Heyy my friends. How are we all? Crazy times huh? I have so so many thoughts and feelings right now, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to focus on the things I can do to create change, starting with myself and then reaching out to the people around me, supporting them, having conversations, reflecting and then acting. I often find myself mentally and emotionally exhausted because I feel like I have to be reacting wholeheartedly to every injustice I see or hear about, when really the most powerful thing I can do is to put my beliefs into action every single day of my life, in every choice and decision I make, because change is a long haul and it starts with me.
Anyway, if you follow me on Instagram then you may have seen me talking about how I’ve just published the second chapter of the book I’m writing about my family and the journey we’ve been on. I’m not publishing it the conventional way (but then since when did Gracie ever do anything the conventional way?) and instead I’m writing/posting it chapter by chapter on my family’s website for free. I’m doing this because it’s not just our story, but the story of everyone who has been part of it. I want it to be accessible to all.
Although I just published Chapter Two, I wanted to share Chapter One with you all first as I don’t know how many of you guys have read it. Chapter One is the very tip of the iceberg and a brief introduction into who we are as a family and why we live the way we do, but don’t worry, I’ll be back with the second part soon. For now though…make yourself a cuppa and enjoy Chapter One of ‘Round The UK On A Tenner A Day – One Family’s Journey To Make A Difference’
At first glance ‘Round The UK On A Tenner A Day – One Family’s Journey To Make A Difference’ might look like a very simple story. A family of five who took on the adventure of a lifetime in a self build van, all for a really good cause.
Look again and it might seem like a complicated story, a tangle of experiences and life-defining moments that all led up to us taking a step into the unknown to try and make a better world. We all have that story, every single one of us, maybe it’s leading up to something for us all.
It’s been an extraordinary journey and we have experienced extraordinary things, but at the heart of it is a totally ordinary family – a family who looked at the world around us and saw the desperate need for change. We still do. We set off hoping that we’d find solutions, determined to find the good that’s out there, be a part of it and encourage others to do the same, but we didn’t really know how. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
All my life, for sixteen years, I’ve sat and listened to stories told at a table beneath a sign that reads ‘it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’. It moves with us into whatever tiny home we live in at that moment in time and actually says ‘it’s better to light a candle than to curse’, perhaps because Dad never got around to finishing it and perhaps as an overhanging reminder not to swear at the dinner table. Dad’s the one who breaks that rule and Mum kicks him under the table (I know because she’s accidentally kicked me instead far too many times), to which he responds with an offended and innocent look “What? I’m making a point!”
These stories we’re told are from the lifetimes of two very different parents who lived very different lives up until the moment they met, stories of how they came to be sitting at this table in this tiny house telling their three home-schooled children about the world and how important it is to be people who think for themselves, care about others and do what they can to make this world we live in a better place for everyone.
Dad is the most extraordinary ordinary person I know. Ordinary in the sense that his name is Dave (a very nice, but ordinary name), he’s a carpenter (which is quite a normal trade), he struggles just like anyone else and there is nothing that sets him above or below anybody. Extraordinary because he’s motivated, always making things happen, always moving forward, but never for personal gain, it’s always about building a brighter future for us, his children, and for the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of everyone in this world because he sees such a need for change in this society we live in. Dad told me recently that he has no personal ambitions and yet he’s always thinking, always dreaming, always doing. He is willing to give everything to be a part of change, and that’s what makes him different.
Dad has fought for a lifetime against getting dragged into the darkness surrounding him. He has not always won. As a kid he learned what was important in life from the world around him, not the real world but a world constructed by society, the media and the school system to set you on a path that defines happiness and success by material gain. It’s a path that is bound to fail so many people and leave them as outcasts and think about it, even if we do achieve material success, does that equal true happiness? Congratulations, you have achieved the highest level in a system that is fake. Dad learnt that the hard way. He realised that chasing after happiness by pursuing money and expensive things was toxic. He’d seen it destroy the lives of those around him and he wanted an alternative.
When he discovered Christianity, he says it was like he could draw a line under all the negativity and pain in his past and start over and that was the most incredible thing. For someone who had never been offered any other path, he threw everything at it because he thought he was discovering a new world, an alternative to all the darkness he’d grown up with and he was willing to give it his absolute all.
