When they hear our story, the question everyone asks is “Are you writing a book? When does the book come out? I would definitely buy a copy,” but our journey has never been about money, it’s about humanity and sharing and so instead of selling it in the conventional way, our book will be free, told in installments on this website as a gift to everyone who has been or wants to be part of One Life Share It.
This book will take you on our journey with us, through all the ups and downs, to meet the people we’ve met and learn what we’ve learnt from them. It’s a thank you to everyone who has played a part in raising myself, Evan and Irys on this journey and will hopefully be a whole new perspective on life and education for anyone who joins us as we journey around the UK coastline, meeting people of all backgrounds, seeing the problems we’re all affected by and discovering solutions we can all be part of.
This book will be told in regular installments so be sure to follow us to get an email every time we post a new chapter! This is a story that belongs to us all, you who have been part of our journey already and you who will be part of it in the future, everyone who wants to be part of creating a better world.
(If you haven’t read Chapters 1, 2 or 3 then keep scrolling down)
Northumberland was a dark and stormy place, with clouds hanging around the tops of hills and endless fields and woodlands. I remember it well because we ended up seeing plenty of the local countryside whilst getting completely lost on our way to the Northumbria Community, an intentional Christian community in the middle of nowhere whose doors are open to everyone. We were all a bit apprehensive about going there at first as Dad had visited the community before he turned away from religion fifteen years ago after pursuing it for so long and before my parents continued onto another path which gave way to something we believe in with all our hearts and souls – One Life Share It.
One Life Share It is the best of all of us. It’s the very best of every religion, philosophy, culture and way of life in the world. By it’s very nature, it does not create division, but bridges all the gaps between us. It’s something that every single one of us understands, needs and craves if we peel back all the layers and look within ourselves. It’s the reason I feel like I shouldn’t need to convince you of its importance because you already know it deep down.
One Life Share It is about not raising your kids on your own, not growing old on your own, not struggling on your own, not celebrating on your own, not facing anything alone. What’s the first thing we want to do when we experience something incredible or even just when we’ve had a bad day? We want to tell someone about it because our stories and our emotions are worth so much more once they’re shared. Why should the rest of our lives be any different? I want to live my life alongside others, growing and flourishing and seeing others do the same. I don’t want to aspire to just doing my own thing because I see no hope for myself or my generation in a world where everyone is disconnected from each other, but I see so much potential when we share our lives. One Life Share It is what will turn our value system on its head and stop young people feeling like a failure because they don’t have a nice house or fancy car or thousands of followers on Instagram. When we have One Life Share It, those things are put in their rightful place instead of put up on a pedestal. It’s redefining our measurement of success. One Life Share It is a radical change in the way we think, a drastic move to save lives and provide hope for the future.
One Life Share It is the conclusion to every happy ending in the stories we constantly consume because it warms our hearts when the main character finally realises that love, family and community are what make us happy. It’s what makes us part of the human race and not racing against all other humans. It’s sharing with others and not expecting anything in return, but still knowing that the more we all share, the more there is for every one of us to receive.
Sharing is a long term investment and not an immediate transaction. It’s not A solution, it’s THE solution. It’s the thing that stops people taking their own lives or the lives of others. It can save us. One Life Share It is what lets us all change the world instead of waiting for someone else to do it. It’s something every one of us holds the key to.
It’s the feelings you can’t put into words – feelings of hope, purpose, belonging and contentment. It’s a way of life that leaves no one behind and where everyone has something to contribute.
When no one shares with one another and doesn’t see why they should, that’s what causes all our problems. Problems like vast amounts of people who have nothing whilst others feast because there’s no sense of responsibility. One Life Share It is always sharing what you can because you know that in your time of need someone will step up to help you too. It’s when my friends from other cultures say that if one person in their community is hungry then it’s because they’re all hungry otherwise everyone will contribute to feeding them. When it’s lost we face problems like our mental health crisis that’s only getting worse because we don’t support each other and none of us feel like we’re part of something.
There are kids and young people everywhere screaming out for help and we just ignore it, but One Life Share It is our only hope for the future that we share. It is knowing that although our problems may not immediately go away, we will deal with them together. And what is it that they say? A problem shared is a problem halved.
One Life Share It is the thing that we look back on at the end of our lives and feel proud of. It’s what we leave behind. It’s the example we set for our kids and for their kids. It’s definitely the lessons that my parents have passed on to me. It’s so powerful, but so simple. All you have to do is share.
Experiencing the Northumbria Community through the lens of One Life Share It, we admired and respected the way they welcome people into their lives and make them part of their community, regardless of their background. We had a brilliant time cooking, eating and connecting with people (or an alpaca called Columbus in Evan’s case) and we were really grateful for their hospitality.
As a family we definitely live a way of life that’s very different. You may think that would make it hard for us to relate to people, but I have learnt through pretty extensive experience that I can connect with pretty much anyone because at some point our stories will have overlapped. As human beings, searching for and finding those points of connection can lead to some of the most incredible experiences of our lives.
