Van Life in Lockdown

van life in lockdown 2020

Looking back at the last few months, spending lockdown in a van – 2 adults and 2 dogs in a box 6m by 2m – has been at times strange, intense and worrying! As ever we’ve tried to make the best of it. In many ways, we count ourselves lucky!

We’d rented our house out for another year – just 2 days before the lockdown started. At first, we thought, “No worries, we can wild camp”, but we began to hear reports of a backlash against hordes of campervans and motorhomes descending on parts of Cornwall and Scotland. So we had to rethink. Fortunately, we were able to book in as permanent/seasonal residents at a site we knew in County Durham so we at least we had a place to park up safely. Looking back, we certainly did the right thing. Although we spent lockdown in a relatively tiny space and couldn’t travel around, we never really felt cooped up or stir crazy as we had so much freedom on the site, great weather and loads of wildlife all around.

Motorhome are perfect self-isolation bubbles

In some ways, we were already used to isolation. We’d spent the last year away from our families and friends, keeping in touch with them with video calls (and endless games of Words with Friends with my Mam). One of the aims of taking time to travel was to spend more time together and with the dogs, so we embraced that: lots of walks, enjoying our sundowners with puzzles and games, researching and making plans for the future, streaming some movies and TV shows on NowTV, Netflix and Amazon. And we each had our own projects on the go.

Obviously, it’s very worrying when you have family in the at-risk category (oldies). Mostly they’ve followed the guidance and so far, all is well. We really enjoyed social distance visits in the garden. We’d had our brush with COVID-19 early on. Though it was very mild for us both, we both still occasionally feel the after-effects. My sense of smell is still shot, and Bev had the bizarre ‘covid toes’ (google it!). It definitely reinforced our feelings of seizing the moment, appreciating our physical and mental health, and treasuring time together.

New healthy habits

We started some new habits in lockdown, to help stay positive and appreciate what we had, rather than dwell on the things we couldn’t do and places we couldn’t go. Each night, we’d ask each other, “What were your 3 favourite things today?” and look back on the day. I’m not sure I realised how much we like eating and drinking! 

Restaurant of the week’ became a bit of a regular thing. Instead of going out for a meal – we were in lockdown after all – we’d ‘dine out’ at a different establishment every other week. We’d make an effort with flowers on the table or suitable music, trying new recipes, dressing for dinner, etc. Daft, but fun…

Other variations on the theme… Ristorante Motorhome with the ‘Café Italiano’ soundtrack, Vietnamese ‘nhà hàng trên bánh xe’ (‘Restaurant on Wheels’) and a French bistro ‘Chez Nous’

Another routine: With our coffee after breakfast, we read our entry for that day in last year’s travel diary. We’ve read about getting our new home on wheels, a Benimar Mileo 201, our first days of van life, our adventures through France, Belgium, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. We remember the best bits, and the dramas, and look out for moments we can recreate, like going for a bike ride, having an ice cream or a particular meal or cocktail.

Lockdown habits - reading last years diary to keep our spirits up.

The Good Life

One of the things Bev is most looking forward to when we finally settle down is setting up a smallholding – growing fruit and veg and keeping chickens. We didn’t get as far as chickens but being in one place for a spell gave her a chance to set up an impromptu allotment. She got some seeds (summer salad, spinach, rocket, sweet peas) and some borlotti beans from our storage unit, and her sister Fran donated some pea and courgette seedlings. With a few grow bags, some mole hill soil, an old recycling bin, various recycled containers, odd sticks lying around the site as canes, and a 4 pint plastic milk carton as a watering can, she set to work. She even planted a dodgy bit she cut off the end of a potato!

The weather was great for growing. Apart from the fickle courgette, it all went very well. We’ve had loads of salad leaves and rocket, spinach for our smoothies and scrambled eggs. We ate lots of the peas as mangetout, not knowing whether we’d be around to pick them all as peas. The sweet peas smell great in the van.

