Gypsy life on the high road

Seven years travelling the world in a caravan almost proved the undoing of the Grant family.

By the glow of their fireside in Orkney, it had seemed an incredibly romantic idea. David and Kate Grant would leap from their everyday lives into an exotic adventure that would earn them a place in the record books: the first people to travel round the world in a horse-drawn caravan. Avid travellers, they also wanted an unorthodox and exciting education for their three young children, Torcuil, 10, Eilidh, eight, and Fionn, six. Seven years later, having travelled 12,000 miles through three continents and 15 countries in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan, it had brought that at least.

For the youngsters it was a living geography lesson that gave them a streetwise determination and independence way beyond their years. For David it was a long-held dream come true and he relished every single second. But for Kate it was at times nothing short of a nightmare that threatened literally to drive her mad. The very project that had promised to bring the couple even closer together came close to catapulting them apart.

A decade later, there is a sense that they are still coming to terms with their journey and the effect it had on their relationship. "I wasn't as understanding as I could have been with Kate," David admits now, "but I had a lot on my plate and I wanted her to get on with things."

I had half expected New Age hippies. But David, an ecologist, is immaculately presented; in his late fifties he could be a decade younger. A carefully laundered green and white gypsy neckerchief is about the only discernible symbol of anarchy. Kate, 48, a former nurse, is carefully made up and quiet, although she claims she has become less shy and more resilient since her trip.

It's little wonder. During their journey they coped with flying bullets as Yugoslavia disintegrated before their eyes, witnessed the break-up of the Soviet Union, the worst winter Kazakhstan had seen for 30 years and fought a potential eight-year jail sentence in Mongolia after drunks tried to steal their horse and one later claimed to have been blinded when Eilidh fired her catapult over his head.

Kate had other, more basic difficulties. "It's easy for a man to stand against a caravan and have a pee," she jokes now. "For a woman it is quite different - having to walk miles to find somewhere where you didn't feel in full view was tough." Sex virtually went out the window and personal hygiene was compromised. She battled against constant tiredness and depression (later diagnosed as a thyroid problem) as she struggled to live in a cramped 14ft by 6ft caravan for months on end without running water, electricity or a toilet.

The pressure finally took its toll. Kate was driven to abandon her children for the first time in her life and returned to the UK several times. While away from them she pined dreadfully. "I gave myself a hard time about wanting to pull out which made it worse. It was incredibly upsetting hearing their voices on the telephone." But back by their sides she felt a failure. "I felt I could no longer stand it and that I was probably making life hell for David and the children. I didn't want to spoil the trip for the others." For years she traipsed back and forth across huge land masses, leaving and rejoining her family when she could once more cope. Yet there were times when her link with home was a blessing. During their trouble in Mongolia she campaigned in the UK for their release.

Unlike his wife, David considered quitting only once, in North Dakota, after the death of their carthorse, Traceur, from a brain tumour. The rest of the time, through often horrendous difficulties, such as when he and the children fell sick with headaches and fever and Traceur fell lame in Kazakhstan, with Kate at home, he had to keep going. "We had limited food supplies, an extremely lame horse and the boys had wildly fluctuating temperatures," he remembers. Eilidh managed to find a vet and a doctor in that alien land. Like boomerangs, the children - who learnt to haggle and communicate often without language - always found their way back to base.

Their resourcefulness was a constant source of pride. In Russia they ate kasha (buckwheat) and jarred meat, which was usually reserved for their dogs; in Mongolia they slaughtered and ate seven sheep. Two of the children came to hate mutton so much they turned vegetarian. But David also recalls them playing hopscotch with kids in Mongolia, none of them speaking a word of the others' language. Says Kate: "I am still amazed at the hardships they endured. They carried on without any complaints. I remember going back to Kazakhstan and Eilidh looked totally different. She had lost her puppy fat and was so slim, and very independent, thoughtful and caring. Fionn looked emaciated - he was fussy about food and there wasn't a lot to eat."

Before their departure, the Grants had spent a long time researching self-teaching methods for the children and contacted the charity Education Otherwise for advice. Without television and other distractions, the youngsters educated themselves. "They did school work when they felt like it. It was terribly anarchic but it worked," says David. Torcuil regularly scored more than 90 per cent in his English. At 19 he is now studying for an HNC in applied ecology at college and hopes to go to university. Fionn, 14, has just had a glowing report from Webster's High School in Kirriemuir. His great passion is for basketball which he cultivated in the US. Eilidh, now 17, is working in a racing stables.

David, meanwhile, wrote a book about his experiences, The Seven Year Hitch, in Switzerland during the couple's estrangement. (They have since reunited.) He has had plenty of time to reflect. So what made them reach for such an ambitious goal? "No one had ever done it and we wanted to be the first," he smiles. And the transport? "We needed a vehicle that wasn't going to break down in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Besides, horses, the caravan, children and dogs were a great combination. Everybody loved it."

Indeed they were often perceived as a travelling circus. In Italy a man asked for tickets for their show. Others saw them as gypsies, the bearers of good luck. In some countries, like Slovenia, they set down roots. "We stayed for a whole winter," says David. "I played the bagpipes at their independence ceremony. I loved their way of life."

On their return, with David in Switzerland, Kate and the children lived for a while on benefits. She went on to buy their cottage with an inheritance and is now working as a care assistant in a nursing home. She would like to do another trip but perhaps to South East Asia - and not with the family. "I don't regret the experience but I do regret leaving them to come home. I never felt like leaving for good, even though some friends thought I should get a job and wait for them to come back. I am far stronger than I was."

David concedes they have a lot of bridges to build: "Our relationship is on a different footing but we are still here." Kate lifts her eyebrows at the irony. Concluding The Seven Year Hitch, David writes: "Once this book is with the publishers, it will be time to organise the next expedition. But I may have to paddle my own canoe." Only time and a lot of healing will tell.

`The Seven Year Hitch', published by Simon & Schuster, pounds 16.99.

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

    £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

    Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

    C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

    C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home