Our next stop wasn’t far away at all, but it was a slightly unusual one, we were off to visit someone that Dad remembered very distinctly from his trip to Northumberland all those years ago. It was actually snowing as Mo bounced up the muddy track to the very peak of a steep grassy hill. At the top was a beautiful chapel and a small, slightly ramshackle monastery. We were there to meet its sole full time occupant – eighty six year old Brother Harold who had lived on that hillside since 1971. He answered the door after a few knocks (we suspected he may be slightly deaf or fast asleep) and welcomed us in wearing a Thomas The Tank Engine hat and a big green coat. He had a great twinkle in his eye and a brilliant sense of humour, and as he pottered around making us a cup of tea and giving us a latin lesson in his tiny kitchen which is attached to the monastery building, he told us all about life as a hermit. As he offered us a biscuit that could only be described as ancient, he went on to tell us how he used to be part of an order of monks, but apparently he got kicked out. He still practiced the same routine every day though, of prayer and study and reading, and he constructed all these buildings himself over the years with help from friends and visitors.
He showed us the monastic cells where people often come and stay to focus and reflect. They all stem off of a high arched corridor which he informed us it was now our job to sweep. We got the brooms out and I felt like I’d gone back in time as we swept the floors and the cobwebs on this silent, snowy hilltop.
Brother Harold was actually pretty sociable because, although he is a hermit, he values community and helping people out and so the people around him have grown to love him. Just as we were leaving, a couple of ladies from the nearby village and their dogs were just coming to check up on him, bring him a pair of warm tracksuit trousers from M&S and make sure he was okay. They loved Mo and when we told them about our ongoing engine issues, they were all too keen to take us to a local mechanic who they thought might help us get on our way. We waved Brother Harold goodbye and followed the ladies back down the hill.
The garage turned out to be owned and run by a guy called Laurence Goodfellow, which is definitely a very appropriate name for him. Not only did he look at our carburettor for us (it seemed we needed a new one) and donated to CatZero, he also told us the story of what he’s been quietly doing to make a difference in his local community. Slightly shyly, he told us that he always used to buy his Mum a bunch of flowers every Saturday without fail, but ever since she died a few years back, instead of stopping, he’s been continuing to buy flowers each week and give them to people in his local area who he thinks could do with a little bit of kindness. Sometimes that would be an old lady in the supermarket who looked a little sad or sometimes it would be someone who he knew was having a tough time. Just that small human connection and knowing that someone cared about them, made a huge difference to those people.
The guys who worked with him at the garage seemed almost surprised, they had no idea that he’d been doing this for the past few years. We realised that by being honest and open ourselves and by sharing our journey and why we’re doing it, we’d made him feel comfortable enough to tell us about his gestures of true flower power. Sometimes our actions have much bigger impacts that we’ll ever know, whether that be Laurence giving away flowers or us giving him the opportunity to share his story.
We needed new parts for Mo so we had to hang around a bit, but the Northumbria community were more than happy to have us back for a few days whilst we waited for the parts to arrive. Once they came, it didn’t take Laurence long to fit them and we continued our journey through Northumberland.
We soon arrived in Bamburgh which is well known for its long sandy beaches and its magnificent castle. However, I remember Bamburgh for very different reasons.
I am definitely a people person. I love being around people, talking to people and connecting with people, but I don’t like asking people for things. Before we began our journey, we came up with an idea for what we called ‘Chick’s Choice’. We wanted Round The UK On A Tenner A Day to sweep everyone watching from home along on our journey with us. We wanted them to turn on their phones and be transported into whatever crazy thing we were doing that day. So we brainstormed videos we could make about family life both on the road and on a budget. This particular video in Bamburgh began with us all sitting in Mo.
‘Jem, can I have a coffee?’ Dad asks.
She replies ‘No way, that’s definitely not in our budget’.
I chime in…‘And if Dad can’t have coffee, then that means we can’t have an ice cream!’
Irys’ head pops into view with her typically huge grin ‘Did someone say ice cream?’
‘Yeah,’ I scoff ‘we can’t afford it’.
We all agree that it’s time to bring out the secret weapon.
We had kept this ‘secret weapon’ a surprise for everyone until this moment. We’d scurried about borrowing irons and blackboard paint from friends and family and making excuses so we didn’t have to tell anyone what we were up to and now it was time for the grand reveal. We all got out of Mo wearing what appeared to be normal challenge t-shirts with our logo on the front but when we turned round, you could see that we had blackboard paint all over the backs, with Chicks Choice in colourful letters at the top. Basically we looked like walking, talking sandwich boards.
We went into the first little ice cream shop we saw after parking up in Bamburgh, explained our journey and proposed a trade – a coffee or ice cream each in return for free advertising. The people in the shop had a good laugh and agreed so Mum got the chalk out, wrote ‘Wyndenwell – best ice cream in Bamburgh’ on everyone’s blackboard and we set off for a walk around the town.
Looking back since though, I’ve kind of come to realise that not everything has to be an exchange and that life isn’t all about giving and taking in equal measure. I’ve learnt not to feel guilty for asking something of someone and instead I’ve come to understand that in life we all have to give and to receive. It’s not all about receiving immediately after you give or vice versa, sometimes when you help someone, then someone else helps you. Asking for help isn’t a bad thing. In fact it often gives someone who never had the opportunity a chance to be part of creating a better world too. It makes the world a more connected place and it helps us all see things from a different perspective.
Next stop – the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where you drive across a causeway to an island in the sea. Highlights of that day included a hunt for a free parking spot (something that would become a regular occurrence throughout the next ten months), visiting the boat sheds that Ros from the ice cream shop in Lincolnshire had told us to visit (basically beautiful old wooden boats turned upside down and made into weather beaten sheds) and then when we did park up, talking to person after person after person all day as they made their way up the hill on their way to the see the castle, walked past Mo, did a double take and then stopped for a photo and a chat. This too was the beginning of what would soon become the norm for us.
