I am not a hippy. I’m not a crusty. I’m not a gypsy. I work for a living. I pay my taxes and I am a responsible citizen. I believe in recycling. I do not litter. But I want a simple life and so with my husband I’m moving into a van. Maybe we will hate it. Or maybe this is the beginning of a new life.

In search of another life

"They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn..."

Jack Kerouac

Monday, 31 May 2010

Should we Downsize our Van?

We are thinking of downsizing. The big problem with the van is parking and as I am unable to drive it, the responsibility is all on Reg’s shoulders. Returning from the festival on bank holiday Monday meant that there was no parking in or around town at all and we had not thought ahead and booked a campsite, which meant that we spent a large part of our bank holiday fretting over where to park. In the end we headed out of Brighton and are now parked in a beautiful, green and thoroughly unsuitable spot until we can get into the campsite tomorrow.

I love the inside of our van and it really feels like home but Reg has not grown to love driving it at all. The steering is super heavy and being such a large vehicle, it tends to offend certain people. And so we shall start the process again. But I don’t know whether it is best to buy a new one first, and risk not being able to sell the first (though living in Brighton we anticipate no problems) or selling this one and risk being homeless for some time or worse still, not finding another one that fits our criteria.

If only we could find somewhere permanent to park we would have no problems. This evening on a whim we followed some vague directions given to us by a friend of a friend who had seen some vans parked alongside the river in Lewes some time ago. It is a beautiful spot but one that is dominated by rich folk living in converted warehouses. Why should it be that only the rich are entitled to live in beautiful areas? I envisaged a small throng of loveable rogues who would welcome us into their community with welcome arms if only we would put up with their slightly peculiar politics but there was no band of merry men to be found. The dilemma continues.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Meadowlands festival

We have brought the van to its first festival: Meadowlands in Lewes. It’s a lovely festival by the way. I did not know any of the acts but spent all day yesterday dancing to fantastic new local music. Living in a van means that there is no such thing as tent envy. At least not for me. Reg says that tents still hold a special place in his heart but I do not care for them one way or another. I don’t mind camping. But living in a van is superb!

Friday, 28 May 2010

I Live in a Community

This morning I went to the park to practice yoga. I felt a bit shy: I am not a poser, I just like to stretch. But I ignored the glances of passers-by and enjoyed the soft, sunny grass beneath my feet, the cries of seagulls above my head and the sound of the breeze humming through the trees.

Living in a van means that you have to be more community spirited than usual. Things normally done behind closed doors need to be shared. I remember all those times I laughed at Asian people practicing Tai Chi and aerobics in crowded parks. But where else do they have to practice? Like me, a lot of them probably cannot stretch up into the air in their homes without banging into the ceiling. Of course, it is an Asian trait to shy away from solitary activities but I can understand that: it is strange exercising in a park alone. But maybe I just need to get over myself. Who cares if people laugh at me?

The library is my other haunt. Here I can charge up the battery on my laptop and of course borrow books so I don’t have to overload the van with things that I own. But why did I ever want to own books anyway? Books should be shared, not stuffed away on a dusty shelf!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Sun's not Shining but we are Still Smiling

We have reached our 10th day of living in the van and I cannot say that I have missed a single thing about living in a flat. We checked on to the campsite today in order to replace the waste water tank. Now that is sorted I have no problem with van life whatsoever.

It seems strange to think that less than two weeks ago I was worrying about selling my belongings. For ten days what belongings have I needed? A few changes of clothes, a couple of books, my laptop, my bike...It seems the less I have the less I worry and the less I need. I have been having lots of conversations about society norms with people this week and it is clear that I am not the only person to feel this way.

Monday, 24 May 2010

A Night on Hove Lagoon

Last night we packed everything up and headed down to Hove Lagoon for the night and it felt like an adventure. It feels strange to move your whole home and I felt as though I had left something behind. But there was nowhere for me to have left it: just an empty parking space.

The sun was just going down and we played a game of frisbee by the water. I feel as though I have nothing left to worry about.

This morning we got up early and I packed everything away-badly. We could not stay by the lagoon as parking is only free on a Sunday. As Reg turned the van round, the plastic boxes containing food, pens, cutlery, and everything else we own came crashing down onto the floor. Our belongings really have to be crammed onto the shelf, otherwise they come loose. A better idea is just to place all the boxes on the floor when moving.

