I remember very well the months I spent living in a van, trundling the Cornish lanes, stopping here and there, never for long, always leaving early. Nobody ever bothered me; nobody banged on the side in the nighttime; the police never moved me on, but then I guess I played it right and stayed well off the beaten track. You wouldn’t have found me parked up at Pendennis, Porthtowan, or any of the other sites popular with van dwellers; if you had spotted me, you might have seen me cooking up some food on my camping stove or towelling myself down after a swim or a surf, but other than that, I suspect I blended into the background, which was just fine by me.
I’d been living in a house share in Penryn while I completed a Master’s degree at Falmouth uni. When the course finished, everyone went their separate ways but I was doing a bit of work for BBC Radio Cornwall, and freelancing as a copywriter in Truro, so I recruited new housemates and stayed on. Gradually though, these new housemates also moved away, and I was left alone in the property through most of the winter and into the spring of that following year. As houses go, it was alright – from the perspective of not having a house at all now, it seems quite palatial, as in, it had plumbing, but it was north-facing, cold, gloomy, and a little bit spooky. I don’t know if it was me or the house, but I became depressed, and I couldn’t seem to shake it off.
I needed to make a move but couldn’t think of what to do. In the end, the owners decided they wanted their house back, and so my hand was forced. I went around looking at bedsits and house shares but couldn’t face the thought of living in some landlord’s claustrophobic studio flat or sharing anyone else’s space. There had to be a solution, but what could it be?
Back in the day, I did what many other surfers have done and packed up a van and headed to the beach breaks of South West France, Spain and Portugal. What an adventure – big waves, sunshine, new friends – it was a wonderful time. Why don’t I do that, only stay here in Cornwall? I thought. Over a weekend, I made a big plywood box with a lid and a divider down the middle. One half was for my camping stove, gas bottle, and cooking gear, and the other for clothes. My pillows and duvet, folded on top, made the box into a seat. I had an old mattress from a folding bed which, when not in use, I could strap up against the side of the van. I bought a 40-litre water tank with a tap at the bottom, strapped my surfboard to the roof, and I was set.
I used the loos at work or the supermarket; in the early morning, I would head for the beach, soap up, wash in the sea and then rinse off with fresh water from a 2-litre milk bottle with holes melted through the lid with a hot needle. I swam, I surfed, I worked, and I went to Kath Morgan’s weekly writing class – Kath now co-owns The Writing Retreat. To begin with, living in my van made me feel vulnerable and exposed – I didn’t have a home to go back to. But I got used to it, and that feeling wore off. I began to feel a bit better, and then I felt a lot better.
I was born less than a mile from the sea, and apart from my uni years in Scotland, I’ve never lived far from it. During my lifeguard days and as a surfer too, I was in the sea all the the time, all year round. As a tall ship sailor, I was on it (and thankfully never in it). I paint the sea, I write about it, I swim in it, I make wooden fish; it’s where I go when I’m celebrating, and it’s there when I want to escape. I’m not Cornish, but I’m deeply connected to this county, and that’s partly because I have family here and came here as a child, but it’s also – mainly – because I’m a saltwater human, and this place has sea on three sides.
There’s a secluded sea pool I used to frequent; its whereabouts is a secret. It’s hidden by cliffs and is connected to the open sea via a gully perhaps 30 metres long. I’d skinny dip there in the early dawn, the sea stingingly cold and clear and vivid, and afterwards, I’d stand on a rock, hidden from view and dry off and dress for the day. As I stood there one day, bathed in the morning light, just like that, my depression lifted.
Lighter, brighter and wholly refreshed, it wasn’t long until I found myself at Porthtowan on the north coast. I’d been surfing and was sitting eating my chips when suddenly, like a shoal of pilchards, children poured from Porthtowan Surf Lifesaving Club. As they messed about in the sand or trotted down to the sea carrying boards, they reminded me of my lifesaving days at Dawlish Warren Lifesaving Club in Devon. I was due to attend Kath’s writing class that evening but hadn’t written anything. I grabbed a pen and, on the back of an envelope, began a story about a kid called Jacob.
My first novel, Fulmar, is the result. I wrote it mostly in lay-bys, never far from the sound of the sea; it came so easily, this story of a boy in trouble, his mixture of positivity, determination, humour, and vulnerability. Surfing and surf lifesaving saved him, just as they once helped me. As I wrote, my friends in the writing group gave me valuable feedback; Kath helped me with the editing and, after much re-writing, Fulmar, was finally finished. It’s a lovely story, full of the sea. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones once remarked that he doesn’t write his songs; the songs are out there already. All he does is put up his antenna, and the riffs come to him. I think this is that: I opened up and let the Ocean in.
Fulmar has now been published by Cornish Publisher, Hermitage Press. It’s available to order at bookshops across Cornwall, and can be ordered from any bookshop in the UK. You can also order direct from Amazon or, alternatively, from the publisher’s website.
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