Giving it all up to become gin distillers in beautiful, remote West Wales has a real ring of romance to it – a chance discovery on a trip to Scotland that gin could be our thing, a business that could fit into our life allowing us to work from home, together and around our young son, is the stuff of dreams. But leaving a life behind is no easy thing. In truth, we left a life that didn’t suit us to move back to the sea – and it took us some time to before the inspiration struck us to step into the craft gin industry and to build the life we’re now living.
Many of us dream of leaving a life of routine and wage slavery, targets and pressure, for something different, a road less-travelled – but the reality of making a move is that it’s usually accompanied with difficult circumstances and even more difficult decisions, not to mention the practicalities involved.
The life we left
Although we met in West Wales, the reality of the employment situation meant that Ellen had to leave for the Midlands to continue her career as a geography teacher. Ellen lived with her Granny Pat for a while, and when Alex made the move too, we began living on a narrow boat, looking after it for Alex’s brother and his wife.
Do things ever happen for a reason? Work aside, since we met we’d pretty much done everything together. We were brought up short one day when we were involved in a pretty catastrophic car accident. While neither of us suffered life threatening injuries, the experience of the accident, of Ellen having to watch Alex being cut out of a car, of neither of us knowing what had happened to the other until some time later, was traumatic. The accident left us with lasting physical scars, not to mention emotional ones.
At about the same time as the accident, Alex was offered a job managing a canal side pub and we moved into a cottage that was part of the deal. While living on a narrow boat, as we had been until that point, would have been pretty impossible with Ellen’s busted knee (thanks to the accident) and the cottage seemed like a much better option, there were downsides to the new arrangements which made life very hard. Our paths were pretty incompatible, Ellen working all day, Alex all evening, and at that point, it was Alex’s job that gave. While the strain of living a life where drinking was a major aspect was clearly having a negative impact on Alex’s health and on our relationship, it didn’t make it any easier for Alex sitting at home wondering what to do next.
As we prepared to leave the cottage that had been part of the pub job, we bought our own narrow boat, continuing our life on the canals. Coming home from a night out, Alex picked up an advert for a rowing machine in a kebab shop. Sober, the next day, the rowing machine was his, and with it, new purpose. With rowing to anchor his days, and a better approach to diet, Alex began to feel better and embarked on an industry baking course at college and became a baker. Having hated school, real adult education opened Alex’s mind and boosted his confidence. Life was looking up.
Meanwhile Ellen was struggling with teaching. Not teaching itself, which she loved – the classroom, the kids, many from tough backgrounds – but as so many teachers will recognise, the pressures of meeting targets, of children being criticised for what they were not achieving against unrealistic goals, rather than being praised for what they were achieving in the face of tough home situations, was relentless and dispiriting. As Alex’s mood became ever more positive, Ellen was feeling increasingly low.
Moving back to Wales
While Alex was full of renewed purpose, Ellen had forgotten about herself, having given so much to teaching, and increasingly felt the need to move back home, back to Wales. We had a huge difficulty to overcome in our lives together. We had to set fire to our life in the Midlands because it just wasn’t right.
With Ellen facing the possibility that she might leave teaching, the question of moving back to West Wales became more pressing. Could we do it? Could we afford to? It’s true that at the time we had no children and no huge debts, but it’s hard to make decisions when, as a couple, at least one of you is vulnerable. Ellen was facing not only stepping away from what many considered ‘normal’, but at the same time, stepping right out of her own comfort zone – from a respected career and healthy salary, to nothing. In many ways, the practical challenges of leaving our life were the easy ones: finding work where we wanted to be, resigning, selling up. The emotional challenges of stepping out of that life were far harder.
With his baking training behind him and experience in the retail industry, Alex secured a role back in Cardigan first. We sold the narrow boat we had moved into when Alex left his pub job and Ellen worked out her notice as a teacher living back with her Granny Pat. This cleared the debt we had from buying the narrow boat in the first place but gave us little left over. Alex’s job covered rent and bills, enough for a simple life back in West Wales.
Extricating ourselves from our life in the Midlands was perhaps the biggest challenge in a practical sense, but emotionally, Ellen was still facing the reality of ‘what do I do next’. Drained from teaching and finding it hard to share the positivity Alex was getting from the new circle of friends he was building in Cardigan, it took a crazy suggestion – which led to a 3-month adventure walking around Wales – to change the game.
Back from our walk, and with Ellen restored, a new life in West Wales started for us. We moved out of Cardigan to the coast near the village of Tresaith where Ellen grew up and began to build a food business using Alex’s baking skills and knowledge, serving holiday cottage guests. Our son was born, life was good – and not even a snifter of gin was on the radar! What was in place, though, was an openness to new ideas, a renewed sense of togetherness, a belief that we could take on challenges and succeed. An inner strength that meant that, when, a couple of years later, we realised gin was the business idea we were looking for, we could embrace it wholeheartedly, together.