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Neil Ansell on Escaping to the Woods


At the age of thirty, I was offered the tenancy of a cottage high in the hills of mid-Wales for just a peppercorn rent; a cottage with no electricity, gas or running water. I had no plan when I went there. I was just curious to see what I would make of such an extreme way of living, and saw it an an opportunity too good to resist. In the end I would stay there alone for five years trying to live a life of the utmost simplicity: watching the birds, gathering and growing food, choosing to have no vehicle and no phone, living by candlelight and cooking over a log fire.

I was not consciously following in the footsteps of HD Thoreau, even though I had read and loved Walden when I was still at an impressionable age. Walden, or Life in the Woods, is Thoreau’s account of how he moved out of town and built himself a log cabin in the woods beside Walden Pond where he remained, living alone, for a little over two years. It is full of insights into the human condition, and is as relevant today as it ever was, an inspiration to generations.

And, although I was not really aware of his influence on me, it was Thoreau who had paved the way, for Thoreau is the great-grand-daddy of everyone who has ever dreamed of jacking it all in and living in a hut in the woods. Of course there was a long tradition of solitaries dating back for hundreds of years before him, but their motivation was different – these hermits and anchorites were leaving the world of men behind in order to get closer to their gods. Thoreau was the first to teach us that living the way that most people choose to live is an option, not a necessity, and that stepping out of society can be a rational choice. What Thoreau found in the woods of New England still resonates today, and challenges us to consider what we really value most in life.  What he did was to question what truly matters; to reduce life to its bare essentials.

When I first moved to the mountains of Wales I had barely spent a day alone in my life, but found, like Thoreau, that solitude freely chosen is the opposite of loneliness. I had no idea how I would cope with the privations of the lifestyle I had chosen, but found my days filled with the practicalities of everyday life; with chopping logs and fetching water and growing food. There was certainly little time for introspection as is perhaps the goal of many of those who go on retreat – in fact what I found was almost the reverse; that as time passed I became more and more immersed in the natural world around me and became less and less self-aware, with a contentment that comes from forgetfulness.

Neil Ansell is an award winning journalist and writer, his book Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills, is an account of the five years he spent in the hills, and learnt to become self-sufficient in every sense of the word. He'll be leading 'A Picnic With Thoreau' at Camley Street Gardens on Thursday 5 July, for details and to book click here

Posted by Neil Ansell on 12 June 2012

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