Thursday, May 5, 2022

Sustainable Living on the Road

 The path to the slow life is a busy one....

Its been a while since I've had time to sit and get my thoughts in order enough for an update. So much has happened since our last post.  We have moved out of our cottage and have been living in the van (unfinished) for a month now. 

Its an ongoing project, but we got it to a point where it would provide shelter over night, and that's really all that's important at the end of the day. Our first few nights it dropped into -C overnight and at that point we didn't have the woodburner installed. The back-up heating, which is a little Butane gas heater (£35 at the time of purchase via eBay), proved itself worthy of a place in the van. Running it for 20-30 minutes was all it needed to heat up the space. We didn't even have the roof insulation in back then, and it kept the chill off long enough for us to settle into bed. We had already decided to use hot water bottles to warm the bed in the evenings, and these have also proved invaluable. On days that we are at work or in our workshop we fill them up with boiling water from the kettles there to save our van resources, though we do have a 4 litre kettle for our gas hob when we are more off-grid. Its a very simple way to keep warm at night and the bigger the hot water bottle, the longer it'll stay warm - so naturally we chose to use two huge bottles to retain heat well into the night!  

Since then we have got the wood-burner installed and usable, and most recently the roof insulation and ceiling up. We have all sorts of little jobs still to do, but its feeling much more like home every day.

We have recently started documenting our vanlife journey via YouTube and Tiktok, and I encourage you to subscribe and follow to those feeds. We talk about our experiences and ways our life in the van is changing, as well as sharing the places we have been lucky enough to spend time in. 

One aspect I'm keen to share in future videos is how we live and eat sustainably while in the van. We are fortunate to be able to cook on the wood-burners hot plate when its alight, as well as on our gas hob. It is important to me never to rely on one avenue when it comes to heating, eating and home comforts. I am always conscious that as a society almost all of our products are reliant on external factors. We import SO much of what we use on a daily basis, from power sources to basic foods - and as the pandemic and war in Ukraine has recently shown us, those supply lines are not guaranteed. 

In the back of my mind I've always allowed the thought 'what if I can't get this anymore'? to linger. What if I were stuck in the middle of nowhere, what would I need to stay comfortable? Personal comfort is actually really important to me, regardless of how much our chosen lifestyle looks like 'roughing it' to the outside world. I like to be warm, I like to be clean, and I like to be fed good food! This is why having the wood-burner was important to me right from the start. I've always lived in homes with real fires or stoves. I've always felt very lucky when the power has gone off and I've been able to keep warm and fed regardless. This is the lingering thought that I went into our van build with. As long as we have the wood-burner in there, we can find kindling and materials to burn, an keep ourselves warm and fed with hot food and drink.  That said, while we have access to butane bottles, the gas heater and cooking hob are easier and quicker to use, so that's what we do. It about keeping a realistic balance. We aren't living in Victorian times, but I feel we'd be ok if we were!

I have the same back-ups for most things in the van. If my rechargable shower stops working, I can wash and stay clean in the sink. If our lights stop working, we have both battery and candle lanterns. Nothing is 100% future proof, but I like to know I've done my best to think it through and prepare. I'm not looking to go completely off grid, survivalist style, I simply want to maintain the modest home comforts we already have. I think if you are always prepared it makes life's inevitable trials easier to overcome. I suffer greatly with anxiety and not being able to overcome my own problems has always triggered all sorts of unpleasant feelings. I believe sometimes people make life hard for themselves simply by having such a narrow view on how life should be. Nothing works perfectly forever, you can't control much of the world around you, so stay adaptable and willing to change your habits to accommodate problem solving. Its not hard, it just requires a more fluid way of thinking. Even if you don't have the skill set to mend something yourself, at least understand the principles of how something works. That's prudent in any walk of life, if you don't want to be overcharged for simple jobs! but thats not what I'm talking about today...

I wish to create a balance in our own life, between sustainability of our lifestyle, the comfort of our lifestyle, and the pressure of living in the modern world. It is impossible to have no impact on the planet; everything we eat, move, trample, or manufacture has a knock-on effect in another eco-system, however small and seemingly unimportant. We can only decide, within ourselves, where our boundaries lay. How much of an effect are we willing to have on the world around us? No one is 100% environmentally sound (if you were, you wouldn't have access to this blog! you'd also probably be living in a cave eating grass) but how many things on a daily basis do you consume and enjoy that you don't truly need, but have because you want regardless of the environmental cost? That's what I consider when living sustainably. 

People have said that us moving into the van is not environmentally responsible, because of 'all the fuel we use living on the road'. They ONLY focus on that aspect of a whole lifestyle. The fact is, for us, we aren't travelling. We use less fuel than we ever did, because we don't have to commute to two jobs from a house far away from both of them. We can park-up near one of our workplaces, and only one of us needs to commute in a small car that we share. We don't have a house full of furniture, decor, and 'things' that have all been manufactured somewhere in a factory pumping out pollutants. We never have to dispose of nor replace those things. Most of the items we have used in our van are vintage, upcycled, or handmade. We don't have room for stuff, so our few manufactured possessions are carefully chosen and looked after. We purposely didn't include much tech or mod-cons in our build, because the more things you have to go wrong, the more things will go wrong! 

