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!

Live at Wild West, Sweden

On our last night in Sweden, I played the opening set for the Wild West night at the Bison Farm at Gate, near Hjo on lake Vättern. We stayed there a few days before the event and I saw the poster – listing the headline bands ‘plus ???’. I asked if they’d sorted the ??? and offered my sevices. I played in the saloon bar as people arrived, got drinks and tucked into the excellent bison burgers and smorgas. 

The main stage in the barn was fantastic. I saw most of Erika Baier and the Business’s set – a really tight band, bluesy with the occasional country twist which I thought suited the Wild West theme of the night perfectly.

Just caught a bit of De blev Handgemäng, which google translated as ‘It became a handgun’. Very cool band…

We missed headliners ‘Grass Tank’ as we had to high-tail it across the country to Gothenburg for a ferry to Denmark at 4am! Bev drove, so it was a cool moonlit ride for me. We didn’t bump into any mooses on the road. An hours kip before the ferry and we found a park4night close to Friedrikshavn in Denmark as soon as we disembarked, for a proper sleep.

Farewell Sweden, we’ll be back!

Sweden – who knew?!

Guided by our amazing friends in Sweden, we discovered so many wonderful and strange things during our 4 week exploration of the south of this fantastic country – a real highlight of our tour so far.

Swedish hospitality

First at Västervik and then in Vimmerby, we were welcomed, entertained and generally spoilt rotten – by 4 generations of the Ask family and Tony and so many other lovely people! We’ve been immersed in Swedish culture, traditions and family histories and shared in the current excitement around Andy and Ucci’s new house and Robin’s plans to build an off-grid summerhouse in Durjsala.

I mentioned the breakfasts last time. Other culinary delights include Ostkake (cheesecake), korv (hot dog style sausages), raggmonk (potato pancakes, served with bacon and lingonberry jam) and last but not least – kebab meat pizza with chips (served on the pizza) and ‘pizza salad’ (a pickled cabbagey thing). And of course we had Swedish meatballs!

We did so many fantastic things but highlights would have to include:

  • Chilling/ messing about on ‘the rock’, swimming, paddleboarding, playing guitar and banjo with beers at sunset and so on.
  • Watching the Queen/Freddie Mercury movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, at the film festival in an outdoor cinema in the ruins at Slottsholmen.
  • The Stadsvandring – an evening stroll around Vimmerby with actors in period dress telling stories, often based on real people and events in local history. It was all in Swedish but we really enjoyed it!
  • Seeing the Elk. We would have loved to see them in the wild (but not at night on the road!) but this was the next best thing. Huge beasts, very soft mouths – ‘like a peach’ says Tony. Bev was the only one in our party to go for a kiss…

I only hope we can repay such wonderful hospitality someday!

Name Days

One of the traditions in Sweden is to celebrate ‘name days’ and there were two while we there with our friends – Margareta on 20th July as it’s one of Ucci’s many middle names; and Christina on 24th July, which we celebrated with Chrisa and Mickaela (it’s her middle name) with a big family breakfast and cake…

I felt a bit sorry for young Winston, because as it’s not a traditional Swedish name, he doesn’t have a name day!

Buying booze in Sweden

Systembolaget is the government-owned chain of off-licences in Sweden. Since 1955, this is the only place (apart from bars, restaurants and night-clubs) where you can buy strong alcoholic beverages. The one we went to was nice – plenty of range and reasonably priced (compared to bars). Felt a bit like a duty free shop in an airport. Apparently, the staff are usually quite knowledgeable and you can order anything in if its not in stock. 

Turns out they have names for the different categories of öl (ale), based on the strength:

  • Lättöl 0.0% – 2.25% – Light
  • Lätt Folköl 2.8% – introduced more recently to align with EU
  • Folköl 2.9% – 3.5% – ‘the people’s beer’
  • Mellanöl 3.6% – 4.5% – in-between beer
  • Starköl 4.6% and above – Strong beer

You can buy cans of beer in the supermarkets, but only up to 3.5%.These are 3.5% versions of beers we normally see at 5.0% here in the UK, so were heartily dismissed as ‘piss ale’ by some of our party.

And one more thing on beer – each can has a deposit or ‘pant’ of 1 Krona which is an incentive to drive positive recycling behaviour. You feed the empties into a machine in the supermarket and it gives you a receipt for money off inside. We saw the same in Denmark and Germany.

Fika

This is the habit of regular breaks for coffee, chat and little cakes or nibbles. Someone pops by – fika time! Job done – time for a fika! We got into it. Lots of cinnamon whirls, little biscuits, etc. One of our faves was an orange and coconut biscuit/flarn – which was so good Bev asked Ucci’s dad for the recipe.

Loppis

You see this on handwritten signs everywhere – it means ‘flea’ and points towards a flea market. Some are temporary car boot style, some more established. Some have fika! I half wanted to visit one – I’m on the lookout for some specific bits and bobs for a secret musical project – but had to remind myself that we don’t have room in the van for any ‘tat’. 

