It was on a much needed trip down to Cornwall to escape the city and take some well-earned rest from my heavy workload that my wife, my two young boys and I took up the offer from an old school friend of to visit him and his wife, of whom I had yet to meet.
I hadn’t seen him for years. We were surfing buddies back in the late Eighties during and after our school years, and although I chose the career path and moved up to the city, he on the other hand had chosen a life of no kids, no career and travelling around the world surfing.
For myself I had always felt pressured by the expectations of my parents to do well and knuckle down. Running off to ‘Surf the World’ wouldn’t do at all, so I made all the right moves and noises and pursued a career in investments.
I would receive the occasional postcard from my dear friend from some far flung place (back when people made the effort to send them) but I know he wrote them to make me jealous. At first, he would try his hardest to dissuade me from my life choices whenever we got together, often over a well-earned pint in some old Inn down in the West Country.
I can still remember the dried salt on my face and the hot comforting pasties we would devour, exhausted but happy, post surf, warming ourselves next to a fire while he would regale me with his plans for his next surf trip to Indonesia, Mexico or other equally exotic location.
I had become so used to the noise of the city that the peacefulness was startling, almost deafening
I would bore him with my university escapades and my ‘plans for the future’ in the big smoke. As time went on, he became an attentive listener and it felt like he had ceased judging me and had accepted my decisions, even though they were so opposite to his.
These days we hardly speak though, more like virtual friends online, and I was rather saddened by that.
By the time we had hit the A30 into Cornwall, I felt a certain old familiarity with the scenery. My thoughts drifted and I was taken back to my carefree days. Would we still feel that same camaraderie? We live worlds apart.
Age and circumstance, kids, career, the ups and downs of life, responsibilities and just plain growing up would of had an impact on our friendship I’m sure. But regardless, I was very much looking forward to our reunion and a much needed change of scenery.
We agreed to meet at our old haunt down by the beach. As soon as I drove into the car park I spotted him sitting on a wall with a beaming smile on his face, looking just the same as twenty years ago, maybe a few wrinkles here and there but looking well nonetheless.
I on the other hand, have lost most of my hair and have a somewhat rotund belly from hours at my desk. I do try to get to the gym, but I`m not in the best of shape I’ll readily confess.
After our initial awkwardness together, it soon became evident that the bond between us of all those years ago was the same. My family made their introductions and I assumed we would go straight to the pub for a few refreshments.
Instead I was taken, or should I say marched to his beaten old van and dispensed a wetsuit. ‘There you go, it should stretch around that padding you picked up there fella’ he jibed. I hadn’t been in the surf in a good few years and for that matter, the last time was on a family holiday in Southwest France where I sought to impress my boys with tales of huge waves and surfing bravado.
I proceeded to make a fool of myself as the local French lifeguards had to pluck me from the sea as I was caught in a horrendous riptide on my son`s body board. My pride was a little dented, and I haven’t been near the ocean since, being well and truly landlocked.
After being flogged, thrashed and beaten around in the surf, I must admit I did begin to enjoy myself.
I could hardly catch the waves but the beauty of the imposing cliffs around me and the cold rawness of the Atlantic were so invigorating. ‘Bracing,’ my Grandfather would have said. Everybody around me seemed so carefree, and happy, just simply enjoying themselves and at no cost.
When it was time to leave, I was exhausted. I felt muscles I`d forgotten I had. The kids ran to me patting me on the back, proud of my seamanship. Surfer dad is back, they decreed.
My children broke the spell moments after though when they confessed that their mother had told the lifeguards to keep an eye out for me as I’d been in trouble at sea before. The Lifeguards even gave me a wink and a good hearted clap as we left the beach.
A pint was surely in order but it turned out my good friend had other ideas. We packed away our things and I squeezed out of my wetsuit managing to thump myself in the nose whilst doing so. We jumped in our respective vehicles and we followed in convoy through picturesque winding country lanes, a world away from the city congestion I had become a part of.