Its true, everything takes longer with this lifestyle, but when you don't have a burden of a house you don't have the same things to take up your time. Cleaning, maintaining and using one room takes up far less time than multiple rooms. We don't have a garden, so that in itself saves us a couple of hours each evening when we used to be out there watering plants every day through Summer. We do laundry once a week (making sure we have just seven days worth of clothes in the van took some forethought, but we have simplified our wardrobes a lot!) and there's usually two standard loads to go through. We use launderettes at present, though in time I would like to purchase a hand-washer to keep in the van. We don't have a tv (we actually gave up having a TV several years ago!) preferring other pass times like reading, painting, or actually just being out enjoying our natural spaces. Cooking can take up a good portion of the evening too. When we do want visual entertainment we watch youtube or download a movie to our devices. We have talked about getting a portable projector for movie nights! Its not important to us going into Summer, but I appreciate our activities may change going into the longer nights of Winter. 

We don't watch the news. We find out whats going on in the world unintentionally via social media, so we don't go actively seeking it. Media could, and sometimes can, be a force for good, but far too much of it is used to sell once side of a harmful story. I've been told that my disinterest in the world affairs makes me uncaring. That there are people suffering in the world and its our duty to know and care. The fact is, there has never been a time in our history where that wasn't the case. Suffering and hardship happen all over the world every single day, and there's not a thing I can do to fix it. No one can. Me consuming the gloom doesn't make the world better, but it would make me significantly worse. Any empathetic person will tell you how easily they feel the worlds pain, and the very best way of dealing with it is to make sure you don't add to it. Live in peace, live by example, and help those trying to do likewise. When you stop watching tv you get to a point where celebrity is irrelevant. You just don't care how other people are living their lives, because you haven't the faintest idea who they are, and that's ok.... Keep your circle small and focus on what you do to make your days worthwhile. That's what our van is about. We've downsized our life to make it manageable. We've downsized our life to focus on the things that we care about. 

Over time I will share all the different aspects to our way of life in more detail. If anyone has any questions, please comment or message us via social media. I'm happy to explain more and I may even do a Q&A video down the line to cover some of these things for those interested.   

Until next time, thank you for reading.....


Monday, February 28, 2022

Thoughts from The Beard - Van Conversion Day 63 - Vanlife Reality (Part 2)!


Unusually, this week so far has had me remain in Norfolk rather than making the trip to Cambridgeshire at the end of my working week to go and get on with furthering work on the van. Fear not, work on the van is still occurring! The fact of the matter is that for the time being I'm as far along with my tasks as I can be before my father-in-law has caught up with his, so whilst I'm writing this he is still in the van when he can be and moving things further toward completion whilst I instead spend my time getting on with moving out of the cottage that we're currently occupying, so whilst my week hasn't consisted of R&R I'm happy to be able to take a few moments now to write my second blog entry having had a full day of moving out.

I promised when I wrapped up my first blog post that I'd make sure I balanced things out by writing about the positive things I've experienced so far as a result of starting a van conversion, and that's what I intend to do now. That first post might have been a bit miserable, so this will hopefully be a bit cheerier :)

Having thought about this, I'm wondering if this post might be a little unusual compared to what other people say the great things about van conversion are because I've come to realise that the things I'm enjoying about it are a little more intangible than perhaps one might expect when involved with such a practical task as this, but this blog is about my experience with a van conversion so I can really only write what's applied to me, so it'll have to do...

So first things first, I'm sure we've all been subject to one of those 'What Kind of Worker Are YOU?" tests that inevitably come up at some point during employment, so you should hopefully know what I'm talking about here: whilst the likely wording of the question eludes me at the moment, I've always answered confidently that I'm one of those people who like to have something physical to show for my efforts at the end of the task. Whether it's a giant pile of something that's been moved or a space that's been cleared/tidied or a finished product that's been created from its constituent parts, I always feel a sense of satisfaction at the end of my work day when I can see with my eyes what I've achieved by the end of it. The nice thing with a scratch conversion is that every day ends with visible changes, and I like that. In particular, days working with insulation boarding have been good as seeing a stack of boards that were chest height at the start of the day reduced to knee height by the end of it makes it feel as though a lot of work has been done, as well as imparting the knowledge that all that keep-warm material is now sitting in van ready to do its job where keeping the space comfortable in the colder months is concerned.

