Alastair: How did you come up with the idea of building a treehouse to live in?
Nick: I’ve always been interested in adventure, but never really thought I would be someone who would do something like going to the other side of the world to do an adventure. I wanted to do something quite close to home, something that was more of an actual lifestyle project, I suppose.
With the recession hitting London back in 2009, I decided I wanted to get out. I was doing freelance work, and there was hardly any work. I started looking at ways in which I could simplify my life and do a lot of things for myself rather than having to pay for certain things like electricity, rent, food bills, and so on…
The idea of going off and living in a woods and being self-sufficient was something that was quite appealing. I was quite a feral kid, so I grew up doing a lot of that anyway.
It was a bit like going back to being a kid again. That was something that really appealed to me. That whole side of not actually having the kind of responsibilities you do as an adult. You’re put back into a mindset where anything’s possible. That was a big part of it for me. I think the idea of having a tree house rather than a cabin or something like that or just sleeping in a tent made it a bit more permanent. And also a tree house is a child’s dream, so it was something that slotted in quite nicely.
Alastair: What did you actually do then?
Nick: I left London in April, 2009 and moved straight into the woods. I lived under a tarpaulin while scrounging for various pieces from barns, garages, skips, whatever I could find. Fortunately some friends of some friends of some friends who had a farm were happy for me to live on their farm in return for doing fence fixing, looking after animals, livestock, things like that: a nice form of barter.
I had this vision of something I wanted to build. I did a few sketches. I think it took about six weeks to build. It was a bit of a mish-mash of recycled natural materials. It cost about £300 in total.
It was quite taxing, the build and all the rest of it, whilst also digging a vegetable patch, doing all of that. The idea of the project was to do six months from April through till the end of October, and hunt and fish and forage for all my food. But about 30% was made up from vegetables, carbohydrates, potatoes, things I couldn’t necessarily find in the wild.
Alastair: Was the plan then to just live as self-sufficiently as you could?
Nick: Really, yeah. That was the idea. But I wanted to enjoy it to a certain degree. I know that I’ve heard you say on occasion, “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun,” but I didn’t want to look back on it and go, “That was really hard work. I didn’t enjoy it much at the time, but with hindsight, it’s a wonderful thing.”
I wanted to look back on it and go, “Yeah, that was really good fun. I’d like to do that again.”
Alastair: When I came down to stay with you, the very first time I met you actually, you had the vegetable patch. You were setting out snares, fishing, trying to shoot rabbits. Was that the daily pattern of your days for those six months?
Nick: I got into a routine. [By the time you visited] I knew where all my resources were. I knew how to go and get fish. I knew where to go and get mushrooms. I knew where to go and get different types of food. The vegetable patch was chock full of things.
Yeah, that was a real sort of high point, because I was settled in and I knew where everything was. I think, yeah, that was definitely when it was at its best.
Alastair: Did you notice a real mind shift, because life in London or life in any city is really busy, busy, busy, frantic and busy. But the way you were trying to live in those woods was very busy as well, but was it a very different feeling of ‘busyness’?
Nick: It was, yeah. I can see why hunter gatherers lived in groups, because you could delegate and do different things. But one person having to do all of the different things was very busy. Wood was always the main thing, for fire. And getting water and food. You know, that’s it. That’s all you have to worry about. It kind of cuts your life right back.
Sometimes in London you’re just, “Go to work. Do work. Come back. Eat.” It’s a different set of rules you live by. Whereas down there, you’re like, “Well, I can do this when I need to do it,” but obviously you only have daylight hours in which to work, so you have to make sure these things are done. I’d be lying if I was to say that some nights that I didn’t go to bed hungry, but yeah, that was part and parcel of it.
Alastair: When I came down to spend a few days another time when we were trying to live like cavemen, the thing that I really noticed from that was my mind — for the first few hours, I found really boring, because I was just busy in my head with emails and all that sort of busy, busy, busy stuff. It’s not very important but it’s the busy stuff of life. So the first day I was really bored. And then gradually I started to enjoy it a lot more, until we got starving.
Nick: Yeah. I’ve not seen you quite so upset before!
Alastair: Except perhaps when you made me kill an eel.
Nick: Oh, yeah.
Alastair: The great unkillable eels…
Nick: Yeah, they usually are pretty hard to nail. I mean, that’s the thing. It is that kind of slowing down and adjusting to a new set of rules. Not rules, exactly, just a new lifestyle.
Alastair: A choice of rules as well, isn’t it? You choose to live by them.
Alastair: You either get a job done or you don’t. You reap the rewards or you don’t.
Nick: It’s fantastic.
