Beyond thrice nine lands and under the eaves of our Hedgespoken travelling theatre housetruck the frost has been jewelling the cobwebs stitched there, and all along these cold hedgerows the gorse and holly and quiet hazels have also been royally crowned by the jewels of winter.
Inside, we sit and breathe out after our first year on the road. What a year it has been! This time last year, the truck was still not finished, we awaited walls, and furniture, and our now walking and talking boy was still a baby! Many miles, trials, roads, fields, friends, strangers, firelit stories and shows later, we gather our experiences in and reflect on the speed at which time has passed, and the lessons we have learnt at the start of this grand life-adventure of ours, whilst also looking forward into 2017 and beyond to dream what might lie there for us by the waysides.
This has been a full, intense, wonderful, hard, challenging year, which has not left us a great deal of head space to write regularly here. So now, in the relative quiet of February, I am sitting down to tell you of the year just gone. Outside the window the branches are bare, and behind me the burner ticks comfortingly.
We moved in to the almost-finished truck in April 2016, set off at the start of May, and as those of you following our news will know, began our travels with many mechanical setbacks. This was extremely challenging on many levels: after a long-held dream had just been born, to be halted again and again before we could go anywhere was frustrating and disappointing beyond imagining, not to mention the practical and emotional challenges of breaking down in the middle of the road at dark in the rain with no phone signal and, unable to move the truck, trying to make dinner for your little one and get him to sleep in the (journey-crammed) back as cars and lorries speed past.
Eventually, with much gratefully-received help from friends, online vintage Bedford forums and sheer teeth-gritting determination, we unpicked the engine problem and began to “zoom” along. Early summer hedgerows and wayside flowers scouring our sides, we discovered the smallest lanes we could drive down. We avoided motorways as a rule, as our comfortable cruising speed lies around 25mph, and the A-roads and lanes are much more interesting, if narrow at times. Low overhanging branches are also a hazard to be aware of, and after a couple of chimney-grazing episodes, we now carry a pruning saw in the glove box! Our lovingly built craft has served us unfailingly – we are always toasty warm enough, and never suffer condensation on our double-glazed handmade windows. Over the summer we had plenty of electricity unless we parked for a long time in the shade. We have found the large water tank lasted us two weeks with careful use, which means that the old anxious hunt for taps and water-lugging are almost things of the past.
At last, we were beginning the adventure! Our days and senses were full: fresh green and deep red and dusklight and morninglight for the eyes, birdsong and loud vintage-petrol-engine chugging for the ears, wild wayside mint and exhaust fumes and morning coffee and rain-wet fields and woodsmoke for the nose, early honey porridge breakfasts and, later, finger-staining blackberries for the tongue, and for the hands: smooth painted metal, damp canvas, cold crumbly soil and tiny warm trusting, learning, grubby fingers.
Sometimes we parked with friends, sometimes we stopped in laybys and woodland pull-ins, getting good at spotting possible nice spots on the map in advance. We began slowly to get used to the unfolding/folding up routine that this artfully-engineered beast requires. Tom and I have come to divide the tasks to be done between us in a way that works smoothly around looking after a little one, though it hasn’t always been smooth! We have learned the hard way that leaving finding a park up for the night too late in the day is a mistake!
By the time we have found somewhere flat, near fields or trees and away from houses, off the road, with enough clear uncovered sky to power our solar panels, it is often getting dark, and we’re all getting a bit hungry and irritable. But we cannot then just hop in the back and make dinner – we usually still have the excruciating chocking-up task to do which means opening up the solar panels and tailgate and door at the back to retrieve the large stack of wood we use to put under the wheels for levelling, and then aligning them with the appropriate wheels before Tom jumps back in the cab to drive the truck up onto the chocks while I, babe on hip, yell instructions over the loud engine. Once it has been checked with a spirit level, I climb into the back and start to pass out all the chattels stacked inside for travel, which must be stored under the truck when we park: ladder, steps, trugs full of tools, tarps, hoses, spare boots, and goodness knows what else. Then the bedroom roof must be cranked up – this task goes to whomever has the most remaining arm-energy (it is heavy!), and then the inside can be reassembled – things put back on surfaces, chimney put back together, dust and crumbs swept up, stray fallen boxes of tea retrieved and put back on shelves, and bedroom remade, whilst helpful little hands behind me fill the teapot with dishcloths and boots with spoons… and then we can make dinner! Experience has taught us to begin the search for a park-up much earlier than just as dusk is coming in!
