And so to the diary of my days away:
Day 1 - Monday
Buffy and I arrived at lunchtime after a stop at Taunton to pick up additional food supplies and a wok to cook on! I had a brilliant small gas cooker but that was really only good for drinks and soups and not for bigger meals that I intended to cook. We had some difficulty initially getting the padlock unlocked, but Buffy eventually worked out that there was a small button underneath that needed pressing in order for the lock to slip. My first impression on seeing the bothy was that it was sublime in its location, looking out to sea with Lundy Island on the horizon, surrounded by trees and amazing views but private with its access.
I really didn't do much for the rest of the day as I was physically and emotionally drained, but I did take a quick walk down to the beach - when I say beach, it was really reminiscent of Budleigh Salterton in South Devon with pebbles and red cliffs close by. There was absolutely no-one else in sight which gave me a wonderful feeling of 'aloneness'. The tide was in so my walk was restricted to staying close by the cliffs. High above me a kestrel called with a shriek, and as I watched, it flew into a small cliff top cave where the volume of noise increased as it was welcomed by one or more chicks. The sea looked inviting and I wished I had brought a towel down with me for a quick dip. There is something about the sea when the swell is big yet calm, that portrays all of its power and majesty, which I love. It took me briefly back to those days rowing on the Indian Ocean when for days on end we had this wonderful display (and help) of the swell pushing us gently along the way.
Returning back to the bothy I decided to have a quick meal as I was feeling tired, so supper was a beautiful bowl of lentil soup with some butter beans added for good measure and black pepper. It was gorgeous!
I went to bed early after conducting a short welcome ceremony inside the bothy. I will do my proper one outside tomorrow. As I am not allowed to light a fire inside, I substituted that with a couple of tea light candles on a shelf unit which helped with some light inside what was now a gloomy bothy as well as some heat I hoped. I was yet to do a proper unpack of my rucksack and kit bag - I think my old army training of keep all of your equipment packed up, just in case you had to move quickly, kept me from unpacking! I did however need my sleeping bag and sleeping mat, as the wooden platform provided inside the bothy would have been a wee bit uncomfortable without them! It was really cold in the bothy that night and my right shoulder pain kept me awake most of the night. I think I had pulled a muscle there whilst lifting some plasterboard at home (the one we are building/renovating). With any luck, over the next few weeks it would clear up - I have to say my body has a habit of repairing itself pretty well! The wind blowing outside from the north is a constant element and could be heard rattling the trees that are all around me. A beautiful sound as it changes all the time, and who knows what 'beings' are singing on that wind! Looking outside the sun started to disappear over the sea horizon, it turned from blood red to deep crimson, exquisite shades of purple before finally disappearing for another 10 hours or so.
Day 2 - Tuesday
I woke up at dawn to the sound of heavy hailstones smashing onto the roof! The noise was absolutely incredible and lasted for about 10 minutes. I managed to get my voice recorder on to keep the sound for future podcasts. As it was now getting lighter outside, I managed to brave the aerial bombardment to get a photograph of hailstones the size of large peppercorns littering the garden floor. This was then followed by a brief 5 minutes of snow flurries! This is what I love about the British weather - you really do not know what is coming next! It might be the end of April, but with the wind coming out of the north it certainly had a wintery feel and I had to dress accordingly. I had a quick breakfast of muesli, an apple and a large mug of tea, and then moved outside to conduct my ceremony of honouring the land. A pheasant with no tail walks through the garden calling - this was to become my alarm clock as he generally did this every day!
I conducted my 'arrival ceremony' in the small garden and did a couple of trips collecting pebbles from the beach to make my glyph. Now I had my connection of the four elements with the ocean represented by the stones I collected, the earth of the garden itself, the air with the breeze coming up the hillside from the sea and fire represented by my fire pit.
I spent most of the morning tidying up the outside area and rebuilding the fire pit. I then walked south along the beach until I ran out of ground as the tide was coming in again quickly. It's rained on and off today with warm sunshine in between.
I felt better in myself today, and certainly believe that this period of solitude will be blest. Just before bedtime (8pm) I saw two deer close to the Bothy. Perhaps they were drawn to my wonderful deerskin that I have with me, a present from Buffy, and something that helps me reflect and meditate. I have to say, it's also jolly warm.
Day 3 - Wednesday
The wind has shifted more to the north, hence the colder weather I am experiencing inside the bothy. Even so, I awoke early to the sound of 'no tail' the pheasant again in the garden.
