masts, cables and cranes. The seagulls seem angry. The signs tell us that this is Britain’s Ocean City. It is a serious seafaring place.

We were there to see Menna’s parents and throw ourselves onto their hospitality. It was our first social visit after three months of lockdown. We were also booked in to do a yacht course. The Hodins are a sailing family and Menna herself was brought up racing yachts, though now she has softened and been made less confident by some decades inland. I am pretty inept on a boat but always keen to widen my relationship with the sea. We need options too: there might be points in our travels where the road will end and we will need to take to the sea. My aim was to become an able crew member under Menna’s captaincy.

In sailing you have to get comfortable with ambiguous movement. You set off for a fixed destination but your progress is always indirect. You must tack and jibe to reconcile your destination with the wind direction, but even within these supposedly linear movements your boat is constantly sliding, drifting and curving obliquely; making hidden runs that are hard to spot against the changing face of the ocean. The sea is wrapped all around you, and it twists your vessel and plays with it. Tides and currents pull on the keel as the wind fills the sail and pushes at the hull. The line of your progress, if plotted over the sea bed, would be meandering and full of lateral drifts, even as the bow points always forwards. The boat responds to your commands in it’s own time, often unwillingly. There are no brakes.

Perhaps sea voyages aren’t so much about functional travel as about reversing perspectives. You leave solid land of fixed horizons to find a fluid and unstable world. Vistas shift and tilt. A new set of options open up though: you have different lines of approach; you can reach coves and bays that are inaccessible from the land; you can drop anchor in the waves. Out on the deck you get to see what your country looks like from the sea. Plymouth relaxes. It sweeps back statesmanlike from the shoreline, the slate roof lines now gleam like sliver hair swept back with pomade. The boatyards open up to show their secret workings. The Hoe promenade drives grandly up to the lighthouse. The seagulls are still angry.

There is a Frank O’Hara poem, To the Harbormaster, that I think of sometimes when I am at sea. It speaks of battling tides and insurmountable distances to reach an ideal. There is a tone of hopeless optimism that occasionally falters, and it strikes a deep chord with me. Brave resistance turns to submission, blind hope gives way to the sinking feeling of realisation. The poet uses a sea voyage as a analogy to explore how heroic ideals are derailed by life, but I prefer to stay in the metaphor, that is to stay with the sea. My relationship with the ocean is a hopeful attempt to find solidarity with something infinitely vast and strong, where too often my small advances are suddenly reversed and I am left with the realisation that I am small, scared and insignificant. I make excuses: I was caught in some moorings; my indecisions and vanities subvert me; the waves hold me back. But still I naively trust in the sanity of my vessel, despite it all. I will make my port.

I crashed the boat on the third day. It was in the terrible channels of the Queen Anne Battery Marina. Slowly heeling round from my mooring to find the line to open sea, I too was driven by the wind, but rather than finding the seductive brown lips of the reeds, it was the hard claw of a superyacht’s anchor that tattered the cordage of our boat (stanchions and guard rail twisted, winch scored deeply). The hull luckily remained intact.

We had already had two magnificent days of sailing. We had learnt mooring, helming, navigating, anchoring. We had charted and completed a complex river journey, tied onto a pontoon in very challenging conditions, skimmed over the waves under full sail in a force seven. We had simulated disasters at sea and rescued men overboard. And then came this horrible slow-motion collision in the morning rain. We disentangled ourselves and limped out of the harbour, our instructor grim-faced, calculating the damage that had been done to his boat. In the silence of my disgrace I thought again about my subservient relationship with the sea. Faltering strokes forwards, hard-won triumphs that last for moments, with the knowledge that at any point I may be pushed back, beaten, submerged at the ocean’s whim. Is it the difficulty that makes it all worthwhile? Is it the heroics of chasing an impossible dream? I am always tying up and then deciding to depart, In storms and at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tides around my fathomless arms.

To The Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Frank O’Hara

Farewell to Croyde

Our time in Croyde eventually wound down, as all good things must. It wasn’t the African safari adventure that we had originally planned, but we had no regrets. The pieces all fell into place. ‘Shall we get this inscribed on the family tomb?” I asked Menna on Father’s Day. “Here Lie The Nicholls. They Landed On Their Feet. RIP.” She was disinclined, but I myself can’t think of any better epitaph for someone to mutter as they toss my ashes into the wind. “He jumped a lot, and mainly he landed on his feet. Sometimes he didn’t it’s true, but he kept on jumping regardless.”

I don’t think we could have asked for a better place than Croyde in which to hide ourselves away, scheme and lay low until the frothy coronavirus panic ebbed away a little. It was a halfway house to decompress and mentally adjust. We needed to leave our London lives behind and turn towards whatever adventures might still lie ahead. I had gone to Devon harbouring a hidden feeling of resentment, thinking it was a poor substitute for the subtropical climates we had planned for, but, as I found, sometimes you can fixate on exotic faraway shores and forget that there are places of extreme beauty right on your doorstep. The South West of Britain, in those times when the sun is firing; the sand is like demerara sugar and the wind blows spray back off the wave tops, well, I think it can rival just about any tropical coastline in the world.

Anyhow, what I’m saying is that something just worked for us there. It clicked. The town was quiet, the beaches empty, the clifftop headlands were ours to share with seabirds and gorse babies. There were hot pasties and ice creams in the village shop. Nature was all around. A bunch of young surfers with a portable wood-fired oven made surprisingly epic pizzas in the Post Office carpark. We had a charming beach cottage to hide away in when it rained. The waves were gentle and mellow some days and then big and hollow on others. We did a rainy beach clean one morning in a hidden cove and alongside ropes and sandals and bags full of plastic, we found treasures: cowrie shells and crab claws, a black pebble with a perfect hole.

I thought occasionally about how coronavirus was wreaking havoc across the world and I would feel guilty to be so far out of it all, like we’d chosen not to participate in a grand global event. But we’d paid our dues. Menna had served on the front line. We’d isolated and distanced, we’d cut ourselves off from the world and then we slipped off quietly into the night without a sigh. We had had a world trip wrecked. And then it would be low tide with a southerly swell and such thoughts scattered into the wind.

On our last night in Croyde, Arthur and I camped out in the dunes. Menna and Matilda came to help us set up camp and stayed for barbecued sausages and Sweet Child O Mine at full volume by the driftwood campfire. Then the wind picked up, the first rain drops landed and the girls went off to look for rabbits, and it was just the two of us huddled up against the weather. We played cards and stoked up the fire. I drank some whiskey. We saw the sun set and ran down the steepest dunes in the dusk. I told Arthur my best ghost stories until he begged me to stop and refused to leave the safety of the firelight. We curled up in his tiny two man tent. I couldn’t stretch out and had sandy tufts under my back, so I didn’t really sleep too much. It was early July but it was so cold outside I swore I could see my breath fogging in the moonlight.

We rose sometime before 6am and paddled out into the sea, looking for shells in the misty flat light before the sun came over the headland. Arthur scampered around and chattered, and there was a moment when he turned and looked up at me with his eyes all shining, and then around him like a halo, the first morning sunlight blazed off the river delta that runs through the beach. I’ve never felt so close to my boy.

Then we broke down our camp, kicked out the embers, went home and packed the car. We drove out of Croyde and onwards to the next leg of our adventure.

The Cliffs

We went for a coastal hike yesterday on the northern face of the headlands. This completes a linking series of cliff walks that we have done over some weeks, taking us right around the North Devon peninsula from Saunton Sands to Ilfracombe, some 100km or so.

The cliffs in these parts have something about them that I’ve not felt before. All cliffs are huge and inspiring of course, that is their nature. These ones though have a jagged angular violence has been imprinted deep into the shape of the rock. There are dragons teeth that emerge dark and wet from the foam of the sea. Broken slate shards pile up under the crags as though they had come raining down in sheets. Dark fissures split open the cliff face. We saw a cove where rock ridges ran in lines across the shingle, like the black spines of some reptile that slept beneath.

