When you are away for campervan trips that can last two or three months, having a garden is problematic. We like having our own space but it has to work for us. The two most important things are:
1. The garden can cope with neglect for long periods of time while we are away in the campervan.
2. The garden has a fairly level and large enough space for two people to practice tai chi.
However, much I might want to turn our garden into a green and colourful wild flower meadow full of insects and birds, I come back to these priorities. If only practicing tai chi in the road outside was an option! Unfortunately, I know this would not only get the neighbours talking, it would soon get us either run down or abused by passing motorists!
The compromise in terms of plants in our small sunken back garden [probably slightly bigger than we would like] is to grow hardy trees, shrubs and bushes that are drought tolerant. This is a win-win as even when we are at home we can minimise our water usage and the three water butts we have are usually sufficient to get us through any dry spell. These plants surround a sunny paved area that we use as our tai chi practice space.
We will never master tai chi but we have been practicing for many years now, with different teachers. On a good day we will practice both shibashi and some of the tai chi forms we are learning. On a lazy and wet day we will at least try and practice the shibashi or a short form.
Shibashi combines movements and breathing from tai chi in a set of 18 repeated exercises that flow into each other. Shibashi means 18 moves and doing them is calming, energising and excellent for someone who sits at a laptop writing for many hours!
The first tai chi form we learnt was the Sun Style 98 form and I feel connected to this form because it was my introduction to tai chi and it takes me back to the welcoming and friendly Salford class we found. The form has 98 different moves but only takes about seven minutes to complete. Sun style is one of the least popular tai chi styles but I like its fluid movements, the follow steps, the clearly defined transference of weight and the ‘pause’ between movements with opening and closing of hands. It feels beneficial to try and keep the moves of this form in my head and this sums up what I like about tai chi; it occupies both my physical body and my brain and remembering the moves of the form leaves no space in my head for trivia or anxieties.
We have also been learning a more popular tai chi style, Yang. A lock down project was to learn the moves in Yang 40. We haven’t quite finished it, so what we do at the moment is Yang 31! All tai chi forms are related and have similar moves but also have differences and it feels good to experience these variations.
When we have time we also practice some of the other tai chi forms we have learnt so that we don’t completely forget them. We can manage Yang 10, a short form that is compact and we can even push the furniture back in our living room and practice this one there if the weather is poor. We also mostly remember some of Dr Paul Lam’s forms from his Tai Chi for Health Institute that we learnt in Salford.
Some of the garden was already flagged when we moved in but it had obstacles that got in the way of our tai chi and disturbed the flow as we stepped over them! This summer we have moved the hurdles, re-laid some of the wonky flags and moved the gravel areas to the edges. We have re-used the flags and gravel that were already there so we could save money and not to add to the environmental cost of quarrying and production. We added the metal sun plaque on the wall to give me a glimpse of the sun, even on gloomy winter days.
These days of Lock Down Three are passing by in a blur, each one much the same as the last until suddenly it is Friday and bin day! I stumble into wakefulness every morning remembering I am still in the same place and I yearn for the thrill of lying in our campervan thinking about where we are and where we are going next and opening the blinds to check the weather. But even in our Blue Bus we have a routine and my day always begins with a mug of tea. This first cup of tea, a mixture of Assam and Earl Grey, is the best of the day and is usually followed by a second over breakfast.
In non-lockdown times, after those two beverages, my day in drinking could go anywhere, depending on where we are and what we were doing. But after 12 months of mostly being stuck at home I have become someone I never thought I would, I am stuck in a routine [or rut] that, on closer inspection, revolves around drinks.
At home the morning trundles on and we brew coffee at around 10.30 [or, to mix things up, visit Morecambe’s wonderful Stone Jetty Cafe at the weekend], have a glass of water with lunch and sup a post-lunch digestive of peppermint and licorice tea from Teapigs. By about 17.00 we are ready for our day’s last mug of tea and a lockdown routine has become enjoying this with a piece of homemade cake. Later we’ll share a bottle of beer, have a glass of wine, a gin and tonic OR a small glass of Spanish Vermut, unless it is a no-alcohol day [about twice a week] when we have to make do with water. Our last drink of the day is in the evening when I have a soothing Barleycup and my less-susceptible-to-caffeine partner has another coffee. We fit local walks, gardening, reading and TV viewing around all this liquid refreshment.
Will breaking out of this routine when we can travel again be a shock to my hydration system? For a day in the hills or cycling we mostly carry just water, taking plenty of it for regular drinks stops. If it is cold I find it comforting to stick a flask with a hot drink in the rucksack for one of our pauses. If we’re in a town or village, part of the joy of travelling is also discovering something new and different; maybe a decadent hot chocolate in a cafe or a lunchtime local beer sitting outside a bar. Relaxing outside the campervan with a mug of tea or a glass of good red wine can’t be beaten and, more than once, a fellow camper has strolled over and shared a favourite liqueur with us.