We stopped at an old wooden farm gate and then proceeded along a track until we came upon an old shed and a polytunnel nestled amid a woodland clearing. My friend’s wife greeted us warmly and immediately made us feel like we were old friends. The offer of a cold beer was music to my ears. The sun grinned down on us and the smell of the great English countryside assailed me.
It was as if the surf had cleared all the pollution from my nose. I had become so used to the noise of the city that the peacefulness was startling, almost deafening. We hung the wetsuits to dry and were taken on a culinary tour of raised vegetable beds and the poly tunnel.
A profusion of vegetables and fruits were bursting at the seams from every corner. Chickens were scattered about, busy clawing at the earth searching for a juicy worm. Bees were busy pollinating all about us. I must say I was rather impressed with the garden. We gorged on strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants.
They tasted out of this world, somewhat reminiscent of when I was a child, not like the hard, picked too early fruits of my local supermarket. “It’s a lot of hard work” I’m told “but very rewarding, it keeps you fit, spending time in the outdoors and eating food picked straight to the pot doesn’t get better than that.
We sat at a table and ate a delicious meal, all picked from that garden. The chickens provided us with the eggs, fresh that morning and the bread was still warm from the oven.
After all that exercise, my hunger knew no bounds. I greedily mopped up every morsel of food and I sat contented, watching the kids being out fooled trying to catch the chickens, climbing trees, getting scratched and dirty.
I’d become so used to them slumped in front of the computer at home, it was like seeing myself as a youngster. A nostalgic lump formed in my throat as I felt a certain twang of love for my children, letting loose and playing like that.
My friend had met his wife Hélène, originally from Montreal Canada, on a five month surf trip to Central America. They became inseparable from the moment they met and Hélène moved to Cornwall in the following spring.
She was pleasantly surprised at the beauty of the West Country. They go away for five months of the winter to different surfing locales around the world and whilst in Cornwall they live off grid, without electricity, no TV and no running water.
Is it too early to downsize and free up some of that capital? My kids are settled at school, but I want to be able to enjoy a different way of life before I’m too broken and bitter to enjoy it.
“It’s really not difficult to live like this, we have a solar shower, and electricity at work to charge our laptops and phones” Helene explains.”The evening light is so late in the summer while we are here that lights are not a problem.
When the winter draws in, we put candles on. It’s so liberating to free yourself of the TV, we read more books, have campfires, listen to the radio, talk to each other, chop wood, tend to the garden or we’re out surfing. If we wanted electricity we could get a generator, but we’ve never needed to. Some people would say we sound like a couple of hippies but we are far from it.
We live how we want to and need to, we don’t burn incense, have long hair and wear tie dye”, she chuckles “I can’t stand all those clichés. We don’t do yoga and hark on about the planet. The way we live is obvious to us, it’s obvious to recycle, and it’s obvious to eat well, do exercise, have fun, and appreciate the small things in life. We don’t want bills for utilities we don’t need, so we opt out of it.
We pay our taxes, we contribute to society and we don’t take anything without paying for it.” Intrigued by how they manage to fund such trips I dug a little deeper.
“Working in seasonal jobs during the summer means we get the freedom to travel the winters. We save hard during these months, not wasting our money, preferring to see the world and enjoy our lives while we are fit and healthy, not being restricted by jobs that only allow us a few weeks off a year and trapping us with meaningless promotions and pay increases so we can up our status.
It works out great for us. We don’t want children either, what kind of world are they coming into anyway? We never had the desire. Some say it’s a selfish lifestyle, but were not bothering anyone pleasing ourselves.
Most people say they love their kids unconditionally but didn’t realise what hard work it would be and the sacrifices you have to make, well I’m under no illusion about that and consider myself lucky not to have children.
Each to their own, I speak to people who tell me they had kids and got married because that’s what you do, isn’t it? I find that type of thinking a little scary to be honest.”