Within the sedimentary rock there is colour and texture. A corduroy layering emerges in bold lines from the sea. The stripes rise up in diagonals that echo in successive and opposing cliff faces. Slate, granite and quartz are compressed into lines of pink and black and glittering crystal. But then the symmetry ripples and buckles, and you know that this stone mass was once spun and twisted in some huge pressure furnace like hot glass. There is suppressed energy throughout this landscape. Immense elemental pressures have played out here, and antagonistic forces remain locked in counterpoint, frozen within those misshapen bubbles of stone. There is a feeling of interrupted motion. At some point the rocks will surge upwards again. They will grind and thunder as they erupt: ripping out tree roots; showering boulders like rain; throwing nesting sea birds screaming into the air.

We leave the National Trust pathways wherever possible and slip onto the sheep paths that undulate through the gorse and ferns. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The tracks take you back and forth, criss-crossing through wind-stunted greenery, lulling you with smooth lines that rise and fall with the topography of the headlands. False trails peter out deep in the gorse, or lead you suddenly out onto limestone overhangs that could erode at any point. You wander how many sheep ambled along this path at night to suddenly find themselves on the edge of the precipice. Does some instinct pull them back? Or do those woolly coats sometimes catch a gust of wind, and then they are tumbling through black space, bleating wildly? You shiver and pull back from the edge.

I find that my thinking slows on these walks. I listen to my breath. I catch myself trudging up the escarpment muttering out simple rhyming word associations to myself, senseless poems to punctuate my footfall. Jurassic, bombastic, we lack it, eclectic (disrespecting), drastic, classic, smash it! Be enthusiastic!

We climb down to an empty beach where the surf beats onto the boulders. The low thunder sends us all gradually into a frenzy and we shout and run. We throw stones and jump off boulders and splash our way blindly through rock pools. We hold crab claw tokens and cowrie shells in our sweaty hands as we climb back up the rocky path again.

Sometimes you emerge over a hill top to find yourself unexpectedly on a vantage point where you can see the full line of cliffs undulating away into the distance like a folded ribbon of dirty grey. Perhaps there is a lighthouse in the distance, certainly there are birds wheeling in the sky. The sea is bottle green, flecked with sunlight and white horses. The wind whistles around, buffeting you back away from the edge.

Boulder, golder? (more gold?), hold her, quiet smoulder, cold shoulder, eye of the beholder.

Up on these massive granite slabs you can get hit by a sudden sense of your own smallness. A squall of futility blows up around you, borne on the sea wind. What are your puny ambitions and dreams lined up against the permanence, the gravitational mass, the sheer indifference of the rock? What flicker of time can you offer up against his eons? We pilot these towers of bone and muscle forwards over the headlands, spindle legs scissoring, furiously pumping blood down through branching tubes, breaking down matter deep in our guts. This pulsating mess of us all wrapped up in downy veined skin. We totter our towers onwards as though we will topple when we stop. We cover them around with bright materials and we shout out from the top: about our plans and schemes, and what we feel, and what we will do with life. As though it mattered.

Granite, tannic, magnetic, peripatetic! We say. Dead gannet, red planet, dormant, titanic.

As is the way of all small beasts, we disdain even smaller creatures, we care nothing for their worries. The world belongs to us alone. We are unaware that we are just mites creeping unnoticed along the shoulder of a sleeping giant.

But then I suppose he is unaware that in his way he too is small; that he lies on a larger rock which swings silently through space, circling an insignificant star that is hidden somewhere out on the far-flung spiral arm of a galaxy. One single galaxy among many.

Gorse Babies

We were walking up on the headlands and it was late. The wind had picked up, and out to sea there was an ominous black cloud line running right along the darkening sky. We were far from home.

Then I heard it, as the wind dropped for a moment, a little high pitched snicker, then a skittering sound of tiny feet scrabbling on dry earth. Arthur picked it up too. He has magnificent ears.
“What was that Dad?”
“It’s nothing” I say, “probably just a weasel in the undergrowth”. He moved in closer to me and we pressed forward in silence. I picked up the pace and hurried the family along.

We both knew that sound though.

The kids are familiar with gorse babies ever since that run-in we had with them in Dorset some years back. And now as we walk hurriedly back home, the rising panic of that sultry evening comes flooding back to me. I curse myself for not learning the lesson then. That too was a summer’s walk, only it turned into a nightmare as we gradually grew aware of their presence. First a sly rustling and snickering deep in the sea of gorse. Then a building storm, the foliage sighing and trembling all around us, as if the rooted foundations beneath stirred and seethed. Tiny hands pulling at the fronds, brown limbs entwined like snakes around the branches, yellow eyes glinting out at us from between the yellow furze flowers. There must have been hundreds of them. It was only through a commotion of shouting, stamping and hammering the path with a heavy stick that I was able to force us a route out of there. We shuffled homewards along the pathway for an age, clustered close together, the kids tightly guarded, Menna snarling and bringing up the rear.

I had never heard of the little creatures being so brazen before. It was simply not known for them to approach while adults were present. Usually it would be just an unattended child who might quietly disappear on the cliff top. Clearly we had run into a tribe that day, one that was powerful enough, or desperate enough, to attack a full family.

I would like to know more about gorse babies, those vile little creatures that fascinate and disturb me in equal measure. I’ve heard the stories, of course, vague and speculative as they are. That the first colony was started in Victorian times, somewhere in the south country, seems realistic. It was most likely a pair of very small children that were either deliberately abandoned on the moors, or became lost somehow. I always imagine a couple of smudged little tots, wide-eyed, tearful, holding hands as the dark closes in; their voices undetectable over the howling wind. They would have sheltered under those wide robust banks of gorse I guess, burrowing in deep to avoid the needles, cushioning themselves in the dry scree underneath. Perhaps they found rabbit or badger holes there. Perhaps they scraped away the earth with their own little fingers. Did the yellow beams of gas lamps flicker distantly in the night? Did the wind carry far off voices shouting their names with increasing desperation? Or were those first nights uninterrupted but for the slithering and scratching of wild creatures making their winding tracks under the fern and gorse?

Whether they were looked for or not, they weren’t ever found. Neither alive, nor as frozen bodies curled tight around the gorse roots. Instead somehow, against all odds, they survived. Some say the founders of the first great colony are still down there somewhere, enthroned in galleries of clay; an ancient and twisted little king and queen of the gorse world, surrounded by the wild civilisation they have created. I don’t believe this myself. That would make them well over a hundred years old. And to survive so long, in a life so harsh…

Our children didn’t sleep well for ages after that first Dorset encounter. They knew that they had had a very close escape. They were still small and malleable and could have so easily been snatched away and pressed down through dark holes into a new life under the earth. A life of slithering through tunnels, eyes straining and swelling in the darkness, bodies never to grow again, skin hardening, fat melting away, tendons, ligaments and bone gaining prominence. How long would it take them to forget their parents and their old soft lives in that subterranean world? Their backs would curve and knot under new muscle growth, their limbs contort to facilitate a life of scrabbling on all fours. Small naked bodies taking the colour of clay, covered in scar tissue and course matted hair. Teeth filed into little points; hardened claw fingers; flesh pierced with thorns and gorsewood. A life driven by instinct and tribal duty, squirming around the gorse roots, sleeping piled up with other small bodies in musky, airless underground chambers, nourished by the blood of rodents and who knows what else? They would have spoken that reedy, chirruping language, full of the anger and violence of wild moorland creatures. Many children have been lost this way.

Now though it’s different, Arthur is nearly ten and Matilda a plump eight year old. They would never flit through the tunnels that honeycomb the headland. Their bones have set, their haunches are soft and they have no value as conscripts to the tribe. Now they are simply prey.

The mist was rising as we hurried on into that yellow dusk. Around us the rustling and chittering slowly intensified like a locust storm approaching. I looked for a stout stick.