I don’t like getting a peek of myself becoming this creature of habit, she isn’t a familiar figure and she doesn’t sit comfortably alongside me. But, it seems, this is what I have become in these Covid-19 times. Niggling in the back of my mind is an anxiety that I might never rediscover my previous spontaneous personality. Will I suffer withdrawal symptoms if I don’t have my morning coffee or afternoon peppermint tea? I don’t think this foreboding about the future is mine alone. I sense that we all feel we have changed in the last 12 months and many of us are not sure how we will occupy the new world. Some of our transformations might be for the good but some of us may emerge more apprehensive and guarded.
We hadn’t lived in Morecambe many days before we noticed the horses. There are always horses around town, in the fields, occasionally cutting the grass on the play area and often on the roads. Just five minutes walk from our home are stables with horses and ponies of all shapes and sizes. I treat the large horses with the respect they deserve but I like to stop and pet the little ones when they are outdoors. Horses have become so much of our Morecambe scene that we hardly give a second glance these days when we notice a horse grazing by the roadside or see someone with a pony and sulky, a lightweight two-wheeled single-seat cart, go galloping by but just occasionally Morecambe’s horses gift me with a story worth telling.
Firstly some background. Morecambe is home to one of the UK’s largest settled Irish Traveller Communities and they own many of the horses. This community are British with Irish ancestry and are distinct to Roma and Gypsy communities. Together they are referred to as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller [GRT] community and judgement of and prejudice against this group of people is widespread. The recent shameful story about Pontins holding a list of names to exclude travellers staying at their holiday parks is an example of how endemic prejudice of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community is.
I don’t know much about horses but from what I can see many of the horses in Morecambe are neither sleek race horses or large and strong shire horses; they mostly seem to be Gypsy Vanner or Irish Cobb horses. These originated in Ireland and were bred by Irish Travellers as robust and reliable horses with a good temperament suitable for pulling wagons. When ridden it is generally bareback.
The Cumbrian market town of Appleby-in-Westmorland is less than an hour’s drive from Morecambe and it is here that the annual Appleby Horse Fair is held, generally in early June each year. Living in Lancashire, you generally know when this big event is coming up as you spot members of the GRT community on the road making their way there. Said to be the largest gathering of its kind in Europe, around 10,000 people meet at Appleby-in-Westmorland to trade horses, wear their best clothes and see friends. They are joined by around 30,000 visitors keen to witness the traditions and culture. Horses are prepared for trading by being bathed in the River Eden and groomed. The fair also has stalls selling clothing and horse-related goods. The flashing lane runs through the fair and is the perfect spot for spectators to watch the horses being put through their paces as the horses are ‘flashed’ or shown off by sellers to potential buyers.
We recently had a slightly too close an encounter with just one of Morecambe’s horses. We were walking towards the canal on one of our lock down days out. It was a cold day and as we strode out along a quiet lane we saw three guys ahead. They were wrapped up against the frost and standing with their arms folded, watching a fourth man riding a horse bare back and with no riding hat. The man and horse galloped towards us and we moved onto the grass verge to give what was clearly a lively horse plenty of space as it went by. Carrying on, the demeanor of the three spectators made us aware that the horse and rider had turned around and were returning behind us. The three were shouting encouragingly and I wondered if this was a practice for the flashing lane at Appleby Horse Fair or Morecambe’s own version. Again, not wishing to spook the horse, we calmly moved to the side of the lane. The man and horse passed within a horse hair’s breadth and this time it was clear to even two people who have never ridden more than a seaside donkey that the rider was not completely in control. Just clearing us, the horse bucked and succeeded in throwing the rider onto the road. Not a man to give in, the rider clung onto the reins and we could only watch, horrified as he was dragged along the tarmac. Amazingly, he hung on and eventually calmed the horse enough so that the shaken and battered rider could leap back on, no mean feat with no stirrups. ‘Is it the rider or the horse?’ we asked as we walked by the three onlookers. ‘We’re trying to decide,’ one of them replied smiling in a knowing way, ‘But we think its a bit of both!’
We all know that January 2021 has been the longest January in history thanks to Lock Down Three. New Year’s Eve and the carefree days when we could meet friends for a stroll in the fresh air seem to be part of another life.
In an effort to put some variety into the mundane existence that is Lock Down Three in Lancashire we have been volunteering at our local vaccination centre. The irony in our act of generosity is obvious. If we hadn’t been in Lock Down Three, we would have been walking in the fells and staying in our campervan on quiet campsites and car parks. We would have been mostly outdoors and hardly seeing anyone and certainly wouldn’t be spending over eight hours a day indoors and close to lots of people. As it is, to get through the tedium of a lock-down January we have put ourselves at the most risk we can, helping the 800 or so people a day through Morecambe’s busy vaccination centre. Despite the masks and sanitising gel this has to be the most risky thing we have done since March last year!