The other problem with moving is that the waste water starts swishing around in its container and it reeks like a public health problem. The first whiff of it brings back romantic memories of times spent in Greece and India but trying to sleep with that stench in the air is not easy. We are going to clean the container this week.

I cycled up to the gym but I didn't bother working out this morning. I sat in the sauna for a few minutes before showering, and came out of the gym tingling all over. I would never have dragged myself over to the gym for a sauna if I had a shower of my own but it is so worth it.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

A Beginner's Guide to Living in a Van

As we are new to van life, we are still working things out as we go. When looking for a van, people we met were pretty consistent in recommending we buy a Mercedes. The engines are built to last and they are easy to get parts for. There are a lot of them around in various conditions. Another option would be a Hymer with a Mercedes engine. They are purpose built to be homes and so are well insulated.

We thought long and hard about buying a ‘project’ van-one that ran smoothly but needed to be customised to live in. We chose against it as we wanted to move in straight away, and knowing our DIY skills (minimal), it would just have sat on a road empty as the months ticked by.

A lot of people who stay on the seafront in Brighton have converted horseboxes to live in. They are beautiful and spacious but I suspect they must be cold in the winter. Most of them have been fitted with wood burning stoves which are lovely but probably invite more irritation from people who hate those who live in vans. They are hardly inconspicuous.

Ours is not inconspicuous either. It is big and it has windows:it is obviously built for people to live in. But it is the compromise between massive hippy van and subtle windowless white van.

The other main point to consider before buying a van-one which we completely ignored-is whether you are legally allowed to drive it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the law regarding large vehicles changed in 1995, so those who got their licence before then can pretty much drive anything, while those who passed after need to be more careful.

Our van cost £3850 and as of yet we have not had to tax it. It cost around £300 to insure it for a year. Since buying it, we have not had to fill up with diesel, but it does around 25 miles to the gallon. Converting it to run off chip oil is definitely something I would consider in the future but not this year and I have no idea of the costs. It would be pretty expensive I imagine.

There are a lot of converted vans on eBay and other seller sites, but it is important to have a look at the van before agreeing on a price. This advice was given to us by numerous people, and I believe it to be a sound recommendation. Photos can make conversions look incredibly well done, but it is important to check things like insulation and gas and electrical appliances, especially if you will be living in the van during the winter.

We currently have a three way cool box, which means it runs off electricity, gas or the battery. When parked on the road we leave the gas on, so the box is cool and we can use the stove. We have two thirty litre bottles in the back of the van which give us running water in the kitchen area and another bottle attached to the bottom of the van which collects the waste water.

We plan to check on to a caravan site every ten days or so to empty waste water, fill up with fresh water and charge our electrical appliances. This is the time to eat a good meal as there is plenty of water around for washing up.

We are considering buying either a generator or leisure battery. I would rather get a leisure battery which will cost around £150. It can be charged on the caravan site but in the future I would like to get a solar panel to charge it.

There are other costs to consider but they really depend on how you want to live. I still want a shower every day and to wear clean clothes. Gym membership costs around £35 per month and laundry costs around £8 per week for two people in a laundrette. Caravan sites cost between £16 and £20 per night. Because we choose not to cook very much, we spend slightly more money than we did before on deli foods but that it not a hardship for me. It just makes life more simple and beautiful. No washing up!

There is a Tropical Heatwave in Brighton

It is Sunday morning. I have just woken up and am watching joggers run along the seafront from my ‘bedroom’ window. Reg has just bought breakfast and is making tea on the gas stove. We are still parked along the sea road and will stay here for another few days as it seems to be one of the last places left around Brighton where van dwellers do not get hassled.

Having no electricity, for the past few days we have been to bed with the sun and got up early. It is a different way of living but one I like. I suppose it helps that I am a morning person. But last night we stayed out late, enjoying the heat wave that has just taken over in Brighton. It made me remember that England-and particularly Brighton-is the best place to be in the summer time. There is a festival atmosphere as people ditch their coats and jumpers and head to the beach and parks laden with picnic hampers, cans of beer and bottles of wine.

We sat in Preston Park with friends for hours. For years there were a lot of vans parked on the north end of Preston Park but the council recently put up a barrier so that high vehicles cannot get in. Now there are vans parked on the road outside the western end of the park, but it is on a steep hill and would be no good for sleeping.