Raggere

This is the word for the Swedish craze for all things American and vintage – Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, 1950s music and dress, and so on. Some estimates say there are now more restored vintage classic cars in Sweden than in the USA. One day we passed car after car after car – heading to a massive meet-up at Falköping . Our last night in Sweden was a Wild West spectacular at a bison farm – we thought we might see a few there and weren’t disappointed. Chevrolets, Dodges and this immaculate Oldsmobile…

Allemansrätt

In Sweden, this is an ancient law that provides the legal right of access to private, uncultivated land. You can:

  • Wander freely in forest and fields.
  • Pick berries, mushrooms, and wild flowers if they are not endangered.
  • Camp one night, without permission of the landowners, if it is not too close to a populated area.
  • Bathe, row, sail, paddle and drive motor boats on lakes, rivers and archipelagos.
  • Make fires (proceeding with extreme caution).

But you must not:

  • Damage growing trees or bushes.
  • Walk over fields in crop or through newly planted forest areas.
  • Take bird’s eggs or bird’s nests.
  • Leave garbage (paper, plastic, glass, etc…) in countryside.

This is amazing for wild campers! We found that nature reserve car parks were an ideal place to spend the nights – most of them had:

  • a toilet, often a compost toilet but most were really nice!
  • picnic tables
  • a fire pit
  • waste bins
  • spectacular views, walks or paddleboarding

Bev got into exercising her Allemansrätt, picking bilberries/blueberries for some amazing pies…

As a result of staying at friend’s houses and free nights at nature reserves, our camping costs for Sweden were far lower than we expected and we loved it so much, we stayed a whole month.

Västervik Live!

“Can anyone remember what they were doing 100 days ago?” I started into my story at the Västervik Live Songs and Stories event, to a friendly crowd of Swedes in the historic and picturesque Båtmansgränd (the old boatmen’s houses).

April 9th was ‘day 1’, when we left Newcastle and started our new life in the van. After Copenhagen, we’d traveled up the Swedish coast and made it to our first planned destination – Västervik, and our Newcastle friends Andy and Ucci’s new house. I got to celebrate ‘day 100’ by playing at one of the city’s summer concerts. Easily the biggest show of our journey so far, I opened for Robin Bengtsson, who sang for Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017!

There was a catch though – I had to tell a story! I was more nervous about that than the music. What would I say? Would they understand my northern accent? Would they laugh at my jokes? The promoter Jim and compere Catrin were really nice and encouraging, and Bev helped with ideas for a story. I talked about our adventure, about making positive changes in your life, taking a risk maybe, but following a dream. 

Sometimes if you listen to the news, especially in the UK right now, you’d think the world is a terrible place. You’d be better off staying in your homes, keeping your head down. But everywhere we’ve been, we’ve met wonderful, warm, friendly people doing amazing things to celebrate life and make the world a brighter, better place.

A good example: Sebbe at Strandkompaniet in Sandhammaren. He moved there from Stockholm to set up a smokehouse – with the ambition that all the ingredients they use for hams and sausage is so local, it can be delivered by bicycle. In just 3 years, he has almost achieved that. This year, he opened a beach bar/cafe, putting on live music on Thursdays through the summer. We were camping nearby so I emailed to ask about a gig. He replied straight away and put on an extra night on the Friday. I played 3 sets and had a great night.

And, I can confirm the sausages are spectacular!

100 days on the road…

Our 100th day was fantastic from start to finish. Ucci’s sister Chrisa and Tony treated us to a huge breakfast of Swedish favourites including Västervik Korv (sausage), liver pate with pickled cucumbers, boiled eggs with dill caviar, and cheese with jam on toast! We walked with the dogs into Västervik – past Slottsholmen, the fancy hotel built by Björn from Abba – to see the Hasselörodden, an annual parade of rowing boats with locals dressed in traditional fisherman’s outfits. I was too stuffed from breakfast to try a herring burger, but by the size of the queue, they must be good. Back for lunch, then we helped move some furniture into the gorgeous new house.

Songs and Stories

Tony gave me a lift into town with my gear to soundcheck – it all sounded great with Alvin on the desk. Then, Bev shouting at the end of the row of historic houses, “Come and see this!” They’d got a lift into town in a convoy of army jeeps, including one used by the British army in WW2! Bonkers. We bumped into another set of relatives, Pea and Freddan, who happened to be stuck in Västervik by virtue of a broken steering cable on their boat. The gig went really well – I played 6 of my own songs and the crowd’s reaction was really positive. Lots of nice comments and great feedback from the organisers. Might be back next year!

We enjoyed the other acts, Stefan and Sarah and then Robin, playing acoustic guitar along with a fantastic percussionist. What a voice! Good mix of songs, mostly in English. Great version of John Fogerty’s “Blue moon nights” and his Eurovision song, “I can’t go on”, had everyone up at the end. We moved on to watch the sunset from the boat, drinking gin and singing songs!

We don’t know where we’ll be in a 100 days time, but I hope it is as good as this!