Taking it up a level – she even got into home pickling. Can’t beat a pickled egg in a pack of salt and vinegar crisps with a pint of ale. Perfect pub snack! Got a glut of chilli peppers from the supermarket, more than you can use? – No problem, pickled! Perfect topping for enchiladas or on one of our favourite indulgences, nachos grande!

The baking just gets better and better. Lemon drizzle, Victoria sponge, Carrot cake, croissants. I’ve had to employ various ‘portion control’ strategies or I won’t fit my clothes.

CuteCardsByB on Etsy

With the galleries closed, Bev decided to set up an Etsy store. It’s going really well. She’s sold her cool and quirky embroidered cards and notepads to customers all over the country, and abroad as far as Spain!

One-off designs have included a greater spotted woodpecker, Minecraft and Harry Potter inspired motifs, and a FAB lolly!

Lockdown Music

Although all live shows were cancelled, I’ve been keeping busy. I did a couple of live streams, one of which has been viewed over 1600 times now, which has got to be a record for me!

I joined a group of north east musicians on a collaborative project, which turned out to be like a massive musical jigsaw. Good fun and a chance to practice with the recording software. Here’s my track…

Here’s one of harmonica hero Martin Fletcher’s tracks, more or less from the same source material: https://soundcloud.com/harmonicagod/miss-corona-downhome-style

My album Brass Neck! is still getting a lot of airplay around the UK. I’m really grateful for the DJs keeping that going. Big cheers especially to Gary Grainger, Ian McKenzie, Richard Harris and Paul ‘Pablo’ Stewart. Check out their shows – all good stuff…

Listen to “Rockin’ The Blues 090620” on Spreaker.

The best news:  The very first day they opened up, with social distancing measures in place, I went back into Ginger Music studios to record some acoustic guitar and vocals. I worked on the first tracks for 3 new projects – more original blues on a follow up to Brass Neck!, a cowboy/western themed piece, and some lighter, brighter folk/americana songs. The first release will be ‘Travelling Girl’ – words by Bev! – announcements on that soon!   

Paying the bills

With all gigs cancelled, we had to rely on the income from Spotify streams. It works out about 0.4 american cents per stream or a whole 4 cents if someone plays all 10 tracks. So we probably burned through all my royalties boiling the kettle for a cuppa on day one on the site 😉

Fortunately, I’d started taking on some remote freelance and contract work over the last few months and it was going well. The Digital Nomad lifestyle appeals! With uncertainty around how long lockdown would last and when we might be able to travel, I thought I may as well start looking. I was lucky to find a great project to work on, with a really nice team. Really enjoying it 🙂

What’s next?

Obviously, there is still uncertainty, even as businesses start to open up and travel restrictions are easing. I was gutted to miss the Sabar blues festival in Hungary in early July – looks like they had an awesome time. I really don’t want to miss any more bookings – so we’re getting ready now to travel to southern Sweden for a return visit to a cool beach bar and venue for a show on August 6th. Hopefully, all will go smoothly!

Virtual Camp Quirky 2020

Here’s my 2nd live streaming gig, beamed live from our van, Stargazer!

Some original songs and a few covers to close the first virtual Camp Quirky festival…

Camp Quirky is organised by Quirky Campers as a celebration of handmade campervans. This year’s festival was supposed to take place in Northamptonshire but has been postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, they organised a virtual festival – with cocktails, music, interviews, van tours and conversion workshops throughout the afternoon on Facebook and Instagram. Hopefully, the festival will take place as planned on 2nd-4th October.

