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!

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!

Choosing a motorhome

We’d had our campervan – a converted T5 transporter van, nicknamed “Voyager” – for 3 years and had some fantastic adventures. We really caught the bug. As well as regular weekend escapes, gigs and festivals, we’d done 2 longer trips around Europe – first for 2 weeks and then 3 weeks. We loved it and wanted to go further afield and stay away longer, much longer e.g. months.  On our last trip we found more wild camping sites – Bev’ll do a post on the Park4Night app at some point – and again loved the freedom (and low cost) and wanted to do more of that. For a few reasons, we started to think that a bigger van might be required:

Living and storage space

We’re not just thinking in terms of taking a long holiday, we want to take our lives on the road to some extent. We’ll look long and hard at what we need – we are downsizing after all – but it’s likely we’ll have to take more ‘stuff’ than we do currently. (And that already includes the dog’s beds/coats/food, Bev’s paddleboard, my guitars, etc.)

We were lucky with the weather on our longer trips – it was sunny, dry and warm. I think if we’d had more rain, we’d have struggled a bit with wet coats, boots and 2 wet dogs! So, if we’re going to be away longer and we intend to keep on camping through winter, we should prepare for that.

Also, we love being outdoors and have the picnic table and chairs but we may also need space to ‘work’ indoors, especially through winter.

A made up bed

It might be part of the fun for some, making up a bed each night from the sofa but we love the idea of a separate space for sleeping. We’re both quite tall so sleeping widthways is not an option for us in a normal van. In Voyager, we came close by sleeping ‘upstairs’ – in the pop top. We could leave the bedding up there during the day and when driving. This also meant one of us could have a lie-in while the other got up to sort the dogs and make a cuppa in the morning. Of course, with the bed ‘down’ there isn’t much headroom so you have to do all this hunched over! We began to dream of doing this morning ritual without stooping and it became a ‘must-have’ for our new van.

Facilities for wild camping

Although the VW van was easy to drive on narrow roads and could get us into places that we’d never reach in a motorhome, there were a few drawbacks. The fresh water capacity in the conversion was a bit limiting at 12 litres, and it was fiddly to fill. So, more fresh water and an integrated waste tank were required. Having lived with 12v electrics and a Waeco CR50 compressor fridge and a Truma gas-only heater, we also knew we wanted more fuel/power options for storing food, cooking and heating the living area. Ideally, this would include solar.

Full winterisation for year-round travel

That means better insulation, decent heater, frost protection on the water supply, etc.

Although we’d got into to a fairly slick routine for setting up and packing up, we still imagined ways to make it easier. In an ideal world, it would be effortless to move from driving to camping modes – just pull up when we find the perfect spot and drive off whenever we felt like it. We began to look at motorhomes admiringly, and pondering… if we wanted to wild camp for days, we’d probably need a loo and a shower, so we’d need more water, and a built in waste tank, and what about the comfy captain’s chairs for driving long distances, that spin round to make a dining area with the adjustable table… And, ooh, built in cab-blinds… Classic van envy!

When you start looking at motorhomes, there’s a huge range of styles, layouts and of sizes. Some are absolute monsters. We decided on a few more criteria:  

Not too long!

Neither me nor Bev have much experience driving big vehicles and I’d already had a ‘minor altercation’ with an underground car park in Heidelberg. We don’t want to have to avoid back country roads entirely. The VW van was 5m and we knew a motorhome would be bigger, but ideally under 6m as we’d heard this can be a size limit for some ferries in Scotland and sometimes vans over this length get charged more.

Reasonable fuel efficiency

The VW was fantastic, averaging 36 mpg. We’d seen online some motorhomes did less than 20 mpg which seems boggling. Ideally, hoping for something around 25-30 mpg.

Of all the different brands, types or classes, and layout options, we soon homed in on just 2 layouts and there weren’t many options in our price range:

French Bed layout – fixed bed, with storage underneath accessible from outside, separate bathroom, kitchen area, lounge.

Transverse Bed – fixed bed, even more storage accessible from outside, separate bathroom, kitchen area, lounge.

A chance encounter at Marquis Motorhomes in Birtley, where Bev ambushed a chap bringing his motorhome in for it’s annual service and he generously showed us around, convinced us that there was only one make and model that would tick all the boxes…

Benimar Mileo 201

A low-profile coachbuilt motorhome with a transverse bed layout.

Benimar Mileo 201

Typically for us, we had to be even more particular – it had to be a late 2015 or later model, as the earliest versions weren’t fully winterised.

Elddis had a transverse bed model, which was a cheaper option, but it wasn’t winterised, didn’t seem as well finished, and even the brand new models just had a ‘dated’ look/feel to them, like your Granda’s old caravan.

Benimar have a French Bed model, the 231, but we saw that it lacked a preparation space in the kitchen – something Bev was keen on. (A cooking and baking post coming soon!) We also liked the L shaped lounge, thinking there’ll be a bit more room when the whippets want to climb on our laps.

There’s a review of the early 201 models here. We watched this video countless times, despite the terrible spanish puns, while we scoured the second hand sites for a decent late-2015 201 to come up.