Dad took the message of Christianity at its heart and ran with it, he looked at what is asked of followers of Jesus – a crazy carpenter who tried to turn the world upside down – as Dad calls him, and saw that it’s not about extreme, radical, give-everything-up religion, but it is about being willing to live your life to make a better world. Because of his past and the society he’d grown up in and been so influenced by, my Dad saw the need for that. He saw how important it is. It was around this time that he met Mum.
Mum and Dad bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia twenty years ago, believing, or maybe just hoping, that they’d find people who were changing things for the better out there. When they came home after a year they were the ones who had changed. They’d had an adventure, lived on fish porridge for months and taught most of South East Asia to play the card game Sevens, but they’d also seen how naive they could be and how a lot of people talked about change and no one was really willing to do anything about it, at least not anything that would cost them anything personally. They saw how complex the world can be, but it only fueled their desire to really do something to make a difference.
They gave everything within them but struggled to see how they could change anything. They took a homeless drug addict who’d become a good friend into their home to try and help him and when the landlord told them to kick Mark out or for all of them to move out, they said that either all of them stayed or none of them did. In the end, the landlord backed down. When they eventually felt it was time to move on they got Mark some help at a rehab centre and then moved into their car to go wherever they felt they could make a difference.
Mark taught Mum and Dad a lot. He taught them not to judge people on their circumstances, that everyone has a story and they’re not always in control of the way their life plays out. He taught them about overcoming your past and your struggles, about fighting back from rock-bottom even when it takes everything within you and you’ve got nothing going for you in life.
That’s part of my parents journey, one they’re still on now. So are we – Evan, Irys and myself. In the end they did get a new beginning, but it wasn’t by becoming Christians. It was a part of their lives, but ultimately they are their own people, defined by their experiences and the lessons they’ve learnt. Christianity taught them a lot, but it’s not how they choose to describe themselves now. They’ve been disillusioned with society, with people and with religion, but still they make crazy decisions that most people don’t seem to understand, all in the name of creating a better world.
They’ve let all of the experiences they’ve had motivate and not destroy them, though it’s not been easy at all. Their experiences have shaped every part of them, the good and the bad.
My parents care, not only in the way they talk, but in the way they think and act as well, in the decisions that they make, the path they choose to walk and the way they’ve raised their kids. They’ll be the first to admit that they’ve been naive over the years, but still they learn and grow and continue to do what they can to create change.
Mum and Dad have shared many experiences, they’ve been on this journey together and although what I talk about here is only the tip of the iceberg, it’s part of what’s made them who they are today and consequently what’s made us – me, Evan and Irys – who we are.
Mum’s a different character with different life experiences to Dad, but still cares just as much. She’s less extreme and more gentle, less revolutionary and more ‘let’s look for the good in everyone’. Mum will talk to anyone and is always full of positivity and enthusiasm.
I’ve learned from them both to stand up for what I believe in, to use my voice whenever I can, to be ‘a light in the darkness’. As an eleven year old with no life experience, but a head full of stories and a heart just bursting with a desire to change the world and make people feel less alone, I started writing a blog, a blog that I have used as a platform to share my thoughts on for over five years.
Dad would always tell me that honesty is the only way we can change saw anything. If we’re honest with ourselves and with others, only then can we start to make any difference. And so that’s what I did. I wrote honest words, words about myself and who I am and who I wanted to be, words about my life and my family and friends, words about the world and what I thought and what I wanted for the future, for myself and for others.
And people read it, other young people who think like I do. So many times when I’ve been in despair about the fact that no one else seems to care all that much, I reach out to those people, some of whom are my best friends now, because they understand and they have ideas and dreams too and together, we hope we’ll be able to achieve something better, for our generation and for generations to come.
We’ve lived on the farm/campsite in Sussex where Dad has worked for eleven years now. When I was five years old, Evan was three and Irys was 18 months we arrived there in a big blue bus that dad converted – the first in a steady stream of tiny spaces Dad has built and we’ve lived in ever since – we got stuck in the mud and never left.
We originally set off to travel because Mum and Dad had made the decision not to put us into the school system, partly because of their own negative experiences of it, but mostly because they didn’t feel that school prepares young people to be individuals who care about the values that are important to us – freethinking, community, hospitality, collaboration and not competition and a desire to make the world a better place. It was a personal choice, but they didn’t want us to be the only homeschooled kids in the area and so we headed to Sussex, where we’d heard there was a huge support network of people doing education differently.
Ironically, we never got hugely involved in the home education world down in Sussex, but we did make the farm our home and the people there became family.