'Visible Changes' has been an enjoyable experience too. Things that make the van *look* different. I know I frustrated Rosie a little during the earliest stages of the build by fussing rather minutely over prepatory tasks such as rust removal and hole-plugging, etc., and whilst I'm pleased that I did spend the time fussing over these things to prevent serious and costly problems occurring further down the line, I can't say as I necessarily enjoyed those tasks. I guess nobody does, that's probably why photos of those types of things are a little fewer and further between on the 'Gram. What I have enjoyed on the other hand, is watching the van change physically. And the bigger changes at that; things like getting the insulation boards down on the floor and bulkhead, getting the plywood floor in, getting the portholes and shore power plug in, stuff like that.

'Visible Changes Part 2': When I'm back in Norfolk doing my day job and not working on the van, one of the best things is seeing photos of things that have been made and installed in the van whilst I'm away. It's good to know that even whilst I'm away and not working on the van it's still getting further toward completion. 

Success. I'm sure that most folks relate to the feeling of success and the joy that comes with it. So far, most installations have been successful on the first try, which is particularly satisfying because I am NOT a DIYer. In fact, I've always made the effort to keep away from *anything* DIY as best as I can, so it's safe to say that I don't have a lot of skills or knowledge in that area, so the fact that I'm getting things right on my first go is pretty remarkable and I'm pleased by that. In truth, one thing that definitely didn't go perfectly first time was porthole installation. Having said that, lots of lessons were learned whilst attempting to fit the first porthole, the method was refined with the second and thankfully the third and fourth portholes went in without a hitch, so even when success didn't come easily it was satisfying to have earned it through trial and error.

The weather. Strange as it sounds, working in/on the van in the warmth of the sun has been a really nice experience. Keep in mind that this van build has primarily occurred in late January/February so far, so a lot of time working on the van has been in the cold, the dark, the rain, or any combination of the three, so the couple of times that the temperature has risen and the sun have shone in tandem have made for some really pleasant working conditions, and has just made undertaking the work more enjoyable for it.

Bonding. I've known Rosie's father for practically the same amount of time that I've known her and we've always got on well, but we haven't necessarily spent a lot of time getting to know one another in the past, so since starting this van build we've had the opportunity to spend a lot more time together now and I've enjoyed it a lot. We probably spend more time apart than you'd think because rather than working on tasks together we tend to work on our own tasks and work separately in the space, mostly as a result of where tools are located in the workshop or the van, but despite this it kind of feels to me almost like we're having the chance to become 'work pals' in some kind of way. I guess maybe men might relate to this more than women, but it's that kind of relationship that seems to come inherently as a result of the type of work environment that we're in, in this case a car mechanic's garage. It's hard to explain, so I think that probably only people that have worked in that kind of tool-filled, grimy, oily, vehicle and machinery-populated workplace will understand what this type of relationship is like, but I think I can say with confidence that you'll know it if you know it. Anyway, I've worked in a lot of places like that in the past and it's kind of fun to be back in that kind of workplace again, play at being 'a bit of a bloke' and develop a better relationship with him on the whole.

Realising an aspiration. I'll keep this fairly short because I think we've touched upon this previously in the blog, but with most days that pass I'm getting more and more disillusioned with the way that society functions in a hierarchical sense, and it's something of a relief to feel as though I'm taking a first, but potentially fairly significant step toward getting out of the system by some degree, and out from underneath the thumbs of people that currently have significant sway over the way that I have to live my life. Also, with the cost of living increasing dramatically at this point in time I think that I may be under the greatest degree of financial stress that I've ever been under, so it's a relief to know that in a couple of month's time Rosie and I will hopefully finally have a chance to start keeping more of our earnings in our pockets and living a better (but still very very grounded and humble) quality of life.

Daydreaming. With the reality of living in a van coming to us in the very near future, we joined the Caravan and Motorhome Club to find out whether there were any useful pitching spots for us to utilise around our 'base' area in North Norfolk, and whilst I'm pleased to say that seems as though it'll be a useful resource to us once our wheels start turning, we also recently became aware of and took out a year's subscription to the Britstops guide for very much the same reason. In terms of places nearby our base Britstops hasn't been quite so useful, but what it has done is given us the opportunity to find out where pitches are elsewhere in the country and start dreaming about little weekends away and suchlike that we might be able to take in the van if we're lucky, and it's been very nice to have something to look forward to sitting on the back burner besides using the van as a semi-residence in our base area.

This has been a fairly massive post again so whilst I'm sure there have been other things I've enjoyed it's ten to ten at night as I write this, I've had a busy day of physical labour and I'm going to call it a day with this here now, so those are some of the things I've enjoyed about the build so far, and hopefully there are more to come.

On a slightly different note, I suppose the biggest update is that we officially handed in notice to end our tenancy agreement on the cottage this evening, effective 1st April, so the next time I'll be writing it'll probably have something along the lines of "We're living in a van and it's not even finished yet!" and how that's going, so that's probably something to look forward to, should make for some interesting/entertaining reading... Seriously though, it'll be the start of our journal relating to actual van LIFE is concerned, so that combined with further posts as to updates on the build should be interesting with a bit of luck, maybe amusing, hopefully entertaining... So look forward to that I guess. Life's gonna be weird for a bit ;)

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Van Conversion - Day 61


Hello again (possibly, or not if this is your first visit! In which case, welcome!) There has been so much happening the last few weeks I'm not going to do a themed blog this time, but have a general look at progress so far. If you want to skip my meandering way of getting there, scroll down until you see 'UPDATE'...

