I’ve dreamed of living in a land-based community for many years. I know many people share this dream and also feel challenged by manifesting it in our consumerist, money-driven culture.
Spending time in different communities has been an important part of my wild & wandering path since I became a vanomad 10 months ago. Spirit Horse in Wales is one of them. Here are 3 slices of life from my experiences there in the late summer of 2018.
On the 30-mile drive to the nearest supermarket after 6 days at Spirit Horse, Volt says to me, “People seem to get these wild eyes after they’ve been here for a while. Like, a little crazy. I’ve seen it in Rebecca and Mark, and now Ben has it too.”
I laugh. I know just what he means.
“You don’t have it, though — maybe you’re already so much like that, that it doesn’t make a difference,” I tell him.
“Yes, maybe so.”
There’s definitely something of the otherworldly about Spirit Horse, and the people who’ve been here all through the summer reflect it. When I first arrived in this mid-Wales valley overlooked by the moody, purple Cambrian Mountains, I took in the winding, characterful paths and the candle-lit rickety bridges connecting the various structures made with loving hands — the Women’s and Men’s Lodges, the two temples, the kitchen, the Roundhouse and the Sweat Lodge, all conduits for the continual song of the river — with the soul recognition of a wonder from my childhood, when I used to visit with the faeries in the garden.
I’d been aware of Spirit Horse for years and Volt has come here annually every summer for 3 years to do an Enlightenment Intensive Retreat, followed by a work exchange, doing electrics for the co-founder and ‘chieftain’ of the village, an Irish storyteller, Tantra teacher and ceremonial guide called Shivam. Finally, I’m here to experience it myself.
It’s my Emerald Pool Initiation.
I’m being led, barefoot, like a mountain goat, along narrow cliff-ledges above a roaring river for what feels like a very long time, to meet the place where so much of the wild spirit of this place is embodied.
Eventually, I graduate to rock-walking in the river itself: slippery brown-red rocks like dolphin’s backs or prehistoric creatures or the corrugated surfaces of far-away planets. An abundance of moss, coming away in chunks just when I start to treat them as handholds, like the moss on the side of the van that I like to pick at, to Volt’s annoyance — “I’ve been growing that for years. I like having those bits of nature with me”.
‘Go in spider mode’, Volt instructs often: this means going down on all hands and knees. “We’re nearly there now,” he says as we crawl along the slick black and grey rocks. Volt takes a piece out of a huge quartz crystal that was already crumbling off, with the intention to give it to ‘someone’– that person of indeterminate identity will turn out to be the Ecuadorean shaman we meet later.
Finally, we reach the rich green pool, as ethereal as I imagined it. I face the waterfall in all its raw, unstoppable, primal power. The way that I can’t see how deep it is feels both mysterious and a bit scary.
We strip off and stand right under it, giving in to the way it takes your breath, your sense of skin. You have to swim right into the pool to get your head under the waterfall; you can’t simply walk into it. Your surrender must be complete.
It feels like a continuation of the time we stood staring at an enormous waterfall at Fernworthy Reservoir on Dartmoor, back in the winter, and I let out some of my fury in the face of that unstoppable cascade, when it could barely be heard against the backdrop of the spray. But that was a man-made construction and this is pure wild, and we’re getting right up close to it.
Volt goes right in and under, whooping at the shock of the cold, exulting — I bend my back into the fall and let the water beat against me, making me gasp and shiver, but I cannot bring myself to dive in.
Still, I feel triumphant; I made it, and there has been a baptism of sorts.
The slight drizzle — a near-constant feature of the Welsh countryside — which has been steadily developing morphs into full-on rain and I feel a pang of fear as my euphoria recedes. It’s a long, hazardous and slippery path back over the rocks and along the mountain edge, and I keep visualising myself falling and smashing my head on the rocks below.
I suddenly remember a scene from the fantastic film “Into the Wild” where ‘Alex Supertramp’ canoes on a fast-rushing, wild river. It planted a seed, as so much about his wandering, free-form lifestyle did, because I thought, every one of the ten times I watched it, how alive and exhilarating that was. But I also doubted I’d ever have the courage to do something like it.
After we eventually make it back and curl up on the sofa with a reward of hot chocolate, Volt says, “Can I tell you something? I don’t think you are dyspraxic. You did that walk so well, you only slipped once and it’s very dangerous and tricky. Lots of people don’t manage it — they stop and go back before they reach the Pool.” He smiles. “You were singing on the way back and you were happy. It made me happy to see that.”
I nod, but I am also aware that I didn’t put my head right under the waterfall, although Volt did, twice. I was scared of not being able to breathe.
“So where to next?” Shiv asks us, as we stand in the drizzle outside the kitchen, sipping from earthenware mugs of tea, on the day we plan to leave the village.
I’ve been here 3 weeks, and it feels almost as if I live here; getting involved in Cauldron Camp take-down has integrated me a bit more, but it’s mainly the land I feel an affinity to, rather than the people.
“I don’t know,” Volt replies, in an unconcerned tone. We truly have no idea if we’ll travel more in Wales or go somewhere else. Shiv turns to me: “And you’re going with him, wherever he goes. Is that the appeal?” and Volt and I both smile at this astute observation.
That morning, I went out for a walk up one of the many hills, alone. Along the river path, I ducked under the low-hanging branch like I was doing a Limbo dance. There were spiderwebs coated with dew everywhere, each one like a little masterpiece. The river was rushing inexorably down and the light glanced off a little pool at the top of the rocks, an undersea green colour.
At the top of the hill, I sat under a magnificent lime tree and sank into the burble of the river below and the hopeful chatter of birds all around me. The tree was so huge that the boughs were reaching down in front of me with the mountain as a backdrop, and for some reason I felt deeply moved by the trees halfway up the mountain, steadfastly clumped together on the vertical incline.
I felt a great longing to be on one piece of land through all the seasons, to see it through all the changes, to love it through all the relentless death and rebirth. Will I ever have such a relationship with a piece of land?
Yet there was also something that scared me about it, about the inevitable change, decay, loss that we face in all of our lives. Even my joy in nature was tainted by the shadow of sadness, of the ecocide that’s going on, and I felt the terrible weight of not doing enough about it. But do we all have to be rising as warriors? Do some of us have a gentler, quieter place from where we weave the change?
As I descended the hill, I saw huge clouds of what looked like smoke rising from the river that disappeared as soon as I got close enough, like magical upswirls from a cauldron.
This is a community, and one with values that I deeply align with: nature connection, rewilding, healing, awareness. But it’s a transient, revolving one. People come and go for retreats, courses, camps; no-one stays. Even Shiv and Erica are only here part-time.
After our conversation, in a surprise turn of events, Shiv invites Volt to stay on for the winter to keep up the electrics, or at least until he finds another job — his remote programming job of the past 8 years has abruptly come to an end and we’re at a loose end financially. We’re both heart-tempted by the beauty of this land, but we know it’ll be too isolated, too windy and cold, and too far for me to travel to see my son regularly enough.
Once again, the practical wins out over ideals. And the search for community continues. This time, in an effort to kill two birds with one stone, we start looking into working on organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation.
The magic of Spirit Horse remains with me, though: the location I’ve spent the longest period at during our wandering van travels, and a seed of inspiration of what is possible when you marry the mythical with the human.
You can read more about my experiences at Spirit Horse — including ‘The Shaman’ — and other vanlife adventures here.