It was a normal evening in February 2014 when I experienced what felt like a seismic event. It didn’t shake anyone else’s world, but it certainly changed my life and that of my family, possibly forever. As my wife and I settled into bed in Nottingham after a usual day of hard work at our teaching jobs – me at a special school for autistic students; Kerry at a primary school – I switched off our bedroom light, and a light bulb in my mind switched on. The idea led to us making a radical decision that left us houseless and jobless, and saw our two daughters, Amy, now 12, and Ella, now 10, being removed from the formal education system.
At the time, we felt trapped in a rut: working too hard and not spending enough time together as a family. Planning, marking and admin were done at the expense of playing, reading and talking with our children. We felt as if we were living and working simply to pay the mortgage, grow a pension pot and keep on top of 21st-century life. We were just existing: wishing the weekdays away and living for the weekends, when we’d try to redress the work-life balance with family adventures – climbing a mountain, or sleeping under the stars.
Despite our best efforts, the lifestyle was getting us down, occasionally really down. I was actually struggling with mild depression and Kerry felt she was constantly drowning in a sea of pupil-performance spreadsheets. Amy and Ella were relatively happy at school – they had lots of friends and liked their teachers – but the increasing assessment- and test-focused system was dampening their spirits and, ironically, their love of learning. We were all ready for a change.
So, on that fateful night, I turned to Kerry with a proposition: “How about we try and get away from it all for a year? Take a break. Revitalise ourselves as teachers and the girls as learners? Spend more time together. Go on an adventure!”
Kerry’s reaction was positive – if a little apprehensive, particularly about selling our house – our home for 13 years. But she hadn’t said “no” and, over the following days, the idea took root in our minds and hearts. If nothing else, just making a decision like this – taking control of our own destiny – was empowering and exciting. We felt alive.
We were excited about the adventure, but nervous about how Amy and Ella might react. What if one or both of them rejected it? We weren’t going to impose this on them; it had to be “one for all and all for one”. The suggestion shocked them initially, but as the idea sank in, and questions were asked and answered, the excitement in their eyes was the endorsement Kerry and I had hoped for.
Our idea was to try to live more for the moment and embark on an educational adventure all together. Lots of families take their kids on road trips to far-off places and distant cultures, but we wanted our adventure to be UK-based. We didn’t feel the need to travel abroad to achieve our goals. Our islands have so much to offer: history and geography on our doorstep, and amazing landscapes. And there was no way we were going to abandon our dog, Sally, who had been part of our family for 13 years.
It helped that we had just completed a Caravan Club challenge and won a caravan by taking 20 holidays in 20 weeks and completing 100 family challenges along the way. We had a getaway vehicle.
In the exciting build-up to hitting the road, there were shaky moments. Ella got upset about missing her friends. Amy wondered what would happen with her schooling (she should have been moving on to secondary school). To help deal with these, we included an important “get-out clause”: if at any point during the trip someone wasn’t enjoying it, we would stop and return to normal life.
Before we knew it, we were on the road, home schooling (road-schooling would be more accurate) in a four-berth touring caravan. We began at Warwick Castle then headed north to Berwick-upon-Tweed and into Scotland. We ventured into corners of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Our route was varied and a bit random, driven by educational aims – Dover Castle, the Isles of Scilly, Fort William – by invitations to speak at festivals about our trip, and by regular trips back to Nottingham so Amy and Ella could reconnect with their friends.
We decoupled from the national curriculum and developed a more flexible, pupil-led model. Learning about science happened naturally: the girls learned about wind turbines and renewable energies at a wind farm, and about physical forces and light at Sir Isaac Newton’s house.
Of utmost importance for us all was outdoor adventure, and one of our favourites was sleeping out under the stars in our bivvy bags: once on a beach in north Norfolk, with the Milky Way and shooting stars streaking overhead; once when horizontal rain drove us off a beach in Pembrokeshire. Ella’s best bit was completing the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge, but in two days rather than the usual 12 hours, walking 26 miles and bivvy bagging overnight, despite snow and ice.
Living so compactly without getting on each other’s nerves has a challenge – there have been arguments and strops. But on the whole, we’ve adapted well and accept that there will always be highs and lows. Our very lowest point came when our beloved Sally died in August 2014.
We’ve learned that adventure builds character but that it also builds strong bonds. Seeing Ella patiently and compassionately help Kerry (who suffers from vertigo) down a steep section of Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil, and Amy digging deep when paddling Loch Ness in wind and rain confirms our belief that these experiences are not only life-affirming, but life-forming. After more than a year on the road, Amy and Ella now see challenges as an important part of life and value their ability to persevere when the going gets tough.
We’re now in year two of our Edventure with plans to explore Spain, France, Scotland and Scandinavia in the new motorhome we’ve been using since last November. None of us wants to stop just yet, so we will probably carry on until the money runs out, it stops feeling right, or one of us invokes the “get me out of here” clause.
We’re often asked how we can afford to live like this. The short answer is: “We can’t!” We sold our house and used a chunk (£20,000) of the equity to help fund our Edventures. We have sacrificed the security of bricks and mortar and at least a year’s earnings each. This hurts financially, but we are investing in our most precious assets, our children, by spending large amounts of quality time with them. We are living … and happy, very happy.
• Read the Meek Family blog at dotrythisathome.com. Their books, 100 Family Adventures (£14.99) and Learning Outdoors with the Meek Family (13.99), are published by Frances Lincoln. To order copies for £11.99 and £11.19 respectively, including UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.com