With thanks to our guest blogger Helen Elmore
I had heard of #vanlife but it wasn’t something I’d considered as a lifestyle for myself. We (my husband Stuart and I) have spent the last 10 years doing all the conventional things adults are ‘supposed’ to do: worked on our careers, got married, bought a house, bought a bigger house, planned our family. Why would I give all that up to pursue a nomadic lifestyle?
But then, in 2015, we lost our first pregnancy. We were encouraged to keep trying – ‘lots of couples miscarry the first time’. We lost a second baby, then a third. It was a shock to suddenly have all our plans ripped out from under us. My mental health took a nosedive and we decided that further pregnancies were too risky when stacked against my sanity.
I had been blissfully unaware how much of my future I had been taking for granted until that future was suddenly a big, blank canvas that I neither chose nor wanted. After a couple of years of trying to come to terms with a child-free existence, a new plan was emerging and it had four wheels and an expensive diesel habit.
We threw ourselves into planning and researching van conversion; evenings watching telly were replaced with committed YouTube and Instagram consumption. All the videos Stuart had been secretly absorbing on his own whilst dreaming of van living became my new education. We debated the finances. I had inherited some money but that was our savings – should we really spend it all on a project we couldn’t be sure we were capable of completing? (Yes!) And how to select the van? Neither of us have any skills with mechanics and we worried we’d get ripped off and end up with a banger. (Luckily, no!)
A rainy trip to Cornwall in February 2018 was the catalyst. We spent all week tucked up in our cottage drawing designs for layouts and interiors. We scoured eBay and Gumtree for long wheel base Sprinters (our van of choice). When we found one in Essex we arranged a huge detour home from our holiday to go and have a look. It was dark and snowing when we arrived but the van seemed in reasonable condition (the engine started!) and it was cheap. Before we knew it we were throwing caution to the wind at a 24 hour garage maxing out all our cards to put down a cash deposit.
The focus of a big project was just what we needed. The freedom we envisaged as campervan owners kept us going and it felt good to be excited again. We finally had something to talk to friends and family about that wasn’t how miserable we were. Progress was slow, partly due to us both working full time and partly due to learning all the requisite skills as we went, but so, so satisfying. We were creating and bringing a plan to life – it wasn’t a new human but it satisfied those needs at some level. Aside from the acquiring the practical skills, we unwittingly worked on our marriage during the build. We have learned to trust one another to take the lead where we have a natural aptitude (me – carpentry, Stuart – electrics) and for me, letting go of Absolute Control Over Everything has been a steep and necessary learning curve!
Our conversion is about 80% complete. We have already taken our van (Fenton) to Cornwall and to the Austrian alps this spring and he has been a dream! We are not quite ready to make the leap to full time van dwelling at the moment, but immersing ourselves in vanlife culture has encouraged us to reassess what we want from life in the longer term and given us confidence to think beyond conventional living ideals. We are already making changes to our work/life balance and Fenton is a big help in facilitating that. They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I’m not sure it’s as simple as that but making our home on wheels has proven to be a very effective healer for us.