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How embracing the van life helped me beat the cost-of-living

BY Nancy Campbell

20th Apr 2023 Life

How embracing the van life helped me beat the cost-of-living

As more Brits take up the van life, poet and non-fiction writer Nancy Campbell reflects on how moving into her caravan helped her survive the housing crisis

I write this on a spring morning, in the dwelling I have called home for two years now.

From one small window, I have a view of joggers pounding the sunny towpath by the Oxford Canal, and the other looks onto the busy railway line along which trains travel from Southampton Docks to Birmingham.

"A vehicle designed for freedom and the open road has proved a stable solution for surviving the current housing crisis"

The railway track and the canal must have been laid down around the same time, both built to power the metamorphoses of the Industrial Revolution.

The woods where I’ve parked my caravan have grown up between them, a sliver of stasis among the quest for commerce and speed. This vintage van, a vehicle designed for freedom and the open road, has proved a stable solution for surviving the current housing crisis.

Moving to Oxford

I first moved to Oxford from north-east England just before the millennium to study for an English degree. The prospect promised an unprecedented three years in one location.

My childhood had been peripatetic; I lived in eight homes before I was a teenager. As my family flitted between rented accommodation, a pattern for transience was established. I hadn’t known stability, and so I didn’t put any value on it.

After my studies ended, I continued this nomadic lifestyle for reasons of economy. It’s not easy to pay the rent in the early stages of any career—particularly so in the creative industries.

I was excited to secure a publishing internship in London, and as it was unpaid I planned to survive by sofa-surfing. Then came the day I felt I could no longer keep asking friends for shelter.

Nomadic lifestyle

I split my possessions and left them with various people, and soon forgot what I had left where, and later, what I had even owned to begin with.

"Society is not kind to those whose lives are organised around endless movement"

I spent nights on buses and in stations. It was not the roughness of sleeping rough that I minded—that could be covered up by a discreet wash in the sink at the publisher’s office—but the fragmentary effect on the self of constant moving around.

Society is not kind to those whose lives are organised around endless movement, although it’s an ancient human instinct. Within a few months, I had given up on a publishing career.

Living in different countries

Svalbard Museum, most northern museum in the worldCampbell embraced her nomadic lifestyle abroad with residencies at far-flung places like the Svalbard Museum

I became a travel writer, committing to brief, immersive “residencies” with museums and art centres—where temporary accommodation is often provided in exchange for producing new work about a community.

My first experience of working this way, at the most northern museum in the world in Greenland, was driven by a desire to learn more about the precarious nature of people’s lives in a changing Arctic.

Over the years that followed, living and working on location in the polar regions or Scandinavia or the Alps, not settling down for very long, and the warm welcome such communities offer strangers, meant wherever I landed was always “home”.

Drawn back to Oxford

During the pandemic it was necessary to adopt a deeper, more permanent engagement with locality. All through my travels to witness environmental change, Oxford had often drawn me back. It’s a crossroads of reality and the imagination, the perfect city for a writer.

Living in this beautiful and richly historical region, I have found no shortage of material on my doorstep. I have rented rooms all over the city, and worked all kinds of jobs here, from bookbinder to barista. But the main reason I’ve made it my base was the kindred spirits I found here.

Community and a caravan

Nancy Campbell with caravan in woodsCredit: Ella Foote. When Campbell struggled to find an affordable place to live in Oxford, she made a second hand caravan her home

It was this community that came to my rescue when I found myself unable to find somewhere to live once lockdown ended.

I’d been primary carer for a stroke survivor during the darkest months of the pandemic.

An affordable home in one of the most expensive cities in the UK was not easy to find. My friends suggested I buy a used caravan online, and offered the empty willow glade as a temporary space to moor it.

"I found myself channeling my spirit for adventure into a more local focus"

Away from the fears and responsibilities of a care role, I learnt how to care for myself again. I found myself channeling my spirit for adventure into a more local focus.

It takes a surprising amount of work to keep a tiny home in order: ensuring the smooth running of a temperamental gas cooker and car batteries; fetching water and emptying the portaloo.

I began to enjoy taking care of my immediate surroundings, a skill that in all my moving around I’d probably neglected. Over the summer, I worked to turn waste-ground into a wild garden, replacing nettles with ferns and other wild plants.

Life off-grid and away from conventional housing

Caravan from Thunderstone book about nomadic van lifeLiving off-grid has helped Campbell keep her costs and carbon footprint down, while embracing a simpler way of life

I forged friendships with the self-sufficient boaters living nearby, always ready to share knowledge on the low-carbon simplicity of life off-grid. My neighbour, live-aboard Jack, likes to quote Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: “Comfort is the death of the soul." I agree.

But I’ve learnt that comfort can be found away from the bright infrastructure of urban life: in watching the wren that nests in the willow and the foxes playing in the woods at dawn, in brewing a cup of coffee on a gas ring on a spring morning.

My step away from conventional housing has been a necessary act of personal economy, but the benefits include taking nothing for granted, and unexpected delight.

Thunderstone by Nancy Campbell is published by Elliot & Thompson on April 6 (RRP £9.99 Paperback)

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