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Six months of van life
The highs and lows of deciding to move out of my flat and spend the summer travelling around the UK in a tiny blue van instead
On a grey Thursday afternoon at the end of April, I bought a one-way train ticket from Bristol to Poole, followed Google Maps to an address a stranger on Facebook had given me, got into a vehicle with said stranger and then proceeded to almost entirely empty my bank account to them. No, this wasn’t the opening scene of a Netflix true crime series - instead, I was succumbing to the ultimate adventure cliche and buying a van.
The year hadn’t got off to a great start for me and I’d wasted more weeks than I’d like to admit not leaving my flat for days on end, sleeping for 12 hours a day and spending the other 12 on the sofa, watching re-runs of 24 Hours in A&E and eating packets of Drumstick Squashies sweets for every meal. When the fog of those miserable few months finally started to lift, I felt desperately in need of a change of scenery.
In the two years since being made redundant from my last 9-5, through a mixture of a lot of luck, a bit of work and a few risks, I had managed to carve out the kind of career I had always dreamed of. I was self-employed and freelancing doing a mixture of writing, public speaking, brand partnerships and social media stuff. I felt incredibly fortunate to have found a means to earn an income that was flexible and not tied to a particular location, yet I felt like I was just going through the motions living in Bristol and not making the most of that. It was also hard not to feel like a hypocrite when my whole job revolved around talking about adventures yet I wasn’t really going on any myself.
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But, at this point, I was also starting to feel pretty stressed about my finances. I had fallen behind on all my work during those months spent glued to the sofa, cancelling talks and missing a book deadline. That’s not ideal when you’re self-employed and not only does not working means not getting paid, but also so much of being chosen for future work depends on maintaining a reputation for not being completely useless.
I knew I needed to get things back on track work-wise but I wasn’t sure if I was willing to do so to the extent of being able to comfortably afford the rising costs of living alone in an expensive city. I’m reluctant to say this when a) it feels like such a cliche and b) it comes from a place of huge privilege given how many people are struggling to meet their basic needs right now but, at this point, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more to life than paying my rent. Obviously the reality of the world we live in is that we need money to survive but, ultimately, humans weren’t made to spend 8/10/12 hours a day staring at a screen.
It was whilst sitting in a pub garden with my dad, five days before I took that train to Dorset, that I decided to buy a van. It felt like the ideal solution: I could move out of my flat in Bristol, free myself from the commitment of my extortionate rent each month for a while and use the summer to travel around the UK, spending as much time outside as possible and hopefully figuring out what I really wanted to do longer-term. I might miss my life in Bristol and be desperate to move back, and be willing to work hard to make that happen, or maybe I’d love living nomadically, or perhaps I’d find somewhere else I wanted to call home. There was only one way to find out.
I emailed my landlord and frantically started searching for a van. I looked at how much I could sell my car for then topped up the van fund with the deposit I’d hopefully get back from my flat (once I’d magic eraser-ed all the bike marks off the hallway walls…) and a little extra from the limited cash reserves I did have. The total budget still wasn’t a lot though and, while one quick look on Youtube will show you all the amazing conversions people do on a shoestring, a lack of skills or time proved an obstacle. I asked my dad if he could help me convert a van and his response was “yes, but not in a month” which I guess is fair.
I spent four days straight scouring Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree and was about to call the whole thing off - clearly I wasn’t going to to find a pre-converted van in a reasonable condition for under £5000 - when I saw a posting by Melissa in Poole. She was selling a 2012 Ford Transit Connect that she’d converted herself and affectionally called ‘Little Blue’. It was a basic conversion (just some insulation, a fold-out bed and a small cupboard) and maybe a little scruffy around the edges but the mileage was good and I could always improve it over time. The main things were that I could afford it and it was ready to use immediately. I didn’t mind not having heating, hanging up fairy lights to read by or boiling water with my Jetboil.
So I messaged Melissa essentially begging her to sell me Little Blue and set off for Dorset armed with a list of things to look out for from a friend who knew more about cars than me. We went for a test drive which reassured me I could get this thing home (it’s a tiny van, which was a key selling point for somebody who’d had their driving license for less than six months and never been behind the wheel of a van before). I asked some questions and pretended to know what I was looking for under the bonnet but, mostly, I just had a good feeling about it. Melissa was nice, her family was nice and I was happy to not be negotiating with any dodgy car salesmen. Even if the whole thing went up in flames the next day, I had a gut feeling that nobody was trying to rip me off. And sometimes a gut feeling is the best thing we’ve got.
