One of our dreams (if and when we ever tire of travelling!) is to own a smallholding. I’ve always loved gardening, but have never had a plot big enough to take it seriously. I’d love to one day be at least semi-sustainable. This year, I had a slight concern that, post-lockdown, everyone in the UK might suddenly want to go camping – and all the sites would be full. This led me to start looking for alternative places to stay and at the same time try and gain some experience with gardening, land management and animal care.
I started by contacting a few animal rescue centres and charity farms, but they mostly had their own regular volunteers and often didn’t have space for our motorhome. Then, I discovered HelpX – short for ‘Help Exchange’ – a work exchange platform. For a small fee (€20 for 2 years’ membership) you can join as a ‘helper’ and view literally thousands of ‘hosts’ including small-holdings, crofts, eco-lodges, B+B’s, vineyards and more! I did look at alternatives (Workaway, Wwoofer for example), but HelpX got the best reviews as far as support went, and was much cheaper.
Once you’ve set up your profile of who you are, what skills you have and a few relevant photos, you can go in search of suitable hosts. I found a couple of really interesting ones in Scotland that looked perfect and was overjoyed when they both immediately contacted me back!
Our HelpX experiences
We ended up spending 2 fantastic weeks on a croft on the Isle of Mull. I looked after ducklings, piglets and a large fruit and vegetable plot with a huge polytunnel. I was expected to do about 20 hours a week, which was flexible enough to allow us to really explore our surroundings. In return, we got free accommodation, fresh food from the croft and some lovely meals cooked by our hosts who were very friendly and interesting people.
Our second placement was at Comrie Croft in Perthshire, an eco-campsite/mountain bike centre/café/market garden. It was awesome! Here, there were several ‘HelpX-ers’ so it was good to meet other folk doing the same thing and find out where they had been and what they thought of the HelpX way of life.
I think it helped (particularly just after Covid) that we had our own motorhome to live in, although most places do offer simple accommodation. It also benefitted us in that there were very few travellers from Europe (both because of Covid and Brexit). So many places were desperate for help. In the end I had to change my profile to say ‘fully booked’ as I was getting so many requests from hosts.
After we left Scotland, we finally got to Europe again! We did a couple few weeks work at Bigård Birgitta – an apiary/garden/café in southern Sweden, which was really great fun! We looked after 70 hens, ducks, rabbits and quails, kept an eye on 7 beehives and did plenty of gardening. Also, we got addicted to chanterelle mushroom hunting.
Is it worth it?
Yes! I’d highly recommend HelpX as a great way to get experience in a wide range of situations, see some amazing places and meet really interesting people. It helps you realise what you can do when you put your mind to it. The HelpX website is really easy to use and when needed, I got good support from the team there.
I moved to Newcastle when I was 18. Bright-eyed, wielding a cheap guitar (a battered Les Paul copy) and dragging a huge Laney valve amp from the ‘70s. I came to study Zoology and it was great. I loved the city and soon came to call it home. Spital Tongues and Kenton briefly, but mostly the Cradlewell end of Jesmond. So many great memories. And though we’ve been on the road full-time since April 2019 – when we rented our house out and set off on our van life adventure – we always had a sense of ‘at home in Newcastle’.
Well! Today, 29 years after I arrived in the Toon, that’s all about to change – we’ve sold the house! So now we’re ‘houseless, not homeless’ – as the van life saying goes. We’re starting a new chapter – very exciting and a tiny bit strange. In the current circumstances, the shifting sands of Brexit and COVID-19, u-turns and uncertainty – it seems sensible to continue with our “the plan is there is no plan” approach.
Our take on van life
‘Van Life’ can mean different things to different people – it depends on your circumstances and how you want to live. There’s a lot to explore between the extremes of Nomadland (seasonal labour and shitting in a bucket) and the luxury apartments on wheels (Morello Palace anyone?) I guess we’re somewhere in the middle. I went into more detail about how we live and typical costs in an earlier blog. We have a toilet and a shower, but manage to get by without the wine cellar, his and hers walk-in wardrobes and a runabout car 😉
We set out to take a break from work, enjoying time together and with our dogs, especially precious time with our old boy Marra. Enjoying seeing new places, making the most of our pre- Brexit freedoms. We were enjoying living more simply – we’d dumped a house-load of stuff in storage and didn’t miss any of it. We were enjoying travelling light, meeting friends old and new, eating and drinking well and experiencing wild places and nature. I was enjoying making music, finding gigs and playing my songs in cool places.
Lockdown slowed us down for a bit but if anything, it just made us more determined to carry on, to see more. But it also brought about a step-change in employer’s attitudes to remote working and huge leaps in IT capabilities – opening up new opportunities for Digital Nomads. Given the decimation of the live music scene, I’d found a great data project to work on, which gave us some stability to continue our adventures. We’d made the most of our winter lockdown – 20 days of snow and cross-country skiing in the hills above Durham! – but we were so happy to get back on the road again when restrictions eased in April.
We headed back to Devon and Cofton for a few weeks. Loads of great walks nearby, and swimming twice a week at the pool. The shower block was still closed but that was no problem for us.
We visited Exeter and found a little Portuguese spot for coffee and fell in love with it – the Cork and Tile on Gandy Street. Pastel de Nata’s and cappuccinos for 2nd breakfasts, back for lunch of Portuguese style tapas.
Our next base, after some socially distanced visits on the way up the country, was Loch Ken in Dumfries and Galloway – paddleboarding and watching the red kites. Great campsite and loads to see nearby – the gardens at Arbigland House, Kippford, great meal at the Clachan Inn.