It has been a privilege setting out on this wheeled life again, but this time with a new little person in tow – the travelling life with a child is worlds away from the travelling life without one! Life on the road before was characterized for me by the slowing down of time – all the newness and change in my life causing experiences to sparkle and fall into my days like those of a child, wide-eyed at the world yet unseen.
This time, I get to see through the eyes of my son: each new tree, or track or view from the window as he sees it – fresh as an apple pip, seen first in the world by whomever slices open the apple; my little adventurer, archeologist in the roadside gravel, wonderer and wanderer and clamberer into life.
We have been blessed too in our year of travels to spend time with many good folk; this has fed our community-hungry hearts, and been a joy for our sociable boy. We have been parked up with creative and interesting friends who all have years of experience of living off-grid, on the road or in the margins, and we’ve been inspired and buoyed by the warmth and ingenuity of others who really get what it is we are trying to do.
Notable amongst these many chapters was our week with fifth generation woodsman Marcus Tribe in Mid Devon, who lives with fully-fought-for planning permission in a beautifully constructed wooden yurt-dwelling in his woods. There he lives off-grid, drawing water from a well, growing veg in his abundant garden and keeping many traditional woodcrafts alive, like bentwood chair making and peg carving – this set of pegs he made for us, using strips of old drinks cans as reinforcing bands. Our boy was drawn to his workshop like a moth to a flame, and we loved the meals and friendship shared. Best of all was the friday evening shower in the beautifully tiled shower room-cum-compost loo. First, two charcoal burners were lit outside to heat kettles. When they were boiling, the suspended bucket inside the shower with a tapered bottom and tap on the side was filled with just the right amount of hot and cold water, the now glowing charcoals were set inside the room to warm the air to well beyond comfortable, with music to accompany it all. And then we took it in turns to shower – a hot and lovely experience, with far more water than I expected. Once everyone had had their turn, we all shared a meal in Marcus’s lovely home.
In some places we parked, we could see fields and sheep and hills from our windows, in others: the sunset, the green verge, rain on the skylight, the sea.
In some places we had community, in others we were alone.
At the beginning of the summer our boy learnt to walk. And the wide green, beautiful, complicated, mosaic’d, singing world became his playground.
Once we had started to trust the engine would take us where we wanted to get to each day or two, we began to enjoy the journey and the stopping with a little less anxiety. Eventually we reached a destination in Buckinghamshire that we had intended to visit many months before, but finally, it was time for the truck to have its coat of decoration wrapped about it, courtesy of our amazing friends Ash and Sarah Bishop of the well-named Brilliant Sign Company. Here we parked the truck and watched while the lining and scrollwork were added and signboards hand-painted beautifully. This work was done in between the many other amazing jobs already underway at their sign workshop – traditional acid-etched glass signs for pubs – and many other wonders. We got to join in too, and I enjoyed learning the very different signwriting techniques for holding brushes and putting in letters and lines and scrolling – all much more sure and bold than an artist’s tentative tickle! Some of the lettering around the crown boards was put on with stencils which meant that we non-experts could do it quickly and leave in time to make it to our first festival over in Wales.
And so adorned we headed West, realising as we did so that we had now well and truly nailed our colours to the mast! Everywhere we drove and everywhere we stopped – laybys and petrol stations and carparks – people smiled, children pointed, folk approached us, enchanted, to ask what we were doing or to share stories of their own travels or younger days driving these old Bedfords in the Army.
