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Follow the brown signs

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Follow The Brown Signs CPR… it’s been emotional

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a journalist from The Sun. He’d got wind of my somewhat quirky hobby and wanted to feature me in a light-hearted piece for the paper. He called and interviewed me about what I do and why, and I ended up talking to him for quite a while (picture of said article left, it slightly misses the point of what I do but any publicity is good publicity, right?).

I hadn’t been interviewed for some time before then, but throughout this project I’ve often been approached to fill column inches and wheeled out on radio shows for some funny light relief, sharing my dull/crazy/weird hobby with readers or listeners. Hopefully I end up winning them over, explaining that what I do is not actually dull or weird at all, but pretty fun and interesting, so I hope I’ve inspired more people to take up brown-signing too over the years.  But after my recent chat about why I love going brown signing so much it got me thinking about this project in a way that I haven’t properly before, and has helped me give this project of mine some intense CPR after what became a very near death experience…

For the article I was also asked to supply loads of pictures of me on various brown signing adventures and I found myself going through archives on my computer which were TWENTY bloody years old.  Ever since those carefree heady days in the late ’90s when I first contracted the brown signing bug it has been totally normal for me to spend most of my free time randomly following brown tourist signs or writing about them here on my blog. That was until about 6 years ago, when a significant hiatus happened and I stopped blogging/facebooking/twittering completely.

 A few factors collided at that point: 1) I had my first baby. I’d moved from London to rural Gloucestershire knowing no one and found myself suddenly going from being a free spirited, spontaneous, don’t-fence-me-in, fun kind’a gal to a struggling one. Lurching without any sort of control from one day to the next, blinded by lack of sleep with a touch of constant-crying-baby induced post traumatic stress, being focussed solely on trying to keep a tiny sentient being alive. 2) I was feeling incredibly tired, but not just any old tired I mean absolutely poleaxed all the time tired, so bad that I went to my doctor about it. I was told it wasn’t surprising I’d be tired with a newborn and to do the usual stuff they recommended, e.g. “sleep when the baby sleeps” PLEASE. Having run pubs and restaurants most of my working life I knew what tired felt like and this was not it. I continued struggling along mentally and physically while trying my best to do mothering for a few years and then had an accidental second child (however lovely, that child was definitely not something I would have signed up for willingly at that point), and my exhaustion had not gone away. Eventually after a lot of boring tooing and froing I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (the follicular kind, if you want to know specifics, like I would if I was reading this). 

 I didn’t feel bad that I was diagnosed with cancer, if anything I felt glad that I had something concrete to pin my struggling to, and also my cancer is apparently a very lazy one; the cells, although technically rapidly dividing are not doing so at break-neck speed. They’re the kind that wake up late (why set an alarm?), get on with a bit of cell division after a dirty great fry-up, take a longish tea break around 10.30, sit around smoking microscopic fags and chatting to their cellular colleagues, then get back on the dividing again in the afternoon but knock off early, heading to the pub for more fags and few jars with their tiny mates in the lymphatic beer garden. So ya know, when I think of it like that I’m ok with this cancer I’ve got, when it really could be so so much worse. 

 Anyway, these babies and cancer thing kind of diverted me from my most beloved project and doing what I love doing the very most; getting out and enjoying the vast and astonishing world and it’s people as signposted by the humble tourist sign. And I felt very very bad about it. Not only was I ignoring contact from people who were supportive and interested in me and my project but I was also not reading, researching and talking to people I love so much either. I withdrew completely from the life I once knew and to be honest the person I used to be. I totally took myself out of the realm of museums, collections, attractions and all the great places I used to go to or read about that used to pique my interest and get my juices flowing. And the longer I didn’t do my project for the more painful it became for me to return to it. Honestly I didn’t know how to pick it up again without weeping (I tried a few times, I wept, I stopped). 

 But this project of mine, this thing just wouldn’t let me go. I am brown signing when I talk to people (I have A LOT of brown related trivia in this here brain of mine) and I do it when I’m reading, or just when I’m thinking or talking to my children. As the years have passed, and with some time to do some quiet contemplation, actually I’ve begun to realise that this quirky hobby of mine is not just esoteric, spontaneous and fun, it is a huge part of my very being. Admitting this to myself was both incredibly painful (because I had ignored it for so long) but also very exciting. After my chat with the journalist I began wanting to pick up where I had left off and also feeling a little bit like the old me again (even if the new me does now sport swathes of grey in her barnet and carts around a big and lazy but still annoyingly ever-present chronic illness, and two small children to boot). There is some thing, or things, fundamental and meaningful about brown-signing that make this project of mine really matter.