I guess you could say we had an idyllic childhood, growing up in a safe environment, living in various tiny homes with free range of 200 acres of fields and woods and rivers, surrounded by people who love and care about us, Dad working right next door, with several hundred new friends for us to make every week during the holidays. It certainly had its challenges, but we spent those years learning from life and from the people around us, discovering our passions and pursuing them, and being taught by our parents how to be people who make a positive impact in this world.
I have eleven years worth of memories of summers where we hardly saw Mum and Dad because we were out all day playing barefoot in the fields, building tree houses in the woods, swimming in the river, working hard in return for ice-cream, carrying out (mostly) friendly battles with the campers, riding our bikes down the hills with no hands and wrestling in the mud. Then at night we’d be sleeping out under the stars and listening to music in the big tipi. We knew every single inch of that place and every single person. As young kids, we never had any doubt that this was where we belonged. The kids that would come for a week in the holidays would ask us where we lived and when we answered ‘here’, they’d argue with us that it just wasn’t possible. After we assured them that it was, they’d be so jealous.
It might’ve looked it, but it wasn’t a perfect life. In fact we struggled with it often as we got older and came to be more aware of the world. For a few years, we went between travelling parts of the UK in our van or on our tiny pedal powered canal boat, searching for a way we could truly make a difference and for people who thought the same way and staying at the farm, to be there for the people who we care about.
For all those years, there’s always been people sitting round the fire eating with us or someone dropping by for a cup of tea, some days it’s one person after another and Dad talks all day and doesn’t get any work done. We tease him about the fact that he can drink tea all day and not pick up his tools once, but it makes a difference to all those people who know they can come to us and we will welcome them and be there for them no matter what. They enrich our lives too and so our kettle is always hot. If you sit with the backdoor of our truck ajar, you’ll always be able to hear laughter and banter or, very rarely, the sawing of wood and hammering of nails.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt the struggles of other people, especially my generation, as though they are my own. Maybe it’s my parents urging me to be ‘a light in the darkness’ with both my words and my actions, maybe it’s the way they’ve led by example, maybe it’s the way they’ve brought us into their discussions whenever they’ve talked about change or about what we can do to help others, but ever since I was young, I’ve begged them to help me do more, never really knowing what ‘more’ was.
Then a few years back, when a close friend of ours wasn’t well, we volunteered to look after his 95 year old Father in his home in Kent for the winter, which was quite the adventure in itself. Whilst we were there, the three of us kids learnt to sail in dinghies on an oversized pond near Maidstone. Our instructor was a lovely man, slightly eccentric and more than a little hardcore, we sailed throughout the entire winter in extreme wind, rain and even snow, practiced capsizing in the freezing water without a wetsuit among us and when the whole lake froze over and we couldn’t sail, we went out on kayaks to break the ice.
Still, we weren’t put off and a love of sailing was forged. A year or two later, an opportunity for a young, home educated person to go on a voyage as part of a crew on a yacht came up and I took it, not knowing what to expect. And so I discovered the world of sail training and have never looked back.
Sail training is a movement made up of organisations all over the world who use residential sailing voyages to make a positive impact on people’s lives, especially young people.
I knew in my heart from the first time I stepped onboard that boat that this was going to be a huge part of my future. I felt the difference it made to me personally and saw that reflected in all the young people around me.
At sea you learn to live and work as a team, to face challenges head on and overcome them, to achieve things you never thought you ever could, how to lead people, have empathy with others, plus so many other invaluable life skills.
There’s also an almost indescribable feeling of self confidence that sailing gives you, it makes you feel like you’re worth something, like you can do anything. For just a short time, you, your team and your boat are all that matters. Not your phone, not your appearance, not all the stress and anxiety inside your head. It gives you something to take back into everyday life, something real, something you can look back on and say ‘I did that, I survived and, actually, I flourished”.
Last October, Evan and I sailed from Plymouth to Cowes on the Isle Of Wight to take part in the Small Ships Race. We were all huddled up on deck at 1am in the morning, feeling the deck pitching below us, all of us soaked to skin for the tenth time that day, hungry but too seasick to eat, all falling asleep huddled up in a heap of salty, wet waterproofs and windswept hair and yet ask any one of us and we’d tell you that this is one of the best experiences of our lives. Ask one of us who’s been a few times before and we’ll tell you it’s what keeps us going, it lights something up inside of you, something that doesn’t stop burning for a long time.