Winterised: Winter Camping in the Benimar Mileo 201

We’ve really put our van through its paces in terms of winter camping this year, and it’s been great! It’s a Benimar Mileo motorhome, model 201. Ours is from late 2015 and includes various extra features that are supposed to make it fully ‘winterised’:

  • Thick insulation on the roof and floor
  • A 6 KW gas and electric Truma for central heating and hot water
  • Fresh water stored inside the insulated space, so no worries about freezing
  • The waste water tank under the van is insulated and has a heater to prevent freezing
  • Fridge vent covers and an external thermal windscreen cover

In addition, we added winter tyres front and back and bought some hefty snow chains, both legal requirements in many EU countries. We had the garage check the antifreeze levels in the radiator coolant and it was good to -36°C. We used a screen wash fit for -70°C in a 1 to 1 ratio with water, so again it would work in similarly freezing temperatures. And earlier in the year, we’d made the big decision to invest around £400 in a fitted LPG tank. I’ll post soon about how that’s gone, was it worth it, etc.

So, how did it perform? We spent 10 days or so in on a site in Austria in early February – lots of snow, temperatures down to -15°C – and it was fantastic. Then we had a few days wild camping in the German/Czech borders and again the van performed great. It was easy to keep the van toasty warm, everything worked*, life carried on pretty much as normal.

Bev had sourced this snow brush… (thanks to my sister Wendy for an early Christmas pressie!)

…and couldn’t wait to try it. Good job we had it. Our Italian neighbour’s on the site had ladders but no brush, so we pooled resources and cleared both van roofs after the heaviest dumps of snow.

We took a spade also – just a normal garden spade rather than a snow shovel. We cleared snow each morning from the door of the van to the main path through the site (which they kept cleared with a snow plough). We also kept the snow clear at the back of the van, so we could reverse out when required. Didn’t fancy having to battle it out through a wall of thawed-frozen-thawed-frozen snow and ice when it was time to go!

We’d read a lot – on sites and forums like winterised.com – about running a ‘dry van’ in winter. This means for example: Draining all the water from tanks, pumps, pipes, taps, etc; filling up water bottles for use inside the van; and leaving your waste open so the tank doesn’t freeze and split. This means you have to catch the waste in a watering can or similar and empty it before it freezes.

Well, we didn’t go that far. We used the taps as normal, but tried to reduce water use where possible to minimise the amount in the waste tank. We were on a site for the coldest spell, so this was relatively easy as we could use the site showers. I tested our waste every morning and it was flowing freely. We moved the van maybe twice to empty it at the waste point – which sensibly was indoors.

*We had one glitch. Our pump started playing up towards the end of our time on site. I’d noticed that the only patch on the outside of the van that showed any sign of the cold was under the lounge window. Turns out this is where the pump is housed, in a compartment under the sofa. It was screwed to the van wall and so fairly exposed to the external conditions. It must have frozen at some point. After googling, and trying the fuses, we gave it a knock and it started running again.

A few weeks later, the pump stopped again so we took it to bits and cleaned it thoroughly. It limped on for another month, but eventually died. We found a replacement in a motorhome dealer in Belgium. It’s a slightly more powerful pump but was a fairly simple swap.

Old Pump New Pump

For convenience at the time, we put in back in the same place – fixed to the outside wall. But for our next winter trip, we’ll definitely move it to the inside wall of the compartment under the sofa. Might make the pump a little noisier inside the van, but we can live with that.

So would we say that the Benimar Mileo 201 is ‘winterised’? Yes!

Lockdown bound: tracking our journey through Europe and the COVID-19 outbreak

We are safely in lockdown on a site in the UK now and doing ok. Maybe the last year spent on the road – with our “the plan is, there is no plan” approach – was a helpful experience. We are already used to not seeing our friends and family so much, going out and spending less, and cutting out lots of things we don’t really need (because they weigh too much!) 

Friends abroad are seeing signs of lockdown easing – they can go to the pub in Vietnam 🙂 Here in the UK, there’s lots of discussion about tracking apps and data and privacy. This got me wondering. Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course. With the open data now available, I wondered if I could track our homeward journey through the unfolding pandemic. How close did we come? Where might we have been exposed?

Good practice from a data visualisation perspective. And, an interesting challenge in terms of exploring tracking, risk, exposure, contact and transmission, etc. I used R Studio – free open source software – to create an interactive map to display and animate our movements through the georeferenced case data. 