It struck wonder and delight in people’s hearts as we travelled, and as the summer unfurled, we felt like a butterfly warming its newly uncocooned wings, and we drove excited and uplifted toward a season of festivals where we would be telling stories, sharing artwork and meeting many good people in the fields of flags.
There followed joyous days and nights at festivals and gatherings large and small. At some we were tucked in a corner, at others we were right in the middle. We talked to many many people, and our little one got to run about on the grass with other children, to go barefoot and barebodied under the summer sun, to chase bubbles and adventures and climb and swing and dance and delight in it all. We sat around fires and played music, we had others play their music on our stage, we got to appreciate many other folks’ crafts, and we sat on straw bales and had conversations into the long summer dusk.
Sometimes it was overwhelming having our home parked in the middle of a celebration, so we had to learn well to make good boundaries – when to have our door open and when to have it closed. Tom told stories under the sun and under the moon to many appreciative audiences, sometimes three times in one day. Mostly I played accordion to welcome the crowds, our boy ringing a bell and dancing beside me, and then we handed the stage to Tom to tell the stories. Occasionally in the evenings if our son was sleeping wrapped in blankets and sheepskins in the buggy beside the truck, I could join Tom on stage, with one ear cocked for any stirrings. We learnt that the stories told in the dark held more magic, and that people sometimes come back to hear the same story again and again.
The biggest gift we received from taking our wagon of story to all these places was that of community. Since having a child we have felt a longing for clan stronger than ever before, and yet our itinerant life takes us away from community ties and roots more than it does strengthen them. We felt greatly fed by the community warmth and nourishment of being around others under summer skies, sharing food and childcare and washing up and chatting about mechanics. And we realised that this is really what we are missing – Hedgespoken is just fledging, and its first journeys were wonderful, but it wants to become something much larger than what we originally dreamed, it seems. It wants other folk to weave its warp and weft too; as our dreams wander down the road a bit we catch glimpses of a scene: an entourage of beautiful vintage trucks and wagons and tents, hearth and story and music and craft and wonder and beauty, something old, and a community of creative folks, families, artists, cooks, mechanics, puppeteers, carpenters, blacksmiths, mothers, fathers, painters, dreamers, tightrope walkers, weavers, singers, playwrights, wheelwrights, tentmakers, tellers and askers, children and old ones, weedwives and stargazers, breadbakers, aunts, musicians, reckoners, fire-starters and shoe-polishers.
How do we make such a thing come to be? We don’t know yet… bit by bit we are planning, imagining and talking. There is much we need to learn yet about running a travelling theatre, let alone a circus! Any thoughts and advice greatly received! But something on the wind these dark days urges us to reach toward the magic we love best, and the ways and people that feel kin.
There is much else I could tell you, and we hope that you will continue to follow our travels, come and see our shows, and support us in any way you can. Please bear with us and our sporadic news while we wrangle all the many complex tangles that make up the fabric of this growing travelling theatre of wonders. We now have a new member of the collective – Phyllis, who, with her team, is holding the admin end of the rope from Scotland, and helping our sanity enormously. But we also have to juggle parenthood, money-earning, creative work, show planning and all life’s many practicalities living in a small space, to name just a few of the many threads. This winter we begun to work with other theatre companies to put on a showcase of storytelling, puppetry, music and theatre at Dartington, which was an enormous and exhausting success. As we move into 2017, whilst parked up on our friends’ farm for the winter, we are waiting on the results of two funding applications and busy devising various shows whilst we also create artworks and poems and wonder and dream who might come with us on our continuing journey.
Should you see us parked by the road one day, do come and knock, the kettle is always on. And should you in the meantime like to support our work, you can do so at our fledgling Patreon page. It feels a strange time in which to be alive, and it feels scary and bold and sometimes totally mad to be embarking on such an audacious undertaking as ours as the ground beneath our collective feet crumbles and shudders; despite it all to be trusting in beauty and some old heart-calling toward the life of a travelling storyteller, sitting fire-warmed beside kin under the stars at the end of the world, trying to remember together what came before.