I don’t miss the dreariness of going to work but I do catch a glimpse of myself feeling a touch of envy when I hear about my working friends having Zoom meetings, struggling to meet deadlines and generally having a purpose to their day. For me, every day is pretty much the same. My first thought every morning is, ‘What day is it today,’ as I try and hold on to the structure of the week and immediately reveal my worry that I could easily miscalculate. And some days are so long, by the afternoon I find myself wondering, ‘Is it really still Tuesday!’ Our weekly high-risk mixing and talking with people who are attending their vaccination appointment is the stimulus and diversion I need to get me through the lock-down tedium.
Without our sessions at the vaccination centre there would be little in our diaries and nothing novel. Other than this volunteering, the rhythm of each day is pretty much the same and the days are hard to distinguish from each other. It could be Tuesday or Sunday as I lose myself in a good book, bake a cake, tackle a complicated jigsaw and relax with a good TV drama. The dynamism of Morecambe Bay stops me becoming completely numb, it is different every time we walk to the coast.
I have George The Stourbridge Junction Station Cat to thank for the inspiration for this blog post title. A recent post suggested:
Cruising in neutral describes how January has felt. I don’t like wasting the limited time I have on this earth and want to get the most out of life while I can but this is just impossible at the moment. Over the last ten months I have got frustrated about being kept indoors and had rollercoaster ups and downs. To keep myself on some sort of even keel, I have ditched the discontent, taken myself out of gear and stuck myself in neutral. These feel like precious days that are being wasted but at least I am getting through them. I have no expectations about when I will be able to meet up with my friends again; I am planning no holidays or trips in our Blue Bus; I am looking no further forward than enjoying my next morning’s coffee and I am just staggering through one day at a time into an indistinct future.
If Lock Down Three is tough for you too, I hope you are getting the support you need or at least finding your own way to cope and I send some love your way.
We knew quarantine was a possibility when we set off for France but is the enforced 14-day self-isolation we now have to endure a price worth paying for a trip abroad? Certainly, I felt refreshed from travelling in France in our campervan again, I enjoyed being back in mainland Europe, following an unplanned path, hearing different languages and discovering new places. Not everyone will think we should have travelled but we tried to be sensible and chose France because the Covid-19 cases were low when we left and we were cautious during our stay. We are able to quarantine, there is nowhere we have to be, so yes, it is worth it but I wouldn’t want to do it again and quarantine is tough. My first thought as I wake every morning is how many days we have completed and how many are left and I am only grateful that this self-isolation has an end date.
I understand how much worse this could be and there are many who have to be in quarantine for longer and for reasons other than a selfish need for a holiday abroad. I am humbled, remembering my house-bound neighbour in Salford. She remained mostly cheerful but rarely went anywhere, had a paid carer who called in once a week for some cleaning and basic shopping and I would visit and complete an internet shopping delivery for her regularly. For two weeks I am experiencing her dependency and I am not enjoying it. I am frustrated that I can’t even nip the short distance to the paper shop for our weekend newspaper while grateful to our kind neighbour who willingly does this. I texted him on Saturday morning and minutes later saw him heading off. He delivered our papers through the letterbox, ‘Should I leave the money in a bowl of vinegar?’ I asked.
At least, unlike my ex-neighbour, we have the IT skills to do our own internet shopping. We don’t usually have supermarket deliveries as our local Lidl is so handy but I signed up and got our first delivery the day after we arrived home. A second delivery should see us through the 14 days and will break up another day but I can’t really get used to not being able to bob out for something forgotten or just desired. This feels more like house arrest than quarantine.
Every day feels the same seen from the same place and I am grateful that the Tour de France had to move to September, as watching the cycling and the wonderful French scenery gives some structure and variety to our day. Our Renault needs a new van battery as it is now coming up for six years old. After an internet search I was excessively excited to find out that they could come to us and fit a new battery on our drive. Hurrah to a day that isn’t another Groundhog Day.
I am happy carrying out a spot of light pruning with the warm sun on my back but generally find gardening more of a responsibility and duty than relaxation. Gardening does get me outside, provide some exercise and pass the time. In these strange times, working in the front garden has become most interesting as I can linger and watch the rest of the world going about its business. I was lurking in the front garden pretending to be gardening when I heard the familiar clink of an empty aluminium can rolling down the street. On automatic I ran out to the road to pick the litter up and put it in our recycling bin. Walking back the 50 metres with the can I realised that could have cost me a £1,000 fine for leaving our home and garden!
We practice tai chi every day for balance and strength but it is the rhythm of walking that I miss the most. Even during lock down we could walk and we covered many miles. Through this quarantine I am like a caged animal pacing around our tiny garden and bungalow. In hindsight we should have booked a holiday cottage in large grounds for at least some of this self-isolation. I appreciate our quarantine is for the good of the wider public health but it isn’t doing much for my own mental and physical health.
In Iceland returning holidaymakers are not treated like lepers. Icelanders are given two coronavirus tests seven days apart, if both tests are negative they only need to quarantine for seven days. On the Isle of Man residents can pay for a test and only need to self-isolate for seven days if it is negative [a risky option as maybe 20-30% of negative results are false]. Unfortunately, England can’t be bothered to come up with anything more humane than 14 days of self-isolation.