The amount of open data around the pandemic is impressive. It has been an important asset in understanding what works in terms of controlling the spread of COVID-19.

I used time series and individual case records from the John Hopkins University and data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

Thanks to the authors of the following R packages, for making creating the mapping app so straightforward: shiny, leaflet, geosphere, tidyverse, leaflet.minicharts, vov

Winter Camping: Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Germany

We loved our first full season of winter camping… Christmas and New Year on the Costa Brava, northern Spain – winter sun, medieval villages, catching up with our pals Tom and Zoe, paddleboarding on boxing day, midnight grapes in Girona, the Dali museum in Figueres…

After that, we trundled across the south of France, through the Camargue region, where they speak Catalan, and have bull fights, and flamingos, more gorgeous medieval hill towns – like St Paul de Vence, all snickleways and art galleries.

We sped through Italy, through some areas that had really suffered in recent floods, stopping to admire some new places like Mantua, Valvasone, Palmanova. We had a fantastic and hilarious weekend in Trieste with our friends from Newcastle, Aston and Edy, who relocated there last summer with their kids, Daisy and Lily. Great place to park the van, 100 yds from Piazza Unita!

Then, with some serious weather threatening, we made a dash up to Austria – Bev driving us through the Dolomites and over the Brenner Pass. We made it to our campsite in Leutasch one night earlier than planned. Fortunately, they had space and we were all set up before a huge dump of snow on the day we would have been traveling. An amazing week cross country skiing, beautiful ‘winter wonderland’ scenery and great exercise.

Then into Germany, more lovely medieval towns (a bit of a theme!), a little detour to catch a gig by jazz guitar maestro Martin Taylor, even sneaking in an extra cross country ski trip at Bodenmais. Heading inexorably back to the UK, but no rush!

Wild camping vs. campsites

Feels like we’re really starting to get the hang of this. The only nights we’ve been on a proper campsite since we left the UK in December were our ‘holidays’ – 3 days at Christmas in Spain and for my birthday, a week in Austria, Cross Country Skiing. Mostly, we’re finding places using park4night, usually free, occasionally 1 euro for water or electric. That’s helping keep our costs down, which we’re having to think about a little more carefully now. I’m starting to pick up some freelance work – using my day job skills in data, programming, analysis and analytics – remote projects that I can deliver on the move.

Update on van life costs

Two of the most read posts on the blog are “How much does it cost to run a campervan?” and the update I did after a few months in the newer, bigger motorhome, “75 days into our van life and European adventure – progress and costs”. I promised another update – so here’s the fun facts, figures and stats after 9 months…

Average Daily Costs

Adding up all the costs – except the one huge outlay for the purchase of the van! – and dividing by the number of days gives a headline spend of £54.85 a day. Here’s how that breaks down:

As mentioned in other posts, we can’t treat everyday like a holiday. We try to spend at least a little cash in every town we stay, but we certainly don’t eat out everyday. For us, it’s part of the adventure – cooking in the van and entertaining ourselves, making it a home from home. That £21 a day on Shopping/Social covers, for 2 adults and 2 dogs: food, drink, boring shopping (scourers, loo roll, washing up liquid, dog poo bags), toiletries, new clothes and shoes when things wear out, dining out and socialising, art galleries, cinemas, attractions, etc.

Various Van Costs covers up-front, ad-hoc and regular costs like insurance, the GPS tracker subscription, MOT, servicing, repairs and purchases like chocks, winter tyres, snow chains. That covers about 18% of our total spend, which is probably more than we might have set aside for contingencies. Worth considering that if anyone is budgeting for a similar trip.

Fuel – about 15% of our daily spend – works out at about 18p a mile.

Our average spend per night on site fees is down to £6.20 – this is mainly due to us getting much more comfortable wild camping. Park4night has been invaluable, highly recommended. In December, we stayed just 9 nights on a site – so that’s over 70% wild or free camping.

