From policing and teaching in the UK to artist and author here in Portugal, Alyson Sheldrake talks about how the Algarve has inspired her

I was born in inner-city Birmingham in the UK and escaped there as soon as I could to the beautiful west country, joining the police force after my time as a student. That was 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.


Moving around

We had 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. Then we discovered the fishing village of Ferragudo, 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 sitting proudly above them keeping watch. It was simply 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!


Decision time

It wasn’t long before we were house-hunting and purchased a modern property on the edge of the village. We were still 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, and I handed in my notice; we packed up the car and moved to live in the Algarve. Our new life in the sun could begin.

We had always joked that we were “too young to retire” and we both had plans. I had the burning ambition to do two things – paint and write – and Dave had held a camera in his hands since he was a young boy. Our new careers were forged, although neither of us had ever worked for ourselves before or had any idea what we were doing. We just knew what we loved, and figured the rest out as we went along.

Our first joint exhibition in the Holiday Inn hotel was a little nerve-racking. They gave us a fabulous room to use and loads of support – but said that we couldn’t hang anything on the walls. We improvised: Dave created a number of table-top A-frame easels, and we were all set.

I will never forget our first morning opening up, wondering if anyone would come, if they would like our work, and if anyone would buy anything. Within half an hour, we had both sold our first pieces, and we were away.

Now, almost ten years later, I consider myself an established artist, having sold well over 200 paintings, and completed 100 commissions for clients around the world. Dave is a well-respected and busy photographer, always happiest getting his feet wet on a deserted beach with his camera and tripod at hand.

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 sitting on my computer.

People kept telling me that I 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 scarey – time. I felt the same nerves I had experienced with our first 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 Number 1 bestseller status in several categories on both sides of the Atlantic and has amazed me with the number of sales and positive feedback it has received.

At the end of the book I mentioned we were about to move to 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.

The next chapter

My latest project involves bringing together the stories of a fascinating range of other people who have also started a new life in the Algarve. The compilation, entitled Why The Algarve? will be released in April, and in the coming months Algarve Plus will be sharing exclusive extracts with you all. I have no doubt that if we had not fallen in love with Ferragudo and moved here to live, none of our creative dreams would have come true. I am truly grateful to be ‘living our dream’.

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