At the point of writing there are a lot of horrific things happening in the world, and it is hard to feel positive about our own little journey. Knowing that people just like us are out there focusing purely on survival, while I'm here in a warm little office talking about cabinets and storage solutions. That said, and while I will always try to avoid political comment on our socials, my heart goes out to everyone in the Ukraine and further afield just fighting for a peaceful place to live. I stand with you in spirit, if not body. I can't imagine how suddenly your lives have turned upside down. 

Even before this invasion, news in the UK was not positive (when is it?!) but with so much focus on the rising cost of living it has given us a lot to ponder. More than once over the last few weeks we have made the comment to each other that we are glad to have already started the journey to full time vanlife. Although there will undoubtedly be challenges ahead in many shapes and sizes, we both feel that at least a few of our disappointments around the state of modern living are being smothered.

We started our vanlife journey back in the Autumn, before holders of our utilities,  rent, or phone tariff, all started to notify us of looming increases. We were already seeking a new option. As I've mentioned before, our vanlife journey isn't inspired by one of travel, instaperfect sunsets, or the desire to be trendy. (We have already been told we're not 'hip' or young enough for that!!) but a desire to both be free of other people (landlords, energy companies, and anyone else that reduces our standard of living in the name of profit) and to be able to save for our future. We fall into the 35-45 year old bracket, and for us we could be looking at a retirement age of 70+ and a pension pot not worth having. Saving money now will give us more financial freedom in the future, and more physical freedom now! 

I have always had a bit of a nomadic spirit anyway. I've never felt tied to anywhere so giving up a house and domestic routine wasn't a big deal. Mike is just used to moving now I think. As a couple we have moved five times in seven years; most of our belongings are permanently in storage. We've moved to follow degree courses, jobs, and new opportunities. Moving into a van and trying something different feels like a fairly natural progression in a weird way. This time we won't be moving geographically though. My business is in North Norfolk and it will be our anchor. We will bob around the countryside on the current, but we will not go far. Not this year at least. We do hope to travel the UK for one or two week holidays in the future, but its not 'the point' of our vanlife journey.

Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately!) for our followers, they won't be getting tiktoks of us dancing around in exotic locations, or instagood pics of us being romantic over a campfire... its likely going to be a little more real than that. It'll be me going getting up for work in the morning, and Mike emptying out the ash from the woodburner, or us parked up in another not so glamourous place while stealth camping. All of that is still a few weeks off however...


We now have all four of our porthole windows installed, and all the floor and wall insulation in. The main job this week is for my Dad to build the bed frame and internal structures.  We intend moving in before the end of March, which means we will prioritize those things we need to make it habitable. Our shower/loo isn't plumbed and will be for emergencies only so that's actually not top of the list. Right now we are focusing on getting the bed frame made so we can order our mattress. Mike and I have different ideas over what 'habitable' means, so I think we are going for a compromise! For me 'habitable' means shelter and somewhere to sleep. Lighting, heating, and cooking can be making use of our back up solutions, which are largely not fixed and will be stored in the van in case of any of the main systems failing. Its at this point I should probably point out that my inner survivalist is largely responsible for this attitude. I don't 'need' a lot, but at the same time I hate being unprepared. Our back up solutions look like battery rechargable hurricane lights, portable gas stove and heater. We don't need the woodstove fitted or overhead lighting to be able to sleep in it over night temporarily. That's where I'm coming from. Mike views habitable more as all the basics done, but maybe not having got around to the soft furnishings and decorative bits. We will probably land somewhere in the middle, though the aim is always to get as much done before we give up our cottage.

I have been working six days a week at our shop for the last few weeks, so I've missed a lot of our build. Thus far all the hard work has been done my Mike and my Dad. I'm hoping to get more involved when it comes to finishing the interior and making it a home. 

So, with that I'm going to leave it here for this post. I've had some thoughts about things I'd like to write about in future posts, but if anyone has any suggestions of things they'd like to see me cover or questions they'd like to answer in a blog, please comment or DM us here or on any of our socials and I'll see what I can do! 

Until next time friends.... thank you for reading. 


Thursday, February 17, 2022

Thoughts from The Beard - Van Conversion Day 52 - Vanlife Reality!