Why We Ride

I got pulled into surfing because it felt cool and alternative, shallow though that sounds. Menna grew up in Cornwall where the surf culture permeates, so she had an excuse. I still don’t know how an obsession with waves grew so voracious in a lad who grew up in landlocked Hereford and couldn’t even swim that well. Certainly it had something to do with Point Break, a film that detonated deep in my adolescent psyche and left some pretty deep marks. I had an image of surfers as a bunch of carefree, muscled, tanned, laid-back Gods of the Sea. And who doesn’t want to be in that gang? It’s anti-establishment but it’s not nihilist. There are associations of punk and skater culture on the one side, and a spiritual, at-one-with-nature, mysterious soul-surfer ethos on the other – but there’s a stick-it-to-the-man kind of vibe that bridges both camps. It’s aspirational, particularly to anyone who believes themselves to be liberal and non-conformist. We know of course that many elements of surf culture today are as manufactured and infiltrated by big business as any of the tribal demographics that are packaged up and marketed to us, but even so, it came from something pure and simple and the value-set feels good.

The reputation and culture is enough to get you out there into the ocean (probably on a foamtop). You want to give it a try. You’re ready to rip! Then you get to find out the first hidden truth at the heart of surfing: for something that is predicated around such a simple ideal – to stand up and glide for some seconds on the unbroken face of a wave – it is astonishingly difficult. There are levels of complexity that hide behind that simple premise, and once you start breaking down the constituent parts, then they quickly become complicated and technical. Position on the board, paddle techniques, getting out back (over waves, turtle-roll, duck-dive), reading sets, understanding wave shape, anticipating the break point, the paddle-in, the pop-up, stance and positioning, turning and moving on the wave face, power zones, when to bail, wave priority and etiquette.

When you start out it seems like a trick has been played on you. Something you assumed would be so straightforward is in fact fiendish and full of hidden artforms. But whenever you watch anyone who is half-decent, their movement on the wave is so graceful and elegant it strips away the complexity. A great surfer seems to embody a mental and physical sense of flow that seems otherworldly and very connected in form to the ebb and swell of the sea.

So you have a choice. Either you realise it is too hard and will take too long to master, and so you give it up and maybe turn to golf. Or you are fired up by the challenge, your desire to be a zen master of the waveform is strong enough for you to take the first steps on a long winding road where progress is measured against a far off horizon that never seems to get any closer. You must learn to take beatings, that are many and varied, yet specific enough to have names – the Hold-Down, the Spin Cycle, Caught Inside, On the Head and the worst one, that sinking feeling when you think you’ve just made it over a large breaking wave, only for it to suck you back over the crest to topple down the face with the full force of the wave (and maybe your board) landing on top of you. We call that Over the Falls.

You have proper realisations of ‘this is it. I’m actually about to DIE!’, not just once or twice, but tens of times: moments when you are thrashing blindly in deep water, having been spun viciously, now swimming towards the surface in desperation, lungs empty, only to realise your leash is tugging you the other way and in fact you’re swimming downwards. But as the beatings get worse (you’re progressing to bigger waves) so do the moments of victory get more intense. You catch a wave right in the sweet spot and suddenly you’re there, in a moment of sunlight and silence, the universe crystallised down to a single point of time and emotion, as you scream down a wall of water, knees compressing with the g-force as you bottom-turn into the wave and see it stretched out in front of you like an emerald highway, and you ride it for perhaps five seconds, maybe even eight. Two or three waves like that in a session will sustain you for weeks. You’ll talk at length about them to anyone who’ll listen.

Over time you get to understand another of the dichotomies of surfing. The emotional intensity is driven on one side by the feeling of flow, elevation and ‘oneness’’ with nature when you catch a wave. On the other side it is pushed by adrenaline and pure fear when the wave catches you. Above and below. Fear and joy. Effort and grace. You’re never quite sure which side of the game is responsible for that aching, shaking, drained feeling you get once you finally climb out of the surf.

Your mindset changes over time of course. A large part of any surf session involves sitting out on your board beyond the break, examining the topography of the ocean. You’re trying to anticipate wave size, speed and peak from a distant bump on the sea’s face. Is this set spaced out? Are they clustered? Doubled-up? Where will they spike? Can I catch this? Am I in danger? You need to calculate all of this before the wave reaches you in order to select the right waves and get in position to catch them, or identify the ‘clean-up’ sets and get safely over them. So you sit watching the ocean with single-minded focus. For long stretches. In silence. Floating. It’s a lot like meditation really and it’s an addictive part of the game. You see a lot of surfers off-session just sitting on beaches, cliffs, dunes, zoning out and watching the waves build and crash. I’m writing this now in a notebook, sitting high up on a dune, watching the waves peal in between sentences. They look sweet today, coming through in well ordered lines with a slight offshore breeze glassing up the faces.

A moment of honesty here. Even after a year of surfing in Central America, trips to Bali, Sri Lanka, Hawaii and various European sessions here and there over the following fifteen years, I am still not a good surfer. Not close. I don’t catch lots of the waves that I paddle for. I don’t link beautiful turns on the face and I can’t do a snappy cutback. I have been deep inside a few barrels, but flailing around, off my board and preparing for an almighty beating. But I love it and I want it always to be a part of my life. “The best surfer out there is the one who’s having most fun” as the zen master once said. So I try always to smile as I get sucked back once more over the falls.

Surfing is such an amazing concept. You’re taking on Nature with a little stick and saying, ‘I’m gonna ride you!’ And a lot of times Nature says, ‘No you’re not!’ and crashes you to the bottom

Jolene Blalock

Covid Don’t Surf

What drew us to North Devon, other than having nowhere else to go, was the surf.

Since our year in Central America we still think of ourselves as surfers. Yes, it’s true that barring a couple of weeks in Bali in 2008 and a very occasional session here and there in Cornwall or Portugal, we haven’t really surfed properly in 15 years. But it’s like riding a bike right? And so, once we get down to Devon, boards loaded on the top of the car, many readings of the swell reports en route, heated discussions about pressure systems and fin types, we are ready to wind back the clock and dive back into a life on the waves.

A storm system battered the South West on the Friday a few days before our arrival and our go-to forecaster Magic Seaweed is showing that there is still going to be some solid swell on on our first morning. It’s a little big for Menna’s first day, but I’m itching to paddle out.

The sun’s shining. I wax up my trusty 6’4” squash tail thruster, attach the leash and walk into the sea. I bob over the first few lines of white water then start to paddle out to the line-up with strong powerful strokes. My shoulders wake up, instantly responding to the demands with some innate muscle memory. I navigate a large incoming set without too much difficulty, timing my duck dives to slip smoothly beneath the breaks. The cold water hits my face like an invigorating tonic. The waves are coming in neat clean lines, about six feet high and barrelling slightly. It‘s big, but nothing compared to Puerto Escondido in 2005 – or that gnarly reef break we surfed in Panama. Getting out back, I feel my heart rate is nicely elevated, lungs are working well, there is blood coursing through my muscles. There are about 15 surfers clustered around the peak. Fellow pros. They look at me and recognise one of their kind.

I float on my board and wait. It’s not long until the next set, and I watch the guys position themselves and then drop in smoothly on wave after wave. It’s clear they know this break well. Then my chance comes. The last wave of the set breaks late and the peak has shifted slightly to the left, catching everyone out of position, except for me out on the edge of the pack. I paddle hard for it, feeling the tail of my surfboard lift, getting my chest down and accelerating my strokes just as the wave ramps. Then there it is: the glide, that most amazing sensation as my speed matches the wave speed and then we are planing together. I am high on the face of the wave and bang in the pocket, the wave face is crumbling right next to me. I explode to my feet and I’m off, left rail wedged into a green wall that swells and builds in front of my board. The ride picks up in pace as I take a sharp diagonal down the wave face and then a sweeping bottom turn. Up to the top and it’s time for a cutback. My board carves a tight S shape to turn back towards the break and refind the pocket, which I’ve now outpaced.

On and on the wave runs and I’m drawing beautiful lines. My fins carve a white signature into the green face for all to see. It’s a moment of pure harmony between man and ocean. The tears in my eyes are only half from the wind.