Alastair: I wanted to talk to you for this “Adventure 1000” thing because mostly I’ve been talking to people who are doing more traditional adventures. Cycling a long way or walking across continents, that sort of thing. But what you did absolutely comes in under the concept of adventure. I also like the fact that it’s potentially something very compatible with normal life. Someone could begin to do what you did just on their weekends, for example. Why did you drop out of life completely to do this? Why didn’t you just do it as a weekend hobby?
Nick: I did it to actually do it properly and to fully immerse myself in it. I was very lucky that I was in a position where I didn’t have much responsibility. I didn’t have a mortgage, kids, anything like that. I could just go, “OK. Well, I’m just going to fully immerse myself in it and do it.”
Because I think that’s the only way that you’re really going to get a true understanding of what it means to strip everything back. And be feel, “OK. This is a completely different way of life, but it’s actually a really fulfilling way of life as well.”
Alastair: You set out to do this because you were doing these jobs that were quite not particularly fulfilling. Did you worry that dropping out of life would then make finding a real job and a real life even harder afterward?
Nick: At the time, I didn’t think about it too much. I didn’t really think though that this could actually be a [long-term] option for me, that I could go and live like this full time. I just thought I’ll try for six months and see what happens. It was never planned to be a book. It was just something I was going to blog about.
It was a massive change in my life. I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if it wasn’t for taking that step and going. You never know what’s going to happen, but if you trust in what you’re doing and just think, “This feels right. I want to do this. I’m doing this for myself.” You never know where it’s going to lead.
I think that’s the exciting thing behind it, that you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Alastair: Where did it lead to you? What impact has it had on your life?
Nick: Well, whilst I was doing it I did a column for “Reader’s Digest” which led to a publisher getting in touch, saying, “We think this would be quite a good book.” I wouldn’t say it’s an amazing book, but it’s got a lot of nice pictures in it. It was a bit of a recession story that a lot of people like, “Well, this guy’s just made the best out of what’s happened with the recession, and look at what he’s done.”
As you know, if you’ve written a book, it’s a lot easier to actually get other writing work, because people think, “Oh, he’s published, so he must know what he’s doing.” That was another thing that was quite good.
I was doing a book signing at Waterstones when a woman said to me, “Do you teach people this kind of thing?” I said, “I can teach foraging.” She was like, “Well, do you teach all the fire stuff and things like that as well?” I was like, “Yeah, I suppose I could do that, yeah.”
And she goes, “Great. Here’s my email address. I’d like to send my husband out for a day with you. How much would it be? Just drop me an email. Let me know a rough itinerary.” That was the first time…
Alastair: And it [your business] all sprung from that.
Nick: Yeah. Since then, Hunter Gather Cook was set up, a foraging and cookery school. Actually the guy still hasn’t done his course.
I always email him at the beginning of every spring. “Mate, you can do your course this year.” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Here are some dates.” Then slowly throughout the year, he’s like, “I can’t do this date. Can’t do this date.” His will never expire, because that’s what led me down going that route.
Alastair: That’s brilliant. As you know, I’ve just built a shed in my garden, which I’m inordinately proud of. People are very, very jealous of my shed, and rightly so, because it is amazing.
But what you did, your tree house, was infinitely cooler even than my shed, I’m sad to admit. I imagine people must quite often say to you that they’re jealous either of the tree house itself or more specifically for this, of your choice of adventurous life. Do you get that a lot? If so, what do you say to them?
Nick: It’s weird. You get the people that love it, and get really involved with it. They’re the people that are commenting on it. They get in touch, saying, “I really like this. I really like that. Could you do more with this?”
But you also get the haters that wish they were doing it, but can’t or don’t or they have a reason for it, so they’ll be quite negative about it, which is almost like a bit of a jealousy thing. It’s a bit odd.
Yeah, in general you do get a lot of people that are quite envious of it. They think, “Oh, this is really cool. This is really fun.” But I think they also at the same time, they’re quite happy to dip into it and have a piece of it. And then get out of it again.
Alastair: Because it is a long, grinding haul, isn’t it?
Nick: Yeah. I mean, it’s not an easy thing to do. There were times when I would sit down and ask myself,”What the hell am I doing?”
Alastair: What would your suggestion be then to people who are in your situation, quite young people without the ties that make adventure difficult, but equally, without the cash and contacts and all those important things for making adventures happen. What’s your advice for young people who are dreaming of injecting some sort of adventure into their life?
Nick: First of all, I’d say, “Don’t set on what you feel that you have to do as a living, because you can, if put your heart to it and if your mind to it, and you really try hard, you can pretty much do anything you want to do as long as you work hard at it.”
But I think you don’t necessarily have say, “OK. I’m going to do a big expedition. I’m going to go off to the other side of the world…” I think the best thing to do is to start looking close at home. The Hebrides, they’re pretty much empty. Why not go up there and live on an island or something? Start there!
Alastair: Thank you, Nick!
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!