Roaming with Homer: Our first #VanLife experience!
Travelling and housesitting full time definitely has its perks. For close to three years we haven’t paid rent, worked 9-5 at jobs we hate, or been forced to live next to neighbours we don’t get on with. We haven’t bought toilet paper in almost three years! (That might be one of the stranger nuances of living in other people’s houses). But as with any lifestyle, there are downsides, and when the Covid pandemic and UK lockdown hit we began to wonder whether it would be beneficial to have a home, or at least a base, to call our own.
Over the course of our travels, we’ve slowly created a little bubble of alternative living inspiration on our Instagram, following like-minded people whose lifestyles go against the grain. We’re not sure if we’ve honed our bubble so well, or whether there’s been a real boom in the past few years, but we’re seeing more and more people choosing to live simply in a van or tiny home. We’ve often thought that van living combined with housesitting would be the perfect arrangement for us – we’d have our own base between sits, without needing to constantly be on the move, searching for places to park up.
Lockdown gave us time to begin actively researching our ideal van set-up, looking at makes, models and specifications, as well as looking at what we affectionately refer to as interior design porn on Pinterest and Instagram (you know when looking at fresh white walls and smooth wooden floors gives you a weird dopamine hit? It’s very that).
Trying it out
Amongst the many van lifers, van converters and van enthusiasts we follow on Instagram, Homer stood out, and not just because of his bright yellow paint-job. The DIY conversion, solid oak cupboards, smart sofa/bed and high top for extra head-height ticked a lot of our dream-van boxes. So we were delighted to discover, on a van life IG scroll-fest in early August, that Homer is now available to hire via Quirky Campers! After a very brief discussion (Chris trying to sell me on the idea of hiring Homer, while I was already entering bank card details) we booked our trip and began to make plans for one of our most exciting adventures yet!
After what felt like an eternity waiting for October to roll around, we excitedly picked up Homer in Leeds and hit the road to roam the Lake District and Scotland. Initially Chris had been worried about adjusting to driving a bigger vehicle, as the VW Transporter was at least twice the size of our little Ford Fiesta and towered over us. However, around ten minutes into our road trip, he found it wasn’t much different to driving a regular car – except we’d occasionally hear cutlery rattling around in a kitchen drawer, and during that first drive a bunch of insurance papers came swooping out of one of the top cupboards that we’d failed to batten down properly!
Adjusting to the space
We booked into a campsite for our first two nights in Homer to allow ourselves time to get used to living in the space. Waterside House Campsite in the Lake District is situated right on Derwentwater and has stunning views across the lake, where you can also hire canoes and paddle boards, and made for a peaceful couple of days of getting our bearings in the van. We had use of the squeaky-clean facilities just a short walk away, and chose a pitch right on the lakeside for the perfect view over the water, and of the rolling hills all around. Cooking our first dinner in Homer while admiring the dusky orange sunset reflected in the rippling lake made for a beautiful first evening of van life.
We loved that the kitchen hob could slide out from the side of the counter so, when you have the door open on a warm evening, you can cook outside and admire the view! One thing to mention about living in a van is that you need to plan your meals well. You’ll have a smaller fridge, and while there were plenty of cupboards that’s not to say you can fill them with hundreds of spices and condiments that you rarely use. Homer had a magnetic spice rack above the hob which came in handy, and we fitted about five days worth of meals in the fridge, but it’s just another thing to think about. Without an oven, we planned hob meals only and tried to incorporate as many dry, easily stored ingredients as possible. All things considered, we still ate a lot of our normal meals and it didn’t taste like camping food!
One of our primary concerns when considering van life is wondering whether we’ll have space for all our belongings. I suppose we do have a head-start on this problem, in that we’ve been on the road travelling full time for almost three years, and as such have already pared down our belongings to only those we deem essential. We don’t have a house-load of stuff to cram into the smaller space of a van, but we still carry bulky photography equipment, sewing materials for my online shop, as well as clothes, books, and games that we like to take with us – we love board games anyway but knowing we’d have no WiFi in the van meant we packed extra to keep us entertained.
Upon packing our belongings into Homer, our fears were quickly quashed as we realised that not only did we manage to store everything away neatly, but we even had empty cupboards leftover. The storage solutions in Homer were well thought out and included a variety of shapes and sizes for different possessions – we stored small tech and books in drawers, bedding in top corner cupboards, and dry food in the cupboard above the hob. Even with blankets, padded fleeces and camera tripods, everything found its place in the 60ish-square-foot van.