The kids would adjust as kids do, won’t they? Sure, it will be difficult at first but you’ve got to look at the bigger picture haven’t you?
I must say this unconventional and rather romantic tale left me feeling as though I had missed out on life a little. Marrying my university sweetheart, I then found myself diving headfirst into the city life and all that comes with it.
I do have two wonderful children and my wife has made a beautiful home for them. I bring in a rather comfortable salary but at what cost to my time on this planet? My wife and I are the wrong side of forty and for some time now
I’ve been left feeling a little empty. Perhaps it’s a midlife crisis. Oh god! I hope not. I’ll be having affairs soon and driving around in a red sports car, wearing clothes meant for someone half my age.
I want something else in my life. I’ve done pretty well so far but time seems to have gone into hyper speed of late and the years show no signs of slowing. My thoughts have been wandering at work lately.
Is it too early to downsize and free up some of that capital? My kids are settled at school, but I want to be able to enjoy a different way of life before I’m too broken and bitter to enjoy it. I guess that’s why I had been yearning to come back down here and recreate my happy carefree days.
Can you turn your life around like that? My wife will loathe it. She is wrapped up in society, constantly worrying about what other people think, living up to the expectations of our families and friends, work colleagues and neighbours, whereas I’ve never really deep down given a damn.
The kids would adjust as kids do, won’t they? Sure, it will be difficult at first but you’ve got to look at the bigger picture haven’t you? I like the comfort I come home to, but ultimately is this it?
Groundhog Day, do your duty; spend your life working for meaningless contracts, numbers and companies I couldn’t honestly care less about. Bosses breathing down my neck, deadlines, commuter traffic, getting home late, too tired to enjoy time with my family and friends and then it’s the weekend, I’ve always got to do some paperwork and never get to truly unwind.
They had dirty faces, cuts and scrapes and such a calmness about them that I had rarely seen or been too busy to observe before perhaps.
Increasing crime, extortionate charges for this and that, do I want my children to repeat my history because that’s what it feels like they’ve got coming? If we sell the house the cars and all the crap we’ve accumulated over the last twenty odd years, would I miss it? What’s important in life?
New cars, overpriced designer fashions just to look the part, look successful, the latest phones and gadgetry that I don’t need and even know how to use. I did fine before without it, keeping up with the Joneses. Well sod the Joneses!
My family and I spent a wonderful week down in Cornwall. I surfed a few more times and much to my pleasure found that one of my boys was actually quite the natural on a surfboard. We camped in their woodland for the whole time off grid.
The phone was off, my work brain was off. We cooked on an open fire most nights. The kids built a wonderful den and slept inside it on the last night. We saw deer, foxes, badgers and hawks. We constantly smelt of wood smoke. My wife doesn’t do tents and found a guest house in town. As much as I love her she really has had a spoilt upbringing and perhaps it’s my fault continuing to provide the luxuries but she has raised two very bright and charming children If I may say so and have wanted for nothing.
As we sat around the fire, gazing at the stars and into the flames, I looked over at my kids. They had dirty faces, cuts and scrapes and such a calmness about them that I had rarely seen or been too busy to observe before perhaps.
They both cried the day we left my good friends little taste of freedom. My wife came to pick us up in the morning for the long drive back to reality. The kids slept all the way home instead of fighting in the back of the car, usually over which movie to watch.
Some big changes are coming for my family whether they like it or not. I’m not going to throw away my life’s accomplishments if you can call them that, and I’m not going to force a new life on my family either. But there’s a storm brewing and hopefully after every big storm, calm will resume in its place….. To be continued.
An excerpt from ‘Real Surfing Magazine’. An Annual publication put together by a husband and wife team in Cornwall. The magazine is known as a mix between Surfers Path and Surfers Journal with an old school rootsy vibe. Available by post from [email protected] or via their Facebook page to see the list of stockists throughout the U.K. Packed with original content, opinions, interviews and tongue in cheek humour. Issue No 4 is out now while stocks last. No back issues available, all sold out.