Two years ago, I worked for the NHS. People stood outside the doors of their homes and clapped for me. Now people drive past my home and honk. They sound their horns in the early hours of the morning and in the later hours of an evening hoping to wake me, to distress me, to communicate their displeasure that I am here in Cornwall, living in a van.
I could drive after these beepers to explain my situation politely and ask them to stop, but I thought it would be easier to write this article.
I had a mortgage once; on a lovely stone-built townhouse, which was my home for 14 years. A number of years ago, it was “voluntarily” re-possessed. We had bought the house at the wrong time and it was in negative equity. After the bank sold the property for a pittance at auction, they sent me a bill for £ 30,000 – although I had paid more than £ 60,000 in interest over the years. They will be waiting a while, if ever could be termed “a while”, before I pay that bill – unless, by some miracle, the minimum wage is increased to a figure that allows for living rather than just existing.
I lost many things in a short space of time: my home, my dog, a publishing deal, a long-term relationship and the future I thought I had. But the moment that really forced me to re-evaluate what I wanted from life – what society expected from me, who I was and where I wanted to be – came out of the blue as an eruption of change and loss that was almost too much to bear.
One Valentine’s Day my long-term partner, the man I thought I would be marrying, told me he could not be in the relationship any more. My world collapsed, as did his. It was too difficult for both of us. I am not ashamed to admit that it hit me very hard and I was suicidal at points. My childhood and early adult life had not been easy; domestic violence as a child resulted in volatile relationships as a young adult. This was the first relationship in which I felt truly loved and supported, despite my struggles with anxiety, PTSD and low self-esteem.
After six months of separation, we tried again. We moved back in together, and when he got a job in the south of England, I agreed to move from Yorkshire to be with him. He started his new job while I worked my notice. A week before I was due to join him, he telephoned to say that he was ending the relationship.
Two days later, I found myself driving my best friend to a hospice at three in the morning so that she could say goodbye to her terminally ill partner. He passed away within an hour of us arriving.
This was the turning point. My mind simply did not have the space or capacity to process the reasons my relationship had ended for a second time. All my energy was focused on supporting my friend through her loss.
As the weeks and months went by, I planned my exit from a society whose expectations I simply could not live up to, emotionally or financially. With all my belongings packed in my campervan, I drove to Cornwall. I came here for the same reasons people buy second homes in this county, for the same reasons people come on holidays. The coast seems to be where the lost are found. It’s also decidedly warmer than West Yorkshire, which is a bonus when your home is a tin box on wheels.
The sense of freedom I’ve found in being financially self-sufficient, with only vehicle insurance, fuel and tax to pay out, is both a profound relief and hugely exhilarating. And it has given me the mental space to finally start looking forwards.
However, Cornwall, as a county, does not seem to welcome individuals who live in vans. Several negative articles have been published; complaints that van lifers leave rubbish everywhere, including faeces, that they are disruptive and a social nuisance. If this is the case, I have never witnessed it or been party to it. The people I know who live in vans tidy up the area where they are staying.
Now that every empty space, every garden shed, any patch of ground large enough to pitch a bell tent or put a caravan on, every second home, every empty house in Cornwall is on Airbnb for extortionate prices, what other housing options are available? I work full-time and my money is spent in an ethically conscious way at independent local businesses. I would argue that I contribute more to the economy than any second-home owner, even if I occasionally annoy local residents by parking on their street.
Van lifers, like me, fill essential job vacancies – a fact that is often overlooked or ignored. There are severe staff shortages across Cornwall due to the housing crisis. Yet instead of being welcomed, we are ostracized and beeped at. As other traveling communities will know, Cornwall simply does not have the necessary infrastructure in place: accessible showers, toilets and appropriate designated parking. With such a rich history of van life culture, and with many more people living this way, isn’t it time it did?
Have the people who live alternatively, like me, failed in life because they can not or will not conform to an outdated social ideal? Is being legally and financially tied to a stone or brick structure, paying a bank thousands of pounds in interest alone a measure of an individual’s success or value? Disengaging from a system that is designed to maintain poverty is not only an act of rebellion, but also one of self-preservation and intelligence.