In the evening I went to St Anne’s Wells Gardens to watch an outside performance of Shakespeare’s ‘As you like it’. Brilliant. You hardly need any money to enjoy Brighton in the summertime. This park used to be good for parking vans too, but now there is only free parking on a Sunday. I am going to get up and go to the gym soon. Living in a van certainly forces you to keep fit.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Where do I live?

Yesterday morning we woke up early to move the van as Reg has to be in work by 9am. At that time in the morning though, the other vans have yet to move and so there was no space for us on the seafront where we had parked before. So we had to park on a residential road. It was not ideal. I sat in the van working on my laptop, hearing the strange noises of people shuffling by, babies crying, cars humming. I felt like a spy. People were oblivious to me but I heard their every whisper. It is not like living by the sea.

In the afternoon I went to work for the first time since being truly homeless. I stayed at work for twenty four hours because that is part of the job of a support worker (I do get to sleep in-between). When I left this afternoon it felt strange. Normally when I leave work I am in a hurry to get home. But now I have no home. I thought it would feel strange sitting in a van by the side of the road alone. So I went to the library to charge up my laptop and use the toilets.

But when I got to the van, life felt wonderful. Reg had moved it back to the seafront amongst the other vans so we blend in a bit. We ate food from the deli for dinner then went for a walk along the beach. It is on our doorstep and everyone seems happy in the sun. Life is good.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Twenty eight and a half hours of freedom

Our van looks like it should be taking convicts off to prison from the outside, but on the inside it is charming and comfortable. There is a permanent double bed at the back, which sits on a raised platform. The cabinet below the bed can only be accessed from the back of the van, so it acts as a kind of garage, storing tools and my bike. Next to the bed is a sink with running water, a preparation area and a full size gas cooker on one side, and a small bathroom with chemical toilet and wardrobe on the other. Next to that is a double seating area which opens out into a double bed and opposite that is the door. The cabin has a storage area over the top.

We have more than enough storage space. It is the weight that is an issue. Obviously, the van is harder to drive and is less economical when it is heavy. It can take it though. It was an HGV until the previous owner removed a spring which changed its status. So, with this in mind, I am keeping the cheese grater and cake tin for now.

Today we checked onto a site again. The prices have gone up since last time and for one night we paid £20. If we were to pay that every night it would be more expensive than the rent we were paying before. But it was useful to come today as after moving our belongings into the van it seemed dusty and in need of a good clean. Running water is a wonderful thing. Here we can stock up on tap and drinking water, ready for the coming week.

We also joined a gym today so that we can have regular showers. I don’t think 60l of water would go very far if we were to start showering in it. Living in a van is not for the squeamish. The chemical toilet does have its downside. Obviously, it needs changing, which in itself is easy to do. But it means that when we are not on a site, we are driving around with up to ten litres of human waste sloshing around in the box. We are trying to use it for emergencies only, but who doesn’t need a waz first thing in the morning? And how can we command our bodies to be regimental in all thing faecal?

Monday, 17 May 2010

We are officially homeless

We packed up the remainder of our belongings this morning and locked the front door of the flat behind us. I gave our plants to the neighbour and we went to return the keys to the landlord. Five sets of keys in return for a cheque. He gave us back our deposit and told us that if we ever need a reference he will give us one “glittering with gold”. So at least we know we have options should we not enjoy van life.

So it is our first night in the van. I’m sitting on the couch watching Reg cook baked beans, chorizo sausage and Marks and Spencer’s croquette potatoes. I laughed when I saw what he had bought and said “we are not going to only live on tinned food are we?” Luckily he agrees with me but I can see why it would be tempting: less washing up. Cooking is no problem. We have as many pots and pans as a normal householder would have. But I am scared of running out of water when we wash up. At the moment we have a water capacity of about 60l. So while we are on the road the less pans we use the better. Still, I am not going to live on tinned food.

Reg thinks we should get rid of the cheese grater and the cake tin. How can we make cakes and grate cheese without them? We have either sold or given away the vast majority of our stuff but when it comes to food I find it difficult. I might only make cakes once every few months, but when I do I need a cake tin.