First things first: As Rosie would attest, I've commented to her before on the un-reality that social media presents to those that use it. Everyone's aware of how they're shown how amazing life is by things that others post to it, whether it's that big gym pump you got today, that amazing artistic photo you took or that gorgeous finished new piece of furniture that's now the focal point of your room. They're also hopefully aware that a shitload of sweating and red-facing happened before that post-shower pump selfie was taken, that 77 other totally shit photos were taken before they lucked in on that one that ended up getting posted, and that a ton of swearing was done whilst assembling said furniture and the whole room tidied and cleaned before the picture was taken. Whatever the topic, it's always that 'amazing' thing that makes it to social media. Y'know what you hardly ever see on there? People's mistakes, poor choices, bad luck, the sweat, the tears, the red faces, and the tatty old stain-ridden furniture that was thrown out before the new piece was bought. So to that end, I want to use my first say on this van build blog to have a bit of a reality check. The reason for this is how van life is practically always portrayed on social media. Endless photos of utterly gorgeous finished vans with van tided ahead of time, the lighting set just right, the steaming mug of coffee on the side, the compulsory epic landscape seen out the open back doors and if you're really on your social media game, a happy-looking dog. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure van life can be like that; I wouldn't know, I haven't had a chance to take a finished van out yet and have a go for myself at shooting that kind of photo. 

You can rest assured that when I do however, it's bound to be just as epic as everyone else's and then I can probably consider myself part of the 'van lifestyler club' after all the effort of building the thing. And that's kinda what I want to talk about here mainly: Whilst I've still got a long way to go on my 'van life' journey (getting the van out the workshop yard would be a start!), so far it's been far from that image that's been presented on social media. To be clear, I regret nothing about the decision to take the plunge on this and am in fact glad that I did, and if we're really lucky then hopefully once we're living in a little home on You wheels it'll be every bit as amazing as everyone elses' photos make it look. Truth is though that so far it's been mostly stress, expense, and hard work (in that order), and I'd like to take a few moments just to get the point across that van life isn't always 'amazing', 'epic', 'idyllic', etc. I've come to find already that sometimes it's extremely trying and stressful, but you hardly ever hear about that, so I'm going to take a moment to talk 'Van Life Reality' according to my experience so far, and hopefully in doing so it might help prepare anyone that reads it for what van life might really be like.

Straight off the bat, we're extremely lucky to have someone helping us who has all the knowledge, practical skills, tools and premises that we need to do this in the first place. Honestly, without Ralph's help, I'm really not sure I could have done this at all. I guess, thinking about it, I'd have done as much as I could, made a lot of mistakes whilst learning along the way, paid someone to do the bits I absolutely haven't been able to get my head around and take at least five times longer working on it. One thing I do know for certain: I definitely couldn't have got it done in the timeframe that we're hoping to have it done. For a start, he advised us at point of sale as to whether or not the vehicle itself was worth considering purchasing according to his vehicular knowledge, which is probably the first step that first-time van builders may very well stumble at. Luckily, Ralph helped us dodge a very appealing-looking bullet in the first van that we looked at, and gave us the confidence to buy Norma for conversion into our new home. 'How to Buy the Right Vehicle' could easily be an entire blog in its own right, so I won't go into much depth on that here.

The second thing is that, for the duration of the build, we have a permanent workspace where we can leave the van without greatly disturbing anyone. So if you're thinking of building a van to live in, consider "Where am I actually going to do the work?" Y'gotta think about that because in all likelihood you're going to be at least a few MONTHS working on it, and for the most part of that time it isn't going to be a space that you can comfortably live in. Also, do you have all the tools you need to do the work with? And somewhere to power them from? Think hard about that, because I've come to find that the amount of tools I've required has by far exceeded my expectations. We're lucky in that my father-in-law already has everything we needed so far, but all those tools have been acquired as the result of several decades of professional and leisure use. If you don't happen to have a lot of hand/power tools already, you'll almost certainly find that you're spending a LOT more money than you anticipated on buying or renting tools that you need. Also, sundries... My god, the sundries... Tapes, sealants, adhesives, brushes, the list goes on... All those tiny little things that seem inconsequential at first, but just you try to get the job done without them: impossible. And they all soon add up to a hefty cost.

Cost. You'll probably see a lot of half-started/finished vans for sale wherever you're looking for them when you're looking to buy. I'm sure there are several reasons for this, but my suspicions are that it probably usually comes down to one of two main reasons: "This is costing far more than I'd anticipated it would and I've run out of money for it - better cut my losses and sell the van to try recoup some of that $$$", and "This is so much more work than I thought it was going to be, and it's all coming along so slowly that I'll be here forever trying to finish it". We came into this with limited funds and were very lucky to have had significant financial help from an outside source, so be aware: if you want to buy and build your own van, it's going to cost you a ton of money straight from the get-go: vehicle purchase, vehicle tax, insurance, mechanical work, preparation treatments, building materials, sundries, furnishings. We're talking THOUSANDS here, so make sure you've got funds managed one way or another, and be prepared to go over budget too. To put it simply, if we hadn't had the financial help that we had, the project would have probably been more or less dead in the water from the start. Be warned.