Today I walked south along the coastal path. All around on the high ground were ancient oaks and brilliant displays of bluebells. I stopped for a while in a quiet spot to meditate - this is something I really want to master whilst I'm here, as meditation does not come easily to me yet. There were no other walkers on the path, which was excellent for me avoiding as best I can any human contact. After about 2 hours of walking with sunny and cloudy weather and great views out to Lundy, I descended into the deserted village of Bucks Mills. It was a bit like a ghost village and I saw no-one as I walked past old lime kilns to the beach area. As it was low tide I decided to walk back via the beach. This took me around 3 hours as I kept stopping to look into the rock pools. Coming towards me was an old woman with a pink hat and long dangling flower necklace. I tried to avoid her but she shouted out how beautiful the stones were! I answered yes and tried to keep walking. She said, "you know they are alive - the stones"! That stopped me and I had to agree with her. She said it was wonderful that the world was recalibrating to get to a higher frequency! That blew me away. Again, I agreed with her, and then she just walked away. How weird was that! I saw no one else and had no idea where she had come from. She must have been in her 70's! When I looked back along the beach, I couldn't see her - where did she go?
This whole change of planetary frequency is an interesting one. I first became aware of this from Marcus Mason, author of the book ‘The Astrology of 2012’ way back in 2012. According to various teachings, the earth and all beings living on the earth are in the process of shifting into a whole new level of reality in which a consciousness of love, compassion, peace and spiritual wisdom prevails. This has been called the Fifth Dimension. Some say this shift will probably be complete within the next couple of decades; others give no date. But all seem to agree it will be complete sometime in the near future, although individuals will be each moving into the Fifth Dimension at their own rate when their frequency is high enough to match the vibration of the higher dimension. It will also bring about better worldwide communications especially between world leaders – hopefully leading to greater understanding and peaceful intentions.
Later that night I cooked my first wok fire meal on my outdoors fire pit - chickpea casserole. It was delicious and soon after I was in bed (8pm).
Preparing for solitude
So, in part 2 of the story of my solitude period, I thought it would be useful to state some of the less obvious aspects to get ready for ‘blast off’.
Unfortunately, very few of us can just ‘go’ into solitude – albeit briefly – without some preparation. We have other people and commitments to consider before we are able to arrange quality alone time. I had arranged this time nearly 6 months ago, so slowly I stated to prepare myself from Easter onwards with packing my bags. But, this is just a superficial part of preparation - there is a lot more to do.
So, how did I get ready to go into solitude?
Readying my mind
At first, the notion of being all alone can make you feel a little nervous and uncomfortable. If so, take a moment to ask yourself why this is. It’s helpful to think through the issues you have with being in your own company before you try to create a time of solitude. But don’t let these doubts stop you from going ahead with your plans – you can use your alone time to work through these issues.
For me, over time alone, you will most certainly bring up emotions and feelings about who you really are, and what you have done. Don't be afraid of this, it is a good thing, trust me! These emotions will certainly come up in reflection and meditation, as well as just walking in the day or preparing food in the evening. The thing is, you will get into a state where you will allow these feelings to come right up into the stark and honest forefront of your thinking, and not discarded as being too painful or ‘silly’ to think about.
When most people think of solitude, they automatically imagine the bitter pain of loneliness. To many, the concept of ‘aloneness’ evokes our deepest fears of abandonment and a lack of belonging. It can also be seen as ‘boring’.
Loneliness, however, is not simply a case of being alone – many people can be surrounded by crowds of people and still feel lonely. I think that loneliness is the belief that no one cares about what happens to us.
It is the distressing realisation that we lack close and meaningful contact with others which, in turn, produces feelings of being isolated from them.
It is this basic need to avoid being lonely that pushes us to create countless connections around ourselves. Our computers and cell phones reassure us by providing the tools to stay constantly in touch with each other. Yet these technological props only distract us from listening to our internal voice and increasing our sense of self awareness.
This obsession with staying connected to the outside means we are forgetting how to get in contact with our inner selves. I thought that I would not be worried by loneliness, but was unpleasantly surprised halfway through the 40 days, with feelings of acute loneliness and sadness. Lonely, chiefly because I missed Buffy and my children - it hurt my heart a lot, and I stumbled around pretty morose I have to say. Happily for me, these feelings washed away after about 48 hours and did not return.
Deciding your time
Hopefully you already have some ‘me time’ built into your life, even if it’s just for a few hours every so often. The exact length of time you need really depends on your own situation, but it’s important to organize a dedicated period rather than just hoping you can grab a few hours here and there. I find that if I leave things as a 'wish I could do' scenario, the chances are that something will blindside me and I get distracted.
As for how long is necessary, the more quality time you can set aside the better, though even just 1 hour is better than nothing at all. The crucial factor is how you spend your time in solitude, not the duration of minutes, hours and days.