I just remember eating my lunch in the cab of Mo and feeling like a goldfish in a bowl as people stopped to stare and take a photo. I wound down my window to talk to one group whilst Mum, Dad, Evan and Irys gave some others a van tour from the back door. This was our first taste of what it was like to have so many people fascinated by our journey and also so many people who dug into their pockets and donated to CatZero.
As exhausting as it was to repeat the same answers to the same questions over and over again, it also felt amazing and slightly surreal that so many people wanted to hear our story, a story that was only just beginning but already proving to be quite extraordinary.
A question everyone asked was how we managed to all live in Mo without killing each other. People would see the five of us, then look over at Mo and stare in disbelief. My friends are always telling me that there’s no way they’d ever be able to live in such a tiny space, especially with their siblings.
I’m sixteen, not far off seventeen, and I’ve lived in tiny spaces all my life so I guess you could say I’m just used to it, but it’s still a conscious decision I have to make not to complain when my feet hang over the end of the bed because I’m too tall, when someone rolls over and kicks me in the middle of the night, when I’m trying to concentrate on something and Irys is singing along to Ed Sheeran in my ear. I can’t just get up and walk away. What I’ve realised though is that really it’s nothing to do with the size of the space itself but the attitude with which I see it. In Mo I could easily go crazy and there were definitely times when I did, but I saw what Mo allowed us to do, all the opportunities it created, all the friends it helped us make and so I made my choice. It’s a choice I think anyone could make. I’m not anything special, I just learnt to deal with it. And it did bring our family closer – literally – but also because everything we faced, we faced together, and because if there was a problem we had to work through it and not avoid it.
A friend of mine is a refugee from Syria and he lived for several months on the streets with his family in Greece. He had nothing, but he describes it as the best time of his life because he realised what was important – the people around him, the friendships, the fun. So take it from us – two teenagers – that you don’t need a big kitchen, a wardrobe, a bathtub or even your own room to enjoy life. From my experience, you’d be surprised how much you can quite happily do without and by doing without some things, how much more you gain.
Before long we had crossed the border into Scotland, spending our first night parked up in Eyemouth where we spotted dolphins from the shore, talked to divers and spent hours trying to catch shrimp that were only slightly faster than we were determined. We were entering a country we all loved and couldn’t be more excited to explore. Irys always felt like she was Scottish at heart. She’s grown up with an extremely realistic Scottish accent as her party trick, Sunshine On Leith (a musical with all Proclaimers songs) as her favourite film and a fondness for saying ‘I cannae do that’. The only thing that sets her apart from most Scots was the fact that she really does not like porridge, especially not with salt. For us three who had never been abroad, Scotland seemed different and exciting and faraway when we had first visited the year before. Now it was going to be our home for the next four months and we couldn’t wait.
However, that first night in Scotland was a slightly bittersweet one since our phone – my tool for doing all the social media and also my only means of communicating with friends and family, had packed up completely. We attempted to fix it with the hair dryer that Dad had brought along! This was not for drying anyone’s hair (no luxuries like that allowed) but to demist the windscreen when it fogged up. This just made the phone worse and on top of all of that Evan decided to make an extremely candid video of it, so much so that if you looked back now – please don’t – you’ll see me looking utterly miserable, holding a hairdryer to this phone, begging it to work.
It didn’t, and after posting the video – as we had promised to share all the ups and downs of the journey – advice and tips flooded in from all sorts of people who came to our aid. In the end our Uncle sent us his old phone and saved the day and, although the whole incident caused a bit of havoc, it showed us how willing people were to step up whenever we needed them.
Before we’d left Dad had also challenged each of us three to come up with an innovative idea like ‘Chicks Choice’ that would help us on our journey. Irys had suggested all sorts of weird and wacky things like shoes that charge batteries when you walk and glow in the dark paint for Mo, Evan had come up with the idea of a ‘challenge trailer’ – a short video which explained who we were and what we’d set off to achieve – and I had harnessed the power of good old Facebook. I’d worked out that there are groups for villages, towns and cities all over the UK and that with a few clicks, we’d have a wealth of local knowledge and connections at our fingertips. Now it was time to put it to the test.
We were coming up to a town called Dunbar and so I joined the local group and posted the first of hundreds of ‘shout-outs’ that we would send out before visiting communities all around the country. I explained who we were as a family, the challenge we’d taken on, how we’d love to meet and connect with some local people and how we were happy to help out in any way if we could, we also thought we’d give our Chicks Choice another shot. Within a day a hotel had been in touch, a little bakery had offered us some cakes and a woman had invited us to her home for a BBQ!
Turning up at the hotel, The Royal Mackintosh, we had no idea what to expect. They’d just said for us to pop in so we did. We were met by Hannah, who ran the hotel and whose family had done for generations. “We’d like to offer you a couple of rooms for the night.” she said. “For free, of course.”
We were just like “Wow. That would be amazing. Thank you so much.”
When we first set off on this journey and when we were planning it, we didn’t expect things like this to happen at all. It was more of a way to raise money for CatZero and raise awareness of a different way of life, it was just us personally trying to make a bit of difference in the way we felt we could and it was about our education and our future.