Also, time: As I mentioned above, if you want to build your own van conversion be prepared to put in a LOT of hours and a lot of work. Whilst in some respects we've made good progress on the van in a relatively short space of time as a result of my having booked a couple of weeks off work to work on it intensively, the progress of the work has been nonetheless slower than I'd hoped it would be. Looking at the timeline of our social media will clue you in to some degree on how long it's taken to get to various stages of construction, and you'll see that it hasn't been quick. Simply put, we bought Norma at the very start of 2022 and come mid-February we've pretty much reached the end of the 'installing insulation' phase and literally started construction on interior furnishings on the date of this blog post. That's an entire month and a half just spent on preparing the van for construction and installing insulation (and a couple of windows). Doesn't sound like a lot when read like that, but when you build your own van you'll see exactly why that process has taken this long. So again, be warned: don't think you'll have a finished van ready to sleep in after a couple of weeks. It WILL be months. I suppose paying a professional to work on your van for you might be an option if you have the finance available for that, but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be done all that much quicker, after all, it's still just someone standing in the back of a van building stuff rather than doing it yourself, and there's only so fast one pair of hands can work and hours one body can put in. And briefly, one other thing: as a first time van-builder, I can confidently say that working out the logistics of what tasks need to happen in what order is by far the most difficult task of all so far. Think things through really carefully, lest you end up doing one task before another and end up wasting time and money working hard to fix the mistake that you made because you did things in the wrong order. Can be very difficult to do when it's your first time doing this.

Speaking of work, this will depend probably on the condition of van you buy, but chances are unless you're buying a brand new van from a show room you're going to have to deal with a certain amount of dirt, dead spiders, dust, grime and rust, and not a single thing about that is clean. Imagine yourself in your scrappiest clothes scraping rust and old paint off of every inch of your van, and then having to sweep the whole thing out after an entire day doing that. And then imagine having to get down on your back on a concrete floor to anti-rust paint any areas around the bottom edge of the door that need it. Or finding said paint dry into your hair when you get in the shower at the end of the day to wash all that muck off... Is van life still sounding 'amazing'? Maybe 'Epic'? No? Not 'Idyllic'? 

Van life may very well be all those things, but chances are early on, if you're dealing with a pre-owned van, you might end up putting in long hours getting filthy and cold whilst you work in the dark, and this is potentially pretty standard for early van life I would guess, although I'm not sure how many people you might find who would tell you that. Probably also depends on where you live to some degree too. If you're building a van in summer time in Florida or Australia or some other hot place you probably won't run into problems with working in the cold or the dark... Maybe mosquitos and sunburn will be more your thing that you won't tell anyone about when you're effervescing as to how brilliant life on wheels is ;)

And stress. Probably goes without saying that all of the above have so far caused incredible amounts of stress at various times. Everything from which vehicle to go look at, managing finances, managing time, selecting products for purchase, etc... Everything. Everything all at once. Dealing with that can be super stressful. We're perhaps in a slightly unusual position because we elected to undertake this project with a fairly short working time available to us so dealing with everything pertinent to a van build all at once was always going to be unavoidable, but I would imagine that regardless of timeframe there will be various things about your van build that will cause you stress, whether it's financial concerns or simply that you're not in the right mood to work in the van that day, or whatever... Just be aware that building your own van conversion is NOT a stress-free process. I would recommend, if possible, undertake a van build at your leisure if possible, rather than to a deadline. At least that way, if there's no time frame in which you need to put money by in, or time in which you need to get the project finished in, you can build at your leisure without the added pressures that building to a deadline demands.

That being said, I'd still recommend that anyone who's inclined to do this does so: despite the challenges faced to date and those yet to come I think that doing this has been an excellent decision and I'm looking forward to doing the work that remains to be done on the van and then getting into it and making a start on living the new lifestyle. I don't doubt in the least that it won't all be 'epic' and 'amazing' all the time, but I'd like to hope there will be some measure of that to balance out the negatives that come with the lifestyle too. I think I'll probably check in on the blog once in a while to discuss more 'van life reality' because I think it's important to have a realistic expectation of what living this way entails: yes, I think the #vanlife insta thing is important for building inspiration and aspiration, but to me it's not *reality* in its totality: it's the same as everything else on social media - just the best bits. Don't know about you, but my life doesn't consist of back-to-back 'best bits', so let's keep it real and talk van life as it really happens, that's got to be for the best for all involved.

And no, that doesn't mean I'm going to be negative all the time and do nothing but whinge and bitch about van life; I will discuss all the bits I enjoy too.

I was going to wrap up there, but I think I'll end on a promise: I'll write another blog entry soon, and I promise that I'll write all about what I've enjoyed about my dive into van life so far ^_^

The Beard

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Van Conversion Day 31 - Lets Talk Sinks!

So, our sink arrived! Or at least, what will become our sink once its base is built. As you may have noticed from the image, its not really a sink. Its a basin. A deep enamelled metal basin.