And then a soft fade back to reality. This is a composite of several daydreams I’ve been having on the way to Devon, and they have carried me happily right up to this moment. This moment now. My surfboard under my arm, a hero’s pose, standing calm and ready at the water’s edge

The sun’s shining. I wax up my trusty 6’4” squash tail thruster, attach the leash and walk into the sea. I bob over the first few lines of white water then start to paddle out to the line-up with strokes that feel rather laboured and ineffective. A big set comes in and I remember the adrenaline shot of fear as a huge slab rumbles towards you. I remember how huge a wave looks from your low vantage point at its base. I remember the feeling of impact that resembles nothing so much as a ton of liquid cement being poured on your back from height. There are relentless white walls lined up angrily in front of you, and you need to pass through them all before you find yourself in deep calm waters. Inefficient duck-dives rob you of air and leave you floundering in foam before the next wave crashes right on top of you. Poor paddle technique means you lose meters of progress with every wave you pass.

And so it happens today. I get caught in the impact zone for a long time, shoulders quickly weakened, lungs on fire, salt water in my stomach. For several waves I have to ditch my board entirely and just dive under, feeling the leash on my ankle yanking frantically as my abandoned board gets smashed around on the surface. Finally there’s a gap between sets and I’m able to limp my way out back, gasping and red faced.

I float on my board and wait. It’s not long until the next set, and I watch the guys position themselves and then drop in smoothly on wave after wave. It’s clear they know this break well. I’ve no heart to go after anything myself, I’m exhausted already. I try to get my breathing back to acceptable levels and slip into a reverie. I don’t notice that everyone has suddenly started paddling fast for the horizon. The clean-up set has arrived, a group of monster waves that are far larger and therefore break far deeper than the rest. One by one everyone makes it over the crest of the first roller, but I’m caught inside again and I take the full impact of the first big wave and then its companions. I am dragged deep under and spun around flailing, emerging for a frantic breath before getting hit by the next. And the next. I get swept far enough towards shore that once the super set has finished, I’m way out of place again and have to do another weary paddle back out.

As I reach the line up again I see a beautiful wave coming through. The peak has shifted slightly to the left, catching everyone out of position, except one lad. He paddles hard for it, feeling the tail of his surfboard lift, getting his chest down and accelerating his strokes just as the wave ramps. I am totally in his way. He is forced to pull out at the last moment and he mouths something at me which I can’t hear. I limp my way to the edge of the pack. There are about 15 surfers clustered around the peak and they look like pros. When they look at me it is clear that I am not one of their kind.

But I will be.

Signs of Freedom

Since we escaped London some weeks ago now, we have been going through a mental shift.

It is something to do with moving into a very rural area, having lots of free time and being outside for most of the day. There is a different set of signals we pick up now. New priorities steal our attention. People talk a lot these days about re-wilding gardens and outdoor spaces; allowing nature to reclaim manicured lawns and geometric lines. In a way it feels like we are rewilding too.

We came here from the city. That means we came from a place where energy and determination are revered and prioritised above all else. We measured efficiency and productivity at work. We obsessed about ways to improve metrics and smash our targets. At home we charted our step count, heart rate and sleep time, sharing them with communities who would then push us to improve. We tacitly competed with our friends on the quality of our dinner parties. We tried to improve our running speed and build our pushup count. Life moved fast and all moments were accounted for.

Once you step out of all that and dial down the speed of life, it takes a while to reprogram the system. The first week or two down here you could see Menna or I suddenly stiffen up like prairie dogs at a given moment, as our minds threw up random worries to try and get the panic systems rebooted. (NO! I forgot to put light fittings on the inventory! Coffee cup slips out of numb fingers to smash on the floor.) We would ping awake in the night, grasping for something to get all twisted up about. (What if we need to vote in a snap general election? We have no current residency! Heart thumps madly in the darkness). We’d check social media surreptitiously on family walks. We would obsess about the news.

Then slowly it slips away. The interruptions become less frequent, then disappear. The nights become longer and fuller. We wake slowly with strange tastes in our mouths and the lingering aftermath of heavy dreams. Focus builds and small tasks absorb us. Sometimes we find ourselves just sitting and thinking for a while, doing nothing really.

Busy minds, deprived of action plans and to-do lists, start to open up other enquires. They turn outwards towards the world. The wind is strong today and it’s shifted to behind the dunes. I’ve never seen clouds twisted up into a vertical column like that. Who is that small bird who trills between the sea gulls’ screams? It feels somehow like it’s going to rain later.

Once you recognise this shift, and you open yourself to it, then the world suddenly seems full of signals and patterns that were hidden to you before. It feels big. You can turn it into a huge spiritual revelation and believe that the universe is whispering in your ear. Three cormorants heading east before summer’s dusk? Winds are coming I tell you! Or maybe it just makes you feel content and a little more connected to this new landscape around you. You might feel that yes, you did make the right move coming down here.

A kestrel hovers on the headland almost every evening now hunting his prey. Little pulses of his wings keep him motionless above the gorse even as the wind blows everything else around.

The fields near us hide a subterranean population of rabbits who emerge out for a cautious sniff early mornings and at dusk. A slight noise and they will all skitter away, a tumble of white feathery tails disappearing into the hedgerow.

A pungent weed permeates the hedgerows and dune flowers. It is called Houndstongue but known locally as Rats and Mice because of its musky damp rodent smell. We all found it disgusting the first time we smelt it. Now it’s like a soggy friend that comes to greet you as you walk down the sandy lane to the beach.

Foxgloves are everywhere this month, priapic purple stalagmites rising out of the gorse. There is a similar-looking but more reserved blue flower in the dunes which I prefer. It’s got the awesome name of Viper’s Bugloss.

The tides reshape the beach and headlands every hour. We’re getting to know the timings more intuitively now, and more importantly to recognise the confluence of wind, tide and swell that makes the best waves.

A flock of goldfinches (no sorry, a charm of goldfinches) surprise us with sudden flashes of red and yellow as they flitter past like leaves in a gale.

You come to see how the prevailing westerly wind has comprehensively sculpted the landscape around us. You realise how relentlessly it bends and pushes everything away eastwards, and then then you start to see its mark everywhere; triangles and wedges sculpted into dunes, gorse, trees, hills and even the limestone cliff faces. The hypotenuse always points down to the most westerly point.

I saw a single dolphin far out at sea one evening, a leaping shape midway to the horizon. I was alone in the surf as the sun was setting and to be honest it was something of an epiphany.

Arthur and I went out to do some starwatching in the dunes. We found The Pointer stars at the end of the plough and they directed us to Polaris, then on to Deneb which, together with Vega and Altair, make up the Navigator’s Triangle. This always points you southwards I lectured Arthur (well ok, an iPhone is easier but that’s not the point).

On a Sunday cliff walk we saw a family of seals far below in the rockpools. Their whiskery heads bobbed up for a quick a chat before they slipped down again below the dark green swelling waters.

There is a good but infrequent wind that comes from the east and makes the waves clean and glassy.

I want to develop a subconscious sense of where the cardinal points are, even in cloud cover or deep in a forest (Arthur can already do this but I can’t. I’ve always had a rubbish sense of direction).

We arrived into two straight weeks of atmospheric high pressure, so hard blue skies and sun. Now the system has moved on and we feel smaller beneath a huge expansive cloud world whose architectures show various distinct textures and densities in different strata above us.

For many days last week there was an ominous storm cloud which stretched squat and black right down to the horizon. It seemed to trap light beneath it, so that the hills and cliffs seemed strangely illuminated and you could see for miles. We spent our days outside slightly on edge, feeling that the storm might vent down upon us at any point. The air was so thick and charged with electricity. All that tension and power just hung there in stasis though, hovering above us for days. It barely even rained. I don’t know why.

A dead gannet waited on the beach the other day. It was on its back, half submerged, neck thrust up as if its last moments were spent trying to force its way up from its sandy tomb for one final flight. We gathered in a semi circle around it, the kids silent and solemn. It was a sober moment, like finding a whale’s carcass in the desert, or a frozen hand reaching up out of the glacier. I was going to give some homily about the circle of life and how death comes to all things, but in the end I just kept quiet.

