Jesamine, Molly, and me

Mersea Island, Essex

After a night of insomnia I finally got up at 3.45am yesterday. The weather forecast was for rain and thunderstorms all day but I decided, on the spur of the moment, to take Jesamine and Molly to Mersea Island – just 40 minutes away.

Now, I have spent a lifetime planning and I’m gradually learning to let go and just go with the moment. Thankfully I haven’t completely forgotten my Girl Guide moto of ‘Be Prepared’ and Jesamine is loaded with supplies, so the thought of a cuppa by the sea in the rain (with nothing to do but get in and drive) was most appealing.

The sun, trying to do its thing

Visiting Mersea Island is always exciting. The journey takes you through little villages where the road sometimes dwindles to one lane. Chocolate-box cottages line the lanes and straw bales lay in fields. The road meanders through Tollesbury (known as the village of ‘plough and sail’; and a filming location for Great Expectations and Liar), through Goldhanger (you remember Jeremy Bamber and the White House Farm murders? – I always give a little shiver as I drive through), Great Wigborough (where I volunteer at Essex Wildlife Trust‘s headquarters).

Mersea Island sits in a creek as it opens out to the sea, and is connected to the mainland by a low bridge, called The Strood. It often floods at high tide, completely cutting off the island. Somehow, that sounds rather magical and Agatha Christie-esque!

I’ve only visited the island by car before, and never this early in the morning. No parking is allowed by the waterfront and the car parks I usually use had locked gates, or a barrier that poor Jesamine couldn’t limbo under. It felt rude to park outside someone’s house on a double-yellow line, so I drove around and around – there was nowhere. No room at the inn to put the kettle on and let Molly stretch her legs.

Then I remembered an App I’ve got for my phone called park4night which shows places where campervans and motorhomes can park. Ha-ha! There was one spot that had four parking spaces. It was a long-shot, but…success! It was just a five-minute walk to the sea, and so worth it.

Brightlingsea beach huts

The sky was misty and heavy. Oyster shells crunched underfoot. The tide was out and sailing boats sat listlessly in the calm water. I stood where the foot-ferry usually waits to take passengers across the water to Point Clear and Brightlingsea. I’m not sure if I was too early or if they’re not running at the moment but it wasn’t there. On the opposite side of the creek, the pretty beach huts of Brightlingsea lined the shore, their seaside colours muted by the mist.

Campervan James, as he’s saved in my phone – the lovely man at Keen Kampers, Oxon who partnered me with Jesamine – has kept in touch. He gently pushes me on and encourages me to embrace life with a campervan. He shares playlists and tips, and suggests things that seem to be way out of my comfort zone and yet makes me think I might give it a go (wild camping, traveling through France and Switzerland). I’ve joined a Facebook group called Connecting Campers: Solo adventures for women around 50+ (give or take a decade) and I’m in awe of the journeys some of these women make. I’m amazed by the friendliness of the campervan community and I hope, when I really hit the road next year, that I’ll meet up with some of these inspiring people.

It didn’t rain yesterday. And I had my cuppa in a tiny car park looking out at a footpath and hedgerows. I hadn’t planned the trip, and it didn’t end up quite how I’d thought but it forced me to visit a part of the island I haven’t been to before. This is what it’s all about isn’t it, this not planning? Grabbing what life throws at me and finding my own path. I’m not going to lie, it’s lonely and scary having only myself to rely on. The old me would’ve seen yesterday as a failure – unable to get into a car park, I probably would’ve just driven straight home. The new me sees yesterday as a success (a small one – I didn’t climb a mountain, or anything) but it’s giving me the confidence to make longer journeys next year. And I drove home happy and thankful.

Batcombe Vale, Somerset

Jesamine, Jilly and me

My travels are supposed to be about exploring the coastline of the British Isles but lockdown has put that on hold for a while. Lots of people are flocking to the coast and so Jilly (a friend I made in Shetland, who actually lives in Cornwall) and I decided to meet inland. As luck would have it, we found a small campsite nestled deep in the Somerset countryside.


So last week I took Jesamine on my longest journey yet – 175 miles to Batcombe Vale Campsite. I’d decided to leave Molly at home with Lovely Son as I had some visits to make on the way, and I’m glad I did as the temperature was sweltering. I melt in the heat, and Molly is far worse.

Jilly and I were both nervous – we’d never actually camped in our vans overnight before. As I drove in, I was afraid I’d feel like an imposter among all the serious equipment transported by very expensive cars. But I needn’t have worried, everyone was friendly and welcoming and on our first evening a lady opposite came over for a G&T.


I’d left my walking boots at home (it was a mistake, honestly!) and so any hikes were out of the question but with the weather so warm it was lovely to just mooch around the campsite and catch up on the things we’ve been doing since Shetland.