We never anticipated people offering us a hotel room for the night just out of the blue. What was it that people saw in us? We weren’t anything special or extraordinary, we were just a family doing our best to act on what we believe in and contribute to the world that we wanted to live in.
What we were starting to learn though was that, when you put yourself out there, when you take a step into the unknown, you won’t be alone. There are so many people out there who’s kindness and generosity is just below the surface, waiting to be awakened by someone doing something different and something positive in a world full of negatives. We ended up being on the receiving end of so much kindness and it taught us that when you give of yourself, people step up to help and give to you. What you put out into the world definitely comes back and we experienced that every single day of our challenge.
At the time, everything we were experiencing seemed perfectly normal and we took it all – both the ups and downs – in our stride. Looking back now though, I realise how incredible and unique our journey really was and I wonder whether my entire life is exactly the same. Whether I’ll look back and be like ‘woah’.
I think people only really see one side of our lives. They think we ‘live the dream’, that we’re so far removed from the real world that we’re not aware of any of the issues that people face. Little do they know that the very reason we’ve chosen to live like this is because we’re all too aware and we need an alternative to the way of life that causes those issues. The reason I’m writing this book is because I want others to have one too.
Our life is not perfect, it’s far from it. It is not all wonderful home cooked pizza in our off grid veggie patch, community lunches and days spent chilling out in our beautiful tiny home. Instead it’s family discussions, tears and tiredness, being constantly misunderstood, tiny spaces that feel way too small and ideas that seem way too big to explain. Everyone assumes our life is like the Waltons with a good old fashioned happy ending every time, but often it is more of a disaster movie.
So why keep on going? Why choose to walk this path against all the odds? Often almost on our own?
I often think how easy my life would be if I was just out for myself, if I didn’t spend every day working on projects to make the world a better place, to give young people hope. Maybe easy isn’t the right word. I guess ‘different’ makes more sense. I can’t imagine not sitting down each morning to write, trying to work out which angle to take today, discussing it, often starting again. I could just focus on the things I love, write that poem I’ve been putting aside for ages, connect with people, learn, grow, share my skills and passions and have people share with me.
But I can’t. I can’t sit back and do nothing. There are young people out there with no hope for their future whatsoever. Young people who don’t see a way forward amongst all the obstacles. My identity is completely rooted in them, our futures are twisted together and cannot be separated. If I fall then they do too, if they fall then so do I.
So we keep on fighting. Definitely not some kind of heroic, glorious fight, but a slow, frustrating slog that we’re all on. I can see the end goal, but it’s a long way away. I’ve always felt like I was different, but never for the sake of it. I am proud of who I am, but not proud of my difference. I do not want my life to be unique to me. That’s why I choose to share it.
Anyway, we wandered around Dunbar the next day and met the rowing team down at the harbour who invited us to help them clean their boats. These little harbours are so untouched and so typically Scottish, there are hardly any tourists around and it’s a hub of local life. We actually got chatting to Karen and Lynne who worked at Edinburgh castle and offered to put us on the guest list for a visit. We felt like royalty!!
Whilst we were in Dunbar everyone kept telling us ‘You’ve got to visit The Ridge. You’ll love it’. So, after a trip to the chemist to try and find an ear candle as Dad had mysteriously gone completely deaf in one ear, we set off to try and find The Ridge, a community garden in the middle of the town. Within moments of arriving in this garden, we were sitting at a table with a couple of ladies and young guys chatting and making decorations out of bendy willow and colourful string. We were told how this garden was transformed from a deserted patch of weeds to this beautiful and flourishing garden by members of the community working alongside local people who were vulnerable and in need of support. They told us about how they’ve all been brought together to help people achieve their full potential and how it was so much more than just a garden, it was a place where everyone belonged and was comfortable.
They had some old derelict buildings on the site which had loads of history and young people doing apprenticeships in heritage skills were restoring them using traditional techniques. It was giving them both a sense of where they come from and a pathway to their futures.
I loved how The Ridge was a hub for everyone in that community, how anyone could go there and feel completely at home and be given a job to do. We had a great time getting stuck in and helping out and at one point a whole group of school kids turned up for a tour so I ended up giving the first impromptu talk of my life about our journey in front of a class of rowdy thirteen year olds in the middle of Scotland.
Leaving The Ridge we found ourselves inspired by the immense power that people coming together to support each other has. They didn’t need any kind of complex programme or special training, but they were changing lives through human connection, working alongside one another and growing food for the community. Our day there had opened our eyes and it marked the very beginning of a new direction that our journey had taken on, a thread that would run through our entire trip, change our lives and keep us going every step of the way.
Here’s a poem about The Ridge that I wrote just after being there –
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This spoken word poem by me (Gracie) was inspired by a visit to The Ridge in Dunbar- an amazing project that, through the transformation of an overgrown abandoned piece of land into a beautiful garden, are transforming lives (just like CatZero). They facilitate the opportunity for apprenticeships in heritage trades, employment, a safe space for everyone, somewhere to rebuild lives and a place to build new friendships. They’re bringing a community together and making a huge difference in so many lives. If you’re ever in Dunbar, definitely check them out 😁 We were really inspired by what The Ridge do, especially since it’s similar to the work of CatZero, a charity we believe in with all our hearts #catzero #catzerohumber #theridge #makeadifference #changinglives #roundtheukonatenneraday #dunbar #scotland #transformation #spokenword #spokenwordpoetry #slampoetry #poetry #youngpeople #transforminglives #inspirational #communityproject #bringingpeopletogether #localcommunity #heritagetrades #communitygarden #ukcoast
Whilst we were in the area we’d also been invited to a BBQ at a lady called Caroline’s house as she said she’d love to meet us. We bumped down a farm track, careful not to let everything fly off of the shelves like it often did in Mo, and then we pulled into a driveway. A couple came out.
