Almost a year ago I decided to spend 21 days on my own on Dartmoor. The experience was incredible as it not only opened up many questions that I had of myself, but also those throughout my life, which I had never sought to find the answers to. I wrote about the experiences, highs and lows in a short book, which you will be able to read about soon.
When I came away from the moor, I felt that I needed to do this again – it was not that I felt it was a job half done, more that I recognised that there was a lot more work to do – on myself.
So I decided to book time off in the following spring (April and May 2017), but this would be the ‘biblical’ 40 days and 40 nights. I have no idea why this figure came to me. I wanted this for myself, because one of the aspects that presented itself to me on Dartmoor was that I was not the rounded and grounded person that I wanted to be myself and towards others, particularly those closest to me.
My wife Buffy wanted me to at least go into solitude without having to live ‘rough’ in the woods, so I sought out the next best thing, a ‘bothy’ in a relatively private space. I ended up choosing one in North Devon as I still had a desire to revisit Dartmoor if I was able to, as this would only be a couple of days walk away.
A bothy traditionally is a hut, often up in the hills/mountains, which is an emergency bolt-hole for walkers if they get into trouble or unexpected extreme weather catches them out. They are rough and ready but a haven to get out of the weather.
The bothy I chose belonged to the National Trust and was picturesquely situated in a private valley overlooking the sea in a small valley called Peppercombe near Westward Ho! in North Devon. It was essentially a stone tent with no electric/heating or lights, but it did have cold running water and the most amazing outdoor loo overlooking the sea and Lundy Island on the horizon. It was perfect for my needs.
The bothy is approached via the A39 at a place called Horns Cross. The track down is guarded by locked gates to prevent the public from driving down to the sea. Either side of the track is a steep gully with a small stream running down.
Woods flank either side with all manner of trees but especially ancient sisal oaks which love the sheltered nature that the valley affords with the mild and moist climate. These oaks are up to a thousand years old, so have been around a bit! The woods are also host to deer, squirrels, badgers and foxes along with a host of birds including buzzards and kestrels. Butterflies also are abundant with orange tip, peacock, marbled brown and cabbage white to name but a few. All in all, a real sanctuary.
So why seek Solitude?
Unlike the negative state of loneliness, I believe solitude is a positive and constructive experience of engagement with oneself. Solitude is refreshing, a time of being on your own where you voluntarily retreat from the company of other people.
Solitude is being alone without feeling lonely.
The difference when undertaking solitude or 'retreat' is in our attitude towards ourselves. In solitude we enjoy spending time alone, because we know that we are all the company we really need when getting to understand self.
Solitude can be used to gain fresh perspectives that allow us to appreciate those things that actually matter. Learning to be at ease in your own company is a skill you can develop which will be of great help throughout your life.
I believe that solitude is a key ingredient to a healthy sense of self. It provides us with a dedicated time to discover and to get to know ourselves better. By repositioning ourselves at the centre of our own lives, we feel that we are back to the 'self', rather than being buffeted by external forces all the time. When you think about it, we have so very seldom been on our own throughout our lives - maybe to the extent that we rely and need other people around or close to us. But in doing so, we are never able to understand ourselves as we continue to be influenced from other people and things.
With external pressures on us ever increasing in this fast paced, 24 hour, interconnected world, we are often craving a sense of balance and sureness that we are in charge of our own lives. Not only do we seek to be in control of events, or at least understand them, but we also want to know more about ourselves and our destiny during our life. Otherwise, we can feel overwhelmed and overloaded by outside influences and we never live the life we really want to…
After all, what anguish would it be to come to the end of our life with the realisation that we truly had not lived or participated with all our energy?
Today, as never before, I suggest that many of us need to find solitude. We are entering exciting times, even though many of us are aware of that fact! The world is changing, albeit slowly, but changing it is.
Like an emotional and spiritual thermostat, being alone gives us the ability to shape and adjust our lives. It can teach us how to have inner strength and enables us to look at the ‘bigger picture’, to see our role in it, rather than having to rely on others to dictate what we should be doing.
But we’ve become reluctant and wary of seeking out solitude because of our fear of loneliness and not having all the trappings of the modern fast paced lives that we tend to live. I think the following tale of how my time of solitude may encourage others to ‘give it a go’.
Next week I will discuss the shadow of loneliness, the benefits of solitude, how to prepare yourself and what to take. Following that, we shall start to get into my detailed diary of 40 days with some surprises that I had along the way…