Words and photos by Danny Burrows
It’s a bright winter’s morning, minus two degrees, on the south east coast of Kent. I pull up along side Will Thomson’s van, parked on Kingsdown Beach on the tide line of shingle left by a recent storm surge. I knock on the side window, milky with condensation. The door slides open and a rush of hot air crashes over me like a wave.
“Coffee?" asks Will standing at a stove, toasting chocolate croissants. I climb in, peel off my layers and squeeze into the front seat with Will’s dog Alfie at my feet.
"I really wanted to get into surfing when I was growing up in Deal, but there are no waves."
The van is Will’s mobile office, where he wrote his first book The Book Of Tides and where he is now writing the sequel, World Of Tides, having rented a fisherman’s cottage in his hometown of Deal. It’s his quiet space, he tells me, where he can focus away from the hubbub of his young family. He has a two-year-old daughter Otti and his wife Naomi, an artist, is expecting a new addition to the family in April.
“I go out in the van and use it as a writing studio. I could have done the pictures (for the new book) with all of us in the van but I couldn’t write another book like that again. You just need complete focus."
Will designed and built the van’s interior from marine ply, with all the creature comforts of a small yacht’s cabin, including a workstation, double bed, kitchenette and plenty of secure storage to make months on the road comfortable.
Above his standing desk, held in place with elastic over a copy of The Old Man and the Sea and a continental edition of the Stormrider Surf Guide is a welcome slip that reads: “Here’s an early finished copy. I hope you agree it’s a handsome tome". It’s from Quercus, the publishers describing his first book, The Book of Tides, and it’s obviously a treasured possession of Will’s, like certificate or merit that a lawyer or doctor might hang in their office.
"‘Do you want to write a book, as I reckon I could sell a load of copies?’"
Will has always lived by the sea. It is his passion. “I really wanted to get into surfing when I was growing up in Deal, but there are no waves. I went to Australia for my gap year and learned to surf and got hooked. Then I went to Newcastle Uni, with Tynemouth a mile down the road. Me and some friends bought wetsuits and boards and spent three winters surfing there".
Learning to surf gave him a deeper understanding of the ocean and its workings and when he moved back to Deal and joined the Lifeboat crew he put his design skills to good use simplify the Admiralty Charts produced for the service by the hydrographical office.
“It is quite detailed how it is presented, a bit like an Excel spreadsheet with lots of numbers," says Will of the charts. “Basically the water flows one way for six hours and the other way for six hours and speeds up and slows down. I imagined it like a clock and designed a map that showed it in a simplified form and which could be adapted for different coastlines." It was not only a simple way to explain the tides to his fellow crewmembers but was to prove a hit with locals who used the ocean recreationally.
He began selling the charts in local shops and through an online shop and quickly realised that the charts were his key to living the dream. He bought the van, kitted it out and began travelling around Britain designing tide maps at each new beach and setting up a network of outlets. He was saving rent, surfing and travelling with his family and making money; a win-win formula for happiness.
"He began selling tide charts in local shops and through an online shop and quickly realised that the charts were his key to living the dream…"
“Then the Telegraph wrote a review about our trip called The World Is Their Office," recalls Will, “and the very next day a literary agent called to say he had seen the article in the paper, lived in Frinton-on-Sea and asked if I could design him a map? And he said: ‘Do you want to write a book, as I reckon I could sell a load of copies?’" It was the question that would change Will and his family’s lives forever.
On a surf safari to Portugal he put together an outline of the book, which was then presented to publishers in London. They accepted an offer from the publishers Quercus and advance that Will says allowed him to live for the next two years and “started writing the book the very next day in Portugal." He says: “I worked pretty much every day for the next six months. I could do a double page spread a day, researching the next spread in the evening, write it the next morning and design the graphics in the afternoon."
“I knew I was going to be in Europe doing my maps and living cheaply in the van but didn’t know I was going to have to write a book," remembers Will as he sups steaming coffee from a tin camping mug. “The original book was almost an unexpected sideline," he laughs.
Will’s 225 page Book of Tides, which Waterstones coined “the Norwegian Wood for Britain’s waters", describes the seas, rivers and coastline in eight chapters, covering rips, rapids, wells, streams, tides, waves, whirlpools and tsunamis. Will’s idiosyncratic prose is enriched by effortless info-graphics, creating a book that Waterstones describes as: “a book for all of us who feel the pull of the sea and the tug of the tide."
"Will’s idiosyncratic prose is enriched by effortless info-graphics…"
With the book selling well and a promise of an accompanying TV show Will’s future is panning out just as he would like it. After all he has his second book World of Tides to research, write and illustrate, which will keep him busy in his van for the next few months and after that, with his new son onboard the family will be heading off for a summer of surf in France. He says: “You can live pretty cheaply if you are staying in a campsite and not going out. When you’ve got money you spend it but when you don’t you can eat just as well and live just as happily."
William Thomson and his young family are doing just that.
The Book Of Tides is available at all good bookstores and you can find his tide maps including his newest Surf Maps at the Tidal Compass