“Are you Caroline?” we asked.
“No, we’re her neighbours.” they said “but we know who you are! We’re coming round for the BBQ later too.”
After finding Caroline, being shown where we could park Mo for the night and being welcomed into her huge kitchen like old friends, we learnt that she had invited all of her family and friends over to meet us and that there was nothing she liked more than cooking for large amounts of people. We spent the afternoon cooking and talking and meeting people as they arrived. Tom, Caroline’s husband, arrived back from a motorbiking trip in the early evening, took one look at all these people in his house, seemed slightly confused for a moment, but then joined right in. We all had a brilliant time, ate far too much, made some great new friends and had Caroline’s Dad and his friend, who were mechanics, take a look at Mo for us. When we left that next morning we were definitely running better and someone had left £40 on our front seat for CatZero.
We will never forget Caroline and Tom’s incredible hospitality and how they treated us – total strangers – like members of their own family. We are still in touch with them now and have been keeping up to date with Caroline’s antics over lockdown as she live streams cooking lessons straight from her kitchen dressed in all sorts of ridiculously hilarious outfits for kids to follow along from home.
Next up it was time for us to hit the Scottish capital – Edinburgh. With the help of a little local knowledge, we found a free parking space on the edge of the city and walked to the castle where it felt very cool to be waved through the gates in our Round The UK On A Tenner A Day t-shirts. Most of what I remember about Edinburgh was how boiling hot that day was, how we got to see the statue of Grey Friar’s Bobby after watching the movie all the time when we were little and also how no one really talked to us.
It seemed like no one had the time. No one stopped to look at Mo because everyone was way too busy looking at their phones or their feet. We found it sad because everywhere else we’d been, people had stopped to talk and connect. We’re all guilty of being so wrapped in where we’re heading that we don’t look around us and make the most of the present. We miss so many opportunities and so it’s definitely something I try to keep in mind now.
We always make time to talk to people and drink tea with them. Over lockdown we transformed an old stable next to where we live into a garden with an outdoor firepit and seating area, a veggie patch, polytunnel and chicken pen. We spend pretty much all our time out there. When lockdown began to ease, people constantly began to pop by. I don’t mind this at all, but it is almost like people just walking into your lounge. We’ve had people come whilst I was in the middle of an emotional breakdown or whilst still in my pajamas. Then there have been countless times when someone has stayed for ages when I just want to get on with my plans. Sometimes it does my head in and I get really frustrated, but at the end of the day I know how much of a difference it makes to those people.
They know that they have a safe space with us, people to talk to, a cup of tea or a meal if they come at the right time. And sometimes those people pop by with a cake or a pile of books or a snippet of advice or a funny story or the opportunity to learn something new. I’d want someone to do the same for me if I was struggling and I know that you can make the world a better place one person at a time.
I saw a quote this morning actually that said ‘Community is built one relationship at a time’ and mentally I added ‘And relationships are built one cup of tea at a time’.
We spent the night just outside of Edinburgh, at a beautiful beach called Cramond Island with a park right by it and a great hill for roly polying down – anyone who knows us will know that the Chick family love a good roly poly down a hill. Okay, I’ll rephrase that – I love a good roly poly down a hill.
This leg of the journey had pushed us all out of our comfort zones and people had completely surprised us with their hospitality and kindness, but we’d learnt so much just simply from meeting and talking with people, from going out of our way to connect with them or have a conversation. Our trip was already beginning to shift and evolve from just a charity challenge to an eye opening journey of discovery and there was still so much more left to come……
We didn’t go far that first night, only to Hornsea, which is just up the coast from Hull. We were parked opposite a fish and chip shop with a TV on the wall and Evan kept peeking in the window to see if we were on yet since the crew had been filming when we were with CatZero and had told us we’d be on that night. The evening news came and went and there was no mention of a family of five driving round the UK on a tenner a day in a tiny Morris campervan. We were a bit confused and disappointed, but we settled in for our first night of the challenge. Then we heard a knock on the door.
A family with a big carrier bag of shopping stood outside. It was just after Easter and there were chocolate eggs poking out of the top. “We saw you on FaceBook!!” they told us, in the broad Yorkshire accents we were already coming to love so much. They held out the bag. “We live just down the road and we think what you guys are doing is so amazing. We just thought you might appreciate this” We chatted with them for a while, they told us all about themselves and their daughter’s love of dancing and they promised to keep following us online. Then they said goodbye and went home, but they left us with so much more than a bag of shopping. They left us with the realisation that this wasn’t just about us. That this wasn’t going to be just us quietly travelling around the UK as a charity challenge. Instead it was already becoming about all the people who wanted to be part of it, all the people already cheering us on from the sidelines, people who wanted to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others, but maybe didn’t really know where to start.