There are books that help decipher these messages. On my bedside table right now I have Wild Signs and Star Paths by Tristan Gooley. It’s a lucid exploration of hidden keys and signals in nature and how to determine their significance. Can we recapture such a sense of awareness of our environment that we read signs and link patterns instinctively, generating subconscious insights on weather, direction, animal behaviour that feel something like sixth sense? (Pretty cool right?). Then, as a counterpoint, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos lifts your gaze away, up to the most distant horizons, for a universal context. Great travellers lead the way – Redmond O’Hanlan, Bruce Chatwin, Ryszard Kapuściński. They talk about leaving behind the impediments of your former life and going through a kind of rebirth on the road. We have guides to animals, flowers, geology, trees, stars. On my phone I have downloaded the Collins Birds app.

It feels like there is a lot to learn.

I had long felt in my gut that the world was extravagantly rich with signs… Many thousands of hours outdoors had led to my spotting patterns, asymmetries and trends; they were beautiful but often hard to explain.

Tristan Gooley. Wild Signs and Star Paths

Finally, at the end of our wandering, we return to our tiny, fragile, blue and white world, lost in a cosmic ocean vast beyond our most courageous imaginings. It is a world among an immensity of others. It may be significant only for us… It is on this world that we developed our passion for exploring the Cosmos, and it is here that we are, in some pain and with no guarantees, working out our destiny.

Carl Sagan. Cosmos

A Dilemma

As coronavirus swept through the world like a noxious sandstorm, we found ourselves in something of a dilemma.

We were mentally committed to escape from our suburban lives. We had invested a lot of time and emotional effort into our getaway plan, both internally (casting away lifelines, forgoing stability, setting sail against the tide of conventional wisdom) and externally (hundreds of explanatory conversations with family and friends, quitting my job, seeing out a four month notice period, Menna applying for sabbatical, extracting ourselves from the system, cancelling our subscriptions, applying to homeschool for a year, putting our house up for rent, buying insurance, getting many varied vaccinations, booking tickets, accommodation, buying expensive stuff). We had been aware of Coronavirus as a news story that was rumbling on in the background, but it hadn’t really factored into our plans until suddenly BANG! It was everywhere.

As the virus relentlessly surged forwards, breaching borders, spreading inexorably from continent to continent, there came a tipping point. It suddenly became all that anyone could talk about, even though in the early days, no-one really knew anything. Before the virus itself really hit us, it was preceded by a huge deluge of speculative, incomplete and downright wrong information. We were awash with over-reporting, where the few real facts (infection rates, death tolls) was padded out with frothy rumour and a new jargon that seemed to be made up on the hoof (superspreaders, R-rates, social distancing, self-isolation). Then came a wave of policy response across different countries which seemed improbable in itself, far too knee-jerk and hysterical (Seriously, the Italians aren’t even allowed to leave their homes? What, Trump has shut down all borders?). It was disorienting. The framework by which you conduct activities, the mechanisms that you use to plan and move safely around the world had shifted and become unstable. The rule of order and safe international conduct seemed to be undermined.

Throughout most of early March, when it had seemed that Coronavirus was just an Asia thing, we blithely talked about re-routing our trip to South America and then on to Australia – we would just skirt around it! Then Italy got it bad. It spread across Europe. It hit our shores. UK government policy was pretty lax and incoherent long after most EU nations had locked themselves down pretty hard, and this gave us the illusion of freedom. We would still fly to South Africa and just wing it from there, this is what we thought then. We would slip through the net of closing borders and then go off-grid. We would buy a Landrover and head up through Namibia to Botswana. Surely lockdown wouldn’t stretch to the safari outposts out there. We would spend a few wild months in the bush and once we emerged everything would have blown over.

In late March we found tenants for our house, and still operating under a head-in-the-sand optimism (denial), we signed a three year lease agreement with them, congratulating ourselves that we had managed to lock in some renters despite these difficult conditions. Literally two days later, BA cancelled our flights to Cape Town, AirBNB voided our accommodation booking and Boris announced lock-down.

This was a predicament. We had now made ourselves homeless and we had no onward travel options. Should we try and wriggle out of our landlord obligations and just stay on in our house? I had left my job and was unemployed, but Menna could cancel her sabbatical and carry on working, keep some money coming in. I would be homeschool teacher / cook / cleaner / hairdresser / house husband. This seemed to me to be a poor substitute for a year of global travel. If we don’t go now, I reasoned, we lose our chance to escape. We have everything lined up and ready. If this chance slips through our fingers then I will need to get a new job and that would lock me in for at least a couple of years. Arthur goes to secondary school next autumn. The kids will hit adolescence before we know it. We would be stuck in South London at least for the rest of the year. Maybe forever! If we do go now, Menna counters, we will have nowhere to live, no countries we can visit. What kind of round the world trip will this be?

The debate lines up like this. In the blue corner, Menna. Her natural instincts orient towards care, caution and realism. She has deep and admirable qualities of loyalty, responsibility, duty and care. She is a doctor by heart as well as by training, it means putting others first, being careful, methodical and not taking crazy risks. Motto: better safe than sorry.

In the red corner: myself. Big ideas, head in the clouds, low on detail. Eternal unwarranted optimist in the most dire of situations. Very loosely grounded in reality, enemy of the practical, taker of unnecessary risks; believer in constant change and the winds of good chance. Breaker of bones, loser of phones, intolerant of moans. Motto: Fuck it, what’s the worst that can happen?

Together we are a formidable team. I break and Menna cures. I paint the colours and she does the shading. She is the rock and I am the wind. It does mean though that we find ourselves coming at a difficult decision like this from different sides. We talked it over for days, round and round, back and forth, up and down. We switched positions, laid red herrings, talked ourselves in circles then in squares. We would wake up in the morning to find the anguished tableaux of our late night indecisions written in wine bottles, chocolate wrappers and unwashed dishes. We couldn’t remember where we had ended, what positions we had manoeuvred ourselves into during the late hours, and so we would start the discussions afresh.

To take the leap in this environment was huge. It meant the kids leaving school and Morwenna leaving her job and all of us leaving our house. And we had nowhere to go! No borders were open. There were lockdown restrictions and logistical impossibilities. We certainly didn’t want to become vectors of the disease. Menna was fearsome in her application of the lockdown protocols and the responsibility of her position as a front line caregiver. She also felt a huge duty to continue her work at the hospital.

(Bizarrely the fear of actually catching coronavirus ourselves never really entered our consideration. I mean, we worried that we might inadvertantly transmit it to other more vulnerable people, but the idea that we would actually fall ill ourselves and maybe die – never! Menna was in the hospital on the front line every day, dealing with cases on the paediatric wards, fully exposed, colleagues dropping like flies all around her, bringing a viral load home to us every night. We didn’t really worry about it.)

In the end we found an uneasy compromise. We would postpone the rental date by six weeks. Menna would carry on working on the front line through the main surge of infections. Her team had a replacement doctor scheduled to start in June, which would make her surplus to requirements and a burden on the stretched departmental payroll. We also felt we owed it to our new tenants (stuck in compromised accommodation positions themselves) to honour the rental agreement that we had signed with them. We would head South, find a cottage near the sea somewhere, and hide away for a month or two and see what happened. Maybe we could find a border that we could slip our way through. Maybe we would be able to do a coastal tour of the UK, cleaning beaches, charting pollution, surfing. Maybe we would even settle somewhere. Camper vans were discussed. Caravans were emphatically rejected.

We rented a house through AirBnB in Cornwall and then they cancelled on us at the last moment, saying that vacation travel was now forbidden and they worried about what the locals would say. ‘But this isn’t a holiday, this is essential travel’ we cried, ‘we have nowhere else to live’. They just laughed evilly. We booked another one and that cancelled too.

It appeared that no-one wanted us. There were only a couple of weeks now until we needed to leave, so we did an emergency call around family and friends looking for unused properties we might squat in / spare rooms / gardens where we could squeeze a tent. Menna wan’t sleeping well at this point, envisioning terrible months living off the land, illegally pitching our tent after dark in industrial wastelands, on verges, down in quarries. She could see us cooking roadkill beneath an underpass on the A303, while torrential rain sent oily rivulets into our sleeping bags. We would be carting our possessions around in overflowing bin bags, always on the move, just one step ahead of the lockdown enforcement officers and their snarling Dobermans.