We were so careful in France the chances of either of us being infectious with coronavirus is small but if we do have the virus is 14 days long enough to self-isolate? One study suggested that 97% of people will display symptoms within 12 days of transmission [99% will display symptoms after 14 days]. Let’s hope neither of us develops any symptoms as that will make our quarantine even longer. With too much time on my hands, I worry that we might be one of the around 80% who are asymptomatic and wonder why, if travelling to France is so dangerous, no one in authority thinks we should have a coronavirus test.
Reading novels is getting me through these hours and days. They take me to different places and [most importantly] to a world that hasn’t got a clue what coronavirus is. I can curl up in an armchair and lose an hour or more reading, my mind in another place. Without books I would be truly lost.
Am I looking forward to completing the 14 days and being free once again? Of course. And what wonderful thing do we have planned for our first day of freedom I hear you ask. I had thought a walk on the beach to see the view across Morecambe Bay, veggie fry-up at Rita’s Cafe, a browse in the Old Pier Bookshop and coffee at the Beach Bird would be the perfect introduction back into the world but it turns out we have something more mundane to do. My partner needs a dentist appointment and the only date available was first thing on the morning of our release, so our first post-quarantine trip will be travelling back to Salford [no NHS dentist has space on their list within many miles of Lancashire] for a dental appointment. Life has become so topsy-turvy since March 2020 that after 14 days of staying in, even the dentist will be an exciting escape.
My state of retirement [or in truth semi-retirement as certainly BC [before coronavirus] I was writing more than ever] has become pretty normal. BC I had settled into something that wasn’t a routine but had a pattern that involved regular campervan trips, writing travel articles and editing photographs in between. It is now over three years since I last had a regular monthly paycheck and I have stopped counting those months and a nine-to-five working life seems a distant nightmare. Looking back to three and a half years ago I had plenty of dreams and plans for retirement, how are they panning out and has our changing world DC [during coronavirus] altered this?
Having time for one thing a day
These days having plenty of time to do things has become so habitual I get irritated when I have to work to a deadline or fit too much in a day. I see my harried and over-worked friends and don’t envy them at all. I don’t have any excuse not to do anything well [including edit my blog posts]! I appreciate having the time to linger and don’t feel guilty when I hang around watching the birds in our garden, chatting to the neighbours or walking to the coast just to see one of Morecambe’s fabulous sunsets.
I have written about wanting to do just one thing a day in retirement, rather than fill my days with multiple tasks. During lock down, with no travel allowed and therefore no writing, the one thing I would / could do was my daily exercise. With so many limitations on my life, the one-thing-a-day mantra was something that didn’t really need repeating.
Staying active & having fun
Taking early retirement was a positive move, in particular to allow us to make the most of owning a campervan. We have done fairly well at this and BC not many months have gone by without us being away at least for a few days in the last three years. We enjoy being able to go away mid-week and make the most of short spells of good weather now we are no longer tied to weekends.
We continue to practice tai chi and now have more space at home for this, particularly in the garden. We were always going to miss our friendly and relaxed Salford tai chi class but we did find a welcoming class in Morecambe. Unfortunately this class imploded BC and then all classes disappeared during lock down and we have been left to practise at home together. Once you know the basics, it is possible to work on tai chi alone but I miss the enthusiasm and discipline of a class.
The alarm clock remains a distant memory. I have settled into a routine of waking at around 07.30 and getting up to make my retired partner our first brew of the day.
We had started working our way around Morecambe’s pubs BC. Getting back into that exploration feels complicated at the moment DC but we have supported some of our local cafes, both old favourites and new enterprises. The optimism and spirit of these small business owners never fails to cheer me up.
Meeting friends socially was an important part of my BC life. As lock down has eased we have spent some time with other households but there are good friends I haven’t seen in person for months. It has been lovely to be able to see couples in a socially distanced way but I ache for one of those jolly evenings with a group of old friends, maybe four or five households, around a table. On these occasions there is inevitably a moment when the conversation will veer off into an unexpected place and I end up laughing and laughing. I want to experience that again and worry that it has gone forever.
A better me?
I wanted to spend some of my retirement brushing up on languages for our travels. While my partner is disciplined and does this all year round, I tend to only start learning when compelled by a forthcoming trip. Last year we didn’t cross the channel at all and so I had nothing driving me to brush up on any language and Duolingo languished unused on my phone. BC I got my act together and began spending half-an-hour a day learning German in readiness for a planned trip. Of course this trip didn’t happen as we were locked down but I have kept the language learning in my day and even added Spanish to the mix. I’ll try and keep it up, whether or not we are going abroad.
I am finding that moving house has changed my priorities, particularly moving to a house and garden that needs lots of work and it was natural that for the first months this was where my energy went. My interest in DIY and gardening was never going to last long. I enjoyed being involved in local good causes in Salford but when we moved to Morecambe I left these volunteering roles. Like so much, getting involved in anything locally feels like wading through mud at the moment and DC my offers of help to local charities have been rejected, as they were overwhelmed with the numbers of people willing to help [a wonderful thing].