We are parked on the sea road heading west out of Brighton. From here we can see the industrial area, but beyond it is the sea which is deep blue below the white of the sky. The road is busy and the speeding cars make the van sway as if we were on a boat.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

We are selling everything we own

This morning I’m up early: It is one of the last mornings I’ll spend in the flat and I’m enjoying the space. We have sold most of our furniture and today people are coming to collect it and give us money. It is a frightening thing: selling all your possessions. I have done it several times now though, so I should know how it goes. It always feels like a daunting prospect, but once things start falling out of your life it becomes addictive. Clutter is one of my pet hates. Well, there are few better ways to deal with clutter than living in a very confined space.

We have not sold everything. A few books and things-and our passports-have been packed up and stored at my parent’s house. I still have not decided what to do with the herbs and chillies that I have been growing. And the lavender. Is there room for it in the van or will it get destroyed whenever we move?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

True vagrants of the road

We bought the van over a week ago, but for the past few days we’ve been parked on a site. Life was easy there, but not exciting. We parked the car next to the van, and next to that was a motor home, then a car, then a motor home.....the gleaming white vehicles stretched out into the distance, all containing people with their televisions flashing behind lace curtains. Middle aged people looking bored with life, telling themselves that they must enjoy this great outdoors that they have dreamed of for so long.
But people were pleasant, and we were hooked up to electricity, so we could enjoy our television, heater, radio and three way cool box. There were showers, toilets and washing facilities. But this caravan site is not the life we have chosen. This morning we set our alarms for 6am, saw in the shivery but sunny morning and moved out of our safe place. With icy breath we drove to Shoreham and found a new home by the sea. But how vulnerable we feel! And we have not yet packed all of our belongings into the van.
Last week we were issued a notice by Jenny Rowlands, Director of Environment. It said that by parking on the seafront we were contravening section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and that if we return within three months we may be liable to a fine ‘not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale’. What the hell does that mean? Google tells me it means £1000. My husband has spoken to a few other van dwellers who told him that this never happens: people are taken to court, asked to remove their van and that’s that. Do we want to risk that? I don’t want to be a criminal, I just want a simple life.
There were about fifty gypsy caravans parked up by the caravan site when we first arrived and we looked at them longingly, thinking: they’ve got a good life. Some of their children came up to us and pointed in the direction of their clan and said “those people are no good, are they?” in their rugged Irish accents. How strange it must be to grow up on the outside of a world, to know that the rest of the nation hates you. We reassured them: “some people are good and others are bad” said my husband. But when we saw what they had done to the land, we shook our heads with the rest of the world. They had left gas canisters and rubbish everywhere. A mangled bike lay in a bush and pieces of tatty wood and metal were strewn all over the meadow. The people who ran the site cheered when they left. But whose fault is it? The Caravan Sites Act, 1968 stated that local authorities must provide places for travellers to legally reside. Of course, that never happened and so those who live alternative lifestyles are shut out by society and have nowhere to live. Disrespect breeds disrespect. I can’t help but wonder if travellers would be quite so offensive if they were treated a bit better?

Monday, 10 May 2010

We are fed up with spending all of our income on rent and bills, shredding envelopes only as fast as bills shoot through the letterbox and making excuses to lull in solitude instead of being outside in beautiful nature. We are fed up with living this ordinary life which has been dictated to us by our elders and betters and which everybody seems to be striving for: sleep, work, eat, mong out in front of the television and then start again. We are fed up with the monotony of 'the great indoors' and are looking for a simpler, more natural existence.

And so we have bought a van. A big one which-it turns out-I am unable to drive as I passed my test after 1995 and it’s just too big. Luckily my husband can drive it because it looks like we will have to be moving on a pretty regular basis: people who live in vans may be more in numbers in Brighton than in other parts of the country but they (we) are still seen as adversaries of normal folk and reactions tend to be fairly negative.

In our optimistic innocence we thought that people would be happy for us, but reactions have ranged from: “You’ll be gypsies and gypsies are disrespectful of public land and they dump their rubbish on private property” (my parents) to dumb-founded questioning:”why do you want to live in a van?” (various friends). But our answers are simple: Maybe we don’t want to live in a van. We have never tried it so maybe we’ll hate it. But at least we have to give it a go. Think of the money we can save. Even better, think of the money we’ll never have to earn. We can lead simpler lives and meet interesting people. At least, that’s the plan.