As many prospective vanlifers do, we've spent months following other van conversions happening on social media, watched the videos, seen the inspirational Pinterest posts and again, come to the conclusion we wanted to keep it basic! 

We actually viewed a couple of 'finished' vans before deciding to build our own. One of the ones we viewed had a super cute ceramic sink installed, the type you might find in a modern WC where space is limited. They look neat and clean, but noooo. Just no. We happen to live in a cottage which currently has one of those sleek micro sinks, and I'll say now - it's not fit for purpose. Filled to the brim, it holds about three inches of water - at the deepest point. Most of the sink is sides in fact. If you want to wash in it, or clean anything bigger than a teaspoon get ready for it to over spill or be satisfied with filling it up two about two inches max. The only way they really work is if you don't actually want to fill them. Washing hands under running water is what they're only really useful for. In a tiny WC that's probably all they're needed for. (Ours is actually installed in the homes only shower-room, and had it been our house we would have chosen something better! but the joys of renting!)

So, something deeper was needed. We also decided that we wouldn't have a fixed sink, as we don't intend on having it plumbed in. I wanted the flexibility of using the space many ways and a basin that we can use inside or out, that can be put on the counter when I wash my hair, or on the floor when I fancy a foot spa was more important than the convenience of running water in a fixed spot. It is also deep enough to hand-wash wash clothes if necessary. We will also have a basic portable shower that we will set up when we want to use it and pack it away when not, so its not our only means of staying clean and hygienic. 

The basin is seven inches deep and 15 inches across, and very light compared to a ceramic sink, so keeping our weight down was also a consideration. It also fits with the vintage aesthetic of our interior. It will be stored in a hidden, multi-use cupbored, which I'll talk about in a future post. That particular unit will not only hold the sink, it will also provide an extra 2ft of sleeping leg-room for Mike, who is 6' 4, a tiled counter-top, and some additional storage! It is also worth pointing out that our conversion is in a MWB Sprinter. We don't have that extra few feet of length to indulge in a 'proper' kitchen area. Especially when you also consider that our counter-top is also home to our woodburner and gas hob! 

I will post updated photos to our socials as we get its cupboard built to house it, but that was a little intro to our £30 ebay sink, and why we chose it over a conventional one! 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Day 29 - Woodburner Delivery!

In this update I'm going to talk about why we chose to install a woodburner in a van! 

When it comes to van conversions everyone does it differently. Whether based on experience, an idea, a recommendation, or just because you've seen something you want to emulate.

For us, our conversion is a combination of experience and a need to fit into an established lifestyle. At 41 years of age, I've only ever lived in a house without a real fire (woodburner or open hearth) once, and that was in Uni accommodation when I first started living with Mike. I didn't like it. I felt vulnerable to outside influence. Powercuts, gas or other fuel shortage, things breaking down at inconvenient times. Those times when the boiler breaks on Christmas Eve and you know its going to be expensive to fix. Those are the things that really trigger my anxiety. I think I'm a bit of a prepper at heart 😂 I don't like being dependent on anyone. There's very little that goes wrong with fire. Its basic and efficient. I know how to deal with it, and it's reliable. It heats you, you can cook on it, and it will boil water... So, when it came to living in a van I was VERY happy to see having a woodstove wasn't out of the question! 

There will be drawbacks though. They are a permanent, heavy features and it will require space left around it which could have otherwise been used for storage. They also are too efficient at some times of year. When you maybe just need to take the chill off, so we will undoubtedly have another form of heating for those in-between times. You also have to consider your park-ups. Stealthily parking up in town won't really mix well with puffs of woodsmoke emanating from our chimney 🤣 so it's certainly worth having options. 

Again, every decision we've made comes down to how we will be using our van, and the area we will spend most of our time. Our business is based in Norfolk, East Anglia. It's usually mild and doesn't really get extremes in weather. Summers can get to 30⁰C, Winters can get to-5⁰C, but most of the time it's not below freezing and most of the time is teens to twenties in Celsius. That said, we will also take the van to Scotland. Its where we used to live and tends to be our 'go to' for time away. These are our considerations for what heating, insulation and build we will end up with. It's worth remembering all this when watching DIY conversion videos. It's easy to watch other people using certain products or techniques and just thinking 'well they did it and it worked ok'. Look at where they are based. Are they fitting a van out to travel around California, or the Cairngorms? Have they done any updates on how things worked after they tried living in it? Was it a viable option long term, or did they end up ripping it all out to start again?! 

This is why we've appreciated, but not acted on all the advice we've  been given (and there's been a lot). Everyone likes to think the way they 'vanlife' is best, but it's really only best for their situation - so if you're also first time van builder don't be afraid to come to your own conclusions! We've done SO MUCH independent research. Not just watching YouTube conversion videos (many of which seem to have been confidently made by people who did no research whatsoever), but talking to experienced builders and reading books like the extremely reader friendly Van Conversion Bible

We are also lucky to have my Dad working on the project. He's been a mechanic for 50 years, has renovated houses he's lived in, and is a woodworker in his time off. A very useful skill set for any type of self build! 