It one of Menna’s doctor colleagues that saved us in the end. I write this now from her amazing surfer bolthole in North Devon (a million thanks Sophie and Drummond!). The news that we had SOMEWHERE that we could stay, even just for a few weeks, changed everything for us.

In the good old days Menna and I rolled as Dinkies – double income, no kids – flitting around the world, propelled by a instinct for the path less travelled, a preference for spontaneity and an infallible belief that whatever the challenges, we would always land on our feet. We are now Nitkinhs – No income, two kids, no house – but I find the underlying principles to be fairly similar.

One of my rules in life is that if you get the opportunity to define a new socio-demographic status then you should always jump at it. The Nicholl Nitkinhs, it has a certain ring about it. Anyway, fuck it, what’s the worst that can happen?

False Start #3. America

We were moving to New York! We knew the drill pretty well by this time, the order of things. We knew when to notify the schools (never), how to spot the psychos on the ex-pat forums (exclamation marks!), when to hand in Menna’s notice (last moment), how to sell it to the kids (‘listen, you’ve both heard about cowboys right?’).

We flew to New York as a family in Easter 2019. We met the relocation people and spent a couple of fairly depressing days looking around heinously expensive apartments in Brooklyn, creaky mansions in New Jersey, posh villages in Connecticut. We found the gushing realtors extremely irritating and had to reassure ourselves that many Americans weren’t like that. We dined out with all the company execs. I had the kids on best behaviour and looking angelic for dinner with my boss and his family, and I listened in awe while Menna spun a finely calibrated sob story about how she would be forced to leave her beloved career to move to the US, and tried to pump up the relocation package.

Guess what? After nearly a year of visa application delays (Trump!), this one fell through too. Shift of focus to Asia..[bleep]…maintain balance of executive team across key hubs…[static hiss]… investors want stability prior to transaction year…[click]… the general direction of overheads being inverse to desired trajectory… [system overloading] safeguarding P&L in a transaction phase… [error, CRASH, malfunction, death!]

This is when we started cooking something new. Screw the corporate relocation. Screw business generally. I needed to extricate myself from high-stress leadership positions that suck the hours out of your soul and then screw you like a wingnut. Menna needed to take a break from her all-consuming hospital work. We needed to spend more time together as a family and we needed to do it somewhere that wasn’t South London.

That’s when we hatched project Global Domination. We would simply quit our jobs, rent out our house and remove the kids from school. We would raid the rainy day fund. We would get primitive and nomadic for a year or so. Become masters of our own destiny again!

We would start in Capetown and then spend some months under canvas, off-roading our way up to Nairobi, where we had friends who would give us refuge. Then a boat across to Goa where we knew people who owned a yoga retreat. We would ride the railways up through India, trek the Himalayas in Nepal and work our way overland to South East Asia. After Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam we would hit Australia, probably about nine months or so into the trip, and then stay there for a while crashing with all the people we knew out there before onwards to New Zealand, Japan, home…

(…or maybe not. Menna needed the reassurance of a well ordered itinerary and a clean endpoint. I liked the ambiguity of an open-ended trip that could conceivably go on for years. Decades even!)

The beauty of this plan was that we were totally in control of all the elements at last. There was no relocation schedule, no corporate investment, no sign-off from the board. We had no timelines or outside dependencies. Barring some major unseen disaster, nothing could go wrong. We booked our flights for Capetown on April 15th 2020.

It felt like just the right moment to do this. I could see some clouds on the horizon that didn’t look great for business – there had been some kind of virus coming out of Wuhan which looked like it might impact our China revenues for a month or two. It could make it harder to hit our targets next year.

It was time to get out. Time to fly!

False Start #2. Australia

We tried again a couple of years later. I had rolled through another couple of roles at this point, including a global position at a new firm which I had thought would cure my longstanding wanderlust. I left that business after a couple of years, having been made to ‘restructure’ my sales team deeply as part of a merger with our parent company (code for firing lots of people) and I was feeling pretty burned out. I restructured myself out last, like the Captain leaving a sinking ship right? Or the last drunk out of the dive bar. I thought I’d like a bit of a break from business.

At this point it felt like the right moment to dust of the old escape manual again. This time we had Australia in our sights. It would be an easy move. We had a gang of friends there, it was an English speaking country, their medical system was compatible with ours so Menna could find work. They had epic surf, great food, awesome wildlife and a healthy outdoors kind of vibe that felt like the antithesis of our urban life at this point.

The plan was contingent on Menna this time. She would be the breadwinner, inserting herself into some high powered paediatric role maybe in Melbourne Children’s Hospital. Visas would be thrown at us and I would ride along as the plus-one.

Maybe I would find work out there, but then again maybe I would not. I had long been nurturing a secret fantasy where I became a ostensibly a stay at home Dad, but used the hours of free time while the kids were at school to 1) secretly do a PhD and then make everyone call me Doc. 2) Set up a series of extremely low-effort but highly lucrative business which would pretty much run themselves. 3) Become fluent in Mandarin and various South East Asian dialects which I would learn via flirtatious chat with our attractive polyglot Filipina nanny. 4) Become an online chess hustler.

While I could see no obvious flaws to the plan, it unravelled nonetheless. We were undone this time by the twin forces of bureaucracy and boredom. The Australians wanted to stem the tide of disaffected doctors who were streaming off that rusting old aircraft carrier that is the NHS, and seeking a life of sunshine, reasonable hours and decent pay in the Southern Hemisphere. They had put in place several administrative hurdles that were guaranteed to delay any job application for at least a year. So we gritted our teeth and filed the paperwork needed to get Menna’s certificates and qualifications translated into the Australian vernacular.

In the meantime however I had got bored. A couple of months of ‘finding myself’ involved doing morning yoga with lots of old ladies at the David Lloyd, drinking kale smoothies and listening to podcasts on poetry. It was winter and no-one else wanted to play. Even the kids were absent most of the day at school before coming home to participate reluctantly in various elaborate projects I’d dreamed up in their absence.

After a few months of this I’d had enough of kicking around so I set up a company (Outlaw Strategy since you ask) and prepared to kick off the first of my low-effort high-reward side bets. A consulting business requires no upfront capital, no equipment and no assets other than an ability to look smart, weave a sharp story and use arcane business jargon proficiently. I have this in spades.

My first gig was a three month strategy project, advising a fast growing research firm on how to structure their commercial team. It was a fantastic company, well run and full of smart people who basically already had all the answers and were dying to tell you so. I travelled around all their offices, interviewing the troops and synthesising their wisdom. Stir it all up, sprinkle a few insights, some infographics, a gant chart or two and a pinch of business homilies, then prepare to ping over your invoice and ride off into the sunset. Consulting is the FUTURE I thought to myself.

Somehow they pulled a fast one on me though and before fully thinking it through, or even really getting Menna’s sign-off, I’d somehow accidentally signed a contract to become their Head of Sales. I was now on the hook to implement the convoluted strategy that I had cooked up, which, I now realised, was highly ambitious and overly elaborate. I had also committed myself and family to relocate to New York the next year.

Australia was off.

False Start #1. Africa

By 2015 we knew that we needed to wake up, unplug and take off again before it was too late. The trouble was that we were far too old and risk averse by now just to disappear for another year of bumming around, rinsing the credit cards and booking sofas for the crash landing. Do that with two kids in tow? That would be nuts. But once the notion of adventure gets into you, it lodges deep in your guts and gnaws at you like a parasite, until all you hear is the rain on the skylight, drumming out the word escape, over and over, as you lay awake in the night.

