No Home, No Job, No Worries: Life in a Van
When he lost his flat, writer CJ Stone decided to go on the road. How will he cope with life in the slow lane?— The Big Issue, Aug 11th 1997
I Became a Traveller
I'm not a New Age Traveller. For a start, I don't have dreadlocks. I don't have nose rings or a baggy jumper. I don't even have a dog on a piece of string. But I do live in a van.
I can't say that I made the decision consciously or deliberately. It wasn't a political statement. I lost my flat at the same time that my car needed its MOT, at the same time that I discovered that I needed a new engine. It would have cost me the best part of a thousand pounds to get it back on the road. I needed a vehicle and somewhere to live. Then I saw the advert: "Converted Ambulance for sale, £1600." It was just around the corner from my Mom and Dad's house. I fell in love with it immediately. I bargained him down to £1300, and two days later I was the proud owner of a 2 Litre Ford Transit Disability Transport Vehicle converted into a camper van.
It has a bed and a table and a cooker and a sink and storage space and shelves and curtains and lights. My Mom made the curtains while my Dad fixed the lights. It even has a toilet: a nasty little chemical loo in a wooden cubby hole, which I only use on the rarest of occasions. I soon learned not to travel when there was anything in it. Half a nauseous day washing the stinking blue stains off the walls and floor and door of the toilet space after a ride down a particularly bumpy track was enough to score this lesson on my consciousness forever.
Logistics on the Road
At first I was nervous. I wasn't at all sure I could handle it. Where would I park? How would I bath? What would I do in the evenings? I'm the sort of person who genuinely needs people around me. How would I cope with life on the road? But, actually, it's no where near as difficult as you would imagine.
Parking up can be the most difficult. So far I've slept in several car-parks, several lay-bys, one or two festival sites, and - once or twice - just by the roadside. I haven't yet found the perfect place. But everywhere I go I'm always on the look-out. It's like everything else: when you have a need your brain automatically goes into problem-solving mode. I spend a lot of time pouring over maps for ideal sites, I'm asking around amongst the travellers, I'm registering places in my memory for future exploration. And I've no doubt I will find a site. Despite the appearance that the whole world has been parcelled and packaged into neat little plots for the profit and pleasure of the moneyed classes, the fact is that there are still nooks and crannies out there for the intrepid traveller to nestle into. I'm an optimist. I've always believed I have a place in the world.
One solution which always comes in handy is the pub car-park. That way you kill two birds with one stone: something to do in the evening, and somewhere to sleep that night. All you have to do is to ask the manager. I haven't been refused yet.
The beauty of it is, you never know where you're going to end up. I've been having a certain feeling I've not had since I was a child. You know: you wake up in the morning, and for the first few seconds you just don't know where you are. It's exciting. And then you look out of the window, and some new sight greets you: some tree you've never seen before, rustling in the breeze, or the vast stretches of some dreamy English scenery which makes your heart leap in appreciation. One day I woke up in the carpark at Avebury in Wiltshire, and thought, "bloody hell, I'm on a racetrack!" It was the morning after the Summer Solstice. It must have had something to do with what I was up to the night before.
I mentioned bathing. Actually, that's the easiest part. My Mom came up with the solution. She pointed out that in the old days people didn't have baths, but that they still kept themselves clean. She told me to get a bowl of water and a flannel. And then she quoted an old saying of my grandfather's: "You wash up as far as possible. You wash down as far as possible. And then you wash Possible."
One problem I had being a writer on the road, was where to plug in my computer. I have a mains hook-up system. I used to have to stay on camp-sites whenever I wanted to do some work. This had two disadvantages. Firstly it cost money. Secondly I was constantly being distracted by jovial holiday-makers laughing and playing bat and ball on the manicured lawns. I wanted to kill them for their impudence. And then I found the solution: solar panels. Now I can work wherever I want. So I'm not only a travelling writer, I'm ecologically sound too.
Of course it's easier for me than for a lot of travellers. Being a known writer I carry an NUJ card. I also have an income. If the police ever stop me - though they haven't so far - then I'm fairly certain they'll leave me alone. I plan to offer my services to other travellers. Having a witness on site should come in handy. At the same time I can maybe learn a little more about the travelling lifestyle from the more seasoned veterans.
Hierarchy Amongst Travellers
There's definitely a hierarchy amongst travellers. Bottom of the pile would be someone like me: naive, untutored, unlearned, unable to fix my own van even, living in a camper van rather than a truck. Even the toilet lets me down. Real travellers don't have toilets. They dig a hole and do the business under the stars.
Next up would be the one's who took the lifestyle up during the rave era: people like Spiral Tribe, who are even now travelling in Europe. Above them are the convoy people, of course: the one's who went through the battle of the beanfield in 1985, and who can say, "I was at Stonehenge in '75, man," and then regale you with some implausible tale of how many drugs they took in one out-of-this-world session.
Finally there's Del. He lives on Dragon Hill near Glastonbury, which is now a permanent travellers site. Del is not only a New Age Traveller: he's also a full-blooded Gypsy, and he can cite travellers lore going back at least six hundred years. From the thirteenth century to the eighteenth, he told me, it was illegal to be a Gypsy. You could be hung for it. His father told him that the only way they survived was by fighting and cursing. Del keeps up the tradition, only now he directs the curses at Security Guards on road-protest sites. The Gypsy curse is still illegal, he tells me.
And now I begin to appreciate what the travellers, New Age and traditional alike, have been telling us all these years. Living in a van is cheap. No mortgage, no rent. No obligations. If you use a vehicle anyway, then your expenses are no more than you would expect in normal circumstances. And on top of that there is the sense of freedom and the exhilaration that brings. Freedom can be addictive. To go where you want, when you want. To feel the whole world as your personal domain. It's no wonder successive governments over the centuries have tried to clamp down on the travelling lifestyle. It's far too good, and being good it is also dangerous.
Top 10 Travelling Tips
- Watch out for the law. The Criminal Justice Act affects every aspect of the travelling lifestyle. Section 60 means the police can search a vehicle at any time. Sections 61, 62, 77, 78 and 80 removed local authorities duties to accommodate travellers, meaning an increasing number of evictions. However…
- Try to stay on land owned by a local authority. They still have duties to provide land in some circumstances and they’re not likely to shoot at you with a double-barrelled shotgun. Yet. If you can’t find any, then choose derelict or undeveloped land to minimise the risk of upsetting the people who live there all the time.
- Use a canvas tarpaulin. Use plastic and you’ll regret it. Canvas breathes but plastic just gets covered in nasty condensation. First rule of being a traveller: look after your tarp. If you lose everything, then you’ll still have a home.
- Take a bow saw. This is a standard wood-cutting saw, usually 30 inches in length and carried by all travellers in the know. It’s ideal for cutting wood, although to be environmentally friendly only use dry wood. A bow saw means (a) travellers can have the equivalent of Sunday morning B&Q-type conversations about home maintenance and (b) fuel for their…
- Wood stove. Environmentally friendly and homely too.
- Clean up your rubbish.
- Do not block rights of way and be nice. It’s no good protesting against roads if you deny others the chance to enjoy the countryside. The general rule of travelling is: be civil to people and they’ll be civil to you. Well they might not be, but that’s their problem.
- Walk your dog. If you must have a dog (and for lone travellers and women it’s often a necessity) walk it often and keep it under control.
- Take a spade. If you want to be a real traveller, you just have to get used to recycling your own, personal, biodegradable waste the only way nature knows how.
- Happy travelling. Enjoy yourself.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Christopher James Stone