I discovered sail training at around the same time that I fully realised that some of my friends and lots of young people of my generation are really struggling. Suddenly my friends were getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder or anxiety or depression or an eating disorder. They were hating school, feeling hopeless, attempting suicide. It completely shattered my heart and still does, but we stick together, support each other and so we get through the tough times.
I saw how sail training was making a huge difference in the lives of young people, including myself, filling us with renewed hope and confidence and I hoped that sail training could be an answer for everyone.
A friend of ours asked Dad why he decided to take that step to do this challenge and he answered with one word – desperation.
That’s how I was starting to feel. I still do. When my friends – talented, caring, unique, smart individuals – are telling me they want to die and there is nothing I can do to change the way the world makes them feel except be there for them, I feel desperate. Something has to change.
Bring stuck on a boat with a load of people seems to be a really effective way of forging the strongest friendships and so I’ve come to know my crewmates’ stories and their struggles and yet on the boat, when half of our deck is underwater and the wind is blowing us along as fast as it can take us and we’re hoisting sails and then dropping others and tacking back and forth across the open ocean, waves crashing over our bow, our struggles are irrelevant and are replaced with confidence, focus and pride.
When we’re all mucking about in the galley, singing along to Disney songs at the top of our lungs, stirring the food we’re cooking for our team and laughing our heads off at stupid jokes, it’s the same.
There are so many young people who don’t have that. Sail training showed me what’s possible, but it can’t save everyone. There must be other solutions out there and if there’s not, maybe it’s time to start creating them.
Something that really impacted Dad and that he’s remembered back to so many times when he’s talked to us about the importance of making a difference, is the story of a young lad who’d grown up in care, got into some quite serious trouble and had been kicked out of the flat where he was living. As part of his job at the time, Dad went round to do some odd jobs around the place and sort out his stuff. He came across a screwed up piece of paper on the floor and picked it up to check if it was something important. It was a note that trailed off after a few words.
“I want to be a good boy, but there’s no one there to help me….”
No matter what we might like to tell ourselves, it’s a crime for someone who’s born into a situation they have no control over and set up to fail in life, to want to change, but be given no help or support whatsoever.
You can’t create a society that fails the vast majority of people, just to watch them as they struggle and then blame them for their shortcomings.
We didn’t know what we’d discover on this journey, but we couldn’t just sit back and do nothing. We had to be part of the change.
Crazy challenge idea after crazy challenge idea came up for discussion, we’d get excited about it, then it would be discarded, built upon and come back to life as a new, slightly different concept, just for the process to repeat, over and over again.
All of those people who would drop round for tea most days would sit and listen patiently and give their input as we enthused about taking a bathtub around the UK coast and photographing it in front of famous landmarks along the way to raise awareness of sail training, rambled on about putting a wood fired oven on the back of our other van (yes, yet another vehicle) and touring all the coastal sailing clubs making pizza and fundraising as we went.
One day we got out of our van we were living in at the time to find Dad eyeing it up with his measuring tape. Later he’d constructed a huge window front facade that looks like its from Dickensian times or something, stroking his chin as if imagining the big, bushy beard he’s planning on growing for the occasion, he told us he’s thinking about cutting the side of the van off to make space for this window front so that we can create a ‘Smugglers Haunt’ and stick with the ‘coastal theme’ on our fundraising adventures.
We laughed – he couldn’t be serious – but then that evening, I caught him looking at stuffed parrots and golden candlesticks on EBay and suddenly I wasn’t so sure……
Somewhere in amongst all those crazy ideas, Round The UK On A Tenner A Day was born, and that’s when the hard work started. Time to stop dreaming and start doing.
We wanted an idea that would be interesting, challenging, something that would engage people, make them smile, make them want to be a part of what we were trying to do.
Mo, our completely unique and homebuilt 1968 Morris traveller camper van, the vehicle we had decided would be our home for the challenge, was a huge part of that. Mo knows no social boundaries, she welcomes everyone. Everyone loves a Morris and everyone loves to come and see how we all fit inside. And that was another aspect of this adventure …would we all fit inside? Dad and Evan built Mo when were all quite a lot smaller and so living in such a tiny space was definitely going to be challenging.
We’ve always been strong believers that it’s when people of all backgrounds and walks of life come together that we can achieve positive change and so that’s what we wanted to try and create – something that would bring people together.
At the time, we had no idea how strong the power of human connection would be throughout our journey and the impact it would have on us and how we choose to continue living our lives.