The safe option at this point seemed to be some kind of corporate escape, (I didn’t see the oxymoron lying like a bear trap in the grass). We would get my business to fund our adventures. So with a bit of manoeuvring I managed to insinuate myself into a new role as Head of Africa, spearheading an international expansion plan for my employer. The job would require our family to relocate to Johannesburg and then travel all over Sub-Saharan Africa setting up partnerships and channel networks. Menna wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of living behind barbed wire in what was, everyone delighted in telling us, one of the most dangerous and crime ridden cities in the world, but I mean, fuck it! We’re talking about Africa!

I took her on a carefully choreographed visit to see some of the premium gated communities out there, I showed her how we might live across the road from the condo where Oscar Pistorius gunned down his girlfriend. This wasn’t the selling point I had hoped.

We both found it hard to live with the idea of being locked away in a luxurious bubble with a certain narrow demographic, rather than being properly immersed in the local culture. It didn’t feel like real travel.

In the end I laid out a contorted proposition: yes, we would live fenced away in a affluent oasis with high-tech security and posh neighbours (horrifying), but down the road there would be a townships and shanty towns (fascinating), a highly diverse population and rich revolutionary culture (inspiring), Menna might work in one of the world’s largest children’s hospitals (galvanising), and only some hundreds of miles away there was the Okavango Delta, Zambesi river, Namibian salt plains, Victoria Falls and all of the forests and savannahs of Sub Saharan Africa (irresistible!).

The prospect of moving to Africa put a thousand volts through our humdrum commuter existence. Quitting jobs, saying goodbyes, opening up tentative friendships on the expat forums, telling making travel plans and packing lists, contacting storage companies, pulling the kids out of school, looking for tenants. I was shuttling back and forth to Johannesburg laying the groundwork, interviewing people, giving rousing speeches in the local office about how bright the future looked.

Shame the whole thing fell through.

We found out barely a month before our departure. The oil price crash of late 2014 hit my company hard (in credibility as much as anything – we had world famous oil economists and forecasters who had totally not seen this coming) and most of our revenues in Africa were derived from exploration projects which subsequently dried up. The Rand devalued massively which screwed all the project forecasts. Furthermore there was a big merger going on behind the scenes. It was the kind of thing that happens in public listed companies ,where disturbances in the macro environment impact revenues, the share price dips, board members panic, risk aversion rockets, investments are cancelled and all the implications of this flow mechanically downstream. The pieces on the board get rearranged, doors open and shut, lives are reoriented, escape routes get blocked.

Some Context

I should probably explain how this all came to pass.

We are perennial escapologists, Menna and I. We met some sixteen years ago, at a point when I was already deeply committed to an escape plan. I had had enough of my unfulfilling tech sales job, I needed to get away from an unhealthily hedonistic social life and mostly I wanted to quieten the various internal voices who muttered about the slippage of time and the death of ambition.

The plan was simple: 1) I would tone down the partying quite considerably 2) I would destroy my sales targets and get a serious bonus, 3) I would then give work the old two finger salute, jack everything in and fly off to Costa Rica. 4) I would spend a year alone, living an ascetic life in a place somewhere where the rainforest met the water, surfing, meditating and writing a novel which would probably change the course of modern literature.

There was only one snag to this otherwise flawless plan, and Menna was it. We collided in a nightclub one Friday evening (a relapse) and before long she was entwined around my life like ivy round a drainpipe. I hadn’t intended to get romantically involved with anyone at this point. I certainly hadn’t intended to fall in love. It was a serious spanner in the works.

I remember 2004 as a highly intense year. I was planning a twelve month solo mission, I was working long hours, chasing an elusive bonus which I needed to fund the project, and all the while submerging deeper and deeper into a new relationship. An explosive relationship at that, with wild surges and retractions, always dancing around our commitments, my future departure unspoken but present between us like a doleful prophesy. In the end I conceded. One night in Paris, in a restaurant somewhere in the Latin Quarter, I took the plunge and asked Menna to come with me. She told me she had already bought tickets.

And so it happened. We escaped together, barely knowing each other really.

I never managed to write the epoch-defining novel. It turned out that Costa Rica had a surf culture which was even more consuming than the scene we had escaped in London. We had no jobs, no itinerary, no deadlines, but we had a Jeep and we had surfboards and this was all we needed. We probably fell too much in love with the idea of chasing storms and adventures. We wandered barefoot through Central America following waves and winds and any roads that would take us away from reality.

I look back at it now and it all has a dreamlike feel. The memories are sun-bleached and faded like over-exposed photos; the throbbing reggaeton soundtrack has been softened by time. I can see a collage of gradated forest landscapes fading into mist; filaments of sunlight deep in glass-green waves. I remember eating fresh-caught tuna with lime and chilli, drinking cold beers, making huge bonfires on the beach. Howler monkeys screamed at us in the night. Menna giggled at some now-forgotten joke, as we floated drunkenly on our backs in phosphorescence.

We didn’t see another human for two wild weeks on a hidden beach in Nicaragua, but we shared our shack with tarantulas and tree frogs. I got to feel the cold squirm of a stingray under my foot in the shallows, the burn of a jellyfish tentacle across my back; I knew the smell of mangoes rotting in the sun. I lent my surfboard to a ragged kid in El Salvador to use in a contest and watched as he carved crazy lines which I could never dare dream of copying. We arrived by boat into a Panamanian island archipelago, late at night, and we saw it glitter and recede on the water like a mirage, like the afterglow of a firework.

We are the vientos de poniente that rise on the sea; we are dustballs rolling on the Mexican highway. A wave forms and grows and we are flotsam on its crest. It breaks in thunder and spray, leaving some of the foamy residue to seep into the pools of memory, while the rest is pulled in riptides back out to sea. Somewhere in the Nicaraguan badlands I crashed our Jeep into a truck, and I can still see Menna perched bravely on the crumpled bonnet, clutching a machete as she guards all of our worldly possessions. Her face fades into darkness as I walk off down the road to get help.

It was one of the most surreal and epic years imaginable. It turned us into quite different people.

Our plan in 2006 was to return home when the money ran out (check), sofa surf until we could get jobs and our own place (check), and then save up enough to move swiftly onwards to New Zealand or Argentina for the next big escape (fail).

I can only assume someone slipped something into our drinks, because we woke up ten years later, married, with two children, a cat and a mortgage, living deep in suburbia. I had a career in sales leadership and Menna was a senior doctor, holding down several important-sounding posts in a large hospital. We were numb, institutionalised and fully wired back into the system. I found myself driving an German SUV – even though we lived in South London where the closest thing to a mountain was the ramp onto the South Circular. Our beloved surfboards caught only dust and shadows in our garage, gradually sinking under a pile of junk. They looked reproachfully at me whenever they caught my eye.

I know the skies exploding with lightning, and waterspouts

And the surf and the currents; I know the dusk,

The dawn, exalted as a population of doves

And at times I have seen all that man believed he saw!

Arthur Rimbaud. 1871.

The Devonian Era

We arrived once night had fallen.

We had made a strategic stop for fish and chips on the beach at the next town down the coast, ostensibly to stretch our legs and give the kids a run on the dunes, but really to wait for sunset so we could sneak into our new accommodation undetected. We had felt self-conscious enough driving across country during lockdown. Non-essential travel was strictly vetoed, and nothing about our car, loaded as it was with surfboards, luggage and bikes, indicated that this journey was in any way essential.

(“It is essential though isn’t it, right?” we reassured each other periodically).

The roads had been impressively empty throughout the five hour journey. I had known that a police cavalcade could materialise at any moment and I was mentally committed to the high speed chase, screeching off the motorway to fish-tail our way down miles of dirt roads (those poorly-fastened bikes would come cartwheeling off around a bend and take out at least two of the pursuing patrol cars), along to the inevitable finale where cornered and desperate, I would be forced to drive the car off the Dorset cliffs into a technicolour sunset, with Camilla Caballo playing full volume on the radio.

I hadn’t fully gone through this plan with the family, but I felt they would be supportive. It didn’t come to pass though, and as we pulled up to pick up our pre-ordered takeaway, I felt kind of disappointed. Where was the challenge? The confrontation? The clever wordplay with the forces of the law? (“Well, why don’t you define ‘essential’ to me officer? I believe it derives from the Latin essentia meaning the essence of the thing. Well, stick your nose in here officer and smell my essence of musk car freshener! Yes, thank you. We will be on our way”) It almost felt like the journey had been too easy, like we had been lured into a trap.