So after what already feels like a bit of a ramble on my part (sorry!) I'm going to tell you about our woodstove. There are a handful of popular makes of mini stove out there. They are certainly not a budget option. The cheapest I think I found was around £200 for one constructed with sheet metal, up to over £1000 for a super modern style one. Aesthetics are important to me. My day-job is creative and I'm an artist 🎨 with a studio at the back of my shop, so my living space was always going to be reflective of that. The interior of the van when it's done will include a mix of dark timbers and vintage fixtures. (Vintage as in victorian cabin, not white shabby chic!) I chose our little stove to fit this Aesthetic and also because its cast iron and not sheet metal. Bizarrely I find sheet metal 'cold' looking. I think it's the brutally smooth surfaces. We bought out little Pipsqueak stove from Savvy Surf online and chose the angled flue on the back with a door so we can clean it out easier. 

I was very aware that I wanted an insulated flue though, as we will be in close proximity to it coming and going, and it will have to be in close proximity to various bit of our van! The flue that fits this stove is an unusual 80mm single wall flue, which isn't what I wanted for our circumstances. I also wanted to have a flue with a wind cowl, rather than a standard rain cap. So, in the end we bought a 3" insulated flue kit from Anevay Stoves which was close enough in diameter for us to adapt. If I didn't have my Dad on hand to help with this I probably would have gone with something straightforward, but if you have skills available you may as well use them! 

So, that's where we are almost a month to the day we picked up Norma in a very drizzly Essex. It feels MUCH longer, but I'm excited to see where we will be in another month! 

Don't forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @VanlifeNorfolk for updates between blogs! 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

A Very Basic Home on Wheels - Day 13

 So here we are on Day 13...

While Norma is sat in the workshop waiting patiently for her mechanic to return to work after his Christmas break, we have been drawing out our layout designs and discussing deeply boring things such as insulation, ventilation, and electrics. I'm sure there are many who find those bits interesting, but the artist within me just wants to start creating! Needless to say, I'm leaving much of that grown up stuff to Mike who has the patience for it...


We have read the books, watched the YouTubes, and followed (what feels like) every van-lifer account across social media. The one thing that has become very apparent is that out wants and needs are significantly less than most other self-build conversions. Our set up is going to be comfortable, but basic. Perhaps it was growing up with my Dad, a mechanic. Spending much of my childhood watching him take things to bits and put things back together, the phrase 'the more you put in the more there is to go wrong' is now forever tattooed to the inside of my mind. 

I suspect also that our lack of requirements also stems from our history or living in very old, cold, and un-modern cottages. From the studio-flat we rented while Mike was at Uni, which only had half a kitchen (no cooker, hob, or washing machine) to the Scottish cottage with single glazing and no central heating, I think we are just used to making do. I was quite happy doing a weekly trip to the laundrette, and I actually get a bit uncomfortable in overly hot dry houses when I visit family now. 

We could tell from the things that people asked us when we told them of our vanlife plans that our life was already different to most. If it wasn't 'OMG what will you do without a telly', it was 'you won't be able to have a bath!'. Well, we haven't watched tv in the last two years. We own a TV for DVD watching, but it only really gets used at Christmas for our annual outing of 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Die Hard'. We could, of course, have a telly in a van, but we're not going to. 

and the bath? Well, we haven't got one where we've lived the last two and a half years, so I'm sure we will cope. We are actually budgeting for a monthly or fortnightly stay in a hotel or b&b as part of my 'work/life balance' improvement, so I'll probably have MORE access to baths than I have done in some time!! 

No, we are actually stripping our routines to the basics and focussing on comfort and warmth, over tech and entertainment. We do also have the privilege of my shop and workshop with facilities, which of course most vanlifers don't. We aren't selling off our worldly goods, but storing them for the future. We haven't closed the door on owning a home again one-day, we are just giving ourselves time to save for one we can afford without going into debt, while having an adventure before we get old and overly cautious of the risk. We are aware our vanlife journey is different, and I think that's the best thing about this community. Everyone is writing their own story, unencumbered by the rules of 'traditional' society.

Not only is our van-build basic, its also going to be a reflection of our personal taste and principles. I am used to antique furniture and upcycled bits and bobs. I've never had to assemble Ikea furniture in my life, and I don't plan on assembling an 'interior' kit for the van. While some of the modern builds look stunning, some of them feel very 'cold' in their sleekness. Our van will definitely feel lived in! We will use a mix of antique and reclaimed materials for everything possible, except maybe some of the wood panelling. I have materials left over from the interior build of my shop too, so they will be utilised where possible. We are hoping to start buying what we need to start in the next few weeks, so watch out for updates incoming on the socials!

Thanks for reading, we hope to see you next time! (Rosie)