If you’d have told me 18 months ago that I’d spend my work placement year living in a “4 berth” (I definitely wouldn’t want 4 people in a place this size!) touring caravan with a young collie dog and my small flock of sheep half a mile down the road then I’d have chuckled nervously and said, “I don’t think so”.
If you’d have told me that during that year I’d live in the caravan through three lots of snow – and now a drought! – I’d have raised my eyebrows and said, “Absolutely bloody not”. In fact, I specifically remember thinking “what are the odds of that being needed” when the campsite owners reassured me that as the village is on a school bus route, the steep roads out of it are gritted very well in the winter. Perhaps I jinxed myself.
Reflecting on a year in my small home is a tough one, because as much as I wished I was anywhere else in the world when I was stranded for a week with no running water and snow blowing in through my closed skylight, it does sort of feel just that – home. For the first time since I started boarding school at 8 years old, I have had a long-term space that is entirely my own. I like to call it a cosy studio apartment with en-suite bathroom, and open plan living, dining, cooking and sleeping area. How many 21-year-olds can call themselves a homeowner after all?
It’s been an important year for me mentally during my time in the caravan. I’m sure that had I not been in the caravan, my mental health would perhaps not have suffered the way it has over this winter. But I can now safely say that I finally appreciate the term ‘character building’ in a way that only those who have survived the Beast from the East with no central heating or running water can. And I say that with irony, because it was not lost on me during that time that whilst I didn’t have those things, what I did have was a roof over my head, plenty of layers and two electric heaters, many did not.
Add into the equation that during this time I have lambed my small flock of sheep single-handed whilst working 9-5:30 (weather permitting!), and also helping a farm in the village every morning in their lambing shed, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent the odd night or two crying into my microwave meal in frustration, exhaustion and cold, having walked half a mile each way in the snow three or four times a day to check and tend to my flock and their newborn lambs. However, again, it was not lost on me that during those times there were many farmers that couldn’t get to their stock at all. Many farmers were digging sheep out of snow drifts, endlessly defrosting pipes, and giving their time and efforts to aid their wider communities.
I’ve learnt many exceptional lessons this year, but perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learnt has come from observing mine and others reactions to hardship. As I see it, there’s two basic reactions to adversity;
-Shit. This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone ever. How on earth will I overcome this. I can’t. It’s impossible.
-I need to stop complaining. Other people have it so much worse. I’m a terrible person for even thinking this is hard.
Both of these reactions are normal, but neither are productive. I think short-term self-pity is necessary. It gives you some time to realise that the situation you are in is hard, that it’s painful, that you are suffering. You have to let yourself acknowledge your pain before you can start to process it and work through it. If you’re the sort of person that buries your feelings under the excuse that someone else has it worse, then that pain will grow, and those feelings will manifest until their negativity starts to consume you. The big thing to remember is that all suffering is subjective. Everyone is suffering in some way, and their pain over something you perceive as small, is just as relevant as your pain over something you perceive as huge. Acknowledge your pain and others pain fairly. I think getting that balance right is something to spend a whole life working on.
And as suddenly as the snow and the cold and the winter has come, it seems to be gone. The entire country – human and otherwise – breathes a sigh of relief as the sun starts to warm backs and the grass starts to grow and those cold days seem to slip behind us.
That thin line between the outside and the inside that comes from living in a caravan doesn’t seem quite so thin. Or rather, it doesn’t bother me as much, because the feeling of spending ten minutes replacing the cold wet layers it seems like I only just took off before opening the door to the outside world is fast dulled when I can now be outside on the warm grass and sunshine within 10 steps of my bed. Never before have I felt the lengthening of the days and increasing temperatures so acutely as I have this year, and been so glad of them.
I have found my own strength this year, and have discovered the things that are important to me and make me tick. I have worked in an office-based job navigating a working world quite different to the farm, I have managed my own flock single-handed for the first time with all decisions, management and labour down to me, I have learnt the value of great friends, and I have realised the importance of taking care of your mental and physical health.
Thank you to those that have supported me throughout the most challenging and important year of my life so far, and thank you to those that continue to support me along the rest of my journey. With my newly updated driving licence firmly in my pocket, me and #bobthedog, the sheep, and my little home are on the move to pastures new before returning to university in the Autumn. I’m looking forward to continuing to work on myself, my flock, and my writing over my summer off.