When night time rolled around, we made up our comfortable and surprisingly sizeable bed with ease by sliding the frame out from under the bench, with only some light re-arranging of cushions required. Although we had ample solar-power from Homer’s roof panels, we hung our own solar-powered lanterns from ceiling fixtures. We bought two pretty powerful solar lights for our recent camping trip in Cornwall, and while we didn’t necessarily have to use them, they were good to have as a back-up. We charged our phones and iPad using the USB sockets in the rear of the van which meant we could spend our evenings tucked up under our blanket watching films. Bathing in the gorgeous orange glow from Homer’s strategically placed fairy lights transformed the van into a snuggly autumnal nest, while the Diesel heater kept us toasty with a warmth that quickly filled the whole space.
Roaming around the Lakes
Leaving the campsite, we headed to Keswick – a place we know well since we completed our first ever housesit not far from the town, and were keen to revisit. We found a spot for Homer at the spacious Lakeside car park on the edge of town, even on the busy Saturday market day. We made our way through the drizzling rain and crowds of market-goers to revisit our favourite cafe in Keswick, Kat’s Kitchen, a veggie/vegan heaven where we enjoyed a full vegan brekkie. We perused a few of the outdoorsy shops before a brisk walk back to Homer under a darkening sky. Our living room on wheels was a welcome relief from the rain when it began hammering on the roof, steam fogging up the windows as we enjoyed a quick cup of tea before hitting the road once more. Being able to make a hot cuppa is definitely one of our favourite perks of travelling with your home!
After spending the drizzly day parked up lakeside at Ullswater, we headed south for about 20 minutes to Kirkstone Pass – the highest Pass traversed by road in the entirety of the Lake District. With a gradient of almost 25% in certain spots, we were a little nervous about Homer, a 3.5 tonne van built in 2011, making it to the top! While we did crawl up the Pass in places, we made it to the top and to the car park of the Kirkstone Pass Inn (the highest pub in the Lake District, and third highest in England). Now that we were a few days into van living, we decided that if we are ever to travel full time in a van, it would be beneficial to travel with chocks. The small but heavy duty wedges make it easy to level out your vehicle for a good night’s sleep. As it was, we had to take a bit more care making sure Homer was level with the help of a spirit level compass, or at least that our heads would be above our feet. Nevertheless we found our near-level spot for the night, safely nestled between other campers and motorhomes. After a quick drink at the Inn, we settled in to sleep – Homer rocking from side to side slightly as strong winds howled through the Pass.
An early start the next morning rewarded us with a beautiful sunrise and stunning views over Kirkstone Pass in both directions. Ahead of us lay a road named The Struggle (infamous in the cycling community for its dips and harsh climbs) but unsurprisingly we didn’t feel daring enough to test Homer on the winding track! The serenity of the morning was punctured only by gently bleating sheep perched precariously around us on the hillside. Over our week, we found this became another favourite part of van life – choosing a new park up spot in the evening and come morning, being surprised with tranquility and picture-perfect landscape views all around.
Winding back down Kirkstone Pass, Chris very happy to be driving down instead of up, we travelled just 15 minutes to Windermere – another of our favourite towns in the Lake District. Not only for stunning Lake Windermere, the largest lake in England, but it was here we found one of our favourite cafes IN THE UK during our Lake District housesit in 2018. Homeground, with their homemade sweet treats galore lined up along the counter, as well as their super friendly staff, have kept us coming back every time we’re in the area over the past three years. While Chris tries something new each visit, I’m borderline addicted to their PB+J blondie. I would walk back to Windermere for a slice.
Into the wild!
Having National Trust membership meant we could park up for free in any of their locations and spend the afternoon relaxing, or exploring if we felt like it. It was a real bonus having our membership while in the Lake District, with gorgeous places like Aira Force or Fell Foot to get out in nature. Keen for some true peace and quiet away from crowds, we headed for Scotland where wild camping is legal and we were sure we could find some more secluded places to stay. Driving along the M6, cutlery drawer rattling, Chris & Rosie Ramsey podcast playing, we enjoyed our easy drive at a slower pace and not just because of the slower speed limits placed on a van the size of Homer. After just a few days we’d settled into van life and felt super comfortable being on the road.
