I remember adults in big coats, saying in kind tones from far above, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ I never really knew, all I wanted to do was learn, to go to school, to big school, to university…but what I felt sure in my bones was that I was going to be someone great. I held onto illusions easily formed in the afterglow of winning the sack race, or getting first prize in the Women’s Institute Painting Competition, or always being the one to do the solo for parent events at secondary it even extended into Uni as I felt the warm glow of achieving the highest mark of my year group for my final year thesis. I somehow believed I would naturally succeed. I always had, so why would it be any different?
Even in my early twenties, travelling the world, I expected a glorious, fantastic future. In Hollywood, USA, I met an English man who took me around in his convertible. We went to see all the famous peoples’ houses on the hill underneath the big H O L L Y W O O D sign. None of them were quite what I was looking for. I wanted more, and I wasn’t joking.
And so at the age of 42 I’m in a caravan. There is no shower, no toilet. I wash in the river that is five metres away. There is no drinking water supply; we carry the water through three muddy fields. There is no road; we wheel-barrow our food in from internet shopping. Click Fresh! Ohh and there is no electricity apart from a little solar panel that lights up LED bulbs at night, that we don’t use much. White cold light. Candle light is so much warmer. There is a log fire made out of an old gas cylinder. There is wood. Plenty of.
And how do I feel?
I feel like I never want to go back. I said to Fabián recently, ‘I don’t think I ever want to have electricity again. Why would anyone live without candles?’ It is winter time now, we came here in summer. The long summer days were glorious, we would eat our dinner by the slate table Fabián set up on the beach by the river, watching the water flow by, watching birds – kingfishers my favourite – swooping up and down the river highway. We saw an otter once when we were on our cheese course. But now the nights come in around four thirty. Four thirty in the night. We light the candles. We cook. We eat together. We talk. We relax. We go to bed, tired. Often it is 7.30 in the night. Sometimes we make ourselves stay up till 9pm. Hibernation.
Living in nature one starts to come back to nature – the Nature of the earth, our own Nature, the Nature of living.
And I feel my body is different. It is stronger, more robust. People say, ‘You still living down there?’
‘Isn’t it cold?’
‘You get used to it,’ I say, ‘We’re still ‘swimming’ in the river.’
By swimming I mean: one of us says by the log fire in the caravan, ‘I need to wash,’ with a slight groan, slight apprehension, and slight excitement. The other one says, ‘Really?’ with admiration and slight fear of maybe having to do the same. ‘Yes,’ confirmation. No going back. Man/Woman or mouse? Then in the caravan, a psychological hurdle: having to take clothes off like you mean it. Putting on the warmest coat and taking towel. Deciding whether to use crocks (quicker to get back to warm feet in caravan) or wellingtons (a bit of complicated balancing to dry feet on beach but feet warmed earlier). ‘I’m going with the crocks.’ The other looking out through the window, or putting on a coat to watch from the safety of the land. Then the walk down the five metre path: a walk to the gallows. A bramble scratches a leg. A branch swipes for the face. Putting towel down and feeling the night air on my birthday suit. It is glorious. It is a bit scary. It is romantic, especially at night under the stars. It is very close to being very cold. Standing there on the beach, breathing in, trying to enjoy such freedom as the mind shouts, pleads, gets angry, ‘THIS IS STUPID, YOU ARE GOING TO HURT YOURSELF, YOU WILL GET SICK, THIS IS STUPID, STOP, STOP, STOP’. Not listening. Taking off clothes fast before I change your mind. Wading in, feeling the cold. It’s not so bad. It’s not so bad. Washing privates. Washing under the arms and then…the plunge. A shiver of delight and pain down the back. It’s actually OK. ‘GET OUT. GET OUT! GET OUT!!! THIS IS DANGEROUS.’ It’s actually OK. I could swim a bit. Two strokes. Cold. Cold. Getting colder. Is this too much? Exhilaration of tittering on the edge of a physical limit. I get out. As I walk out onto the beach – even when there is rain or hale – I think, ‘I could have stayed in longer.’ Suddenly the world is warm. My body is fine in this temperature. Except my feet. I waltz back to the caravan. ‘Not a biggie,’ I say, again. Surprised. Feeling wonderful. Feeling healthy. Feeling my body buzzing alive. ‘I’m so glad we have to do this every day.’
