The Big Issue saved Stephen Woodhouse, now he’s living his musical dreams. Image: Andrew Holliday
Two weeks before his 17th birthday, Stephen Woodhouse’s mum died of cancer. “We knew she was dying,” he says. “They gave her six months. She lasted five.” In the midst of mourning, he and his sister – just two years older, but classed as an adult – were left to fend for themselves. “She ended up getting a council flat to look after me,” remembers Woodhouse. “However, she was dealing with grief as well. It just didn’t go very well.”
Still a minor, Woodhouse found himself homeless. In the 30-year “roller coaster” since, he’s often been without a place to call his own. “Every time I managed to get a job and got myself off the streets, something else has happened,” he explains. But thanks to his guitar – and the help of The Big Issue, which he says has saved his life three times – he’s found community, music, cycled thousands of miles across Europe, and recently recorded his first album as Poorest Tourist.
It’s an incredible story of determination in the face of horrendous bad luck, compounded by a lack of the kind of support most of us take for granted.
Woodhouse had already been playing the guitar for a few years when he first slipped through the cracks in the system. At 17, sleeping rough on the streets of Norwich, he realised busking could be a way for him to support himself and started to “get good”. Playing songs by Pink Floyd and the Levellers, he made enough to just about get by.
When a job in Germany came up, Woodhouse – then 18 – saw a chance for stable work that would put a roof above his head. “I was living in a metal container for six months doing demolition,” he recalls. “But we didn’t get paid for it. We got ripped off.”
Without a deutsche mark to his name, Woodhouse was left in a worse situation than ever. Sleeping rough in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language was “freaky”, he says. “If it wasn’t for being able to busk, I wouldn’t have been able to get back to England because I had to work my way back across Europe.”
Having finally made it back to the UK, Woodhouse managed to get work as a chain lad on the A52 and found a caravan on a site in his original hometown of Uttoxeter. But when that job finished eight months later, he was again at a loose end. Having already proved he could survive on his wits and a few tunes, he slung his guitar on his back and went travelling again.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere in Europe and Scandinavia I haven’t been now,” says Woodhouse. The best place to be depends on a few variables: “How much money I’ve got in my pocket – as to whether I need to work or not. I do love Switzerland. It has very clean water, clean air and – I find – very friendly people. But it’s incredibly expensive.”
Most of the time on his travels, Woodhouse would sleep in a tent or under a bridge, so the temperature really matters. “You kind of migrate like a bird when you take on this lifestyle. You go north for the summer and south for the winter usually. Denmark, for the summer is absolutely excellent – but for the winter, it’s just so cold.”
Eventually Woodhouse grew tired of the road and returned to England, where he fell in with a few friends back in Norwich. It was one time in his life when it felt that “everything just kind of dropped in at the right time”.
“I was making plenty of money from busking,” he remembers. “I met a guy Justin who’d just bought a bar, The Wildman. He wanted to put music on, and I knew most of the buskers, so I just got a PA system together and started a music promotion company. It was a really, really nice time.”
With his busking money and a small loan, Woodhouse managed to buy a boat, in which he set up home. “We’re not talking about a luxury yacht, by the way,” he laughs. “We’re talking like a 20-foot cabin cruiser. It’s basically a shed on the water.
“There was a wood burner, and a place I could moor it for free. I didn’t have to pay council tax, no electricity or gas bills, which I wouldn’t have been able to pay on my earnings from the promotion company.” Basic it may have been, but it was a home. And by keeping his cost of living low, he could follow his music dreams. “Music is very, very close to my soul,” says Woodhouse.
Just as he was starting to settle in, disaster once again struck. His boat sank and his guitar broke, so – unable to busk – he found himself back at square one. “I had absolutely nothing,” he says. “So, if it wasn’t for The Big Issue being there, that would have been it.”
Already friends with some of the local Big Issue sellers from his time busking, Woodhouse quickly adapted to his new job. “I got on really well with it. I kind of turned it into a bit of street performance, just a little bit of comedy. Trying to make people smile, make them laugh,” he says. “It’s surprising how well it worked, actually. I sold The Big Issue for a good six or seven years after that.”
Eventually, aged 34, Woodhouse left Big Issue behind for a construction job locally. But it wasn’t long before bad fortune found him once again with a serious accident at work. “About five weeks into that job, I broke my back.”
He was hospitalised and then in a wheelchair for two months, on crutches for another eight months, and had to use a walking stick for nearly another year. It was the second time he says Big Issue saved him. “If I hadn’t been able to go back onto The Big Issue then what would I have had?”
The wanderlust hadn’t dissipated, though, and when Woodhouse realised the therapeutic benefits of cycling for his back, he hatched a new plan. “I’m not suggesting anybody else do it,” he says, “but I found it to be so beneficial that I decided whilst I’m still young enough, I’m gonna go and cycle around Europe.” He spent the best part of seven years traversing the continent. “I must have done about 25,000 miles.”
Then the global pandemic hit and his adventure ground to a halt, along with most of the world. “I’ve been stuck in Gibraltar ever since the lockdown,” says Woodhouse, who’s now 46. During the lockdown, he found security work at a local bar in a picturesque spot on the coast. “It’s very, very pretty. You can see Spain over the sea from where I am. Just look over to the left and you’ve got the Atlas Mountains of Africa, Morocco.”
Working through the night, he keeps an eye on the place while it’s closed. He’s grateful to the bar owner for giving him the break that’s allowed him to survive but he still doesn’t make enough to find a place to stay on the island. With space at a premium, accommodation prices are astronomical on Gibraltar. Woodhouse sleeps on the beach.
“It’s kind of like urban camouflage,” he says. “I’ve got a piece of tarp I use to keep the sun off. And then you’re just doing the same as everybody else is. So, they don’t even notice.”
The passion for music has never left him though. So, while working nights and sleeping under a plastic sheet, he started to save up to fulfil a lifelong goal – releasing his own music.
“I’ve dreamt about recording studios, putting albums out, making my own music, all the way through as long as I can remember. And I’ve never had the opportunity to actually do it,” he says. “I’m not gonna live forever. So I thought, it’s got to be done.”
Last winter, it was. Woodhouse went back to Norwich, the town that first drew him in with its music scene three decades before, to record at NRSIX studios. Influenced by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Rolling Stones and his reliable old busking tunes by Pink Floyd, the first two songs from his album under the moniker Poorest Tourist – the atmospheric Daisy Wait and Joker Kaine, about Cain and Abel and the “first ever murder” – are out now on Spotify and Apple Music.
Once again, The Big Issue came through for Woodhouse. He returned to his old pitch to support himself as he laid down the music with producer Justin Brand. It was good to see his community again, he says.
Just getting to record the record was a bucket-list moment achieved, but when he dreams of success from his spot on a Gibraltar beach, what does it look like? “Well, to be honest with you, I’ll be very happy if I get my money back,” Woodhouse smiles. “I don’t expect to be mega famous or a millionaire. But it would be nice to have just enough to make life a little bit sweeter.”
Buy Stephen Woodhouse’s music as Poorest Tourist on iTunes
The Big Issue magazine exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy.
If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.