Many people set a target to read more books. Reading takes little effort for me and isn’t something I ever need an incentive to do. My favourite relaxation is curling up on a sunny armchair and reading and I easily get through over 50 books a year.
My year of walking 2,019 km in 2019 certainly made sure that I got outside almost everyday. I did find checking the target a bit of a drag and I haven’t set any for 2020 but the routine of getting out most days remains.
DC and in lock down I resigned myself to a break from travel writing work and so I was surprised when a commission came in from a publisher to contribute to a book featuring cycle routes. This has been an interesting [and sometimes frustrating] learning process. Although guide books come within the same travel writing genre, it seems they are a different beast to magazine travel articles and learning to work successfully with new editors has been a challenge.
Trying to stay mentally well & not being irritating
Working life might now be a blur but I still remember how annoying it was when someone who is retired would say, ‘I don’t know how I fitted it all in when I was working!’ Although I know this might often be said in a defensive way by an elderly person who is making the point that they are still a busy and useful person that has a place in the world, they are words that grate on anyone who is trying to fit life in around work!
Although I have experienced lots of anxiety DC, I have worked hard to stay present not least because the future is way too uncertain to even begin to worry about. I know I continue to fail to be perfect but happily embrace my imperfections as too much self-criticism would take me on a downward spiral. I can’t say coronavirus has made me stronger but I am pleased it hasn’t crushed me [yet].
I do still acknowledge how privileged I was to be able to retire at 57 and I continue to value that my time is now my own.
When we moved to Morecambe last November we inherited a garden, having been without one for many years. Although it is lovely to have some outdoor space, unfortunately, the garden that came with our house isn’t a perfect mature garden that requires little input from us. In November, the garden was mostly sleeping and what we seemed to have was lots of empty beds waiting to be filled, a rough selection of uneven paving slabs and pitted and cracked concrete paths and a few over-grown shrubs fighting each other for space alongside self-seeded buddleia bushes and brambles. We tried to remember what it was like in the summer when we had viewed the house but the detail escaped us, we would have to wait and see.
The garden had missed the tender loving care of an owner. Before our occupation our bungalow has been tenanted for eight years by different families. Tenants often know their time in a property might be short and don’t always invest in the garden and in the case of our bungalow neither they nor the landlords were gardeners and they both neglected the outdoor space.
We played a waiting game over the winter, just getting out on fine days and keeping the garden tidy but avoiding disturbing anything that might be interesting as every plant is precious. Some of the over-grown bushes benefited from being pruned in those dormant months. As we worked in the garden we began to spot signs that this was once a loved garden; someone had carefully chosen these shrubs and designed the flower beds and digging we would sometimes find an old label for plants that had once been purchased and planted here.
As spring began to appear we started gently dividing some of the tangled shrubs and we noticed green shoots appearing. Working in the front garden, neighbours would stop and introduce themselves and many of them would tell us stories about the garden. ‘I helped the couple who lived here until eight years ago, we planted over a thousand bulbs in this garden,’ the chap who lives a couple of door away told us one sunny afternoon as we tidied up the beds. That explained the profusion of spring flowering bulbs that had begun to emerge as the days lengthened, we enjoyed bluebells and tulips for months. I like the earthy link with a couple we will never know and it is fantastic that their love of gardening still peeps through. As the year progressed we looked forward to seeing what else would pop up [the middle picture shows some of the plants we have inherited].
Working in the garden reminded me that every house I have ever lived in has had a garden that needed considerable amounts of work and care. Is the country full of neglected gardens or have I been unlucky?
Over the last three months the garden hasn’t just revealed spring and summer bulbs. We have a honeysuckle that has climbed over the roof of the garage, apparently the only gardening the previous tenants did was to try and keep this honeysuckle in check. In the front garden a rose bush I pruned in the winter has been producing glorious yellow sweet-smelling blooms since April, working down-wind of this rose bush is pure joy. Those previous gardeners clearly loved roses and we have three or four bushes in the front garden. I imagine the elderly couple planning the garden and picking their favourites for scent and colour.
Along with the valued plants, a healthy crop of horsetails have pushed their soft feathery fir-tree like shoots up in every inch of the back garden. We knew we were buying a horsetail-crowded garden, this was the one thing we could remember from our viewings! We thought we had the energy to tackle them but they are robust and vigorous plants and as I pull them out and dig them up I both admire their strength and hate them. Getting them under control may take the rest of our lives!
We are following a long line of retirees to Morecambe and there is plenty of evidence that the previous owners had some mobility problems, with handrails and additional steps. As we were moving the additional flagstone that someone had added to the steps into our sunken back garden, to give our feet more room, our next-door neighbour leaned over the fence and reminisced about helping the guy put that in place. Apparently, he was already very elderly when he decided that he needed some extra help on these steps and he was spotted struggling from his car with this long flagstone.