 So I sat down and began listing the facets of brown signing that have me hooked; why they’re important, what they offer the world and why each one of these destinations deserves to be showcased in their own right, and I realised that there was something incredibly valuable in continuing to share them with the world. Part of this project is fun, geeky and a bit silly and another part isn’t at all funny. It’s meaningful and, dare I say it, deep on a lot of levels. So now for the next stage of my project (which I launched formally by publishing this blog over 13 years ago I worked out the other day!) I aim to showcase yet more of these attractions that have me so hooked through the facets that run through each of them (and I guess also myself), so the project can continue to go from strength to strength. I have listed and discussed them a little below. so if you want to truly get and understand this thing I’ve got going on here then read on….


(*Some) Fundamental Aspects to Following Brown Signs 

*(Give it time, I may think of more)

 – Spontaneity – “Stop scrolling! Put your phone down! Release yourself from the addiction!” I shout daily at my husband, poor man. But seriously people, you really don’t need to google it before doing it. I’ve always been a bit of a technological ludite, by choice you understand, because for sure screens and technology have their place in society nowadays but what makes me uncomfortable is the way they have become extension of ourselves and our minds. They make us want what we don’t need, spend money we don’t have, think things it never occurred to us to think, watch people who aren’t very interesting and saddle us with this feeling that whatever we’re doing we must consult our phones every few minutes… it’s something I’m really scared of and therefore just not interested in engaging in, so I look at my phone infrequently (much to the annoyance of anyone trying to get hole of me). Choosing to follow random brown signs that you spot out in the actual world with your own actual two eyes however, well now, that is much more joyful. The spontaneity and openness to experience that following brown tourist sign gives me feels very much like living in my own Choose Your Own Adventure book of the 1970s and ’80s, and they were BRILLIANT right?!    

– Learning and Wonder – Everywhere you go you when you’re brown signing you’ll learn something new, and our brains get a lovely little serotonin induced hit every time we experience novel things. Now I’ve done no extensive research on this don’t get me wrong, but my theory is that the hit you get from experiencing those novel things is deeper, truer and longer lasting when you’re truly engaging and being physically actually present with that novel thing, way way more than any of the short sharp hits you might get via your smartphone screen. Talking to people at the places I visit adds a depth and understanding that simply can’t exist when you glean information from a quick read online. Continuing to learn new things and wonder at the world around us shouldn’t stop after education and continuing my adventures by following brown tourist signs there’s no way learning and wonder are likely to cease.

– Connection to the world – Discovering just a tiny fraction of the incredibly diverse and wide ranging destinations across the world that are signed by the humble brown tourist sign has gone a long way to helping me to understand a crazy, fast-paced world that frankly terrifies me. Discovering how dams actually work, where and how the first telegraph cables were laid on the seabed and the way the human brain physically changes when it is meditating are some examples of things I’ve learnt through brown-signing that have changed the way I feel about the world and living in it. I’ve found the more I see and experience, and the more people I’ve spoken to, the deeper my connection to this world has become. I’m in a better place to understand the stuff that scares the sweet bejesus out of me. Obviously from there it’s a bold and brave leap to try to reach some sort of acceptance of such profoundities but more than anything it has shown me, without me noticing or consciously trying that I, and you, have our own special and unique place in this world which needs properly appreciating; this journey of mine has been a humbling and life-affirming thing.

– Landscape and Geography – The awe inspiring nature of our planet is something that never fails to floor me. From the Grand Canyon to Mount Everest, tiny but thriving woodlands to enormous fjords (and many thousands of other beautiful landscapes in between!) so many of earth’s geographical wonders have brown signs. We all evolved in and were spawned from what this earth was kind enough to provide us with, and for me any visit to somewhere that makes my jaw drop in wonder at this incredible planet also makes me appreciate life on our precious earth all the more. Experiences like engaging in some shrin-yoku (forest bathing), walking around Everest Base Camp and sitting in a near boiling hot spring have made me marvel at what we have, and made me even more passionate about saving it. I think that having experiences like this, especially when we might least expect them, can fuel our sense of urgency in this spiralling climate crisis. Now this is a big thing to say here guys but I think the moral here is that following brown tourist signs really might help us all minimise the already disastrous effects we are having on the planet by connecting us more with it’s awe inspiring nature. Take note world leaders: follow some brown tourist signs. 