I still think about that time and know that I’m lucky. I hadn’t realised it then, but I was running away, allowing my brain to rest and my heart to find stillness. Being in Shetland gave me that, and more. I found confidence and the time to just be. We don’t often get that in life.

I’ve wondered, too, about Jesamine – am I running away? Am I simply finding another way to keep the grief at bay? I don’t think so. Buying a campervan and travelling around the UK and Europe was something Tim and I had planned to do and so I feel as if he’s there, with me. Only now I have to do all the planning, map reading, and driving. I’m not doing it in the way that he would (he was so good at all that stuff) but I’m finding my own path. It’s a bit rickety at times (I got lost on my way to the campsite) but I’m learning that it doesn’t matter. I can go at my own pace. I’m lucky. I have so many people who are helping me and looking out for me.

Almost bedtime

I’m itching to hit the road, to take a longer trip. But the pandemic is making me twitchy to go too far. I’ll stay in my homeland of East Anglia for now – there is so much I haven’t seen – and then next year (if all goes well) maybe I’ll be confident enough for a month or two away.

When I first bought Jesamine, the lovely owner said I should explore France and Switzerland. That seemed like such a huge, scary thing to do. But now, just nine weeks later, I’m thinking about it. The idea is churning away in the back of my mind.

I have a new-found confidence. I have a sense of humour. But more importantly, I have breakdown cover. What more could I need?

Jesamine, Molly, and me

Summer Solstice

Although I’m not a fan of summer, the summer solstice – the turning from spring to summer – has always awakened something akin to spiritual within me.

Ten years ago, Lovely Hubby and I went to Stonehenge. The weather was cloudy and the sun was not expected to show; we didn’t see a sunset, but we caught a glimpse of the sunrise. The crowd cheered, the drummers drummed, and songs and chants filled the air. It gives me goosebumps just remembering it.

Obviously Stonehenge was closed this year to visitors, but English Heritage did a livestream on Facebook. But I still wouldn’t have gone. I’m walking a tightrope of doing things I love but being aware that memories (no matter how wonderful) can knock me off. And so, I decided to spend the summer solstice on the Essex coast.

Beach huts at Walton on the Naize

I spent Saturday afternoon at Frinton-on-Sea. Memories of sunny days with the children made me smile as I watched families picnic and splash in the water. Frinton is a beautiful, old fashioned, genteel sort of town. Years ago someone wanted to open a fish and chip shop and the residents complained so mightily (they wanted day trippers to go home at teatime) that the application was refused.

Clare Mackintosh did a book event at the Lawn Tennis Club several years ago. Lovely Mum and Lovely Daughter came with me and we had a marvellous time. Clare is so entertaining and we laughed until tears ran down our faces. We still talk about her tale of how she wanted to inject a bit of excitement into some of the statements she took when she was in the police force (‘Are you sure you only walked down the street? Would you consider it to have been more of a sashay, perhaps?’).

Lovely Hubby and I visited Frinton one summer’s evening after work and swam in the sea. We were the only people there – which was probably because there was a freezing wind and the sea wasn’t much warmer. It was bracing – and we were grateful for the car’s heater all the way home.

The sun sets

On Saturday evening I drove inland to find a high spot to watch the sun set. It was a bit of a non-event as there were too many clouds. But the sky was beautiful and the peace was soothing.

The next morning I was back in Frinton. I thought the view of the sunrise would be best from the cliff top but I couldn’t resist the call of the sea; I could hear it’s waves brushing against the sandy shore. Molly went crazy, running round and round in circles and then splashed into the waves. I couldn’t resist. Shoes and socks off, jeans rolled up, I followed her in. The water was like a bath, beautifully warm from all the hot weather we’ve been having. I wished I brought my swimming costume but made do with getting my jeans soaking wet.

The sky was cloudy; rain was forecast for 5am and I hoped I might just get a glimpse of the sun. Red lights shining from the windfarm on the horizon gradually dulled as the sky became lighter. A streak of blue amongst the clouds lifted my spirits and urged the sun on.

Here comes the sun

A concentrated orange glow began to appear from the sea behind the pier just along the beach at Walton on the Naize. I could see the struts of the pier and as I watched, the glow thickened into a fiery ball. Steadily it rose above the pier. The sky was on fire and the waves surged against my legs. The sun held for a moment before it was shrouded by white, whispery clouds. And it was gone.

I walked back to Jesamine, bare-footed and high. As we reached the top of the path the sun had moved quickly through the cloud and was shining again. Now sparkling and yellow it had lost its magic and I turned my back on it to drive home.