Before we started our challenge, we spent ages thinking of little videos we could make along the way to get people of all ages and backgrounds interested in our journey, to take them along with us every step of the way and show the world that we’re just a totally normal family on a bit of an adventure to live life differently and make a difference and that if we could, then they can too. We knew that we’d have plenty of ups and downs, funny moments, struggles and times when we just wanted to go home and we wanted to share those with everyone else. We had this huge desire to show people all over the UK and beyond that anyone can live differently, anyone can choose to make their life about family and people and sharing.
We didn’t know that what would happen was that we would become the physical manifestation of what so many people had dreamed of, considered and seen the need for. So many people we met had looked around them at the world they lived in and seen how messed up it is and the desperate need for change. Yet they didn’t know where to turn or look or how to take the first step. So when they saw us, a family of five in a tiny campervan driving round the country to try and make a difference, they went so far out of their way to help us, to feed us and to encourage us. It often became the times when we posted a video of us on the side of the road in the rain on a remote Scottish hillside because Mo had broken down – again – when comments, messages and countless offers of help would flood in. People watched every up and down on social media, messaged us asking to meet up, invited us into their homes, offered us support when we needed help. We were their hope for a better world and so they made sure that they kept us going and to be totally honest, we couldn’t have done it without them.
The most incredible thing was that, slowly but surely, we’d begin to get messages and calls about the little changes people were starting to make in their lives after meeting us and hearing about us, whether that was getting more involved in their community, talking to their neighbours or coming closer as a family. People would begin to tell us that we were like their favourite TV show, they’d always tune in to see what was happening next. We wanted to give people a window into another world and another way of living and we did that simply by being the change we wanted to see and being real about all the ups and downs. Sure, there were times when we felt misunderstood and alone, but then we’d meet someone who would tell us their story or be incredibly generous or just nod in understanding and it would give us the hope we needed to keep on going.
That next morning in Hornsea a lady pulled up outside the fish and chip shop, leapt out the car in her pajamas and rushed over to us waving a packet of brioches. “I’ve brought you breakfast!” she exclaimed “and I’ll donate to CatZero as soon as I get my new job.” We’d already had our water porridge (25p for all five of us), but her thoughtfulness and eagerness to be part of our journey was incredible. Later that day, Mum, Evan and Irys were walking along Hornsea beach when they came across a small huddle of tents blowing in the wind. They were definitely being lived in. A few people pottered around on the sand outside so Mum, Evan and Irys wandered over to say hi. “Are you guys staying down here?” Mum asked.
“Yeah” they were a little wary at first, maybe because they weren’t used to people stopping by for a chat. Well, they obviously hadn’t met anyone like Mum yet, infamous for talking to absolutely everyone. They ended up chatting for ages about our challenge and CatZero. It turned out these guys were originally from Hull so Mum dug out a pen with CatZero’s contact details on and told them to pop by if they were ever back in their hometown. They then dug into their own pockets and emptied out all their coins before quietly handing them over. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. “We want you to have this for CatZero” they said. It was one of our first donations and it came from homeless people literally surviving in tents down on the beach. They had virtually nothing and yet were so ready to give to support others in need and the challenge we had taken on.
We went back later to share some of the shopping given to us by the family the night before and to say goodbye to our new friends Sherrie, Michael and Kelvin. We don’t know if they ever stopped into CatZero or where they are now, but we’ll never forget the way they were so ready to give even when they had nothing themselves.
I think meeting those guys down on the beach really showed me that how you approach people has a huge impact on the interaction you have with them. If we judge people without getting to know them first – which we’re all capable of – then we have these preconceived ideas that will affect the way we see them, but if we view everyone we come across just as a human being and approach them with open hearts and minds, then the potential is endless. We could’ve easily avoided the people on the beach, our minds filled with negative stereotypes, but they turned out to be really lovely people who had simply fallen on hard times. We are not our circumstances. We all have the potential to be good or bad, kind or unkind, generous or selfish, regardless of whether we live in a mansion or in a tent on a Yorkshire beach.
A few years before I was born, Mum and Dad took a homeless drug addict called Mark into their home. I can only remember meeting Mark a few times when I was little, but I’ve grown up hearing stories about him and his past and who he became. He was a violent, destructive, scary person who pretty much anyone would have described as a menace to society, and yet I remember him being kind and full of laughter. He brought me my favourite teddy which I slept with every night as a child. The direction his life had gone in was all just a product of the way he’d grown up and if we really think about it, had our circumstances been different, any one of us could have become like Mark. His childhood had lacked any kind of love or guidance and he’d been through tragedy after tragedy, experiencing things most of us can’t even begin to imagine. He’d been forcibly shaped into someone who was angry at the world and had no hope and although of course it was his life and his choices, he was never given any kind of alternative and despite all the terrible things he experienced and did, he had the potential to be an incredible person.
Dad first met Mark when him and Mum had just come back from Cambodia, they were disillusioned and frustrated after going there to try and make a difference and finding out that people and the world are complex and that change is not straightforward. Dad started going up to London with sandwiches, coffee and some of my Nan’s famous bread pudding. He would just go and sit with all the people who lived on the streets, become friends with them and learn about their lives. He always tells us the story of just casually putting his hand on a guys’ shoulder one time without even really thinking and the guy just bursting into tears. Dad was shocked and when he asked him why he was crying, the guy just said that no one had touched him in years.