On the garage wall are two colourful metal butterflies which our neighbour said once decorated the front of the house. Someone adorned the back wall with three squirrel figures that are forever climbing upwards. Clearing some of the brambles I found a stone tortoise and a stone hedgehog, remnants of when the garden was a different place. Garden ornaments are not generally our thing but these fragments feel part of the space and they have stayed.
We have a rear wall that has clearly grown almost organically, the brickwork a mixture of styles and brick-laying competence. In front of this are a couple of sprawling privet bushes. ‘Ray would trim that privet to symmetrical perfection,’ we were told. I don’t go in for much symmetry in the garden and after years of neglect the privet bushes needed more hacking then trimming. I would emerge from among them, twigs and spiders stuck in my hair!
‘This garden has had more attention during this lock down than it has over the last eight years,’ our immediate neighbour remarked the other day. My laugh is despondency-tinged when he says this. He knows that we didn’t plan to spend this spring working on the garden and that we had months of campervan trips planned. But there is no doubt I have been glad to have something physical and tiring to do when we couldn’t go far and I haven’t had the mind-set to write or edit photographs. I don’t turn to gardening willingly but having our own outdoors has helped me get through lock down.
The most useful thing the previous gardeners left us was a system of water butts. This survived the tenants and landlord and were just ignored behind the garage. With such a dry spring we have been so glad to be able to capture what water there is.
We have planted a tree, a couple of bushes of our own, some herbs and patched up the paths but we are trying to avoid letting the garden suck up all our money and disrupt the finances. I have a forlorn dream that all the work we have done this spring will mean we can just potter doing a bit of light pruning in future years. We’ll see!
Three years ago we spent a couple of months without our campervan while it was being repatriated from Greece and repaired after a bit of a bump. Loyal readers will remember that being without our campervan was agony. Of course, in retrospect those two months don’t seem so tough … we could still travel and we tried different ways of taking holidays while we were without our Blue Bus and I learnt that nothing compares to being away in a campervan. The coronavirus pandemic lock down is a whole new scenario, one that is shared worldwide; we are all staying at home so that Covid 19 patients don’t overwhelm the NHS.
I know there are people far worse off than me and that I have a lot to be thankful for. We have a private garden that I never expected to give so much attention to and although we will be hit financially I am confident we can cope. I am used to being away from friends and family for months at a time and don’t feel lonely, what I have lost is the rhythm of my year. It is Easter weekend as I write this and we have spent this time in Scotland pretty much every year since 1979.
I have always enjoyed seizing the day, making the most of the time I have knowing I might not be here tomorrow. I am finding it tough to have to watch, what feels to me like the apocalypse approaching, from my sofa. In my imagination I always pictured that when the warning sirens rang Anthony and I would leap into our campervan and drive to the mountains to witness the end of the world.
As much as I love Morecambe and feel so glad that we can walk to the sea, I only really expected to be here for about half the year! I can see how shallow I am, there are people living with much greater hardship than not being able to travel in a campervan but the loss I am feeling and the fear that I may never be able to go camping again is real. Reading about how others are struggling I find that my anxiety has a name, it is anticipatory grief. I hope that with a label for how I am feeling I can maybe deal with it [I am bringing myself back to the present right now, looking around I can see a futon, some herb seedlings, a candle, a cushion and a roll of sellotape].
In the past I have worked through anxiety by writing but for almost three weeks I have been silent, unable to write down any words. Sitting in front of the laptop is where I spend my time planning campervan trips or writing travel articles. This association is so strong, I haven’t been able to face the unkind reminder of what I can’t do and I have sought out other ways to occupy myself. On top of this my embarrassingly self-pitying inner voice asks, ‘What is the point of your ramblings when the world is ending.’
I am taking the writing one small step at a time. Here are some pictures of life in Morecambe over the last three weeks.
Holding back the tears
I don’t need sympathy, I am just trying to be honest; it is a pretty good day if I don’t start weeping about something. There is no doubt there is plenty to be distressed about; in no particular order, here are some things that make me cry:
People all over the world being very ill and dying and health services unable to cope with the numbers
Favourite small businesses facing financial difficulties due to the temporary closure
People being judgemental and spiteful about the actions of others
Empty supermarket shelves
Finding strong bread flour on the supermarket shelves for the first time in three weeks
Watching the oystercatchers on Morecambe Bay
The moment after waking when I remember that nothing is normal anymore
Those tormenting inner thoughts, ‘Where would we be camping now?’
