On the Ancestor Trail

May 21, 2019

When you look back at the breadcrumb trail, doesn’t it amaze you where you have ended up and how all the pieces seem to fit together, in more ways than you could ever have imagined?

I have found this to be the case in so many areas of my life, and not least when it has come to working with my ancestors. This path has led me to achieving one of my life long dreams, which is owning my own campervan.

So many of you have asked for the back story behind how I ended up acquiring my little red van.

So, here it is. I can hardly believe it myself!

The power of place

Today I have come up to one of the old ruined farmsteads on Anglezarke Moor, which stretches out behind our home. These farms were cleared in the 1800’s by the Water Board to provide water for the city of Liverpool, and so now they are desolate, expansive and very quiet. I can be here for hours and not see a soul.

The Full Moon is tonight, and it is what is called a seasonal blue moon, being the third blue moon this Spring. It feels like supercharged moon and so I have come for a walk to these ruins to do some writing, as it is one of my creativity places. I don’t know why this is… maybe there was a linage of creative farmers who lived here! What I do know is that Jason’s ancestors lived in these old farmsteads hundreds of years ago at the time when the Anglezarke clearances took place.

I have never had an attachment to place. I have always had a calling to live up north and moved up here when I was eighteen years old, but since then I have moved around. When I met Jason, I learnt quickly that his family come from this place going back generations... many generations.

I wondered what that must feel like, living in the place where your distant ancestors once walked. I guess that in part led me on to my seventh-generation ancestor project, which I will explain more about this through this blog.

A few years ago Jason had the idea that he was going to sleep out at all twenty farmsteads across Anglezarke moor. Looking back now I can see that this was the thing which triggered my idea.

My plan is to sleep out in the places where my seventh-generation ancestors lived. I want to sleep there as I want to watch my dreams. Land holds memory, just as my body holds the echoes of my ancestors. So, by placing my body in the place where they lived, and drifting into the unconscious, I am curious to see what happens, and where I am led.

finding the ancestors

I have for a long time had a passion in finding out about my ancestral lineage. Around ten years ago I started to carry out research into my family tree.

I didn’t have any close family members who had mapped this out yet, although quite a few of my family wanted to know what I discovered.

I became a self-taught genealogist and over the years I have followed family lines back as far as I can online, and then for certain lines travelled to the places where they lived and delved into the city archives to go back even further.

What I have discovered is that those family stories which have been passed down are true. I have also found out that every one of my ancestors has a story to tell, and though a variety of ways I can find out what that story is. Within each ancestors story there is powerful healing which can take place, both in me and also up the line to them, and down the line too.

Quite early on in my research I found an old farmhouse in Oxfordshire which is now a holiday let where my three times great grandfather lived and worked as a farm bailiff. Excited about the opportunity to go and stay in the very place where he lived, I together with my family went to stay there for the weekend. At that time, I remember looking across to an old yew tree in the garden and thinking, what memory do you hold of the family who once lived here, who because of them I am here?

This was many years ago and before I really started consciously on my spiritual path. Now looking back, I can see that intuitively I was being called to this work, the ancestral healing work.

Around the same time, I had a dream that we were all standing around his sons grave with all of my family, who would have been my great, great grandfather. There was a note which was scribbled on a piece of paper lying beneath a rock in the place where his head would have lay. I was told in the dream, that here lay the healing for my family.

When we went to visit his grave in Oxford cemetery it was just as I had seen, only without the note.

Could the note have been the scribbles from my own dreams? Looking back I wonder.

healing the ancestral line

In recent years I have undertaken a huge amount of reading around this area of ancestral healing. What is fascinating about the route I have taken is that here, right here, I am at the interface between shamanism, genealogy, history, epigenetics and psychotherapy.

Through shamanic journeying I can journey into the Otherworld and meet our ancestors face to face. What I have found is that they always have a story to share, and there is often healing work to be done here. It is a fascinating experience.

Through genealogy I can work back through the paper records to find out my ancestor’s names, where they lived, what they did for work.

Through historical research I can find out what was happening in our country during the time when they were alive. I can research what political decisions were being made and the impact this had on where they lived and what they needed to do to survive.

Through the relatively new science of epigenetics we know that it is possible to re-programme our genes and move past unhelpful inherited patterns.

Through psychotherapy I am able to process all of my findings in a held and safe space, embody them within me and move through them.