So Dad met Mark on the streets of London just before him and Mum were about to move house and so when they moved into their new home, Mark moved in with them. That first night, Mum and Dad had to go out and so they left Mark all on his own in the house. They didn’t really think anything of it, but it had a huge effect on him because no one else had ever trusted him like that before, everyone else just expected him to rob them. Mum and Dad tried to help Mark choose a different path and even when the landlord threatened to kick Mum and Dad out if they didn’t make Mark leave, they stood their ground and said that if he went then they all did.
Mum and Dad stayed really close friends with Mark for years as he went in and out of trouble. He clawed his way back from rock bottom so many times, but always seemed to get dragged back down again. They sadly lost touch with Mark when I was young, but he taught them a lot and I guess many of those lessons have been passed on to me, lessons about how everyone is so much more than just their circumstances and that every one of us has a story that makes us who we are, about not dismissing or giving up on people even when it seems like there’s no hope for them.
I remember being one day into the challenge and thinking “Wow so much has happened. I wonder if this will continue?” Looking back now, parked up on the Yorkshire seafront, we had no idea what was to come in the next ten months and seven thousand, four hundred and thirty miles. We had no comprehension of the immense amount of human connection and deep friendship we would go on to experience and the way it would change our lives, but it was already beginning. As we navigated the windy, hilly roads of Whitby a few days later, I reflected on all the people we’d met. On Day One, we had pulled into a mechanic’s in the middle of nowhere to see if we could get Mo looked at and a young mechanic opened the bonnet, took one look and said “Where do I plug it in?” Another guy just happened to be there having his car serviced at the same time and he came over to see what the problem was. He was an expert on carburettors and took a look at ours as we thought that may be where our engine issues were coming from. He had a tinker and although he didn’t solve the problem, he definitely helped us on our way.
Then on Day Two, after we left Hornsea, we stopped in at Mr Moos farm and ice cream parlour for a walk on our way to Filey, our next overnight stop. Their ice cream looked absolutely incredible, but on our very limited tenner a day budget, we had to resign ourselves to watching everyone else enjoying theirs in the sunshine. We did have a secret and very inventive ice cream acquiring weapon that we had prepared for this challenge, but we weren’t quite ready to put that into action yet. The plan was just to say hi to the cows and head off, but Evan was itching to get his camera out and make a video so he went up and explained what we were doing and asked the lady if he was allowed to film through the door to where the ice cream was being made to make a video for our social media. She agreed and asked if we’d like to try a little bit of their ice cream? Just as she was giving us each a spoonful, another lady walked in and rushed over to us “I follow you on Facebook!!” she exclaimed and we got into a long conversation with her. I was desperately trying to remember all the places she was saying that we must visit further up the coast at the same time as deciding what ice cream flavour I’d like to try. Though, to our surprise, and it may have been something to do with her thinking we were social media famous, the ice cream lady had decided to give us a double scoop! The woman who had come rushing in was definitely partly responsible for one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had and for some amazing recommendations for places to visit in Northumberland. Her name was Ros and we are still in touch today.
In Filey, we got talking to Syd – an opera loving Marxist, birdwatcher and classic car enthusiast who stopped to admire Mo and tell us all about all the local birds and how he’d been studying them for decades. He invited us to his workshop where he was making the handcrafted wooden framework for classic cars and then back to his house for a cup of strong Yorkshire tea with him and his wife Margaret. They showed us their fridge magnet collection and all their photos of their family and grandchildren. At first they were a bit skeptical of homeschooling, but I think we managed to convince them, especially when Syd was talking about Shakespeare and I helpfully filled in a detail he was struggling to remember!
Mum and Dad decided to homeschool me, Evan and Irys because they wanted to raise us to value community, free thinking, hospitality and sharing. They didn’t want to put us in a system where we’re taught that life is a competition and not a collaboration. Human beings are all different, with unique interests and ways of learning and we cannot squeeze into a one-size-fits-all system. Though I’ve always been home educated, I’ve grown up passionate about education, empowering young people and helping them take control of their own future. I’ve always been fascinated by the role of teachers and educators in our society, in the conventional and unconventional sense. Education is the most powerful tool we possess, we can open people’s eyes to the world around them and to a different way of living, we can share parts of ourselves and we can truly create huge changes.
Dad hated school, he didn’t feel like it was worth his time and none of the teachers felt like he was worth theirs. He spent most of his time either messing around, acting the fool and getting into trouble or hiding in a cupboard, didn’t really learn anything and left to get a carpentry job at sixteen. To this day he still doesn’t know what he got in his GCSEs because he never went back to find out. Mum always says that school would have been great if there were no other kids there. She loved learning and she always wanted to be a journalist, but her schoolmates made her life a living nightmare. Although Mum was in the bottom set, with the kids everyone called “the thickies”, she loved sport and was really good at it. However that meant that even the kids in her own class didn’t like her. All in all neither of them had a great experience so they decided to create an alternative for us and to try and share that alternative with others too.
Most of the way we live is because of Mum and Dad’s pasts, especially Dad’s. The reason we try so hard and fight for a different way of living is because Mum and Dad have experienced how messed up the normal one is and they don’t want it for their kids or anyone else’s.
We left Filey with promises of sending Syd and Margaret a fridge magnet from our travels and we headed to Whitby, where we met a lady who stopped to see what Round The UK On A Tenner A Day was all about. After we’d explained about the tight budget we were sticking to she nodded and told us that she was living on only £2 a day to afford medical expenses for her Mum, but she still insisted on giving us the change from her purse. It was also in Whitby that we met John, who stood around talking to us and giving us mechanical advice for so long that he left his wife out in the cold waiting for him outside the pub up the road standing out in the cold all by herself. She must’ve forgiven us for distracting him though because they both came back later with a carrier bag full of salted peanuts and crisps and made us promise that we’d come visit them if we were ever near Liverpool.