Then, something new for us! Bev had signed up to HelpX (blog coming soon) and arranged a fortnight on a croft on the Isle of Mull. She was in her element working a few hours each day on the smallholding. Planting out, weeding, feeding the ducklings and chickens, and laughing at the 13 new piglets. We stayed with Celia and Phil and their children and it was a fantastic experience. It was a great chance to see first-hand the joys and challenges of running a croft or smallholding – which is still very much what Bev wants to do. We toured the island and called at Tobermory, but our favourite place was the wild camping site at Lochbuie. The wildlife on Mull was fantastic: otters, common and grey seals, red deer, curlews, eagles, dolphins and more – highly recommended.
Another HelpX at Comrie Croft in Perthshire. A bigger operation – camping and katas, mountain bike trails, a wedding venue, co-working space, café and farm shop. Bev turning her hand to all kinds of work. Planting, weeding, and – with her craft and sewing skills – making mattress covers for the huge beds in the katas. Lovely part of the world, on the edge of the Highlands, with some fantastic walks.
We’ll soon be double vaccinated and are trying to put everything in place to head off to Europe. Keeping an eye of course on each country’s Covid-19 rules and restrictions. After Brexit, we can stay only 90 days out of 180 in Schengen countries. Our whippet Boo can stay up to four months with her Animal Health Certificate. So, we’re exploring non-Schengen options to maximise that.
Our van life is a chance to enjoy doing what we love – sometimes it’s hard to think of staying in one place! But now we’ve sold the house, we can start to think about where we might settle and start on Bev’s dream of having a smallholding. Till then, we’re ‘free range’ 🙂 #homeiswhereyouparkit
Well, Merry Christmas folks and all the best for 2021! It’s been a year like no other, and perhaps not the best time for van life in the UK. Hoping for better things in the coming year – stay positive and look after each other. A blast of snow this morning in County Durham, enough to get the cross -country skis out, so we’re smiling 😊
After our adventures in Sweden – and the rare joy of playing live music to a live audience – we’ve made the most of our time in the UK, keeping an eye on the changing tiers and restrictions and local lockdowns…
A few days in Helmsley, a lovely town, motorhome friendly overnight parking, great walks nearby.
Enjoyed walking in South Lakes, near Kendall.
Saw the aqueduct at Pontcysllte and Tintern Abbey, in Wales.
Visited Church Stretton – which has campervan friendly parking in the middle of town. We avoided Long Mynd, the famously narrow road over the tops. Bev bought some wool and knitting needles from the prolific crafter craft shop and it has certainly kept her busy. Orders for fancy socks, gloves and hats have been pouring in!
Through Cheddar Gorge, then a lovely meal and pub-stopover at The Candlelight Inn, Bishopswood, Somerset
With shorter days and cloudier weather, wanting to avoid worrying about solar power to charge the laptop while I’m working, we booked into a site in Devon for a few weeks. Although much bigger than the sites we normally visit, Cofton Holiday Park outside Dawlish turned out just fine. They have a pool and we swam twice a week. Loads of apple trees and sweet chestnuts for the scrumping! Great walks and an excellent pub nearby. Then on…
I liked Baskerville country – visiting Dartmoor for a suitably bleak walk on Haytor Rocks.
A coffee at Jamaica Inn and a misty walk around Fowey, home of Daphne du Maurier.
A long awaited visit to the Eden Project
Then the news of another national lockdown came in. For the first time in 20 months of van life in a motorhome in the UK and Europe, the concept of a ‘home address’ became a problem. We’d booked back onto Cofton, now in a ‘tier 2’ area, but because our home address was ‘tier 3’, we couldn’t stay. A shame, as we’d not been in a tier 3 area for months, but hey ho. We hoofed it back up North to get locked down closer to home.
Compared to some full-time van dwellers, we played it fairly safe – for the full lockdowns we booked a long-term pitch on a site. I needed to be able to guarantee power and mobile signal. One upside of 2020 is the huge leap forward organisations have made in enabling remote working. With tools like Teams, Slido and Miro, it’s easier than ever to work productively and collaboratively from wherever you may be in the world. A big plus for Digital Nomads.
We’ve been very fortunate so far in terms of the virus – family and friends have stayed safe – but we had our own tragedy in September, when we lost Marra. He was a lovely boy, our first dog and very special to us. We miss him terribly.
No gigs of course, but I managed to finish a new song. With classic Askew timing, I released a song about travelling and freedom the very day after the UK went back into national lockdown and travel was restricted!
Huge thanks for all the support for my music – for Travelling Girl and my album Brass Neck! earlier in the year. To those that bought CDs and downloads, to the Spotify streamers and followers, and for the radio plays – Cheers!
A shout out to a few DJs in particular that have helped to spread the word up and down the country – Gary Grainger, Jimmy Carlisle, Richard Dunning, Sion Ap Gwilym, Dennis Roberts, Dr Wart Hoover, Paul Winn, Harry Simpson, The Geordie Hour, Pablo Stewart, Mark Hughes, Richard Harris, Tim Eden, Ian McKenzie and Steve Taggart.
And to my fellow musicians: Richy and Phil (hopefully we’ll get to gig next year), Lyndon, Phil Moore, Gary, Gav and Dee (on Brass Neck!), and Jen Stephens and BJ Cole (on Travelling Girl)…
As for the new year, we’re hoping the vaccine roll-out will allow some aspects of life to resume safely. More travel and gigs are high on our list!
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.
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!
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…
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…
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 😉
With uncertainty around how long lockdown would last and when we might be able to travel, I thought I may as well start looking for freelance and contract work. I was lucky to find a great project to work on, with a really nice team. Really enjoying it 🙂
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!