Jesamine, Molly, and me

Manningtree, Essex

A couple of weeks ago I ventured out. It was just Jesamine, Molly and me. I’d done a bit of research (as I’m a perennial planner) and found a car park on the banks of the river Stour in Dedham – Constable country. I haven’t been to Dedham for a long, long time and there’s a lovely walk you can take along the river and across the fields to Flatford Mill where Constable painted his famous work. I painted a picture in my mind of parking up, reeling out the awning, putting the kettle on and soaking up the atmosphere before heading out on my walk.

And that’s where I went wrong. The planning. It’s difficult to break the habit of a lifetime but I had no choice. I rocked up to the car park but there was nowhere for me to set up on the riverbank so I hit the road and followed my instinct…on to Manningtree. It’s been on my list of places to visit partly due to the fact that it was home to Matthew Hopkins, self-titled Witchfinder General. My imagination had painted a picture of spooky barns and creepy cottages but, as usual, I was wrong. Manningtree is beautiful – lots of old buildings and a hugely wide estuary. I hadn’t known that it’s famous for its swans and also the title of the smallest market town in England.

During this strange time of lockdown I was blessed with an almost empty landscape to explore. We weren’t able to find a spot to put the awning out but I still had my cuppa before heading out with Molly to explore the waterfront and town. I peered through the windows of closed galleries and stood in awe outside the library. Molly wanted to meet the swans (oh yes, she had fowl on her mind for dinner and was kept on a tight lead), and we walked on the small beach where we found some sea-glass and watched children building sandcastles.

Back with Jesamine I made more tea (somehow it tastes so much better when out in the open), I spent a little time working on my book, and I had a doze. I briefly considered following the coast road to Harwich but feeling windswept and fuzzy I headed back.

I stopped for petrol when I was just fifteen miles from home so I’d be all set for my next trip. I filled her up and climbed back in, sad that the day was nearly at an end. I turned the key, and…..nothing. Nothing happened at all.

I tried to look in the boot where the engine is, which was a ridiculous thing to do as I wouldn’t have a clue what I was looking for. But I was feeling confident. Well, I couldn’t even open it; I couldn’t get the lock to turn. Nothing else for it but to phone the AA. Molly was going crazy, trying to get out (I’m sure she thought we’d arrived somewhere exciting) and I calmed her down and got my book out. After all, there was nothing else I could do.

Just twenty minutes later the AA chap arrived. He opened the boot in a jiffy (it wasn’t the lock but user error – the story of my life) and Molly stood on the sofa inside, staring at this strange man who was messing with Jesamine. The lovely man jumped back, he was clearly alarmed at the big scar-faced, scary dog looking at him. She can’t help looking like that, she’s got a wonky eye that really makes her look a bit mad, but she’s completely harmless. I managed to convince the lovely man that she wouldn’t jump over and maul him and together we pulled everything out that I’d stored in the boot.

Within two minutes he’d worked out the problem. The wire to the starter motor had become detached. He kindly showed me what to do if it happens again, and that was it, we were back on the road, singing along to Joni Mitchell about big yellow taxis and clouds and realising that for once I wasn’t letting clouds get in my way and that I don’t mind spots on my apples.

As I locked Jesamine up for the night I smiled. I remembered what the lovely man, James, told me at Keen Kampers. To own one of these old things you shouldn’t plan too much but just go with the flow. And you definitely need a sense of humour. Oh yes, and a breakdown membership.

Jesamine, Molly, and me

Dipping a toe in the water

What to do when you’re restless and don’t know where you belong?

What to do when you know the ache in the very deepest part of your heart will never heal?

What to do when you don’t fit in your old life – you’ve changed and people don’t know what to say to you?

What to do when you don’t know how you’re supposed to act? Too much frivolity and you never cared. Too much sadness and you’re wallowing in it.

What to do when you feel like a stranger at home? The bed is too big, the sofa is huge, and you no longer sit outside to eat and enjoy the twilight?

I’ve bought chickens.

I’ve dug a vegetable patch.

I’ve decorated the lounge.

I got a job in a coffee shop.

I took up a volunteering role.

Still empty. Still lost. Still treading water, unable to swim.

You need to move, keep moving. Don’t stagnate or else the pain will be overwhelming, you’ll go under and drown.

Movement soothes, like rocking a baby or slow dancing with your love.

Make plans to keep moving. Buy an old campervan, a map, and a notebook (as if you don’t have enough).

Still treading water. Just little forays for now. Jesamine (the van), Molly (the dog) and me (the dowager).

Starting to swim with the tide. Beginning to get the hang of it. Forgetting the rules. Making your own.

Once lockdown ends – dive in, embrace the tide. And swim.