For this month's blog, I invited my lovely, incredibly talented pal, Alyson Sheldrake, to tell us about her life and work in Portugal. As well as being a highly sought after artist, she produces an award-winning blog and is a best-selling memoir author. Alyson is currently working on a travel stories series and has just published her latest book, Chasing the Dream. Feeling breathless already? Read on!
I was born in inner-city Birmingham in the UK and escaped there as soon as I could to the beautiful west country. After my time as a student there, I joined the police force and served for thirteen years, which is where I met my husband, Dave. Few people can say they met the love of their life in a Custody Centre! I then moved into the world of education and reached the dizzy heights of Director of Education, working for the Church of England and managing 130 schools. The job was exhilarating and challenging – but also exhausting. I worked at least 70 hours every week.
We have always been adventurous holidaymakers, preferring to avoid the package holiday or guided tours, and exploring on our own. We had a motto back then, ‘never go back to the same place twice’, and we enjoyed many exciting holidays to beautiful destinations. And then we discovered the fishing village of Ferragudo in the Algarve, Portugal, and we were smitten. We rented a little cottage off the main street, and I can still distinctly remember the first time we arrived in our hire car and saw the village reflected in the glistening water of the Arade river. Painted boats were tied up, bobbing with the tide, the houses seemed to tumble down to the riverfront, with the majestic whitewashed church sat proudly above them keeping watch. It was idyllic.
We loved everything about the Algarve - the food, the
people, the stunning beaches, and wide-open blue skies. The pace of life was
enticing, and the area captured our hearts. We returned seven times on holiday to the same cottage in the ensuing two years – so much for our motto!
It wasn’t long before we were house-hunting and purchased a modern property on the edge of the village. We still had the slight problem of working back in the UK, but we spent every spare minute we could in our home in Ferragudo. Finally, after five more years, Dave retired from the police. I handed in my notice (a scary moment!); we packed up the car and moved to live in the Algarve. Our new life in the sun could begin.
That was ten years ago now. It seems hard to believe all that time has passed by. Not that I haven’t been busy! I had a dream of turning my hobby of painting into a full-time career as an artist, and I have been amazed and slightly stunned at how well this plan has progressed for me. To date, I have painted – and sold – well over 200 paintings, including completing over 100 commissions for clients, and my studio is my favourite place to be. Dave had always held a camera in his hands since he was a young boy, so it was a natural progression for him to hone his skills and take up photography professionally.
We adopted a beautiful rescue dog, who we called Kat the dog. She is a Spanish Water Dog and has the sweetest nature. My walks with her every morning are the highlight of my day, watching her happily sniffle and snuffle her way along the river bank here in Aljezur, where we now live.
We moved to live in a lovely peaceful town on the west coast, surrounded by Portuguese neighbours. They have all made us feel so welcome and part of the local community. It is a rare week that passes without someone knocking on the door with fresh eggs, fruit or vegetables for us, all grown locally. You don’t get much more organic or local than your neighbour’s plot.
I started writing a blog when we first moved here, initially just to keep friends informed of what we were doing. It soon grew into an award-winning blog with over 100,000 views a year. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing our articles, all liberally sprinkled with Dave’s photography.
Many of our personal stories didn’t seem to fit the blog format, so I put them all to one side, and then eventually realised that I had a lot of material sat on my computer. People kept saying to me, “you should write a book”, so I sat down one day and started writing. It wasn’t long before I had written almost 80,000 words, and ‘Living the Dream – in the Algarve, Portugal’ was born.
It was a steep learning curve from that moment. Self-publishing was a whole new world to explore, and I relished it all. Pressing the ‘upload’ button on Amazon and seeing my book go live was an exhilarating – and slightly scary – time. I felt the same nerves I had experienced with our first art and photography exhibition – would anyone be interested in our story? My fears were unfounded. In the nine months since I published the book, it has reached the #1 bestseller status in several categories on both sides of the Atlantic and has amazed me with the number of sales and the positive feedback it has received.
At the end of the book, I mentioned we were about to move to start a new life in Aljezur, and that maybe there would be a sequel. I had so many messages from people asking for a second book that I had to get on with it! The result, ‘Living the Quieter Algarve Dream’ was released in November last year. I have described both books as ‘part guide – mostly memoir’ and they are a refreshingly honest and often hilarious account of our life here.
My last project involved bringing together the stories of a fascinating range of other people that have also started a new life in the Algarve. ‘A New Life in the Algarve, Portugal’ came out in April, and showcases the lives of 22 different people that have all made the Algarve their home. I was thrilled that the British Ambassador to Portugal agreed to write the foreword to this book too.
That gave me the bug for bringing together people’s stories and I am currently working on a new Travel Stories series. The first book, ‘Chasing the Dream – a new life abroad’, was released at the end of June.
It combines the individual stories of 20 different travel memoir authors all sharing their unique journeys and giving a fresh insight into what it is really like to move abroad – and explores why so many of us long for a new life in a different country. It will be a great way for readers to find new authors and books to read too, as the book showcases a wide range of different writers, countries and experiences, with links to each author’s books. I’m particularly thrilled with the covers for these books. I worked with a professional designer to create the ‘suitcase’ theme that runs through the series, and I can’t wait to see them all in print!
When I’m not busy writing or painting, you’ll find me walking Kat along the river, enjoying the peace and quiet in the early morning, and trying to spot the local wildlife. Recently I was thrilled to discover we have a nightingale that has made his home in a tree nearby. It was such an exciting moment when I actually understood one of the local farmer’s telling me all about him in Portuguese. I have always had fun trying to fathom this difficult language, but finally, after ten years, I think I am making some headway – enough to have a proper conversation about the nightingale at least!
We really feel that we have found our own little corner of paradise here. It’s less about the weather – although the 300 days of sunshine a year certainly helps – but it is much more about the local people, the gentle way of life, the beautiful beaches and coastline, and tiny villages where time seems to stand still sometimes. It is certainly a world away from our time as police officers back in the UK. We have absolutely no regrets about our decision to start a new life abroad, and can recommend it to anyone that has a hankering or a desire for a different – and quieter – way of life.
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