This is just the start though, I told myself grimly. We would certainly face a difficult reception in the little Devon town that was to be our first stop. Up until this point, our destination had been completely untainted by the mark of corona, and so they would inevitably be resistant to strangers from the big city, potentially bearing plague and notions of an integrated European market.

I knew pretty broadly how this script would play. We’ve all seen the movies. It would start fairly subtly, perhaps a slight turn away whenever we met anyone on the street, maybe a refusal to meet my eye as I piped out a cheery good morning to a cloaked fellow walker in the mist. Conversation at the Post Office would suddenly halt as we walked up, and the participants would disperse silently in different directions. The door would bang shut and the sign flip over to ‘Back Soon!’ In handwritten gothic script, the cheery exclamation mark giving just enough encouragement to sustain a two hour wait in the drizzle before we would finally give up and go home. The Post Office would be the only source of food in the village of course, so we would be forced to live off chewing gum, wasabi peas and that melted box of Celebrations for the first few days before we could get an Ocado slot.

We would decide to ignore the provocations though and keep on making friendly overtures, still believing that we could overcome the hostility with dignity and good nature. That’s the Nicholls for you.

By the second week it would become apparent that this strategy wasn’t going to work. The locals would start crossing themselves as we came into view. I would be barged off my surfboard in the line-up by a man whose features would be hidden by a black neoprene hood. One morning we would awake to find dead seagulls had been hung from our car wing mirrors. We would find strange wicker tokens placed in the recycling bins outside. The wind would reveal crude desecrated likenesses of ourselves, made of driftwood and whalebone, half-buried in the sand dunes behind the beach. Arthur would go down to the local skatepark and return covered in tar, with a mess of feathers and crisp wrappers stuck to his head. He wouldn’t ever speak about what had happened.

It would be when they broke into our house in the early hours, masked and carrying flaming torches, to put a noose around my neck that I would finally have had enough.
“My wife is a fucking key worker!” I would shout, “She’s NHS for Christ’s sake, a doctor. Front line!”
The chanting would stop.
“Hospital or GP?” Would come a cautious voice.
“Hospital! She saves lives man. Now we’re homeless. We’re supposed to be travelling around the world but it’s all fallen through because of the virus. We’ve got nowhere else to go. We should be in Cape Town doing a wine tour in the Garden valley or a shark dive or something. But this… this… this is all we have now.” I would be sobbing pretty hard at this point.
“Hear that lads? We’ve got a bloody doctor in town! God save the NHS! Sorry mate, thought you were second homers, just down for half term like. We’ll tidy up after ourselves shall we?”

That was what we expected.

So once we had got to our new home, unloaded the car in the darkness, quickly swallowed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, then found the oblivion of sleep for a few hours, I wasn’t surprise to hear a heavy knock on the door at 8am. I arose to meet the lynch mob in my boxer shorts, my hair defiantly un-styled.

It turned out to be the police. Or rather, a policeman. A fresh-faced honest-looking lad of a copper with straw coloured hair. The sun shone brightly behind him.
“I have been led to understand that this isn’t your primary residence,” he offered by way of an opening gambit.
I took a measured breath.
“My wife, officer, is a key worker…”

The Great Escape

We have attempted an escape, despite it all.

We have emptied our house of clutter, history and mess. We have repainted the walls to erase our scuffs and marks; mowed the lawn to soften the yellow rings left by Arthur’s tent; regrouted the bathroom where the kids swamped the bath nightly. We have unstuck the windows that we had accidentally painted shut, so now the air circulates differently through the hallways. We have dismantled the pile of equipment, tools, kites and kit so that our adventure junkyard is just a garage again, swept, sad and empty except for a few mysterious contraptions hiding among the cobwebs in the eaves.

Art, books and beds have all been sent into storage. Crates of food got boxed and banked. Jars of out-of-date pickles, mustards and chilli sauces had to be emptied in the sink and their lumpy contents finger-forced down the plug hole.

We have given away and thrown away literally thousands of toys, gadgets, tools, utensils, cords, containers, magazines, cushions, chairs, games and a whole lifetime supply of pens. Most stuff ended up on the pavement outside for passers-by to pick up. An amazing amount of random items went that way, most of it under cover of darkness. You get a kind of embarrassed feeling as all the clutter of your life lines up on the pavement outside like a public confession of your Amazon addictions. You realise just how much unnecessary crap you accumulate without thinking and you make serious promises to quit buying so much rubbish and get more eco. The future lives we will lead will be barefoot in the sunshine with no need for material goods. Even as our possessions disappeared silently away into the community we were jabbing at our phones, ordering more things online for next-day delivery. We needed a roof rack, a spare set of bungee cords, more bin bags, a battery pack, cables. We ignored the irony, deferred our good intentions and clicked through to checkout.

We have made some effort to throw out too all the opinions and advice that have been gifted to us over the last few months. The protests, amusement and disbelief. The raised eyebrows, looks of horror, guffaws (You’re going travelling? In the middle of an pandemic?) We’ve dealt with our own fears and misgivings. At least I think we have, though to be honest we’ve talked things around in so many circles now, I have no idea what is going on in everyone’s head. How much are the kids aware of what is coming up? They understand we’re no longer headed for Africa, or Australia, but driving instead to South West Britain for an indeterminate period until better options present themselves. Do they lie awake worrying about what this means? Is Menna really as on board with this crazy plan as she says she is? Am I? There comes a point though when you are simply committed, and speculation and worry is no longer helpful. We stopped talking about the future some days ago, and now conversation is tight and practical.

We burnt all of our confidential papers in a steel dustbin behind the garage one evening last week. Bank statements, bills, payslips, reviews, reports and appraisals went up in smoke as we sat around on camping chairs, listening to old rock n roll. I was chugging beer and poking the flames, all bare-chested, soot-smudged and channeling some fairly primitive vibes. We went a bit nuts that night. It felt heavy and symbolic, like we were burning our longboats on the beach in a flamboyant gesture of no return. Even the kids ran off to get their old school work to throw on the flames. There was some nostalgia in the air too; as though a part of our history and identity were somehow encoded into that P45 from when I got fired in 2002, the insurance policy from that trip to Bali. I manage to save my birth certificate at the last moment. I didn’t get to my GSCE certificates in time.

And then it was all over, all traces of ourselves removed from the property. We had vacuumed up all the scatter of our lives and condensed everything we needed down to one heavily laden car. Two surfboards on the roof, two bikes, two skateboards, one tent. A bag each of clothes. A bag of wetsuits and towels. Another bag of wires and chargers. A box of games. A box of school books. Two yoga mats. One laptop, three iPads, two Kindles, three phones. A first aid kit. Assorted soft toys. Some Lego.

I was grinning with what I could tell was a slightly manic air as we pulled off. The moment seemed hugely significant. I could feel a release of tension surging through my shoulders and arms, the physical aftermath of many days of non-stop packing, sorting, shifting, burning, dumping, heavy-lifting, and very little sleep. Menna was sobbing quietly beside me, mainly I think about the cat, who we had had to leave behind with our neighbour. Two pairs of wide eyes stared back at me in the rearview mirror, ecstatic at first glance, then worried and shell-shocked.

We drove off from our home of the last seven years and away from our jobs, our schools, our friends, our nicely ordered well-structured lives. It was 2:30pm and the sun was technically past it’s zenith, so I think you could legitimately say we drove off into the sunset. We headed off into the Covid-ravaged wastelands of lockdown Britain, homeless, jobless, and with no particular plan to speak of.
“It’s going to be fun” I kept saying to no one in particular. “It’s going to be such fun.

An hour or so later the mood had shifted considerably. The car was full of chatter and sunbeams as we trundled our way southwards down empty roads. Anything could happen! Drawn by ley lines and wild pagan impulses we swung off the A303 for an impromptu stop at Stonehenge. It was cordoned off with red and white tape.

Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.

Kris Kristofferson