Apparently, and I think it is true, the cold dilates the veins in the body – probably in shock – to stop hypothermia. Going in everyday the veins get used to being a little more stretched (like a muscle) until they are naturally wider and wider. And I have to say, proudly, that now in December, living in an un-insulated tin caravan, I have not felt the cold. I mean, I feel my body reacting to the cold – I am not in a Tshirt running around in the snow – but the cold doesn’t affect me. And if you had ever seen me come back to England when I had been living decades in the Mediterranean, you will notice a huge difference. From squirming wimp to healthy adaption.
And then there is the immune system. Apparently cold water really helps to crank it up. Perhaps that is the buzzing feeling of wellness after the ‘swim’? Now research is suggesting that depression is connected not to synapsing in the brain but to immune system malfunction. Like when you get the flu and feel awfully sorry for yourself. When the immune system is down it affects our mood. The idea is that immune system was turned on for a good reason and somehow failed to turn off again, so that it is constantly firing, and tiring, and getting depressed. I think, based on the river bathing experience and walking through the fears of it, that cold water helps it reset.
But cold water bathing is not the only thing that is making me love living in the caravan. There are lots of health brilliances.
Apparently, the gut has more neurons than the brain. I read that somewhere. I also heard this week that the first amoeba in what is to become a human, forms into the intestine. It is the first thing created in us when we are a group of cells. The brain is in fact a growth out of the gut – which is why they are so connected.
According to my friend Hayley who is doing a course in herbal remedies and essences, people who live in the city have 60% less gut flora. The city life is too sterile. Not necessarily too clean, but too sterile. Meanwhile, here in caravan river tree land, we are not sterile. At all. For six months we have not used soap or shampoo. We have used clothes soap. We have washed our clothes in the river (and when it piled up in Paul Hussell’s house, bless his cotton socks). At first it was hard for me to live with this perceived level of ‘grime’. I was so used to washing my hands often, with soap and clear water. Let me remind you there is no toilet. Au naturel. Going to the toilet means finding a place. Often mean scratching your legs on spiky vegetable. Ohh and just going down to the beach for dinner means scratches, or a quick stab of pain of a nettle, or the fire in winter means a quick burn on the ends of a couple of fingers. And the cold water of the river washing is quite a lot of sensation. It makes the immune system wake up. I’m sure it does. In an amongst all this mud, country dirt, and nature’s sharper edges nothing happens. Nothing gets sceptic, nothing turns into anything more than a scratch. Stones fall on your toes. It hurts for a bit. It gets better. Head itches, scratch, stops itching. The intense cold of the river gives inner heat. Lack of running water makes you appreciate how much we actually have. Mosquito bites don’t bother too much after a while. Meanwhile over time, gradually, I feel more and more healthy, not the opposite.
While we sit in cars and go to sterile offices and eat food from supermarkets that have been thoroughly cleaned (to reduce as much as we can the effects of modern agricultural chemicals) and we’ve been somewhere public, ‘NOW WASH YOUR HANDS’ with the ‘THIS GEL KILLS 99% OF GERMS’ and gone home and had a shower within clean ceramic tiles – we’ve won the war on germs. But in winning, it seems to me, we’ve lost. Our immune systems have shut down. It is like the famous poem ‘The Orange Grove’ we had to learn it for GCSE Literature, where the prince in his refinery (who is obviously perfectly spotlessly clean) is sat on silk sheets reading an exquisite book. He hears the castle wall door not being knocked upon, but banged on. The brutes, the heathens, the men with clubs are here, ready to fight. The prince has forgotten to fight. We are left to guess who wins.
Coming soon like an old fashioned cinema and a 50p cornetto – Part II: What the River Dart, the woods and the caravan have taught me.