Once we arrived in Scotland we instantly felt more at ease being in the peaceful wild nature, and decided to spend the majority of our trip driving from one secluded Scottish park up spot to another. The Forestry Commission in Scotland are currently trialling a ‘Stay the Night’ campaign in which self contained vehicles – campervans and motorhomes – are permitted to park overnight at a selection of their forest car parks. You are only allowed to stay for one night at a time in each place, and must arrive after 6pm and depart before 10am the following morning unless you purchase a day ticket for the forest. The only other rule is leaving at least four metres between your vehicle and your neighbour to follow social-distancing, though we found at each spot we Stayed the Night we were one of a small handful of campers. Staying the Night in these spots felt like a good middle ground between campsites and wild camping – we definitely felt there was safety in numbers and, for our first van life adventure, we felt more comfortable in the knowledge that we were parking somewhere legally!
We also had access to facilities in some of these spots – another important factor to consider when researching places to park up. We asked for the option to have a porta-potty in the van when we hired it, thinking that it would be an absolute necessity, though for our eight day trip we didn’t have to use it once. Public toilets, in Scotland and the Lake District at least, are aplenty and on the few occasions we were without a bathroom, it was nice to get back to nature with a wild wee! If the sound of that makes you wrinkle your nose, it might be best to plan your van adventures with access to facilities as a priority.
Finding a new beautiful forest location to Stay the Night became a fun part of our trip, and the Forestry Commission spots are all stunning in their own way. We enjoyed Clatteringshaws for its dead silent location with a stunning view over the Loch, Kirroughtree we arrived at quite late, but it had a well maintained, hard ground car park which was perfect as rain hammered down all night, and we didn’t have to worry about the quality of the ground when we left the next morning. 7 Stanes Dalbeattie was our final Forestry Commission stop, a popular place for mountain bikers with its many winding trails. Though the highlight for us was discovering it was also well-known amongst dog walkers as we awoke to lots of happy four-legged friends padding around outside the van.
It wouldn’t be a Chris and Suze trip without animals…
Of course we carved out some time in our trip to see some furry friends! Witnessing the regal herd at the Red Deer Range at Castle Douglas was breathtaking as we listened to stags bellowing across the hills. While a sudden downpour of rain had other visitors rushing back to their cars, we got in the back of the van and watched the deer from our back windows in the comfort of our living room / bedroom and waited for the rain to pass.
As our week of van living was drawing to a close, on an evening snuggled up under our blanket in the usual situation (tea in hand, fairy lights on), we discussed our favourite moment of the week. We both said of all the adventuring, roaming and view-admiring we’d done, we agreed our favourite part of the week was stopping on a whim at Glen of the Bar. This small lay-by in the middle of the forest on the A712 became the spot where we spent an entire day parked up, all van doors open, sunshine streaming in, while we played games, talked and enjoyed being together in our little home on wheels. Van life makes you slow down and simply appreciate where you are. You begin to take note of little things in your surroundings; like changes in the weather when the first tinkling rain sounds hit the roof of the van, or the time of night by hooting of owls somewhere in the forest around you.
Our first taste of van life was everything we hoped it’d be and more. For people that aren’t aware of tiny living, telling someone you’ve slept in a van for a week might sound super unappealing. While sleeping in a vehicle definitely takes some getting used to, and I’m not sure we’d 100% adjusted by the end of our trip, the best part of van living for us is having all your home comforts with you in the back of the van, and spending our days just hanging out in our tiny space and being together. We had everything we needed for a comfortable trip – plenty of water for washing up, as well as two huge tanks for filtered drinking water of which we only used one during our week-long trip. It’s surprising how little you need to live happily, and while we definitely enjoyed the extra head-height of a high top van, the physical size of the van was just right for us. We loved living in Homer and are already planning ahead for another van life adventure!!
Big thanks to Steve and Kate for letting us roam with Homer! For more quirks about our trip with Homer, head to our blog to read 5 things we didn’t know about van life until we tried it! You can also check out Homer on Quirky Campers to plan your trip with him, or find Homer on Instagram to follow his adventures. As always, there’s more photos of our adventure with Homer on our Instagram and we’d love to hear from you over there or in the comments below! Have any of you experienced van living? Do you have any questions about van life? We’d love to hear from you!