Heyy everyone!! I’m so sorry that it’s been awhile, I’ve been crazy busy lately and will definitely be back with a life update soon as I’ve got loads to tell you all, but for now I thought I’d share the second chapter of the book I’m writing to tell my family’s story. For those of you who haven’t read Chapter One, you can find it HERE. Enjoy and please do let me know what you think x
Our journey began for real in late April 2019. With one turn of a key in the ignition and the low rumbling of a fifty year old Morris Traveller engine, we were on our way to Hull. A new journey was beginning, a journey that was the next step in lifetimes spent searching for solutions and, although our life experiences and motivation were all very different, each one of us was ready for a challenge.
When I look back now, I see our challenge as a whole and as this incredible, epic, life transforming journey, but when you break it down, it was and still is a tapestry of daily ups and downs and small connections with human beings. It was not completed in leaps and bounds, but in lots and lots of small steps. Small steps which eventually led up to all of us sitting in a tiny Morris campervan, about to embark on a challenge that, to our knowledge, no one else had ever been crazy enough to take on.
What holds so many of us back from doing so many things is the fear of stepping outside our comfort zones, of going against what we’ve always thought of as the norm, of choosing to live our lives differently. We’re so often afraid to take the first step towards creating a better life, for us and for others, even when we know it’s the right thing to do. As a family, a big part of us taking on this journey was to show anyone watching that ordinary people can make a difference and that if we could do this crazy challenge, imagine what they could do! In choosing to live differently, to focus on lifting those in need as a priority and not just an afterthought, we wanted other people to look at us and see that we aren’t extraordinary or special, we’ve just made a choice, and they can too.
I remember it all feeling so huge and so unknown and so full of possibilities at first. If you know anything about us, you’ll know that we’ve never been a family who’ve shied away from living life differently or going completely against the norm in pretty much every aspect of who we are, but there is something about that first physical step on any journey that feels so significant. You can spend months and months planning your big adventure and talking over every little detail, imagining what your step into the unknown is going to be like, but nothing prepares you for how it really feels to be on the threshold of change, to not know what’s around the next corner or the hundreds of corners after that, to not have anything more defined to stick to than just the UK coastline and a tenner a day.
On our way up to Hull we needed somewhere to stop off so we pulled up in the car park of the Gordon Boswell Romany History Museum in Lincolnshire. As we ducked out of the streaming rain into the huge warehouse to see if anyone was around, we found ourselves surrounded by a massive collection of the most beautiful traditional travellers’ wagons and other memorabilia from the Romany gypsies’ colourful culture and history. As we wandered around, an old lady came out from behind a wagon and introduced herself as Margaret, the owner of the museum and the wife of the late Gordon Boswell, a well known and loved advocate for the Romany people and their way of life.
We spent the day sheltering from the storm with Margaret and her daughter Lenda, both strong, proud and incredibly generous Romany women. At first, they didn’t really know who we were and what we were doing there, but after we explained that we were just about to set off on a journey of our own, they were so eager to tell us all the stories of the journeys their people had taken – be it all the way from northern India over a thousand years or to the Appleby fair over the course of a few weeks.
Their hospitality was incredible. As the high winds brought on by Storm Hannah made the thin metal walls of the warehouse groan and creak, they made us the first of countless cups of tea on our journey and told us all about their incredibly rich and diverse history, all the negative and false stereotypes and misunderstanding they face and how hard they’re working to educate people and show them who they really are. Just sitting round the table talking to them for one day, we could see the strong and long held values the Romany gypsies have, how genuine they are, how they look out for each other, their hospitality and their unbreakable family ties.
Wandering around the museum itself was like stepping into another world, a world of simple, timeless colour and vibrancy. Gordon is infamous for how he could capture people with his stories and you can still hear his voice on a film that plays on repeat as you gaze in wonder at everything the museum holds. I remember thinking how that must be for Margaret, to spend her days amongst all those memories, with his voice narrating it all.
We felt a strong connection to these people – not just because of their wandering way of life – but because of what they value. We got a small glimpse into that in the time we spent with Margaret and Lenda and their stories of days gone by and their current very large family. We experienced how hospitable they were when they let us stay the night and when Margaret came running out the next morning to humbly give us a very generous donation to CatZero.
Hospitality, family and welcoming people no matter what their background or circumstances have always been really important to us and a huge part of who we are. For a long time, we’ve just put our beliefs into action in our everyday lives, whether that be by making sure our home is always somewhere that people can drop in for a cup of tea and a chat or whether that be through cooking for all our neighbours and providing the opportunity for them to forge friendships. We’ve always strived to be the catalyst for connection as we know how powerful it is, but we haven’t always been successful and the things we value are often hard to come by in general society. We’ve always searched for this true sense of community, both consciously and subconsciously, I guess. Maybe this would be the chapter of our lives where we’d discover it. Margaret and Lenda had given us hope, even though our challenge hadn’t even officially begun.