We took a photo of Mo on Whitby harbour, posted it and went off for a walk. When we returned, there was a message from Laura McLachlan, a skipper Evan, Irys and I had all sailed under with a sail training charity down in Cornwall. “Looks like you’re in Whitby!” she said “I live nearby, do you guys want to stop in?”
The name of the village where she said she lived sounded familiar. Then I realised why. Even before we had started our journey, we had been contacted by a really kind guy who offered to make us dinner and let us stay at his house when we passed through where he lived….a little village just above Whitby. I’d briefly thought that he had the same surname as Laura, but didn’t think much of it. Fast forward a bit and he’d messaged us again saying that he was going to be on holiday but that he’d left us a parcel and we could pick it up at the petrol station opposite his house….the same address that Laura had just given us! It turns out that the guy was her Dad and she didn’t know he’d been in touch with us and he didn’t know that she knew us! We turned up at Laura’s house absolutely drenched after having sat out in the pouring rain to watch the ‘Tour De Yorkshire’ and had a catch up with her and her sister. It was strange to see Laura on dry land, but she was still exactly how I remembered her – eating chips with tons and tons of ketchup! She gave me some priceless advice from someone who is also so passionate about the power sail training has to change young people’s lives.
Her Dad had also left us a huge box of goodies, including some avocados for me, Werthers for Evan, a cucumber for Irys, salad for Mum, tuna for Dad and a tank of petrol for Mo, which made us all very happy.
The next day we parked up in Hartlepool, tucked out the way in an industrial but beautiful coastal area which appeared to be a quiet spot…until a guy turned up with an entire van full of whippets. And it wasn’t just the whippets that made our day in Hartlepool memorable.
It was there that we met Eddie, who introduced himself by coming over, opening the backdoor and peering into Mo. “I hope you don’t mind” he said “I’m a Yorkshireman and we can’t help it – we’re all just nosey.” He then proceeded to tell us about local life and give us an update on all the gossip, as well as asking a hundred and one questions. He finished off by staring thoughtfully at Mo and announcing that he thought we’d be much more noticeable if we painted Mo bright red and stuck a big flag on top! We laughed. As if we weren’t noticeable enough already.
The next morning, woodsmoke hung in the air as Dad set up and lit our ‘Samovar’ – a woodfired Russian tea urn. It’s quite big and takes up a lot of precious space in Mo, but our Samovar symbolises so many things that are incredibly important to us. In a Russian home, the samovar is a central hub for people to gather around, to talk and drink tea, support each other and forge strong relationships. That’s what we aimed to do with ‘CommuniTea’, where we saved any money left over from our tenner a day (often saved because of the hospitality of others) to buy tea bags and milk. We then planned on setting up our Samovar on the back of Mo and inviting anyone passing by to stop for tea. You never know what difference a conversation with a stranger might have, you never know what that person’s going through and how much being offered a cup of tea might let them know that someone cares.
Evan got his camera out and filmed Dad lighting the samovar up, sitting there drinking his cuppa and talking about how a cup of tea and a conversation would be a good start to solve most of the problems our society faces. If you went back and watched it now, you would just about hear me in the background go “Even Brexit, Dad?!” His answer? “Even TNT wouldn’t shift that deadlock”. He did think it would help with world peace though, if all the world leaders sat down over a calming cup of camomile.
After we’d packed up the Samovar it was off to Newcastle to stay with the family of one of my crewmates from a sail training voyage a couple of years before. Newcastle was the first major city we’d hit since Hull so it definitely felt like a bit of a milestone. Lyndsey, Philip, James, Sam and Lucy welcomed us into their home and although us kids didn’t get a ton of sleep, we woke up the next morning ready for the next step of our adventure. As we were leaving, someone noticed the biggest jar of jam you’ve ever seen sitting on the doorstep. We weren’t sure who it was for at first, but Lyndsey eventually concluded that it must have been for us as apparently anonymous jam donations weren’t a regular occurrence on their doorstep! We waved our new friends goodbye and headed for Northumberland….
Our first day in Northumberland was definitely eventful! We walked across the causeway to St Mary’s Island, home to a large grey seal colony. Evan and Irys were a little too enthusiastic with their wildlife watching and ran out onto the rocks, somehow managing not to see all the signs saying not to go on the rocks as it would disturb the seals. They got shouted at by a seal warden, who actually turned out to be very friendly and knowledgeable once we got past, you know, initial first impressions.
We then met up with Geoff, who had just bought a van, had seen us online and wanted to meet up. He’d been inspired by watching people on YouTube who’d taken the plunge to live life differently and he wanted to do the same, so it was great to be able to chat to him and hopefully inspire and encourage him on his journey. It was so important for us to be able to meet with him because we know how hard it can be to fight against the norm when it feels like you’re the only one and we also know how encouraging it is to meet people who think the same way or are a little bit further down the line.
At the end of the day, giving others a window into another world was what it was always about, whether that be by fundraising so CatZero could give people an alternative or whether it was through using our journey to promote sharing and connection. So after having a great chat with Geoff, we were ready to continue on our way.
Next stop? Northumbria
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.
At first glance this 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 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….