Each year for the past three years I have had a series of ancestral healing sessions with my supervisor Jayne Johnson around the time of Samhain. During these sessions I journey back to the place where my ancestor lived and meet with them. They teach me what I need to know about my own healing, which in turn delivers on their healing. I team up these journeys with my own research into my family tree, and we work with what comes up psychotherapeutically.

Now, it seems that in every session with Jayne through the whole year I am working with my ancestors, and the healing that is needed. I have monthly sessions and the themes which come up in me are directly related to their lives, their experiences, the things which they endured, that were inflicted on them.

I am not going to go into too much detail about the themes which are emerging in this blog, as I want to dedicate more space to this. What I do want to share here though is what is happening as a result of my dream to dream in my ancestral lands and how this has led me onto finding myself Little Red Van.

the emergence of little red van

The idea came to me when I was driving back from an ancestral research conference in London.

I had chosen to drive down from home near Chorley and, on the way, back I needed somewhere to stop for tea when I saw signs to Stokenchurch and swung off the motorway. Stokenchurch is near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, and I have for many years wanted to visit because my mother's mother's mother's line comes from here.

When I arrived, I immediately felt at home in the pub and it seemed everyone was smiling at me. I went outside and was compelled to sit under the old trees in the village green. I wanted to stay there.

But, how could I?

How could I sleep over in all the places my ancestors came from? Without spending lots of money on B&Bs, and even then, there was no guarantee that I would find somewhere to stay in the actual villages themselves.

I didn’t want to wild camp as I would be effectively sleeping close to people’s houses and gardens and I would be caught and probably moved on. 

Then, I realised what I could do. I needed a little van.

My personal trainer Russ had just bought a small white commercial van to sleep in which inspired me, and so I figured maybe I could find something similar. I had no idea how I would afford one, but I held onto the idea. A few months later I decided to have a little look online, in preparation for the spring... but you know how it goes… once you start looking one pops up. It was a shabby looking van, which had been on the market for months.

Dented, discoloured and quite frankly a little odd looking which I think is why it was so cheap. So, I tried to forget about it but dreamt about it that night and struggled to sleep from all the thoughts running through my mind.

So, the next day I called up the chap who owned it and took a drive over to Sheffield to test it out. I learnt to drive in a minivan back in the mid 1990s and it was just like driving back then, bouncy, noisy, with no power steering or any kind of mod cons. I was very doubtful that it would be in any way a sensible decision to buy this van, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So, the next day I called the chap back to buy it. The following day I was back over in Sheffield clutching some money I had just made on a couple of drum sales over those two days and I drove Little Red Van. back home that day. The whole process took just four days. It was the classic impulse purchase. Naturally the van spent the next two weeks in the garage with all kinds of things needing replacing, and in its first month I had broken down twice but eventually we got it into a good reliable condition.

It was the full moon in November when I bought Little Red Van. Now it is the full moon in May and I have had it five months… and what adventures we have had already. This van seems to inspire both me and lot of other people.

Maybe it is the way it looks, small and quirky, I am not sure.

perfect and fun

However what I do know is that it is perfect for my ancestral dreaming project, as it doesn’t look like a camper van!

So, I can pull up outside random people’s houses in the evening, and just jump in the back and go to sleep. I have extended this to afternoon snoozes, and also cups of tea through the day. I see it as visiting my ancestors and coming to stay for a while. 

It is so small I have to cook outside, and also climb outside to get anything at all as it is all stored under the bed. This means I have a much stronger relationship with the outside than I would in any other van which is again perfect for what I bought it for.

Also, as it is so small and nippy, it's great for turning around and parking up, which I end up doing a lot when I visit all these different places.

Another huge bonus is that it become a very handy mobile office, as it means I can write outside when it would normally be too cold. So Little Red Van has brought many advantages to my life.

I have to say, I am itching to share about the different encounters I have been having, combined with my dreams and the themes which are coming up, but I am going to leave that for another time.

For now, here are a few pictures to enjoy, of me enjoying the van life. Since buying the van I have started having ‘fun lessons’ with my fun supervisor Amy. She has helped me bring the ukulele into my life which Jason bought me as a birthday present. I have a musical basket of inspiration. I have my poetry, and my storytelling which I am working on this year. I have a long list of places to visit and sleep in, and a huge amount to write down.

the seventh generation

There is one last thing I would like to address here and that is … why the seventh-generation? Why go back exactly seven generations into my lineage. Well, when I had a proper job and a career, I worked as a sustainability manager in various large organisations. One of the concepts that we work on in sustainability is the idea that when decisions are made, we think of how it will impact the descendants in seven generations time. That is around 200 years. This is the way indigenous people think.