Not being able to meet up with our son and daughter-in-law
Being so anxious and tense for most of the day that I go to sleep with a headache almost every night
A small scene from life in Morecambe …
I am waiting in our local Co-op, at a safe distance from all the other shoppers, clutching my milk and essential hot cross buns. At the checkout is an elderly woman. The assistant was calm and patient as the woman slowly placed her shopping by the till and she asked her to move back to the line marked on the floor. The elderly customer looked confused and shuffled to the side, although she had a stick she was more comfortable with the counter to help her stand while her shopping was rung through and bagged. The assistant noticed and smiled, ‘Oh you need the counter, that’s fine you can stand there.’ Once the shopping was totted up, the customer got her purse out. ‘We are only taking cards now, not cash,’ the assistant reminded her; she was clearly a woman who usually paid in cash. The customer understood and fumbled for a little used card and with help tried to use it contactless. After several assisted attempts, the assistant relented and let her pay in cash. The woman looked as if the world was spinning way too fast and trying to throw her off, everything had changed, she had seen the news but hadn’t realised how this would affect her weekly shop at our little Co-op. A lump in my throat I hid my face, desperately wanting to go over, take her arm and offer comfort.
Connecting with friends
For the first couple of weeks our What’s App groups were buzzing, everyone checking in on everyone else. The novelty of social distancing is now wearing off, no one has anything to say and I can go all day without my phone pinging.
My Twitter friends have been supportive, as always and often make me smile. I find Facebook a bit more of a challenge and although useful for connecting, I limit my usage. We have an inter-continental quiz game going on with our friends in Australia that is getting pleasantly competitive.
We have chatted to six households at one time using Zoom, our friends in little boxes on our laptop screen, sitting on top of each other like they are on University Challenge. Although it is hard to have much of a conversation with around ten people online together and the ‘meeting’ bears no resemblance to seeing them in real life, it is lovely to connect with them all and the laughter is great medicine. No one talks about how awful social distancing is at these gatherings, everyone stays upbeat with stories of what they are achieving in isolation and says they are fine. I wonder if it is just me that is crying inside.
Too much socialising during social distancing
One evening, after two video calls with different groups of friends, we both collapsed into bed exhausted from so much socialising!
Empty supermarket shelves
As I mentioned, seeing empty shelves in the supermarkets triggers tears and panic. One day there is no butter, strong bread flour was becoming just a distant memory and there is still no yeast. It seems the small 568 ml of milk are no longer worth producing and we have to find ways to use up a litre while it is in date in sauces etc.
Sending parcels of joy
While we can’t meet friends, the post office is still open and we can send small gifts in the mail. We have sent out books and jigsaws we have finished with and food parcels to other friends and I have other surprises planned.
I have also volunteered for our local food bank.
We chat to our next door neighbour over the fence most days and when we are out for our daily walk or cycle ride I say hello to pretty much everyone we pass [at a safe distance]. I do this partly to use up some of my surplus words, I have words to spare these days and I can give them freely. Some people just grunt a response or ignore me but others cheerfully say hello back and maybe for just one person I am the only human being who has spoken to them all day … here come the tears again.
This post isn’t about a New Year resolution [I don’t do these] but it is about my 2019 walking target. Friends would generally describe me as an active person but just over 12 months ago I realised I had no idea how far I walked in a year. So, at the beginning of 2019 I set myself a target of walking 2,019 km during 2019. I thought this wouldn’t be too demanding but really had no idea how it would pan out and as the year rolled on I became surprised how challenging it was to reach that mileage. Half way through the year I reported that I was over target, having walked 60.5 km more than 1,009.5 I needed to have walked at that point. Maybe I sat back a little in the second half of the year and perhaps moving house messed up my routine but it was touch and go whether I would reach 2,019 km before the end of 31 December 2019. But I got there and after some long winter walks actually walked 2,073 km in 2019!
I didn’t count walking around our home or nipping out to the shops as part of my 2,019 km, this was not a step counting exercise and distance was only counted when I had kitted up for a walk. It was okay if this was a utility walk such as to the supermarket or to an appointment, the important thing was that I had chosen to walk rather than cycle, take the bus or drive. My partner has joined me on most of these walks but hasn’t quite reached 2,019 km himself.
2,019 km averages out as around 5.5 km each day. Not a great distance but I found that to reach the target there was no chance to let up. Yes, there were days when I walked 20 km but there were other days when other activities got in the way and I didn’t walk anywhere at all. A couple of days like that and a long walk counted for little and I needed to catch up. There were a staggering 56 days when I didn’t go outside and put one foot in front of the other. In the first half of the year I had 30 none-walking days and 26 days in the second half as by December I was dashing out every day to ensure I reached the target! Of course, on some of these apparently inactive days i might have been to my tai chi class or more recently packing and unpacking boxes or gardening; but there were days when we were driving or I was writing at home and being fairly inactive. I know that I feel happier if I have got outside and taken some exercise and certainly if I am writing it is a break from staring at the laptop and it helps my brain to focus and come up with new ideas.
Most of the distance was either around Salford or, more recently, Morecambe but there were plenty of memorable days out in other places, here are a few highlights:
Climbing Ben Nevis wasn’t my longest day of walking at 17 km but with all that altitude to climb it was the toughest day and the most emotional.
Walking with friends is always special and provides me with good memories. We have had some fantastic walking days with other people in Wharfedale, the Lake District, Scotland and Anglesey in all sorts of weather from wet to almost hot!