Thinking ahead to winter camping in Austria, we invested in a fixed LPG tank. This has bumped our gas costs up for now, but every time we fill it costs just £10-12 instead of around £35 to swap a bottle. It will have paid for itself after another 10 refills. An 11kg bottle (which holds around 20 litres of gas) lasts 9 to 12 days at the moment, whereas in summer it lasted well over a month.

We avoid tolls mainly – in France, Spain and Italy, for example, you just don’t get to see the little towns and villages and while they might save time, they’re often longer journeys in terms of miles and diesel. This cost is mainly Eurotunnels, a few ferries and the bridges in Denmark.

Finally, I think we’ve been very well served by EE using our phones and mobile data abroad. 4G signal is usually available, with the exception of Germany where it was really patchy, which surprised us. Watch out in Andorra, which is not EU, so the free roaming did not apply – Flight mode on 🙂 Signs so far point towards us still being able to use UK allowances in Europe after Brexit – I really hope so. We’ve used a bit more data in winter, settling in on a night to watch a box set on Amazon or Now TV.

Miles, MPG and Diesel Costs

Average miles traveled per day: 45

I use an app called Simply Auto to track some of our expenses – diesel, lpg gas, camp site fees, MOT, repairs, etc. Plotting the mileage figures against the dates shows we’ve been quite consistently on the move around that 45 miles/day average:

Countries visited: 20

UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Monaco, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Andorra, Spain

We’re on to our second ‘lap’ of Europe now, heading into Italy after Christmas and New Year along the Costa Brava and the south coast of France.

Average miles between fill-ups: 392

Average fuel efficiency overall is at 30.6 mpg, but it’s been noticeably worse over recent months. We were a bit heavier with extra guitars and have occasionally had to run the engine to top up the leisure batteries. In the UK, with shorter grey days, the solar charger couldn’t keep up with our demands. (Mainly me, working on the album on the laptop!)

Average price paid for a litre of diesel: £1.22

Here’s how different countries compared…

Average price paid over 33 fill-ups from April to December 2019.

Several times now, we’ve found it’s worth a small detour into Luxembourg to fill up. Lots of French, Belgians and Germans do the same – you can see them queuing at the first station over the border. Andorra – a tax haven – was full of French and Spanish shoppers buying duty free booze, fags and fuel. I’ve never seen so many petrol stations in such a small area! The Spanish price was surprising low – but again that was just over the border from France, luring folk in. 

At the other end of the scale, Sweden, Italy and the UK came in at or over the £1.30 mark.

Estimated Annual Costs

Our house is still rented out, so we’re aiming to stay in the van for a full year. Looks like we’re still on track for around £20,000 – probably just over now, with a few repairs and additional van costs like the winter tyres and snow chains.

Questions?

Happy to answer any questions anyone might have. If you’re planning a similar trip or there’s something I’ve not covered here, you can message via the facebook page, @howaskew on instagram or on twitter. Go on, ask me how many times I’ve had to empty the loo. (You can probably guess how many times Bev’s done it.)

What’s the plan?

After a spell in the UK – band gigs in September, a trip to Scotland, recording the new album, catching up with our Newcastle friends and seeing our families for early Christmas celebrations – we set off early December, more or less back to our “the plan is, there is no plan” approach, practicing the art of bimbling…

  • seeing some sights and enjoying our freedom to travel around Europe (while it lasts)
  • living more simply and more healthily, being outdoors, eating well
  • spending more time together, and seeing friends and family
  • playing more music, writing new songs
  • heading towards Austria to test our winterised van and do some cross country skiing 

That should take us up till mid March. I’ve started keeping an eye open for stats and data science project work, but until then we’ll just keep rolling, looking for gigs along the way.

Icons made by Smashicon, Those Icons and OCHA from www.flaticon.com

Charts made in RStudio, using dplyr, ggplot2, countrycode, ggflag, maps, mapdata