If I stretch flat out on my bed, pointing my toes so they brush the wall, I can make the top of my head lie flat against the wall opposite. The whole length of the room I live in is as long as I am. I have forgotten what it is like to stand inside and put your hands up over your head. Swing a cat? I can’t even stand in my caravan and spin on the spot without hitting something.
Physically, you could say living in a caravan is limiting. It is not the property dream we were sold. What with lack of security, the freezing cold nights and the ignominy of having to wee in a bucket. Investment? Forget it!
If you’d told me at 20 that at 40 I’d be a middle-aged, middle-class professional living in a caravan, I’d have told you where to shove it. I was hustling my way up the corporate ladder in London dreaming that one day I’d own a fancy pink Georgian mansion in Hampstead. And yet right now instead I am living in a space smaller than my old kitchen in London. Perhaps more oddly still, I’ve never been happier.
Two years ago, I was living in Dalston, before that in a flat just off Carnaby Street. Then, I was obsessed with city life. I was an enthusiastic urbanite — out every night, rarely eating at home, heading out to the theatre several times a week, more often ending up at some sticky-floored east London nightclub. But in lockdown, when the city was shut I began dreaming of open green fields. Stuck in a small studio flat going crazy, I pictured myself with a cottage in the country. When, during the first lockdown, I then broke up with my fiancé, I decided, on something of a whim, to sell my flat in Dalston and move to Cornwall.
Except it didn’t quite work out like that. As they say, “if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans”. Amid an urban exodus, fuelled by the stamp duty freeze, the housing market became a bin fire. The houses I tried to buy in Cornwall fell through. I relocated to Somerset only to spend months wasting my wages on a succession of extortionately priced Airbnbs until I decided something had to give. So I cut my losses and bought a caravan.
My caravan, which cost just shy of £2,000, is a pink sweetie box covered in fairy lights: a vintage Seventies Abbey caravan with large bay windows. Inside it has a checkerboard Formica floor like a Fifties diner, glitter flock wallpaper, eggshell-blue cupboards and a pearlescent kitchen. It is a Barbie Dream Home. The kind of caravan you’d expect to see Betty Draper from Mad Men holidaying in. I love it because it is the kind of place I wanted to live in when I was seven.
The sisters I bought it from christened her “Maggie”. They handed her over stuffed with pink: pink rosebud curtains, pink flower cushions, pink throws, a pink radio and pink gingham bunting. I added endless fairy lights. So now it is like a giant flashing strawberry milkshake, hell to wake up in hungover but heaven to fall asleep in among the blinking lights.
Sure, there are times I worry about what I’ve done. When I’m doom-scrolling on Facebook and see friends taking luxury beach holidays while I’m shivering in front of a fan heater; when they announce huge promotions or send me pictures of them out in the city at after-works drinks, I worry that in trying to escape the rat race I’ve also accidentally retired 20 years too soon. When I see friends’ pictures of their children giggling on their husbands’ shoulders, or the beautiful townhouses they’ve bought in Notting Hill while I’m pulling on layers of thermals in my tiny, lonely bed, I wonder if I’ve taken the wrong path. But then I remember I am not them and I can’t live someone else’s life. I quickly realised that I can’t face the idea of constantly moving the van, like a snail with my house on my back. It’s not legal or practical to just pull up in any spot you fancy, and I don’t want to live between caravan parks. Instead I’ve moved the caravan between plots of land owned by people I’ve met. At one point I was in a car park on a hipster industrial estate in Frome — by a café where I could get oat lattes for breakfast and by the rail tracks where cargo trains chugged at night.
While I’m pulling on layers of thermals in my tiny, lonely bed, I wonder if I’ve taken the wrong path
People asked if I was scared about security but actually I felt surprisingly safe. Frome isn’t Manchester — anyone trying to move my van would be spotted. I can’t imagine a burglar bothering to raid it, unless they have a particular taste for kitsch. Now I’ve got the van parked in a lovely lady’s field where another friend of mine already lives in a caravan. It’s tucked into an orchard, near a field of sheep and goats. When I tell some people that I am living in a caravan they look horrified. Others look impressed (or perhaps I’m kidding myself). Everyone wants to know about the loo situation — the answer to which is there is actually a loo in the caravan but I prefer not to use it because I can’t stomach the thought of emptying it, so I use an outside loo instead.
It is ironic that when I sold my London flat to move to the countryside I did so because I wanted more space; I am now living in an area smaller than my old kitchen. Although obviously there are advantages to being able to make a cup of tea from bed. In estate agent speak it would be a bijou, country pied-à-terre.
Still, it’s surprising how quickly you get used to living in a tiny space. It is sometimes hard to keep up the veneer of city respectability from the van, but I try: heading to the nearby gym to get ready before Zoom meetings or ‘showering’ from a bottle of water before seminars (I sometimes work for a university). I have spoken to editors as I have sat in my bed watching the goats escape from their field. The signal is unpredictable. But really who cares? Never before have I sat at my desk writing looking out to sheep nibbling fallen apples, or closed my eyes during a conference call and heard the birds tweet. The van may be tiny but it only encourages me to get out of it. The major upside is I am saving a fortune. No council tax. No bills. My major outgoing is the £35 a month wi-fi hotspot bill.
I have only brought one date back to the van, who was charmed by my silly little space. They thought they’d meet a brave adventurer but ended up laughing at how housewifey I am, tottering around making cocktails in my tiny kitchen. I suspect the madness of it added to my appeal. Although I cannot recommend trying to have sex in what is barely a single bed made from a slim plank of wood. But, if you like cuddling, then it’s a proper little love shack.
I cannot recommend trying to have sex in what is barely a single bed made from a slim plank of wood
There are some van nightmares. Like when my friend got a rat in her van — an idea I found so horrifying I couldn’t sleep for a week, convinced every scratching noise was an attack of vermin trying to get in. I had a disaster when I woke up to find my pillow soaked and found a leak pouring through the roof — fortunately no match for my DIY skills as I hastily fastened a towel over it with electrical tape.
I bought the van during the Indian summer, falling for a dream of myself camped in a field surrounded by blossom — rather than the reality of living in a tin can in winter, having to defrost the door to get out. But what I didn’t expect was how much I love it. I love the way that while I’m working my mind can wander out to the fields around me. I love making fires with my friend that we sit around at night. Or when it’s too cold, we head to her van, put on Shirley Collins and dance up and down the tiny aisle, joking about how the floor hasn’t collapsed yet.
Now the van feels like a home, but in a way it’s better because it’s filled with possibility too — that at any moment we could move on. In that sense it’s less scary than a house with a mortgage, the slow death-march through suburbia. It’s a home but it’s also freedom.