Sail training as a whole is made up of lots of different charities all with a slightly different ethos and working with slightly different groups of people and as we did our research, we came to realise that we wouldn’t be able just to fit into a pigeonhole with our support of one charity over another.
That’s when we discovered CatZero, the cat among the pigeons, as I dubbed it.
It was like CatZero were putting everything we believed in into action, working within the community to transform lives and create a brighter future for everyone.
They were using the concept of sail training that I love and believe in so much as part of a wider programme to change people’s lives. They were truly helping people in need to go forth into their future with the skills and confidence they need to succeed and to give back to their communities. CatZero are empowering people and helping them to help themselves. They are hope in the darkness for so many. All that’s needed is the desire to change.
For us, we had to put everything into what we considered as the next chapter of our lives and so we did. We sold our car, donated everything we’d save from living on a tenner a day to CatZero and began making all the necessary preparations.
One day, during that winter of planning, we got up early to make the five hour journey up to Hull to spend the day with all these people we’d read so much about and talked to over the phone.
It’s said that CatZero is like a family, something many who complete their programmes have never had, and immediately we felt welcomed into that family.
We were sitting round the table with Dave, one CatZero’s founders, after a tour of the offices, being introduced to all the staff, looking round the boat, talking more about CatZero, who they help and how exactly they do it, when we were asked what our heads for heights were like.
We were led over to CatZero’s 72ft challenge yacht to meet the skipper, Danny…… and to climb the 30m mast, high above Hull marina.
Mum was absolutely terrified and didn’t really want to do it at all, this would be a huge step out of her comfort zone, but that’s the point. CatZero do this with many of the participants on their programmes, to challenge them, but also to show them that they are capable of so much more than they think, give them a sense of immense achievement and teach them to work with others as a team.
We all did it and absolutely loved it, Mum even opened her eyes at the top and let go with one hand to wave! We got just a small taste of what this dedicated team of people do to help others. As we took the five-hour journey back home to Granny’s in the dim light of a winter evening, we all felt inspired and motivated to support CatZero in whatever way we could.
And so began the whole six months of emails, negotiations, social media, film making and fundraising. It was hard work, but it felt so good to be moving forward.
Then suddenly it was April and we only had a month to go and all those things you keep saying you’d do nearer the time have crept up on you without you even realising it.
We set off from the farm on April 23rd, I think more people hugged me that day than any other day in my life. The moment had arrived and we sit in Mo, ready to set off, on our way to Hull. I looked around me at my family, the people I’d be sharing this challenge with for the next eight months.
I looked at Dad, sitting at the wheel of Mo, his own creation, ready to leave everything behind in pursuit of creating a better world and a better future, whatever that might look like.
I looked at Mum, sitting in the passenger seat, map out on her lap, ready to go out there into the world and meet people and touch everyone’s lives with her positivity and enthusiasm …often whether they like it or not.
Then there was Evan, straining to look out of every window all at once, video camera out, ready to capture the moment. On one hand, we knew he’d drive us all absolutely crazy in this tiny space when he’s either hyper or he’s grumpy. On the other hand, we don’t know what we’d do without him to make us laugh at our lowest moments or to be ready to help Dad fix any problem that might come up or to be eager to show kindness to a stranger.
Irys is sat there quietly, camera in hand, as always. She couldn’t wait to explore the wild world of the UK coast, to have her head in rock pools recording every little detail or to sit on the rocks with her binoculars watching for dolphins, to learn new facts and meet new people, to discover an environment where she can flourish, grow and become more bold.
Me? I was exhausted before we’ve even started. For me this journey had begun a long time ago, with planning and web designing and hundreds of emails and drafts that have been scrapped because they’re ‘well written, but not quite what we want to say’. But I couldn’t wait. I was so happy to finally feel like I was doing something to contribute to change. I was so happy because I feel like maybe we were setting something in motion. Something that really would make a difference.
We didn’t know what would happen on this journey, we didn’t know if we’d find the good out there and get to be a part of it, we didn’t know if there were people out there who thought the same way, other people willing to fight for change. What does this better world we’re trying to create look like? A world where people of all walks of life live and work together in harmony and no one is left behind? A world not necessarily free of struggle, but full of hope? A world of community and sharing, where people think for themselves, but care about others? We’d be naive to think we could achieve that, but maybe, just maybe, we could make a start?
I guess we were about to find out….