The coastal walking in Shetland was unbeatable and well organised and during our spring holiday there we clocked up 127.5 km on these stunning islands.
Walking from Eastbourne to Beachy Head on a warm February day was an unforgettable experience and sitting on the cliffs as a peregrine falcon landed next to us was a bonus.
We walked around Rivington Pike in Lancashire on a couple of occasions, both blue-sky winter days that were perfect.
The two longest walks were both 21 km and were both summer walks but on both occasions there was more drizzle than sunshine! The first was around the green hilly land around Hexham in the north of England through lush dripping forests. The second was up and down the Derbyshire dales around Longnor on what I had sold to my partner as a pub crawl but turned out to be more of a walk between closed country pubs!
On one pavement bashing day I wore through some shoe leather walking 18.5 km around Salford and Manchester, mostly to hand deliver a parcel someone had purchased on Ebay [they left very good feedback!]
Dodd in the Lake District is only a small hill but on the January day we climbed it there was enough snow for a snowball fight!
One of my favourite walks in Salford is around Salford Quays and Media City. Having recorded all my walks for the year I can see I did this on 28 different occasions between January to November 2019. Now we have moved my favourite walk is down to Morecambe Bay, a handy 6 km circuit.
What about 2020? As much as I have found it fascinating to keep a check on my mileage for the year I will not be setting a walking target again. As the year moved on it had started to feel a bit tiresome to keep working out distances I had walked and make a note and I won’t miss being free of that. I know there are good apps that will record distances but I don’t necessarily trust their accuracy, particularly in the mountains. Another reason for making this target a one-off is cycling. Our bikes have languished in the shed gathering dust for much of the year and we are looking forward to getting out and exploring the fantastic cycle routes around our new home in Morecambe now we don’t have to keep walking and walking and walking. My partner has threatened to set a demanding cycling target for 2020 but I think / hope he is joking!
Short of winning the lottery or earning a pile of cash, it is going to take a fair few years to think through, plan for and accomplish early retirement. During that time you need to be on your toes as Government policy can change at the flick of a ballot paper and then change again while you have your head in a spreadsheet and the clouds. Every Government whim can affect your financial situation both positively and negatively.
I started work back in the dark ages of the 1970s when I was just 16 years old. At that time, as a woman, I thought I would get my state pension when I was 60. This seemed an eternity away but this pension age had been the same since the 1940s and I didn’t imagine it would change. I worked in a small business with no occupational pension, I didn’t earn very much and naturally lived frugally and had nothing spare to save. I didn’t even consider that I might need any more money than the state would give me.
Apart from a brief period as a local authority employee I didn’t really find employment in a workplace that had an occupational pension until I got my first job in the NHS when I was in my late 30s. By that time being 60 seemed much nearer and in a more secure position with my partner and a child, I willingly began paying into the NHS Pension Scheme. I worked part-time and still expected my state pension to make up most of my income in retirement.
My working life has been varied [25 jobs] and I have moved in and out of the NHS Pension Scheme but having first enrolled in the 1990s I have always been in the old final salary scheme that begins to pay when I am 60 years old. This is generally considered the best scheme as most people earn the highest amount at the end of their career. There has been little that is normal in my working life and while my NHS pension was worth about £4,000/year back in 2004 when I was a Public Health Manager, after a few years working as an administrator it had reduced to £2,300/year, thanks to pay disparity and despite working more years. If I had my time over I would have frozen my NHS pension but unfortunately I couldn’t see into the future. After travelling full-time I returned to the NHS expecting to be there until I could afford to retire [at the time I thought this would be over ten years]. Little did I know that the first whim of history to confound my plans was about to appear. Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, was waiting in the wings with his back-of-a-fag-packet NHS reform that spit me out of my wonderful health service job and into a small charity.
In 1995 the government announced they were increasing the state pension age of women to 65. I knew this and I could see it was fair and was prepared for it. In 2007 they announced a further increase to 66 but I was unaffected by this change and my planning for early retirement continued. It wasn’t until 2011, when my planning was well underway, that this timetable was hastened and suddenly my state pension age was going to arrive one year later. The Government had taken a year’s worth of pension away from me and the spreadsheet had to be revised yet again and more money saved to provide enough to live on. The WASPI campaign is fighting for justice for all women, born in the 1950s, affected by the changes to the State Pension Age.
On the positive side, we will both benefit slightly from the new state pension introduced in 2016. This will be paid according to the years we have contributed.
Hopefully the state pension age will not change again for me, but who knows! My financial story will only really end when I die but for the moment I am happy that I did manage to retire when I was 57 years old. My experience does demonstrate how difficult it is to plan so far into the future when so much is out of our control and demonstrates how important a contingency fund is; if I had managed to take early retirement before 2011 my plans would have gone particularly awry.
As Governments come and go and policy changes, planning with certainty for more than a few years ahead is tough. I [and perhaps everyone saving for early retirement] move into the future hopefully rather than with certainty!