I left England for a remote beach life after I lost my mother – but it wasn't what I had hoped for

·5-min read
Charlie Higson Greece
Charlie Higson Greece

My mum died when I was 18 and, two years later, my dad moved to America with my younger brother. My older brothers were at university so the family was split – and all of a sudden I didn’t have anywhere to live. I was grieving, rootless, and unsure what to do next.

An old school friend, Peter, who I’d been hitching around Cornwall with when I got the news that mum had passed away from cancer, suggested we spend the summer travelling. The idea appealed to me, so we packed our bags and headed off, starting on a hop farm in Kent, where we slept in corrugated iron sheds and picked apples and hops to earn money to fund our trip. There was a tractor trailer with a big tower on it, and I’d stand at the top of the tower with a scythe and slice through the vines, then take the hops to the oast house and lay them out to dry.

Once we had enough money, we hitchhiked to Italy, to the walled mediaeval hilltop town of Montepulciano in Tuscany, where we worked at an avant garde music festival run by a German composer. It was designed to be cheap and accessible for everybody and, the night we arrived, we went to see A Marriage of Figaro at the run-down local opera house, in t-shirts and shorts, with a box of wine and some bread and cheese. Already it felt like a different world.

Our job was helping build the stage for an opera which travelled around local villages, paying just enough to fund our regular jaunts to Rome and Florence. It wasn’t nearly as rock’n’roll as it sounds – Peter and I were both into classics, so it was more like the Grand Tours of the 19th century – but it was wonderful to be free and in charge of my destiny at last.

Because I didn’t have anywhere to live in England, I easily adjusted to the idea of sleeping rough – in olive groves and, in Rome, in a park. One night, while we were asleep in the latter, we were robbed. They had a good rifle through our rucksacks, but all they considered worth stealing were Peter’s fish hooks.

Corfu beach Charlie Higson author - Alamy
Corfu beach Charlie Higson author - Alamy

From Montepulciano, we took a bus to Brindisi in Puglia for the boat to Corfu. We were obsessed with getting off the beaten track, so – in our infinite wisdom – decided to find a deserted beach where we would go native and survive, like a cut-rate version of The Beach, 20 years before Alex Garland made it sound cool. We spotted an almost completely inaccessible stretch of sand from the top of some cliffs, thought “ok, that'll be our beach” and stocked up on canned food and a watermelon that Peter insisted on buying. As we climbed down the cliff, it dropped, hit the rocks and – like some sort of unnerving omen straight out of Lord of the Flies – splattered everywhere.

We sat on the beach in the heat, in our underpants, with nothing to do, tired, hungry and thirsty, eking out our rations. We were running out of water so decided to cook rice in seawater – thinking “well you put salt in cooking” – and plonked some jarred octopus and squid on top. Needless to say, it was revolting and probably nearly killed us.

After three days, we were like zombies, having exhausted all conversation and food and hating each other. Then all of a sudden a boat full of young party goers came around the headland. The first people we’d seen for three days, they piled on to the beach to barbecue and drink beer, laughing and shouting. We sat staring grimly at them, like a primitive tribe watching a troupe of explorers appear out of the rainforest.

Corfu beach Charlie Higson - Alamy
Corfu beach Charlie Higson - Alamy

I realised then that you can’t get away from the world – the world is always destined to catch up with you, even in 1978. For all that we wanted solitude and simplicity, I’d have given anything to get on that boat with them – but Peter would never have considered such a thing. We watched them leave, and returned to our grim, empty-stomached sitting. I think we knew then that our Robinson Crusoe experiment was at an end.

The next day, we climbed back up the cliff and got a bus to a local town, finding a small taverna overlooking the sea and falling on what has gone down as one of the best meals of my life: simple grilled chicken and chips, a nice Greek salad and a bottle of cold beer. To this day, every time I eat that food, it takes me back to that day.

And that was the end of our trip. We got the ferry to Athens and a bus all the way back to England, living off biscuits with only pennies in our pockets. The trip really helped me to regain focus, to come to terms with the death of my mum and the loss of our family home, and made me realise that material things really don’t matter. So much had happened in my life in the previous two years and going away helped me to grow up, to realise that I could cope with things and be resilient, and prepared me for life when I got back home. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was a very important summer.

As told to Lara Kilner

Whatever Gets You Through The Night by Charlie Higson is out now. Higson appeared at Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival this July.

Has a trip abroad helped you get through a difficult time? Tell us your experience in the comments section below