Van life in the UK and farewell 2020!

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 😊

Van lifer and cross country skier Bev outside her winterised Benimar Mileo 201 motorhome enjoying the snow

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
Van lifers How and Bev Askew with covid masks in the palm house at 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.

our whippet Marra enjoying van life on the road in Europe

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)…

Thank you!  

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!

Van Life in Lockdown

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…

[mixcloud https://www.mixcloud.com/garygrainger/blues-show-532/ width=100% height=60 hide_cover=1 mini=1]

[mixcloud https://www.mixcloud.com/richard-harris23/5-may-2020/ width=100% height=60 hide_cover=1 mini=1]

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 😉

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 🙂

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 – and 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!

Foraging, baking and fishing…

Part of van life is to try to make it feel like a home from home, especially if you’re using it as a long term base. For me, this means eating as healthily as we did at home, and to trying to ensure a varied diet. So, I’ve been out foraging – trying to find fresh, free ingredients on our travels. Sweden in particular was great for this, not just because of the timing of our visit there, but because foraging and fishing are allowed pretty much anywhere. Since then, we’ve kept our eyes open along the way – through Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and now back in the UK.

Things we have foraged include…

Elderflowers

Made some delicious refreshing cordial in Slovakia.

Blueberries and bilberries

I’ve made several pies and some lovely jam. I’ve also added them to our morning smoothie.

Samphire

On the Dutch coast, we found plenty and enjoyed it blanched with a sardine salad and also with tuna pasta dishes. It’s salty flavour really goes well with seafood.

Cob nuts

A type of hazelnut, I waited for them to go brown, toasted them and added them to our breakfast bars instead of almonds. We don’t have a nut cracker in the van… so I used the pliers!! Everything has more than one use, it’s about time those pliers earned their keep.

Apples and Blackberries

Now we’re back in the UK, there’s plenty of blackberries and apples, so I’m looking forward to long walks foraging with the dogs, and a surfeit of crumbles… mmm!

Wild raspberries too – Didn’t find a huge amount (Boo learned how to pick them, so we lost a good few!) but they were great on top of our breakfast cereal.

Fish!!??

Our good friend Guy has lent us a fishing rod, so if and when we head back to Europe, we’re going to be spending some time in the lakes of Germany and Sweden trying to catch our supper. We’ve had a first foray in the North sea at Robin Hood’s Bay, hoping to catch sea bass…will keep you posted…

Lavender

I made some scented wardrobe hangers from flowers we collected in Hungary and Slovakia.

Baking Update

In addition to baking breads and pizzas as previously reported, I’ve made all sorts – Here’s a selection of the best efforts…

Bread

Cracked this now – the secret is turning it 5 times in our Thetford gas oven. Home-made blueberry jam on home-made toast – perfect!

Melting peanut butter chocolate puds

Another favourite comfort pud from home, works a treat in the van.

Flarn

A Swedish recipe, from our friend Ucci’s Dad. They are thin, coconut and orange biscuit – deliciously with or without buttercream filling.

Pizza, Ciabatta and garlic bread

Thin crust pizzas, made from scratch – they require careful turning in the oven, but well worth the effort.

Chelsea buns

Sticky, cinnamon goodness – Another firm favourite!

Cookies

White chocolate and cranberry! We had mixed results with a certain batch of Italian butter, but these are usually a quick and tasty treat.