– Humanity – The places that touch my soul and make me actually burst out crying like an idiot in the middle of a visit (it happens much more than I’d like to admit), are the ones that smack me in the face with the overwhelming capacity for human love, compassion and the sometimes unbelievable drive for human beings to be connected to other human beings. The Red Cross Museum in Geneva is an example of this. I can hardly talk about that place without my voice starting to crack. The emotion I felt there was profound and will stay with me for the rest of my life, it was a truly epic and life-changing experience. But places like this exist all around the world and it only takes a little dip below the surface to see that so many museums and attractions tell us stories fuelled by love and the weepworthy beautiful nature of human beings. In a world so readily full of pain and suffering (so said Buddha and how right he was too) I find it a compulsory thing to see the love and greatness of human nature as an antidote to a potential lifelong depression by doing the very best thing possible, going brown-signing of course.

Preservation and Heritage – There is a thing that exists in a lot of us, probably most of us (except property developers) that makes us feel sad when something old might be lost or destroyed. This thing exists in some people so strongly that they’re driven to fight tooth and nail to save, preserve and restore them for the enjoyment of future generations; windmills, old barns, houses where a famous person once lived, Victorian piers, castles and old books to name just a few of the joys I’ve had the pleasure of seeing preserved, and are thankfully still in existence for us all to enjoy. This topic is a significant one and I’ll discuss it further in a later blog but needless to say these people are so passionate and dedicated to the preservation of things that would have otherwise been lost or destroyed that their work is a huge and important aspect of Follow The Brown Signs. It’s about appreciating what was then and connecting it to where we are now, but without these tangible things for us to connect with truly appreciating this would be nigh on impossible. This preservation of heritage does not have to be a physical thing though, it also includes intangible heritage, things like crafts, folk art, dances, language and storytelling. So long as there is something we can engage in and experience I think we all become connected to it all the stronger, thus keeping this heritage meaningfully alive, really truly breathing through us all.

– Noticing and Mindfulness – At heart I am a big old introvert. My best follow the brown signs adventures happen when I am surrounded by the minimal amount of humans possible, to be honest this helps me to truly appreciate and feel where I am, when I am not at all distracted. This for me makes most of my brown signing quite a mindful practice. Allowing yourself to notice, both the tourist signs (of course!) and to notice when you’ve arrived means you have a much more valuable experience. Visits don’t have to be quiet to remind you to be mindful however; the astoundingly brilliant Empathy Museum allows you to quite literally walk a mile in another person’s shoes while listening to their story and provides a real lesson in truly listening, an intensely mindful experience even when you might be surrounded by lots of other people.

– People, Passions and Sharing with the World – Collections for me are always a bit empty until I hear the stories behind them. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a great collection when I see one, it’s just that knowing who collected it, what that person liked and how the collection came into being is something I find endlessly fascinating. There’s something magical not just about the forming of each collection and the collection itself (and I’ve seen a lot, from baked bean paraphernalia and Bakelite, paperweights and gnomes) but also about the desire for the collector to share their unique collection with the world. Again a topic for further discussion because I LOVE collections (and of course I have come to realise that in fact I too am a collector who wants to share her collection with the world).

– Art and Creativity – People are inherently creative, often however we are not able to just be creative for being creative’s sake, unless you work for Google you’re unlikely to be encouraged to leave your desk to go and throw a pot on the wheel or don your painter’s smock and smash out a still life in oils in the middle of your working day, but more’s the pity in my opinion. Being creative and able to easily see or access art is something that is incredibly important to me. It grounds the human soul and is the thing I come back to in times of struggle and pain. The human brain needs art and it needs to be stimulated to imagine and dream, so luckily for you dear reader, art, in so many different guises and forms abounds when you follow brown tourist signs.

Everything’s Connected – I have now been to so many places and learnt so much stuff about such diverse and often random things, all by following brown tourist signs that I find wherever I am I can connect another two or three other unrelated visits to different places together, and I find this endlessly pleasing. Again this is about bringing me a greater understanding about the world around me helps to wrestle some sense of structure to a world I find so crazy confusing. 

 So there we go. I’ll blog more about different themes in the upcoming months but as before I am ALWAYS interested in your suggestions, comments, recommendations and tip offs of great brown sign related destinations and/or signs. Pictures of your favourites, most random and funny will be shared on the socials. I would also love to know your stories, have you happened upon anywhere totally unexpected by following a brown sign? What made the visit so memorable? I want to feature your stories and your adventures in whichever near or far flung destination, let’s inspire more of the world and metaphorically all go brown signing together!