So, what is a reasonable period? I think that everyone will have his or her own feelings on this. All I know is that I found that it has taken me up to 7 days to actually ‘settle’ in, so for me it would always have to be at least a week or more. The longer the period, then definitely the more insights will be offered to you.
Choosing your location
To minimise everyday distractions, it is useful – where possible – to get away from your usual living environment. Alternatively, you might visit your local park or forest. If you do decide to remain at home or in your own garden, you should try to go uninterrupted and undisturbed for a reasonable period. My feeling on this, is ‘get away’ to somewhere you have not been or seen before if at all possible. What matters is that you find somewhere you can experience meaningful 'alone' time. Going to a place with no one else around for miles is for me, helpful, but that might not be necessary for others.
Telling other people
The idea of us wanting to spend some time in solitude can be alarming to the central people in our lives if we suddenly announce our intentions. Partners, for example, can feel hurt and threatened if you declare a need for your own space – even if only for a short while. They may take it personally and wonder what it is they’ve done wrong to drive you away. It helps if you’ve previously discussed each other’s views on what it means to be apart and to do your own thing in the context of your own relationship. I am extremely fortunate in that my wife and family are always hugely supportive of what I want to do, even if it does appear to be somewhat ‘wacky’!
How to spend your time in solitude
Of course, you can simply ‘go with the flow’ and do whatever you want, but you’ll get the most out of your precious moments alone if you have a rough plan of things you want to achieve. For me, the first time I went into solitude, I most certainly had the ingredients of a plan. I was to establish a secure and dry base, and then walk the moor to rediscover places I was walked when I was in the Army many years previous.
On Dartmoor, the plan sought of went according to how I thought it would, except I had not taken into account the effect of being alone really would have on me. I discovered that after a week or so, and two camp moves later, that I was drawn to walking specific paths that were ‘given’ to me during dreamtime. I ended up walking for miles across the moor that I was not familiar with and without a map in rain, sun and at night. I also found that as time went on that I felt the draw that nature had on me and its surrounds.
In this latest solitude period in North Devon, I spent less time walking (although I did walk pretty much every day) and more time meditating and deep reflection. I was also more aware of the weather for trips out overnight or for longer walks, so even though I had no idea what the forecast was, I constantly scanned the horizon and the sky to see what I thought the day might bring. Sometimes I was spot on, sometimes I got it completely wrong! I could in that respect plan what I wanted to do, after I woke up.
On arrival, or as soon as possible, it is right and proper to hold a short ceremony honouring the land and space that you will be occupying as well as introducing yourself. For me, much of what I do now I owe to having attended such ceremonies with friends and my wife. This is what I do, but it is by no means a blueprint.
First of all I will use my compass to ascertain the 4 cardinal directions. I will then face each in turn, starting with the East (where sun will rise) and in turn, open my arms to that direction saying, “I come to you the East, bringer of all that comes from you, and ask for your blessings during my stay”. Repeat this for each direction.
Now I turn my attention to heaven above and earth below. Again with open arms stretched to the heavens, proclaim your desire to the sky and heavens above. Repeat this to the earth (Gaia) below sweeping your arms downwards and upwards to embrace your heart. Something along the lines of “Oh Father Sky and Mother Earth I ask for your blessings during my stay”.
Now we have a ‘circle’ which is your special place to move onto the next part. You can mark out your circle for example with some stones placed at the cardinal points, or indeed construct a mini stone or wooden circle all the way around. It's entirely up to you and the physical space you have to work with.
For me I always like to enter from the East, again from the direction of the rising sun. I will move around my ‘circle’ in a clockwise direction and stop briefly to honour each cardinal point. I will walk the circle 3 times until then I move to the centre point. At the centre of the circle it is good to offer something to the earth from your home – water is often used but it could also be stone or piece of wood to place. Often I have seen sacred water from holy wells or from other parts of the world gifted to the ground in the centre of the circle – again this is a personal choice.
Now I am able to honour others. So I will start off by honouring the ancestors of the land and the spirits that roam the upper and lower kingdoms, the elementals (earth, fire, water and air), the inhabitants of the fairy worlds, every insect, bird and animal of the physical world, the plants and trees and the very ground that we walk on. All of these will be welcomed with something simple like “ I thank you ….for allowing me to share this space with you and feel honoured to be here at this and the places you roam”.
A short time of reflection follows and even a statement of intent might follow. “I am here in this beautiful space to reflect on who I truly am so that I can be more enlightened to the majesty of the world I inhabit”.
Next week, I will be starting my diary descriptions, and promise you will get the full unabridged account - warts and all! Thanks for reading.
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…