And that wasn’t the only major thing that had happened before we’d even started. We were having issues with Mo. As we swung into a park just south of Hull and Dad got underneath the van to investigate, we discovered a hole in our rear axle which was leaking oil all over the place. On top of that, we’d been experiencing some undiagnosed problems with the engine, which was really frustrating as we’d had it all checked out and serviced before we left. Little did we know that this was only the beginning in what would be a saga that would span pretty much the entire journey and thousands of miles, involve many mechanics, breakdowns (from both us and the vehicle) and the kindness of strangers, and result in us zigzagging back and forth across the country in a desperate bid to get Mo fixed. Unaware of what was to come, we temporarily patched up the axle with some tinfoil and a butterknife (brought along not for buttering bread, but for oiking limpets off of rocks as we didn’t know when our £5 a day for food would need supplementing). The engine problems were a bit more worrying though, as we had no idea what was causing them. We had no choice, we had to keep on going. We had to reach Hull.
From the moment we pulled up on the dock at Hull marina, all leapt out of Mo and climbed the stairs to CatZero’s brightly painted offices, we were welcomed into the CatZero family with the same enthusiasm, smiles and openness that they welcome everyone. As we sat around the table with the team drinking tea, Louie the famous therapy whippet at our feet, people constantly popping in to say hi, I felt like we were really doing something that mattered. That feeling was only amplified by getting to see CatZero’s work in action when Pete took us along to a celebration event for the participants who’d just finished one of CatZero’s programmes.
Seeing all these people, young and old, who’d had a really tough start in life or fallen on hard times just due to their circumstances, stand up and talk about how CatZero had changed their lives, showed them what they were capable of, believed in them when no one else did (least of all themselves), taught them skills, given them a support network, pushed them out of their comfort zone and helped them build themselves a future, was so motivating. Seeing their newfound confidence, even when their voices trembled slightly as they stood up to speak, and the deep bonds they’d obviously forged as a team, I couldn’t stop smiling. They talked about all their highlights – from going sailing after never having even stepped foot on a boat before to cooking for and eating with all the local businessmen and women at their pop up cafe after never having cooked hardly anything in their lives and from doing outdoors team building activities like raftbuilding and camping to gaining loads of qualifications to help them get into work or education.
After the presentation, we hung around chatting and everyone was overwhelmingly supportive and grateful for what we’d decided to do on CatZero’s behalf. I remember talking to a couple called Lee and Katie who shook mine and Evan’s hands over and over again, telling us that we were their role models for, in their words, ‘giving people who want to change their lives the opportunity to do it’. It was the same when we met Jim, an incredibly successful businessman who was one of the three founders of CatZero. He came up and shook our hands with tears in his eyes and told us that, even though he’s had such a prosperous career, founding CatZero was the best thing he’s ever done.
Over those few days in Hull, we also got to hang out with and really get to know Callum and Caz, two young people whose lives have been completely turned around by CatZero.
Before he joined one of their programmes a few years back, Callum was addicted to drugs and alcohol, had fallen out with his family and was homeless. He’s now working for CatZero fulltime as a really positive role model for other young people who want to turn their lives around. He’s a capable and talented sailor and actually completed a leg of the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race last year, from the UK to Uruguay, right across the Atlantic ocean. I was extremely jealous.
Up until a couple of years ago, Caz would never leave her bedroom, really struggled with her mental health, would drink and self harm, didn’t have a great relationship with any of her family and had given herself eight weeks before she took her own life. That’s when she discovered CatZero and they saved her life. She’s now one of the most positive people I know, constantly busy doing something to push herself out of her comfort zone or help others in her community, whether that be volunteering as a Beaver leader or inviting elderly neighbours for dinner. Having never been able to ride a bike or swim, she’s now part of a triathlon club and completed the Coast To Coast Cycle Challenge in 2019. After living on only chicken nuggets and toast all her life, she’s also faced her greatest fear – fruit!! Raspberries are now her absolute favourite food, but she’s still not too keen on kiwis. Not knowing how to eat it, she once bit into one like an apple and has had nightmares about it ever since!
Callum and Caz are both huge inspirations to me, with their motivation to change the lives of others and with everything they’ve overcome. They always had the potential to be such incredible people, but up until they came across CatZero, the world was geared against them and they were never given that opportunity. It goes back to a story Dad often tells us, of a boy he once met who wrote a note saying ‘I want to be a good boy, but there’s no one there to help me…’ and then crumpled it up and threw it away. Everyone should have a choice and that’s what CatZero gives them.
Soon, it was nearly time to leave our CatZero family behind and set off into the unknown. I write this now, looking back on our family sitting in Mo, staging our departure for the TV cameras whilst knowing we’d have to turn around and do it for real again soon. I now know everything that journey held in store for us and I’m so excited to live it all again and share it with you as I write, but at the time, we didn’t know what would happen over the course of the next ten months. In fact, we only planned on being on the road for six.
People had been telling us for months how crazy our challenge was. In fact, when we got our first taste of being on the radio in the BBC studio in Brighton, the host opened the interview by telling all the listeners that he was going to try and talk us out of it. Obviously he didn’t succeed. I guess in theory, we knew it was crazy and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but it didn’t feel reckless or even particularly scary. When it came to it, we knew it was the right thing for us to be doing, for CatZero and for our continued search for community and a way to truly make a difference. We’d taken lots of little steps to get this far, we could take this one too.
We took the step, turned the key, started the engine and, just like that, we were off.