I said I’d take it and, after completing the paperwork, I drove back to Bristol listening to the white noise of a radio I couldn’t tune, with my knuckles also turning white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. I got back without any mishaps - then immediately crashed into a post in the multi-story carpark at my flat, knocking the front number plate and bumper off in the process (which I then had to duct tape back on). Clearly, I needed some practice if I wanted to navigate any tight spaces or country lanes.
But I’d done it! I’d bought a van! A month later, I put all my furniture into storage and off I went. I based my route around existing plans I had booked in: talks and other work commitments, weekends away with friends, family events. I swapped around between staying on campsites, in car-parks and stealthily on roadsides, generally dictated by a) how brave I was feeling and b) how desperate I was for a shower. I travelled the length and breadth of the country, doing stints in the Lake District, the Peak District, on the Devon coast, around Pembrokeshire, in Snowdonia and Scotland, coordinating my plans to meet up with friends along the way as much as possible.
Then, when I’d run out of clean socks or if a stretch of particularly bad weather was coming, I’d go back to my parents for a few days to recoup. I don’t take for granted how privileged I am to have been able to do this - I know this whole experiment would have been infinitely harder without that safety net. I’m not sure my mum feels quite as lucky though. She thought she’d have got rid of me by the time I turned 30 but I still keep turning up at her door with armloads of wet, muddy kit to dry.
In the past six months I’ve learned which cheese keeps best unrefrigerated (pre-sliced Gouda) and which chocolate doesn’t melt (Cadbury Flakes). I’ve started to get a feel for which coffee shops are best to work from and discovered that Wetherspoons is actually an ideal co-working space with wifi, plug points, unlimited free coffee refills and no dirty looks when you hog a table for hours. I’ve tried to stop beating myself up for not working a strict 9-5 (the guilt of which has plagued me ever since going self-employed) and make the most of having unfathomably managed to forge a life that allows for sunny afternoon sea swims and morning mountain runs instead.
There have been good bits and there have been bad bits and, just like I found when I was running around the coast, they’re all intensified by being ‘on the road’. Bad days still happen regardless of where you are. Sometimes they’re helped by being forced to get up and out. A small van like mine isn’t really made for moping, especially during a heatwave when it feels as though you’ll boil alive if you spend more than 5 minutes inside. So the need for fresh air drives you out to go for a walk, get in the sea or read your book in an air-conditioned pub instead and sometimes that’s enough to make the bad day feeling dissipate. But other days I couldn’t shake it and that’s when the whole thing felt pretty bleak. On those days, all I wanted was to go home and it felt incredibly lonely to not really be sure where that was (even if it was entirely self-inflicted).
But on the good days any sacrifices felt absolutely worth it. On those days I’d have chosen freedom over security one hundred times over. Highlights were three weeks in Wales during a spell of amazing weather, paths crossing with a stream of different friends for a packed schedule of salty swims and thirsty hikes and cold beers afterwards. Or the month I spent in Scotland, camping out in various cafes with my laptop in the mornings and then scrambling up Munros in the afternoons and then going on tour with the RSGS for a week. I just kept remembering all the days I’d spent crying in the toilets of various offices in the past and dreaming of a life like this, and tried not to take it for granted.
Overall, I think the past six months have been exactly what I needed them to be. A bit of a reset, I guess. I’m finally running consistently again after a fairly lengthy hiatus (something to talk about another time) and I feel infinitely better the more time I spend outside, as corny as that sounds. I’m starting to book in school talks for next year and finally making some progress on that second book, plus I’ve been really enjoying writing more in general since starting this newsletter.
My van isn’t really geared up for spending lengthy periods in over the winter, due to its size and lack of facilities, so right now I’m making the most of my current nomadism in other ways, like writing this from a cafe in Ibiza. I’m running a marathon here this weekend so came out a few days early to make the most of cheap off-season accommodation and being able to drink €1 cappuccinos while I work. Soon it’ll be Christmas and then in January I’ve got a room booked in Kendal for a month so I can get a feel for if I love living in the Lake District much as I think I might. After that, who knows?
I don’t think being a long-term full-time #vanlifer is for me but I’ve loved the freedom of having a little home on wheels this year and I’m grateful to past-me for taking that train to Dorset. A fairly impulsive decision, perhaps, but definitely not a bad one.
I’d love to talk more about how I’ve found van travel in the UK in future posts, and share some of my favourite spots. If you’ve got any questions, make sure to leave a comment!