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Following Life's Signposts on Exmoor

It was a beautiful day in the Holnicote Estate.

Bright sunshine cavorted through the branches of ancient oak trees, chasing its own shifting shadows as they danced across the woodland floor. Above the green canopy, the sky was the sort of intense blue we used to walk beneath in the pine forests of Tenerife, and away from the breeze on the exposed moors, the air temperature quickly had me down to short sleeves.

We reached a crossroads where a signpost told us we should turn right, off the main woodland path, and onto a dirt track that rose into the trees. We were surprised. We expected the route to continue straight ahead. We pored over the OS map, now convinced we were not where we thought we were. Based on the information shown, we settled on where we thought we were on the map, turned right following the signpost, and started to climb.

Each time we passed a path off to one side or the other, we consulted the map and recalculated where we were based on the evidence around us. We continued walking, more and more confused over when we would emerge from the woods as the map was telling us we ought to do. Another half a kilometre and we stopped.

We were going the wrong way.

We returned to the signpost and checked more carefully against the map. There was only one conclusion to be drawn: the signpost was pointing in completely the wrong direction.

It was a relatively new post, all carefully and solidly planted into the earth, so no-one had moved it, it was obviously positioned incorrectly by the people who put it there in the first place. We ignored the signpost, continued straight ahead and very quickly reached another post which confirmed we were now on the right path.

It strikes me that much of life can be like following the wrong directional signs, trying to convince yourself you’re still on the right path.

How long do we move in the wrong direction before we change course?

When we first moved to Tenerife and bought a house, we found lots of anomalies in our official paperwork, but we made them fit what we believed them to be. ‘Our Spanish is obviously misunderstanding some of the nuances’; ‘maybe Spanish documents are just written that way’; ‘well they are the official documents so they can’t possibly be wrong’ we reasoned, before blithely carrying on.

If you’ve read The Banana Road, you’ll know how that turned out.

Trying to establish ourselves in our new island home and to put a core income from travel writing in place, we took contracts from all sorts of sources, producing copy that wasn’t moving us forward in our writing. In some cases, we were even producing first class copy for websites and publications that were effectively our competition. We didn’t even think about that until a friend asked us why we were working so hard to make our competitors better than us.

It took a very long time before we finally bit the bullet, defied the common-sense signs that were telling us to hang onto our bread-and-butter income, and walked away from those core contracts.

It was the best thing we ever did.

Freed from the constraints of multiple weekly deadlines we were able to concentrate on our own work and move forward. Yes, we suffered an initial loss in revenue but in the longer term, we gained a bedrock income from our own websites and sales, and were able to write what we wanted to write, not what someone else wanted.

We’re facing a similar crossroads now.

We’re about to take on a big financial commitment so common sense tells us this is not the time to take risks with our current income. Yet we’re also looking at getting ourselves established here, which means freeing up time to build foundations that will hopefully stand us in good stead for years to come. Given that dilemma, do we follow the signs, or defy them?

It’s easy to look back at our experiences and decide it’s obvious we should go for the latter, but if life was that formulaic, we’d never make mistakes. After all, most of the signposts we follow are absolutely accurate and essential in keeping us moving forward in the right direction. What’s more, they take us along hugely enjoyable journeys. On the ground, if we’re unsure about the way to go we can walk ahead a little, see if the next signpost confirms our direction, and then move confidently.

Life doesn’t allow you to take that sneak preview; once you’ve chosen your direction, there’s no turning back.


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