Seventh generation decision making is a well-known concept in the sustainability sector. However, in the western world, we are lucky if our primary decision makers, the government and the corporations think seven months ahead with their decision making. It is all about now, how can we profit now?

So, I wanted to go back to seven generations previous to see what my ancestors’ lives were like. Were they able to make any decisions, which would impact on my life now? What was happening in their lives? Where were they living? What was their landscape like? What was the political landscape like?

It is the lives of my ancestors that I am interested in and the stories that they hold. I can find genealogy rather dry if all I am doing is finding names and dates to write on a chart. At the family history conference, I went to in London the conversations I was having was around just this, data. People were focusing on drawing the tree rather than uncovering the stories which lay behind every name on that sheet.

When we go back seven generations, we have 126 ancestors. Four more generations beyond that and we have 1008 people. All those people standing behind us, caring for us, loving us, and we are only here because of them, and the choices they made which ensures that they were able to survive, and take care of their children long enough for them to have children.

Indigenous cultures hold the ancestors in a very high place. These are the ones they drawn guidance from. These are the ones they honour. These are the ones they pay homage to as a cornerstone of their spiritual practice. In our culture we have lost this, but through the work I have been doing I am finding I can get this back. Through research, journeying, dreaming, journaling, ritual and ceremony, reading, visiting museums, towns, villages, archive centres and undergoing regular psychotherapy sessions it is all there for us to uncover.

I have uncovered something fascinating, which directly impacts on me today, and helps me to understand the world story that we are in and playing out in our everyday lives.

But, as I say, I will save that story for another time…

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in Anglezarke on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England.
Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. I so desire and want a camper an so I can go off with my dogs & explore, sleep under stars and rest when I need without always having to return home ?

  2. Thanks for sharing Nicola. I too have a van, my second one… my first one turned up the day after I’d decided I was going to get one… we had a few adventures together. They bring such freedom as you describe. My interest in my ancestors has been growing rapidly. I find myself currently living in the Scottish Borders now… the birth place of my grandmother. You’re blog has inspired me to travel in my van a bit more and visit my ancestors and hear their stories

  3. Love ” Little Red Van” , the story of its inception…….and the way it has enlarged your journey!!!!

    Go well Nicola and Little Red Van!!!


  4. What a lovely piece to read, ive got a little blue van and like your red van when you bought it, it is an actual van! i hadnt thought of making it comfy in the back and going out and exploring in it! you have inspired me, to maybe use our little blue van differently for a greater purpose, oh and I play the ukulele too so maybe my Uke would have to come along too, so enjoyed reading this xx

    1. I loved reading this Nicola it’s very inspiring . I agree with you , buying my ‘Delia’ was the most life changing and most life enhancing thing I have ever done. Xxx

  5. Sounds wonderful Nicola. I too have a love of campervans, having had 4 and missing one now. It’s the freedom and possibility they inspire. Also have had some interesting family tree experiences and my DNA test placed me as 99% indigenous britain. Ancestral connection has also been a powerful reoccurring vision in most of my shamanic journeys. Definitely something I need to follow up more.

    1. 99% is as indigenous as they come, wow! Ancestral connection is my favourite thing, and I am excited to hear this is coming up in so many of your Shamanic journeys for you. I hope when the time is right you find another van 🙂

  6. Thank you for all you do and all you share, and the healing you are experiencing on behalf of us all.

    I am so interested to learn more about healing my ancestral line.

    I need a van to move red tent around – so please witness my asking for one now – thank you. Sea’

  7. I have a campervan dream too. And the faith that somehow the means and the right van will come along when the time is right. Life is full of wonderful opportunities.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experiences Nicola and I’m so glad to have been a small part of this important work you are doing and of course little red van is becoming famous and rightly so!

  9. Like the idea, but just a word to the wise. Get the inside insulated, as any condensation will rust the inside. And the constant drips will wake u up! And put a air vent in it. As NO camp site will admit you. Due to carbon monoxide poisoning. If used.xx

  10. Fascinating stuff 🙂 What a marvellous idea to go to places your ancestors have lived and stay nearby – I have stayed in the general area of one of mine but to be in the actual one would be great. When I return to my ancestry investigations I will have to consider doing something similar as I do hope to have a camper van at some point in the future.
    Many blessings and happy travels.

  11. Your ancestors story sounds brilliant I am adopted and I did a DNA test last May and it’s amazing! Some of the places they lived though I’m not sure I’d want to camp out!! But we have a camper van and you’ve inspired me to get out in it a bit more!

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